TIME space

NASA Can See Holiday Lights From Space

NASA Holiday Lights
City lights shine brighter during the holidays in the U.S. when compared with the rest of the year, as shown using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Dark green pixels are areas where lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during December. NASA's Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

Cities are brighter during the holidays than any other time in the year

The holiday lights on your roof are so bright they’re visible from space.

NASA said Tuesday that data from a polar-orbiting satellite, in partnership with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, shows how cities’ nighttime lights change during the holiday season. From Black Friday until New Year’s, city lights are about 20 to 50% brighter than other times of the year.

“It’s a near ubiquitous signal. Despite being ethnically and religiously diverse, we found that the U.S. experiences a holiday increase that is present across most urban communities,” said Miguel Román, a research physical scientists at NASA Goddard who co-led the research. “These lighting patterns are tracking a national shared tradition.”

Researchers also took a look at holiday lights during the holy month of Ramadan in the Middle East, where nighttime lights shine up to 50% brighter. Scientists discovered some cities were lit more heavily throughout the region, which they attributed to political or cultural differences.

“Even within majority Muslim populations, there are a lot of variations,” said Eleanor Stokes, a graduate fellow at NASA. “What we’ve seen is that these lighting patterns track cultural variation within the Middle East.”

TIME Science

This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain

music class
Getty Images

Actively learning to play an instrument can help a child's academic achievement

There’s little doubt that learning to play a musical instrument is great for developing brains.

Science has shown that when children learn to play music, their brains begin to hear and process sounds that they couldn’t otherwise hear. This helps them develop “neurophysiological distinction” between certain sounds that can aid in literacy, which can translate into improved academic results for kids.

Many parents probably read the above sentence and started mentally Google-ing child music classes in their local area. But if your kid doesn’t like learning an instrument or doesn’t actively engage in the class–opting to stare at the wall or doodle in a notebook instead of participating–he or she may not be getting all the benefits of those classes anyway.

A new study from Northwestern University revealed that in order to fully reap the cognitive benefits of a music class, kids can’t just sit there and let the sound of music wash over them. They have to be actively engaged in the music and participate in the class. “Even in a group of highly motivated students, small variations in music engagement — attendance and class participation — predicted the strength of neural processing after music training,” said Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, in an email to TIME. She co-authored the study with Jane Hornickel, Dana L. Strait, Jessica Slater and Elaine Thompson of Northwestern University.

Additionally, the study showed that students who played instruments in class had more improved neural processing than the children who attended the music appreciation group. “We like to say that ‘making music matters,'” said Kraus. “Because it is only through the active generation and manipulation of sound that music can rewire the brain.”

Kraus, whose research appeared today in Frontiers in Psychology, continued: “Our results support the importance of active experience and meaningful engagement with sound to stimulate changes in the brain.” Active participation and meaningful engagement translate into children being highly involved in their musical training–these are the kids who had good attendance, who paid close attention in class, “and were the most on-task during their lesson,” said Kraus.

To find these results, Kraus’s team went straight to the source, hooking up strategically placed electrode wires on the students’ heads to capture the brain’s responses.

Kraus’s team at Northwestern has teamed up with The Harmony Project, a community music program serving low-income children in Los Angeles, after Harmony’s founder approached Kraus to provide scientific evidence behind the program’s success with students.

According to The Harmony Project’s website, since 2008, 93 percent of Harmony Project seniors have gone on to college, despite a dropout rate of 50 percent or more in their neighborhoods. It’s a pretty impressive achievement and the Northwestern team designed a study to explore those striking numbers. That research, published in September in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed direct evidence that music training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems.

As a follow up, the team decided to test whether the level of engagement in that music training actually matters. Turns out, it really does. Researchers found that after two years, children who not only regularly attended music classes, but also actively participated in the class, showed larger improvements in how the brain processes speech and reading scores than their less-involved peers.

“It turns out that playing a musical instrument is important,” Kraus said, differentiating her group’s findings from the now- debunked myth that just listening to certain types of music improves intelligence, the so-called “Mozart effect.” “We don’t see these kinds of biological changes in people who are just listening to music, who are not playing an instrument,” said Kraus. “I like to give the analogy that you’re not going to become physically fit just by watching sports.” It’s important to engage with the sound in order to reap the benefits and see changes in the central nervous system.

As to how to keep children interested in playing instruments, that’s up to the parents. “I think parents should follow their intuitions with respect to keeping their children engaged,” said Kraus. “Find the kind of music they love, good teachers, an instrument they’ll like. Making music should be something that children enjoy and will want to keep doing for many years!”

