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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

1-17-20 Boasting about war crimes
“Donald Trump is the war crimes president,” said Andrew Sullivan. During the 2016 campaign, he brazenly vowed to bring back torture as a military strategy and “exulted” in telling war crimes stories, such as an apocryphal tale about a general who used bullets dipped in pig’s blood to kill Muslims. Once in office, Trump nominated Gina Haspel as CIA director, ignoring objections that she oversaw torture of suspected terrorists under the Bush administration. Trump recently pardoned war criminal Eddie Gallagher, a rogue Navy SEAL called “freaking evil” by his SEAL colleagues, who turned him in for allegedly shooting and stabbing Iraqis—including civilians—for fun. Trump called Gallagher “one of the ‘great fighters’ in the U.S. military,” invited him to a party at Mar-a-Lago, and is likely to trot him out at campaign events. Before Trump, it was “unimaginable” for a president to exalt a war criminal—or to threaten to commit war crimes himself. Last week, the commander-in-chief warned he’d destroy cultural sites in Iran—a violation of international law—and backed down only after Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the military wouldn’t comply with such an order. For Trump, “military honor and the laws of war” are for chumps.

1-17-20 Letting Trump court cases drag on
Why are the courts taking so long to decide cases crucial to President Trump’s impeachment and chances of winning the 2020 election? asked Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick. Federal courts have proven they can act “very quickly when circumstances demand it.” During Watergate, the Supreme Court even came back into session in July to rule on Congress’ demand for President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, ruling unanimously against Nixon. During the legal battle over the 2000 presidential election, the Supreme Court moved at “warp speed” to award the election to George W. Bush. But now that Trump is trying “to run out the clock” on court cases about his financial records and his refusal to let anyone who served in his administration testify before Congress, the courts—especially the Supreme Court—seem to be in no rush. Had the courts quickly ruled on the congressional subpoena issue, the House impeachment hearings might have included witnesses whose testimony would be badly damaging to Trump. Americans might also know by now why Trump is so desperate to hide his tax returns. Are Republican-appointed judges moving so slowly on crucial Trump cases for a reason? “Sometimes, not resolving a case in time for relief is a decision.”

1-17-20 Please leave
Iraq has asked the U.S. to develop a plan to withdraw its 5,300 troops from the country, but the Trump administration is refusing to do so. After a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and asked him to send representatives to Iraq to discuss withdrawal. “There are American forces entering Iraq and American drones in its sky without permission from the Iraqi government,” Mahdi said. Pompeo said Mahdi had mischaracterized the call, and insisted that the U.S. would continue its anti-ISIS mission. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the State Department and Pentagon are preparing to cut some $250 million in military aid to Iraq if Baghdad evicts U.S. troops. (Webmaster's comment: We have no right to have armed forces there. It is not our country!)

1-17-20 Seizing $7.2 billion to pay for the wall
President Trump is preparing to divert $7.2 billion in defense funding for border wall construction this year, five times what Congress authorized in the 2020 budget, The Washington Post reported this week. The money will again be repurposed from military construction projects and counter-narcotics initiatives. Dozens of Pentagon projects were halted last year, including the construction of schools on military bases, after the Trump administration reallocated $3.6 billion. Federal judges blocked that move, but last week the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction, saying the county of El Paso, Texas and an activist group likely lack standing to challenge the diversion. Administration officials plan to build 885 miles of new fencing by spring 2022.

1-17-20 No sanctuary
Texas governor Greg Abbott said the state would no longer take in refugees, taking advantage of new federal policy letting states opt out of refugee resettlement. The policy has been challenged by pro-immigration groups, and has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge. If courts uphold the rule, it would be a marked shift for Texas, which in the past 18 years has taken in more refugees than any state except California. Though the mayors of Texas’ largest cities have urged Abbott to keep taking refugees, the governor said the state should focus on “those who are already here.” Forty-two governors have agreed to continue taking refugees; Texas is the first state to refuse. Immigration advocates said that opting out of the resettlement program wouldn’t keep refugees from moving to the state. “You can take the bus the next day and come to Texas,” one advocate said.

1-17-20 Deportees dumped
As part of its “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, the U.S. has deported dozens of Central American asylum seekers to Guatemala with no planning for their resettlement. In some cases, families said, they were put on U.S. government flights without knowing what country they were going to or what to do once they arrived. Of the more than 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala since the deportation program started last month, only five have applied for asylum there, reports The Washington Post. Many are believed to have headed north to try to enter the U.S. again. Plagued by the same gang and drug violence that bedevils Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala is not a safe country. Last year, some 264,000 Guatemalans were detained at the U.S. border—more than any other nationality.

1-17-20 FBI arrests three more members of right wing extremist group 'The Base'
Three more alleged members of a US neo-Nazi hate group have been arrested in Georgia, authorities say, in what appears to be a national operation. The arrests came on the same day that three suspected members of the same group were detained in Maryland and Delaware. All six men are reported members of white supremacist group The Base. One of the three was a Canadian army reservist who had been missing for several months after fleeing Canada. Patrik Matthews is believed to have illegally crossed into the US after his alleged affiliations with The Base were discovered. He was arrested alongside two others in the Maryland and Delaware operation. The FBI said Mr Matthews and two others planned to travel to a pro-gun rally on Monday in Richmond, Virginia. Virginia governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency on Wednesday ahead of the rally, to block attendees from carrying weapons near the grounds of the Capitol building, citing credible threats of violence. According to an arrest warrant from the Floyd County Police Department, the three Georgia men were arrested after an undercover FBI sting operation, and charged with attempted murder and participating in a criminal organisation. According to arrest affidavits, The Base is a racially motivated violent extremist group that sought to "accelerate the downfall of the United States government, incite a race war and establish a white ethno-state." Luke Austin Lane, Michael Helterbrand, and Jacob Kaderli were planning to "overthrow the government and murder a Bartow County couple" who they believed to be Antifa members, Floyd County police said in a statement. An unnamed member of The Base who crossed into the US illegally met with two members of those arrested in Georgia in October 2019 to discuss revenge attacks against his enemies, according to charging documents. The gang member, presumed to be Mr Matthews, is said to have called for the "death penalty" against anyone engaged in anti-fascist activities. (Webmaster's comment: Trump's support base is being arrested.)

1-17-20 Boeing: The gang that couldn’t fly straight
Amazingly, Boeing’s reputation has managed to hit a new low, said Natalie Kitroeff in The New York Times. The company released a catastrophically damning trove of documents to congressional investigators last week that included “conversations among Boeing pilots and other employees about software issues and other problems with flight simulators” for the 737 Max, the plane involved in two fatal crashes. Employees distrusted the plane and the training pilots would get to fly it. “Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft?” asked one in an email exchange. “I wouldn’t.” Another said the Max was “designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys.” The messages “further complicate Boeing’s tense relationship” with the Federal Aviation Administration, which can’t be pleased to read the disdain with which Boeing treated regulators. “I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year,” one employee said in 2018. The memorably incriminating quotes aren’t even the worst part here, said Dominic Gates and Steve Miletich in the Seattle Times. Boeing might say these were just employees blowing off steam, but there’s no way to explain away more “sober” internal emails that show “a culture that prioritized cost cutting over everything else.” The fact that we’re finding out about this now underlines “deep-rooted cultural problems at Boeing,” said Brooke Sutherland in Bloomberg.com. The company claims it brought these documents to the FAA in December as a “reflection of our commitment to transparency.” Please. That was nine months after the agency grounded the Max. “It defies reason that no one at Boeing knew that the company was sitting on another mountain of troubling messages.” After this episode, it’s going to be even harder to win back public confidence in the Max, said David Gelles in The New York Times. “According to Boeing’s own research, 40 percent of travelers are unwilling to fly” on the Max—if it ever returns to service. Boeing once “represented the pinnacle of engineering,” but its relentless focus on safety gave way to “obsessing over the bottom line.” Said Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the heroic pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River, “We’ve seen this movie before, in places like Enron.” (Webmaster's comment: All corporations are the same: Profits First, Safety Second!)

1-17-20 A mugging in the hospital
A $25,000-a-year health-care plan didn’t protect me from a bad actor in an emergency situation, said Cynthia Weber Cascio. About a year ago, I developed acute appendicitis that came on rapidly overnight. “I felt so sick that we chose a nearby hospital, one we have long trusted for our family’s health,” and the ER doctor there said I would need surgery immediately. As I was about to be wheeled into the operating room, the surgeon informed me he didn’t take my insurance. “After asking about our occupations, he announced his fee for my laparoscopic appendectomy would be $15,000.” But there was no time for discussion. The surgeon’s bill later arrived totaling $17,000, and our insurance company suggested we negotiate the bill directly with the provider. That’s “akin to telling the victim of a mugging to ask the thief for her purse back. It’s uncomfortable and intimidating.” And emergency situations are “fertile ground for the opportunistic and unscrupulous. What if I had told the surgeon I thought his fee was too high? What would have happened?” Ultimately, I went to the Maryland attorney general’s office, which wrote a letter to the hospital, and we eventually settled on a payment of $3,000—an out-of-pocket cost that was still $670 above the customary rate for the procedure in our area.

1-17-20 Still a crime to take your life
When will Malaysia stop persecuting those who attempt suicide? asked M. Veera Pandiyan. Indonesia and the Philippines don’t lock up survivors of suicide attempts, and authoritarian Singapore this month decriminalized suicide. But while our Asian neighbors are busy treating their mentally ill citizens, Malaysia keeps incarcerating them. In 2017, just two weeks after trying to end her life, a 24-year-old woman had to appear in court, where a judge told her sternly that she must pay a $500 fine or go to jail for three months. The government says it is looking at changing the law, but the process is painfully slow. In the meantime, people are suffering. Ten percent of teens contemplated suicide in 2017, up from 8 percent in 2012. That might be because Malaysia currently has only 7,000 psychiatrists for a population of 32 million, and we’d need 20 times as many to reach the ratio that doctors say is necessary. Those Malaysians who can find a shrink often can’t afford one, because mental-health treatment isn’t covered by most health-insurance plans. But most Malaysians won’t even try to seek help, because of “stigma, discrimination, and neglect.” Depression is seen here as shameful. To help the mentally ill, the government needs to start at the top—first, by repealing our “archaic laws.”

1-17-20 Finding religion in the fine print
“How did God make it into millions of consumer contracts?” asked David Lazarus in the Los Angeles Times. Consider the one-year extended warranty offered by the eyewear chain LensCrafters. It excludes “‘damage from abuse’ as well as damage from ‘fire, collision, vandalism, theft, etc.’” But apparently that’s not enough: It also exempts damage resulting from “acts of God.” That would seem to include, “well, everything.” The roots of this clause can be traced as far back as a property-related case decided by an English court in 1581, which ruled that an “act of God”—a death—made the deal in question “null and void.” In recent years, it has evolved into “legal shorthand for unanticipated events beyond human control.” But according to one legal scholar, “there’s a reluctance to use a different phrase” because that one “has come to be well understood.”

1-17-20 Iran: An uprising over downed plane
Iranians have staged massive demonstrations against their oppressive theocratic regime in the past, said Jim Geraghty in NationalReview.com, but “this latest round of protests feels a little different.” After initially blaming mechanical problems, the government was forced to admit last week that its military—on high alert because it had just launched a retaliatory missile attack against U.S. bases in Iraq—accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane shortly after it took off from Tehran’s airport, killing 176 people, including 82 Iranians. Protesters took to the streets across the country, shouting “Death to liars!” and calling Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a “murderer.” They tore up photos of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani—whose death Iran was avenging with its missile attack—and replaced them with images of dead passengers. The regime predictably blamed “U.S. adventurism,” and “yet a lot of Iranians are calling that nonsense—even after being subjected to anti-American propaganda for a decade.” Clearly, they’ve reached “their breaking point.”

1-17-20 Putin’s shake-up
The entire Russian government resigned this week after President Vladimir Putin announced sweeping constitutional changes that could secure his hold on power long after his presidential term ends in 2024. The proposed constitutional amendments would strengthen the powers of the parliament and prime minister at the expense of the presidency. Putin’s critics claim he is looking for ways to retain control after his presidency ends, one option being to become prime minister with greater powers. He previously swapped places with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 to get around the constitution’s two-term limit for the presidency. The new scheme will “allow Putin to remain in charge for an indefinite period,” said analyst Kirill Rogov. Putin said the new constitution will be ratified by referendum.

1-17-20 Being Moral
63% of Americans say that people can be moral without having a belief in God, while 36% think that people must have a belief in God to behave morally.

1-17-20 Pope vs. pope
A fight inside the Vatican took an unexpected turn this week after retired Pope Benedict XVI demanded his name be taken off a book that is widely seen as a critique of his successor. From the Depths of Our Hearts, co-written with Cardinal Robert Sarah, offers a staunch defense of priestly celibacy. It is being released just weeks before Pope Francis is expected to announce whether married men may be ordained in the Amazon to combat a shortage of priests there. Francis’ supporters claim that conservative clerics manipulated the 92-year-old Benedict into putting his name to the book. Following the outcry, Benedict said he no longer wished to be credited as co-author of the volume.

1-17-20 Brazil's culture minister sparks outrage by echoing Goebbels
A video in which Brazil's culture minister uses parts of a speech by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany's propaganda boss, has sparked outrage. In the clip posted on the ministry's Twitter page, Roberto Alvim details an award for "heroic" and "national" art. Lohengrin by Wagner, Hitler's favourite composer, plays in the background. Reacting to the controversy, Mr Alvim said the speech was a "rhetorical coincidence". Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been urged to fire him. Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain with a conservative social agenda, has frequently accused Brazil's artists and cultural productions including schoolbooks and movies of "left-wing bias". He has not commented. In the six-minute video detailing the National Arts Awards, Mr Alvim says: "The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and will be national, will be endowed with great capacity for emotional involvement... deeply linked to the urgent aspirations of our people, or else it will be nothing." Parts of it are identical to a speech quoted in the book Joseph Goebbels: A Biography, by German historian Peter Longerich, who has written several works on the Holocaust. "The German art of the next decade will be heroic, it will be steely-romantic, it will be factual and completely free of sentimentality, it will be national with great Pathos and committed, or it will be nothing." There was widespread condemnation on social media. But there were others who praised the video. In a post on his Facebook page, Mr Alvim said "the left was doing a fallacious remote association" between the two speeches, and that "there was nothing wrong with his sentence". "The whole speech was based on a nationalistic ideal for the Brazilian art and there was a coincidence with ONE sentence of a speech by Goebbels. I didn't quote him and I'd NEVER do it... But the sentence itself is perfect." He did not comment on the music that plays in the video. (Webmaster's comment: The Nazi culture and beliefs are are permeating the world's political leaders.)

1-17-20 Panama: Seven people found dead after suspected exorcism
The bodies of seven people have been found in a mass grave in an indigenous area of Panama where members of a religious sect were believed to be performing exorcisms, officials say. The victims included a pregnant woman, 32, and five of her children, aged one to 11. The sixth was a neighbour, 17. Fifteen other people were freed. Ten people have been arrested on suspicion of murder. The suspects and all victims were thought to belong to the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous community. The grave was discovered after three villagers escaped and made their way to a local hospital last weekend, prosecutor Rafael Baloyes said. They then alerted authorities about several families being held by an indigenous-run sect. On Wednesday, police raided the community, located in a jungle region in north-west Panama some 250km (155 miles) from the capital Panama City. "They were performing a ritual inside the structure. In that ritual, there were people being held against their will, being mistreated," said Mr Baloyes. "All of these rites were aimed at killing them if they didn't repent their sins". Inside the makeshift church, officers found a naked woman, machetes, knives and a ritually sacrificed goat, Mr Baloyes said. The site was controlled by a religious sect called the New Light of God, believed to have been operating in the region for about three months. According to Mr Baloyes, the kidnapping and torture started last Saturday after one of the members claimed to have received "a message from God". The victims were then kidnapped from their homes, beaten and killed. The suspects, who include a minor, are expected to appear in court on Friday or Saturday. One of them is the father of the pregnant woman found in the grave, located some 2km from the makeshift church. Those rescued had bodily injuries and reportedly included at least two pregnant women and some children. Exorcism is a religious or spiritual ritual carried out to supposedly cure people of demonic possession. It remains controversial, in part due to its depiction in popular culture and horror films.

1-17-20 Chinese birth rate falls to lowest in seven decades
China's birth rate has fallen to its lowest since the formation of the People's Republic of China 70 years ago - despite the easing of the much criticised one-child policy. The birth rate was 10.48 per 1,000 in 2019 - the lowest since 1949, the National Bureau of Statistics said. The number of babies born in 2019 dropped by 580,000 to 14.65 million. The country's birth rate has been falling for years - posing a challenge for the world's second-biggest economy. Despite the birth rate falling, a lower death rate meant China's population hit 1.4bn in 2019, inching up from 1.39bn. But the falling birth rate is raising fears of a "demographic timebomb" - that is, a smaller working-age population having to support a bigger, retired population. China's birth rate is lower than the US, which stood at 12 per 1,000 people in 2017 (the most recent data available), but higher than Japan's figure of 8. In England and Wales, the birth rate was 11.6 in 2019, compared with 9 in Scotland. In Northern Ireland the figure was 12.1 in 2018 (the most recent data available). The overall global birth rate was 18.65 in 2017, according to the World Bank. In 1979, the Chinese government introduced a nationwide "one-child policy" - with various exceptions - to slow population growth. Families that violated the rules faced fines, loss of employment and sometimes forced abortions. But the policy has been blamed for a severe gender imbalance - with males still outnumbering females by more than 30 million in the 2019 figures. In 2015, the government ended its one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children. But that reform has failed to reverse the country's falling birth rate - despite a two-year increase immediately afterwards. Experts say this is because the relaxing of the policy did not come with other relevant changes that support family life - such as monetary support for child care and increased paternity leave. Most people can't afford more than one child, they say.

1-17-20 The Goop Lab on Netflix shows how easy it is to fall for bad science
Psychic readings, energy healing and vampire facials are just a few of the adventures had by actor and alternative health guru Gwyneth Paltrow and her team in her forthcoming Netflix series The Goop Lab. Goop, Paltrow’s natural health company, has already become a byword for unrestrained woo, but the TV series takes things to the next level. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can stick your fingers in your ears and pretend it isn’t happening. There is unlikely to be any escape from The Goop Lab after it is released on 24 January, judging by the current explosion of interest in Goop’s latest offering, a candle scented like Paltrow’s vagina, which has reportedly sold out. (Webmaster's comment: A absolute obscenity! The guys love it!) Like a car-crash unfolding in front of me, once I started watching The Goop Lab I couldn’t look away. In fact, it is so bad it is good – a masterclass in how to defend pseudoscience with a few logical fallacies, non-sequiturs and bit of cherry picking. Take the episode on energy healing, also known as Reiki healing. Practitioners say they can see energy fields around people’s bodies that are invisible to the rest of us and manipulate them with their hands. This looks as outlandish as it sounds. While the “patient” lies on a massage table, the practitioner, Paltrow’s personal healer, lightly touches or waves his hands over their body to twiddle their fields into place. Members of the Goop team jerk and arch their backs theatrically – they are either true believers or are going to heroic lengths to suck up to their boss. Most say they feel better afterwards, although one says it felt like an exorcism. As proof that it works, the show wheels out a 57-year-old man who says the technique cured him of numbness in his legs after cancer treatment. But this kind of nerve damage often fades with time, and the show doesn’t say how many people try it without success.

