Jupiter’s moon Europa has an icy shell that conceals a liquid water ocean. Now, scientists have made the first direct measurement of water vapor in Europa’s atmosphere. It’s the best evidence yet for a water plume erupting from the moon’s surface.
The measurements also imply that outside of plume events, Europa’s atmosphere likely has less water vapor overall than previously thought. The scientists describe their findings Monday in Nature Astronomy.
A Watery Moon
Scientists have known since the 1960s that Europa is home to water ice and, likely, a liquid water ocean beneath the surface. They predicted that radiation from Jupiter would bombard the moon’s icy surface and create water vapor.
And recent studies have turned up indirect evidence that erupting plumes inject water vapor into the moon’s atmosphere. Studies in the past decade have even spotted signs of hydrogen and oxygen in Europa’s atmosphere, but not water vapor directly.
In the new study, researchers used a telescope at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to search Europa for specific infrared wavelengths of light that water vapor would emit. They observed the moon on 17 different dates from February 2016 to May 2017. Their instruments didn’t pick up signs of water vapor on 16 of those nights. But on April 26, 2016, they measured a large amount — roughly 2,000 metric tons — of water vapor.
Looking for Vapor
Though the researchers didn’t see signs of water vapor on the other 16 nights, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. In fact, the researchers believe some water vapor exists in Europa’s atmosphere at all times because of Jupiter’s radiation effect, as previous studies have shown. There was probably just too little water vapor for their instruments to be able to detect.
However, overall, the measurements imply that the typical amount of water vapor in Europa’s atmosphere is probably less than previously thought. This also means that the standout April 2016 measurement likely came from a one-time event, like a water plume.
Upcoming space missions, like Europa Clipper and JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer), will get a closer look at the moon.
“I’m really looking forward to follow-up studies of Europa and other ocean worlds,” said Lucas Paganini, a NASA planetary scientist and one of the new paper’s authors. “It has been difficult to detect water in liquid form. These detections of water in vapor form, I think, is the closest thing we have in the search for liquid water environments.”
The terms “being present” and “living in the now” have become clichés on the spiritual path and in the nondual tradition that has become increasingly popular in recent years. We speak of the power of now, the timeless moment, and that “there is only now.”
In the positive thinking movement, we released sin as a stumbling block, then replaced it with the charge of negative thinking. Now our greatest put-down is the accusation of being distracted and therefore not present to what is.
I am being slightly facetious, but the essential point remains: The key to awakening is in the awareness of what is. This is true in all traditions.
An Idea That Crosses All Traditions
The Sufis say one clear moment is all it takes. The Zen tradition asks the challenging question, “What in this moment is missing?” Jesus continually spoke of the kingdom of wholeness and perfection as an ever-present reality.
Modern Hindu teachers like Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj and Papaji invite us to simply be quiet and rest naturally in the I AM consciousness. “Sailor” Bob Adamson, an Australian student of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, asks us, “What’s wrong with right now—unless you think about it?”
Ah, yes. Thinking can get in the way. Thinking involves memories from the past and projected ideas about the future. As we learned from babyhood on, discursive reasoning formulates and then reinforces a linear view of reality based on an idea that a “self” is moving through time. This sense of self, often called ego, only conditionally exists—it is not our reality.
Yet so often we try to use it to find that reality. There is the sense that, if I can work hard enough, or let go long enough, I will find the timeless moment and be free. We can’t. It is as impossible to think ourselves into enlightenment as it is to find enough time to be present.
The Good News and the Bad News
If there is one bit of crucial understanding that we can take into our hearts, it is that intellectual knowledge, however subtle or profound, is incapable of awakening us to what is. There is no substitute for direct experience.
The good news is that the present is right here, right now. We are immersed in the ocean of infinite, timeless consciousness as fish are in water. The bad news is that the habit of linear thinking is hard to release. The long years that monks spend meditating in a Zen monastery searching for satori attest to that, as do the seekers testing the patience of the guru with the same old questions arising from a yearning to satisfy the discursive mind and its neediness.
Every day in every way it’s getting better and better, says the positive-thinking, spiritualized ego. How could that be, if every moment is perfect? replies the inner guru.
How to Not Give up on the Search for Inner Freedom
At this point, many of us fall away from the path. After initial enthusiasm, we complain that this stuff doesn’t work and become disenchanted. Hold on: Do we want radical freedom, or a more comfortable and self-satisfied imprisonment?
Assuming we want freedom, how can it be achieved? I offer five approaches that I invite you to look at:
1. You are already here. You are already free.
Contemplate the idea that gaining enlightenment in the future when we have perfected ourselves is simply an avoidance of the natural awakened presence always available in every moment.
2. Consider letting go of the story, whatever the story is.
Stories inform and engage us from childhood onward. However, we can become imprisoned in our story, our view of who we are and what has happened to us. Imagine what it would be like if you chose to release that story today. How would that feel?
3. Laugh, with compassion.
Being overly serious can be the enemy of joy. The more stressed we are the more serious and rigid we become. Laughter relaxes and softens us. Remember, though, we are not choosing to laugh at others’ expense but in response to a shared humanity.
4. Investigate buoyancy.
Buoys rest in the water but also flow with the waves. They stay buoyant so that their light may shine or their marker be visible. Can we do the same, making our presences felt in skillful and lighthearted ways?
