In How To: XKCD author offers absurd advice for ordinary tasks

Science - Posted On:2019-09-22 17:15:00 Source: arstechnica

Any time physicists gets together, one of them will tell a very old joke about a farmer who wants to make their farm more efficient. In the joke, a list of inappropriate professionals offer the farmer reasonable suggestions. The punchline comes from the physicist who responds "Well, let's assume that cows are spheres... "

The actual punchline isn't in the joke itself—it's what happens next: one of the physicists listening to the joke will lecture the rest on how the approximation isn't that bad really. They will end with a list of all the things you can learn about the world from spherical cows. The joke only ends when the bar closes. Physicists: ruining jokes, cows, farming, and most of biology since 1687.

Randall Munroe's new book, How To, is the spherical cows joke relentlessly replicated and explained without—and this is the important part—removing the humor. Munroe has, as the subtitle Absurd Advice for Real-World Problems explains, produced a book of absurd scientific advice. It is, essentially, a "how you shouldn't" manual. With that in mind, you should not read How To as you would an ordinary book.

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Did a Prehistoric Asteroid Breakup Shower Earth With Enough Dust To Change the Climate?

science - Posted On:2019-09-22 10:44:56 Source: slashdot

Applehu Akbar writes: CNN reports this week on a paper describing a hypothesis that the breakup of a large asteroid 466 million years ago generated enough dust in Earth's orbit to substantially change the terrestrial climate for an extended period. This would have triggered an 'Ordovician icehouse' climate event, with major effects on biology. "The 93-mile-wide asteroid was in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter when it collided with something else and broke apart, creating a wealth of dust that flooded the inner solar system..." CNN reports. "To understand how this process unfolded, the researchers found evidence of space dust locked in 466-million-year-old rocks that were once on the sea floor." The paper argues that to this day, that collision "still delivers almost a third of all meteorites falling on Earth." Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Was Cuba's Mysterious Sonic Weapon Just Mosquito Gas?

science - Posted On:2019-09-21 19:44:59 Source: slashdot

Remember concerns about possible "sonic attacks" in Cuba? Long-time Slashdot reader kbahey shares an update: In the wake of the health problems experienced over the past three years by US and Canadian staff in Havana, Cuba embassies, Global Affairs Canada commissioned a clinical study by a team of multidisciplinary researchers. Now, the working hypothesis is that the cause could instead be neurotoxic agents used in pesticide fumigation. The BBC has more coverage on this, saying it may have been merely mosquito gas. "The researchers found that since 2016, Cuba launched an aggressive campaign against mosquitoes to stop the spread of the Zika virus," reports the CBC: The embassies actively sprayed in offices, as well as inside and outside diplomatic residences -- sometimes five times more frequently than usual. Many times, spraying operations were carried out every two weeks, according to embassy records... The researchers are now looking to collaborate with Cuban officials to determine whether any Cubans suffered similar brain injuries... Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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SpaceX Tries Buying Out Homeowners Around Starhopper's Texas Launchpad

