Today, The Lancet released the results of a large field trial of a vaccine against Ebola, and the results are more than promising. Within the limitations of the study, the vaccine appears to be 100 percent effective. The results were so good that the trial itself has been stopped, and the vaccine is now being used to control the spread of the disease.
The vaccine is made by the pharmaceutical giant Merck, which licensed it from the Public Health Agency of Canada. It was developed through what has become a fairly standard approach. A harmless virus (vesicular stomatitis virus, or VSV) was engineered so that it also carried the gene for Ebola's major surface protein, simply called glycoprotein. When people receive the vaccination, a harmless infection follows, which triggers an immune response. This response targets not only VSV but the Ebola protein as well. Ideally, once the infection is eliminated, the immune system is able to recognize both VSV and Ebola.
The trial, performed in southern Guinea, ran from April through July 20th of this year (the analysis, paper writing, and peer review must have proceeded at a staggering pace). It used what is called a "ring" design: once an infected individual was identified, a ring of potentially exposed individuals around them was identified. These individuals lived with the infected one, had contact with them after symptoms appeared, or came in contact with their clothes, bedding, or bodily fluids.
Airbus, the European aerospace giant, has unveiled Adeline: its answer to SpaceX's reusable space launch ambitions. Adeline, which stands for Advanced Expendable Launcher with Innovative engine Economy, uses a rather novel solution to get the first stage engines back in one piece: it has wings and propellers that allow the engines to follow a ballistic trajectory, and then fly like an airplane back to a runway.
All current space launch systems—SpaceX's Falcon 9, Airbus' Ariane 5, Russia's Soyuz, etc.—are expendable. During every single rocket launch, the rocket engines and fuel tanks fall back to Earth, usually into the ocean, never to be used again. Rocket engines are not cheap: Orbital Sciences paid around $1 billion (£600 million) to Roscosmos for 20 RD-180 rocket engines.
This is why companies like SpaceX, and now Airbus, are developing technologies that can bring the rocket engines back to the launchpad, so that they can be reused. SpaceX, which is currently leading the charge in this area, says that it wants to reuse rocket engines and fuel tanks within "single-digit hours" of their return. Depending on who you talk to, and the configuration of the rocket, current space launch prices are somewhere around $250-500 million; with reusable components, SpaceX wants to get that price down below $100 million.
Hovertext: Can we make bio-history a thing? Can we? Pleaaaaase?
Last week, Audi announced that it had filled the tank of one of its vehicles with a synthetic diesel fuel made with a high-temperature process that starts with only water and carbon dioxide. While there's a substantial energy input involved in generating the fuel, the company expects that excess renewable energy will eventually be able to supply that energy cheaply.
The diesel was produced through a process called high-temperature electrolysis, in which steam is heated before electricity is used to split the water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen. The high temperatures make this process more efficient and, as Audi notes, the waste heat can be used for other purposes, further boosting the efficiency. The hydrogen can then be combined with carbon dioxide in a process that produces liquid hydrocarbons (these reactions require high temperatures and pressures as well).
The current production facility (partly supported by Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research) uses CO2 supplied by a biogas facility, supplemented by a carbon capture facility that pulls the gas from the atmosphere.
Do you think you could ride a bicycle that steers backwards...aka it turns left when you turn right and vice versa? It sounds easy but years of normal bike riding experience makes it almost impossible. Destin Sandlin of Smarter Everyday taught himself how to ride the backwards-steering bike; it took months. Then he tried riding a normal bicycle again...
Loved this video...great stuff. (via ★interesting)Tags: cycling Destin Sandlin science video
Hovertext: The early human gets to keep its job!
A new study examined the galaxy cluster Abell 3827 and found indications that dark matter could be self-interacting. If confirmed, this would mark a significant step forward in the ongoing quest to understand the substance that helps structure the Universe.
The team used the MUSE instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) along with images from the Hubble Space Telescope to map out the cluster. Because large masses such as galaxies and galaxy clusters bend the paths of light, they act as lenses, a process called (surprise!) gravitational lensing. The team made use of the complex web of lensing effects throughout the cluster to map out the dark matter there. The presence of strong gravitational lensing is fortunate for the study, as the dark matter would be invisible without it.
Every galaxy sits within a roughly spherical blob, called a halo, of dark matter. That halo makes up most of the galaxy’s mass. In normal situations this configuration is stable, but when multiple galaxies interact with each other, a process called tidal stripping can take place, in which gravity from one galaxy pulls in material from another. This can separate the dark matter from the stars in the galaxy.
