TIME Natural Disasters

Yellowstone ‘Super Eruption’ Could Blanket U.S. in Ash, Study Finds

USA, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1976). Region of geysers, Castle Geyser
Yellowstone National Park (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1976). Region of geysers, Castle Geyser C.DANI and I.JESKE—De Agostini/Getty Images

An eruption could blanket the east coast in a few millimeters and bury the Rocky mountains in several meters of ash

If Yellowstone erupted into a massive, ash-spewing volcano, how far might the plume travel across the continental United States? From coast to coast, blanketing every city in ash, according to an unsettling new study.

Geophysicists developed a computer model of a Yellowstone “super eruption” that would spew 330 cubic kilometers of volcanic ash into the sky. The resulting ash cloud, depending on wind conditions, would blanket the continental United States in ash deposits of varying thickness, according to the study, published late August in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems.

New York and Washington D.C., would get a light dusting of ash measuring roughly one-tenth of an inch, while San Francisco and Seattle would get a heaping 2 inches. Billings, Montana, meanwhile, would have to dig out from a 70-inch pile up.

If the findings sound far-flung, so to speak, researchers point out that Yellowstone’s last massive eruption spewed ash over tens of thousands of square kilometers. Deposits from that eruption have been traced as far afield as Canada and the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, the last time Yellowstone erupted on that scale was some 2 million years ago and counting.

TIME psychology

Hooray for the Mundane! Ordinary Memories Are the Best

Life's peak experiences sometimes pale in comparison with the routine business of living, a new study shows. That "what is ordinary now becomes more extraordinary in the future" can have some positive implications for our state of mind

Never mind those dreamy recollections of your fab trip to Rome or that perfect night out last Valentine’s Day. Want a memory with some real sizzle? How about that time last week you went out for a tuna sandwich with the guy in the next cubicle? Or that trip to the supermarket on Sunday? Hot stuff, eh?

Actually, yes. Ordinary memories, it turns out, may be a lot less ordinary than they seem — or at least a lot more memorable — according to a nifty new study published in the journal Psychological Science. And that can have some positive implications for our state of mind.

It’s not entirely surprising that the experiences we often think should have the greatest impact on us sometimes don’t. For one thing, we tend to expect too much of them. The first time you stand in the Colosseum or stare up at the Eiffel Tower is a gobsmacker all right, but while those moments nicely enhance your life, they typically don’t change them. What’s more, in the weeks and years that follow, we tend to rerun the memory loop of the experience over and over and over again. Like a song you hear too much, it finally becomes too familiar. To test how much we underestimate — yet genuinely appreciate — the appeal of our more mundane experiences, a group of researchers at Harvard University’s school of business devised a multipart study.

In the first part, 106 undergraduate volunteers were asked to compile an online, nine-item time capsule that included such unremarkable items as an inside joke they share with somebody, a list of three songs they were currently listening to, a recent status update on Facebook, an excerpt from a final class paper and a few recollections of a recent social event. They sealed the virtual capsule at the beginning of summer and were asked to predict how interested they’d be, on a scale of 1 to 7, in rereading each item when they reopened it a few months later, and how surprised they thought they’d be by the details of the contents.

After the students did get that opportunity at the beginning of the fall semester, they used the same 1-to-7 scale to rate how meaningful and interesting they found the items. On item after item, the interest, curiosity and surprise they felt was significantly higher than what they had anticipated three months earlier.

In the second part of the study, a different pool of participants did something similar, but this time wrote about a recent conversation they had, rated it on whether it was an ordinary or extraordinary one (what they had for dinner the night before, say, compared with the news of a new romantic interest), and predicted again how interested they thought they’d be about reading the description a few months down the line. Here too they wound up lowballing those predictions — finding themselves much more interested than they predicted they’d be. And significantly, the more mundane the conversation they described was, the wider the gap between their anticipated interest in it and their actual interest when they reread the description.

The third part of the study replicated the second, but this time used only volunteers who did have a romantic partner, and asked them to describe and anticipate their later interest in an ordinary evening the two of them had spent on or before Feb. 8, 2013, and the one they’d spent one week later, on Feb. 14. Here too the Valentine date did less well than the subjects expected compared with the surprise and pleasure they felt in reading about the routine date.

