TIME Research

Stinking Rich? Human Waste Contains Gold, Research Finds

Charles D. Winters—Getty Images

One million Americans could flush away almost $13 million of metals

Researchers have detected trace amounts of gold, silver and other precious metals in human waste and are exploring how to make their extraction commercially feasible — a move that may stymie the dispersal of metals in the environment and lessen our dependence on mining.

Deploying an electron microscope, Dr. Kathleen Smith and her team spent eight years unearthing minuscule metal particles in treated solid waste. “The gold we found was at the level of a minimal mineral deposit,” Smith said, meaning that a similar dispersion in rock would be profitable enough for traditional mining. Other metals recovered include silver and platinum.

Smith says metals are ubiquitous in our sewer drains, ranging from those in our personal grooming products to odor-neutralizing nanoparticles sprayed on socks. These metals crop up in wastewater treatment plants, where they can be recovered through leaching.

“We’re interested in collecting valuable metals that could be sold, including some of the more technologically important metals, such as vanadium and copper that are in cell phones, computers and alloys,” Smith said.

Separate research estimated that metals valued at $13 million could be recovered through the waste of a million Americans alone.


TIME Education

This Is How Long Your Teen Needs to Spend on Homework to Be Better at Math and Science

It's not that long, but long enough

How much time to spend on homework has always been a major sticking point between teenagers and their teachers and parents. And many teenagers will agree that spending time on math and science is the worst.

But a group of researchers in Spain has arrived at an optimum time that should be spent on that kind of homework — an hour a day.

The researchers, from the University of Oviedo, analyzed the academic performance of 7,725 students for their paper, which was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Educational Psychology. The students answered questions on how often they did homework and what the distribution of subjects within that time was, following which they were given a standardized test for math and science performance.

“The data suggests that spending 60 minutes a day doing homework is a reasonable and effective time,” said the study’s author Javier Suárez-Álvarez.

Suárez-Álvarez and his co-lead author Rubén Fernández-Alonso found that the average amount of homework assigned is about 70 minutes a day, while some teachers raised that duration to 90 to 100 minutes. However, the researchers found that students’ math and science scores decline with a greater amount of homework.

“Assigning more than 70 minutes of homework a day does not seem very efficient,” Suárez-Álvarez added.

So teens can take heart from the fact that they don’t have to spend more than an hour on math and science homework. As for parents, well, even getting them to spend that much time will be a win.

[Science Daily]

TIME White House

Obama Rubs Elbows With Some Inventive Girl Scouts

President Obama Hosts White House Science Fair
Aude Guerrucci—Pool/Getty Images U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with a group of six-year-old Girls Scouts from Tulsa Oklahoma who designed a battery powered page turner to help people who are paralyzed or have arthritis at the 2015 White House Science Fair in Washington on March 23, 2015.

The 6-year-old inventors were attending the 2015 White House Science Fair

President Obama spent some quality time with a group of six-year-old Girl Scouts from Tulsa, Oklahoma on Monday as part of the 2015 White House Science Fair.

The Girl Scouts—also known by the nickname “Supergirls”—attended the science fair after designing a battery-powered page turner meant to help people who are paralyzed or suffer from movement-related diseases like arthritis. They used Legos as the building blocks for the development of their prototype.

The White House Science Fair features projects from innovative students around the United States. This year’s fair is focusing on girls and women who are doing extraordinary things in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

TIME Archaeology

World’s Largest Asteroid Crater Unearthed in Australia

Evidence of 250-mile wide impact zone found deep underground

Scientists have discovered evidence of a 250-mile wide crater in central Australia they believe was created by a colossal asteroid hundreds of millions of years ago.

The largest impact zone ever discovered is no longer visible on the Earth’s surface, researchers from the Australian National University said in a statement Monday, but could be identified by evidence buried deep in the earth’s crust.

The scientists had been drilling for another geothermal research project when, by chance, they came across rock layers that had been turned to glass, which usually signifies a high-energy impact. Their findings, published recently in the journal Tectonophysics, contributes to the understanding of the Earth in prehistoric times.

