Study Points to Better Care for Babies Born to Opioid Users

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Babies born to opioid users had shorter hospital stays and needed less medication when their care emphasized parent involvement, skin-to-skin contact and a quiet environment, researchers reported Sunday.

Newborns were ready to go home about a week earlier compared to those getting standard care. Fewer received opioid medications to reduce withdrawal symptoms such as tremors and hard-to-soothe crying, about 20% compared to 52% of the standard-care babies.

Babies born to opioid users, including mothers in treatment with medications such as methadone, can develop withdrawal symptoms after exposure in the womb.

Typically, hospitals use a scoring system to decide which babies need medicine to ease withdrawal, which means treatment in newborn intensive care units.

“The mom is sitting there anxiously waiting for the score,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Leslie Young of the University of Vermont’s children’s hospital. “This would be really stressful for families.”

In the new approach — called Eat, Sleep, Console — nurses involve mothers as they evaluate together whether rocking, breastfeeding or swaddling can calm the baby, Young said. Medicine is an option, but the environment is considered too.

“Is the TV on in the room? Do we need to turn that off? Are the lights on? Do we need to turn those down?” Young said.

About 5,000 nurses were trained during the study, published Sunday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers studied the care of 1,300 newborns at 26 U.S. hospitals. Babies born before training were compared to babies born after.

The National Institutes of Health funded the work as part of an initiative to address the U.S. opioid addiction crisis.

“One of the great strengths of the study is its geographic diversity,” said Dr. Diana Bianchi, director of the branch that researches child health and human development. “We’ve had newborns enrolled from sites as varied as Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Kansas City, Missouri; and Spartanburg, South Carolina.”

Many U.S. hospitals have adopted the new approach, Bianchi said, adding she hopes the research will lead to recommendations from pediatrics groups.

Researchers followed the babies for three months and found no difference in urgent care or emergency room visits or hospitalizations — reassuring evidence about the safety of shorter hospital stays.

The new approach could yield “tremendous savings” in hospital resources, Young said, although the study didn’t estimate cost.

Researchers will follow the babies until age 2 to monitor their health.

Mothers want to be involved, Young said.

“For the first time, they feel like their role as a mom is valued and like they’re important,” she said. “We know that those first moments of a mom and a baby being together are really critical to bonding.”

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Chinese Man Who Reported on COVID to Be Released After 3 Years

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Chinese authorities were preparing Sunday to release a man who disappeared three years ago after publicizing videos of overcrowded hospitals and bodies during the COVID-19 outbreak, a relative and another person familiar with his case said.

Fang Bin and other members of the public who were dubbed citizen journalists posted details of the pandemic in early 2020 on the internet and social media, embarrassing Chinese officials who faced criticism for failing to control the outbreak. The last video Fang, a seller of traditional Chinese clothing, posted on Twitter was of a piece of paper reading, “All citizens resist, hand power back to the people.”

Fang’s case is part of Beijing’s crackdown on criticism of China’s early handling of the pandemic, as the ruling Communist Party seeks to control the narrative of the country.

He was scheduled to be released Sunday, according to two people who did not want to be identified for fear of government retribution. One of them said Fang was sentenced to three years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vague charge traditionally used against political dissidents.

The Associated Press could not independently confirm his release and could not confirm the details with the authorities.

Two offices of Wuhan’s public security bureau did not provide a phone number of their information office or answer any questions. Phone calls to a court that reportedly sentenced Fang rang unanswered Sunday afternoon. A woman from another court that had reportedly handled Fang’s appeal said she was not authorized to answer questions.

In early 2020, the initial COVID outbreak devastated the city of Wuhan, home to 11 million residents, in central China’s Hubei province. Under a 76-day lockdown, its streets were deserted for months, apart from ambulances and security personnel.

At that time, a small number of citizen journalists tried to tell their stories and those of others with smart phones and social media accounts, defying the Communist Party’s tightly policed monopoly on information. Although their movement was small, the scale was unprecedented in any previous major disease outbreak or disaster in China.

But the information they posted soon got them into trouble. Fang and another citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, disappeared in February.

Chen in September 2021 resurfaced on his friend’s live video feed on YouTube, saying he had suffered from depression. But he did not provide details about his disappearance.

Another citizen journalist, Zhang Zhan, who had also reported on the early stage of the outbreak, was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of picking fights and provoking trouble in December 2020. About eight months later, her lawyer said she was in ill health after staging a long-running hunger strike.

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EU Tech Tsar Vestager Sees Political Agreement on AI Law This Year 

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The European Union is likely to reach a political agreement this year that will pave the way for the world’s first major artificial intelligence (AI) law, the bloc’s tech regulation chief, Margrethe Vestager, said on Sunday.

This follows a preliminary deal reached on Thursday by members of the European Parliament to push through the draft of the EU’s Artificial Intelligence Act to a vote on May 11. Parliament will then thrash out the bill’s final details with EU member states and the European Commission before it becomes law.

At a press conference after a Group of Seven digital ministers’ meeting in Takasaki, Japan, Vestager said the EU AI Act was “pro-innovation” since it seeks to mitigate the risks of societal damage from emerging technologies.

Regulators around the world have been trying to find a balance where governments could develop “guardrails” on emerging artificial intelligence technology without stifling innovation.

“The reason why we have these guardrails for high-risk use cases is that cleaning up … after a misuse by AI would be so much more expensive and damaging than the use case of AI in itself,” Vestager said.

While the EU AI Act is expected to be passed by this year, lawyers have said it will take a few years for it to be enforced. But Vestager said businesses could start considering the implication of the new legislation.

“There was no reason to hesitate and to wait for the legislation to be passed to accelerate the necessary discussions to provide the changes in all the systems where AI will have an enormous influence,” she told Reuters in an interview.

While research on AI has been going on for years, the sudden popularity of generative AI applications such as OpenAI’S ChatGPT and Midjourney have led to a scramble by lawmakers to find ways to regulate any uncontrolled growth.

An organization backed by Elon Musk and European lawmakers involved in drafting the EU AI Act are among those to have called for world leaders to collaborate to find ways to stop advanced AI from creating disruptions.

Digital ministers of the G-7 advanced nations on Sunday also agreed to adopt “risk-based” regulation on AI, among the first steps that could lead to global agreements on how to regulate AI.

“It is important that our democracy paved the way and put in place the rules to protect us from its abusive manipulation – AI should be useful but it shouldn’t be manipulating us,” said German Transport Minister Volker Wissing.

This year’s G-7 meeting was also attended by representatives from Indonesia, India and Ukraine.

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Erdogan, Back on Election Trail, Unveils Turkey’s First Astronaut

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Turkey’s first astronaut will travel to the International Space Station by the end of the year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday.

Air force pilot Alper Gezeravci, 43, was selected to be the first Turkish citizen in space. His backup is Tuva Cihangir Atasever, 30, an aviation systems engineer at Turkish defense contractor Roketsan.

Erdogan made the announcement at the Teknofest aviation and space fair in Istanbul, the president’s first public appearance since falling ill during a TV interview on Tuesday. He appeared alongside Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, and Libya’s interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh.

