Archive for Aylin Woodward,Morgan McFall-Johnsen

A whopping 2.5 billion fully grown T. rexes walked the Earth in the course of the species’ existence, paleontologists found

Jurassic Park T Rex
A T. rex depicted in the 1993 film "Jurassic Park."

An adult Tyrannosaurus rex required a lot of space - and the prey therein - to survive.

According to new calculations from paleontologists the University of California, Berkeley, each adult T. rex lived in an area roughly 40 square miles in size.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, uses that math to offer an estimate of the total number of these predators that walked the Earth during the Cretaceous Period, between 66 and 68 million years ago: an impressive 2.5 billion.

"The total number did catch me off guard," Charles Marshall, a paleontologist at Berkeley who co-authored the study, told Insider.

Marshall's analysis suggests that the entire island of Manhattan or city of San Francisco would be the territory of a single T. rex.

He said he'd been wondering for years how unusual it really is to find a T. rex fossil: "When I hold a fossil in my hand, I always said to myself, 'I know this is freakishly rare.' But just how rare is it - one in a million or one in a trillion?"

Comparing the T. rex to the Komodo dragon

The T. rex was one of the largest carnivorous land animals that ever walked the Earth. (That accolade currently goes to the polar bear.) An adult Tyrannosaurus rex could weigh at least 5 tons. It stood about 12 to 13 feet tall at the hip and was about 40 to 43 feet long.

The larger predators are, the fewer of them can live in the same area, since there just isn't enough food to sustain their massive size. This is known as Durham's Law. So if researchers know how many calories a meat-eater needs to survive, they can calculate the number of predators per square mile.

While there's no living predator that resembles the T. rex in size, Marshall compared the dinosaur's energy needs to those of a Komodo dragon, the largest lizard on Earth.

Komodo Dragon
A Komodo dragon in Indonesia's Komodo National Park.

Using that benchmark, he calculated that there could have been roughly 3,800 T. rex in an area the size of California at any given time - or just two in an area the size of Washington, DC.

There were about 20,000 adult T. rexes living at one time

Marshall's team also needed to calculate three other variables to determine the total number of rexes that ever walked the planet: the total land area of suitable T. rex habitat, the dino's average life span as an adult, and how long these predators existed on Earth.

T.rex illustration
A full-grown Tyrannosaurus rex weighed about 6 to 9 tons, stood about 12 to 13 feet high at the hip, and measured about 40 to 43 feet long.

By reviewing the locations of every T. rex fossil ever found, the study authors determined that the predator lived in about 888,000 square miles of North America - and nowhere else on Earth. Although the animal might have been able to survive in the area that's now Siberia, Marshall said, he'd be surprised if any rex fossils were ever found outside the one continent.

Using that assumption about the T. rex's geographic range, Marshall calculated that there could have been about 20,000 adult T. rexes alive at any given time in the species' existence.

Figuring out how long the T. rex species was around was a bit easier - the oldest rex fossil ever found suggests the dinosaur walked the Earth for the last 2.5 million years of the Cretaceous Period, starting 68 million years ago. Then it went extinct after the Chicxulub space rock struck.

Finally, Marshall's team calculated how long one generation of adult rexes lasted by looking at the average time span between when rexes became fully grown - at around age 15 - and when they died in their early 30s.

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An artist's depiction of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex.

That means that in the 2.5 million years these animals were on Earth, there were about 127,000 generations of them. Multiply that number by 20,000, and you wind up with 2.5 billion T. rexes.

However, Marshall pointed out that this number doesn't include baby or juvenile T. rexes. Those were excluded from the calculations because research suggests juvenile rexes were smaller and faster than their adult counterparts, so hunted different prey.

T Rex in New York City
A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, named STAN, displayed by Christie's Auction House in New York City, September 15, 2020.

Marshall's team's estimate suggests that the remains of just one in every 80 million adult T. rexes have been found. Currently, there are about 32 well-preserved, adult T. rex skeletons in public museums worldwide, Marshall said.

That means we've only dug up 0.00000125% of all the adult T. rexes that ever lived.

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Remnants of an ancient planet buried inside the Earth may be the cause of a weak spot in the magnetic field

Magnetosphere earth magnetic field
An artist's depiction of Earth's magnetic field, which protects the planet from solar radiation.

Earth's suit of geomagnetic armor has a chink, and it's growing.

A weak spot in our planet's magnetic field, located above the southern Atlantic Ocean, has been increasing in size over the last two centuries, and it's starting to split in two.

For those of us on the ground, this isn't cause for concern: The protective field continues to shield the planet from deadly solar radiation. But the South Atlantic Anomaly, as it's appropriately named, does affect satellites and other spacecraft that pass through an area between South America and southern Africa. That's because higher quantities of charged solar particles seep through the field there, which can cause malfunctions in computers and circuitry.

The source of this growing "dent," as NASA calls it, is a bit of a mystery. But scientists expect it to keep expanding.

"This thing is set to increase in size in the future," Julien Aubert, a geomagnetism expert from the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, told Insider.