“Large impacts like these may have had a far more significant role in Earth’s evolution than previously thought,” said lead researcher Andrew Glikson. Still, the exact details of when the impact occurred remain unclear. While the rocks surrounding the impact zone are around 300 million years old, scientists said they have not yet found a similar layer in other sediments the same age.

“It’s a mystery — we can’t find an extinction event that matches these collisions,” Glikson said. “I have a suspicion the impact could be older than 300 million years.”

TIME space

Russia Gives Space Station Crew the Keys to Its Ship

Members of the press and officials from NASA and Roscosmos talk with Russian Cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, alongside NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly, after a training session at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, March 23, 2015.
Philip Scott Andrews for TIME Members of the press and officials from NASA and Roscosmos talk with Russian Cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, alongside NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly, after a training session at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, March 23, 2015.

The official handover of a brand new Soyuz is a milestone for any space flight from Baikonur

No one kept a secret like the old Soviet space program kept a secret. Back in the early days of the space race, Sergei Korolev, the Soviets’ chief designer, was known only as, well, the Chief Designer, the better to prevent any assassination attempts that officials from Roscosmos—the Russian NASA—convinced themselves the Americans were cooking up. Baikonur, the Russian Cape Canaveral, hidden away in the Kazakh steppes, stole its name from a mining town 200 miles north, the better to confuse enemies who might come looking for it.

MORE: Watch the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

But the secrecy of Baikonur was partly just geography. If you want to get to space you need launch pads that aim away from populated areas and that are located as close to the equator as possible, giving your rockets a boost in speed thanks to the physics of Earth’s rotation. In the U.S. that meant Florida, with millions of people to the west and north but no one at all in the ocean to the east. In Russia, that meant Baikonur.

The Baikonur launch facility—where cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka and astronaut Scott Kelly will lift off for the International Space Station on March 28, with Kelly and Kornienko slated to stay a full year—is a half hour drive into the desert outside of Baikonur proper, which is itself is at least three hours away from pretty much anything at all. The old spaceport, when you finally arrive, looks exactly like you would have expected it to look if you grew up during the cold war when everything Soviet was synonymous with scary.

MORE Meet the Twins Unlocking the Secrets of Space

There are the cement blockhouses and the skeletal gantries and the security fences everywhere, all growing out of the surrounding scrub without so much as a single sapling or tuft of grass to add a little green. You could photograph the place in color, but why bother?

But inside Baikonur, none of that matters. Here, the sense of place—or placelessness, really—falls away, replaced by the same kind of closed-world, finely focused, center-of-the-universe bustle that accompanies any launch facility anywhere on the planet.

On Monday, at T-minus five days, the three members of the prime crew and the three members of the backup crew were scheduled to run their final ingress drills, climbing into their Soyuz spacecraft, for the first time—or at least the first official time. That, according to more than half a century of custom, required an equally official handoff, in which the people who built the spacecraft would, in effect, turn the keys over to the people who would drive it.

The ceremony took place in a large meeting room divided by a glass partition. Representatives from NASA, Roscosmos and the media crowded on one side of the glass and waited until officials from both Roscosmos and Energiya, the state-owned contractor that built the rocket and the spacecraft, entered and sat at a conference table facing the partition. The cosmonauts and astronauts, now in preflight medical quarantine, entered through a door on the other side, and sat at a matching conference table facing the officials.

Cosmonauts and astronauts from both the prime and backup crews greet officials and press before training at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan
Jonathan D. Woods—TIMECosmonauts and astronauts from both the prime and backup crews greet officials and press before training at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, March 23.

The spacecraft is now ready for you, one of the government men said to the crew in Russian. It is ready or flight.

The astronauts and cosmonauts nodded their thanks.

Are you ready to go to work?

We are, answered Pedalka, the commander.

