Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –Did Life on Earth Start Elsewhere, Pentagon’s Secret UFO Office, This Week’s Amazing Photos

 

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December 17, 2017: Today's links to headline stories from around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet –along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and an intriguing conspiracy theory or two.  

Photos of the Week: Giant Skulls, Leopards, a Space Capsule Landing

 

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The Thomas Fire in southern California, leopards in India and New York, unrest in the West Bank and Argentina, an FCC vote on net neutrality in the U.S., Christmas in a Brazilian prison, an upset victory by Doug Jones in a U.S. Senate election in Alabama, and much more.

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Head of Pentagon’s Secret ‘UFO’ Office Sought to Make Evidence Public

 

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The chief of a little-known agency said the Pentagon did not take his UFO investigations seriously. He quit, but before leaving his job, intelligence officer Luis Elizondo quietly arranged for the release of three of the most unusual videos in the Pentagon’s secret vaults. (Photos/Credits

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What If Life On Earth Didn't Start On Earth?

 

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Half a billion years. That's how long the Earth existed as a barren world. Half a billion years of hell before the planet's molten seas of liquid rock cooled to give the world a solid surface. Only then did life appear. Only then did our world's fantastic history of microbes evolving to mollusks, evolving to dinosaurs, evolving to us, begin.

But what, exactly, was that beginning?

When scientists tell the story of life on Earth, they usually call on a theory known as abiogenisis. It's a narrative of life emerging from non-life. Through random chemical trial and error — and a lot of time — the raw materials of living cells are assembled like jiggling tinker-toys. Once nature hits on the right self-replicating combination of molecules, life takes off and the evolution of form and function begins. It's a story backed up by a lot of science.

But is that the only way to tell the story of life's origin on Earth? There is, in fact, another narrative about our planet's ascent to a full biosphere. Given the celestial events of the last few weeks, it's worth a moment's consideration. We have, after all, just been visited by a wanderer from the stars.

 

 

Earlier this month, astronomers announced the stunning discovery of Oumuamua, an alien asteroid. Diving in from above the plane of planetary orbits that define our solar system, Oumuamua's trajectory and speed tells us it must be a fragment of another solar system. Ejected from some distant star system, it's been tumbling through space for billions of years. Even its needle-like shape (inferred from reflected sunlight) is unlike anything we've found orbiting the sun. Oumuamua is, without doubt, of elsewhere. Though we've long thought fragments like it must exist, Oumuamua marks the first time we humans have ever seen a visitor pass through our little corner of the universe.

And that's where the other story of life on Earth begins.

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Mystery Continent at the Bottom of the World

 

 

What the Robots of Star Wars Tell Us About the Future of Human Work

 

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The films’ much-loved robots exist mostly to assist rather than replace humans—and like us, they are prone to errors. Millions of fans all over the world are eagerly anticipating this week’s release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth in the series. At last we will get some answers to questions that have been vexing us since 2015’s The Force Awakens.

Throughout the franchise, the core characters have been accompanied by a number of much-loved robots, including C-3PO, R2-D2 and more recently, BB-8 and K2-SO. While often fulfilling the role of wise-cracking sidekicks, these and other robots also play an integral role in events.

Interestingly, they can also tell us useful things about automation, such as whether it poses dangers to us and whether robots will ever replace human workers entirely. In these films, we see the good, bad and ugly of robots – and can thus glean clues about what our technological future might look like.

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Why Human Society Isn’t More—or Less—Violent Than in the Past

 

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As populations scale up, the proportion of people killed in battle scales down, suggesting we’re no more or less violent than our forebears who lived in smaller societies.

Are people in big, modern societies more or less violent than our forebears? The answer is neither, according to a controversial new study: People who lived in small bands in the past had no more proclivity toward violence than we do today. The finding—based on estimates of war casualties throughout history—undercuts the popular argument that humans have become a more peaceful species over time, thanks to advances in technology and governance. But some critics aren’t convinced.

That includes the man who most recently popularized the idea, psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University, who calls the new findings “a statistical gimmick.” He argues in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that the emergence of institutions like nation-states with strong central governments, trade networks, and wide-ranging communication increased interdependence and reduced deaths due to violence. He cited data suggesting that fewer people die in wars today, relative to a society’s total population, than among small tribes of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists—how human society organized for most of its history.