5. Be quiet.
It is amazing what happens when we can simply be quiet. We see, hear, and experience more keenly, and a sense of peace fills our minds and calms our bodies.
Each of these approaches is like a mantra with an action component. We chant, we contemplate, then act. It is the practical application that prevents us from getting lost in thought.
Once we have experienced a moment of being present in this way, the affirmation that began this article is no longer just a nice, positive statement. Now it becomes a living reality.
I live in the now—there is no other place to live. When I do, divine understanding is active in me because I release the extraneous for the essential. Being present sets me free.
The idea seemed so catchy,
simple and can-do. There’s room to plant enough trees, albeit many, many, many
trees, to counter a big chunk of the planet-warming carbon spewed by human
A more realistic look at that
feel-good estimate, however, might shrink it down to a useful idea, but no
panacea. The proposed fabulous benefits of planting trees triggered a skeptical
backlash within the climate science community.
warned a critique from Pierre Friedlingstein, a mathematical modeler at the
University of Exeter in England and four colleagues. They’re not the only ones
to protest that the original estimate — that massive global tree-planting right now might
eventually trap a total of some 205 metric gigatons of carbon — overestimates what’s really possible.
The debate started
with a study in the July 5 Science. In
Bastin and Tom Crowther of ETH Zurich and their colleagues estimated that Earth
has as much as 0.9 billion hectares of land suitable for planting new trees to soak up some of humankind’s
excess carbon dioxide and thus slow climate change (SN: 7/17/19). That area is about the size of the United States.
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Once mature, those trees
could capture about one-third of the carbon released by human activities since
the start of the Industrial Revolution, the team calculated. Extreme global
tree planting could thus become a huge single stopgap for storing carbon, the
That scenario caught the
attention of a world starved for hopeful news about climate.
Among other scientists, however,
concern erupted. These “overly hopeful figures” might “misguide the development
of climate policy,” said one of a flurry of critiques from more than 80 scientists
not involved in the original research. Their criticisms were published in the
Oct. 18 Science (along with a
response from Crowther’s team).
Here are five takeaways from
the debate, and where that leaves us when it comes to tree planting.
1. Tree planting is not the one big solution for the climate crisis.
Both the critics and authors
of the original paper agree on this point. The main solution to the climate crisis is to stop releasing greenhouse gases as much and as
soon as possible. “Keeping fossil carbon in its original geological storage is
self-evidently a more effective solution to climate change than releasing it
and capturing it later in trees,” writes forest ecologist Simon Lewis of University
College London and colleagues.
Some of the confusion comes
from the paper’s enthusiasm in comparing theoretical big benefits of tree-planting,
a way of storing carbon already emitted by any source, with smaller benefits of
preventing specific kinds of emissions in the first place. Extreme tree
planting might suck an estimated 205 metric gigatons of emissions out of the
atmosphere, the original paper proposed. Replacing and better managing
refrigeration compounds could reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases by 22
metric gigatons. That doesn’t sound big in comparison, but it’s ranked first in
volume for carbon reduction projects listed by Project
Drawdown, a nonprofit focused on
finding solutions to global warming. Reducing emissions has the benefit of tackling
the source of the menace and in perpetuity. Trees do the clean-up work, but only
while they’re standing; they’re a bank account that needs steady deposits.
In their new response, Crowther
and colleagues say that their tree-planting scheme “does not preclude the
urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
2. Estimates of how much carbon trees can trap might be five times too high.
Capturing the estimated sum,
205 metric gigatons, “if accurate and achievable,” would be “an astounding
accomplishment,” wrote Joseph Veldman, a plant ecologist at Texas A&M
University in College Station and 45 other doubting coauthors. A more realistic
look would shrink the 205 metric gigatons of carbon down to about a fifth of that amount, they argue. (More on why later.)
In a separate analysis, Lewis
and colleagues explain some reasons why the estimate should be at least cut in
half. Three other responses to the paper fretted that the 205 metric gigatons
estimate was too big, but didn’t quantify a correction.
3. People will probably never choose to plant trees on all bits of “available” land.
Here’s one reason the
estimate is too high: More trees might in theory grow in barely treed places, such
as tundra or tropical grasslands. But in some places, planting trees could be a
hard sell, or even counterproductive.
Trees don’t reflect as much
solar energy as do snow, grasses or even bare ground. Trees thus absorb more
energy, potentially contributing to warming. In the Far North, extending
stretches of dark evergreen trees could undercut any carbon-storage benefits or
even overwhelm them. The Veldman critique explicitly pruned 10.2 metric
gigatons of estimated carbon storage from the original estimate to eliminate
hypothetical trees from snowy high latitudes. Likewise, trees tweak landscapes
in other ways, for instance affecting where and how often precipitation falls.
Attempting to plant trees in
other “available” spots —
such as Yellowstone National Park in the United States — could run into fierce opposition from those who see ecological
and cultural value in keeping those areas as they are today. Veldman’s group,
for instance, sliced the total by 53.5 metric gigatons of estimated carbon storage
to leave tropical grasslands as they are. The iconic species in those ecosystems
are “already gravely threatened,” the researchers say. Plus, changing these
ancient ecosystems could disrupt the lives of people whose traditional
livestock forage, game habitats and water sources are dwindling.