Aubert thinks that the dent may have a connection to two gigantic blobs of dense rock buried 1,800 miles inside the Earth. Because of their makeup, the blobs disturb the liquid metal in the outer core that generates the magnetic field.

Both blobs are "millions of times larger than Mount Everest in terms of volume," according to Qian Yuan, a researcher studying geodynamics at Arizona State University.

Yuan's team thinks the blobs are otherworldly in origin: After an ancient, Mars-sized planet careened into Earth, it might have left these pieces behind.

Chunks of a 4.5 billion-old-year planet inside Earth

Nearly 2,000 miles below Earth's surface, swirling iron in the planet's outer core generates a magnetic field that stretches all the way from there to the space surrounding our planet.

That swirl is generated, in part, by a process in which hotter, lighter material from the core rises into the semi-solid mantle above. There, it swaps places with cooler, denser mantle material, which sinks into the core below. This is known as convection.

The problem is that something at the boundary between the core and mantle underneath southern Africa is wreaking havoc on that convection, thereby weakening the strength of the magnetic field above it.

It's plausible, Aubert said, that one of the blobs Yuan's team is investigating is to blame.

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An artist's depiction of a possible collision between a proto-planet like Theia and the Earth.

Yuan's research posits that the blobs are remnants of an ancient planet called Theia, which struck Earth in its infancy 4.5 billion years ago. The collision helped create the moon.

Following that crash, the thinking goes, two parts of Theia may have sunk and gotten preserved in the deepest part of Earth's mantle.

The animation below, based on a 2016 analysis, shows the location of these planetary fragments.

Yuan said these blobs - their technical name is large low-shear-velocity provinces - are between 1.5 and 3.5% denser than the rest of Earth's mantle, and also hotter.

So when these chunks get involved in convection, they could screw with the regular flow. That, in turn, may lead the iron in the core under southern Africa to swirl in the opposite direction from iron in other parts of the core.

The orientation of Earth's magnetic field depends on the direction the iron inside is moving. To have a strong magnetic field, the entire thing has to be oriented the same way. So any areas that deviate from the usual pattern weaken the field's overall integrity.

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A visualization of the Earth's magnetic field.

Still, it's possible these low-shear-velocity provinces aren't to blame for the field's weak spot at all.

"Why doesn't the same weakness occur in the magnetic field above the Pacific, where the other province is?" Christopher Finlay, a geophysicist at the Technical University of Denmark, told Insider.

A 'hostile region'

A weaker field enables more charged particles from solar wind to reach satellites and other spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. That can cause problems with electronic systems, interrupt data collection, and lead expensive computer components to age prematurely.

In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, satellite failures were frequent in the South Atlantic Anomaly, Aubert said.

Even today, the European Space Agency has found that satellites flying through the region are "more likely to experience technical malfunctions," like brief glitches that can disrupt communications. That's why it's common for satellite operators to shut down non-essential components as the objects pass through the area.

The Hubble Space Telescope, too, passes through the anomaly in 10 of its 15 orbits around Earth each day, spending nearly 15% of its time in this "hostile region," according to NASA.

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NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in orbit.

The weak spot is getting weaker

Researchers use a set of three satellites, collectively nicknamed Swarm, to keep tabs on the South Atlantic Anomaly.

Some studies suggest the region's total area has quadrupled in the last 200 years, and that it continues to expand year over year. The anomaly has also weakened by 8% since 1970.

In the last decade, Swarm also observed that the anomaly has split in half: One area of magnetic weakness has developed over the ocean southwest of Africa, while another sits east of South America.

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The strength of Earth's magnetic field in 2020, as measured by the European Space Agency's SWARM satellites. In blue is the weaker area of the field.

This is bad news, according to Finlay, because it means the hostile region for spacecraft is going to get bigger.

"Satellites will have problems not only over South America but be impacted when they're coming over southern Africa as well," he said.

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Anthony Fauci predicts the US will ‘approach some degree of normality’ by the end of summer

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in Washington, DC on July 30, 2020.

It's the million-dollar question: When can life go back to normal?

Anthony Fauci gets asked this a lot.

"It's very difficult to predict, but I would think that we would approach some degree of normality as we get towards the end of the summer and into the fall, and a considerable degree of normality as we get into the winter of this coming year," he told Insider in a recent interview.

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was referring specifically to life in the US. He pointed to two main factors that will determine whether his timeline is correct: "If we get the overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated, and it turns out how I suspect: that vaccinated people don't transmit."

Both of these variables are trending in a positive direction. Growing evidence shows that US-authorized shots do indeed keep vaccinated people from readily transmitting the virus, thereby stymieing its spread.

"I think ultimately, that's going to be the case," Fauci said.

As for the number of Americans getting vaccinated, and how quickly, the ramp-up has been impressive. Vaccination rates in the US doubled from February to March, then again from early March to early April. More than 3 million doses are now given daily in the US, on average, and 20% of Americans are fully vaccinated.

If enough people get vaccinated, the US could approach herd immunity

In clinical trials before their shots were authorized, Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson only showed that their vaccines prevent symptomatic COVID-19. They didn't test whether their vaccines prevent asymptomatic cases.