With that in mind, it’s not too late to trade in those Minecraft Legos, Frozen paraphernalia, XBox games, and GoldieBlox presents that you may have purchased, and swap them out for music lessons for the kids in your life.

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TIME space

Odds For Life on Mars Tick Up—a Little

High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water
High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water NASA/JPL

New findings about both methane and water boost the chances for biology

September of 2013 was a bad time for those who hope there’s life on Mars. We’ve had evidence for decades that water flowed freely across the surface of the Red Planet billions of years ago, and that evidence has only gotten stronger and stronger the closer we look. Not only was there potentially life-giving water back then: Mars also had the right kind of geology to support mineral-eating microbes. And while all of that was in the distant past, the detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere by Earth-based telescopes and Mars orbiters raised hopes that bacteria might still be thriving below the surface—not unreasonable, both because all manner of Earthly critters do perfectly well below-ground and because the vast majority of methane in our own atmosphere results from biological activity. Mars’s methane might come from a similar source.

But when the Curiosity rover sniffed the Martian air directly last year, it smelled…nothing. At most, there were just three parts per billion (ppb) of methane wafting around, and possibly much less than that. “We kind of thought we’d closed that chapter,” says Christopher Webster of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead scientist for the instrument that did the sniffing. “A lot of people were very disappointed.”

Not any more, though. Just weeks after that dismal reading, Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) picked up a whiff of methane at a concentration of 5.5 parts per billion. “It took us by surprise,” says Webster, and over the next two months, he says, “every time we looked there was methane. Indeed, the concentrations even rose, to an average of 7.2 ppb over that period, he and his colleagues report in a new paper in Science.

And then, six weeks later, the methane was gone, and hasn’t been sniffed since. “It’s a fascinating episodic increase,” Webster says.

What he and his colleagues can’t say is where the methane is coming from. Because it’s transient, they think it’s probably from a fairly local source. But whether it’s biological or geological in origin, they don’t know. It’s wise to be cautious, however, says Christopher Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton. “Hopes for biology on Mars have had a way of disappearing once Martian chemistry has been better understood. But figuring out what’s responsible for the methane is clearly a key astrobiological objective—whatever the answer turns out to be.”

That’s not the only important Mars-related paper in Science this week, either. Another, also based on Curiosity observations, concerns Mars’s long-lost surface water, and one of the most important points is that there’s a lot more of it left than most people realize—”enough,” says Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Paul Mahaffy, lead author of the paper, “to cover the surface to a depth of 50 meters [about 165 ft].” That doesn’t mean it’s accessible: it’s nearly all locked up in ice at the planet’s poles, but some is also entrained in the clay Curiosity dug into when it was prowling the Yellowknife Bay area of Gale Crater.

Some of that water, says Mahaffy, is tightly chemically bound to the clay and is not a big player in Mars’s modern environment. Some is not quite so locked down and has been interacting with the tenuous Martian atmosphere for the past three billion years. The hydrogen in Martian water, as in Earthly water, may contain both a single proton and a single electron, or a proton and electron plus a neutron—so-called heavy hydrogen, or deuterium. As the Martian atmosphere has thinned over the eons, the ratio of hydrogen to deuterium in the water has gradually been dropping, as the lighter version escapes more easily into space. Since the modern water is twice as rich in deuterium as the water from billions of years ago, that suggests that there was about twice as much surface water in total at the earlier time, but its hydrogen residue has vanished.

“That’s a fair bit of water,” says Mahaffy, “but it’s a lower limit. There could be much more beneath the surface today that we haven’t seen. It was a really interesting time. There were a lot of aqueous processes going on, and a lot of flowing water.”

Where there is (or was) water, there could be (or could have been) life. For Mars enthusiasts, that’s why December of 2014 is a lot better than September of 2013.

