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Mobile data shows which European countries took lockdown seriously

A substantial part of humanity is slowly emerging from weeks of lockdown. What we have experienced is truly rare: a real global threat, menacing to all wherever we lived. But how did humanity respond to this pandemic? Did people consistently stay at home as most governments asked them to? And if they didn’t, where did they go?

We can answer these questions thanks to Google. It has released data on people’s movements gathered from millions of mobile devices that use its software (Android, Google Maps and so on). Never before has this level of detail been available. For infamous pandemics in history even basic facts are disputed (for example the number of deaths from the Black Death). The Google dataset seems to be of such quality that several scientific questions can finally be resolved.

Across Europe, the picture the data paints is varied. Some of the difference can be attributed to the lockdown strategies of different countries. But some, seemingly, cannot. This may be useful when considering future lockdowns.

How the data reveals behaviour

Google first divided where people spent their time into six location categories: homes; workplaces; parks; public transport stations; grocery shops and pharmacies; and retail and recreational locations.

It then released aggregated data on time spent at each of the six location types for the past several months, compared to a baseline: the five-week period between January 3 and February 6 2020. To the extent that no special events happened during this time, the change from the baseline after this reflects people’s collective response to the pandemic and the lockdowns.

Using the Google data, we then created the following graphs, comparing the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Greece between mid-February and early May. To get a smoother image, we calculated a seven-day moving average. Countries are also ranked and coloured in the graph legends according to their average reaction over the whole period (meaning a country’s colour can differ between graphs).

What were the differences between countries?

Let’s start with people staying at home.

For a good part of April, all these countries except for Sweden were officially in some form of lockdown, with measures in place banning non-essential movement. However, behaviour varied substantially.

Author provided

In Spain, Italy and France, time spent at home rose early in the pandemic by 30-35%. Even the most outdoorsy people must have stayed home for at least 10-12 hours before the lockdown, so this means at least three-to-five extra hours were spent at home per person – for most even more. This reflects these countries’ strict lockdowns: they banned all events, limited outdoor exercise, and in France’s case, required documentation to go outside.

Germany and Denmark were more relaxed; the rise in staying home was about 15%, reflecting their partial lockdowns. Sweden’s increase was even lower at 8-10%.

The UK was somewhere in between, reacting late but then strongly, with a rise of about 20-25%. The delay reflects its lockdown beginning later – on March 23 – though it is interesting that some people were already staying home before its lockdown began.

Greece is an interesting case, as it reacted relatively early and strongly, but started relaxing in late March, with a strong effect by mid-April, long before its non-essential movement measures were lifted on May 3. This might indicate that compliance is a matter of perceived risk. Greece kept its COVID-19 cases and deaths remarkably low, which may have caused people to relax.

The mix of how people spent their outdoor time also differed. For example, the next graph presents the park visit data.

Author provided

For most of April, Sweden, Denmark and Germany saw a rise in the time people spent in parks (including national and local parks, public gardens and beaches). At the same time, Italy and Spain saw 80% drops. Greece and the UK are again somewhere in the middle, seeing a drop initially but coming back to the benchmark in early May. In Greece’s case we actually see a rise of almost 50% lately compared to the benchmark – again suggesting that fatigue may have set in, in combination with good weather and a lack of perceived risk.

Germany’s park visit data is further evidence that lockdown measures do not fully determine behaviour, and that people have their own motives. Its graph line is somewhat similar to Denmark’s and Sweden’s, countries with less strict official policies; the country with the most similar policy on going outdoors was the UK, whose line shows a decrease instead of an increase.

Author provided

Lastly, let us look at time spent at workplaces. Again, in some countries people were going to work almost as much as before, while in others there were drops of 70-80%. Spain and Italy banned all non-essential work – a measure that went beyond the restrictions of all other countries – so it is not a surprise to see these at the bottom of the graph. We can see, though, the effect of Spain allowing some sectors to open up again on April 14.

What should we do with this data?

Behavioural fatigue, a much-maligned term during the UK government’s handling of the crisis, is now an issue that can be discussed properly. While lockdown measures were still in place, people around Europe started leaving their homes more. It’s clear that adherence to lockdown decreased over time.

Governments now need to investigate whether this affected the spread of disease. Is staying at home a solution? And if people do not stay at home, does it matter where they go? Answering these questions might allow governments to design an optimal lockdown policy mix that, say, allows people to go to parks, but not mingle in shops and railway stations.

As the threat of the virus is not eliminated, and second waves are expected around the world, gaining these answers will be very important.

Sotiris Georganas, Reader in Behavioural Economics, City, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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‘Pharming’ for a vaccine: the answer to coronavirus may be in tobacco plants

We don’t know how long it will take to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but we do know this: if and when we find one, there will be unprecedented demand for the molecules that go into it.

Several different types of vaccine are currently being researched. These include those that use inactivated forms of the virus itself and molecules that look like the virus. The body recognises these molecules when they are injected and produces proteins called antibodies that protect us from threats like viruses. It may also be possible to treat COVID-19 patients with antibodies directly.

All of these approaches will require us to mass-produce active molecules, and quickly. But how do we do that? The question predates our current pandemic.

Last year, the search for an answer took us to the tobacco fields of Spain and Italy because, as strange as it sounds, the tobacco plant might provide a novel way to meet this huge demand.

Big farmer meets big pharma

Today, the basic components of vaccines are produced using mammal, bacteria and yeast cell cultures in containers called bioreactors. These basic components are produced in controlled environments to strict specifications.

