TIME Science

Check Out the Mars Rover’s New Selfie

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A composite of dozens of images taken by its robotic arm

NASA pieced together the Mars rover Curiosity’s latest selfie of the Martian landscape from dozens of images taken by its robotic arm throughout January 2015. Showcasing the “Mojave 2″ site of the planet, the frames that make up the picture of the rover were taken Jan. 14 of this year.

“Compared with the earlier Curiosity selfies, we added extra frames for this one so we could see the rover in the context of the full Pahrump Hills campaign,” according to a statement by rover team member Kathryn Stack from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

TIME medicine

First Human Head Transplant Could Happen Within Two Years

Sergio Canavero, a doctor in Italy, has drawn up the plans for a human head transplant

A surgeon says the first human head transplant could take place within the next two years.

Sergio Canavero, a doctor in Turin, Italy, has drawn up the plans for the radical surgery and hopes to begin assembling a team this June, the Guardian reports.

“If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it, in the U.S. or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else,” he said. “I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you.”

Although Canavero says the technology isn’t far off from making this surgery possible, he could confront a range of ethical issues. “The real stumbling block is the ethics,” Canavero told New Scientist magazine. “Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it.”

The first successful head transplant was completed in 1970 on a monkey. The monkey couldn’t move its body and died after nine days.

Read next: Scientists Find a Black Hole 12 Billion Times More Massive Than the Sun

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TIME Science

Aid in Dying and ‘First Do No Harm’ Are Compatible

Daniel Diaz, the husband of Brittany Maynard, speaks in support of proposed legislation allowing doctors to prescribe life ending medication to terminally ill patients during a news conference at the Capitol on Jan. 21, 2015 in Sacramento.
Rich Pedroncelli—AP Daniel Diaz, the husband of Brittany Maynard, speaks in support of proposed legislation allowing doctors to prescribe life ending medication to terminally ill patients during a news conference at the Capitol on Jan. 21, 2015 in Sacramento.

Daniel Diaz is the widower of Brittany Maynard.

Doctors pledge to 'first do no harm,' so why is it illegal in many states to help terminal patients die peacefully?

“No medical saying is better known than ‘first do no harm,’” observed medical ethicist Daniel Sokol in the British Medical Journal. But he noted: “Clinicians inflict harm all the time, whether it is by inserting a cannula, administering chemotherapy, performing a tracheotomy, opening an abdomen, or drilling into the skull…The clinician’s hope is that the benefits will outweigh the harms.”

My wife, Brittany Maynard, and I had several conversations about this very topic. In March 2014, Brittany was told that she had a massive incurable brain tumor and was given a terminal prognosis of most likely only six months to live. She was then faced with considering the application of the principle of “first do no harm” to her own situation.

Some might be tempted to equate death as the ultimate form of harm. I would caution against that conclusion. If asked, “Which is worse, being tortured to death or having a peaceful passing?” most would likely agree that being tortured to death is significantly worse than passing peacefully.

Everyone knows that death is simply a part of living. We all have a beginning, middle, and end—a birth, a life, and a death. As a society we need to get away from seeing death as failure, particularly when it is being applied to adults who are terminally ill.

For my wife, death came all too soon. She was young, beautiful, strong, and determined to live an adventurous, long life. Unfortunately, brain cancer drastically changed that timeline, and she died at age 29.

To be clear, Brittany wanted to live. She underwent an eight-hour brain surgery in January 2014. We then pursued and researched all of the treatments and clinical trials that were available. We looked into options domestically and internationally. We sent her packet of medical records to facilities that appeared to have promise. Unfortunately, the first routine follow-up MRI 70 days after her surgery showed an aggressive change in the tumor, which led Brittany to receive a six-month prognosis.

As is common, the principal treatment options available to Brittany—chemotherapy and radiation—produce painful and debilitating side effects that would have robbed her of living the last few months of her life as she wanted. So, applying the “first do no harm” principle in her case was simple. Brittany decided to live life, enjoy life, and not undergo treatments that would have filled her last few months on this earth with pain, discomfort, nausea, and the inability to sleep. The eventual outcome, even with those treatments, would have been the same: death.

The next application of “first do no harm” related to the unfortunate reality of how the brain tumor would end Brittany’s life.

