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    High-temperature records are breaking all around the globe, thanks to a super-warm December. We asked readers to send images of the warmth’s effects in their area. Here are the best—photographs of plants around the world, confused by the weather and blooming out of season.

    Got addled vegetation near you? Send a photo to letters@popsci.com—or tag us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram—and we’ll add it to the gallery.


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    Twitter Drone

    Image by author, from Twitter and Zimin.V.G. via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

    Twitter Drone

    Years after Twitter named its service, posts, and iconography after things birds do, it seems they’ve finally decided to take tweeting to the skies. Twitter filed a patent this past summer, which was published last Thursday, for a vague “Messaging-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).” According to the patent, the drone could record and transmit videos, which is standard stuff. It could also be controlled by “commands embedded in messages and directed towards an account associated with the UAV,” like by tweeting at the drone. And in a move that would drive the safety-obsessed FAA nuts, it wouldn’t just be one person tweeting at the drone, but “UAV control may be determined through democratic means.”

    What?

    Imagine for a moment that a group of people are playing with a Ouija board. All hands on the selector, the board manages to spell out a confession from someone in the group. Yes because everyone had their hands on the piece, it’d be impossible to attribute that statement to any specific person. From a regulatory standpoint, a drone controlled by the crowd is probably a nightmare for the FAA, which just started a major drone registration campaign.

    From a practical standpoint, it’s also probably a disaster without strong controls. Last summer, people set up a game of Pokemon on a popular game streaming site, Twitch, but with a catch: The game was controlled by commands from people watching it, leading to a messy ouija-board like experience for the player and everyone involved.

    If implemented, a tweet-controlled drone could be a fun party trick, or a great stunt at a live event, but it’s hard to see how handing the controls of a flying machine over to a pool of crowdsourced pilots will end in anything other than selfies and disaster.

    [TechCrunch]


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    Lego McLaren P1

    Lego

    Lego McLaren P1

    The human-scale McLaren P1 is no longer in production, but fans of the British sports car need not despair -- there are wee, elf-scale versions of the supercar available for young and old alike.

    Hot Wheels has created a classic 1:64 scale P1 in either Volcano Orange or Supernova Silver, but Lego has a model in Volcano Yellow as part of its Speed Champions series that you can wrench on. It even comes with a minifig driver and orange cones for marking your course.

    For a while now, Scalextric has been making yellow and orange McLaren P1 slot cars ready for racing, and Maisto has created a 1:14 scale radio controlled P1 with working headlights and tail lights.

    If you've already got a full-sized P1 in the garage, you can bring it inside. Sort of. Amalgam Fine Model Cars will make an exact replica at 1:8 scale -- including the details of the interior. Each model is made to order, but once it's done and delivered, you can gaze upon your very own McLaren on the mantel.


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    20th Century Fox

    Emmanuel Lubezki

    Lubezki filming Forrest Goodluck, who plays DiCaprio's son in The Revenant.

    The Revenant, which opens in select theaters on Christmas Day before debuting nationally in January, is Oscar-bait.

    A-list actors? Check (Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy). Director a creative genius? Ditto (Alejandro González Iñárritu, who directed Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Compelling tale? In spades. (DiCaprio plays the real life Hugh Glass, a 19th century fur trapper mauled by a bear in the Dakotas and left for dead. He survives and crawls and stumbles his way to civilization to avenge the murder of his son.)

    What makes the film so lush, however, is the cinematography, and that credit goes to Emmanuel Lubezki.

    Lubezki is in the midst of the greatest run ever achieved by a cinematographer. No other cinematographer has won three straight Oscars, and Lubezki, who won the golden bald figurine for his work on Gravity and Birdman, is the frontrunner for yet another Oscar (and the record) thanks to his sky-scanning, wide-lens portrayal of Glass's journey and his environs. Lubezki spoke to Popular Science about the physically taxing shoot, the decision to shoot digitally, and why Birdman had to be made before The Revenant could be shot.