“Our friend, who will go on Turkey’s first manned space mission, will stay on the International Space Station for 14 days,” Erdogan said. “Our astronaut will perform 13 different experiments prepared by our country’s esteemed universities and research institutions during this mission.”

Erdogan described Gezeravci as a “heroic Turkish pilot who has achieved significant success in our Air Force Command.”

The Turkish Space Agency website describes Gezeravci as a 21-year air force veteran and F-16 pilot who attended the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology.

Wearing a red flight jacket, Erdogan appeared in robust health as he addressed crowds at the festival. Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 14, and opinion polls show Erdogan in potentially his toughest race since he came to power two decades ago.

Turkey is dealing with a prolonged economic downturn, and the government received criticism after a February earthquake killed more than 50,000 in the country. Experts blamed the high death toll in part on shoddy construction and law enforcement of building codes.

While campaigning for reelection, Erdogan has unveiled a number of prestigious projects, such as Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and the delivery of natural gas from Black Sea reserves.

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Life-size Sculpture of Euthanized Walrus Unveiled in Norway

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A walrus that became a global celebrity last year after it was seen frolicking and basking in a Oslo fjord before it was euthanized by the authorities has been honored with a bronze sculpture in Norway. 

The life-size sculpture by Norwegian artist Astri Tonoian was unveiled Saturday at the Oslo marina not far from the place where the actual 600-kilogram (1,300-pound) mammal was seen resting and relaxing during the summer of 2022. 

The walrus, named Freya, quickly became a popular attraction among Oslo residents but Norwegian authorities later made a decision to euthanize it — causing public outrage — because they said people hadn’t followed recommendations to keep a safe distance away from the massive animal. 

Norwegian news agency NTB said a crowdfunding campaign was kicked off last fall to finance the sculpture. The private initiative managed to gather about 270,000 Norwegian kroner ($25,000) by October, NTB said. 

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Zoonomia: Genetic Research Reveals All We Share with Animals

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By comparing the genetic blueprints of an array of animals, scientists are gaining new insights into our own species and all we share with other creatures. 

One of the most striking revelations is that certain passages in the instructions for life have persisted across evolutionary time, representing a through line that binds all mammals – including us. 

The findings come from the Zoonomia Project, an international effort that offers clues about human traits and diseases, animal abilities like hibernation and even the genetics behind a sled dog named Balto who helped save lives a century ago. 

Researchers shared some of their discoveries in 11 papers published Thursday in the journal Science. 

David O’Connor, who studies primate genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the studies tackle deep questions. 

“It’s just the wonder of biology, how we are so similar and dissimilar to all the things around us,” said O’Connor, who wasn’t involved in the research. “It’s the sort of thing that reminds me why it’s cool to be a biologist.” 

The Zoonomia team, led by Elinor Karlsson and Kerstin Lindblad-Toh at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, looked at 240 species of mammals, from bats to bison. They sequenced and compared their genomes — the instructions organisms need to develop and grow. 

They found that certain regions of these genomes have stayed the same across all mammal species over millions of years of evolution. 

One study found that at least 10% of the human genome is largely unchanged across species. Many of these regions occur outside the 1% of genes that give rise to proteins that control the activity of cells, the main purpose of DNA. 

Researchers theorized that long-preserved regions probably serve a purpose and are likely what they call “regulatory elements” containing instructions about where, when and how much protein is produced. Scientists identified more than 3 million of these in the human genome, about half of which were previously unknown. 

Scientists also focused on change within the animal kingdom. When they aligned genetic sequences for species and compared them with their ancestors, Karlsson said, they discovered that some species saw a lot of changes in relatively short periods of time. This showed how they were adapting to their environments. 

“One of the really cool things about mammals is that at this point in time, they’ve basically adapted to survive in nearly every single ecosystem on Earth,” Karlsson said. 

One group of scientists looked for genes that humans don’t have but other mammals do. 

Instead of focusing on new genes that might create uniquely human traits, “we kind of flipped that on its head,” said Steven Reilly, a genetics researcher at Yale University. 

“Losing pieces of DNA can actually generate new features,” Reilly said. 

For example, he said, a tiny DNA deletion between chimps and humans caused a cascade of changes in gene expression that may be one of the causes of prolonged brain development in humans. 

Another study focused on the fitness of one well-known animal: Balto. 

Scientists sequenced the genome of the sled dog, who led a team of dogs carrying a lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska, in 1925. His story was made into a 1995 animated feature film and a statue of the pup stands in New York’s Central Park. 

By comparing Balto’s genes to those of other dogs, researchers found he was more genetically diverse than modern breeds and may have carried genetic variants that helped him survive harsh conditions. One of the authors, researcher Katherine Moon of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said Balto “gives us this guide through comparative genomics,” showing how genetics can shape individuals. 

O’Connor said he expects Zoonomia to yield even more insights in the future. 

“To have these tools and to have the sort of audacity to ask these big questions” helps scientists and others “learn more about life around us,” he said. 

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China’s Mars Rover Finds Signs of Recent Water in Sand Dunes 

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Water may be more widespread and recent on Mars than previously thought, based on observations of Martian sand dunes by China’s rover. 

The finding highlights new, potentially fertile areas in the warmer regions of Mars where conditions might be suitable for life to exist, though more study is needed. 

Friday’s news came days after mission leaders acknowledged that the Zhurong rover had yet to wake up since going into hibernation for the Martian winter nearly a year ago. 

Its solar panels are likely covered with dust, choking off its power source and possibly preventing the rover from operating again, said Zhang Rongqiao, the mission’s chief designer. 

Before Zhurong fell silent, it observed salt-rich dunes with cracks and crusts, which researchers said likely were mixed with melting morning frost or snow as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago. 

Their estimated date range for when the cracks and other dune features formed in Mars’ Utopia Planitia — a vast plain in the northern hemisphere — is sometime after 1.4 million to 400,000 years ago or even younger. 

Conditions during that period were similar to what they are now on Mars, with rivers and lakes dried up and no longer flowing as they did billions of years earlier. 

Studying the structure and chemical makeup of these dunes can provide insights into “the possibility of water activity” during this period, the Beijing-based team wrote in a study published in Science Advances. 

“We think it could be a small amount … no more than a film of water on the surface,” co-author Xiaoguang Qin of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics said in an email. 

The rover did not directly detect any water in the form of frost or ice. But Qin said computer simulations and observations by other spacecraft at Mars indicated that even nowadays at certain times of year, conditions could be suitable for water to appear. 

What’s notable about the study is how young the dunes are, said planetary scientist Frederic Schmidt at the University of Paris-Saclay, who was not part of the study. 

“This is clearly a new piece of science for this region,” he said in an email. 

Small pockets of water from thawing frost or snow, mixed with salt, likely resulted in the small cracks, hard crusty surfaces, loose particles and other dune features like depressions and ridges, the Chinese scientists said. They ruled out wind as a cause, as well as frost made of carbon dioxide, which makes up the bulk of Mars’ atmosphere. 

Martian frost has been observed since NASA’s 1970s Viking missions, but these light dustings of morning frost were thought to occur in certain locations under specific conditions. 

