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TOPIC: science


Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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The AI Bug That Can't Be Fixed: Humans Can’t Trust It

The inner workings of Artificial Intelligence are impenetrable, unexplainable and unpredictable. That build in some fundamental limits to its capacity and utility.

There are alien minds among us. Not the little green men of science fiction, but the alien minds that power the facial recognition in your smartphone, determine your creditworthiness and write poetry and computer code. These alien minds are artificial intelligence systems, the ghost in the machine that you encounter daily.

But AI systems have a significant limitation: Many of their inner workings are impenetrable, making them fundamentally unexplainable and unpredictable. Furthermore, constructing AI systems that behave in ways that people expect is a significant challenge.

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Stromboli, The Volcano Helping To Predict When Others May Erupt

Stromboli, located in Sicily's Aeolian Islands, is one of the most famous volcanoes in the world, attracting tourists for its pristine black sand beaches. Yet due to its characteristics, including its uniquely consistent and predictable eruptions, it has also become an international reference point in the study of explosive dynamics.

Explosive volcanic eruptions can be so violent and sudden that they catch most monitoring networks by surprise. These phenomena pose not only a scientific challenge but a serious danger, especially for those volcanoes located in inhabited areas or visited by hordes of tourists.

Take the sudden eruptions of Mount Ontake in Japan in 2014 and White Island in New Zealand in 2019. Despite being constantly monitored, these volcanic eruptions resulted in more than 80 deaths among unsuspecting hikers.

One of the most famous explosive volcanoes in the world is Stromboli, located in the Aeolian Islands, off of Sicily. Its gentle yet spectacular explosions, which launch lava and incandescent fragments to several hundred meters in height, have been occurring at a nearly constant rate every 10-20 minutes for thousands of years.

This ongoing, moderate explosive activity is unique and allows for close observation of an erupting volcano. This is how Stromboli has become an international reference point in the study of explosive dynamics. Many of the technological innovations and methodologies commonly used in volcano observatories today were developed and/or calibrated on Stromboli.

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Lithium Mining: How The Clean Energy Rush Repeats Old Cycles Of Global Exploitation

The search for clean energy is essential in an age of alarming climate change. Lithium extraction represents a great opportunity, but the maltreatment of communities affected by this extraction must be considered if we want to interrupt the vicious cycle of wealthy countries exploiting resource-rich countries.

COPIAPO — The scientific community continues to warn that burning fuels to obtain energy is simply not sustainable for the planet. Among all the alternatives that currently exist, perhaps the most popular one for the transportation sector is electric energy. At first glance, it sounds tempting: electric trains, cars and buses capable of transporting people over long distances, equipped with almost limitless batteries, and charging stations distributed throughout the territory.

But to make electric batteries, which are also found in mobile and portable devices, lithium is needed. This mineral is currently experiencing high demand precisely because of its large energy storage capacity. Extracting it requires large amounts of water and chemicals. This is where some people are already asking: can we justify everything, in the name of energy transition?

The largest sources of lithium in the world are found in brine deposits in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, making them the focus of attention for investors. But indigenous communities that depend on these territories and the resources found there demand prior dialogue and informed consultation before allowing the extraction of the mineral.

"To us, the salt flat represents our entire life," explains Lesley Muñoz Rivera, a representative of the Colla community in Copiapo, Chile. "The salt flat is a water reservoir. When they propose to extract large quantities and tons of water to dry them in the sun and obtain this lithium carbonate, they are harming the water. I define the Colla people as a water-based community, and if we don't have water to live and provide for our animals or crops, how are we going to survive?"

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Marta Zaraska

Gimme Shelter! Using Tech To Rethink How We Protect Endangered Species

Human-made shelters don’t always keep creatures out of harm’s way. Can technology help design a better protect birds and possums?

In 2016, Ox Lennon was trying to peek in the crevices inside a pile of rocks. They considered everything from injecting builders’ foam into the tiny spaces to create a mold to dumping a heap of stones into a CT scanner. Still, they couldn’t get the data they were after: how to stack rocks so that a mouse wouldn’t squeeze through, but a small lizard could hide safely inside.

Lennon, then a Ph.D. student at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, aimed to protect skinks, snake-like lizards on which non-native mice prey. When road construction near Wellington displaced a local population of the reptiles, they were moved to a different site. But the new location lacked the rock piles that skinks use as shelter.

So, Lennon and their colleagues set out to create a mice-proof pile of rocks. It proved harder than they thought.

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Olivia Campbell

She Was The Anti-Oppenheimer, Down To The Very Last Atom

The movie ‘Oppenheimer’ makes no mention of Lise Meitner, the co-discoverer of nuclear fission. But she would have wanted it that way.

The film “Oppenheimer,” which tells the story of the Manhattan Project’s development of the atomic bomb, has made quite a splash this summer, with audiences and critics alike hailing it as a riveting slice of scientific history. But it also has some viewers asking: Where are the women?