TIME Research

30 Images Of Life Under A Microscope

Some of the world’s most stunning beauties can’t be seen with the naked eye.
Every year, scientists and microscope devotees submit their images and movies of life science objects shot under a microscope to the Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition. Artists from 70 countries send in about 2,500 images to the competition every year to be judged by a panel of experts in the field. Here are this year’s honorees.
TIME health

For Once the Anti-Vaxxers Aren’t (Entirely) to Blame

Face of the enemy: A molecular model of the whooping cough toxin
Face of the enemy: A molecular model of the whooping cough toxin LAGUNA DESIGN; Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

California's whooping cough outbreak is largely the fault of a harmless but imperfect vaccine

Anti-vaxxers are epidemiology’s repeat offenders—the first and sometimes only suspects you need to call in for questioning whenever there’s an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease. So on those occasions when their prints aren’t all over the crime scene, it’s worth giving them a nod. That’s the case—sort of, kind of—when it comes to the current whooping cough (or pertussis) epidemic that’s burning its way through California, with nearly 10,000 cases since the first of the year, making it the worst outbreak of the disease since the 1940s. So far, one infant has died.

Before we start giving out any laurels, let’s be clear on one point: the anti-vaxxers continue to be risibly wrong when they say that vaccines are dangerous (they aren’t), that they lead to autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and more (they don’t), and that you should take your public-health advice from the likes of Jenny McCarthy, Rob Schneider, and Donald Trump instead of virtually every medical and scientific authority on the planet (you shouldn’t). But a safe vaccine is not always the same as an entirely effective vaccine, and here the whooping cough shot is coming up a little short—with emphasis on the “little.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the pertussis vaccine starts off perfectly effectively, with 90% of kids developing full immunity from the disease in their first year after inoculation. But that protection starts to fade in year two, and by the five-year point, only 70% of kids are still protected. Until the 1990s, a more effective formulation was available, but it was replaced due to side effects (pain, swelling and perhaps some fever—not autism, thank you very much). The newer version eliminates those problems, but at a cost to effectiveness.

The waning protection the vaccine affords helps explain the cyclical nature of whooping cough outbreaks, with cases usually beginning to rise every three to five years. Certainly, the anti-vax crowd has not helped matters any. When a vaccine offers only imperfect protection, it’s especially important that as many people as possible get it since this maximizes what’s known as herd immunity—the protection a community that’s largely immune can offer to the minority of people who aren’t.

Last spring’s mumps outbreak in Columbus, Ohio was due in part to a combination of the relatively low 80-90% effectiveness rate of that vaccine and the poor level of vaccine compliance. As I reported in Time’s Oct. 6, 2014 issue, 80% of people who contracted the disease said they had been vaccinated in childhood, but only 42% of those cases could be confirmed. In the current whooping cough epidemic, California health authorities estimate that only 10% of all people who have come down with the disease were never vaccinated. That’s up to 10% more people than needed to get sick, but a lot fewer than the total in Columbus.

The heart of the anti-vaxxers’ argument is not, of course, that some vaccines offer incomplete protection. If it were, they wouldn’t find so many willing believers. For one thing, the large majority of vaccines achieve at least a 90% effectiveness level—and often much higher. For another, it’s hard to make the case that even if they didn’t, imperfect protection would be better than none at all.

Seat belts, after all, aren’t 100% effective at preventing highway deaths either, and condoms don’t entirely eliminate the risk of pregnancy or STDs. But that doesn’t mean you stop using them, because your brain makes a rational risk calculation about the wisdom of taking cost-free precautions. You might not make such smart choices, however, if somebody muddied the equation by introducing the faux variable of imaginary risk—seat belts and condoms cause autism, say.

Persuading people to run that flawed calculus is where the the anti-vaccine crowd does its real damage. A new—and scary—interactive map from the Council on Foreign Relations tracks the global rise or fall of vaccine-preventable diseases from 2008 to 2014. In the same period, during which most of the world saw a 57% decline in cases, North America—driven mostly by the U.S.—showed a stunning 600% increase.

It’s fitting somehow that the locations of the outbreaks show up on the map as a sort of pox—with the once-clear U.S. slowly becoming blighted from one coast to the other. Misinformation is its own kind of blight—one that’s every bit as deadly as the bacteria and viruses the vaccines were invented to prevent. And it’s the anti-vaxxers themselves who are the carriers of this particular epidemic.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME climate change

The Unexpected Animal Group Dying from Climate Change

tree-frog
Getty Images

It's affecting more than mammals

WSF logo small

The canary in the coal mine of climate change may actually be something a little less feathery and a lot more slimy: Amphibians. Many of these creatures have already been in decline due to disease, and climate changes appear to be accelerating the problem.

Jason Rohr, a University of South Florida biologist, says that some amphibians are already being forced to shift the timing of their breeding in response to climate change. Salamanders in the Appalachian mountains are shrinking. As climate trends continue, Rohr says we can expect to see amphibians further altering their behavior, moving to new grounds, and expect more overall declines in species.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: What Will The Humans Do About Climate Change?