For a number of years, however, researchers have demonstrated that plants can act as bioreactors just like cell cultures. Plants have been a rich source of pharmacologically important compounds throughout history, but it has only recently become possible – thanks to biotechnology – to modify plants to grow important compounds in a targeted way. This is known as “pharming”.

Not only might this be a cheaper way to produce in-demand molecules, but, potentially, vastly more scaleable.

Using plants for a coronavirus vaccine could be a cheaper alternative to using cell cultures. from www.shutterstock.com

If plants can be harnessed for this purpose, it could lead to new industries and alternatives for pharmaceutical companies. Lower and middle income countries could particularly benefit from this low-tech option, because cell culture alternatives require greater upfront investment. To this end, dedicated pharming facilities have recently opened in Brazil and South Africa.

Pharming for molecules is not restricted to medical applications, either. It’s also possible to grow nutritional, cosmetic and industrial molecules in plants.

The lab mouse of the plant world

It may seem counter-intuitive that the answer to a global pandemic could be produced in the leaves of one of the world’s most deadly plants. But there are good reasons why the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, and its relative N. benthamiana are common plants for pharming.

Both are easily modified and together they have become known as the lab mice of the plant science world, in part due to tobacco’s economic importance.

Tobacco has all the properties we need when selecting a pharming platform: it is quick-growing, leafy and there are people familiar with growing it all over the world. Several laboratories have already seen success in using it to grow antibodies for the treatment of HIV and the Ebola virus.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that British American Tobacco recently announced its ambition to produce between one to three million doses of a potential coronavirus vaccine using tobacco.

Spain is one of the largest tobacco producers in Europe. from www.shutterstock.com

These efforts rely on contained, indoor production. But to produce at scale, we would need to pharm outdoors. That’s why we visited Spain and Italy – two of Europe’s largest producers of tobacco – last year, in order to speak with farmers and their cooperatives to see if they would be interested in becoming pharmers. The response, which will be published in a forthcoming research paper, was largely positive. Tobacco farmers saw this as an opportunity to increase profit in a shrinking European market and de-stigmatise a crop they want to keep growing.

Don’t bet the pharm yet

Pharming is not without its problems, some of which go beyond the technical.

It has been a long road since the first plant was used a vehicle for pharming, partially because of the need to demonstrate that plant-derived molecules are as safe and reliable as those that come from cell cultures, which we understand far better and are already the preferred platform for pharmaceutical companies.

But it is also because pharming requires genetic modification, a famously controversial issue with the public. (Concern over genetic modification does not appear to extend to cell culture technologies, which also often rely on modified microorganisms.)

European legislation is a huge barrier. This means pharming is currently confined to heavily controlled spaces such as laboratories and has limited one of pharming’s greatest assets: the fact that it could be done at large scale in open fields.

The strict rules around pharmaceutical production also pose a big challenge for outdoor pharming, despite the fact that at least one US-based company has demonstrated that it is possible to produce therapeutic molecules in the field.

Combining biotechnology with a crop surrounded by considerable controversy for understandable reasons could prove equally challenging, especially if Big Tobacco companies are involved.

But the potential is there for us to produce vaccines and therapeutics safely and at scale, using the tobacco plant for good instead of harming people’s health. And as COVID-19 sweeps the globe, there’s never been more of a need to do so.

Jonathan Menary, Senior Research Associate, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University; Julian Ma, Hotung Chair of Molecular Immunology, St George’s, University of London, and Pascal M.W. Drake, Lecturer in the Institute for Infection and Immunity, St George’s, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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SpaceX astronaut launch: here’s the rocket science it must get right.

Two NASA astronauts, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, will make history by travelling to the International Space Station in a privately funded spacecraft, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule. It will also be the first time astronauts have launched from US soil in nine years.

The astronauts will take off lying on their backs in the seats, and facing in the direction of travel to reduce the stress of high acceleration on their bodies. Once launched from Kennedy Space Centre, the spacecraft will travel out over the Atlantic, turning to travel in a direction that matches the ISS orbit.

With the first rocket section separating at just over two minutes, the main dragon capsule is then likely to separate from the second stage burn roughly an hour later and continue on its journey. All being well, the Dragon spacecraft will rendezvous with the ISS at 15:40 (GMT) on May 28.


Read more: SpaceX reaches for milestone in spaceflight – a private company launches astronauts into orbit


Space mission launches and landings are the most critical parts. However, Space X has conducted many tests, including 27 drops of the parachute landing system. It has also managed an emergency separation of the Dragon capsule from the rocket. In the event of a failed rocket launch, eight engines would lift the capsule containing the astronauts up into the air and away from the rocket, with parachutes eventually helping it to land. The Falcon 9 rocket has made 83 successful launches.

Docking and return

The space station has an orbital velocity of 7.7km per second. The Earth’s rotation carries launch sites under a straight flight path of the ISS, with each instance providing a “launch window”.

ISS orbit. Author provided

To intercept the ISS, the capsule must match the station’s speed, altitude and inclination, and it must do it at the correct time such that the two spacecraft find themselves in close proximity to each other. The difference in velocity between the ISS and the Dragon capsule must then be near to zero at the point where the orbits of the two spacecraft intersect.

Once these conditions are met, the Dragon capsule must manoeuvre to the ISS docking port, using a series of small control thrusters arranged around the spacecraft. This is due to be done automatically by a computer, however the astronauts can control this manoeuvre manually if needed.