science - Posted On:2019-09-21 14:45:00 Source: slashdot

SpaceX "built its experimental spaceport in and around Boca Chica Village, a decades-old community of about 20 elderly residents," reports Business Insider. But now "SpaceX is trying to buy as much of Boca Chica Village as it can and move people out...following an accidental brush fire, public-safety notices warning of the possibility for explosions, and a push to have the Federal Aviation Administration approve orbital-class launches with larger rockets." "When SpaceX first identified Cameron County as a potential spaceport location, we did not anticipate that local residents would experience significant disruption from our presence," the letter said. "However, it has become clear that expansion of spaceflight activities as well as compliance with Federal Aviation Administration and other public safety regulations will make it increasingly more challenging to minimize disruption to residents of the Village... SpaceX is offering you three times the independently appraised fair market value of your property," the letter said. "The offer is good through two weeks from the date of this letter...." For those who commit to a sale, SpaceX said it would cover closing and other real-estate costs. It also comes packaged with an additional perk. "SpaceX recognizes that your close proximity to its operations has offered a unique opportunity to experience at close-hand the development of what will be the world's most advanced rocket. In appreciation of your support, we will offer all residents of the Village who accept the purchase offer the opportunity to continue their connection with the development of Starship by extending an invitation to attend future private VIP launch viewing events that are unavailable to the public." Homeowner Cheryl Stevens complained to CBS News that the company has encroached on their neighborhood. "They're behaving as if this is Cape Canaveral. And it's not. It's not a military base. It's just a regular neighborhood, and a public beach, and a state highway. And suddenly, because they're here, stop the presses. Everything has to change for SpaceX." SpaceX issued the following statement to CBS News: "We are entering a new and exciting era in space exploration and Texas is playing an increasingly important role in our efforts to help make humanity multi-planetary. "As we develop Starship -- the world's most advanced launch system ever -- we are listening and responding to our neighbors' concerns and are striving to minimize disruptions as much as possible. We are working closely with Cameron County to facilitate public safety and provide regular road and beach closure updates to the public through a telephone hotline and on Cameron County's website." Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Could A Scalp-Zapping Cap Help Reverse Male Balding?

science - Posted On:2019-09-21 13:44:59 Source: slashdot

"An electric patch makes hairless mice grow fur and may reverse balding in men when fitted inside a specially designed baseball cap," reports New Scientist: At the moment, men who don't want to go bald can treat hair loss using minoxidil lotion, finasteride pills or hair transplant surgery. But minoxidil doesn't work for everyone, finasteride can reduce sex drive and fertility, and surgery is painful and expensive. Stimulating the scalp with electric pulses has also been shown to restore hair growth. However, it isn't a very practical treatment because it involves being hooked up to a machine or battery pack for several hours a day. To overcome this hurdle, Xudong Wang at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues have developed a wireless patch that sticks to the scalp and generates electric pulses by harnessing energy from random body movements. The 1-millimetre-thick plastic patch contains layers of differently-charged materials that produce electricity when they come into contact and separate again -- a phenomenon known as the triboelectric effect. When the flexible patch was attached to the backs of rats, their movements caused it to bend and stretch, activating the triboelectric effect. The resulting electric pulses stimulated faster hair re-growth in shaved rats compared with minoxidil lotion and inert saline solution... Wang also tested the patch on his father, who has been going bald for the past few years. "It helped him to grow a lot of new hairs after one month," Wang says. His team has now designed a baseball cap that encases the whole scalp in the triboelectric materials to stimulate hair growth, and is seeking approval to test it in men in a clinical trial... However, the hat will only work in men who are currently losing their hair or have recently become bald, because the skin loses its ability to generate new hair follicles after many years of baldness, Wang says. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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AI Takes On Earthquake Prediction

science - Posted On:2019-09-20 17:44:59 Source: slashdot

After successfully predicting laboratory earthquakes, a team of geophysicists has applied a machine learning algorithm to quakes in the Pacific Northwest. From a report: In May of last year, after a 13-month slumber, the ground beneath Washington's Puget Sound rumbled to life. The quake began more than 20 miles below the Olympic mountains and, over the course of a few weeks, drifted northwest, reaching Canada's Vancouver Island. It then briefly reversed course, migrating back across the U.S. border before going silent again. All told, the monthlong earthquake likely released enough energy to register as a magnitude 6. By the time it was done, the southern tip of Vancouver Island had been thrust a centimeter or so closer to the Pacific Ocean. Because the quake was so spread out in time and space, however, it's likely that no one felt it. These kinds of phantom earthquakes, which occur deeper underground than conventional, fast earthquakes, are known as "slow slips." They occur roughly once a year in the Pacific Northwest, along a stretch of fault where the Juan de Fuca plate is slowly wedging itself beneath the North American plate. More than a dozen slow slips have been detected by the region's sprawling network of seismic stations since 2003. And for the past year and a half, these events have been the focus of a new effort at earthquake prediction by the geophysicist Paul Johnson. Johnson's team is among a handful of groups that are using machine learning to try to demystify earthquake physics and tease out the warning signs of impending quakes. Two years ago, using pattern-finding algorithms similar to those behind recent advances in image and speech recognition and other forms of artificial intelligence, he and his collaborators successfully predicted temblors in a model laboratory system -- a feat that has since been duplicated by researchers in Europe. Now, in a paper posted this week on the scientific preprint site, Johnson and his team report that they've tested their algorithm on slow slip quakes in the Pacific Northwest. The paper has yet to undergo peer review, but outside experts say the results are tantalizing. According to Johnson, they indicate that the algorithm can predict the start of a slow slip earthquake to "within a few days -- and possibly better." Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Sacklers threaten to scrap opioid deal if they aren’t shielded from lawsuits

