Thursday, April 30, 2020

Possibly Active Tectonic System on the Moon Revealed by Research

Strange spots scattered across the Moon’s nearside where bedrock is conspicuously exposed are evidence of seismic activity set in motion 4.3 billion years ago that could be ongoing today, the researchers say.

Researchers have discovered a system of ridges spread across the nearside of the Moon topped with freshly exposed boulders. The ridges could be evidence of active lunar tectonic processes, the researchers say, possibly the echo of a long-ago impact that nearly tore the Moon apart. 

Infrared (upper left) and other images from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed strange bare spots where the Moon's ubiquitous dust is missing. The spots suggest an active tectonic process. 

“There’s this assumption that the Moon is long dead, but we keep finding that that’s not the case,” said Peter Schultz, a professor in Brown University’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences and co-author of the research, which is published in the journal Geology. “From this paper it appears that the Moon may still be creaking and cracking — potentially in the present day — and we can see the evidence on these ridges.”

Most of the Moon’s surface is covered by regolith, a powdery blanket of ground-up rock created by the constant bombardment of tiny meteorites and other impactors. Areas free of regolith where the Moon’s bedrock is exposed are vanishingly rare. But Adomas Valantinas, a graduate student at the University of Bern who led the research while a visiting scholar at Brown, used data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to spot strange bare spots within and surrounding the lunar maria, the large dark patches on the Moon’s nearside.

“Exposed blocks on the surface have a relatively short lifetime because the regolith buildup is happening constantly,” Schultz said. “So when we see them, there needs to be some explanation for how and why they were exposed in certain locations.”

For the study, Valantinas used the LRO’s Diviner instrument, which measures the temperature of the lunar surface. Just as concrete-covered cities on Earth retain more heat than the countryside, exposed bedrock and blocky surfaces on the Moon stays warmer through the lunar night than regolith-covered surfaces. Using nighttime observations from Diviner, Valantinas turned up more than 500 patches of exposed bedrock on narrow ridges following a pattern across the lunar nearside maria.

A few ridges topped with exposed bedrock had been seen before, Schultz says. But those ridges were on the edges of ancient lava-filled impact basins and could be explained by continued sagging in response to weight caused by the lava fill. But this new study discovered that the most active ridges are related to a mysterious system of tectonic features (ridges and faults) on the lunar nearside, unrelated to both lava-filled basins and other young faults that crisscross the highlands.

“The distribution that we found here begs for a different explanation,” Schultz said.

Valantinas and Schultz mapped out all of the exposures revealed in the Diviner data and found an interesting correlation. In 2014, NASA’s GRAIL mission found a network of ancient cracks in the Moon’s crust. Those cracks became channels through which magma flowed to the Moon’s surface to form deep intrusions. Valantinas and Schultz showed that the blocky ridges seemed to line up just about perfectly with the deep intrusions revealed by GRAIL.

“It’s almost a one-to-one correlation,” Schultz said. “That makes us think that what we’re seeing is an ongoing process driven by things happening in the Moon’s interior.”

Schultz and Valantinas suggest that the ridges above these ancient intrusions arestill heaving upward. The upward movement breaks the surface and enables regolith to drain into cracks and voids, leaving the blocks exposed. Because bare spots on the Moon get covered over fairly quickly, this cracking must be quite recent, possibly even ongoing today. They refer to what they’ve found as ANTS, for Active Nearside Tectonic System.

The researchers believe that the ANTS was actually set in motion billions of years ago with a giant impact on the Moon’s farside. In previous studies, Schultz and a co-worker proposed this impact, which formed the 1500-mile South Pole Aitken Basin, shattered the interior on the opposite side, the nearside facing the Earth. Magma then filled these cracks and controlled the pattern of dikes detected in the GRAIL mission. The blocky ridges comprising the ANTS now trace the continuing adjustments along these ancient weaknesses.

“This looks like the ridges responded to something that happened 4.3 billion years ago,” Schultz said. “Giant impacts have long lasting effects. The Moon has a long memory. What we’re seeing on the surface today is testimony to its long memory and secrets it still holds.”

Contacts and sources:
Kevin Stacey
Brown University
Publication: The origin of neotectonics on the lunar nearside. P.H. Schultz, A. Valantinas. Geology, 2020; DOI: 10.1130/G47202.1

Astronomers Capture Rare Images of Planet-Forming Disks around Stars

An international team of astronomers has captured fifteen images of the inner rims of planet-forming disks located hundreds of light years away. These disks of dust and gas, similar in shape to a music record, form around young stars. The images shed new light on how planetary systems are formed. They were published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

To understand how planetary systems, including our own, take shape, you have to study their origins. Planet-forming or protoplanetary disks are formed in unison with the star they surround. The dust grains in the disks can grow into larger bodies, which eventually leads to the formation of planets. Rocky planets like the Earth are believed to form in the inner regions of protoplanetary disks, less than five astronomical units (five times the Earth-Sun distance) from the star around which the disk has formed.

The protoplanetary disks around the R CrA (left) and HD45677 (right) stars, captured with ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer. The orbits are added for reference. The star serves the same purpose, since its light was filtered out to get a more detailed image of the disk. 
Credit: Jacques Kluska et al.

Before this new study, several pictures of these disks had been taken with the largest single-mirror telescopes, but these cannot capture their finest details. “In these pictures, the regions close to the star, where rocky planets form, are covered by only few pixels,” says lead author Jacques Kluska from KU Leuven in Belgium. “We needed to visualize these details to be able to identify patterns that might betray planet formation and to characterize the properties of the disks." This required a completely different observation technique. “I’m thrilled that we now for the first time have fifteen of these images,” Kluska continues.
Image reconstruction

Kluska and his colleagues created the images at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile by using a technique called infrared interferometry. Using ESO’s PIONIER instrument, they combined the light collected by four telescopes at the Very Large Telescope observatory to capture the disks in detail. However, this technique does not deliver an image of the observed source. The details of the disks needed to be recovered with a mathematical reconstruction technique. This technique is similar to how the first image of a black hole was captured. “We had to remove the light of the star, as it hindered the level of detail we could see in the disks,” Kluska explains.

“Distinguishing details at the scale of the orbits of rocky planets like Earth or Jupiter (as you can see in the images) – a fraction of the Earth-Sun distance – is equivalent to being able to see a human on the Moon, or to distinguish a hair at a 10 km distance,” notes Jean-Philippe Berger of the Université Grenoble-Alpes, who as principal investigator was in charge of the work with the PIONIER instrument. “Infrared interferometry is becoming routinely used to uncover the tiniest details of astronomical objects. Combining this technique with advanced mathematics finally allows us to turn the results of these observations into images.”


Some findings immediately stand out from the images. “You can see that some spots are brighter or less bright, like in the images above: this hints at processes that can lead to planet formation. For example: there could be instabilities in the disk that can lead to vortices where the disk accumulates grains of space dust that can grow and evolve into a planet.”

The team will do additional research to identify what might lie behind these irregularities. Kluska will also do new observations to get even more detail and to directly witness planet formation in the regions within the disks that lie close to the star. Additionally, Kluska is heading a team that has started to study 11 disks around other, older types of stars also surrounded by disks of dust, since it is thought these might also sprout planets.

Contacts and sources:
Elisa Nelissen
KU Leuven

Publication: “A family portrait of disk inner rims around Herbig Ae/Be stars: Hunting for warps, rings, self-shadowing and misalignments in the inner astronomical units” by Jacques Kluska, Jean-Philippe Berger et al. and the images were published in Astronomy & Astrophysics and are available in open access.

Machine Learning Tool Could Provide Unexpected Scientific Insights into COVID-19

Berkeley Lab’s COVIDScholar uses text mining algorithms to scan hundreds of new papers every day.

A team of materials scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) – scientists who normally spend their time researching things like high-performance materials for thermoelectrics or battery cathodes – have built a text-mining tool in record time to help the global scientific community synthesize the mountain of scientific literature on COVID-19 being generated every day.

