TIME Environment

Wildlife Populations Have Dropped by More Than Half

"This latest edition of the Living Planet Report is not for the faint-hearted"

Vertebrate species populations have dropped by more than half over the course of 40 years, according to a new report from WWF, marking a larger decrease than ever previously documented.

The Living Plant Report measured more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish and found a 52% decline between 1970 and 2010. The facts are grimmer for some species: freshwater dwellers showed an average decline of 76%.

The study chalked up most of the decline to human impact. Habitat loss and hunting and fishing were the primary culprits, and climate change was the next largest threat, the report said.

“This latest edition of the Living Planet Report is not for the faint-hearted,” writes Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, says in a forward to the report.

TIME neuroscience

This Curry Spice Might Help the Brain Heal Itself

A chemical commonly found in turmeric was shown to encourage nerve-cell growth in rats

A spice commonly used to make curry could help the brain heal itself by encouraging the growth of nerve cells, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine in Julich, Germany, found that rats injected with aromatic-turmerone, a compound found naturally in turmeric, showed increased activity in parts of the brain associated with nerve-cell growth.

The compound could encourage the proliferation of brain cells, researchers said — though it was unclear whether it could be used to help stall or reverse the symptoms of degenerative-brain diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia in human beings.

A separate trial by the same research group found that rodent neural stem cells grew when they were bathed in a solution of aromatic-turmerone. The cells bathed in the turmeric compound also appeared to specialize into certain types of brain cells more rapidly.

“It is interesting that it might be possible to boost the effectiveness of the stem cells with aromatic-turmerone,” Maria Adele Rueger, a researcher on the team, told the BBC. “And it is possible this in turn can help boost repair in the brain.”

An outside researcher said it was unclear whether the findings would be applicable to people, and whether it could help people with Alzheimer’s.

Turmeric was already known for its potential health-giving properties. One 2009 study found that one of its component chemicals — curcumin — killed off cancer cells.

TIME Physics

This Discovery Brings Us One Step Closer to Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak

Handout photo of cloaking device using four lenses developed by University of Rochester physics professor Howell and graduate student Choi is demonstrated in Rochester
A cloaking device using four lenses developed by University of Rochester physics professor John Howell and graduate student Joseph Choi is demonstrated in Rochester, New York on Sept. 11, 2014. Reuters

It's like a very small invisibility cloak made of glass

Researchers at the University of Rochester seem to be taking the words of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s to heart: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Inspired in part by the famous Invisibility Cloak from Harry Potter, scientists at Rochester have discovered new ways to use complex lenses to hide objects from view. While previous cloaking devices distort the background and make it apparent that an object is being cloaked, the four lenses used at Rochester keep an object hidden as the viewer moves up to several degrees away.

“This is the first device that we know of that can do three-dimensional, continuously multidirectional cloaking, which works for transmitting rays in the visible spectrum,” said Joseph Choi, a PhD student at Rochester’s Institute of Optics who is working with physics professor John Howell at the university.

While the lenses do truly disguise the image of an object, scientists aren’t claiming a suit-sized version of the lens will work, much less help its wearers sneak past Death Eaters or into a Room of Requirement.

But there are practical uses for the technology: Howell says that the lenses could help a surgeon “look through his hands to what he is actually operating on,” and the lenses could be applied to a truck to allow drivers to see through blind spots on their vehicles.

Here’s a video that shows in more detail how the lenses work:

 

TIME Biology

Meet the Fish That Can’t Get Jet-Lagged

Who cares about the time? A blind fish needs no internal clock
Who cares about the time? A blind fish needs no internal clock Reinhard Dirscherl; Getty Images/WaterFrame RM

There's a reason you get sleepy at night: because it's dark out. Now a little blind fish helps explain all that

Birds have ‘em. Bees have ‘em. Even bacteria have circadian rhythms, the ramping up and slowing down of internal functions that signals organisms to be more or less active, depending on the time of day. Humans have circadian rhythms too—and when they’re disrupted by time-zone changes, lack of sleep or working the night shift, the result can be an increased risk of heart attacks, depression, diabetes, weight gain and more.

