Mysterious Midwest Tornadoes, Airbnb’s NYC Truce, and More News

Antranik Tavitian/Reuters

Tornadoes are tearing up the Midwest, Airbnb calls truce, and we’ve got some books for your long weekend. Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.

Today’s Headlines

Tornadoes are tearing up the midwest. So why are they so hard to predict?

Over 200 tornadoes have hit the Midwest in the past week alone, wreaking havoc on the towns they pass through. The ability to predict these dangerous twisters could save lives, but the monumentally complex physics of a tornado make them nearly impossible to predict. Oh, and climate change certainly isn’t helping, either.

Airbnb and the city of New York have reached a truce

After years of lawsuits and lobbying, Airbnb has agreed to hand over data on over 17,000 specific listings to see if they comply with New York’s short term rental laws. It could set a precedent for other cities looking for the same kind of data.

Cocktail Conversation

The Rubik’s cube is one of the most challenging puzzles on earth. But [...]  read more

Midwest Tornadoes: Why It’s So Hard to Predict Where a Twister Will Strike

Editor’s note: This is a developing story about severe weather in the Midwest. We will update it as more information becomes available.

This week brings atmospheric devastation to the Midwest: nearly 200 tornadoes have torn through the region since last Friday, including Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, on Wednesday night. All told, the disasters have left at least three dead and 25 injured. The damage appears to be extensive, as the flurry of storms cut a line from Texas all the way up through Maryland, with one twister touching down near Washington DC. Officials are still taking toll.

In an ideal world, meteorologists would be able to predict when and where a tornado is going to form, as they do with rainstorms, to mobilize emergency services and give people warning. But they face a couple problems. For one, scientists know how tornadoes form, but they’re still grappling with the monumentally complex physics at play: A tornado is essentially a swirling funnel [...]  read more

Scientists Find a Volume Knob for Emotional Memories

Steven Ramirez says you can save the Black Mirror references. He’s already heard his work compared to nearly every dystopian movie about memory—from the campy Total Recall and the shadowy neo-noir of Minority Report to the tragicomic heart-string-pulling of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But when you visit Ramirez’s lab on the southern shore of the Charles River in Boston, it looks a lot less like some slick workshop with sci-fi overtones and a lot more like a basement electrical supply closet recently struck by a tornado. Sure, amid the chaos of cords and cages there’s a $300,000 microscope and rows of plexiglas boxes that shoot lasers down optic fibers and into the brains of mice, but it’s a far cry from the lair of a mad scientist.

Ramirez first got that reputation in the spring of 2013, when as a graduate student he and a colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  [...]  read more

A Rocket Built by Students Reached Space for the First Time

In the early morning of April 21, 10 students from the University of Southern California’s Rocket Propulsion Lab piled into the back of a pickup truck with a 13-foot rocket wedged between them and drove down a dusty dirt road to a launchpad near Spaceport America, in southern New Mexico. When they arrived, their teammates helped them lift the 300-pound rocket onto a launch rail. Dennis Smalling, the rocket lab’s chief engineer, began the countdown at 7:30 am. When he reached zero, Traveler IV shot up off its launchpad, exhaust and flames pouring from its tail.

The USC team is one of several groups of college students across the United States and Europe that have been racing to send a rocket above the Kármán line, the imaginary boundary that separates Earth’s atmosphere and space. For most of the history of spaceflight, sending a rocket to space required mobilizing resources on a national scale. The V-2 rocket, which was the [...]  read more

The Basic Physics of the Kilogram’s Fancy New Definition

There is a new standard in town, and it’s sort of a big deal. This new standard is the definition of the kilogram, the unit of mass in the SI system—the International System of Units). It replaces the old definition of the kilogram that didn’t even have a definition. The old kilogram was an actual object. It was a cylinder made of a platinum alloy and it had a mass of 1 kilogram. It was THE kilogram. If you wanted to find the mass, you had to take it out and measure it. You could then use it to make other kilograms.