The rover has now provided “evidence that there may be a wider distribution of this process on Mars than previously identified,” said Trinity College Dublin’s Mary Bourke, an expert in Mars geology. 

However small this watery niche is, it could be important for identifying habitable environments, she added. 

Launched in 2020, the six-wheeled Zhurong — named after a fire god in Chinese mythology — arrived at Mars in 2021 and spent a year roaming around before going into hibernation last May. The rover operated longer than intended, traveling nearly 2,000 meters.

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Story Behind DNA Double Helix Discovery Gets New Twist

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The discovery of DNA’s double helix structure 70 years ago opened up a world of new science — and also sparked disputes over who contributed what and who deserves credit.

Much of the controversy comes from a central idea: that James Watson and Francis Crick — the first to figure out DNA’s shape — stole data from a scientist named Rosalind Franklin.

Now, two historians are suggesting that while parts of that story are accurate — Watson and Crick did rely on research from Franklin and her lab without permission — Franklin was more a collaborator than just a victim.

In an opinion article published Tuesday in the journal Nature, the historians say the two different research teams were working in parallel toward solving the DNA puzzle and knew more about what the other team was doing than is widely believed.

“It’s much less dramatic,” said article author Matthew Cobb, a zoologist at the University of Manchester who is working on a biography of Crick. “It’s not a heist movie.”

Photograph 51

The story dates back to the 1950s, when scientists were still working out how DNA’s pieces fit together.

Watson and Crick were working on modeling DNA’s shape at Cambridge University. Meanwhile, Franklin — an expert in X-ray imaging — was studying the molecules at King’s College in London, along with a scientist named Maurice Wilkins.

It was there that Franklin captured the iconic Photograph 51, an X-ray image showing DNA’s crisscross shape.

Then, the story gets tricky. In the version that’s often told, Watson was able to look at Photograph 51 during a visit to Franklin’s lab. According to the story, Franklin hadn’t solved the structure, even months after making the image. But when Watson saw it, “he suddenly, instantly knew that it was a helix,” said author Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins University who is writing a biography of Watson.

At about the same time, the story goes, Crick also obtained a lab report that included Franklin’s data and used it without her consent.

And according to this story, these two “eureka moments” — both based on Franklin’s work — Watson and Crick “were able to go and solve the double helix in a few days,” Comfort said.

This “lore” came in part from Watson himself in his book “The Double Helix,” the historians say. But they suggest this was a “literary device” to make the story more exciting and understandable to lay readers.

After digging in Franklin’s archives, the historians found new details that they say challenge this simplistic narrative — and suggest that Franklin contributed more than just one photograph along the way.

The proof? A draft of a Time magazine article from the time, written “in consultation with Franklin” but never published, described the work on DNA’s structure as a joint effort between the two groups. And a letter from one of Franklin’s colleagues suggested Franklin knew her research was being shared with Crick, the authors said.

Taken together, this material suggests the four researchers were equal collaborators in the work, Comfort said. While there may have been tensions, the scientists were sharing their findings more openly — not snatching them in secret.

“She deserves to be remembered not as the victim of the double helix, but as an equal contributor to the solution of the structure,” the authors conclude.

Howard Markel, a historian of medicine at the University of Michigan, said he’s not convinced by the updated story.

Markel — who wrote a book about the double helix discovery — believes that Franklin got “ripped off” by the others and they cut her out in part because she was a Jewish woman in a male-dominated field.

Franklin’s work critical 

In the end, Franklin left her DNA work behind and went on to make other important discoveries in virus research, before dying of cancer at age 37. Four years later, Watson, Crick and Wilkins received a Nobel prize for their work on DNA’s structure.

Franklin wasn’t included in that honor. Posthumous Nobel prizes have always been extremely rare, and now aren’t allowed.

What exactly happened, and in what order, will likely never be known for sure. Crick and Wilkins both died in 2004. Watson, 95, could not be reached, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he served as director, declined to comment on the paper.

But researchers agree Franklin’s work was critical for helping unravel DNA’s double helix shape — no matter how the story unfolded.

“How should she be remembered?” asked Markel. “As a great scientist who was an equal contributor to the process. It should be called the Watson-Crick-Franklin model.”

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South Africa’s Power Crisis Causing Antivenom Shortage

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Snake experts in South Africa say an energy crisis is partly to blame for a shortage of antivenom in sub-Saharan Africa that has left at least three people dead in the past three weeks. South Africa supplies antivenom to the region, but frequent power cuts have made it harder to store the refrigerated supplies. Vicky Stark reports from Cape Town, South Africa.
Camera: Shadley Lombard 

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Researchers Discover Possible Roots of Gray Hair

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Scientists at New York University have untangled what they believe is the mystery behind the graying of hair. The discovery offers hope to individuals who spend considerable time and money at hair salons to ward off this evidence of aging, but hair colorists say they don’t think they will be put out of business. Aron Ranen reports from New York City.

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Uruguay Foundation Prints Free 3D Prosthetic Hands, Arms

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The first thing 11-year-old Mia Rodriguez says she did with her new prosthetic hands was draw a picture of a kitten.

The Uruguayan girl, whose fingers never fully developed, put on the prosthetic hands and demonstrated the grasping movement she can now make.

“Now I can hold the pencil with one hand. Before, I had to do it with both hands because my fist wouldn’t close,” she said, while her mother, Ana Van López, watched excitedly.

Rodriguez received the prostheses from the Uruguayan Manos de Heroes foundation, which designs and prints hands and arms with 3D technology for children and adults across the South American country.

Since 2020, the foundation has provided more than 100 free prostheses, most of them for families in vulnerable situations.

Van Lopez, 28, lives with her partner and their four children in an abandoned factory in Salinas, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Montevideo, and her income comes from informal work such as selling firewood or pineapples. The family has a monthly income of about $200, or 8,000 pesos.

“I am very grateful; I thought my daughter was the only one with this problem. She had never come across someone like her in the hospital or on the street. It’s very difficult for us,” said Lopez, who is trying to obtain a state disability benefit for the girl equivalent to a little more than $380, or 15,000 pesos a month. In addition, they receive a similar amount of state support, she said.

Almost 16% of the Uruguayan population registers some level of disability, the majority mild, according to a 2011 census by the National Statistics Institute.

Rodriguez’s prosthetic hands move with threads that are taut from the motion of her wrists. They are violet with pink, colors she said she chose because they go well together, and are decorated with unicorn decals. Other children prefer the colors of their favorite soccer club or superhero.

The prostheses can be mechanical or electronic. They are placed on the hands, forearm, elbow or shoulder, according to the needs of each person.

Designing a hand, printing it and putting it together takes a couple of weeks, said Andrea Cukerman, an electrical engineer and founder of Manos de Heroes, or Hands of Heroes.

The prostheses are free, and the foundation is financed with contributions from private companies and donations. In Europe, a prosthetic hand with much more advanced technology can cost as much as $100,000, the foundation said.

On one of the walls of the foundation’s office there are photos of children and adults who have received prostheses. The images show children striking poses with hands and arms in vibrant colors — orange, green — or like those of Spider-Man.