The tool, live at, uses natural language processing techniques to not only quickly scan and search tens of thousands of research papers, but also help draw insights and connections that may otherwise not be apparent. The hope is that the tool could eventually enable “automated science.”

Berkeley Lab researchers (clockwise from top left) Kristin Persson, John Dagdelen, Gerbrand Ceder, and Amalie Trewartha led development of COVIDScholar, a text-mining tool for COVID-19-related scientific literature.
Newswise: Machine Learning Tool Could Provide Unexpected Scientific Insights into COVID-19
Credit: Berkeley Lab

Berkeley Lab researchers (clockwise from top left) Kristin Persson, John Dagdelen, Gerbrand Ceder, and Amalie Trewartha led development of COVIDScholar, a text-mining tool for COVID-19-related scientific literature.

“On Google and other search engines people search for what they think is relevant,” said Berkeley Lab scientist Gerbrand Ceder, one of the project leads. “Our objective is to do information extraction so that people can find nonobvious information and relationships. That’s the whole idea of machine learning and natural language processing that will be applied on these datasets.”

COVIDScholar was developed in response to a March 16 call to action from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy that asked artificial intelligence experts to develop new data and text mining techniques to help find answers to key questions about COVID-19.

The Berkeley Lab team got a prototype of COVIDScholar up and running within about a week. Now a little more than a month later, it has collected over 61,000 research papers – about 8,000 of them specifically about COVID-19 and the rest about related topics, such as other viruses and pandemics in general – and is getting more than 100 unique users every day, all by word of mouth.

And there are more papers added all the time – 200 new journal articles are being published every day on the coronavirus. “Within 15 minutes of the paper appearing online, it will be on our website,” said Amalie Trewartha, a postdoctoral fellow who is one of the lead developers.

This week the team released an upgraded version ready for public use – the new version gives researchers the ability to search for "related papers" and sort articles using machine-learning-based relevance tuning.

The volume of research in any scientific field, but especially this one, is daunting. “There’s no doubt we can’t keep up with the literature, as scientists,” said Berkeley Lab scientist Kristin Persson, who is co-leading the project. “We need help to find the relevant papers quickly and to build correlations between papers that may not, on the surface, look like they’re talking about the same thing.”

The team has built automated scripts to grab new papers, including preprint papers, clean them up, and make them searchable. At the most basic level, COVIDScholar acts as a simple search engine, albeit a highly specialized one.

“Google Scholar has millions of papers you can search through,” said John Dagdelen, a UC Berkeley graduate student and Berkeley Lab researcher who is one of the lead developers. “However, when you search for ‘spleen’ or ‘spleen damage’ – and there’s research coming out now that the spleen may be attacked by the virus – you’ll get 100,000 papers on spleens, but they’re not really relevant to what you need for COVID-19. We have the largest single-topic literature collection on COVID-19.”

In addition to returning basic search results, COVIDScholar will also recommend similar abstracts and automatically sort papers in subcategories, such as testing or transmission dynamics, allowing users to do specialized searches.

Now, after having spent the first few weeks setting up the infrastructure to collect, clean, and collate the data, the team is tackling the next phase. “We’re ready to make big progress in terms of the natural language processing for ‘automated science,’” Dagdelen said.

For example, they can train their algorithms to look for unnoticed connections between concepts. “You can use the generated representations for concepts from the machine learning models to find similarities between things that don’t actually occur together in the literature, so you can find things that should be connected but haven’t been yet,” Dagdelen said.

Another aspect is working with researchers in Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Genomics and Systems Biology Division and UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute to improve COVIDScholar’s algorithms. “We’re linking up the unsupervised machine learning that we’re doing with what they’ve been working on, organizing all the information around the genetic links between diseases and human phenotypes, and the possible ways we can discover new connections within our own data,” Dagdelen said.

The entire tool runs on the supercomputers of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), a DOE Office of Science user facility located at Berkeley Lab. That synergy across disciplines – from biosciences to computing to materials science – is what made this project possible. The online search engine and portal are powered by the Spin cloud platform at NERSC; lessons learned from the successful operations of the Materials Project, serving millions of data records per day to users, informed development of COVIDScholar.

“It couldn’t have happened somewhere else,” said Trewartha. “We’re making progress much faster than would’ve been possible elsewhere. It’s the story of Berkeley Lab really. Working with our colleagues at NERSC, in Biosciences [Area of Berkeley Lab], at UC Berkeley, we’re able to iterate on our ideas quickly.”

Also key is that the group has built essentially the same tool for materials science, called MatScholar, a project supported by the Toyota Research Institute and Shell. “The main reason this could all be done so fast is this team had three years of experience doing natural language processing for materials science,” Ceder said.

They published a study in Nature last year in which they showed that an algorithm with no training in materials science could uncover new scientific knowledge. The algorithm scanned the abstracts of 3.3 million published materials science papers and then analyzed relationships between words; it was able to predict discoveries of new thermoelectric materials years in advance and suggest as-yet unknown materials as candidates for thermoelectric materials.

Beyond aiding in the effort to combat COVID-19, the team believes they will also be able to learn a lot about text mining. “This is a test case of whether an algorithm can be better and faster at information assimilation than just all of us reading a bunch of papers,” Ceder said.

COVIDScholar is supported by Berkeley Lab’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. Their materials science work, which served as the foundation for this project, is supported by the Energy & Biosciences Institute (EBI) at UC Berkeley, the Toyota Research Institute, and the National Science Foundation. # # #

Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Contacts and sources:


PFAS in Carpets a Major Exposure Source for Children

Children can be exposed to a toxic medley of per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) from carpets, according to a peer-reviewed study, co-authored by an Indiana University O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs scientist, published today in Chemosphere. But the good news is that daycares, schools, and families can eliminate this exposure source by replacing older carpets. Most carpet manufacturers recently stopped using PFAS, which were formerly applied to carpets to make them stain- and soil-resistant.

The authors, led by O’Neill School’s Marta Venier, measured PFAS concentrations in carpet and dust samples collected from 18 California childcare centers in 2018. Both the carpet and dust samples contained significant levels of 40 different PFAS, with carpets appearing to be both a source of and a sink for the chemicals.

Schools, families should replace carpets as industry moves away from PFAS
File:Floor cleaner inside Sullivan Hall.jpg
Credit: Ktr101 / Wikimedia Commons

PFAS are linked with serious health harms in both children and adults, including impaired neurodevelopment, immune system dysfunction, hormone disruption, and cancer.

They estimated that the total PFAS intake via dust ingestion for the children was between 0.023 and 1.9 ng/kg body weight/day. The minimal risk levels reported by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for certain PFAS are as low as 2 ng/kg body weight/day, and dust ingestion is only one of many exposure routes. This means that PFAS in carpets can contribute to health harm for children in contact with the carpet.

“From circle time to nap time, young schoolchildren spend a lot of time on the floor,” Venier said. “Harmful PFAS in carpets and dust then collect on kids’ hands and toys, which they put in their mouths. This is also true in homes, where infants and toddlers crawl and play on carpets.”

Fortunately, the carpet industry has moved away from PFAS, and most major retailers no longer sell carpets with PFAS. As of January, The Home Depot and Lowe’s—among others—have phased out carpets and rugs with PFAS.

“Our study shows that the recent retailer phase-outs of PFAS in carpets are a major win for children’s health,” said co-author Tom Bruton, senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute. “With PFAS-free carpets more available, schools and families can replace older carpets and protect children’s health from exposure to these dangerous and long-lasting chemicals.”

The authors notified the childcare centers of their results so that operators could choose to remove and replace PFAS-contaminated carpets.

Contacts and sources:
Indiana University

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Deformed Skulls in an Ancient Cemetery Reveal a Multicultural Community in Transition

The ancient cemetery of Mözs-Icsei d?l? in present-day Hungary holds clues to a unique community formation during the beginnings of Europe's Migration Period, according to a study published April 29, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Corina Knipper from the Curt-Engelhorn-Center for Archaeometry, Germany, István Koncz, Tivadar Vida from the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary and colleagues.

