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SARS Outbreak Isolators Helped "Ebola Air" Fly Infected Patients

Scientific American News - 1 hour 40 min ago
The airplane transport isolators being used to fly Ebola patients for treatment have origins in the 2003 SARS outbreak

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Wanted: Long-Term Thinking about Technology and Education

Scientific American News - 1 hour 40 min ago
Educators need to think long-term about the role of technology in learning

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Washington D.C. Is Littered With Phony Cell Towers

Popular Science News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 17:15

The White House Wikimedia Commons

Continuing a sort of cross-country tour to detect phony cell towers, also known as interceptors or IMSI catchers, researchers associated with the security firm ESD America have detected 15 of the covert devices in Washington D.C., plus three more in nearby Virginia.

The company used their ultrasecure CryptoPhone 500 to search for the interceptors, which can compromise phones through baseband hardware and are believed to have a range of roughly 1 mile. ESD America's phones allegedly detected telltale signs of call interception in the vicinity of the White House, the Russian Embassy, the Supreme Court, the Department of Commerce, and the Russell Senate Office Building, among other landmark buildings.

Les Goldsmith, ESD America's CEO, stresses that he can't be sure who runs these surveillance devices. But he points out that the U.S. government already has the ability to listen to or track calls through domestic networks, thanks to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA).

“The U.S. government can listen to calls without deploying interceptors on the street,” says Goldsmith. “That’s why I think these are from foreign governments.”

Popular Science previously reported that the CryptoPhone 500's builders had detected 17 interceptors around the country in July. Security experts said that at least 12 different federal agencies own versions of the technology, along with 43 state and local police forces in 18 states.

Precisely because of the shroud of secrecy around the devices, security experts cannot rule out the possibility that a foreign government is running at least some of the interceptors. Essentially a radio peripheral attached to a computer, interceptors or IMSI-catchers can be placed in a vehicle for portability, or in some cases, carried by hand.

The less complex of these devices, known as “IMSI catchers,” briefly connect with any phone that comes within range, collect the mobile subscriber number, and then ping periodically to see where the phone (and the person carrying it) goes. In short, they can be used as tracking tools. More sophisticated interceptors, which cost roughly $100,000, are capable of eavesdropping on calls or texts, or even carrying out exotic over-the-air attacks that install spyware. Advanced attacks can even take control of phone functions.

The CryptoPhone 500 is capable of discerning between an IMSI-catcher and an interceptor, Goldmsith says. An IMSI catcher connects only briefly, and looks fishy to the phone because -- unlike a normal cell tower -- it has no neighboring towers on its network. An interceptor, on the other hand, will stay paired with a phone as long as it is in range, and will try to force the phone down to a less secure 2G protocol, and also turn off encryption.

“If I was an embassy, I might use an IMSI catcher for counter-surveillance, to see if there were a certain cell phone constantly nearby,” says Goldsmith. “And once I pulled that number, that’s when I’d turn on the interceptor.”

Goldsmith says that ESD America is cooperating fully with the Federal Communications Commission’s investigation of the possible use of interceptors and IMSI catchers by foreign governments or criminal enterprises.

The D.C. Hive The red circles suggest 1 mile of effective range. ESD America

D.C.'s Interceptors The red circles suggest 1 mile of effective range. ESD America

White-Dominated Medical Studies Put U.S. Minorities At Risk

Popular Science News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 16:50

Glassware in a medical laboratory Rafi Letzter

When medical research focuses on white people, things get missed, and people die.

That's the essence of a commentary published this week in Nature. In it, bioengineer Esteban Burchard, from the University of California at San Francisco, argues that medicine has more or less excluded minorities from studies, with dangerous results.

"Since 1993, the National Institutes of Health has funded 10,000 studies, and of those, 150 dealt with minority populations,"  Burchard told Popular Science. "That's less than two percent."

According to Burchard, researchers tend to focus on white populations because it's easier. The reason: Compared to groups like African Americans and Latinos, the genetic makeup of white patients tends to be more uniform. That means their bodies respond similarly to treatments, which cuts out noisy data and makes scientists' lives easier. And as more white patients are studied, more is known about their drug responses, making it even easier to study white populations in the future. So the vicious cycle of exclusion keeps on turning.

The Dangers Of White-Dominated Studies

In 1997, while Burchard was a resident at Harvard Medical School, a black teenager died of an asthma attack -- with an inhaler in hand -- just a few blocks from the teaching hospital. Later that year, Burchard's team discovered a gene that caused more severe asthma in white people. Then he discovered that it is 40 percent more common in black populations.