But of course, without curtailing symptomless infections, it's difficult to stop transmission. Now, an expanding body of research suggests that people who get the vaccines are less likely to spread the virus after all.

Still, Fauci said, "we haven't definitively proven it yet."

Studies are also increasingly showing that the shots offer protection that lasts at least six months.

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A member of FDNY EMS receives a COVID-19 vaccine on December 23, 2020 in New York City.

Once enough Americans get vaccinated, the US could approach herd immunity: the point at which enough people are either vaccinated or immune due to an infection to stymie the virus' overall spread. Fauci has estimated this threshold could be between 70% and 85% of the population.

"If we could just hold on for a while, we'll reach a point where the protection of the general community by the vaccine would really make it very unlikely that we're going to have another surge," he said.

If the rate of US vaccination continues to double month-over-month, the country could reach that threshold as early as June.

Already, President Biden has asked states to move the date when every American over 16 will be eligible for a vaccine up to April 19. According to a Kaiser Health News poll, the percentage of Americans who said they were hesitant to get vaccinated has halved since January. And on Friday, Pfizer asked US regulators to make its shot available to adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15, since a recent trial showed it works for that age group.

"We ultimately would like to get, and have to get, children into that mix," Fauci said during a March Senate hearing.

Fauci said the US shouldn't 'pull back prematurely'

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Patrons at the West Alabama Ice House in Houston, Texas, June 2020.

Determining when we'll get back to normal, of course, depends on how that's defined.

If normal means a return to nonessential travel, things are looking up: The CDC announced last week that vaccinated Americans can travel by plane, train, or bus in the US without needing to quarantine or get tested. They do need to wear masks, however.

But if normal involves a return to frequent dining at indoor restaurants, or regularly going to bars, concerts, and sporting events without much risk of coronavirus infection, that's a more complicated question.

States like New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have already loosened coronavirus-related restrictions on gathering sizes and relaxed capacity limits at restaurants and gyms. Texas, meanwhile, eliminated capacity restrictions for all state businesses, including bars.

But all of those changes contradicted recommendations from the CDC, and the recent reopenings have coincided with spikes in cases. The rate of new infections is trending upward in 18 states.

"We're at an interesting crossroads, where we have the virus in this country plateauing at a really concerning level, more than 60,000 new infections per day," Fauci said. "So it's kind of a race between the vaccine and the possibility that there'll be another surge."

In his own life, Fauci said, he still avoids crowded, indoor places where people remove their masks, even though he's vaccinated. The CDC, too, recommends that vaccinated Americans avoid large- and medium-sized gatherings and continue to mask up. For most people, that means continuing to approach restaurants, bars, and movie theaters with a lot of caution.

Still, Fauci is optimistic about avoiding a fourth coronavirus surge, given the speed of the US vaccine rollout: "We're absolutely going in the right direction," he said.

"I think if we play it right, if we continue to vaccinate at the rate that we're vaccinating people, and we don't pull back prematurely on our mitigation, then we should be fine," Fauci added.

We may need to keep wearing masks for a while

woman working remote mask
A person works on her laptop in Central Park on March 23, 2021 in New York City.

If being back to normal means everyone can throw away their masks, that's likely the longest timeline.

At least 18 states currently don't have mask mandates - several of them, including Texas and Mississippi, rescinded their statewide mandates last month.

But Fauci thinks masks could stick around into next year, given the overwhelming research showing how effectively masks reduce the coronavirus' spread.

When asked for a prediction about when masks will stop being the default, Fauci "didn't want to go there."

"Somebody'll come back and throw it in my face," he said.

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A new experiment has broken the known rules of physics, hinting at a mysterious, unknown force that has shaped our universe

fermilab
The superconducting magnetic storage ring at the Fermilab is 50 feet in diameter.
  • A new study suggests subatomic particles called muons are breaking the laws of physics.
  • This may mean a mysterious force is affecting muons, which would make our understanding of physics incomplete.
  • It could be the same force that's responsible for dark matter, which shaped the early universe.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

One of the most ubiquitous subatomic particles in the universe, the muon, seems to be misbehaving.

Or at least, it isn't behaving the way physicists expect. In fact, muons are deviating so much from what the laws of physics suggest that scientists are beginning to think their playbook is either incomplete, or there's some force in the universe we don't yet know about.

Muons are like fat electrons: They have a negative charge but are 207 times heavier than electrons. Thanks to their charge and a property known as spin, they act like tiny magnets. So when muons are immersed in another magnetic field, they experience an infinitesimal wobble.

But in a study released this week, physicists at the Fermilab in Illinois reported a discrepancy between how much muons should be wobbling and how much they actually did wobble during a lab experiment.

The difference is substantial enough that many scientists are convinced particles or forces we haven't yet discovered must be involved. The finding, in other words, offers new evidence that something mysterious has played a role in shaping our universe - something that's missing from the existing rules of physics.

"In this respect, the new measurement could indeed mark the start of a revolution of our understanding of nature," Thomas Teubner, a theoretical physicist from the University of Liverpool who was not involved in the research, told Insider.

It's possible that this unknown phenomenon is also linked to dark matter, the shadowy cousin of matter that was created just after the Big Bang and makes up a quarter of the universe.