Upper part of the body of grave 43 during excavation. The girl had an artificially deformed skull, was place in a grave with a side niche and richly equipped with a necklace, earrings, a comb and glass beads. The girl belonged to a group of people with a non-local origin and similar dietary habits, which appeared to have arrived at the site about 10 years after its establishment.

Credit: Wosinsky Mór Museum, Szekszárd, Hungary.

As the Huns invaded Central Europe during the 5th century, the Romans abandoned their Pannonian provinces in the area of modern-day Western Hungary. Pannonia's population entered a period of continuous cultural transformation as new foreign groups arrived seeking refuge from the Huns, joining settlements already populated by remaining local Romanized population groups and other original inhabitants. (Later, the Huns themselves would fall to an alliance of Germanic groups.) To better understand this population changing rapidly under chaotic circumstances, Knipper and colleagues turned to the cemetery of Mözs-Icsei d?l? in the Pannonian settlement of Mözs, established around 430 AD.

The authors conducted an archaeological survey of the cemetery and used a combination of isotope analysis and biological anthropology to investigate the site's previously-excavated burials.

They found that Mözs-Icsei d?l? was a remarkably diverse community and were able to identify three distinct groups across two or three generations (96 burials total) until the abandonment of Mözs cemetery around 470 AD: a small local founder group, with graves built in a brick-lined Roman style; a foreign group of twelve individuals of similar isotopic and cultural background, who appear to have arrived around a decade after the founders and may have helped establish the traditions of grave goods and skull deformation seen in later burials; and a group of later burials featuring mingled Roman and various foreign traditions.

Artificially deformed skull of an adult woman. Permanent binding during childhood caused the elongation of the braincase and the depressions in the bone.

Credit: Balázs G. Mende. Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Hungary

51 individuals total, including adult males, females, and children, had artificially deformed skulls with depressions shaped by bandage wrappings, making Mözs-Icsei d?l? one of the largest concentrations of this cultural phenomenon in the region. The strontium isotope ratios at Mözs-Icsei d?l? were also significantly more variable than those of animal remains and prehistoric burials uncovered in the same geographic region of the Carpathian Basin, and indicate that most of Mözs' adult population lived elsewhere during their childhood. Moreover, carbon and nitrogen isotope data attest to remarkable contributions of millet to the human diet.

Though further investigation is still needed, Mözs-Icsei d?l? appears to suggest that in at least one community in Pannonia during and after the decline of the Roman Empire, a culture briefly emerged where local Roman and foreign migrant groups shared traditions as well as geographical space.

Contacts and sources:
Corina KnipperPLOS

Publication:  Knipper C, Koncz I, Ódor JG, Mende BG, Rácz Z, Kraus S, et al. (2020) Coalescing traditions--Coalescing people: Community formation in Pannonia after the decline of the Roman Empire. PLoS ONE 15(4): e0231760.  The article can be freely accessed.

Sensitive New Test Detects Antibodies Against SARS-CoV-2 in Only 10 Minutes

As the COVID-19 curve shows signs of flattening in the U.S. and elsewhere, public health officials are trying to grasp just how many people have been infected. Now, a proof-of-concept study in ACS' Analytical Chemistry describes a quick, sensitive test for antibodies against the coronavirus in human blood. The test could help doctors track a person's exposure to the disease, as well as confirm suspected COVID-19 cases that tested negative by other methods.

A new lateral flow immunoassay can detect antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, which appear as a bright orange line when placed on a fluorescence reader (right).

Credit: Guanfeng Lin

Because COVID-19 symptoms range from mild to severe, with some people apparently having no symptoms, the number of people who have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus at some point is likely much higher than the number of confirmed cases. As U.S. states begin to ease lockdown restrictions, widespread testing of the general population will be important to identify people at early stages of disease, or people who lack symptoms but can still infect others. Also, although more research needs to be done, it is possible that people with antibodies to the virus could be immune to future COVID-19 outbreaks. To help identify people with current or past exposure to SARS-CoV-2, Lei Yu, Yingsong Wu, Guanfeng Lin and colleagues wanted to develop a fast, sensitive antibody test.

The researchers based their test on a technique called a lateral flow immunoassay (LFA); a home pregnancy test is an example of this kind of assay. They attached a viral coat protein to a specific region on a strip of nitrocellulose, and then added human serum. The serum flowed from one end of the strip to the other, and any antibodies against the viral protein bound to that region on the strip. Then, the team detected the anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies with a fluorescently labeled antibody. This fluorescence-based detection is much more sensitive than some other LFAs, such as pregnancy tests, that can be read by the naked eye. 

The researchers tested the new assay on seven serum samples from COVID-19 patients and 12 samples from people who had tested negative for the disease by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), a common diagnostic test that occasionally fails to detect positive cases. The new assay correctly diagnosed all seven samples as positive -- as well as an additional "negative" case that had suspicious clinical symptoms -- in only 10 minutes per sample. The immunoassay could be helpful in confirming negative diagnoses, monitoring a patient's recovery, studying past exposures, and identifying recovered individuals with high levels of antibodies as potential convalescent plasma donors, the researchers say.

Contacts and sources:
Katie Cottingham
American Chemical Society

“Wobble” May Precede Some Great Earthquakes, Study Shows

The land masses of Japan shifted from east to west to east again in the months before the strongest earthquake in the country’s recorded history, a 2011 magnitude-9 earthquake that killed more than 15,500 people, new research shows.
Credit: Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) / Wikimedia Commons

Those movements, what researchers are calling a “wobble,” may have the potential to alert seismologists to greater risk of future large subduction-zone earthquakes. These destructive events occur where one of Earth’s tectonic plates slides under another one. That underthrusting jams up or binds the earth, until the jam is finally torn or broken and an earthquake results.

The findings were published today (April 30) in the journal Nature.

“What happened in Japan was an enormous but very slow wobble – something never observed before,” said Michael Bevis, a co-author of the paper and professor of earth sciences at The Ohio State University.

“But are all giant earthquakes preceded by wobbles of this kind? We don’t know because we don’t have enough data. This is one more thing to watch for when assessing seismic risk in subduction zones like those in Japan, Sumatra, the Andes and Alaska.”

Explaining the "wobble" that preceded a devastating .
Video by Aaron Nestor

The wobble would have been imperceptible to people standing on the island, Bevis said, moving the equivalent of just a few millimeters per month over a period of five to seven months. But the movement was obvious in data recorded by more than 1,000 GPS stations distributed throughout Japan, in the months leading up to the March 11 Tohoku-oki earthquake.

The research team, which included scientists from Germany, Chile and the United States, analyzed that data and saw a reversing shift in the land – about 4 to 8 millimeters east, then to the west, then back to the east. Those movements were markedly different from the steady and cyclical shifts the Earth’s land masses continuously make.

“The world is broken up into plates that are always moving in one way or another,” Bevis said. “Movement is not unusual. It’s this style of movement that’s unusual.”

Bevis said the wobble could indicate that in the months before the earthquake, the plate under the Philippine Sea began something called a “slow slip event,” a relatively gentle and “silent” underthrusting of two adjacent oceanic plates beneath Japan, that eventually triggered a massive westward and downward lurch that drove the Pacific plate and slab under Japan, generating powerful seismic waves that shook the whole country.

That 2011 earthquake caused widespread damage throughout Japan. It permanently shifted large parts of Japan’s main island, Honshu, several meters to the east. It launched tsunami waves more than 40 meters high. More than 450,000 people lost their homes. Several nuclear reactors melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, sending a steady stream of toxic, radioactive materials into the atmosphere and forcing thousands nearby to flee their homes. It was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Researchers who study earthquakes and plate tectonics try to pinpoint the approximate magnitude of the next large earthquakes and predict where and when they might occur. The “when” is much harder than the “where.”

But it won’t be possible to use the findings of this study to predict earthquakes in some subduction zones around the world because they don’t have the GPS systems needed, said Jonathan Bedford, lead author of this study and a researcher at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences.

In 2011, Japan had one of the largest and most robust GPS monitoring systems in the world. That system provided ample data, and allowed the research team to identify the swing the land mass made in the months leading up to the earthquake.