1-16-20 US officials ground drones over espionage fears
US officials may put an end to a civilian drone programme because of their concerns about the unmanned aerial vehicles that are made in China. The officials are apparently worried that the Chinese-made drones could be used to spy on people in the US. After a volcano exploded in Hawaii in May 2018, US scientists used drones to save a man from the lava: "Follow the drone," they said. He made it through the jungle. Drones save people. They also map terrain, survey land and inspect pipelines. The scientists use drones for these and other purposes on a daily basis, and they have bragged about their successes in the field. Many of the aircraft are made by Chinese companies, though. They are now grounded because of concerns about espionage. The drones had been deployed for years by the scientists and others at the US Department of the Interior, a federal agency that manages national parks and other duties. But the head of the federal agency, David Bernhardt, is apparently now worried that the drones could be used for espionage. He is examining the agency's civilian drone programme in an effort to determine whether or not it should be continued. During this time, many of the drones are grounded, according to an agency spokeswoman, Melissa Brown. "Until this review is completed, the secretary has directed that drones manufactured in China or made from Chinese components be grounded," according to a statement she sent to the BBC. Drones that are used to fight fires and help rescue people are still allowed to fly, she added. News of the fleet's grounding was first reported in the Financial Times. Mr Bernhardt's review of the drone programme reflects a growing concern among US officials about Chinese technology and espionage. President Donald Trump has spoken in dark terms about China, saying that its leaders have "cheated" the US and that its intelligence agents spy on people here. Chinese officials deny the accusations. Despite the rhetoric, US-China relations have improved.

1-15-20 A Scheme of Heaven reveals what scientists can learn from astrology
Astrology is bunk, but a new book exploring its ancient history argues that it has crucial lessons for today's data science with its seemingly opaque algorithms. AT THE beginning of the 15th century, Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly predicted the arrival of the Antichrist through, among other astrological signs, the future orbital alignments of Saturn and Jupiter. He foretold that the Antichrist would appear in 1789, which turned out to be the first year of the French Revolution, touted as a triumph of rationalism over religious. Astrology has spawned such stories for millennia, surviving revolutionary France and the assault of modern science through a combination of celestial intrigue and good luck. In A Scheme of Heaven, data scientist Alexander Boxer tells the fascinating tale of astrology’s ascent in ancient Egypt and Babylon, its influence over the Roman Empire and Elizabethan England and its resurgence in contemporary popular culture. His entertaining book explains fallacies that have given astrology unmerited credibility, such as the “validation” of predictions so vague almost any event would fit them. Importantly, he also reveals how equivalent sloppiness may distort data science today, especially when researchers mine data sets so vast they find meaning in coincidence. Astrology is broadly based on a belief in the interconnectedness of the heavens and Earth, and the idea that occurrences in the world can be understood or foretold by the positioning of other planets. Practical implementation of these concepts was by no means trivial. “Astrology was the ancient world’s most ambitious applied mathematics problem,” writes Boxer. The task occupied some of the greatest minds, including mathematician Claudius Ptolemy and astronomer Johannes Kepler.

1-15-20 Vatican appoints first woman to senior role in Church
Pope Francis has made an Italian lawyer the first woman to hold a management position in the Vatican's most important office. Francesca Di Giovanni, 66, will serve as undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State. She will be responsible for co-ordinating the Holy See's relations with groups including the UN. Pope Francis has been vocal in his support for women holding greater positions of authority in the Vatican. "I hope that my being a woman might reflect itself positively in this task, even if they are gifts that I certainly find in my male colleagues as well," she told Vatican media. Ms Di Giovanni has worked for the Vatican for 27 years and holds a law degree. She has specialised in areas including migration and refugees, the status of women, intellectual property and tourism. "The Holy Father has made an unprecedented decision, certainly, which, beyond myself personally, represents an indication of an attention towards women," she said. "But the responsibility is connected to the job, rather than to the fact of being a woman."

1-14-20 NikkieTutorials: Beauty YouTuber reveals she is transgender
Nikkie de Jager, an influential YouTuber with millions of fans, has revealed she is transgender in an emotional video. On Monday, the 25-year-old, who is from the Netherlands, shared a video titled "I'm coming out". In it, she explains her decision was forced by someone attempting to "blackmail" and publicly out her. Known as NikkieTutorials, she is one of the most influential names in the platform's beauty community. She has been sharing make-up tutorials and reviews for 11 years and has almost 13 million subscribers. Her success has seen her collaborate with celebrities including Lady Gaga, and last year she was named a global artistry adviser for Marc Jacobs beauty. De Jager opens the 17-minute video by saying she had always wanted to share her story on her own terms, but having had the opportunity "taken away" wished to reclaim her own "power". "I can't believe I'm saying this today to all of you for the entire world to see. But damn, it feels good to finally do it. It is time to let go and be truly free," she says in the introduction. "When I was younger, I was born in the wrong body, which means that I am transgender now." In the video, de Jager reveals she was born male but had always identified as female growing up. She said that by age six - with her parents' support - she began growing her hair out and by age seven or eight wore only female clothing. She then started taking hormones and growth suppressors at age 14 and was "fully transitioned" by 19, she explains in the clip. "Oh my god this is so liberating. You had no idea that for 11 years that I've had my channel, this has been with me, and I always wanted to share this with you," she tells her fans. "But I cannot believe that after today, the world will know. But there's one thing that I really, really want to make so clear to all of you. I am me. I am still Nikki. Nothing changes about that." At one point she addresses the people she says are threatening her and makes a middle-finger gesture, telling them: "This one's for you" She also expresses her hope that her video may help and inspire others. "If you feel like you're trapped and there's no way out, know that it gets better. Trust me, it gets better," she says towards the end of the clip.

1-13-20 Former Boeing chief Dennis Muilenburg leaves with $62m
Former Boeing chief Dennis Muilenburg has left the company with $62m (£48m) in compensation and pension benefits. (Webmaster's comment: That's nearly 1/2 million for each person killed by Boeing 737 Max.) Mr Muilenburg will not receive severance pay, according to a regulatory filing by Boeing. Boeing fired Mr Muilenburg in December to restore confidence in the firm after two deadly crashes involving its 737 Max plane. It said that Mr Muilenburg received the benefits he was "contractually entitled to" and that no annual bonus was paid. In addition to the $62m in compensation and pension benefits, Mr Muilenburg holds stock options that would have been worth $18.5m at the closing price on Friday. The planemaker also confirmed that David Calhoun, its new boss, could receive a bonus of $7m, subject to whether or not he can get the 737 Max flying safely again. Boeing said it was confident that Mr Calhoun was the right person "to strengthen Boeing's safety culture, improve transparency and rebuild trust". He was appointed as chief executive and president of Boeing having served on the firm's board since 2009. The figures were disclosed during a difficult week for the planemaker, when internal messages were released that raised further questions over the jet's safety. An employee said the plane was "designed by clowns" in one of the communications. Boeing has faced scrutiny since the fatal crashes of two 737 Max planes, which killed nearly 350 people. It is facing multiple investigations following the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. Dennis Muilenburg came under fire for his pay last year during an appearance before US lawmakers. They accused the firm of building "flying coffins" and engaging in a pattern of "deliberate concealment". (Webmaster's comment: Where's the life in prison time?)

1-13-20 Retired Pope Benedict warns Francis against relaxing priestly celibacy rules
Retired Pope Benedict XVI has issued a defence of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church as his successor considers easing a ban on married men serving as priests. Pope Benedict made the appeal in a book co-authored with Cardinal Robert Sarah. It comes in response to a proposal to allow married men to be ordained as priests in the Amazon region. Pope Benedict, who retired in 2013, said he could not remain silent on the issue. In the book, Pope Benedict says celibacy, a centuries-old tradition within the Church, has "great significance" because it allows priests to focus on their duties. The 92-year-old says "it doesn't seem possible to realise both vocations [priesthood and marriage] simultaneously". It is rare for Pope Benedict, who was the first pontiff to resign in almost 600 years, to intervene in clerical matters. The Vatican is yet to comment on the book, which was previewed in part by French newspaper Le Figaro before its full publication on Monday. Vatican commentators have reacted with surprise to Benedict's intervention, suggesting it breaks with convention. "Benedict XVI is really not breaking his silence because he (and his entourage) never felt bound to that promise. But this is a serious breach," Massimo Faggioli, a historian and theologian at Villanova University, tweeted. The comments by Pope Benedict were described as "incredible" by Joshua McElwee, a journalist for the National Catholic Reporter. A theological conservative with traditional views on Catholic values, Pope Benedict pledged to remain "hidden from the world" when he retired, citing poor health. But since then, he has made his views known in articles, books and interviews, advocating a different approach to Pope Francis, who is seen as more progressive. Pope Benedict still lives within the walls of the Vatican in a former monastery.


FEMINISM

1-19-20 When sexual abuse was called seduction: France confronts its past
An 83-year-old French writer once feted by the Paris intellectual set now finds himself ostracised because of his writings about sex with teenage boys and girls. From the 1960s onwards, Gabriel Matzneff made no secret of his passion for seducing adolescents. But a new book by one of the teenagers he slept with in the 1980s has led to a criminal investigation for rape of a minor. And now debate is raging in France about who is more to blame: Matzneff himself or the world he moved in. The moment that Gabriel Matzneff realised that the moral wind was turning against him came on 2 March 1990 when he appeared on France's famous TV book programme Apostrophe to discuss the latest of his published diaries. The footage can easily be found on the internet. In a jocular tone the programme's respected presenter, Bernard Pivot, asks Matzneff (then aged 53) what it is like to be a serial "collector of young chicks". All bald-headed suaveness, Matzneff explains how he prefers school-age girls who have yet to be "hardened" by disillusionment over men. He says they come to him because he listens and takes them seriously. The panel nods understandingly. A Catholic woman who is there to defend fidelity in marriage laughs, as if at a charmingly naughty child. But then Pivot turns to a woman who has so far been silent, a Canadian writer called Denise Bombardier, and the atmosphere suddenly changes. "I feel like I am living on a different planet," says Bombardier coldly. And she launches into a devastating attack on her neighbour. Does he not understand anything about the rights of children, she asks. Has it never occurred to him that these young girls may end up damaged? "For me, Mr Matzneff is abject. We all know how some girls can become besotted by men with a certain literary aura," says Bombardier. "Some older men like to attract little children with sweets. Mr Matzneff does it with his reputation."

1-17-20 Alphabet: Top lawyer leaves after misconduct claims
Google parent company Alphabet said this week that its controversial chief legal officer, David Drummond, will step down, said Jillian D’Onfro in Forbes. “One of the most long-tenured, influential employees at the company,” which he joined in 2002, Drummond was being investigated by the board over claims that he had inappropriate relationships with other employees. The board is also looking into Drummond’s handling of complaints against former Android chief Andy Rubin, “who reportedly received a $90 million exit package” despite credible allegations of sexual assault. Drummond will receive no exit package but has sold more than $200 million in stock in the past few months.

1-17-20 Kill your ex, get soccer contract
Brazilian soccer clubs are falling all over themselves to sign a vicious murderer, said Renata Mendonça. Bruno Fernandes de Souza was a successful goalkeeper before he was convicted of ordering the gruesome 2010 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Eliza Samudio, whose body he had chopped up and fed to his rottweilers. Bruno, the court heard, wanted to avoid paying child support for his then 4-month-old son. Sentenced to 22 years in prison, he was released in 2017 on a technicality and was promptly showered with multiple offers from eager teams before being sent back to prison two months later. Now that he has been transitioned to house arrest and given leave to play pro soccer, he is again being pursued by interested teams. Fluminense de Feira announced it wanted to sign Bruno, only to backtrack after a huge outcry by female fans and women’s groups. Moral issues aside, we’re talking about a player “who hasn’t played in 10 years” and is surely out of shape. So why the rush to sign this brute? Clubs say they believe in second chances, but we don’t see them hiring ex-cons to work as janitors or office staff, do we? The real reason is that teams know his hiring will generate publicity, and it’s disgusting. Let Bruno have his second chance, sure, but “not on the pitch.”

1-17-20 Oregon woman sues church
An Oregon woman is suing the Mormon church for informing the police that her husband was molesting their daughter. The woman, unnamed to protect her daughter, says her husband confessed to a church group to “repent for his sins.” A group member told police, and her husband was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The woman wants $9.5 million to compensate for her husband’s lost earnings, “companionship, society, love, [and] affection.”

1-17-20 Economy: Is income inequality overstated?
New research is poking holes in the conventional wisdom about income inequality, said The Economist. The idea that the richest 1 percent has “detached itself from everyone else” is a rallying cry for populists like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But some economists have “recrunched the numbers” and are calling out the research behind this “almost universally held” belief. They note, for example, that Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, the economists most responsible for the uproar over inequality, built their estimates by focusing on household income rather than individual income, even though “marriage rates have declined disproportionately among poorer Americans.” That means that the data is spread over more lower-income households, “even as the top incomes remain pooled.” Then there is the misreading of the effects of the Ronald Reagan–era 1986 tax reform, which “created strong incentives for firms to operate as ‘pass-through’ entities, where owners register profits as income on their tax returns,” thereby inflating some top-income shares after 1987. Accounting for flaws such as these, the income share of the top 1 percent actually “may have little changed since as long ago as 1960.” Enough, said Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic. We just finished a decade in which “the middle class shrank, longevity fell, and it became clear that a whole generation was falling behind.” And now we’re being told “the decade went so well,” thanks to free shipping and cheap stuff on Amazon? Look around you: Middle-income families are facing “a cost-of-living crisis,” thanks to “an egregious housing shortage that led to ballooning rents and long commutes, sky-high child-care prices, spiraling out-of-pocket health-care fees, and heavy educational debt loads.”

1-17-20 Women hold 50% of Jobs
Women held 50.04 percent of jobs last month, surpassing men on nonfarm payrolls for the first time since 2010, thanks to growth in health care and education. (Webmaster's comment: But are still 20-25% behind on compensation.)

1-17-20 Iranian athlete defects
Iran’s only female Olympic medalist has fled to the Netherlands, saying she will no longer be “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.” Kimia Alizadeh, 21, took bronze in tae kwon do at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and she is now training with the Dutch team, but it’s unclear whether she has applied for asylum. “Of course she is welcome here,” said Dutch tae kwon do trainer Mimoun El Boujjoufi. “We know her qualities.” Alizadeh’s announcement comes just months after Iranian judo champ Saeid Mollaei defected and took Mongolian citizenship. He was angered at being ordered to throw a semifinal bout in last year’s World Judo Championships to avoid facing an Israeli in the final.

1-17-20 White boys are lagging behind
British educational institutions routinely offer scholarships to black Britons from deprived backgrounds, said Miranda Green, yet singling out disadvantaged white youths for special help is seen as racist. Prominent academic Sir Bryan Thwaites discovered that recently when he tried to endow a $1.3 million scholarship to send working-class white boys to two posh boarding schools. The schools turned the gift down, thinking it looked bad for their brands. Yet Thwaites, a scholarship boy himself, has identified a real need. The educational underperformance of Britain’s white working-class males is “desperate.” Fewer than 10 percent of poor white boys go to university—the lowest share of any demographic group. Boys lag behind girls at all stages of schooling, simply “tuning out of what goes on in the classroom.” This may be because boys don’t want to be “catapulted out of their own social context” into college, which many think is only for toffs and eggheads. There is a range of possible remedies: We could combat boys’ perception of university study “as passive and dull,” or expand vocational colleges, which “have been allowed to wither.” The government should refocus British education on “those who don’t go to university”—which, after all, is most of us. (Webmaster's comment: Helping the most ignorant is a lost cause.)

1-17-20 How to raise money
A Los Angeles model raised more than $500,000 for Australian wildfire victims by offering nude selfies in exchange for proof of a $10 donation. Kaylen Ward, 20, made her self-pledge on Instagram on Jan. 3 under the name “The Naked Philanthropist” and was soon deluged with 50,000 charitable receipts made to accredited charities. But her amazing success also had unintended consequences when her family and boyfriend saw her online pledge. “My family disowned me, and the guy I like won’t talk to me,” she said. “But f--- it, save the koalas.”

1-17-20 Andrew Yang's wife says gynaecologist sexually assaulted her
The wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang has said she was sexually assaulted by her gynaecologist while she was pregnant with their first child. Evelyn Yang has accused Robert Hadden of assaulting her at his New York practice in 2012. Speaking to CNN, Ms Yang said she didn't tell her husband at first. Ms Yang is one of 32 women suing Hadden and the university where he practised. Hadden has denied the allegations in a court document. He was convicted of sexual assault in 2016 and surrendered his medical licence, but did not serve any jail time after accepting a plea deal. Ms Yang, 38, said she was encouraged to speak out by the warm reception she and her husband had received when talking to voters about their son's autism. "Something about being on the trail and meeting people and seeing the difference that we've been making already has moved me to share my own story about it, about sexual assault," Ms Yang revealed to CNN. She said "everyone has their own Me Too story", referencing the global movement against sexual assault, but added "not everyone has the audience or platform to tell their story". When victims of abuse come forward, they deserve our belief, support, and protection," Mr Yang said in a statement on Thursday. "I hope that Evelyn's story gives strength to those who have suffered and sends a clear message that our institutions must do more to protect and respond to women." Ms Yang has accused Hadden of assaulting her in his examination room when she was seven months pregnant with her first child. "I was dressed and ready to go," she told CNN. "Then, at the last minute, he kind of made up an excuse. He said something about 'I think you might need a C-section' and he proceeded to grab me over to him and undress me and examine me internally, ungloved." Ms Yang said she told her husband about the alleged assault after the birth of their child, Christopher. Ms Yang said she was prompted to do so after reading about a woman who had accused Hadden of sexual assault. Other women came forward and a case against Hadden was opened by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

1-16-20 Allison Donahue: US lawmaker Peter Lucido probed for comments to reporter
A US lawmaker is facing investigation for telling a reporter schoolboys "could have a lot of fun" with her. Allison Donahue, 22, said she felt "humiliated" by the comment Michigan state senator Peter Lucido made when she went to him for comment on a story. His remark was "belittling and it came from a place of power", she said. Mr Lucido, 59, initially told US media the incident was "blown out of proportion", and tweeted an apology for what he called "the misunderstanding". Two state senate leaders have called for an investigation into whether his remarks amounted to sexual harassment. In a report for her newspaper, the Michigan Advance, Ms Donahue said she was seeking comment from Mr Lucido, a Republican, about claims he was a member of a since-deleted Facebook group targeting Michigan's Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Members of that group had also posted messages advocating violence against Democrats and Muslims, local media reported. Ms Donahue wrote that Mr Lucido told her he would speak to her after honouring a group of students from an all-boys' high school, who were standing just behind him. As she turned to leave, she said that he told her: "You should hang around! You could have a lot of fun with these boys, or they could have a lot of fun with you." Ms Donahue added: "The teenagers burst into an Old Boys' Network-type of laughter, and I walked away knowing that I had been the punch line of their 'locker room' talk. "Except it wasn't the locker room; it was the senate chamber. And this isn't high school. It's my career." On Wednesday morning Mr Lucido didn't dispute the quotes, but told the Detroit Free Press that he didn't feel he owed Ms Donahue an apology. He then tweeted: "I apologise for the misunderstanding yesterday and for offending Allison Donahue." Later the same day, he alleged that he was misquoted - telling local broadcaster WDIV-TV that he had actually said "we're going on the [senate] floor to have some fun, you're welcome to join us". (Webmaster's comment: LIAR!)