Shooting muons in a circle at the speed of light

When cosmic rays penetrate Earth's atmosphere, they create muons. Several hundred muons strike your head every second. They can penetrate objects like an X-ray does - a few years ago, scientists used muons to discover a hidden chamber in Egypt's Great Pyramid - but the particles only last for two-millionths of a second. After that, they decay into clusters of lighter particles.

During its brief existence, each muon remains oriented around a single point, in the same way a compass always points north. But when it encounters a magnetic field, a muon's orientation shifts slightly away from that point. That crucial wobble, known as the g-factor, is what the Fermilab experiment is examining.

brookhaven fermilab magnet
A giant electromagnet starts its 3,200-mile journey from Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York, to the Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, in 2013.

Fermilab is a US Department of Energy project with ties to the University of Chicago that's devoted to the study of particle physics.

Scientists there can produce muons for study by running a beam of protons super quickly into metal using a particle accelerator. So the researchers behind the new study took these muons and funneled them inside a circular electromagnet 50 feet in diameter. The muons then traveled at nearly the speed of light around the circle more than 1,000 times.

When muons in the machine decay, ultra-sensitive detectors can measure which direction the resulting smaller particles are moving. Physicists can then use that information to calculate where each muon's fixed point is.

fermilab
Thousands of people in Batavia, Illinois, welcomed the Muon g-2 magnet (in red and white) to Fermilab in 2013.

It should be possible to calculate the precise amount muons will wobble using the Standard Model of physics, which encompasses everything we know about particles' behavior. But the Fermilab team found that their muons' wobble did not match those expectations.

Instead, it was off by one-third of one-millionth of a percent.

That difference may seem mind-bogglingly small, but Teubner said it's actually "a milestone for particle physics."

And it's unlikely to be the result of error: The team found that there's only a 1 in 40,000 chance the discrepancy in their measurement was due to random chance.

"This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory," Renee Fatemi, one of the Fermilab muon experiment managers, said in a press release.

A 20-year mystery

tess stars first science image
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite's snapshot of the Large Magellanic Cloud (right) and the bright star R Doradus (left), August 7, 2018.

This isn't the first time muons have not behaved in the way science's best theories would predict.

In 2001, the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York ran a similar experiment using the same giant electromagnet. Those results also showed that muons' wobble in the lab deviated from what it should have been. But those findings had a smaller statistical significance than Fermilab's: There was a 1 in 1,000 chance it could have been a fluke.

Now, the Fermilab results confirm what Brookhaven physicists discovered 20 years ago - and that "has made the discrepancy which was already seen with the old result more intriguing," Teubner said.

Fermilab is expected to release data from two more similar experiments within the next two years. A fourth experiment is also already underway, and fifth is in the works.

Whatever is influencing muons could have a link to dark matter

cdms dark matter fermilab reidar hahn
Two scientists at the Fermilab work on a detector hunting for dark matter in 2014.

According to Teubner, it's possible that some force that's not in the Standard Model of physics could explain the muons' whack-a-doo wobbles.

That force, he said, may also explain the existence of dark matter, and possibly even dark energy - which plays a key role in accelerating the expansion of the universe.

"Theorists would find it appealing to solve more than one problem at once," Teubner said.

One hypothesis that could apply to both muons and dark matter, he added, is that muons and all other particles have almost identical partner particles that weakly interact with them. This concept is known as supersymmetry.

But Fermilab's existing technologies aren't sensitive enough to test that idea. Plus, Teubner added, it's could be the case that the mysterious influence on muons isn't linked to dark matter at all - which would mean the rules of physics are inadequate in more ways than one.

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Anthony Fauci reveals which activities he will and won’t do now that he’s vaccinated – and indoor restaurants are still a no

fauci vaccine
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, prepares to receive his COVID-19 vaccine on December 22, 2020.

For most of 2020, the little socializing Anthony Fauci did involved the neighbors right next door.

Fauci has lived in the same neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC for more than 40 years, and the combination of his busy schedule and pandemic safety concerns confined his social life to a small radius.

"I haven't gotten the day off in a year and three months," Fauci told me recently.

When Fauci and his wife did gather with neighbors, they took no chances: The households stayed socially distanced and outdoors, even in the fall and winter when the weather got chilly.

"Whenever we would get together, we would do it outside, freezing our butts off, wearing a mask, having a dinner or having a drink outside in my deck," he said.

Then Fauci, who has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, got vaccinated. In a much-photographed moment (see above), he got his first Moderna shot on December 22. In the months that followed, others in his age bracket followed suit.

Being fully vaccinated, Fauci said, has changed his behavior - but only slightly.

The biggest shift is that he and his neighbors have finally moved the party indoors: "We feel very comfortable in the house with no masks, and we can have physical contact and things like that," he said.

But for now, he still won't eat indoors at a restaurant or go to a movie theater.

"I don't think I would - even if I'm vaccinated - go into an indoor, crowded place where people are not wearing masks," Fauci said.

He's not planning any travel, either: "I don't really see myself going on any fun trips for a while," he said.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci in Washington DC on February 25, 2021.