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In 1952 London, 12,000 People Died from Smog — Here's Why That Matters Now

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In December 1952, London was trapped in a deadly cloud of fog and pollution for five days — what became known as the Great Smog of 1952.

In February 2015, journalist Kate Dawson was browsing the Getty Images website when she stumbled upon an enigmatic black and white photo of a woman with four strings of pearls around her neck and a chiffon scarf around her nose and mouth. The woman was surrounded by an ominous gray haze. “I was just struck by the photo,” Dawson said.

That image was taken in December 1952, when London was trapped in a deadly cloud of fog and pollution for five days. At the time, the city ran on cheap coal for everything from generating power to heating homes. So when an anticyclone caused cold air to stagnate over London, the sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and smoke particles mounted — and ended up choking as many as 12,000 people to death.

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Where Would Pandemic Flu Wreak the Most Havoc?

 

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A virulent flu strain would overwhelm developing countries where health care systems are already floundering. When the next flu pandemic hits, a nation’s successful response depends on strong health resources, infrastructure and leadership.

That means many developing countries already struggling to provide adequate health care will likely be overwhelmed. And developed countries—with well-trained health workforces, efficient disease surveillance systems, and advanced health facilities—could be pushed to their limits.

Early detection of a virus is critical in mobilizing an effective public health response, but many low-income countries struggle to comply with WHO influenza surveillance standards. “The identification itself will be challenging for most developing countries,” says Ciro Ugarte, MD, director of PAHO’s Department of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief.

A simple influenza diagnosis won’t suffice; characterization of the strain is required to effectively treat the disease and develop vaccinations, he says. Typical seasonal flu, for example, will not require the emergency measures to reduce transmissions (closing schools or public facilities) that might be necessary in a pandemic.

Ugarte expects significant identification delays in resource-poor nations, where health centers must ship specimens to national or international laboratories for testing. Such delays slowed response to the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, explains Ugarte, when Mexico’s viral samples were first sent to the CDC. Due to the CDC’s backlog, the specimens had to be processed in Canada. “We discovered the very same day that Mexico declared [an] emergency that there were already cases in Brazil and several other countries,” says Ugarte, noting this delayed a coordinated regional response.

It doesn’t bode well for the next pandemic. “It is clear, we will be behind the wave,” Ugarte states, and “the only way to catch up will [depend upon] the capacity of the health services.”

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The 'Eternality' of Graffiti

In an abandoned housing project in New Orleans, graffiti artist Brandan “Bmike” Odums evokes the legacy of iconic figures alongside urban residents struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

 

 

Wine Glass Size Grew by 531 Percent Since 1700

 

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For some, the holiday season goes hand-in-hand with drinking, and no beverage captures the wintry spirit more than red wine — well, maybe egg nog, but it’s gross. In any case, a new study finds wine glasses have grown substantially over the last 300 years in the UK — and a scientist tells Inverse why.

“Several factors likely lead people to drink more during the holidays in Western countries,” Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, tells Inverse. “First, they socialize more at this time and second, the events at which they socialize often involve alcohol. Combined with a celebratory mood this can fuel alcohol consumption, as can the stresses associated with such socializing — including office parties and days spent with our families in confined spaces with an expectation of joy all round.”

But this most recent study — which Marteau serves as co-author on — investigated alcohol consumption far beyond the modern holiday season. By researching glassware both online and with the assistance of antique experts, the researchers measured 411 glasses from 1700 to the present. Wine glass capacity skyrocketed from 66 ml in the 18th century to 417 ml in the early 21st century. In fact, between 2016 and 2017, the average wine glass size was 449 ml. That’s a 531 percent over in 317 years; a lot more wine.The group’s research was published on Wednesday in the BMJ.

“Our findings suggest that the capacity of wine glasses in England increased significantly over the past 300 years,” the study’s lead author, Zorana Zupan of the University of Cambridge, said in a statement. “For the most part, this was gradual, but since the 1990s, the size has increased rapidly. Whether this led to the rise in wine consumption in England, we can’t say for certain, but a wine glass 300 years ago would only have held about a half of today’s small measure.”

 

 

 

 

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