Other countries, including Chile and Sumatra, which were hit by devastating earthquakes and tsunamis in 2010 and 2004, respectively, had much less-comprehensive systems at the time of those disasters.

The researchers analyzed similar data from the 2010 Chile earthquake, and found evidence of a similar wobble; Bedford said the data was “only just good enough to capture the signal.”

“We really need to be monitoring all major subduction zones with high-density GPS networks as soon as possible,” he said.

Contacts and sources:
Laura Arenschield
The Ohio State University

Swimming Dinosaut: New Fossils Rewrite the Story of Dinosaur Evolution and Ecology

Scientists have long opposed the idea that dinosaurs lived in aquatic habitats. Now, an international team of researchers, supported by the National Geographic Society, has discovered unambiguous evidence that Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, the longest predatory dinosaur known to science, was aquatic and used tail-propelled swimming locomotion to hunt for prey in a massive river system. It is the first time that such an adaptation has been reported in a dinosaur.

The findings, published today in the journal Nature and featured on, are based on a multidisciplinary investigation of the world's only existing Spinosaurus skeleton, found in the Kem Kem region of the Moroccan Sahara. The skeleton is now also the most complete one to date for a Cretaceous predatory dinosaur from mainland Africa.

Two Spinosaurus hunt Onchopristis, a prehistoric sawfish, in the waters of the Kem Kem river system in what is now Morocco.
Credit: Jason Treat, NG Staff, and Mesa Schumacher Art: Davide Bonadonna Source: Dr. Nizar Ibrahim, University of Detroit Mercy

Led by National Geographic Explorer and University of Detroit Mercy paleontologist Dr. Nizar Ibrahim, the team returned to the site where parts of a Spinosaurus skeleton had first been uncovered in 2008. In a previous study, Spinosaurus had been identified as a fish-eating dinosaur with adaptations for an amphibious lifestyle, supported by its relatively short hindlimbs, wide feet, dense bones and elongated jaws studded with conical teeth. However, suggestions that it may have been a truly water-dwelling dinosaur were met with considerable opposition, in large part because the partial skeleton provided little to no evidence of the propulsive structure needed to move such a giant dinosaur through water.

Between 2015 and 2019, Ibrahim's team recovered many more fossils of the skeleton, including a remarkably complete, fin-like tail capable of extensive lateral movement and characterized by extremely long spines.

After preparing all of the fossils, the team used photogrammetry to digitally capture the anatomy of the tail.

To quantitatively assess the performance of the tail, a team of Harvard researchers made a flexible model and attached it to a robotic system that mimics swimming movements. They then compared the swimming performance of the model Spinosaurus tail to model tails from other animals, including crocodiles, newts and other dinosaurs. The results were fully consistent with the idea of a truly water-dwelling, tail-propelled, "river monster."

"This discovery is the nail in the coffin for the idea that non-avian dinosaurs never invaded the aquatic realm," said Ibrahim. "This dinosaur was actively pursuing prey in the water column, not just standing in shallow waters waiting for fish to swim by. It probably spent most of its life in the water." The discovery also points to the possibility of a persistent and widespread invasion of aquatic habitats by relatives of Spinosaurus.

"This new discovery changes our current understanding of dinosaurs and reflects Dr. Ibrahim's boundless curiosity and dedication to uncovering the secrets of the Sahara's dinosaurs," said Alex Moen, vice president of explorer programs at the National Geographic Society. "His work is at the nexus of science and exploration, and embodies the unique role National Geographic has in illuminating the wonder of our world."

Today, all of the original bones found throughout the project are housed at the University of Casablanca in Morocco. For Professor Samir Zouhri, capacity and infrastructure building in North Africa was a major goal of this research project.

"In the past, Moroccan fossils like this one would inevitably end up in collections in Europe, Asia or the United States," he stated. "Now we have the best collection of Kem Kem fossils right here in Morocco, including the most complete predatory dinosaur from the Cretaceous of mainland Africa. This is a game changer."

About the Research Team

The research team was led by University of Detroit Mercy paleontologist and National Geographic Explorer Dr. Nizar Ibrahim and included scientists from around the globe, including Cristiano Dal Sasso and Simone Maganuco from the Natural History Museum in Milan, Italy; David Martill from the University of Portsmouth, UK; Matteo Fabbri from Yale University; Stephanie Pierce and George Lauder from Harvard University; Samir Zouhri and Ayoub Amane from the University of Casablanca in Morocco; Marco Auditore and Diego Mattarelli, collaborators of the Natural History Museum in Milan; Gabriele Bindellini from the University of Milan "La Statale"; David Unwin, from the University of Leicester, United Kingdom; Jasmina Wiemann, Yale University; Davide Bonadonna, Associazione Paleontologica Paleoartistica Italiana; Juliana Jakubczak, University of Detroit Mercy; and Ulrich Joger, Staatliches Naturhistorisches Museum Braunschweig.

About the National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit

Contacts and sources:
Chelsey Perry
The National Geographic Society

See the article
Bizarre Spinosaurus makes history as first known swimming dinosaur at

Newly Discovered Exoplanet Dethrones Former King Of Kepler-88 Planetary System

Our solar system has a king. The planet Jupiter, named for the most powerful god in the Greek pantheon, has bossed around the other planets through its gravitational influence. With twice the mass of Saturn, and 300 times that of Earth, Jupiter’s slightest movement is felt by all the other planets. Jupiter is thought to be responsible for the small size of Mars, the presence of the asteroid belt, and a cascade of comets that delivered water to young Earth.

Do other planetary systems have gravitational gods like Jupiter?

A team of astronomers led by the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy (UH IfA) has discovered a planet three times the mass of Jupiter in a distant planetary system.
 Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

The discovery is based on six years of data taken at W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaiʻi. Using the High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) instrument on the 10-meter Keck I telescope, the team confirmed that the planet, named Kepler-88 d, orbits its star every four years, and its orbit is not circular, but elliptical. At three times the mass of Jupiter, Kepler-88 d is the most massive planet in this system.

The system, Kepler-88, was already famous among astronomers for two planets that orbit much closer to the star, Kepler-88 b and c (planets are typically named alphabetically in the order of their discovery).

Those two planets have a bizarre and striking dynamic called mean motion resonance. The sub-Neptune sized planet b orbits the star in just 11 days, which is almost exactly half the 22-day orbital period of planet c, a Jupiter-mass planet. The clockwork-like nature of their orbits is energetically efficient, like a parent pushing a child on a swing. Every two laps planet b makes around the star, it gets pumped. The outer planet, Kepler-88 c, is twenty times more massive than planet b, and so its force results in dramatic changes in the orbital timing of the inner planet.

Kepler-88 d has three times the mass of Kepler-88 c, making the newly found planet the most massive one known in this system. 

Kepler-88 Planetary System from Keck Observatory on Vimeo.
Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko 

Astronomers observed these changes, called transit timing variations, with the NASA Kepler space telescope, which detected the precise times when Kepler-88 b crossed (or transited) between the star and the telescope. Although transit timing variations (TTVs for short) have been detected in a few dozen planetary systems, Kepler-88 b has some of the largest timing variations. With transits arriving up to half a day early or late, the system is known as “the King of TTVs.”

The newly discovered planet adds another dimension to astronomers’ understanding of the system.

“At three times the mass of Jupiter, Kepler-88 d has likely been even more influential in the history of the Kepler-88 system than the so-called King, Kepler-88 c, which is only one Jupiter mass,” says Dr. Lauren Weiss, Beatrice Watson Parrent Postdoctoral Fellow at UH IfA and lead author on the discovery team. “So maybe Kepler-88 d is the new supreme monarch of this planetary empire – the empress.”

Perhaps these extrasolar sovereign leaders have had as much influence as Jupiter did for our solar system. Such planets might have promoted the development of rocky planets and directed water-bearing comets toward them. Dr. Weiss and colleagues are searching for similar royal planets in other planetary systems with small planets.

