Science India Forum (SIF) Qatar, under the patronage of the Indian embassy, has organised the Qatar Children Science Congress (QCSC) every year since 2015 under a focal theme and sub themes relevant to the contemporary world.The theme was 'Understanding Ecosystem for health and well-being'.A total of 164 teams from 19 schools participated in QCSC - 2022 Contest and underwent three rounds of evaluation. The project evaluations were conducted by a team of scientists, professionals and technocrats. A total of 49 teams were shortlisted for the third and final evaluation round held in November.All the submitted project reports were assessed by eminent professors, scientists and professionals in the field and trained by National Children's Science Congress (NCSC) trainers. The projects were assessed by two evaluators in the preliminary rounds and in the final, by consensus among all the evaluators.The winner (NCSC qualifier) in the senior category is Bhavan's Public School comprising of team leader Adithya Ajith Pillai, team member Ayaan Mohd. Najeeb and guide teacher Arun Kumar Sampathu. The first runner-up (NCSC qualifier) is Birla Public School comprising team leader Kishan Ramesh, team member Vikramaditya and guide teacher Sunitha Ramesh. The second runner up is DPS-Modern Indian School comprising team leader Aditya Shukla, team member Abaan Abdullah Shanid and guide teacher Noushaja Keloth.The winner in the Junior category is DPS Modern Indian School comprising team leader Syeda Aleeza Anaum, team member Maairah Rimas Chadkan and guide teacher Steffi Herald Francis. The first runner-up is Birla Public School comprising team leader Hridul Sreenivasan, team member Alan Ton George Thomas and guide teacher Kalidasan Shanmugam. The second runner-up is Rajagiri Public School comprising team leader Sonit Puri, team member Arush Ranjit and guide teacher Chitra Rajendran.The top two projects are nominated for the NCSC to be held in Ahmedabad, India from January 27-31. The project team leader of the qualifying team will be participating in the NCSC from Qatar with the option of the guide teachers accompanying them on their own accord.SIF expressed special thanks to the guide teachers for guiding the students and being a motivator for them at every stage of the competition. The role of parents in supporting their children is also commendable. SIF also acknowledges the genuine efforts taken by young scientists in completing their project works and appreciates the consistent hard work to bring about such innovative projects.SIF also congratulated all the students who participated in the contest. "We have received many outstanding projects, that is worthy of a praise. Each student who participated in this contest will receive a certificate of participation," a SIF statement added.
ISL Qatar hosted the popular community outreach initiative #bigbmeetup’s ‘Estedama’ themed edition during Qatar Sustainability Week, and the innovative ISL Qatar ‘Forest School Project’ was launched on the occasion. The event brought together many national and international authorities and enthusiasts to debate topics focused on sustainability in Qatar. ISL Qatar in partnership with Bosco Menezes (founder of #bigbmeetup and bigbfotografi) organised ‘Estedama’ (Arabic for ‘Sustainability’), a round table eco conversation moderated by Menezes himself. Amongst the speakers were Fatima Mohammed (contemporary Qatari artist), Aisha al-Maadeed (founder of Greener Future), Khaled Zaki (PADI ambassador). Joining the debate were the ‘Forest School Project’ team members - Cristina Pawel (Research Institute & Eco School Coordinator), Sean Areias (Head of School), Shashi Narayanan (Architect and Parent Volunteer), Stella Bianchi and Maryam Buraimoh (ISL Qatar IB Diploma students). As the evening progressed, young Qatari female green ambassadors Mariam al-Hajri, Noora al-Muftah and Hamad al-Jabra joined the conversation. ISL Qatar Parent volunteers Amel Sisbane and Shreya Suraj, DEAP volunteer and founder of ‘Anybody Can Draw’ also engaged with the eco debate. Menezes, opened the evening with a speech followed by Sean Arieas, Head of School at ISL Qatar. Prominent Qatari pro-sustainability artist Fatma Mohammed presented her innovative Abaya made with plastic bottles and spoke about how she was overwhelmed to see the amount of plastic abuse especially during covid. The evening proceeded with PADI ambassador Zaki giving the audience a master class on the evil of plastic in the ocean with a wonderful ‘educational video’. The ‘Forest School Project’ promises to augment and enhance ISL Qatar’s extensive school gardens. From a learning perspective, the ‘Forest School Project’ is designed to develop students’ awareness of biodiversity, promote eco-friendly activities, alongside inspiring curriculum changes. The project launch coincided with the culmination of the first ISL Qatar ‘Sustainability Week’. The event was capped with a ceremonious planting of trees at the Forest Tree Project spot by Hamad al-Jabra (Greener Future Qatar) , Ehsan Malik (Solo beach cleanup volunteer), Shashi Narayanan (ISL Qatar Parent Volunteer) and Menezes.
Science India Forum (SIF), under the patronage of the Indian embassy in Qatar, recently launched an educational series, 'Learn with the Leaders', as part of the Teacher’s Empowerment Programme. The series will be be held on the fourth Saturday of every month, with the first session dealing with 'Brain-Targeted Teaching and Learning'. Dr Zarmina Hotaki, an eminent speaker, academician and principal of Qatar Leadership Academy under Qatar Foundation, conducted the session. Dr Hotaki presented the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model and explained that it is not a curriculum or product, but an effective instructional framework based on research. It is designed to assist teachers in planning, implementing and assessing a sound programme of instruction informed by research from the neuro- and cognitive sciences. The model consists of six stages of the teaching and learning process that are referred to as brain targets. Dr Hotaki elaborated on the six different 'brain targets': Emotional Climate, Enriched Environments, 'Big Picture' Concepts/Concept Mapping, Repeated Rehearsal, Teaching for Extension and Application, and Evaluation Techniques Supported by Brain Research. The special guest on the occasion Shibu Rasheed, principal, Noble International School, appreciated SIF-Qatar for conducting various training programmes. Rasheed Shibu enlightened the audience with his talk on how to motivate students. The programme was attended by 190 teachers from various schools in Qatar. All participants applauded the value addition through this knowledge session.
“We are very fortunate to live in the age of advanced technologies. With the help of modern equipment, we can look deep into the sky and see different objects that could not be seen even by emperors and kings in the past.” Turkish expatriate Kurt Bozkurt enjoys the feelings of watching astronomical objects, celestial events and areas of the night sky through his telescope and captures the images with his camera. His interest in astronomy began when he saw first comet in the sky and continues pursuing his hobby of astrophotography till to day. Bozkurt has been working as an engineer in Qatar for 10 years. In his recent interview with Gulf Times, he dilated upon how he started the astrophotography and how well he enjoys it by being in Qatar. “My interest in astronomy started in 1986 when I first time saw a comet in the sky. I was a little kid. It was in news those days. It caught my attention and since then I have not been able to look down as I have been looking up in the skies.” The Turkish engineer has worked in different countries before getting settled in Qatar in 2010. He has been carrying along his hobby of general photography and astrophotography. “I have worked in Albania and then in Libya before I came to Qatar. I did some basic astrophotography in Albania. Being in Qatar has actually helped me in becoming a professional in astrophotography. I started with general photography here. I started buying my astrophotography gear in Qatar.” The passionate photographer categorises astrophotography into three area – wide fields and terrestrial photography, solar systems, and deep sky. “In the wide field category, we can combine an earthly object – a building or tree – with the sky in the background. This kind of photography is easy and affordable to do. In the second category, we can capture solar system objects. It can also include International Space Station that is trackable. The deep sky astrophotography is the most demanding, time-taking and expensive category. I would like to call it an antisocial hobby. I go out in the open late in the night to capture good deep sky objects that include galaxies, nebulas, and other celestial events.” A close up of Andromeda Galaxy The professional engineer finds high degree of pleasure and satisfaction by capturing deep sky objects. “Astrophotography is an expensive hobby. There are many people around the world trying to capture same object again and again. For me, I enjoy the effort and the final outcome. It is a challenge. Everything during a shooting session should go right. If anything goes wrong, you will lose that night. When everything goes according to your plan and you get a good photo, it gives you immense amount of satisfaction. I usually go out with friends but there are times when I am alone in desert at all night with my car and camera. I avoid the nigh with full moon or having strong winds.” Kurt considers himself lucky to be doing astrophotography in Qatar. “The country is best poised for this kind of photography. It has clear skies most of the time. This is something that the richest people doing astrophotography cannot have in their countries in Europe or America. I know many people in the West who have to travel for hours to get a clear sky shot into the cosmos. A Greek photographer travelled to Qatar in December 2019 to capture the solar eclipse and his image was declared the best photograph by NASA.” Elephant's Trunk Nebula The Turk suggests that with little steps to encourage the astrophotography Qatar can become a hub for this activity for photographers from all over the world. “We need to have some designated areas for the photographers with telescopes and large cameras. When I go out in the open area I do not know whether I am trespassing someone’s land or entering a restricted area. The authorities may allocate some small area far away from the light pollution of the bright urban localities. It can be some kind of small observatory. Such facility can also help improve tourism in Qatar.” Kurt enjoys the deep sky photography the most because with telescope one can see the far off objects that cannot be seen with naked eyes. “It is beautiful to see the camera screen full of celestial images. For millions of years, man has been living on Earth but they never saw these objects even the kinds and emperors. In the history, may be only in the last 20 years, man has bene able to see these images.”
Scientists are creating 3D-printed brain chips which could be used to treat nervous system conditions, including paralysis, by detecting and firing electrical signals. The chip has been developed and successfully tested on animals, and researchers are now hopeful it can be adapted for use in humans. An international team of engineers and neuroscientists at the University of Sheffield (UK), St Petersburg State University (Russia) and Technische Universitat Dresden (Germany) say it will also be able to connect to a computer and offer a host of next-generation medical benefits. In the new study, researchers used a multi-layer, soft chip to stimulate the damaged spinal cord of cats, rats and zebrafish. The study also shows the chip is effective on the surface of the brain, peripheral nerves and muscles. While the spinal cord remains the primary focus, the technology could allow for therapeutic developments for conditions affecting these tissues. Professor Ivan Minev, one of authors of the study from the University of Sheffield, says the research demonstrates how 3D printing can be benefit researchers. "The power of 3D printing means the prototype implants can be quickly changed and reproduced again as needed to help drive forward research and innovation in neural interfaces," he says. The vision relies on implants that can sense and supply tiny electrical impulses in the brain and the nervous system, the experts said.
