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    What if your life wasn’t really your life?

    What if everything you knew was just a computer simulation?

    Would you want to know? And what would you do if you did?

    Welcome to the mind-bending world of The Matrix, where humans are subjugated by a computer that uses them as a power source — and creates a dreamworld that keeps them from noticing. The 1999 film brought a dystopian vision of cyberspace to the silver screen as hotshot hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is given a choice by rebel humans battling the machine: continue with his computer-generated life, or awaken from the dream and join the resistance.

    In this week’s episode of Seeker’s Bad Science podcast, host Ethan Edberg and his guests delve into the story and the science behind the movie. Ethan is joined by Saturday Night Live writers Steven Castillo and Julio Torres, as well as computer scientist and philosopher Cristoph Salge, a visiting fellow at the Game Innovation Lab at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

    “I saw The Matrix when I was still studying, and I was wondering when I would get to the point where my life was like that,” Salge said. “And it never really happened.”

    The move touches on a wide array of concepts that are advancing rapidly today: artificial intelligence, neurokinetics — loosely defined as how well your mental coordination translates to a video game — and epistemology, the 2,000-year-old discipline that asks how we know what we know.

    “It’s hard to put that into a movie and also have gunfights,” Salge said.

    Salge recently oversaw a competition for developers to test the creative potential of computers by programing them to build their own settlements in the popular video came Minecraft. The process, known as procedural content generation, has also been used to program environments in different games or design imaginary spacecraft, he said.

    But could artificial intelligence become an evil force, like the computers in The Matrix, the Terminator movies or the paranoid HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey? That may have more to do with the humans who put it to work. AI is already influencing the human world in a range of ways, from mundane processes like sorting out who gets a credit card to guiding armed drones in the sky.

    “We like to talk about how do we make robots ethically responsible or AIs ethically responsible, but people are usually the problem here,” Salge said.

    Bad Science: Gettin’ Pruney With The Abyss

    The Matrix is one of Ethan’s favorites. “When I saw it in 1999, I thought it was the greatest movie of all time,” he said. But nearly a generation later, after helping launch a revolution in special effects, “It’s not going to punch you in the face the way it punched us,” he tells his audience — yes! This episode of Bad Science is, for the first time, recorded live.

    Who really came up with the “bullet time” effect? Which A-list actors turned down the roles of Neo and Morpheus, clearing the way for iconic performances by the eventual stars? And what can happen when you cheat on your wife in “The Sims?” Take the red pill and find out in this episode of Bad Science.


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    Credit: Matt Smith

    New Orleans is famous for its music — and infamous for its weather. And at a house on St. Claude Avenue, tucked between the musicians’ haven of Faubourg Marigny and the hurricane-ravaged 9th Ward, a novel device is using the weather to make music.

    Mounted on a post just off the front porch is a cluster of instruments that read temperature, ultraviolet light, wind speed, and precipitation. The results are fed to an analog synthesizer and streamed online, giving listeners a real-time weather report in F major.

    “The randomness of it is kind of soothing,” said the device’s inventor, musician, and tinkerer David Rolston, better known by his stage name Quintron. “It’s like the randomness of staring at a fire, which is constantly changing, but is almost the same.”

    But the device, known as the Weather Warlock, also has a side function that becomes apparent twice a day: It can help blind people orient themselves to day and night. Dawn brings an increasingly insistent pulse over the drone as UV rays start to reach over the horizon. Nightfall triggers a siren-like tone that gradually descends through the scale over about half an hour.  

    The feature is aimed at helping to ease a common problem among the sight-impaired, one that throws off their body’s basic sleep-wake cycles.

    Quintron developed the device during a layoff caused by his own health scare — a late-stage lymphoma diagnosis that appeared to be a “death sentence,” but that he’s beaten back with chemotherapy. Between rounds of chemo, “I had a lot of free time,” he said. “I’d always had this project in the back of my mind, and I had some time, so I started building it.”

    Credit: Matt Smith

    He refined the device over a two-year period that included a 2014 residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Florida. The synthesizer’s drone not only relaxed him personally, but a blind friend shared his own struggles with the circadian rhythm disorder known as non-24 sleep-wake disorder.

    “And then it slowly kind of unveiled itself to me that this could be possibly helpful in accompaniment with all the other things that are helpful, to people who are sight-impaired — or at least an interesting listen,” he said.

    Light controls the body’s production of hormones like cortisol and melatonin, which keep your body’s sleep-wake cycles in rhythm. Anyone who’s worked a graveyard shift or flown across oceans can tell you how breaking that rhythm can throw off your sleep and leave you feeling foggy.

    But when your eyes don’t transmit light to the brain, the rhythm can be disrupted completely, affecting not only sleep but metabolism and digestion.

    “Before you wake up, your bodily system is already beginning to charge up your system to make you go for the day,” Schwab said. “Your blood sugar begins to rise before you awaken. Your cortisol begins to rise before you awaken. You have no conscious part of it.”

    RELATED: Making Music Using Only Your Brain Is Easy With the Encephalophone

    The nerves that carry those signals are different than the rod-and-cone assemblies in the eye that help your brain turn light into images, and they have evolutionary roots in some of the simplest animal species. But even today, their role isn’t fully understood, said Ivan Schwab, who teaches ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis.

    Schwab sounds a dubious note about the benefits of the Weather Warlock. Circadian rhythm disorders are usually treated by a psychiatrist or with drugs prescribed by an expert in sleep disorders. However, it’s possible people could use it to condition their bodies.

    “If you do this enough times, the body will get the hint that this is going to be a time to wake up, and this is going to be the time to go to sleep, and these sounds coordinate with that,” Schwab said. “The brain is quite plastic, even at older age groups, the brain can relearn things and rewire. But I’d be very skeptical until I saw some evidence.”

    Quintron said his device is “not curative, but helpful,” and stresses that he’s not making any medical claims for the Weather Warlock.

    “I leave the cures and the actual research to people who are more equipped to do it,” he said. “I see it more like a service that’s constantly there and constantly changing, but reliably sort of the same.”

    Credit: Matt Smith

    The Weather Warlock’s temperature sensors tweak the bass and treble. A drop of moisture falling onto two brass probes closes a circuit that produces a blip in the sound. Spinning anemometers turn the wind into rising or falling tones. As a storm comes in, “It sounds really choppy and fast,” Quintron said. But most of the time, it produces a quiet drone, which is streamed online and broadcast from a speaker on the porch.

    It’s not his first instrument: He’s been building instruments since he in high school, an extension of his early interest in electrical gadgets. He’s also the inventor of an optically controlled percussion synthesizer, the Drum Buddy, which uses a drum spinning around a light source to trigger the sounds.