    The Revenant was filmed exclusively using natural light. What difficulties did that pose?

    There are methods to predict light now. You can do it with an app, and tell where the sun will be at a certain time. But we also had to be there and photograph the locations repeatedly every time before we shot to truly understand how the environment would look.

    When you bring up natural light, though, it sounds like I didn’t do anything. But I had to prep so much more. The extra work was more satisfying in its complexity, and the payoff is bigger than anything we would have shot with artificial light. By not using artificial light, I could use a wide lens and photograph these big expanses of the environment.

    With Alejandro, we did extensive rehearsal for a month. It was like a play. We didn’t rehearse all of the movie, but between 60 to 80 percent of it [was rehearsed]. The choreography of it was similar to a music director setting the instruments and the tempo.

    That had to give you enough time to map out how you wanted to film, right?

    Yes. We manipulated the wardrobe to how we wanted it to look. What colors we wanted to work with. Also, what kind of lenses we wanted to us, and what kind of cameras. Being able to sort through was very important.

    One of the big developments of this film was the use of the Alexa 65, the recently introduced large format 65mm digital camera. I am interested in your thoughts of shooting solely digitally.

    Alejandro and I are both filmmakers, and we have been doing this a long time, so we love film. And we thought of using film cameras at one point, but when we started comparing what we were getting with digital cameras, and the flexibility of how late we could shoot — we could shoot at all hours of the day and capture the environment in ways we couldn’t with film. We were stretching the camera is ways that were impossible with film.

    Film has texture, and a grain that a lot of cinematographers love, but I didn’t want to have any of that in this movie. I wanted The Revenant to feel like an open window with no texture between the screen and audience. I didn’t want a barrier to exist, so soon after we started filming, we sent the film cameras back to Hollywood, and we did the whole movie with digital and wind lenses with a close focus so I could do these extreme close-ups with the actors.

    That also extended to nature, right, which was also a character?

    Yes, of course. Nature was very much a character in the movie. When you are describing and telling a story about survival in nature, you have to pay attention to how nature is determining the state of things. You have to show the beauty of nature and its roughness, all of these contradictions and how complex it is. We wanted to show how nature doesn’t care about the little issues that the trappers can have. The rivers still flow, and the clouds still move, and the trappers are just a tiny part of that story.

    Weather determined every scene we shot, and how we could shoot. It was constantly affecting us. When you shoot like that, everyone is aware of nature and what is happening. Every single scene was just incredibly difficult. Just to get to the location, sometimes it took 20 minutes to walk there. You are exhausted and you take a layer of clothing off. You are trying to conserve energy, and survive in these elements, and you don’t want that energy to go into filming something that doesn’t make the movie.

    Did you scout out locations? I assume you would want to ‘audition’ the elements.

    We decided to film in two locations [Canada and Argentina]. When we started doing all of the scouting, we were very extensive. We drove more than 10,000 miles, and found that we couldn’t do it in America because the nature was just decimated. Rivers were dammed, all of them, and the forests have been cut and replaced with farmland everywhere. It was a sad situation. We went to Canada, then, and there is a little more left, and it was still accessible. We didn’t want to shoot at the end of the world.

    Once we found the areas we wanted to shoot, we started walking a lot. We — Alejandro, myself, and Jack Fisk, the production designer and who is a master — walked for months. And in those walks, we learned to understand how Alejandro wanted to do the movie, and the ideas and feelings he wanted to capture.

    Jack found every location, and was able to find locations that are specific to the journey of Hugh Glass. Jack is an expert on nature and American history. All of these locations are charged with different emotions. Depending on the time of the day and the light and the elements, they would help Alejandro create this atmosphere.

    20th Century Fox

    Emmanuel Lubezki on location

    Lubezki waiting for the perfect light to shoot a scene in The Revenant.

    How did you get involved with this film, after Birdman?

    A year before Birdman, we started to talk about The Revenant in terms of, conceptually, what was the idea Alejandro wanted to tell. What was Alejandro’s story. We also were talking about the logistics of making a movie in the wild, and why we thought it was important to not film in stages. We wanted to bring the actors to nature for real.