A few more words of good wishes and congratulations followed, and then the officials rose, which was the cue for the crew to rise. The little ceremony, weeks in the planning and minutes in the execution, was over.

The crews moved to a massive hangar adjacent to the conference room, where multiple spacecraft sit in different stages of flight-readiness. Near the back of the hangar are three unmanned Progress ships, built to carry supplies and cargo to space. Nearby is a Soyuz that will fly later this year, a beautifully ugly, three-pod machine that is nowhere near ready for its launch and still sits with its cables and lines and guts exposed.

And at the front of the room is Kelly’s, Kornienko’s and Padalka’s Soyuz, this one hidden inside its sleek, white, 22-ft. (6.7 m) third-stage shell, looking like a proper rocket should look—though still not mated to the second and third stages which will add 155 additional feet (47 m). Caging the third stage is a yellow scaffolding that rises close to the hangar’s ceiling. On the wall, overlooking it all, is a massive blue on white painting of Korolev—the father of everything that is happening here and everything that has happened since the 1950s.

The back-up crew climbs the scaffold and enters the cockpit first, spending 30 or 40 minutes there, getting the feel for the spacecraft that, should circumstance warrant, one or more of them could be flying at the end of the week. The prime crew follows.

For Kelly, and for his American back-up Jeff Williams, Baikonur is the right place to be spending the last few days on Earth before taking off for a year’s worth of days in space. “It’s very different from home,” Kelly says, “very different from what I’m used to. It’s a good way to separate myself slowly from what’s familiar.”

The separation will get a bit harder before it gets easier. Later in the week, his daughters—ages 20 and 12—his girlfriend and his father will arrive in Baikonur for the launch. For his father especially, the experience will be wearing. This is Kelly’s fourth flight, matching the four his twin brother Mark, a retired astronaut, has already flown.

“No parent of an astronaut has watched eight launches,” says Kelly. “He’ll hold the record.”

This probably, but not definitely, will be the last one the senior Kelly will have to bear. Scott is likely to retire after his year aloft , but space gets deep into an astronaut’s bones. There are few—perhaps none—who’ve flown who haven’t sorely missed the experience when it’s over. Kelly, for all anyone can say, could return. For those who do, Baikonur—ugly and functional and wonderful as the Soyuz itself—will remain the gateway back.

Read next: Maybe We Really Are Alone In the Universe

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White House Science Fair Puts Whiz Kids in the Spotlight

The White House uses the science fair to highlight the administration's support of STEM

Whether he’s shooting off a marshmallow cannon or pedaling a bike-powered water sanitation system, President Barack Obama looks forward to the White House Science Fair as a day to be shocked and awed by school-age whiz kids.

“I love this event,” Obama told reporters at last year’s fair, where he caught a basketball that was fired off by a mechanical catapult. “This is one of my favorite things all year long.”

But the science fair, which takes place for the fifth time on Monday, isn’t just fun and games: Each year’s lineup includes serious innovations — and you can’t get much more serious than the Safe & Sound smartphone app …

Read the rest of this article from our partners at NBC News

TIME Environment

Pollutants Created by Climate Change Are Making Airborne Allergens More Potent

Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on January 22, 2015 in Jilin, Jilin province of China.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on Jan. 22, 2015, in Jilin, China

It could explain why more people are suffering from year to year

If you think your seasonal sneezing, wheezing and sniffling is getting worse, you aren’t simply imagining it.

Currently, some 50 million or so Americans suffer from nasal allergies, but the number is going up, and researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany say a pair of pollutants linked to climate change could be to blame. That’s according to a report in Science Daily.

The two gases are nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone, which appear to set off chemical changes in some airborne allergens, increasing their potency.

“Scientists have long suspected that air pollution and climate change are involved in the increasing prevalence of allergies worldwide,” said the institute’s Ulrich Pöschl. “Our research is just a starting point, but it does begin to suggest how chemical modifications in allergenic proteins occur and how they may affect allergenicity.”