For eyeless Mexican cave fish, however, no problem, says a new study in the journal PLOS ONE reports. “Some organisms have stronger circadian rhythms, and some weaker,” says lead author Damian Moran, of the private company Plant and Food Research, based in New Zealand. “But these fish have none at all.”

The finding, says Moran, “just fell into our laps.” He and his colleagues were actually studying the energy costs of vision—that is, how much of the body’s resources evolution thinks it’s worth devoting to having the advantage of being able to see. The Mexican tetra fish is especially useful for such studies because it comes in both a surface-dwelling subspecies and several versions that live in caves, in perpetual darkness (the latter, says Moran, “look a little like Gollum“).

In order to measure the energy cost of having vision, the scientists put both versions of tetra into a kind of fish treadmill, where they could swim constantly upstream while instruments measured their oxygen intake, a gauge of their energy use. To cover all their bases, the scientists tested both types of fish under their most familiar conditions—with a day-night cycle, and in total darkness.

The scientists were looking to measure the differences in energy use between the fish with eyes and those without—but they noticed something else as well. “The surface-dwellers,” says Moran, “had a typical increase of oxygen use during the day, and a decrease during the night. Whereas the cave fish showed a flat line day and night.”

It makes sense: an animal that lives in changing conditions of light and darkness needs to be more active when its food sources are more active, whereas a creature that never sees the light of day probably doesn’t care. Even so, since many organisms that live in utter darkness are descended from surface-dwellers, they maintain at least a weak circadian rhythm. But the cave-dwelling tetra have none, and because they don’t have to ramp their metabolism up and down, they use 27% less energy overall than their daytime-nighttime cousins.

While this is the first such animal ever found, says Moran, the eyeless tetra might actually be just the tip of a gigantic biological iceberg. “Most of the Earth’s biomass lives in areas that never see light at all. I suspect that when we look in the deepest part of the sea or deep underground,” he continues, “we’ll find many organisms that have no circadian rhythms.”

Because after all, what’s the point?

TIME

Pictures of the Week: Sept. 19 – Sept. 26

From Syrian Kurds fleeing ISIS and the People’s Climate March to synchronized aquatics at the Asian Games and Derek Jeter’s perfect send off, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

 

TIME space

The People Have Voted: Pluto is a Planet!

Sure looks like a planet: An artist's rendering of Pluto
Sure looks like a planet: An artist's rendering of Pluto NASA

A populist uprising restores a space favorite to the planetary ranks. Will the astronomers listen?

When Pluto was hurled from the pantheon of planets back in 2006, it could simply have slinked away, accepting its new title of “dwarf planet” without a fuss. But thanks to the undying support of its millions of fans—not just schoolchildren, but many astronomers as well—the little planet that could is still a contender.

The latest evidence: a debate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in which three astronomers squared off to present both sides of the question: “Is Pluto a Planet?” And when the dust settled, the audience, made up mostly of ordinary citizens, declared once again that the answer is “duh, obviously.”

Three may seem like one side too many, but David Aguilar, the Center’s director of public affairs, who set up the debate, wanted to look at the question not just from a scientific perspective, but also through the lens of history. The first speaker, therefore, was the eminent Harvard astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich. “Planet,” he pointed out, “is a culturally defined word that has changed its meaning over the ages.”

In fact, the word itself comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “wanderer.” Unlike the stars, which seem fixed in place, the planets are objects that wander from one constellation to another in the sky—and since the Sun and the Moon do that too, they were originally considered planets as well.

That designation didn’t last, of course, but when astronomers began finding asteroids in the early 1800’s, they were also counted as planets, at least as first, (The fact that astronomer William Herschel had recently discovered the new planet Uranus had evidently given the scientists’ a taste for more.) Within a few decades, though, astronomers found so many asteroids that things were getting confusing. Objects like Ceres and Vesta, the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt, were demoted from “planet” to “minor planet,” in a foreshadowing of Pluto’s fate a century and a half later—and it had nothing to do with any sort of scientific definition of the word.

And neither did the International Astronomical Union’s decision to downgrade Pluto in 2006. Just as with the asteroids, astronomers began finding additional Pluto-like objects starting in the 1990s, including Eris, which turns out to be essentially the same size as Pluto. If Pluto is a planet, so is Eris, and so are several other objects at the edge of the Solar System.

