Author Archives: Alexandru Micu

About Alexandru Micu

Stunningly charming pun connoisseur, I have been fascinated by the world around me since I first laid eyes on it. Always curious, I'm just having a little fun with some very serious science.

Proposed NASA funding bill finally gives it the cash it needs for a new lunar lander and Mars mission

Congress’s new proposed spending bill would finally provide NASA with the cash it needs for projects that have been struggling these past few years. Among them are efforts to develop new commercial space stations in low Earth orbit and the development of a new crewed lunar lander.

Image via Wikimedia.

If signed, the bill would assign NASA $24.041 billion for the fiscal year 2022. While this would be $800 million less than what President Joe Biden’s budget request called for in May, it would still mean a slight increase in the agency’s cash compared to fiscal year 2021, when it received $23.27 billion.

Cash landing

Although Congress does not seem to see eye to eye with the presidential administration on NASA’s budget requirements, there are several projects that lawmakers in the House and Senate are finally agreeing to fund. NASA’s human landing system will receive the full $1.195 billion requested for it. This lander is being developed for the Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon. For 2021, appropriators only provided $850 million of the requested $3.4 billion for the lander.

Due to constraints in the budget, several changes were made to the original plans for Artemis. These involved choosing at least two commercial companies to design and build landers for the mission — intended to spark competition and provide redundancy for the program. Lacking in cash, however, NASA only selected SpaceX to develop its Starship vehicle into a lander.

If NASA was to receive the increased budget for this mission, Congress calls on it to “deliver a publicly available plan explaining how it will ensure safety, redundancy, sustainability, and competition” within 30 days of the bill’s signing. Congress is also asking for a detailed list of resources NASA would need through to 2026 to ensure the success of the program.

The windfall, should the bill be signed into force, will also inject much-needed cash into NASA’s efforts to develop a successor to the International Space Station. The ISS has funds to operate through to 2024, although the Biden administration has announced that it is looking to extend its life through to 2030. By that time, NASA hopes, the private space industry will have developed its own commercial space station or stations to take over in low Earth orbit. NASA has requested $150 million for this project for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 each but was only granted $15 million and $17 million respectively. However, Congress agreed to appropriate the requested sum of $101.1 million for this year.

Funding for other NASA programs has remained relatively constant under the new proposed bill. Its Orion crew capsule and Space Launch Systems (SLS) are receiving the full requested amount in funding, with the SLS even getting a little extra. Science is being granted $7.614 billion, which is less than what NASA requested, but more than last year. The agency’s request for $653 million for its Mars sample return mission has been granted in full.

So, although the budget doesn’t look the way NASA would have wanted, it’s still a pretty good deal. There is, however, a catch. Projects can only receive 40% of their allotted amounts until NASA’s administrator submits a multi-year plan for Artemis and upcoming NASA Moon missions. This will need to include dates for major milestones, any proposed partnerships, and a whole host of other data alongside estimates of what funds are needed to touch upon these milestones.

Thailand’s massive floating solar farm lays the foundation for its emission-free future

The Kingdom of Thailand wants to seal its commitment to green energy with its new hybrid solar-hydropower generation facility that covers a water reservoir in the northeast of the country.

The installation covers an immense 720,000 square meters of the reservoir’s surface and produces clean electricity around the clock: solar power during the day, hydropower at night. Christened the Sirindhorn dam farm, this is the “world’s largest floating hydro-solar farm”, and the first of 15 such farms planned to be built by Thailand by 2037. They are a linchpin in the kingdom’s pledge for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Floating towards the future

“We can claim that through 45 megawatts combined with hydropower and energy management system for solar and hydro powers, this is the first and biggest project in the world,” Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) deputy governor Prasertsak Cherngchawano told AFP.

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) last year, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha officially announced his country’s goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, and a net-zero greenhouse emissions target by 2065. Thailand also aims to produce 30% of its energy from renewables by 2037 as an interim goal.

The Sirindhorn dam farm project, which went into operation last October, is the cornerstone of that pledge. The farm contains over 144,000 solar cells and can output 45 MW of electricity. This is enough to reduce Thailand’s carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 47,000 tons per year.

Thailand’s energy grids continue to rely heavily on fossil fuel; some 55% of the country’s power generation as of October last year was derived from such fuels, while only 11% came from renewable sources such as solar or hydropower, according to Thailand’s Energy Policy and Planning Office, a department of the ministry of energy. Still, projects such as Sirindhorn show that progress is being made.

The $35 million project took two years to build, with repeated delays caused by the pandemic, which saw technicians falling sick and deliveries of solar panels being repeatedly delayed. EGAT plans to install floating hydro-solar farms in 15 more dams across Thailand by 2037, which would total an estimated 2,725 MW of power.

Currently, power generated at Sirindhorn is being distributed mainly to domestic and commercial users in the lower northeastern region of the country.

Thailand is also betting that its floating solar farms will be of interest to tourists, as well. Sirindhorn comes with a 415-meter (1,360-foot) long “Nature Walkway” which will give a breathtaking view of the reservoir and the solar cells floating across its surface. Locals are already flocking to see the solar farm, and time will tell if international travelers will be drawn here as well.

Local communities report that with the solar floats installed, catches of fish in the reservoir have decreased — but they seem to be positive about it. State authorities say that the project will not affect agriculture, fishing, or other community activities in the long term, and are committed to taking any steps necessary towards this goal.

“The number of fish caught has reduced, so we have less income,” village headman Thongphon Mobmai, 64, told AFP. “But locals have to accept this mandate for community development envisioned by the state.”

“We’ve used only 0.2 to 0.3 percent of the dam’s surface area. People can make use of lands for agriculture, residency, and other purposes,” said EGAT’s Prasertsak.

A coat against our troubles: new compound can transform air filters into pathogen-killing machines

A joint research venture between the University of Birmingham and private firms NitroPep Ltd and Pullman AC has produced air filters that are highly effective at killing bacteria, fungi, and viruses, including the SARS-CoV 2 virus, the infamous coronavirus.

Image via Pixabay.

The secret of these filters’ effectiveness is a chemical called chlorhexidine digluconate (CHDG). This is a potent biocide that can kill pathogens within seconds of coming into contact with them. Air filters coated in this substance can prove to be a powerful tool against airborne pathogens around the world, according to the researchers that designed them.

Removing the gunk

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront of public consciousness the real need for new ways to control the spread of airborne respiratory pathogens. In crowded spaces, from offices to large indoor venues, shopping malls, and on public transport, there is an incredibly high potential for transmission of COVID-19 and other viruses such as flu,” says Dr. Felicity de Cogan, Royal Academy of Engineering Industry Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and corresponding author of the paper.

“Most ventilation systems recycle air through the system, and the filters currently being used in these systems are not normally designed to prevent the spread of pathogens, only to block air particles. This means filters can actually act as a potential reservoir for harmful pathogens. We are excited that we have been able to develop a filter treatment which can kill bacteria, fungi and viruses—including SARS-CoV-2—in seconds. This addresses a global un-met need and could help clean the air in enclosed spaces, helping to prevent the spread of respiratory disease.”

The filters were tested in both laboratory and real-life conditions to determine how effective they were at removing air-borne pathogens, and the results are stellar.

In the lab, the filters were covered with viral particles of the Wuhan strain of SARS-CoV-2, alongside control filters. They were then checked periodically over a period of more than one hour to see how these pathogens fared. While much of the initial quantity of viral particles remained on the surface of the control filters for the experiment’s length, all SARS-CoV-2 cells were destroyed within 60 seconds on the treated filters.

Experiments involving bacteria and fungi that commonly cause illness in humans — such as E. coli, S. aureus, and C. albicans— yielded similar results. This showcases the wide applicability of the filters.

To determine how well these fitlers would perform in real-life situations, treated filters were installed in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems on train carriages in the UK alongside control filters in matched pairs on the same train line. These were left to operate for three months before being removed and sent to the lab for analysis — which involved the researchers counting any bacteria colonies that survived on the filters.

No pathogens were found on the treated filters, the team explains. Furthermore, this step showed that the treatment was durable enough to withstand three months of real-world use while maintaining their structure, filtration functions, and anti-pathogen abilities.

“The technology we have developed can be applied to existing filters and can be used in existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems with no need for the cost or hassle of any modifications,” Dr. de Cogan explains. “This level of compatibility with existing systems removes many of the barriers encountered when new technologies are brought onto the market.”

NitroPep Ltd is now building on these findings in order to deliver a final marketable version of the coating.

The paper “Efficacy of antimicrobial and anti-viral coated air filters to prevent the spread of airborne pathogens” has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Rat infestation in Washington DC has produced two cases of rare virus infection

Washington, DC, has a rat problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this has led to the emergence of the first two official cases of hantavirus in humans in the city.

Image credits Wolfgang Vogt.

Wildlife has its own share of viruses and pathogens to deal with, as do people. Sometimes, however, when these two groups live in close proximity, pathogens can evolve to cross from one to the other. When this takes place from wildlife or livestock to humans, this is known as zoonosis. The coronavirus pandemic started as a zoonosis.

One genus of viruses that can comfortably infect both rodents and humans is known as orthohantavirus, or simply hantaviruses. These are widespread through rodent populations such as city rats, where they cause asymptomatic infections. However, people can become infected with these viruses as well, most commonly through exposure to rat urine or feces, although saliva or bites can also transmit the virus.

Washington DC’s rat problem has led to the emergence of two known cases of hantavirus infection, the CDC reported Thursday. Transmission from one infected person to another is almost unheard-of with hantaviruses, so concerns about brewing epidemics are far from the CDC’s mind. The infections were recorded in 2018 and have been successfully treated.

Still, the situation poses a risk for the health of people in Washington DC, who should take steps to protect themselves from the rodents.

Vermin threat

“Although extremely rare, the two SEOV cases presented in this report highlight the importance of physicians including hantavirus infection in their differential diagnoses in patients with compatible symptoms and history of animal exposure or travel and underscore the importance of reporting notifiable infectious disease cases to health departments for investigation and response,” the CDC’s report explains. “These cases also serve as a reminder to the public to minimize risk for infection by following recommended hygiene practices.”

Hantavirus infection in people can lead to a host of respiratory and hemorrhagic diseases which can easily become fatal. Fortunately for the cases recorded in DC, the strain identified in the two infected individuals is a milder “Old World” strain called the Seoul virus. Old World hantaviruses cause a disease called hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS). In contrast, “New World” hantaviruses, which are present in the Americas, cause a much more severe respiratory infection known as hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS)– which is much deadlier.

HFRS starts out as a generic infection with fever, chills, nausea, and headache, but can then progress to low blood pressure, acute shock, vascular leakage, and acute kidney failure, the CDC notes. The severity of HFRS varies by the strain of hantavirus that causes it, and can reach up to 15% fatality. In the case of the Seoul virus, fatality rates are around 1%. Both individuals reported-on by the CDC made a full recovery.

HPS also begins as a generic infection with fever, chills, and aches, but quickly progresses to an acute, life-threatening phase after about a week. The patient’s lungs and heart are affected; the lungs fill with fluid, and patients require hospitalization and ventilation within 24 hours. HPS is fatal in about 38% of cases, according to the CDC. The deadliest such virus, the Sin Nombre virus, spread by the deer mouse, has a fatality rate of about 50%.

HPS and the Sin Nombre virus first came in the crosshairs of US health officials following an outbreak of deadly respiratory disease in the Four Corners region. In total, 48 cases were identified in that year, 27 of which were fatal. The CDC finally tracked the virus down to rodents in the area, and it gained the moniker of Sin Nombre virus (the virus with no name) during this process.

The Seoul virus has a much lower prevalence in the US, and spreads from the common brown rat, which travelled to all corners of the world on European ships (hence, the virus is known as an “Old World” virus). The virus is present worldwide but was first described in Korea, near Seoul. It is considered a rare pathogen among humans.