Fauci's caution, he said, stems from the "interesting crossroads" at which the US sits.

A record number of people are getting vaccinated per day - 3 million doses are now given daily, on average - but the number of new infections being reported is still trending upward in 18 states. In Michigan, one of the worst hotspots, average daily cases have more than quadrupled in the last month.

"It's kind of a race between the vaccine and the possibility that there'll be another surge," Fauci said. So the more Americans are patient about their return to normal life, he added, the less likely we are to see a fourth case spike.

Fauci won't go indoors where people aren't wearing masks

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Some of Anthony Fauci's neighbors, with a "Thank you Dr. Fauci!" sign in Washington, DC on August 3, 2020.

Like 64 million other Americans, Fauci is regularly assessing what is safe and unsafe as a vaccinated person in a country in which four out of every five people are not yet fully vaccinated. Rising US case rates complicate matters. In the last week, an average of more than 65,000 new cases have been reported per day - a 14% increase from the country's seven-day average in mid-March.

Given all that, Fauci said his day-to-day life remains essentially unchanged from what it was before he got his shots. He does not see being vaccinated as a green light to resume the myriad activities he and the rest of us have been deprived of.

Movie theaters where viewers remove their masks to snack on popcorn? Nope.

"That would still be of concern to me," Fauci said.

Bars and restaurants where maskless people are eating and drinking inside? Those are still off the table, too.

london bar coronavirus
People sit in London's Bar Elba, September 24, 2020.

Fauci's behavior aligns with CDC guidelines, which say that vaccinated Americans should continue to wear a mask in public at all times and avoid medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings.

As as been the case throughout the pandemic, bars and restaurants are particularly risky. A recent CDC study found that a rural Illinois bar was the site of a superspreader event. At least 46 COVID-19 cases, one hospitalization, and a school closure affecting 650 children were linked to the bar's reopening in February.

'Keeping a lid' on cases requires patience

Not all experts agree with Fauci and the CDC's levels of caution.

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician in Baltimore, previously told Insider that the CDC guidelines for vaccinated people are "overly cautious."

"For individuals who are fully vaccinated, they may well decide to take on risk that other people may not be engaging in," she said. "So having policies to allow certain things back, I don't think is necessarily a bad thing."

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A group of friends at Jonesy's Local Bar in Hudson, Wisconsin, May 14, 2020.

Still, Fauci said it's important for all Americans - both vaccinated and unvaccinated - to continue avoiding crowds and socially distancing until we know for sure that vaccinated people don't spread the virus. Growing evidence suggests they don't, but being patient is how we'll "keep a lid" on this thing, Fauci said.

Fauci has estimated that the threshold for herd immunity - the point at which enough Americans are either vaccinated or immune to the virus from an infection to stymie its overall spread - could be between 70% and 85% of the population.

"If we could just hold on for a while," he said, "we'll reach a point where the protection of the general community by the vaccine would really make it very unlikely that we're going to have another surge."

Vaccination rates in the US have doubled every month since February. If that trend continues, the country could reach that threshold as early as June.

So for Fauci, nights out on the town can wait until then.

The CDC says traveling is ok, but Fauci won't do it

The CDC announced Friday that vaccinated Americans can travel by plane, train, or bus in the US without needing to quarantine or get tested, as long as they wear masks.

I was thrilled, since the change meant I could finally make a plan to visit my 84-year-old grandmother in Minnesota. I'd been itching to see her for the last 12 months - she's in a senior living home, and it's been hard to hear her sound lonelier and lonelier on our daily phone calls. She has wanted to show me her balcony garden for months, and just walk together on the Wayzata Bay.

So I asked Fauci if he, too, is planning any trips, in the hopes that he might share my excitement.

No such luck.

"I don't see that in my life," Fauci said, adding, "when this is all over, then I'll worry about that."

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Travelers wait to check luggage at Los Angeles International Airport on December 23, 2020.

He admitted, though, that part of the reason his life has only changed his behavior "very, very, very slightly" in the last few months is that he still doesn't have time to relax or recreate. His sporadic indoor meetups with a few friends and family members are all he can fit in.

"To be honest with you, I don't really have time to do anything else," he said.

So in part, Fauci's cautious approach is a product of a very lopsided work-life balance.

"I'm a very unusual person," he said.

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NASA’s Mars helicopter just snapped its first color photo of the red planet. It’s expected to fly on Monday.

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NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, photographed on Mars by the Perseverance rover on April 4, 2021.

NASA's Mars helicopter just sent its first postcard back to Earth: a low-resolution, colored photo of the Martian surface.

Ingenuity's camera snapped the picture (below) after the rotorcraft dropped to Mars' surface from the underbelly of the Perseverance rover on Saturday. NASA released the image on Monday.

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A low-resolution photo captured by the Ingenuity helicopter shows the floor of Mars' Jezero Crater and two wheels of NASA's Perseverance rover, April 3, 2021.

The agency expects better photography from the helicopter once Ingenuity starts to fly. The 4-pound drone is scheduled to conduct its first flight early Monday morning Eastern Time, though that initial liftoff will just test whether Ingenuity can successfully get a few feet off the ground, hover for about 30 seconds, and then touch back down.