That would be just too confusing, argued the second debater, astronomer Gareth Williams, associate director of the IAU’s Minor Planet Center. If you let Pluto stay, he said, you logically have to let the number of planets rise to 24 or 25, “with the possibility of 50 or 100 within the next decade” as more objects are found. “Do we want schoolchildren to have to remember so many? No, we want to keep the numbers low.”

This isn’t exactly a rigorous scientific argument—so to give its decision the flavor of science, the IAU came up with a definition of “planet” so convoluted it seemed entirely arbitrary. To qualify as a planet, a body must orbit the sun and be large enough to be at least roughly spherical—two rules that make sense. But it must also have gravitationally “cleared its neighborhood” of other bodies, meaning it has its orbital traffic lane all to itself, which Pluto doesn’t—at least during the most remote portion of its journey around the sun. The rule seemed carefully crafted so that “dwarf planets” like Pluto, Eres and the asteroid Ceres didn’t make the cut.

“It didn’t make sense at all,” said Center for Astrophysics communications director David Aguilar, who set up the debate. “Isn’t a dwarf fruit tree also a fruit tree? Isn’t a dwarf rabbit a rabbit?” But in the end, the resolution was approved by IAU members, and in 2006 the number of planets was pared from 9 to 8—the ones known to science pre-Pluto.

The last debater was astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, director of Harvard’s Planets and Life initiative. His argument, he explained in a conversation after the debate, was that the word “planet” does need a scientific definition, but that we don’t know enough yet to create one. The reason: we’ve discovered thousands of planets orbiting stars beyond the Sun, and until we can understand how they formed and what they’re really like, any definition is premature. Pluto may be a planet based on scientific reasoning, or it may not be. “For now,” he said, “we should keep Pluto as a planet by default.”

In the end, the Harvard audience voted in favor of Pluto’s reinstatement by a landslide. Planetary scientist Alan Stern, whose new New Horizons probe will reach Pluto next summer for a first-ever close encounter, wasn’t there. But when he heard about the vote, he said, “every time there’s a poll it turns out this way. The IAU have become largely irrelevant in this.”

The organization may seem to count even less when you consider something Gingerich revealed during his arguments. He was there for the 2006 IAU vote, which came when most of the attendees had already gone home. Just 424 of the organization’s nearly 10,000 members were present, and when the organizers offered the gathering the chance to reconsider Pluto’s demotion, Gingerich said, “they voted not to vote again because they wanted to go to lunch, so that was the end of it.”

TIME

A Lot of Earth’s Water Is Actually Older Than the Sun

The Crew Of Apollo 17 Took This Photograph Of Earth In December 1972 While The Spacecraf
NASA/Getty Images

That's more than 4.5 billion years old

Up to about half of the water on our planet is older than the sun, according to a paper published on Thursday in the journal Science.

While you next take a sip, ponder this, too: the fact that Earth’s water is so old bodes well for our hunt for wet environments — and, for life — elsewhere in the universe.

Life on Earth owes everything to the presence of liquid water here, but, even so, scientists don’t have definitive answers for how or when the water got here — or, for that matter, when the water itself was formed.

The new research seeks to answer that last question: Was our water made before the sun existed, brewed in the same cloud of dust from which the sun would form? Or did water come later, forming as the Earth also formed?

As the Washington Post explains, during the sun’s birth a band of unused space dust gathered like skirt hems around it. Such material, called the protoplanetary disk, would go on to form the solar system’s planets.

Scientists know that water accompanied the sun’s birth but wondered if it might have been destroyed in the process of the sun’s formation, leaving Earth to go it alone in stirring up its own water.

To find out if the water from that dust cloud made it to Earth, researchers measured the ratio of deuterium, or heavy hydrogen to hydrogen. The findings show that heavy hydrogen levels on Earth are higher than they would have been in the protoplanetary disk. That means that some of our water must predate the sun, when heavy hydrogen was in abundance.

So, if water can survive a star’s birthing process, and if other solar systems in the universe formed much like ours did, that means that water might be a common ingredient in the making of other planets far from our own.

