Category Archives: News

How Many People Die When Polluters Exceed Their Limits?

WIRED

A new report tallies the death toll from excess emissions by looking at air pollution and spikes in local ozone levels.

MEASURING AIR QUALITY is inherently a measure of excess—any amount of toxic nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, and fine particulate matter is probably bad for human health. But when it comes to federal regulations, the notion of excess gets a bit wonky. When a refinery or plant outstrips the limits set by the local public health authorities to cap pollution, those fumes are considered “excess emissions,” or, more wonkily still, “exceedances.”

Emissions limits are arbitrary, of course. Less pollution is always better in a country where more than 20 people die every hour from poor air quality, and where that burden skews toward communities of color. But parsing the human cost of these overflows is helpful for weighing—or possibly tightening—those arbitrary limits. So Nikolaos Zirogiannis, an environmental economist at Indiana University, decided to quantify the health toll in one state: How many people die each year as a result of that extra pollution?

Read the full story in WIRED

This Brain-Controlled Robotic Arm Can Twist, Grasp—and Feel

WIRED

Nathan Copeland learned to move a robotic arm with his mind, but it was kind of slow. Then researchers gave him touch feedback.

NATHAN COPELAND WAS 18 years old when he was paralyzed by a car accident in 2004. He lost his ability to move and feel most of his body, although he does retain a bit of sensation in his wrists and a few fingers, and he has some movement in his shoulders. While in the hospital, he joined a registry for experimental research. About six years ago, he got a call: Would you like to join our study?

Read the full story in WIRED

This Is Your Brain Under Anesthesia

WIRED

For the first time, researchers were able to observe, in extra-fine detail, how neurons behave as consciousness shuts down.

WHEN YOU ARE awake, your neurons talk to each other by tuning into the same electrical impulse frequencies. One set might be operating in unison at 10 hertz, while another might synchronize at 30 hertz. When you are under anesthesia, this complicated hubbub collapses into a more uniform hum. The neurons are still firing, but the signal loses its complexity.

A better understanding of how this works could make surgery safer, but many anesthesiologists don’t use an EEG to monitor their patients. That bugs Emery Brown, who does monitor his patients’ brain patterns when they are under. “Most anesthesiologists don’t think about it from a neuroscience standpoint,” says Brown, who is a professor of computational neuroscience at MIT and of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, as well as a practicing anesthesiologist. For the past decade, he has studied what happens to brains when their owners are unconscious. He wants to know more about how anesthetics work, and to track fine-grain signatures of how neurons behave when patients are under. He wants to be able to say: “Here’s what’s happening. It’s not a black box.”

Read the full story in WIRED

Where’s the Dark Matter? Look for Suspiciously Warm Planets

WIRED

Physicists calculated that these mysterious particles will betray their location with heat. To prove it, they’ll need the most powerful telescopes in the cosmos.

WE’RE BATHING IN an uncertain universe. Astrophysicists generally accept that about 85 percent of all mass in the universe comes from exotic, still-hypothetical particles called dark matter. Our Milky Way galaxy, which appears as a bright flat disk, lives in a humongous sphere of the stuff—a halo, which gets especially dense toward the center. But dark matter’s very nature dictates that it’s elusive. It doesn’t interact with electromagnetic forces like light, and any potential clashes with matter are rare and hard to spot.

Physicists shrug off those odds. They’ve designed detectors on Earth made out of silicon chips, or liquid argon baths, to capture those interactions directly. They’ve looked at how dark matter may affect neutron stars. And they’re searching for it as it floats by other celestial bodies. “We know we have stars and planets, and they’re just peppered throughout the halo,” says Rebecca Leane, an astroparticle physicist with SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “Just moving through the halo, they can interact with the dark matter.”

For that reason, Leane is suggesting that we look for them in the Milky Way’s vast collection of exoplanets, or those outside our solar system.

Read the full story in WIRED

This Human-Sized Origami Reimagines Emergency Shelters

WIRED

When flat, the structure is about the size of a twin mattress. But when it’s inflated, walls widen, and a roof snaps into place.

ONE BRIGHT APRIL day on a Harvard University lawn, David Melancon stepped out of a white plastic tent carrying a table. Then another. Then he made a few trips to produce 14 chairs. Then a bike, followed by a yellow bike pump. Finally, he carried out a large orange Shop-Vac. Melancon, a PhD candidate in applied mathematics, then closed the tent’s makeshift door behind him. This was what his team dubbed their “clown car” demonstration—proof that a huge number of objects could fit inside a tent which, only a few moments before, had been a flat stack of plastic about the size of a twin mattress, then inflated into an origami-inspired shelter.

Read the full story in WIRED

Hungry, Hungry Microbes in Tree Bark Gobble Up Methane

WIRED

Bad news: Trees emit methane, a greenhouse gas. Good news: Some are home to bacteria that can’t get enough of it.