Pöschl’s team found that ozone (a major component of smog) oxidizes an amino acid that sets off chemical reactions that ultimately alter an allergenic protein’s structure. Meanwhile, nitrogen dioxide (found in car exhausts) appears to alter the separation and binding capabilities of certain allergens.

Researchers believe that together, the two gases make allergens more likely to trigger the body’s immune response, especially in wet, humid and smoggy conditions.

The team hopes to identify other allergenic proteins that are modified in the environment and examine how these affect the human immune system.

[Science Daily]

TIME Research

There’s New Evidence About How Life on Earth Began

Getty Images
Getty Images Conceptual artwork of ribonucleic acid.

Some support for the primordial ooze theory

How did life on Earth start? Did it emerge from the primordial ooze as is popularly believed, or did it land here from a comet or some other celestial body?

A new study in the journal Nature Chemistry provides strong evidence that the ingredients necessary to concoct the first life forms did indeed exist on earth. The scientists say that they used hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide and ultraviolet light—three basic elements that were available pre-life as we know it—to create the building blocks of compounds that eventually led to the genetic material that all life on earth holds in common, DNA.

The process also likely got some extraterrestrial help. They speculate that meteorites might have reacted with nitrogen in the atmosphere to create hydrogen cyanide, and that in water, that chemical could have interacted with both hydrogen sulfide and the sun’s UV light.

TIME space

A Year in Orbit Starts in Kazakhstan

Scott Kelly waters the tree planted in his name in Baikonur, Kazhakstan on Saturday, March 21.
Jonathan D. Woods—TIME Scott Kelly waters the tree planted in his name in Baikonur, Kazhakstan on Saturday, March 21.

The great rituals of space travel play out on the Kazakh steppes

It’s easy to roll your eyes at PR—and easier still when you’re talking about space PR. Space has always been an industry built as much on imagery as engineering.

The Russians tended to go big. Their Yuri Gagarins and Alexei Leonovs became titans of iconography—figures of bronze and steel, their faces cast on coins and their heroic forms raised on pedestals in parks. The Americans went folksy—with reporters and photographers invited into astronauts’ homes while the family ate staged meals or played staged board games, the better to frame the man in the silver pressure suit as just a guy who worked hard and made it big.

MORE: Watch the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

Similar semiotics were on display this weekend at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where reporters were invited for a final series of press availabilities as cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, and astronaut Scott Kelly prepare for a March 28 launch to the International Space Station—a mission that will include a marathon one-year stay for Kelly and Kornienko. If you came to Baikonur to watch the show—the faux scenes of faux training that played out while cameras fired and reporters tossed puffball questions—it was easy to wonder why the entire kabuki business wasn’t abandoned decades ago. But the kabuki business is a deeply important—even poignant—one, and the job of spacefaring would be much the poorer without it.

MORE: Meet the Twins Unlocking the Secrets of Space

Baikonur looks like what it is, which is to say a company town, albeit it one built for a very particular employer at a very particular time in its history. Much the same is true of the space coast of Florida and the communities around the Johnson Space Center in Houston—but much is different, too. The developers in Houston and Canaveral gave their neighborhoods names like Timber Cove and Cocoa Beach, and built ranch homes and beach houses in a ramble of neighborhoods and along strips of sand. If you worked there and lived there and ever tired of life there, you could always up sticks and move into the private sector.

Baikonur is known as, well, just Baikonur, a development of Soviet-era bleached-cream housing blocks built along paved-over promenades for families working in the service of the space center. Here too, you were always free to walk out of town, but once you did you’d find yourself in the Kazakh steppes, and there was no work to be had anywhere else, so best to stay where you were.

Today, Baikonur is the same—only older. The bleak Soviet housing is now bleak and flaking Soviet housing, and while there is a new hotel near the space center that, graded on a Kazakh curve, has a certain glitter to it, the space program as a whole is a much-reduced thing. Gone are the Mir and Salyut space stations. Gone are the unmanned missions to the moon and the planets. All that survives are the Soyuz rockets launching three-person crews to the space station, with seats going for north of $70 million each—a fat revenue stream for the modern Russian state, but one which will be choked off in 2017, when new manned spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing start flying.