“By identifying the ancient heritage of Earth’s water, we can see that the way in which our solar system was formed will not be unique, and that exoplanets will form in environments with abundant water,” said Tim Harries, a professor at the University of Exeter’s Physics and Astronomy Department, in England, and an author of the paper, in a statement.

“Consequently,” he said, “it raises the possibility that some exoplanets could house the right conditions, and water resources, for life to evolve.”

Last spring, scientists announced that there could be up to 11 billion exoplanets — planets outside or solar system — that are at just the right distance from their stars to have liquid water, and, perhaps, life as well.

TIME health

Dear Rob Schneider: Please Shut Up About Vaccines

The doctor is in the house: by all means, take vaccine advice from this guy
The doctor is in the house: by all means, take vaccine advice from this guy

State Farm dumps ad campaign after Deuce Bigalow's ignorant remarks about vaccinations

If there’s one thing I regret about the job I’ve done raising my kids, it’s that when it was time to get them their vaccines, I did not heed the wisdom of a man who is currently filming a TV series with a storyline titled “The Penis Episode, Part 2.” And if that doesn’t convince you about this deep thinker’s credibility, consider that his earlier body of work includes such powerful pieces as The Hot Chick, The Beverly Hillbillies movie and Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo.

How’s that for a guy worth listening to? Not.

We are talking, of course, about Rob Schneider, the Saturday Night Live alum who parlayed a single character—Richard Laymer, the obnoxious office guy—into a career of small-bore, dropped pants, toilet joke movies, plus the occasional cartoon voiceover. Nothing wrong with those kinds of projects; they’re honest work and the checks generally clear.

But Schneider is at the center of a much-deserved storm this week, after State Farm Insurance announced it was pulling a new ad campaign featuring the comedian in a reprise of his office guy role, since—while the company whose job it is to help people live better, healthier, more fiscally secure lives wasn’t looking—its newly minted star has been popping off about (deep sigh here) the hidden dangers of vaccines.

Take this observation from Dr. Bigalow, in a widely circulated video shot when he was campaigning against a California law that would have made it harder for parents to refuse vaccines:

“The efficacy of these shots have not been proven. And the toxicity of these things—we’re having more and more side effects. We’re having more and more autism.”

Or this one: “You can’t make people do procedures that they don’t want. It can’t be the government saying that. It’s against the Nuremberg Laws.”

It’s actually worth watching the entire jaw-dropping display, because Schneider somehow manages to thread the extraordinary needle of being wrong on every single point he makes. Remember in high school when they used to say it was impossible to score a zero on the SATs because you get a few points just for writing your name? Schneider, presumably, would have left that part blank.

And then there are the cringe-worthy Twitter posts suggesting he has been denied his freedom of speech:

For the record Rob, no, there is no government conspiracy to force vaccines on kids. No, doctors are not bought off by big pharma. No, vaccines are not filled with toxins. And no, this is not a free speech issue—it’s a public health, common-sense and, not for nothing, business issue, since State Farm, like any company, is free to sack a spokesperson who makes them look very, very bad. Simply quoting George Washington does not mean any of the great man’s wisdom rubs off on you. It just means you looked up a quote.

But as long as we’re in the quote game, how about one of your own, from your video harangue: “The government,” you said, “can’t make decisions about what I do to my body.” On this score, you’re right. So please do continue making movies that allow you to appear on posters with a towel on your head, seaweed cream on your face and cucumbers on your nipples. Maybe George Washington would have been pleased with you. State Farm? Not so much these days.

TIME vaccines

Watch a Science Cop Take on the Anti-Vaccine Movement

"Again, and always, they're wrong."

Nothing gets the anti-vaccine fringe going quite so much as believing they’ve found a scandal—some bit of gotcha’ proof that the global medical establishment really, truly is covering up a terrible secret about the dangers of vaccines.

Recently, this always-vocal but rarely-rational crowd announced that they had what they were looking for, with the discovery that a comparatively old study had excluded some data suggesting that African-American children who had been vaccinated were slightly likelier than other kids to have developed autism.

But again—and always—the anti-vaxxers were wrong, misunderstanding the science, misrepresenting the findings, and recruiting the worst possible person imaginable to argue their wrong-headed case.

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