It is often said that you should not believe everything you see on the internet. But with the advent of immersive technology – like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) – this becomes more than doubly true.
The full capabilities of these immersive technologies have yet to be explored, but already we can get a sense of how they can be used to manipulate us.
You may not think you are someone who is easily duped, but what if the techniques used are so subtle that you are not even aware of them? The truth is that once you’re in a VR world, you can be influenced without knowing it.
Unlike video conferencing, where video data is presented exactly as it is recorded, immersive technologies only send select information and not necessarily the actual graphical content.
This has always been the case in multiplayer gaming, where the gaming server simply sends location and other information to your computer. It’s then up to your computer to translate that into a full picture.
Interactive VR is similar. In many cases, very little data is shared between the remote computer and yours, and the actual visual scene is constructed locally.
This means that what you are seeing on your end is not necessarily the same as what is being seen at the other end. If you are engaged in a VR chat, the facial features, expressions, gestures, bodily appearance and many other factors can be altered by software without you knowing it.
Like you like me
In a positive sense VR can be helpful in many fields. For example, research shows that eye contact increases the attentiveness of students, but a teacher lecturing a large class cannot make eye contact with every student.
With VR, though, the software can be programmed to make the teacher appear to be making eye contact with all of the students at the same time. So a physical impossibility becomes virtually possible.
But there will always be some people who will co-opt a tool and use it for something perhaps more nefarious. What if, instead of a teacher, we had a politician or lobbyist, and something more controversial or contentious was being said? What if the eye contact meant that you were more persuaded as a result? And this is only the beginning.
This can also be coupled with techniques that are already used to boost influence. Mimicry is one example. If one person mimics the body language of another in a conversation, then the person being mimicked will become more favourably disposed towards them.
In VR it is easy to do this as the movements of each individual are tracked, so a speaker’s avatar could be made to mimic every person in the audience without them realising it.
More insidious still, all the features of a person’s face can easily be captured by software and turned into an avatar. Several studies from Stanford University have shown that if the features of a political figure could be changed even slightly to resemble each voter in turn, then that could have a significant influence on how people voted.
The experiments took pictures of study participants and real candidates in an mock up of an election campaign. The pictures of each candidate were then morphed to resemble each participant in turn.
They found that if 40% of the participant’s features were incorporated into the candidates face, the participants were entirely unaware the image had been manipulated. Yet the blended picture significantly influenced the intended voting result in favour of the morphed candidate.
What happens in the virtual world does not stay in the virtual world. We must therefore be mindful when we step into this new realm that what we see is not always what we get.
As students across the country zip up their backpacks and get on the bus for the first day of school, many will have more to focus on than memorizing their new schedules or making it to homeroom on time.
For some, the chief concern will be avoiding the bullying and harassment that follow from class to class, through the hallways or into locker rooms.
Even though all students are at risk, bullying does not target or affect all students equally: Some students are not only more likely to be bullied, but are also more likely to be negatively impacted by it. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students are approximately 91 percent more likely to be bullied than their heterosexual peers.
Tragically, being bullied is associated with higher rates of anxiety disorders, depression and poor academic performance as well as suicide, suicidal attempts and suicidal thoughts. Students who are bullied for their actual or perceived sexuality or gender expression (that is, victims of homophobic bullying) are more likely than students who are bullied for other reasons to experience depression and suicidal thoughts.
In some ways, this may explain why LGBTQ students report rates of attempted suicide two to seven times that of their heterosexual peers.
So, what can be done about this?
One promising solution is the establishment of gay-straight alliances in schools.
What are gay-straight alliances?
Gay-straight alliances are student-run organizations that provide a space for LGBTQ students and their straight allies to come together. Gay-straight alliances often aim to promote a supportive school climate for students of all sexual orientations and gender expressions, to decrease bullying, and to provide students with a space to be themselves.
The earliest gay-straight alliances emerged in Massachusetts in the late 1980s when students and teachers at three different private schools began to hold meetings between LGBTQ and straight students.
Today, there are over 4,000 local chapters of gay-straight alliances, officially registered with the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, illustrating their popularity in addressing homophobic bullying in the United States.
Students meet to socialize, watch movies, discuss social issues, and plan dances and events for their school. They also organize advocacy initiatives such as the Day of Silence and No Name Calling Week, that bring attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools.
The promise of gay-straight alliances
Considering the high risk that LGBTQ students face for being bullied, harassed, or victimized at school, we sought to determine whether gay-straight alliances were associated with lower rates of homophobic bullying.
We believed our partnership was perfect to explore this question: One of us (Robert) is a former high school teacher and gay-straight alliance advisor, and the other (Heather) is a sociologist who studies gender and sexuality. Together, we wanted to explore the existing research on gay-straight alliances to determine if there were any uniform findings that could be important for policymakers and school leaders.
We combined and analyzed data from approximately 63,000 adolescents who participated in 15 independent studies about their experiences with gay-straight alliances and bullying.
We found that, although individual studies offered mixed results (as some said gay-straight alliances were associated with lower reports of student victimization, while others said there was no association), data indicated students at schools with gay-straight alliances reported less bullying.
