Author Archives: Mihai Andrei

About Mihai Andrei

Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.

Scientists peer into the dark side of a hot Jupiter

Scientists have been looking at exoplanets for a while now, and one of the types of exoplanets that’s easiest to spot is the so-called Hot Jupiters.

Hot Jupiters are a type of planet that resembles Jupiter (they’re essentially gas giants) but they lie very close to their star — which makes them hot. But like the moon and the Earth, hot Jupiters are generally tidally locked with their star, which means one of the side is always facing the star while the other is always facing away. For the first time, researchers have looked into the dark side of a hot Jupiter.

Artist’s impression of a hot Jupiter. Image credits: Yves LC.

WASP-121 b is nearly two times the size of Jupiter and it lies so close to its star that it only takes it just 30 hours to complete a rotation. The planet was first discovered in 2015, but now, thanks to some fresh data from Hubble, astronomers can analyze it in more detail than ever before.

The planet is tidally locked, and there’s a huge temperature difference between the side that is facing towards the star and the side facing outer space. Because it’s so close to its star, even the ‘cold’ side is hot, but not nearly as hot as the star-facing side. The hot side has temperatures beyond 4,940°F (2726 °C), so hot that it breaks water molecules apart into hydrogen and oxygen. Meanwhile, the dark side has temperatures of ‘just’ 2,780°F (1526 °C), obviously still very hot, but cold enough for water molecules to form again.

The team calculated that the planet’s atmospheric movements are pushed by winds that whip the planet at whopping speeds of up to 5 kilometers per second (or more than 11,000 miles per hour).

Because there’s such a big temperature difference between the two sides, strong winds rip from one side to the other, sweeping atoms around. There’s no way water clouds (let alone liquid water) can exist on such a planet, but Hubble data shows that temperatures are low enough for metal clouds to form on the nightside. Iron and corundum (the mineral that makes up rubies and sapphires) appear to be present on the planet, and these are likely the minerals that form clouds on WASP-121 b.

This study marks the first time an exoplanet’s global atmosphere has been studied, the researchers say. The study could help us understand how the entire class of hot Jupiters forms and what implications they have for the formation of solar systems.

“We’re now moving beyond taking isolated snapshots of specific regions of exoplanet atmospheres, to study them as the 3D systems they truly are,” says Thomas Mikal-Evans, who led the study as a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Journal Reference: Mikal-Evans, T., Sing, D.K., Barstow, J.K. et al. Diurnal variations in the stratosphere of the ultrahot giant exoplanet WASP-121b. Nat Astron (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-021-01592-w

Ship of legendary explorer Shackleton found in Antarctica 107 years after it sank

The Endurance was finally uncovered, over a century after it sank in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. The ship was part of a famous expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton but got trapped in pack ice, forcing the expedition members to camp for months in the Antarctic and make a heroic escape.

Despite laying under 3km (10,000 feet) of frigid water for over a century, the ship seems to be in impeccable shape, almost frozen in time. The ship was discovered just several kilometers from where it was abandoned after a search mounted by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT) investigated the area for two weeks.

Using a South African icebreaker, Agulhas II, the search team deployed submersible units to comb the area. After coming across various interesting targets, they finally uncovered the wreck site on Saturday, spending the next few days documenting and photographing the site.

In a blog post announcing the find, Director of Exploration Mensun Bound couldn’t contain his excitement:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,

I don’t know how else to say this, so I am going to come straight to the point.

We have found the wreck of the Endurance!”

“In a long career of surveying and excavating historic shipwrecks, I have never seen one as bold and beautiful as this.”

The mission’s leader, the veteran polar geographer Dr. John Shears also told the BBC that this is an incredible achievement, describing the moment when they saw the ship as “jaw-dropping”. Shears also emphasized that this was “the world’s most difficult shipwreck search”, battling blizzards, bitterly cold temperatures, and constantly shifting sea-ice. “We have achieved what many people said was impossible,” Shears said.

Pristine shape

The ship looks much like it did when it was last photographed by Shackleton’s filmmaker, Frank Hurley, in 1915. While some things have obviously broken down, you can still see the hull, the deck, and the porthole window from Shackleton’s cabin. The anchors are still around, as are some of the boots and crockery the crew abandoned with the ship.

“Most remarkable of all was her name – E N D U R A N C E – which arcs across her stern with perfect clarity. And below is the 5-pointed Polaris star. Just as in Hurley’s famous photographs,” Bound adds.

Some sea creatures (such as filter feeders) have colonized the wreck but there don’t seem to be any wood-eating worms that would degrade the ship structurally.

The wreck itself cannot be moved or disturbed in any way, as it is a designated monument under the international Antarctic Treaty. Therefore, researchers can’t bring anything to the surface, and all they’ve done now was to document the position and situation for the ship.

A legendary expedition

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton led three expeditions into the Antarctic. The one that employed the Endurance was launched in 1914, and Endurance departed from South Georgia, British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean, for the Weddell Sea on 5 December. But the situation quickly took a turn for the worse, as the ship became trapped in an ice floe. The crew waited until February and then realized that the ship would be trapped until spring (in the southern hemisphere, spring starts in September).

Shackleton ordered the conversion of the ship to a winter station, and the crew managed to tough it out until September. But when the ice started to release, the crew’s hopes that the ship would be freed safely were destroyed. The ice put extreme pressure on the ship’s hull, damaging it, and the ship was taking water. In November, the crew abandoned the ship.

The next two months, Shackleton and his crew camped on a large, flat ice floe (basically an ice island), hoping that it would drift towards Paulet Islands 250 miles (402 km) away, where some stores were cached. This too failed. Shackleton decided to set up a more permanent camp on a different flow, hoping to drift to a safe island. This too did not happen. The floe broke in two, and Shackleton’s crew was forced into lifeboats, heading towards the nearest island.

The exhausted men managed to end up their three lifeboats at Elephant Island, 346 miles (557 km) from where the Endurance sank, after being adrift on ice for almost 500 days. Shackleton gave his mittens to photographer Frank Hurley (who had lost his) and suffered severe frostbites as a result. In a desperate last-ditch attempt, Shackleton decided to take one of the three lifeboats and head for whaling stations 720 nautical miles (1,334 km) away.

Launching the lifeboat from the shore of Elephant Island, 24 April 1916.

Shackleton packed minimal supplies and head out with a handful of people, only to be met by a hurricane. They landed on an island and Shackleton and two members braced a yet-untried land route over dangerous, uncharted mountainous terrain. Ultimately, they were able to reach a whaling station and after several tries, rescue the surviving members of the expedition.

The fact that researchers now have such a connection to this expedition is a spectacular achievement. “We will pay our respects to ‘The Boss’,” said Dr. Shears, using the nickname the Endurance crew had for their leader.

Still, the current expedition hopes they can uncover even more from the ship and will now embark on thorough scientific research of the vessel.

“You can even see the holes that Shackleton’s men cut in the decks to get through to the ‘tween decks to salvage supplies, etc, using boat hooks. In particular, there was the hole they cut through the deck in order to get into “The Billabong”, the cabin in “The Ritz” that had been used by Hurley, Leonard Hussey (meteorologist), James McIlroy (surgeon) and Alexander Macklin (surgeon), but which was used to store food supplies at the time the ship went down,” Bound concluded in an article for the BBC.

Russians flock to VPNs to escape internet censorship

As the war (or if you’re in Russia, the “special operation“) continues to rage on, Russian authorities have banned the last semblance of independent journalism and are amplifying efforts to restrict domestic access to free information. But millions of Russians are not having it and are flocking to virtual private networks (or VPNs) to browse the free internet.

The demand for VPNs, which allow the user to browse the internet privately and without restriction, skyrocketed in Russia after the invasion. Between February 27 and March 3, demand surged by 668% — but after Russia blocked Facebook and Twitter on March 4, the demand for VPNs grew even more, peaking at 1,092% above the average before the invasion.

By March 5, all the top ten most downloaded apps in Russia are essentially VPNs.

Overall, the Google Play Store saw 3.3 million VPN downloads, while the Apple App Store had 1.3 million. That’s 4.6 million VPN downloads since the invasion started (Russia has a population of around 144 million).

Russian authorities have not yet blocked app stores, although they have the ability to do so. However, they are trying to block VPN traffic at the network level — drawing from China’s experience in censoring the internet. It’s a bit of an arms race: VPNs may be blocked, and then they have to find new ways of evading censorship (often by switching servers).

For users, this means they may be forced to change servers or even apps regularly if they want to access independent, foreign publishers and social media. Otherwise, they will have to contend with the warped, distorted reality typically present in Russian state-owned media.

Russia’s internet censorship is not as stringent as China’s, but it could be getting there very quickly. As Russia becomes more and more isolated, the Kremlin is trying to cast an online iron curtain to block its people from accessing the free internet. The Russian parliament also approved a law making the spreading of “false” news about the war in Ukraine a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Even the word “war” is banned in Russian media.

It’s not the first time we’re seeing something like this. In January, VPN demand in Kazakhstan also skyrocketed by over 3,400% following an internet blackout during anti-government protests. When China passed the Hong Kong national security law, VPN demand also surged (in a country where VPN usage is already common). Myanmar and Nigeria went through similar situations. However, the increase in demand is unprecedented, VPN providers say

VPN demand in Ukraine has also climbed 609% higher than before the invasion, mostly spiked by fears that invading forces will also carry out cyberattacks.

International Women’s Day: Ten Women in Science Who Aren’t Marie Curie

As the world celebrates International Women’s day, it’s important to remember what this date stands for: equal rights between men and women. Women’s day is tightly connected to the Suffragette movement, where women in many parts of the world fought and suffered for their right to vote. It was on March 8, 1917, that women in Russia gained the right to vote, and in 1975 the United Nations also adopted the day. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before we can talk about gender equality in the world and, sadly, science is no exception. When it comes to female scientists, one name always dominates the conversation: Marie Curie. Curie’s brilliance and impact are undeniable, but there are many more women who left a strong mark on science. Here, we will celebrate just a few of them, some of the names we should remember for their remarkable contribution.