1-16-20 'I was sexually abused by a shaman at an ayahuasca retreat'
The psychedelic powers of a traditional Amazonian plant medicine called ayahuasca are attracting more and more tourists. It's said to bring spiritual enlightenment and to help with addiction, depression and trauma. But a string of allegations suggests there's a darker side to the ayahuasca scene. Rebekah first tried ayahuasca on a "complete whim" when she was travelling in Peru in 2015. "I thought it sounded interesting and I thought I might as well give it a try," says Rebekah, a New Zealander in her 20s who asked the BBC not to use her surname. "So I found a retreat centre that I felt was good and I just went for it and it was amazing." Ayahuasca can induce visions of things like serpents, palaces, and alien beings - and bring up long-forgotten memories. Like many who've drunk the brew, Rebekah has a wide-eyed distant look as she reminisces about the experience. "It was like being guided very gently and very kindly through some really awful experiences that I'd had in the past," Rebekah says. "And returning back home after that, I felt like my relationships were a lot stronger. I felt it was a lot easier to share and receive love. "They do say that ayahuasca is like 20 years of psychotherapy. And I completely believe that." Ayahuasca is usually taken in ceremonies at night, led by a healer - sometimes called a shaman. He or she will drink the sticky brown liquid - a brew of two Amazonian plants - then dole out helpings to the participants. It's been used by tribes in the Amazon region for centuries but now there's a boom in what's become known as "ayahuasca tourism", with ever more specialist retreat centres opening. Travellers often come for help dealing with mental health problems - and a growing body of scientific research suggests ayahuasca could be an effective treatment.

1-15-20 Democratic debate: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ramp up feud
There have been seven official Democratic debates but this one had a real sense of urgency - in less than three weeks the candidates will face their first test. The primary season begins on 3 February with the Iowa caucuses, when the Democratic voters in this state will pick who they want to take on Donald Trump in November. As the six White House hopefuls took to the debate stage in Des Moines, the Republican US president they have in their sights was mocking them at a rally 400 miles east in Wisconsin. Here are some key moments from the debate - and the Trump rally. The body language between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders at the conclusion of the debate - when they spoke heatedly and did not shake hands - told its own story. The non-aggression pact between the two candidates could be over just as the voting is set to begin. The biggest news story in campaign politics over the past few days had been the growing tensions between the two most liberal candidates. Warren had alleged that Sanders told her in December 2018 that a woman couldn't win the presidency - something Sanders denied. Asked about this during the debate, Sanders denied it again - saying he has long supported the idea of a woman president. Then Warren had her turn, and in a set-piece response she clearly spent time crafting, she hit a number of political targets almost in one breath. She started by essentially implying that Sanders was lying. She then pivoted her response into a shout-out for the electoral success that she and Amy Klobuchar, the other woman candidate on the stage, have had. They've won every election they've been in, she said to thunderous applause, while the three male politicians debating have lost 10 between them. She ended by pitching herself as the unity candidate with a broad coalition.

1-15-20 Democratic debate: Warren mocks men for losing elections
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders did not look happy with each other at the end of CNN's Democratic debate in Iowa. The two senators had sparred over the question of whether a woman could beat Donald Trump and win the White House in November's election. Both agreed that a woman could become US president - but disputed whether Mr Sanders had told Ms Warren otherwise in a private conversation in 2018. The Massachusetts senator then used the opportunity to contrast the electoral record of the male and female candidates on the debate stage.

1-15-20 Vatican appoints first woman to senior role in Church
Pope Francis has made an Italian lawyer the first woman to hold a management position in the Vatican's most important office. Francesca Di Giovanni, 66, will serve as undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State. She will be responsible for co-ordinating the Holy See's relations with groups including the UN. Pope Francis has been vocal in his support for women holding greater positions of authority in the Vatican. "I hope that my being a woman might reflect itself positively in this task, even if they are gifts that I certainly find in my male colleagues as well," she told Vatican media. Ms Di Giovanni has worked for the Vatican for 27 years and holds a law degree. She has specialised in areas including migration and refugees, the status of women, intellectual property and tourism. "The Holy Father has made an unprecedented decision, certainly, which, beyond myself personally, represents an indication of an attention towards women," she said. "But the responsibility is connected to the job, rather than to the fact of being a woman."

1-15-20 Liang Jun: China's first female tractor driver, and national icon, dies
A woman who became China's first female tractor driver, and eventually a national icon, has died at the age of 90. In 1948, Liang Jun became the only female in China to take up the job, when she enrolled in a training class for tractor drivers. More than a decade later, an image of her proudly driving a tractor was featured on China's one-yuan banknote. "No-one could drive as well as me," she had said in an earlier interview. "I have no regrets in this life." Liang Jun was born in 1930 to a poor family in China's remote Heilongjiang province. She spent most of her early years helping out at a farm as well as studying in a rural school. In 1948, when a local school opened up a course to train tractor drivers, she seized her chance. According to local media, there were 70 students in the class - with Liang Jun being the only woman. She eventually completed her training and became the country's first female tractor driver. A year later, communist leader Mao Zedong announced the creation of the People's Republic of China. In previous eras in China, nobles, poets and military leaders were the ones to admire. But when the communists took power in 1949, a new kind of hero was born - the model worker, a concept already in use in the Soviet Union. The Chinese state promoted poor, hard-working individuals whose dedication to building a socialist country was held up for others to follow. Liang Jun was one of the first, and one of the best known, model workers. Her smiling face as she drives her tractor on the one yuan banknote was supposed to inspire others to similar heights of achievement. It was not just class barriers she broke down either. Liang Jun became a symbol for all Chinese women, and the possibilities that now opened up for them. She herself made full use of those opportunities. She became an engineer and a politician; a long journey from an impoverished childhood.

1-15-20 Miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy may trigger PTSD and depression
One in six women who experience an early miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder nine months later. As people can experience the symptoms of PTSD for months, it is important that women are able to access psychological support should they need it, say the researchers behind the work. It is estimated that women have more miscarriages than live births over their lifetime. But the psychological effects are often “brushed under the carpet”, says Jessica Farren, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at St Marys Hospital in London. Women often don’t tell their friends, family and colleagues that they are pregnant until they have had their 12-week scan. If that scan reveals a miscarriage, they may feel unable to tell people, so miss out on support, says Farren. She and her colleagues asked 737 women who experienced a miscarriage during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy or an ectopic pregnancy – in which the embryo attaches outside of the uterus, causing pregnancy loss – to fill out mental health questionnaires designed to diagnose anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The questionnaires were sent to the women one month after their pregnancy losses, and then again three and nine months after the losses. Nine months after experiencing a pregnancy loss, 18 per cent of women met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, 17 per cent of women reported anxiety and 6 per cent of women had symptoms of moderate to severe depression. The figures are “terrifyingly high”, says Farren. “We have a problem on our hands that we haven’t up until now properly acknowledged or looked to treat.” That was the experience of Samantha* who had an early miscarriage last year. “Initially it was like a bereavement,” she says. “[My husband and I] both felt very connected to that baby and still do. I felt loss, emptiness, scared that I might not be able to have another child (but in some ways relieved that we’d been able to get pregnant)….We both had and still have moments where it hurts.”

1-14-20 Oscars 2020: Heller and Hanks on A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Tom Hanks has been nominated for an Oscar for his role in the soon to be released A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But like the Baftas, no women have been nominated in the best director category at this year's Oscars. Hanks and the film's director, Marielle Heller, spoke to the BBC's Arts Editor Will Gompertz before the Oscar nominations were announced and said they hoped for change in the industry.

1-14-20 'Miracle baby' born after womb transplant
Jennifer Gobrecht’s uterus transplant allowed her to have a baby, meaning Benjamin became only the second child in the US to be born through the procedure. The medical care to the Philadelphia family was provided by a transplant trial at Penn Medicine.

1-13-20 Majority of women who have an abortion don’t regret it five years on
The majority of women who have an abortion don’t regret their decision. The finding rebuts the idea that mental distress is commonplace, which is often the basis of laws that require women to have cooling off periods after requesting an abortion, says Corinne Rocca at the University of California, San Francisco. Abortion is a political battleground in the US, with many states having introduced laws that restrict access. In eight states abortion providers must provide women with materials informing them that the procedure will cause lasting emotional harm, and in 27 states women who request an abortion have to wait for a compulsory cooling off period, usually of 24 hours, before they can have the procedure. When Ireland legalised abortion last year, it mandated a three-day cooling off period, partly to allay fears women would experience regret. The latest study was based on telephone surveys Rocca’s team conducted with 667 women who had abortions across 21 US states that have a variety of laws. The first interview took place about a week after the abortion, and the women were interviewed again semi-annually for up to five years. About half the women said in retrospect that the decision to have an abortion had been a difficult one to make at the time, but five years later 99 per cent said it had been the right one. When asked about their feelings five years on, 84 per cent of the women said they either had mainly positive emotions or no emotions about the procedure. The rest said their feelings were negative. The findings could have been biased by the fact that only 38 per cent of those asked to take part in the survey accepted, and women who felt more negatively about their decision might have been less likely to participate. However, Rocca says the results are similar to another study where women who had an abortion answered questions about their emotions just before their procedure.


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

1-19-20 The tricky task of tallying carbon
More than 60 years ago, atmospheric scientist Charles David Keeling began regular measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. In the heart of the Pacific and far from the largest human sources of the gas, Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory was an ideal location for these measurements. Within just two years, Keeling had detected two patterns in the data. The first was an annual rise and fall as the seasons came and went. But the second — a year-by-year increase — suggested something alarming: a rise in carbon dioxide produced by the widespread burning of fossil fuels. In 1965, Keeling's measurements were incorporated into a report for U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson that described carbon dioxide from fossil fuels as "the invisible pollutant" and warned of its dangers. Since then, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have continued to rise, as have the concerns over the changes that such an atmospheric shift brings. Observations are still taken at Mauna Loa today, and the resulting "Keeling Curve" reveals that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by almost a third since the first measurements were taken. The world's average temperature has already warmed by around 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since preindustrial times, driving increases in everything from sea levels to the frequency of extreme weather events. For those groups and nations striving to limit global warming, accurately tracking carbon emissions will be key to assessing progress and validating international agreements. But how do scientists do that? And how does the amount released into the air relate to what scientists end up measuring at outposts such as Mauna Loa? A comprehensive tally of carbon released is essential not just for assessing which countries are pulling their weight and meeting agreed targets. It's also key to improving understanding of carbon's natural cycle and to more precisely quantifying the link between humankind's emissions and the planet's temperature. But calculating, much less measuring, global carbon dioxide emissions remains an immense technical challenge, since almost every human activity is implicated in the molecule's release.

1-18-20 Taking climate change to the courts
In September 2009, Typhoon Ketsana dumped a foot and a half of rain on the Philippines in just 24 hours. In the capital, Manila, muddy, sewage-filled floodwater trapped Veronica "Derek" Cabe's family on the roof of their home. "My family huddled together on the rooftop of our two-story house as the floodwaters sped past," said Cabe, an environmental activist. "They could see bodies, animals, and even a coffin. It was like a horror movie." Cabe got stuck a few miles away from her family. She was getting text message updates from them, but couldn't reach them. "The fact that they were trapped in a life-and-death situation, and I had no idea how to help them was the worst nightmare that I've ever had," Cabe told The World. Since that day, the Philippines has been slammed by storms again and again. In 2012, tropical storm Washi killed about 1,300 people. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan killed 6,000 people. These kinds of storms and other disasters are expected to grow more intense as the climate warms. The bushfires raging across Australia are an example of how damages from climate change are likely to grow in the future. Cabe is among those looking for someone or something to hold accountable for the damage caused by these catastrophes. "What are we going to do, are we just going to count the dead bodies?" Cabe said. "There should be someone that should be accountable to this." In 2015, Cabe signed onto a petition that asked the Philippines Commission on Human Rights to do just that. The commission agreed to investigate whether big oil and gas companies could be held legally responsible for harm caused by climate change. And the case is not unique. Citizens, nonprofit organizations and governments around the world are increasingly turning to the courts in their search for accountability.

1-17-20 A tenth of a degree
Last year was the second-hottest year on record, and it trailed the hottest, 2016, by only a tenth of a degree Fahrenheit. There was above-average warming in most regions, with exceptional warming in the Arctic, Europe, southern Africa, and Australia. The five past years have been the five warmest on record.

1-17-20 Environmental regulation: A major rollback
President Trump is proposing “stark changes to the nation’s oldest and most established environmental law,” said Lisa Friedman in The New York Times. In an escalation of his three-year effort “to roll back clean air and water protections,” the president plans to revise the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to narrow the range of infrastructure projects that require an environmental impact statement for approval. Such assessments offer federal regulators detailed analyses of the environmental consequences of building a given bridge, pipeline, highway, or power plant in deciding whether to give it a thumbs-up. The revision would also “set hard deadlines of one year to complete reviews of smaller projects and two years” for larger ones. The new regulation, which requires a 60-day comment period before going into effect, will likely be challenged in court. Trump called it a necessary step to quicken “an outrageously slow” process. Yes, research has shown that the average impact statement took 4.5 years to complete between 2010 and 2017, said Yessenia Funes in Gizmodo?.com. But “considering the facts” takes time and is surely preferable to greenlighting a project that could “infringe on critical wildlife habitat, harm water resources, or destroy culturally sensitive areas.” Do we want to return to the pre-regulatory era, when the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire? Instead of wrecking this “key pillar of environmental protection,” Trump should fight for sufficient funds to hire “enough employees to finish reviews in a timely fashion.” Most Americans want a sensible middle ground on regulation, said Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post. The economy shouldn’t be “paralyzed” by “regulatory overkill.” But “broad support” remains for sensible regulation of the environment, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, and cars. “Free market” forces don’t always produce results in the public’s best interest.

1-17-20 BlackRock: Climate change will reshape finance
T he CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm, pledged to make fighting climate change the core goal of his company’s future investment decisions, said Attracta Mooney and Owen Walker in the Financial Times. In his “annual finger-wagging letter to chief executives” this week, BlackRock head Larry Fink said that climate change would lead to “a fundamental reshaping of finance.” He vowed to increase the range of BlackRock’s sustainable investment products, begin excluding companies that rely heavily on thermal coal production, and become “more transparent over the firm’s engagement and voting at investee companies” as a way to pressure them to develop climate initiatives. Let’s see Fink put his firm’s money—more than $6 trillion—where his mouth is, said Rachel Koning Beals in MarketWatch?.com. Last year, BlackRock “supported fewer than 12 percent” of the sustainability resolutions that shareholders voted on. Fink says that will change, but climate advocates “will be watching to see if his pledge to hold companies accountable will materialize.” They also want to see just how far Fink will go in designing environmentally responsible funds. Investors have welcomed socially conscious funds but drawn the line at dropping fossil fuels. “Exiting the stocks of gunmakers has been a fairly simple move; splitting with oil has not.”

1-17-20 Can Microsoft's 'moonshot' carbon goal succeed?
Tech giant Microsoft has announced two bold ambitions: firstly, to become carbon negative by the year 2030 - meaning it will be removing more carbon from the air than it emits - and secondly, to have removed more carbon by 2050 than it has emitted, in total, in its entire history. In an interview with the BBC's Chris Fox, Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted that the plan was a "moonshot" - a very big idea with no guaranteed outcome or profitability - for the company. He stressed there was simultaneously a sense of urgency and a need to take the time to do the job properly. He also said that the tools required don't entirely exist yet. Mr Smith talked about tree planting, and direct air capture - a way of removing carbon from the air and returning it to the soil - as examples of available options. "Ultimately we need better technology," he said. But don't expect Microsoft to roll up its sleeves: "That's not a business we will ever be in but it's a business we want to benefit from," he added, announcing a $1bn Climate Innovation Fund, established with the intention of helping others develop in this space. He expects support from the wider tech sector, he said, "because it's a sector that's doing well, it can afford to make these investments and it should." But historically, isn't it also one of the worst offenders? CES in Las Vegas, the huge consumer tech show, has just ended. It was attended by 180,000 people most of whom probably flew there, to look at mountains of plastic devices clamouring to be the Next Big Thing. From gas-guzzling cars and power-hungry data centres to difficult-to-recycle devices and the constant consumer push to upgrade to new shiny plastic gadgets - the tech sector's green credentials are not exactly a blueprint for environmental friendliness despite much-publicised occasional projects.

1-17-20 Air pollution weakens bones
It could be time to add weaker bones to the list of ailments linked to air pollution, reports New Scientist. Recent studies have connected airborne pollution to problems in the lungs, heart, uterus, and eyes, as well as to mental health issues. In a new study, researchers took air quality readings at 23 locations outside the Indian city of Hyderabad, and examined the bone mass of more than 3,700 people in nearby villages. What they found, says project coordinator Cathryn Tonne, from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, was “a quite consistent pattern of lower bone mineral content with increasing levels of air pollution.” Most previous research on this issue has focused on older people in wealthy countries, which tend to have lower levels of pollution. But the participants in this study were exposed to three times the World Health Organization’s safe limit of PM2.5, a fine particulate form of pollution. Lower bone density reduces bone strength, which increases the risk for fractures. The study didn’t examine why air pollution may have this effect on bone density, but it might be a result of inflammation caused by the airborne particles.