“The idea is that they don’t feel alone,” Cukerman said.

The photos of adults are more subdued; most of their prostheses imitate the color and details of the skin.

Cukerman shows the prostheses she is currently printing: the arm of an adult who had an accident.

The day of the test, Rodriguez kept looking at everything in front of her, Cukerman recalled.

“When we showed her her hands, her face lit up, her big eyes, she hardly spoke,” she said.

They explained how the prosthetic hands worked, what movement she had to make to open and close her fist, and warned that some adjustments might have to be made.

Rodriguez put her hands on and began to try movements.

“It took a few seconds; they were perfect,” said her mother.

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Sudden Ocean Warming Spike Stirs Concern

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Ocean temperatures have spiked well above record levels in the last few weeks, and scientists are trying to figure out what it means and whether it forecasts a surge in atmospheric warming. 

Some researchers think the jump in sea surface temperatures stems from a brewing and possibly strong natural El Nino warming weather condition plus a rebound from three years of a cooling La Nina, all on top of steady global warming that is heating deeper water below. If that’s the case, they said, ocean temperature records being broken this month could be the first of many heat marks to fall. 

From early March to this week, the global average ocean sea surface temperature jumped nearly two-tenths of a degree Celsius (0.36 degree Fahrenheit), according to the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer, a trusted climate science tool. That may sound small, but for the average of the world’s oceans — which is 71% of Earth’s area — to rise so much in that short a time, “that’s huge,” said University of Colorado climate scientist Kris Karnauskas. “That’s an incredible departure from what was already a warm state to begin with.” 

Climate scientists have been talking about the warming on social media and among themselves. Some, like University of Pennsylvania’s Michael Mann, quickly dismiss concerns by saying it is merely a growing El Nino on top of a steady human-caused warming increase. 

It has warmed especially off the coast of Peru and Ecuador, where before the 1980s most El Ninos began. El Nino is the natural warming of parts of the equatorial Pacific that changes weather worldwide and spikes global temperatures. Until last month, the world has been on the flip side, a cooling called La Nina, that has been unusually strong and long, lasting three years and causing extreme weather. 

‘Unusual pattern’

Other climate scientists, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer Gregory C. Johnson, say it doesn’t appear to be just El Nino. There are several marine heat waves or ocean warming spots that don’t fit an El Nino pattern, such as those in the northern Pacific near Alaska and off the coast of Spain, he said. 

“This is an unusual pattern. This is an extreme event at a global scale” in areas that don’t fit with merely an El Nino, said Princeton University climate scientist Gabe Vecchi. “That is a huge, huge signal. I think it’s going to take some level of effort to understand it.” 

The University of Colorado’s Karnauskas took global sea surface temperature anomalies over the past several weeks and subtracted the average temperature anomalies from earlier in the year to see where the sudden burst of warming is highest. He found a long stretch across the equator from South America to Africa, including both the Pacific and Indian oceans, responsible for much of the global temperature spike. 

That area warmed four-tenths of a degree Celsius in just 10 to 14 days, which is highly unusual, Karnauskas said. 

Part of that area is clearly a brewing El Nino, which scientists may confirm in the next couple months, Karnauskas said. But the area in the Indian Ocean is different and could be a coincidental independent increase or somehow connected to what may be a big El Nino, he said.

It’s been about seven years since the last El Nino, and it was a whopper. The world has warmed in that seven years, especially the deeper ocean, which absorbs by far most of the heat energy from greenhouse gases, said Sarah Purkey, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The ocean heat content, which measures the energy stored by the deep ocean, each year sets new highs regardless of what’s happening on the surface. 

Since that last El Nino, the global heat ocean content has increased .04 degree Celsius (.07 degree Fahrenheit), which may not sound like a lot but “it’s actually a tremendous amount of energy,” Purkey said. It’s about 30 to 40 zettajoules of heat, which is the energy equivalent of hundreds of millions of atomic bombs the size that leveled Hiroshima, she said. 

On top of that warming deep ocean, the world had unusual cooling on the surface from La Nina for three years that sort of acted like a lid on a warming pot, scientists said. That lid is off.

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US Adult Cigarette Smoking Rate Hits New All-Time Low 

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U.S. cigarette smoking dropped to another all-time low last year, with 1 in 9 adults saying they were current smokers, according to government survey data released Thursday. Meanwhile, electronic cigarette use rose, to about 1 in 17 adults.

The preliminary findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are based on survey responses from more than 27,000 adults.

Cigarette smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer, heart disease and stroke, and it’s long been considered the leading cause of preventable death.

In the mid-1960s, 42% of U.S. adults were smokers. The rate has been gradually dropping for decades, due to cigarette taxes, tobacco product price hikes, smoking bans and changes in the social acceptability of lighting up in public.

Last year, the percentage of adult smokers dropped to about 11%, down from about 12.5% in 2020 and 2021. The survey findings sometimes are revised after further analysis, and CDC is expected to release final 2021 data soon.

E-cigarette use rose to nearly 6% last year, from about 4.5% the year before, according to survey data.

The rise in e-cigarette use concerns Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. Nicotine addiction has its own health implications, including risk of high blood pressure and a narrowing of the arteries, according to the American Heart Association.

“I think that smoking will continue to ebb downwards, but whether the prevalence of nicotine addiction will drop, given the rise of electronic products, is not clear,” said Samet, who has been a contributing author to U.S. Surgeon General reports on smoking and health for almost four decades.

Smoking and vaping rates are almost reversed for teens. Only about 2% of high school students were smoking traditional cigarettes last year, but about 14% were using e-cigarettes, according to other CDC data.

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EU Agency Calls for Cuts in Pesticide Use as Monitors Find Excessive Levels

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The European Union’s environment agency on Wednesday urged member states to reduce pesticide use over concern that sales of harmful chemicals remain strong despite its effects on human health and biodiversity.

The warning comes amid findings that one or more pesticides were detected above thresholds of concern at 22% of all monitoring sites in rivers and lakes across Europe in 2020, the European Environment Agency said.

“From 2011 to 2020, pesticide sales in the EU-27 remained relatively stable at around 350,000 tonnes (tons) per year,” the EEA said in a new report, citing data from Eurostat.

Pesticides are widely used in the agriculture sector but also in forestry, along roads and railways, and in urban areas such as public parks, playgrounds or gardens.

The insecticide imidacloprid and the herbicide metolachlor showed the highest absolute number of above-threshold levels across Europe, primarily in northern Italy and northeastern Spain.

In groundwater, the herbicide atrazine caused the most above-threshold levels, even though it has been banned since 2007.

Dangers of pesticides

Human exposure to chemical pesticides, primarily through food but also through the air in agriculture-intense regions, is linked to the development of cardiac, respiratory and neurological disease, as well as cancer, the report said.

“Worryingly, all of the pesticides monitored … were detected in higher concentrations in children than in adults,” the EEA said.

In a study conducted in Spain, Latvia, Hungary, Czech Republic and the Netherlands between 2014 and 2021, at least two pesticides were detected in the bodies of 84% of survey participants.