Already, the helicopter has passed its first crucial test, surviving a night alone on the red planet amid temperatures of -130 degrees Fahrenheit (-90 degrees Celsius). If its first flight goes well, too, the space drone will have a roughly 30-day window to attempt up to five increasingly difficult flights, venturing higher and further each time.

NASA expects Ingenuity to capture plenty of high-resolution images along the way.

Scientists hope Ingenuity will fly for 90 seconds at a time

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NASA's Ingenuity helicopter's four legs extended before it dropped from the belly of the Perseverance rover on March 30, 2021.

Ingenuity was designed as a technology demonstration to investigate whether helicopters and drones could be deployed successfully on other planets. Such aerial explorers could accomplish tasks that rovers and landers can't.

"That could be for reconnaissance purposes - taking pictures to scout out areas, potential science targets for future rovers, or even future astronauts on Mars," HÃ¥vard Grip, NASA's chief pilot for Ingenuity, said in a press briefing. "Or it could be carrying its own science instruments into areas where you can't get with a land-based vehicle."

Ingenuity left Earth stowed inside the Perseverance rover on July 30, and the two vehicles spent about seven months traveling 293 million miles. After a month in Mars' Jezero Crater - where Perseverance landed on February 18 - the rover set the helicopter free on Saturday, dropping it the final four inches onto the Martian ground.

Then Perseverance quickly backed off so that Ingenuity's solar panels could start soaking up sunlight to charge its battery. The temperature change for the the tiny drone was harsh: Inside the rover, heaters had kept it at a toasty 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius). Now that the helicopter has pulled through its first frigid nights alone, NASA is preparing it for flight.

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The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, sitting where the Perseverance rover dropped it, April 5, 2021.

Mars has an incredibly thin atmosphere - it's just 1% of the density of Earth's. So to catch enough air, the four carbon-fiber blades comprising Ingenuity's two rotors have to spin in opposite directions at about 2,400 revolutions per minute. That's about eight times as fast as a passenger helicopter on Earth.

Before the liftoff, NASA scientists will prompt Ingenuity to test those blades and make sure the motors that power their spin are staying warm and working well.

The helicopter has a 33-by-33-foot (10-by-10-meter) airfield in which to fly.

"We're targeting a 90-second average for these flights," Teddy Tzanetos, one of the lead Ingenuity operators, said during a live question-and-answer session on Monday.

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An animation of NASA's Ingenuity helicopter exploring the Martian surface.

If each step goes well for Ingenuity, its final flight could carry the helicopter over 980 feet (300 meters) of Martian ground.

The Perseverance rover, meanwhile, is currently heading to a spot in the Jezero Crater where it can get an unfettered view of Ingenuity's airfield and record video of the flights.

After Ingenuity's work is done, Perseverance is expected to drive toward the cliffs of an ancient river delta next month to begin its search for fossils of ancient alien microbes.

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A ‘double mutant’ coronavirus variant found in India was spotted in California – but there’s no evidence it’s ‘doubly scary’

california face mask man coronavirus
A man wears a mask in Los Angeles on June 18, 2020.
  • A new coronavirus variant has been detected in India and northern California.
  • It has a combination of mutations that may help it spread more quickly or evade vaccines.
  • But there's no evidence yet that the variant is "doubly scary" or "doubly transmissible," an expert said.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Another worrisome coronavirus variant has made its global debut.

Scientists from the Indian state of Maharashtra identified a new strain two weeks ago that's linked to between 15% and 20% of cases there.

The variant has earned the somewhat ominous nickname "double mutant" because it has an unprecedented combination of two mutations that may help it both attach better to human cells and hide from the immune system.

Just 24 hours after Indian officials reported the variant, it also popped up in northern California. Researchers from the Clinical Virology Lab at Stanford identified this "double mutant" in a sample from a patients in the San Francisco Bay Area. They suspect another seven cases are linked to the variant.

"We don't know how those two mutations behave when they're paired together," Dr. Benjamin Pinsky, a Stanford virologist who helped discover the variant, told the LA Times.

But Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious-disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, said panic about the variant is premature - and its nickname is a bit sensational.

"It suggests that it is doubly scary or doubly transmissible even compared to a variant that we know about, but there is no evidence to suggest that," Chin-Hong told Insider.

Plus, he added, many variants have multiple mutations.

An unprecedented combination of mutations

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Mumbai Police personnel are tested for the coronavirus on October 15, 2020.

Scientists keep tabs on the coronavirus' evolution by genetically sequencing samples on a regular basis. Every variant has a unique genetic code peppered with mutations - that's how researchers can classify different strains.

Most mutations are innocuous, but sometimes, a combination of genetic tweaks emerge that helps the virus survive or spread better. The "double mutant" brings together two worrisome mutations in the same variant for the first time.

One mutation, known as L452R, helps the virus' spike protein bind more tightly to cells. That same mutation is also present in a variant first spotted in Los Angeles last fall. The other mutation - called E484Q - bares a "chilling" resemblance to a mutation found in variants from South Africa and Brazil, according to Chin-Hong. That tweak helps the variant evade detection by antibodies the body has developed in response to an infection with the original virus.