Science - Posted On:2019-09-20 13:45:00 Source: arstechnica

Lawyers for OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma filed a new complaint late Wednesday threatening that the company’s mega-rich owners, the Sackler family, could pull out of a proposed multi-billion-dollar opioid settlement deal if a bankruptcy judge doesn’t shield the family from outstanding state lawsuits.

Purdue’s lawyers argue that if the lawsuits continue, the Sacklers will have to waste “hundreds of millions of dollars” on legal costs that could otherwise go to claimants in the settlement. The family's lawyers added that in that event, the family “may be unwilling—or unable—to make the billions of dollars of contributions” to the proposed settlement.

State attorneys general, however, argue that the tactic is yet another move designed to shield the Sacklers and their ill-gotten wealth.

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Why Prescription Drugs Cost So Much More in America

science - Posted On:2019-09-20 13:30:00 Source: slashdot

The US spends more per capita on medication than anywhere else in the world. It's a key electoral issue. From a report on Financial Times (paywalled): All over the world, drugmakers are granted time-limited monopolies -- in the form of patents -- to encourage innovation. But America is one of the only countries that does not combine this carrot with the stick of price controls. The US government's refusal to negotiate prices has contributed to spiralling healthcare costs which, said billionaire investor Warren Buffett last year, act "as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy." Medical bills are the primary reason why Americans go bankrupt. Employers foot much of the bill for the majority of health-insurance plans for working-age adults, creating a huge cost for business. In February, Congress called in executives from seven of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies and asked them: why do drugs here cost so much? The drugmakers' answer is that America is carrying the cost of research and development for the rest of the world. They argue that if Americans stopped paying such high prices for drugs, investment in innovative treatments would fall. President Trump agrees with this argument, in line with his "America first" narrative, which sees other countries as guilty of freeloading. For the patients on the trip, the notion is galling: insulin was discovered 100 years ago, by scientists in Canada who sold the patent to the University of Toronto for just $1. The medication has been improved since then but there seems to have been no major innovation to justify tripling the list price for insulin, as happened in the US between 2002 and 2013. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Ancient slag offers insight into the uneven pace of technological advances

Science - Posted On:2019-09-20 11:45:01 Source: arstechnica

Sometimes, clues about ancient technology are hidden in the most mundane things. In this case, Tel-Aviv University archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef and his colleagues went rummaging through heaps of slag, the glassy waste discarded after smelters separate copper from its ore. Their goal? To hunt for clues about industry and innovation in the ancient Edomite Kingdom.

Less copper mixed with the slag suggests more-efficient smelting, so by tracking changes in the slag, Ben-Yosef and his colleagues could track the progress of a technology that powered the ancient world.

The archaeologists found mostly small, gradual improvements over the course of five centuries, punctuated by a sudden, drastic increase in efficiency around 925 BCE, in the wake of an Egyptian invasion of the area. That suggests that a model for the evolution of new species may also apply to human technology, and that we may need a little instability to break out of equilibrium and trigger bursts of innovation. It also reveals how one society in particular benefitted from the Bronze Age Collapse and later took advantage of the disruption of a foreign invasion to make a leap forward in technology.