SpaceX's trial-and-error process of learning to land one of its Falcon main stages continued this week. After successfully sending a Dragon capsule toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station, the Falcon reversed course, fired its thrusters, and made its way back into the atmosphere over the Atlantic. After a controlled plunge through the air, it attempted to land on a barge named "Just Read the Instructions." This time, conditions enabled the company to have had an aircraft in the area to film the results.
The video above shows the Falcon dropping at a rather healthy clip until it's quite close to the barge. At that point, the rocket's electronics appear to try to adjust its location; the craft tips while firing its main engines at a much higher level. This appears to be enough to set it down on the barge, but now tilting in the opposite direction. Thrusters at the top of the rocket attempt to correct the tilt but can't; it slowly falls over until it explodes while nearly horizontal.
SpaceX originally posted video footage of the crash landing, but it was taken down and marked private on YouTube on Wednesday afternoon.
The ability to walk upright is a defining characteristic of humans, one that emerged through a long evolutionary history. It's not just a matter of the right bones; our muscular, skeletal, and neural systems have evolved to enable our coordinated movements. The nerves allow us to develop a gait that is optimized to minimize the amount of energy necessary by modulating aspects of our movement such as our step length or arm motions.
Even with all that optimization, walking can be tiring; in fact, people expend more energy walking than any other daily activity. As we age, walking often becomes even more difficult. For decades researchers have explored ways to mitigate the energy cost associated with walking—studies that are typically aimed at helping those who are weaker or disabled.
Recently, scientists and engineers started to look at this issue from a new perspective; they questioned whether the human gait is as efficient as it can be. This interdisciplinary research team developed a device that behaves as an unpowered exoskeleton.
NASA researchers have spotted something weird on the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres—a pair of mysterious shiny patches that reflect sunlight.
The bright spots were imaged by the Dawn spacecraft, which is whizzing through space on its way to Ceres, and should arrive in orbit on March 6. It'll be the first spacecraft to study a protoplanet at such close range.
"As we slowly approach the stage, our eyes transfixed on Ceres and her planetary dance, we find she has beguiled us but left us none the wiser," said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission. "We expected to be surprised; we did not expect to be this puzzled."
In January Netflix, the online video streaming site, used its quarterly letter to shareholders (pdf) to take aim at a rival. Not premium pay TV channel HBO, with which it is locked in an increasingly bitter battle for the best shows and movies; nor cable provider Comcast, with which it has squabbled over the future of the internet. Rather, Netflix’s missive called out a new adversary. “Piracy continues to be one of our biggest competitors,” it reads. “Popcorn Time’s sharp rise relative to Netflix and HBO in the Netherlands, for example, is sobering.”
Popcorn Time is one of the most fascinating stories on the internet at the moment. It is a platform that allows people to access vast swathes of video content without paying for it, but with a clean, legitimate-looking (and somewhat Netflix-y) interface. In other words, it’s not a shady looking portal that makes you feel dirty for using it.
By some estimates, Popcorn Time’s user base in the Netherlands rivals that of Netflix. It also appears to be used quite a lot in the US. Bloomberg reported last week that usage of the service in the US more than trebled between July 2014 and January 2015, and it now accounts for one ninth of all torrent traffic in the country. Its rise reflects a sobering reality for the entertainment industry. Despite the widespread success of internet-based content smorgasbords with simple pricing models like Netflix, piracy endures. And TV and movie piracy, at least, is almost impossible to wipe out.
Unlike in music, where services like Spotify give you a single subscription for almost any track you might want, there is no one-stop shop for video. That’s partly because of the way licensing works: Movies are released at different times for theaters, video-on-demand, and then cable TV or streaming services. It’s partly also because, unlike in music, video streaming services have chosen to compete by each offering their own exclusive content rather than trying to have the most complete menu. As a result, the best video remains spread out across a confusing phalanx of outlets.
Popcorn Time, according to people who use it, lets you access just about everything on the internet. It operates using the BitTorrent protocol, a file-sharing method that breaks large files into small pieces, which are shared out across the network of its users’ computers. When a user wants to download a file, her computer assembles it from pieces stored on other people’s computers across the network. This makes it easier to download large files, and harder to pinpoint who is responsible for uploading them, and thus almost impossible to eliminate. (The main difference between Popcorn Time and traditional BitTorrent is that when you choose a file to watch, BitTorrent assembles it first and stores it on your computer’s hard drive; PopcornTime just streams it as its components come in).
The site emerged seemingly out of nowhere last year. The people claiming to be its creators wrote that it began as a challenge by “a group of geeks from Buenos Aires who wanted to see if they could create a better way to watch movies.” By March last year they had abandoned it because, they said, they “need[ed] to move on with our lives.”