Details of tree physiology
or societal choices about what to conserve were “beyond the scope” of the
original survey, the Crowther group replies. The project focused on developing
a computer-based way to take data on healthy forests and figure out where more
trees could grow, not where they should grow.
4. Soil carbon and some other details of the comparisons could matter.
Critics also objected to
specific parts of the assumptions and methods of the original analysis.
Trees trap carbon by using
it to build their trunks, branches, leaves and other body parts. As long as the
trees stand, its structural carbon stays out of the atmosphere. Other plants
and living things store carbon at least for a while in the same way, and some
geological processes can likewise trap excesses.
Crowther’s analysis did not account properly for carbon stored already
in treeless soil, three critiques point out. That made adding trees seem as if
it were making a bigger change than it really would. Just adjusting for carbon
already in the soil would cut the estimated benefit to around 96 metric
gigatons, less than half the original, cautions the Lewis critique. Commenters added
that not accounting for carbon stored in the leaves and stems of nonwoody plants,
such as grasses already growing on land to be reforested, had likewise inflated
the Crowther estimate.
5. Planting trees could still be a good thing as long as it’s done thoughtfully.
Tree planting has long been recognized as valuable, say global change geographer Alan Grainger at the
University of Leeds in England, and three coauthors. Now, at least, the furor
over the Crowther paper is calling fresh attention to the idea, they write.
Perhaps epic tree planting won’t
have impacts as big as hoped for. But even if that estimate is 90 percent too
high, the result still compares well with the top choices in the Project
A downsizing in expectations
is appropriate, says Chris Field, a climate scientist at Stanford University
who wasn’t involved in the estimate’s creation or critiques. There are other
things missing from the discussions though, he says. Human motivations and
interests get overlooked. What will make people more or less willing to plant
trees or take other actions? In the puzzle of fighting climate change, the
human heart is a big source of uncertainty.
All the kids getting sick. In a row. All week long.
It was super fun… or not so much.
Easy Natural Cold and Flu Remedies
The incident not-so-lovingly-known as “the great minor cold pandemic of family vacation” was not serious and passed pretty quickly, but we had a rough couple of days.
Thankfully, many of the moms were well-versed in natural remedies and collectively pulled out the herbs, spices, raw honey, garlic, essential oils, and supplements to get the kids through it pretty quickly.
Of course, it’s important to see a medical professional for any major or serious illness. Back then I didn’t have a doctor I could text, and in most cases would end up taking the kids in and paying a co-pay just to have a doctor tell me to give my kids water and soup!
Over time I learned and started turning to natural remedies. (And we do go to the doctor for anything major or serious or that lasts longer than a few days.)
For viral illnesses that conventional medicine can’t do much for anyway, I turn to these natural remedies. They won’t knock out all symptoms or provide the same pain relief of over-the-counter drugs, but they help ease the crappish feeling of a cold (super scientific term, eh?).
I find that we all feel better when we stay well hydrated, but especially during illness. Doctors often recommend rest and hydration for minor illness and the advice is sound. At first sign of illness, we make sure to sip water all day to support the body’s natural healing process. This remedy is mostly free but super important.
One of nature’s most potent remedies is also one of the easiest to find in any grocery store. It has been extensively researched in over 5,000 studies for its natural ability to help the body recover. Raw garlic is available in many stores and relatively inexpensive. To take it, I mince it and drink with a small amount of water. For my kids, I’ll also mix with honey or maple syrup or add to food to tone down the taste.
I love this incredibly soothing remedy that is easily made with kitchen herbs. What I do:
Boil 1-2 cups of water in a large pot and remove from the heat.
Add 2 teaspoons each of thyme, rosemary, and oregano.
Cover the pan for 5 minutes with a lid, and then remove lid and let the sick person lean over the pot (careful not to touch it). The person covers his or her head with a towel to hold in the steam and breathes the steam to help ease discomfort.
We try to breathe in the steam as long as we can, or for about 15 minutes. This seems to help loosen congestion and soothe the throat and sinuses.
Herbal teas can also be very soothing during illness. I keep my ten favorite herbal teas on hand all the time, but we drink them often during illness. Many herbal teas are now available in regular grocery stores. I personally like chamomile and peppermint for easing discomfort during colds and flu.
Bone Broth and Soup
Chicken soup is the age-old remedy for illness, and we also turn to broth and soups when we don’t feel well. These can be made with ingredients from a regular grocery store. Homemade bone broth and homemade chicken soup are soothing remedies during illness and a source of protein and minerals.
When I don’t have homemade, I buy this brand that is long simmered from grass-fed bones for the gelatin many other store-bought brands don’t have. I order online for the best price, but it is now easily found in most grocery stores.
Lemon Juice or Ginger
I find fresh lemon juice and fresh ginger in water especially soothing for illnesses involving respiratory issues or sore throat. During illness, I’ll squeeze an entire lemon and slice a piece of ginger into hot or cold water for a soothing drink. Lemon juice is beneficial in other ways too and many people drink it each morning. Again, this is something you can pick up quickly when needed.