Their paper announcing the discovery of Kepler-88 d is published in today’s issue of The Astronomical Journal and also available in preprint format on


The High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) produces spectra of single objects at very high spectral resolution, yet covering a wide wavelength range. It does this by separating the light into many “stripes” of spectra stacked across a mosaic of three large CCD detectors. HIRES is famous for finding exoplanets. Astronomers also use HIRES to study important astrophysical phenomena like distant galaxies and quasars, and find cosmological clues about the structure of the early universe, just after the Big Bang.

Contacts and sources:
Mari-Ela ChockThe W. M. Keck Observatory

Publication: The Discovery of the Long-Period, Eccentric Planet Kepler-88 d and System Characterization with Radial Velocities and Photodynamical Analysis Lauren M. Weiss et al The Astronomical Journal, Volume 159, Number 5

Gargantuan Hail A New Category

A supercell thunderstorm pelted a city center in Argentina a few years ago with hailstones so large scientists suggested a new category to describe them -- gargantuan hail.

Researchers investigating the 2018 storm found one hailstone likely measured between 7.4 and 9.3 inches across, potentially setting a new world record. The current record belongs to a hailstone that measured 8 inches across, or about the size of a volleyball, that fell near Vivian, South Dakota.

A gargantuan hailstone that fell in Argentina may have set a world record, according to researchers. 
Credit: Victoria Druetta

"It's incredible," said Matthew Kumjian, associate professor in the Department of Meteorology and Atmosphere Science at Penn State. "This is the extreme upper end of what you'd expect from hail."

The scientists proposed hail larger than 6 inches should be classified as gargantuan, and said more awareness of these events, while rare, could help piece together a better understanding of the dangerous storms.

"Anything larger than about a quarter in size can start putting dents into your car," Kumjian said. "In some rare cases, 6-inch hail has actually gone through roofs and multiple floors in houses. We'd like to help mitigate the impacts on life and property, to help anticipate these kinds of events."

The storm in heavily populated Villa Carlos Paz, Argentina, offered scientists a rare opportunity to study a well-documented case of gargantuan hail. As the storm unfolded, residents took to social media, posting pictures and videos.

Researchers followed up on the accounts a year later, interviewing witnesses, visiting sites where damage occurred, collecting photogrammetric data and analyzing radar observations. Using photogrammetry -- taking measurements from photographs -- and video evidence, the scientists estimated one hailstone may have set a world record.

The scientists reported their findings in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

"Such a well-observed case is an important step forward in understanding environments and storms that produce gargantuan hail, and ultimately how to anticipate and detect such extreme events," Kumjian said.

Hail typically occurs during severe storms, which produce strong, sustained updrafts. The winds hold hailstones aloft long enough to grow in sub-zero temperatures high in the atmosphere. But predicting hail size remains challenging, the scientists said.

Rachel Gutierrez, a graduate student at Penn State and co-author of the paper, found a connection between a storm updraft's rotational velocity, or how fast it is spinning, and larger hail size, but much remains unknown about the relationship.

She said the data, especially from a storm outside the United States, is invaluable.

"There typically isn't a lot of data from storms outside the U.S.," Gutierrez said. "Having this shows us these crazy, high-impact events can happen all over the world."

Gargantuan hail events may be more common than once believed, but researchers need volunteers willing to report hail and provide accurate measurements, either by including a common item for scale, or a ruler, Gutierrez said.


Kevin Bowley, assistant teaching professor, also contributed from Penn State.

Other researchers on the project were Joshua Soderholm, then a Humboldt Fellow at the University of Bonn, Germany, and now a research scientist with the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia; Stephen Nesbitt, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Lorena Medina Luna, education and outreach specialist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research; James Marquis, scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; and Paolo Salio, professor, Paula Maldonado, doctoral student, and Milagros Alvarez Imaz, student, at the Centro de Investigaciones del Mar y la Atmósfera in Argentina.

The National Science Foundation and the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety partly funded this research.

Contacts and sources:
A'ndrea Elyse Messer

Glacier Detachments: A New Hazard in a Warming World?

On the evening of 5 August 2013, a startling event occurred deep in the remote interior of the United States’ largest national park. A half-kilometer-long tongue of Alaska’s Flat Creek glacier suddenly broke off, unleashing a torrent of ice and rock that rushed 11 kilometers down a rugged mountain valley into the wilderness encompassed by Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve .

After National Park Service geologist Michael Loso documented a similar event in the same location in 2015, he recruited Mylène Jacquemart, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder, to investigate. “We were aware of glacier detachments that had happened in Tibet, Russia, and Argentina, but started out thinking we were investigating a regular landslide,” says Jacquemart. “Then we noticed that the entire glacier was missing.”

View into the detachment zone: Flat Creek glacier used to occupy the central trough visible in the image. Within just a few years, the surrounding ice flowed into space previously filled by the glacier, masking the full extent of the damage left by the detachments. Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve. 
Photo by Jacquemart
Photo credit: Mylène Jacquemart.

The results, published in Geology, indicate the Alaskan detachments occurred at the height of the summer melt seasons and suggest these highly destructive events could occur more frequently in a warming world.

After National Park Service geologist Michael Loso conducted preliminary research that ruled out a seismic trigger for these events, he, Jacquemart, and other experts began a research project to investigate what had happened at Flat Creek. The team used a variety of tools, including satellite imagery, field measurements, digital elevation models, and meltwater modeling, to piece together the sequence of events. “This project was a real sleuthing challenge,” says Jacquemart, “and the pieces finally fell into place when we discovered the bulge on the Flat Creek glacier.”

Although the researchers were aware that an odd ice bulge existed on the glacier’s tongue prior to the first detachment in 2013, it wasn’t until they obtained 10-year-old, high-resolution satellite images and estimated that the bulge was an impressive 70 meters high that they began to understand its implications. “Our data indicate that the lowermost part of the glacier tongue was very thin, stagnant, and firmly frozen to the glacier bed,” Jacquemart says. “We believe this frozen tongue did two things: it blocked ice flowing down from higher on the glacier, forcing it to bulge; and it slowed meltwater drainage, allowing the water to pool under the glacier.” The resulting increase in subglacial water pressure, she says, eventually caused the glacier tongue to suddenly detach, resulting in two mass flows so large that they each buried about 3 square kilometers of 400-year-old forest.

Matthias Leopold, Ethan Welty, and Mylène Jacquemart setting up geophysical instrumentation that can detect ice in the deposits of the Flat Creek glacier detachments. Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve. 
Photo by Lajoie
Photo credit: Lia Lajoie.

Glaciers are primarily disappearing as a result of their ice melting at a faster pace, says Jacquemart. “But the new insights we’re gaining from places like Flat Creek show that we also need to consider new processes we weren’t previously aware of.” Ultimately, says Jacquemart, scientists will need to develop a better understanding of these new processes and potentially reevaluate hazard assessments in mountain communities.

Mylène Jacquemart inspects a sediment-rich ice deposit left by one of the Flat Creek glacier detachments in Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve. 
Photo by Jajoie
Photo credit: Lia Lajoie.

“Flat Creek is fortunately in a very remote place,” says Jacquemart, “but the detachments that occurred in Russia and Tibet claimed numerous lives.” Given that the mass flows produced by glacier detachments appear to travel quite far, she says, emergency planners also need to consider possible cascading hazards, such as the temporary damming of a river followed by the water’s release. “Suddenly, a remote event can have far-reaching impacts downstream,” says Jacquemart.

The similarity of the glacier detachments in Alaska with those that occurred in Tibet suggest that all of these events shared a common cause. Other detachments elsewhere in the world have also been recently discovered, says Jacquemart, suggesting that large-scale glacier detachments may be exacerbated by global warming. “We conclude that the meltwater produced by increasingly warmer summers has the potential to create unexpected consequences in the form of hazards that we didn’t previously know about”, says Jacquemart, “and that we are only just beginning to understand.”