This is what makes the two cases reported-on by the CDC notable. Patient A was a healthy male, a 30-year-old maintenance worker who had “frequent rodent sightings at his workplace”. He contracted the disease in May 2018 and made full recovery after receiving treatment. Patient B was an unrelated case. This 37-year-old man with chronic kidney disease who worked as a dishwasher and plumber’s assistant contracted the disease in November 2018; it is unclear from what source. The CDC notes that he did not own any pets, had not recently travelled outside of the US, and was unaware of exposure to rodents at any point in his daily life. He also made a full recovery after receiving treatment.

The CDC believes these two cases were caused by the city-wide rat problem in Washington DC, which they explain has been worsening for years now.

“Rodent overpopulation in DC is well documented by increased complaints via the Citywide Call Center to the Rodent Control Program, and the DC Department of Health has amplified efforts to address this public health threat,” the CDC explains.

The cases serve as a reminder of the dangers of rat infestation in our cities, and should motivate the public to follow recommended hygiene practices to insulate themselves from the risk. Meanwhile doctors should keep in mind that the virus is active in the area and look out for signs of hantavirus infection in their patients.

A better potato: researchers sequence the tuber’s entire genome for the first time ever

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research have set the groundwork for supercharging the potato, by mapping out the tuber’s complete genome.

Image credits James Hills.

Fried, mashed, or thrown in a stew, the humble potato has a special place in our hearts and our plates that nothing else seems to be able to fill. Researchers seem to love this tasty tuber as well, and have put significant effort into decoding its genetic secrets. This impressive work will allow us to create better varieties of potato much faster than traditional breeding methods allow for, with implications for the quality of our meals, the enjoyment we derive from it, and global food security.

Super Tuber

“The potato is becoming more and more integral to diets worldwide including even Asian countries like China where rice is the traditional staple food. Building on this work, we can now implement genome-assisted breeding of new potato varieties that will be more productive and also resistant to climate change — this could have a huge impact on delivering food security in the decades to come.”

The potato has not changed very much in the last 100 years or so. The overwhelming majority of varieties that are available in shops today are the same ones that were put to market over the last century and before. While these traditional cultivars are very popular, they do underline that there is a lack of variety of potatoes being grown, cooked, and enjoyed around the world. Thus, it stands to reason that improvements can be made to the baseline potato in order to make it more palatable, more resilient, or more abundant.

That’s what the team at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research hopes to achieve with the full sequencing of the plant’s genome. The work, led by geneticist Korbinian Schneeberger, represents the first full assembly of the potato genome in history, allowing for researchers to work with a much better view of the plant’s genetic intricacies, and thus much more accuracy when trying to breed new varieties of the plant.

Low genetic diversity within a species — and the potato is a good example of one such species — means that it can have difficulties thriving in certain contexts, and leaves it vulnerable to disease. The near-extinction of the Gros Michel banana due to the Panama disease is a great example of such a genetic vulnerability at work. In the case of the potato, the Irish famine of the 1840s stands testament to how completely potato crops can be wiped out by pathogens. During this tragic event, Europeans were growing a single variety of potatoes, which was vulnerable to blight; as such, potato crops failed across the continent.

The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s saw a great diversification of crop varieties in staples like rice or wheat, but not potatoes. Efforts to breed new varieties with higher yields or more disease resistance have, so far, remained largely unsuccessful.

Potatoes, the team explains, inherit two copies of each chromosome from every parent — unlike humans, who inherit one copy of every chromosome from their parents. This makes them a species with four copies of each chromosome, a ‘tetraploid’, making them exceedingly difficult and slow to be coaxed into generating new varieties with desirable combinations of traits.

The same tetraploid structure also makes it technically difficult to reconstruct the potato’s genome.

To work around this issue, the team sequenced the DNA of potatoes working not with mature plants, but with large numbers of individual pollen cells. These contain only two copies of each parent chromosome, which made it easier for the team to use established genetic methods to reconstruct the plant’s genome.

The results should give scientists and plant breeders a powerful new tool with which to identify desirable gene variants in the potato and work to establish new varieties that contain them. Essentially, it gives them a baseline against which they can reliably compare individual plants and establish exactly where their desirable properties originate — and then work to reproduce them.

The paper “Chromosome-scale and haplotype-resolved genome assembly of a tetraploid potato cultivar” has been published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Ukraine’s invasion could trigger an agricultural crisis. What can be done?

The ongoing war in Ukraine has thrown a new wrench in the well-oiled machine that is the global community. Disruptions caused by these events build upon the previous upheaval caused by the pandemic in sectors such as public health and energy security. However, a new threat now looms on the horizon: rising food prices and a serious risk of global food shortages.

Image credits Valdemar Fishmen / Flickr.

The three countries most involved in the conflict — Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus — are heavily involved in the global production of crops and fertilizers. War in this region is bound to send a sizeable shock throughout the world’s supplies and price of food.

Russia and Ukraine, combined, account for one-quarter of the world’s exports of wheat, and around half of all sunflower and sunflower products (such as cooking oil) exports. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn. One of these countries is being invaded, while the other is being hit with international sanctions as a response; in other words, neither of them can realistically speaking put the same amount of these staple foods to market as previously.

Furthermore, Russia and Belarus together account for a large proportion of all the world’s exports of potash, a vital ingredient for agricultural fertilizers. With both of these countries embroiled in a war, hit with sanctions, and quite willing to get back at those who imposed the sanctions, we can see trouble ahead for the agricultural sector.

Empty tables?

The areas that rely heavily on Ukrainian and Russian wheat exports (mainly the Middle East and Africa) will be directly impacted by the ongoing hostilities and will be affected to the greatest extent. Analysts say that these areas should prepare to see increases in the price of everyday food items virtually across the board. Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Yemen are the single largest importers of wheat globally and stand to be the most affected.

However, most or all countries around the world should expect to see a similar increase in the price of foodstuffs due to the prices of packaging and shipping being impacted by the war, as well as due to the greater economic disruptions that the conflict has caused. The impact of the war on the fertilizer industry is especially concerning.

Talking to the BBC, Svein Tore Holsether, the CEO of Yara International (one of the world’s largest producers of agricultural fertilizers), explains that the situation is quite grim. Fertilizer prices were already high due to recent increases in the wholesale prices of natural gas, which is essential for the production of ammonia, a key component of nitrogen fertilizers. The added impact of the war in Ukraine is likely to cause a real crisis, he explains.

“Half the world’s population gets food as a result of fertilizers (…) and if that’s removed from the field for some crops, [the yield] will drop by 50%,” Mr. Holsether said. “For me, it’s not whether we are moving into a global food crisis – it’s how large the crisis will be.”

“We’re getting close to the most important part of this season for the Northern hemisphere, where a lot of fertiliser needs to move on and that will quite likely be impacted.”

The Norwegian-based company explains that it is not directly affected by sanctions leveled at Russia, but that does not mean it is immune to them, either. These measures have caused immense disruptions in the shipping industry which affects every level of the economy, so shipments are very hard to secure. The Russian government has also advised domestic producers of fertilizer and fertilizer-associated materials not to export their products as a retaliatory measure against the sanctions imposed on them.

Furthermore, Yara is having trouble setting up alternative sources of raw materials for its fertilizers on short enough notice for the upcoming spring. Apart from natural gas, the West also relies heavily on Russian and Bielorussian potash and phosphate.

“We’re doing whatever we can do at the moment to also find additional sources. But with such short timelines it’s limited,” Mr. Holsether added.

Shortages of fertilizer could translate to higher operating costs for farmers together with lower yields — leading to food insecurity and significant rises in the cost of staple grains and a wider pallet of goods.

Agriculture under pressure

Climate change and freak weather are already placing farms under increased stress, as is the growing number of people on the planet. This is not a good background against which to have food shortages — and if there’s anything we’ve learned in the past couple of years, it’s that our globalized world isn’t immune to shortages.

Still, where globalized supply chains stand to be heavily impacted by the current war, they also hold some promise to address the situation. Romania, an EU member state and neighbor of Ukraine, is also a strong exporter of grain and traditionally considered part of Europe’s breadbasket. Romanian Agriculture Minister Adrian Chesnoiu recently told reporters that the country is expecting no trouble covering its internal demand for wheat and even has a sizeable surplus for export that can be used to partially compensate for the expected shortage. This excess production can help cover some of the demand and ease the blow of the Ukrainian war on food markets.

“Traditionally we are an exporting country because we produce more than we consume,” FiancialPost quotes Chesnoiu as saying. “On a good year, Romania produces over 11 million tons of wheat while domestic consumption is somewhere around 4.3 million, that’s why I said Romania is not in the situation of the other states which are trying to ensure their internal consumption.”

“From the assessments we have made at the ministry so far there is no risk that the population cannot be supplied.”

Nearby Poland is in a similar spot, as a traditional exporter of wheat. Apart from Russia and Ukraine, the United States, Canada, France, and Australia are also important net exporters of wheat.

The real crux of the issue is how agricultural production will fare in the case of a wide-scale shortage of fertilizers. Industrial fertilizers are produced using potassium salts mined from deposits deep underground, and they have precious few alternatives — and virtually none of them can take over in such a short amount of time.

A silver lining of this crisis is that it may very well force us towards new and more sustainable sources of fertilizer for our crops. Compost is an age-old option, which has the potential to be used on an industrial scale, as is manure. Other more exotic options include insect-sourced fertilizer, mixing different types of crops that can support the development of each other, or developing the extraction of potassium from fresh sources. Biochar could also have a part to play in fattening our crops.

Still, implementing new approaches, especially on an industrial scale, takes time, and spring is upon us. Hopefully, the world will have time to adapt, or this war ends and things go back to normal before our grain supplies really start to dwindle. Because nobody wants to go hungry.

Heat shields, Starburst, and Microswimmers: NASA announces funding for sci-fi projects

Space travel is all about research and innovation. With that in mind, NASA has a specialized branch whose sole purpose is to find and fund innovative ideas that can help further our efforts to explore the cosmos. And this year’s grants have been approved and announced.

Crescent Jupiter seen by the Juno probe. Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS. Image processing by Kevin M. Gill.

Every year, NASA offers a series of grants in support of exciting and promising research to underpin the world of the future. It’s called NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (or NIAC) Program. The 2022 crop of projects includes 12 Phase 1 projects (with an initial funding grant of $175,000) that will be explored over the next nine months, and five projects in Phase 2 (which receive a $600,000 grant for a two-year research period).

A special interest has been given this year to initiatives that involve helping NASA return to Venus, as the agency has already announced new missions to study the planet — the first time in 30 years — which are in preparation for some time during the 2020 decade. Replacement ideas of the International Space Station are also being explored through the NIAC program, as the vessel is planned for decommissioning and a controlled crash in the future as commercial space stations take on its duties.

The Phase 1 projects are:

Cryospheric Rydberg Radar. In essence, this project is looking into the potential development of a new, quantum radar that could theoretically be used in all settings. Although this technology would serve well on spaceships, NASA explains that it has huge potential to be used in public and industrial settings “covering virtually every application of radio/radar”.

Silent, Solid-State Propulsion for Advanced Air Mobility Vehicles. This project would further our ability to use small, electric, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in urban landscapes by addressing the single largest complaint the public has with such operations: noise. The solution is to develop electroaerodynamic (EAD) propulsion systems, which produce thrust through collisional ion acceleration without any moving surfaces, and are thus nearly completely silent.

Combined Heat Shield and Solar Thermal Propulsion System for an Oberth Manuever. A powered flyby, or Oberth maneuver, is a maneuver during which a spacecraft falls into a gravitational well and then uses its engines to further accelerate as it is falling, making it go really fast. This project is looking to develop a heat exchanger/shield that is powerful enough to withstand an Oberth maneuver around the Sun, which could make it easier for us to launch missions towards Kuiper Belt Objects or interstellar space.