As you can see in the figure below, manoeuvring involves “translation control” as indicated by green arrows – moving left/right, up/down, forward/back. The yellow arrows show “attitude control” – rolling clockwise/anti-clockwise, pitching up/down, and yawing left/right.

How to manoeuver a spacecraft. Author provided

This is complicated by Newton’s first law of motion – that any object at rest or in motion will continue to be so unless acted upon by an external force. That means any manoeuvre, such as a roll to the right, will continue indefinitely in the absence of air resistance to provide an external force until it is counteracted by firing thrusters in the opposite direction.

So now that you have a grasp of orbital manoeuvring, why not have a go yourself? This simulator, provided by Space X, allows you to try and pilot the Dragon capsule to the ISS docking port.

The astronauts will return to Earth when a new set are ready to take their place, or at NASA’s discretion. NASA are already planning the first fully operational flight of crew Dragon, with four astronauts, although a launch date for that has not yet been announced and will undoubtedly depend on the outcome of this demonstration flight.

New era for spaceflight

The launch puts SpaceX firmly ahead of the other commercial ventures looking at providing crewed space launches. This includes both Boeing’s Starliner, which first launched last year but was uncrewed, and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser which is planned to be tested with cargo during a trip to the ISS next year.

The ability of the commercial sector to send astronauts to the ISS is an important step toward further human exploration, including establishing a human presence at the Moon, and ultimately, Mars.


Read more: To the moon and beyond 4: What’s the point of going back to the moon?


With companies competing, however, an open question remains whether safety could at some point be compromised to gain a commercial edge. There is no suggestion this has happened so far, but any crewed mission which failed due to a fault stemming from economic concerns would have serious legal ramifications.

In a similar way to modern aircraft legislation, a set of space safety standards and regulations will need to be put in place sooner rather than later. For commercial lunar and beyond missions we also have to ensure that any spacecraft does not contaminate the location they are visiting with germs from Earth.

With more nations and companies developing plans for lunar missions, there are obvious advantages in international cooperation and finding cost efficient launch methods. This is not least because it’s not as dependent on the whim of elected governments for direction, which can change completely from one administration to the next.

So for us scientists looking to expand our knowledge of space, it is a very exciting moment.

Gareth Dorrian, Post Doctoral Research Fellow in Space Science, University of Birmingham and Ian Whittaker, Lecturer in Physics, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Dead Sea Scrolls – How we accidentally discovered missing text – In Manchester

The 2,000-year-old scrolls were found in the Qumran caves next to the Dead Sea in the 1940s. They weren’t the only discoveries, though. Archaeological artefacts like pottery and linen were also taken from the caves, and some are now in collections around the world.

Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls showing Hebrew text. Source: University of Manchester

My research collaborators Dennis Mizzi, Marcello Fidanzio and I put together a research project to find and study these artefacts, and to use techniques like radiocarbon dating to understand them better.

Dennis had written his Oxford thesis on Qumran archaeology and was preparing it for a book. Marcello was co-editing the final official publications of the cave findings. I had been working on Qumran materials in private and little-known collections.

We were all interested in non-scroll materials from the caves, which had been gifted and sold by the excavators to collectors, and early photographic dossiers that recorded these discoveries. In our project, scrolls were to be considered as archaeological artefacts among the other items found in the caves.

Blank scroll fragments – or not?

In the list of the many archives and collections we planned to visit, we noted: “Further materials exist in the Reed archive of the John Rylands Library, Manchester.” We knew that this collection contained some blank fragments of scroll – the archive had belonged to Ronald Reed, former leather expert at the University of Leeds, who had been gifted blank scroll fragments after the official excavations of the Qumran caves.

The fragments had been discussed and analysed by previous researchers, and we thought they might be ideal for radiocarbon dating. In our research budget, we had £10,500 for radiocarbon and other scientific analyses for all our designated objects of interest, and £3,000 for digital photography and permissions for publications. We had nothing in the pot for multispectral imaging to reveal texts. This just goes to show how hard it is to design a budget for truly investigative research.

I visited the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester with our researcher Sandra Jacobs. Curator Elizabeth Gow brought us the boxes of the Reed collection. We went through them to identify interesting items. When we got to Box 6, it appeared to contain a lot of random leather samples. But as she took them out one by one, Elizabeth held up a small envelope labelled “4Q22”. I said, “Hang on, this is one of the scroll fragments.” Strictly speaking it should have been in Box 1, where most of the other fragments were found. The label indicated it came from Cave 4Q from Qumran.

A discovery

Elizabeth carefully tipped it out. I looked at it through an illuminating magnifying glass. Unexpectedly, I thought I saw a faint, small lamed, the Hebrew letter ‘L’. But was that an illusion, some tricky stain? After all, these pieces were gifted to Reed for study, including destructive types of testing, precisely because they were blank.

After getting to sit with Box 1 in the library reading room, I decided I should closely inspect every single fragment for any possible faded letters. There seemed some definite indications. But what to do? Since finding text was not our primary focus and we had a lot of other important work, it seemed we should just park this for the future.

We knew there were some very good results now possible through multispectral imaging. But we had no budget for it, and it was expensive. We had to use the budget as planned. It wasn’t until the end of the grant period, with other studies done, that we had enough left over to commission multispectral imaging.

We agreed to use the remaining project funds for this, and institutionally it was permitted. We wondered about taking the fragments to Israel for the study, given the Israel Antiquities Authority’s proven expertise, but Elizabeth informed us that the John Rylands Library had the capability in house.