1-17-20 Australia fires: 'Apocalypse' comes to Kangaroo Island
Kangaroo Island in South Australia has been likened to a Noah's Ark for its unique ecology. But after fierce bushfires tore through the island this week, there are fears it may never fully recover. "You see the glowing in the distance," says Sam Mitchell, remembering the fire that threatened his home, family, and animals last week. "The wind is quite fast, the glowing gets brighter - and then you start to see the flames." Sam runs Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park and lives there with his wife and 19-month-old son, Connor. As the flames approached, an evacuation warning was issued. Within 20 minutes, "everyone was gone". But Sam - and four others - stayed behind. "You can't move 800 animals including water buffaloes, ostriches and cassowaries [an ostrich-like bird]," he says. "We decided that if we can't move them we'll see if we can save them. We had the army helping us. Somehow, we were spared. It burnt right around us." The fire, on 9 January, was the second major blaze to ravage Kangaroo Island in less than a week. Two men had died in a blaze on 4 January. Authorities believe they were overrun by flames as they drove along the highway. The fires on Kangaroo Island have been shocking for their speed and extreme behaviour. After his park was spared, Sam soon realised that the eastern town of Kingscote - where he'd sent his son - was under threat. "I thought I was sending him to safety," he says. "It turns out the fire missed us and was heading in their direction." The fire came dangerously close to Kingscote but did not impact the town. While talking to me, Sam keeps a close eye on his son, who's now back in the park. "It's so hard to see him playing innocently when there are fires all around us," he says. Driving through the fire trail in Kangaroo Island, there are rows upon rows of blackened trees, some still burning from inside. The scorched earth smoulders and smoke fills the air.

1-17-20 Climate change: What can I do about it and other questions
"The moment of crisis has come" in efforts to tackle climate change, Sir David Attenborough has warned. He spoke as BBC News launched a year of special coverage on global warming. Here are our answers to a range of readers' questions. Climate change will need to be tackled by governments worldwide, through measures like the 2005 Kyoto Protocol. This brought nations together for the first time in a single agreement on tackling climate change. But everyone has a carbon footprint. This is the amount of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide - which contributes to global warming - released into the atmosphere by people's actions. This can be reduced in a number of ways. According to a recent report by a group of international scientists, transport is responsible for 34% of a household's carbon footprint in high-income countries like the UK. The report calls for a major programme of investment in the rail and bus network, with lower ticket prices and investment in safer cycling. Home heating presents another challenge and opportunity. It is responsible for 21% of a household's carbon footprint. This could be cut by turning down the thermostat, having better-insulated houses and changing to low-carbon heating systems. According to the United Nations, the current world population is about 7.7 billion and could reach 9.7 billion in 2050. This population growth drives higher demand for food, greater energy consumption and more competition for resources. And it increases the production of the gases that cause global warming. And a recent major study, by a global group of 11,000 scientists, concluded that the world needs to stabilise its population. The study has attracted quite a deal of controversy, but its authors say such action is needed if the world is to avoid what they call "a catastrophic threat" from climate change. (Webmaster's comment: Even though China as a nation has more C02 emissions, per person United States is the worst!)

1-16-20 Sir David Attenborough blasts inaction on climate change
The naturalist Sir David Attenborough has warned that "the moment of crisis has come". In an interview with the BBC, the broadcaster said the growing awareness of the emergency should force governments to act.

1-16-20 Microsoft says it will cut emissions to be carbon negative by 2030
Microsoft has big climate ambitions. On 16 January, the company announced an initiative to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it and its suppliers emit annually by 2030. Company officials said that by 2050, Microsoft intends to remove from the atmosphere the equivalent of all the carbon it has emitted since its foundation in 1975. “The world today is confronted with an urgent climate crisis,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at an event on 16 January. “Each of us is going to need to take action, and that includes businesses… As a global technology company, we have a particular responsibility to do our part.” This year, Microsoft expects to emit 16 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, said Brad Smith, the company’s president. Since 2012, Microsoft has technically been carbon neutral, meaning its emissions are balanced out by investments that counteract emissions, like preserving forests. But a post on the official Microsoft blog pointed out that “neutral is not enough to address the world’s needs”. Widespread carbon neutrality may slow climate change, but it will not stop it. Microsoft’s plan includes running all of its data centres and buildings on renewable energy by 2025, increasing internal incentives to lower emissions in each division of the business, and putting incentives in place for suppliers to become greener. The exact path to becoming carbon negative isn’t as clear. “It will start with more nature-based approaches, because that’s what is generally available and affordable today,” said Smith. “But what we’ll look forward to doing, and what the world needs, is new technology.” Planting trees isn’t enough on its own, but the technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere on a large scale hasn’t been developed yet.

1-16-20 Microsoft makes 'carbon negative' pledge
Microsoft has pledged to remove "all of the carbon" from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975. Chief executive Satya Nadella said he wanted to achieve the goal by 2050. To do so, the company aims to become "carbon negative" by 2030, removing more carbon from the environment than it emits. That goes beyond a pledge by its cloud-computing rival Amazon, which intends to go "carbon neutral" by 2040. "When it comes to carbon, neutrality is not enough," said Microsoft president Brad Smith. "The carbon in our atmosphere has created a blanket of gas that traps heat and is changing the world's climate," he added in a blog. "If we don't curb emissions, and temperatures continue to climb, science tells us that the results will be catastrophic." The company also announced it was setting up a $1bn (£765m) climate innovation fund to develop carbon-tackling technologies. When a business says it is carbon neutral, it aims to effectively add no carbon to the atmosphere. It can do this by: 1. balancing its emissions, for example by removing a tonne of carbon from the atmosphere for every tonne it has produced. 2. offsetting its emissions, for example by investing in projects that reduce emissions elsewhere in the world. 3. not releasing greenhouse gases in the first place, for example by switching to renewable energy sources. Until now, most companies have focused on offsetting emissions to achieve neutrality. This often involves funding projects in developing economies to reduce carbon emissions there, for example building hydroelectric power plants, encouraging families to stop using wood-based stoves, and helping businesses make use of solar power. These reductions are then deducted from the main company's own output. The result of this slows carbon emissions rather than reversing them. To be carbon negative a company must actually remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. Microsoft says it will do this using a range of carbon capture and storage technologies.

1-16-20 2019 was the second-warmest year on record
The year marked the end of the world’s hottest decade in 140 years. The year 2019 is officially the second warmest in the 140-year record of modern temperatures compiled by both NASA and the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists said January 15. The five warmest years on record have all occurred since 2014 — making 2019 the end to the hottest decade ever recorded. The more important takeaway from the data is not how each of the last five years is ranked, but “the consistency of the long-term trends that we’re seeing,” climate scientist Gavin Schmidt said during a news conference. “The top five years are the last five years, [and] the last decade is the warmest,” said Schmidt, who is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. Furthermore, since the mid-20th century, “every decade has been warmer than the last, and not by a small amount.” From January to December 2019, the mean global temperature was 0.95 degree Celsius higher than the long-term average from 1901 to 2000, and about 0.98 degrees warmer than the average global temperature from 1951 to 1980. During the hottest recorded year, 2016, global average temperatures were 0.99 degrees above the mid-century mean. But temperatures that year were influenced by a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation weather pattern (SN: 8/21/19), which historically increases the average global temperature, the researchers noted in the news conference, held during the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in Boston. El Niño had an impact on 2019 temperatures too, but it was much smaller than in 2016, Schmidt said. If El Niño wasn’t a factor, 2017 would have been the hottest year on record, with 2019 coming in third. The heat last year broke records in cities around the world (SN: 12/16/19) and helped fuel wildfires from the Arctic to Australia (SN: 8/2/19; SN: 1/9/20). The extent of sea ice in the Arctic was the third-lowest in records going back to 1979 in September 2019, after 2012 and 2007.

1-16-20 Sir David Attenborough warns of climate 'crisis moment'
"The moment of crisis has come" in efforts to tackle climate change, Sir David Attenborough has warned. According to the renowned naturalist and broadcaster, "we have been putting things off for year after year". "As I speak, south east Australia is on fire. Why? Because the temperatures of the Earth are increasing," he said. Sir David's comments came in a BBC News interview to launch a year of special coverage on the subject of climate change. Scientists say climate change is one of several factors behind the Australian fires; others include how forests are managed and natural patterns in the weather. Sir David told me it was "palpable nonsense" for some politicians and commentators to suggest that the Australian fires were nothing to do with the world becoming warmer. "We know perfectly well," he said, that human activity is behind the heating of the planet. He's highlighting the fact that while climate scientists are becoming clearer about the need for a rapid response, the pace of international negotiations is grindingly slow. The most recent talks - in Madrid last month - were branded a disappointment by the UN Secretary-General, the British government and others. Decisions on key issues were put off and several countries including Australia and Brazil were accused of trying to dodge their commitments. "We have to realise that this is not playing games," Sir David said. "This is not just having a nice little debate, arguments and then coming away with a compromise. "This is an urgent problem that has to be solved and, what's more, we know how to do it - that's the paradoxical thing, that we're refusing to take steps that we know have to be taken." Back in 2018, the UN climate science panel spelled out how the world could have a reasonable chance of avoiding the most dangerous temperature rises in future.

1-16-20 Our Planet Matters: Climate change explained
The 10 years to the end of 2019 have been confirmed as the warmest decade on record by three global agencies. This year, climate change has been linked to Australian bushfires, torrential rains in Indonesia and record-breaking temperatures in Europe - but just what is climate change?

1-16-20 The ‘Blob,’ a massive marine heat wave, led to an unprecedented seabird die-off
From 2015–2016, 62,000 dead common murres washed onto U.S. and Canadian Pacific coast beaches. Common murres are arguably the most successful seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere. The penguinlike seafarers can crisscross vast expanses of ocean faster than any other northern seabird, and can dive the length of two American football fields to snatch small fish. But from 2015 to 2016, this superstar bird experienced an unprecedented die-off. Over that period, about 62,000 emaciated, dead or dying murres (Uria aalge) washed onto beaches from Southern California to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, a new study finds. What’s more, colonies throughout this range failed to reproduce during and shortly after the same time. All together, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the region’s total population was wiped out, researchers report January 15 in PLOS ONE. The cause? A gargantuan, extended marine heat wave nicknamed the Blob whose impact reverberated throughout the food web, the scientists say. Warmer ocean temperatures shifted the range and makeup of plankton communities and amped up the metabolic demands of all fish, shrinking one of the ecosystem’s key food supplies and starving out murres. “This study leaves no stone unturned to see what might be affecting these birds,” says Andrew Leising, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., who wasn’t involved in the study. The team synthesized a diverse range of data to reveal “the stressors that resulted from the heat wave that combined to really put the smackdown on the forage fish these birds rely on,” he says. When John Piatt, a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska, first heard reports of large numbers of starving or dead murres washing ashore in Northern California and Washington in the summer of 2015, he wasn’t sure if the events were connected. Occasional die-offs of murres aren’t unusual. But within months, citizen scientists all along the U.S. and Canadian coast began encountering dead murres 10 to 1,000 times as often as normal. Piatt recalls thinking “this is too coincidental not to be related.”

1-15-20 Marine heatwave known as 'the blob' killed a million US seabirds
A million seabirds that died along the US west coast were probably the victims of an unprecedented marine heatwave in the Pacific. Such events are expected to become more frequent due to climate change. About 62,000 common murres (Uria aalge) washed ashore from summer 2015 to spring 2016 between Alaska and California, most having apparently starved. Researchers extrapolate that this means around a million died in total. “The amazing question is, how could a million die over 6000 kilometres, pretty much all at the same time, and what could cause it,” says John Piatt at the US Geological Survey. Members of the species have died en masse in the past, but in far smaller numbers and only at a local level. The magnitude of deaths from 2015 to 2016 is also unusual because the murres are so well adapted to its environment: they are fast and capable of diving deep for their main diet of fish. The killer appears to have been ‘the blob’, a vast, record-breaking patch of warm water that occurred off the west coast of North America between late 2013 and 2016. Looking at surveys of the beached murres, sea surface temperatures and fisheries data, Piatt and his colleagues say the most plausible explanation is that the birds were outcompeted, as the warmer waters caused cold-blooded species such as cod to eat far more fish in an effort to regulate their temperature. Murres need to eat half their body mass each day, while cod only need to eat 1 per cent of their body mass, and the birds die after 3 to 5 days without food. “It’s very convincing, and I would actually say it’s fairly conclusive. There’s very little else that could have caused the extensive effects they document,” says Andrew Leising at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

1-15-20 Climate change: Last decade confirmed as warmest on record
The 10 years to the end of 2019 have been confirmed as the warmest decade on record by three global agencies. According to Nasa, Noaa and the UK Met Office, last year was the second warmest in a record dating back to 1850. The past five years were the hottest in the 170-year series, with the average of each one more than 1C warmer than pre-industrial. The Met Office says that 2020 is likely to continue this warming trend. 2016 remains the warmest year on record, when temperatures were boosted by the El Niño weather phenomenon. Today's data doesn't come as a huge surprise, with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) signalling at the start of last December that 2019 likely marked the end of the warmest decade on record. The Met Office, which is involved in producing the HadCRUT4 temperature data, says that 2019 was 1.05C above the average for the period from 1850-1900. Last year saw two major heat waves hit Europe in June and July, with a new national record of 46C set in France on 28 June. New records were also set in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and in the UK at 38.7C. In Australia, the mean summer temperature was the highest on record by almost a degree. While the three different research agencies all have slightly different figures for the past 12 months, the WMO has carried out an analysis that uses additional data from the Copernicus climate change service and the Japan Meteorological Agency. They conclude that in 2019, the world was 1.1C warmer than in the pre-industrial period. "Our collective global temperature figures agree that 2019 joins the other years from 2015 as the five warmest years on record," said Dr Colin Morice, from the Met Office Hadley Centre. "Each decade from the 1980s has been successively warmer than all the decades that came before. 2019 concludes the warmest 'cardinal' decade (those spanning years ending 0-9) in records that stretch back to the mid-19th century."

Temperature rise since 1850. Note it is rising exponentially!

1-15-20 The wildfires and melting ice that science warned us about are here
News reports of long-predicted disasters are starting to sound familiar. Scientists, too, must carry on repeating calls for rapid cuts to carbon emissions. IN OUR issue of 31 August last year, we ran news stories on record-breaking wildfires raging across the globe from the Amazon to the Arctic. Meanwhile, our features section highlighted the uncertain long-term future of Arctic sea ice. This week, Australia is burning, and new research highlights the Amazon’s higher future wildfire risk (see “Area of Amazon affected by wildfires predicted to grow by 2050” ). Meanwhile, one of our features focuses on scientists studying the Thwaites glacier, a crucial and highly vulnerable part of the West Antarctic ice sheet (see “Antarctica’s doomsday glacier is melting. Can we save it in time?” ). Now, as then, there are concerns that humanity could be closer than previously assumed to precipitating dangerous climate tipping points. Our apologies if any of this is beginning to sound familiar. The truth is, all of these stories are chronicles of disasters foretold. As we reported last week, we have known about increased wildfire risk, as a consequence of climate change, for a decade or more. And climate models disagree only on the speed of future ice-sheet melting, not that it will happen. As two of this week’s contributions to our culture section suggest, we are vulnerable components of a complex, interdependent natural world that will far outlast us (see “Here’s how we can learn from other animals to create a better Earth” and “Aquarela documentary reveals water’s raw power in terrifying detail” ). But although we aren’t masters of it, we can be masters of our own destiny within it. More investigations such as those of the Thwaites glacier are vital for assessing and preparing for our future. So too is clear-headed assessment of schemes to reduce our impact on the natural world – for example the recent claims that food produced from renewable energy and air can replace the products of conventional farms (see “Can we really save the planet by making food ‘from air’ without farms?” ).

1-15-20 Antarctica's doomsday glacier is melting. Can we save it in time?
A massive research effort is under way to understand Antarctica's Thwaites glacier before it is too late. If it collapses, it could trigger catastrophic sea level rise, putting London and New York at risk. “YOU are very aware that if something goes wrong, it goes very wrong very quickly,” says Joanne Johnson, speaking from her tent near Thwaites glacier in one of the remotest parts of Antarctica. At the time, she and three colleagues were alone, more than 1600 kilometres from the nearest research station. Strong winds had pounded them and it had snowed heavily, making the terrain even more perilous. On the bright side, it was mercifully mild, at -5°C. Until now, fewer than 50 people have been to this part of West Antarctica, less than have been to space. By the end of this month, 100 will have visited. The reason why is simple: Thwaites is a potential climate time bomb that we need to learn much more about. This vast glacier is about the size of Great Britain. While it has been shrinking since the early 1990s, ice loss has almost doubled over the past 20 years. It is shedding a dizzying 35 billion tonnes a year. On its own, its collapse would raise seas by around 65 centimetres. That is worrying enough in the context of the 19-cm rise in the whole of the 20th century. But the bigger worry is that this glacier buttresses the entire West Antarctic ice sheet. If Thwaites goes, the fear is it will trigger a wider collapse of ice – enough to raise seas by a calamitous 3.3 metres within a few hundred years. This is why it deserves its reputation as the world’s most dangerous glacier, says Sridhar Anandakrishnan at Pennsylvania State University. “What happens at Thwaites affects the whole ice sheet.”

1-15-20 Australia's fire-driven storms are pumping smoke into the stratosphere
Thunderstorms generated by the Australian bushfires are very likely to have pumped as much smoke into the stratosphere as a volcanic eruption. Blazes across the country in the past few weeks have been so intense they have generated their own weather. They create rising air mixed with ash and smoke that results in thunderstorm clouds above the fires called pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCbs). Some of these are strong enough and rise high enough to have channelled smoke into the stratosphere, a plume of which has crossed the Atlantic Ocean in an eastward direction. NASA says this plume has now made a full circuit around the Earth. There were at least 20 pyroCbs between 28 and 31 December, and more on 4 January, some of which injected smoke into the stratosphere. The scale of the smoke in the stratosphere has now been calculated by David Peterson at the US Naval Research Laboratory, who is presenting his preliminary findings to the American Meteorological Society at a meeting in Boston later today. “It’s very likely on a volcanic scale,” he says. “The big thing here is really the impact that this is having on the stratosphere.” Although not of the scale of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the largest in modern history, the effect is similar to a more moderate eruption, Peterson says. In 2017, Peterson found that Canadian wildfires put as much smoke as a volcano into the stratosphere. He is now working to apply the same technique to the Australian fires and thunderstorms. “At this point I can tell you that this event is one of the largest, it’s very near the top. I can’t say for sure if it’s the biggest,” he says, in terms of the amount of smoke injected into the stratosphere. While it is well known that a volcanic eruption can put enough aerosols into the atmosphere to have a cooling effect, the different chemistry of pyroCbs means the impacts of the fires on global temperatures aren’t yet entirely clear.