CREW HaT: Cosmic Radiation Extended Warding using the Halbach Torus. Space is a very hazardous place, not least of which because it is saturated with dangerous radiation. This project will look into creating a device that will act as a personal shield against this radiation, protecting crew on missions outside spacecraft.

The Spacesuit Digital Thread: 4.0. This system will allow for custom spacesuits to be created for each astronaut based on scans of their body shape. The system is meant to become a “digital human scan to digital design/analyses to robotic manufacture” system.

Breathing Mars Air: Stationary and Portable O2 Generation. This device is also earmarked for our efforts to put people on Mars. It involves a new device that can separate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere ten times more efficiently than current options.

Pi – Terminal Defense for Humanity – essentially an asteroid destroyer. Essentially, this is a giant gun meant to break apart asteroids that threaten to hit Earth. The fragments resulting from this impact should be small enough to burn harmlessly in the planet’s atmosphere.

Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE). The HOEE design proposes using an enormous starshade — an object the size of a football field that blocks the glare from stars — to improve our telescopes’ ability to peer at far-away objects.

In-situ Neutral-Optics Velocity Analyzer for Thermospheric Exploration (INOVATE). Spaceweather is a very sci-fi-sounding concept, and it’s something we know precious little about. Direct measurement data is an area where we’re especially lacking. The INOVATE project proposes the use of a spacecraft swarm used to study space weather.

Starburst: A Revolutionary Under-Constrained Adaptable Deployable Structure Architecture. Unlike most other projects on this list, this one peers towards Earth, not away. The Starburst proposal puts forth the idea of using a specialized satellite to analyze storms on Earth and improve our predictive ability for such events.

Venus Atmosphere and Cloud Particle Sample Return for Astrobiology. This is a study aiming to detect the presence of any life forms on Venus. It would involve the direct harvest of gas and cloud samples from Venus and returning them to Earth for study.

SCOPE: ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration. Like sailing ships of old, SCOPE will use a series of solar sails for propulsion. This design would allow it to reach far deeper into space than any craft we have today, as it wouldn’t need to carry any fuel for the journey, and could accelerate almost indefinitely.

The five Phase 2 projects that have received funding are:

BREEZE (Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration). BREEZE aims to help us less-than-lethally explore the atmosphere of Venus by deploying bird-like drones. These robots should have much better energy efficiency than our current drones and be resistant to the planet’s corrosive clouds.

Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch. Extended time spent in zero-gravity in space seems to come with a whole host of health issues. This project aims to design a rotating space habitat that would mimic the gravity of Earth, thus removing the health risks of long-term spaceflight.

ReachBot: Small Robot for Large Mobile Manipulation Tasks in Martian Cave Environments. Do you want to risk your life exploring potentially unstable subsurface caves on Mars? Didn’t think so. This robot will do it for us.

SWIM-Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers. On the subject of exploration bots, SWIM aims to deliver a swarm of 3D-printed micro-robots that can swim through and explore the oceans of worlds like Enceladus, Europa, and Titan.

As futuristic as these proposals sound, they are actual projects being undertaken — with NASA funding, no less — right as we speak. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we see them bear fruit, because each and every one of them is fascinating in its own right, and showcases just how far we’ve come as a species that we’re researching into topics that two decades ago were the stuff of movies.

Rumble in the concrete jungle: what history teaches us about urban defense

Given ongoing events in Ukraine, the age-old adage that offense is the best defense is being put to the test. So far, throughout the country’s towns and cities, the answer seems to be “not so much”.

Urban Urban Design Landscape Desing Qom Iran

With that being said, history gives us ample examples and wisdom on how best to handle urban combat in general and urban defense in particular. Fighting in such environments is a very different beast to combat in other types of landscapes, and it raises unique challenges, as well as offering its own set of options and opportunities. Many of these are related to the huge availability of solid cover and line-of-sight denial. Others arise from the way cities naturally funnel pedestrian and vehicle traffic, constraining them to known and predictable avenues.

So today, we will go through wisdom gathered painfully, at great cost of human lives and material damage over history, on how defenders can best employ built environments against attackers.

Erzats fortresses

In olden days, architects would design fortresses so that the defenders would have as much of an advantage over attackers as possible. The first and most obvious advantage is the physical protection afforded by thick, sturdy walls.

While most buildings today aren’t built to repel invaders, they do offer sturdy bases that defenders can use when bracing for an attack. Structures erected from concrete and rebar are especially tough and can act as impromptu fortifications. Most government buildings, apartment blocks, and office complexes are ideal for this role, as are banks.

If defenders have enough time to dig in, such buildings should be reinforced with materials such as lumber, steel girders, or sandbags. Such elements should be used to protect the structure from direct damage, help maintain integrity after damage is inflicted on the building, or cover areas through which attackers can enter the perimeter. Ideally, combat engineers would carry out reinforcement works, but if they are not available, civilians can fill the role partially.

Mines, barbed wire, and other physical barriers can also be used to deny attackers entry points into the building and make it hard for them to approach the site. Furniture, rubble, barbed wire, and mines should also be used to block or limit access to stairways and elevators; even if these do not neutralize any of the attackers, they can still delay a fighting force massively. Such makeshift defenses require a lot of time, effort, and resources (such as explosives and specialized combat engineers) to remove.

Inside the building itself, reinforcing materials should be used to create bunkers or similar fighting compartments that break a building’s open floors into multiple areas of overlapping fire.

Like for ancient fortresses, however, the key to picking the right building to fortify is location. Strongpoints should have a good command of their surroundings (direct line of sight for soldiers to fire). Several close-together buildings can be fortified to ensure overlapping fields of fire that the enemy cannot hide from. Whether fortified alone or in groups, these buildings should be surrounded by obstacle courses that prevent attackers from simply bypassing them, or isolating the strongpoint from support from other defending units.

Heavy weapons such as rocket launchers, guns, automatic cannons, and heavy machine guns can also benefit from an elevated position from which to fire. Such weapons can be disassembled, carried to upper floors, and reassembled for use. Equipment such as this can allow defenders to halt entire armored columns.

A single fortified building can completely blunt even an armored assault, or at least stall it. One such building — known today as “Pavlov’s House” — became famous during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942. A platoon led by Sergeant Yakov Pavlov held out in this house against the German army for 60 days, repelling infantry and armored attacks. The soldiers surrounded the building with barbed wires and mines, broke holes through the interior walls to allow for movement, dug machinegun emplacements in the building’s corners, and used the top floors to lay down anti-tank rifle fire on advancing tanks. When artillery would fire on the building, they retreated to the safety of the cellar, only to re-emerge and continue fighting.

Such stories illustrate just how hard it can be for attackers to negotiate a single fortified building. Still, modern battlefields involve systems that were not available during World War II, so one extra element should be considered:

Concealment

The advent of modern surveillance systems such as drones, satellites, and reconnaissance planes, together with the precision weapons in use today, means that strongpoints are at risk of precision strikes. Concealment saves lives, so defenders should take steps to hide their exact position and activity as much as possible.

Citizens embroiled in the Syrian conflict would routinely hang large pieces of cloth, tarps, or sheet metal in between buildings to hide personnel from snipers and aircraft. Such measures are disproportionally effective compared to their simplicity. Soldiers rely on sight heavily on the battlefield and don’t generally shoot unless they have reliable knowledge of where the enemy might be. In the case of heavy weaponry such as tank- or aircraft-mounted munitions, this is even more true. A pilot is much less likely to drop a bomb without a clear sighting than a soldier is to fire a single shot.

Even if the enemy chooses to fire, concealment measures still bring value to defenders. A weapon fired at an empty emplacement is effectively wasted, and cannot be used against an active defender — contributing to the so-called ‘virtual attrition’ of the attacking forces.

Concealment measures should be used in conjuncture with fortifications to hide the defenders’ movements and decrease the efficacy of enemy fire. Even so, a big fortified apartment building is hard to hide, and will undoubtedly draw some heavy ordinance its way. So another element should be considered to ensure the safety of defending soldiers.

Tunnels, mouseholes

Mouseholes are openings cut out to allow soldiers easy access through the interior as well as exterior walls of a building. They have been a mainstay of urban combat ever since the advent of gunpowder weaponry. Mouseholes can be created using explosives or simple tools, and should comfortably fit a soldier so as not to clog traffic during a tense situation. In the case that a building should be run over by the attackers, defenders can also use mouseholes as chokepoints to contain the enemy’s advance by covering them with machine-gun fire or personal weapons.

Tunnels, on the other hand, are dug underground. They require significantly more work than mouseholes but have the added benefit of concealing and protecting troops that transit them from fire. Due to their nature, tunnel networks are hard to set up, so they should be used to allow strategic access to important sites and give defenders safe avenues of reinforcing strongpoints. Whenever possible, defenders should work to build extensive tunnel networks to give troops safe avenues of passage on the battlefield.

Underground transportation avenues and infrastructure, such as metro lines or sewage lines, can also be used as tunnels and bunkers. German soldiers used them to great effect during the Battle of Berlin in 1945 to cause great pain to Soviet soldiers moving into the city. Such infrastructure is usually roomy enough to also be usable as hospital and storage space, is extensive enough to act as a communications network, and offers an ideal setting to set up ambushes, bunkers, or counter attacks. Some can even allow for the passage of armored vehicles. They are also sturdy enough — and dug deep enough underground — to withstand most artillery and airstrikes.

But what about other areas of the city?

Rubble

As daunting as fortified spaces can be, the fact of the matter is that not every building can be fortified. There simply isn’t enough time, manpower, and material available when preparing a defense. But not every area needs to be fortified to help stop an attack. Sometimes, it’s as simple as tearing buildings down.

Defenders have the advantage that they can use the terrain in their favor to a much greater extent than attackers. They are the first of the two sides to hold a position, they know the land, and can take up the best spots to punish any invaders. Rubbling buildings can help in this regard on several levels.

First, rubble presents a physical barrier that an invading army will have difficulty navigating and removing. This is especially true for concrete or brick rubble produced by demolishing buildings. It forces attackers to move through pre-determined areas, where defenses can be set up to stop their advance. It also prevents them from using all their firepower on a single objective as it prevents direct fire. Rubble serves to also block line of sight, thus limiting the ability of an attacking force to keep tabs on what the defenders are doing.

Rubbling is, understandably, a very damaging process and thus quite regrettable to use. But it does bring huge benefits to defenders by allowing them to alter the landscape to their purposes.

Barricades

Although less effective than rubbling at containing an enemy’s movements, barricades can be surprisingly effective at stopping both infantry and armored vehicles. Furniture, tires, sandbags, metallic elements, and wire all make for good barricades.

Urban landscapes are also very rich in objects that can be used for barricades such as trash containers, cars, manholes, industrial piping, and so forth. These should be used liberally and ideally set up in areas where defenders can unleash fire on any attackers attempting to navigate or remove them.

Concrete barriers

These aren’t very common in cities, but any checkpoint or protected infrastructure site might have some of these barriers. If you have time and concrete to spare, makeshift barriers can also be quite effective. They usually come in 3ft / 1 m tall anti-vehicle walls or 12ft / 4 m tall wall segments used by the military to reinforce strategic points.

These are essentially portable fortifications. They are made of rebar and concrete and are exceedingly hard to destroy directly. Use cranes and heavy trucks to move them, as they weigh a few tons each.

Supply

Another important advantage defenders have is that the attackers have to come to them — so there’s not much need to carry supplies to the front line.