Left to run its course, it would have produced horrific symptoms: worsening seizures, risk of losing the ability to communicate, pain that cannot be treated with morphine, going blind, aggressive/violent behavior, inability to sleep, paralysis. In a word, torture.

The decision of how one would prefer to die is one that only the terminally ill adult can make for herself. After a lengthy and protective process, terminally ill adults who are finally granted a prescription for aid-in-dying medication are in complete control of when they decide to take the medication, if at all. In Oregon, there are hundreds of cases over the past 17 years in which the terminally ill adult never ingested the medication and died without needing to consume it; the prescription was simply a back-up if their suffering became unbearable.

Faced with a terminal prognosis, how does a physician, or anyone, apply the principle of “first do no harm?” In Brittany’s case, it came down to her deciding that a peaceful death was actually the least harmful option for her as a patient.

There will be critics quick to point out that Brittany may have lived another 30 days or even another 60 days. I—as did she—concede that point. Brittany very well could have been alive for that many days. However, she would not have been “living;” she would only have been suffering. Brittany’s symptoms were getting particularly bad. The tumor’s “torture” had begun weeks before her death on November 1, 2014.

As a result of Brittany’s experience, I had to ask myself: “When my time comes, how do I want to go?” When I have asked other people this question, typically their response is the same as mine: “I would just want to die in my sleep.”

Well, that’s exactly what Brittany was able to achieve. She fell asleep within five minutes after drinking four ounces of her aid-in-dying medication. Consuming this medication does not produce any pain or discomfort. It does not induce fear. If anything, it relieves anxiety for dying people, knowing that they get to pass away while asleep. That’s what it did for Brittany. Seeing her passing first hand, I can assure you it was the most peaceful event one could hope for.

Doctors prescribe medicines to benefit patients all the time. They prescribe medicine to reduce swelling, lower blood pressure, regulate blood sugar, control seizures, and reduce pain. I want to thank Oregon residents for having the wisdom to pass a ballot initiative two decades ago to authorize physicians to prescribe medication that allowed my wife to avoid being tortured. By allowing Brittany to decide for herself when it was the right time for her to die, they absolutely lived up to the principle of “first do no harm.”

Now my mission is to fulfill my promise to Brittany to continue our family’s partnership with Compassion & Choices to change the laws in California and other states to give dying people nationwide the same end-of-life option that enabled my wife to pass away as gently as possible.

Read next: How Canada’s Right-to-Die Ruling Could Boost Movement in U.S.

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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 Television

Is The Simpsons Actually Set in Australia?

How's this for fan theory?

Hold everything. The Simpsons may not set in the United States as we have all been led to believe — and Simpsons fan, astronomer, and Slate’s Bad Astronomy blogger, Phil Plait has a pretty ingenious reason why. It all has to do with how the show’s creators draw the Moon.

In the episode The Musk Who Fell to Earth, which aired on Jan. 25, SpaceX boss Elon Musk befriends Homer when he arrives in Springfield.

In one scene Musk gazes up at the night sky where a crescent Moon is shining above. But Plait noticed something peculiar about the Moon – it was facing the wrong way for a town supposedly in the U.S.A.

In the northern hemisphere, the tips of a waxing crescent moon point to the left, but in The Simpsons episode they point to the right.

The conclusion? The Simpsons must be set in the southern hemisphere. Mind blown.

[Slate]

TIME Science

Why I’m Volunteering to Die on Mars

Sonia Van Meter in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 10, 2015.
Marvin Joseph—The Washington Post/Getty Images Sonia Van Meter in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 10, 2015.

Sonia Van Meter is the Managing Director of Stanford Caskey, a national Democratic opposition research firm. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband.

One of the Mars One finalists, Sonia Van Meter, reveals what it's like to face leaving Earth forever

It’s a peculiar thing to imagine leaving Planet Earth forever. But when a Dutch nonprofit called the Mars One project announced in 2013 that it was accepting applications for a one-way trip to another planet, I didn’t think twice about signing up.

It started off simply enough. Answer some questions about yourself, put together an audition video, and submit the application fee. More than 200,000 people answered the call, and I was excited to be one of them. That was really enough for me. I was sure my efforts would go nowhere, but at least I’d be able to say I’d thrown my hat in the ring. It’s not like I’m a trained astronaut, after all. I’m not even a scientist. I’m a political consultant with a husband, two extraordinary stepsons and a black-lab mix. But I wasn’t going to let a lack of training stop me from trying.