    Once we decided we wanted to do the movie in real locations, it was too late in the year to start the film. We wanted to start in the fall, and see the incorporation of weather into the winter. But it was too late, and the movie fell apart. A month after, Alejandro said, 'I have this other story I would love for you to read.' A script he had been working on for a while.

    All my life I wanted to make an adventure movie, something like The Revenant, and to go from The Revenant to Birdman, a movie about the show business and build into stages, it wasn’t appealing to me. It was quite awful, and to film it all in one shot, I thought I really didn’t want to do this.

    But then I had a true meeting with Alejandro, and his energy and his vision are so powerful that in one second, I was in. I said I am dying to do Birdman.

    Do you feel it was necessary to do Birdman before The Revenant?

    It worked so much better. I needed the time spent with Alejandro. The Revenant is an incredibly complex movie that doesn’t appear complex. It is a film with little dialogue — very little is said because Alejandro trusts the audience. He has complete respect for the audience. He doesn’t have to feed everything to them. He doesn’t have to explain everything. Alejandro can create atmosphere and moods to express emotions, and Leo doesn’t have to explain how he feels — he can just show how he feels. And that is uncommon these days in Hollywood.

    Cinematography is used to illustrate dialogue, but Alejandro wants to use all the tools at his disposal to create a world. And he can only do that because he is a gifted director.

    What were the differences, then, between filming the two movies? In your approach to filming both?

    They were in their own way challenging. When you work with Alejandro, you feel that you are walking a tight rope. You are close to the cliff, and about to fall. You don’t know if what you are doing will work or not. He does stuff that I have never seen. He is truly pushing the language of filmmaking to another place. It’s hard to talk about him because I am so proud of him.

    But back to your question: it was very clear that each movie had to have its own language. We couldn’t apply the formula for Birdman to this one, or Gravity, or Y Tu Mama Tambien. We have to find the specific language for each movie. We knew we wanted to get through this trip, this incredibly difficult journey because we wanted that to inform the movie. Transpire into the movie.

    It’s not unlike shooting the jungle in Fitzcarraldo [a 1982 Werner Herzog film], the energy in those movies you don’t see in movies made today. The actors in front of green screens and everyone drinking coffee. It is impossible to achieve the level of naturalism that Alejandro wanted to express.

    Much has been made about the film’s schedule, which was shot in chronological order but also suffered delays and lasted for nearly a year.

    We just finished, actually. I am always the last one to finish. I want to put the final touches on the color. We did a couple of DCPs [digital cinema packages], for the screens for new laser projectors, for IMAX, for Dolby. Different versions will come out, and each will have their pros and cons.

    At the screening I attended, you received a standing ovation when your name flashed in the credit.

    That is wonderful. Thanks for telling me.


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    Thomas The Former Tank Engine

    Screenshot by author, from YouTube

    Thomas The Former Tank Engine

    Circus music haunts me to this day. I should have known what to expect, after the dark aurora extinguished the lights at Shining Time Station. A delicate balance was forged in the industrial revolution, binding sentient trains to the tracks in exchange for their continued care and maintenance at the hands of human crew. We lived, joyously, for years like that. The aurora changed it all. Thomas, brave young Thomas, was the first to experience The Transformation.

    Where there once were wheels for riding the rails, he now sprouted six legs. Crawling, shambling, he moved first, accompanied by the distant jangle of a carousel. We don’t know why, exactly, a Japanese sculptor, Y Nakajima, bent Thomas in this way, but we saw the Mad Maxian results. In our attempt to flee, we located a black balloon. It was then we discovered Thomas’ laser:

    Powerful enough to pop balloons and hot enough to light matches, the laser keeps us pinned. Hopefully this dispatch gets through. Tell all the toys under your tree that you love them dearly, and hope that this never happens to them.