In his 2017 book Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves detailed how the top 20% of Americans perpetuate their privileges in ways that may seem benign, yet ultimately are among the main culprits of social immobility. Think taking advantage of legacy admissions to help your child get into college, calling a friend to help your child get an internship, or fighting zoning and school-district boundaries to preserve the value of your home. It’s a book that, unsurprisingly, made a lot of people squirm. Now the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide protests in the US are drawing sharper scrutiny of inequities, particularly racial inequality. Many business leaders and other people in positions of power and influence are speaking out about racial injustice, donating money, and vowing to do more to offer opportunities to Black workers and other disadvantaged groups. But, according to Reeves, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, unless individual Americans are willing to rethink one of the most personal relationships of all — hoarding all the advantages they can to give to their own children and class — pledges about equality will amount to little more than lip service. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our Q&A: Given the broader sensitivity at the moment to inequality, do you think your ideas are resonating more than when the book came out — or do they still make people uncomfortable? The pandemic is acting as an X-ray showing the fractures in society even more clearly — it’s hard to get that in charts, blogs and academic papers. For someone like me, I’m at the privileged end of every distribution. I’m able to work from home, I live in a large house in a leafy neighbourhood, I can give my kids the opportunity to take a gap year, and I’m able to socially distance. There are those for whom none of that is true. Phrases like structural inequality just fall off the tongues of wonks and have for years, but now you really feel it. But it also feels like a period of scarcity: We don’t know what will happen to the economy, and there’s uncertainty. And during those times, people cling to what they’ve got even more fiercely. It’s too early to tell which force will win, but both are playing out right now. The real test is whether the energy you can feel right now gets channelled into a wintry Tuesday evening in February when the school board is talking about changing the attendance zones of schools. There’s a tendency for people to think this is cost-free, even for them. In order to make progress, we have to give some stuff up. If we can’t be persuaded to do so, the chances of progress are much less. Protest today but let’s see lobbying tomorrow. Before the current crises, Democrats and progressive activists were targeting the top 1%. Why do you think it’s so important to focus on changing the behaviour of the top 20%? Well, for empirical reasons, there are lots of them. If you want to reshape the housing and higher education markets, you need the sheer force of numbers of the upper middle class. Ethically, I think just focusing on the 1% lets too many people off the hook by saying it’s just this top sliver that’s the problem. No-one wants to feel uncomfortable if they can avoid it and say the face of inequality may be mine. You mentioned five things people could do back in 2017 to stop being a “dream hoarder,” such as pushing for more inclusionary housing zoning regulations and redirecting some of their school funds to low-income schools. Is that list the same? What else would you add to it? My list would essentially remain the same. I was criticised at the time for focusing so much on the class dimension. I think now the racial dimension needs to be highlighted more. We have to think not only about the ways our behaviour is benefiting class, but also by extension acting as a barrier, particularly to Black and Latino Americans. The people who are excluded as a result of these upper middle-class mechanisms are disproportionately people of colour. When I wrote the book, I wanted to make it about class because I thought the class debate was so underweighted in the US. I really wanted to hold up that mirror. Now, in light of recent events, I wonder whether adding a more explicit racial dimension would help move the needle more. I think I would frame the argument differently if I were to do it again. A lot of companies are currently seeking ways to address inequality in the wake of the recent protests. Realistically, what can they do and what should they do? They can genuinely rethink internships and recruitment policies from the ground up. I think it’s unconscionable to allocate opportunity-enriching internships or similar jobs on the basis of social networks. If you use social networks to fill jobs or internships, you’re definitely acting in an exclusionary way. You think you’re helping someone, but you’re using your power in a way that hurts someone else. Also, think about whether you’re imposing unnecessarily stringent hiring standards. Does every position you’re hiring for really need a four-year college degree? The impact of that can be classist and racist. Now is a good moment to think about how you’re using power on a daily basis to create additional access or reinforce existing inequality. For example, instead of writing checks to your top-drawer college, write a check to the nearest community college. How much does leaving your wealth to your children impact inequality? It hasn’t made a huge difference yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. In terms of structuring opportunity, the things that most affect peoples’ trajectories in life are things like access to education, the environment you grow up in, and opportunities through networks and jobs. But when the baby boomers die, we will see one of the greatest transitions of intergenerational wealth. So I think that will worsen wealth inequality along class and race lines. I think it will actually affect the third generation more than the second generation. The grandchildren of boomers might be benefiting from this wealth transfer in ways we haven’t seen much of thus far. Corporations may change their hiring policies, and more of the upper 20% may contribute to organisations and scholarship funds, but can you count on that to change the world? Shouldn’t this be a job for the government? There’s a huge amount the government could and should be doing, like on access to good health care or more funding for community colleges. But why didn’t I focus on that? There are a million reports on how to reform higher education that all come to roughly the same conclusion, but we can never do it because the sense of entitlement of winners in the current system. I wanted to start from the proposition that culture precedes politics and politics precedes policies. If we can’t persuade people to think about their own individual position in the US system, to give up stuff closer to home, then the prospects of more sweeping change will remain small. I want to puncture the sense that successful American people have that they’ve earned it, and it doesn’t require any sacrifice on their part. I’m not talking about spending an afternoon to protest or donating to good causes. Do that, but sacrifice a little of your kids’ opportunities in life, a little bit of the value of your home. Unless you lose a little bit, we won’t see broad-scale gains. It seems as if some of the controversy over your ideas stems from your belief in relative vs. absolute mobility (that some kids have to experience downward mobility for less privileged ones to get ahead) — why is that so central to your arguments? Why is it a zero-sum game? I do think you need both. But it’s a question of balance. I draw attention to relative mobility because I looked at whether some of the ways the transfers of opportunities are taking place are unfair and are there ways we can address it. If I had found that the stickiness was just the result of things like parents reading to children, then I would have said “we’re all good here.” But it’s a hell of a lot more than that. It’s an uncomfortable conversation — it’s just so easy for the affluent to blind themselves to the inequality consequences taken in the name of doing everything you can for your kids. —Bloomberg News
Qatar observed a partial solar eclipse yesterday where astronomy experts and photographers got the opportunity to study and capture the rare celestial phenomenon. Though the weather was hot as the eclipse started around 7am, experts and enthusiasts remained out observing the natural event and photographing the moon covering a part of the sun. The solar eclipse was seen as a partial eclipse over Qatar’s sky, where it started at 7:13am Doha local time, while its greatest occurred at 8:30am, when moon covered 80% of solar disc at the maximum of the solar eclipse over Qatar’s sky. Finally, the solar eclipse ended in Qatar at 10:01am Doha local time. Talking to Community, Dr Beshir Marzouk, astronomy expert at Qatar Calendar House, said: “The duration of all solar eclipse phases over the Qatar sky was two hours and forty-eight minutes from the beginning until the end of the eclipse. “On December 26, 2019, Qatar residents watched an annular solar eclipse, while on October 25, 2022, they will be seeing a next partial solar eclipse.” Dr Beshir further said: “The solar eclipse’s greatest time occurred with the time of the conjunction of new crescent of Hijric month Dhul-Qa’ da I, 1441 AH. The solar eclipse was seen as annular eclipse in parts of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Pakistan, India; and China. It was seen as a partial solar eclipse from South-eastern and Middle of Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.” The expert further said: “Generally, the solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between the sun and the earth so that the sun is fully or partially covered. This can only happen before a new moon phase; when the sun and moon are in conjunction as seen from the earth. “Further, there are four types of solar eclipse: total, partial, annular, and hybrid. It is always advised not to look to the sun during solar eclipses with the naked eye. People can however use solar eclipse glasses or filters.” Highlighting the scientific significance of the celestial phenomenon, he said: “As known, solar and lunar eclipses are important phenomena because they validated astronomical calculations; where the solar eclipses happen before the first of Hijric months (before new crescent), a lunar eclipse happens at the middle of Hijric months (at full moon phase).” It was not only the experts who took keen interest in the natural happening. Folks from all walks of life also witnessed the phenomenon and its light effects on the earth. The most interested were the photographers who wanted to capture different phases of the eclipse that does not take place very often. Shahin Olakara is an expatriate from Kerala, India and works with a government department. He has the hobby of taking wildlife photos. He, however, took his chance to capture the eclipsed sun in the hot day in Barwa City. He said: “I chose a place near a mosque as I wanted to capture the partially visible sun in the backdrop of a crescent model installed on the top of the mosque’s tall minaret. I used two ten-stop neutral density filters stacked one over the other with FUJIFILM XT2 camera to capture the eclipse.” Shahin has recently been capturing the eclipses in Qatar. “I try to capture these happenings because it is a challenge to photograph such events. The solar eclipse that occurred last year was hard to capture as it happened early in the morning as the sun was still in the eastern horizon and light was not very bright. This time it was a bright day and we had enough time to capture different phases. The sun was at 45 degree angle in the horizon when the moon started covering it. Further, the day was bright and the sky was clear.” All phases of the eclipse shared by Dr Beshir Marzouk.
Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO) continues to entertain those who are enthusiastic about western classical music by bringing in world renowned conductors, composers and instrumentalists. The recent performance by the orchestra captivated the audience with a wonderfully melodious piano music. In the ongoing orchestral music season, the QPO has been inviting outstanding pianists from across the world. The concert ‘Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2’ at Opera House of Katara- the Cultural Village saw the tantalising performance by ace German pianist Gerhard Oppitz. The orchestra was conducted by classy Marcus Bosch, a conductor from Germany. The performance started with Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major for (1833-1897) Piano and Orchestra, Op. 83, a composition by Johannes Brahms, a romantic era German composer and conductor. The pianist also played other compositions of Johannes including Allegro non troppo, Allegro appassionato, Andante, and Allegretto grazioso. After the intermission, the orchestra presented Symphony No. 6 in A Major (Nowak Edition) by Anton Bruckner, who was an Austrian composer, organist, and music theorist. The other compositions included Maestoso, Adagio: Very solemnly, Scherzo: Not fast — Trio: Slowly, and With motion, but not too fast. Gerhard was born in Frauenau (in the Bavarian Forest) in 1953. At the age of five, he began to play piano and debuted with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor when he was 11. Along with his great enthusiasm for school, especially for science and mathematics, he continued his musical education in Stuttgart and Munich starting in 1966 with professors Paul Buck and Hugo Steurer, and later with Wilhelm Kempff, concentrating on the works of Beethoven. In 1977, he was awarded first prize at the Artur Rubinstein Competition, after convincing an international jury, with Artur Rubinstein himself as its head, by performing the fifth Piano concerto by Beethoven and the First Piano Concerto by Brahms. This event marked the beginning of his worldwide concert activities – recitals in the major music centres of Europe, America and East Asia, as well as collaborations with the most renowned conductors and orchestras. His main interest is the classical-romantic repertoire, although he has always devoted himself to music of the 20th century, as well, playing premier performances of several piano concertos. Again and again, he has demonstrated his particular fondness for presenting major groups of work cycles, such as Bach’s Wohltemperiertes Klavier, Mozart’s eighteen Sonatas, Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas, all the solo works by Schubert and Brahms’ complete piano works. Gerhard’s discography comprises over 70 titles. Future plans include performances of all Mozart piano concertos, the main piano works of Liszt and the complete solo works of Debussy and Ravel. In 2014 he was awarded the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art. In addition to his busy playing, the pianist also has a broad spectrum of other interests: he is a qualified professional air pilot and frequently pilots himself to his concert engagements across Europe. He is an informed gourmet. He speaks seven languages and lives with his Japanese wife near Munich. Conductor Marcus Bosch is one of the most prominent figures in the German conducting scene and a much-sought-after guest conductor across the world. This German artiste of Brazilian-Italian descent decided early on to embark on the kapellmeister career path followed by many conductors in Germany. After positions at the state theatres in Wiesbaden and Saarbrücken and with the Staatsorchester Halle, he was general music director of the City of Aachen from 2002 to 2012 and at the Staatstheater and Staatsphilharmonie in Nuremberg from 2011 to 2018. His operatic repertoire now includes more than 90 works of music theatre, among them large-scale projects such as Wagner’s Ring cycle and Berlioz’s Les Troyens. He succeeded in putting the Sinfonieorchester Aachen – once led by conducting greats such as Herbert von Karajan and Wolfgang Sawallisch – back on the international classical music map with live CD recordings of symphonies by Anton Bruckner.