Contacts and sources:
Geological Society of America

Publication: What drives large-scale glacier detachments? Insights from Flat Creek glacier, St. Elias Mountains, Alaska. Kristy Tiampo, John Sykes, Jasmine S.S. Hansen, Etienne Berthier, Ethan Welty, Matthias Leopold, Michael Loso, Mylène Jacquemart. Geology, 2020; DOI: 10.1130/G47211.1

Spitzer Telescope Reveals the Precise Timing of a Black Hole Dance

The recently retired infrared observatory was the only telescope to spot a far-off flash of light that holds clues about the physical characteristics of these cosmic mysteries.

Black holes aren't stationary in space; in fact, they can be quite active in their movements. But because they are completely dark and can't be observed directly, they're not easy to study. Scientists have finally figured out the precise timing of a complicated dance between two enormous black holes, revealing hidden details about the physical characteristics of these mysterious cosmic objects.

This image shows two massive black holes in the OJ 287 galaxy. The smaller black hole orbits the larger one, which is also surrounded by a disk of gas. When the smaller black hole crashes through the disk, it produces a flare brighter than 1 trillion stars.
This image shows two massive black holes in the OJ 287 galaxy
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The OJ 287 galaxy hosts one of the largest black holes ever found, with over 18 billion times the mass of our Sun. Orbiting this behemoth is another black hole with about 150 million times the Sun's mass. Twice every 12 years, the smaller black hole crashes through the enormous disk of gas surrounding its larger companion, creating a flash of light brighter than a trillion stars - brighter, even, than the entire Milky Way galaxy. The light takes 3.5 billion years to reach Earth.

The OJ 287 galaxy hosts one of the largest black holes ever found, with over 18 billion times the mass of our Sun. Orbiting this behemoth is another massive black hole. Twice every 12 years, the smaller black hole crashes through the enormous disk of gas surrounding its larger companion, creating a flash of light brighter than a trillion stars.

But the smaller black hole's orbit is oblong, not circular, and it's irregular: It shifts position with each loop around the bigger black hole and is tilted relative to the disk of gas. When the smaller black hole crashes through the disk, it creates two expanding bubbles of hot gas that move away from the disk in opposite directions, and in less than 48 hours the system appears to quadruple in brightness.

Because of the irregular orbit, the black hole collides with the disk at different times during each 12-year orbit. Sometimes the flares appear as little as one year apart; other times, as much as 10 years apart. Attempts to model the orbit and predict when the flares would occur took decades, but in 2010, scientists created a model that could predict their occurrence to within about one to three weeks. They demonstrated that their model was correct by predicting the appearance of a flare in December 2015 to within three weeks.

Then, in 2018, a group of scientists led by Lankeswar Dey, a graduate student at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, published a paper with an even more detailed model they claimed would be able to predict the timing of future flares to within four hours. In a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, those scientists report that their accurate prediction of a flare that occurred on July 31, 2019, confirms the model is correct.

The observation of that flare almost didn't happen. Because OJ 287 was on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth, out of view of all telescopes on the ground and in Earth orbit, the black hole wouldn't come back into view of those telescopes until early September, long after the flare had faded. But the system was within view of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which the agency retired in January 2020.

After 16 years of operations, the spacecraft's orbit had placed it 158 million miles (254 million kilometers) from Earth, or more than 600 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. From this vantage point, Spitzer could observe the system from July 31 (the same day the flare was expected to appear) to early September, when OJ 287 would become observable to telescopes on Earth.

"When I first checked the visibility of OJ 287, I was shocked to find that it became visible to Spitzer right on the day when the next flare was predicted to occur," said Seppo Laine, an associate staff scientist at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California, who oversaw Spitzer's observations of the system. "It was extremely fortunate that we would be able to capture the peak of this flare with Spitzer, because no other human-made instruments were capable of achieving this feat at that specific point in time."

Ripples in Space

Scientists regularly model the orbits of small objects in our solar system, like a comet looping around the Sun, taking into account the factors that will most significantly influence their motion. For that comet, the Sun's gravity is usually the dominant force, but the gravitational pull of nearby planets can change its path, too.

Determining the motion of two enormous black holes is much more complex. Scientists must account for factors that might not noticeably impact smaller objects; chief among them are something called gravitational waves. Einstein's theory of general relativity describes gravity as the warping of space by an object's mass. When an object moves through space, the distortions turn into waves. Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, but they weren't observed directly until 2015 by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).

The larger an object's mass, the larger and more energetic the gravitational waves it creates. In the OJ 287 system, scientists expect the gravitational waves to be so large that they can carry enough energy away from the system to measurably alter the smaller black hole's orbit - and therefore timing of the flares.

While previous studies of OJ 287 have accounted for gravitational waves, the 2018 model is the most detailed yet. By incorporating information gathered from LIGO's detections of gravitational waves, it refines the window in which a flare is expected to occur to just 1 1/2 days.

To further refine the prediction of the flares to just four hours, the scientists folded in details about the larger black hole's physical characteristics. Specifically, the new model incorporates something called the "no-hair" theorem of black holes.

Published in the 1960s by a group of physicists that included Stephen Hawking, the theorem makes a prediction about the nature of black hole "surfaces." While black holes don't have true surfaces, scientists know there is a boundary around them beyond which nothing - not even light - can escape. Some ideas posit that the outer edge, called the event horizon, could be bumpy or irregular, but the no-hair theorem posits that the "surface" has no such features, not even hair (the theorem's name was a joke).

In other words, if one were to cut the black hole down the middle along its rotational axis, the surface would be symmetric. (The Earth's rotational axis is almost perfectly aligned with its North and South Poles. If you cut the planet in half along that axis and compared the two halves, you would find that our planet is mostly symmetric, though features like oceans and mountains create some small variations between the halves.)

Finding Symmetry

In the 1970s, Caltech professor emeritus Kip Thorne described how this scenario - a satellite orbiting a massive black hole - could potentially reveal whether the black hole's surface was smooth or bumpy. By correctly anticipating the smaller black hole's orbit with such precision, the new model supports the no-hair theorem, meaning our basic understanding of these incredibly strange cosmic objects is correct. The OJ 287 system, in other words, supports the idea that black hole surfaces are symmetric along their rotational axes.

So how does the smoothness of the massive black hole's surface impact the timing of the smaller black hole's orbit? That orbit is determined mostly by the mass of the larger black hole. If it grew more massive or shed some of its heft, that would change the size of smaller black hole's orbit. But the distribution of mass matters as well. A massive bulge on one side of the larger black hole would distort the space around it differently than if the black hole were symmetric. That would then alter the smaller black hole's path as it orbits its companion and measurably change the timing of the black hole's collision with the disk on that particular orbit.

"It is important to black hole scientists that we prove or disprove the no-hair theorem. Without it, we cannot trust that black holes as envisaged by Hawking and others exist at all," said Mauri Valtonen, an astrophysicist at University of Turku in Finland and a coauthor on the paper.

Spitzer science data continues to be analyzed by the science community via the Spitzer data archive located at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech in Pasadena. JPL managed Spitzer mission operations for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations were conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at IPAC at Caltech. Spacecraft operations were based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Spitzer, visit:

Contacts and sources:
Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory


How the Heart Affects Our Perception

Heart and brain communicate constantly. For example, when we encounter a dangerous situation, signals from the brain make sure that the heart beats faster. When we relax the heart slows down. Interestingly, vice versa - the heartbeat also affects the brain but the underlying mechanisms are unclear. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig and Berlin School of Mind and Brain have now identified two mechanisms underpinning how the heart influences our perception, the brain, and how these mechanisms differ between individuals.

The perception of external stimuli changes with the heartbeat.

© shutterstock

The first mechanism establishes a relationship between the phase of the heartbeat and conscious experience. In a regular rhythm, the heart contracts in the so-called systolic phase and pumps blood into the body. In a second phase, the diastolic phase, the blood flows back and the heart fills up again. In a previous publication from the MPI CBS, it was reported that perception of external stimuli changes with the heartbeat. In systole, we are less likely to detect a weak electric stimulus in the finger compared to diastole.