Hypatia

Hypatia inspired numerous artists, scientists, and scholars. Here: The play Hypatia, performed at the Haymarket Theatre in January 1893, based on the novel by Charles Kingsley.

Any discussion about women in science should start with Hypatia — the head of the Neoplatonic school in ancient Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy. Hypatia was praised as a universal genius, though, for most of her life, she focused on teaching more than innovating. Also an accomplished mathematician, Hypatia was an advisor to Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, and is the first female scientist whose life was decently recorded.

Hypatia lived through a period of political turmoil, with Orestes fighting for power with Cyril, the Christian bishop of Alexandria. Although she was a “pagan” herself, Hypatia was tolerant of Christian students and hoped to prove that Neoplatonism and Christianity could coexist peacefully and cooperatively. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. She was brutally murdered by a mob of Christian monks known as the parabalanisomething which many historians today believe was orchestrated by Cyril (or at the very least, Cyril had some involvement in this process). Her murder fueled hatred against Christians and unfortunately, her legacy was completely tarnished and turned against what she had hoped to achieve.

Mary Anning

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London.

Moving a bit closer to our age, Mary Anning was one of the most significant figures in paleontology. An English fossil collector, Anning was unable to join the Geological Society of London and did not fully participate in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, who were mostly Anglican gentlemen. This stressed her tremendously, and she struggled financially for much of her life. Also, despite her significant contributions, it was virtually impossible for her to publish any scientific papers. The only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the Magazine of Natural History in 1839. It was an extract from a letter that Anning had written to the magazine’s editor questioning one of its claims. “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone,” she wrote in a letter.

However, she was consulted by many of the time’s leading scientists on issues of anatomy and fossil collection. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites are fossilized faeces, and she was also the first to find a complete ichthyosaur skeleton — one of the most emblematic dinosaur-aged marine creatures — as well as two complete plesiosaur skeletons, the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany, and important fish fossils. Her work also paved the way for our understanding of extinction and her most impressive findings are hosted at the London Natural History Museum.

Ichthyosaur and Plesiosaur by Édouard Riou, 1863.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was one of the most interesting personalities of the 19th century. The daughter of famous and controversial Lord Byron, Ada inherited her father’s writing gift, but her most important legacy was in a completely different area: mathematics. She is often regarded as the first to recognize the full potential of a “computing machine” and the first computer programmer, chiefly for her work with Charles Babbage, regarded as the father of the computer.

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace).

But Ada Lovelace saw something in computers that Babbage didn’t — way ahead of its time, she glimpsed the true potential that computers can offer. Historian of computing and Babbage specialist Doron Swade explains:

“Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage’s world his engines were bound by number…What Lovelace saw—what Ada Byron saw—was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation [..]”.

Example of a computing machine developed by Babbage and Lovelace. Image credits: Jitze Couperus from Los Altos Hills, California, USA.

Unfortunately, the life of Ada Lovelace was cut short, at 36, by uterine cancer, with more than a century passing before her vision could be accomplished.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

If you like astronomy, the odds are that you’ve heard the name Hubble — but the same can’t be said for Henrietta Swan Leavitt, even though it should. Her scientific work identified 1777 variable stars and discovered that the brighter ones had the larger period, a discovery known as the “period–luminosity relationship” or “Leavitt’s law.” Her published work paved the way for the discoveries of Edwin Hubble, renowned American astronomer, whose findings changed our understanding of the universe forever. Although Henrietta received little recognition in her lifetime, Hubble often said that Leavitt deserved the Nobel for her work.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt working in her office. Image from the American Institute of Physics, Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

In 1892, she graduated from Harvard University’s Radcliffe College, taking only one course in astronomy. She gathered credits toward a graduate degree in astronomy for work completed at the Harvard College Observatory, though she never finished the degree. However, she began working as one of the women human “computers,” working on measuring and cataloguing the brightness of stars. It was her work that first allowed astronomers to measure the distance between the Earth and faraway galaxies, ultimately allowing Hubble to figure out that the universe is expanding. The Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to nominate her for the Nobel prize in 1924, only to learn that she had died of cancer three years earlier.

Inge Lehmann

Image courtesy The Royal Library, National Library of Denmark, and University of Copenhagen University Library.

Before Lehmann, researchers believed the Earth’s core to be a single molten sphere. However, observations of seismic waves from earthquakes were inconsistent with this idea, and it was Lehmann who first solved this conundrum in a 1936 paper. She showed that the Earth has a solid inner core inside a molten outer core. Within a few years, most seismologists adopted her view, even though the theory wasn’t proven correct by computer calculations until 1971.

Unlike most of her predecessors, Lehmann was allowed to join scientific organizations, serving as Chair of the Danish Geophysical Society in 1940 and 1944 respectively. However, she was significantly hampered in her work and in maintaining international contacts during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II. She continued to work on seismological studies, moving on to discover another seismic discontinuity, which lies at depths between 190 and 250 km and was named for her, the Lehmann discontinuity. In praise of her work, renowned geophysicist Francis Birch noted that the “Lehmann discontinuity was discovered through exacting scrutiny of seismic records by a master of a black art for which no amount of computerization is likely to be a complete substitute.”

Rosalind Franklin

Image credits: Robin Stott.

Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer who made contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite. While her work on the latter was largely appreciated during her lifetime, her work on DNA was extremely controversial, only being truly recognized after her lifetime.

In 1953, the work she did on DNA allowed Watson and Crick to conceive their model of the structure of DNA. Essentially, her work was the backbone of the study, but the two didn’t grant her any recognition, in an academic context largely dominated by sexism. Franklin had first presented important contributions two years earlier, but due to  Watson’s lack of chemistry understanding, he failed to comprehend the crucial information. However, Franklin also published a more thorough report on her work, which made its way to the hands of Watson and Crick, even though it was “not expected to reach outside eyes“.

There is no doubt that Franklin’s experimental data were used by Crick and Watson to build their model of DNA, even though they failed to cite her even once (in fact, Watson’s reviews of Franklin were often negative). Ironically, Watson and Crick cited no experimental data at all in support of their model. In a separate publication in the same issue of Nature, they showed a DNA X-ray image which, in fact, served as the principal evidence.

Anne McLaren

Image via Wikipedia.

Zoologist Anne McLaren is one of the pioneers of modern genetics, her work being instrumental to the development of in vitro fertilization. She experimented with culturing mouse eggs and was the first person to successfully grow mouse embryos outside of the womb. McLaren was also involved in the many moral discussions about embryo research, leading her to help construct the UK’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 1990. This work is still greatly important for policy regarding abortion, and also offers guidelines for the process. She authored over 300 papers over the course of her career.

She received many honours for her contributions to science, being widely regarded as one of the most prolific biologists in modern times. She also became the first female officer of the Royal Society in 331 years.

Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin with John Glenn. Image credits: Jeremy Keith.

Vera Rubin was a pioneering astronomer who first uncovered the discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and the observed motion — the so-called Galaxy rotation problem. Although her work was received with great skepticism, it was confirmed time and time again, becoming one of the key pieces of evidence for the existence of dark matter.

Ironically, Rubin wanted to avoid controversial areas of astronomy such as quasars, and focused on the rotation of galaxies. She showed that spiral galaxies rotate quickly enough that they should fly apart if the gravity of their constituent stars was all that was holding them together. So, she inferred the presence of something else — something which today, we call dark matter. Rubin’s calculations showed that galaxies must contain at least five to ten times as much dark matter as ordinary matter. Rubin spent her life advocating for women in science and was a mentor for aspiring female astronomers.

Sally Ride

Image credits: U.S. Information Agency.

Sally Ride was the third woman in outer space, after USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982). However, her main focus was astrophysics, primarily researching nonlinear optics and Thomson scattering. She had two bachelor’s degrees: literature, because Shakespeare intrigued her, and physics, because lasers fascinated her. She was also in excellent physical shape, being a nationally ranked tennis player who flirted with turning pro, and was essentially tailored to be an astronaut — and yet, the subject of the media attention was always her gender, and not her accomplishments. At press conferences, she would get questions like “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” to which she would laconically and patiently answer.

After flying twice on the Orbiter Challenger, she left NASA in 1987, after spending 343 hours in space. She wrote and co-wrote several science books aimed at children and encouraging them to pursue science. She also participated in the Gravity Probe B (GP-B) project, which provided solid evidence to support Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Jane Goodall

Image credits: U.S. Department of State.

Most biologists consider Jane Goodall to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, and for good reason. Goodall has dedicated her life towards studying chimps, having spent over 55 years studying the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees.

Since she was a child, Goodall was fascinated by chimps, and dedicated a lot of her early days towards studying them. She first went to Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania in 1960, after becoming one of the very few people who were allowed to study for a PhD without first having obtained a BA or BSc. Without any supervisors directing her research, Goodall observed things that strict scientific doctrines may have overlooked, and which led to stunning discoveries. She observed behaviors such as hugs, kisses, pats on the back, and even tickling — which we would consider strictly “human” actions. She was the first to ever show non-human tool-making and overall, showed that many attributes we considered to be human were shared by chimps. She has also worked extensively on conservation and animal wildlife welfare.

This article doesn’t intend to be a thorough history of women in science, nor does it claim to mention all the noteworthy ones and the unsung heroes. It is meant to be an appreciation of the invaluable contributions women have made to science and the hardships they had — and still have — to overcome to do so.

A new Omicron subvariant, 30% more contagious, is starting to sweep the world

I know — we’re all tired of the pandemic and we’re all hoping it’d be over by now. But unfortunately, the virus doesn’t really care about media fatigue or how tired we all are of this pandemic.

While substantial progress has been made on the vaccination front, new variants continue to emerge, and researchers warn that the pandemic is still not done yet. Now, a new Omicron variant (BA.2) is surging in several parts of the world, including the US, UK, and Hong Kong.