A survey of asthma statistics from 2001 to 2010 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that black people are more likely to contract asthma, and less likely to respond well to treatment. Still, studies into asthma treatments in minority populations are rarely proposed and less likely to be funded, Burchard says.

Another case, which Burchard expects will be a victory for medical diversity, is making its way through the courts now. For more than a decade and a half, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis have marketed the blood thinner Plavix as a powerful alternative to aspirin for treating heart disease. The drug costs as much as $175 for a one-month supply, and national sales hit $6.6 billion in 2011 before generics hit the shelves.

David Louie, the state attorney general of Hawaii, filed a lawsuit against Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis in March. Louie alleges that the companies withheld data indicating that a significant fraction of patients carry a gene that prevents Plavix from working effectively in their bodies. Research quoted in the complaint suggests 38 to 79 percent of Pacific Islanders and 40 to 50 percent of East Asians get no benefit from Plavix. Since those ethnicities make up nearly half of Hawaii's popultion, Louie thinks many of his state's patients may have received Plavix prescriptions instead of treatments that would have actually worked.

"They marketed this stuff, and they marketed it at a huge markup when its essentially a placebo," Louie says. "We consider this bad conduct."

Louie says he expects to win the case, and hopes the financial loss will push companies to more responsibly investigate and publish information on how their drugs could harm particular groups.

"They owe it to people, if they're going to be selling drugs that people are going to be putting in their bodies," he says.

Bristol-Myers Squibb declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, but noted that Plavix "is one of the most studied medicines."

Obstacles To Progress

While Burchard spoke on the phone for this story, he received a call from the National Institutes of Health, a major funder of medical research. When he got back to Popular Science, Burchard told us that he "just got a call from the the NIH saying 'Your study of [minority] populations would be a lot better if you studied white people.'"

Burchard singles out the NIH as a source of disparities in research funding. But Richard Nakamura, Director of the NIH Center for Scientific Review, says that including minority populations in research is a priority for the institution. "We look for research that's going to have the broadest impact," he says.

The NIH has modified its practices over the years to ensure that minority populations are included in research, according to Nakamura. In addition to reminding grant reviewers of the importance of seeking out research that focuses on minority populations, he says the advent of computerized data has enabled the NIH to make sure studies include diverse populations.

He also says that efforts to bring a range of voices into the review process make a difference, noting that Burchard has served on review panels and "has received a fair amount of NIH funding for exactly the kind of research there should be more of."

Diverse Researchers, Diverse Research

When the Centers for Disease Control found that Hispanics in the American Northeast contracted and died from asthma three times more often than Hispanics on the West Coast, Burchard's Hispanic background led him to the root of the disparity.

Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are the two largest Hispanic populations in the United States. Mexicans tend to live farther west, while Puerto Ricans tend to live in the Northeast. That knowledge pointed him in the right direction, he writes, and he soon found that the most important factor in asthma drug response is not age, sex, or disease severity, but ethnic background. I.e. The drugs that often worked for Mexicans and African Americans did not work the same for Puerto Ricans.

Burchard argues that if minority researchers had a fair shake at funding, their knowledge and skills could bring about better understandings of medical problems that minority groups face. But a 2011 study in Science found that Asians are four percent less likely and African Americans 13 percent less likely to have their studies funded by the agency.

"In short," Burchard writes in Nature, "investigators who want to focus on minorities face extra challenges."

Nakamura says that putting more minority researchers "into the pipeline" is a goal for the NIH. (Nakamura himself has been called a leader on this issue.)

Improving Access To Funding

One scientist interviewed for this article expressed concern that Burchard's views might be interpreted as a call for quotas that could hinder research. But Burchard says he has no interest in any sort of mandate. "I'm not calling for affirmative action," he says, "No one likes that term."

Instead he says would like to see the NIH take steps to ensure minority-focused research has access to funding. He suggests weighting the grant review process in a way similar to what is already done for newer applicants. "It's not a politically correct issue," he says. "It's a scientifically correct issue."

Genius Grant To Science Historian

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 16:07
New MacArthur Fellow Pamela Long studies the scientific revolution as a result of the interactions of academics and hands-on infrastructure engineers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Steve Mirsky...