1-15-20 Exclusive: UK considering ambitious new climate plan soon after Brexit
The UK government is looking to announce a new, more ambitious blueprint to reduce its carbon emissions soon after the country leaves the European Union on 31 January, New Scientist understands. The move would be seen as a sign the UK wants to show leadership on climate change post-Brexit and to encourage other governments to follow suit ahead of it hosting a major UN climate summit in Glasgow this November. Current carbon cutting plans submitted by world leaders under the Paris climate agreement put us on course for at least a 3°C rise in global temperatures, which scientists say would have devastating impacts. Campaigners, vulnerable countries and the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres have all called on leaders to submit new, stronger plans before Glasgow, as part of the Paris accord’s “ratchet mechanism”. The idea is to help close the gap between 3°C and the Paris deal’s goal of remaining well below 2°C of warming. As it stands, the UK’s international commitment is to cut its carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 based on 1990 levels, as set out in a joint plan submitted by the EU nearly five years ago. But Brexit means the UK will no longer be part of the EU’s climate plan, or “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) in the jargon of international climate talks, and it will need to submit a fresh one to the United Nations. Officials are considering doing so as soon as February, UK government sources say. The plan would be one of the first of a new wave of “enhanced NDCs” that help to close the gap between the current disastrous trajectory of warming and the more limited warming if the Paris targets are met. Only two tiny emitters, the small Pacific island state of the Marshall Islands and Suriname in South America, have submitted enhanced NDCs so far.

1-15-20 COP26: Climate summit may cost 'several hundred million pounds'
The cost of a UN climate change conference in Glasgow could be "several hundred million pounds", police say. Up to 90,000 people - delegates, observers, heads of state and media - are expected to attend COP26, over 12 days in November. A Scottish Police Authority report says it will be the largest mobilisation of police officers in the UK. Scottish ministers say they expect the UK government to cover the "core costs" including emergency services funding. But a spokesperson added there was a "lack of clarity" from Westminster over the issue. Costs associated with a Nato summit in Wales in 2014 have been used to draw up the estimated cost of this year's conference. The report says: "Taking into consideration the planning assumptions and based on previous major summits/conferences (e.g. Nato Summit Wales 2014), the initial costings demonstrate that the event will cost potentially several hundred million pounds. "Detailed financial planning is being developed and dialogue remains ongoing with the Cabinet Office relative to the cost recovery model that will be utilised." Police said the safety and wellbeing of conference attendees, the wider public and any protesters would be their "paramount" concern. The COP26 will be the largest summit the UK has held, with up to 200 world leaders expected for the final weekend of talks. It will be held at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) but other venues across the city will also host functions and meetings for heads of state and other dignitaries. The SPA report also reveals the SEC will be handed over to the UN for the duration of the conference. Known as the "blue zone", it will become international territory, subject to international law."Discussions are ongoing with senior law officers and the UN to determine how Police Scotland will record and investigate any crimes which occur in the blue zone," the report says. It adds that COP26 attendees will peak at 15,000 on the busiest day, but the overall figure could rise to 90,000 over the period of the conference, which runs from 9-20 November.

1-15-20 Reconnecting with nature 'triggers' eco-actions
People who have access to nature or urban green spaces are much more likely to behave in environmentally friendly ways, a study suggests. Researchers used a representative sample of 24,000 people in England for their study of green behaviour. The findings also showed that people who were not exposed to green spaces were less likely to adopt green behaviours, such as recycling. The findings will appear in the journal Environment International. The team of scientists from South-West England found that the link between access to green spaces and a greater level of green behaviour was true across the social board, whether it was older people, younger people, rich or poor, male or female. "The message that we want to get out is that reconnecting with nature may promote sustainable behaviour," explained co-author Ian Alcock from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter. Dr Alcock explained that previous studies had highlighted a link that if people had more connections to nature, they were more likely to make more green choices. "But the evidence came from small-scale experiments and from small-scale surveys," he told BBC News. "What we wanted to do was to test that idea on a large scale, so we took a large nationally representative sample of the population of England. People who took part in the study were asked a range of questions, such as whether they recycled, bought eco-friendly brands, bought local or seasonal produce etc. "People who made more nature visits were more likely to engage in recycling and more likely to engage in green travel and were more likely to engage in environmental volunteering. "The take-home message for policymakers is that we should encourage these active exposures to nature in order to encourage greater environmentalism. "What this suggests to us, from a policy viewpoint, is that there should be efforts to increase contact through improving both social participation also through the physical infrastructure, through promises to improve access to natural spaces in urban settings.

1-14-20 Analysis confirms that climate change is making wildfires worse
Climate change has already increased the risk of wildfire globally, according to a new review of research that suggests the weather conditions that led to the Australian wildfires will become more common in future. In light of the ongoing wildfire crisis in Australia, Richard Betts at the UK Met Office in Exeter and his colleagues reviewed 57 peer-reviewed studies about the link between climate change and wildfire risk. All the studies found that climate change increases the frequency or severity of fire-favourable weather conditions. The review found that fire weather seasons have lengthened globally between 1979 and 2013. Fire weather generally involves hot temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall in the preceding days and weeks, and windy conditions. Climate models also suggest that more extreme conditions and longer fire seasons come as a result of climate change, rather than fluctuations due to natural variation, the review reported. The recent extreme weather in Australia – 2019 was both its hottest and driest year on record – will become the “new normal” if the world continues a trajectory of warming close to 3°C, said Betts at a press briefing on Monday. Under Met Office modelling of 2°C of global warming, south-eastern Australia is predicted to experience an extra 20 to 30 days per year of fire conditions rated as “severe” or worse on the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index, said Betts. In severe fire conditions, fires that start may become uncontrollable. In the worst conditions, which have been seen in Australia this wildfire season and are rated “catastrophic”, fires cannot be controlled and pose a threat to life and property. Extraordinary situations like the current conditions in Australia will continue to occur when natural large-scale fluctuations, such as a strong Indian Ocean Dipole, combine with a warming climate, said Corinne Le Quéré at the University of East Anglia, UK, who called into the briefing. “The fact that there is a natural explanation by no means lessens the strong and negative impact that climate change is having,” she said.

1-14-20 Climate change: Australia fires will be 'normal' in warmer world
UK scientists say the recent fires in Australia are a taste of what the world will experience as temperatures rise. Prof Richard Betts from the Met Office Hadley Centre said we are "seeing a sign of what would be normal conditions under a future warming world of 3C". While natural weather patterns have driven recent fires, researchers said it's "common sense" that human-induced heating is playing a role. Last year was Australia's warmest and driest year on record. UK researchers have carried out a rapid analysis of the impact of climate change on the risk of wildfires happening all over the world. Their study looked at 57 research papers published since the last major review of climate science came out in 2013. All the studies in the review showed links between climate change and the increased frequency or severity of fire weather. This is defined as those periods of time which have a higher risk of fire due to a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall and high winds. The signal of human-induced warming has become clearer in different parts of the world with the passage of time. A paper published last year suggests the impact of climate change could be detected outside the range of natural variability in 22% of land that's available for burning. "Overall, the 57 papers reviewed clearly show human-induced warming has already led to a global increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather, increasing the risks of wildfire," said Dr Matthew Jones, from the University of East Anglia, and the lead author of the review. "This has been seen in many regions, including the western US and Canada, southern Europe, Scandinavia and Amazonia. Human-induced warming is also increasing fire risks in other regions, including Siberia and Australia."

1-14-20 China sinkhole: Six killed as ground swallows bus
At least six people have been killed and 16 injured after an enormous sinkhole swallowed a bus and a number of pedestrians in central China. The incident occurred on Monday evening outside a hospital in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. CCTV footage showed an explosion inside the sinkhole shortly after the bus and bystanders fell inside on Monday evening. Several deadly sinkholes have been reported in China in recent years. The footage from the latest incident shows the moment people waiting at a bus stop are forced to flee as the ground underneath the bus starts to cave in. A number of people gather to try to rescue the bus passengers, but are engulfed by the sinkhole as it suddenly widens. Sinkholes in China are often blamed on construction works and the rapid pace of development in the country. In 2018, four people were killed after a sinkhole opened up on a busy pavement in the city of Dazhou, south-west China. In 2013, a similar incident killed five people at an industrial estate in the southern city of Shenzhen.

1-13-20 Climate change-related injuries will kill thousands in the US
The US is likely to see more than 2000 extra deaths a year from car accidents, suicide, drowning and other fatal injuries because of climate change, even if the world manages to hold temperature rises to the Paris climate deal’s target of 2°C. Research on deaths due to climate change usually focuses on older people who might be at a higher risk of heart and lung problems. Many older people were among the estimated 35,000 people who died in the 2003 Europe heatwave. But a team led by Robbie Parks at Imperial College London has found one way in which rising temperatures will increase death rates among younger people. The researchers examined government figures on the 6 million people who died after an injury between 1980 and 2017 in the US, excluding Hawaii and Alaska. Combining the data with monthly temperature spikes above the long-term average over the period, they found that in a future year that is anomalously hot by 1.5°C – the Paris accord’s toughest target – there will be 1601 extra deaths from injuries each year. If temperatures rise by the worst-case Paris goal of 2°C, the number climbs to 2135. “Climate change as a health issue goes beyond the physical and goes to the behavioural and the mental,” says Parks, who says the projected increase in deaths isn’t insignificant. Notably, the extra deaths would fall overwhelmingly – 84 per cent – on men, with most of them aged between 15 and 64. The biggest number of extra deaths would be related to transport, such as car crashes, followed by suicide. There will also be a smaller rise in deaths from drowning. The study doesn’t show why younger men will be affected more, but it may be down to more reckless behaviour causing unintentional deaths such as drowning, says Parks.

1-13-20 Australia fires: What's being done to fight the flames?
Large parts of Australia have been devastated by the worst wildfires the country has seen in decades, with huge blazes tearing through bush, woodland and national parks. Record-breaking temperatures and months of drought have helped the fires burn an estimated 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km) of land since 1 July. What are the Australian authorities doing to stop the fires and could anything have been done to prevent them? Bushfire conditions eased over the weekend, giving fire crews a period of temporary respite. But authorities say the huge fires will persist until there is substantial rainfall. More hot weather is expected next week and the risk was far from over, they said. Thousands of firefighters are still battling blazes across large swathes of Australia - ranging in size from small fires to infernos burning across hectares of land. Entire towns have been engulfed and residents across several states have lost their homes. At least 28 people have died. State and federal authorities have been working together to try to stem the spread. While they have managed to contain some within a matter of days, the biggest blazes have been burning for months. At least 3,700 firefighters are on the ground at any one time across the country during the worst periods, according to the country's state fire services. Most are in the worst-hit states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria. When fires have been at their worst, about 2,700 firefighters have been battling the blazes at any one time in NSW alone. Ben Shepherd, of the NSW Rural Fire Service, said his colleagues had dealt with 4.2m hectares of burning land this season, compared with the typical 300,000 hectares. "It's been an incredibly long campaign," he said. Fire crews across the country have been joined by 3,000 army, navy and air force reservists who are assisting with search and rescue and clean-up Further support coming from the US, Canada, and New Zealand, who have sent additional teams and equipment to help.

1-13-20 Captured carbon dioxide could be used to help recycle batteries
Captured carbon dioxide could be used to extract useful metals from recycled technology such as smartphone batteries rather than just being buried underground. The technique could help make it more economical to capture the greenhouse gas before it enters the atmosphere. “By simultaneously extracting metals by injecting CO2, you add value to a process that is known to be cost-intensive,” says Julien Leclaire at the University of Lyon, France. Carbon dioxide is the main cause of modern climate change, so many people have attempted to develop technologies to capture it when it is emitted from power plants and other major sources. The gas can then be stored underground. The problem is that such carbon capture and storage (CCS) is expensive. “No one wants to pay the price for it,” says Leclaire. To make CCS more appealing, Leclaire’s team has found a use for the gas. His team collected CO2 from a car exhaust, cooled it, then pumped it into a mix of chemicals called polyamines. The CO2 combined with the polyamines to make many molecules of differing shapes and sizes. The team found that this process could sort out mixtures of metals, because one metal would dissolve in the liquid while another would form a solid. In a series of experiments, they successfully separated lanthanum, cobalt and nickel – all of which are used in batteries, smartphones, computers and magnets. If the process can be scaled up, it could be a more environmentally friendly way to recycle batteries and other electrical equipment, says Leclaire. This is normally done using highly reactive chemicals such as acids, which are potentially polluting. Replacing them with CO2 should lead to a much lower environmental footprint, he says.

1-13-20 Australian fires have incinerated the habitats of up to 100 threatened species
Scientists warn of an ecological catastrophe as crucial habitats of rare plants and animals burn. Until last week, the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo was one of Australia’s conservation success stories. Thanks to a recovery program that began in 1995, its wild population increased from 150 to 400, and its status was downgraded from critically endangered to endangered. Now it’s part of an unfolding horror story. Fires have raged across nearly 50 percent of Kangaroo Island, a 4,400-square-kilometer isle off the coast of the state of South Australia, destroying the habitat of the great majority of the birds. It’s unclear how many glossy black cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus lathami halmaturinus) survived. For those that escaped the flames, food may be scarce; it eats the seeds of single tree species in its habitat, the drooping she oak. Many years of hard work have gone up in smoke and “it’s a big step backwards for the recovery team,” says Daniella Teixeira, a conservation biologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who has studied and worked to protect the birds for the last four years. Even if just a quarter of the population has been killed, the subspecies could end up back on the critically endangered list, she says. Similar stories are playing out across Australia, where, as of January 12, months of wildfires had burned nearly 11 million hectares — an area larger than the nation of Guatemala. More than 2,200 homes have gone up in flames and 29 people have been killed, and there are still two months of bushfire season left to go. Already, the toll on animals and plants, many of which are evolutionarily unique and endemic to the continent, is mind-boggling.


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

1-19-20 New coronavirus 'preventable and controllable', China says
The new Chinese virus which has already spread abroad "is still preventable and controllable", China says. Its National Health Commission warned, however, that close monitoring was needed given the source, transmission and mutation methods were unknown. Two people are known to have died from the respiratory illness which appeared in Wuhan city in December. In its first statement since the outbreak, the body promised to step up monitoring during the Lunar new year. Millions of Chinese travel to their families for the holiday - also known as the Spring Festival - beginning next week. There have been more than 60 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but UK experts estimate a figure nearer 1,700. Singapore and Hong Kong have been screening air passengers from Wuhan, and US authorities have announced similar measures at three major airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. While the outbreak is centred on the central Chinese city of Wuhan, there have been two cases in Thailand and one in Japan. Chinese officials say there have been no cases of the virus spreading from one person to another. Instead, they say, the virus has crossed the species barrier and come from infected animals at a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan. The WHO's China office said the analysis was helpful and would help officials plan the response to the outbreak. "Much remains to be understood about the new coronavirus," it said. "Not enough is known to draw definitive conclusions about how it is transmitted, the clinical features of the disease, the extent to which it has spread, or its source, which remains unknown." At the mild end they cause the common cold, but severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) is a coronavirus that killed 774 of the 8,098 people infected in an outbreak that started in China in 2002.

1-19-20 The push to boost the global nursing workforce
To take on the health challenges of the coming decade, countries must invest more in nursing. Around the world, nursing is often a thankless, yet vital profession. But in the world of health and medicine, 2020 is the year of the nurse and midwife. The World Health Organization designation signifies a concerted push to boost the global nursing workforce in the face of growing health care shortages and ambitious efforts to reach a United Nations goal of universal health coverage around the world by 2030. "It's a year to make people aware of the actual work that nurses do, to increase the profile and to get them into leadership positions," said Annette Kennedy, president of the International Council of Nurses and a former director of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organization. Nurses and midwives currently make up slightly more than half of the entire health care workforce worldwide, but WHO estimates that shortages could hit nearly 9 million by 2030. Aging populations and a surge in chronic diseases like diabetes are also creating new stressors on health care. Meanwhile, nurses continue to play a critical role in maternal and child health and disease prevention. "Yes we can celebrate, yes we can recognize, but what actions will be taken?" said James Campbell, director of the WHO's health workforce department. Campbell said to take on the health challenges of the coming decade, countries must invest more in nursing, whether that be increasing training opportunities and graduate slots or expanding the ways that nurses can actually practice. The field of nursing has "changed dramatically," since its inception nearly two centuries ago when Florence Nightingale set up the world's first nursing school in London in 1860, said Kennedy. Nightingale pushed for better sanitation in hospitals amid the Crimean war, demonstrating that more soldiers died of post-battle infections than on the battlefield itself. She also oversaw day-to-day operations.

1-18-20 New Chinese virus 'will have infected hundreds'
The number of people already infected by the mystery virus emerging in China is far greater than official figures suggest, scientists have told the BBC. There have been nearly 50 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but UK experts estimate a figure nearer 1,700. Two people are known to have died from the respiratory illness, which appeared in Wuhan city in December. "I am substantially more concerned than I was a week ago," disease outbreak scientist Prof Neil Ferguson, said. The work was conducted by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, which advises bodies including the UK government and the World Health Organization (WHO). Singapore and Hong Kong have been screening air passengers from Wuhan, and US authorities announced similar measures starting on Friday at three major airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. The crucial clue to the scale of the problem lies in the cases being detected in other countries. While the outbreak is centred on the central Chinese city of Wuhan, there have been two cases in Thailand and one in Japan. "That caused me to worry," said Prof Ferguson. He added: "For Wuhan to have exported three cases to other countries would imply there would have to be many more cases than have been reported." It is impossible to get the precise number, but outbreak modelling, which is based on the virus, the local population and flight data, can give an idea. Wuhan International Airport serves a population of 19 million people, but only 3,400 a day travel internationally. The detailed calculations, which have been posted online ahead of publication in a scientific journal, came up with a figure of 1,700 cases. Prof Ferguson said it was "too early to be alarmist" but he was "substantially more concerned" than a week ago. Chinese officials say there have been no cases of the virus spreading from one person to another. Instead they say the virus has crossed the species barrier and come from infected animals at a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan.