In 1582, Pope Gregory began a campaign to replace Julius Caesar’s widely used calendar with a slightly more accurate one that was named for him. Most of the modern world eventually agreed, and the rest is history. Now a pair of Johns Hopkins professors believe it’s time to turn the page on the Gregorian calendar in favour of one to really last the ages. “You don’t ever have to buy a new calendar,” said Steve H Hanke, a Johns Hopkins University economist who partnered with Hopkins astrophysicist Richard Conn Henry on the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar, which would not change from year to year. “How much needless work do institutions, such as companies and universities, put into arranging their calendars for every coming year? From now on, they could do it once, and it is done forevermore.” The idea is simple: Start every year on Monday, January 1. Every other day would fall on the same day every year. Change would be “no problem,” he said, just like Canada’s switch to the metric system. (No comment on the failed US moves to go metric.) The benefits would be many: Holidays except for the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving would be observed on a Monday, creating regular long weekends and fewer mid-week disruptions. There would be no battles over the start to the school year or sports seasons and less fretting at corporations over bookkeeping and planning. There would never be another Friday the 13th. (Sorry, Jason.) Every year would just repeat in a Groundhog Day movie kind of way, only over a year, which would be 364 days rather than 365. But how? Hanke said President Donald Trump could issue an executive order. The US government would switch, and the states and other countries would follow. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But Hanke is confident that Trump, known for branding, would come around to having his name on a calendar for the next four centuries or longer. He could bump a pope and Caesar. It’s the latest bet for the rather dated idea from the professors, who came up with it years ago. Using new calendars year after year to redo the syllabus became a drag. Others have pitched permanent calendars, though most failed for proposing to drop the seven-day week, which would mean violating the commandment about resting on the Sabbath. The League of Nations came close but rejected a permanent calendar in 1937 because of this. Most also were a little off, time-wise, even more so than the Gregorian that requires a leap year every four years. That adds an extra day to February — as it does this year — to keep the seasons in sync. The Hanke-Henry calendar would make 2020 the last of those leaps. But they would add a week to their calendar every five or six years to keep up with the 365.24 days it take the Earth to orbit the sun. It’s unclear what would happen to the paper calendar and planner industry, with sales remaining in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually despite the digital age. An annual $15 calendar featuring Orioles baseball team members with their pets has helped raise more than $370,000 over eight years for the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter. Bailey Deacon, a BARCS spokeswoman, said she still sees new puppies and kitties getting their month — as well as new Orioles. “Those who truly use paper calendars are marking them up each year with their appointments, meetings and occasions, so I would think they would eventually need a clean slate each January,” she said. The corporate world that yearns for stability and efficiency also could hugely benefit, according to Hanke’s research. Observing holidays on Mondays would save an estimated $575 per person a year in productivity costs. There would be fewer bookkeeping issues, including reduction in errors related to something called the “day count,” which calculates interest on bonds and other investments, and are now a $130 billion problem. So, would business types make a date for change? No, said Brent Goldfarb, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship in the University of Maryland Smith School of Business. “Whatever the merits of this calendar, it is not practically important,” said Goldfarb, co-author of the 2019 book Bubbles and Crashes: The Boom and Bust of Technological Innovation. “It is extraordinarily difficult to change these sorts of conventions without some sort of government coercion, and even then, it is hard,” Goldfarb said. “Just as the United States was unable to shift to the metric system, I see little chance that we’d change all our calendars, computer programs, and intuitive thinking to get rid of leap years and have a constant calendar.” Hanke and Henry are not to be deterred. Next they want to eliminate time zones and put everyone on the same clock. — The Baltimore Sun/TNS
Human beings have long been fascinated by and infatuated with celestial objects and phenomena. Man has indulged the cosmos using different means from telescopes to astronomical flights. With advanced knowledge and technology, the interest of the inhabitants of Earth has grown deeper and deeper into what lies above in the skies. Thanks to the advanced equipment and gadgets, his interest in astrophotography that allows enthusiasts to see and capture what is happening in the skies, has risen manifold. Astrophotography is photography of astronomical objects, celestial events and areas of the night sky. The first photograph of an astronomical object (the moon) was taken in 1840, but it was not until the late 19th century that advances in technology allowed for detailed photography. Besides being able to record the details of extended objects such as the Moon, Sun, and planets, astrophotography has the ability to image objects invisible to the human eye such as dim stars, nebulae and galaxies. Ajith Everester, an expatriate from Kerala, India, has been living in Qatar for 15 years. He started developing his photography skills in 2011. Starting as a bird photographer, he became a wildlife photographer, capturing the wildlife of Qatar – especially the desert fox. Gradually, Ajith got interested in stars and the sky and started doing wide field astrophotography (Milky Way). For the past two years, he developed more interest in the sky and stars and became a dedicated astro-photographer, photographing the galaxies and nebulae in the deep space which are thousands and millions of light years away from the Earth. Community recently caught up with Ajit and discussed his interest in astrophotography which involves costly equipment and gadgets. A health and safety manager with a construction company as a professional, Ajith actually bought his first camera in 2011. “I got it to photograph my daughter. One odd day, I met Dileep Anthikad, a Doha-based wildlife photographer. He later became my mentor in photography. I pursued my love for wildlife photography for about seven years. Some of my photos capturing Qatar’s wildlife have been published in known European magazines. Though Qatar is a small country, we have 316 species of birds here. There are two species of desert fox.” Besides the wildlife photography, Aijth has been doing sky photography. He however, got interested in astrophotography in 2017 by a stroke of luck. “Actually, my daughter wanted to have a telescope when she was in Grade VI. She was interested in seeing the planets. I also started observing stars and other celestial objects with the telescope. At the same time, I thought why not take photos of these objects. I studied about how to photograph the stars and how to handle the required equipment for one long year.” Pursuing astrophotography does not come cheap for the man who has a regular job and has to support his family in Qatar. “In the last two years, I have spent about QR40,000 to fulfil my interest in capturing celestial objects. My real interest is photographing deep space objects and not the planets. Initially, I was inspired by exquisite deep space photos by Nasa and some world-renowned astrophotography gurus. I just love the colours out there up at the night sky. The unseen in the skies is much more beautiful that what we see on the Earth.” Ajith does not find astrophotography an easy job. He has to face different natural and man-made challenges. “Here, in Qatar, the major challenge is urban light pollution. The cities are so illuminated that the cameras cannot have clear skies at night. “The Bortle scale is a nine-level numeric scale that measures the night sky’s brightness of a particular location. It quantifies the astronomical observability of celestial objects and the interference caused by light pollution. John E Bortle created the scale and published it in the February 2001 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine to help amateur astronomers evaluate the darkness of an observing site, and secondarily, to compare the darkness of observing sites. The scale ranges from Class 1, the darkest skies available on Earth, through Class 9, inner-city skies. It gives several criteria for each level beyond naked-eye limiting magnitude (NELM). “Doha city is in Class 9. Turayna is a place that is darkest in Qatar with Class 4. I have not come across a site where I can have Class 1 night view of the sky. I came across the Class 1 view in Ladakh, India.” Ajith travels most days of a week to Mazraat Turayna — from 80 to 90 kilometres from his home — at night to capture the best possible views of the nebulas and galaxies. For one photograph, I have to expose the skies to my camera for three to four hours. When we take a normal photo, we expose the image to be captured for .40 second — the speed of one click. In astrophotography, the camera click will remain open for four to five minutes taking continuous photos. It takes hundreds of photos. We stack them together. Then, we process the photos thorough special software. I use the software PixInsight to process the photos. Any image you take will be very dark. You will find nothing in the photos. You have to retrieve the data from the file. “I am actually doing narrow band imaging. In this, you have three kinds of filters — hydrogen filter, oxygen filter and sulphur filter. Each filter gathers one particular wave length. The filters are added separately with the camera. Filters work as lens do in the normal camera. These filters are placed in between the telescope and the camera. The other technique is called LRGB — Luminance, Red, Green and Blue — a photographic technique used in amateur astronomy for producing good quality colour photographs by combining a high-quality black-and-white image with a lower-quality colour image.” Ajith lays stress on the importance of knowing about the object that is to be captured. “We should know what time the particular object rises in the horizon and what time it sets in. Andromeda Galaxy, for example, comes out by 8pm and sets in by 2 to 3pm. We can see the galaxy with binoculars but not with its beautiful colours. Our eyes have special filters that filter out all those colours. It is seen like a cloud. “Another important aspect is arc angles. There are also arc minutes and arc seconds. This is special measurement in the sky that relates to how many degrees the object is above in the horizon. We can start photography when the celestial object is 25 arc angles above the horizon. Below that level, the equipment cannot capture the image of the object. There is a particular period. It is good when there is no moon.” Ajith simply loves going out and photographing the celestial objects millions of light years away from Earth. “I love the silence of the night when I focus on certain objects. It is really splendid watching the magnificent colours of the far off objects. I feel that we (Earth) are very tiny in the universe. We are very lonely in the cosmos. I agree with an astrophysicist who once said ‘Earth is a pale blue dot in the universe’.” Ajith’s next target is to capture Eagle Nebula. “It is called the pillars of creation. The centre of the nebula will look like three pillars. The nebulas are the birth place of stars. Unfortunately, the nebula is setting in very early nowadays. Most of the times, it is on the horizon during day time. I have to wait for a year or so to capture the nebula. Some photographers have already captured the nebula.”