LGBTQ students at schools with gay-straight alliances were 52 percent less likely to hear homophobic remarks like “that’s so gay” at school. Additionally, these students were 36 percent less likely to be fearful for their own safety and 30 percent less likely to experience “homophobic victimization,” such as being harassed or physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
Can gay-straight alliances change school environment?
Interestingly, in our analysis, we did not distinguish between gay-straight alliance members and nonmembers. That means LGBTQ students may derive the potential benefits of having a gay-straight alliances at their school regardless of whether they participate in these clubs themselves.
Perhaps having a gay-straight alliance promotes an accepting school climate by sending the message that a school is welcoming and committed to the success of all its students and, therefore, homophobic acts will not be tolerated. Perhaps gay-straight alliances raise awareness of LGBTQ issues among all students and, thus, create a supportive environment for all LGBTQ students, not just those who are gay-straight alliances members.
Regardless, it is heartening to know that all LGBTQ students could benefit from gay-straight alliances.
Importantly, our research is consistent with the existing body of literature around bullying. Our findings indicating that gay-straight alliances are associated with lower rates of bullying are right in line with previous evaluations of general anti-bullying programs that do not specifically target homophobic bullying.
That means that gay-straight alliances, which are student-initiated, student-run organizations that require little funding beyond an advisor’s stipend, may promote benefits similar to those derived from outside programs that can require considerable funds and resources to implement.
There are hurdles
Despite the promise of gay-straight alliances as a potential solution to homophobic bullying, there are obstacles to the establishment of these clubs. In some cases, students’ attempts to establish gay-straight alliances in their schools have been thwarted by opposition from parents or school administrators who believe these clubs are inappropriate for adolescents – or even that they impose a gay agenda on students.
Under the Equal Access Act, American students have a right to establish gay-straight alliances. However, some students have found themselves embroiled in legal battles to ensure this right. To date, there have been 17 federal lawsuits in which students and parents have successfully sued school boards for denying charters or banning gay-straight alliances.
In spite of these challenges, we find it powerful to know that one of the most effective weapons in the fight to stop LGBTQ bullying is simple: youth coming together to talk, laugh and share their lives.
Astrophysicists have proposed a clever new way to shed light on the mystery of dark matter, the undiscovered stuff believed to make up most of the universe.
The irony is they want to try to pin down the nature of one unexplained phenomenon by using another, looking for dark matter with enigmatic cosmic emanations known as “fast radio bursts.”
Scientists argue that these brief but extremely bright flashes of radio-frequency radiation can help them determine if dark matter is really a particular kind of ancient black hole.
Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, provide a direct way of detecting these black holes, which have a specific mass, says Julian Muñoz, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of a new paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Muñoz wrote the paper along with Ely D. Kovetz, a postdoctoral fellow; Marc Kamionkowski, a professor of physics and astronomy; and Liang Dai, who recently finished studying at Johns Hopkins and is now at the Institute for Advanced Study.
The paper builds on a hypothesis offered months ago that a gravity wave detected after a collision of black holes had actually unmasked dark matter, a substance not yet identified but believed to make up 85 percent of the mass of the universe.
The speculative study took as a point of departure the fact that the colliding objects detected by the CalTech/MIT LIGO experiment were roughly the predicted mass of “primordial” black holes. Unlike black holes from imploded stars, primordial black holes are believed to have formed in the collapse of huge expanses of gas during the birth of the universe.
The existence of primordial black holes has not been proved, but they have been suggested as a possible solution to the riddle of dark matter. With little evidence of them to examine, however, the hypothesis had not gained much traction.
The LIGO findings, however, raised the question again, especially as the black holes LIGO detected conform to the mass predicted for dark matter.
For the new study, scientists calculated how often primordial black holes would form binary pairs and collide. The team came up with a collision rate that fits LIGO data.
Key to the argument is that the black holes LIGO detected fall between 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun. The new paper considers the question of how to test the hypothesis that dark matter consists of black holes of roughly 30 solar masses.
That’s where the fast radio bursts come in. First observed only a few years ago, these powerful flashes last only fractions of a second. Their origins are unknown, but are believed to lie in galaxies outside the Milky Way.
If that’s true, Kamionkowski says, the radio waves would travel great distances before they’re observed on Earth. If a burst passed dark matter on the way, Einstein’s theory of general relativity says, it would be deflected. If it passed close enough, it could be split into two rays shooting off in the same direction—creating two images of one source.
The new study shows that if the dark matter is a black hole 30 times the mass of the sun, the two images will arrive a few milliseconds apart, one as an echo of the other.
“The echoing of FRBs is a very direct probe of dark matter,” Muñoz says. “While gravitational waves might ‘indicate’ that dark matter is made of black holes, there are other ways to produce very-massive black holes with regular astrophysics, so it would be hard to convince oneself that we are detecting dark matter. However, gravitational lensing of fast radio bursts has a very unique signature, with no other astrophysical phenomenon that could reproduce it.”
If primordial black holes are dark matter, “it is expected that several of the thousands of FRBs to be detected in the next few years will have such echoes,” Kamionkowski says.