Enter Gwen Riley Jones, the University of Manchester imaging manager. Everything listed as Dead Sea Scrolls over 1cm was subjected to multispectral study. In the end, six pieces were selected for full analysis. Of these, four turned out to have readable text, including “4Q22”. We could finally see that lamed plainly, and more besides. On one of the fragments, the word Shabbat (Sabbath) is clearly visible.

We are working with text experts to identify the fragments, and have made progress. But our work does not stop here. We are now planning further study of the Reed materials, which also include textiles, string, pottery and papyrus, to see what else these little bits and pieces can tell us, and more of these will be subjected to scientific tests and multispectral imaging. When we draw up our next budget, whatever we think we probably don’t need will be top of the list.

Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism, King’s College London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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New projects broaden the search for alien signals from space

Estimating the chance of getting a message from life beyond Earth, say within the next decade, isn’t easy. Even the best experts are reluctant to offer precise odds.

“Anybody who gave you a figure would be talking about religion, not science,” says Jill Tarter, the astronomer who has spent most of her life pursuing the quest to find signals from alien life.

And even if you did get an estimate for that probability, it wouldn’t mean much. (After all, the San Francisco 49ers had a 95 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl with under 8 minutes to go in the game — and still lost.)

But however small the probability of seeing a signal from E.T. is, those chances are soon going to be a lot better than they have been in the past.

Sure, after decades of listening, there is still no message. But with more data to sift through, and new technologies with superior search capabilities, odds of hearing from E.T. are rapidly improving. If the probability in the decade 2011–2021 were x percent, it’s going to be 1,000 times x in the following decade, says Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center. (SETI stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.)

The reason for E.T. optimism stems largely from several new projects in the works, enhanced with advanced methods for discerning an actual message hidden in the static of cosmic cacophony.

Siemion, speaking in Seattle on February 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reported a new release of data from Breakthrough Listen, a major enterprise for recording radio signals from space. Now available for others to analyze, the data dump contains 2 petabytes of information (to store that much, you’d need 2,000 of today’s typical PCs with their puny 1 terabyte hard drives).

Tarter, chair emeritus for SETI Research at the pioneering SETI Institute, described new search projects in the works at the institute, including Laser SETI. It’s a plan to train 96 cameras at a dozen locations around the world to keep a constant vigil for “intelligent” optical signals from space.

SETI’s Institute looks more like a millionaires mansion. Source: SETI

Another key driver of increased optimism is the abundance of places to look for life. Thanks largely to the Kepler space telescope’s successful explorations, astronomers now know of thousands of stars possessing planets — and have spotted dozens of rocky, Earth-like planets orbiting their stars at a distance likely to be temperate enough for liquid water, a hopeful indicator of habitability.

NASA’s Kepler that they put to sleep in 2018.
Kepler observed 530,506 stars and discovered 2,662 exoplanets over its lifetime.

And of course, it is still possible that alien life might be hiding closer to home. While it’s very unlikely that any intelligent life abides in our solar system, microbial biology might be viable on moons such as Enceladus (Saturn) and Europa (Jupiter). Robots equipped with tools to extract microorganisms from alien soil and conduct chemical analysis could search for life on site. In the meantime, land- or space-based telescopes might detect signs of biological activity in the atmosphere of distant planets. Certain combinations of molecules in the right ratio would be surefire signatures of life in action.

“The ultimate breakthrough in exoplanetary science will be the detection of a biosignature in the atmosphere of a rocky habitable-zone exoplanet,” astronomer Nikku Madhusudhan noted last year in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Defining a unique biosignature remains a theoretical challenge, but several candidate molecules have been suggested.”

No one molecule (not even oxygen) would be a definite sign of life. But multiple life-related molecules detected in the atmosphere of a planet with other suitable conditions (such as a comfy temperature) would be strong evidence. Under Earth-like conditions, various molecules, such as oxygen, ozone, methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and ammonia could be taken as indicators of biological activity.

“Though there is no single ideal molecule, the combination of multiple species (e.g., oxygen and methane) may be a potential biosignature under the given conditions,” wrote Madhusudhan, of the University of Cambridge in England. “In this regard, a detection of oxygen and methane and/or nitrous oxide along with liquid water on a habitable-zone planet, i.e., an almost exact Earth analog, may be a sure sign of life.”

Seeking techno-signals

Finding primitive extraterrestrial life would be front-page news (or set a record for clicks), but the grand prize is reserved for the “I” in SETI — intelligent life. SETI searches seek signs of technology produced by extraterrestrial intelligence, most likely in the form of “unnatural” radio waves.

In fact, an alien looking for life in the cosmos might very well spot Earth as inhabited by exactly that method. In the 1990s, Carl Sagan and colleagues took advantage of the Galileo spacecraft’s pass by Earth to probe our planet for telltale signals of our existence. The giveaway was narrow-band radio emissions (abundant signaling at a single radio frequency).

“That as far as we know is an unmistakable indicator of technology, and an unmistakable indicator of life,” Siemion said at the AAAS meeting. “And indeed it is the most detectable signature of life on this planet as viewed from a distant vantage point.”

For now, Earth-based radio telescopes listening to the cosmos might hear a deliberate message, but couldn’t pick up TV shows or other radio-wave “leakage” from alien civilizations. But the Next Generation Very Large Array, now in the planning stage, would have the power to receive such unintentional communication, at least from nearby stars.

