Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower: How When to Watch


Wednesday night into Thursday morning will be one of the special dates scattered throughout each year when skywatchers can catch a meteor shower as a multitude of flares potentially burst in the darkness.

Meteor showers occur when our planet runs into the debris field left behind by icy comets or rocky asteroids going around the sun. These small particles burn up in the atmosphere, leading to blazing trails of light. The regularity of orbital mechanics means that any given meteor shower happens at roughly the same time each year.

The latest shower is the Eta Aquariids, sometimes also spelled Eta Aquarids. They have been active since April 15 go to May 27, but they will peak May 4 to 5, or Wednesday night into early Thursday morning.

The Eta Aquariids are one of two showers resulting from the debris field of Halley’s comet, along with the Orionids in October. Debris will enter over Earth’s Equator, meaning it will be visible in both hemispheres all over the world.

Moonlight will be minimal during peak times, which should be between 3 a.m. twilight on May 5. But the shower should be highly active for roughly a week before after that date. In past years, the Eta Aquariids have produced between 45 to 85 meteors per hour in dark sky conditions.

And there are more meteor showers to come. Visit The Times’s list of major showers expected in 2022, or sync our curated collection of major space astronomy events with your personal digital calendar.

The best practice is to head out to the countryside get as far away from artificial light sources as possible. People in rural areas may have the luxury of just stepping outside. But city-dwellers have options, too.

Many cities have an astronomical society that maintains a dedicated dark sky area. “I would suggest contacting them finding out where they have their location,” said Robert Lunsford, the secretary-general of the International Meteor Organization.

Meteor showers are usually best viewed when the sky is darkest, after midnight but before sunrise. In order to see as many meteors as possible, wait 30 to 45 minutes after you get to your viewing location. That will allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. Then lie back take in a large swath of the night sky. Clear nights, higher altitudes times when the moon is slim or absent are best. Mr. Lunsford suggested a good rule of thumb: “The more stars you can see, the more meteors you can see.”

Binoculars or telescopes aren’t necessary for meteor showers, in fact will limit your view.



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Few Transgender Children Change Their Minds After 5 Years, Study Finds


Young children who transition to a new gender with social changes — taking on new names, pronouns, haircuts clothing — are likely to continue identifying as that gender five years later, according to a report published on Wednesday, the first study of its kind.

The data come from the Trans Youth Project, a well-known effort following 317 children across the United States Canada who underwent a so-called social transition between ages of 3 12. Participants transitioned, on average, at age 6.5.

The vast majority of the group still identified with their new gender five years later, according to the study, many had begun hormonal medications in adolescence to prompt biological changes to align with their gender identities. The study found that 2.5 percent of the group had reverted to identifying as the gender they were assigned at birth.

As tension mounts in courtrooms statehouses across the country about the appropriate health care for transgender children, there’s been little hard data to draw on about their long-term development. The new study provides one of the first large data sets on this group. The researchers plan to continue following this cohort for 20 years after their social transitions began.

“There’s this sort of idea that the kids are going to be starting those things that they’re going to change their minds,” said Kristina Olson, a psychologist at Princeton University who led the study. “And at least in our sample, we’re not finding that.”

Dr. Olson other researchers pointed out, however, that the study may not generalize to all transgender children. Two-thirds of the participants were white, for example, the parents tended to have higher incomes more education than the general population. All of the parents were supportive enough to facilitate full social transitions.

And because the study began nearly a decade ago, it’s unclear whether it reflects the patterns of today, when many more children are identifying as trans. Two-thirds of the study’s participants were transgender girls who were assigned boys at birth. But in the past few years, youth gender clinics worldwide have reported a swell of adolescent patients assigned girls at birth who had recently identified as trans boys or nonbinary.

This group also has a high rate of mental health concerns, including autism ADHD, noted Laura Edwards-Leeper, a clinical psychologist in Oregon who specializes in the care of transgender children. “That’s really the group I’m most concerned about these days,” she said.

“I would say that this study tells us nothing about those kids,” Dr. Edwards-Leeper added. “It’s just that different.”

The Trans Youth Project researchers began recruiting participants in 2013, traveling to more than 40 states two Canadian provinces to interview families. Such in-depth data is rare in this type of research, which is often sourced from online surveys or through children referred to specific gender clinics, who are typically older often from more limited geographic areas.