So far, only about 20 fast radio bursts have been recorded since 2001. But a new Canadian telescope expected to begin operation this year seems promising for spotting radio bursts.
“Once the thing is working up to their planned specifications, they should collect enough FRBs to begin the tests we propose,” Kamionkowski says. Results could be available in three to five years. The team’s proposed methodology is published in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Humor is observed in all cultures and at all ages. But only in recent decades has experimental psychology respected it as an essential, fundamental human behavior.
Historically, psychologists framed humor negatively, suggesting it demonstrated superiority, vulgarity, Freudian id conflict or a defense mechanism to hide one’s true feelings. In this view, an individual used humor to demean or disparage others, or to inflate one’s own self-worth. As such, it was treated as an undesirable behavior to be avoided. And psychologists tended to ignore it as worthy of study.
For all these reasons, humor is now welcomed into mainstream experimental psychology as a desirable behavior or skill researchers want to understand. How do we comprehend, appreciate and produce humor?
What it takes to get a joke
Understanding and creating humor require a sequence of mental operations. Cognitive psychologists favor a three-stage theory of humor. To be in on the joke you need to be able to:
Mentally represent the set up of the joke.
Detect an incongruity in its multiple interpretations.
Resolve the incongruity by inhibiting the literal, nonfunny interpretations and appreciating the meaning of the funny one.
An individual’s knowledge is organized in mental memory structures called schemas. When we see or think of something, it activates the relevant schema; Our body of knowledge on that particular topic immediately comes to mind.
For example, when we see cows in a Far Side cartoon, we activate our bovine schema (stage 1). But when we notice the cows are inside the car while human beings are in the pasture grazing, there are now two mental representations in our conscious mind: what our preexisting schema mentally represented about cows and what we imagined from the cartoon (stage 2). By inhibiting the real-world representation (stage 3), we find the idea of cows driving through a countryside of grazing people funny. “I know about cows” becomes “wait, cows should be the ones in the field, not people” becomes an appreciation of the humor in an implausible situation.
Funny is the subjective experience that comes from the resolution of at least two incongruous schemas. In verbal jokes, the second schema is often activated at the end, in a punchline.
That’s not funny
There are at least two reasons that we sometimes don’t get the joke. First, the punchline must create a different mental representation that conflicts with the one set up by the joke; timing and laugh tracks help signal the listener that a different representation of the punchline is possible. Second, you must be able to inhibit the initial mental representation.
When jokes perpetuate a stereotype that we find offensive (as in ethnic, racist or sexist jokes), we may refuse to inhibit the offensive representation. Violence in cartoons is another example; In Roadrunner cartoons, when an anvil hits the coyote, animal lovers may be unable to inhibit the animal cruelty meaning instead of focusing on the funny meaning of yet another inevitable failure.
Additionally, intuition is a form of decision-making that may develop with the expertise and experience that come with aging. Like humor, intuition is enjoying a bit of a renaissance within psychology research now that it’s been reframed as a major form of reasoning. Intuition aids humor in schema formation and incongruity resolution, and we perceive and appreciate humor more through speedy first impressions rather than logical analysis.
Traveling through time
It’s a uniquely human ability to parse time, to reflect on our past, present and future, and to imagine details in these mental representations. As with humor, time perspective is fundamental to human experience. Our ability to enjoy humor is enmeshed with this mental capacity for time travel and subjective well-being.
People vary greatly in the ability to detail their mental representations of the past, present and future. For example, some people may have what psychologists call a negative past perspective – frequently thinking about bygone mistakes that don’t have anything to do with the present environment, even reliving them in vivid detail despite the present or future being positive.
Time perspective is related to feelings of well-being. People report a greater sense of well-being depending on the quality of the details of their past or present recollections. When study participants focused on “how” details, which tend to elicit vivid details, they were more satisfied with life than when they focused on “why,” which tend to elicit abstract ideas. For example, when remembering a failed relationship, those focusing on events that led to the breakup were more satisfied than those dwelling on abstract causal explanations concerning love and intimacy.
In ongoing recent work, my students and I analyzed college students’ scores on a few common scales that psychologists use to assess humor, time perspective and the need for humor – a measure of how an individual produces or seeks humor in their daily lives. Our preliminary results suggest those high in humor character strength tend to concentrate on the positive aspects of their past, present and future. Those who seek humor in their lives appear in our study sample also to focus on the pleasant aspects of their current lives.
Though our investigation is still in the early phase, our data support a connection between the cognitive processes needed to mentally time-travel and to appreciate humor. Further research on time perspectives may help explain individual differences in detecting and resolving incongruities that result in funny feelings.
Learning to respect laughter
Experimental psychologists are rewriting the book on humor as we learn its value in our daily lives and its relationship to other important mental processes and character strengths. As the joke goes, how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but it has to want to change.
Studying humor allows us to investigate theoretical processes involved in memory, reasoning, time perspective, wisdom, intuition and subjective well-being. And it’s a behavior of interest in and of itself as we work to describe, explain, control and predict humor across age, genders and cultures.