Pesticide pollution is also driving biodiversity loss across the continent, causing significant declines in insect populations and threatening the critical role they play in food production.

A German study cited in the report found a 76% decline in flying insects in protected zones over a period of 27 years.

It identified pesticides as one of the reasons for the decline.

Sales drop in some countries

In 11 EU member states, pesticide sales decreased between 2011 and 2020, with the biggest drops in the Czech Republic, Portugal and Denmark.

Latvia and Austria saw the strongest rates of increase in terms of sales, while the sharpest rises in volumes were registered in Germany and France.

These two latter countries, along with Spain and Italy, the EU’s four biggest agricultural producers, account for the highest volumes sold for most groups of active substances.

Modern food production systems rely on high volumes of chemical pesticides to ensure crop yield stability and quantity, and to maintain food security.

According to the EEA, 83% of agricultural soils tested in a 2019 study contained pesticide residues.

“We could reduce our dependency on chemical pesticides to maintain crop yields and our overall pesticide use volumes by shifting to alternative models of agriculture, such as agroecology,” it said.

A separate report published Wednesday by the European Food Safety Authority showed that in 2021, 96% percent of food samples analyzed were within legal limits for pesticide residue.

Grapefruit imported from outside the EU had the highest level of pesticide residues in 2021 and new controls were therefore introduced, the EFSA said.

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UK Blocks Microsoft-Activision Gaming Deal, Biggest in Tech

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British antitrust regulators on Wednesday blocked Microsoft’s $69 billion purchase of video game maker Activision Blizzard, thwarting the biggest tech deal in history over worries that it would stifle competition for popular titles like Call of Duty in the fast-growing cloud gaming market.

The Competition and Markets Authority said in its final report that “the only effective remedy” to the substantial loss of competition “is to prohibit the Merger.” The companies have vowed to appeal.

The all-cash deal faced stiff opposition from rival Sony, which makes the PlayStation gaming system, and also was being scrutinized by regulators in the U.S. and Europe over fears that it would give Microsoft and its Xbox console control of hit franchises like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.

The U.K. watchdog’s concerns centered on how the deal would affect cloud gaming, which streams to tablets, phones and other devices and frees players from buying expensive consoles and gaming computers. Gamers can keep playing major Activision titles, including mobile games like Candy Crush, on the platforms they typically use.

Cloud gaming has the potential to change the industry by giving people more choice over how and where they play, said Martin Colman, chair of the Competition and Markets Authority’s independent expert panel investigating the deal.

“This means that it is vital that we protect competition in this emerging and exciting market,” he said.

The decision underscores Europe’s reputation as the global leader in efforts to rein in the power of Big Tech companies. A day earlier, the U.K. government unveiled draft legislation that would give regulators more power to protect consumers from online scams and fake reviews and boost digital competition.

The U.K. decision further dashes Microsoft’s hopes that a favorable outcome could help it resolve a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. A trial before FTC’s in-house judge is set to begin Aug. 2. The European Union’s decision, meanwhile, is due May 22.

Activision lashed out, portraying the watchdog’s decision as a bad signal to international investors in the United Kingdom at a time when the British economy faces severe challenges.

The game maker said it would “work aggressively” with Microsoft to appeal, asserting that the move “contradicts the ambitions of the U.K.” to be an attractive place for tech companies.

“We will reassess our growth plans for the U.K. Global innovators large and small will take note that — despite all its rhetoric — the U.K. is clearly closed for business,” Activision said.

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft also signaled it wasn’t ready to give up.

“We remain fully committed to this acquisition and will appeal,” President Brad Smith said in a statement. The decision “rejects a pragmatic path to address competition concerns” and discourages tech innovation and investment in Britain, he said.

“We’re especially disappointed that after lengthy deliberations, this decision appears to reflect a flawed understanding of this market and the way the relevant cloud technology actually works,” Smith said.

It’s not the first time British regulators have flexed their antitrust muscles on a Big Tech deal. They previously blocked Facebook parent Meta’s purchase of Giphy over fears it would limit innovation and competition. The social media giant appealed the decision to a tribunal but lost and was forced to sell off the GIF sharing platform.

When it comes to gaming, Microsoft already has a strong position in the cloud computing market, and regulators concluded that if the deal went through, it would reinforce the company’s advantage by giving it control of key game titles.

In an attempt to ease concerns, Microsoft struck deals with Nintendo and some cloud gaming providers to license Activision titles like Call of Duty for 10 years — offering the same to Sony.

The watchdog said it reviewed Microsoft’s remedies “in considerable depth” but found they would require its oversight, whereas preventing the merger would allow cloud gaming to develop without intervention.

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Study Details Differences Between Deep Interiors of Mars and Earth

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Mars is Earth’s next-door neighbor in the solar system — two rocky worlds with differences down to their very core, literally.

A new study based on seismic data obtained by NASA’s robotic InSight lander is offering a fuller understanding of the Martian deep interior and fresh details about dissimilarities between Earth, the third planet from the sun, and Mars, the fourth.

The research, informed by the first detection of seismic waves traveling through the core of a planet other than Earth, showed that the innermost layer of Mars is slightly smaller and denser than previously known. It also provided the best assessment to date of the composition of the Martian core.

Both planets possess cores comprised primarily of liquid iron. But about 20% of the Martian core is made up of elements lighter than iron — mostly sulfur, but also oxygen, carbon and a dash of hydrogen, the study found. That is about double the percentage of such elements in Earth’s core, meaning the Martian core is considerably less dense than our planet’s core — though more dense than a 2021 estimate based on a different type of data from the now-retired InSight.

“The deepest regions of Earth and Mars have different compositions —  likely a product both of the conditions and processes at work when the planets formed and of the material they are made from,” said seismologist Jessica Irving of the University of Bristol in England, lead author of the study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study also refined the size of the Martian core, finding it has a diameter of about 2,212-2,249 miles (3,560-3,620 km), approximately 12-31 miles (20-50 km) smaller than previously estimated. The Martian core makes up a slightly smaller percentage of the planet’s diameter than does Earth’s core.

The nature of the core can play a role in governing whether a rocky planet or moon could harbor life. The core, for instance, is instrumental in generating Earth’s magnetic field that shields the planet from harmful solar and cosmic particle radiation.

“On planets and moons like Earth, there are silicate — rocky — outer layers and an iron-dominated metallic core. One of the most important ways a core can impact habitability is to generate a planetary dynamo,” Irving said.

“Earth’s core does this but Mars’ core does not — though it used to, billions of years ago. Mars’ core likely no longer has the energetic, turbulent motion which is needed to generate such a field,” Irving added.

Mars has a diameter of about 4,212 miles (6,779 km), compared to Earth’s diameter of about 7,918 miles (12,742 km), and Earth is almost seven times larger in total volume.

The behavior of seismic waves traveling through a planet can reveal details about its interior structure. The new findings stem from two seismic events that occurred on the opposite side of Mars from where the InSight lander — and specifically its seismometer device — sat on the planet’s surface.