"There's a reasonable amount of information about those individually," Pinsky said of the two mutations. But he added: "Will it be worse if they're together?" We don't really know how they're going to interact."

No studies yet have found that this "double mutant" is deadlier than earlier versions of the virus, or that it can evade vaccines.

That said, some "early hallmarks" suggest the variant could be more transmissible, Chin-Hong said. In the last week, Maharashtra saw a 55% increase in infections. The Indian government says there's not enough evidence to link that surge to this variant, but epidemiology researchers at the Indian Institute of Public Health have suggested that it's the most likely explanation.

It's unlikely the new variant will come to dominate in California

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Alameda County workers line up to receive coronavirus vaccines outside St. Rose Hospital in Hayward, California on January 8, 2021.

While the discovery of yet another worrisome variant is concerning, it's not the variant that California in particular should be focused on, according to Chin-Hong.

"I do not at this time think that this 'Indian variant' will dominate the California viral landscape," he said, adding, "we already have two svelte and dastardly variants adept at transmission duking it out."

Those two are the variant found in the UK, which is linked to 851 cases in California, and another variant first spotted in Southern California. The California Department of Public Health reported last week that the latter accounts for more than 6,200 of the state's cases.

Chin-Hong also thinks the "double mutant" will have a harder time spreading in California because the state's winter surge of cases, coupled with rising vaccinations, have left fewer residents vulnerable to infection.

"This all acts as a force field - albeit temporary - against these new variants," he said.

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Earth contains buried chunks of an alien world that are ‘millions of times larger than Mount Everest,’ research suggests

theia
An artist's depiction of an impact of a protoplanet like Theia and Earth.
  • Two gigantic blobs of dense rock hundreds of miles tall sit deep inside Earth.
  • New research suggests these blobs are remnants of a planet that hit Earth 4.5 billion years ago.
  • The collision of Earth and this ancient planet, called Theia, may have helped create the moon.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

If you were to peer deep under Earth's crust, you'd spot two giant blobs of rock cupping the planet's core like a pair of hands.

The source of these mysterious continent-sized formations - one under the Pacific Ocean, the other under Africa -has baffled geologists for four decades. Some experts have suggested that the massive rocks are fragments of tectonic plates that got trapped under their counterparts.

But according to new research, their origin may be otherworldly.

A group of scientists from Arizona State University suggested the blobs are remnants of a "Mars-sized planetary embryo" named Theia, which struck Earth in its infancy 4.5 billion years ago. The impact is thought to have turned Earth's surface into a sea of fiery magma and caused it to shoot out enough planetary debris to create the moon.

Qian Yuan, the lead researcher behind the findings, studies geodynamics at ASU. He thinks that following the ancient collision, parts of Theia may have sunk and gotten preserved deep in our planet's mantle - the semisolid layer between Earth's crust and core, he said.

Those pieces are "millions of times larger than Mount Everest in terms of volume," Yuan told Insider.

Dense areas up to 621 miles in height

Geologists discovered these chunks - their technical name is large low-shear-velocity provinces - by sending seismic waves down into the planet. Under both Africa and the Pacific Ocean, the speed of these seismic waves slowed to a crawl, suggesting an area of rock denser than its surroundings. The animation below, based on a 2016 analysis, shows the size of these areas.

According to Yuan, these blobs are between 1.5 and 3.5% more dense than the rest of Earth's mantle, and hotter.

If the planet Theia was rich in iron and highly dense, Yuan's models showed, any pieces of it that broke off when it hit Earth would have sunk deep into our planet's mantle. There, they could have accumulated undisturbed, rather than getting mixed into the rest of the mantle.

It's also possible denser chunks of Earth's crust sank into the mantle and joined them, contributing to the blobs' growth over time, Yuan said.

earth core crust mantle layers shutterstock
An illustration of Earth's layers. The mantle is in bright red.

Figuring out what these slabs are made of is challenging. Their deepest parts are 1,800 miles under our feet, in the part of the mantle closest to Earth's outer core. They're 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) high and two to three times wider than they are tall.

But scientists have figured out that plumes of hot rock and magma from some Icelandic and Samoan volcanoes came from these blobs. By analyzing this magma's makeup, researchers can glean insight into the composition of these mysterious buried chunks. According to a 2019 study, some elements in the volcanic plumes date back to about 4.5 billion years ago - when Theia supposedly hit Earth.

When planets collide

the moon surface
The moon, as viewed by NASA's Mariner 10 in 1973.

The idea that the impact between a tiny planet and Earth helped form the moon has been around for more than 45 years. But a problem with that hypothesis is that scientists haven't found any evidence of Theia's existence.

A 2016 study suggested that's because Earth's and Theia's cores fused together. Another idea, put forward in 2018, posits that when the planets collided, both were "almost completely vaporized," Yuan said. According to that thinking, Earth became a rapidly spinning mass of molten and vaporized rock called a synestia, then collapsed back into a molten planet. Part of that spinning mass became the moon, and Theia was no more.