Two weeks ago, the head of Nasa seemed sick of waiting for SpaceX and Boeing Co to finish developing the capsules that are supposed to carry US astronauts to and from the International Space Station. As SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk unleashed fanfare about his passion project — preparing to unveil SpaceX’s Starship Mars spaceship prototype — Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine took a rare public jab at him, tweeting that the Commercial Crew programme “is years behind schedule” and that his agency “expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer.” Last Thursday, he put a happier face on the situation, standing next to Musk at SpaceX’s Hawthorne headquarters and saying he was pleased with what he saw. “Elon and I are in strong agreement … that the one thing we have under development that is of the highest priority is launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine said at a news conference that also included the two astronauts who will be the first to ride in the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. But the fact remains that if neither SpaceX nor Boeing has its capsule ready to fly astronauts on a regular basis by September next, Nasa will be in a tight spot: It probably would have to buy last-minute seats on a Russian spacecraft, a potentially expensive and politically fraught move. Nasa and SpaceX have had a push-and-pull dynamic over the years. Musk has said his company would not be where it is today without Nasa contracts and support — so much so, he said, that his password used to be “I love Nasa.” SpaceX has also driven down launch costs across the industry, creating cost savings for the space agency even when it uses other contractors. At the same time, SpaceX doesn’t behave like a standard aerospace contractor, which is disconcerting to some at Nasa, said Lori Garver, who served as the agency’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013. SpaceX will “sue you, for instance, when they lose,” she said. The company sued the US government in 2014 when the Air Force awarded a lucrative contract, which SpaceX had wanted, to a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. SpaceX later agreed to drop the lawsuit after the Air Force said it would open more launches to competition, and SpaceX has now launched several spy satellites for the government. Last Thursday, Bridenstine pointed to SpaceX’s method of operation, particularly its iterative development process — or, as he described it, “fly, test, fix” — in which the company tests a component and then fixes any problems afterwards. Other Nasa contractors more deeply scrutinise every component before a test fire. SpaceX’s way is “different than a lot of our other contractors, but I don’t think it’s worse, I don’t think it’s better. It’s different,” Bridenstine said. “SpaceX is very good at moving quickly. And that’s good for Nasa. It pushes us.” Bridenstine does want to cut down on some uncertainties, saying that he wants all Nasa contractors to build “more realism” into development timelines and cost estimates. This type of relationship with contractors is fairly new for Nasa: The agency is used to commissioning specific craft that it then runs, such as the space shuttle, rather than hiring companies to provide services, such as the contracts held by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman Corp to ferry supplies to the space station. Five years ago, Nasa awarded SpaceX and Boeing a combined $6.8 billion to build their capsules, with a goal that the companies would ferry astronauts to the space station no later than 2017. But since then, federal budgets were cut — slowing the flow of that money — and both SpaceX and Boeing have encountered delays in developing and testing their capsules. Boeing said last year that a piece of its astronaut capsule system suffered a propellant leak during a test fire of its launch-abort engines, which are intended to blast astronauts to safety if something goes awry during launch. The company said at the time that it was “confident” it had found the cause of the problem and was correcting the issue. In April, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that had already completed an uncrewed test flight to the space station was destroyed during a test of the capsule’s escape system thrusters. Three months later, the company said it had determined a leaky valve was the likely culprit and replaced that component in its other capsules. Last Tuesday, Musk tweeted that SpaceX’s current schedule indicates all testing of the Crew Dragon, its safety systems and its Falcon 9 rocket would be done in about 10 weeks. But since July, Nasa’s Commercial Crew programme website no longer lists expected flight test dates for SpaceX or Boeing. Bridenstine said that if everything goes right, SpaceX could fly astronauts by the first quarter of next year, though he and Musk emphasised that tests could reveal additional problems, which would take time to fix. “We need to triple-, quadruple-check everything and make sure, ‘Is there anything we’ve overlooked?’ ” Musk said. “And if there is, we will delay the launch without hesitation and make those changes.” If both SpaceX and Boeing miss the September deadline, the United States probably will have to buy additional seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to ensure US astronauts can get to and from the space station. Buying seats from Russia typically requires a lead time of three years, according to a US Government Accountability Office report released in June. And Russia could charge a premium for late purchases, Garver said. Add to that the fraught political situation between the two countries, and it would be best if the US had its own ride to space, analysts have said. “Somehow we have been able to keep space exploration separate from the geopolitics,” Bridenstine said. “If everything goes according to plan, we may not need additional Soyuzes. But here’s something else we know: Usually things don’t go according to plan.” — Los Angeles Times/TNS
For decades, scientists have used ever-improving DNA forensics to help solve crimes and detect suspects in cold cases such as the Golden State Killer. But it has never been quick work: Laboratory analyses of genetic evidence can take weeks, even months to complete. That could all change, if private companies succeed in widely marketing a device called “Rapid DNA.” The printer-sized boxes — costing up to $250,000 apiece — can analyse a sample of blood, saliva or other biological matter in about 90 minutes, and they have a number of potential applications. A machine developed by Colorado-based ANDE Corporation helped identify victims of the 2018 Paradise fire and the more recent Conception dive boat disaster. But it is the prospective use of Rapid DNA in criminal investigations that is setting off alarm bells. Both privacy advocates and some forensic scientists fear police will abuse the technology to test people without their informed consent, or to mishandle evidence that could compromise prosecutions. “There is no question that getting faster DNA results is good for everyone in the criminal justice system,” said Lynn Garcia, general counsel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.” But we have to be sure that any technology is ready for prime time and is reliable and that the people who are using it are trained.” Two companies dominate the US market for Rapid DNA, Colorado-based ANDE and Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific. They stand to capitalise on the mushrooming demands for DNA analysis, and both are seeking to change state and federal laws so they can expand use of their machines. In California, Contra Costa, Sacramento and Orange counties have acquired the devices, and both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are trying to do so, as part of an FBI pilot project. Proponents say Rapid DNA would allow officers to more quickly identify a serial rapist or even a murderer, preventing suspects from slipping from their grasp. In June, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a $5.2 million contract to one Rapid DNA company to determine familial relationships of migrants at the border and to deter fraud and human trafficking. There is no question the devices work well on “single-source DNA,” genetic material that comes from a single person. The problem comes when there is a mixture of DNA from multiple individuals, said Vincent A Figarelli, superintendent of Arizona’s Crime Laboratory System. In those situations, a trained forensic scientist is needed to interpret it. “Mixture interpretation is the most difficult thing that crime laboratory analysts have to do by far,” Figarelli said. “There’s no way you want a Rapid DNA operator doing a mixture analysis.” Another concern is that police might consume an entire genetic sample while conducting a Rapid DNA test, leaving nothing for an accredited laboratory or the defence in future court proceedings. In Kentucky — where it is a felony to completely consume a DNA crime scene sample — ANDE and Thermo Fisher last year approached state law enforcement, misrepresenting their products’ immediate potential, said Laura Sudkamp, director of the state police forensic laboratory. “I jumped all over them,” Sudkamp said. “They were not telling the truth.” Ron O’Brien, a spokesman for Thermo Fisher, said the company was unaware of any employees improperly promoting the product in Kentucky. Jim Davis, chief federal officer for ANDE, said some laboratories feel imperilled by the new technology and underestimate the abilities of law enforcement. In Texas, the practices of ANDE prompted some to worry about a rushed rollout. In May, the Texas Forensic Science Commission learned that ANDE and a Houston hospital had entered into an agreement to test rape kits with Rapid DNA, without the written consent of victims or knowledge of forensic scientists. The company claims the Houston Forensic Science Center knew about the project, a claim Peter Stout, who heads the science centre, disputed. Also in Houston, police were found to be using Rapid DNA on a variety of crime scene evidence, without alerting the Houston science centre, according to Stout. After the Texas forensic commission learned of the practice, prosecutors decided they had to inform defence lawyers in about 80 cases that the DNA results had been obtained outside of a laboratory, potentially compromising the prosecutions. The forensic commission in June told ANDE to stop all Texas projects that did not involve an accredited DNA laboratory. That prompted criticism from Davis, who said his company was being targeted by “a small number of entrenched labs, which frankly, are feeling threatened.” Records show that ANDE has hired various lobbyists to promote Rapid DNA in Congress. Thermo Fisher has also contracted with several firms, including Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs. The company announced in January it had hired ex-congressman Dave Reichert to work on “policy changes necessary so law enforcement can harness the power of Rapid DNA.” Reichert, a former county sheriff in Washington state, became nationally famous in 2001 when he used DNA analysis to help catch the Green River Killer. DNA companies are pushing for changes in state laws so police can more easily use Rapid DNA on suspects as soon as they are arrested. Roughly 30 states allow immediate DNA testing of crime suspects — including California, which permits it for all felony arrestees. Several states have no such laws, or limit such testing to only the most serious felony cases. Federal laws and regulations also limit the use of Rapid DNA. The FBI currently refuses to allow any profiles produced by the devices to be uploaded to the national offender database. Five states, including California, are part of a pilot project to test the machines at booking stations, where genetic profiles of arrestees eventually will be uploaded to the national database for searches. In a 2017 Swedish study, crime scene DNA was tested on a Thermo Fisher device and reportedly produced one inaccurate profile and posed risks of contamination and sample mix-up. A company spokesman declined to comment on the study. Arizona’s Figarelli said the devices work well if technicians are trained to operate them and if forensic scientists are on call to assist law enforcement. “If you set up your program properly, you can use these instruments on crime scene samples — just not on all,” said Figarelli, adding that ANDE has been aggressively marketing the machines in Arizona. Since Arizona validated Rapid DNA in 2014, about 400 cases have been run on the machines, and all the results have been replicated in the laboratory, Figarelli said. The Orange County district attorney’s office has used a Rapid DNA instrument for about five years. The office runs crime scene samples against a database the office built from misdemeanour offenders who agreed to DNA testing as part of plea agreements. The database currently includes about 187,000 individual DNA profiles, and has been controversial among privacy advocates. Prosecutors use two forensic scientists to review the genetic profiles produced by the device. They also limit testing to biological samples that are likely to have come from a single person, according to the district attorney’s office. As of July 1, a device produced by a company that was later bought by Thermo Fisher had tested samples from 373 cases, and obtained 118 hits from profiles in the district attorney’s database. Prosecutors filed charges in 95 of those cases. Convictions were obtained in 75% of them, and 24% of the cases are pending, according to the district attorney’s office. Meanwhile in Kentucky, Sudkamp has been testing an ANDE machine in the laboratory to match genetic profiles from new rape kits against a copy of the state’s offender database. She said the laboratory can remove most of a victim’s DNA, leaving only the profile of the attacker. Sudkamp said the device has worked well so far, but she wants to ensure that others who use it in the future are trained and certified and protocols are in place. “You have to make sure that it works before you let anything loose,” Sudkamp said. —Los Angeles Times/TNS