When my kids really don’t feel well and don’t feel like drinking, I sneak some remedies in by making a natural electrolyte drink. They like the flavor and I’m able to get some vitamin C and minerals in. We also take our favorite electrolytes whenever we travel in case we don’t have the ingredients for homemade.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Certainly not a favorite remedy for many due to the strong taste, but apple cider vinegar can really soothe a sore throat and has many benefits. I’ll drink a teaspoon (or up to a tablespoon) in water during illness. Adding honey makes the taste more palatable.
Other Natural Remedies
A few of my other favorite natural remedies are not readily available in all stores, but I always keep them on hand:
Elderberry is a great natural remedy with a long history of use. I keep dried elderberries on hand at all times to make several different remedies.
A detox bath may not really speed recovery during an illness, but it certainly seems to help ease discomfort. I often turn to these detox baths during minor illnesses to help ease symptoms.
Herbs to Help Remedy Cold and Flu
There are many herbs that support the body when healing from an illness. I always keep these around just in case:
Nettle Leaf: It contains large amounts of vitamins and trace minerals and helps the body stay hydrated and remove toxins. In a tea with red raspberry leaf, alfalfa, and peppermint, nettle makes a powerful immune supporting and illness preventing remedy.
Elderberry: Well-known for supporting the immune system. You can find conventionally made elderberry syrups at many stores now, or to save money, make your own. Here is the recipe.
Ginger: Fresh ginger root can be steeped in boiling water to make a tea that is very effective against sinus symptoms and congestion. Ginger baths are a soothing way to stop some of the discomfort of body aches.
Yarrow: This is a common herb for children. Many children’s remedies include yarrow for its soothing properties. It is naturally bitter, so it is often good to include peppermint and stevia leaf (or raw honey) when making a tea. It is great for the liver and kidneys and supports the endocrine system.
Chamomile: An absolute staple for our kids. Chamomile is calming and seems to help children sleep. It tastes great and is easy to get kids to take. We use it in tea and tincture form. My kids always ask for chamomile tea with raw honey when sick.
Peppermint: Great for all digestive disturbances and for calming a fever. It can be used as a tea or tincture or rubbed on the skin to bring a high fever down. It is antimicrobial and antiviral and kids usually love the taste. Take as a hot tea or cold tea during illness in any amounts.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
How do you keep from getting sick or remedy it naturally when you do? Share your tips below!
Braun H, Von andrian-werburg J, Malisova O, et al. Differing Water Intake and Hydration Status in Three European Countries-A Day-to-Day Analysis. Nutrients. 2019;11(4). doi: 10.3390/nu11040773
Lissiman E, Bhasale AL, Cohen M. Garlic for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014;(11):CD006206. doi: 10.1002/14651858
Ulbricht C, Basch E, Cheung L, et al. An evidence-based systematic review of elderberry and elderflower (Sambucus nigra) by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. J Diet Suppl. 2014;11(1):80-120. doi: 10.3109/19390211.2013.859852
Mathes, A., & Bellanger, R. (2010). Herbs and Other Dietary Supplements: Current Regulations and Recommendations for Use to Maintain Health in the Management of the Common Cold or Other Related Infectious Respiratory Illnesses. Journal of Pharmacy Practice, 23(2), 117–127. https://doi.org/10.1177/0897190009358711
“What are you DOING?” I yelled. My four-year-old son froze, his tiny hand poised above the tower of toilet-paper rolls he’d been building … right on top of a hot electric heater.
“You can’t DO that!” I exclaimed, whisking the rolls onto a high shelf. “You could burn down the house!” Since it was the third time I’d found him building a tower in the same spot, I decided to get serious, launching into a long, vivid rant about the potentially dire consequences: All our stuff would go up in flames! We’d have nowhere to live!
As I wrapped up my tirade, I paused, looking down at his little bowed head, suddenly feeling terrible. Had I gone too far? Had I scarred him for life? Would he someday recount to his therapist about how his awful mother had created his lifelong fear of fire?
Just then, he raised his head and looked up at me with delighted smile, his innocent brown eyes sparkling with joyful anticipation. “If there’s a fire,” he said breathlessly, “will the FIRE TRUCKS come?”
So, yeah. That’s the thing about telling another person what they should or shouldn’t do: Even when the intended message seems crystal clear, sometimes what the listener hears is something entirely different. It can happen in our families, but on a larger scale, too—in our policy efforts, classrooms, workplaces, and more.
First, as my son taught me, the message can be undercut when the bad result is inadvertently made to look appealing or fun. Early antidrug campaigns were sometimes spectacularly guilty of this, showing glamorous young people partying at fun-looking parties before their not-that-terrible downfalls. (And I still remember watching the movie Heathers and thinking, wow, that Christian Slater character is an objectively awful, awful person … but he is kind of cute…) An ill-advised TV spot intended to teach young children about the dangers of prescription medicines instead featured smiling pill-shaped puppets singing adorably about how you shouldn’t eat them (which, as one writer noted, is very much like the ad campaign for M&Ms: “Please don’t eat us … wait! You ate me and I was delicious! You’re so clever!” Probably not what the Long Island Poison Control was going for.)
Another TV ad—this one intended to fight childhood obesity—showed kids racing around their house, gorging on cookies, building forts out of cookies and making cookie smoothies; the point was supposed to be the unpleasant subsequent sugar crash, but most kid viewers must have thought, “Cookie forts? Cookie smoothies?! Where is this magical wonderland?!” (At least that’s what I thought.) And those instructional videos at trampoline parks that demonstrate what the kids shouldn’t do seem destined to backfire—because honestly, that long-earringed guy doing the sideways triple flip while chewing gum looks like he’s having a pretty great time.