Previously published work from the project showed that the children who were supported by their parents during social transitions were roughly equal to non-transgender children in terms of rates of depression, with slightly elevated rates of anxiety.

The new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, followed this cohort as they reached a milestone roughly five years out from their initial social transitions. The study found that 94 percent of the group still identified as transgender five years later. Another 3.5 percent identified as nonbinary, meaning they did not identify as boys or girls. That label wasn’t as widely used when the researchers began the study as it is today.

By the end of the study period, in 2020, 60 percent of the children had started taking either puberty-blocking drugs or hormones. The researchers are still collecting data about how many of the teenage participants had undergone gender surgeries, Dr. Olson said.

Eight children, or 2.5 percent, had switched back to the gender they were assigned at birth. Seven of them had socially transitioned before the age of 6 transitioned back before the age of 9. The eighth child, at 11 years old, reverted after starting on puberty-blocking drugs.

Research from the 1990s 2000s had suggested that many children diagnosed with gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder (a psychological diagnosis that no longer exists) would resolve their gender difficulties after puberty, typically by ages 10 to 13. Some of those earlier studies have been criticized because the children’s doctors advised their parents to steer them away from a transgender identity.

In the decades since that work was done, societal acceptance of gender diversity has grown, medical practice has shifted the number of transgender children has increased significantly.

For those reasons, it doesn’t make sense to compare the new study with older research, said Russ Toomey, a professor of family studies human development at the University of Arizona.

“It’s really comparing apples to oranges,” Dr. Toomey said. Many of the children in the earlier studies were effeminate boys whose parents were upset about their behavior, they said. “Many of these kids in these early studies that are frequently cited were never even labeling themselves or being labeled as transgender.”

The new study could suggest that transgender children, when supported by their parents, thrive in their identities. But it’s also possible that some of the children who still identified as transgender by the end of the study — or their parents — felt pressure to continue on the path they started.

“I think depending on your perspective, people will probably interpret this data differently,” said Amy Tishelman, a clinical psychologist at Boston College lead author of the World Professional Association of Transgender Health’s standards of care chapter on children.

“Some people may say that kids get on this trajectory of development they can’t get off that the medical interventions may be irreversible they may come to regret it,” she said. “Other people will say kids know their gender, when they’re supported in their gender, they’re happy.”

While most clinicians agree that social transitions can be helpful for some children who are questioning their assigned gender, Dr. Tishelman said, it’s also important to give support to those who change their minds. “It’s just really important that kids can continue to feel like it’s OK to be fluid, to continue to explore,” she said.

More data on the cohort as it continues into adolescence could reveal how many children choose to detransition after beginning hormone therapy.

Dr. Olson said her group would soon be publishing an additional qualitative study that described the experiences of the relatively small number of children in the cohort who switched back to their original gender identity. These children did well, she said, when supported by their families.

“In our work we don’t just want to know what category they fit in today vs. tomorrow,” Dr. Olson said.

“I think of all these kids as gender diverse in different ways,” she added, “we want to understhow to help their lives be better.”



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John Doerr Gives Stanford $1.1 Billion for Climate School


Yet some question whether these philanthropic investments can make a difference when it comes to a planetary crisis.

“I don’t see how giving a billion dollars to a rich university is going to move the needle on this issue in a near-term time frame,” said David Callahan, author of “The Givers: Wealth, Power, Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.” “It’s nice that he’s parting with his money, but that billion dollars could be better spent trying to move this up on the scale of public opinion. Until the public sees this as a top tier issue, politicians are not going to act.”

Arun Majumdar, who was named as the school’s inaugural dean has advised the Obama Biden administrations on energy issues, said the school would provide context analysis around climate change issues, but would stop short of advocacy. “We will not go into the political arena,” he said. “That’s a very slippery slope for us.”

Mr. Majumdar, who currently holds a chair at Stanford named for Jay Precourt, a businessman who made his name in the oil business, also said that the new school would work with accept donations from fossil fuel companies.

“Not all oil gas industries are on board, but there are some who are who are under pressure to diversify, otherwise they will not survive,” Mr. Majumdar said. “Those that want to diversify be part of the solutions, they want to engage with us, we are open to that.”

Mr. Doerr said he was first inspired to address climate change in 2006, after he watched Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” with his family. He said that, at dinner after the film, his daughter told him, “Your generation created this problem. You better fix it.” The next year, Mr. Gore joined Kleiner Perkins, Mr. Doerr’s venture capital firm.