“What is ordinary now becomes more extraordinary in the future,” said lead researcher Ting Zhang, in a statement that accompanied the study’s release. “People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from three months ago or an old joke with a neighbor, even if those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment.”

One way to correct this imbalance — to take more pleasure in the day-to-day, nothing-special business of living — is merely to try to be more cognizant of those moments as they go by. Another, say Zhang and her colleagues, is to document them more, either by writing them down or, in the social-media era, by sharing them. But there are limits.

“[T]he 5,000 pictures from one’s ‘extraordinary’ wedding may be excessive,” the researchers write. The same is true, they warn, about photo-documenting every plate of food that’s set in front of you rather than just getting down to the pleasurable business of eating it — a practice that they say is leading to “an unhealthy narcissism” growing society-wide. Recording our lives for the biopics that are constantly playing out in our heads is fine, but sometimes that has to give way simply to living those lives.

TIME Companies

Halliburton to Pay $1.1 Billion Over Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Flags flying at a Halliburton facility in Williston, North Dakota on Aug. 20, 2013.
Flags flying at a Halliburton facility in Williston, North Dakota on Aug. 20, 2013. Karen Blieber—AFP/Getty Images

The deal will pay off damage claims from property holders and commercial fisheries affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster

Halliburton has reached a $1.1 billion settlement deal with plaintiffs claiming damages resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, the Houston-based energy company announced on Tuesday.

The company will pay $1.1 billion into a trust in three installments, which will be used to pay off damage claims from property holders and commercial fisheries along the gulf coast.

The deal removes a measure of uncertainty that has lingered over the company’s legal reserves over the past four years. Halliburton has set aside a $1.3 billion litigation fund for costs related to the spill. While the settlement resolves claims from individual plaintiffs, Halliburton still faces lawsuits from several coastal states.

Halliburton has traded blame with British Petroleum (BP) over the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which unleashed nearly 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf over several weeks in 2010, one of the largest offshore oil spills in U.S. history.

BP, the owner of the well, blamed Halliburton for faulty construction work while Halliburton said BP’s faulty management was responsible. Both companies, along with the owner of the rig, Transocean Ltd., have paid out billions in settlement deals.

TIME Science

Russia’s Zero-G Sex Geckos Died Before Returning to Earth

Gecko
Getty Images

Russia's attempt to find out how organisms reproduce in space did not end with a bang

Russia’s troubled experiment to study how geckos, fruit flies and other organisms reproduce in weightlessness ended with a huge downer: When the Foton M-4 satellite containing the creatures returned to Earth on Monday and the hatch was opened, researchers found that all five geckos had died.

“We can’t say yet at which stage of Foton’s space flight it happened,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted a source at the Russian Academy of Sciences as saying. Interfax quoted an unnamed source as saying the geckos were mummified and may have frozen to death.

Read more from our partners at NBC News

TIME space travel

Watch a 3,500-Pound Spaceship Burn Up in the Atmosphere

When the Cygnus supply ship arrived at the International Space Station in July with cargo that included food, science equipment and mini-satellites, the astronauts aboard knew it would be making a dramatic exit.

Cygnus was released on August 15 from the ISS carrying more than 3,000 pounds of garbage, and was catapulted through the atmosphere with the plan of having it burn its way into oblivion.

And burn its way into oblivion it did. The commercial cargo ship separated from the ISS and dropped into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean two days later. A Vine posted Friday by one of the ISS’s current six astronauts, Reid Wiseman, shows Cygnus reentering the atmosphere and flaring up into a crisp.

TIME technology

Watch NASA Test These 3D-Printed Rocket Parts

3-D printers can bring rockets to space.

If you thought the coolest application of a 3-D printer was creating a miniature model of yourself to show to your friends, then NASA has just proven you wrong.

Two 3-D printed rocket injectors were recently successfully tested by NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. These powerful injectors mix liquid nitrogen and hydrogen to produce a combustion that can reach temperatures over 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit and generate over 20,000 pounds of thrust.

It sounds simple enough — the injectors’ design was entered into a 3-D printer’s computer, and the printer then built each part through a process known as selective laser melting.

“We wanted to go a step beyond just testing an injector and demonstrate how 3-D printing could revolutionize rocket designs,” said Chris Singer, director of Marshall’s Engineering Directorate.