The Next Generation Very Large Array. Source: NRAO Science

Perhaps alien civilizations may make more use of lasers than radio, though, which makes the prospect of Laser SETI appealing. But whether patterns are found in the radio or optical region of the electromagnetic spectrum doesn’t matter — such patterns could reveal intelligent activity regardless of their purpose, Siemion pointed out.

“We simply look for compression of electromagnetic energy in time or in frequency or some kind of modulation that is inconsistent with the astrophysical background or the instrumental background and consistent with something that technology could produce,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter if it’s a laser communication system being used to communicate with a spacecraft in some exoplanet system or it’s a giant laser light show that some very advanced civilization produced for the amusement of all the life in their system.”

In any event, receiving a message would be a monumental revelation about the viability of technological civilizations. Nobody knows whether a society that has developed advanced technology can long survive.

“The lifetime of a technological civilization … is a very difficult thing to predict,” said Siemion. “And of course, looking around at our own civilization you have reason to question what that term might be.”

Andrew Siemion – Director of S.E.T.I.

On the other hand, a signal from space would almost certainly be from a civilization that has existed much longer than ours. (Otherwise the likelihood of listening in at exactly the right time would be prohibitively small.) So merely receiving a message might be considered hope that civilization on Earth might not be doomed after all.

Success in receiving a message raises other issues. For one thing, it’s a real possibility that an alien message is clearly an attempt to communicate, but in a language that no earthling could understand. And understood or not, a message received suggests the need to consider a reply. SETI researchers have long agreed that if a signal is detected, no response would be made until a global consensus had been reached on who will speak for Earth and what they would say. But that agreement is totally unenforceable, Tarter pointed out, and nobody has any idea about how to reach a global consensus on anything. (Perhaps the proper reply would just be “HELP!”)

Still, contemplating a response is for the moment a lesser priority than finding a message in the first place. And that might require help from nonhuman intelligence right here on Earth in the form of advanced computers. Recent developments in artificial intelligence research should soon make machine learning an effective tool in the E.T. search, Tarter said at the AAAS meeting.

“The ability to use machine learning to help us find signals in noise I think is really exciting,” she said. “Historically we’ve asked a machine to tell us if a particular pattern in frequency and time could be found. But now we’re on the brink of being able to say to the machine, ‘Are there any patterns in there?’”

So it’s possible that an artificially intelligent computer might be the first earthling to discern a message from an extraterrestrial. But then we would have to wonder, would a smart machine detecting a message bother to tell us? That might depend on whom (or what) the message was from.

“I think there’s something particularly romantic,” said Siemion, “about the idea of machine learning and artificial intelligence looking for extraterrestrial intelligence which itself might be artificially intelligent.”

10.1146/knowable-030220-1

By Tom Siegfried

Tom Siegfried is a science writer and editor in the Washington, DC, area. His book The Number of the Heavens, about the history of the multiverse, was published last fall by Harvard University Press.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

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ACE2: The Molecule that helps Coronavirus invade your cells

shutterstock. from www.shutterstock.com

David C Gaze, University of Westminster

ACE2

The more we learn about the science behind COVID-19, the more we are beginning to understand the vital role a single molecule in our bodies plays in how we contract the disease.

That molecule, Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2, or ACE2, essentially acts as a port of entry that allows the coronavirus to invade our cells and replicate. It occurs in our lungs, but also in our heart, intestines, blood vessels and muscles.

And it may be behind the vastly different death rates we are seeing between men and women.

What is ACE2?

ACE2 is an enzyme molecule that connects the inside of our cells to the outside via the cell membrane.

In normal physiology, another enzyme called ACE alters a chemical, Angiotensin I, and converts it into Angiotensin II, which causes blood vessels to constrict. The tightening of the blood vessels leads to an increase in blood pressure.

That’s when the ACE2 molecule comes in: to counteract the effects of ACE, causing blood vessels to dilate and lowering blood pressure.

The spikes that make up the ‘crown’ of coronavirus bind to ACE2 enzymes to get into our cells. from www.shutterstock.com

You may have seen illustrations of the virus that show distinct spikes around the surface of the virus, which form part of the “crown” or “corona” that gives the virus its name. These spikes are called S1 proteins, and they are what binds to the ACE2 molecule on our cells.

The virus is then able to invade the cell by a process called endocytosis – where the cell membrane engulfs the virus and internalises it within a bubble called an endosome.

Once inside the cell, the virus interacts with the host cells’ genetic machinery, taking advantage of the existing structure to replicate extensively.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, has a high binding capacity for ACE2 – between ten and 20 times more that of the original SARS virus. This means it is much easier for SARS-CoV-2 to get into human cells compared to the original coronavirus, making it more infectious overall.

ACE2 and COVID-19

But there is still conflicting evidence on the precise role ACE2 plays in coronavirus infections.

In some cases, it can actually be of benefit: ACE2 has been shown to reduce injury to the lung tissue in cases of the original SARS virus in mice by doing its job and causing blood vessels to dilate.

In another mouse study, however, the binding of the SARS spike protein to ACE2 was shown to contribute to lung damage.

When it comes to the current coronavirus, early studies have shown that the introduction of a human-made form of ACE2 to human cells can block the early stages of infection by binding the spike protein, preventing it from entering the cells. ACE2 thus acts both as an entry port to cells but also as a mechanism to protect the lung from injury.

The structure of the ACE2 molecule. Emw, CC BY-SA

ACE2 and the male death toll

It’s well established that COVID-19 affects men and women differently. Out of a representative sample of 1,099 patients in China, 58% were men and 42% were women. Data from China has also shown that men die of COVID-19 at a rate two and a half times that of women.