Research shows that guidance can also backfire when it seems too bossy. If your company forces you to attend mandatory training on, say, diversity, not only are there likely to be plenty of rolled eyes and grumbles, but studies show that making such training mandatory will—ironically enough—actually lead to the opposite result over time. (In one study, after five years of compulsory diversity training, companies had fewer Asian-American workers and African-American women on staff than before.)
And good advice also goes awry when it inadvertently points out that an undesired behavior is popular and widespread: i.e., “everybody else is doing it.” Surprisingly, the antidrug D.A.R.E. program was found to actually increase the rate of student drug use because it gave students the impression that drugs were everywhere and therefore many of their peers must be using them. When the IRS increased tax penalties because so many people had cheated on their taxes, cheating actually increased the following year—because people figured, heck, if so many people cheat, I might as well, too!
When researchers put up two different signs in the Petrified Forest National Park—one stating, “Please don’t remove petrified wood from the park” and the other stating, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park” so please don’t make things worse by taking more—the second sign led to more theft, because the sign made stealing seem normal (“many past visitors”). And every election season, voting advocates shoot themselves in the foot by loudly bewailing the number of people who don’t vote—inadvertently sending a message that not voting is the social norm.
It’s a surprisingly easy mistake to make. Just last week, I heard a well-intentioned public-service ad stating the high percentage of kids who start experimenting with drugs before age 12—which gave an unintentional heads-up to 12-year-olds everywhere that they were missing out on something many of their peers were into. The announcer at my public radio station noted that “only 9 percent of our listeners donate to the station!”—unintentionally setting up the idea that the social norm is not contributing.
The scary part is, mistakes like these can have life-or-death consequences: When a group of teenagers took part in a suicide-prevention program that emphasized how often teen suicides occur, it actually made the teens more likely to consider ending their own lives. If everybody else is doing it …
What this all means is that we have to careful—as parents, educators, journalists, policymakers—about the messages we’re sending. True, we need to tell kids about the dangers of vaping, but if we do so while bemoaning the “epidemic” of vaping in their age group or at their school, we inadvertently set up vaping as the social norm, which they’re likely to emulate.
Yes, we need to warn our kids about the dangers of sexting and online bullying—but if we launch into the topic with a speech about how “everyone is doing this, it’s everywhere—but you shouldn’t do it,” we undercut our own message. And while we need to talk to our kids about the importance of exercise, we undercut our message if we do so while bewailing the “sedentary, phone-obsessed lives of all you kids today,” because that just reinforces the those traits as the norm.
The good news, though, is that there’s a flip side: Each of these insights can be put to use toward positive goals.
On the “undesirability” front, we can make unwanted actions seem disgusting or potentially fatal. Emphasizing the gruesome effects of smoking through photos of diseased lungs on cigarette packages really does make smoking less appealing. Emphasizing the recent increase in teen deaths resulting from vaping (rather than bemoaning its widespread use) could help combat the appeal of e-cigarettes.
On the “don’t be too pushy” front, we can encourage and empower positive action without demanding it. Research shows that diversity programs are most effective when they’re voluntary—so company leaders can put out the word that these programs are helpful, but it’s okay if you can’t make it. Encouraging employees to take positive action regarding their health—rather than scolding or penalizing them financially—can lead them to adopt healthier lifestyles.
Messages to college students about binge drinking can be effectively framed as information to help students make their own decisions, rather than scolding or shaming. One organization hit the nail on the head when it recently changed its name and branding from the tut-tutting “National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy” to the empowering, how-can-we-help-you-reach-YOUR-goals moniker, “The Power to Decide.” (Gives it a whole different feel, doesn’t it?)
And on the “everybody’s doing it” front, we can frame choices in terms of the positive social norms we want to encourage. When 800 doctors were sent letters stating that they were prescribing more antibiotics per patient than the majority of their peers, the letter caused them to subsequently prescribe 73,000 fewer antibiotics than they otherwise would have—a valuable step in reducing antibiotic resistance. When drivers in Louisville, Ky., received letters telling them that “the majority of drivers” in their town pay their fines within 13 days, they paid their own fines twice as readily. When hotel guests are told that the majority of other guests reuse their towels—rather than simply told that reusing towels will save water and energy—they are more likely to reuse their towels themselves. When voters are told that most of their neighbors are voting, it makes them more likely to vote.
Using social science to influence the behavior of others can be a delicate business, but done right, it can be incredibly effective—keeping our kids safer, encouraging better health, building civic engagement, helping to save the planet … and maybe even keeping our toddlers from burning down the house.
Your poop says a lot about your overall health. In fact, it’s a direct reflection of your gut, which contains a complex microbial ecosystem. It exerts such a strong influence over your body it is frequently referred to as the “second brain.”
There is a strong connection between your gut health and mental health, affecting your subconscious thought and immune system. Health conditions associated with your gut microbiome include obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome and allergies; your gut health also influences your risk of cancer and Parkinson’s. Optimizing your gut microbiome may be one of the more important strategies you could undertake to prevent disease.