Pre-prepared ammo caches can be strewn throughout the city to keep defenders in the fight as long as possible. Urban landscapes offer a lot of hidden spots where ammo or weapons can be deposited discretely. Food, water, and medical supplies are also essential, so make sure these are distributed throughout the engagement zone as well.

Strongpoints should have designated rooms for storage of such supplies. Smaller items such as magazines or grenades can be distributed in smaller quantities throughout several points of the building, to ensure that soldiers always have what they need on hand.


Attacking an urban environment is a very daunting proposition even for the most well-trained of military forces. It gives defenders an ideal landscape to set up ambushes, entrench, deceive their attackers, and launch counter-offensives. Making the most of the terrain, and preparing carefully, can give defenders a huge upper hand against their foes while making it hard for attackers to leverage their strengths. such landscapes can level the playing field even against a superior attacking force. The events in Ukraine stand as a testament to this.

Can courses be held inside Minecraft? Two researchers say “yes, and well”

Researchers at Concordia’s Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture, and Technology want to help teachers and students have a better, more productive experience with remote learning. Their solution? Minecraft.

Village Church Landscape Windmill Minecraft

The highest-selling video game of all time could, unexpectedly, point the way towards more engaging remote learning. Despite its massive popularity, Minecraft is, in the gaming world, regarded more of a “kids'” game; it has blocky graphics, it lacks epic, tense moments, and there’s no competitive scene for it.

But, according to Darren Wershler, professor of English, and Bart Simon, associate professor of sociology and director of Concordia’s Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture, and Technology, the game’s simple nature together with its malleability is exactly what made it ideal for the research.

Unusual courses

“One historically prevalent problem that game-based learning researchers have highlighted is the risk of students simply learning to play the game itself rather than learning the subject matter that the instructor is pairing with the game,” the study explains, “[or that] a game might over-emphasize the subject matter and impose stricter rules, which in turn makes self-actualizing student-driven learning impossible.”

“In this article we present a game-based teaching method where educators can address these issues by collapsing the real and the virtual into one another: the allegorical build. The allegorical build occurs when students use the relationships they have developed to in-game procedures in order to think about a range of other topics outside the game, as defined by the instructor.”

“The course is not a video game studies course, and it is not a gamified version of a course on modernity,” explains Wershler, a Tier 2 Concordia University Research Chair in Media and Contemporary Literature. “It’s this other thing that sits in an uncomfortable middle and brushes up against both. The learning comes out of trying to think about those two things simultaneously.”

Minecraft is readily modable, the duo explains — modifiable through 3rd party and user-generated add-ons — so it can be adapted to accommodate a wide range of scenarios, including teaching. The authors of the study hope that educators can draw on the massive sandbox that this game represents to play, experiment with, and teach their pupils and students.

The study itself describes how the authors used Minecraft to teach a class on the history and culture of modernity. This course was carried out entirely in the game. Instructions, communications, and course work was handled through the voice messaging app Discord (which we also recommend as excellent for remote work). The two researchers used this course to observe if and how students used the game to achieve their academic goals, and see if there’s any merit to the idea.

They report that the students were quick to adapt to this unusual classroom, and didn’t need much time to get grips with the game. Some students took on a mentoring role among their peers, instructing their colleagues who were unfamiliar with Minecraft on how to find and mine resources, build structures, and survive the game’s main bad guys — skeletons, zombies, and exploding monsters that come out at night. Such a situation allowed students, even those who would not consider themselves to be natural-born leaders, to guide their peers using their knowledge of the game, the researchers report. This is a valuable skill to learn, one which traditional classrooms and courses do not tend to cultivate.

Eventually, the students decided on group projects which would be created in the game. Each project was related to an issue of modernity that was previously addressed in Wershler’s half-hour podcast lectures and readings. One group recreated Moshe Safdie’s futuristic Habitat 67, while another built an entire working city populated by Minecraft villagers modeled after the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building in Tokyo.

The whole course was set in the (more difficult) Survival mode rather than the Creative mode that most educators favor. This meant that the students had to contend with and were often killed by the game’s antagonists. The server used several fan-made mods to enhance the game in various ways, which came at the cost of increased instability in the servers.

“It was important that the game remained a game and that while the students were working on their projects, there were all these horrible things coming out of the wilderness to kill them,” Wershler says. “This makes them think about the fact that what they are doing requires effort and that the possibility of failure is very real.”

All in all, the authors say they were surprised at how well the students adapted to the game-based environment and the course, which was co-designed along with a dozen other interdisciplinary researchers at Concordia. Wershler has been using Minecraft in his course since 2014, and believes the game — or a similar one — can serve as a bedrock for a new style of teaching.

“Educators at the high school, college and university levels can use these principles and tools to teach a whole variety of subjects within the game,” he says. “There is no reason why we could not do this with architecture, design, engineering, computer science as well as history, cultural studies or sociology. There are countless ways to structure this to make it work.”

With so many areas of our lives transitioning to the digital sphere, we’re bound to see changes in the way we merge our activities with the digital sphere. Some of them might sound quite dubious at first, and holding courses inside a video game definitely fits that bill. But this research shows that we should not dismiss ideas out of hand and that even the most improbable sounding approaches can bring value to our lives. We just have to be willing to give them a go.

The paper “The Allegorical Build. Minecraft and Allegorical Play in Undergraduate Teaching” has been published in the journal Gamevironments.

Network scientist publishes incredible visualization of character relationships in The Witcher

A stunning new graphical display shows how characters in The Witcher intertwine throughout the plot.

Andrej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series of books, one which is a favorite among the ZME Science team as well, has become increasingly popular and well-known over the last few years. Several videogames and a Netflix series based on the books definitely helped in this regard. Testament to its popularity is that the latest season of the show was watched for a worldwide total of 2.2 billion minutes in its debut week alone.

The social map of The Witcher. Image credits: Milán Janosov.

Milán Janosov, lead scientist at Datopolis with a Ph.D. in Network Science from Central European University is obviously also a fan of the series. He has recently put together a visual representation of the relationships between the characters of this universe using the magic of network science. In a paper he published on the work, Janosov details the process of creating this representation.

Steel for men, network science for plots

“I started reading “‘The Witcher’ early last year, shortly after I got hooked to the Netflix show, and the storyline just sucked me in,” Janosov told Ingrid Fadelli at TechXplore. “It was a somewhat similar experience to watching ‘Game of Thrones’ a few years ago, which had also inspired one of my research articles. When I was about to finish watching the new season of Witcher, I started to wonder how I could get more out of this.”

His first step was to collect the data needed to create the visualization. Janosov started with the subtitles of the Netflix adaptation of the books, but quickly realized they would not do by themselves, and ended up drawing on the books as well.

“To build a network, I also needed a complete list of the characters who appeared in the series,” Janosov said. “After collecting these initial pieces of information, my job was fairly simple. I wrote a computer program that screened through every single sentence of all the books and took a note every time it matched a character’s name into a sentence.”

The program noted each point where a character’s name would appear. From this, it calculated how close or far apart two characters were, based on how often they were mentioned together and at what interval. For example, whether they were mentioned in the same sentence or two apart. The program tracked these mentions up to five sentences away, which Janosov says is a “pretty good indicator” of whether two characters have actually met or were featured in the same plots”.

In the final visualization, the characters of the narrative are represented as nodes, with the main 50 characters being labeled by name. The size of each mode signifies how central they are to the story, and different colors represent different communities, which not all characters share. The number of links formed between nodes is based on how often two characters were mentioned within a five-sentence span of each other in the novel.

“While context is relatively easy to interpret for humans, for a computer, it is not that simple,” Janosov explained. “So to capture the context of the characters mentioned, I assumed that two characters were mentioned in the same context as they were not mentioned further than five sentences from each other. While the number five is somewhat arbitrary, it was chosen for the sake of simplicity (and OCD-friendliness), because three, four or even six sentence-distances lead to very similar results too, also staying consistent for example with the typical paragraph lengths in written text.”

This paper is an example of how network science can use datasets to spot hidden patterns in unstructured data. While any reader would get a general idea of the relationships in the novels after reading The Witcher series, Janosov’s visualization lays them down in easily-seen detail.

“In our daily lives, we are surrounded by social networks: our friends on social media, our colleagues at work, friends from school, family, sports and hobbies, and many more,” Janosov said. “All these social systems are intertwined by networks of which we almost always only have a partial and subjective understanding. To overcome this lack of knowledge and sparsity of information, network science comes really handy as it provides a set of tools and a framework of thinking that can help us better understand these social networks we participate in daily, just as it helped to clear the fog around ‘The Witcher.'”

Janosov adds that the research could be useful, as similar approaches are already being used, in real-world settings. International trade and communications are a great example of where network science can be brought to bear to uncover hidden trends.

For now, however, it allows us all to enjoy this wonderful illustration and gives fans a great way to immerse themselves further in the universe of The Witcher.

The paper “A Network Map of The Witcher” has been published in the pre-print server arXiv.

Saint Javelin: how do Ukraine’s anti-tank weapons work?

“Saint Javelin”. Image via Reddit / USMC.

Wars have always been a scientific wrestling match just as much as a brutal confrontation in the field. Soldiers rely on science to give them an edge over their opponents and nowadays, firefights are settled by work done in labs, design bureaus, forges, or universities long before the first shot is fired.

In days long past, technical differences pitted obsidian-wielding Incans against musket-armed conquistadors. Shipbuilders shaped empires. Those who knew how to build chariots trampled over those who did not. Shock cavalry ruled the battlefield of medieval Europe due to the simple stirrup, inherited from Asian invaders. Today, research and technical capability have never been as important in wartime.

Courage and grit keep people fighting, but aren’t much use against a 50-ton tank. Anti-tank missiles, however, are great against them. Big guns, too, tend to do the job. So while we dearly hoped that such weapons will never be necessary, looking at the situation in Ukraine… they still are. So here’s a rundown of the science behind modern anti-tank weapons, from simple cocktails to the more high-tech ones.

First off, the tank

T-90A main battle tank at the 2013 Victory Day Parade in Moskow, Russia. Image via Wikimedia.

To blow up a tank, you first need a tank.

There is no shortage of photographs or videos in the news today showing some type or another of armored vehicles using the blanket term ‘tanks’. Strictly speaking, this isn’t accurate. Tanks are specialized vehicles meant to perform certain tasks. A tank is defined by what it does and how it’s supposed to do it, not by its components or appearance. Broadly speaking, a tank has tracks, a big, long gun, a really big turret, machine guns poking out of it or on the turret.

Tanks are tracked, heavily armored vehicles, typically carrying heavy primary armament in an enclosed fully-rotatable turret, with secondary armament co-axial to the main weapon. Their role is to engage well-protected targets, other vehicles (especially other tanks), and exploit weaknesses in enemy lines using their mobility.

They do not perform any other role — they do not carry infantry or supplies, they do not provide indirect fire support, they do not work as combat taxis. Generally speaking, they do not carry missile launchers externally. These requirements necessarily inform the shape of tanks, imparting them with their advantages and their drawbacks.

This is not a tank, even if it has tracks, armor, a gun, and a turret. It is a Russian BMP-3 Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Image via Wikipedia.

Let’s start with the advantages. Tanks carry the thickest armor and heaviest armament among military vehicles today. They are exceedingly resistant to non-specialized weaponry and pack a mighty punch. Tanks can effectively engage any type of target in battle due to their range of weapon calibers and ammunition types. They are able to traverse virtually any type of terrain, they’re quite scary to anyone and everyone, and typically protect their crews from environmental hazards such as gas weapons.