Whereas we may not agree on what’s funny and what isn’t, there’s more consensus than ever among experimental psychologists that humor is serious and relevant to the science of behavior. And that’s no laughing matter.
Computer scientists are programming drones equipped with a payload of ink to paint murals.
It’s no simple feat. Programming the aerial robots to apply each payload of ink accurately and efficiently requires complex algorithms to plan flight paths and adjust for positioning errors. Even very slight air currents can toss the featherweight drones off course.
The drones, which are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, are outfitted with a miniature arm that holds a bit of ink-soaked sponge. As they hover near the surface to be painted, internal sensors and a motion capture system help position them to dab dots of ink in just the right places, an artistic technique known as stippling.
Professor Paul Kry at McGill University’s School of Computer Science came up with the idea a few years ago, as a way to do something about the blank hallways and stairwells in the building that houses his lab.
“I thought it would be great to have drones paint portraits of famous computer scientists on them,” he recalls.
He bought a few of the tiny quadcopters online and had a student start on the task as a summer project in 2014, under a Canadian government award for undergraduate research.
Later, master’s students Brendan Galea and Ehsan Kia took the project’s helm, often working at night and into the wee hours of the morning so the drones’ artistic efforts wouldn’t be disturbed by air turbulence from other students coming in and out of the lab.
An article on the project by Kry and the three students won a “best paper” prize in May at an international symposium in Lisbon on computational aesthetics in graphics and imaging.
Eventually, larger drones could be deployed to paint murals on hard-to-reach outdoor surfaces, including curved or irregular facades, Kry says.
“There’s this wonderful mural festival in Montreal, and we have giant surfaces in the city that end up getting amazing artwork on them,” he notes. “If we had a particularly calm day, it would be wonderful to try to do something on a larger scale like that.”
Ants are voracious predators and often very good at defending plants from herbivores. People have taken advantage of this quirk for centuries. In fact, using ants in orange groves is one of the first recorded pest control practices, dating back to A.D. 304 in China.
In southern Mexico, Azteca ants are frequently found on coffee plantations. They live in giant nests built into the sides of the hardwood trees farmers plant to shade the delicate coffee plants below. The ants feast on sugary nectar, either directly from extrafloral nectary structures on the shade trees or indirectly from nectar excreted by aphids living on the coffee plants. In return the ants remove other insects to protect the plants. The Azteca ants are highly territorial and very aggressive, which makes them great at controlling coffee pests. They’re particularly skilled in eliminating one of the coffee’s most damaging pests, the coffee berry borer.
My colleagues and I are studying how these ants are at the center of a complex web of organisms that are important to coffee management. In the process, we serendipitously discovered a brand new species that may be integral to the ants’ success.
Ants must deal with parasitizing flies
For the last six years, I’ve been examining the dynamics between these beneficial ants and one of their most deadly natural enemies, phorid fly parasitoids.
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine that phorid flies could have a big impact on a mighty Azteca colony made up of millions of workers. For one, these flies are small, approximately the size of a pinhead. Also, it takes only a fraction of a second for an adult phorid fly to parasitize an ant by laying its egg in the ant’s body.
But these parasitoids are definitely bad news for the ants. Once a phorid fly injects its egg into the ant, the fly larva slowly makes its way into the ant’s head, ultimately consuming the contents and killing the ant in the process. Then it decapitates the ant and uses the head as a pupal case. Once fully mature, the adult fly will emerge from the ant’s mouth parts to begin the cycle again.
This gruesome process isn’t even the worst of it for the ants. Phorid flies aren’t just a death sentence for a parasitized individual ant, they also negatively affect the function of the ant colony as a whole. When ant workers discover phorid flies nearby, they freeze in place or hide, preventing them from collecting food or properly maintaining their nest.
Enter: A mysterious beetle
It was during an experiment in the field, watching phorid flies parasitize ants, that I first noticed the beetles.
I had hypothesized that phorid flies usurp the ants’ own complex chemical communication system to locate their victims; I was testing extracts from different ant glands to determine what chemicals the flies might use as a beacon to find their ant hosts.
I had dissected and extracted the Pygidial gland sac of the ants, which houses their alarm pheromone. The ants secrete this chemical blend whenever they’re injured or discover an intruder to the nest. (It’s quite pungent, and smells vaguely of blue cheese.) I was finding that the phorid flies are attracted to these alarm compounds. Shortly after the chemicals are released into the air, the flies arrive to inspect the immediate area where the scent is strongest. Annoyingly, I was also finding that tiny beetles were apt to crash the party, landing in my observation area with the ants.
A year or so later, I was working on another phorid fly-rearing experiment in my tiny lab space at the Finca Irlanda research station in Chiapas, Mexico. My lab consisted of a few shelves and a small work table in a poorly screened-in porch area. The experiments involved taking parasitized ants and keeping them alive in tiny chambers with small air holes until the phorid flies could fully develop and hatch.
But everything was going extremely poorly. Over and over again, I would check on my parasitized ants only to find them missing, and in their place, once again, the tiny beetles. It seemed these intruders were entering my lab, accessing the rearing chambers via the air holes and eating the ants.