With conventional manufacturing methods, the rocket injectors would require the creation and assembly of 163 individual pieces; with the 3-D printer, only 2 pieces were necessary. This unique method not only saved scientists and engineers time and money, it is also less likely to fail than the traditionally-built piece.

TIME Environment

Solved: Mystery of Moving Stones in Death Valley

A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, CA.
A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, in California Mark Newman—Getty Images

A group of scientists say they've figured out how the "sailing stones" glide along the desert floor on their own

So-called sailing stones in California’s Death Valley National Park have perplexed tourists and scientists alike for their apparent ability to move on their own, leaving sometimes meter-long tracks in their wake.

But after years of speculation, researchers with patience, remote weather monitors, cameras, and stones that are fitted with GPS say they have discovered the force behind the phenomenon.

Wind (very strong winds) and ice (very thick ice) have long been considered as possible explanations for why the rocks, sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds, move. It’s actually a combination of a little of both, the team of researchers say in their study, published in the journal PLOS One this week.

Rainwater in what is known as the Racetrack Playa creates a shallow pond over the playa that, in cold winter temperatures, freezes over. When the ice begins to melt under the sun, it first breaks up into large panels thin enough that, with a nudge from even light winds, they shift — and push whatever rocks may lie in their path.

TIME anthropology

The Lost Hobbits of the Eastern Arctic

Wooden dolls were used both in ceremonies and as children's toys by the lost Paleo-Eskimos
Wooden dolls were used both in ceremonies and as children's toys by the lost Paleo-Eskimos University of Aberdeen/Qantiruuq, Inc

Scientists never understood what became of the Paleo-Eskimos who once peopled the north. Now they know—and there's new reason to miss them

Every indigenous group European explorers found when they first reached the Americas, from the Aztecs to the Inca to the Maya to the obscure Taino people were descended from a hardy bunch of immigrants who trekked over from Siberia more than 12,000 years ago, then spread east and south from there.

But when the Vikings began visiting Greenland and Baffin Island they bumped up against an indigenous group with a very different heritage—the Arctic dwelling people formerly known as Eskimos and now mostly called the Inuit. Based on archaeological evidence, scientists had established that they first came over from Siberia about 6,000 years ago and spread eastward across the very northernmost reaches of Canada, on the margins of the Arctic Ocean.

Then about 700 years ago, these so-called Paleo-Eskimos, gave way to a newer group known as the Thule culture. They displaced the earlier arrivals, just as our own invading ancestors had displaced the Neanderthals in Europe some 40,000 years earlier. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether the Paleo-Eskimos (or the Dorset, the name given to the last stage of Paleo-Eskimo cultural evolution) were simply absorbed into this new, more modern culture or whether, they vanished from the Earth, as the Neanderthals did.

But now it is, thanks to new paper in Science. Based on genetic analysis of 169 ancient human remains from Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland, along with genome analyses of modern indigenous people, the authors can say definitively that the Paleo-Eskimos did indeed vanish; that the Inuit people who live in the North American Arctic today are the direct descendants of the Thule invaders; and that neither group is related to the Native American tribes that came to inhabit the rest of the Americas.

Exactly how the Dorset people were overwhelmed is unclear. Unlike the Neanderthals, they evidently didn’t mate with the invaders. “In other places,” said co-author Eske Willerslev of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen’s National Museum of Natural History, at a press briefing, “we see people meeting, maybe fighting, but also having sex with each other.”

But the Paleo-Eskimos were genetically distinct. “There is some genetic admixture with the Thule,” said lead author Maanasa Raghavan, also at the Center for GeoGenetics “but it happened thousands of years earlier, most likely in the Old World.”

Instead, argued co-author William Fitzhugh, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, “they were probably just overwhelmed.” The Thule, he explained, had bows and arrows, dogsleds and large whaling crews he calls “almost military” in their organization. The Dorset, by contrast, had much simpler tools, and lived in small, isolated villages.

“Socially and technologically,” he said, “they were no match for this Thule machine that spread across their territory in less than 100 years.” They were either pushed out into fringes where couldn’t survive, or they were annihilated, he said.

Until that happened, however, the Paleo-Eskimos were an astonishing success story, given that they endured in the harshest of climates, without major disruption for a staggering 5,000 years. It’s extraordinary, said Fitzhugh, that they maintained genomic and cultural continuity over such a long period, while other world cultures were going through radical changes.