Graph made by William Ku, with data from the CDC.

Researchers warned us from the beginning that until we reach herd immunity at a global level, new variants will continue to emerge and we’d still be stuck in a pandemic — and this is exactly what we’re seeing now. After the more contagious Delta variant came in and swooped over the Alpha and Beta variants, Omicron made it all look like a joke.

The contagiousness math adds up very quickly.

Alpha was 50% more contagious than the original Wuhan strain. Delta is 40-60% more contagious than Alpha. Omicron is 105% more contagious than Delta. Now, the BA.2 Omicron variant appears to be 30% more contagious than the original Omicron, and we’re seeing the number of cases spike accordingly.

The emergence of the new subvariant coincides with a wave of lifting restrictions. Countries (especially those with a relatively high level of vaccination) were quick to relax restrictions and ease the political, social, and economic pressure they were causing — but this has come at a cost.

In the UK, the BA.2 variant has become dominant, and while at some point it seemed that the Omicron wave would simply burn out in the country, we’re seeing a new surge in cases and hospitalizations are starting to follow.

What we know about BA.2 Omicron so far

While it clearly appears to be more transmissible (and will likely become dominant across the world), we still don’t know how severe this subvariant is. Lab experiments from Japan suggest that it may have Delta-like characteristics and may cause more severe illness.

“More importantly, the viral RNA load in the lung periphery and histopathological disorders of BA.2 were more severe than those of BA.1 and even B.1.1. Together with a higher effective reproduction number and pronounced immune resistance of BA.2, it is evident that the spread of BA.2 can be a serious issue for global health in the near future,” a study not yet peer-reviewed concludes.

However, a separate study from South Africa found that a similar proportion of individuals with BA.1 and BA.2 infections required hospitalization, and data from Denmark suggests similar hospitalization rates for BA.1 and BA.2.

As is always the case with new variants and subvariants, it’s hard to tell exactly how things stand in the beginning. It’s also curious that while it seems to be taking over in several parts of Asia and Europe, BA.2 transmission in the US seems relatively low.

Importantly, while Omicron BA.2 shows some ability to evade vaccine immunity, it seems that boosters still provide excellent immunity. Overall, BA.2 shows the already well-known Omicron ability to evade some of the protection offered by two shots — but three shots offer over 90% protection against hospitalization.

Image credits: William Ku, with data from the CDC.

Long-term, it seems that booster-provided protection wanes in time, and the rate of booster shot delivery has also slowed down, presumably as people’s interest in the pandemic also wanes. But variants don’t care how much attention you’re paying.

Did we rip the bandaid too soon?

Another reason why BA.2 is spreading so quickly is that many countries have relaxed restrictions — or removed them altogether. Some researchers believe this was done too quickly.

In addition to extra transmissibility, the BA.2 subvariant also appears to be capable of escaping some of the treatments we have for COVID-19. While the original Omicron was capable of evading two of the four monoclonal antibody drugs used in infections in high-risk individuals, a study from New York University suggests that BA.2 can bypass a third drug, sotrovimab.

Researchers also caution that even mild cases can cause lasting brain damage (and potentially other problems as well). A study from Oxford found that the virus produces changes in the brain and may shrink grey matter.

Ultimately, the vast majority of people with booster shots should be able to evade the worst of the virus effects — but they can still be in for an unpleasant ride.

Lead exposure from gasoline has affected the IQ of 1 in 2 Americans since the 1940s

In the 1920s, researchers realized that you can add lead to gasoline to help keep car engines healthy for longer. But while leaded gasoline was good for cars, it was bad for humans.

Leaded gasoline is highly toxic and in addition to causing a number of health problems, it can also cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in some parts of the brain, where it can cause a number of problems, including reducing intelligence. According to a new study, exposure to car exhaust from leaded gasoline affected the IQs of over 170 million Americans alive today, costing the country a collective 824 million IQ points.

Image credits: Joe Mabel.

The findings come from a new study published by Aaron Reuben, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Duke University, and Michael McFarland and Mathew Hauer, both professors of sociology at Florida State University. The researchers started from publicly available data on US childhood blood-lead levels and leaded-gasoline use. They then determined the likely lifelong burden of lead exposure of every American alive in 2015. From this, they calculated how much of an intelligence burden this exposure to lead proved to be. While IQ isn’t a perfect proxy to intelligence, it’s still a good population-level indicator.

Previous studies have suggested an association between lead exposure in childhood and a drop in IQ. But when the results came in, even the researchers were surprised.

“I frankly was shocked,” McFarland said. “And when I look at the numbers, I’m still shocked even though I’m prepared for it.”

The results show that over half of all Americans (170 million out of an entire population of 330 million) had clinically significant levels of lead in their blood, resulting in lower IQ levels as adults, as well as a number of potential health problems (such as reduced brain size, greater likelihood of mental illness, and increased cardiovascular disease). The people affected by lead exposure would have each lost, on average, 3 IQ points.

“Lead is able to reach the bloodstream once it’s inhaled as dust, or ingested, or consumed in water,” Reuben said. “In the bloodstream, it’s able to pass into the brain through the blood-brain barrier, which is quite good at keeping a lot of toxicants and pathogens out of the brain, but not all of them.”

Three IQ points may not seem like much, but keep in mind that this is an average for a whopping 170 million people. At its worst, people born in the mid-late 1960s may have lost 6 IQ points on average. At a population level, this is a considerable margin — and even though leaded gasoline was banned in the US in 1996, the effects of the problem are still visible today.

“Millions of us are walking around with a history of lead exposure,” Reuben said. “It’s not like you got into a car accident and had a rotator cuff tear that heals and then you’re fine. It appears to be an insult carried in the body in different ways that we’re still trying to understand but that can have implications for life.”

Thankfully, the era of leaded gasoline is finally over. Most countries banned it two decades ago, but only last year, in 2021, the era of leaded gasoline was finally over as the last stocks were used in Algeria (which had continued to produce leaded gasoline until July 2021).

Leaded gasoline is a good example of an exciting technology that turns out to be very bad for the environment and for human health. But while leaded gasoline has been phased out, there are plenty of other sources of pollution still affecting our brains, lungs, and hearts.

Journal Reference:  “Half of US Population Exposed to Adverse Lead Levels in Early Childhood,” Michael J. McFarland, Matt E. Hauer, Aaron Reuben. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 7, 2022. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2118631119

Pig grunts can help us understand their inner emotions

We’ve known for quite some time that pigs are some of the more intelligent animals we know. Pigs are not just intelligent, but also emotional and cognitively complex. Pigs have feelings — and now, thanks to a new study, we can understand some of these emotions.

Image credits: Kenneth Schipper Vera.

Animal feelings

In the past 20-30 years ago, we’ve started to understand much more about animal emotions. Gone are the days when we thought emotions were for humans only, or even for a select group of animals — most scientists agree that animals have varying degrees of emotional responses, and intelligent animals (like pigs) are emotionally complex.

But how do you measure and analyze their emotions?

“The emotional states of many animals are easily recognizable. Their faces, their eyes, and the ways in which they carry themselves can be used to make strong inferences about what they are feeling,” wrote Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a 2000 study. “Changes in muscle tone, posture, gait, facial expression, eye size and gaze, vocalizations, and odors (pheromones), singly and together, indicate emotional responses to certain situations.”

In a new study, researchers took this to the next level by studying pig grunts. They collected 7,000 recordings of noises from commercial pigs, from a wide range of situations, both positive and negative. The researchers also designed several experimental mock scenarios, designed to invoke more nuanced emotions. For instance, they had pigs playing with toys or food in an arena or placed unfamiliar objects for the pigs to interact with.

They then designed a machine-learning algorithm to decode whether the emotion is positive, negative, or mixed/nuanced.

When pigs are experiencing negative emotions, they tend to stand still, emit a lot of high-pitched vocalizations, and try to escape. When they experience positive emotions, they like to explore their surroundings and huddle with others.

Researchers noted which events triggered negative emotions: social separation, castration, and of course, slaughter. Meanwhile, pigs liked it most when they could run free, when they were reunited with their mother, and when they could huddle with their siblings.

Overall, there were 19 different categories of contexts in total, and the algorithm was able to accurately classify 92% of them.

Understanding animal mental health

“There are clear differences in pig calls when we look at positive and negative situations. In the positive situations, the calls are far shorter, with minor fluctuations in amplitude. Grunts, more specifically, begin high and gradually go lower in frequency. By training an algorithm to recognize these sounds, we can classify 92% of the calls to the correct emotion”, explains Elodie Briefer of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology at the University of Copenhagen, who co-led the study.

The algorithm could be used to monitor the mental health of pigs, especially by farmers. The mental health of livestock is very important for their wellbeing, but farmers generally only focus on the animals’ physical health. While several automatic system that monitor an animal’s physical health exist, no such analog exists for mental health.

“We have trained the algorithm to decode pig grunts. Now, we need someone who wants to develop the algorithm into an app that farmers can use to improve the welfare of their animals”, says Briefer. In an email to ZME Science, the researcher added that they were also supposed to build the app, but their project was faced with many health-related absences and partners who didn’t receive the funding they were promised by their government on time that they didn’t get to do it. “But what we suggest in this paper, shows that this is feasible, and we hope that some companies might be interested in building it,” Briefer adds.

The method could be implemented in a tool to monitor groups of pigs, Briefer tells ZME Science. It could let the farmer know when the pigs seem happy or when they are distressed, which could produce improvements on the animals’ mental wellbeing. The study could also lay the foundation for using algorithms to better understand the emotions (especially the complex emotions) of other mammals.

“I have been working on the vocal expression of other farm animals (goats, horses, and sheep), and other researchers have as well (on chicken for instance), but this is the first study gathering such a wide variety of sounds and showing that it is possible to differentiate positive from negative emotions based on vocalizations,” Briefer tells ZME Science. “The same should be done at that scale for other species as well, so that tools to automatically recognize emotions could be built for other farm animals. This would add a lot to their welfare, which is still strongly based on their physical more than mental health.”