Now, in a new study, Esra Al and colleagues have found the reason for this change in perception: Brain activity is changing over the heart cycle. In systole a specific component of brain activity, which is associated with consciousness, the so called P300-component is suppressed. In other words, it seems that – in systole – the brain makes sure that certain information is kept out of conscious experience. The brain seems to take into account the pulse which floods the body in systole and predicts that pulse-associated bodily changes are “not real” but rather due to the pulse. Normally, this helps us to not be constantly disturbed by our pulse. However, when it comes to weak stimuli which coincide with systole we might miss them, although they are real.

Left: The detection rate is reduced during systole (red) compared to diastole (blue). Right: In systole a specific component of brain activity, which is associated with consciousness, the so called P300-component is suppressed.


During their investigations on heart-brain interactions, Al and colleagues also revealed a second effect of heartbeat on perception: If a person’s brain shows a higher response to the heartbeat, the processing of the stimulus in the brain is attenuated – the person detects the stimulus less. “This seems to be a result of directing our attention between external environmental signals and internal bodily signals.”, explains study author Al. In other words, a large heartbeat-evoked potential seems to reflect a “state of mind”, in which we are more focused on the functioning of our inner organs such as the blood circulation, however less aware of stimuli from the outside world.

The results not only have implications for our understanding of heart-brain interactions in healthy persons, but also in patients. The senior author, Arno Villringer explains, “The new results might help to explain why patients after stroke often suffer from cardiac problems and why patients with cardiac disease often have impaired cognitive function.”

The researchers investigated these relationships by sending weak electrical stimuli to electrodes clamped onto the study participants fingers. In parallel, they recorded each participants’ brain processes using an EEG and their cardiac activity using an EKG.

Contacts and sources:
Verena MüllerMax Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS)

Publication: Heart–brain interactions shape somatosensory perception and evoked potentials Esra Al, Fivos Iliopoulos, Norman Forschack, Till Nierhaus, Martin Grund, Paweł Motyka, Michael Gaebler, Vadim V. Nikulin, and Arno Villringer
PNAS (2020)

Hubble Watches Comet ATLAS Disintegrate Into More Than Two Dozen Pieces

These two Hubble Space Telescope images of comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS), taken on April 20 and 23, 2020, provide the sharpest views yet of the breakup of the fragile comet.

Hubble identified about 30 fragments on April 20, and 25 pieces on April 23. They are all enveloped in a sunlight-swept tail of cometary dust. "Their appearance changes substantially between the two days, so much so that it's quite difficult to connect the dots," said David Jewitt, professor of planetary science and astronomy at UCLA, Los Angeles, and leader of one of two teams that photographed the doomed comet with Hubble. "I don't know whether this is because the individual pieces are flashing on and off as they reflect sunlight, acting like twinkling lights on a Christmas tree, or because different fragments appear on different days."

These two Hubble Space Telescope images of comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS), taken on April 20 (left) and April 23, 2020, provide the sharpest views yet of the breakup of the solid nucleus of the comet. Hubble's eagle-eye view identifies as many as 30 separate fragments. Hubble distinguishes pieces that are roughly the size of a house. Before the breakup, the entire nucleus of the comet may have been the length of one or two football fields. Astronomers aren't sure why this comet broke apart. The comet was approximately 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Earth when the images were taken.

Credits: NASA, ESA, STScI and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

"This is really exciting — both because such events are super cool to watch and because they do not happen very often. Most comets that fragment are too dim to see. Events at such scale only happen once or twice a decade," said the leader of a second Hubble observing team, Quanzhi Ye, of the University of Maryland, College Park.

The results are evidence that comet fragmentation is actually fairly common, say researchers. It might even be the dominant mechanism by which the solid, icy nuclei of comets die. Because this happens quickly and unpredictably, astronomers remain largely uncertain about the cause of fragmentation. Hubble's crisp images may yield new clues to the breakup. Hubble distinguishes pieces as small as the size of a house. Before the breakup, the entire nucleus may have been no more than the length of two football fields.

One idea is that the original nucleus spun itself into pieces because of the jet action of outgassing from sublimating ices. Because such venting is probably not evenly dispersed across the comet, it enhances the breakup. "Further analysis of the Hubble data might be able to show whether or not this mechanism is responsible," said Jewitt. "Regardless, it's quite special to get a look with Hubble at this dying comet."

The comet was discovered on Dec. 29, 2019, by the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) robotic astronomical survey system based in Hawaii. This NASA-supported survey project for Planetary Defense operates two autonomous telescopes that look for Earth-approaching comets and asteroids.

The comet brightened quickly until mid-March, and some astronomers anticipated that it might be visible to the naked eye in May to become one of the most spectacular comets seen in the last 20 years.

However, the comet abruptly started to get dimmer instead of brighter. Astronomers speculated that the icy core may be fragmenting, or even disintegrating. ATLAS' fragmentation was confirmed by amateur astronomer Jose de Queiroz, who was able to photograph around three pieces of the comet on April 11.

The disintegrating comet was approximately 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Earth when the latest Hubble observations were taken. If any of it survives, the comet will make its closest approach to Earth on May 23 at a distance of about 72 million miles (116 million kilometers), and eight days later it will skirt past the Sun at 25 million miles (40 million kilometers).

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

Contacts and sources:
Claire Andreoli
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

COVID-19 Confirmed in Two Pet Cats in New York

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) today announced the first confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) infection in two pet cats. These are the first pets in the United States to test positive for SARS-CoV-2.

The cats live in two separate areas of New York state. Both had mild respiratory illness and are expected to make a full recovery. SARS-CoV-2 infections have been reported in very few animals worldwide, mostly in those that had close contact with a person with COVID-19.

At this time, routine testing of animals is not recommended. Should other animals be confirmed positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the United States, USDA will post the findingsexternal icon. State animal health and public health officials will take the lead in making determinations about whether animals should be tested for SARS-CoV-2.

Credit: Yu Morita / Wikimedia Commons

In the NY cases announced today, a veterinarian tested the first cat after it showed mild respiratory signs. No individuals in the household were confirmed to be ill with COVID-19. The virus may have been transmitted to this cat by mildly ill or asymptomatic household members or through contact with an infected person outside its home.

Samples from the second cat were taken after it showed signs of respiratory illness. The owner of the cat tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the cat showing signs. Another cat in the household has shown no signs of illness.

Both cats tested presumptive positive for SARS-CoV-2 at a private veterinary laboratory, which then reported the results to state and federal officials. The confirmatory testing was conducted at NVSL and included collection of additional samples. NVSL serves as an international reference laboratory and provides expertise and guidance on diagnostic techniques, as well as confirmatory testing for foreign and emerging animal diseases. Such testing is required for certain animal diseases in the U.S. in order to comply with national and international reporting procedures. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) considers SARS-CoV-2 an emerging disease, and therefore USDA must report confirmed U.S. animal infections to the OIE.

Public health officials are still learning about SARS-CoV-2, but there is no evidence that pets play a role in spreading the virus in the United States. Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals that may compromise their welfare. Further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals, including pets, could be affected.

Until we know more, CDC recommends the following:
  • Do not let pets interact with people or other animals outside the household.
  • Keep cats indoors when possible to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
  • Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least 6 feet from other people and animals.
  • Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.
  • If you are sick with COVID-19 (either suspected or confirmed by a test), restrict contact with your pets and other animals, just like you would around other people.
  • When possible, have another member of your household care for your pets while you are sick.
  • Avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food or bedding.
  • If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wear a cloth face covering and wash your hands before and after you interact with them.

While additional animals may test positive as infections continue in people, it is important to note that performing this animal testing does not reduce the availability of tests for humans. The U.S. government remains committed to increasing nationwide COVID-19 testing for Americans. In fact, the United States has conducted more than four million COVID-19 tests for humans, which is more tests than the following nations combined: France, the UK, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, India, Austria, Australia, Sweden, and Canada.

