Astronomers Catch Water Erupting from Plumes on Jupiter’s Icy Moon Europa


Europa Surface
Subsurface water on Jupiter’s moon Europa is one place where humans plan to search for life. This artist’s concept shows a massive plume of underground water erupting from the moon’s surface. (Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI)

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.”



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5 things to know about fighting climate change by planting trees


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
activities.

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.

“Dangerously misleading,”
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
it, Jean-François
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.

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
researchers proposed.

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.

Crowther, Bastin and
colleagues say they agree, and they acknowledge the paper’s “lack of clarity” on this point.

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.

Alaska musk oxen
Maybe in theory more trees could grow in far northern landscapes. Here, musk oxen roam a wide-open region near the Igichuk Hills in Alaska.Western Arctic National Parklands/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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
Drawdown list.

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.



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When Good Advice Goes Bad



“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.



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Zero gravity made some astronauts’ blood flow backwards


Astronaut working on the outsdie of the International Space Station

Zero gravity made some astronauts on the International Space Station experience reversed blood flow.

NASA

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.

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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.

Journal reference: JAMA Network Open, DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.15011

More on these topics:



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Microsoft Is Hiding Open Source Code in an Apocalypse-Proof Storage Facility


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.

This article was originally published by Futurism. Read the original article.

 



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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Abort System Aces Ground Test Ahead of Major Launch


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut taxi successfully fired its launch-escape engines on the ground today (Nov. 13) at the company’s facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, keeping the vehicle on target for a crucial flight test in the coming weeks.

The brief “static fire,” which occurred at approximately 3:08 p.m. EST (2008 GMT), paves the way for SpaceX’s upcoming in-flight abort (IFA) test, a crucial uncrewed flight designed to show that the capsule can keep future astronauts safe in the event that something goes wrong during launch. If the IFA goes well, humans could fly aboard Crew Dragon sometime next year.





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The Science Is Extremely Clear: You Need to Prioritize Sleep


When I was in college, I informed my parents that they could stop hoping I would achieve anything close to greatness: I simply needed too much sleep. While President Barack Obama was up late sending emails and writing letters into the wee hours, and all my friends were telling me they could “sleep when they’re dead,” I was snoozing away critical hours.

Compared with giraffes, which zonk out for just 30 minutes a day, or dolphins, which rest only one-half of their brains at a time, I—who will gleefully luxuriate in nine hours of shut-eye now and then—am basically a lump who occasionally has wakeful moments.

Turns out I still might have a chance. “Sleep is so critical for so many parts of our body and our mind,” says Aric Prather, a sleep scientist at UCSF. It strengthens the immune system and helps regulate metabolism. It can clear out toxins that build up in the brain and prevent neurodegenerative diseases. “Sleep is like the dishwasher of the brain,” Prather explains in WIRED’s latest “Five Levels” video.

Rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep—the phase during which we dream—usually gets the most hype. But Prather says all phases, from the lightest slumber to the deepest unconsciousness, are important processes that allow our brains and bodies to recover from the previous day and can help us learn and remember information better.

Getting rest isn’t always as simple as climbing into bed and shutting off the lights. Circadian rhythms, hormones like melatonin, and even the neurotransmitter dopamine play a role. There’s still a lot scientists don’t understand about what happens when we drift off, but the more we learn, the more important sleep becomes.

Whether a cause or a symptom, abnormal sleep plays a role in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Measuring disturbed sleep could be one way to detect the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. Eventually, medicines that help promote more natural sleep cycles could help treat those very diseases. “I’m excited about the future of sleep medicine,” says Prather. Instead of thinking of sleep as a nuisance, maybe we’ll start finally seeing it for what it actually is: a necessity.

Check out the video above. You can also watch the full series on WIRED’s free app for Roku, Apple TV, Android TV and Amazon Fire TV.


More Great WIRED Stories



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How the Nile River Has Stayed In One Place for 30 Million Years


Nile River
The Nile River seen at sunrise. (Credit: Kirsty Bisset/Shutterstock)

Thousands of years ago, ancient Egyptians built their agricultural systems around the dependable movement of the Nile. Those rhythms date back much further than any human relative has been alive, scientists now find.

New research shows that the Nile has kept about the same course for its entire 30 million year existence. This is likely thanks to a reliable flow of rocky material just below the Earth’s surface, which continually pushes up the Ethiopian Highlands, where the river starts, says an international team of researchers.

The finding is a peek into how deeper layers of the Earth change our planet’s surface. It also suggests that rivers with similar origins might be due to other, geologic, currents moving beneath our feet, says study co-author Claudio Faccenna, a geologist with the University of Texas, Austin and Roma Tre University in Italy.

One of the world’s longest rivers, the Nile starts in the Ethiopian Highlands and flows into the Nile delta in Egypt, where the water empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Other researchers have suggested that the Nile might have started carving this path 30 million years ago, but Faccenna and his team wanted to understand the physical mechanisms explaining this ancient and well-worn path.