But Baikonur is more than a space-age theme park. Much like the rest of the old Soviet Union, it’s a city where space has always been something of a secular faith. There are sacred spaces—the massive replica of a Soyuz rocket in the center of town, where, on an overcast day this weekend, a bride and groom danced at the center of a circle of twirling children. There is the alley of cosmonauts on the space center grounds, where every man or woman who has launched from here has planted a poplar tree before leaving Earth, beginning with Gagarin’s—the tallest and, at 54 years old, the oldest.

And into all this history this week, stepped Kelly and Kornienko and Padalka, still on the Earth but already disengaging from it. The press crowded in as the men were put on display, but they approached no closer than three meters, and no one could come even that close without clearing a medical screening and donning a surgical gown and mask, lest they pass on a cold or flu.

The three crewmen and three backup crewmen posed with a flight director and pretended to review procedural manuals, then worked at computer screens and pretended to run a docking drill, while the cameras flashed and flashed. They played at playing, too—10 minutes of ping pong and pool and badminton staged for the cameras. They’re boys, after all, and they work hard and play hard and the rough camaraderie and competitiveness that comes from that is just what they’ll need in space.

Kelly, who’s making his fourth flight, knows the drill well. “Misha, rematch!” he said to Kornienko as they approached the pool table, as if they do this every day. He knows too to poke gentle fun at the drill. “I wonder if they’ll notice if I pedal backwards,” he said to nobody in particular as he worked a stationary bike for a gym photo op.

And it all could have seemed too much, it all could have seemed too silly. But then, at the end of the day, the six crewmen came to visit cosmonaut alley. They walked past Gagarin’s tree first, and they walked past many others too—like the one planted by Leonov, the first man to walk in space, or Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. But they also walked past those of the three men of Soyuz 11, who planted their poplars in 1971 and then flew off to space and never touched ground again—or at least never touched it alive because their spacecraft depressurized during reentry and they thumped down on the same Kazakh steppe dead from asphyxiation, cold and silent when the rescue team opened the hatch.

All three prime crewmen for the upcoming mission have flown from Baikonur before, and all three thus already have trees, so they simply watered them for the photo op. Kelly’s is still little more than a twig, and he gave it only about half of the bucket of water he’d been provided. “I don’t want to drown him,” he said.

The pronoun, the him, was playful, but it was something more too. Kelly has two daughters—very much a pair of hers—and he’s spending a year in a place from which some people do not return. He knows that he’s leaving his girls and his friends and his family and his tree, that he’ll be gone till this time next year and would very much like to come home and see them all again.

The magical rituals—the wedding dance and the tree planting and yes, the staged press op where reporters are told to stand at a respectful distance and take the pictures they’re offered because the men and women who are the subjects of your shots are going into space and, let’s be honest, you’re not—have been part of the space fabric for a long time. Baikonur is a place built on such things, and the fact is, after half a century, far more cosmonauts have come home to see their trees than haven’t. The old ways, for better or worse, seem to work.

TIME Environment

The World’s Water Supply Could Dip Sharply in 15 Years

A warning ahead of World Water Day

Global water resources may soon meet only 60% of the world’s water demands, the United Nations warned in a dire new report.

The World Water Development Report, issued ahead of World Water Day on Sunday, says demand for water around the world will increase by 55% over the next 15 years. With current supplies, that means only 60% of the world’s water needs will be met in 2030.

The reason for the shortfall include climate change, which causes irregular rainfall and dwindling underwater reserves. The results of the shortage could be devastating to agriculture, ecosystems and economies. With less water, health could also be compromised.

New policies that focus on water conservation, and more optimal treatment of wastewater, could alleviate some of the shortfall.

“Unless the balance between demand and finite supplies is restored, the world will face an increasingly severe global water deficit,” the report says.

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