The more we look into the picture of animal cognition, the more complex the picture becomes.

“With this study, we demonstrate that animal sounds provide great insight into their emotions. We also prove that an algorithm can be used to decode and understand the emotions of pigs, which is an important step towards improved animal welfare for livestock”, concludes Briefer.

The study has been published in Scientific Reports.

Is it “Chicken Kyiv”? Some retailers are changing the name, but not everyone is convinced

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we’ve all become much more attuned to some parts of Ukrainian culture — and companies are starting to take notice. After a 2019 Ukrainian campaign failed to convince most companies to use Kyiv instead of Kiev, now companies are finally starting to take note — and one particular chicken dish will likely be spelled differently soon.

Pieces of Chicken Kyiv in butter sauce.

When Ukraine was under Soviet domination, the Russians called the city Kiev — this was the Russian way of spelling it (derived from the Russian language name Киев). Media outlets and companies continued using the Kiev name for years to come, even though the transliteration Kyiv (derived from the Ukrainian language name Київ) was legally mandated by the Ukrainian government in 1995.

In 2019, the Ukrainian government launched a campaign called KyivNotKiev. It’s an important step, they argued, to shed the Soviet legacy and the aggressive Russification policies imposed by the Soviets. The campaign partly worked. Major media outlets like the BBC or Associated Press started using Kyiv, as did Wikipedia — but most companies and retailers didn’t.

“Editors from some of the world’s biggest media outlets appear to have decided this was the right moment to update their style guides,” wrote Peter Dickinson from the Atlantic Council, an American think tank in the field of international affairs, in 2019. “A number of global heavyweights have recently adopted the Ukrainian-language derived “Kyiv” as their official spelling for the country’s capital city, replacing the Russian-rooted Kiev.”  

Now, companies have started to take notice as well, and they’ve started with something most people will be familiar with: chicken.

Chicken Kyiv is a dish consisting of chicken fillet pounded and rolled around cold butter and coated with egg and bread crumbs. It’s not clear when and how the dish originated, but by the 18th century, Russian chefs were trying to use French haute cuisine techniques — and French chefs hired by Russian aristocracy also contributed to the dish.

It’s one of the few products that contains the name of the city and has international recognition. Many consumers started realizing the difference between how the media is spelling Kyiv and how retailers are still using Kiev — and they’ve been pushing for a change.

Sainsbury’s, one of the big retailers in the UK, became the first major company to announce it will start selling Chicken Kyiv. Other retailers in the UK, including Tesco and Aldi are expected to soon follow suit.

But this move may be more a move to appease consumers rather than to make cultural amends. Businesses see this as a PR opportunity or a way to dodge social media ire — it’s a way to avoid any association with Russia and make it seem like you’re actually making a difference. In fact, you could probably make an argument about whether the recipe should be renamed at all — because it’s essentially a Russian recipe made with French cooking techniques. You could argue that, even if you call the city Kyiv, you can call the recipe Chicken Kiev. The Associated Press said as much in a recent tweet:

Ultimately, it’s hard to say what the right move would be. It’s good that companies are trying to show support for Ukraine, though this is probably a way to avoid media backlash or piggyback on a popular movement rather than a move that can make an actual difference. In truth, Sainsbury’s claims they’ll also remove Russian vodka and sunflower seeds from their shelves — but those are hardly a staple for the supermarket.

The city is most definitely spelled Kyiv in English; the chicken is less clear — but at the end of the day, also far less important. Hopefully, more impactful support will follow.

Russian authorities go full-censorship, block Facebook, Twitter, and last free media inside the country

The last remaining free media in Russia is under attack. Access to the BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Meduza, and Radio Liberty has been severely restricted. Facebook, Youtube and Twitter have also been blocked or restricted.

The BBC was one of the first large publishers to report that they had been targeted by Russian authorities. Russian visits to the BBC had spiked since the start of the invasion, as people were trying to understand what was really going on — and not just what the Russian censors allowed. Apparently, Russian authorities did not like this and decided to take action.

A BBC spokesperson acknowledged this and said the network was already working on a way to circumvent this.

“Access to accurate, independent information is a fundamental human right which should not be denied to the people of Russia, millions of whom rely on BBC News every week.

“We will continue our efforts to make BBC News available in Russia, and across the rest of the world.”

Apparently, the BBC resorted to broadcasting news bulletins over WWII-era shortwave radio frequencies. These shortwave radio frequencies carry over long distances and will be accessible to people in Ukraine as well as “some parts of Russia”. While not perfect, this is an emergency way to get some reliable news into Russia, the BBC added.

“In a conflict where disinformation and propaganda is rife, there is a clear need for factual and independent news people can trust,” said BBC director-general Tim Davie. “We will continue giving the Russian people access to the truth, however we can.”

The state-owned Russian news agency reported that in addition to blocking BBC News, they’ve restricted access to the US government-funded Radio Liberty, the Latvia-based Russian/English news site Meduza, US state-owned radio broadcaster Voice of America, and German state-owned broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Yesterday, one of Russia’s last independent news outlets, TV Rain, was forced to stop broadcasting after providing coverage of the invasion. The channel ended its final broadcast by showing staff walking off set and playing ‘Swan Lake’ before going offline — echoing what Russians saw on TV after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Now, virtually every free media organization operating in Russia has either been banned, blocked, or restricted — both national and international — the international ones for “undermining the Russian stability and security”.

Russian media is not allowed to mention the word “war” — it’s a “special operation”, and using the word “war” or any other words that “discredit the military” can get you 15 years in jail. The regulator, Roskomnadzor, issued warning letters to at least 10 media outlets, including Novaya Gazeta, run by Nobel Peace laureate Dmitry Muratov.

“Literally by tomorrow, this law will force punishment — and very tough punishment — on those who lied and made statements which discredited our armed forces,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of Russia’s State Duma legislative body, in a statement quoted by Reuters.

Essentially, this has criminalized free journalism, locking Russians away from the free flow of information.

“This legislation appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism,” Davie added in a statement. “Our BBC News service in Russian will continue to operate from outside Russia. The safety of our staff is paramount and we are not prepared to expose them to the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs.”

Social media is also being targeted in Russia. Although reports are inconsistent, it appears that Facebook, Twitter, and even Youtube have been blocked or severely restricted in Russia. Sir Nick Clegg, the president of global affairs of Meta (Facebook’s parent company) tweeted:

“Soon millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out.”

The situation is still unfolding, but if Russian authorities have their way, the Russian people will be isolated from individual journalism and social networks.

Apple carts Crimea as part of Ukraine, halts sale of products and services to Russia

A recent Apple Maps update lists Crimea as Ukrainian territory. It’s the first time since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that Apple seems to recognize Crimea as Ukrainian.

Russia’s military forces swiftly invaded Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, occupying it and claiming it as theirs. Initially, Apple refused to regard Crimea as belonging to any country, but in 2019, after pressure from Russia, the tech giant labeled the peninsula as Russian.

The State Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower house, hailed this move as something that gives legitimacy to its occupation: “Crimea and Sevastopol now appear on Apple devices as Russian territory,” the Duma said in a statement, adding that after months of discussion, it convinced Apple to fix this “inaccuracy” and was happy with the outcome.

“There is no going back,” said Vasily Piskaryov, chairman of the Duma security and anti-corruption committee, in 2019. “Today, with Apple, the situation is closed – we have received everything we wanted.”

But there was going back.

Now, after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, most of the world has come together to condemn the actions carried out by the Russian state, and Apple has apparently joined in.

Apple has paused the sale of products and services in Russia, tech giant was said it was “deeply concerned” about the Russian invasion and stands with those “suffering as a result of the violence”. Apple Pay and Apple Maps have also been limited in Russia. Now, the Maps update suggests that Apple no longer recognizes Russian legitimacy in Crimea — though it also shows that this recognition is reversible.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, says he’s contacted Apple executives to enact further sanctions:

It’s extraordinarily rare for Apple to take such a stand, and it shows that the chorus of giant companies against Russian aggression is growing stronger.

However, the move also had an unexpectedly negative consequence: after Russia’s crackdown on the last free journalists in the country, there was no way for publishers to circumvent the censorship — because Apple also blocked software updates.

For now, the situation in Ukraine remains critical, and the Russian crackdown inside its own borders shows signs of intensifying. While it’s important for companies (especially big tech) to stand up against aggression, big tech companies also have a responsibility of ensuring a free flow of information — with Russian authorities trying to censor the information coming through, this has never been more important.

How Russia already lost the information war — and Ukraine won it

How is it that Russia’s cyber-force, the alleged masters of disinformation and propaganda, lost the information war, while Ukraine has been so successful at spreading its message to the world?

Of course, being on the right side of history and not invading and bombing a country helps, but we’ve seen Russia (and Putin) spin events to their advantage before, or at least sow some discord and confuse public discourse. The well-established approach of maskirovka has been used to create deception and manipulate public discourse for decades, up until the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. So how is it that Putin is now losing so badly at his own game?

Let’s have a look at some of the reasons.

Preemption and pre-bunking

In previous years, Russian disinformation has largely been met with little initial resistance. And we’ve learned recently that attempting to debunk disinformation after it happens is often ineffective. So instead, both organized and ad-hoc actors moved to pre-bunk the disinformation.

This prebunking started going strong in January, when it became clear that Russia was amassing an invading force around Ukraine. In the US, the Biden administration became very vocal about this, and their voice was amplified by UK and EU intelligence. Russia denied any plans of an invasion and tried to dismiss this as a political squabble. They even ridiculed the idea that Russia would invade. But when it happened — it backfired spectacularly.

Official intelligence voices were also backed by Open-source intelligence (OSINT) sources. Russia tried to play the victim, but overwhelmingly, its reports were shut down quickly and factually — because the evidence was already gathered.