Space exploration has inspired me since I was a little girl. I would watch Star Trek with my parents and daydream about what other life forms might be out there waiting to meet us and what challenges we would face as a species if (and when) we found out we weren’t alone in the universe. As I got older, the daydreams became a tad more realistic. Could we ever reach out far enough into our galaxy to find that life? What technology would we need to develop to cover such tremendous distances? Are humans physically capable of spending that kind of time in space?

These are questions we’ll no doubt wrestle with for generations to come as we take the next small steps into outer space, but one thing is certain: space exploration and colonization are the next “giant leaps” for humanity. It’s human nature to explore, to question, to look out and wonder what lies beyond the horizon.

That spirit is at the heart of the Mars One project. They’ve picked up where Apollo left off, reigniting the dream of spaceflight in a way that low-earth-orbit shuttle missions, the International Space Station and unmanned cargo ships cannot. They talk of “going boldly” where we’ve yet to put human beings. But there’s just the tiniest catch. You don’t get to come home.

That’s where I usually lose people. “How can you leave forever?” “What does your family think about this?” “Your husband’s O.K. with you leaving him?” These are the questions I’m peppered with when I tell people this is a one-way trip. And these are reasonable questions, perfectly understandable, and they deserve well-considered answers. So here they are:

Space exploration is worth a human life. Every astronaut who has ever flown has known the risks they were up against once strapped into that ship. And there’s no guarantee that I won’t be crushed by a collapsing roof tomorrow or diagnosed with a terminal illness next year. Some call this a suicide mission. I have no death wish. But it would be wonderful if my death could be part of something greater than just one individual. If my life ends on Mars, there will have been a magnificent story and a world of accomplishment to precede it.

But that’s not what people really want to know. “How can you leave your family/your life/Earth for certain death?” they ask. Simple: In the beginning, it didn’t seem real. This was an easy conversation because there were so many applicants. When you’re one of more than 200,000, the odds are so long that you’ll be picked—never mind the technical hurdles—that the entire enterprise seemed like a lark, both theoretical and improbable, like writing in your own name for President. If there were consequences, they seemed abstract.

When I made the candidate list of just over 1,000, things became more interesting. People wanted to talk to me about it. I began to come up with answers and repeat them, which in itself became a way of not facing up to the potential reality of stepping off this planet forever. Staying on message became a way to stay away from my real feelings about this.

Now that I’m one of one hundred, the world is watching, looking to me for answers to questions that were easily brushed off when this was all just a fantastical daydream. The reality of this presses up against me, and I stay on message to protect that private space for me and my husband where I can face the hard questions that come at night. It’s one thing to imagine the good that can come from a manned mission to Mars, but it’s quite another to tally up the cost and see one’s life on the bill.

Paradoxically, I couldn’t even be contemplating this without the support of my family. My stepsons think it’s neat that their stepmom wants to fly off into space, even if it means I might not be around to see grandchildren. In doing this, I want to show them that there is no dream so great that it shouldn’t be chased. My father and sister think I’m a little nuts, but they know my reasons for doing this are about furthering a dream for mankind, not making a name for myself. And my husband, my incredible husband, has been my greatest advocate since the day I first applied. The promise I made to him on our wedding day was that our marriage would serve to make us the best versions of ourselves. He knows I’d walk away from Mars One without a second’s hesitation if he asked me to. And that’s why he won’t. He knows what this mission means to me.

The first launch of human beings won’t happen until 2024. That means we’re in Chapter 1 of a very long story. No one knows how this story will end. The mission might be scrapped over technical feasibility issues. The funding might not come together. They might have a hard time finding the right candidates. There are millions of things that have to happen for this to be a success, and there are plenty of things that can and will go wrong along the way. But Mars is humanity’s inevitable destination, and Mars One has accepted the challenge to take that next great leap. Now it’s up to us to live up to the adventure.

Read next: Astronauts Vying for One-Way Ticket to Mars May Be on Reality TV

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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 movies

How Frog Legs Helped Make the Oscars Possible

Science explains how those Academy Awards are made

On Sunday night, big players from the film industry will gather inside Hollywood’s Dolby Theater in the hopes of winning a golden statue. And if they finally do win one, they’ll thank their loved ones, their producers, their fans, and the Academy.