This is when I realized something interesting was happening and started formulating questions. What were these beetles? Are they finding the ants the same way the phorid flies do? Are they only eating parasitized ants? If so, why?
Predation that could help the colony
Since Azteca ants are so aggressive, it seemed unlikely that a beetle would be able to effectively prey on healthy worker ants twice its size. Myrmecophillic (“ant associated” or literally “ant-loving”) beetles use a wide range of strategies to live closely with such dangerous creatures as ants. Some mimic the smell or look of ants, others use particularly swift movements to outmaneuver them and others use ant-repellent secretions to create a protective force field around themselves. In each of these cases, the beetles take some kind of resource from the ant, whether it’s food from the colony’s stores, or safe nesting space, or simply eating the ants themselves.
It occurred to me that the myrmecophillic beetles associated with Azteca might be exploiting the state of the parasitized ants in order to prey on them. Even more intriguingly, this might be a case where predation is ultimately not a bad thing for the ants as a group. Parasitized ants are already almost certainly going to die. And their deaths result in more phorid flies, which is bad for the ant colony.
But if a beetle eats a parasitized ant, the developing phorid fly is also consumed. By eating only parasitized ants, these beetles may be reducing the number of phorid flies that successfully develop – which could actually benefit the ant colony.
So I got to work conducting experiments that would untangle what’s going on. I used synthetic versions of the Azteca alarm pheromone chemicals to confirm the beetles were indeed using the alarm pheromone to find the ants, regardless of whether they were in my screened-in lab space or the center of a field of coffee. I set out various traps of parasitized, healthy or injured ants to see if the beetles would prey on only the parasitized ants (they did).
I also took parasitized ants and healthy ants, painted them different colors and placed them in an arena with the beetles to observe what they would do. Healthy ants were highly aggressive toward the beetles, whereas the parasitized ants were extremely docile. When the beetles tried to attack healthy ants, they were swiftly rebuffed. But when they attacked parasitized ants, the ant essentially stood still as the beetle ate it alive.
Meanwhile, specimens of the beetles were being transported to a beetle expert for identification. As it turned out, they were a completely new species, the first from their genus to ever be recorded from Mexico. With my collaborators, I chose to name the species Myrmedonota xipe for the Aztec god Xipe Totec. This deity was worshiped via human sacrifices in an act meant to symbolize the casting-off of the old to bring new growth and prosperity to all – an apt metaphor for the beetles’ role in Azteca ant colonies.
When many people think of agriculture, they imagine only the farmer’s crop. But, my colleagues’ and my work shows that a complex web of interactions between many species of insects can provide important ecosystem services, like pest control, in agroecosystems. This particular story shows just a piece of the puzzle, where the Azteca ants are benefiting the coffee, and the beetles are helping keep the phorid flies from stopping that.
This Saturday at 5:51 a.m. PDT, (8:51 a.m. EDT, 12:51 UTC) NASA’s Juno spacecraft will get closer to the cloud tops of Jupiter than at any other time during its prime mission. At the moment of closest approach, Juno will be about 2,500 miles (4,200 kilometers) above Jupiter’s swirling clouds and traveling at 130,000 mph (208,000 kilometers per hour) with respect to the planet. There are 35 more close flybys of Jupiter scheduled during its prime mission (scheduled to end in February of 2018). The Aug. 27 flyby will be the first time Juno will have its entire suite of science instruments activated and looking at the giant planet as the spacecraft zooms past.
“This is the first time we will be close to Jupiter since we entered orbit on July 4,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Back then we turned all our instruments off to focus on the rocket burn to get Juno into orbit around Jupiter. Since then, we have checked Juno from stem to stern and back again. We still have more testing to do, but we are confident that everything is working great, so for this upcoming flyby Juno’s eyes and ears, our science instruments, will all be open.”
“This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our solar system and begin to figure out how he works,” Bolton said.
While the science data from the pass should be downlinked to Earth within days, interpretation and first results are not expected for some time.
“No other spacecraft has ever orbited Jupiter this closely, or over the poles in this fashion,” said Steve Levin, Juno project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is our first opportunity and there are bound to be surprises. We need to take our time to make sure our conclusions are correct.”
Not only will Juno’s suite of eight science instruments be on, the spacecraft’s visible light imager — JunoCam will also be snapping some closeups. A handful of JunoCam images, including the highest resolution imagery of the Jovian atmosphere and the first glimpse of Jupiter’s north and south poles, are expected to be released during the later part of next week.
Source: News release on NASA.gov republished under public domain rights and in accordance with the NASA media guidelines.
Yet early on, communities where fracking spread raised doubts. Nearby residents reported a variety of common symptoms and sources of stress. Public health professionals trumpeted their concerns, and epidemiologists launched health studies of the industry. States like Pennsylvania, where almost 10,000 wells have been drilled since 2005, continued development. But other states, including Maryland and New York, have not permitted drilling because of the potential for environmental and health impacts.
Tensions between economic development, energy policy and environmental and health concerns are common in public health’s history. Often, economic and energy development trump environmental and health concerns, leaving public health playing “catch-up.”