The combination of disseminated grassroots information, coupled with the fact that the US and UK governments were transparent about their intelligence warnings made it clear what was going on.

Satellite data

All of this was greatly facilitated that satellite data is now available with relative ease. Nowadays, it’s not just military satellites that can offer this type of data — civilian satellites can also offer valuable information. The satellites showed how Russian troops were amassing troops, how they were moving in, and pretty much all the things Russians tried to deny.

Journalists all around the world used Maxar satellite data to document the movement of Russian troops. It was kind of hard to deny what was going on when the eye from the sky was keeping a close watch.

Grassroots imagery

The data and intelligence reports and the bird’s eye view provided by satellites was coupled with grassroots documentation of the movements of Russian troops.

The reports flew in from residents, but also from journalists who braved the invasion and remained in place to document what was going on. The reports also documented not just the invasion itself, but its many logistical flaws as well. The world became aware that the Russian military faced fuel and food shortages and fuel-less tanks were sometimes simply abandoned.

It wasn’t just in English, either. The international journalistic community got together to produce a coherent message (or as coherent as possible given the circumstances) about what was going on.

Technology is not a friend of the Russian invasion either — everyone has a smartphone nowadays and can film what’s going on. Russian authorities have also been unable to disconnect Ukraine from the internet, which enabled the world to see what was going on through the lens of the Ukrainian people.

With the invasion documented at all levels, the world could have a clear view of what was going on.

Russia made mistakes

The flow of information was helped by the fact that Russia didn’t loudly use its propaganda machine as much as it could. According to reports, it seemed that Russian leaders were banking on a quick Blitzkrieg-type win where they could sweep things under the rug in the beginning, and then push their narrative. But the extension of the conflict meant that they wasted several days and already lost control of the narrative.

Russia also allowed Ukraine to showcase its military victories without pushing its own military successes — because yet again, Russia initially wanted to smooth the whole thing over as quickly as possible. While Ukraine showed its drones bombing Russian tanks and its people bravely holding off their invaders, Russia kept quiet. After all, Russian people at home aren’t even allowed to know there’s a war going on.

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Russia also made mistakes in their attempts to sow disinformation, discrediting itself with a few small but blatant errors — this made Russian leaders seem even more disingenuous.

Civilian damage

Without a doubt, few things strike fear and empathy into people like bombing civilian buildings does. It’s something that everyone (hopefully) agrees should not happen. Unfortunately, there’s been plenty of evidence of Russian shelling of civilian buildings, including the bombing of a kindergarten and multiple residential buildings.

A residential building in Kyiv was attacked by Russian artillery. Image via Wiki Commons.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and seeing the people of Ukraine huddled up in subways sent a clear message: people like you and me are under attack.

People in Kyiv have taken refuge in the city’s subway to escape the bombing. Every night, thousands of people sleep in the subways. Image via Wiki Commons.

Ukraine contrasts to Russia

Ukraine has also worked to push its side of the story — which you can hardly blame when you consider that Ukraine is currently faced with an existential threat. Their side of the story is very clear: they’re defending themselves against a foreign invasion. Meanwhile, Russia’s reason appears to be to crush Ukraine; it’s not hard to see why people support one of those things and not the other.

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Ukrainians also pushed on the idea that unlike the invaders, they treat people humanely — even prisoners of war. They showed that they are humans just like everyone else and they have no intention of waging war when given an alternative.

Russia’s initial excuse for the invasion, that they were doing “denazification” in Ukraine, is also laughable — a lengthy list of historians and researchers signed a letter condemning this idea. The fact that Russia even bombed the Holocaust memorial in Kyiv made it even clearer that this was a flimsy excuse. Even for the Russian people at home, seeing heavily censored information, this must seem like a weak excuse at best.

Another stark contrast between Russian and Ukrainian forces is that while the latter are fighting for their very survival and the defense of their loved ones, it’s not exactly clear what exactly it is that Russian forces are fighting for. In fact, some soldiers were also confused: according to reliable reports, some Russian soldiers and their families initially thought they were doing drills — not an actual invasion.

Tales of heroism and martyrs

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Ukraine is an underdog in any conflict with Russia but Ukrainians will not give up — and they’ve been pushing that message strongly since day one. Tales of regular people picking up arms despite all odds have circled the world, showing that Ukrainians are not afraid to fight till the bitter end.

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In addition, Ukraine has also published regularly on defenders that sacrificed themselves for the greater good. Tales like a Ukrainian woman telling Russian soldiers to put seeds in their pockets so flowers will grow when they die in her country, a soldier sacrificing himself to blow up a bridge and slow down Russian forces, and most famously, encircled border guards on Snake Island who told an attacking warship: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”

A valliant leader who understands media

When the invasion started, Volodymyr Zelenskyy wasn’t that well-known or popular outside the country. He wasn’t even that popular inside his country — for many Ukrainians, he was elected as the lesser evil. But he rose to the occasion impressively. With regular updates from the middle of events, using social media to communicate directly with people, and with staunch determination communicated in true 21st century style, Zelenskyy proved instrumental for Ukraine’s defense and its morale. He was the right man at the right place, and his communication was clear and effective.

Source: Volodymyr Zelenskyy / Telegram.

Zelenskyy showed himself to be a man of the people, involved at the very center of the war zone — yet again, contrasting to what Putin was showing.

Jokes and memes

Russia failed to project a “good guy” image, it’s even failing to project a “strong guy” image. Despite its obviously superior firepower, despite its massive investments in the military, despite its gargantuan power — its invasion operation was plagued by numerous mishaps. Some of these mishaps would be outright funny if it weren’t such a tragic situation.

For instance, the scenes where Ukrainian farmers were dragging a tank across a field went viral, as did the encounter between a Ukrainian driver and a Russian tank that was out of fuel. The Ukrainian driver offered to tow the tank — back to Russia.

Memes have also been flowing, and more often than not the memes also took Ukraine’s side.

Propaganda

Lastly, Ukraine also deployed effective propaganda. The ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ fighter pilot is likely a myth, but it’s made the rounds and given hope to many Ukrainians. The ‘Panther of Kharkiv’ cat that detected Russian snipers is also quite possibly propaganda, but it gives people a good story. Let’s face it, if you can make it seem like you’ve got the cats on your side, you’ve already won a big part of the internet.

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The bottom line

It’s always hard to assess what’s going on during a war. Reports are inconsistent, there’s a lot of misinformation, heck — it’s a war. In this case, Russia’s propaganda machine seems to have failed to effectively push its side of the story. From the top of the information chain to the bottom, from the intelligence reports to the grassroots videos and photos, everything points in one direction: Ukraine is winning the information war, while Russia is losing it. Its actions have received nigh-universal condemnation, and Putin is essentially a pariah on the global stage — while Zelenskyy has become one of the most popular leaders alive.

Will this matter for the actual war? It’s hard to say at this point. Information is vital during a war, but so is artillery — and Russia has a lot of artillery.

Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia’s hackers are embroiled in a war of their own

Way before Russian tanks invaded Ukraine, a vicious attack of a different sort was unleashed. In mid-January, a massive cyberattack was unleashed on the Ukrainian servers, likely originating from Russian hackers.

‘Ukrainians … be afraid and expect worse’, the attack read.

Several prominent Ukrainian websites were attacked, including the ministry of foreign affairs and the education ministry portals.

Disturbingly, this may have been dismissed as “business as usual” — after all, Russia has been waging cyberattacks against the world for over a decade, actively trying to influence elections, hacking newspapers and TV channels, and obtaining data. But this time, it was different. This time, the cyberattack prefaced a military invasion.

It wasn’t just Kremlin-backed hackers that attacked Ukraine. Some self-proclaimed “patriotic” Russian hackers, with “respectable” daytime jobs, also participated in cyberattacks.

“Considering everyone is attacking Ukraine servers. I am thinking we should cause some disruption too?” one such hacker posted on social media, as quoted by the BBC.

In this case, the anonymous Russian hacker (and his team of six companions) temporarily brought down Ukrainian government websites through a rudimentary but effective attack called distributed denial of service (DDoS).

But there were also more sophisticated attacks, presumably orchestrated by organized, Russia-backed hackers. Just days before the military invasion began, on 23 February, numerous Ukrainian government websites and financial services were hit with another wave of DDoS attacks. But in addition to the attacks, a special malware virus was also discovered.

According to cyber-security experts at ESET and Symantec, this second form of attack installed a “wiper” on infected computers, deleting all data on the machines.

“ESET researchers have announced the discovery of a new data wiper malware used in Ukraine, which they have named HermeticWiper,” a spokesman said. “ESET telemetry shows that the malware was installed on hundreds of machines in the country.”

In parallel to all these attacks, a disinformation campaign was also raged against Ukraine. Meta (Facebook and Instagram’s parent company) discovered and erased a Russian disinformation network — but many more remain, leaving tech giants faced with a game of whack-a-mole.

Ukraine (and Anonymous) strike back

Just like the Russian military has way more firepower than the Ukrainian one, the difference in the two countries’ cyber-power is also substantial. In retaliation to these cyber-attacks, Ukraine issued a desperate call for volunteer hackers to join the fight.

“We have a lot of talented Ukrainians in the digital sphere: developers, cyber specialists, designers, copywriters, marketers,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s First Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation announced in a post on his official Telegram channel. “We continue to fight on the cyber front.”

His call was heard.

The volunteer IT Army was assigned to a Telegram channel, and 175,000 people have subscribed. Of course, not all of these are hackers. The vast majority are just people with internet that want to help. They are doing things like reporting Russian propaganda channels on Youtube, Facebook, or Twitter. The more savvy users are asked to perform their own DDoS attacks on the websites of Russian ministries and key companies like Gazprom.

The development of such a volunteer unit is unprecedented in history — but we are pretty much living in unprecedented times, and for a country faced with an existential threat, as Ukraine is, it’s unsurprising that they try to muster every bit of help they can.