The diversity of your gut microbiome also plays a role in your heart health. The authors of one study found that those who suffered a heart attack had a larger number of metabolites produced by certain gut microbes. This high level was not found in those who did not have a heart attack or have atherosclerosis.
Scientists have found that eating more plants and fiber affects the formation of your stool and reduces the number of bacteria producing metabolites linked with hypertension and heart disease.
Researchers See a Goldmine Being Flushed Down Your Toilet
The size and shape of your poop is one indication of the health of your gut. If you’ve been in the habit of flushing before looking, you may be making a mistake. One group is also asking you to take a quick pic of your poop before pressing the toilet lever and flushing it away.1
Researchers from MIT are building a database of images to train artificial intelligence (AI) they hope will ultimately play a role in patient care and research. An MIT startup, Auggi, and a microbiome company, Seed, have teamed up for the project to develop a program able to analyze human poop.
The team hopes 100,000 people will turn and shoot before flushing, sending the image to be included in the database. The team first tested the software using blue Play-Doh poop and a 3-D printed toilet to mimic real life.2 The researchers decided to use blue since they didn’t “want to scare people in the lab.”
The initial training with 36,000 pictures of fake poop resulted in 100% recognition by the software. However, this may have been since the researchers could perfectly mold the Play-Doh. For real data they next turned to images people were posting pictures of their poop on Reddit.
The team is now asking 100,000 people to submit pictures of their poop to improve the accuracy of the AI program and create the first image database of human poop. You can participate by using your mobile phone to go to seed.com/poop where you’ll enter your name and email address and the time of your regular poop schedule. If you’re ready, you can shoot a picture then and there to send.
If you need a bit of time, you can ask the site to send an email reminder. The company says that once you’ve collected the image and sent it, they will strip the identifying metadata, including your email address and other digital information that may potentially be used to identify you, before the picture is added to the database.
Auggi Will Use AI to Match Stool With Bristol Stool Chart
The group has engaged the help of seven gastroenterologists who will evaluate the images as they are collected, making notes for the software program.3 The goal is for the AI to identify which of the seven categories your poop falls into on the Bristol Stool Chart.
In 1997, Dr. Ken Heaton from the University of Bristol4 developed the chart as a means for patients to report the consistency and formation of their stool. This helps medical professionals recognize whether their patients are short on fiber, severely constipated or dealing with diarrhea. The lucky 66 volunteers who helped Heaton changed their diets swallowed marker pellets and recorded the weight, shape and frequency of their poop.
The Bristol chart is a widely used tool that involves a seven-point scale. It ranges from Type 1 indicating constipation to Type 7 indicating diarrhea with a variety of consistencies, shapes and forms in between. Types 3 and 4 are considered normal and ideal. Types 6 and 7 indicate diarrhea and inflammation.
It is normal for your stool consistency and shape to fluctuate from day to day, particularly when you change your diet. However, most of the time you should aim for Types 3 and 4 that some describe as a torpedo, sausage or snake.
What’s in It and How Often Should I Go?
The consistency and shape are largely determined by fiber and water. When food travels rapidly through the intestinal tract your body absorbs a limited amount of water from the waste product, leading to a loose or liquid stool. A slower transit time allows the body to absorb more water, leading to harder stool.
The average time it takes between eating and defecating varies from person to person and depends upon your age, sex and the type of food eaten. Loose stools or diarrhea may be a sign of infection, causing the body to move food and fluids rapidly through the digestive tract. The most common type of acute diarrhea is attributed to bacterial infections.
Chronic diarrhea may result from irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, drugs, endocrine diseases or malabsorptive diseases such as celiac disease or reactions to fructose or gluten. When you experience poor nutrition, lack of exercise, dehydration or a low fiber diet it may lead to constipation.
Normal frequency varies from three bowel movements per day to three per week. For more information about signs of a healthy stool, see my past article, “What Should Your Poop Look Like?”
AI Tracking May Help Researchers and Patients
The team hopes their software will help people take control of their own gut health and better understand the relationship between lifestyle choices and the symptoms they experience. David Hachuel, a co-founder of the startup Auggi, is building the AI platform. He commented on the patients who experience bowel irregularities and the impetus behind the software development:5
“They struggle every day making decisions on what to eat, how much exercise to do to keep their symptoms at bay. And so it’s really critical to build this database and to develop these simple monitoring tools to allow those patients to essentially do that at home.”
The team’s goal is to train the platform to categorize photos using the Bristol Stool Chart to make inferences about overall health. They hope to roll out the application publicly in the first quarter of 2020 to help those who keep a log of their stool, helping them and their physicians guide treatment.
Dr. Jack Gilbert from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine is co-founder of the American Gut Project and also solicits stool samples from research participants. He commented to CNN6 that the application may help reduce research bias and variation since nearly every clinical trial he conducts requires the participants to rate their stool on the Bristol chart.
Gilbert said, “Human beings are just not very good at recording things.” The automation of this process would potentially help patients improve their treatment protocols and researchers gather more accurate data.
Tips to Optimize Gut Health and Stool Form
With the information and knowledge currently available, it’s no longer necessary to guess the types of changes needed to improve your health and the condition of your stool. StoolAnalyzer.com can help make suggestions to help you achieve the “perfect stool.” The Bristol Stool Chart is also a useful tool to rank the health of your stool.