    RELATED: These Countries Have the Most Unique Music in the World

    The original Weather Warlock is controlled by an old radio control board salvaged from Tulane University’s student station. In his basement workshop, Quintron replaced the guts of the board with controls wired to the instruments outside.

    It’s still around, and is about to go on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. But the latest iteration is a sleek, backlit greenish box attached to a keyboard that helps Quintron manipulate the sound for performances.

    He occasionally takes the device on tour with his band, Quintron and Miss Pussycat, which pairs his “swamp tech” electronica with his wife’s puppet shows. The Weather Warlock’s sounds also form the basis of a side act, also called Weather Warlock, in which Quintron and his collaborators play off the synthesizer’s tones: He recently changed the key from E to F to harmonize with an oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument similar to a lute.

    “It’s gotten more bizarre, outside-the-world of rock’n’roll attention than anything else I’ve ever done,” he said.


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    Here's a good word to keep in your back pocket: ornithophobia. It means fear of birds, and the psychiatric condition was famously celebrated — or perhaps stoked — in Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1963 horror film The Birds.

    The film chronicles a series of unexplained and vicious bird attacks in the small town of Bodega Bay, California. (It's supposedly based on a true story. But aren't they all?) Hitchcock structured the movie as a standard horror show, but also sprinkled in his usual weirdness concerning men, women, and repressed sexuality.

    As it turns out, the good director also dropped some dubious science into his signature scary bird movie. In this week's edition of Bad Science, Seeker's ongoing exploration of the scientific elements in famous films, host Ethan Edenberg is joined by Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager and resident bird nerd at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

    Writer, actor and stand-up comic Chris Fairbanks also sits in on this week's panel to read from the screenplay, contribute bird puns, and speculate darkly on the homicidal instincts of our avian brethren.

    As a museum ornithologist, Garrett's job involves getting people interested in birds. As such, he admits up front that he harbors a slight prejudice against the famous film.

    “People cite the movie all the time as a reason they're afraid of birds,” he said. “It's a horror movie, and it's totally unrealistic. Birds don't do those things. But if it works as a horror movie, that's the whole point, I guess.”

    More than 3,000 individual birds were used in the production of the movie, which was largely filmed on location in Bodega Bay, about 40 miles north of San Francisco. But Garrett notes that the story's most famous birds — the big ravens — are actually not very common in that area.

    “Apparently they were issued permits to trap these birds,” Garrett said. “Very generous permits.”

    Garrett said that while the movie took evident liberties in depicting the variety of birds native to the region, it did get one species correct.

    “The gulls were by and large the proper species — Western gulls, California gulls, the kinds you would see in Bodega Bay,” he said. “But most of those scenes were filmed at a garbage dump where there were just huge swarms of them.”

    Bad Science: The Fiction and the Reality of The Matrix

    This week's episode also features the game “What the Squawk,” in which Garrett valiantly attempts to identify recorded bird calls and digs into some anatomical specifics regarding birdsong. For instance, did you know that birds exhale through multiple vocal organs?

    “That's how they can produce harmonics and competing noises that pile on each other,” he said.

    Tune into this week's show for more on Hitchcock's famous film, including details on crows, ravens, grackles, and an odd tale about antique steampunk pianos.


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    Credit: Getty Images

    The West is not only getting hotter, it’s getting less rain — and that’s likely to mean worsening fire seasons for a region that’s already seen a surge in massive blazes in recent years.

    That’s the conclusion of a new study led by researchers from the US Forest Service, who looked at changes in rainfall across the forests of the West between 1979 and 2016 and compared it to satellite images of wildfires.  

    The West is largely arid already. But the number of days that saw more than 2.54 millimeters — a tenth of an inch — of rain shrank between 36 and 45 percent across the region, while the total amount of rainfall dropped by about a third. Less precipitation leaves vegetation drier, meaning more combustible fuel is available.

    “If these trends persist, decreases in summer precipitation and the associated summertime aridity increases would lead to more burned area across the western United States, with far-reaching ecological and socioeconomic impacts,” the study concludes.

    The findings were published today in the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study comes as more than 50 uncontained, large fires are burning across the West this week, charring more than 1.7 million acres.

    About a third of that is from two large fires in northern California that have killed 10 people, including four firefighters. But nearly 6 million acres have burned this year to date, about 20 percent more than the 10-year average.

    RELATED: Air Quality Plummets as Wildfires Rage, Putting Public Health at Risk

    In 2016, a US Forest Service report found fire seasons averaged two and a half months longer than they did in 1970, and the typical number of acres burned has doubled in that time. And in January, scientists at the University of California warned that climate change and decades of efforts to beat back fires — which forests need periodically to thrive — had left state forests packed with nearly 130 million dead trees. That raises the odds of bigger and harder-to-fight wildfires.

    The brutal wildfire seasons are consistent with scientists' expectations for a warming world. Temperatures in the region are already running about 2 degrees F (1.1 degrees C) over the historic averages, and earlier research suggests human-caused climate change is already producing bigger fires.

    Western states rely heavily on winter snows in the mountains to store water for the rest of the year, and earlier studies have pointed to warmer temperatures and reduced winter snowpack as forces driving the increasing size and intensity of wildfires. But the new study suggests reduced rainfall may play a bigger role. For instance, a wet, cold winter in 2017 helped break years of drought in California, but the following summer saw another stretch of record-low rainfall and another major fire season.

    “Understanding the climatic drivers of fire activity is important for informing forest management,” the new study’s authors report. “Our findings are consistent with future climate projections, which predict further decreases in summer precipitation and longer dry periods between rain events across much of the West.”


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    Credit: Elizaveta Becker/ullstein bild via Getty Images

    Over four and a half billion years ago, our solar system consisted of a disk of debris, which slowly coalesced into the sun, planets, moons, and asteroids that comprise our solar system.

    Asteroids sometimes travel along a path that put them on a collision course with Earth. More often than not, they burn up when entering our atmosphere, but occasionally they’re large enough that a portion, or meteoroid, makes it through Earth’s atmosphere. Whatever survives the intensity of Earth’s atmosphere and makes it to the surface is called a meteorite.

    Despite the infrequency and relatively benign impact of meteorites, planetary defense specialists believe we should be better at predicting when and where an impact might happen.

    And that's where a new study comes in.

    Mikael Granvik of Lulea University of Technology in Finland is lead author of a study aimed at better pinpointing the origins of asteroids.