Some international hackers have also joined the cyber-fight, most notably the decentralized hacktivist collective Anonymous.

Anonymous started with more DDoS attacks on Russian propaganda channels and government websites. At some point, all of the state-controlled Russian banks had their websites shut down. But they soon moved on to other things.

Russian TV channels were hijacked to play Ukrainian music.

“Ukrainian music is playing on Russian TV channels. It is believed that this is the work of hackers from Anonymous, who continue to hack Russian services and websites,” Fedorov said.

Meanwhile, a hacktivist group from Belarus has claimed to be disrupting the movement of military units by shutting down railways in the country (with Belarus supporting Russia’s invasion), though these reports have been hard to confirm.

In addition, Anonymous has leaked vast amounts of emails from a large Belarusian weapons company that worked with Russia on the invasion. The group also leaked a massive database of the Russian Ministry of Defense. “We are also undergoing operations to best support Ukrainians online,” Anonymous said.

The shadow war

The worst may still be coming for Ukraine, as Russia has intensified its bombing of cities — including the use of cluster bombs and the bombing of civilian centers. The country may be headed for a long, dreadful, guerilla war. Behind this war, in the shadows, the cyber-war will also likely descend into lengthy guerilla skirmishes.

‘If Kyiv falls, we keep hacking Putin,’ one volunteer cyber-soldier told Forbes.

It’s still too early to tell how impactful all this will be, and it’s still unclear just how important the data leaked from Russia and Belarus is (most of it is in Russian and is extensive, which means it will take a long time to analyze). But if there’s one thing this is doing, it’s making more publicity for Ukraine’s cause — especially back in Russia, where Putin has a strong grip on what information goes through and the truth is often censored, but also internationally.

For now, the invasion continues to rage on.

The age of the dinosaurs ended in the spring

Image from Tanis. Credits: DePalma et al.

The Mesozoic lasted nearly 200 million years, being the second-to-last era of Earth’s geological history. It was the age of dinosaurs and giant coniferous trees, but it ended swiftly, when a large meteor smashed into the Earth 66 million years ago, creating the Chicxulub Crater in today’s Mexico. Virtually every animal over 10 kg became extinct, and life on the planet experienced one of the biggest extinction events in history.

The cataclysmic event also came at a bad time, a new study shows. For most creatures, the season when a giant meteor strikes the Earth makes little difference, but for others, it could be a game-changer.

Many mammals, birds, and plants are most vulnerable in the spring. That’s when they’re tending to their fragile offspring and are under particularly high levels of stress. So if something bad were to happen in the spring, that’s when it would hurt them most. But how do we know it happened in the spring?

A bad day for sturgeon

A first clue comes from comparing how animals in the northern and southern hemispheres recovered after this cataclysmic event. Southern Hemisphere ecosystems recovered twice as fast as those in the Northern Hemisphere — which makes sense if you assume that it was spring in the north (when many animals are most vulnerable) and autumn in the south.

But the key piece of the puzzle comes from a place called Tanis, in North Dakota. Tanis is part of the heavily studied Hell Creek Formation, a group of rocks spanning four states in North America renowned for fossil discoveries. Melanie During, a paleontologist at Uppsala University, studied fossil remains of filter-feeding sturgeons at Tanis.

The fish fossils are so well conserved that the researchers could take samples and analyze the atomic make-up of the fossilized fishbones. In particular, they looked at gills.

These gills contain spherules that emerged from molten rocks ejected from the meteorite impact. These spherules, rendering the fish unable to swim and breathe, would have likely killed the fish very quickly. The researchers then looked at isotope data from the fish bones (which are influenced by what the fishes ate, which is also influenced by season). All this seemed to point towards the Northern Hemisphere spring.

They also analyzed 3D micro-growth patterns. Somewhat like tree rings, these growth patterns change from year to year and season to season. These patterns show that the fish are more active in the spring, so researchers can tell which one is the part corresponding to spring. This too suggested that the fish were killed in the spring.

The findings echo the results from a separate group that published a study in December in the journal Scientific Reports in December. That study also suggested that the impact happened in the spring, which gives us another layer of confidence in the conclusion.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Researchers are already gathering evidence on possible Russian war crimes

After attempting and failing a Blitzkrieg invasion in Ukraine, the Russian military has now moved to a new stage — a stage that involves much more bombing. Every hour, reports from Ukraine are coming in about new damage, destruction, and death. As the invasion continues to unfurl, the intelligence community and world leaders are increasingly claiming evidence of war crimes.

Residential building in Kyiv attacked by Russian artillery. Image via Wiki Commons.

What’s in a war crime

There’s no doubt that Russia has brutally broken international law in Ukraine. But have war crimes truly been committed?

The formal concept of war crimes emerges from international law applied to warfare between sovereign states (although in recent decades, the definition has also been expanded to cover civil war). Much of what we consider today to be war crimes were defined in 1949 by the famous Geneva Conventions. While the definition has been changed and tweaked, the Geneva Conventions define the core of what makes a war crime.

Notable war crimes include things like:

  • intentionally killing civilians;
  • killing prisoners of war;
  • torture;
  • taking hostages;
  • unnecessarily destroying civilian property;
  • pillaging;
  • genocide or ethnic cleansing.

In particular, the Geneva Conventions list “Willful killing, or causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health” as a grave breach and a serious war crime.

By these definitions, there seems to be little doubt that the Russian military force is committing war crimes in Ukraine.

An apartment block in Kyiv (Oleksandr Koshyts Street) after shelling. Image via Wiki Commons.

Some world leaders have pointed this out and have made clear accusations, particularly aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle. Speaking in Poland, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said Putin had decided to “send missiles into tower blocks, to kill children, as we are seeing in increasing numbers”.

“There’s no doubt that [Putin] is already using barbaric tactics, bombing civilian areas. Everybody involved in the Russian onslaught should understand that all this will be collated in evidence to be used at a future time in what could be proceedings before the International Criminal Court,” Mr. Johnson said.

UK Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, a former Foreign Office lawyer who worked at the International Criminal Court echoed these accusations, urging Russian commanders to disobey orders that break international law.

“There will be no impunity for war crimes. There is a clear determination from the international community to make sure that any war crimes are held to account, whether it is Putin or those around him in Moscow or commanders on the ground. They must know that if they carry out those orders, there is a reasonable prospect… that they will end up spending their twilight years behind bars.”

Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said there was ‘indisputable evidence’ of war crimes in Ukraine, and Canada has already petitioned the International Criminal Court of justice against Russia, asking the court to investigate the country’s war crimes.

“Unfortunately we are seeing [Putin] stepping up the intensity of the attacks, the broadness of targets including increasingly civilian and infrastructure targets that are absolutely unacceptable,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a press conference in Ottawa.

Who can judge war crimes?

People in Kyiv have taken refuge in the city’s subway to escape the bombing. Every night, thousands of people sleep in the subways. Image via Wiki Commons.

The above-mentioned International Criminal Court in the Hague is the world’s first permanent international court set up to prosecute individuals for “the most serious crimes of international concern.” It was established in 2002, and while not all countries are a part of it (China is not, and the US has withdrawn its signature), it’s still the likeliest court where war crimes can be judged.

Up until now, the ICC has indicted 45 war criminals in its history, including the likes of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony and Libyan head of state Muammar Gaddafi. Ukraine is not a member of the ICC, but it has accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC, meaning the court can proceed with an investigation and possibly, an indictment.

The ICC defines crimes against humanity as participation in and knowledge of “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”. In this sense, it’s not hard to see why actions from Russia’s ongoing invasion would warrant an investigation. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan said that an investigation would be opened “as rapidly as possible”

“Given the expansion of the conflict in recent days, it is my intention that this investigation will also encompass any new alleged crimes falling within the jurisdiction of my office that are committed by any party to the conflict on any part of the territory of Ukraine.”

While Khan is waiting for the formal approval to start proceedings, he and his team are gathering evidence from the ongoing events. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of evidence.

The evidence keeps piling up

Russian shelling of civilian neighborhoods in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in just one day, compiled by researchers from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).

As days go by, evidence of potential war crimes like the shelling of civilian areas continues to grow. Russia simply denies it engages in any illegal attacks, but there is already a great deal of footage that says otherwise — and the violence against civilians begins to intensify.

“Compared to attacks during previous days, though, the February 28 attack was significantly more violent and brazen in its targeting of highly populated civilian population areas,” the DFRLab writes.

Geolocation of surveillance camera footage showing artillery attack on residential areas. Credits: Telegram / Google Earth / DFR.

So far, there’s no comprehensive documentation of all these attacks on civilian areas, because the invasion is still ongoing, and keeping track of it all is difficult. But the reports keep coming in.

Amnesty International says three civilians (including a child) were killed during cluster bombing near a kindergarten in Okhtyrka, about 60 miles west of Kharkiv, with drone footage showing several dead or severely injured people by the entrance.

“There is no possible justification for dropping cluster munitions in populated areas, let alone near a school,” said Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International.

Apartment block in Kharkiv hit by a missile. Image via Wiki Commons.

Video evidence shows that Russian missile strikes on Kharkiv, a city with a population of 1.4 million people, were launched with little regard for civilians. A missile strike on Tuesday on a government building was filmed as it happened. Several residential blocks were severely damaged by cluster bombs — which are banned by over 100 states because of their lack of precision and their propensity to hit civilians.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said:

“Russian forces brutally fired on Kharkiv from jet artillery. It was clearly a war crime. Kharkiv is peaceful, there are peaceful residential areas, no military facilities. Dozens of eyewitness accounts prove this is not a single false volley, but deliberate destruction of people. The Russians knew where they were shooting.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia had not carried out any strikes against civilians and any reports that say otherwise are fabricated.

The ICC has never tried someone in their absence, and its rules state that ‘The accused shall be present during the trial.’ This means that any accused such as Vladimir Putin would have to be present for a war crimes trial to take place.