Shape, color, diameter and texture are all factors you can use to gauge whether your stool is healthy or unhealthy. If your stool is not ideal, it’s important to pay attention to your diet and water intake. Whether the stool is too hard or too loose, it’s important to increase fiber intake. Good options include organic psyllium and freshly ground organic flaxseed. Shoot for 25 to 50 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you eat each day.
You can boost the health of your intestinal microbiome by adding naturally fermented foods. If you suspect you’re not getting enough beneficial bacteria from your diet it may also be important to add a probiotic supplement. Your bowel health may be optimized by removing gluten, the most common sources of which are wheat, barley, rye, spelt and other grains. Avoid sugar, artificial sweeteners and processed foods.
You will make a significant impact on the movement of stool through your intestinal tract by exercising at least 30 minutes each day and moving as much as possible throughout the day. Another strategy to try is changing the position you use while pooping. Sitting on a typical toilet does not allow the muscles involved in bowel control to fully relax.
In order to fully evacuate you must push or even strain. However, while squatting, these muscles relax easily, making elimination easier. The combination of squatting and lifestyle changes can make a significant difference. However, if you continue to experience problems, schedule a visit with your holistic health care provider to rule out any medical issues.
Being in zero gravity can have strange effects on the body – now it’s emerged that it can make people’s blood flow backwards.
The changes to circulation caused two astronauts to develop small blood clots, which could have been fatal – but fortunately the man and woman affected came to no harm.
The blood changes happened in a vessel called the left internal jugular vein, one of two that normally move blood out of the head when we are lying down. When we are upright, they mostly collapse to stop too much blood from draining out of the head, with our circulation taking a different route through veins with more resistance instead.
On Earth, people have occasionally been spotted with backwards blood flow in the left internal jugular vein if there is a blockage lower down, such as from a tumour growing in the chest.
Zero gravity is known to change people’s blood flow, so Karina Marshall-Goebel of KBR in Houston and colleagues wondered if it would also affect this vein.
They carried out measurements and ultrasound scans of this blood vessel in nine men and two women both before and after their missions on the International Space Station, as well as 50 and 150 days into their flights.
In two of the astronauts, the blood flow was backwards – perhaps because the lack of gravity caused organs in the chest to shift around, pressing on the vein lower down, says Marshall-Goebel. She adds that this vein is predisposed to be blocked based on where it lies in the body.
In another five members of the crew, blood in this vein was more or less stagnant, and in one of these, the scan revealed a clot blocking the vessel. “That was definitely alarming,” says Marshall-Goebel. Blood clots can be fatal if they get carried to the lungs, so the person began taking blood-thinning medicines to break it down.
Because of this surprise finding, the team asked a panel of experts to review all the previous scans and another small clot was spotted in one astronaut who had already returned to Earth.
The team also had the participants test a device on the Space Station that encases their lower body in a chamber with lower air pressure for an hour to suck more blood into their legs. They found that this improved blood flow in ten of seventeen tests – but worsened it in two.
Marshall-Goebel says the findings may cause female astronauts to reconsider taking the contraceptive pill to suppress their periods while on the Space Station, as this raises the risk of blood clots.
The two astronauts in this study who had a clot included one man and one woman, although the team aren’t giving any further details to protect their privacy.
In 1983, a health professional in her 30s walked into my office and said, “I’ve been healthy all of my life. A year ago, I came down with some kind of virus — sore throat, aching muscles, swollen lymph glands, fever. My fatigue was so bad I was in bed for nearly a week. Many of the symptoms gradually improved, but the terrible fatigue and difficulty thinking have not gotten better. They’re so bad I can’t fulfill my responsibilities at home or at work. This illness is affecting my brain, stealing my energy, and affecting my immune system. It’s keeping me from realizing my dreams.”
There’s a piece of advice attributed to a famous physician, William Osler, that every medical student probably has heard: “Listen to your patient. The patient is telling you the diagnosis.” But I wasn’t sure it applied in this case.
What we knew then
First of all, the textbooks of medicine didn’t describe an illness like this. In addition, all the usual laboratory tests to screen for various diseases came back normal. At this point, a doctor has two choices: decide to believe the patient and keep searching to find what is wrong, or to tell the patient, “There is nothing wrong.” Indeed, some doctors seeing people like my patient did just that, adding insult to injury.
Fortunately, many physicians and biomedical scientists around the world became interested in this illness, and over 9,000 scientific studies have been published in the past 35 years. The Institute of Medicine has concluded that the condition, now called myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) “is a serious, chronic, complex systemic disease that often can profoundly affect the lives of patients.” It affects up to 2.5 million people in the United States, and generates direct and indirect expenses of approximately $17 to $24 billion annually.
What we know now
As I discussed in a recent article in the journal JAMA, research has documented underlying biological abnormalities involving many organ systems in people with ME/CFS, compared with healthy controls. Here’s an overview of what the current science suggests.
The brain. Tests of brain hormones, formal tests of thinking, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the brain are abnormal in a substantial fraction of patients with ME/CFS. Tests of the autonomic nervous system, which controls vital functions including body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and movement of the intestines and bladder, also are abnormal. Not all of these abnormalities of the brain are present in every person with ME/CFS, and they appear to come and go.