    "Laboratory studies of meteorites provide a wealth of information of small bits of the [asteroid belt] disk, but the knowledge is of limited use unless we understand the context, which is provided if we can link the meteorites to their source regions," Granvik said in an email to Seeker.

    RELATED: Projectile Cannon Shows Asteroid Impacts May Have Made Earth a Watery Planet

    The new study, published in the journal Icarus, plotted the orbits for space rocks that survived Earth's atmosphere and made it to the surface. Scientists compared the orbits to a model that told them where in the solar system that meteorite likely came from.

    The research identified a few different origin stories. For example, a carbonaceous meteorite found in Tagish Lake in British Columbia likely came from the inner part of the asteroid belt, instead of the outer part.

    Gravnik warned that his initial sample of about 24 events is too small to draw definitive conclusions, but the data suggests that so far, H chondrites (meteorites with a high iron abundance) come from the middle parts of the asteroid belt, while L chondrites (meteorites with lower iron abundance) come from the inner part. "For the other types of meteorites, we don't have enough data to say anything remotely certain," he said.

    He added the scientists hope to refine their model with several new fireball events that happened while the paper was being written. "I want to see whether adding them will affect the big picture," he said.

    Meanwhile, asteroid studies continue both in space and on Earth. Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft arrived at its destination asteroid, Ryugu, in late June. It is expected to touchdown on the asteroid and collect samples to return to Earth.


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    After navigating rough seas, international oceangoing vessels, and a series of massive typhoons, Ben Lecomte is back in the water.

    On Wednesday, Lecomte resumed his ambitious journey to swim across the Pacific Ocean and gather data for scientific research. Along with his crew aboard the support ship Seeker, Lecomte has returned to the precise point off the shore of Japan where he was forced to postpone his swim in late July.

    The delay was triggered by a dramatic and dangerous “perfect storm” cluster involving multiple typhoons. The extreme weather battered the region for several weeks and forced the crew to retreat back to port in Yokohama, Japan. The series of storms has resulted in the most violent typhoon season Japan has experienced in years.

    Lecomte, a 51-year-old endurance athlete and activist, is attempting to swim across the Pacific Ocean. Swimming eight hours per day, Lecomte has already progressed more than 500 miles.

    Along the way, Lecomte and his team are collecting scientific data and raising awareness about the state of the world's oceans. The team has become increasingly concerned about the amount of plastic waste that is collecting in the world's largest and deepest ocean.

    “The plastic we found ranges from bottles and buckets to shoes and food wrappers,” Lecomte said. “We most definitely found more than we all expected. We see a lot floating at the surface, and I see a lot floating right below the surface.”

    Lecomte plans to swim through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive gyre of plastic pollution spanning more than 600,000 square miles. Two exceptionally high concentrations of plastic waste are located in the western Pacific, southeast of Japan, and the eastern Pacific between Hawaii and the California coast.

    The Seeker crew left port on August 18, when a slight improvement in the weather allowed for a hurried departure. It was a close call. As the team left Yokohama, Typhoon Soulik hit the region. The crew is racing against the weather, sailing east as fast as possible to limit the effects of the typhoon, along with a tropical depression, passing behind them.

    “So far we have a good weather window and we need to take advantage of it,” Lecomte said. “I also need to swim as much as possible to get out of the typhoon zone.”

    Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Amid the weather and technical issues, Lecomte must now prepare himself, mentally and physically, to resume his historic endurance test.

    “It is always a setback anytime I get interrupted. But when the weather is the cause, there is nothing I can do about it,” Lecomte said in an email sent from the cabin of the ship. “I don't have any control over it, so I don't let it affect me. At the moment I am just eager to get back in the water and resume the swim.

    Using GPS technology, Lecomte and the crew returned on Wednesday to the precise point where the massive storms forced them to retreat to safety weeks ago.

    For Lecomte, that means jumping back in the water and heading toward San Francisco — still many miles and many months away. The swimmer said it will all be worthwhile if the expedition raises awareness about ocean pollution.

    “What we are doing in this expedition might be on the edge, but nobody has to go to that extreme to make a difference,” he said. “All we have to do is make daily changes and eliminate some of our plastic usage.”


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    Credit: Weiss laboratory

    Strange news out of the labs this week: Penn State physicists have summoned a 19th-century demon.

    Don't worry — the demon is entirely metaphorical and in fact refers to a famous 1867 thought experiment proposed by a godfather of physics, James Maxwell. The details get very tangled indeed, but the bottom line is the researchers may have just brought us a step closer to true quantum computing.

    Physicist David Weiss and his team have developed a new kind of quantum processing system that uses super-cooled atoms to perform calculations. Like a traditional computer processor, the system is ultimately designed to move information around in the most efficient way possible. In the case of quantum computing, that means using individual atoms as the medium of calculation.

    "Traditional computers use transistors to encode data as bits that can be in one of two states — zero or one," Weiss said in a statement. "We are devising quantum computers that use atoms as 'quantum bits' — or 'qubits' — that can encode data based on quantum mechanical phenomena that allow them to be in multiple states simultaneously.”

    To properly wrangle all those qubits, Weiss and his team have devised a three-dimensional lattice that uses lasers to manipulate the atoms — and that's where the demon comes in.

    RELATED: Quantum Data Storage in a Single Atom Brings New Computing Era Closer to Reality

    In 1867, Maxwell proposed his thought experiment in a letter to a colleague. Now referred to as “Maxwell's demon,” the concept involves two adjacent chambers of gas with a gate between them. Maxwell imagined a benign demon operating this gate, allowing hotter and faster gas molecules into one chamber, slower and cooler molecules into the other.

    It gets very complicated from here, but the gist is that such a system would theoretically violate the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the total entropy of a system can never decrease over time. The demon's sorting would result in an ordering within the system — a loss of entropy — by maintaining different temperatures between the chambers.

    Back to quantum computing: Weiss’s 3D lattice is designed to approximate the function of Maxwell's demon, building on 150 years of science since the original thought experiment and moving the action from gas chambers to quantum computers.

    "Later work has shown that the demon doesn't actually violate the second law and subsequently there have been many attempts to devise experimental systems that behave like the demon," Weiss said. "There have been some successes at very small scales, but we've created a system in which we can manipulate a large number of atoms, organizing them in a way that reduces the system's entropy, just like the demon.”

    RELATED: Graphene: Everything You Need to Know About the ‘Miracle Material’

    In other words, Weiss’s quantum computing model allows for more efficient sorting of the multivalent qubits — and that means faster computing.

    “A large enough quantum computer will be able to solve some classes of problems that cannot now be solved on classical computers,” Weiss told Seeker. “The most widely known problem is factoring large numbers.”