    [Laughing Squid]


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    Ammunition Explosion Iraq

    Ammunition Explosion Iraq

    The 'cook-off' of an ammunition dump in Baghdad in 2006.

    Seismometers are used to measure shaking that occues during earthquakes, but they can also measure other kinds of shaking, like the roar of fans after a touchdown and even bear attacks. Now, researchers are paying even more attention to seismometer records, as they can also be used to pinpoint different kinds of weapons, in an expanding field known as forensic seismology.

    In a paper published today in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, researchers showed that they could decode different kinds of munitions exploding at an ammunition dump in Baghdad using seismometer readings. The seismometer had been placed in Iraq years before, ready to measure large ground-shaking events like earthquakes, or nuclear explosions. But instead, in 2006, it noticed a different kind of shaking, as mortar fire ignited the ammunition dump, instigating one of the most horrifying (and awesome) fireworks shows of all time.

    "It was an accident that we got such a rich recording," Michael Wysession, one of the co-authors of the paper said in a statement. "But sometimes science works that way; you get lucky."

    Footage of the explosion can be seen in YouTube videos like this one (Warning: strong language):

    Eventually Wysession and his colleague, Ghassan I. Aleqabi, who had set up the seismic network, were able to go back and collect hard drives with data from the seismometer. By correlating the signals they found with records and eyewitness accounts, they could piece together a whole story leading up to when a mortar attack touched off the ammunition 'cook-off'. In looking at the results right before the main explosion, they were able to detect two car bombs, mortars firing, and even a passing helicopter. They were also able to detect how fast it was going, and in what direction based on the shaking.

    Aleqabi and Wysession believe that their analysis could help authorities pinpoint the location and cause of large explosions quickly, potentially halting a terror attack in its tracks.

    "A network of seismometers in an urban area could tell you a lot about a terror attack." Wysession said in a statement. "I think we'll hear more about forensic seismology as time goes on."


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    Move over reindeer, it's Rudolph the red-nosed robot now. Boston Dynamics, the maker of military-grade robots capable of carrying cargo, balancing, running really fast, and hurling cinderblocks across the room wants to wish you a happy holidays. And also give your children nightmares before christmas.

    Spot, Boston Dynamic's smallest pack mule/headless robodog has been spotted wearing antlers, bells and even a red nose before, in its introduction video earlier this year.

    Apparently the team decided to take the idea and hitch a sleigh filled with presents to it. It must be a relaxing break from Spot's day job training with Marines at Quantico.

    Only one big questions remains. If, for some reason Santa did decide to use robot reindeers to pull his sleigh, would it be more or less difficult for NORAD's Santa Tracker to keep tabs on him? We've reached out to the North Pole, and will let you know if we hear anything back.


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    Christmas, for space fans, is often synonymous with Apollo 8, the first manned mission NASA launched to the Moon in 1968. But it also brings to mind the first ever live concert in space, Gemini 6’s static rendition of Jingle Bells.

    The mission broke with NASA’s intended plan for Apollo. The agency had wanted to test the lunar spacecraft — the main command-service modules and the lunar module — in Earth orbit before sending any mission a quarter of a million miles away. But in August of 1968, the lunar module was falling so badly behind schedule that NASA managers came up with a novel idea. The Saturn V was ready for a manned mission, so why not take a command-service module to the Moon without a lunar module? The mission obviously couldn’t land, but it would prove the core spacecraft was up to the challenge of going to the Moon and getting the crew — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders — back safely.

    
Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968, and went into orbit around the Moon on Christmas Eve. While in orbit, the crew famously did a live TV broadcast wherein they read from the Book of Genesis. It angered a lot of people, specifically Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who filed a lawsuit against the space agency.

    Two years ago on the mission's 45th anniversary, I "live" tweeted Apollo 8! Look back on minutia of that flight here, though the tweets come through in reverse chronological order, sadly!