As far as disadvantages go, tanks are very complex machines with a lot of moving parts. They require extensive and specialized maintenance procedures, crews, and parts. Tanks rely on a vast logistical network for fuel and ammo without which they are completely useless. They generally require extensive maintenance of their drive train after driving a relatively short distance on their own power and need a complete repair/replacement of said drive train after a few of these extensive maintenance procedures. Due to their extreme levels of protection, tanks offer exceedingly poor visibility for their crews, especially at very close distances. Because of this, tanks rely on infantry for defense and are completely helpless against close-in opponents without it. Their tracks are relatively delicate (compared to the rest of the tank) and vulnerable; tanks become immobile if even one of their tracks is broken or jammed. They are also expensive to produce, maintain, and use.

Now that we’ve seen what a tank is, let’s see how we can blow it up.

Kinetic weapons (tank guns)

The main type of kinetic shells used against tanks today is known as Armor-Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) rounds. It’s a mouthful, but it’s hella effective.

However, because of the recoil they generate when firing and the size and weight of the explosives used to propel them, kinetic rounds are only used with guns, usually mounted on tanks. They are rods made of very hard, dense metals, such as tungsten or depleted uranium alloys. They are fired from a tank’s cannon and rely on speed and toughness to push through steel plates.

These shells are usually much thinner than the bore (diameter) of the gun they’re fired from, so they are mounted in supports called sabots, which are blown away upon firing. The fins keep them steady in flight to maintain accuracy.

APFSDS (bottom) used on Japan’s Type-90 tanks. The black collar is the ‘sabot’, made out of two halves that break apart after firing. Shell on top is a HEAT round. Image via Wikimedia.

Their working principle is quite simple: push a piece of harder metal through a plate of softer metal using high force (speed). The shells bounce around the tank doing a lot of damage after penetration. They also break apart the inside faces of the armor plates they hit (a process known as ‘spalling’), creating high-speed fragments that rip through crew and internal systems. APFSDS rounds do not carry any explosives; all the damage they do is caused by impact between the shell, armor fragments, and the soft insides of the tank.

Tanks today have their armor plates angled to promote APFSDS bouncing on impact. Other types of defense, such as explosive reactive armor (ERA), are also effective against the shells. Their main drawback is that they lose energy in flight and become less effective with distance.

Sabot releasing the shell after firing. Image via Gfycat.
Note the back of the sabot, used to transfer energy to the shell (push it) through the higher-diameter barrel. Image via Gfycat.

Still, they are the least high-tech weapons useful against tanks and still effective due to their simplicity, reliability, and the immense forces they bring to bear against targets. Ukraine’s tank corps uses this type of ammo on its armed vehicles, as most likely do Russian tanks, as well. Although many varieties are in use, as far as costs go, the US’s M829A3 APFSDS costs around $8,500 per round.

But they’re not what militia or the infantry would use when defending against such vehicles. The shoulder-mounted weaponry you see in videos from Ukraine rely on:

Chemical rounds

Anti-tank rockets and the infamous RPG work on a different principle. Instead of relying on mass and speed to pierce through armor, they use explosive warheads arranged in a certain way — known as ‘shaped charges’. Because they derive their energy from explosives, not mechanical force, they are also known as ‘chemical rounds’ as opposed to ‘kinetic’, speed-based, rounds.

HEAT round used for the Leopard 2 main battle tank (middle two). Note the hollow copper cone inside the warhead, with explosives (yellow) packed behind it. Image via Wikimedia.

These devices are used in civilian applications as well, but they were originally invented, and still used to, defeat tank armor. In military speak, they are known as high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds.

Shaped charges work using the Munroe/Neumann effect, which describes how energy from a blast can be focused into a single point. They contain an explosive mass behind a shaped copper cone. When detonated, the cone focuses the explosion into a narrow space. The explosive, in turn, pushes the copper out at extremely high speeds. The shape of the cone is calculated so that the end result is a beam of molten copper shooting out in front of the weapon. Basically, these rounds create a laser beam of molten copper in contact with armor.

Although they are called HEAT, they do not melt armor. The copper jet pushing out of the weapon creates immense pressure which simply digs through armored plates.

Shape charge during detonation. Via Makeagif.

Their main drawback is that the jet generated by such weapons is only effective over a small distance. As such, ERA is very effective against shaped charges, as is spaced armor and, to a lesser extent, sloped armor. Even sandbags or metal sheets can be effective in stopping such shells, by forcing them to detonate prematurely. Still, since HEAT rounds don’t need to go fast or be really big to be effective, they are widely used for anti-tank weapons for infantry, land and air vehicles, and drones.

Tanks can also fire HEAT ammo. The cost varies greatly depending on caliber and manufacturer. A US High Explosive Anti-Tank- Multiple Purpose round may cost between $1,500 to $4,000, depending on several factors.

RPGs

The infamous RPG is the simplest type of shaped-charge weapon in use today, the single most widely-produced anti-tank weapon on the planet, and has served in virtually all conflicts since being designed by the Soviet Union in 1960. The RPG-7 is currently in production and in use with some 40 countries around the world and total production, figures are estimated to be close to 10 million units.

Image via min.news.

The RPG-7 is a shoulder-mounted, portable, reusable rocket-propelled grenade launcher (basically, a bazooka). It fires an unguided rocket-propelled projectile that can carry anti-tank, high explosive/fragmentation, or thermobaric warheads, in a low arc. They are very simple, very cheap, plentiful, and very rugged weapons — each launcher is a steel tube with iron aiming sights and a grip.

This weapon sees extensive use in Ukraine on both sides. It is easy to use, easy to care for, and useful for a wide range of situations, including tank-busting. Its simplicity, although a major advantage, also means that the weapon is more easily countered. It’s also the most widely-used weapon of its type, so it represents a sort of benchmark. Designers know that every tank will face an RPG eventually, and put a lot of effort to protect these vehicles from it specifically. Still, it is more than capable of downing even a heavily-armored modern tank in the right situation and is more than capable of piercing any metal plates that are not protected against shaped charges.

Schematic of an RPG round detonating in contact with an armored plate. Image via Gfycat.

The simplest RPG-7 warhead can pierce through 500 mm of tank armor and is relatively accurate up to 200m / 660 ft, although it can shoot up to a distance of 500 m / 1,640 ft. With a cost of only between $500-2000 per launcher and $100-500 per rocket, the RPG-7 is definitely the way to go if you’re blowing up tanks on a budget.

NLAWs

The Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapon was a joint British-Swedish project started in 2002 to modernize Cold War-era infantry anti-tank weapons.

Its main advantage over weapons such as the trusty RPG is that it uses guided munitions. Another advantage it has is that it can be fired from enclosed spaces.

NLAW (Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon) firing at the Otterburn ranges. Image credits Royal Navy Media Archive.

RPGs fire a big grenade with a rocket engine strapped to their back. These are not guided and the blast from the launch generates huge pressure behind the weapon, meaning it could seriously injure troops if fired inside a confined space. NLAWs fire actual missiles that have fire-and-forget guidage systems. This means that the weapon uses a passive tracking system — ‘predicted line of sight targeting’ — which points the missile to the predicted position of the target. The missile is first launched using a ‘low-powered ignition’ system, to make it safe to use indoors.

Unlike the other weapons on this list, the NLAW is not designed to ever touch its target. The rocket flies above an enemy tank and detonates one meter above it, sending a powerful pressure wave down on the vehicle. While that might not sound very damaging for the tank, it’s more than enough to pulp the crew inside. This approach allows the NLAW to target even vehicles that are completely hidden behind the cover.

According to reports in the field, it seems to be working quite well against Russian tanks.

Test firings of the weapon.
Testing of the damage produced by the weapon.

The weapon is not reusable, however. Once the rocket is fired, the launcher is disposed of. It offers a similar level of penetration to the RPG — 500 mm, up to a range of 1000 m / 3,300 ft). This makes its cost of roughly $26,000 / €24,000 quite a hefty proposition. However, considering that tanks generally cost in the millions, it could be a worthy investment.

Javelin

This US-made rocket launcher has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance and is the driving force that inspired this article. This 20-year-old weapon has been in use by the US military, alongside 20 allied nations. A lot of them have been supplied to Ukraine as military aid following the onset of hostilities, and more are planned to be sent there. Ukraine has received thousands of Stingers from countries all around the world to help it defend from Russian invaders.

US soldiers training with the Javelin missile launcher. Image via Pixabay.

Although no different in working principle than other anti-tank missiles, the Javelin is one of the most potent weapons of its kind currently employed in the conflict. What sets it apart from other portable launchers is that the Javelin missile is launched in a high arc, and programmed to slam down into enemy tanks from above.

Tank armor is thickest at the front and sides, where most shots are likely to impact. However, to keep the vehicles down to an acceptable weight, concessions have to be made somewhere — so designers put thin armor on their back, with extremely thin protection afforded to the undersides and the top of tanks. The Javelin’s trajectory is meant to take advantage of this design feature.

The explosion here is caused by ammo detonating inside the target. Quite devastating.

The missile is also guided, so it can track moving vehicles and ensure high hit probability. Like the NLAW, it is a fire-and-forget system: the soldier using it fires the weapon and can then scramble for cover to avoid return fire. Javelins also have an impressive effective range of up to 4 km / 2.5 miles, which helps a lot.

Live firing of the Javelin during exercises in Quatar, 2017, showcasing its use and range. Skip to 2:55 for the launch.

All of this, however, comes at a cost. A single Javelin system comes in at an eye-watering $80,000 / €71,000. This is very expensive for an infantry weapon, meaning they would be prohibitively expensive to field on-masse. In the arithmetic of war, one such missile is vastly cheaper than the tank it takes out. But this remains the most expensive anti-tank weapon a single soldier can carry into battle in the conflict, severely limiting its use.

The Molotov cocktail

A Molotov cocktail is essentially a bottle filled with fuel and an adhesive — it’s burning liquid that sticks to things.

While not technically an anti-tank weapon, Molotovs can be used against tanks and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry has told civilians to make Molotov cocktails to fight Russian tanks. The defense ministry even distributed a recipe for producing Molotov cocktails to civilians.

Molotovs were extremely efficient against tanks used in World War II but may have a harder time against more modern tanks, which are sealed better and more resilient. However, even if the Molotovs would leave the tank relatively unscathed, they could still be devastating to the driver on the inside of the tank.


We don’t often talk about weapons here on ZME Science, and it’s most definitely not a subject that brings us joy. In an ideal world, these weapons would only belong in the museum. However, we feel that given the ongoing situation, this is worth talking about.

These weapons are definitely not the only ones being used in the fields and cities of Ukraine. But they are among the most impactful. Although it’s tragic to see science embroiled in armed conflict and used to cause death and destruction, there is value in learning about the particular set of circumstances that conflict creates and the solutions we can develop to address them — even as we fight the realities of war and try to prevent such conflicts from happening.

For now, military technology and the science behind it are, unfortunately, a current subject. Hopefully, not for long.

AI is playing an increasingly important role in diagnostic services in healthcare

Researchers at the University of Bonn have trained software to improve our ability to diagnose rare genetic diseases. The program uses a patient’s portrait photograph and analyzes their facial features — such as characteristically shaped brows, nose, or cheeks — to judge how at risk a certain individual is of these ailments.

Dubbed “GestaltMatcher”, the program has successfully diagnosed known diseases in a trial with a very small number of patients.

Automated diagnosis

“The goal is to detect such diseases at an early stage and initiate appropriate therapy as soon as possible,” says Prof. Dr. Peter Krawitz from the Institute for Genomic Statistics and Bioinformatics (IGSB) at the University Hospital Bonn, corresponding author of the paper.

“We are very happy to finally have a phenotype analysis solution for the ultra-rare cases, which can help clinicians solve challenging cases, and researchers to progress rare disease understanding,” says Aviram Bar-Haim of FDNA Inc. in Boston, USA, co-author of the paper, in a press release. “GestaltMatcher helps the physician make an assessment and complements expert opinion.”

