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  • Ig Nobel Prizes reward research on helium-huffing alligators and knives made of feces

    Chinese Alligator (Alligator sinensis)

    A study that placed Chinese alligators (Alligator sinensis) in helium chambers revealed mechanisms of their vocalizations and earned the authors a 2020 Ig Nobel Prize.

    Gregory G. Dimijian/Science Source

    The Ig Nobel Prizes, an annual event celebrating quirky, comical discoveries, carried on despite the pandemic in a virtual ceremony riddled with bugs—and bug jokes. The Annals of Improbable Research, the science humor magazine that hosts the event, selected bugs as the theme for the 30th annual event, although the winning studies spanned an array of icky, wondrous, and unconventional research. The ceremony took place entirely online for the first time with a series of prerecorded speeches, musical numbers, and lightning-speed lectures.

    This years prize in entomology went to an investigation of why so many insect researchers are themselves fearful of spiders. The survey of arachnophobic entomologists, published in 2013 in American Entomologist, explored why people who devoted their careers to critters such as cockroaches and maggots still found spiders unnerving. Among spiders’ most disliked traits were their fast, unpredictable movements and their many legs.

    The acoustics prize went to researchers who recreated in reptiles the party trick of inhaling helium from balloons. To study crocodilian vocalizations, the team placed alligators in an airtight, helium-filled chamber and found that the high-energy frequency bands of their bellows got even higher. The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2015, are the first evidence that nonavian reptiles produce sound from vibrations in the vocal tract, known as formants.

  • Former Los Alamos physicist gets probation for failing to disclose China ties

    Ariel view of Los Alamos National Laboratory

    Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico

    Los Alamos National Laboratory

    A former Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist who pled guilty to federal charges of lying about his contact with a talent recruitment program funded by the Chinese government has been sentenced to 5 years of probation and fined $75,000.

    In 2018, Turab Lookman, 68, denied to Los Alamos officials that he had “been recruited or applied for a job with the Thousand Talents Program, established by the Chinese government to recruit individuals with access to or knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property,” according to a Department of Justice statement. But prosecutors alleged that Lookman had, in fact, at least applied to the Chinese program, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

    Lookman initially pled not guilty to several charges in May 2019. But in January, he pled guilty to a single count of making a false statement after prosecutors agreed to drop several other charges, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

  • Meet the man who told Trump climate change is real

    Wade Crowfoot

    Wade Crowfoot’s challenge to U.S. President Donald Trump’s misleading comments on climate change went viral. Here, Crowfoot examines a fire scene in California.

    Paul Kitagaki Jr/Sacramento Bee via ZUMA Wire/Newscom

    Originally published by E&E News

    Wade Crowfoot, a California Cabinet secretary, didn’t plan on confronting President Donald Trump on extreme heat and wildfires. Then Trump dismissed climate change.

    “It’ll just start getting cooler, you just watch,” Trump said during a Monday meeting with California officials who were briefing him on the state’s catastrophic wildfires.

  • Pandemic inspires new push to shrink jails and prisons

    women working in a prison laundry facility

    Outbreaks of the pandemic coronavirus in correctional facilities have prompted moves to reduce populations.

    ANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Even before COVID-19 began to sweep through U.S. correctional facilities, Michael Daniels saw the storm coming. As the director of justice policy and programs for Franklin county in Ohio, Daniels knew the county’s two jails, with about 1950 inmates, wouldn’t allow for social distancing to control the coronavirus’ spread. So, back in March, he asked his team: How could they get as many people as possible out of there quickly?

    In New York City, Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, was having similar conversations. The pandemic “distilled to its essence [how] we think about the use of jail,” she says. “Was it worth putting somebody in jail if you thought that they were at risk of getting COVID?”

  • Turkish scientists and physicians face criminal investigations after criticizing COVID-19 policies

    Turkish protesters

    Protesters gather in Bursa, Turkey, on 21 July to support Kayıhan Pala, a public health researcher accused of “misinforming the public” about the coronavirus pandemic and “causing panic.”

    Medical Chamber Of Bursa

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    In April, Kayıhan Pala, a prominent public health expert at Uludağ University in northwestern Turkey, was shocked to find himself the target of a criminal complaint. Pala, a member of the COVID-19 monitoring group of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), had given an interview to a local website and shared research that showed the number of cases and deaths from the coronavirus were much higher than the government had reported. The complaint, filed by the governor of the province of Bursa, accused him of “misinforming the public” and “causing panic.”

    Saying it was his job to speak out about a burgeoning health crisis, Pala called for the charges to be dismissed. Instead, the prosecutor’s office asked administrators at the university to investigate. Only after a monthslong investigation, and national and international condemnation from rights groups and health workers, did the university conclude on 1 September that Pala had acted within his duty.

  • Eli Lilly reports promising first results for an antibody against COVID-19

    Coronavirus 2019-nCoV and Virus background with disease cells

    Researchers have high hopes for monoclonal antibodies’ power in fighting the novel coronavirus.

    fotomay/iStockPhoto

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Today brings the first whisper of success for a class of closely watched drugs that it’s hoped will begin to beat back COVID-19 before vaccines are licensed: monoclonal antibodies, engineered versions of the same virus-fighting antibodies that the body naturally produces.