    In fact, the new model could potentially power a new class of quantum computers, Weiss said.

    “The entropy reduction gives a good starting point for a neutral atom quantum computer,” he said. “Having a filled 3D array will allow qubits to be packed closely together. For instance, at our current lattice spacing, a million qubits would fit in a half a millimeter cube.  We are not close to doing that. For now, making a computer with 50 qubits is a significant challenge.”

    Double secret bonus trivia: Maxwell's demon is the origin of the computing term “daemon” — the programs that run in the background of traditional operating systems.

    The paper describing the research, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, was published September 5 in the journal Nature.


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    From the didn't-see-this-one-coming desk: Shares in the electric car company Tesla dropped on Friday after a key executive quit and CEO Elon Musk smoked marijuana on a live web broadcast.

    Future historians will have fun parsing the cause-and-effect relationships among those developments, but meanwhile we've been given yet another peek into the mind of the controversial tech mogul.

    On Thursday, Musk appeared on the live webcast The Joe Rogan Experience. In a loose and wide-ranging conversation, the two discussed flamethrowers, artificial intelligence, and the end of the universe itself.

    During one exchange, Rogan pulled out a joint and lit up.  

    “Is that a joint or is it a cigar?” Musk asked.

    “It's marijuana inside of tobacco,” Rogan replied. Marijuana is legal for recreational use in California, where the show is recorded.

    Rogen then offered Musk a hit, asking whether it would be an issue with stockholders.

    “I mean, it's legal, right?” Musk asked, then took a healthy hit off the spliff.

    Rogan and Musk also sipped whiskey throughout the two-hour interview. At one point, Musk's phone started buzzing. "I'm getting text messages from friends saying, 'What the hell are you doing smoking weed?'" he said.

    So what was Musk thinking?

    Well, turns out he was thinking about the kind of things people usually think about when smoking weed — trippy space planes.

    “I have a design for a plane,” Musk said, going on to drop a few details about his latest initiative, an electric airplane that could fly at supersonic speeds and incorporate vertical take-off and landing technology.

    ”I’ve thought about this quite a lot,” Musk said of his electric aircraft idea. ”The interesting thing about an electric plane is that you want to go as high as possible. You need a certain energy density in the battery pack because you have to overcome gravitational potential energy.”

    But a large portion of that gravitational potential energy could be recaptured and harvested on the descent, Musk said. He admitted that, so far, he's only discussed the concept with “friends and girlfriends.” and that he's not particularly focused on the project.

    “Electric cars are important, solar energy is important, stationary storage of energy is important,” he said. “These things are much more important than creating electric supersonic VTOL.”

    RELATED: Elon Musk Calls Out Mark Zuckerberg’s Understanding of AI Risks as ‘Limited’

    Whatever the intent of his recent public musings, Musk's wobbly behavior appears to be making investors nervous, as evidenced by Friday's decline in Tesla's share price.

    Also on Friday, Tesla disclosed that its chief of accounting, Dave Morton, was leaving the company only weeks after being hired.

    “Since I joined Tesla on Aug. 6, the level of public attention placed on the company, as well as the pace within the company, have exceeded my expectations,” Morton said on Friday in a statement included in a filling with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. “As a result, this caused me to reconsider my future. I want to be clear that I believe strongly in Tesla, its mission, and its future prospects, and I have no disagreements with Tesla’s leadership or its financial reporting.”

    Interesting side note: Rogan credits his appreciation of a marijuana-tobacco mix to Charlie Murphy and Dave Chappelle. That seems relevant, somehow.


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    Credit: SSPL/Getty Images

    The oldest rocks on Earth were likely formed by meteorites — the space rocks that occasionally survive the extraordinary heat and force of traveling through our planet’s atmosphere.

    Researchers studied the roughly 4-billion-year-old silica-rich rocks of the Acasta River, which lies in Canada’s remote Northwest Territory, and found that they were formed at very high temperatures — an indication, they say, that the rocks were formed by a meteorite impact.

    The rocks formed at a temperature of roughly 800 to 900 degrees Celsius (1,470 to 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit), which is much higher than temperatures in Earth’s mantle.

    The research was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

    “To get rocks this hot at such shallow levels can only really be explained by meteorite impacts,” principal author Tim Johnson, a geologist at Curtin University in Australia, told Seeker.

    When a space rock crashes into Earth, it creates shock waves. At the impact site, there is so much energy from the impact, it vaporizes anything nearby due to high pressures and temperatures. Rocks that are further away melt only partially, while those closer to the impact are pulverized.

    "The precise scale of the effects is mainly a function of the size of the impactor," Johnson said.

    "Our modeling," he added, "suggests that the [rocks] were the result of partial melting, and that the impactor must have been at least several kilometers across, but potentially much larger."

    RELATED: New Study Seeks to Pinpoint the Origins of Meteorites

    Impacts, of course, aren't unique to Earth, so perhaps there are rocks on other worlds that also were formed by meteorite impacts. Possible locations could include Mars, Venus, and Mercury, Johnson said.

    While we have pictures of these planets’ craters, a surface mission is necessary, according to Johnson to really see what the composition of the underlying rocks.

    "I suspect it won't be me doing that study," Johnson joked, as surface missions often take years or decades to plan — and humans, of course, haven't ventured out past low Earth orbit since the early 1970s.


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    Credit: David Tyler/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

    Back in September 1859, a massive solar storm called the Carrington Event triggered a coronal mass ejection, which produced dazzling auroras in Earth’s atmosphere that were visible around the world. The atmospheric light show was so brilliant it reportedly woke gold miners in the Rocky Mountains. The electric surge caused by the solar storm disrupted telegraph systems in Europe and the United States, and even shocked some operators.

    Despite advances in communication technology and other infrastructure design, a Carrington-scale event could still be devastating.

    One of the central questions concerning today’s solar scientists is how to predict when a threatening solar storm might erupt. What’s known is the sun’s activity peaks and diminishes over an 11-year solar cycle. During periods of maximum activity, which last occurred in 2014, the sun emits solar flares more frequently. But scientists continue to struggle with when — precisely — those blasts of solar plasm will happen. Better knowledge of solar activity could provide engineers back on Earth time to prepare for a wave of solar energy slamming into Earth’s atmosphere.

    A new study, however, offers some hope.

    A trio of UK and American scientists analyzed the last five solar cycles, which stretched back to the 1960s, and found a pattern during each solar maximum.

    They looked a satellite date of the sun’s outer atmosphere, also known as its corona, the constant stream of particles emanating from the sun, and the auroras that occur when the sun's particles hit Earth's magnetic field.