The way we perform diagnosis in healthcare will undoubtedly be revolutionized by AI. And, judging from the results of a new study, that revolution is already upon us.

A large number of very rare diseases are rooted in genetic factors. The same hereditary mutations that encode these diseases, however, ale also expressed phenotypically (in the body’s features) in characteristic ways, for example, in the particular shape of the nose, cheeks, or brows. Obviously, these characteristics vary from one disease to another and can be quite subtle, making them a poor diagnosis element — for human doctors, that is.

AI can however pick up on these subtle features and link them to a known disease. The new software analyzes an individual’s facial features from their profile picture, calculates how similar they are to a known set of characteristics, and uses this to estimate the probability that the person in question bears the genes associated with various conditions. The individual’s clinical symptoms and any available genetic data are also factored into the analysis.

The system is a further development of “DeepGestalt”, which the IGSB team trained with other institutions a few years ago. The team worked to improve its ability to learn using a small sample of patients — and the new program is much better in this regard than its predecessor — which is a key feature for software used to diagnose rare diseases, where sample sizes are very limited. Another key improvement is GestaltMatcher’s ability to consider data from patients who have not yet been diagnosed, allowing it to take into account combinations of features that have not yet been described. This, the team explains, allows it to recognize diseases that were previously unknown, and suggest diagnoses based on data available to it.

The program was trained using 17,560 patient photos, most of which came from digital health company FDNA. Around 5,000 of those photographs were contributed by the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Bonn, along with nine other university sites in Germany and abroad. All in all, these covered 1,115 different rare diseases.

“This wide variation in appearance trained the AI so well that we can now diagnose with relative confidence even with only two patients as our baseline at best, if that’s possible,” Krawitz says.

The data was turned over to the non-profit Association for Genome Diagnostics (AGD), to allow researchers around the world free access to it.

The application is not far off from being available in doctors’ offices in certain countries such as Germany, the team adds. Doctors can simply take portraits of their patients with a smartphone and use the AI to help them in a diagnosis.

A war rages in Ukraine. Researchers are called to take a stand, neighboring Universities are offering their aid

The Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine is roaring through the local and global research community. Academic activity in Ukraine has been essentially shut down until further notice. Serhiy Kvit, the head of the Ukrainian National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance and former minister of education and science, is also calling for academics around the world to take a stand against the war.

Image credits Ministry of Defense of Ukraine / Flickr.

The flames of war

War between two states in Europe was, arguably, not something many people expected to see, despite the mounting tensions between Ukraine and Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But this is exactly what we are witnessing today. Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, resounds with gunfire and bombs as I write these lines.

As a science journalist, I never expected (or desired) to write about an ongoing war; you, our readers, probably never expected to read about one here on ZME Science. But an event of such magnitude swallows everything in its wake, even the world of science and research. Following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declaring martial law in the country in the aftermath of the invasion, higher education in the country has been put on indefinite hold.

Science, it turns out, is not spared of the flames of war.

“[The] academic community can’t keep silence on this unheard-of war. You, academics, know Europe’s history of the 20th century the best, the history of the Second World War and its consequences for Europe and the world,” Kvit told University World News. “We call on universities, academic institutions in Europe and around the world to stand up with Ukraine against Putin’s regime, against ruining the fundamentals of peace, security and democracy in Europe and in the world.”

“It is our joint task – to defend democracy.”

Students and staff at universities across Ukraine have been told to stay at home, and their activity suspended, until further notice. School activity is also heavily disturbed, as families and teachers flee the hostilities. Kvit said that the fighting will invariably involve the death of Ukrainian civilians, from those fighting the invasion to children. Such reports are already coming in, unfortunately.

The suspension of academic life is meant to give civilians the opportunity to keep themselves safe. Kvit explains that the situation is dire, a “real war, the shelling of military infrastructure, airports and multiple peaceful cities around Ukraine […] Putin’s soldiers seizing Ukrainian cities and towns”. Under these circumstances, academic life in Ukraine cannot continue as normal.

He calls on researchers around the world to take a stand and issue messages to international organizations, representatives of governments, other researchers, and the wide public against the Russian government’s invasion.

Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Lviv, Ukraine.

Ukraine’s plea is already being answered in some regrds. Germany’s Foreign Office has “recommended” Universities in the country freeze relations with Russia, “in particular scientific projects”, says Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK).

“This is a deeply depressing day. Our solidarity applies to the entire Ukrainian population and, above all, to our university partners,” he said for University World News. “We are very concerned about the life and well-being of Ukrainian scientists and students. The German universities will assist them within the limits of their possibilities.”

“It is also foreseeable that these developments will inflict severe damage on German-Russian scientific relations. We will have to examine the consequences accordingly.”

The European Union as a whole is also discussing whether to exclude Russia from every and all research networks and associated infrastructure, according to Science|Business. An extraordinary European Council meeting is set for later today to discuss this alongside other measures. However, Ukrainian high-ranking officials accuse the rest of Europe of not doing nearly enough.

Germany is host to over 8,200 Ukrainian-native students — it represents one of the most important countries of origin for higher education students in Germany. Authorities are now working out how to best care for these students as they face the prospect of their families embroiled in the conflict at home. At present, there are 257 collaborative projects between the two countries, which see the collaboration of 113 German and 89 Ukrainian universities; how these projects evolve in the future hinges on the developments in the current war.

“The Russian attack against Ukraine has serious consequences for our relations in science and academia, which had been built with confidence and hope for two decades and are now threatened by illegitimate assaults against international law,” said Alt.

Some universities have been preparing for such a scenario over the last few weeks. The Igor Sikorsky Polytechnic Institute in Kyiv has been preparing video materials informing students of evacuation routes and shelters on campus and releasing fresh instructions from their emergency management committee. Other educational institutions in less-affected areas of Ukraine seem to be continuing their activity remotely. One example is in the city of Lviv, very close to the Polish-Ukrainian border.

“The educational process at the university continues remotely,” Volodymyr Melnyk, the rector of the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv said in a statement today. “Our task is to act in an organized and responsible manner, consolidate efforts and maintain order”.

Academic institutions in countries bordering Ukraine have also offered their support. The Latvian students association urged their government to help students fleeing Ukraine to continue their studies in Latvia. The rectors of Romania’s two largest universities have also released statements in support of Ukrainian refugees and offering support to protect the assets and heritage of Ukrainian universities.

“I think it is our duty to show solidarity and come up with concrete proposals to support students, professors, and their families,” said Marian Preda, the rector of the University of Bucharest.

The University of Bucharest, Bucharest, Romania.

Preda says universities and educational centers in Romania should help safeguard the documents and books of their Ukrainian counterparts from the destruction caused by war. Meanwhile, Daniel David, rector of Babeș-Bolyai University in the city of Cluj-Napoca urged all rectors in Romania to coordinate efforts to integrate academics feeling Ukraine into higher education and research institutions in Romania. He adds that the university received multiple cooperation requests over the past weeks from researchers in Ukraine.

“Those researchers, as well as Romania and our universities could transform this unfortunate brain drain from Ukraine,” he said.

As a Romanian, I can attest that refugees from Ukraine are already crossing the border, fleeing the war. Local authorities in several cities have already offered their support, and there is an impressive (and heartwarming) level of effort in the public sphere to welcome house and help these refugees. The response at the level of the government is so far disappointing, however. Other countries neighboring Ukraine, such as Poland, are also working hard to accommodate the sudden influx of people; according to my (few) friends there, there is a similar effort by the common people to help Ukrainians crossing the border with food, lodging, and guidance, as well as a much more robust effort from the government.

As a journalist and someone who has been passionate about science and knowledge my whole life, I can only applaud international efforts to safeguard Ukrainian researchers and their work. These are dark days we are living, but they will only become brighter if we help those in need, and fight for what’s right.

Saltwater Crocodiles: the world’s oldest and largest reptile

From the east of India, all through to the north of Australia, one fearsome, cold-blooded predator stalks the coasts. This hypercarnivore will contend with any that enters its watery domain, from birds to men to sharks, and almost always win that fight. Fossil evidence shows that this species has been plying its bloody trade for almost 5 million years, remaining virtually unchanged, a testament to just how efficient a killing machine it is. Looking it in the eye is the closest thing we have to staring down a carnivorous dinosaur.

Saltwater crocodile at the Australia Zoo, Beerwah, South Queensland. Image credits Bernard Dupont / Flickr.

This animal is the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). It has the distinction of being the single largest reptile alive on the planet today, and one of the oldest species to still walk the Earth.

Predatory legacy

The earliest fossil evidence we have of this species dates back to the Pliocene Epoch, which spanned from 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago.

But the crocodile family is much older. They draw their roots in the Mesozoic Era, some 250 million years ago, when they branched off of archosaurs (the common ancestor they share with modern birds). During those early days, they lived alongside dinosaurs.

Crocodiles began truly coming into their own some 55 million years ago, evolving into their own species in the shape we know them today. They have remained almost unchanged since, a testament to how well-adapted they are to their environments, and the sheer efficiency with which they hunt.

This makes the crocodile family, and the saltwater crocodile as one of its members, one of the oldest lineages alive on the planet today.

The saltwater crocodile

With adult males reaching up to 6 or 7 meters (around 20 to 23 ft) in length, this species is the largest reptile alive today. Females are smaller than males, generally not exceeding 3 meters in length (10 ft); 2.5 meters is considered large for these ladies.

Image credits fvanrenterghem / Flickr.

The saltwater crocodile will grow up to its maximum size and then start increasing in bulk. The weight of these animals generally increases cubically (by a power of 3) as they age; an individual at 6 m long will weigh over twice as much as one at 5 m. All in all, they tend to be noticeably broader and more heavy-set than other crocodiles.

That being said, they are quite small as juveniles. Freshly-hatched crocs measure about 28 cm (11 in) in length and weigh an average of only 71 g — less than an average bag of chips.

Saltwater crocodiles have large heads, with a surprisingly wide snout compared to other species of croc. Their snout is usually twice as long overall as they are wide at the base. A pair of ridges adorn the animal’s eyes, running down the middle of their snout to the nose. Between 64 and 68 teeth line their powerful jaws.

Like their relatives, saltwater crocodiles are covered in scales. These are oval in shape. They tend to be smaller than the scales of other crocodiles and the species has small or completely absent scutes (larger, bony plates that reinforce certain areas of the animal’s armored cover) on their necks, which can serve as a quick identifier for the species.

Young individuals are pale yellow, which changes with age. Adults are a darker yellow with tan and gray spots and a white or yellow belly. Adults also have stripes on the lower sides of their bodies and dark bands on their tails.

That being said, several color variations are known to exist in the wild; some adults can maintain a pale coloration throughout their lives, while others can develop quite dark coats, almost black.

Behavior, feeding, mating

Saltwater crocodiles are ambush predators. They lie in wait just below the waterline, with only their raised brows and nostrils poking above the water. These reptiles capture unsuspecting prey from the shore as they come to drink, but are not shy to more actively hunt prey in the water, either. Their infamous ‘death roll’ — where they bite and then twist their unfortunate victim — is devastating, as is their habit of pulling animals into the water where they drown. But even their bite alone is terrifying. According to an analysis by Florida State University paleobiologist Gregory M. Erickson, saltwater crocodiles have the strongest bite of all their relatives, clocking in at 3,700 pounds per square inch (psi).

That’s a mighty bitey. Image credits Sankara Subramanian / Flickr.

Apart from being the largest, the saltwater crocodile is also considered one of the most intelligent reptiles, showing sophisticated behavior. They have a relatively wide repertoire of sounds with which they communicate. They produce bark-like sounds in four known types of calls. The first, which is only performed by newborns, is a short, high-toned hatching call. Another is their distress call, typically only seen in juveniles, which is a series of short, high-pitched barks. The species also has a threat call — a hissing or coughing sound made toward an intruder — and a courtship call, which is a long and low growl.