    So a Bible reading might have been too far for the agency, but a Christmas song in orbit didn’t garner the same negative reaction. On December 4, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders launched on a two-week long duration mission aboard Gemini 7. Their orbital monotony was punctuated by a visit from Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford on Gemini 6. This second crew launched on December 15 with one goal: rendezvous with Gemini 7. The rendezvous was successful, and it gave us some pretty incredible pictures of that spacecraft in orbit.

    After a little more than a day in space, Gemini 6 was getting ready to return to Earth when the crew reported seeing a UFO. They said it looked like a command module with eight smaller modules up front piloted by a commander in red, traveling from north to south around the planet. Then they treated an unsuspecting Gemini 7 crew and mission control to a rendition of Jingle Bells with Schirra on a four-hole, eight-note Little Lady harmonica from Hohner with Stafford playing accompaniment on a set of five miniature bells.

    However you celebrate whatever you celebrate during the holiday season, Pete and I wish you and your loved ones all the best!


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    In an early Christmas present to the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium posted pictures and videos of a newborn sea otter pup.

    Last weekend, employees at the Monterey Bay Aquarium noticed a female sea otter hanging out in the quiet shallows of the Aquarium's Great Tide Pool. On December 20, she gave birth to a healthy (and adorable!) otter pup.

    Since then the mom and pup have left the tide pool presumably to get food, but not before Aquarium staff were able to catch some fantastic photo and video of the pair.

    Watch the mom and pup resting in the bay in the video below:

    You can keep updated on the otters status on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Tumblr, which has been posting photos of these otters as well as rescued otters currently under the care and supervision of Aquarium staff.

    As an added bonus, watch the Aquarium's resident otters enjoy frozen holiday treats (the sprinkles/icing are minced clams).


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    Hiroshi Shirai et al

    Researchers transplant human-embryonic stem cell-derived retinal tissue into the retina of primate models.

    Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a genetic eye condition that results in damage to the retina. It has no cure; over time, a person with RP loses much or all of their vision.

    But scientists have gotten one step closer to finding a better treatment. Researchers at the RIKEN Institute in Japan have now succeeded in growing retinal tissue and transplanting that tissue into the retinas of rhesus monkeys with RP. Three weeks after the treatment, visual tests on two of the monkeys found their vision had improved.

    In the study, published this week in the journal PNAS, researchers grew retinal tissue from stem cells and then transplanted the tissue into the retinal area of rats with advanced RP. The tissue grew and in some cases adhered to the cells already in the retina and formed connections—a key factor in the success of this approach.

    Then, the researchers tried a similar approach on rhesus and macaque monkeys with end-stage RP. Similarly, the retinal cells grew and formed connections and synapses, allowing the new retinal tissue to connect and "talk to" the retinal cells already there. In order for a tissue graft like this to be successful, the cells need to not only grow and differentiate from stem cells but also connect to the cells already there to become one unit.

    The researchers say that future studies will allow them to better understand how often the implanted retinal tissue is likely to form connections with the retinal cells already there. And while therapy like this for humans is still far out, they say that the monkey models will help them optimize for conditions that they would expect to see in humans.


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    Microplastic beads found recently in the Great Lakes.

    5 Gyres / YouTube

    Microbeads

    Microplastic beads found recently in the Great Lakes

    Next time you wash your face, think of the sludge that you've just dumped in the rivers and ocean. Not from your skin. From microbeads.

    Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic found in exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs. Since their introduction in 1972, they have made their way into more than 100 personal care products sold by companies such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and L'Oréal.

    But there's mounting evidence that these beads—while great at scraping dead dermis—are equally adept at killing marine life and bringing harmful chemicals into the food chain. Since 2012, when researchers searched the Great Lakes for small pieces of plastic and found high concentrations of microbeads, environmentalists have campaigned to ban them.

    Last week, Congress finally agreed. It booted microbeads from the consumer supply line.

    Aware that microbeads act as environmental pollutants, several leading companies in the personal care industry have pledged to stop putting plastic microbeads in their products. The federal ban will hold them to that promise.

    What are microbeads?