    “For each physical variable we find that the distribution tail (the exceedences above a threshold) can be rescaled onto a single master distribution using the mean and variance specific to each solar maximum interval,” the researchers wrote in an article published in July in the journal Space Weather.

    RELATED: Microexplosions on the Sun's Surface Are Superheating the Solar Corona

    In other words, by evaluating decades worth of information about the sun’s activity, the scientists have generated an improved predictive tool for Earth-based engineers trying to protect infrastructure from the next blast of solar energy.

    "If the system continues to behave in the same way, which we can never know for sure, this mathematical expression should hold for the next solar maximum," principal author Sandra Chapman, a Fulbright Scholar and astrophysicist at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, told Seeker.

    While the Chapman team’s research won’t predict the next extreme, Carrington-scale event, it does provide insights on large events that might also threaten infrastructure on Earth.

    Predicting the sun’s solar activity is likely to soon get another boost. NASA's Parker Solar Probe lifted off on August 11 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will orbit as close as four million miles to the sun. That's about eight times closer than the planet Mercury. The probe’s close proximity will allow it to analyze "gusts" of particles emitted by the sun that travel to Earth, Chapman said.


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    When director David Cronenberg released his horror movie The Fly in 1986, he hit a kind of pop culture nerve cluster. The director's signature body-horror vibe freaked out viewers, and the film enjoyed a wave of publicity as early audiences actually fled the theaters. The movie's gruesome effects won the Academy Award for best makeup.

    The Fly also managed to resurrect a kind of b-movie, sci-fi spirit that hadn't been seen in mainstream Hollywood since the 1950s. The film has since earned a place in the pantheon of great sci-fi horror movies.

    The film leveraged a little hard science, too. It tells the cautionary tale of Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a brilliant but eccentric scientist who makes a historic breakthrough in the technology of teleportation. Brundle's miraculous “telepods” can instantaneously transport inanimate objects through space. He hopes to teleport people, too, but there are a few — ahem — bugs in the system.

    In this week's episode of Bad Science, Seeker's podcast about scientific principles in the movies, host Ethan Edenberg roots around in the darker corners of entomology with comedian Byron Bowers and Doug Yanega, an entomologist with the University of California, Riverside.

    Yanega, a veteran researcher who has discovered hundreds of new insect species, shares some genuinely weird trivia on the taxanomical order known as Diptera.

    For instance, depending on how you define your terms, flies actually have multiple brains running different body parts and organic functions, Yanega said. These nerve cell systems, called ganglia, can theoretically operate independently of one another, a fact which has a kind of sideways relevance to the plot line of the movie. When Dr. Brundle gets his genetic material mixed up with that of a fly, the metamorphosis he undergoes is gradual and localized. Is this the teleported ganglia at work? As always, with Bad Science, reckless conjecture is encouraged.

    Yanega also reports that there is a scientific basis to the film's infamous “acid puke” scene, in which the fly creature spits out caustic digestive juices to soften up its meals.

    “Flies don't have jaws,” Yanega explained. “One way you can identify a fly is that they have mouth parts that are modified to take up liquid. They can't chew solid food.”

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    The panel also runs down some interesting details on the movie's notoriously disturbing deleted scenes, many of which you can now find online. Edenberg provides some behind-the-scenes trivia, as well. Apparently, Hollywood legend Mel Brooks quietly helped produce and finance the film.

    Click on over to this week's episode for more Hollywood lore and dubious science as Bad Science takes on The Fly.


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    The first 15 minutes of Gravity, director Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 sci-fi thriller, have earned a place as one of the most startling, wondrous movie experiences ever delivered to the multiplex.

    Floating in low-earth orbit, space shuttle astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are diligently making repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope. Complex trajectories swing the camera from long establishing shots to extreme close-ups. In one seemingly unbroken 15-minute sequence, we swirl in giddy delight, weightless inside of this carefully crafted hi-tech illusion of orbital physics.

    It's gorgeous, all right.

    But then things go haywire: When the Russians blow up one of their spy satellites on the other side of the planet, it triggers a chain reaction of devastation that puts our peacefully floating heroes on a collision course with a cloud of orbital debris, coming in at 17,000 miles per hour.

    In this week's installment of Bad Science — Seeker's podcast on science at the movies — host Ethan Edenberg is joined by comedian Nicole Calasich and Liz Warren, associate program scientist with the Center for Advancement of Science in Space. Warren often works with researchers and astronauts aboard the International Space Station, and she brings some intriguing insights to the hard science encoded within the blockbuster movie.

    For instance, that lethal debris field? It's a real problem.

    “It's very frightening,” she said. “Fortunately, a lot of the items that are in orbit are traveling in the same direction. So they don't collide with each other very often.”

    NASA and NORAD are among several agencies worldwide that track debris in space, Warren explained. And orbital trash is no joke, especially if you're on the International Space Station.

    “It is an issue,” Warren said. “Every once in a while, the space station has to be moved if a large enough piece of debris gets within a certain boundary.”

    Warren said space junk is largely pieces of older satellites that have long ago been abandoned into decaying orbits. Retrieving the trash is a major challenge, and different space agencies have proposed various solutions to the dilemma.

    “It's one of the problems we have, definitely,” Warren said. “We've got a bunch of debris, and much of it is the result of human space flight. There have been emergencies where the astronauts get a call from mission control, and they get told, ‘Hey, there is debris headed your way. So go get in your lifeboat and we'll tell you when it passes.’”

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    Warren said the situation happens maybe twice a year aboard the ISS. In addition, the International Space Station is constantly being bombarded with micrometeorites — tiny bits of space rock that leave pings and dents in the station’s outward facing hull.

    “Luckily, it's got some good shielding to prevent serious damage,” she said.

    Tune in to Bad Science this week for more details on the modern classic Gravity, including some informed conjecture on what happens to the human body when it's exposed to the vacuum of space.

    “It's unpleasant,” according to Warren.

    As host Edenberg points out, Gravity is a particularly good subject for the Bad Science podcast treatment because the film’s producers worked directly with NASA and other space agencies to ensure accuracy.

    In other words, there's a lot of science in the movie, and it's not bad at all.


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    Credit: NASA

    The Kepler space telescope, NASA’s venerable planet-hunting spacecraft, is low on fuel and has only a few weeks or months of operations left. But though the end is near, Kepler has been capping its epic decade of work with a series of prominent planetary sightings — including another look at the intriguing red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1.