In the case of an indictment, Putin or any members facing trial could be arrested outside of Russia. In 2016, Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadzic was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity and was jailed for life without parole.

It’s unlikely that this will happen overnight. But an indictment is likely to make the Russian authoritarian even more of an international pariah.

In the meantime, researchers continue to gather evidence. Eliot Higgins, the founder of the investigative journalism site Bellingcat, told The Guardian that there was evidence of Russia causing “civilian harm”. Higgins added that unlike other recent conflicts (such as in Syria), there is “an open-source intelligence community” that has crystallized and has been collecting and studying evidence “from day one”.

“The day may come when all this ends up at the international criminal court,” Higgins concludes.

Russian electrical vehicle chargers get hacked: “Putin is a dickhead”

Chargers along one of Russia’s most important motorways are not working and are displaying messages like “Putin is a dickhead” and “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes.”

Image credits: Instagram user Oleg Moskovtsev.

The M11 Motorway in Russia, which connects the country’s two biggest cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg) is one of the busiest roads in the country. But for the few people driving electric cars in the country, it’s become virtually unusable.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the electric car chargers along the motorway were hacked. The Russian energy company Rosseti admitted the problem but claimed it’s not an external hack, but rather an internal one.

Reportedly, some of the main components in the chargers come from a Ukrainian company. A Facebook statement from Rosseti claims the Ukrainian company left a backdoor access to the pumps, shutting them down and displaying the scrolling anti-Putin messages.

“Charging stations installed on the M-11 route were purchased in 2020 according to the results of an open purchase procedure. The chargers were provided by the LLC “Gzhelprom” (Russia). It was later discovered that the main components (incl. A. the controller) are actually produced by the company Autoenterprise (Ukraine), and the Russian supplier produced a open assembly.”

“The manufacturer left a “marketing” in the controller, which gave him the opportunity to have hidden internet access. According to our information, data controllers are widely used on power charging stations exported by Ukraine to Europe.”

AutoEnterprise’s Facebook page re-posted a video showing the pumps, but it’s not clear if they claimed responsibility for this or if they were just happy to see it.

As its troops continue to bomb Ukraine and march in on its main cities, Russia has been increasingly under cybernetic attack, with hackers from all around the world hitting at Russian websites and even television.

The Russian state-funded television was hacked by the activist group Anonymous, displaying anti-war messages and urging the Russian people to act to stop the water. Russian TV channels were also attacked and made to play Ukrainian music and display uncensored news of the conflict from news sources outside Russia.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely that any of these actions will have a major impact on Russia’s military attack, but they could help spread more information inside Russia about the events in Ukraine. Russian authorities are actively censoring the situation and for years, they have tried to censor and control what the Russian people get to hear — not shying away from detaining journalists or even worse.

Cyber attacks will likely continue to escalate on both sides, involving both state and non-state actors. War is no longer fought only on the front lines — nowadays, it’s fought online as well.

Stanislav Petrov – the man who probably saved the world from a nuclear disaster

As Vladimir Putin is forcing the world to contemplate nuclear war once again, it’s time to remember one time when one Soviet military may have saved the world from disaster.

It was September 26, 1983. The Cold War was at one of its most tense periods ever. With the United States and the USSR at each other’s throat, they had already built enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other (as well as the rest of the world) a couple times over — and the slightest sign of an attack would have lead to a worldwide disaster, killing hundreds of millions of people.

Stanislav Petrov played a crucial role in monitoring what the US was doing. In the case of an attack, the Soviet strategy was to launch an all out retaliation as quickly as possible. So a few minutes after midnight, when the alarms went on and the screens turned red, the responsibility fell on his shoulders.

The Soviet warning software analyzed the information and concluded that it wasn’t static; the system’s conclusion was that the US had launched a missile.  But the system however, was flawed. Still, the human brain surpassed the computer that day; on that faithful day, Stanislav Petrov put his foot down and decided that it was a false alarm, advising against retaliation – and he made this decision fast.

He made the decision based mostly on common sense – there were too few missiles. The computer said there were only five of them.

“When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he remembered thinking at the time. “You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

However, he also relied on an old fashion gut feeling.

“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

There’s also something interesting about that night. Petrov wasn’t scheduled then. Somebody else should have been there; and somebody else could have made a different decision. The world would probably have turned out very different.

What is SWIFT and why banning Russia from it is a big deal

The world watched in shock as Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. After initial hesitations, countries around the world seem to be mobilizing and are starting to impose economic sanctions on Russia. Among these severe sanctions is also Russia’s exclusion from a system called SWIFT — but what is SWIFT, and how impactful would be such a ban?

If you’re reading this, the odds are that at some point you’ve sent money to another country. Maybe you bought something, maybe you subscribed to some service or donated to a charity. If you’ve done this, you’ve probably used SWIFT.

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is a society whose main goal is to serve as the messaging network for initiating international payments. Think of SWIFT as a key component of the international payment system, an intermediary for international bank transfers. It does not manage accounts and it does not hold funds from third parties, but if you want to send money internationally, there’s a good chance you’ll need it.

In 2019, over 11,000 SWIFT member institutions sent a whopping 33.6 million transactions per day through the network. Over half of all high-value cross-border payments worldwide use SWIFT, and the number continues to grow. Around 1% of these transactions are thought to involve Russian payments.

So banning a country from the system would make it much more difficult to make international transactions. In some instances, it would make it almost impossible.

Is Russia actually getting banned from SWIFT? Not just an empty threat…

SWIFT has been used in sanctions before. In 2012, the US pushed for the removal of Iranian banks from SWIFT, a move that was opposed at the time by most European governments — even though Iran is a much smaller economy than Russia. Nevertheless, ultimately, countries agreed to shut down Iran from the system, though after a few years, several Iranian banks were allowed back in.

Russia was threatened with a SWIFT ban once before: in 2014 when it annexed Ukrainian Crimea. At that time, Russia tried intimidating world leaders by saying the move would be tantamount to a declaration of war. The ban didn’t happen at the time, but now, it seems bound to.

“Putin embarked on a path aiming to destroy Ukraine, but what he is also doing, in fact, is destroying the future of his own country,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

Initially, the US, UK, and some European countries supported this expulsion, while other European countries (most notably, Germany and Italy) were hesitant, especially considering that Russia provides an important chunk of their oil and gas imports. But after seeing the invasion unfolding in Ukraine, everyone is on board now.

Now, it’s official: at least some select Russian banks will be banned from the SWIFT system. The ban is expected to come into full effect in the following days.

The fine print of the sanctions is still being ironed out, it’s not clear if all Russian banks will be banned eventually and for how long — but if the ban is enforced quickly, it would put a massive strain.

“You deny Russia access to SWIFT and Russia has been completely isolated from the global economy,” says Edgardo Pappacena, Professor of Strategy & International Business at Florida International University’s Graduate School of Business who also worked as a senior partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Pappacena sees Russia’s expulsion from SWIFT as one of the two sanctions that could really hurt Russia and erode Putin’s domestic support (the other being blocking Russia’s fossil fuel exports). Any sanctions that don’t include these would embolden Putin and essentially serve as an invitation for more military aggression, he adds.

Sanctions are a double-edged sword, Pappacena adds. They will hurt Russia, but there will be an economic recoil to those imposing sanctions as well. However, serious problems call for serious measures, and this is the price we have to pay if we want to obtain peace.

Can’t Russia simply bypass SWIFT?

A Swift expulsion would be very disruptive to Russia. There is an alternative system called SPFS that Russia set up after they annexed Crimea in 2014, but it hasn’t been popular. China also has a secondary system called the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System or CIPS.

Many fear that expelling Russia from SWIFT may push it closer to China and may solidify a China-Russia alliance against the west. However, China seems unwilling at this stage to help Russia and is unlikely to get involved in any economic war that doesn’t serve its interests directly.

Even as US and European officials are working to keep Russia’s oil and gas exports out of the sanctions, this expulsion from SWIFT would be one of the toughest levied on a nation in modern times. It would hurt Russia — a lot.

Perhaps even more damaging to Russia is another move announced by the European Union, the US, and Japan to cut out Russia’s central bank, essentially preventing it from using its $630bn foreign currency reserves to support the ruble. The U.S. The Treasury Department announced on Monday that it would immobilize Russian Central Bank assets that are held in the United States and impose sanctions on the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund that is run by people in Putin’s inner circle.

The effects are already being seen even before the big sanctions come into effect. The ruble lost more than 30% of its value to the dollar in a single day, and the Moscow stock market was closed to prevent a complete collapse. Basically, as sanctions start slamming Russia’s economy, a financial meltdown becomes more and more likely.

Coupled with measures to cut off Putin and his inner circle’s “war chest“, these measures could be a strong deterrent against future escalation, and a way to limit Putin’s current and future military expansion.

These are severe measures and it’s the Russian population that will, unfortunately, bear the brunt of this economic damage. But according to Pappacena, it’s high time for something like this to happen.

We’re at a stage where we need to start thinking about preventing global conflicts, and economic action is preferable to military action. We’re at a stage where even a global war, a “worst nightmare” possibility, is on the table, Pappacena concludes.

“Unfortunately, I see some patterns that remind me of how World War Two actually started with the UK wanting to appease Hitler instead of taking a strong stance against him. And as we know, that led to the invasion of Czechoslovakia Poland,” the geopolitics expert says.

Elon Musk: Starlink terminal is now active in Ukraine

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to rage on, the war is being fought on multiple fronts — and one of these fronts is the internet. Russian forces have severely disrupted internet functionality in Ukraine, and there are legitimate concerns about the country (or large parts of the country) being essentially severed from the internet.

In desperation, Ukrainian First Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted to Elon Musk for help with his Starlink fleet.

Remarkably, it worked. Within hours, Musk replied: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.”