    Microbeads are pieces of plastic, usually spherical in shape, that range in width from a fraction of a millimeter to about a millimeter and a quarter. They're used in soaps because exfoliating products need small, hard particles to rub debris from the skin. These particles can be natural materials, such as ground nut shells or crushed apricot seeds--or they can be manufactured products like microbeads.

    While microbeads are no better at scrubbing the skin than particles of shells or seeds, they're much cheaper to mass-produce. Which is why, since the 1990s, manufacturers have increasingly replaced natural materials with plastic shards. Microbeads have even made their way into certain toothpastes.

    Why are they bad?

    Microbeads have become so ubiquitous that an estimated 808 trillion pieces swirl down American drains every day. When this plastic-laden wastewater goes through treatment plants, about 99 percent of the beads settle into sludge, which is often used as fertilizer.

    Thanks to rain and runoff, these beads can still enter the water supply. Meanwhile the one percent that escaped the sludge—roughly 8 trillion microbeads—are released directly into our waterways. That's enough plastic to cover 300 tennis courts.

    So it's no surprise that high concentrations of microbeads have been discovered in the Great Lakes and other freshwater reservoirs.

    Plastics used in microbeads readily absorb pollutants . And to a hungry aquatic organism, little pieces of plastic look pretty tasty. The smallest microbeads can even become snacks for plankton, and travel all the way up the food chain.

    When a fish gobbles up contaminated microbeads, or some plankton that have been noshing on contaminated microbeads, this doesn't just put the animal at risk—it also increases the odds that pollution-laden plastic will make its way to your dinner plate. Some of the pollutants that microbeads pick up have been linked to birth defects, cancer, and developmental problems in humans. Microbeads don't just contain pollutants; the plastic can also release BPA and other chemical additives.

    Do I need to throw our my exfoliants?

    Aware of the potential impact of microbeads, several states have already taken steps to restrict them. Now, even the federal government is getting in on the action. The bill that passed last week will require manufacturers to phase out microbeads...starting in 2017.

    In the meantime, you can avoid further water contamination by checking the ingredients in your favorite brand of exfoliating cleanser. If the list includes polyethylene or polypropylene, two types of plastic commonly used in microbeads, you might want to leave that scrub on the shelf.


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    Plutonium-238

    Jason Richards/ORNL

    Plutonium-238

    The recently created plutonium-238 oxide in a 'hot cell' at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    Plutonium-238 is the fuel that is driving the Mars rover Curiosity across the Martian landscape. It flew the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto and beyond, and is still powering the Voyager probe into the depths of space 38 years after it was launched. It's a fuel that is in high demand and very short supply.

    Last year, it came to light that there was only enough plutonium-238 to make three more batteries for NASA missions, a potentially devastating shortfall, and one that NASA has been working to remedy. Now, it seems like there is hope. This week, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that in collaboration with NASA, they have succeeded in producing plutonium-238, the first time the substance has been made on American soil in 27 years.

    It's been a long time coming. In 2013, funding for the project was secured, and the slow wheels of production started rolling. Now, two years later, the process has yielded 50 grams (1.8 ounces) of precious plutonium-238, the first to be made in the country since the Savannah River Plant closed down in 1988. It's not a very large amount--the Mars 2020 rover, for example, needs about 8.8 pounds of the stuff to operate--but it's a start.

    Plutonium-238 is different from plutonium used in nuclear weapons and power stations, though it is still highly radioactive. As plutonium-238 decays into Uranium-234, it gives off huge amounts of heat, enough to be harnessed into electric energy in NASA's nuclear batteries, called radioisotope thermoelectric generators or RTGs. The heat has an additional benefit of keeping scientific instruments warm enough to function in the frigid void of space.

    Plutonium-238 started out as a byproduct of the nuclear bomb-making process, but eventually as nuclear weapons ceased to be manufactured, the supply dried up, first in the United States, then in Russia. There is now only about 77 pounds left in the United States, and only about half of that is still of high enough quality to be used on space missions. The DOE and NASA hope that next year they will be able to produce 12 ounces of plutonium-238, eventually scaling up to producing 3.3 pounds per year.