Energy metabolism. We are alive because the cells of our body are alive. And they’re alive because they can make energy, and use that energy to do their jobs and remain alive. Our cells make energy out of the oxygen in the air we breathe, and out of the sugars, fats, and proteins we eat. In ME/CFS, research has shown that the cells have trouble both making and using energy. That is, people with ME/CFS feel they don’t have enough energy because their cells are not making enough, nor using what they make efficiently. The ability of cells to extract oxygen from the blood and use it to make energy appears particularly defective after physical and mental exertion.
Immune system. The immune system is complicated, containing many different kinds of cells that make many different kinds of chemical signals to talk to each other. Hundreds of studies have found evidence that in people with ME/CFS, the immune system is chronically activated, as if it is fighting something, and that parts of the immune system are exhausted by the fight.
Activation of “hunkering-down” systems. Animals, including humans, have systems to protect them during times of major threats. For example, worms and bears that are faced with a shortage of food “hunker down”: they activate systems that focus the energy they are able to make on the processes necessary to stay alive. Nonessential, energy-requiring activities are minimized. Humans who are seriously injured or sick also activate various hunkering-down systems. Some evidence suggests that in ME/CFS the hunkering-down systems may have been turned on, and remain inappropriately stuck. Research teams are trying to figure out how to turn off the hunkering-down systems.
Continued research should lead to better understanding and treatments
A great deal more is known about ME/CFS today than 35 years ago. With continued and expanded support from the NIH, CDC, and private foundations dedicated to ME/CFS, I expect a lot of progress in the coming decade. Instead of doctors saying, “The tests came back normal, there is nothing wrong,” they will say, “Tests showed us what was wrong, and we have treatments to fix it.”
And doctors will recognize the wisdom of the wise advice we all learned in medical school: “Listen to your patient. The patient is telling you the diagnosis.”
Next to the famous Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, is an abandoned coal mine protecting a different kind of resource against the end of the world: all of GitHub’s open source code.
Now, if the world ends, whatever survivors crawl out of the ashes will be able to access and use the software behind modern-day tech, perhaps on that weird post-apocalyptic operating system that some coders unveiled last month.
Since 2017, the Arctic World Archive, as it’s called, has stored other digital records, including the Vatican archives, movies, and anything else deemed worth saving, according to a new Bloomberg feature.
And now, with Microsoft-owned GitHub’s contribution, it also holds a hard copy of nearly all the open source software in the world, which can be read with nothing more than a magnifying lens.
The open source community is often dismissed as a fringe group of tech idealists, but much of the digital architecture with which we interact every day technically falls under the broad umbrella of publicly available open source code, Bloomberg reports.
Think Facebook, Google, and Amazon – all of them rely on it.
So, while GitHub’s data dump seems like – and probably partially is – a bit of a stunt, it could someday prove useful if a catastrophe wipes out the world’s hard drives.
Have you been told that your child needs glasses? Health experts estimate that almost half the U.S. population — 42% — is myopic (nearsighted), a figure that has almost doubled over the past three decades and continues to grow. But being nearsighted is more than just an inconvenience, it can pose long-term hazards.
While glasses, contact lenses, and surgery can correct the effects of myopia and allow clear distance vision, they treat the symptoms of the condition, not the thing that causes it — a slightly elongated eyeball in which the lens focuses light in front of the retina, rather than directly on it.
“When the eye becomes longer, the tissue of the retina and the structures supporting the optic nerve stretch and become thinner,” says Andrei Tkatchenko, MD, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmic sciences at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. “This thinning increases the risk of retinal detachment, cataracts, glaucoma, and even blindness. The faster myopia progresses and the more the prescription increases, the greater the risk of these diseases.”
Children with nearsighted parents are more likely to be nearsighted themselves, and scientists have identified a lot of myopia-related genes. But genes usually work with a person’s environment to cause a disease. The top thing in the environment linked to myopia is close-up work such as reading or working on a computer or smart device. “Over the past 3 decades, the level of near work has significantly increased in most of the world,” says Tkatchenko.
Can the advance of myopia be slowed or even halted to prevent long-term complications? Tkatchenko says yes: “There is a clearly defined treatable period between ages 8 and 25 during which there is the greatest progression of myopia, and myopia control is most effective during those years.” He and other researchers are studying new methods for treating myopia. Multifocal contact lens have been found to be effective in slowing the progression of myopia in kiids. For those diagnosed with severe myopia, known as high myopia, specail contacts, worn at night can help reshape the cornea and help stablize the eye.
But there’s one simple prescription that could protect your child from getting myopia in the first place: spending time outside. “A number of studies have shown that outside activities suppress the development of myopia,” says Tkatchenko. Scientists aren’t sure why this happens, but one theory is that outdoor light stimulates the release of chemicals that signal the eye to slow its growth to a normal rate.
“Go outside and play. That’s the best thing parents can tell their children to help prevent myopia,” says Tkatchenko.
By the Numbers
66%: Percentage increase in myopia in the U.S. between the early 1970s and early 2000s.
50%: Percentage of the world’s population that will have myopia by 2050.
4 in 10: Ratio of adults in the U.S. who have myopia.
1.25: Number of daily hours of outdoor time needed to cut the chance that a child will get myopia by 50%.
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