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Rocket Report: Russia to build 11 more Protons, Boeing wants EUS funding

Science - Posted On:2019-09-20 07:14:57 Source: arstechnica

Welcome to Edition 2.15 of the Rocket Report! We're back after traveling last week, and the newsletter is packed with information about all manner of rockets. Perhaps the most surprising tidbit this week is the possibility that Stratolaunch may be returning to the skies.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Rocket Lab says Atlantic spaceport progressing. The smallsat rocket company said it has installed the launch platform at its second launch site, Launch Complex 2, which marks one of the final steps in the construction of the new pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. Rocket Lab is preparing for the first Electron launch from US soil in "early 2020."

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Teen vaping surge: 25% of 12th graders report recent use, 11% daily use

Science - Posted On:2019-09-20 06:59:57 Source: arstechnica

Preliminary data from two long-standing, nationwide surveys reveals a sustained surge in e-cigarette use—aka vaping—by teens over the last two years.

About 25% of 12th graders in 2019 reported using nicotine-containing vaping products within 30 days of taking one of the surveys. That figure was about 21% in the 2018 edition of the same survey and 11% in 2017.

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Japan's Hayabusa 2 Targets Final Asteroid Landing

science - Posted On:2019-09-20 03:14:58 Source: slashdot

The team overseeing the Hayabusa2 mission for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is putting the vehicle through its paces one more time as it prepares to release the last rover it has on board. "That rehearsal, which took place Sept. 16 (Sept. 17 local time at mission control), sent two target markers toward the asteroid," reports From the report: Each target marker is a reflective ball that's about 4 inches (10 centimeters) across and filled with smaller balls -- like a high-tech beanbag. Hayabusa2 launched with five of these markers and had already deployed two, one last October and one in May. Two more left the spacecraft during the rehearsal this week, according to JAXA. During the procedure, the spacecraft photographed the target markers every 4 seconds, producing the raw material that mission personnel have turned into stunning would-be multiple-exposure images. As the camera snapped, the target marker itself stayed more or less in the same place, while the spacecraft itself rose at a speed of about 4 inches per second, according to a statement from JAXA. All told, the target markers took a few days to reach the asteroid's surface, on account of the space rock's very weak gravity. Since deploying the two target markers, Hayabusa2 has focused on observing the pair, which it will continue to do until Sept. 23, according to JAXA. The agency has not yet announced when it will deploy the spacecraft's final rover. That deployment marks the last task Hayabusa2 needs to complete before it ferries its precious space-rock cargo back to Earth. The spacecraft will leave Ryugu in November or December. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Weighing in: Physicists cut upper limit on neutrino’s mass in half

Science - Posted On:2019-09-19 18:15:00 Source: arstechnica

Isaac Asimov dubbed neutrinos "ghost particles." John Updike immortalized them in verse. They've been the subject of several Nobel Prize citations, because these weird tiny particles just keep surprising physicists. And now we have a much better idea of the upper limit of what their rest mass could be, thanks to the first results from the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino experiment (KATRIN) in Germany. Leaders from the experiment announced their results last week at a scientific conference in Japan and posted a preprint to the physics arXiv.

"Knowing the mass of the neutrino will allow scientists to answer fundamental questions in cosmology, astrophysics, and particle physics, such as how the universe evolved or what physics exists beyond the Standard Model," said Hamish Robertson, a KATRIN scientist and professor emeritus of physics at the University of Washington. "These findings by the KATRIN collaboration reduce the previous mass range for the neutrino by a factor of two, place more stringent criteria on what the neutrino's mass actually is, and provide a path forward to measure its value definitively."

The ghostly particles are devilishly hard to detect because they so rarely interact with other particles, and when they do, they only interact via the weak nuclear force. Most neutrino hunters bury their experiments deep underground, the better to cancel out noisy interference from other sources, notably the cosmic rays continually bombarding Earth's atmosphere. The experiments usually require enormous tanks of liquid—dry-cleaning fluid, water, heavy water, mineral oil, chlorine, or gallium, for example, depending on the experimental setup. This increases the chances of a neutrino striking one of the atoms in the medium of choice, triggering the decay process. The atom changes into a different element, emitting an electron in the process, which can be detected.