    TRAPPIST-1 made international headlines last year when astronomers confirmed that seven rocky, Earth-like exoplanets were orbiting it. The news set off a frenzy of speculation that some of the planets were in a potentially habitable zone where liquid water might exist on their surface, but that remains a matter of debate. The red dwarf star these planets orbit is variable, and may occasionally spew its planets with deadly radiation that strips them of their atmospheres.

    Kepler just finished fresh observations of the star system under the K2 18th observing campaign. K2 is the mission in which the spacecraft spins between different sectors of the sky, using the sun’s solar wind pressure to keep the spacecraft steady in space. Kepler lost two of its four reaction wheels (pointing devices) years ago, and this is the only way that it can stay steady in space.
     

    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Due to fluctuations in solar pressure, the K2 mission has a little bit more observing “noise” than Kepler’s previous campaign, when it stared rock-steady at a point in the constellation Cygnus. Yet the K2 campaign has still revealed dozens of new planets.

    Kepler finds planets by watching them pass across the face of their parent star. As the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 orbit their parent star, the mutual gravity between each of these planets causes small variations in the timing of their star crossings.

    “If we can measure that slight change in the timing of the transit, that lets us infer how much the planet weighs,” project scientist Jessie Dotson told Seeker.

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    Knowing a planet’s mass hints at its composition. Gassier planets generally tend to be larger, like Jupiter and Saturn. Rocky planets tend to be smaller, perhaps only getting as big across as four Earth diameters or so. Since life as we know it thrives on rocky planets, determining the precise mass of each TRAPPIST-1 planet will help us learn more about their possible habitability.

    And that’s not all the K2 mission has in store. NASA temporarily put the spacecraft into sleep mode after 51 days in the K2 18th campaign, because engineers saw fuel fluctuations indicating that the spacecraft was likely extremely low on fuel. The agency paused operations and downloaded the data through NASA’s Deep Space Network at the regularly scheduled time.

    Credit: ESO

    Since Kepler still appeared to be in good health after waking up, NASA proceeded with the 19th campaign, which will run through Oct. 10 — and the space agency has also been in the process of planning the 20th observing campaign. A typical campaign lasts 60 to 80 days, and with Kepler’s uncertain fuel situation it’s unclear just how many more campaigns it has left in the tank. But the agency will continue to wring as much science out of the spacecraft as possible in the coming weeks and months.

    “We’re going to keep operating as long as the spacecraft lets us,” Dotson remarked.

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    A prominent target of the 19th campaign is GJ 9827, a star with three super-Earth exoplanets in its orbit that is relatively close to Earth. Kepler and the Hubble Space Telescope will study it together for the first time, trying to ferret out more clues about the planets’ atmospheres. An atmosphere offers another big clue to a planet’s history, and in a smaller planet it can also suggest how habitable it may be. A planet with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere might indicate that it can potentially support life as we know it, since that’s the approximate composition of Earth’s atmosphere.

    Kepler will also look again at K2 138, which has five planets in resonance with each other. This means that the planets orbit their star in a specific pattern; for example, one planet might orbit its star twice in the same time that another planet orbits once. What also makes K2 138 unique is that it’s the first multi-planet system to be discovered by citizen scientists.


    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    The waning space observatory will also hunt for new planets around stars, study clusters of stars, keep an eye out for supernovas and variable stars, and even do observations of the planet Neptune in the coming weeks.

    Even when Kepler eventually dies, its data will live on. Dotson noted that each member of the Kepler community has their own specialized interest that they would like to delve into first. Some are focused more on planets, while others may look at phenomena such as supernovas or huge red giant stars. As time goes on, the data will be collected and sorted into even more in-depth studies for future planet-hunters to probe.

    While Kepler is near the end of its life, another spacecraft is just beginning its mission. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched successfully in April and began its nominal observations in late July. TESS is designed to look at planets even closer to Earth, and mission planners hope to discover at least 50 new rocky planets in its first three years of operations.


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    Credit: Caiaimage/Tom Merton

    You know that laggy feeling when the clock says noon, but your body is telling you midnight? It’s not just in your head. Medical researchers at Northwestern University have developed a new blood test that can determine the precise time of your body’s internal clock.

    The new blood test will help doctors and hospital workers make sure that medications are delivered according to your body’s schedule, not the clock on the wall. Details on the patent-pending medical technology are described in the Sept. 10 issue of the journal PNAS.

    “This is really an integral part of personalized medicine,” said study co-author and Northwestern Medicine neurologist Dr. Phyllis Zee, in a statement. “So many drugs have optimal times for dosing. Knowing what time it is in your body is critical to getting the most effective benefits. The best time for you to take the blood pressure drug or the chemotherapy or radiation may be different from somebody else.”

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    The test measures 40 different gene expression markers in the blood, and can be taken any time of day.
     

    Credit: Philippe Turpin/Getty Images

    “This is a much more precise and sophisticated measurement than identifying whether you are a morning lark or a night owl,” remarked lead author Rosemary Braun, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University. “We can assess a person’s biological clock to within 1.5 hours.”

    Previous methods for reading the body’s circadian clock required multiple blood tests taken every hour throughout the course of the day. The new method uses computer software and mathematical algorithms to get a reading with two sequential blood draws.

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    “Circadian timing is a modifiable risk factor for improving cognitive health, but if we can’t measure it, it’s difficult to know if we’ve made the right diagnosis,” Zee said. “Now we can measure it just like a lipid level.”

    The software and algorithm will be made available to other researchers for further development, and will also enable them to easily examine the impact of misaligned circadian clocks in a range of maladies, including diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.


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    Regularly ranked among the greatest science fiction films ever made, Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner has proven alarmingly prophetic. An inspired cross between film noir and dystopian sci-fi, Blade Runner explored issues of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering years before these topics emerged in mainstream science and culture.

    Here’s the gist: In a near-future Los Angeles, police detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is tasked with hunting down rogue replicants — artificial humans that are used for slave labor in off-world colonies. Ecological collapse has devastated the planet, but the evil Tyrell Corporation has found a way to turn a profit by genetically engineering the slave labor needed to colonize other planets.

    In this special episode of Bad Science, recorded live at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, host Ethan Edenberg drills into the all-too-real technology behind the film's core storyline. This week's expert guest is Dr. Kathy Wei, bioengineering specialist and postdoc researcher at University of California, Berkeley. Also pitching in this week is the ridiculously prolific comic, writer, and actor Paul Scheer, co-host of the movie podcast How Did This Get Made?