In the years that followed, Kleiner Perkins made several major investments in clean energy companies Mr. Doerr delivered a TED Talk titled “Salvation (Profit) in Greentech.” But during the financial crisis of 2008, when the cost of natural gas plummeted due to fracking, many of those clean energy companies failed.



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Florida Faculty Await Details on New Tenure Law

Last Tuesday (April 26), Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that may make it harder for faculty at universities there to retain tenure. The bill gives the Board of Governors of the Florida State University System the authority to impose a five-year review of tenured faculty, in addition to the yearly reviews they already undergo. Of the seventeen seats on the Board of Governors, three are elected positions, the remaining seats are appointed by the governor confirmed by the Florida legislature. DeSantis framed the legislation as a way to keep faculty members’ political views out of the classroom increase accountability. 

In press conference held the day of the bill’s signing, DeSantis stated that, per the new law, the new five-year reviews will be performed by each university’s board of trustees, The Tampa Bay Times reports. Typically, many of the seats on the board of trustees at public universities are appointed by the governor. However, the text of the bill itself doesn’t specify that boards of trustees will conduct the additional tenure review process. Instead, it only specifies that the university system’s Board of Governors can instate an additional five-year tenure review of tenured professors at Florida state universities, based on metrics such as accomplishments, productivity, evaluations, ratings. 

Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors, tells The Scientist that the problem with the legislation is that “this new five-year review for tenured faculty includes the possibility of dismissal without academic due process,” calls the bill “a clear attack on academic freedom.” Tenure, which has been a standard for educational institutions in North America since 1940, was originally designed to block political influence give faculty the freedom to research discuss controversial topics without fear of dismissal, Mulvey says.

See “Hawai‘i Legislature Terminates Tenured Professor’s Position”

At the press conference, DeSantis criticized what he called “lifetime appointments” for university professors. “We need to make sure the faculty are held accountable make sure they don’t just have tenure forever without having any type of ways to hold them accountable or evaluate what they’re doing,” DeSantis said. “It’s all about trying to make these institutions more in line with what the state’s priorities are and, frankly, the priorities of the parents throughout the state of Florida.”

During the same press conference, House Speaker Chris Sprowls said that the legislation is a way to prevent “indoctrination” keep professors from pushing their “radical agenda.”

Sprowls also stated that the bill also includes a provision that will increase transparency by requiring course syllabi to be posted online 45 days before the first course, preventing university professors from incorporating “ideology politics.” Sprowls said it would also prevent students from being surprised by a class about “socialism communism” when they thought they were enrolling in one focused on “Western democracy.” The bill also requires Florida universities to switch accreditors every five- to ten-year cycle. The Tampa Bay Times reports that faculty in Florida have expressed concerns that the bill may cause universities to lose accreditation, resulting in a loss of research funds federal student aid. 

Andrew Gothard, the president of United Faculty of Florida (UFF)—the union representing both tenure track non-tenure-track faculty at dozens of Florida colleges universities—says that the law is “intended to make faculty think twice” about contradicting the governor’s political stances. He recalls that “at Florida Atlantic University, where I’m a faculty member . . . one of our Board of Trustees members said openly that political affiliation, political donations, other sorts of issues like that should become part of the tenure portfolio, should be a reason . . . for the awarding of tenure . . . at our institution.” He also states that DeSantis seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how higher education works that DeSantis’s “suggestion that tenured faculty are not reviewed is completely false.” 

The UFF administrators at Florida public universities aren’t yet certain how this new law will affect tenured faculty. 

Gothard says that he doesn’t expect the law’s passage to affect tenure retention, given that tenure is negotiated in local employment contracts at the level of Florida university campuses. However, he says that it’s still possible that the Board of Governors will try institute changes to the tenure review process, the UFF’s policy is to challenge any such changes. He adds that the law’s language is vague, perhaps making such a challenge unnecessary in this case. Faculty in Florida’s public university system already receive yearly tenure reviews, he says, which are performed by a committee of the academic’s peers administrators, the law does not force the Board of Governors to create a new policy at all. The union’s next steps will therefore be determined by whether the Board of Governors change the existing tenure review policy. The Board of Governors has not announced any decisions on the matter did not respond to a request for comment from The Scientist. 

