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White House Honors Two Techies for Making Programming Cool

Bay Area residents Carlos Bueno and Kimberly Bryant are helping to prepare kids to use programming concepts in daily life and work.

Tech Titans Join Forces on Internet Surveillance

More than 60 technology firms and other groups are urging the federal government to let companies disclose Patriot Act data requests.

The Story of Elon Musk and His 'Quest for a Fantastic Future'

Elon Musk has achieved success across multiple industries, with Tesla Motors, Solar City and SpaceX all under his leadership. A new biography by Bloomberg reporter Ashlee Vance digs into the stories behind Musk's success, the CEO's desire to colonize Mars and the respect and fear his employees reportedly have for him. Vance joins us to talk about his book, "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future."

Bay Area Startups Seek to Transform Health Care

Bay Area digital health startups raised $1 billion in venture capital in 2014, a 125 percent increase from the previous year. The sector promises better management and treatment of diseases like diabetes and improved access to health data. But health care is a notoriously challenging business and the rapid growth of this industry raises serious questions of privacy and efficacy. We'll take the pulse of the digital health industry. What new products and therapies offer real hope? And which are merely hype?

PBS NewsHour

Male spider genitals have some nerve

Tasmanian cave spider on the hand of biologist Peter Michalik of the University of Greifswald, Germany Photo by Christian
         Wirkner.

Tasmanian cave spider on the hand of biologist Peter Michalik of the University of Greifswald, Germany Photo by Christian Wirkner.

Male spiders have a bad reputation in the bedroom. Their arachnid genitals have been described as “numb” and as haphazard as an “elongate, elaborately formed fingernail” trying to perform a complex task in the dark. This is because it was long thought that male spider genitals had no nerves.

This assumption might be wrong, according to a new study from Germany that, for the first time, found nerves in the genitals of male spiders, using X-rays and other scans.

Male spiders don’t have penises. Instead, they possess two stubby appendages called pedipalps that they use to store sperm and copulate with female mates. Scientists have examined these sexual organs — called palpal bulbs — for at least a century without being able to spot nerve tissue inside.

In 2010, Smithsonian Institute biologists William Eberhard and Bernhard Huber described male spider mating as “sensorily blind” and made the fingernail analogy above. Many species of male spiders, they note, struggle to dock with female genitalia, conducting exploratory humps that have been described by scientists as “scraping”, “stroking”, “rubbing”, “scrabbling”, “beating”, “poking”, “slapping”, “fumbling”, brushing” and “flubs.”

The case seemed closed until today, when a new report released in Biology Letters outlined the presence of two clusters of neurons in the palpal bulbs of Tasmanian cave spiders (Hickmania troglodytes).

“I’ve been working with sensory structures of arthropods for a while, so I am experienced with identifying nervous tissue; however, in the end we were just lucky to find this nervous tissue inside this spider,” said evolutionary biologist Elisabeth Lipke of the University of Greifswald, Germany in an email. Lipke co-led the study.

The team started by dissecting the palpal bulb, slicing the tissue into thin sheets, and placing those onto glass slides. They then used three types of microscopes to make the discovery. A “transmission electron microscope” spotted the architecture of a small nerve, consisting of long branches called neurites and empty sacks called vesicles that house neurotransmitter chemicals.

A male Tasmanian cave spider, Hickmania troglodytes, hangs in its natural habitat. The white arrow points to one of its
         sex organs, a pedipalp.  Photo by  M. J. Ramırez/Courtesy of Elisabeth Lipke.

A male Tasmanian cave spider, Hickmania troglodytes, hangs in its natural habitat. The white arrow points to one of its sex organs, a pedipalp. Photo by M. J. Ramırez/Courtesy of Elisabeth Lipke.

The scientists also found two glands in the palpal bulbs that appear to be connected to the nerves. Next, with an X-ray microscope and a light microscope, the team built a 3-D reconstruction of the palpal bulb.

Three-dimensional model of the male copulatory organ and some  structural details, such as  nerves (yellow), cuticular
         tube that houses seminal fluid (green) and glands (red and purple). Photo by Lipke E, Hammel JU, Michalik P. Biol. Lett. 2015.