Saltwater crocodiles will spend most of their time thermoregulating to maintain an ideal body temperature. This involves basking in the sun or taking dips into the water to cool down. Breaks are taken only to hunt or protect their territory. And they are quite territorial. These crocodiles live in coastal waters, freshwater rivers, billabongs (an isolated pond left behind after a river changes course), and swamps. While they are generally shy and avoidant of people, especially on land, encroaching on their territory is one of the few things what will make a saltwater crocodile attack humans. They’re not shy to fight anything that tresspasses, however, including sharks, monkeys, and buffalo.

This territoriality is also evident in between crocs. Juveniles are raised in freshwater rivers but are quickly forced out by dominant males. Males who fail to establish a territory of their own are either killed or forced out to sea. They just aren’t social souls at all.

Females lay clutches of about 50 eggs (though there are records of a single female laying up to 90 in extraordinary cases). They will incubate them in nests of mud and plant fibers for around 3 months. Interestingly, ambient temperatures dictate the sex of the hatchlings. If temperatures are cool, around 30 degrees Celsius, all of them will be female. Higher sustained temperatures, around 34 degrees Celsius, will produce an all-male litter.

Only around 1% of all hatchlings survive into adulthood.

Conservation status

Saltwater crocodiles have precious few natural predators. Still, their skins have historically been highly prized, and they have suffered quite a lot from hunting, both legal and illegal. Their eggs and meat are also consumed as food.

In the past, this species has been threatened with extinction. Recent conservation efforts have allowed them to make an impressive comeback, but the species as a whole is much rarer than in the past. They are currently considered at low risk for extinction, but they are still of especial interest for poachers due to their valuable meat, eggs, and skins.


Saltwater crocodiles are an ancient and fearsome predator. They have evolved to dominate their ecosystems, and do so by quietly lurking just out of sight. But, like many apex predators before them, pressure from humans — both directly, in the form of hunting, and indirectly, through environmental destruction and climate change — has left the species reeling.

Conservation efforts for this species are to be applauded and supported. Even though these crocodiles have shown themselves willing to attack humans if we are not careful, we have to bear in mind that what they want is to be left alone and unbothered. It would be a pity for this species, which has been around for millions of years, which has come from ancient titans, survived for millennia and through global catastrophe, to perish.

What are fisher cats, the most misleadingly-named animals out there?

One of the more obscure animals out there, fisher cats (Pekania pennanti) or ‘fishers’, in short, are predators endemic to North America. Despite the name, these animals are not cats, and they do not fish. They are, however, increasingly moving into a lot of urban and suburban areas across the USA.

Image credits of USFWS Pacific Southwest Region / Flickr.

Fisher cats are slim, short-legged mammals that resemble weasels or small wolverines. They can grow to about 145 centimeters in length (4 ft 9 in) including the tail. They’re covered in dark-brown fur, which is glossy and thick in the winter, and more mottled in the summer. They have rounded ears, and overall look quite cute and cuddly. Don’t let that fool you, however: fisher cats have vicious, retractable claws, and are quite fearsome predators for their size.

The species is endemic to various areas of North America. New England, Tennessee, the Great Lakes area, and the northern stretches of the Rocky Mountains all house populations of fisher cats. Smaller populations have also been reported in California, the southern Sierra Nevada, and the west coast of Oregon. The boreal forests of Canada also make great homes for these mammals.

The cat that’s not a cat

Taxonomically speaking, fisher cats are closely related to martens, being part of the Mustelidae family. This is the largest family in the order of Caniformia (‘dog-like’ animals) and the greater order Carnivora (meat-eaters). As such, they’re part of the most successful and rich group of predators on the planet.

Despite this taxonomic allegiance to the group Carnivora, fisher cats are omnivorous. They will happily hunt a wide range of animals of comparable size to them. They are of the very few animals that even attempt to hunt porcupines, and do so quite successfully, but prefer to hunt hares. They’re not above scouring the forest floor for plants to eat, however. They generally forage around fallen trees, looking for fruits, mushrooms, nuts, and insects. A bit surprisingly, given their name, fisher cats only very rarely eat fish.

It’s not exactly clear, then, how the animal got its name. Folklore says that fisher cats would steal the fish the early settlers used to bait traps in the Great Lakes region, but this is wholly unconfirmed. More likely, the ‘fisher’ in ‘fisher cat’ comes from ‘fisse’, the Dutch equivalent of the word ‘fitch’, from early settlers in the region. It’s also possible that it draws its roots in the French term ‘fishe’. These words refer to the European polecat or its pelt, respectively; given that fur trade was an important source of income for early settlers, it is likely that fisher cats were prized and sought-after for their pelts, and the species became associated with the polecat, who was raised for fur in Europe.

It’s easy to see why their pelts were so prized. Image via Wikimedia.

However, due to this association, fisher cats have been hunted to extinction in some parts of their natural habitat. Due to a drop in hunted pelts since the Americas were first colonized by Europeans, the animals are making a comeback and their populations are recovering and moving back into the areas they previously inhabited. Despite this, legal harvesting for fur, through trapping, is still one of the main sources of information regarding their numbers at our disposal right now.

A baby fisher cat is called a ‘kit’. Females tend to give birth to litters of one up to four kits at a time in the spring and nurture them until late summer. The kits are sightless and quite helpless at first, but become well able to take care of themselves by summertime and leave in search of their own mates.

How do they live?

Fishers spend most of their time on the ground, and have a marked preference for forested lands compared to other habitats. They’re most often found in boreal or conifer forests, but individuals have been seen in transition forests as well, such as mixed hardwood-conifer forests. They seem to avoid areas where overhead cover isn’t very thick, preferring at least 50% coverage.

Female fisher cats also make their dens in moderately large and large trees when giving birth and rearing their kits. Because of these factors, they’re most likely to be seen in old-growth forests, since heavily-logged or young forests seem not to provide the habitat that fishers like to live in.

Towards the west of the continent, where fires routinely clear forests of fallen trees (the most-liked foraging environments of the fishers), these animals tend to gravitate towards forests adjacent to bodies of water (riparian forests). They also seem to not be fond of heavily snowed areas regardless of geographical location.

Despite their habitat preferences, fisher cats have been seen encroaching ever more deeply into urban landscapes, most likely drawn by the prospect of easy food. While it is still unclear whether fisher cats hunt for pets such as household cats or small dogs, such activities would be within their abilities. Most likely, however, they search for food items discarded in trash cans.

Fisher cats stay away from humans for the most part and avoid contact. They will defend themselves if they feel cornered, however. They are quite small, so the chances of a deadly encounter with a fisher cat are slim to none, but if you ever meet one, don’t be fooled by their cuddly exterior. Give it space; their claws and fangs can be quite nasty, and there’s always the risk of infection when dealing with wounds from wildlife.

Today, these furry mammals are listed as Least Concern on IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; they are making quite a successful comeback following their historic lows. Still, habitat destruction and human encroachment remain serious issues for the species. Their ever-more-frequent sightings in cities and urban landscapes across North America are a warning sign of an issue wildlife everywhere faces: humans are taking up more space than ever, so they are coming to visit our cities, as well. Depending on what we do in the future, they may be forced to set up shop here for good.

Fossil Friday: new armless dinosaur species unearthed in Argentina

Researchers in Argentina have discovered a new — and pretty armless — species of dinosaur.

Carnotaurus sastrei, an abelisaurid relative of the new species, and probable look-alike dinosaur. Image credits Fred Wierum / Wikimedia.

Christened Guemesia ochoai, it was a species of abelisaurid, a clade of dinosaurs that roamed today’s Africa, South America, and India, and lived around 70 million years ago. Based on its age, researchers believe that this species was a close relative of the ancestors of all abelisaurids.

The animal’s partially-complete fossil skull was unearthed in Argentina and points to a unique ecosystem that developed in the area during the Late Cretaceous. The discovery is quite exciting as the area where it was found has yielded very few abelisaurid fossils, so it fills in an important piece of its historical puzzle.

Armless in Argentina

“This new dinosaur is quite unusual for its kind. It has several key characteristics that suggest that is a new species, providing important new information about an area of the world which we don’t know a lot about,” says Professor Anjali Goswami, co-author of the study describing the species and a Research Leader at the Natural History Museum of London.

“It shows that the dinosaurs that live in this region were quite different from those in other parts of Argentina, supporting the idea of distinct provinces in the Cretaceous of South America. It also shows us that there is lot more to be discovered in these areas that get less attention than some of the more famous fossil sites.”

By the time this species emerged, the ancient supercontinent of Pangaea had already begun to break apart forming Gondwana and Laurasia. The former would, in turn, split into the major continents in the Southern Hemisphere today and India.

Despite these landmasses slowly drifting apart, species could still move between them, so researchers assume that the fauna of these landmasses remained quite similar, as animals migrated between them. Abelisaurids were among these species.

Abelisaurids were top predators in their ecosystems, preying even on the mighty Titanosaurus. One of their most defining features was the front limbs; even shorter than those of the T. rex, these were virtually useless. In other words, the species did their hunting without being able to grasp, relying instead on their powerful jaws and necks to capture and subdue prey. They seem to have been quite successful at it, too: fossils of these dinosaurs have been found in rocks across Africa, South America, India, and Europe, dated all the way to the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Although Argentina is well-known for abelisaur fossils (35 species have been discovered here so far), the overwhelming majority of these were discovered in Patagonia, in the country’s south. The north-western stretches of the country have yielded precious few. The newly-discovered skull joins this exclusive list.

The fossil, consisting of the braincase with the upper and back parts of the skull, was unearthed in the Los Blanquitos Formation near Amblayo, in the north of Argentina. The rocks it was encased in have been dated to between 75 and 65 million years ago. In other words, this specimen lived very close to the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, the event that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Like other abelisaurids, the skull contains a “remarkably small” braincase, according to its discoverers; its cranium is around 70% smaller than that of any of its relatives. This could suggest that the animal was a juvenile, but this is yet unconfirmed. One distinguishing feature of the dinosaur is a series of small holes at the front of its skull, arranged in rows, known as foramina. Researchers believe these holes helped the animal cool down, by allowing blood pumped into them (and covered by the thin skin at the front of the head) to release the heat it contained.

In contrast to other species of abelisaurids, the skull completely lacks any horns. This suggests that the species is among the first to emerge in the abelisaurid clade before these dinosaurs evolved horns.

Given that there is enough evidence to distinguish it as a new species, the team christened it after General Martin Miguel de Güemes, a hero of the Argentine War of Independence, and Javier Ochoa, a museum technician who discovered the specimen.

“Understanding huge global events like a mass extinction requires global datasets, but there are lots of parts of the world that have not been studied in detail, and tons of fossils remaining to be discovered,” Professor Anjali says.

“We left some exciting fossils in the ground on our last trip, not knowing that it would be years before we could get back to our field sites. Now we are hoping that it won’t be too much longer before we can finish digging them up and discovering many more species from this unique fauna.”

The paper “First definitive abelisaurid theropod from the Late Cretaceous of Northwestern Argentina” has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Climate change is making spring come earlier and earlier in the Northern Hemisphere

The declining number of rainy days in the Northern Hemisphere is making spring arrive earlier and earlier for plants in this half of the globe, new research reports.

Image credits Vinzenz Lorenz.

We have known that warmer average temperatures, a product of climate change, have been causing plants to sprout leaves earlier every year. A new study comes to add details to this picture, reporting that changes in precipitation patterns are also impacting this process.

According to the findings, the decrease in the number of rainy days every year has the second-greatest effect on plants, having quickened the emergence of leaves over the last few decades.