1-18-20 Exploding cancer cells can cause serious side effects in CAR-T cell therapies
Blocking a protein makes cells shrink instead, causing fewer problems. Techniques to genetically modify patient immune cells have revolutionized the fight against hard-to-treat cancers. But they can come with dangerous side effects. Now, researchers have found one reason why. A particularly messy form of cell death sparks severe inflammation in patients receiving CAR-T cell immunotherapy for blood cancers, researchers report January 17 in Science Immunology. This treatment, approved for certain patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (SN: 12/13/17), unleashes immune cells in a patient’s bloodstream, tweaked to produce artificial proteins called chimeric antigen receptors, or CAR. The proteins prime T cells to recognize cancer cells so that the immune cells can hunt down and kill the rogue cells. Normally as cells die, they shrink and break apart — a highly controlled process whose debris is easily vacuumed up by the body’s natural defenses. During CAR-T cell treatment, however, targeted cancer cells can swell and rupture in a manner typically associated with infection, Bo Huang, an immunologist at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, and colleagues found. This explosive cell death, or pyroptosis, causes dead cells to expel their contents. That, in turn, prompts the immune system to produce cytokine chemicals that trigger inflammation. Cytokine release syndrome, one of the most common side effects for CAR-T cell therapy patients (SN: 6/27/18), can cause high fever, rapid heartbeat and multi-organ failure. Although most people survive, some require intensive care. Until now, scientists didn’t know what triggered the syndrome. Pinpointing the root cause could help researchers find ways to stop the onslaught of inflammation, Huang says.

1-18-20 Hairy cells in the nose called brush cells may be involved in causing allergies
In mice, these cells trigger inflammation when exposed to mold and dust. Some hairy cells in the nose may trigger sneezing and allergies to dust mites, mold and other substances, new work with mice suggests. When exposed to allergens, these “brush cells” make chemicals that lead to inflammation, researchers report January 17 in Science Immunology. Only immune cells previously were thought to make such inflammatory chemicals — fatty compounds known as lipids. The findings may provide new clues about how people develop allergies. Brush cells are shaped like teardrops topped by tufts of hairlike projections. In people, mice and other animals, these cells are also found in the linings of the trachea and the intestines, where they are known as tuft cells (SN: 4/13/18). However, brush cells are far more common in the nose than in other tissues, and may help the body identify when pathogens or noxious chemicals have been inhaled, says Lora Bankova, an allergist and immunologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Bankova and her colleagues discovered that, when exposed to certain molds or dust mite proteins, brush cells in mice’s noses churn out inflammation-producing lipids, called cysteinyl leukotrienes. The cells also made the lipids when encountering ATP, a chemical used by cells for energy that also signals when nearby cells are damaged, as in an infection. Mice exposed to allergens or ATP developed swelling of their nasal tissues. But mice that lacked brush cells suffered much less inflammation. Such inflammation may lead to allergies in some cases. The researchers haven’t yet confirmed that brush cells in human noses respond to allergens in the same way as these cells do in mice.

1-17-20 A special kind of nose cell may trigger allergic reactions
Mice have tens of thousands of chemical sensing nose cells that can cause an allergic reaction. Researchers say this discovery could help us understand how the immune system reacts to inhaled allergens and why some people with allergies lose their sense of smell. We know that in humans and mice, breathing in allergens such as house dust mite droppings or mould can cause inflammation in the nose. This triggers a further allergic response driven by immune cells, but we don’t fully understand the process. To try to learn more, a team at Harvard University isolated cells from the noses of mice and sorted them into different types according to their shape, size and the specific proteins they displayed on their surface. By doing this, they identified chemical sensing cells that react to allergens in the air soon after they are inhaled. These cells start releasing molecules that cause inflammation in the nose even before immune cells are delivered to the nose in the bloodstream. The chemical sensing cells in the nose release “boatloads” of inflammatory molecules, says Lora Bankova, who led the work. These are the same molecules that drive allergic conditions like asthma, and are usually only produced by immune cells. Cells similar to those in the nose have been found in the lower airway and the gut in mice and humans, but they were thought to be extremely rare. Bankova says she was surprised to discover there are 20,000 to 30,000 of these nose cells in mice. There are equivalent chemical sensing cells in the human nose, says Bankova, but we don’t know if they have a similar function. The cells are also surprising because they are mostly found in the part of the nose involved in smell, says Bankova, which hadn’t previously been thought to play a role in allergic responses. This might explain why some people with chronic allergies lose their sense of smell, says Bankova. “It might be because there is so much inflammation in that area that we hadn’t previously recognised,” she says. As well as detecting allergens, these cells may also be able to sense invading microbes such as the common cold virus, says Bankova.

1-17-20 Is whole milk healthier?
Children who drink whole milk rather than low-fat milk are less likely to be overweight or obese, reports The New York Times. Canadian researchers examined 14 studies involving 20,897 children that compared kids who drank whole milk, with 3.25 percent fat, to those given milk containing less than 2 percent fat. They concluded that the children who drank whole milk had a 39 percent lower risk of being overweight or obese that their peers who drank lower-fat milk. Moreover, the kids’ risk of obesity gradually declined as their whole milk consumption increased. The authors suggest several possible explanations. Milk with more fat might make kids feel fuller and cause them to consume fewer calories from other foods. It’s also possible that parents with skinny children give them whole milk in order to beef them up. “All of the studies we examined were observational studies, meaning that we cannot be sure if whole milk caused the lower risk” of being overweight or obese, said lead author Jonathon Maguire, from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. He says further clinical trials are needed.

1-17-20 Running to reverse aging
Training for and running a marathon for the first time could reverse some of the effects of aging, according to a new British study. Researchers examined 138 novice runners, ages 21 to 69, six months before their first marathon and within three weeks of completing the race. They found that over that period the runners experienced marked reductions in artery stiffness and high blood pressure, both of which are contributors to heart attacks and strokes. Those changes, researchers said, are equivalent to a four-year reduction in vascular age. The greatest benefits were seen among older, slower male runners. The participants weren’t exercise junkies—they were running for a maximum of two hours a week before beginning their marathon training, which for the most part involved only three runs a week. On average, they completed the 26.2-mile race about 30 minutes slower than the typical runner. Lead researcher Charlotte Manisty, from University College London, tells CNN.com that the findings show “it is possible to reverse the consequences of aging on our blood vessels with real-world exercise in just six months.”

1-17-20 Drop in deaths from cancer
The number of people dying from cancer in the U.S. fell 2.2 percent in 2017—the largest single-year drop ever reported. Since 1991, the overall cancer death rate has dropped by 29 percent, which translates to 2.9 million fewer deaths. Researchers credit the progress to fewer people smoking, new immunotherapy treatments, and “targeted” therapies that halt the action of molecules involved in cancer growth.

1-17-20 Being happy
86% of Americans report they are either “very happy” or “fairly happy,” but that’s down from 91% in 2008, and the lowest percentage polled over the past seven decades. 77% of nonwhites and 79% of those with a high school education or less report being happy.

1-17-20 The middle-aged
The middle-aged, with new data indicating that 47.2 is the precise age at which the average person hits the low point of the lifelong “happiness curve.” Tom, 47.19, told Slate.com that “suddenly, the ticking of the clock grows that much louder. Also, hemorrhoids.”

1-17-20 Ancient ‘Amazons’ unearthed in Russia
The Amazons were portrayed in ancient Greek myth as man-hating horseback warriors who chopped off their breasts to improve their archery, and were long dismissed by modern scholars as fantasies dreamed up by an overexcited male imagination. But the discovery in western Russia of a tomb containing four women and a stash of weapons suggests the legend of the Amazons was rooted in reality. The women—who range in age from early teens to late 40s—were buried some 2,500 years ago alongside arrowheads, spears, and horse-riding gear. They were members of a nomadic people called the Scythians, who roamed the Eurasian steppe from around 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. and likely had contact with ancient Greeks in the Black Sea region. While other tombs containing Scythian women and weapons have been unearthed in recent years, this is the first time that multiple generations of women have been found together. One 30-something woman was buried with her legs in a horse-riding position and with two spears at her side. The eldest woman had an iron knife and a rare forked arrowhead, and was wearing an elaborate golden headdress, an indication of status. The findings suggest that Scythian girls were trained early, just like boys, to ride horses and shoot bows and arrows—essential survival skills “on the harsh steppes,” Adrienne Mayor, a classicist and author of The Amazons, tells The Washington Post. “It confirms that these women really were warriors throughout their lives.”

1-17-20 Chinese Chang’e 4 engineer explains how to garden on the moon
China’s Chang’e 4 lunar lander captivated global attention when a cotton seed on board became the first plant ever to germinate on another world – and now the engineer behind this moon garden has revealed just how it was done. Cotton, arabidopsis, potato and rape seeds, as well as yeast and fruit fly eggs, were all inside a 2.6-kilogram mini biosphere when Chang’e 4 landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019. Months of uncertainty and planning led to the successful mission, says Xie Gengxin at Chongqing University, the experiment’s chief designer. The idea to send a biosphere to the moon was selected from 257 suggestions submitted by Chinese students in 2016. Rice and arabidopsis have been grown on China’s Tiangong-2 space lab and plants have been cultivated on the International Space Station, but those experiments were conducted in low Earth orbit, at an altitude of about 400 kilometres. The cosmic radiation on the moon – 380,000 kilometres from Earth – makes it a more challenging environment. Given limited space on the lander, the experiment had to be small and light, says Xie. The cylindrical capsule his team designed was 19.8 centimetres high with a diameter of 17.3 cm. It had a rectangular seedbed inside, measuring 800 cubic centimetres. A pipe built into the top allowed sunlight to reach the plants, and the whole chamber was kept at Earth atmospheric pressure. A replicais currently on display in the Design Museum’s Moving to Mars exhibition in London. The real chamber was powered on just under 13 hours after Chang’e 4 landed, at 11.19 pm on 3 January. The first order of business was remotely watering the seeds with a measured spritz of 18 millilitres of water. The team had to consider in advance a number of things that could go wrong during the mission, such as the possibility the water might not be released or released too early, or the pipe that let in sunlight getting blocked by moon dust, in addition to camera or data transmission failures.

1-17-20 Benzodiazepine prescriptions reach ‘disturbing’ levels in the US
Benzodiazepine drugs are prescribed at about 66 million doctor appointments a year in the US, according to a report by the US National Center for Health Statistics. This means that for every 100 adults that visit an office-based doctor over the course of a year, 27 visits will result in a prescription for a benzodiazepine. The figures, based on surveys conducted between 2014 and 2016, are “discouraging and disappointing”, says Lois Platt at Rush University in Chicago. “The statistics we have are disturbing, and everyone should be concerned about bringing them down,” she says. Benzodiazepine drugs are sedatives that tend to be prescribed for sleep disorders and anxiety. The drugs are addictive – people can become dependent on them in a matter of days, and withdrawal symptoms make it hard to quit. Overdoses can be fatal. A third of the recorded benzodiazepine prescriptions issued in the US were given alongside a prescription for an opioid painkiller. This is especially concerning, because it is easy to fatally overdose when taking the drugs together, says Rebecca McDonald at King’s College London. “Benzodiazepine deaths have gone up substantially over the past two decades in the US, increasing from just over 1,000 annual deaths in 1999 to over 11,000 deaths in 2017,” says McDonald. “Almost all cases also involved opioids.” In the US, most benzodiazepine prescriptions are made for people chronic disorders, according to the report. “At most of the [doctor] visits, benzodiazepines or opioids were continued prescriptions,” says Loredana Santo at the National Center for Health Statistics, who led the research. “Our finding suggests that most patients prescribed these medications might be long-term users of these drugs.”

1-17-20 Volcanic gas bursts probably didn’t kill off the dinosaurs
A new timeline exonerates the Deccan Traps eruptions in a mass extinction 66 million years ago. Massive gas bursts emitted by volcanoes about 66 million years ago probably couldn’t have caused a mass extinction event that spelled doom for all nonbird dinosaurs, new research suggests. Data on ancient temperatures, combined with simulations of the shifting carbon cycle in the ocean, lend support to the hypothesis that a giant asteroid impact — not toxic gases emitted by Deccan Traps eruption — was primarily responsible for the die-off, researchers report January 17 in Science. About three-quarters of Earth’s plant and animal species were killed off during the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period. Sediment deposits linked to the giant asteroid impact, which struck Chicxulub in what now Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, form a layer known as the “KPg” boundary. This boundary marks the transition from the Cretaceous to the Paleogene Period, and implicates the asteroid strike in the extinction event (SN: 1/25/17). But the Deccan Traps eruptions, which spewed as much as 500,000 cubic kilometers of lava across much of what’s now western India, also occurred within a million years of the extinction. Sussing out the true killer has been challenging, because the precise timing of the Deccan Traps eruptions has been uncertain. Scientists previously have focused on dating the rocks — either zircon crystals embedded within ash layers between flows of lava (SN: 12/11/14), or outcrops of the lava itself (SN: 2/21/19). Those efforts have resulted in a range of different dates for the eruptions, some before and some after the extinction. Furthermore, the real dino killer wouldn’t have been the lava — it would have been the volcanic gases: carbon dioxide heating the planet or sulfur dioxide acidifying the oceans. “It’s the outgassing that’s important, but it’s really hard to pin that down,” says Pincelli Hull, a paleoceanographer at Yale University.

1-17-20 Dinosaur extinction: 'Asteroid strike was real culprit'
Was it the asteroid or colossal volcanism that initiated the demise of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago? This has been a bit of a "to and fro" argument of late, but now a group of scientists has weighed in with what they claim is the definitive answer. "It was the asteroid 'wot dun it'!" Prof Paul Wilson told the BBC. His team's analysis of ocean sediments shows that huge volcanoes that erupted in India did not change the climate enough to drive the extinction. Volcanoes can spew enormous volumes of gases into the atmosphere that can both cool and warm the planet. And the Deccan Traps, as the volcanic terrain in India is known, certainly had massive scale - hundreds of thousands of cubic km of molten rock were erupted onto the land surface over thousands of years. But the new research from Southampton University's Prof Wilson, and colleagues from elsewhere in Europe and the US, indicates there is a mismatch in both the effect and timing of the volcanism's influence. The group drilled into the North Atlantic seafloor to retrieve its ancient muds. "The deep ocean sediments are packed full of these microscopic marine organisms called Foraminifera," Prof Wilson explained. "You get about a thousand of them in a teaspoon of sediment. And we can use their shells to figure out the chemistry of the ocean and its temperature, so we can study in great detail the environmental changes that are occurring in the run-up to the extinction event. "And what we discovered is that the only way in which we can get our (climate) model simulations to match the observed temperature changes is to have the volcanic emissions of harmful gases done and dusted a couple of hundred thousand years before the impact event. "We find the impact event is exactly contemporaneous with the extinction."

1-16-20 AI suggests Earth has had fewer mass extinctions than we thought
The best record yet of how biodiversity changed in the distant past has been created with the help of machine learning and a supercomputer. Among other things, it confirms that one of the five great mass extinctions didn’t really happen. It was thought the oceans turned toxic around 375 million years ago, near the end of the Devonian period, wiping out many marine species including almost all trilobites. But the latest study shows no evidence of a sudden catastrophic change like the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Instead, there was a gradual decline over an immensely long time – around 50 million years. “The late Devonian mass extinction isn’t there,” says Doug Erwin at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. “There’s a long decrease in diversity during the Devonian, as some people have suggested previously.” Fossils are used to date rocks. Because most species are only around for a few million years, if fossils of one species are present in rocks from different places, those rocks must be roughly the same age. Roughly really does mean roughly, though. Previous studies of how biodiversity has changed over time have only been able to divide the past into huge chunks around ten million years long. Now Shuzhong Shen at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in China and his colleagues including Erwin have produced a dramatically improved record in which each chunk is just 26,000 years long. They did this by taking a statistical approach developed around a decade ago and using it to analyse 100,000 records of 11,000 marine species whose fossils have been found in China and Europe. This approach is so computationally intense it would take dozens of years to do this on a normal computer. Instead, the team developed special machine-learning procedures and ran them on the Tianhe-2 supercomputer. The record covers 300 million years overall, from the start of the Cambrian period 540 million years ago until just after the start of the Triassic period 240 million years ago.

1-16-20 Ancient shark used its teeth like the blade of a power tool
About 310 million years ago some sharks had saws for jaws – and now we know how one of those sharks, called Edestus, fed. The “saw blade” in its lower jaw glided backwards and forwards like the blade on some modern power tools, allowing the shark to cut through soft prey like fish. We know that Edestus was a very odd shark that grew to the size of a modern great white. It had what look a lot like two saw blades in its mouth – one in the upper and one in the lower jaw. The two blades, which could each be 40 centimetres long but just 3 cm wide, seem to have locked together when the shark closed its mouth, a bit like the blades on a pair of serrated scissors. But exactly how the two blades worked together to cut through flesh has been unclear. While Edestus’s saw blade teeth were likely to have contained hard layers of calcium phosphate that meant it fossilised well, the rest of the shark’s skeleton usually didn’t because it was made of cartilage rather than bone. Now, Leif Tapanila at Idaho State University and his colleagues have solved the mystery by examining a 310-million-year-old fossil that, unusually, included the crushed remains of a near-complete Edestus skull. “[It’s] the most complete skull known for the animal,” says Tapanila. A careful analysis shows that it had a distinctive hinge between the lower jaw and the rest of its skull. This allowed the lower jaw – and its saw blade – to slide back and forth relative to the upper blade, which stayed fixed in place. Tapanila says the lower jaw worked a bit like the blade on a jigsaw power tool. “It pulled backwards during the bite. This raked the upper and lower teeth past the food, slicing and splitting it in half.” Strange though Edestus was, some of its relatives were even odder. A few years ago, Tapanila and his colleagues analysed a related extinct shark called Helicoprion that had just one toothed saw blade in its lower jaw that grew into a spiral. This made it look like it had a circular saw blade mounted vertically in its mouth. Tapanila’s team showed that when Helicoprion snapped its jaws shut, the teeth on the blade rotated, which would have helped pull soft flesh snagged on the teeth towards the shark’s throat for easy swallowing.

1-16-20 Anxiety is different for kids
Here's what parents should watch for, and how to help. You know how to do CPR and have a fully stocked first aid kit. At home and in the car. But it's not enough. Today's parents need to know how to deal with their kids' mental health as well as their fevers and grazed knees. According to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, around a third of adolescents have an anxiety disorder, which can come in various guises (including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and separation anxiety disorder) and is characterized by excessive anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. In the midst of what's arguably one of the biggest public health challenges of all time, we're all more aware of the prevalence of anxiety and other mental health issues, more clued-up about how mental illness can present itself, and what we can do to help both ourselves and others. But there's an important qualifier when talking about kids with anxiety: They don't display it in the same way adults do. "Typically, when a child is anxious, you'll see a change in their behavior," says New York-based therapist Dana Carretta-Stein, M.S., LMHC, LPC. That child could be the 8-year-old who throws the epic sort of tantrums you'd expect from a toddler. Or the 10-year-old who's snappy and irritable every single day, for no apparent reason. Or the 12-year old who gets a stomach ache every morning before school, without fail. It manifests itself in a range of ways, Carretta-Stein says. "While every child is different, some kids may become more aggressive (which is the fight in the fight/flight response), whereas other children may become very shy (the flight response)," she explains. Kids with anxiety may be clingy or tearful, reluctant to go to school, take part in activities, or be separated from their parent, says Michigan-based therapist Carrie Krawiec, LMFT. They may have persistent headaches or stomach aches, or display obsessive-compulsive or rigid behaviors, like being in distress when something isn't a certain way or checking something over and over.