Similar figures have been observed in the US and 60% of deaths in Europe have been men.

We don’t yet fully understand why men die of COVID-19 in higher numbers than women, but it’s possible ACE2 plays a role.

A large study of two independent populations of heart failure patients was recently published in which ACE2 concentrations were found to be significantly higher in men than in women. This could explain why men may be more at risk than women of COVID-19 infection and of dying from the disease.

ACE2 and other conditions

The other important factor in the outcome of patients is the presence of underlying health problems.

Recently, ACE2 has been identified in different cells of the heart. There are a greater number of ACE2 receptors on the surface of cells in the heart muscle in people with established cardiovascular disease compared to those without disease.

This may result in a greater number of virus particles entering the heart cells in COVID-19 patients with established heart diseases.

Given the role ACE2 plays in regulating blood pressure, there are also concerns about how it affects COVID-19 patients with hypertension. Men are more likely to have hypertension than women, especially under the age of 50.

Two particular drugs to reduce hypertension also affect ACE and ACE2. These are Angiotensin Converting Enzyme inhibitors, or ACEi, and angiotensin receptor blockers, known as ARBs. In animal studies, both of these drug types increase the production of the ACE2 enzyme and so may increase the severity of COVID-19 infection.

Small independent studies have examined the effect of these treatments on COVID-19 with conflicting results. However a recent study on the subject has demonstrated that COVID-19 patients with untreated hypertension have a higher risk of death compared to those being treated with ACEi or ARBs.

That’s why many professional societies are advising people with high blood pressure to continue using their medicines during the crisis.

The role that ACE2 plays in COVID-19 is important in our understanding of the disease and could be used as a target for therapy. Drugs could be designed to block the receptor function of ACE2, but also there is promise in using the molecule itself in preventing entry of the virus into cells.

This would protect organs such as the lung, heart, kidney and intestine from extensive damage, and hopefully reduce mortality.

David C Gaze, Lecturer in Clinical Biochemistry, University of Westminster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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More than 2 million US adults with heart disease have used marijuana

Over two million U.S. adults with cardiovascular disease have smoked marijuana, and the substance may carry increased cardiovascular risks, new research indicates.

The study informs questions about the health impacts of policy changes on marijuana. Marijuana use remains illegal federally, but is legal medically in 33 states and the District of Columbia and recreationally in 11 states and D.C. It also makes the case for more research on the effects of marijuana, especially among people with heart disease.

The paper was published this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. It combines a review of the research on cardiovascular risks linked to marijuana use with an analysis of national survey data on use of marijuana in the U.S.

Using data collected through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2015 to 2016, the researchers estimate that of the 89.6 million adults in the U.S. who had at some point used marijuana, about 2 million of them had cardiovascular disease – including congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, or a heart attack.

“That’s an incredible number of people, and even since that time, we know that marijuana use has increased dramatically in the United States,” says Ersilia M. DeFilippis, MD, lead author of the paper and cardiology fellow at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

“What’s more, there may be many people who are at risk for cardiovascular disease but may not be diagnosed,” she adds. “That just highlights how important it is for us to get good data in this area.”

Currently there is a dearth of controlled research on the subject because marijuana remains classified federally as a Schedule I substance, a Drug Enforcement Administration categorization that indicates these substances have “no currently accepted medical use in the United States,” and a high potential for abuse.

“We know from at least epidemiological studies that marijuana use has been associated with a variety of cardiovascular conditions, including abnormal heart rhythms, weakening of the heart muscle, heart attacks, as well as stroke,” DeFilippis says. Her paper highlights a meta-analysis that finds smoking marijuana was one of the top three triggers of heart attack. Another highlighted study finds that among 334 patients younger than 45 who had experienced a stroke, 17% were cannabis users.

“We have data that suggests these associations,” DeFilippis says. “But we really need to have better controlled studies, to be able to better inform people.”

While research on the health effects of marijuana by delivery method — smoking, ingestion, topical application — is also scarce, DeFilippis points out research finds that inhaled marijuana smoke is, chemically, quite similar to tobacco smoke.

“Although the active ingredients of the cannabis plant differ from those of the tobacco plant, each produces about 4,000 chemicals when smoked and these are largely identical,” finds a 2003 study in The BMJ comparing marijuana and tobacco.

“Given how we accept that smoking is a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease, what does that mean for marijuana? And how do we counsel patients?” DeFilippis says.

The research review also highlights known interactions between marijuana and heart medications. Statins, for example, which are prescribed to lower cholesterol levels, can be affected by marijuana use. Levels of statins in the blood may increase when used with marijuana because of how the body metabolizes those substances. Levels of blood thinners, which are used to prevent stroke, and beta blockers, which lower blood pressure, can also increase due to marijuana use.

Further, because marijuana’s chemical composition varies between different strains, medication interactions are “unpredictable,” DeFilippis says.

Given that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., DeFilippis urges people who have or are at risk for heart disease to talk with their doctors about their marijuana use, whether it’s recreational or medical.

“Hopefully, with more data, we can help to provide more guidelines for doctors,” she says. “But we do know that for people who are using marijuana and on cardiovascular medications, it will be important for cardiologists as well as our pharmacy colleagues to be aware of potential drug interactions in that setting.”

This article first appeared on Journalist’s Resource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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How oil prices got wrapped up in the Coronavirus outbreak

A novel coronavirus is affecting countries in every habitable continent, with recent shocks to oil prices only the latest wrinkle in the unfolding outbreak.