For more information on animals and COVID-19, see:

For more information about testing in animals, see: icon

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1 in 7 Americans Would Avoid Care for Suspected COVID-19 Fearing Cost of Treatment

One out of every seven (14%) U.S. adults report that they would avoid seeking healthcare for a fever and a dry cough for themselves or a member of their household due to concerns about their ability to pay for it. When framed explicitly as believing to have been infected by the novel coronavirus, 9% still report that they would avoid seeking care. Adults under 30, non-whites, those with a high school education or less and those in households with incomes under $40,000 per year are the groups most likely to indicate they would avoid seeking out care.

If you or a family member had a fever and a dry cough would you avoid seeking treatment due to concerns about the cost of care? If you thought that you might have been infected by the coronavirus, would you avoid seeking treatment due to concerns about the cost of care?

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Peter Reft / Wikimedia Commons

These results are a part of an ongoing special study by Gallup and West Health to assess U.S. public opinion on the cost of healthcare, conducted April 1-14, 2020. Fever and a dry cough are two of the most common symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Unwillingness to seek out care due to concerns over cost is related to familiar socioeconomic distinctions. Hispanics and blacks are less likely to have health insurance than are non-Hispanic whites, and those in lower-income households are far more likely to be influenced by cost when considering if they will follow recommended medicine or procedures from their doctors.

Mentioning coronavirus by name reduces the percentage of people who would not seek treatment by roughly one-third, suggesting that lack of clarity regarding the common symptoms of COVID-19 could be a factor in not pursuing it beyond household economics or basic access.
Millions Report Having Been Denied Care Due to Patient Volume

Amid those avoiding care due to concerns over costs, 6% of respondents -- representing about 15 million adults -- report that they or a family member have been denied care due to heavy patient volume brought on from the coronavirus outbreak. These occurrences could potentially include those who had selective surgeries and related appointments canceled due to state policy.

Those living in the Northeast region (11%) are the most likely to report having been denied care, followed by the West (8%). Just 5% in the South and 3% in the Midwest report the same, likely reflecting regional differences in COVID-19 diagnoses and associated hospitalizations. New York state has by far the largest number of confirmed cases in the U.S., followed by New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California -- all Northeast or West region states.

Although race does not strongly relate to being denied care, income level is strongly inversely related. While 3% of those with annual household incomes exceeding $100,000 report such occurrences, this jumps to 11% of those with incomes of under $40,000 -- nearly four times higher.
U.S. Healthcare Denial Rates Due to COVID-19 Patient Volume
Have you or a family member been denied care by a hospital or a doctor due to heavy patient volume brought on by the coronavirus outbreak?
The seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic is multi-faceted. In addition to the threat of infection by the coronavirus itself, workers worldwide have lost their jobs, with many now suffering extreme economic hardship. Compounding these effects is the cost of healthcare generally. Recent research has shown that millions of Americans know someone who has died in the last 12 months due to their inability to pay for treatment and that $88 billion in borrowing occurred over the last year for healthcare. As such, results that show 14% unwilling to seek treatment for COVID-19 symptoms and another 9% unwilling to seek treatment -- even when coronavirus is suspected -- should not be shocking, even amid the outbreak.

Overrun hospitals in New York, in turn, appear to have hit a plateau, which is a good sign for people who are seeking care but can not get it or who otherwise are avoiding hospitals or doctors' offices for fear of infection. Nationally, a plateau for COVID-19 is less clear given current levels of testing, with many states still observing rising rates of infection.

Seeking care when exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms or when suspecting of having been infected by the coronavirus is a critical element in combatting the outbreak. Greatly increased testing is a prerequisite for reopening the economy, with experts recently estimating that testing must at least triple from current levels for a safe reopening to occur. About 150,000 Americans are being tested each day. Still, according to recommendations from Harvard researchers, this needs to increase to 500,000 to 700,000 in order to effectively identify those who are infected -- including those who are asymptomatic -- and isolate them from those who are not. Per capita, the U.S. currently ranks 41st in the world in completed tests, with about 17,000 tests completed for every one million persons thus far.

Fears over the cost of testing are not unfounded. Early last month, Vice President Mike Pence announced that insurance companies agreed to waive co-pays for coronavirus testing, followed on March 18 by the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that mandates that Medicare, Medicaid, other government plans and most private plans cover the cost of testing for infection by the coronavirus. But while the testing itself is now free, the overall cost of care for a trip to the hospital could ultimately cost individuals thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket fees. For example, if the doctor consulted determines that the visit does not justify a test, or is out-of-network, or if the trip requires treatment for other conditions not related to COVID-19, the health law does not cover the costs of the visit.

As such, greater clarity regarding these issues for the public is advisable. It would likely be prudent for leaders and public health officials to not assume that the main symptoms of COVID-19 are universally known and to continuously provide updated information for where to go for local testing, cost expectations for treatment, and patient capacity at local hospitals.

About Gallup

Gallup delivers analytics and advice to help leaders and organizations solve their most pressing problems. Combining more than 80 years of experience with its global reach, Gallup knows more about the attitudes and behaviors of employees, customers, students and citizens than any other organization in the world.

Contacts and sources:
Zach Gross, Dan WittersWest Health Institute

COVID-19 Study Shows That Men Have Over Double The Death Rate Of Women

A study of gender differences in COVID-19 finds that men have more severe disease and are over twice as likely to die.
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) illustration
Credit:  CDC

The COVID-19 pandemic has exploded across the globe, leaving healthcare staff, policy makers and ordinary people struggling. We still don't completely understand why some people are more severely affected by the virus than others.

So far, the elderly and those with certain pre-existing conditions appear to be at greater risk. A new study in open-access journal Frontiers in Public Health is the first to examine gender differences in COVID-19 patients. The study finds that men and women are equally likely to contract the virus, but men are significantly more likely to suffer severe effects of the disease and die. The results suggest that additional care may be required for older men or those with underlying conditions.

While most people with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, identifying the factors that predispose people to severe disease and death could help society to protect and treat those most at risk.

So far, researchers have confirmed that older COVID-19 patients and those with certain underlying conditions, such as heart disease and respiratory conditions, are at greater risk of severe disease and death. However, Dr. Jin-Kui Yang, a physician at Beijing Tongren Hospital in China, noticed a trend among COVID-19 patients who died.

"Early in January we noticed that the number of men dying from COVID-19 appeared to be higher than the number of women," said Yang. "This raised a question: are men more susceptible to getting or dying from COVID-19? We found that no-one had measured gender differences in COVID-19 patients, and so began investigating."

Yang and a group of colleagues analyzed several patient datasets to see if there were differences in how men and women respond to COVID-19. This included data on 43 patients who the doctors had treated themselves and a publicly available dataset on 1056 COVID-19 patients.

The virus responsible for COVID-19 is similar to the virus behind the 2003 SARS outbreak, and it attaches to the same protein, called ACE2, on cells it attacks. Given this similarity, the doctors also analyzed a dataset of 524 SARS patients from 2003.

Among the COVID-19 patients, the researchers confirmed that older people and those with specific underlying conditions tended to have more severe disease and were more likely to die. The age and numbers of infected men and women were similar, but men tended to have more severe disease.

Strikingly, in the largest COVID-19 dataset, over 70% of the patients who died were men, meaning that men had almost 2.5 times the death rate of women. And interestingly, being male was a significant risk-factor for worse disease severity, regardless of age.

In the SARS dataset from 2003, the researchers found a similar trend, with a significantly higher mortality rate amongst males compared with females. Interestingly, levels of ACE2, the protein involved in the viral attack in both SARS and COVID-19, tends to be present in higher levels in men, and also patients with cardiovascular disease and diabetes, all of whom have worse outcomes in COVID-19.

However, further research is needed to determine exactly why men with COVID-19 tend to fare worse than women. While the current study has a small sample size, and larger studies are needed to confirm the results, this is the first preliminary indication that male gender is a significant risk factor for COVID-19 severity and death.

The study may have important implications for patient care. "We recommend that additional supportive care and prompt access to the intensive care unit may be necessary for older male patients," said Yang.

Contacts and sources:
Michael Becker

Publication:  Gender differences in patients with COVID-19: Focus on severity and mortality
Corresponding author: Dr. Jin-Kui Yang
Institution: Beijing Tongren Hospital, Capital Medical University, China