Indeed, only recently have rigorous health studies on the impact of unconventional natural gas development on health been completed. We have published three studies, which evaluated birth outcomes, asthma exacerbations and symptoms, including nasal and sinus, fatigue and migraine headache symptoms. These, together withother studies, form a growing body of evidence that unconventional natural gas development is having detrimental effects on health. Not unexpectedly, the oil and gas industry has countered our findings with pointed criticism.
Which exposures and health outcomes to study?
The process of fracking involves vertical and horizontal drilling, often for more than 10,000 feet below the surface, followed by the injection of millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand at high pressures. The liquids create fissures that release the natural gas in the shale rock.
These vary during the different phases of well development and have different scales of impact: Vibration may affect only people very close to wells, whereas stress from, for example, concerns about possible water contamination may have a wider reach. Other sources of stress can be an influx of temporary workers, seeing industrial development in what used to be a rural area, heavy truck traffic and concerns about declining home prices.
We have now completed several health studies in partnership with the Geisinger Health System, which provides primary care to over 450,000 patients in Pennsylvania, including many residing in fracking areas. Geisinger has used an electronic health record system since 2001, allowing us to get detailed health data from all patient encounters, including diagnoses, tests, procedures, medications and other treatments during the same time frame as fracking developed.
For our first electronic health record-based studies, we selected adverse birth outcomes and asthma exacerbations. These are important, are common, have short latencies and are conditions patients seek care for, so they are thus well-documented in the electronic health record.
We studied over 8,000 mother-child pairs and 35,000 asthma patients. In our symptom study, we obtained questionnaires from 7,847 patients about nasal, sinus and other health symptoms. Because symptoms are subjective, they are not well-captured by an electronic health record and are better ascertained by questionnaire.
In all studies, we assigned patients measures of unconventional natural gas development activity. These were calculated using distance from the patient’s home to the well, well depth and production, and dates and duration of the different phases.
Our findings and how confident we are in them
In the birth outcome study, we found increased odds of preterm birth and suggestive evidence for reduced birth weight among women with higher unconventional natural gas development activity (those closer to more and bigger unconventional wells), compared with women with lower unconventional natural gas development activity during pregnancy.
In the asthma study, we found increased odds among asthma patients of asthma hospitalizations, emergency department visits and a medication used for mild asthma attacks with higher unconventional natural gas development activity, compared to those with lower activity. Finally, in our study of symptoms, we found patients with higher unconventional natural gas development activity had higher odds of nasal and sinus, migraine headache and fatigue symptoms compared to those with lower activity. In each analysis, we controlled for other risk factors for the outcome, including smoking, obesity, and comorbid conditions.
Psychosocial stress, exposure to air pollution including truck traffic, sleep disruption and changes to socioeconomic status are all biologically plausible pathways for unconventional natural gas development to affect health. We hypothesize that stress and air pollution are the two primary pathways, but in our studies, we cannot yet determine which are responsible for the associations we observed.
As epidemiologists, our data can rarely prove that an exposure caused a health outcome. We do, however, perform additional analyses to test if our findings are robust and eliminate the possibility that another factor we did not include was the actual cause.
In our studies, we looked at differences by county to understand whether there were just differences in the people who live in counties with and without fracking. And we repeated our studies with other health outcomes we would not expect to be affected by the fracking industry. In no analyses did we find results that suggested to us that our primary findings were likely to be biased, which gives us confidence in our results.
Other research groups have published on pregnancy and birth outcomes and symptoms, and the evidence suggests that the fracking industry may be affecting health in a range of ways. Over time, the body of evidence has gotten clearer, more consistent and concerning. However, we would not expect all studies to exactly agree, because, for example, the drilling practices, underlying health conditions and other factors likely differ in different study areas.
How has the industry responded?
Often the industry states that unconventional natural gas development has improved air quality. When describing emissions for the entire United States, this may be true. However, such statements ignore studies that suggest fracking has worsened local air quality in areas undergoing unconventional natural gas development.
A common retort by the industry is that rates of the health outcome studied – whether it’s asthma or preterm birth – are lower in fracking areas than in areas without fracking, or that the rate of the outcome is decreasing over time.
A study of increases or decreases in rates of a disease across years, calculated for groups of people, is called an ecologic study. Ecologic studies are less informative than studies with data on individual people because relationships can exist at the group level that do not exist among individuals. This is called the ecologic fallacy. For example, ecologic studies show a negative association between county-level average radon levels and lung cancer rates, but studies of individuals show strong positive associations between exposure to radon gas and lung cancer.
One reason we used individual-level data in our peer-reviewed studies was to avoid the problem of the ecologic fallacy. So the rates highlighted by industry do not provide any evidence that our findings are invalid.
It’s worth noting that the fracking industry’s practices have improved. One example is the flaring of wells, which is a source of air, noise and light pollution, and has decreased dramatically in recent years. Drilling has also substantially slowed because of the dramatic decline in natural gas prices.
We must monitor the industry with ongoing health studies and perform more detailed exposure measurements by, for example, measuring noise and air pollution levels. If we understand why we are seeing associations between the fracking industry and health problems, then we can better inform patients and policymakers.