1-16-20 Swapping breakfast for brunch on weekends may lead to weight gain
Eating meals later on weekends than during the week may cause weight gain by messing with the body’s metabolic rhythms. We already know that shift workers and people with disrupted sleep patterns are prone to weight gain. This is probably because they are more likely to eat meals at night when our bodies aren’t used to processing food, which seems to lead to the storage of extra fat. Maria Fernanda Zerón-Rugerio and Maria Izquierdo-Pulido at the University of Barcelona in Spain and their colleagues wondered if smaller disruptions to normal eating schedules – like eating meals later on weekends – might have similar effects. “It’s common to sleep in on weekends, so we end up having breakfast later and then lunch and dinner tend to be a bit delayed too,” says Zerón-Rugerio. “We call this eating jet lag.” The team surveyed more than 1100 university students in Spain and Mexico to find out what time they normally ate breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekdays and weekends. Almost two-thirds had an hour or more of eating jet lag on weekends, meaning the midpoint between their first and last meal was at least an hour later on weekends than on weekdays. Breakfast was the most delayed meal, tending to become brunch. The greater the students’ eating jet lag, the more likely they were to be overweight. Those who reported more than 3.5 hours of eating jet lag on weekends had body mass indexes (BMIs) that were 1.3 units higher on average than those with no eating jet lag. This wasn’t related to the quality of their diet, how long they slept or how much they exercised. This suggests that eating at the same time every day may help people lose stubborn excess weight, says Zerón-Rugerio. Dropping 1.3 BMI units is equivalent to someone who is 170 centimetres tall and weighs 90 kilograms losing 4 kilograms.

1-16-20 A new drug lowers levels of a protein related to ‘bad’ cholesterol
The treatment may reduce risk of heart attack and stroke. Routine blood tests in the not-too-distant future may feature a new line item: lipoprotein(a). High levels of this fat- and cholesterol-carrying protein increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, research suggests. But there has been little anyone can do about it. How much lipoprotein(a) a person produces is largely locked in by genetics, and the level remains relatively steady throughout life. That’s in contrast to “bad” LDL — low-density lipoprotein — cholesterol, which changes depending on diet and exercise. Because lipoprotein(a) is genetically determined, “these people who have high levels have had it since birth, and so they can get heart disease earlier,” says Erin Michos, a preventive cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who was not involved with the clinical trial. Now, a therapy that specifically targets lipoprotein(a) levels is on the horizon. In a clinical trial, the drug, which blocks the body’s ability to make the protein, reduced people’s levels of lipoprotein(a) by as much as 80 percent, researchers report in the Jan. 16 New England Journal of Medicine. The trial also found the drug to be safe. Another clinical trial is now underway to determine whether drastically lowering levels of lipoprotein(a) in people who already have cardiovascular disease lessens their risk of heart attack and stroke (SN: 3/15/19). Lipoprotein(a) is made up of a particle of LDL plus a protein called apolipoprotein(a). The relationship between LDL cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk is well-established: When there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, it can get into the walls of arteries, stoking an inflammatory immune response that leads to thickened walls and narrowed arteries (SN: 5/3/17).

1-16-20 Uploading your brain will leave you exposed to software glitches
Think a digital version of your mind will allow you to live forever? It might, but it will also open you up to software manipulation and server problems, says Annalee Newitz. BACK in the 20th century, “the future” meant flying cars and food pills. Now, the future is all about brain uploads. The idea is that, one day, we will be able to convert all our memories and thoughts into hyper-advanced software programs. Once the human brain can run on a computer – or maybe even on a giant robot – we will evade death forever. Sounds cooler than a flying car, right? Wrong. If they ever exist, uploads will be hell. Fantasies about uploaded brains are nothing new. William Gibson wrote about them some 35 years ago in his cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, in which people could upload themselves into cyberspace; and almost a century ago, back in 1923, E. V. Odle published a novel called The Clockwork Man, about how the people of tomorrow would live inside a virtual world of clockwork technology. In recent decades, however, scientists and philosophers have also started to take a serious interest in the idea of digital versions of brains. Massive research undertakings like the Human Brain Project aim to “simulate” the human brain in software. And Anders Sandberg at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and his colleagues explore how future societies should deal ethically with uploaded minds. There are plenty of medical applications for a brain simulation. Doctors could use it to model diseases or to test therapies. Neurologists could probe it to understand how thought emerges from cellular activity. This isn’t what people like Google’s director of engineering Ray Kurzweil want, though. As he has said in multiple places, he is looking for upload tech that will make him immortal.

1-16-20 Neandertals dove and harvested clamshells for tools near Italy’s shores
Stone Age human relatives shed their reputation as one-trick mammoth hunters. Often typecast as spear-wielding mammoth killers, some Neandertals were beachcombers and surf divers, researchers say. At Moscerini Cave, located on Italy’s western coast, Neandertals collected clamshells on the beach and retrieved others from the Mediterranean Sea, say archaeologist Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Boulder Museum of Natural History and her colleagues. Our close, now extinct evolutionary relatives waded or dove into shallow waters to collect shells that they sharpened into scraping or cutting tools, the researchers report January 15 in PLOS ONE. Of 167 clamshells with sharpened edges that previously were excavated in the cave, 40 displayed shiny, smooth surfaces characteristic of living clams taken from the seafloor, Villa’s team says. The remaining shells featured dull, worn surfaces, indicating that these finds had washed up on the beach and were gradually ground down before Neandertals used them as tools. Earlier dating of animal teeth unearthed near sharpened clam shells in Moscerini Cave suggested that Neandertals lived there roughly 100,000 years ago, at a time when Homo sapiens did not inhabit the region. Consistent with the possibility that Neandertals plunged perhaps a few meters deep into Mediterranean waters to find submerged clams, another team has concluded that bony growths in the ear canals of as many as 13 of 23 European and southwest Asian Neandertal skulls look like “swimmer’s ear,” a condition in people today caused by frequent exposure to cold water and cold, moist air. Ancient humans often lived by lakes, rivers and oceans (SN: 7/29/11). Several European excavations have pointed to seaside occupations by Neandertals (SN: 9/22/08).

1-15-20 Neanderthals 'dived in the ocean' for shellfish
New data suggests that our evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals may have been diving under the ocean for clams. It adds to mounting evidence that the old picture of these ancient people as brutish and unimaginative is wrong. Until now, there had been little clear evidence that Neanderthals were swimmers. But a team of researchers who analysed shells from a cave in Italy said that some must have been gathered from the seafloor by Neanderthals. The findings have been published in the journal Plos One. The Neanderthals living at Grotta dei Moscerini in the Latium region around 90,000 years ago were shaping the clam shells into sharp tools. Paolo Villa, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and colleagues, analysed 171 such tools, which all came from a local species of mollusc called the smooth clam (Callista chione). The tools were excavated by archaeologists at the end of the 1940s. Clam shells that wash up on beaches can be distinguished from those that are still live when they're gathered. The beached specimens were opaque, sanded down through being knocked against pebbles on the shore, perforated by other marine organisms and encrusted with barnacles. Most of the specimens at Grotta dei Moscerini fit the criteria of shells that were collected on a beach. But one quarter of them had a shiny smooth exterior, showing no signs of such wear and tear. This suggested they were collected from the seafloor while the clams were alive. Today, Callista chione is most often fished by dredging, using small boats, or gathered by scuba divers in waters off the Adriatic coast that are more than 10m in depth. In the northern part of the Adriatic, however, there are some sand banks where Callista clams can be collected at depths of between half a metre to one metre. In this case, the clams could be caught just by wading.

1-15-20 Trypophobia: Why a fear of holes is real – and may be on the rise
Some people have a visceral fear-like reaction to the holes in sponges, Swiss cheese or seed pods. Known as trypophobia, this response is increasingly common but isn’t what it seems. When Amanda was 12, her mother took her to the doctor because she was scared by the sight of Swiss cheese. Seeded bread made her sweaty and anxious. And Amanda would cry out when she saw pictures of empty honeycomb. One day, she fled in terror from the family bathroom while it was being repaired after spotting its exposed and perforated concrete walls. The only previous clue to her discomfort had come from her fussy eating. Ever since Amanda was a toddler, she had refused to eat certain types of bread or drink raspberry juice because she hated the feel of the textures in her mouth. But by the time she saw the doctor, Amanda couldn’t even look at the seeds in a strawberry without anguish. A psychiatrist said that Amanda (not her real name) had trypophobia. There isn’t much in the medical textbooks about this condition, but you can find lots of information online about how it is a fear of holes. You can follow links to pictures of sponges and the perforated heads of flowers that claim to test and diagnose you. But like much information on the web, descriptions of the condition are misleading. Trypophobia isn’t really down to holes. Or fear. It might not even be a phobia, because new research suggests it is triggered by disgust. Less fear and more loathing. Reliable figures are hard to come by, but some researchers believe we will see an uptick in cases. “It’s something that will become more pervasive and we could be forced to treat it in a more serious way given the changes in our environment,” says Stella Lourenco, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

1-15-20 Forget exercise and diet fads – this is the secret of a healthy life
New Scientist columnist Graham Lawton has just written a scientific guide to healthy diet, sleep and exercise – and says the evidence for what works is crystal clear. ON 3 JANUARY, I broke a New Year’s resolution. I tried to stay strong but I cracked. I responded to the Twitter trolls. An extract of my new book This Book Could Save Your Life – a round-up of the science of personal health, based largely on articles in New Scientist – had just appeared in The Times and had been picked up by Apple News. I was about to do a BBC interview, and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. The tweets burst my bubble. One sneered at me for “just trotting out mainstream nutrition advice”. Another described the book as “crap”. It hadn’t even been published at that point. Hey-ho. Foolishly, I took the bait. My Twitter antagonists seemed to be devotees of the decidedly non-mainstream nutritional advice that saturated fat is good for you. They didn’t like the fact that I said it almost certainly isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. If people want to eat lots of saturated fat, that is their choice. I wrote a book about an evidence-based approach to personal health, but I’m not in the business of telling people what they should do with it. My goal was simply to say: “this is what the science says – use it how you will”. Devotees of alternative diets aside, it turns out that there is a huge appetite for such an approach. Many of us are confused and overwhelmed by the health messages we read, watch and hear every day, some of which appear Most health coverage is based on wishful thinking or is little more than advertising. Promises of quick fixes and the claims of cynical marketeers and self-appointed gurus quickly drown out solid, dependable and – let’s face it – dull mainstream views.

1-15-20 Strange spider-shaped microorganisms could be our distant ancestors
All complex life may be descended from one group of single-celled organisms, whose modern descendants live in mud. These microbes have unusual abilities that would have enabled them to form more intricate cells – and ultimately animals and plants. The microorganisms are called Asgard archaea, after the mythological home of the Norse gods. For the first time, scientists have isolated one and grown it in the laboratory. New Scientist first reported the achievement in August 2019, and the results have now been published. The first Asgard archaea were described in 2015, after their DNA was found in sediments on the Atlantic seabed. Biologists immediately recognised that they could help explain one of the most important steps in evolutionary history: the origin of eukaryotes. The oldest living things are bacteria and archaea. They are all single-celled, with simple internal structures. In contrast, eukaryotes have larger, more intricate cells. All multicellular organisms, from mosses to humans, are eukaryotes. The question is how eukaryotes evolved. The Asgard microbes are crucial because, while they are archaea, they carry many genes that were only previously found in eukaryotes. This implies that they are our closest non-eukaryotic relatives – and that, billions of years ago, eukaryotes evolved from an Asgard archaean. It turns out that Asgard archaea are common. All are named for Norse gods, for example the Heimdallarchaeota group, for a guardian with the ability to see the future. Most recently, a November study identified Gerdarchaeota, named for the Norse goddess of fertile soils, in coastal sediments (bioRxiv, DOI: 10.1101/858530). Furthermore, the link between Asgard archaea and eukaryotes looks increasingly solid. In December, Tom Williams at the University of Bristol, UK, and his colleagues analysed more than 3000 gene families in archaea and eukaryotes. They confirmed that Asgard archaea are the closest known relatives of eukaryotes, and that Heimdallarchaeota is the closest of all (Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-1040-x).

1-15-20 DeepMind found an AI learning technique also works in human brains
Developments in artificial intelligence often draw inspiration from how humans think, but now AI has turned the tables to teach us about how brains learn. Will Dabney at tech firm DeepMind in London and his colleagues have found that a recent development in machine learning called distributional reinforcement learning also provides a new explanation for how the reward pathways in the brain work. These pathways govern our response to pleasurable events and are mediated by neurons that release the brain chemical dopamine. “Dopamine in the brain is a type of surprise signal,” says Dabney. “When things turn out better than expected, more dopamine gets released.” It was previously thought that these dopamine neurons all responded identically. “Kind of like a choir but where everyone’s singing the exact same note,” says Dabney. But the team found that individual dopamine neurons actually seem to vary – each is tuned to a different level of optimism or pessimism. “They all end up signalling at different levels of surprise,” says Dabney. “More like a choir all singing different notes, harmonising together.” The finding drew inspiration from a process known as distributional reinforcement learning, which is one of the techniques AI has used to master games such as Go and Starcraft II. At its simplest, reinforcement learning is the idea that a reward reinforces the behaviour that led to its acquisition. It requires an understanding about how a current action leads to a future reward. For example, a dog may learn the command “sit” because it is rewarded with a treat when it does so. Previously, models of reinforcement learning in both AI and neuroscience focused on learning to predict an “average” future reward. “But this doesn’t reflect reality as we experience it,” says Dabney.

1-15-20 Living 'concrete' made from bacteria used to create replicating bricks
A type of living concrete made from bacteria could one day help to reduce the environmental impact of the construction industry. Wil Srubar at the University of Colorado Boulder and his colleagues have used a type of bacteria, Synechococcus, to create building blocks in a variety of shapes. The team combined the bacteria with gelatin, sand and nutrients in a liquid mixture, then placed this in a mould. With heat and sunlight, the bacteria produced calcium carbonate crystals around the sand particles, in a process similar to how seashells form in the ocean. When cooled, the gelatin solidified the mixture into a gel form. The team then dehydrated the gel to toughen it, with the entire process taking several hours. The team liken their living material to concrete, which is a mixture of gravel and sand and cement combined with water. But its mechanical properties are more similar to mortar, a weaker material usually made with cement and sand and found between the bricks of buildings, says Srubar. It isn’t yet as strong as regular bricks. An advantage of using bacteria to create the concrete is that if they aren’t dehydrated entirely, they continue to grow. One brick can be split to create two bricks with some additional sand and nutrient solution. The team showed that one brick could yield up to eight in total after several divisions. “If you use biology and species of bacteria that grow at exponential rates, you could theoretically move from a linear manufacturing approach to an exponential manufacturing approach,” says Srubar. The process has the potential to make energy intensive concrete production more environmentally friendly because of its reliance on photosynthesis. “Concrete is the second-most consumed material on earth after water,” says Srubar.

1-15-20 What it’s like to trip on psilocybin for a scientific research study
My sense of self has always felt like a robust, unshakeable part of my existence, so it came as something of a shock to have it temporarily obliterated. The agent responsible for this unusual experience was psilocybin, a chemical found in magic mushrooms. I have often reported on research into the possible use of psilocybin and other psychoactive compounds to treat depression, so was curious to volunteer for a study assessing the safety of psilocybin in people with no known mental health conditions. Psilocybin has been known to science since 1959 and is the subject of several ongoing mental health trials, but there have been relatively few controlled studies of the substance’s safety – an essential step before any potential treatment could be approved for medical use. A study by King’s College London and Compass pathways, a firm developing a psilocybin therapy for depression, sought to rectify this. I signed up to be one of 89 participants, each of whom was randomly assigned either a placebo or 25 milligrams or 10 milligrams of psilocybin. On the days before and after taking the drug or placebo, we would each have our physical and mental health checked, and our emotional wellbeing and cognitive functioning tested. On the big day, I was taken into a room at King’s College Hospital. Fake candles and an aromatiser helped make it feel a bit cosier, but it was unmistakably still a hospital room. I swallowed five capsules, lay down on a bed, put on an eye mask and headphones, and went into my own thoughts. As the headphones played the kind of music you might expect on a relaxation playlist, I started to see purple patches in my vision. But then I remembered the classic ping pong ball experiment: if you place two halves of a table tennis ball over your eyelids, you can hallucinate without any drugs.

1-14-20 Your microbiome reveals more about your health than your genes do
The microbes that live inside you hint more than your genes do about your likelihood of having health conditions ranging from asthma to cancer and schizophrenia, according to a new analysis. The finding suggests that monitoring the ecosystems of bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi that live inside us could help diagnose or even prevent some conditions. “That’s going to change medicine,” says Braden Tierney at Harvard Medical School, who worked on the analysis. However, it also raises privacy issues, because information about this microbiome is currently less tightly regulated than genomic data. “If our results are true, that microbiome data – which is not private – could be telling you a lot more about an individual than even their genetic data,” says Alex Kostic at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, who also worked on the study. “We need to rethink data privacy in the age of the microbiome.” Tierney, Kostic and their colleagues analysed 70 previous studies that had linked complex conditions to genetic variants or to various aspects of the microbiome, such as the microbe species present. They focused on conditions that may be influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, including schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, high blood pressure, asthma and obesity. For 19 out of the 20 conditions that the team looked at, the microbiome was a better indicator than genetics of whether a person was likely to have a condition. The exception was type 1 diabetes (bioRxiv, doi.org/dh92). This is the first study to demonstrate that the microbiome is a good indicator of conditions that may be shaped by our environments. This makes sense, because the balance of organisms in our microbiomes is influenced by a range of factors, including our age, diet, exercise regimes and the medications we take.

1-14-20 Fewer in U.S. Continue to See Vaccines as Important
Widespread public support for childhood vaccines creates a wall preventing contagious diseases like measles and polio from spreading in the U.S., but a breach in that wall appeared in 2015 and it has not been repaired. A recent Gallup survey finds 84% of Americans saying it is extremely or very important that parents vaccinate their children. That matches Gallup's prior reading in 2015 but is down from 94% in 2001.