Springing early

“Scientists have looked mainly at how temperature affects when leaves first appear and, if they considered precipitation at all, it was just the total amount,” said Desheng Liu, co-author of the study and professor of geography at The Ohio State University. “But it isn’t the total amount of precipitation that matters the most — it is how often it rains.”

For the study, the team calculated that the decline in the frequency of rainfall in the Northern Hemisphere will cause spring (as defined by plants producing fresh leaves) to arrive sooner. The findings are based on datasets from the United States, Europe, and China, taken in points north of 30 degrees latitude (the northern third of the world). This data included the date each year when observers first note the presence of leaves on wild plants. The team also used satellite images from 1982 to 2018, which recorded when vegetation started to green.

Onset of leafing was then compared to data reporting on the frequency of rainy days each month at the investigated sites.

Overall, the team explains, the (steady) decline in rainy days over the years was associated with earlier onset of leafing in most areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The only exception were grasslands in predominantly semi-arid regions, where a decrease in precipitation (fewer rainy days) slightly delayed spring.

The results were used to create a model that estimates how much sooner spring would arrive in different areas of the Northern Hemisphere through to 2100. Current estimates place this figure at 10 days earlier than the calendaristic onset of spring by 2100. The team calculates that it will arrive one to two days earlier, on average, every decade through to 2100.

As to the link between rainfall and leafing, the team offers two main reasons. The first is that fewer rainy days means fewer overcast days in late winter and early summer. Due to this, plants receive more sunlight during this time, which stimulates the emergence and growth of leaves.

Secondly, more sunlight also means higher average air and soil temperatures during the day. At night, without clouds to reflect heat back down, temperatures will drop more rapidly.

“This contrasting effect earlier in the year makes the plants think it is spring and start leaf onset earlier and earlier,” said study co-author Jian Wang, a doctoral student in geography at Ohio State.

“We need to plan for a future where spring arrives earlier than we expected. Our model gives us information to prepare”.

The paper “Decreasing rainfall frequency contributes to earlier leaf onset in northern ecosystems” has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Every year, locals from the Faroe islands slaughter thousands of dolphins as a tradition. Now it could be banned

The government of the Faroe Islands is reviewing the country’s annual dolphin-and-whale hunt.

Image credits Wikimedia.

According to representatives of the administrative body, no decision has yet been made and several options are being considered. A final decision on the future of this hunt is expected in the coming weeks, they added.

Reviewing tradition

The Faroes are a pretty tiny archipelago to the north of the United Kingdom. Politically, they are an autonomous territory, part of the Kingdom of Denmark, much like Greenland. And, for the longest time now, it has maintained the custom of the “grindadráp”, or “grind” for short.

During grindadrap, fishermen seek out groups of dolphins or pilot whales and surround them with a semi-circle of fishing boats. The animals are then driven into a shallow bay, where they are subsequently beached. Fishermen on shore then slaughter the animals, which are now easy pickings.

Last year’s grind, which took place on September 12, 2021, occured on a much larger scale than any previously. The event, which saw the slaughter of more than 1,400 Atlantic white-side dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus) sparked quite a wave of international outrage. Following that event, the country’s Prime Minister Bardur a Steig Nielsen ordered an official re-evaluation of the hunt.

That re-evaluation is now complete. The government discussed its conclusion at a meeting in Torshavn on Tuesday. Despite the public interest in this topic, no decision seems to have been reached just yet.

“It was a first meeting. No decisions were taken,” an official in the prime minister’s office told Agence France Presse, adding that “several options” are on the table, with a final decision expected “in a few weeks”.

A petition with almost 1.3 million signatures calling for a ban on the hunt was also submitted to the Faroe government on Monday, adding further pressure on lawmakers to come to a decision.

That being said, the hunt still enjoys wide support in the Faroes. It is part of local tradition, and this hunt has been a vital food source for local communities historically. It is very unlikely that all the customs surrounding the grind will be banned; the government explained that only the hunt is currently under review, not the whole tradition.

Employers that help workers manage headaches stand to win big on productivity

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, are looking into how migraines and tension headaches are impacting our ability to do productive work. The findings raise some interesting questions regarding how we think about and treat such conditions, and also point out that both workers and employers stand to benefit from better management of employees suffering from frequent headaches.

Image credits Robin Higgins.

Both migraines and tension headaches can be debilitating experiences. People suffering from either become hyper-sensitive to outside stimuli, from a door slamming to a curtain being drawn. And, quite understandably, such situations make it near impossible for them to be productive, and virtually guarantees that the quality of their work will drop.

A migraine attack can last for up to 72 hours if untreated, and tension headaches can draw out for up to a week. Needless to say, overall, such events represent a huge drain on the overall productiveness of a workforce. In Denmark alone (with a population of 5.8 million), the authors explain, roughly 770,000 people suffer from migraine or frequent tension headaches. Their study is the first to focus on the effect these conditions have upon our ability to work.

A head full of trouble

“Migraine is the leading cause of functional impairment among people under the age of 50. And headaches have negative effects on sick leave and productivity. So, it would benefit workplaces to open their eyes to the untapped potential that you find here. Indeed, we cannot afford not to take it seriously,” says corresponding author of the study, Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen.

“It is especially the ability to remember, make quick decisions and do hard physical work that cause difficulties for people with these headache disorders.”

Migraines are bouts of moderate to severe, pulsating headaches, often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Tension headache is characterized by mild to severe pain, on both sides of the head, but usually without nausea. Both are considered ‘chronic’ if they occur for more than 14 days a month.

Roughly 24% of women and 10% of the men in the Danish working population suffer from migraines or frequent tension headaches. How well these men and women can adapt to their tasks during headaches depends, largely, on their type of employment;

Those in academic positions will often have the luxury of going home a little earlier, working remotely, or postponing tasks that demand the most focus. Others, especially those working physical jobs such as cleaning or nursing staff, don’t often have this option. Instead, workers in these fields of employment may have to call in sick due to migraines or headaches. There is some evidence that headaches are the second-most common cause of sick leave, she explains, second only to infectious disease.

Managers and workers can however collaborate to find solutions that work for both parties and don’t force an ailing employee to give up an entire day of work. For example, the work schedule can be shifted around to allow the employee to postpone more difficult tasks for some that can be solved at a leisurely pace or in a quiet space until the pain has subsided.

She also believes that there are still many unknowns in the general public regarding the importance of headache disorders. For example, she explains that taking too many painkillers can actually lead to more headaches.

“Most people have experienced headaches. Therefore, it may be difficult to understand how debilitating migraine and frequent headaches may be for a colleague, friend or family member. People still have the notion that it will be sufficient to swallow a pill.”

For the study, the team used information about migraines and frequent headaches from literature and tracked the painkiller usage of over 5,000 Danish participants with different educational backgrounds. Participants also provided information about their health, depressive symptoms and pain in muscles and joints. They were also asked about their “ability to cope with seven different, specific requirements at work” to give researchers an accurate idea of their ability to perform professionally.

One of the key findings of the study was that depressive symptoms and pain in muscles or joints are associated with headache disorders and their ill effect on our ability to work. Handling these depressive symptoms and pain may therefore help reduce the symptoms of people with headache disorders and improve their ability to perform. These findings align with previous research that found a link between headaches, muscle and joint pain, and depressive symptoms.

These findings mean that feeling neck pain may be a warning sign of a migraine attack, just as frequent headache attacks may affect the mood negatively. Mood changes may also be indicative of an upcoming headache, the team adds.

The two groups in the study whose ability to work was most affected by migraines were participants who took no painkillers at all, and those who used them daily. This suggests that the two groups are under- and over-treated, respectively. The first is feeling the full debilitating effect of the pain, while the other is likely not receiving the correct medication and may even be suffering the symptoms of medication overuse.

“On the other hand, when you look at the group who does not take medication at all, it seems to indicate that they are undermedicated. And maybe it has to do with the fact that they do not consider their illness to be severe enough to seek medical attention — but that is just our guess,” says Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen.

Based on these findings, the team makes three recommendations. The first is that people take their headaches seriously and visit their doctor for advice and medical treatment, if needed. Secondly, employers should consider steps to adapt work during an employee’s headache attacks, which will reduce absenteeism. Thirdly, people with headache disorders should take steps to handle other types of pain disorders (such as neck-shoulder pain) and protect their mental health, to help prevent headaches as much as possible and protect their quality of life.

The paper “Demand-specific work ability among employees with migraine or frequent headache” has been published in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics.

‘There’s too much plastic on Earth’, a new study warns

The quantity of plastic on our planet has massively exceeded the safe limits for humans and wildlife, says a new study. Although efforts to recycle have increased substantially over the last few decades, they are falling woefully short of solving the issue; the paper suggests placing limits on plastic production as a necessary solution.

Image via Pixabay.

The study was penned by the Stockholm Resilience Centre ahead of a UN meeting in Nairobi at the end of the month. This meeting, the Fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, plans to tackle the issue of plastic pollution “from source to sea”, according to a statement by UN Environment Programme head Inger Andersen said on Monday.

There are an estimated 350,000 different manufactured chemicals on the market today, and large quantities of them end up dumped in the environment in one way or another, the study explains.

Over capacity

“The impacts that we’re starting to see today are large enough to be impacting crucial functions of planet Earth and its systems”, says Bethanie Carney Almroth, co-author of the study. “Some chemicals are interfering with hormone systems, disrupting growth, metabolism and reproduction in wildlife.”

Pesticides and plastics are the main sources of damage to ecosystems and wildlife, the team explains. They impact biodiversity and pile a lot of stress on natural systems that are already crumbling under the pressure of human activity. Pesticides kill living organisms en masse, and plastics hurt wildlife as they are confused for food or entangle various animals.

We as a global society need to put more effort into preventing such substances from reaching the natural environment, the authors conclude. Recycling has, so far, not been sufficient; less than 10% of the world’s plastic is being recycled currently, while production of these materials has doubled to 367 million tons since 2000.

This has led us to an extreme quantity of plastic piling up on our planet. According to previous research cited by the study, the total weight of plastic on Earth today is four times greater than the biomass of living animals.

“What we’re trying to say is that maybe we have to say, ‘Enough is enough’. Maybe we can’t tolerate more,” Almroth adds “Maybe we have to put a cap on production. Maybe we need to say, ‘We can’t produce more than this’.”

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has been researching “planetary boundaries” for several years now. These quantify the Earth’s stability over nine areas and includes elements such as greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater usage, and the integrity of the ozone layer. The aim of this research is to pencil out a “safe operating space” for humanity — how much we can use of the planet across nine dimensions without putting life on Earth at risk.

“Novel entities” — man-made chemical products such as plastics, pesticides, medicine, and non-natural metals — have an impact on the environment. Until now, the team explains, exactly what this impact was remained unclear. This is due to how recent some of them are — most have been developed in the past 70 years — and the fact that data on these materials is often handled as corporate secrets.

Even the most comprehensive databases to date, such as the EU’s REACH inventory, only cover 150,000 of these products; only a third of those have been the subject of detailed toxicity studies, the team adds.

“We are only beginning to understand the large-scale, long-term effects of these exposure. And we’re talking about 350,000 different substances,” Carney Almroth said. “We don’t have knowledge on the vast majority of those, in terms of how much are produced or their stability. Or their fate in the environment or their toxicity.”

“Looking at changes over time and trends in production volumes lost in the environment […] and connecting that to the little bit we do know about impacts, we could say that every arrow is pointing in the wrong direction.”

Although the findings are not encouraging, the team is confident that things can still be set right, if we take “urgent and ambitious actions” at an international level. There’s no easy fix, however, since society as it is today relies on many of these chemicals and materials. What we can do, the team proposes, is to set production caps for these materials, instead.

“This seems very obvious to say but it’s only recently accepted as truth: The more you produce, the more you release,” Carney Almroth concludes.

The paper “Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities” has been published in the journal ACS Publications.