In the meantime, we would advise careful deliberation about future decisions about the industry to balance energy needs with environmental and public health considerations.
Researchers have produced a reconstruction of the head of an 18- to 25-year-old woman who lived at least 2,000 years ago in ancient Egypt.
They have named her Meritamun, which means beloved of the god Amun. Her face is only the start of the team’s work to answer questions about how she may have died, what diseases she had, when she lived, where she was from, and even what she ate.
“The idea of the project is to take this relic and, in a sense, bring her back to life by using all the new technology,” says Varsha Pilbrow, a biological anthropologist who teaches anatomy in the University of Melbourne’s department of anatomy and neuroscience.
“This way she can become much more than a fascinating object to be put on display. Through her, students will be able to learn how to diagnose pathology marked on our anatomy, and learn how whole population groups can be affected by the environments in which they live.”
In the museum
How and why the University of Melbourne has a mummified Egyptian head in the basement of its medical building is a mystery. It may well have been part of the collection of Professor Frederic Wood Jones (1879-1954) who before becoming head of anatomy at the University in 1930 had undertaken archaeological survey work in Egypt.
Meritamun is housed in a purpose-built archival container alongside rows of human specimens preserved in glass jars and formaldehyde solution at the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology, in the School of Biomedical Sciences. She lies face up, as she would have been buried. Even though she is covered in tightly wound bandages and blackened by oil and embalming fluid, her delicate features are clear.
“Her face is kept upright because it is more respectful that way,” says museum curator Ryan Jefferies. “She was once a living person, just like all the human specimens we have preserved here, and we can’t forget that.”
The genesis of the project was Jefferies’ concern that the head, whose origin remains a mystery, could be decaying from the inside without anyone noticing. Removing the bandages wasn’t an option as it would have damaged the relic and further violated the individual who had been embalmed for the afterlife. But the scan revealed the skull to be in extraordinarily good condition. From there the opportunity to use technology to research the mystery of the head was one that was too good to resist.
“The CT scan opened up a whole lot of questions and avenues of enquiry and we realized it was a great forensic and teaching opportunity in collaborative research,” says Jefferies, a parasitologist.
Tooth decay and anemia
Meritamun was identified as ancient Egyptian by Janet Davey, a forensic Egyptologist from Monash University who is based at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, where the head was scanned.
Davey determined Meritamun’s gender from the bone structure of her face, identifying such markers as the smallness and angle of the jaw, the narrowness of the roof of her mouth, and the roundness of her eye sockets.
Davey guesses that Meritamun was probably about five feet, four inches tall, given accepted thinking that ancient peoples were generally shorter than people today. If the researchers had bone from her arm, leg, or even just her heel they could have established a more accurate estimate.
Dating her is also difficult. Meritamun has some significant tooth decay that conventional thinking would date her to Greco-Roman times when sugar was introduced after Alexander’s conquest of Egypt in 331 BCE. But honey could also account for the decay. And while mummification was more accessible to Egyptians after Alexander’s time, the fineness of the linen bandages suggests Meritamun was high status enough anyway to be embalmed at the earlier time of the Pharaohs.
Davey is now waiting on radiocarbon dating to give a better idea of when Meritamun lived, which she says could be as long ago as c. 1500 BCE. Radiocarbon dating works by measuring the amount of organic carbon atoms that are left in a tissue sample. Since carbon atoms decay over time, the fewer carbon atoms there are in a sample, the older it is.
Biomedical science masters student Stacey Gorski, under the supervision of Pilbrow, is using forensic pathology to try to uncover how healthy Meritamun was and how she may have died.
Just from reading the CT scans Gorski has been able to see that in addition to two tooth abscesses, there are patches on the skull where the bone had pitted and thinned. It is a clear symptom of anemia—a lack of red blood cells that starves the body of oxygen. The thinning occurs when the bone marrow swells as it goes into overdrive in an effort to produce more red blood cells.
In Meritamun’s case, it may have been caused by parasites such as malaria or the flatworm infection schistosomiasis, both of which would have been hazards in the Nile Delta in ancient times. “The fact that she lived to adulthood suggests that she was infected later in life,” says Gorski. Nevertheless, the parasites and anemia would have left her pale and lethargic at the end.
“Anemia is a very common pathology that is found in bodies from ancient Egypt, but it usually isn’t very clear to see unless you can look directly at the skull,” says Gorski. “But it was completely clear from just looking at the images.”
Without having the rest of Meritamun’s body it will be impossible to know for sure how she died, but the anemia could certainly have been a predisposing factor, as could the abscesses if they had become seriously infected.
‘Giving back some of her identity’
It took 140 hours of printing time on a simple consumer-level 3D printer to produce the skull that has been used to reconstruct Meritamun’s face, not counting the tweaking and design work of the department of anatomy and neuroscience’s imaging technician Gavan Mitchell. Because the 3D printer builds from the bottom up and the print is always more detailed at the top, Mitchell has to print out the skull out in two sections to better capture the detail of the jaws and the base of the skull.