During trading on March 9, crude oil prices dropped to half what they were in January. This is an example of an oil shock. A shock is a massive change — in this case, in the price of a commodity that powers the global economy.

U.S. stock markets were down well over 5% by midday, with trading briefly halted and crude oil stocks hit particularly hard. Crude oil is used to make vehicle gasoline, jet fuel, heating fuel and to produce energy.

“My view is the downturn in the market is due to the virus,” says University of Oregon associate professor of finance Rob Ready, author of “Oil Prices and the Stock Market,” a February 2018 paper in the Review of Finance. “The oil prices are a sideshow.”

The oil shock, Ready says, is still adding uncertainty to equities markets already rattled by the new coronavirus. Oil stocks are down and airline stocks continue to fall, too. Still, he says it’s difficult to draw a stark line between this particular oil shock and recent ongoing stock market losses — considering the context that the volatility is happening alongside a global coronavirus outbreak.

“But that becomes a much more subtle story,” Ready says.

Here’s how oil prices became wrapped up in the novel coronavirus outbreak, and what the research says about how oil market volatility and stock prices usually interact.

Less demand — more supply?

The plunging price-per-barrel for crude oil comes down to simple supply-and-demand economics.

The novel coronavirus has hurt demand for travel and, as a result, has lowered demand for oil. Some companies in China, where the novel coronavirus originated, have mandated that employees telework. The European Parliament has told employees with health conditions to work from home, and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management wants federal agencies to be ready to have employees telework.

Amazon, Google and other major U.S. companies have halted or restricted international travel. Usually well-attended conferences and events have been canceled, like South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Cities in hard-hit regions, like northern Italy, are turning into ghost towns without tourists.

The result is less travel, less gasoline and jet fuel being used, and less crude oil demand. And it’s not just consumers, airlines and conference organizers being affected. With supply chains from China disrupted for weeks, U.S. transportation companies of all stripes are facing uncertainty.

“The trucking industry is very concerned,” says Steven Polunksy, director of the Alabama Transportation Policy Research Center at the University of Alabama and recent author of a primer on how the novel coronavirus is slowing transportation industries. “They don’t know if the impact will be a shortage of truckers because of illness, or if it’s how truckload shipments will be affected. Our shipping ports are very concerned and seeing impacts already. The question is, how long is this bubble [of uncertainty] going to last?”

Polunksy also notes that more people staying home could lead to more shipments by van and small trucks, due to people ordering groceries and other essentials online.

Amid lower demand for oil, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries — OPEC — responded with a plan to cut production. OPEC is an international organization with 14 member nations that influence global oil prices by managing the amount of oil they produce. Collectively OPEC controls some 80% of the world’s oil reserves. Supply from OPEC nations is a key driver of oil prices, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Major oil producers Russia and the U.S. are not members, but Russia has closely aligned with OPEC since 2017 — until now. Russia refused to go along with OPEC’s production cuts. Saudi Arabia, a powerful OPEC-member country, responded by cutting prices and raising their own production.

The situation now is this: a novel coronavirus is reducing oil demand. Major oil producers are increasing supply. There is much more oil than there is demand, and that, coupled with direct price cuts from Saudi Arabia, is why per-barrel prices are low.

Usually, stock prices reflect oil fluctuations

Under normal circumstances, when there isn’t a global outbreak of a new virus, research shows oil shocks and stock prices are closely linked. It’s been that way since the Great Recession, though before the late-2000s there was little relationship between the two, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Since then, a growing body of research has established that linkage.

For example, research from October 2018 in Energy Economics finds “a greater degree of interconnectedness across crude oil and financial markets” since the recession. Likewise, from a November 2018 paper in the Review of Financial Economics: “There is strong evidence that changes in oil prices have a significant effect on the financial markets and the overall economy.”

Research from February 2016 in Energy Economics finds that stock markets react poorly in the short-term, up to five days, when oil prices are volatile. Similarly, high volatility in oil prices can reduce global industrial production by .3%, according to research from August 2014 in the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking. Yet more research, published in June 2018 in the Journal of Empirical Finance, finds volatility in oil trading can forecast short-term stock fluctuations.

The reason for the typically robust link between oil and stock prices isn’t yet fully understood.

“In the financial crisis you had this giant shock to economic activity in the stock market, and oil prices went down a lot,” Ready says. “My view is people realized they were more closely linked, but there are lots of different theories. I haven’t seen one explanation everyone accepts.”

Roman Ferrer, an economist at the University of Valencia in Spain and co-author of the October 2018 Energy Economics paper, agrees that prior to the financial crisis the risk of real losses in energy and financial markets, and the inter-connectedness of those markets, had been been underestimated.

“If the world economy is working well, the aggregate demand rises and the oil and stocks increase in unison,” Ferrer explained in an email. “If the world economy is slowing down, oil and stock markets fall together.”

For more JR coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, check out these 5 tips for covering the outbreak and what the research says so far about how the virus is infecting the economy.

This article first appeared on Journalist’s Resource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Apple’s Made It Less Annoying To Unlock Your Phone When Wearing A Mask

Currently, when an iPhone owner swipes to unlock their device – It will try to scan their face if Face ID is enabled on the device. If they are wearing a mask though, You need to tap the Face ID prompt or wait for the scan to fail before you can unlock your phone by typing in your passcode on a second screen prompt.

This latest update simply removes the wait for the Face ID unlock to fail.