Fedorov tweeted his thanks to the billionaire, with the country’s official Twitter account @Ukraine also acknowledging Musk’s actions, tweeting “Thanx [sic], appreciate it”.

While costly to deploy, satellite technology can provide a much-needed internet source for people who live in remote, rural, or disrupted areas. The technology could also serve as a backup in the case of a natural or man-made disaster — which is exactly the case in Ukraine right now.

Starlink satellites are able to provide broadband Internet connections from space, and having the satellites deployed above Ukraine means parts of the country may enjoy internet connectivity without the risk of Russian interference.

Yes, but

This does not mean Starlink internet is live for all of Ukraine. The move can only provide internet to those with Starlink’s special receivers — these are the “terminals” Musk was referring to.

We could not verify how many such terminals are in Ukraine right now or how many more are “en route”. This remains a key question, and it is unclear whether Starlink can make a significant amount of terminals available to Ukraine on such short notice.

Without too many terminals, this is quite possibly a symbolic move rather than one that will make a major difference, but with Ukrainians with their backs against the wall, it could at least make a difference for some people.

Meanwhile, the situation of embattled Ukraine remains critical, and having Internet connectivity and ensuring vital communication is quite possibly crucial for the fate of the country.

Russian military seizes control of Chernobyl. Radiation levels higher than normal. Should we worry?

As the news of Ukraine facing a large-scale Russian attack erupted, it sent a shockwave across the entire world. These are frightening times for everyone, and the invasion is scary on many different levels.

Among the many events that shocked the world about this conflict was the report that following some armed fights around Chernobyl, the radiation levels around the sealed nuclear plant have started to rise. While this is true, and the situation around Chernobyl is unclear (and technically classified), this is unlikely to spiral into the worst-case nuclear scenario.

Image from the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Image credits: Kilian Karger.

The Chernobyl meltdown happened in 1986, but it still strikes fear into the hearts of people — and it’s understandable as, to this day, it is the worst nuclear accident in the history of mankind. The still-radioactive Chernobyl plant is currently contained within a giant concrete dome, but there are fears that fighting around the containment area could damage the concrete and release a new wave of radiation.

Ukrainian officials have confirmed that Russian forces have forcefully seized control of the Chernobyl plant and its surroundings. Ukrainian Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak said it was a “totally pointless attack” on Thursday that amounted to “one of the most serious threats in Europe today”.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy echoed this, emphasizing the bravery of the Ukrainian soldiers that defended Chernobyl (or Chornobyl, as it is sometimes spelled).

“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote earlier on Twitter. “This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe,” he added

However, Ukrainian forces lost the battle around Chernobyl and were forced to release control of the plant and its surroundings to the Russian military. Reports are coming in that Chernobyl staff are being “held hostage” by Russian soldiers. White House press secretary Jen Psaki condemned this event in a news conference:

“We are outraged by credible reports that Russian soldiers are currently holding the staff of the Chernobyl facilities hostage. This unlawful and dangerous hostage-taking, which could upend the routine civil service efforts required to maintain and protect the nuclear waste facilities, is obviously incredibly alarming and gravely concerning.

We condemn it and we request their release.”

The situation was confirmed by the UK Ministry of Defence, and the hostage situation appears to be a real development.

To the Russian military, the nuclear plant itself likely has no real value. It simply lies on the fastest route from Belarus (which is helping Russia coordinate its invasion) to Kyiv (Ukraine’s capital). Essentially, Chernobyl lies on a line that the Russians wanted to have access to.

As military experts declared for Reuters, it has become apparent that Russia is aiming for a blitzkrieg-type operation where they can decapitate (metaphorically and quite possibly literally) the Ukrainian leaders. This is the largest military offensive in Europe since World War II.

So Russia likely did not seize Chernobyl for its nuclear power, but because of its geography. But there was violence around Chernobyl, and concerningly, these events were followed by a rise in observed radiation levels around Chernobyl.

In particular, local measurements kilometers apart in the Chernobyl area show a concerning spike in the levels of radiation.

Radiation spikes highlighted by a monitoring project.

In some areas, the gamma ray radiation exposure levels exceeded 3000 Nanosieverts per hour (nSv/h), and at at least three sites, the levels reached over 50,000 nSv/h . To get an idea about how much that means, the yearly normal radiation level is considered to be around 1,000 nSv/year. In many places, the radiation rate spiked by 10-20 times more than before the invasion.

However, this may not be due to leaks in the containment of the reactor, but rather due to the military action perturbing radioactive sediment.

While we have no official information about the state of the concrete dome, levels in other parts of Ukraine have not yet spiked -- this could be due to a lag in radiation traveling, or it could be because the dome has not in fact been damaged and the perturbation is only local.

The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine seems to suggest the latter option, attributing the radioactivity spikes to “disturbance of the top layer of soil from the movement of a large number of radio heavy military machinery through the Exclusion zone and increase of air pollution.”

Radiation levels around most areas in Ukraine have remained largely unchanged.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had assessed the readings and concluded that they “are low and remain within the operational range measured in the Exclusion Zone since it was established" and “do not pose any danger to the public."

Still, given the volatile situation at Chernobyl, experts fear the Chernoby situation may not be out of the woods yet.

Interfax reported Russian defense ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov as saying that the Russian military forces have reached an agreement with the plant's hostage personnel to ensure the security of the facility. According to the same source, Konashenkov also added that"radiation levels are normal" -- which based on existing data, does not appear to be true.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the IAEA's director general, said in a statement that the agency is following the situation“with grave concern" and “closely monitoring developments.”

It's also important to keep in mind that the Chernobyl concrete sarcophagus is 20m (65 feet) thick and is unlikely to be seriously damaged by any stray bullet. It would take either intentional action or major accident firepower to damage it and cause leaks.

The new sarcophagus around the Chernobyl reactor 4. Image in Wiki Commons.

So, for now at least, a worst-case scenario that includes radioactivity concerns for other countries is unlikely. However, war is often unpredictable -- and even if there's no radioactive leak, this war is already proving to be a big enough crisis.

People find AI-generated faces to be more trustworthy than real faces — and it could be a problem

Not only are people unable to distinguish between real faces and AI-generated faces, but they also seem to trust AI-generated faces more. The findings from a relatively small study suggest that nefarious actors could be using AI to generate artificial faces to trick people.

The most (top row) and least (bottom row) accurately classified real (R) and synthetic (S) faces. Credit: DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2120481119

Worse than a coin flip

In the past years, Artificial Intelligence has come a long way. It’s not just to analyze data, it can be used to create text, images, and even video. A particularly intriguing application is the creation of human faces.

In the past couple of years, algorithms have become strikingly good at creating human faces. This could be useful on one hand — it enables low-budget companies to produce ads, for instance, essentially democratizing access to valuable resources. But at the same time, AI-synthesized faces can be used for disinformation, fraud, propaganda, and even revenge pornography.

Human brains are generally pretty good at telling apart real from fake, but when it comes to this area, AIs are winning the race. In a new study, Dr. Sophie Nightingale from Lancaster University and Professor Hany Farid from the University of California, Berkeley, conducted experiments to analyze whether participants can distinguish state of the art AI-synthesized faces from real faces and what level of trust the faces evoked.

 “Our evaluation of the photo realism of AI-synthesized faces indicates that synthesis engines have passed through the uncanny valley and are capable of creating faces that are indistinguishable—and more trustworthy—than real faces,” the researchers note.

The researchers designed three experiments, recruiting volunteers from the Mechanical Turk platform. In the first one, 315 participants classified 128 faces taken from a set of 800 (either real or synthesized). Their accuracy was 48% — worse than a coin flip.

Representative faces used in the study. Could you tell apart the real from the synthetic faces? Participants in the study couldn’t. Image credits: Credit: DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2120481119.

More trustworthy

In the second experiment, 219 new participants were trained on how to analyze and give feedback on faces. They were then asked to classify and rate 128 faces, again from a set of 800. Their accuracy increased thanks to the training, but only to 59%.

Meanwhile, in the third experiment, 223 participants were asked to rate the trustworthiness of 128 faces (from the set of 800) on a scale from 1 to 7. Surprisingly, synthetic faces were ranked 7.7% more trustworthy.

“Faces provide a rich source of information, with exposure of just milliseconds sufficient to make implicit inferences about individual traits such as trustworthiness. We wondered if synthetic faces activate the same judgements of trustworthiness. If not, then a perception of trustworthiness could help distinguish real from synthetic faces.”

“Perhaps most interestingly, we find that synthetically-generated faces are more trustworthy than real faces.”

There were also some interesting takeaways from the analysis. For instance, women were rated as significantly more trustworthy than men, and smiling faces were also more trustworthy. Black faces were rated as more trustworthy than South Asian, but otherwise, race seemed to not affect trustworthiness.

“A smiling face is more likely to be rated as trustworthy, but 65.5% of the real faces and 58.8% of synthetic faces are smiling, so facial expression alone cannot explain why synthetic faces are rated as more trustworthy,” the study notes

The researchers offer a potential explanation as to why synthetic faces could be seen as more trustworthy: they tend to resemble average faces, and previous research has suggested that average faces tend to be considered more trustworthy.

Although it’s a fairly small sample size and the findings need to be replicated on a larger scale, the findings are pretty concerning, especially considering how fast the technology has been progressing. Researchers say that if we want to protect the public from “deep fakes,” there should be some guidelines on how synthesized images are created and distributed.

“Safeguards could include, for example, incorporating robust watermarks into the image- and video-synthesis networks that would provide a downstream mechanism for reliable identification. Because it is the democratization of access to this powerful technology that poses the most significant threat, we also encourage reconsideration of the often-laissez-faire approach to the public and unrestricted releasing of code for anyone to incorporate into any application.

“At this pivotal moment, and as other scientific and engineering fields have done, we encourage the graphics and vision community to develop guidelines for the creation and distribution of synthetic-media technologies that incorporate ethical guidelines for researchers, publishers, and media distributors.”

The study was published in PNAS.