The first was an August 2021 marsquake centered close to Valles Marineris, the solar system’s largest canyon. The second was a September 2021 meteorite impact that left a crater of about 425 feet (130 meters).

The U.S. space agency formally retired InSight in December after four years of operations, with an accumulation of dust preventing its solar-powered batteries from recharging.

“The InSight mission has been fantastically successful in helping us decipher the structure and conditions of the planet’s interior,” University of Maryland geophysicist and study co-author Vedran Lekic said. “Deploying a network of seismometers on Mars would lead to even more discoveries and help us understand the planet as a system, which we cannot do by just looking at its surface from orbit.”

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Tokyo Company Loses Contact With Moon Lander

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A Japanese company tried to land its own spacecraft on the moon early Wednesday, but its fate was unknown as flight controllers lost contact with it moments before the planned touchdown. 

Flight controllers peered at their screens in Tokyo, expressionless, as the minutes went by with still no word from the lander. 

A webcast commentator urged everyone to be patient, as the controllers investigated what might have happened. 

“Everyone, please give us a few minutes to confirm,” he urged. 

If successful, the company ispace would be the first private business to pull off a lunar landing. 

Only three governments have successfully landed on the moon: Russia, the United States and China. The spacecraft carried a mini lunar rover for the United Arab Emirates and a toylike robot from Japan designed to roll around in the moon dust. There were also items from private customers on board. 

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Moon Shot: Japan Firm to Attempt Historic Lunar Landing

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A Japanese space start-up will attempt Tuesday to become the first private company to put a lander on the Moon.   

If all goes to plan, ispace’s Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander will start its descent towards the lunar surface at around 15:40 GMT.   

It will slow its orbit some 100 kilometers above the Moon, then adjust its speed and altitude to make a “soft landing” around an hour later.   

Success is far from guaranteed. In April 2019, Israeli organization SpaceIL watched their lander crash into the Moon’s surface.   

ispace has announced three alternative landing sites and could shift the lunar descent date to April 26, May 1 or May 3, depending on conditions.   

“What we have accomplished so far is already a great achievement, and we are already applying lessons learned from this flight to our future missions,” ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada said earlier this month.   

“The stage is set. I am looking forward to witnessing this historic day, marking the beginning of a new era of commercial lunar missions.”   

The lander, standing just over two meters tall and weighing 340 kilograms, has been in lunar orbit since last month.   

It was launched from Earth in December on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets after several delays.   

So far only the United States, Russia and China have managed to put a robot on the lunar surface, all through government-sponsored programs.   

However, Japan and the United States announced last year that they would cooperate on a plan to put a Japanese astronaut on the Moon by the end of the decade.   

SEE ALSO: A related video by VOA’s Alexander Kruglyakov

The lander is carrying several lunar rovers, including a miniature Japanese model of just eight centimeters that was jointly developed by Japan’s space agency with toy manufacturer Takara Tomy.   

The mission is also being closely watched by the United Arab Emirates, whose Rashid rover is aboard the lander as part of the nation’s expanding space program.   

The Gulf country is a newcomer to the space race but sent a probe into Mars’ orbit in 2021. If its rover successfully lands, it will be the Arab world’s first Moon mission.   

Hakuto means “white rabbit” in Japanese and references Japanese folklore that a white rabbit lives on the Moon.   

The project was one of five finalists in Google’s Lunar X Prize competition to land a rover on the Moon before a 2018 deadline, which passed without a winner.   

With just 200 employees, ispace has said it “aims to extend the sphere of human life into space and create a sustainable world by providing high-frequency, low-cost transportation services to the Moon.”   

Hakamada has touted the mission as laying “the groundwork for unleashing the Moon’s potential and transforming it into a robust and vibrant economic system.”   

The firm believes the Moon will support a population of 1,000 people by 2040, with 10,000 more visiting each year.   

It plans a second mission, tentatively scheduled for next year, involving both a lunar landing and the deployment of its own rover. 

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SpaceX Wins Approval to Add Fifth U.S. Rocket Launch Site

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The U.S. Space Force said on Monday that Elon Musk’s SpaceX was granted approval to lease a second rocket launch complex at a military base in California, setting the space company up for its fifth launch site in the United States. 

Under the lease, SpaceX will launch its workhorse Falcon rockets from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, a military launch site north of Los Angeles where the space company operates another launchpad. It has two others in Florida and its private Starbase site in south Texas. 

A Monday night Space Force statement said a letter of support for the decision was signed on Friday by Space Launch Delta 30 commander Col. Rob Long. The statement did not mention a duration for SpaceX’s lease. 

The new launch site, vacated last year by the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance, gives SpaceX more room to handle an increasingly busy launch schedule for commercial, government and internal satellite launches. 

Vandenberg Space Force Base allows for launches in a southern trajectory over the Pacific Ocean, which is often used for weather-monitoring, military or spy satellites that commonly rely on polar Earth orbits. 

SpaceX’s grant of Space Launch Complex-6 comes as rocket companies prepare to compete for the Pentagon’s Phase 3 National Security Space Launch program, a watershed military launch procurement effort expected to begin in the next year or so. 

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UAE Spacecraft Takes Close-up Photos of Mars’ Little Moon

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A spacecraft around Mars has sent back the most detailed photos yet of the red planet’s little moon. 

The United Arab Emirates’ Amal spacecraft flew within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of Deimos last month, and the close-up shots were released Monday. Amal — Arabic for Hope — got a two-for-one when Mars photobombed some of the images. It was the closest a spacecraft has been to Deimos in almost a half-century. 

The spacecraft also observed the little explored far side of the odd-shaped, cratered moon, just 15 kilometers by 12 kilometers by 12 kilometers (9 miles by 7 miles by 7 miles.) 

SEE ALSO: A related video by VOA’s Arash Arabasadi

Mars’ other moon, Phobos, is almost double that size and better understood since it orbits much closer to Mars — just 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) away, the closest of any planet’s moon in our solar system. 

Deimos’ orbit around Mars stretches 23,000 kilometers (14,000 miles) out. That’s close to the inner part of the spacecraft’s orbit — “which is what made observing Deimos such a compelling idea,” said the mission’s lead scientist Hessa al-Matroushi. 

“Phobos has got most of the attention up until now — now it’s Deimos’ turn!” she added in an email. 

Al-Matroushi and other scientists with the UAE Space Agency said these new images indicate Deimos is not an asteroid that got captured in Mars’ orbit eons ago, the leading theory until now. Instead, they say the moon appears to be of Martian origin — perhaps from the bigger Martian moon or from Mars itself. 

The findings were presented Monday at the European Geosciences Union’s general assembly in Vienna. 

Amal will continue to sweep past Deimos this year, but not as closely as the March 10 encounter, according to al-Matroushi. 

NASA’s Viking 2 came within 30 kilometers (19 miles) of Deimos in 1977. Since then, other spacecraft have photographed Deimos but from much farther away. 

Amal rocketed to Mars on July 19, 2020, one day shy of the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first moon landing — Earth’s moon, that is — by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. 

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European Summit Seeks to Boost Wind Energy Production

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Nine European countries held a summit on Monday aimed at scaling up wind power generation in the North Sea, spurred by the fallout from the war in Ukraine and the push for renewables. 