Yeah, this object-based standard for measurements sort of sucks. If something happens to your object, all of your science gets screwed up. A better system is a definition-based standard. Let me give an example—the meter. Instead of being based on something to do with the size or gravity of the Earth, the meter is defined using the speed of light. The meter is the distance light travels in a vacuum over a time of 1/299,792,458 seconds. Yes, this definition depends [...]  read more

The Mystifying Case of the Missing Planets

After the sun formed, the dust and gas left over from its natal cloud slowly swirled into the eight planets we have today. Small, rocky things clung close to the sun. Gigantic gas worlds floated in the system’s distant reaches. And around countless stars in the galaxy, a version of this process repeated itself, forging plentiful planets in a spectrum of sizes — except, apparently, worlds just a tad bigger than Earth.

Quanta Magazine

author photo
Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

While NASA’s newest planet-hunting telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), steadily tallies more exoplanets, a mysterious gap in their sizes, first identified in 2017, has persisted. The gap shows that scientists need some new ideas to explain how planets are made, both in the broader cosmos and in our backyard.

Astronomers have used TESS to find hundreds of possible planets around the nearest stars since its launch in April 2018, including 24 confirmed [...]  read more

Now Ocean Plastics Could Be Killing Oxygen-Making Bacteria

This planet has a problem with plastic. Not just the big masses of it accumulating in the Pacific, but with the tiny bits that are blowing into pristine mountaintop habitats. The flecks showing up in a range of sea creatures. The specks materializing even in human feces.

Now scientists have exposed a potential new consequence of the plastic menace: The toxins the material leaches into seawater inhibit the growth and photosynthetic efficiency of the bacteria Prochlorococcus, which is responsible for producing an estimated 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe. That means Prochlorococcus is also responsible for 20 percent of carbon capture on this planet (one molecule of carbon goes in, one molecule of oxygen goes out), theoretically spelling trouble for humanity’s quest to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. This is early research, though, and comes with several big caveats. Indeed, it exposes the challenges of studying a threat as new and omnipresent as plastic pollution.

Prochlorococcus [...]  read more

Atmospheric Methane Levels Are Going Up—And No One Knows Why

This story originally appeared on Undark and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Every week dozens of metal flasks arrive at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, each one loaded with air from a distant corner of the world. Research chemist Ed Dlugokencky and his colleagues in the Global Monitoring Division catalog the canisters and then use a series of high-precision tools—a gas chromatograph, a flame ionization detector, sophisticated software—to measure how much carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane each flask contains.

These air samples—collected at observatories in Hawaii, Alaska, American Samoa, and Antarctica, and from tall towers, small aircraft, and volunteers on every continent—have been coming to Boulder for more than four decades, as part of one of the world’s longest-running greenhouse gas monitoring programs. The air in the flasks shows that the concentration of methane in the atmosphere had been steadily rising since 1983, before leveling off around 2000. “And then, boom, look at how it changes here,” Dlugokencky [...]  read more

SpaceX Is Banking on Satellite Internet. Maybe It Shouldn’t

Internet access is so ubiquitous in the United States and Western Europe that it has spawned an entire cottage industry to help people disconnect. Yet for roughly half the world’s population this level of connectivity is simply unfathomable. Nearly 4 billion people haven’t been online once in the past three months—the UN’s comically low threshold for counting someone as an internet user—which means they miss out on the many social, economic, and educational benefits that come with an internet connection.

Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley quickly realized that connecting the world presented a huge business opportunity, one that could be wrapped in feel-good humanitarian language to boot. The underwhelming result? Internet balloons and internet drones. There was another idea, though, that was equally bold and perhaps more realistic: internet satellites. Thousands upon thousands of internet satellites.

On Wednesday evening, SpaceX is expected to launch 60 internet [...]  read more

What’s So Special About Human Screams? Ask a Screamologist

I scream, you scream, we all scream. For ice cream, sure, but also for fear, excitement, sexual pleasure, pain, anger, and—if online commenters are to be believed—memes 😱. Screaming is exhibited by many animals, but no species uses this extreme vocalization in as many different contexts as humans. Though we’re pretty good at recognizing a scream when we hear one, the wide variety of screams makes it difficult to pin down what defines them.

To study screams is to probe the fuzzy boundary that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is a way to explore our prelinguistic past. Although we are fully symbolic creatures today, on occasion a trace of our primal selves bubbles to the surface in the form of a scream. Understanding its characteristics could improve the treatment of nonverbal patients, help fight crime, or simply make movies more frightening. But first scientists need to explain what makes a scream, a scream.

To that end researchers at [...]  read more