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Tag: Scientific Method (Page 1 of 285)

A limiting factor on producing electricity in a warming world? Water.

Enlarge / Thermal power plant with sun in Genoa, Italy. (credit: Getty Images)

Unless you work at a coal, gas, or nuclear plant, you may not think about water when you think about electricity (certainly at a household level; they don’t mix). But water plays an important part in cooling many power plants, and many power plants also depend on a nearby water source to create steam that drives turbines. So the availability of water for power production is a serious consideration. Not enough water? That power plant could have to shut down. If the water isn’t chilly enough to cool the plant? Same problem.

In a paper published in Nature Energy this week, a group of researchers from the Netherlands estimated how water availability would affect coal, gas, and nuclear plants in the European Union out to 2030. The researchers took into account a changing climate that will likely make water reserves scarcer and warmer, but they also accounted for progressive renewable energy policies in EU member countries, which are already prompting some thermoelectric plants to retire in favor of wind and solar (which need negligible amounts of water to operate). The researchers also counted new coal, gas, and nuclear plants that are in the planning or construction stages and will likely come online before 2030.

The model tracked the “water footprints” of 1,326 thermoelectric power plants in Europe (that is, the amount of water they need to operate), as well as 818 water basins from which those plants draw water. The researchers found that by 2030, plants along 54 water basins could experience reduced power availability because of lack of water for cooling or steam production, up from 47 in 2014. If the EU were to experience summer droughts like those that occurred in 2003 or 2006, power shortages would follow, the paper noted.

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Dubious, pricey stem cell therapies pass as clinical trials on gov’t website

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency)

Earlier this year, doctors reported the case of three women who went blind after having stem cells derived from their own fat injected directly into their eyeballs—a procedure for which they each paid $5,000. Piecing together how those women came to pay for such a treatment, the doctors noted that at least one of the patients was lured by a trial listing on ClinicalTrials.gov—a site run by the National Institutes of Health to register clinical trials. Though none of the women was ever enrolled in the trial—which never took place and has since been withdrawn—it was enough to make the treatment seem like part of legitimate, regulated clinical research.

But it wasn’t. And, according to a new analysis in the journal Regenerative Medicine, it’s not the only case of dubious and potentially harmful stem cell therapies lurking on the respected NIH site.

At least 18 ostensible trials listed on the site offer similar stem cell treatments that participants must pay to receive—unlike most trials, which compensate rather than charge participants for experimental treatments. These trials, sponsored by seven companies total, claim to be developing therapies for a wide range of conditions, like erectile dysfunction, type II diabetes, vision problems, Parkinson’s disease, premature ovarian failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, these trials are largely not backed by preliminary research. None of them has Food and Drug Administration approval—even though the agency has published a draft guidance that suggests these treatments are subject to FDA regulation. And some of the studies are only granted ethical approval by review boards with apparent conflicts of interest and histories of reprimands from medical boards and the FDA.

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Controversial new CDC director may reconsider Big Soda’s health funding

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Brenda Fitzgerald, the newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will consider allowing Coca-Cola to once again help fund the agency’s anti-obesity campaigns, according to e-mailed comments reported by the New York Times over the weekend.

Though it would be a turnabout for the agency—which ditched Coke funding in 2013—Fitzgerald’s position shouldn’t be surprising, as she has a controversial history of accepting funding from Coca-Cola. As health commissioner of Georgia from 2011 to this year, she accepted $1 million from the soda giant to fund an exercise program aimed at cutting the state’s childhood obesity rate—one of the highest in the country.

The exercise-based campaign seemed to fit well with Coca-Cola’s interests. The company has long appeared interested in shifting anti-obesity efforts toward improving physical activity levels rather than focusing on the role of diet, particularly sugary beverages. That’s despite many studies, including those by the CDC, that have found that sugar-loaded drinks are a prominent factor in childhood obesity, as well as the development of associated health conditions such as Type II diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease. Nevertheless, in 2015, a Times investigation revealed that Coke had been secretly funding and orchestrating a network of academic nutrition researchers, which had a suspiciously keen focus on combating obesity with exercise while downplaying the role of sweetened beverages and excess calories.

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Elon Musk’s Mars rocket may be about to lose half of its engines

Enlarge / SpaceX may be dumping the outer ring of 21 engines for its new Mars vehicle. (credit: SpaceX)

Last year, SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared plans for his transportation system to send humans to Mars in the 2020s. But the fantastically huge rocket, with 42 Raptor engines and enormous technical challenges, seemed more like science fiction than reality. Then there was the small matter of who would pay the tens of billions of dollars to develop a rocket that had few—if any—commercial prospects beyond sending 100 people to Mars at a time.

Musk seems to have realized that his ambitions were a tad too ambitious in recent months, and has said he will release a “revised” plan for Mars colonization that addresses some of these technical and fiscal questions. Now, we know this discussion will come during the 2017 International Astronautical Conference in Adelaide, Australia, on September 29. And this weekend, Musk dropped a big hint about the change.

In response to a question on Twitter, Musk wrote, “A 9m diameter vehicle fits in our existing factories …” And this is actually quite a substantial hint, because the original “Interplanetary Transport System” had a massive 12-meter diameter. By scaling back to 9 meters, this suggests that Musk plans to remove the outer ring of 21 Raptor engines, leaving a vehicle with 21 engines instead of the original 42. While still complicated to manage during launch and flight, 21 engines seems more reasonable. Such a vehicle would also have about 50 percent less mass.

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Level up: How video games evolved to solve significant scientific problems

Yes, folks, this was once a revolutionary experience in gaming.

In the early 1950s, just as rock ‘n’ roll was hinting at social change, the first video games were quietly being designed in the form of technology demonstrations—and a scientist was behind it. In October 1958, Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two. Despite graphics that are ridiculously primitive by today’s standards, it has been described as the first video game in history.

Higinbotham was inspired by the government research institution’s Donner Model 30 analog computer, which could simulate trajectories with wind resistance, and the game was designed for display at an annual public exhibition. Although his purpose in creating the game was rather academic, Tennis for Two turned out to be a hit at the three-day exhibition, with thousands of students lining up to see the game.

At first glance, today’s video gamers and scientists might appear to be worlds apart. But starting with Tennis for Two, video games have quietly and consistently been within the purview of academic study. Each generation of gamers has seen new titles created at various research institutions in order to explore programming, human-computer interaction, and algorithms. Lesser-known chapters of history reveal these two worlds are not as far apart as you might think.

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