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Lockheed Laser Brings Turrets Back To Airplanes

Popular Science News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 15:00

ABC Laser Turret In Test Flight Air Force Research Laboratory

In World War II, mighty bombers came equipped with gun barrels, manned by gunners at the ready to protect the plane from attacking fighters. The B-52 Stratofortress even came with a tail gun for self defense and last used it in combat over Vietnam in 1972. The change in fighter weapons from guns to missiles made tail guns obsolete, but now Lockheed and DARPA are bringing them back. As freakin’ lasers.

Named the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control, or ABC for short, the laser is a directed energy weapon in a 360-degree turret. Its claim to fame? It fries incoming missiles. Controls and cameras in the turret make sure the laser stays locked on to the missile while being fired from an airplane. On Monday, Lockheed announced that a converted commercial jet with the ABC laser attached completed eight test flights over Michigan.

When Popular Science spoke with Lockheed CTO Ray Johnson about the future of war, Johnson was keen to highlight lasers. He told Popular Science at the time:

[Lasers] can operate with the electrical power that could be generated on an aircraft. You could certainly see it go on bomber-sized aircraft and as the technology develops and size/weight/power are reduced, our notion is to see it get to the point where it can go on fighter-sized aircraft. Whether it's a special-purpose fighter, or how that would work, I don’t have the details. Maybe he’s a wingman to an F-35 or a flight of F-35s.

Defensive lasers on airplanes could make it much harder for anti-air weapons to shoot down aircraft. And presently, anti-aircraft missiles, especially ground-launched systems, are much cheaper than state-of-the-art warplanes. For the past 20 years, new American warplanes were built stealthy to protect themselves from radar-guided missiles, but there are limitations to size, shape, and cost that come with stealth design.

As an alternative, shooting down missiles in mid-air with an electric-powered weapon might be a lot cheaper. And as America looks to future warplane design, it means the venerable tail turret might just come back -- as an airborne anti-missile laser.

A B-17 Flying With A B-52 In the foreground in the B-17 Flying Fortress, iconic World War II bomber. In the background is a B-52 Superfortress, iconic Cold War bomber still in service. U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michael A. Kaplan, via Wikimedia Commons

[Foxtrot Alpha]

Science Fiction Excerpt: <em>Caveat Time Traveller</em>

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 15:00
We hope you enjoy this excerpt from Futures 2—the latest anthology from Nature's award-winning "futures" science-fiction series

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Chinese Sturgeon Give Up, Stop Breeding in Polluted Yangtze River

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 14:41
When an endangered species stops breeding, you know its days are probably numbered. In China the countdown has apparently begun for the critically endangered Chinese sturgeon (Acipenser sinensis).

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Sugar Substitutes Linked to Obesity

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 14:30
Artificial sweeteners seem to change the microbiomes of our guts

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Help Scientists By Marking Penguins In Pictures

Popular Science News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 14:15

Mark Those Birds! Zooniverse Penguin Watch

Check out this latest citizen-science project. It's a site where you can look at photos gathered by an Antarctic network of wildlife cameras and mark if there are penguins in the photos. In other weo you get to look at cute animals online and help environmental science! Sounds like a win-win to me.

A warning: When I went to try the site, the first photo I got showed an overwhelming number of penguins. After all, penguins often huddle together in large groups. But don't give up! The site will let you move on from a photo whenever you wish. It will even prompt you to move on after you mark 30 penguins in one photo. Just mark the picture as unfinished, and the site for further tagging.

The photos come from 50 cameras that Antarctic scientists set up in areas away from human camps. Penguin populations in those areas are less well studied than the ones that happen to hang out near people. Scientists want to find how these populations are doing now, answering questions such as, "How many are there?" and "What percentage of chicks make it to adulthood?" (You mark eggs and chicks as well as adult penguins. Double cute.) It even seems possible that volunteers may eventually run into photos of adults and chicks getting injured or killed by predators, although all the photos I saw showed resting adults.

From these data, scientists may determine whether factors such as proximity to people and boats affect penguin health. In the future, this data will help them determine whether global warming affects penguin populations.

The research team, including penguin biologists and computer scientists from the U.K. and Australia, took to the Internet because the camera network simply generates too many photos for the team to classify on its own. Each camera takes between eight and 96 photos per day.

In the future, researchers hope they won't even need online volunteers to process their penguin data. Each volunteer's annotated photo goes toward a training set for a computer program that's able to learn from examples. The team hopes that with enough examples, the program will eventually be able to recognize penguin adults, chicks and eggs on its own. So yes, click by click, you're rendering yourself obsolete as a penguin-spotter. Better get in while the going is good.