“We’ve seen over the past months what the impact is if you are too dependent on outsiders for the supply of energy,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who hosted the meeting in the coastal town of Ostend. 

The leaders of EU members France, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, along with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, attended the summit. 

Norway and Britain also participated, with the latter represented by UK Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps. 

In a joint op-ed published in Politico, the leaders of the nine nations emphasized the need to build more offshore wind turbines “to reach our climate goals, and to rid ourselves of Russian gas, ensuring a more secure and independent Europe.” 

Several leaders pointed to the need also to ensure security of offshore wind farms and their interconnectors, in the wake of recent reports of a Russian spy ship in the North Sea and last year’s sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. 

De Croo said North Sea infrastructure, including turbines and undersea cables “are prone to sabotage or to espionage” and the topic was “an extremely important one” at the summit.

The summit’s collective goal, stated by all the leaders, is to boost offshore wind power generation to 120 gigawatts by 2030 — from just 30 GW today — and at least 300 GW by 2050.

They recognized the size of the task requires massive investment and that standardizing equipment is needed to bring down costs and timescales.

A key point, hammered by French President Emmanuel Macron, is to ensure the supply chain for the push for more North Sea wind power is anchored in Europe, rather than elsewhere, and that the jobs created are there.

“We want to secure our industrial chain, because it’s important to deploy this offshore wind power but we don’t want to repeat the errors we’ve sometimes committed in the past, of deploying equipment made on the other side of the world,” he said.

The comment appeared to be directed at China, which currently dominates the supply of critical elements, such as rare earth metals. The European Union is seeking to shift away from that reliance on China by bolstering its own industries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the “very important” summit underscored the potential to greatly expand renewable energy from the North Sea. 

Industry criticism 

WindEurope, an organization that promotes wind energy across Europe, believes the summit’s ambitions are achievable. But it highlighted a lack of “adequate funding mechanisms” and recruitment in the sector.

The organization says Europe needs to build the offshore infrastructure to add 20 GW in output per year, yet the sector currently has capacity for just seven GW annually, with supply chain bottlenecks for cables, substations and foundations, and in the availability of offshore support vessels.

Investment to get Europe where it wants to be is huge: The EU has calculated the cost of reaching 300 GW in offshore energy production by 2050 at $900 billion.

Britain has the biggest fleet of offshore wind farms, 45 of them, currently producing 14 GW, with plans to expand capacity to 50 GW by 2030.

Germany’s 30 wind farms produce 8 GW, followed by the Netherlands with 2.8 GW and Denmark and Belgium both with 2.3 GW.

The other participating countries produce less than a gigawatt from their existing installations but share ambitions to greatly ramp up wind energy capacity. 

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Severe Solar Storm Creates Dazzling Auroras Farther South

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An intense solar storm has the northern lights gracing the skies farther south than usual. 

A blast of superhot material from the sun late last week hurled scorching gases known as plasma toward Earth at about 3 million kph, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday. 

Earth felt the brunt of the storm Sunday, according to NOAA, with forecasters warning operators of power plants and spacecraft of the potential for disruption. 

“I don’t want any expectations of these green curtains moving back and forth” so far south, said Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.  

Auroras were reported across parts of Europe and Asia. In the U.S., skygazers took in the sights from northern states such as Wisconsin and Washington, but also states farther south, including Colorado, California, New Mexico and even Arizona — mostly a reddish glow instead of the typical green shimmer. 

Although conditions have eased, auroras might still be visible as far south as South Dakota and Iowa late Monday and early Tuesday if skies are dark. 

The farther north, the better the chance of a show as the energized particles interact with the atmosphere closer to Earth, according to Murtagh. The farther south, the curvature of the Earth cuts off the possibility for the most dazzling scenes as the particles interact higher in the atmosphere. 

Murtagh said light pollution in Boulder prevented him from seeing the auroras Sunday night. But there could be more opportunities as the solar cycle ramps up. 

“Stay tuned, more to come,” he said. 

This was the third severe geomagnetic storm since the current 11-year solar cycle began in 2019, according to NOAA. The agency expects the cycle to peak in 2024. 

For those Down Under, the southern lights should provide equally good shows, Murtagh said. 

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Scientists Develop Mobile Printer for mRNA Vaccine Patches

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Scientists said Monday they have developed the first mobile printer that can produce thumbnail-sized patches able to deliver mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, hoping the tabletop device will help immunize people in remote regions.

While many hurdles remain and the 3D printer is likely years away from becoming available, experts hailed the “exciting” finding.

The device prints 2-centimeter-wide patches that each contain hundreds of tiny needles that administer a vaccine when pressed against the skin.

These “microneedle patches” offer a range of advantages over traditional jabs in the arm, including that they can be self-administered, are relatively painless, could be more palatable to the vaccine-hesitant and can be stored at room temperature for long periods of time.

The popular mRNA COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna need to be refrigerated, which has caused distribution complications — particularly in developing countries that have condemned the unequal distribution of doses during the pandemic.

The new printer was tested with the Pfizer and Moderna jabs, according to a study in the journal Nature Biotechnology, but the goal of the international team of researchers behind it is for it to be adapted to whatever vaccines are needed.

Robert Langer, co-founder of Moderna and one of the study’s authors, told AFP that he hoped the printer could be used for “the next COVID, or whatever crisis occurs.” 

Ana Jaklenec, a study author also from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the printer could be sent to areas such as refugee camps or remote villages to “quickly immunize the local population,” in the event of a fresh outbreak of a disease like Ebola.


Microneedle patch vaccines are already under development for COVID-19 and a range of other diseases, including polio, measles and rubella.

But the patches have long struggled to take off because producing them is an expensive, laborious process often involving large machines for centrifugation. 

To shrink that process down, the researchers used a vacuum chamber to suck the printer “ink” into the bottom of their patch molds, so it reaches the points of the tiny needles.

The vaccine ink is made up of lipid nanoparticles containing mRNA vaccine molecules, as well as a polymer similar to sugar water.

Once allowed to dry, the patches can be stored at room temperature for at least six months, the study found. The patches even survived a month at a balmy 37 degrees Celsius (99 Fahrenheit).

Mice that were given a vaccine patch produced a similar level of antibody response to others immunized via a traditional injection, the study said.

The printed patches are currently being tested on primates, which if successful would lead to trials on humans. 

‘A real breakthrough’?

The printer can make 100 patches in 48 hours. But modelling suggested that — with improvements — it could potentially print thousands a day, the researchers said.

“And you can have more than one printer,” Langer added.

Joseph DeSimone, a chemist at Stanford University not involved in the research, said that “this work is particularly exciting as it realizes the ability to produce vaccines on demand.” 

“With the possibility of scaling up vaccine manufacturing and improved stability at higher temperatures, mobile vaccine printers can facilitate widespread access to RNA vaccines,” said DeSimone, who has invented his own microneedle patches.

Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, said that production and access to vaccines could be “transformed through such a printer.”

“It might become a real breakthrough,” he told AFP, while warning that this depended on approval and mass production, which could take years.