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We can phase out fossil fuels fast without having a burst of warming

Science - Posted On:2019-09-19 17:30:00 Source: arstechnica

Burning fossil fuels spews carbon dioxide into the air, which warms the climate through the greenhouse effect (as if you didn’t know that). But burning fossil fuels also spews sulfur dioxide into the air, and sulfur dioxide forms aerosols that can deflect the sun’s rays and thus cool the climate. It has thus been argued that phasing out fossil fuels would have the undesirable effect of accelerating the warming the planet in the near term, since we’d be getting rid of the cooling aerosols at the same time.

This very argument was, in fact made by countries with serious air pollution issues. This indicated to the IPCC policymakers that the countries were struggling to figure out how, and how much, to limit emissions.

But climate scientists Drew Shindell and Christopher Smith have now re-analyzed the modeling data and concluded that there is no way we could possibly halt emissions quickly enough for the aerosols' "climate penalty" to be meaningful. "Even the most aggressive plausible transition to a clean-energy society," they write, "provides benefits for climate change mitigation."

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North America Has Lost 3 Billion Birds in 50 Years

science - Posted On:2019-09-19 16:15:00 Source: slashdot

Slowly, steadily and almost imperceptibly, North America's bird population is dwindling. From a report: The sparrows and finches that visit backyard feeders number fewer each year. The flutelike song of the western meadowlark -- the official bird of six U.S. states -- is growing more rare. The continent has lost nearly 3 billion birds representing hundreds of species over the past five decades, in an enormous loss that signals an "overlooked biodiversity crisis," according to a study from top ornithologists and government agencies. This is not an extinction crisis -- yet. It is a more insidious decline in abundance as humans dramatically alter the landscape: There are 29 percent fewer birds in the United States and Canada today than in 1970, the study concludes. Grassland species have been hardest hit, probably because of agricultural intensification that has engulfed habitats and spread pesticides that kill the insects many birds eat. But the victims include warblers, thrushes, swallows and other familiar birds. "That's really what was so staggering about this," said lead author Ken Rosenberg, a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy. "The generalist, adaptable, so-called common species were not compensating for the losses, and in fact they were experiencing losses themselves. This major loss was pervasive across all the bird groups." Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Forget the marshmallow test; this could be the real secret to kids’ future success

Science - Posted On:2019-09-19 13:44:59 Source: arstechnica

Kindergarten children whose teachers rate them as being highly inattentive tend to earn less in their 30s than classmates who are rated highly "pro-social," according to a recent paper in JAMA Psychiatry. In fact, inattention could prove to be a better predictor of future educational and occupational success than the famous "marshmallow test" designed to assess a child's ability to delay gratification. And a single teacher's assessment may be sufficient to identify at-risk children.

The marshmallow test was a landmark behavioral study conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s and 1970s. He brought in some 600 children between the ages of four and six—all from Stanford University's Bing Nursery School—and gave each of them a marshmallow in a private room. Mischel told the children they could eat the marshmallow right away, or they could wait 15 minutes. If they chose the latter, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Then Mischel would leave the room, and a hidden video camera would record the children's behavior.

You can find videos of different versions of the marshmallow test all over YouTube. They're hugely entertaining. As with Mischel's original study, some kids eat the marshmallow immediately, cramming it into their mouths with unabashed delight. Others try to find a handy distraction: covering their eyes or kicking the desk. Some children poke at the marshmallow with their fingers, sniff it, lick it, or take tiny nibbles around the edges. My personal favorite is a little girl who participated in a recreation of the study with children in Colombia by motivational speaker Joachim de Posada. She carefully ate just the inside of the marshmallow, leaving the exterior intact, in hopes of fooling the researchers into thinking she had resisted temptation. ("I predict she will be successful, but we will have to watch her," Posada joked.)

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Some NASA contractors appear to be trying to kill the Lunar Gateway

Science - Posted On:2019-09-19 07:59:56 Source: arstechnica

During a hearing of the House space subcommittee on Wednesday, the outlines of a battle over the future of NASA's Artemis Moon program emerged. Yet it was not a partisan fight over whether the Republican White House plan to land humans on the Moon by 2024 should or shouldn't happen. Instead, some members of both political parties questioned how the space agency planned to conduct the Artemis program.