[Zooniverse Penguin Watch]

Prime Numbers Scholar Wins 2014 MacArthur "Genius Grant"

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 14:05
The award, which comes with a no-strings-attached $625,000 stipend paid out over five years, also went to black carbon and nano materials researchers

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NASA Picks SpaceX and Boeing to Fly U.S. Astronauts on Private Spaceships

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 13:40
If all goes according to plan, the two companies will reduce or end NASA's dependence on Russia for its orbital taxi service

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Spooky Action In Threes: Physicists Entangle Three Particles Of Light

Popular Science News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 13:30

Weird Light This is the University of Waterloo lab where a team of physicists conducted their photon entanglement experiments. It's kept dark to help the equipment sense small amounts of light. Shalm/NIST

As if it weren't hard enough already to imagine it in twos, physicists have entangled three photons with each other. Entanglement is a counterintuitive quantum physics phenomenon, in which a particle influences all the others with which it's entangled -- even if the particles are far apart. If one particle is in one state, for example, the others might be in the same state. In this case, however, each photon, which is a particle of light, had the same polarization -- either horizontal or vertical.

Usually, it's easier to entangle only two photons at once. A few research labs, including this team, have entangled three or more photons before. This new effort created triplets that were more stable than previous entanglements, however. That stability means the entangled photons are one step closer to practical use (although they're still a long way from that). Researchers are hoping that in the future, entangled photons might work in quantum computers, or in communications technologies.

To make the entangled triplets, researchers from Canada, the U.S. and Sweden started with a single blue photon that was polarized both horizontally and vertically. Being able to hold two states at once is another property of quantum particles, and it's why computer scientists are interested in quantum physics. Particles that are able to hold two states at once potentially can hold more information than classical computers with machinery that can only hold one state at a time.

Photon Detector The physicists used chips like this one to detect single photons of light. Verma/NIST

The research team sent this quantum blue photon through a crystal that turned it into two less energetic, red, entangled photons with matching polarizations -- either horizontal or vertical. Next, they sent one of those red photons through another crystal that transformed it into two less energetic, infrared, entangled photons. The infrared photons happened to still be entangled with the remaining red photon, and voilà: three entangled photons.

Further tests demonstrated the triplets were truly entangled, and getting that to work correctly is rare. There's only a one-in-1 billion chance that the first step of the process creates two entangled photons. Then, there's a one-in-1 million chance that the second step of the process will create the entangled triplet.

The international team published a paper about their work this week in the journal Nature Photonics.

Asteroid Families Traced Back to the Collisions That Spawned Them

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 13:30
Space rocks tend to stick with their own kind

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New Report on Chimp Violence Fails to Support Deep-Roots Theory of War

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 13:05
On this blog, in my book The End of War and elsewhere (see Further Reading and Viewing), I have knocked the deep roots theory of war, which holds that war stems from an instinct deeply embedded in...

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How Big Bang Gravitational Waves Could Revolutionize Physics

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 13:00
If the recent discovery of gravitational waves emanating from the early universe holds up under scrutiny, it will illuminate a connection between gravity and quantum mechanics and perhaps, in the...

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Big Pic: A Texas-Sized Algae Bloom

Popular Science News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 12:00

The Arabian Sea's Algae Bloom, As Seen From From Space. Norman Kuring/NASA Lake Erie has gotten a lot of attention recently because of its toxic algal blooms, and all that attention seems to have made the Arabian Sea green with envy. 

A paper in Nature Communications reports that a phytoplankton named Noctiluca scintillans has invaded a dead-zone off the coast of India, where it's threatening to disrupt natural foodchains as well as the local fishing industry.

Noctiluca are tiny algae that eat other plankton and can also harness the sun's energy. These microalgae thrive in low-oxygen conditions like the Arabian Sea's growing dead-zone, which is roughly the size of Texas. The researchers think sewage runoff from the region's cities is fueling the dead-zone, and thus the bloom. The press release explains why that's a bad thing:

Until recently, photosynthetic diatoms supported the Arabian Sea food chain. Zooplankton grazed on the diatoms, a type of algae, and were in turn eaten by fish. In the early 2000s, it all changed. The researchers began to see vast blooms of Noctiluca and a steep drop in diatoms and dissolved oxygen in the water column. Within a decade, Noctiluca had virtually replaced diatoms at the base of the food chain, marking the start of a colossal ecosystem shift.