In the film, Lilli Hornig is the only woman scientist named and portrayed working on the project, though she was not the only one involved. Charlotte Serber, shown as project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer’s secretary, actually did far more. Some scholars argue that physicist Lise Meitner, co-discoverer of nuclear fission, should have been included.

As a biographer of historical women scientists, I should be the first in line to decry the erasure or minimization of women’s contributions. But should women be written into stories merely for the sake of representation, without first considering the context and the person? Is this what they would have wanted?

In Meitner’s case, the answer is “no.” Her discovery may have been crucial to creating the atomic bomb, but she wanted nothing to do with it nor wanted to be depicted in films about it. And I believe Meitner’s refusal to participate in the weaponization of her work on moral grounds makes her more worthy of commemoration than Oppenheimer. She chose humanity over notoriety.

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In The News

Le Weekend: Infamous Festival Reboot, Ben Gvir’s Bad Buzz, Spotless Giraffe

August 26-27

  • Moscow's "mapaganda"
  • Ben Gvir’s bad buzz
  • Health-minded underwear
  • … and much more.
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Charlotte Meyer

Webs Worldwide! Why Spiders Are So Pivotal To The Planet's Ecosystem

Threatened with extinction, these little creatures, often feared, nonetheless provide us with significant ecological services.

PARIS — At the heart of a dimly lit room, 76 spider webs intertwine and entangle. Microphones placed on either side of the space amplify the vibrations created by the spiders as they move along the threads.

One thing is certain: it's best not to be arachnophobic when visiting the place! In 2018, Tomas Saraceno was given carte blanche to take over the 13,000 m2 of the Palais de Tokyo. The Argentine artist, who has been building one of the world's largest collections of spider webs in his Berlin studio for several years, wasted no time.

With his exhibition "On Air," the Parisian contemporary art center transformed into a vast laboratory traversed by webs of various shapes, where spiders observe the visitors. For Saraceno, the webs evoke the connections that unite living beings with each other.

If the exhibition made a sensation, it's because spiders both fascinate and repulse us. But regardless of our relationship with them, we will likely need to pay them more attention in the coming years. On April 5, the French Committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) presented the first comprehensive assessment of spiders in France, which reveals that one in 10 species in France, out of the 1,622 identified, is threatened.

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In The News
Michelle Courtois and Marine Béguin.

Deadly Russian Fire, Youth Climate Case Victory, Barbie’s Algeria Ban

👋 Здравейте*

Welcome to Tuesday, where a petrol station explosion in the Russian region of Dagestan kills at least 30, young climate activists in the U.S. state of Montana score a major court victory and Algeria bans the Barbie movie for “Western deviances.” For our special Summer Reads edition of Worldcrunch Today, we feature an article by Benoît Georges in French daily Les Echos — and three other stories from around the world on technology and AI.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]

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Kasper Kalinowski

Hummingbirds Consume Alcohol But Don’t Get Drunk, New Lessons For Human Alcoholism

Like many creatures, hummingbirds consume alcohol, which they're able to metabolize quickly. A new study explains how they do it — and how it might just helps us understand why humans are so attracted to alcohol.

WARSAW — Hummingbird feeders, which people use to attract the beautiful creatures to their homes and gardens, are typically filled with some variety of sugar water. Though this is an easy and accessible way to feed the bird, it is also a breeding ground for fermentation. In many cases, these feeders end up being full of alcohol.

This isn’t something that avian enthusiasts should worry about, however, as this fermentation process also takes place in nectar-rich flowers. The fact of the matter is, most hummingbirds are consuming large amounts of alcohol in their diets every single day.

So why aren’t our small avian friends keeling over while they fly? A recent study examines their diets, and explains exactly why hummingbirds are able to metabolize such high levels of alcohol.

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In The News

Le Weekend: Yarny Potter, Mexico v. Sexist Lyrics, Shower Beer

August 5-6

  • The impossible return to Mariupol
  • Abu Dhabi flirting with Hollywood
  • France’s checkout influencer
  • … and much more.
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eyes on the U.S.

America's Obsession With UFOs Is Just Out Of This World

The U.S. Congress recently held a public hearing about "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena" (previously known as UFOs), partly because of intense public interest on the matter. But what is it that makes Americans so prone to believe in aliens and conspiracy theories?

One of the main reasons the U.S. Congress has become increasingly interested in Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) is because they are a highly popular topic.

The interest spiked again in recent days as the U.S. Congress held a public hearing about allegations that the government was withholding evidence about aliens. Given the data on how many people believe in aliens, the hearing's success was hardly surprising.

Let's make one thing clear: the phenomena known as UAPs are what common parlance calls Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). In 2021, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began substituting the latter term to engage with the subject seriously and distance itself from conspiracy theories.

But the fact is that the debate on ufology, UFOs, and now UAPs, has always been linked to conspiracy theories, which has been detrimental to the progression of research on the topic. Why do Americans believe in conspiracy theories and aliens? The two questions can go hand in hand.

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