Yet others quickly took up the baton. There are multiple Popcorn Time sites now; popcorntime.io is the biggest, it has the most likes on Facebook (it passed 100,000 recently) and appears at the top of Google searches. It has a desktop client for both Mac and Windows computers, plus a Linux version and an Android app.
So who is behind this slick operation? Last month I spoke to a person who claims to be Popcorn Time’s official spokesperson, a 20-something from Ontario, called Robert “Red” English. He said that there are about 20 people—programmers and designers—scattered across the planet, working on Popcorn Time in their free time. It is an open-source project, so anyone can submit changes to the code, add features, and fix bugs. If he and the rest of the team think a contributor is helping, they will ask him or her to join on a more formal basis. Contributors change frequently.
“We are a community… I don’t think it will be ever turned into a proper business.” Popcorn Time has no funding—it’s run out of the pockets of the small community behind it—and no business model, English says. Unlike other platforms used for piracy it doesn’t even carry advertising.”We are a community and we are not really driven by the money of it,” he says. “I don’t think it will be ever turned into a proper business.” In other words, there are no plans to emulate Napster or BitTorrent and seek legitimacy. Napster, the first file sharing site to gain prominence, had a string of legitimate business owners after being shut down, including German Media conglomerate Bertelsmann, US retailer Best Buy, and is now part of streaming music provider Rhapsody. BitTorrent (the company, not the protocol) is backed by venture capital funds including Accel Partners.
So if there’s no money in it, why do the people behind Popcorn Time bother? Fun mainly, English says. “A lot of the project is about showing… other companies like Netflix that having the content that’s currently on air—the new stuff, not last season—that’s what drives people to watch. It’s a way of showing the media that you can do better.” (No doubt the fact that this gives them and others the ability to watch anything they want for free is also a motivating factor.)
The team behind the original Popcorn Time insisted they had checked “Four Times” with lawyers that the service was legal. English says his team has been in contact with lawyers, “but for the most part there is not a lot we need to speak to them about.” Popcorn Time does not control or manage any of the content that is accessible through the service; it just provides the method of access. “We are not selling you a product, we are not ripping you off, we are just giving something out for free,” he says.
The video and music industry see it differently, of course. There have been countless lawsuits against BitTorrent services and their users. Some, notably in Sweden, have been successful, even ending up in convictions. But in the US, as Mother Jones reported a year ago, judges have been getting more skeptical about the evidence copyright holders present. Basically, an IP address—a number that identifies each computer connected to a network—is no longer considered such a reliable indicator of who has been actually downloading or uploading files.
“If it’s used to infringe copyright, that may itself be a violation, but that doesn’t make the tool illegal.” The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a trade association for Hollywood studios which has been involved in many lawsuits against copyright offenders, declined to comment on Popcorn Time to Quartz. So did Netflix. But Parker Higgins from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer digital rights group, argues that Popcorn Time is no more illegal than photocopiers or videocassette recorders. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that Sony’s Betamax video recorder wasn’t illegal because it was capable of “significant non-infringing use.” Similarly, Popcorn Time can be used to navigate vast swathes of non-copyrighted material, Higgins explains. “If it’s used to infringe copyright, that may itself be a violation, but that doesn’t make the tool illegal.”
The Betamax defense isn’t iron-clad. At least two file-sharing sites that tried to use it—Grokster and Streamcast—lost, because the court ruled that they actively encouraged piracy. But that case also marked out a territory within which file-sharing is legal, making it easier for sites like Popcorn Time to stay (just) on the right side of the law.
English said the team behind Popcorn Time is aware that the platform is being used extensively in places like the Netherlands and “had a general idea that people were beginning to talk about us.” But what he did not realize it was stating to get noticed on Wall Street.
Investment analysts are concerned about its impact on Netflix and big entertainment companies that produce and own content. BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield for one, has repeatedly warned that “Hollywood should be very afraid” of apps like Popcorn Time, which he says could threaten the financial strength of the entertainment business. “The reality is TV everywhere [i.e., online services from US cable TV providers and channels such as HBO Go] has gone nowhere while the piracy sites such as Popcorn Time have continued to innovate,” Greenfield says in an email.
Popcorn Time does not track usage and is not particularly concerned about the imitators it has spawned. “In general we don’t care,” English says, “but when it comes to the ones that install viruses on your computer it pisses us off because it ruins a good name.” To think that a group of earnest freelancers working in their spare time could pose challenge to Netflix, a $30 billion company, not to mention media giants that have been around for decades, is staggering. But as long as the big TV and movie studios continue to limit their content to certain online platforms, there’ll be demand for a service that provides it all—especially if that service is also free.