In the Western U.S., climate change is adding to the problems of amphibians already threatened by introduced predators. Starting in the late 1800s, wildlife officials have been stocking previously fish-free ponds and lakes across the western U.S with predatory trout. For a time, native frogs and salamanders were able to retreat to shallower ponds and waterways, but now a warming climate threatens to dry up these shelters—which are vital for both amphibian breeding and the survival of young tadpoles. To mitigate the damage, a group of researchers writing in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment recently recommended making use of hydrological models to evaluate the way climate change will affect amphibian habitats, and selectively removing fish from ponds.

“Amphibians in the West’s high-mountain areas find themselves in a vise, caught between climate-induced habitat loss and predation from introduced fish,” University of Washington researcher Maureen Ryan, a coauthor on the paper, said in a statement.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: How Climate Change Is Already Dooming Some Mammals

The problem is even more dire in South America and Latin America. Frogs in the genus Atelopus have been decimated—71 out of about 113 species have gone extinct. Many of these extinctions are thought to be driven by interactions between climatic conditions and other factors, primarily the deadly chytrid fungus. Some scientists have argued that the the frogs’ tropical mountain habitats have been made more welcoming to the fungus by climate change, which has promoted the formation of clouds that lower daytime temperatures and raise nighttime temperatures, removing the extreme temperatures that may have previously kept the fungus in check.

“Disease is the bullet killing frogs, but climate change is pulling the trigger,” J. Alan Pounds, a scientist at Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, told National Geographic.

Not all scientists are convinced that the spread of chytrid fungus is hastened by climate change—one 2008 study in particular suggested there was little link between the two, and some researchers have argued that the periodic warming cycle known as El Nino is more to blame for high-profile frog extinctions, like that of the golden toad.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: Your State Bird Could Be Extinct By 2080

But some of Rohr’s experiments looking directly at how frogs fight the fungus suggest that the temperature fluctuations linked to climate change shouldn’t be counted out just yet. In 2012, Rohr and colleagues found that the chytrid fungus thrives and kills more frogs in cooler environments—but that when frogs are suddenly switched from one temperature-controlled environment to the other, they fare even worse than frogs kept in a consistently hot or consistently cooler incubator. Frog extinctions are more complex than any one cause can explain.

As the climate changes in the future, the unique biology of amphibians may also make them less able to adapt to drier, hotter conditions than other groups of animals. “I think they are potentially at greater risk from desiccation than many organisms without permeable skin,” Rohr says. “Additionally, they are the most threatened vertebrate taxon on the planet, and thus they are already experiencing extremely high threats. Climate change could worsen this scenario.”

This article originally appeared on World Science Festival.

TIME animals

One of the World’s 6 Remaining Northern White Rhinos Has Died

Northern White Rhino (Ceratotherium simu
A northern white rhino named Fatu, left, and Nabiro walk in a zoo in Dvur Kralove, Czech Republic, on Dec. 16, 2009 Michal Cizek — AFP/Getty Images

The animal died of old age at the San Diego Zoo

One of the world’s six remaining northern white rhinos died at the San Diego Zoo on Sunday, according to park officials.

Angalifu, 44, reportedly died of old age and had begun refusing to eat last week, reports the Los Angeles Times.

“Angalifu’s death is a tremendous loss to all of us,” said Rancy Reiches, curator of mammals at the zoo’s Safari Park.

Myriad attempts to breed Angalifu with the park’s only other northern white rhino failed. The species now faces complete extinction after decades of wide-scale poaching.

[LAT]

TIME weather

Tornadoes at a Record, Unexplained Low in U.S.

Double Tornadoes, Pilger, Nebraska, Weather
A pair of tornadoes barrel toward Pilger, Neb., on June 16. The twisters uprooted trees and flattened houses across the tiny village (pop. 352). Two residents, including a 5-year-old girl, died as a result of the storm. Eric Anderson—AP

Fewer twisters than in any three-year period since records began

The United States has seen a major lull in the number of tornadoes to strike in each of the past three years, fewer than any three-year period since accurate record-keeping commenced in the 1950s.

Tornadoes are rated EF-0, weakest, to EF-5, the strongest.

In an average year the U.S. sees roughly 500 tornadoes rated EF-1 or stronger. According to data from the Storm Prediction Center reported by USA Today, so far this year the country has seen just 348 EF-1 tornadoes. In 2012 there were 364 EF-1 or stronger tornadoes and 404 tornadoes of that strength or greater in 2013.