Three-dimensional model of the male copulatory organ and some structural details, such as nerves (yellow), cuticular tube that houses seminal fluid (green) and glands (red and purple). Photo by Lipke E, Hammel JU,
Michalik P. Biol. Lett. 2015.

In general, male spiders have evolved an array of skills to succeed at reproduction. Some species are equipped with complex pedipalps that lock onto the female genitals, called the epigynum, like an anchor. Other males break off or
bite off their own pedipalps or produce secretions in order to physically plug the epigynum, preventing future suitors from mating with a female. However, male Tasmanian cave spiders aren’t thought to plug their mates.

The team suspects that the nerves in Tasmanian cave spider might sense physical stress on the palpal bulb as it inserts and expands during copulation, though their study didn’t directly measure whether these neurons react to sexual strain.

3-D model of where strain might occur in with the copulatory organ of male Tasmanian cave spiders. The big grey arrows
         indicate the directions that the stress load might be applied during sex, while the colors red, yellow and blue indicate areas
         where high, medium and low levels of strain might be felt. Photo by Lipke E, Hammel JU, Michalik P. Biol. Lett. 2015 (modified).

3-D model of where strain might occur in with the copulatory organ of male Tasmanian cave spiders. The big grey arrows indicate the directions that the stress load might be applied during sex, while the colors red, yellow and blue indicate areas where high, medium and low levels of strain might be felt. Photo by Lipke E, Hammel JU, Michalik P. Biol. Lett. 2015 (modified).

Alternatively, male Tasmanian cave spiders might use sensory nerves to guide copulation, while yet another hypothesis is that the neurons control unknown sexual secretions from those palpal glands.

Lipke thinks it’s possible that this new discovery could extend to other spider species.

“We would not be surprised if more spider species have evolved copulatory organs that are able to perceive sensory input,” Lipke said.

The post Male spider genitals have some nerve appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

To study Earth’s most extreme environment, researchers wire up an undersea volcano

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 7.30.35 PM

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GWEN IFILL: For generations, scientists have had to undertake long voyages across the sea to try to better understand the mysteries of volcanic activity and the oceans themselves. But now scientific advances and technology have changed the game.

Hari Sreenivasan has our story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What if a volcano erupted and nobody knew about it? That used to be the case 300 miles off the coast of Oregon and Washington for undersea volcano known as Axial Seamount.

But two months ago, when it started spewing lava, these scientists knew instantly.

You have 25 sensors sitting on the lip of a volcano, and it’s all feeding information back here.

JOHN DELANEY, Oceanographer, University of Washington: That’s right. It’s really exciting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: University of Washington oceanographer John Delaney is the director of a groundbreaking research project called the Cabled Array, also known as the Cabled Observatory, that has, in effect, turned Axial Seamount into the world’s first wired volcano.

JOHN DELANEY: Well, we’re standing in our control room that allows folks that are here on campus at the University of Washington to actually interact with the instruments that might be as much as 400 kilometers, 300 miles offshore.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the day of the eruption, a network of sensors on the volcano started measuring more than 8,000 small earthquakes, and the seafloor dropped seven feet.

DEBBIE KELLEY, University of Washington: We have been waiting our whole lives to have that kind of information come in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Debbie Kelley was one of those closely watching the eruption data. She’s a chief scientist on the team who studies underwater volcanoes.

This volcanic ridge is like thousands of miles of ridges that circle the Earth beneath the oceans. It’s also a spot where two tectonic plates pull apart, making it an ideal location to study. Kelley says that the Cabled Observatory, which will eventually send back real-time data and images anyone can access, will finally give scientists, and the general public, insight into a complex world they know very little about.

DEBBIE KELLEY: It will let us have new eyes into the ocean. It’s really expensive to go to sea. And now we’re looking at an international laboratory, where anybody could have access to these data and it doesn’t cost them anything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Here’s how it works: An array of sophisticated sensors, moorings and cameras are connected by cables to large hubs called primary nodes.

Those in turn are connected to a fiberoptic Internet and power cable stretching from the volcano 300 miles back to shore.

JOHN DELANEY: The game changer is that fiberoptic cable. Fiberoptic cables became the centerpiece of how we could do science throughout entire volumes of the ocean without actually being there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The $150 million system took six years to design, build, and implement. And it will cost at least several million a year, maybe more, to maintain over its 25-year lifespan.