Ready or not, here they come: Scientists who played hide and seek with rats found that their furry subjects seemed to love the game — and they were remarkably good at it. The unconventional experiment, described in a recent edition of the journal Science, sheds light on the sophisticated sense of play in these tiny rodents and the complex mechanisms at work in their brains. It also hints at the evolutionary usefulness of this type of play. “I thought it was a major scientific contribution to the field,” said Jeffrey Burgdorf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University who was not involved in the study. In recent decades, scientists have begun to explore the neural, behavioural and evolutionary underpinnings of play. Play is confusing because it’s done with no apparent purpose other than for its own sake, and yet all kinds of animals — from rats to elephants to humans — engage in it. In some ways, play appears to be an essential part of young mammalian development. These behaviours probably help train the brain in some way, said Michael Brecht, a neurobiologist at the Humboldt University of Berlin. “Many people think play and fun and all of these things are kind of trivial behaviours, but I think the opposite is the case,” said Brecht, the study’s senior author. Researchers have documented simple types of play in all kinds of mammals. That includes laboratory rats, which have even been found to emit ultrasonic “giggles” when they’re tickled. But Brecht said he and his colleagues wondered about accounts from pet owners who said their beloved rats could engage in a more complex game: hide and seek. Compared with something like playful wrestling, hide and seek is more complex for several reasons. It requires an understanding of the rules, a clear grasp of players’ distinct roles, and the ability to assume different roles on different rounds. The researchers taught six adolescent male rats how to play a one-on-one version of hide and seek. They outfitted a large room with cardboard barriers and small containers to serve as hiding places for humans and rats, respectively. The game started when the rat was placed in a small box in the middle of the room. If the rat was the “seeker,” the scientist would hide and then remotely open the box. If the rat was the “hider,” the scientist would crouch by the box when the rat came out, prompting the little rodent to scurry for cover. All six rats learned how to be the seeker; five of them were able to handle hiding as well. Typically, in experiments with lab rats, researchers offer food as a reward. But Brecht and his colleagues knew that rats can be trained to perform very complex sets of tasks just for a food reward, and they wanted a more natural response. So when the scientist found a hiding rat, or was discovered by a seeking rat, the animal was “rewarded” with petting, tickling or playful roughhousing before the game was reset for another round. The rats turned out to be remarkably sophisticated players. If the scientists let them peek, the rats used visual cues to find them faster. The animals also checked hiding spots that their opponent used repeatedly. When the human was found, the rats made ultrasonic calls — which the scientists measured but couldn’t hear — that could be reminiscent of a seeker’s triumphant “Found you!” The rats’ strategies completely changed when they were in the role of hider. They often switched up their hiding places, and preferred to take shelter in opaque boxes over transparent ones. They didn’t make the same vocalisations when they were found, an indication that they were trying their best to remain hidden. In fact, they’d often prolong the game by running away from the scientist and re-hiding, thus delaying the social interaction — a sign that the rats were playing for the fun of the game, not for any reward. There were other signs that the rats enjoyed the activity, Brecht said. They frequently did “joy jumps,” or freudensprung, teased the scientist, and made lots of calls when the game ended and when it began. In some ways, the rats trained the scientists how to play, too. The researchers found that whereas the rats loved to hide, they would run out to check on the scientist if he or she took too long in finding them. So the scientists had to shorten the time they took in finding the sequestered rodents. “Certainly it went both ways,” Brecht said of the training. While the rats played, the researchers recorded their brain activity from individual neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region associated with rules and social proximity. They found that the rats’ neurons responded in very specific ways to different game events. For example, one neuron in the infralimbic cortex would spark only at the start of the seeking rounds, when the animal was cued to the role he was to play. The fact that the rats so quickly picked up the rules, and could play with such sophistication, hints that hide and seek might not be such a foreign concept to these animals, Brecht said. Indeed, he said the behaviour is probably widespread in the animal kingdom, though exactly how many species might engage in it remains unsettled. “Our whole thinking is that hide and seek might actually be a very old game,” Brecht said, “maybe more (like) 100 million years old than a few thousand years old. And that this is part of this repertoire. We were struck at how good they were at it.” Burgdorf, who was not involved in the study, said the ability to track individual neurons, particularly in a relatively freer setting than typical reward-based laboratory experiments, was an impressive feat. “This allows us to be able to study the basic mechanism of emotion at the level of a single neuron,” he said. “We couldn’t do this before.” Peggy Mason, a neurobiologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the work, agreed that the neural readings were a “tour de force” but said that she was most impressed by the discovery that the rats didn’t just learn hide and seek — they wanted to play it. “They’re grooving on the game, and that’s pretty amazing,” Mason said. “To me, the behavioural results drive our thinking forward a lot.” But why do rats and other animals, particularly young ones, engage in different forms of play, both simple and complex? That’s a more difficult question to answer, Brecht said. One possibility is that such games help small animals like rats learn how to hide from predators. Play probably helps young animals learn how to socially interact, Mason said. She pointed to evidence that when rodents are prevented from playing during early development, they don’t grow into normal adults. Instead, they become anxious, they don’t play well with others, and they aren’t great parents. “The idea (is) that this is something that’s training them for the give and take of social interactions, which are inevitable in almost every animal’s life at one point or another,” Mason said. The researchers added that hide and seek might become a useful paradigm for testing whether rats, like humans and other primates, might have “Theory of Mind” skills, such as the ability to perceive the perspectives of others. If anything, Brecht said, the findings spoke to the incredible complexities of play — and the animals that engage in it. “We should have more appreciation for our playful capacities,” he said. — Los Angeles Times/TNS
It is the destiny of humans to explore more and more beyond Moon and Mars. There is a great need in every individual to explore. These were the inspiring words shared by Dr Mary Ellen Weber, who spent almost 19 days in space on two Space Shuttle missions as a Nasa astronaut, with a large gathering at the auditorium of Qatar National Library recently. The special presentation titled ‘The Moon and Beyond’ was organised in collaboration with the US embassy in Doha in connection with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Dr Weber talked about her experiences in space and the future of exploring the final frontier. She is a consultant in technology, innovation, strategic communications and high-risk operations, and serves on the Nasa Advisory Council Committee on Technology, Innovation and Engineering. The former astronaut explained her experience of being in space and what it takes from individuals and Nasa to go to space. She also spoke about the International Space Station, the interest other nations are taking and they should take in going out in space. Dr Weber spoke excitedly about Nasa’s plan to take man to the moon in 2024. “This next mission will put a woman on the moon. What we are going to have is a vehicle that will be orbiting around the moon all the time. It is going to be very flexible. So, we are not just going to the moon and coming back. We are actually going to be present at the moon. So, I am looking at young people wearing space suits. You now know where you are visiting next. That is the message.” The ex-astronaut further said: “Going to the moon teaches us a lot. The shuttle taught us how to land at the moon and return to the planet, which is the most risky part. The space station is helping us in how to live in space for 365 days of the year. We work with the things that are far from the Earth. It also teaches us how to go to the Mars. It is very exciting and amazing time. I feel so lucky to have the experience that I have. But I am not going to get the chance to go to the moon or the Mars. However, all the young people in this room have.” After her presentation, Dr Weber had a long question and answer session enabling the audience to throw probing queries. In response to a question whether or not there is water on a far off planet, she said: “Now, we do know that there is water on the surface of the Mars and underneath the moon surface. It is amazing. These discoveries are coming in fast. Things are changing. Water is the building block of life. That is what we all are hoping to find. “Mars is so far and we need advanced technologies to reach there and gather evidence before we populate the planet. I am not sure how soon we will be able to reach there. So far we do not know how to put man on Mars.” When a young girl asked Dr Weber what made her an astronaut, she said: “When I was a little girl, there were no female astronauts. It was very clear then only men will go out there. I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon but nobody asked me if I wanted to be an astronaut. It was only when I was in college, one day that I saw an advertisement in a newspaper and joined a parachute learning facility. I enjoyed it. One day, I called Nasa saying I wanted to be an astronaut. The sent me an application to fill in. If you want to be an astronaut, keep your eyes open and do not lose any opportunity.” When she was asked what happens to astronauts when they come back to Earth, she said: “Every aspect of our body is used to gravity and even the sensors in the body tell you how much liquid you have. When you go in to space, all the liquid in your body gets low. Every astronaut has 30 percent less liquid in the body when he or she is in the space. It is nice because you become a lot thinner [smiles]. But it becomes a problem when you land on Earth. Three hours before we come home, we eat massive amount of salt and drink water. Some astronauts are in such bad shape that they would spend many days in hospital.” A young boy asked Dr Weber: “What do you gain from going into space?” She replied: “We gain so much, knowledge is a wonderful great thing. Many new technologies have come from space programme. We got computers and phones after we went to space. “I personally believe there is a great need in all of us to explore. I personally believe that. I believe that is our human destiny. Even if we do not get all of those great technologies, we are going to explore.” When asked whether she was scared or excited before going to space, Dr Weber said: “You sort of put your fear or excitement aside. You focus on your job. My thing was clear. It was that what if I screwed up. That is the real fear. There is a lot of responsibility. You are excited about the experience. You also feel the weight of the responsibility.” After the end of the presentation, Dr Weber spoke with Community about her experience being in Qatar. She said: “I have never been to Qatar before. I was not even sure what to expect. But I am just so appreciative that what an interesting place it is. “One of the things that impresses me the most is the commitment to education and science that this country has made. I have been to universities here for the two days I am here. I can tell that Qatar is on the fast track to get better and better.” Appreciating the interest and attention that the audience took in her presentation, she said: “There were so many questions. The thing that surprised me the most was the youngest people asking the most sophisticated, smart and intelligent questions. I see there are very special young people here. “Interest in space travel is increasing. The space is changing so much. If you look in the last five years, dramatic changes are taking place. Things are actually becoming easier. Now we are able to use much smaller things to go to space. Everybody can now be involved. Students can design small satellites and that is happening in this country. I do think that if we are going to colonise the moon or go to Mars, it is going to take multiple nations and multiple cultures.”