“One might almost say,” said Fitzhugh,”that they were the Hobbits of the eastern Arctic—a strange, isolated, conservative people whose history we’re just starting to get to know.”

TIME findings

Why Scientists Should Celebrate Failed Experiments

No losers here: all data is good data
No losers here: all data is good data ilyasat; Getty Images

Researchers live in dread of the null result—when a study turns up nothing. But that's exactly the wrong way to view things

Reporters hate facts that are too good to check—as the phrase in the industry goes. The too-good-to-check fact is the funny or ironic or otherwise delicious detail that just ignites a story and that, if it turns out not to be true, would leave the whole narrative poorer for its absence. It must be checked anyway, of course, and if it doesn’t hold up it has to be cut—with regrets maybe, but cut all the same.

Social scientists face something even more challenging. They develop an intriguing hypothesis, devise a study to test it, assemble a sample group, then run the experiment. If the theory is proven, off goes your paper to the most prestigious journals you can think of. But what if it isn’t proven? Suppose the answer to a thought-provoking question like, “Do toddlers whose parents watch football or other violent sports become more physically aggressive?” turns out to be simply, “Nope.”

Do you still try to publish these so-called null results? Do you even go to the bother of writing them up—an exceedingly slow and painstaking process regardless of what the findings are? Or do you just go on to something else, assuming that no one’s going to be interested in a cool idea that turns out not to be true?

That’s a question that plagues whole fields of science, raising the specter of what’s known as publishing bias—scientists self-censoring so that they effectively pick and choose what sees print and what doesn’t. There’s nothing fraudulent or unethical about dropping an experiment that doesn’t work out as you thought it would, but it does come at a cost. Null results, after all, are still results, and once they’re in the literature, they help other researchers avoid experimental avenues that have already proven to be dead ends. Now a new paper in the journal Science, conducted by a team of researchers at Stanford University, shows that publication bias in the social sciences may be more widespread than anyone knew.

The investigators looked at 221 studies conducted from 2002 to 2012 and made available to them by a research collective known as TESS (Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences), a National Science Foundation program that makes it easier for researchers to assemble a nationally representative sample group. The best thing about TESS—at least for studies of publication bias–is that the complete history of every experiment is available and searchable, whether it was ever published or not.

When the Stanford investigators reviewed the papers, they found just what they suspected—and feared. Roughly 50% of the 221 studies wound up seeing publication, but that total included only 20% of the ones with null results. That compared unfavorably to the 60% of those studies with strong positive results that were published, and the 50% with mixed results. Worse, one of the reasons so few null results ever saw print is that a significant majority of them, 65%, were never even written up in the first place.

The Stanford investigators went one more—very illuminating—step and contacted as many of the researchers of the null studies as they could via e-mail, asking them why they had not proceeded with the studies. Among the answers: “The unfortunate reality of the publishing world [is] that null effects do not tell a clear story.” There was also: “We determined that there was nothing there that we could publish in a professional journal” and “[the study] was mostly a disappointing wash.” Added one especially baleful scientist: “[The] data were buried in the graveyard of statistical findings.” Among all of the explanations, however, the most telling—if least colorful—was this: “The hypotheses of the study were not confirmed.”

That, all by itself, lays bare the misguided thinking behind publication bias. No less a researcher than Jonas Salk once argued to his lab staff that there is no such thing as a failed experiment, because learning what doesn’t work is a necessary step to learning what does. Salk, history showed, did pretty well for himself. Social scientists—disappointed though they may sometimes be—might want to follow his lead.

TIME space

Astronomers Just Witnessed the Formation of an Ancient Galaxy

An artist's impression of star birth deep inside the core of young, growing elliptical galaxy. Z. Levay, G. Bacon— STScI/NASA,

They call it "Sparky"

Think Milky Way, but smaller.

Astronomers have for the first time witnessed the formation of a massive galaxy, which they have dubbed “Sparky.” This galaxy contains twice as many stars as our own galaxy, but is is just a fraction of the size.

This galactic behemoth is so far from Earth that its observable light reaching our planet was actually created 11 billion years ago — that’s just 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

“We suspect that this core-formation process is a phenomenon unique to the early universe” explains Erica Nelson of Yale University, who’s a member of the team that put together the findings and research.

Astronomers suspect that there are other galaxies similar to Sparky. In the future, infrared telescopes such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch in 2018, should help to shed some light on these issues.

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