The problem is, not a lot of other creatures want to eat Noctiluca, apart from sea salps and jellyfish. “In 10 to 15 years’ time I wouldn’t be surprised if we see jellyfish along the coast, and people may not be able to swim in the waters,” Joachim Goes, an author on the study, told The New York Times.

Light Forms Crystal-Like Structure On Computer Chip

Popular Science News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 11:15

Visible light shining The study used microwaves. Zouavman Le Zouave via Wikimedia Commons Princeton researchers have managed to cause light to behave like a crystal within a specialized computer chip, according to a recent paper. This is the first time anyone has accomplished this effect in a lab.

Here's why it's so hard: Atoms can easily form solids, liquids, and gasses, because when they come into contact they push and pull on each other. That push and pull forms the underlying structure of all matter. Light particles, or photons, do not typically interact with one another, according to Dr. Andrew Houck, a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton and an author on the study. The trick of this research was forcing them to do just that.

"We build essentially an artificial atom, using lots of atoms acting in concert," Houck tells Popular Science, "What emerges is a quantum mechanical object that [at about half a millimeter] is visible on the classical scale."

For their study, that great big artificial atom sat on a computer chip, and researchers shined microwave photons on the system. The light particles were then trapped in the atom, forcing the photons to stay in one place. This, in turn, forced the photons to interact with one another, forming an organized crystal-like structure (or lattice).

Once the lattice formed, however, the researchers ran into two challenges: the system was hard to detect, and it was unstable. Light trapped in the lattice couldn't be observed directly without disrupting the entire system, so the researchers relied on indirect measurement of photons that escaped to "visualize" the event. But those escaping photons presented their own problem; as they left, the system degraded. In order to keep it going, more photons had to be constantly added in. This means the system was in a continuous state of change.

"We researchers are really good at studying static equilibriums," Houck says. He says there is value in studying dynamic, evolving physical phenomena. In the long term, he says this research, accomplished using components of a quantum computer, could pave the way for more advanced machines.

Quantum Short 2014 Film Contest Accepting Entries

Scientific American News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 10:35
When the 2008 Bond film came out with the title Quantum of Solace, science fans may have been hoping for a plot that hinged on quantum physics.

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23andMe Decides It Won't Automatically Reunite Long Lost Relatives

Popular Science News - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 10:30

DNA 2.0 Synthetic genetic code could give biology a sci-fi makeover. Hybrid Medical Animation/Photo Researchers

23andMe, a service offering personal DNA testing, announced over the weekend that it is canceling a planned change to its online privacy settings, according to Vox.

The firm had recently notified around 350,000 customers that as of Sept. 12, they would be automatically “opted-in” to recieve notifications if their genetic profiles closely matched others in the service. As in, closely enough to be related.

But just before the change was to take effect, CEO Anne Wojicki posted to the firm's online community that it wasn't “the right call to promise that we would automatically opt-in those customers. Core to our philosophy is customer choice and empowerment through data...[C]ustomers need to make their own deliberate and informed decision if they want this information.”

Since late 2013, the Food and Drug Administration has prohibited 23andMe from making any health claims from its genetic testing, because the firm failed to provide the agency with evidence that it had scientifically validated their tests. That leaves 23andMe's ancestry-related features as its primary offerings, and a reported $126 million in outside investors to satisfy.

23andMe may have reversed course due to the attention it got on Sept. 9, when Vox ran a feature by reporter Julia Belluz detailing the emotional turmoil that resulted when two adult siblings discovered each other via the service. Initially the siblings, Neil and Pearl, were thrilled to find each other, but things got strained when it turned out that both children were fathered by the same man:

[Neil's] presence underscored longstanding tensions within the family...Pearl's mother was not happy that they made this connection. "(My mom) began to get very agitated and angry, I think out of embarrassment," [Neil] said. Maybe it was the uncomfortable fact that she gave up one child and kept the other. "It's very common in adoption reunions that things don't work out, and that's what happened here," he said. Pearl would not comment on their falling out.

Pearl told Belluz that while 23andMe did provide “this little message that pops up and says – 'want to find your closest relative?'” and “warned her that the information she might find could be upsetting,” she found the message “innocuous” and didn't hesitate to accept. In retrospect she wished 23andMe had made the warning a lot less innocuous. The Vox article is great, and you should definitely read the entire thing. Also, don't overlook this accompanying interview with “George Doe,” a stem cell and reproductive biologist whose parents divorced after genetic testing by 23andMe uncovered a long-held family secret.

Wojicki also announced that 23andMe intends to hire a chief privacy officer to help guide how the company manages customer information.

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