Narrow rows of shallow gray bins tower to the ceiling. Resting inside are the jaw bones of saber-toothed cats and ancient coyotes that perished in the La Brea Tar Pits as many as 40,000 years ago. “The original Angelenos,” said Aisling Farrel, a collections manager at Rancho La Brea. “Everything that we have lived and died here, or at least migrated through here and died here.” Multiple species of saber-toothed cats went extinct about 10,000 years ago while coyotes survived — becoming the apex predators famous for terrorising family pets. The reason why, argues new research based on the La Brea fossils, was the coyote’s superior ability to adapt to a changing world. From about 15,000 to 10,000 years ago — the end of the Pleistocene epoch — a warming climate, the increasing encroachment of humans, or some combination of both led to a massive extinction of some of North America’s largest mammals. By asking how the survivors responded to the loss of the larger carnivores, said Vanderbilt University palaeontologist Larisa DeSantis, “we can begin to understand what the effects of past impacts of climate change and human effects were in these ecosystems and extract out important cautionary tales and lessons of relevance to conservation today.” For example, she asked, “Did the diets of cougars and wolves and coyotes change in a substantial way once extinction of these other animals occurred? And in what way did that actually happen?” With over 3.5 million fossils representing more than 600 different species, the La Brea Tar Pits would likely hold the answers. “If you’re going to study Pleistocene carnivores,” DeSantis said, “you go to La Brea.” An ancient tar seep in the middle of modern-day Los Angeles, the La Brea Tar Pits trapped all sorts of animals over the past 50,000 years. It’s one of the most valuable sites for palaeontologists studying both the causes and consequences of species extinctions. Unwitting herbivores like American bison or giant ground sloths that accidentally wandered into the sticky trap would cry out for help, attracting the attention of predators — dire wolves, coyotes, saber-toothed cats, and the rare American lion — looking for an easy snack. Those predators would inevitably become stuck themselves. To understand how these predators adapted to the changing prey availability and the loss of other predators, DeSantis and her collaborators looked for clues hidden in their teeth: both the chemical composition of the enamel and the physical scrapes left on the surface. “Everything you eat is incorporated into your tissues,” DeSantis said. “The great thing about teeth is that the signal is locked in at the time those teeth mineralise.” Tooth enamel is laid down in adolescence, so it provides a snapshot of what an animal was eating during its young-adult life. Drilling into the tooth, the researchers removed one to two milligrams of enamel — an amount comparable to about three grains of sugar. Team members from Vanderbilt and New York State Museum in Albany then used mass spectrometry to measure the relative abundance of different isotopes of carbon in the enamel from ancient and modern-day carnivores. Teeth with a higher ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 indicate that their owner ate prey that lived in open grassy areas. Teeth with a lower ratio signal the carnivore hunted in more covered, forested areas. The reason for this difference is that plants that grow in these environments do photosynthesis slightly differently, leading to distinctive ratios of carbon-13 and carbon-12. Herbivores that eat the plants incorporate their ratio of carbon isotopes into their bodies, as do the carnivores further up the food chain. According to the carbon isotope ratios, saber-toothed cats preferred to hunt in sheltered groves. “It makes sense then that an ambush predator would be catching more prey in a more covered area than in an open plain,” said Julie Meachen, a palaeontologist from Des Moines University who was not involved in the research. Ancient coyotes, on the other hand, hunted in open areas. But after larger predators died out, coyotes began catching prey in more forested areas, their tooth enamel revealed. This shift was even clearer when the researchers looked at the physical wear and tear on the animals’ teeth. Using a technique called dental microwear texture analysis, “we scan that surface in three dimensions, much like a topographic map,” DeSantis said. Peter Ungar, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Arkansas and the inventor of dental microwear texture analysis, explained that foods leave characteristic marks on the teeth. If the predator is eating “the organs and the meat, but not the bone, then they should have microwear dominated by fine parallel scratches,” he said. But if they are eating a lot of bone, they’ll have “a lot of pits on their teeth.” The researchers found that before the Pleistocene extinction, both saber-toothed cats and coyotes were chowing down on the fleshy, meaty parts of their prey. But teeth from coyotes found in the tar pits after the Pleistocene extinction were much more pitted and complex, indicating that they had shifted to a more scavenging behaviour — a characteristic of coyotes alive today. (Sure enough, the teeth of modern-day coyotes were also quite pitted.) In other words, DeSantis said, the animals “were able to adapt.” The findings were published this month in the journal Current Biology. “It’s a really interesting study,” said Ungar, who praised the team for using multiple types of evidence to make their case. “I think that’s the future of this kind of work.” It’s not yet clear why the saber-toothed cats and dire wolves couldn’t adjust to the changing ecosystem as well as the coyotes did. Perhaps those larger predators had become too specialised, DeSantis said. “If you are smaller, if you are a generalist, if you are opportunistic, you have a better chance at surviving,” she said. Understanding the coyotes’ response to the disappearance of large predators will guide researchers as they think about how other species might react to future extinction events. When building models for how species could change in response to climate change and human population growth, “you have to make the assumption that what the animal does today, an animal will do tomorrow,” DeSantis said. “But as we’ve learned from the coyotes, that’s not always the case.” — Los Angeles Times/TNS
It was happy hour at the “Frog Shack,” a tiny building at the Los Angeles Zoo offering all the amenities that Southern California’s rarest — and perhaps fussiest — amphibians might need to survive. Aeration and water filtration systems hummed softly in rows of temperature-controlled tanks, where tadpoles of the southern mountain yellow-legged frog binged on a mix of algae flakes and vitamins. Fist-sized adult frogs, some of them bulging with eggs, lounged on pebble beds after a meal of crickets and wax worms. This is where Ian Recchio, the zoo’s curator of reptiles and amphibians, is performing what some call miracle work in keeping alive a federally endangered species, one of the rarest vertebrates on Earth. Recchio might be unknown to the general public, but in the effort to save and recover these frogs, Recchio is, as US Geological Survey biologist Robert Fisher put it, “a rock star.” “He’s a no-nonsense, reliable guy who knows what he’s doing and gets the job done,” said Fisher, who notes that southern mountain yellow-legged frogs are notoriously hard to breed in captivity and harder still to reintroduce into their native habitat — the high-elevation streams of the San Bernardino, San Gabriel and San Jacinto mountains. “The success rate of reintroduced tadpoles and frogs … has not been great,” added Fisher. “But it has kept this species from blinking out of existence.” Recchio is more humble about what the Frog Shack is accomplishing. “As long as yellow-legged frogs are needed, I can produce them,” he said. Named for the bright yellow on their undersides, southern mountain yellow-legged frogs once thrived in hundreds of streams cascading down the high mountains that surround Los Angeles. But since the 1960s, nonnative trout, bullfrogs and crayfish have decimated these frogs. So have wildfires, extreme weather and hotter stream temperatures linked to climate change. With skin as permeable as a sponge, the frog is also highly susceptible to a skin fungus linked to amphibians vanishing around the world. By 2002, when the species was listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, fewer than 100 adults remained in the region. The situation demanded an emergency intervention, and Recchio is one expert who answered the call. Clad in blue jeans, a baseball cap and scuffed leather shoes, Recchio, 48, moved quietly through the Frog Shack on a recent weekday to avoid rousing its sensitive inhabitants. He surveyed the scene in the 15-by-15-foot captive breeding facility like a satisfied impresario. “Everything that happens here aims to mimic the conditions of the frog’s natural life cycles of winter hibernation, spring thaw and mating season,” he said. “And this year, we hatched out more than 1,000 new tadpoles for the federal effort to recover one of the rarest amphibians on the planet.” Part of Recchio’s success has come through trial and error — learning from past setbacks to breed yellow-legged frogs. In 2011, for example, a Fresno Chaffee Zoo effort was tripped up by the deaths of 104 frogs that, two years earlier, had been rescued from the fire-stripped San Gabriel Mountains. A breakthrough came when Recchio and other scientists learned that the life cycle of yellow-legged frogs from the San Gabriel Mountains was different than their cousins in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains. For one thing, the San Gabriel tadpoles metamorphose about twice as fast as those in nearby mountain ranges. “Our San Gabriel Mountain tadpoles become frogs within about a year — and that was a little bit of an issue,” Recchio said, “because our initial captive breeding protocol was based, in part, on one developed at the San Diego Zoo, which deals with frogs from the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains.” Recchio and his team had to develop a new template. He developed one from a programme used to successfully breed Armenian vipers, a venomous snake found in Alpine terrain with steep annual temperature changes and light gradients. The scientists started adjusting conditions in the lab to replicate the frogs’ winter cycle, which begins in mid-October. “That’s when we start stepping down the amount of light in the room by about an hour each week,” said zookeeper Marlowe Robertson-Billet, 37, who monitors the amphibians with the attention of a full-time nanny, “and chilling the water temperature in their tanks by 1 to 2 degrees once or twice a week.” Those conditions mimic what the wild frogs experience in the dead of winter, when they hunker down in a mud bank under a blanket of snow. “So, by mid-December,” she said, “the facility is in total darkness, the water is chilled to 34 degrees and the frogs are in a state of hibernation, absorbing oxygen through their skin and floating to the surface every hour or so for a gulp of air.” In April, the cycle is reversed. By mid-August, she said, the water has reached its peak temperature of 60 degrees. The bounty of the team’s work is hundreds of new tadpoles each year. About 900 of this year’s crop are scheduled to be released in a creek where they’d been absent for half a century. A year ago, about 500 tadpoles were released into a stream elsewhere in the range. They are the offspring of two genetically distinct groups of tadpoles Recchio took into his care in 2014 as what he described as a “genetic insurance colony” to prevent the species from spiraling into oblivion. This marks the second year tadpoles reared at the zoo have been released into the Angeles National Forest. Recchio grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, and his fascination with things that crawl, croak and slither began when he was a kid, accompanying his father, an amateur herpetologist, on collecting trips across the American West and Mexico. He absorbed books about herpetology and about naturalists, such as Laurence M Klauber, the first curator of reptiles and amphibians at the San Diego Natural History Museum. As a teenager, he started volunteering at the Los Angeles Zoo, where he befriended curators and zookeepers, and went on to assist in studying and collecting reptile and amphibian specimens from around the world. A personal highlight came in the early 1990s, when Recchio found a rosy boa — one of only two boa snakes native to the United States — in the shadows of the Hollywood sign. “It remains the only one ever recorded at that cultural icon,” said Recchio, who has served as the Los Angeles Zoo’s curator of herpetology for 13 years and helped design its Living Amphibians, Reptiles and Invertebrates facility. He is also a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Komodo dragon committee, and an expert on pit vipers. The federal frog recovery programme he is part of goes beyond captive breeding. Since 2006, federal wildlife authorities have worked to remove non-native trout from some of the frogs’ ancestral haunts and, in certain areas, they have barred public access. The collaborative effort includes the Los Angeles Zoo; the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research; the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha; the US Forest Service; the US Fish and Wildlife Service; the US Geological Survey, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. So far, however, tadpoles and frogs reared at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos haven’t spurred an exponential resurgence in wild southern mountain yellow-legged frogs. Today, fewer than 400 of them are believed to exist in the wild. “These little guys will face an uphill battle after they’re reintroduced … no doubt about it,” said Recchio. “It’s getting hard to find habitat that isn’t a flood zone or drought-stricken or dominated by invasive predators like trout and bullfrogs.” Amphibians produce huge numbers of eggs, and one reason is that only the luckiest and hardiest survive. For the same reasons, it has been difficult for biologi sts to keep track of captive-bred frogs and tadpoles after they are released into their native habitat. The San Diego Zoo has launched an experiment to resolve that problem: they have surgically implanted microchip radio transmitters, the size of rice grains, into 25 captive-bred yellow-legged frogs scheduled for release in September in the San Jacinto Mountains. “The goal is to chart the progress of reintroduced frogs with real-time data on their movements and locations,” said Talisin Hammond, a biologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “The results could be critical to the ultimate survival of this unique species.” Recchio would not argue with any of that. “When it comes to saving endangered amphibians here and around the world,” he said, “this is a time of experimentation.” — Los Angeles Times/TNS
