Tag Archives: News

The Sneaky, Lying Flower That Pretends to Be a Rotting Beetle

WIRED

Aristolochia microstoma finds love by smelling like death. Coffin flies can’t resist.

IT WAS THE butterflies that tipped them off. Thomas Rupp, a PhD student in ecology at the Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg, was walking through a mountain forest with his teammates near Athens, Greece, when he saw them: the insects that, when in caterpillar form, feed on a special kind of plant called Aristolochia microstoma. “Wherever I saw this butterfly flying,” Rupp says, “I knew that there must be some Aristolochia plants around.”

Rupp crouched down to find the plant’s unusual flowers lying hidden among rocks and leaves. They are a dark merlot red, and they look like an inflated bulb connected to a narrow tube tipped by a small pore called a stoma. The whole thing looks a lot like the entry to an intestinal tract. It’s not. It’s even weirder.

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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?

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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?

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Twinkling Black Holes Reveal an Invisible Cloud in Our Galaxy

WIRED

Cosmic radio backlights are helping scientists size up “missing” forms of matter and might offer clues about what makes up the universe.

AT FIRST, YUANMING Wang was not excited. More relieved, maybe. The first -year astrophysics PhD student at the University of Sydney sat in front of her computer, looking at images in which she’d found the signs of radio waves from distant galaxies twinkling, just as she had hoped. But because Wang’s discovery relied more on scouring ones and zeros than peering through a telescope—and the discovery itself was just plain weird—it took awhile for the moment to hit.

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How and Why to Watch NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover Landing

WIRED

NASA’s biggest and boldest rover attempts a momentous landing on February 18

On Thursday afternoon, Perseverance, NASA’s most ambitious self-driving rover, will attempt the agency’s most challenging Mars landing. Perseverance is carrying a suite of science experiments that will search for signs of life, launch a drone helicopter, and record the planet’s audio for the first time. But conducting those experiments relies solely on whether “Percy” can stick the landing.

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