But there’s one thing that probably won’t get a shout out: science.

Watch materials scientist and author of Newton’s Football, Ainissa Ramirez, explain how science—and frog legs—are responsible for the Academy Awards’ golden statues.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 19

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Are rising tensions between nuclear powers and an increased risk of rogue actors getting weapons spurring a new nuclear age?

By Rod Lyons in RealClearDefense

2. Psychological barriers — not science — are holding back progress on treating wastewater, improving crop yields and more.

By Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker

3. Massive computing power and better tools are making it harder to hide submarines. Are they becoming obsolete?

By Harry J. Kazianis in the National Interest

4. It’s too soon to celebrate a win in the Net Neutrality battle.

By Blair Levin in Re/code

5. Mumbling isn’t lazy speech. It’s data compression.

By Julie Sedivy in Nautilus

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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 Internet

New Google Doodle Honors Alessandro Volta, Forefather of the Modern Battery

Undated picture of Italian physicist and inventor Alexander Volta (1745 - 1827)
AP Photo—AP Undated picture of Italian physicist and inventor Alexander Volta (1745 - 1827)

*Throws metal strips in saltwater, changes world forever*

A new Google Doodle is celebrating what would have been the 270th birthday of the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, who in the year 1800 published a theory that led to the modern battery.

As TIME wrote back in 2007, Volta “realized metals could produce a current and developed the first battery, or ‘voltaic pile,’ a series of copper and zinc strips in salt water that gave off an electric current instead of static electricity.”

Born Feb. 18, 1745, in Como, Italy, Volta’s invention was the result of a professional competition with Luigi Galvani, who discovered that dissected frogs’ legs would twitch when probed with a wire.

Galvani believed the frogs’ muscles generated the electricity, while Volta thought the animal tissue was only a conductor.

The debate galvanized Volta to experiment with conductivity (often on his own tongue). Eventually, Volta put together a stack of metal disks, and when metal wires were connected to both ends of the stack, an electric current flowed through the pile, proving that animal tissue was not necessary to generate an electric current.

The Google Doodle honors Volta’s discovery with an animated battery that is reminiscent of both a voltaic pile and a battery-life reminder on a modern-day smartphone.

TIME Environment

Life May Have Thrived on Earth 3.2 Billion Years Ago, Study Says

Scientists had previously thought the earliest ecosystems were clinging on to an essentially uninhabitable planet

Scientists have found evidence that life on earth may have blossomed 3.2 billion years ago, a challenge to the previous theory that the planet was a hostile climate until 2 billion years ago.

Researchers from the University of Washington studied ancient rocks and found indications that 3.2 billion years ago life was sucking an essential nutrient, nitrogen, out of the air and converting it into larger structures, according to a report published in the weekly journal Nature.

“Imagining that this really complicated process is so old, and has operated in the same way for 3.2 billion years, I think is fascinating,” lead author Eva Stüeken told UW Today.

Nitrogen is an essential ingredient for life, as everything from viruses and bacteria to complex organisms use the nutrient to build genes.

The process that makes nitrogen easier for organisms to use, called nitrogen fixation, did not emerge until 2 billion years ago. This led scientists to theorize that the earliest ecosystems were clinging on to an essentially uninhabitable planet, but the new study shows that may not be accurate.

“Our work shows that there was no nitrogen crisis on the early earth, and therefore it could have supported a fairly large and diverse biosphere,” said study co-author Roger Buick.

TIME Education

UMass Bans Iranians From Some Engineering, Science Programs

University of Massachusetts, Amherst College Campus
John Greim—LightRocket via Getty Images University of Massachusetts, Amherst College Campus

Iranians can no longer enroll in Physics, Chemistry or other science or engineering programs at UMass-Amherst

(AMHERST, Mass.) — The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has banned Iranian nationals from admission to certain graduate programs in a move that school officials say aligns its policy with U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The university will no longer admit students from Iran to some programs in engineering and natural sciences.

The National Iranian American Council says UMass’ interpretation of the law is flawed and may violate protections against discrimination.

Congress enacted legislation in August 2012 that denies visas for Iranian citizens to study in the U.S. if they plan to participate in coursework for a career in the energy or nuclear fields in Iran.

But a U.S. State Department official says federal law doesn’t prohibit qualified Iranian nationals from seeking an education in science and engineering. Each application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

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