The Cabled Observatory is part of an even larger National Science Foundation-funded project called the Ocean Observatory Initiative that aims to study the oceans in a more comprehensive way than ever before.

The National Science Foundation is an underwriter of the NewsHour.

Canada has developed a similar network. The observatory equipment off the West Coast has now been operating, about a mile down, for nearly a year. Deep-sea creatures seem to have adjusted to their new neighbors, but there have been some challenging moments. During an initial voyage to map the system’s main cable, the team discovered a section had actually been laid on top of a boiling hot hydrothermal vent, not an ideal place for a delicate cable, and it was later moved.

Debbie Kelley specializes in those vents and the exotic, largely unstudied life forms that surround them. She says this project will help scientists understand some basic science about an ecosystem that may in fact produce a window into the origins of life on this planet.

DEBBIE KELLEY: Seventy percent of the volcanism on the planet occurs underwater. And so there’s many questions that arise because we’re never there at the right place at the right time.

We think that there’s massive blooms during an eruption where you have billions of microbes streaming out of the seafloor. And this is probably the — the most extreme environment on Earth. And now most people think that’s where life started.

HARI SREENIVASAN: These hardy microbes may hold the key to new chemical compounds or pharmaceutical drugs.

DEBBIE KELLEY: We know so little about these microbes, and it’s clear that they have phenomenally different metabolisms than most people think about. And so there’s interest in perhaps, as our bodies become more resistant to tetracycline or penicillin, that maybe we could start getting medicines from the sea through these microbes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: From volcanic eruptions to intense deep-sea pressures and near-freezing temperatures, the observatory equipment has had to operate in a very challenging environment. So, how has it fared?

DANA MANALANG, University of Washington: The system has worked amazingly well, but, as you would expect in this environment, there has been some attrition.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dana Manalang is a senior engineer in the Applied Physics Laboratory at the university, where much of the Cabled Observatory equipment was designed and built and where fragile sensors are thoroughly tested before being deployed.

While some parts of the system are intended to be traded out every year, other parts, including the main cable, are expected to last for 25 years.

And what’s with all the high-voltage stuff?

Manalang gave us a tour of some of the key components the team is working on before a summer research cruise to make repairs and check on the equipment.

What are these big, huge metal containers?

DANA MANALANG: Well, so, these are big titanium housings. Titanium won’t corrode under the high-salinity conditions in the ocean.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So everything’s got to be sealed super tight?

DANA MANALANG: That’s right. Seawater and electronics don’t mix.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

And she showed us a first-of-its-kind sensor that’s already sending back data from the volcano.

DANA MANALANG: This is a homegrown system for measuring the diffusion of high-temperature fluids out of vents on the volcano. So, there are 24 different temperature sensors on here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the first priorities for the team this summer is to replace video cameras on the seafloor that stopped working recently. And they are awaiting a new software system, also funded by the National Science Foundation, needed to capture and organize all the data coming in. For now, the information is being archived at the University of Washington.

Despite those few setbacks, John Delaney, who first came up with the idea of a Cabled Observatory more than 20 years ago, says the project is going to fundamentally change our understanding of the oceans.

JOHN DELANEY: As a society, we are dependent on the ocean. And if you want to understand the complexity of all the processes that operate in the ocean, you have got to be in the ocean. You have got to be making the measurements in real time and looking at things that are short-term, long-term.

We can’t do that from land. We can’t do that with just the odd ship time to time. We have got to be there in the ocean 24/7, 365, for generations. That’s the key.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Over the coming years, Delaney and his colleagues hope to expand the Cabled Observatory, and hope that this charts a course for other countries to build their own observatories as well.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan in Seattle, Washington.

The post To study Earth’s most extreme environment, researchers wire up an undersea volcano appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Mission to Pluto hits a speed bump, but resumes its stride

Artist rendering of the New Horizons probe approaching Pluto and one of its moons. Image by Johns Hopkins University
         Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

Artist rendering of the New Horizons probe approaching Pluto and one of its moons. Image by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

Two days after briefly losing communication with the New Horizons spacecraft as it sped toward the dwarf planet Pluto, the probe’s operators say they understand the root cause of what happened and have taken steps to resume full operations.

“We hit a speed bump,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “New Horizons is operating flawlessly. So are all the instruments in the payload.”