“It has been a hugely rewarding process to be able to transform the skull from CT data on a screen into a tangible thing that can be handled and examined,” says Mitchell.
The printed skull formed the base on which sculptor Jennifer Mann has used all her forensic and artistic skill to reconstruct Meritamun’s face.
“It is incredible that her skull is in such good condition after all this time, and the model that Gavan produced was beautiful in its details,” says Mann.
Mann learned the technique for facial reconstruction at the Forensic Anthropology Centre at Texas State University. She practiced on skull casts previously used in actual cases to reconstruct unidentified murder victims.
“It is really poignant work and extremely important for finally identifying these people who would otherwise have remained unknown.”
She cautions that any facial reconstruction can only be an approximation of what someone actually looked like in life, but the results she had at Texas closely matched those of the eventually identified murder victims.
The methodology involves attaching to the printed skull plastic markers to indicate different tissue depths at key points on the face, based on averages in population data. This data is derived from modern Egyptians and has been specifically selected by reconstruction experts from around the world as the best approximation for ancient Egyptians.
It was then about applying the clay according to the musculature of the face and known anatomical ratios based on the actual skull. For example, Meritamun’s nose is squashed almost flat by the tight bandaging, but Mann was able to estimate what her nose would have looked like using calculations based on the dimensions of the nasal cavity. The skull also displays a small overbite that Mann has reconstructed. Meritamun’s ears are based on the CT scan results.
“I have followed the evidence and an accepted methodology for reconstruction and out of that has emerged the face of someone who has come down to us from so long ago. It is an amazing feeling.”
The reconstruction was then cast in a polyurethane resin and painted. The researchers have taken a middle course in the long-running debate on what the predominant skin color of ancient Egyptians may have been, choosing a dark olive hue. The finishing touch was to reconstruct her hair, which has been modeled on that of an Egyptian woman, Lady Rai, who lived around 1570-1530 BCE and whose mummified body is now in the Egypt Museum in Cairo. She wears her hair in tightly-plaited thin braids either side of her head. For the Meritamun reconstruction, replicating Lady Rai’s hair was an all-day job for an African hair salon in Melbourne.
“By reconstructing her we are giving back some of her identity,” says Davey.
With thousands of exoplanets discovered to date, it’s no wonder that we regularly come across “Earth-like worlds” around distant stars. But let’s face it: while it’s exciting that there are planets out there that may be able to harbour life, they are so far away that we will not be able to visit them anytime soon.
So wouldn’t it be amazing if we discovered a planet just like the Earth – in our own neighbourhood? Well, a new study led by some of my colleagues at Queen Mary University of London has finally done just that. Proxima Centauri – a “red dwarf” star that’s some 14% the size of the sun and around half the temperature – is the closest star to our solar system at 4.24 light years away. Until now, we weren’t sure if it had any planets in orbit, but the new study, published in Nature, reports the discovery of a potentially habitable world that we may actually be able to send tiny robots to in the next few decades.
The team behind the discovery is called Pale Red Dot – an observational campaign of the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), an instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-metre La Silla telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert. It measured the spectra of light from Proxima, essentially the fingerprints that reveal what the star is made of, and looked for changes in the frequency of those lines. Small shifts in this starlight can be used to work out tiny movements of the star in response to an orbiting planet’s gravitational pull.
Pale Red Dot’s measurements were made each night for around three months at the beginning of 2016. And the results revealed the tell-tale signature of a planet, now labelled “Proxima b” as per naming conventions.
Chances of finding life on Proxima b
From the data gathered, the team has determined quite a lot about the planet’s properties. It orbits Proxima every 11.2 days, which places it a tenth of the distance from its star as Mercury is from the sun. While that would be an extremely unpleasant place to be in our solar system, at Proxima that’s just within the estimated “habitable zone” – an area where it is plausible that liquid water could exist on the surface of a planet. Proxima b is also at least 30% heavier than our world and if it is in fact rocky its surface gravity might only be 10% more than we’re used to.
So what are the possibilities for life on Proxima b? That’s hard to say just yet. We don’t know if the planet has an atmosphere at all, let alone what it might be made of. Over the next few years we might be able to figure that out using Hubble or the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.
These might also reveal if any of the ingredients for life are present. But Proxima b may not be quite as hospitable as Earth. Red dwarf stars are incredibly violent so Proxima Centauri could bombard the planet with radiation. The proximity of Proxima b to the star could also mean that the planet is “tidally locked”, with one side always facing the star in perpetual day and the other in unending darkness. This would result in extremes of temperature: hot desert and barren rock versus frozen wasteland.
The true test would be to go there. Using conventional space technology (either manned or unmanned) and some clever slingshot manoeuvres, it would take at least 15,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. But the ambitious Starshot Project aims to send tiny robots to this star system, propelled by powerful Earth-based lasers. They are estimating that it would only take about 20 years to get there in this manner, travelling at a speed of approximately 60,000 km per second (or 135m miles per hour). Those robots could relay back data about the system, and potentially even closeup pictures of Proxima b.
It certainly seems possible that we could find something out of this world within our lifetime.