The vast majority of earthquakes we feel come soon after smaller ones, according to new research that provides unprecedented insights into how seismology works. Sometimes days or even weeks before most temblors of at least magnitude 4.0 strike, scientists have found, smaller ones start rippling beneath the Earth’s surface — activity that can be detected thanks to an advanced computing technique. “One of the biggest questions in earthquake seismology is how earthquakes get started,” said the study’s lead author, Daniel Trugman, a seismologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Previously, scientists observed that only half of all moderate quakes had smaller precursor events. This new study of earthquakes in Southern California of at least magnitude 4 between 2008 and 2017 found that at least 72% of them followed less-powerful quakes. “Elevated foreshock activity is pervasive in Southern California,” the study concluded. “It is surprising,” said study co-author Zachary Ross, an assistant professor of geophysics at the California Institute of Technology. “It’s important for understanding the physics of earthquakes. Are they silent until this big event? Or is there a weakening process of the fault, or some evidence that the fault is changing before this larger event?” The study shows the answer is probably the latter explanation. The discovery gives scientists a better understanding about how earthquakes are generated. Knowing that even moderate quakes probably occur after a series of less-powerful ones gives added weight to the idea that earthquake sequences can grow, not unlike a spreading disease epidemic. In fact, the study shows the foreshock sequences ranged from starting three days to 35 days ahead of the mainshock. The finding doesn’t mean we should suddenly be worried about small quakes. Statistically speaking, only 5% of earthquakes are followed by something worse. It also doesn’t mean researchers are any closer to predicting the exact timing and epicentres of big earthquakes. “The vast majority of time that you have an earthquake,” Ross said, “even if you see anomalous activity start up, it’s going to die down on its own — that’s most of the time.” But understanding how quakes get bigger can help scientists get better at aftershock forecasting. That would help the public understand when there’s a greater risk, such as when the chance of a large quake rises from a background risk of 1-in-10,000 odds to 1-in-1,000 odds, based on a previous quake. “We are definitely moving toward forecasting that is statistical in nature,” Trugman said. The discovery could also help improve the speed of earthquake early warning systems, Ross said. If the computer has detected microquakes close to a major fault, and knows that most major quakes are preceded by smaller foreshocks, that can help speed up the decision by the system to issue a warning in the moments after an earthquake has begun rupturing along a fault. The breakthrough in the study, published earlier this summer in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, was made possible by the discovery of a new technique to find very small earthquakes — quakes as small as magnitudes 0 and 1, and some as small as magnitude negative 2. (Quakes can now have negative magnitudes because this new technique allows for observation of quakes so small they were previously thought to be undetectable.) Having a higher-definition look allows scientists to detect many more foreshocks. “This new information is coming from the tiniest magnitude events that were basically invisible before,” Ross said. For the study, Trugman and Ross focused on 46 of the largest quakes in Southern California between 2008 and 2017 (while excluding those that were aftershocks of other larger events). They found that 33 of the 46 had a statistically significant jump in foreshocks compared with the normal rate of earthquakes for that area. They discovered a particularly lengthy foreshock sequence preceding the magnitude 5.1 La Habra earthquake of March 2014. There were foreshocks in the magnitude 0 and 1 range as early as 17 days ahead of the mainshock. The 2010 Easter Sunday magnitude 7.2 earthquake widely felt in Southern California was not included in the analysis, because its epicentre was in Baja California. But that earthquake was preceded by a notable foreshock sequence. The scientists could not determine a specific pattern to the foreshocks that would lead to a magnitude 4 or greater quake. Sometimes, it would appear as a burst of quakes near what would become the mainshock epicentre days or hours later. Other times, it would appear as a widespread increase in the earthquake rate in the general area before the mainshock. They also found that shallower mainshocks tended to have more foreshocks, as do areas with higher heat flow, such as around the Coso Volcanic Field in Inyo County and the Salton Sea, which are warmed by magma. The results help solve a long mystery that earthquake scientists had not been able to explain. In lab experiments where scientists would simulate earthquakes with sensitive equipment, there would always be small earthquakes that came before the main quake. “It’s never just silent until the final failure,” Ross said of the lab earthquakes. The results suggest that it’s possible that all moderate and large quakes are preceded by something smaller, but getting to that conclusion would require more studies. “It’s hard to imagine this huge fault that stays completely silent until a single point just happens to start failing,” Ross said. “Physically, that seems a little difficult to imagine.” — Los Angeles Times/TNS
The taut rope that was lowering an underwater listening station to the ocean’s floor collapsed on the tug boat’s deck with a slap, signalling to the crew on board that their mission was complete. They had successfully deployed a sound system in the Santa Barbara Channel. The device could capture whale calls as far as 30 miles away. Cables connected the listening station — about 600 feet below sea level — to a buoy floating on the surface, which would transmit audio frequencies by satellite to scientists on shore. The effort in early August was the latest attempt to prevent ships from running into whales in the channel, where large commercial boats coming in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach cross paths with the feeding grounds of endangered blue, fin and humpback whales. The initiative, planned to fully launch in early 2020, is designed to alert captains to slow their ships down. The sound system is about two miles from traffic lanes in the channel that thousands of cargo ships traverse every year. “The Santa Barbara Channel is like a buffet for a lot of whales,” said Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which is sponsoring the $1.5 million project. “That hot spot happens to be right on the marine highway, kind of like the offshore version of the 101 that connects Santa Barbara to the ports of LA/Long Beach.” In 2007, five blue whales were found dead in the channel. Efforts to reduce deaths have included shifting the ship traffic lanes and offering financial incentives to companies that follow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s request that ships slow down during whale season. It hasn’t been enough. In 2018, 11 whales in California died in ship collisions, the highest number NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has on record and a surge from the average 3.8 annual deaths over the previous five years. This year, at least 11 whales are known to have died. The reality is likely far grimmer. Deaths often go unreported because whales typically sink when they die and are hit in remote areas. A 2017 study found that ship strikes kill more than 80 whales off the West Coast annually. “If they’re not coming in wrapped around the bow of a container or cruise ship when they’re coming into a port, they go undocumented,” said Sean Hastings, the resource protection coordinator for NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Of special concern are blue whales, a population drastically reduced by commercial whaling. Most of the world’s more than 1,600 eastern North Pacific blue whales migrate up the West Coast every year from their winter habitat off Mexico and Central America, according to NOAA. For Hastings, even several endangered whale deaths a year is unacceptable. “Their populations are so suppressed that each animal counts in trying to rebuild those calculations,” he said. Spotting whales from towering ships is difficult. Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, a nonprofit that monitors ship traffic, said that a whale’s blowhole can be easily confused with the whitecaps of the sea. And even if a watch officer sees a whale, the ship may not be able to turn fast enough to avert striking it. “The watch officers are trying to figure out, is the whale going left, is the whale going right?” he said. “Let’s not have the ship avoid a whale and have a collision with another ship coming another way, or hit an oil platform.” Scientists have also found that whales rarely react to oncoming ships. They have not evolved to respond to them as threats. “It’s not like you can get struck by a couple ships and learn,” said John Calambokidis, a biologist at Cascadia Research in Olympia, Washington, who has researched this behaviour. One solution has shown promise: slowing ships down. In 2008, NOAA required certain ships to travel at 10 knots (about 12 miles per hour) or less in areas along the East Coast to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. One study found that the likelihood of whales being struck and killed by ships was reduced by 80% to 90%. “Vessels going faster are much more likely to hit whales, and those whales that are hit are more likely to die when ships travel at faster speeds,” said Paul Conn, a co-author of the study and a statistician at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. But scientists on the West Coast say they’ve been disappointed by efforts to encourage ships to voluntarily slow down. Ships usually travel between 14 and 18 knots per hour along California’s shore. During whale season, which typically lasts from May to November, NOAA recommends that large ships travel no more than 10 knots in areas by the channel. In 2018, about 20% of these ships in the channel slowed down, a rate that’s “not good enough,” Hastings said. He said a programme that offers financial incentives and positive publicity to companies that reduce their ships’ speeds shows a little more promise. It emerged from a partnership called Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies, which includes NOAA and several air pollution control districts. It aims to cut air emissions and protect endangered whales in the channel and Bay Area. It has grown from seven participating shipping companies in 2014 to 15 companies in 2019, said Jessica Morten, a resource protection specialist who helps administer the programme. Those 15 companies account for 90% of container ship traffic on the West Coast, and Morten said she would like to see more of the participating companies meet the speed reduction criteria. “I feel frustration, and I know others on my team are a little disappointed that we’re not seeing higher levels of cooperation,” Morten said. Scientists hope the new sound system will help better define when whale season starts and ends so that more shipping companies slow down. But it has its limits, said Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who led the design of the system. The technology cannot pinpoint where whales are and can only tell scientists that whales have been heard in its coverage area. “It’s telling you that they’re there and the risk of ship strike is elevated,” he said. In addition, the project’s scientists have built a model that pairs historical data on where blue whales have traveled on the West Coast with data on current ocean conditions in order to predict where blue whales are likely to be. It could predict that whales may show up earlier than usual during a year with anomalous warm water conditions, said Briana Abrahms, a research ecologist at NOAA designing the model. The Benioff Ocean Initiative plans on providing direct updates to shipping companies on the level of risk to whales in the channel. The looming question, however, is whether this will encourage more companies to slow down. John Berge, a vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, said ships might find it hard to be receptive to frequent updates. “From a planning perspective, and so much of this is when and where you’re going to arrive at your next port of call, knowing something a few hours ahead might be difficult to incorporate,” he said. But some companies have shown that they can commit to slowing down — at least, when they can build it into their schedules. A trip between the ports of LA and Oakland typically takes up to 24 hours, but it’s about 30 hours at reduced speed, said Stanley Kwiaton, general manager of port operations for the West Coast for the Mediterranean Shipping Company, which has participated in the incentive programme. Kwiaton said ships might respond to updates on whale activity with the same flexibility they reserve for changes in the weather. “More information is better than none,” he said. “If they provided us with something, at least the captain is going to assess it.” Hastings said about 20% of traffic coming out of the ports of Long Beach and LA passes south of the Channel Islands and there has been some interest in diverting more traffic that direction. However, he said, complicating matters is the fact the Navy has a weapons-testing range in the area. Other ideas include expanding an internationally recognised area that ships are to avoid around the islands. A study published last month found that expanding that area could reduce risk to whales. Some experts, while appreciative of new approaches, are wary of continuing to invest in solutions that rely on ships voluntarily changing their behaviour. “I’m not sure if this will tip the scale to suddenly make industry much more responsive than it was,” Calambokidis said of the new sound system. — Los Angeles Times/TNS