“Our main interest was to try and understand if mantle convection might leave a sign on the Earth’s surface,” Faccenna says. The mantle, the middle layer of our planet between the crust and the molten core, is made of rock, but it moves (albeit very slowly) nonetheless. Its churns and currents, like the ones that move through the oceans, help create earthquakes and mountains.

Earlier research had already found that unique mineral varieties from millions of years ago showed up in the highlands as well as the delta. This connection helped prove that the two regions are linked geologically, Faccenna says. His research team built a computer model that simulated how the mantle moved in this region all the way back 40 million years ago, during the Cenozoic Era.

The model showed a current within the mantle is pushing up against the Ethiopian Highlands and pulling down and away from the delta, creating a conveyor belt motion. This cycle maintains the slight elevation gradient the Nile needs to keep running from the highlands to the delta, Faccenna says.

Many rivers start at higher elevations created when tectonic plates, or fragments of the Earth’s surface, crash into one another. But the Nile is somewhat unexpected, Faccenna says. There are no plate boundaries near the highlands.

If the gradient needed for the Nile is made by mantle currents, that might explain why other rivers, like the Yenisey in Eurasia, might start in seemingly undisturbed parts of the Earth’s surface. While other research teams dive into those possibilities, there’s more Faccenna would like to learn about the river he’s been focusing on for years. “There’s a whole group of people building up the story” of the Nile, he says. “It’s never finished — this is just one step.”



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A will to survive might take AI to the next level


Fiction is full of robots with feelings.

Like that emotional kid David, played by Haley
Joel Osment, in the movie A.I. Or WALL•E, who obviously had feelings for
EVE-uh. Robby the Robot sounded pretty emotional whenever warning Will Robinson
of danger. Not to mention all those emotional train-wreck, wackadoodle robots
on Westworld.

But in real life robots have no more feelings
than a rock submerged in novocaine.

There might be a way, though, to give robots
feelings, say neuroscientists Kingson Man and Antonio Damasio. Simply build the
robot with the ability to sense peril to its own existence. It would then have
to develop feelings to guide the behaviors needed to ensure its own survival.

“Today’s robots lack
feelings,” Man and Damasio write in a new paper (subscription
required) in Nature Machine Intelligence. “They are not designed to represent the internal
state of their operations in a way that would permit them to experience that
state in a mental space.”

So Man and Damasio propose a strategy for
imbuing machines (such as robots or humanlike androids) with the “artificial
equivalent of feeling.” At its core, this proposal calls for machines designed to
observe the biological principle of homeostasis. That’s the idea that life must
regulate itself to remain within a narrow range of suitable conditions — like keeping
temperature and chemical balances within the limits of viability. An
intelligent machine’s awareness of analogous features of its internal state
would amount to the robotic version of feelings.

Such feelings would not only motivate
self-preserving behavior, Man and Damasio believe, but also inspire artificial intelligence
to more closely emulate the real thing.

Typical “intelligent” machines are designed to
perform a specific task, like diagnosing diseases, driving a car, playing Go or
winning at Jeopardy! But intelligence in one arena isn’t the same as the
more general humanlike intelligence that can be deployed to cope with all sorts
of situations, even those never before encountered. Researchers have long
sought the secret recipe for making robots smart in a more general way.

In Man and Damasio’s view, feelings are the
missing ingredient.

Feelings arise from the need to survive. When
humans maintain a robot in a viable state (wires all connected, right amount of
electric current, comfy temperature), the robot has no need to worry about its
own self-preservation. So it has no need for feelings — signals that something
is in need of repair.

Feelings motivate
living things to seek optimum states for survival, helping to ensure that
behaviors maintain the necessary homeostatic balance. An intelligent machine
with a sense of its own vulnerability should similarly act in a way that would
minimize threats to its existence.

To perceive
such threats, though, a robot must be designed to understand its own internal
state.

Man and
Damasio, of the University of Southern California, say the prospects for
building machines with feelings have been enhanced by recent developments in
two key research fields: soft robotics and deep learning. Progress in soft
robotics could provide the raw materials for machines with feelings. Deep
learning methods could enable the sophisticated computation needed to translate
those feelings into existence-sustaining behaviors.

Deep learning
is a modern descendant of the old idea of artificial neural networks — sets of
connected computing elements that mimic the nerve cells at work in a living
brain. Inputs into the neural network modify the strengths of the links between
the artificial neurons, enabling the network to detect patterns in the inputs.

Deep
learning requires multiple neural network layers. Patterns in one layer exposed
to external input are passed on to the next layer and then on to the next,
enabling the machine to discern patterns in the patterns. Deep learning can classify
those patterns into categories, identifying objects (like cats) or determining
whether a CT scan reveals signs of cancer or some other malady.

An
intelligent robot, of course, would need to identify lots of features in its
environment, while also keeping track of its own internal condition. By representing
environmental states computationally, a deep learning machine could merge
different inputs into a coherent assessment of its situation. Such a smart
machine, Man and Damasio note, could “bridge
across sensory modalities” — learning, for instance, how lip movements (visual
modality) correspond to vocal sounds (auditory modality).