These members, including Oklahoma Democratic representative and committee chair Kendra Horn, as well as Alabama Republican representative Mo Brooks, were particularly skeptical of private rockets in their comments and questions during the hearing. They also pressed NASA on why the agency is not moving more quickly with development of a powerful second stage upgrade for the agency's Space Launch System rocket. This "Exploration Upper Stage" would increase the amount of mass the rocket could send to the Moon from 26 tons to 37 tons.

Wednesday's hearing was notable because it appears to mark an escalation in an intense lobbying battle going on behind the scenes by some contractors—most likely led by Boeing—to kill NASA's proposed Lunar Gateway and instead accelerate funding for the Exploration Upper Stage.

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Research Finds Black Carbon Breathed By Mothers Can Cross Into Unborn Children

science - Posted On:2019-09-18 23:44:58 Source: slashdot

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Air pollution particles have been found on the fetal side of placentas, indicating that unborn babies are directly exposed to the black carbon produced by motor traffic and fuel burning. The research is the first study to show the placental barrier can be penetrated by particles breathed in by the mother. It found thousands of the tiny particles per cubic millimeter of tissue in every placenta analyzed. The link between exposure to dirty air and increased miscarriages, premature births and low birth weights is well established. The research suggests the particles themselves may be the cause, not solely the inflammatory response the pollution produces in mothers. The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, examined 25 placentas from non-smoking women in the town of Hasselt. It has particle pollution levels well below the EU limit, although above the WHO limit. Researchers used a laser technique to detect the black carbon particles, which have a unique light fingerprint. In each case, they found nanoparticles on the fetal side of the placenta and the number correlated with air pollution levels experienced by the mothers. There was an average of 20,000 nanoparticles per cubic millimeter in the placentas of mothers who lived near main roads. For those further away, the average was 10,000 per cubic millimeter. They also examined placentas from miscarriages and found the particles were present even in 12-week-old fetuses. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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C-Section Babies Have More Potentially Infectious Gut Bacteria

science - Posted On:2019-09-18 22:14:59 Source: slashdot

Scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, UCL, the University of Birmingham and their collaborators discovered that whereas vaginally born babies got most of their gut bacteria from their mother, babies born via caesarean did not, and instead had more bacteria associated with hospital environments in their guts. Science Daily reports: The exact role of the baby's gut bacteria is unclear and it isn't known if these differences at birth will have any effect on later health. The researchers found the differences in gut bacteria between vaginally born and caesarean delivered babies largely evened out by 1 year old, but large follow-up studies are needed to determine if the early differences influence health outcomes. Experts from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists say that these findings should not deter women from having a caesarean birth. Published in Nature today, this largest ever study of neonatal microbiomes also revealed that the microbiome of vaginally delivered newborns did not come from the mother's vaginal bacteria, but from the mother's gut. This calls into question the controversial practice of swabbing babies born via caesarean with mother's vaginal bacteria. Understanding how the birth process impacts on the baby's microbiome will enable future research into bacterial therapies. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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India Bans E-cigarettes as Global Vaping Backlash Grows

science - Posted On:2019-09-18 17:29:59 Source: slashdot

India has announced a ban on electronic cigarettes, as a backlash gathers pace worldwide about a technology promoted as less harmful than smoking tobacco. From a report: The announcement by India on Wednesday came a day after New York became the second US state to ban flavored e-cigarettes following a string of vaping-linked deaths. "The decision was made keeping in mind the impact that e-cigarettes have on the youth of today," India's finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, told reporters in the capital, New Delhi. E-cigarettes heat up a liquid -- tasting of anything from bourbon to bubble gum or just tobacco, and which usually contains nicotine -- into vapor, which is inhaled. The vapor does not contain the estimated 7,000 chemicals present in tobacco smoke but does contain a number of substances that could potentially be harmful. They have been pushed by producers, and also by some governments, including in Europe, as a safer alternative to cigarette smoking -- and as a way to kick the habit. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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