Darrick Carter, a biochemist and CEO of U.S. biotech firm PAI Life Sciences, was less optimistic. 

He said that the field of microneedle patches had “suffered for 30 years” because no one had yet been able to scale up manufacturing in a cost-effective way.

“Until someone figures out the manufacturing scale-up issues for microneedle patches they will remain niche products,” he told AFP. 

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Twitter Changes Stoke Russian, Chinese Propaganda Surge

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Twitter accounts operated by authoritarian governments in Russia, China and Iran are benefiting from recent changes at the social media company, researchers said Monday, making it easier for them to attract new followers and broadcast propaganda and disinformation to a larger audience. 

The platform is no longer labeling state-controlled media and propaganda agencies, and will no longer prohibit their content from being automatically promoted or recommended to users. Together, the two changes, both made in recent weeks, have supercharged the Kremlin’s ability to use the U.S.-based platform to spread lies and misleading claims about its invasion of Ukraine, U.S. politics and other topics. 

Russian state media accounts are now earning 33% more views than they were just weeks ago, before the change was made, according to findings released Monday by Reset, a London-based non-profit that tracks authoritarian governments’ use of social media to spread propaganda. Reset’s findings were first reported by The Associated Press. 

The increase works out to more than 125,000 additional views per post. Those posts included ones suggesting the CIA had something to do with the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., that Ukraine’s leaders are embezzling foreign aid to their country, and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was justified because the U.S. was running clandestine biowarfare labs in the country. 

State media agencies operated by Iran and China have seen similar increases in engagement since Twitter quietly made the changes. 

The about-face from the platform is the latest development since billionaire Elon Musk purchased Twitter last year. Since then, he’s ushered in a confusing new verification system and laid off much of the company’s staff, including those dedicated to fighting misinformation, allowed back neo-Nazis and others formerly suspended from the site, and ended the site’s policy prohibiting dangerous COVID-19 misinformation. Hate speech and disinformation have thrived. 

Before the most recent change, Twitter affixed labels reading “Russia state-affiliated media” to let users know the origin of the content. It also throttled back the Kremlin’s online engagement by making the accounts ineligible for automatic promotion or recommendation—something it regularly does for ordinary accounts as a way to help them reach bigger audiences. 

The labels quietly disappeared after National Public Radio and other outlets protested Musk’s plans to label their outlets as state-affiliated media, too. NPR then announced it would no longer use Twitter, saying the label was misleading, given NPR’s editorial independence, and would damage its credibility. 

Reset’s conclusions were confirmed by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL), where researchers determined the changes were likely made by Twitter late last month. Many of the dozens of previously labeled accounts were steadily losing followers since Twitter began using the labels. But after the change, many accounts saw big jumps in followers. 

RT Arabic, one of Russia’s most popular propaganda accounts on Twitter, had fallen to less than 5,230,000 followers on January 1, but rebounded after the change was implemented, the DFRL found. It now has more than 5,240,000 followers. 

Before the change, users interested in seeking out Kremlin propaganda had to search specifically for the account or its content. Now, it can be recommended or promoted like any other content. 

“Twitter users no longer must actively seek out state-sponsored content in order to see it on the platform; it can just be served to them,” the DFRL concluded. 

Twitter did not respond to questions about the change or the reasons behind it. Musk has made past comments suggesting he sees little difference between state-funded propaganda agencies operated by authoritarian strongmen and independent news outlets in the west.

“All news sources are partially propaganda,” he tweeted last year, “some more than others.”

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Writer, Adviser, Poet, Bot: How ChatGPT Could Transform Politics

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The AI bot ChatGPT has passed exams, written poetry, and deployed in newsrooms, and now politicians are seeking it out — but experts are warning against rapid uptake of a tool also famous for fabricating “facts.”

The chatbot, released last November by U.S. firm OpenAI, has quickly moved center stage in politics — particularly as a way of scoring points.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently took a direct hit from the bot when he answered some innocuous questions about health care reform from an opposition MP.

Unbeknownst to the PM, his adversary had generated the questions with ChatGPT. He also generated answers that he claimed were “more sincere” than Kishida’s.

The PM hit back that his own answers had been “more specific.”

French trade union boss Sophie Binet was on-trend when she drily assessed a recent speech by President Emmanuel Macron as one that “could have been done by ChatGPT.”

But the bot has also been used to write speeches and even help draft laws. 

“It’s useful to think of ChatGPT and generative AI in general as a cliche generator,” David Karpf of George Washington University in the U.S. said during a recent online panel. 

“Most of what we do in politics is also cliche generation.”

‘Limited added value’

Nowhere has the enthusiasm for grandstanding with ChatGPT been keener than in the United States.

Last month, Congresswoman Nancy Mace gave a five-minute speech at a Senate committee enumerating potential uses and harms of AI — before delivering the punchline that “every single word” had been generated by ChatGPT.

Local U.S. politician Barry Finegold had already gone further though, pronouncing in January that his team had used ChatGPT to draft a bill for the Massachusetts Senate.

The bot reportedly introduced original ideas to the bill, which is intended to rein in the power of chatbots and AI.

Anne Meuwese from Leiden University in the Netherlands wrote in a column for Dutch law journal RegelMaat last week that she had carried out a similar experiment with ChatGPT and also found that the bot introduced original ideas.

But while ChatGPT was to some extent capable of generating legal texts, she wrote that lawmakers should not fall over each other to use the tool.

“Not only is much still unclear about important issues such as environmental impact, bias and the ethics at OpenAI … the added value also seems limited for now,” she wrote.

Agitprop bots

The added value might be more obvious lower down the political food chain, though, where staffers on the campaign trail face a treadmill of repetitive tasks.

Karpf suggested AI could be useful for generating emails asking for donations — necessary messages that were not intended to be masterpieces.

This raises an issue of whether the bots can be trained to represent a political point of view.

ChatGPT has already provoked a storm of controversy over its apparent liberal bias — the bot initially refused to write a poem praising Donald Trump but happily churned out couplets for his successor as U.S. President Joe Biden.

Billionaire magnate Elon Musk has spied an opportunity. Despite warning that AI systems could destroy civilization, he recently promised to develop TruthGPT, an AI text tool stripped of the perceived liberal bias.

Perhaps he needn’t have bothered. New Zealand researcher David Rozado already ran an experiment retooling ChatGPT as RightWingGPT — a bot on board with family values, liberal economics and other right-wing rallying cries.

“Critically, the computational cost of trialling, training and testing the system was less than $300,” he wrote on his Substack blog in February.

Not to be outdone, the left has its own “Marxist AI.”

The bot was created by the founder of Belgian satirical website Nordpresse, who goes by the pseudonym Vincent Flibustier.

He told AFP his bot just sends queries to ChatGPT with the command to answer as if it were an “angry trade unionist.”

The malleability of chatbots is central to their appeal but it goes hand-in-hand with the tendency to generate untruths, making AI text generators potentially hazardous allies for the political class.

“You don’t want to become famous as the political consultant or the political campaign that blew it because you decided that you could have a generative AI do [something] for you,” said Karpf. 

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