TIME

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.

TIME Cancer

Pesticides Used in Pet Collars and Home Sprays Connected to Cancer

A World Health Organization group says five pesticides may be cancer-causing

Five pesticides used in pet collars and home insect sprays could cause cancer in humans, health officials said in a new report.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), evaluates studies on chemical compounds and ranks them by the strength of evidence of their cancer-causing effects. The new report, appearing in the journal Lancet Oncology, classifies glyphosate, malathion and diazinon as probable carcinogens. For these, there is only limited evidence that the compounds can cause cancer in animals or people.

Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide around the world, and its use has increased since crops have been genetically modified to resist the spray. It has been detected in low amounts in water, air and food. Malathion is used to control insects in both agriculture and in homes, and people can be exposed via sprayings and through food. Diazinon is used in more limited quantities in agriculture and homes, after regulations restricted spraying in the U.S. and Europe.

The pesticides tetrachlorvinphos and parathion received a slightly stronger designation as possible carcinogens because there is more evidence for their cancer-causing effects in animals, but still little information on their effect on people. Both of these possible carcinogens are already restricted; tetrachlorvinphos is banned in the European Union while still allowed for use in livestock and pet collars in the U.S. Parathion was banned in both the U.S. and Europe in 2003.

The classifications won’t appear on the labels for these products, but serve as the latest review of scientific evidence that governments and international organizations can rely on to create their own regulations.

TIME space

Solar Eclipse Teases Skywatchers on Northern Islands

The total solar eclipse seen from Svalbard, Norway on March 20, 2015.
Haakon Mosvold Larsen—AP The total solar eclipse seen from Svalbard, Norway on March 20, 2015.

A blanket of clouds blocked the full experience in the North Atlantic

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway — For the best view of the solar spectacle of the year, Svalbard eclipsed the Faroe Islands.

Skywatchers in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard popped champagne corks, oohed and aahed as they witnessed a total solar eclipse Friday under perfect weather conditions. A clear sky over the Arctic islands offered a full view of the sun’s corona—a faint ring of rays surrounding the moon—that is only visible during a total eclipse.

“I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe it,” said Hilary Castle, a 58-year-old visitor from London.

Meanwhile, a blanket of clouds…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Environment

Burmese Pythons Are Taking Over the Everglades

Biologists Track Northern African Pythons In Florida's Everglades
Joe Raedle—Getty Images Edward Mercer, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission non-native Wildlife Technician, holds a Burmese Python during a press conference in the Florida Everglades about the non-native species on January 29, 2015 in Miami.

Burmese pythons aren't your normal predators

True to their name, Burmese pythons are native to the tropics of southern and southeastern Asia, where the gigantic snakes—they can grow as long as 19 ft.—have carved out a comfortable niche for themselves, squeezing their prey to death. But sometime over the past few decades, Burmese pythons began appearing in Everglades National Park in south Florida. The snakes were most likely either pets that had been released into the wild or their descendants, and, like countless tourists before them, they took very well to the tropical heat and lush greenery of Florida.

Too well, as it turns out. A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B confirms what scientists have feared: predation from the Burmese pythons is already changing the delicate balance of the national park’s food chain. Scientists from the University of Florida, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released 26 marsh rabbits fitted with tracking devices into the park. The aim was to find out what effect the pythons would have on the rabbits, which are native to the Everglades but have all but vanished over the past decade—the same period of time when sightings of Burmese pythons became more frequent.

In the fall and winter, the marsh rabbits thrived, reproducing rapidly. But when the weather began to warm—which would have made the temperature-sensitive pythons more active—the marsh rabbits began to disappear. Where? Into the bellies of the Burmese pythons. The snakes hunted the rabbits ruthlessly—the researchers found that 77% of the tracked rabbits were eaten by Burmese pythons, a fact scientists knew because the trackers led them to the digested bodies of the rabbits inside the stomachs of the snakes. (At a control area outside the park, by contrast, no rabbits were killed by pythons, and most that died were eaten by native mammals like bobcats.) So voracious were the Burmese pythons that they essentially hunted the marsh rabbits to the point of extinction.

And that’s what worries scientists so much. Earlier research had linked a drastic decrease in the population of small mammals to the presence of the Burmese pythons, but those findings had been indirect—other factors, like environmental change, could have been behind the decline. The new study makes it much clearer that Burmese pythons are indeed changing the ecological balance of the Everglades for the worst—and perhaps singlehandedly.

That’s incredibly unusual—when it comes to invasive species, only human beings have managed to do so much damage on a continental mammal community. (There are frequent examples of invasive species, including snakes, eliminating species on small islands, but not in a large territory like the Everglades.) As study co-author Bob Reed of the U.S. Geological Society told CBS News:

All of us were shocked by the results. Rabbit populations are supposed to be regulated by factors other than predation, like drought, disease. They are so fecund. They are supposed to be hugely resilient to predation. You don’t expect a population to be wiped out by predation.

But Burmese pythons aren’t your normal predators, as I discovered for myself when I visited the Everglades for a cover story on invasive species. They can disappear at will, go months without eating and they’re afraid of absolutely nothing. The only way to save the Everglades may be to find and remove the snakes—but as this video above shows, that’s far from easy.

MORE: Invasive Species, Coming Soon to a Habitat Near You

TIME Environment

UN Report Warns of Serious Water Shortages Within 15 Years

INDIA-UN-ENVIRONMENT-WATER
Manjunath Kiran—AFP/Getty Images Residents in Bangalore wait to collect drinking water in plastic pots for their households on March 18, 2015.

If we continue on our current trajectory, warns the report, we'll only have 60% of the water we need in 2030

The world will only have 60% of the water it needs by 2030 without significant global policy change, according to a new report from the U.N.

While countries like India are rapidly depleting their groundwater, rainfall patterns around the world are becoming more unpredictable due to global warming, meaning there will be less water in reserves. Meanwhile, as the population increases, so does demand for potable water, snowballing to a massive problem for our waterways in 15 years’ time.

The report suggests several changes of course that nations can take, from increasing water prices to finding new ways of recycling waste water.

TIME space

Watch the Total Solar Eclipse in 5 Seconds

ESA/SDO/dpa/Corbis (6); GIF by Mia Tramz for TIME

If you weren't in the Faroe Islands to see it, catch the time lapse here

People in a small swath of Europe were treated to a total solar eclipse early Friday morning as the moon aligned to fully block the sun from their vantage point on Earth.

The European Space Agency published images of the eclipse recorded by a small Proba-2 satellite.

Americans haven’t seen a total solar eclipse since 1979, and certain states will see the next one on Aug. 21, 2017.

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