Inspired by science fiction and a strange phenomenon on the Martian surface, researchers have discovered a way that Earth life could survive on the red planet. A team of scientists at Harvard University, the University of Edinburgh, and Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have found that a material called aerogel can trap enough heat from sunlight to create regions of liquid water and Earth-like temperatures on Mars. This technology, they say, could be adapted to build human habitats in the not-so-distant future. In a new study, the researchers show that placing a thin layer of a translucent aerogel — just a few centimetres thick — atop Mars’ surface could heat the ground by up to 50 degrees Celsius, or 90 degrees Fahrenheit, or more. This would be enough to thaw water previously frozen underground, providing the crucial ingredient to support life. Just like carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the aerogel allows visible light to pass through and warm up the ground, but makes it harder for infrared light — which humans cannot see, but experience as heat — to escape. Thanks to its unique structure, aerogel produces a much more efficient greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. “Jelly (is) a structure (made) of a solid filled with (tiny pockets of) liquid. If you suck out all the liquid and replace it with air, you get an aerogel,” said Laura Kerber, a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These air pockets are the key to heating up Mars. “Air is really bad at conducting heat, but it usually moves around and brings heat from place to place. But since (in the aerogel) it’s trapped in all these tiny pockets, then (the air) can’t mix around, and that makes it a great insulator,” she said. A similar type of aerogel is used to insulate the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars, as well as deep sea pipes, fire-fighting equipment, and even houses here on Earth. Scientists could deploy the aerogel on a small-scale first and then work up to more ambitious projects. “The simplest one ... is to make (an aerogel) blanket and allow algae and microbial life (from Earth) to grow. Habitats for humans — it would still absolutely work, but you’d have to combine (the aerogel) with other materials,” said Robin Wordsworth, an associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard. “In its current form, (the aerogel) is pretty brittle,” Kerber said. Mars’ atmosphere is very thin and toxic to most Earth life, so any habitable structure would have to be airtight. She explained that in the future, tiles made of aerogel sandwiched between strong plexiglass could be used to make a pressurised dome for humans. Because these Earth-life environments would be self-contained, they would also preserve whatever Martian life might exist. “Nobody wants to go to Mars and kill the only other life we find by out-competing it with Earth life. This is a nice solution; piece by piece, little contained island of habitability, we can live there and (not) mess it up,” Kerber said. “This, we think, for the first time, is a local and scalable way to approach achieving Martian habitability. There are many challenges. But we think it is very exciting that this is now a possibility in our lifetime,” Wordsworth said. This finding, exciting as it is, is only the latest in a story that began far before humans even walked on the moon. “The science fiction I started my life with (is) coming true,” said Edward Guinan, a professor of astrophysics and planetary science at Villanova University, who was not involved in the study. For more than a century, science fiction authors have been writing about human settlements on the red planet, depicted as having breathable air, liquid water, and advanced alien life. Humanity’s understanding of Mars took a leap forward in 1965, when the Mariner 4 probe took the first close-up photos and found that Mars was entirely inhospitable to humans — deserted, dry, and with a dangerously thin atmosphere. But writers and scientists — many inspired by their favourite novels — didn’t give up. Instead, they focused on terraforming: using technology to radically transform Mars into a place where people could survive. In 1971, Carl Sagan proposed vaporising all of the frozen water and carbon dioxide of Mars’ ice caps. The resulting gas would then heat the planet by the same greenhouse effect behind Earth’s own global warming crisis. But in 2018, Nasa discovered that there was not enough frozen water and carbon dioxide on Mars for this plan to work without incredibly advanced technology. Harvard’s Wordsworth felt pushed to think practically about terraforming. “(We asked) what actually could work and what couldn’t in our lifetime, as opposed to far in the future,” he said. The direct inspiration for the aerogel project, however, came from Mars itself. The same heating process “already happens on Mars right now, but with (frozen carbon dioxide). It’s pretty transparent, and accumulates on dunes. The sun shines through, and gas starts forming. And it finally explodes, and you get these geysers of (carbon dioxide) that leave black spots. Happens every spring,” said Kerber. Having studied the Martian surface, Kerber has already discovered the ideal spot to build a human settlement. “I know where all of the subsurface water is on the planet. There’s this place called Deuteronilus Mensae. If you want to do this, this is where I’d put your domes; this is where there’s water close to the surface,” she said. As for what those living in aerogel-heated habitats on Mars might eat, Guinan and his astrobotany students are working on it. “We have a greenhouse in Villanova. We are growing plants in Martian simulated soil, (and) under the light conditions we get on Mars, “he said. Guinan already plans for his students to experiment with growing their “Mars Garden” in an aerogel-based greenhouse. “I already bought (aerogel). We are actually going to try it,” he said. Having worked in astrophysics for over 50 years, Guinan is hopeful that this new technology will see humans living and growing food on Mars within his lifetime. Kerber believes that solving the remaining challenges — the largest of which is the trip to Mars itself — is only a matter of funding. “If someone said, ‘Here’s a bunch of money, and go do it,’ we’d do it. People think it’s so far out of reach, or something from a sci-fi film — it’s not. Let us try,” she said. — The Philadelphia Inquirer/ TNS
Fifty years ago, Glen Williams, along with an estimated 600 million other people around the globe, watched, transfixed, as a television screen showed Apollo 11 touching down on the moon. Williams was 15 at the time, living in south suburban Riverdale. He was crazy about astronomy, and the moon landing, which he watched with his mom, dad and two sisters, was an enormous, life-changing event. “I remember there was a lot of apprehension,” Williams said. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, they have to take off again from the moon. What if that goes wrong? What if they’re stuck there?’ That would have been terrible.” There was tremendous excitement, too. A sense of unity embraced the nation. Tens of thousands of people gathered in New York’s Central Park to watch gigantic television screens. Cheers erupted in living rooms and bars and airports and parks across the country when Neil Armstrong took his first, powdery steps. The day of the landing, July 20, 1969, the Chicago Daily News included a note to readers regarding the following day’s newspaper. It would be a historic edition, editors noted, filled with coverage of the landing: How it went. Who watched. How they reacted. What it all meant. The note offered instructions on how to preserve that history-recording newspaper as a keepsake, should readers be so inclined. Edna Williams, mother of Glen Williams, was so inclined. “She was doing it more for me,” said Williams, now 65 and a professor of physics and astronomy at Central Michigan University. Together, mother and son gathered the Sunday evening paper (the Chicago Daily News was an afternoon daily) and followed the prompts. “We got a cotton sheet and rolled it up in that,” Williams said. “Then we wrapped it in aluminium foil and put a layer of plastic over that.” They covered the whole thing in thick, clear packing tape and labelled it: MOON LANDING JULY 21, 1969. The newspaper sat in a dresser drawer at Edna Williams’ Riverdale home until 1978, when she retired and moved to Arkansas. She brought the newspaper with her. She passed away four years ago, and Glen Williams has held onto the paper in his central Michigan home ever since. As the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approached, he thought about opening it. “I told Karen, it just seemed like if it was just the two of us opening it at home it would be anticlimactic,” he said. (Karen is his wife.) “After 50 years, we wanted to share it with somebody else.” They e-mailed a Tribune editor and offered to drive to Chicago and open it inside the newsroom. The Daily News ceased production in 1978, so the Tribune newsroom would have to do. (Besides, Williams wasn’t altogether sure which newspaper he and his mom wrapped up for safe keeping. He just knew that it came to the house each day.) The Williams’ grown sons, 29 and 31, live near O’Hare. They’d make a two-day visit out of it. On Friday, we gathered in a conference room for the big reveal. I brought my son, who wanted to read how the Cubs were doing on July 21, 1969. A photographer and videographer captured the unwrapping. “My best hope is it will look like a brand new paper,” Williams said, as he unfurled the plastic, then foil, then cotton sheet. Glen Williams saved a Chicago Daily News from July 21, 1969, and brought it to the Chicago Tribune newsroom to open for the first time in 50 years. Williams joined Heidi Stevens on July 19, 2019, in the newsroom and unwrapped the 50-year-old paper. The newsprint had browned a bit, but it remained in excellent condition. The ink still came off on our fingers as we paged through the stories and photos and ads and opinion pieces. The Sunday paper cost 10 cents. A frozen pizza went for $1.49. Cartons of ice cream were five for $1. A colour television from Marshall Field’s would set you back $900. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress, had just endorsed John Lindsay’s re-election bid for mayor of New York City. Sen. Ted Kennedy was facing questions about the death of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a passenger in Kennedy’s car who died when Kennedy drove off a one-lane bridge. The Cubs just beat the Phillies in a double-header, 1-0 and 6-1. On the op-ed page, Sydney J Harris wrote a piece headlined, The ‘love it or leave it’ nonsense. “One of the most ignorant and hateful statements that a person can make to another is, ‘If you don’t like it here, why don’t you leave?’ ” Harris wrote. “Most people who want to change conditions do like it here: they love it here. They love it so much they cannot stand to see it suffer from its imperfections, and want it to live up to its ideals. It is the people who placidly accept the corruptions and perversions and inequities in our society who do not love America.” Still haven’t resolved that one, have we. Mostly, though, that Sunday paper was filled with the moon. The entire front and back page were taken up by the moon landing. The front-page story was datelined, Tranquility Base, THE MOON. Inside, stories captured the mood around the country and the world as observers grappled with one of humankind’s greatest feats. A photo of Pope Paul VI witnessing the landing filled one page. There was a photo of soldiers in Vietnam huddled around a radio. “Faces painted with grease, US Rangers listen to an Apollo 11 radio broadcast,” read the caption. Mike Royko penned a lovely column, Other walks need walking. “I’d like to see a black man walk through the Back of the Yards, Gage Park or Cicero without being forced to flee for his life,” Royko wrote. “Come the first day of school in September, I’d like to see all the kids in all the big cities walk into their classrooms to a decent education.” He continued: “When gravely sick poor people walk into a hospital, let them get the same treatment and kindness that is afforded to rich people who are there to get a nose job or just take a rest.” “The diplomats,” he wrote, “should walk into the peace talks like they are dealing with flesh and blood, not dealing a crooked card game.” He concluded: “When people start taking some of these walks, history will do more than stagger; it will do a dance of joy.” I asked Williams if he talks to his students about the moon landing. “We talk about things that have been discovered about the moon from a lot of the rocks that were brought back by Apollo,” he said. “They’ve given us a lot of insight into the history of the moon.” It’s lovely to think about that long-ago exercise between a mother and a son, carrying into today, 50 years later. The mother no longer with us, the son sharing his love of astronomy with college kids. (And a journalist. And her son.) I’m so grateful to Williams for his history lesson — about the moon, and about humankind. Join the Heidi Stevens Balancing Act Facebook group, where she continues the conversation around her columns and hosts occasional live chats. — Chicago Tribune/TNS