Scientists say there’s no consistent reason year to year for this stretch of calm but point to a similarly calm period in the 1980s.

Despite the decline in the number of tornadoes, deaths from the storms remain roughly around the annual average of 60 year on year—many fewer than the unusually high number of deaths from tornadoes in 2011: 553.

[USA Today]

TIME Math

Today is the Last Sequential Date of the Century

1897 Calendar with Parading Cats
Corbis

12/13/14. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Today, December 13, 2014, is the last day this century that the date as rendered by Americans will read in sequential order: 12/13/14.

The next time you’ll be able to write the date in the United States by simply counting up won’t come until January 2, 2103: 01/02/03. That’s 89 years from now—probably outside the lifespan of anyone reading this now but certainly a goal worth striving for. In any case, not to worry. Smithsonian has a nifty write up of upcoming dates of mathematical significance that some of us may yet live to experience.

In countries outside the U.S. where the date is rendered Day/Month/Year, this auspicious occasion passed last year on 11 December 2013: 11/12/13.

TIME animals

There Was a Big Bang for Birds

An ex-crocodile. Clearly a step up
An ex-crocodile. Clearly a step up Luis Costa—AFP/Getty Images

A sweeping new study tells a long genetic tale

If there’s a factory where birds are built, the workers were clearly smoking something the day they designed the hummingbird. And the ostrich. And the toucan. Imagine, too, the pitch meeting for the parrot, (“Let’s make this one talk!”), or the peacock (“So we got this crate of feathers…”).

Of course, that’s not how it really happened. Birds came along without our help, evolving from the Aves class into 23 orders, 142 families, 2,057 genera and finally 9,702 species—the most prolific speciation of all four-limbed vertebrates. The problem with such prodigious divergence is that it makes it hard to determine how the great bird explosion began in the first place. Now, however, in a pair of papers in Science, scientists report that they have an answer. Modern birds, they have learned, got their start like the universe itself—with something of a Big Bang, a burst of specialization that began 65 million years ago with the same asteroid hit that wiped out the dinosaurs and made room for mammals and other land animals.

This finding results from the work of hundreds of scientists at 80 labs and universities across 20 countries, done with the help of bird tissue collected from labs and museums around the world. Those specimens were sent to the Genome Tissue Institute in Beijing, where the basic sequencing was conducted. The first and most basic conclusion the investigators reached was a big one. “This confirms that there was a very rapid radiation and that major lineages of birds were in existence 5 to 6 million years after the extinction event,” says Joel Cracraft, an avian systemicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a contributor to the papers. “They were very widely distributed as well.”

But there was much more to be learned, and that required the hundreds of others scientists to get busy parsing the genomes. A lot of their results live down in the technical weeds, where geneticists speak of such things as total evidence nucleotide trees and GTR+GAMMA models. Among the plain-English findings, however, there were some important top-line results. The investigators identified a sort of progenitor bird, for example, a so-called apex predator that came along shortly after the asteroid hit and was the great-great-great granddaddy of all extant land birds. The descendants that that founding father left can be connected in unexpected ways.

The gaudy flamingo and the proletariat pigeon turn out to belong to sister clades—or groups descending from one common ancestor. Similarly, there is a three-way kinship among the cuckoos; the bustards (medium-size game birds that include the paauw and its larger cousin, the straightforwardly named great paauw); and the turacos. The last group is a brilliantly colored and plumed family of birds that include the African banana eaters and the go-away birds, species that got their names because one of them, well, eats bananas and the other issues a warning call that sounds like it’s saying “go away,” which it sort of is.

Among the more granular discoveries, the investigators report that so-called vocal learners—birds with flexible repertoires of songs and mimicked speech—actually share some of their molecular brain structures with humans. And the very act of singing appears to change the birds’ epigenomes—the regulatory system that sits atop the genes and determines which ones are expressed—meaning that the more frequent the song the more specialized the bird’s genetic wiring will become.

But just in case the big, fun, colorful Aves class gets above itself, the papers do stress that every extant bird can trace its line back even further than the apex predator, all the way to a small and rather vulgar group of ancestors that are actually alive today; the saltwater crocodile, the American alligator and the Indian gharial—which is sort of an alligator with an absurdly skinny snout. For birds as much as for humans, it seems, no matter how high you climb, there are always a few embarrassing family members to keep you humble.

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