    In a loose and wide-ranging discussion, the panel explores various facets of the film, including the future of real artificial intelligence and the ethics of genetic engineering. Lest this all sound too heavy, rest assured that the jokes come in hard and fast, too. But as Dr. Wei reveals, there's some weird science underneath all the sci-fi goofiness.

    In one exchange, contemplating the possibilities of genetically engineered children, Scheer asks whether he could program his kids to have raptor tails. Dr. Wei thinks it through, raising some rather complex bioethics issues.

    “For example, what if you had lizard DNA put into your kids because you want them to have tails?” she asks “Does that make them not human? What percentage of your genome has to be human? What about people with artificial hearts? Or someone with a transplanted animal organ? Part of them is not human, but we would say that overall they are human.”

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    Such concepts had been percolating in the sci-fi underground for years, of course. Scott's film was based on a novel by weird science godfather Philip K. Dick, who liked to stay around 30 years ahead of his time with any given book.

    In a later exchange, Dr. Wei speculates on a major plot point in the film. The replicants designed by the Tyrell Corporation have been programmed with limited life spans — a kind of built-in kill switch. Surprisingly, real-world genetic engineers are already working with such ideas.

    “When I initially saw the movie, I thought that was very clever of them to incorporate that,” Wei says. “Like with T-cell therapy, we're putting cells that have been manipulated outside the body, then put back into a human. There's always a chance that they will go rogue — that they'll become cancerous themselves or otherwise start attacking the body.”

    RELATED: Destroying Cancer Using Your Own Genetically Modified Cells

    One of the attributes that genetic engineers can program into a cell is the ability to turn on and turn off, Wei notes, causing the cell to die at a certain point in its development cycle.

    “So if you think there's a problem, the cells will basically die off,” she says. “Or you can imagine building in an element that says, ‘After 30 divisions of the cell, no more.’ ”

    Tune into this special live podcast for more details on the science of Blade Runner, including some intriguing speculation on the film's most famous mystery: whether Deckard himself is a replicant. Scheer also proposes a novel theory about the relationship between replicants and Oprah Winfrey. It's oddly persuasive, actually.


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    Total Recall, director Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi freakout, is famous for a lot of reasons. The film was the first adaptation of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick to achieve genuine blockbuster status (after 1982’s Blade Runner, which underperformed at the box office — more on the science of that film here). Total Recall also boasted eye-popping special effects, and with reigning action king Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role, it was pretty much a guaranteed commercial success.

    Nearly 30 years later, Total Recall still holds up critically as well, thanks to a strong script that manages to convey the extremely weird science of Dick’s original short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Compared to your typical action movie fare, Total Recall was (and remains) a genuine mind twister.

    The movie’s fundamental strangeness informs this week’s installment of Bad Science, Seeker’s podcast on the real-world science behind popular movies. Host Ethan Edenberg welcomes Dr. Laura Kerber, research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and resident expert on the planet Mars. Comic Brent Weinbach also sits in to explore the film’s strange twists.

    Speaking of which, the film’s central twist concerns the nature of perception itself — a lifelong obsession of Philip K. Dick’s. In the movie, our hero Quaid travels to the planet Mars. Or does he? The film imagines a future where commercial memory implants can be purchased. Is Quaid really living the story we’re watching, or is he acting out a false memory?

    Weinbach contends that the ambiguity of the story actually helps with suspension of disbelief.

    “Any flaws in logic or contrivances are allowed, because it’s just a dream,” he says. “There were things that were just a little too coincidental, a little too contrived, but by making the decision that this is fantasy all the way through — that he’s acting out this narrative in his head — then hey, anything goes.”

    But Dr. Kerber disagrees.

    “I have the opposite opinion,” she says. “I think that it was totally real and it all actually happened.”

    RELATED: Scientists Can Implant Fake Memories in the Brain: Here’s How

    Maybe the weirdest part of all: Scientists have shown that they can actually manipulate memories in the brain — the mouse brain, anyway. In a landmark study earlier this year, researchers demonstrated a technique in which they manipulate neurons to erase memories and otherwise tinker with the minds of mice. No, really.

    Aside from the strange neuroscience, the conversation turns to Dr. Kerber’s areas of expertise: space travel and all things Martian. Early in the show, the panel discusses one of the more innovative special effects sequences, in which characters are exposed to the vacuum of space when they lose the protection of their futuristic space suits.

    Would the loss of pressurization on Mars really look like that? Dr. Kerber provides some hard numbers.

    “In space you would die within about 30 seconds,” she says. “On Mars, the pressure is still low enough that your lungs would rupture if you didn’t breathe out.”

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    Kerber says humans need a minimum amount of atmospheric pressure, real or artificial, to survive on the Red Planet.

    “The pressure on Mars is about 6 millibars, which is very low,” Kerber says. “The amount of pressure you need is about 50 millibars. That’s called the Armstrong Limit, in a pressure suit. You can’t go below 50 with just a pressure suit holding you in. Then you need a pressurized space suit.”

    Kerber notes that the film’s concept of future space suits — as a kind of transparent membrane — also has roots in real science.

    “Some of the people designing the next generation of space suits have this idea,” she says. “Instead of putting you in a suit that generates air pressure to hold you in, the suits would just physically hold you in with a membrane.”

    Tune into the Total Recall episode for more on the science behind the movie, including some pleasantly reckless conjecture on atmospheric engineering, self-driving vehicles, and the probability of life on Mars.


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    Credit: NASA

    A long trip to space involves facing several dangerous elements. Astronauts can be felled by radiation, develop health problems owing to a lack of consistent sleep, or become psychologically damaged by spending a long time in isolation.

    NASA is working on countermeasures to mitigate the risk that these hazards pose to astronauts, as the agency explained in a recent five-part series on “Houston, We Have A Podcast.” Read on to learn more about the dangers that astronauts face, and what NASA is doing about them.

    1. Radiation can lead to cancer and other serious health problems

    As crews escape the protective envelope of Earth’s magnetic environment, they run across forms of radiation in space that are bad for human health. Just three months working aboard the International Space Station would subject an astronaut to more than triple the maximum recommended dosage of radiation for one year.

    Long-term radiation exposure is associated with an increased cancer risk in the long term. In the short term, extreme radiation doses can lead to sickness, hair loss, and even death. So NASA has a vested interest in protecting its crews and making sure that they are going to be exposed to as little radiation as possible.


    NASA has lifetime guidelines for how much radiation it allows individual astronauts to receive. Astronauts are not allowed to receive any more radiation than what would increase their risk of cancer mortality by 3 percent. The space agency uses a formula that depends on an astronaut’s gender and age at the time of the radiation exposure. This standard is a little hard to understand, given that individual astronauts are so distinct. Perhaps an easier metric is one from the European Space Agency, which limits astronauts to 1 Sievert (a unit of radiation exposure) over their careers. The Curiosity rover found that that’s about the same level of radiation that a crew would receive during a single 860-day trip to Mars.

    Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly

    NASA is also looking at countermeasures to reduce radiation risk during long missions.

    “If you can get there faster, that’s probably the biggest thing... because that minimizes the time you have to spend in space,” says NASA scientist Zarana Patel in the podcast. So more efficient propulsion might be one way to reduce exposure. Future spacecraft could also make use of magnetic shielding to protect the crews. Or perhaps there’s another technology out there that hasn’t been invented yet.

    2. Isolation is really tough on your psychological health

    Seniors, people with disabilities, and people living in harsh environments all face a similar issue — isolation. If there are few options to leave your house and see other people and participate in what many consider “normal” life, it’s difficult for humans to function psychologically. In space, that isolation is also extreme. Astronauts must remain inside of a small space station for six to 12 months at a time, only going “outside” during a spacewalk — and that’s if they’re lucky and have one scheduled.

    “We’re very resistant and adaptable to different changes in our environment,” says NASA scientist Tom Williams. “And what isolation does is sort of remove that context of adaption, because when we’re isolated, we’re not being able to engage our environment in as many different ways as we are when we’re not isolated. And so, therefore, some of the things that we depend on to help us adapt to the different challenges that we may encounter are now removed from that.”

    Credit: NASA

    In space, even though astronauts are going through demanding tasks, being alone means it’s more difficult to improve because there is little in the environment to correct them. So some of the best astronauts create “challenges” for themselves. Astronaut Shannon Lucid, for example, managed to pack 100 books with her (back in the 1990s, before Kindles) to read to her children.

    One sign of crew stress shows up in how they sleep. One research study cited in the podcast showed that in a sample size of 21 people, crews on the space station aren’t sleeping well roughly 29% of the time. (To put that in time perspective, that’s roughly two months out of a six-month mission.) NASA is still trying to figure out how to help astronauts adapt to isolation and a strange environment.

    3. Time delays when calling home increase emergency problems

    Say there’s a huge emergency on the way to Mars — maybe an Apollo 13-style explosion that cripples one of the spacecraft. In such a situation, astronauts may only have a few seconds or minutes to react in order to save their lives. The instinct of all crews today is to call home for more help, because NASA’s Mission Control is filled with experts on human health and spacecraft operations. But on the way to Mars, calling Earth — and waiting for a response — could take 40 minutes.

    NASA already has its crews trained in basic medical procedures in space, so they can deal with many common issues by themselves. This not only cuts down on superfluous calls to the ground, but the astronauts can also report symptoms precisely instead of giving a vague description, says NASA astronaut and former flight surgeon Mike Barratt.

    “Instead of getting a panic call to the ground, asking immediately to talk to the surgeon, what we may get is a report saying, ‘Crew member so and so was clutching their abdomen in very bad pain. We pulled out the ultrasound, we found a stone. We think it’s passing. We’ve given pain meds, and they’re resting comfortably,” he explains.

    Credit: NASA

    The best way NASA can think of to manage problems is to have as much expertise on the crew as possible. One of the ways that they manage risk is to say that every planetary mission must include a physician-level crew member on board. Another way is to look at the history of space exploration, as well as similarly remote environments such as submarines and Antarctica, to see which human health problems come up the most. A surprise one was urinary tract infections, which affect men in space far more often than on Earth. So NASA is building up its database to try to keep its astronauts safe.

    The podcast focused more on medical issues than engineering issues, although one can assume NASA is of course working on ways to make its spaceflight as safe as possible from an engineering perspective, too. The agency is already implementing new virtual reality systems on the International Space Station to have astronauts learn procedures for fixing things that break down, for example. These systems will also be useful on the way to Mars.

    4. Microgravity eats away our bones and muscles

    On the ISS, astronauts constantly “fall” around the Earth as they orbit, so they don’t feel the effects of gravity. While floating around for six months or a year in space sounds like a lot of fun, there’s a serious side effect; once you get back to Earth, you’re basically a cripple. At worst, an astronaut walking out of their spacecraft for the first time could slip and break a bone the moment they get back to Earth, because their bones and muscles have weakened over time.

    NASA has made a lot of strides in this regard. It mandates that its astronauts spend about 90 minutes per day exercising in space, using a resistance machine as well as either a treadmill or an exercise bike. Although astronauts are oversubscribed with things to do in space, that exercise time is sacred — everyone makes sure the astronauts are not pressured to abandon their time exercising to complete some experiment.

    The doctors say that this time sweating it out is extremely important.

    “On muscle and bone, you have de-loading effects which can be mitigated by extensive exercise,” says NASA’s Peter Norsk.

    Credit: National Museum of the U.S. Navy

    NASA is especially concerned with how a lack of gravity and increased space radiation could hurt explorers on the way to the moon or Mars. On Earth, we are protected from most forms of radiation due to the atmosphere; in space, explorers in low-Earth orbit still get a little less radiation than in deep space due to Earth’s magnetic field, which deflects some radiation from space. But on the way to Mars, that’s not the case.

    Norsk said that doctors still don’t understand how radiation can affect astronaut bone and muscle. It’s hard to simulate deep-space radiation on Earth, and we only sent a handful of astronauts to the moon back in the 1960s and 1970s.

    5. Space attacks our immune system

    One of the things that hurts astronauts in space is the loss of a regular “day” in space. The sun rises and sets 16 times in 24 hours aboard the ISS, because astronauts hurtle around the Earth once every 90 minutes. While crews do as much as possible to keep their bodies to a schedule – like eating at regular times and having firm sleep periods – it’s pretty difficult to fool the brain when light and dark keeps changing outside the window.

    Right now, doctors are trying to better firm up the circadian cycle by improving sleep for astronauts, which means reducing noise, making their schedules less stressful in the evening so that they can wind down, and taking other measures.

    “In-flight sleep is important,” says NASA immunologist Brian Crucian. “It can affect the immune system.”

    The doctors also look closely at studies of crews working in isolated, confined environments such as Antarctica to get more ideas about how to improve human immune systems in space. Doctors have been looking at circadian disruptions for years using the saliva of crews that are staying over winter. In more recent years, as technology improved, they’ve been having the crews analyze their samples on site to deliver the science more quickly.

    Doctors are still characterizing exactly how circadian problems affect Antarctic explorers, but the hope is in future years they’ll be able to implement countermeasures to help both the crews on Earth and the crews in space.


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