  • 84% in U.S. say vaccinating children is important, down from 94% in 2001
  • 86% say vaccines are not more dangerous than the diseases they prevent
  • 45% of Americans say vaccines do not cause autism in children

1-14-20 Microbes slowed by one drug can rapidly develop resistance to another
The finding could lead to better ways to prescribe drug cocktails to knock out infections. Infectious bacteria that are down but not quite dead yet may be more dangerous than previously thought. Even as one antibiotic causes the bacteria to go dormant, the microbes may more easily develop resistance to another drug, according to new research. Deadly Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that could tolerate one type of antibiotic developed resistance to a second antibiotic nearly three times faster than fully susceptible bacteria did, researchers report in the Jan. 10 Science. The findings could suggest why drug cocktails used to knock out infections quickly sometimes fail, and may eventually lead to changes in the way antibiotics are prescribed in certain situations. “Tolerance is not as well-known or as well-publicized [as resistance], but [this] work shows it is extremely important,” says Allison Lopatkin, a computational biologist at Barnard College in New York City, who was not involved in the study. “It is very much happening, and we need to pay closer attention to it.” Antibiotic-tolerant bacteria stop growing in the presence of antibiotics, entering a sort of dormant state that helps the microbes weather the drugs’ assault for longer than usual. “They’re just putting their heads down,” says Nathalie Balaban, a biophysicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Tolerant microbes aren’t capable of overcoming or counteracting antibiotics in the way that resistant organisms do. The microbes eventually die if exposure to the antibiotic continues at a killing dose, and if resistance doesn’t pop up. Such tolerant bacteria may be the source of lingering or recurring infections and especially affect people with weakened immune systems or those with medical implants, such as joint replacements. Doctors may try giving drug cocktails to turn the tide of this sort of infection, particularly for hard-to-kill tuberculosis (SN: 8/16/19).

1-14-20 Wuhan pneumonia outbreak: First case reported outside China
A tourist in Thailand has become the first person outside China diagnosed with a new, pneumonia-like virus that has already infected dozens of people. The woman was quarantined after landing in Bangkok from Wuhan, eastern China, where the outbreak began in December. One person has died and 41 cases of the virus have been recorded so far. It has been identified as a coronavirus, which can cause illnesses ranging from common colds to potentially deadly Sars. Sars - severe acute respiratory syndrome - killed more than 700 people around the world during an outbreak in 2002-3, after originating in China. In total, it infected more than 8,000 people in 26 countries. China has been free of Sars since May 2004. According to the country's official Xinhua News Agency, the female passenger arrived in Thailand on 8 January, where she was hospitalised. No other passengers were infected, it said, adding that the traveller was now ready to return to Wuhan. Separately on Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said for the first time that there appeared to have been limited person-to-person transmission of the virus, according to Reuters news agency. "From the information that we have it is possible that there is limited human-to-human transmission," Maria Van Kerkhove, acting head of WHO's emerging diseases unit, told reporters in Geneva. She added that the organisation is preparing for the possibility of a wider outbreak: "It is still early days, we don't have a clear clinical picture." Many earlier cases of the virus had reportedly been linked to a fish market in Wuhan. The new case in Thailand comes just ahead of a major travel period in China, as hundreds of millions of people prepare to travel for Chinese New Year later this month. On 9 January, Singapore's airport said it would begin temperature screening travellers from Wuhan. Hong Kong health officials also said they would also implement checks on passengers, and that they had stepped up the disinfection of trains and aeroplanes, AFP news agency reported.

1-13-20 Machine seems to repair human livers and keep them alive for a week
Donated human livers can be kept alive for seven days in a new machine. The device also appears to improve the quality of the livers, say the researchers behind the work. They hope their device will allow more people to get transplants. Human livers are in high demand. An adult in the UK who needs a donated liver must wait 135 days on average for one to become available, and around 17,000 people in the US are waiting for a liver. Part of the problem is the short lifespan of livers outside the body. Standard protocols can keep the organs healthy for around 12 hours, although last year a team cooled livers to -4°C to keep them alive for a day and a half. Pierre-Alain Clavien at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and his colleagues have gone a step further, using a machine to keep human livers alive for seven days. In that time, the organs not only survive, but seem to become healthier, with a decline in the levels of compounds linked to injury and inflammation. The machine provides oxygen and nutrients to the livers, and maintains a pressure similar to that found inside the body. It also clears cell waste products like carbon dioxide. Clavien and his colleagues developed the device over the past four years using pig livers. In the latest experiment, the team used 10 human livers that were too damaged to be transplanted. Six of the livers survived in the device. These livers appeared to be functioning, say the team. The cells continued to perform basic functions such as maintaining basic energy metabolism and making proteins.However, the organs shrank over the course of the week. By the end of the seven days, the six surviving organs were only about a quarter of their original size. But the authors say this is a sign of reduced swelling.

1-13-20 Secrets of '1,000-year-old trees' unlocked
Scientists have discovered the secret of how the ginkgo tree can live for more than 1,000 years. A study found the tree makes protective chemicals that fend off diseases and drought. And, unlike many other plants, its genes are not programmed to trigger inexorable decline when its youth is over. The ginkgo can be found in parks and gardens across the world, but is on the brink of extinction in the wild. "The secret is maintaining a really healthy defence system and being a species that does not have a pre-determined senescence (ageing) programme," said Richard Dixon of the University of North Texas, Denton. "As ginkgo trees age, they show no evidence of weakening their ability to defend themselves from stresses." Researchers in the US and China studied ginkgo trees aged 15 to 667, extracting tree-rings and analysing cells, bark, leaves and seeds. They found both young and old trees produce protective chemicals to fight off stresses caused by pathogens or drought. These include anti-oxidants, antimicrobials and plant hormones that protect against drought and other environmental stressors. Genetic studies showed that genes related to ageing didn't automatically switch on at a certain point in time as in other plants, such as grasses and annuals. Thus, while a tree that has lived for centuries might appear dilapidated due to frost damage or lightning strikes, all the processes needed for healthy growth are still functioning. Dr Dixon suspects the picture will be similar in other long-lived trees, such as the giant redwood, which has wood "packed with antimicrobial chemicals". "Hopefully our study will encourage others to dig deeper into what appear to be the important features for longevity in ginkgo and other long-lived trees," he said.Commenting on the study, Mark Gush, head of horticultural and environmental science at the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society), said the oldest living tree in the world - a Bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) - is estimated to be more than 4,800 years old.

1-13-20 A smart jumpsuit could track development in at-risk babies
A smart jumpsuit for babies can monitor their movement, and may be able to spot any potential mobility issues, allowing early intervention during this critical time window for development. Sampsa Vanhatalo at the Helsinki Children’s Hospital in Finland and his colleagues fitted 22 babies ranging in age from about 4 months old to 8 months old with high-tech jumpsuits. The jumpsuits were equipped with four motion sensors that collected acceleration and position data that was relayed to a nearby phone. The infants were also recorded on video, which was later analysed by three human researchers who logged the babies’ movements. An algorithm developed by the team could identify the babies’ posture and movement from the jumpsuit data. It matched the observations from the videos 90 per cent of the time for posture and 60 per cent of the time from the video. Vanhatalo says his team has recently launched a follow-up experiment that is exploring whether the jumpsuit can spot movement delays in a group of 50 infants, half of whom didn’t receive enough oxygen around their time of birth because of complications, which can increase the risk of developing movement issues. If the technology succeeds, it could help flag which infants might benefit from early intervention, which includes positioning toys to encourage a child to use a weaker arm. There are several risk factors that can lead to babies developing movement issues. These include being born prematurely, a lack of oxygen around the time of birth and neonatal strokes. However, only a small fraction of children who have experiences these events have movement issues.

1-13-20 Analysis of CRISPR baby documents reveals more ethical violations
The seven couples involved in the CRISPR babies experiment in China were misinformed about what it involved, were pressured to take part and faced severe financial penalties if they withdrew after getting IVF, according to a damning analysis of the consent process. The project would have been unethical even if the aim wasn’t to create the first ever gene-edited children, says bioethicist David Shaw at the University of Basel in Switzerland, who carried out the analysis. “It’s just wrong in terms of research ethics,” he says. In November 2018, biophysicist He Jiankui stunned the world when he revealed that two CRISPR-edited children had been born in China to one woman, with another woman pregnant with a gene-edited fetus. From the start, it was clear there were numerous ethical concerns about what had been done. For instance, tests of the edited embryos revealed several problems, but the team implanted them anyway. He’s justification for the trial was to make the children resistant to HIV, but it is likely to have failed to achieve this. Last month, He was sentenced to three years in jail for forging ethical review materials, violating research regulations and causing harm to society. However, the brief announcement by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua gave few details. Meanwhile, Shaw has analysed the consent forms and related documents, which were available for a time in 2018 on the team’s website complete with English translations. “Ethically, things are even worse than they initially appeared,” he writes in his paper. The consent form given to participants began by saying the project was an AIDS vaccine trial, and only later described its real aim, and then in a misleading, jargon-filled way. For instance, it said the babies would be “naturally immunized” against HIV.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

1-19-20 Releasing rescued orangutans into the wild doesn’t boost populations
The number of Bornean orangutans is dwindling, and there is little evidence that efforts to relocate them from risky areas or rehabilitate those once held captive actually works to bolster their population. Between 2007 and 2017, about 1200 Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) were released into natural forests in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. Nearly 500 of those were formerly captive individuals nursed back to health before being released into the wild. But how many of these animals are still alive remains unclear. “Rescue centres do an important service by providing specialised care for a difficult-to-care-for species, but there is little publicly available evidence on the long-term survival of the reintroduced animals,” says Julie Sherman at Wildlife Impact in Oregon. Sherman and her team reviewed studies, news stories and publicly available data on conservation efforts to make these estimates. They also collected data from rescue centres, government agencies and zoos to determine the outcomes of relocation or rehabilitation for these great apes. The handful of cases where these animals were tracked for more than three years suggest that fewer than 30 per cent of the released animals may have survived. During the study period, at least 620 wild orangutans were also picked up outside protected areas in Kalimantan and released into a different wild site, mainly to prevent potential conflict with people. “The assumption translocation practitioners make is that since these are wild orangutans, they will survive anywhere in the wild,” says Sherman. Again, the fate of such animals is usually not monitored. The few studies that Sherman’s team found in which relocated orangutans were tracked suggest that most animals probably disappeared after release and may not have survived beyond a few years.

1-17-20 Cat owners
Cat owners, after a new study found evidence that cats will eat human flesh, including its owner’s corpse if there’s no other food.

1-17-20 Tortoise Adam
After helping save his species, Diego the giant—and remarkably frisky—tortoise is finally slowing down. Now more than 100 years old, Diego was shipped from San Diego Zoo to the Galapagos in 1976 to help repopulate the islands’ threatened Chelonoidis hoodensis tortoises. At the time, only 14 of the massive creatures (12 females and two males) lived on their native Española Island. Diego got straight to work, fathering more than 800 offspring at the captive-breeding program on the island of Santa Cruz. There are now some 2,000 of the giant tortoises, and Diego is retiring to Española. “There’s a feeling of happiness,” said park director Jorge Carrión, “of returning that tortoise to his natural state.”

1-17-20 A naturalist writes an homage to bird migration
A Season on the Wind shares observations of the passage of birds through northwestern Ohio. A tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird no heavier than a ballpoint pen, makes an epic journey each year. In fall, the bird flies some 10,000 kilometers from its breeding grounds in Alaska or Canada to its winter retreat in South America. In the spring, the bird undertakes the return trip. In his memoir A Season on the Wind, naturalist Kenn Kaufman shares his awe for the miraculous round-trip flight this warbler makes every year. A backdrop to the book is northwestern Ohio’s “Biggest Week in American Birding,” headquartered at Magee Marsh in Oak Harbor. As northbound birds like the blackpoll drop into the marshes that line Lake Erie’s southern shore in early May, so do the birders — who come to see the hundreds of migratory bird species that stop here to rest and feed every spring. Kaufman intertwines his personal reminiscences with stories of individual bird species and migration science. His observations are intensely personal, yet also offer insight into the shared experience of a global community of birders. Of the birders who flock from all over the world to Magee Marsh in spring, he writes, “I see people arriving here with mild curiosity and leaving with the spark of an intense, passionate interest.” His memoir reads as a love letter to bird migration, his adopted home of northwestern Ohio and his wife, Kimberly. Kaufman has authored a dozen popular guidebooks to the birds, insects and mammals of North America. In A Season on the Wind, he returns to the storytelling that won over readers of his classic 1997 memoir Kingbird Highway. That award-winning book told of his exploits hitchhiking around North America as a teenager in the 1970s in pursuit of a birding “big year” — competing with others to see the greatest number of species in a single calendar year.

1-16-20 We’ve seen wolf pups play fetch just like dogs for the first time
Fetching a thrown ball is one of the most quintessential dog behaviours, right up there with begging for scraps and tail wagging. But new research suggests that fetching may be older than dogs themselves, as some wolf pups also seem to enjoy the game. The first observations of wolf pups fetching balls for humans happened unexpectedly, says Christina Hansen Wheat at Stockholm University in Sweden. Hansen Wheat’s team studies the behavioural changes involved in domestication using dogs and wolves as a model. The team hand-reared wolf pups from three litters from the age of 10 days. When they were 8 weeks old, the team put the pups through a standardised series of tests to evaluate their behaviour. One of these tests was having an unfamiliar human toss a tennis ball across the room to see how much it captured the pup’s attention. Almost all of the pups from the 2014 and 2015 litters flatly ignored the ball. One gave it a passing glance. The next year, one pup shocked the scientists by not only chasing down the ball and snatching it up, but bringing it back to the human when coaxed. Hansen Wheat was watching from another room. “I literally got goosebumps,” she says, adding that dogs’ ability to interpret socially communicative behaviour from humans – like following a human’s cues to bring a ball back – has been considered a consequence of the domestication process. “Retrieving for a human has never before been shown in wolves,” says Hansen Wheat. In the end, three wolves from the 2016 litter fetched the balls, and one did it on all three trials of the test. Others played with the ball but wouldn’t return it. Hansen Wheat thinks the difference is likely to be rooted in the pups’ genetics, since the litters were brought up under identical conditions. Evan MacLean at the University of Arizona finds the ball retrieval particularly intriguing. “The first part – chasing, picking up in mouth – is largely within the predatory play repertoire,” says MacLean. “The returning with the object to the person is decidedly more dog-like.”

1-15-20 A parasite that makes mice unafraid of cats may quash other fears too
Toxoplasma gondii can mess with all sorts of mice behaviors, a new study shows. A parasite common in cats can eliminate infected mice’s fear of felines — a brain hijack that leads to a potentially fatal attraction. But this cat-related boldness (SN: 9/18/13) isn’t the whole story. Once in the brain, the single-celled parasite Toxoplasma gondii makes mice reckless in all sorts of dangerous scenarios, researchers write January 14 in Cell Reports. Infected mice spent more time in areas that were out in the open, exposed places that uninfected mice usually avoid. Infected mice also prodded an experimenter’s hand inside a cage — an intrusion that drove uninfected mice to the other side of the cage. T. gondii–infected mice were even unfazed by an anesthetized rat, a mouse predator, the researchers from the University of Geneva and colleagues found. And infected mice spent more time than uninfected mice exploring the scents of foxes and relatively harmless guinea pigs. The extent of mice’s infections, measured by the load of parasite cysts in the brain, seemed to track with the behavior changes, the researchers report. The parasite needs to get into the guts of cats to sexually reproduce. Other animals can become infected by ingesting T. gondii through direct or indirect contact with cat feces. The parasite can then spread throughout the body and ultimately form cysts in the brain. People can become infected with T. gondii, though usually not as severely as mice. Some studies have hinted, however, at links between the parasite and human behaviors such as inattention and suicide, as well as mental disorders such as schizophrenia.

1-13-20 Secrets of '1,000-year-old trees' unlocked
Scientists have discovered the secret of how the ginkgo tree can live for more than 1,000 years. A study found the tree makes protective chemicals that fend off diseases and drought. And, unlike many other plants, its genes are not programmed to trigger inexorable decline when its youth is over. The ginkgo can be found in parks and gardens across the world, but is on the brink of extinction in the wild. "The secret is maintaining a really healthy defence system and being a species that does not have a pre-determined senescence (ageing) programme," said Richard Dixon of the University of North Texas, Denton. "As ginkgo trees age, they show no evidence of weakening their ability to defend themselves from stresses." Researchers in the US and China studied ginkgo trees aged 15 to 667, extracting tree-rings and analysing cells, bark, leaves and seeds. They found both young and old trees produce protective chemicals to fight off stresses caused by pathogens or drought. These include anti-oxidants, antimicrobials and plant hormones that protect against drought and other environmental stressors. Genetic studies showed that genes related to ageing didn't automatically switch on at a certain point in time as in other plants, such as grasses and annuals. Thus, while a tree that has lived for centuries might appear dilapidated due to frost damage or lightning strikes, all the processes needed for healthy growth are still functioning. Dr Dixon suspects the picture will be similar in other long-lived trees, such as the giant redwood, which has wood "packed with antimicrobial chemicals". "Hopefully our study will encourage others to dig deeper into what appear to be the important features for longevity in ginkgo and other long-lived trees," he said.Commenting on the study, Mark Gush, head of horticultural and environmental science at the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society), said the oldest living tree in the world - a Bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) - is estimated to be more than 4,800 years old.

1-13-20 Australian fires have incinerated the habitats of up to 100 threatened species
Scientists warn of an ecological catastrophe as crucial habitats of rare plants and animals burn. Until last week, the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo was one of Australia’s conservation success stories. Thanks to a recovery program that began in 1995, its wild population increased from 150 to 400, and its status was downgraded from critically endangered to endangered. Now it’s part of an unfolding horror story. Fires have raged across nearly 50 percent of Kangaroo Island, a 4,400-square-kilometer isle off the coast of the state of South Australia, destroying the habitat of the great majority of the birds. It’s unclear how many glossy black cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus lathami halmaturinus) survived. For those that escaped the flames, food may be scarce; it eats the seeds of single tree species in its habitat, the drooping she oak. Many years of hard work have gone up in smoke and “it’s a big step backwards for the recovery team,” says Daniella Teixeira, a conservation biologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who has studied and worked to protect the birds for the last four years. Even if just a quarter of the population has been killed, the subspecies could end up back on the critically endangered list, she says. Similar stories are playing out across Australia, where, as of January 12, months of wildfires had burned nearly 11 million hectares — an area larger than the nation of Guatemala. More than 2,200 homes have gone up in flames and 29 people have been killed, and there are still two months of bushfire season left to go. Already, the toll on animals and plants, many of which are evolutionarily unique and endemic to the continent, is mind-boggling.