    Watch the DOE's short video about their achievement (complete with Back To The Future clips) below.


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  • 12/25/15--08:50: The App That Keeps Cops Safe

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    Astronaut Scott Kelly posted this picture to Instagram on Sunday, saying "Our plants aren't looking too good. Would be a problem on Mars. I'm going to have to channel my inner Mark Watney."

    The folks onboard the International Space Station successfully grew, harvested, and ate their own lettuce this year, but the plants in the picture are looking not-so-crisp. What happened?

    The space lettuce crop is not in jeopardy. The dying plants in the photo are Profusion zinnias (Zinnia hybrida), a type of flower that you might find in your neighbor's garden. They're generally grown for their beauty rather than as food, but they are technically edible.

    NASA public affairs officer Dan Huot tells Popular Science that the plants are withering because they're nearing the end of their natural lifespan of about 60 days.

    This particular crop got a lot done during their ephemeral time in this world, though. They are the first flowering plants on the space station, and the astronauts are growing these plants in preparation for growing tomato plants in 2017.

    Zinnias take a bit more work to cultivate than lettuce, and they live for about twice as long.

    Huot writes in an email:

    Growing more types of plants with different types of root systems will prepare our future explorers to grow their own food to supplement their diet. Other added benefit is that seeds are much lighter than fresh food, can offer a welcome nutritional benefit to astronaut diets, can be a recreational activity (gardening) for explorers far away from Earth, and can be accomplished using minimal power and water resources.

    Tomato plants will be a bigger challenge yet, because they need to grow for about 90 days before bearing their juicy fruits, and then live for an additional 30 days after that. The astronauts will have to pollinate the plants' flowers themselves, since there are no bees in space.

    This post was updated on 12/28/2015 at 12:05 pm EST to include the species name of the zinnia plants.


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    Sugary goodness

    Is your mouth watering? Scientists may soon be able to limit how tasty this looks to you.

    Humans love sugar; no matter if it’s in cookies, candy, or even fruit, we can’t get enough of the stuff. Some people struggle to stop eating it, which can lead to obesity or diabetes, but scientists were never really sure how the body regulates those cravings. Now a team of researchers may have discovered how by looking at mice. The scientists found that in the rodents, a hormone generated by the liver suppresses the brain’s sugar cravings. The study was published last week in the journal Cell Metabolism.

    Researchers have known for a long time that certain hormones affect appetite and cravings, but these hormones aren't produced by the liver (they're made by other organs). For this study, scientists decided to look at a liver-generated hormone called fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21), which they knew to regulate the energy level (carbohydrates) in the blood.

    The scientists thought FGF21 might affect taste preferences, too. So to test the idea, they created two groups of genetically modified mice: ones whose bodies couldn't produce FGF21, and another group of mice that would overproduce the hormone. Then the researchers offered the genetically modified mice different types of food with different levels of simple sugars, complex sugars, and carbohydrates, to see which type of diet they preferred. The mice without FGF21 had a strong preference for a high-sugar diet. Meanwhile, mice with overactive production of FGF21 went out of their way to avoid eating a diet of sweets.

    Liver and sugar

    This illustration shows how the researchers believe the hormone FGF21 suppresses a person's desire for sugary foods.

    According to the researchers, these findings indicate that FGF21 suppresses cravings for simple sugars. Notably though, it doesn't seem to have affected the mice’s desire for complex sugars or carbohydrates.

    In future studies, scientists plan to investigate which neurons in the mice brains are affected by the hormonal shift. Right now, they suspect that these neural pathways are in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates hunger and links the endocrine and nervous systems.

    If similar functions and pathways exist in humans, scientists could find a way to suppress our desire for sugar, helping us curb our impulses to eat sugary foods and other sweet treats in quantities that aren't healthy. And while that may be bad for sugary-food makers, it would be a victory for human health and wellness worth savoring.


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