New Horizons is in the home stretch of a nine and a half year journey across the solar system en route to Pluto, 3 billion miles from Earth. Traveling at a relative speed of 31,000 miles per hour, it’s on course to execute a close flyby of Pluto and Pluto’s five known moons on July 14.

The anomaly occurred just before 2:00 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon as the spacecraft’s computer systems were multitasking on two different jobs — loading the main flight plan for the flyby onto the primary computer and also compressing a complicated set of science data for storage to be downloaded later.

This new image shows Pluto and its largest moon Charon seen from New Horizons on July 1, 2015. The inset shows Pluto
         enlarged; features as small as 100 miles across are visible. Image by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

This new image shows Pluto and its largest moon Charon seen from New Horizons on July 1, 2015. The inset shows Pluto enlarged; features as small as 100 miles across are visible. Image by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

“We were doing multiple things on the processor and on the computer on the spacecraft at the same time,” said Project Manager Glen Fountain. “The two were more than the processor could handle at one time. “

The overload triggered a pre-programmed safeguard that put the spacecraft into what is called “safe mode,” he said. That means the computers stop what they are doing, turn the spacecraft’s antenna toward Earth, and wait for ground commands.

Within about 90 minutes, mission controllers established contact with the spacecraft’s back-up computer – and were able to diagnose what happened and come up with a plan to recover operations. On Sunday the fight plan was successfully loaded onto the primary computer, and will start running on July 7. Operators do not expect the problem to recur, as they do not anticipate that they will need to load a major software program and compress a large dataset at the same time again.

But Alan Stern did say that a limited number of science operations did not happen as scheduled due the glitch, and the subsequent recovery activities.

“When the spacecraft goes “safe,” the instruments are turned off,” he said. “The science we were doing was suspended.”

No science data was gathered after the incident occurred on Saturday, nor on Sunday or Monday. Observations will resume on Tuesday.

In all, they were not able to conduct 30 planned observations from the suite of seven onboard science instruments. That’s about 6 percent of the observations planned between July 3 and July 16, when the Pluto close flyby activities will conclude.

“These observations very far away are not nearly as important as those in the Pluto system, where we’ll be about 100 times closer than we were this weekend, Stern said. “And so our assessment is that the “weighted” loss is far less than 1 percent.”

Stern expressed no second thoughts at all regarding the decision to stand down science operations while the engineers worked to resume normal fight operations.

“That was a command decision which I made and which the team was in complete agreement with at the beginning of the recovery operation. It’s much more important to focus on getting ready for the flyby than to collect science 8 or 9 million miles from the target when the target is small.”

And he said the quality of the data gathered so far as New Horizons approaches Pluto has more than met expectations.

“I can tell you every day when our science team meets, the room is full of smiles,” Stern said. “We came a long way to explore Pluto and all the early indications are that Pluto is not going to let us down.”

The post Mission to Pluto hits a speed bump, but resumes its stride appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Study: Fireworks release high levels of pollution on July 4 weekend

Spectators watch the Macy's Fourth of July fireworks explode over the East River in New York, July 4, 2014. New studies
         show that fireworks may adversely affect peoples' health because of the high levels of pollutants they release into the air.
         Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

Spectators watch rockets from the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks show explode over the East River in New York, July 4, 2014. New studies show that fireworks may adversely affect peoples’ health because of the high levels of pollutants they release into the air. Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

An average of 230 Americans end up in the emergency room every day in the month around July 4 because of firework-related injuries, but pyrotechnic mishaps are not the only potential setback of this Fourth of July tradition.

A new study published this week in the journal Atmospheric Environment found that fireworks release high levels of pollution into the sky on July 4 and 5.

“When people think of air pollution, they think of other kinds of things—smoke stacks, automobile exhaust pipes, construction sites,” study author Dian J. Seidel told TIME. “I don’t think most people think of fireworks.”

As a national average, culled from 315 different testing sites, Independence Day fireworks introduce 42 percent more pollutants into the air than are found on a normal day.

Part of that increase is a spike in emissions of perchlorate, a chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency says may “disrupt the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones needed for normal growth and development.”

The post Study: Fireworks release high levels of pollution on July 4 weekend appeared first on PBS NewsHour.