Similarly, that robot
could relate external situations to its internal conditions — its feelings, if
it had any. Linking external and internal conditions “provides a crucial piece
of the puzzle of how to intertwine a system’s internal homeostatic states with
its external perceptions and behavior,” Man and Damasio note.

Ability to sense
internal states wouldn’t matter much, though, unless the viability of those states
is vulnerable to assaults from the environment. Robots made of metal do not
worry about mosquito bites, paper cuts or indigestion. But if made from proper
soft materials embedded with electronic sensors, a robot could detect such
dangers — say, a cut through its “skin” threatening its innards — and engage a
program to repair the injury.

A robot
capable of perceiving existential risks might learn to devise novel methods for
its protection, instead of relying on preprogrammed solutions.

“Rather than having to hard-code a
robot for every eventuality or equip it with a limited set of behavioral
policies, a robot concerned with its own survival might creatively solve the
challenges that it encounters,” Man and Damasio suspect. “Basic goals and
values would be organically discovered, rather than being extrinsically
designed.”

Devising novel
self-protection capabilities might also lead to enhanced
thinking skills. Man and Damasio believe advanced human thought may have
developed in that way: Maintaining viable internal states (homeostasis)
required the evolution of better brain power. “We regard high-level
cognition as an outgrowth of resources that originated to solve the ancient biological
problem of homeostasis,” Man and Damasio write.

Protecting
its own existence might therefore be just the motivation a robot needs to
eventually emulate human general intelligence. That motivation is reminiscent
of Isaac Asimov’s famous laws of robotics: Robots must protect humans,
robots must obey humans, robots must protect themselves. In Asimov’s fiction,
self-protection was subordinate to the first two laws. In real-life future
robots, then, some precautions might be needed to protect people from
self-protecting robots.

“Stories about robots
often end poorly for their human creators,” Man and Damasio acknowledge. But
would a supersmart robot (with feelings) really pose Terminator-type dangers?
“We suggest not,” they say, “provided, for example, that in addition to having
access to its own feelings, it would be able to know about the feelings of
others — that is, if it would be endowed with empathy.”

And so Man and Damasio
suggest their own rules for robots: 1. Feel good. 2. Feel empathy.

“Assuming a robot
already capable of genuine feeling, an obligatory link between its feelings and
those of others would result in its ethical and sociable behavior,” the
neuroscientists contend.

That
might just seem a bit optimistic. But if it’s possible, maybe there’s hope for
a better future. If scientists do succeed in instilling empathy in robots,
maybe that would suggest a way for doing it in humans, too.



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Marine Mammal Epidemic Linked to Climate Change



The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Meaning more and more sea ice is melting every year. 

“It’s really concerning, the rapid loss of sea ice up there, for a lot of reasons.” 

Tracey Goldstein, a researcher and conservationist at UC Davis. She says one of those reasons is, animals like ice seals need the ice, to haul out on and give birth. Another reason? As the Arctic warms, the fish the seals eat may be moving to deeper and colder waters. So the seals have to travel farther to hunt them.

“So the combination of all of that over time is probably going to affect their health and their body condition and that will make them not just underweight but also more susceptible to other diseases.”

And those diseases may also be encroaching upon arctic marine mammals because… spotting a trend here?… Arctic sea ice is melting. 

“Totally unintended consequence of all that, but yes. When there used to be an ice bridge, certain populations would stay separate from each other, so they couldn’t come in contact and give each other their bacteria, their viruses, et cetera. But once those channels started to open, animals were able to move further and came into contact with new species they hadn’t come into contact with in the past.”

Goldstein and her colleagues documented the spread of a disease called Phocine Distemper Virus from 2001 through 2016. It’s related to the measles, and causes skin lesions, coughing, pneumonia, seizures, and sometimes death, in marine mammals. 

Goldstein’s team scanned historical and contemporary marine mammal blood samples for antibodies against the virus. They and also hunted for evidence of live infections in nasal swaps taken of mammals. And they found that flareups of the virus were linked to years with extreme losses in sea ice—suggesting that open waters aided the spread of the pathogen… perhaps along the melted coastline north of Siberia. 

Their analysis is in the journal Scientific Reports. [E. VanWormer et al, Viral emergence in marine mammals in the North Pacific may be linked to Arctic sea ice reduction]

Mammals that depend on ice to survive may already be slated for extinction as the Arctic melts, Goldstein says… and more frequent epidemics like this viral one could hasten the blow. But humans may be affected too. 

“Up in the Arctic people subsist on these species, so they really rely on these animals for their livelihood and wellbeing. And as those animals disappear, or as their habitat disappears, that’s also going to heavily affect humans in that area. So overall I think the overall health of the environment and the animals and the people up in the Arctic over time is just going to continue to deteriorate.”

Unless, of course, we humans take meaningful action to slow the planet’s warming.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]



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