MANY OF TODAY’S geoscientists are carbon voyeurs. Knowing that human disregard for the carbon cycle has screwed the climate, they have kept a close eye on carbon’s hottest variants—carbon dioxide (CO 2) and methane. Both gasses trap heat on the planet through the greenhouse effect, and over a span of 100 years methane is 28 times more potent than CO2. Rigorously accounting for greenhouse gas flow is step one of building models that predict the future climate.

Some line items in the methane budget, such as pipeline leaks and cow farts, are well understood. But others are hazier. “There’s lots of gaps and uncertainties, particularly in wetlands, and inland waters,” says Luke Jeffrey, a biogeochemistry postdoc at Southern Cross University in Australia. By one 2020 tally from the Global Carbon Project, wetlands emit about 20 to 31 percent of Earth’s annual methane release—more than the amount from fossil fuel production.

But in the past decade, researchers have zeroed in on a perhaps counterintuitive source of greenhouse gas emissions: trees. Freshwater wetland trees, in particular. Trees bathing in wet or flooded soil absorb methane and then leak it through their bark. In a 2017 study, ecologist Sunitha Pangala, then at the Open University in the United Kingdom, found that trees in the Amazon were responsible for 200 times more methane than trees in other wetland forests, accounting for 44 to 65 percent of the region’s total emissions.

Does this mean trees are bad for the planet? Of course not. Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And in a study published April 9 in Nature Communications, Jeffrey and his team report how trees can also be methane sinks, sheltering microbes that convert it to the less damaging CO2.

Read the full story in WIRED

NASA Lands Ingenuity, the First-Ever Mars Helicopter

WIRED

The copter safely whirled its way up and back down, demonstrating the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

VERY EARLY THIS morning, NASA flew a small drone helicopter that its latest rover had toted to Mars, marking humankind’s first controlled and powered flight on another planet. Ingenuity stuck the landing—and space engineers are stoked.

“We’re ecstatic, of course,” said Matthew Golombek, a senior research scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, during a call with WIRED shortly after the Ingenuity team learned of the success. The data that trickled into JPL computers early Monday morning was “nominal,” he said—NASA-speak for a best-case scenario. “Anytime you’ve successfully landed a spacecraft, it’s a pretty good moment,” Golombek said.

Ingenuity ascended about 1 meter per second, until it rose 3 meters—about 10 feet above Mars. The helicopter hung as evenly as its state-of-the-art electronics could allow, and then landed where it had been 40 seconds before. Then, Ingenuity pinged its Earth-bound engineers a message they’ve sought for almost a decade: Mission accomplished. The hovering drone sent back a black-and-white video of its own shadow, and the Perseverance rover’s high-resolution camera snapped shots of the flight and landing from a distance.

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, the project manager, told her team after the flight as she stood in front of giant wall art that read “DARE MIGHTY THINGS,” the message that had also been encoded into the rover’s descent parachute.

Read the full story in WIRED

This Sticker Absorbs Sweat—and Might Diagnose Cystic Fibrosis

WIRED

The device may make it easier to quickly test newborns and could open the door to at-home monitoring.

IN THE MIDDLE Ages, a grim adage sometimes turned up in European folklore and children’s stories: Woe to that child which when kissed on the forehead tastes salty. He is bewitched and soon must die. A salty-headed newborn was a frightful sign of a mysterious illness. The witchcraft diagnosis didn’t hold, of course, but today researchers think that the salty taste warned of the genetic disease we now know as cystic fibrosis.

Read the full story in WIRED

How to Make Fashion Sustainable

ACS CHEMMATTERS

Take a minute to think about what you’re wearing right now. Not the colors or cuts of fabric you grabbed out of your closet this morning—but the textiles your clothes are made of.

Before your clothes became clothes, they were raw resources that were collected, processed, woven into textiles, then cut and sewn into the garments on your back. And their life cycle doesn’t end there. Nearly 90% of clothing takes an inevitable trip from closet to landfill. The problem is that although this process provides short-term convenience for customers and the fashion industry, in the long run, it’s not sustainable. Making and transporting clothes consumes raw materials and, at every step in the process, emits greenhouse gases.

Read the full story in ACS ChemMatters (Printed in the April 2021 Issue)

Ocean Acidification Could Make Tiny Fish Lose Their Hearing

WIRED

Their inner ears turn wonky when they grow up in carbon-rich water, which could keep juveniles from finding their way to the reefs. That could mean trouble.

AN IMMOBILIZED FISH lay between Craig Radford’s fingers. The several-week-old Australasian snapper, no longer than a pinkie nail, rested flat on a slab of modeling clay, held down by small staples—“as someone would strap you down on an ambulance bed to hold you there,” says Radford. He stuck tiny electrodes on the fish’s head, then submerged it in a tank and switched on an underwater speaker. It was time to test its hearing.

“If you actually put your head underwater and take the time to listen, it’s amazing what you’ll hear,” Radford says. “From whales to fish to crustaceans—sound plays an important role in many, many different species’ life strategies.”

But Radford’s experiment wasn’t due to curiosity about what the world sounds like to fish. He was worried about how well they could hear it.

Read the full story in WIRED