    Eli Lilly reports this morning interim results from a placebo-controlled trial of one such compound, cloned in quantity from an antibody captured from the blood of a patient who recovered from COVID-19. In June, the company began a trial delivering either placebo or one of three doses of the antibody, called LY-CoV555, to 452 patients. These were not gravely ill people, but patients with mild or moderate symptoms who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 within the past 3 days and had not been hospitalized.

  • IBM promises 1000-qubit quantum computer—a milestone—by 2023

    the dilution refrigerator for the qubit machine

    IBM researchers have already installed the mounting hardware for a jumbo cryostat big enough to hold a quantum computer with 1 million qubits.

    Connie Zhou/IBM

    For 20 years scientists and engineers have been saying that “someday” they’ll build a full-fledged quantum computer able to perform useful calculations that would overwhelm any conventional supercomputer. But current machines contain just a few dozen quantum bits, or qubits, too few to do anything dazzling. Today, IBM made its aspirations more concrete by publicly announcing a “road map” for the development of its quantum computers, including the ambitious goal of building one containing 1000 qubits by 2023. IBM’s current largest quantum computer, revealed this month, contains 65 qubits.

    “We’re very excited,” says Prineha Narang, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aliro Quantum, a startup that specializes in code that helps higher level software efficiently run on different quantum computers. “We didn’t know the specific milestones and numbers that they’ve announced,” she says. The plan includes building intermediate-size machines of 127 and 433 qubits in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and envisions following up with a million-qubit machine at some unspecified date. Dario Gil, IBM’s director of research, says he is confident his team can keep to the schedule. “A road map is more than a plan and a PowerPoint presentation,” he says. “It’s execution.”

    IBM is not the only company with a road map to build a full-fledged quantum computer—a machine that would take advantage of the strange rules of quantum mechanics to breeze through certain computations that just overwhelm conventional computers. At least in terms of public relations, IBM has been playing catch-up to Google, which 1 year ago grabbed headlines when the company announced its researchers had used their 53-qubit quantum computer to solve a particular abstract problem that they claimed would overwhelm any conventional computer—reaching a milestone known as quantum supremacy. Google has its own plan to build a million-qubit quantum computer within 10 years, as Hartmut Neven, who leads Google’s quantum computing effort, explained in an April interview, although he declined to reveal a specific timeline for advances.

  • Deep beneath the high seas, researchers find rich coral oases

    A diverse, dense coral community was present throughout the dive at Debussy Seamount

    Corals on the Debussy Seamount, a submerged peak more than 2000 meters below the surface in the North Pacific Ocean

    © NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

    Aiming to bolster conservation on the high seas, a team of marine researchers today released the first comprehensive survey of coral reefs in the high seas–the roughly two-thirds of the ocean outside of national jurisdictions.

    After combing through more than half a million observations of reef-building corals, the team identified 116 reefs located in the high seas. Most of these corals live between 200 and 1200 meters beneath the surface, the researchers found. But a handful are found more than 2 kilometers deep. And there are likely many more high seas corals still to be found, the authors note, as surveys have typically prioritized corals close to shore. 

    The study coincides with the launch of the Coral Reefs on the High Seas Coalition, a group of scientists and nonprofits that aims to support research cruises to survey the steep, deep-water slopes where many of the reefs sit. Eventually, the coalition hopes the data will help persuade policymakers to give these poorly understood ecosystems greater protection in global agreements currently under negotiation.

  • Ethical or exploitative—should prisoners participate in COVID-19 vaccine trials?

     Sheriff's deputy and on-site nurse give medications to an inmate at Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility.

    Providing medication to inmates comes with practical challenges, but those difficulties shouldn’t prevent prisoners from enrolling in COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials, researchers argue.

    SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    As 38 clinical trials seek tens of thousands of volunteers to receive doses of experimental vaccines, researchers are discussing how to find and recruit participants effectively and ethically. Some people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 have not been well represented in studies—or represented at all. Prisoners, for instance, have borne a heavy burden of COVID-19, with more than 125,000 U.S. prisoners infected, and more than 1000 dead. But prisoners have also been excluded from the trials out of concern that they might be coerced into participating or exploited if they do.

    Now, some researchers argue that including prisoners in studies could offer outsize health benefits. Correctional facilities have experienced many COVID-19 outbreaks and are structurally unsuited to social distancing (among other precautions). And so, the researchers argue, like other people at high risk of catching the disease, prisoners should be allowed to participate in clinical trials. 

  • Climate change denialist given top role at major U.S. science agency

    An exterior view of the headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration headquarters

    Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA/TNS via Newscom

    Originally published by E&E News

    A controversial researcher who rejects climate science was hired by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a senior position, in a move suggesting the Trump administration is asserting growing influence over the study of rising temperatures.

    David Legates, a geography professor at the University of Delaware, has a long history of questioning fundamental climate science and has suggested that an outcome of burning fossil fuels would be a more habitable planet for humans.

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