When you first swipe to unlock, the device will attempt to scan their face while also offering a passcode input option on the same screen (Why this wasn’t done in the first place I’ll never know)

It only asks you to enter a passcode if the device detects that your mouth is covered though (Maybe this will work with an unruly beard which I’m sure some of you have right now!). If you’re not wearing a mask, Face ID will work as normal. 


Unfortunately this iOS Beta isn’t available to the public as of yet.

You currently have two options to sort out this issue

You can shut off Face ID completely in the settings of your device and just type your passcode eavery time you want to unlock your device.

Or you can also try to make use of a workaround that involves taking a new Face ID scan with a mask covering half of your mouth.

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Burglar Steals VAN GOGH in Dutch Museum During Coronavirus Lockdown

van gogh

The security footage shows a thief smashed the doors of Singer Laren museum using a sledgehammer to steal the Vincent van Gogh painting “Lentetuin” or “Spring Garden” worth €2.97 million. The museum is currently shut down due to coronavirus pandemic.

The Singer Laren Museum in Laren, Netherlands.

The footage originated on Dutch TV in the hopes of catching the unidentified suspect. Some clips of the footage have been held by Police in the hopes of aiding the investigation.

The recently stolen “Spring Garden” by Vincent Van Gogh

As per the CCTV film, at 3:15 a.m. March 30th, the thief showed up outside the Museum riding a motorbike – alone. In the following seconds, he crushed the tempered glass doors of the Singer Laren gallery and made his way inside.

The museums doors at that point had been shut since Mar. 12 after the Dutch government prohibited events of in excess of 100 individuals due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He entered the exhibition hall through the gift shop. At that point, with a couple of hits to another glass entryway, he got entry to the main Gallery before leaving with the fine piece of art tucked under his arm and a sledgehammer in the other.

The burglar leaving with the Van Gogh in one hand, sledgehammer in other.
Source: Korps Nationale Politie

While the burglary had set off the alarm systems, the thief was well gone when the police showed up.

In a press briefing, Singer Laren’s Managing Director ‘Evert van Os’ defended the museum’s security. 

The burglar broke through some doors and several layers of security that had been approved by security experts

Well… clearly.

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Covid19 – Coronavirus Cases Ireland & Globally

Dashboard

[cvct title=”Coronavirus Ireland” country-code=”IE” label-total=”Total Cases” label-deaths=”Death Cases” label-recovered=”Recovered Cases” bg-color=”#23282D” font-color=”#fff”]

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths

Daily deaths (Per Million People)


Daily Confirmed Deaths Compared

Country comparison of daily deaths (Rolling 3 day average)

Global Confirmed Cases

Global Top Countries


Interactive Map

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Websites for Copyright/Royalty Free Images and Music

Frustrated every time you go to make some content whether it’s a video or a website and you always come across some Pinterest link or Shutterstock? Me too.

Here’s some links to Copyright free content.

Annoyed every time you want to find an image but it has a watermark? Look no further.

Images –

Free downloads when you sign up with a Free user account:

Free downloads with no user account needed:

Music/Audio –

Free downloads, no user account needed:

Do you know any other good sites? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

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Crucial Decisions Most People Fail to Make When It Comes to Estate Planning

Whats the best way to put this?

We’re all going to go at some point, and while you may not want to think about it, never mind, talk about it, you’re not immune.

So what then?

You might think your estate will get miraculously sorted out, and that squabbling relatives are just the stuff of TV dramas. But you’re not just leaving an estate. You’re leaving a ‘legacy’ so to speak.

You want to be the one who’s in control of what happens to what matters most to you, such as minor children, dependents, financial assets, even your own health care decisions.

Without a properly planned estate, or legacy strategy, your assets could be subject to the time-consuming, expensive and very public process where relatives and creditors can gain access to records and even challenge your will.

And yet, according to a recent survey, 77 percent of Irish people believe having such a strategy in place is important for everyone – not just the rich – only 24 percent have even taken the most basic step of designating beneficiaries for all their accounts. To avoid even one of those “then what?” moments,

Here are some of the key elements to consider:


• Will.
 What’s the worst that can happen if you haven’t written one? “Plenty,” -depending on your situation, the personalities of the people in your life – and the estate laws that your country & county has.

In other words, not only could some court be deciding who gets everything if your family can’t agree on their own, but he or she could also wind up appointing a guardian for your children.

• Living Trust. Do you own other property, such as a holiday home? Or maybe you want to leave more to one child than the others? Assets you register into a revocable living trust are there for your benefit during your lifetime, can be managed by your named trustee if you become incapacitated, and are harder to contest than wills.

• Health Care Directive. In the same way that you don’t want some judge deciding who gets your Mark McCabe album, for instance, you definitely don’t want the courts having to settle an inter-family fight over whether you’d rather go on living in a vegetative state or be taken off hospital feeding tubes.

And, yes, believe me, it’s happened.

Shuddering at the thoughts? Then you’ll recognise the importance of appointing someone to carry out your personal medical treatment wishes in the event that you’re no longer able to communicate or incapable of giving your own consent.

• Beneficiary Designations. Suffice it to say that you don’t want to be among the 76 percent the survey found hadn’t even bothered, for starters, to fill in a beneficiary’s name on accounts or their savings.

For some people, this would be simple – others, need help. What got my thoughts going on this is the Free Will Kit that was provided to me by Lowquotes.ie when I signed up for Life Insurance. It included absolutely everything I needed, and to be honest; I probably would have never got around to it otherwise.