People in STEM disciplines might think that this doesn’t affect us as much as other fields. But I would argue that it affects us as well . . . Our ethical, cultural, historical contexts are uncomfortable to grapple with they’re important for people to know.

—Emilio Bruno, University of Florida

Gothard also says that the new policy is likely an intimidation tactic to “keep students staff . . . silent on campus, or . . . only talking about conservative viewpoints.”

Mulvey says that even before the bill was signed, faculty “were reporting pressure not to criticize the governor.” Late last year, a University of Florida faculty report alleged that faculty felt pressured to destroy COVID-19 data experienced “barriers” to accessing data related to the pandemic. A week before the tenure bill was passed, an “intellectual” survey was sent out to faculty, students, staff at Florida universities, asking students if they felt that professors used their positions to inject ideological stances into their curricula about respondents’ political beliefs. The UFF encouraged faculty to boycott the survey. 

Gothard says he suspects that the new law will make Florida a less appealing place for faculty to work, that the union has heard from “quite a number” of “faculty who are saying they want to leave Florida.”

Emilio Bruno, a plant biologist in the department of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, says that “people in STEM disciplines might think that this doesn’t affect us as much as other fields. But I would argue that it affects us as well . . . Our ethical, cultural, historical contexts are uncomfortable to grapple with they’re important for people to know.”  He adds that the faculty who grapple with these issues are the most at risk of leaving Florida institutions or pausing their work.

Mulvey says she anticipates the law will “have a very negative impact on recruitment retention of faculty graduate students.” She adds, “The immediate consequence is that faculty will self-censor . . . that is a chilling, dangerous chilling effect on teaching research.”



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A robotic pill monitors disease in the gut


A robotic pill capable of collecting biomarkers, including proteins bacteria, from the gut provides an easy-to-use disease screening tool.

Every year, about 62 million people in the United States are diagnosed with gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, including different types of cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease.

Detecting continuously monitoring for biomarkers or physiological changes within the body represents a powerful preventive measure that could save the lives of countless people. For instance, if caught early, nine in ten patients survive colorectal cancer where this survival rate plummets to one in ten if identified late. Early detection is therefore critical.

Although survival statistics clearly demonstrate the benefits of early detection, medical guidelines for cancer screening are often inadequate — colon cancer screening for patients over the age of 45 are recommended every five to ten years.

Researchers at the BAMM lab working in the Stanford University School of Medicine hope to fill the gap between screenings using an easy-to-use robotic pill they developed that is capable of scaling the entire GI track, capturing biomarkers which it uses to identify disease states.

Developing tests to screen for diseases in the gut is particularly challenging because of how difficult it is to access without requiring surgery, as well as its length. At over 30 feet long, the GI tract can be difficult to fully navigate analyze. While standard procedures, such as colonoscopies or endoscopies, are the gold standard for diagnosing disease, they occur infrequently (every five years) are limited in their ability to assess the entire GI tract, not to mention the fact that they are cumbersome invasive, resulting in low compliance.

Stool or blood samples can help to identify early signal of disease, such hidden bleeding DNA markers in the gut, though they offer limited information about the disease’s source. Thus, there is a great need for creating simple approaches that can take samples at multiple locations in the gut to narrow down differentiate between different GI cancers, for example, such as pancreatic, intestinal, or colorectal cancer.

The pill consists of a small plastic structure containing multiple collections chambers that open sequentially, enabling it to map biomarkers to a specific collection site rather than obtaining an average measurement from the whole digestive system.

Once swallowed, the pill collects information by trapping molecules or pathogens of interest in a sodium polyacrylate gel — an absorbent material. In an in vitro proof-of-concept experiment, the robotic pill was capable of collecting diverse biomarkers, including proteins bacteria. After capture, the biomarkers are released from the gel analyzed in a lab using standard analytical methods, including immunochemical PCR tests.

The next steps will be to evaluate the pill’s ability to capture diagnose disease in large animal models evaluate its efficacy safety for clinical translation.

In the future, the robotic pill could be used in routine checkups or used as at-home tests, as simple as measuring one’s pulse rate or blood pressure, where the information collected is used to predict disease before it’s too late.

Reference: Fernando Soto, et al., Robotic Pill for Biomarker Fluid Sampling in the Gastrointestinal Tract, Advanced Intelligent Systems (2022). DOI: 10.1002/aisy.202200030

Disclaimer: The author of this article was involved in the study



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