A third theory - called the "hit-and-run," according to Yuan - is that Theia just glanced off Earth, and chunks of one planet, or pieces from both, combined to form the moon. But the moon's composition matches Earth's almost exactly, which suggests it contains very little of Theia.

Yuan's new findings, which will soon be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, may finally offer proof that Theia was in our solar system billions of years ago.

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The coronavirus likely traveled 800 miles to Wuhan from farms that breed wild animals for food, a WHO report found

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The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, a site of one of the first COVID-19 super-spreader events, sits closed on January 21, 2020.

After a month-long investigation in Wuhan, the World Health Organization has offered its best guess as to where the coronavirus came from and how it got into the human population.

A 120-page report released Tuesday lists the virus' potential origin scenarios in order of their likelihood. At the top is the possibility that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host. But the WHO team, which visited Wuhan from January to February, was in the end unable to pinpoint which population of bats, or which intermediary species, was carrying the virus.

The group did, however, determine that the cross-species hop most likely happened at a farm where wild animals were bred for food in southern China.

"They take exotic animals, like civets, porcupines, pangolins, raccoon dogs, and bamboo rats, and they breed them in captivity," Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and member of the WHO team, told NPR.

The WHO team thinks that spillover event, as its known, happened in November or even October 2019. China shut down these types of wildlife farms in February 2020, Daszak said.

'There is a pathway that this virus could've taken'

china rabbit farm
A farmer checks rabbits at his farm in Chongqing, China, January 29, 2021.

Daszak said his team found evidence that wildlife farms in China's Yunnan province and surrounding provinces supplied vendors at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. The first cluster of COVID-19 cases reported in December was linked to that market, which sold live animals and frozen meat.

Two studies published last year found that the new coronavirus shares 96% and 97.1% of its genetic code with coronaviruses seen in Chinese horseshoe bat populations from the Yunnan province, which borders Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

"Animals that we know are coronavirus reservoirs or able to carry coronaviruses came from places where the nearest related viruses are found," Daszak said Tuesday in a WHO press conference. "There is a pathway that this virus could've taken to move 800 to 1,000 miles from the rural parts of south China, southeast Asia, to this market."

According to the WHO report, possible intermediary host species that may have been raised at these wildlife farms include: minks, pangolins, rabbits, raccoon dogs, and domesticated cats. All of these species can be infected by the new coronavirus. The team is also considering civets, ferret badgers, and weasels as potential hosts, since these animals got infected with the SARS coronavirus and passed it to people in 2002.

china mink
A woman carrying mink furs walks at an open air market in China's Hebei province, November 19, 2020.

Any contact with an infected animal, or with animal products or poop, can allow a virus to jump from animals to people.

But the WHO team didn't find any infected animals

Daszak's group took 900 samples from the Huanan market, which closed in early January 2020. They swabbed surfaces, examined animal carcasses, and tested sewage, looking for evidence of the virus. The results showed the surfaces were indeed contaminated with viral particles, but none of the animal carcasses studied - or live animals brought to the site - tested positive.

This suggests that humans, not animals, most likely brought the virus into the market. Indeed, the WHO team concluded the virus had been circulating in Wuhan for a month or more before the outbreak there.

In this photo taken June 11, 2020, and released by CBCGDF, Sophia Zhang, a staffer from China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, or CBCGDF, collects oral and nasal secretion sample for testing from the Pangolin named Lijin at the Jinhua wild animal rescue center in eastern China's Zhejiang province. (CBCGDF via AP)
A staff member collects samples for testing from a pangolin at the Jinhua wild animal rescue center in China's Zhejiang province, June 11, 2020.

The WHO team also examined more than 80,000 samples from cattle, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, and pigs from 31 provinces across China. There wasn't a single positive case among them. None of the animals had coronavirus-specific antibodies, either, which would have indicated a past infection.

The researchers weren't able to test animals at wildlife in farms from southern China for evidence of infection, however, so they recommended doing so in a follow-up investigation.

Finding the bat population that first harbored the virus may be easier

horseshoe bat
A greater horseshoe bat, a relative of the Rhinolophis sinicus species that was the original host of the SARS virus.

According to Fabian Leendertz, a wildlife veterinarian with the WHO team, it's more likely that the team will find the bat population the virus first lived in, rather than the animal that passed it to humans.

"At this point, it may well have disappeared from any intermediate host, so sampling bats, in particular, is probably the most likely to yield results," Leendertz told Science.

Bats are common virus hosts: Cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.

Still, the WHO team tested samples from more than 1,100 bats in the Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, and did not see any viruses closely related to the new coronavirus. That non-finding lends credence to the idea that the virus first jumped to people elsewhere in China.

Daszak is still confident, however, that scientists will eventually find the population of bats that were the coronavirus' original hosts.

"It would've been incredible to have a bat with the exact same lineage of viruses," he said. "We didn't see that yet. That will come in the future I think."

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The WHO’s leader said its investigation into whether the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan lab was not ‘extensive enough’

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference organized by Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva Switzerland July 3, 2020.
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

After a month-long investigation in Wuhan, the World Health Organization has offered the most comprehensive analysis to date of where the coronavirus might have come from and how it could have gotten into the human population.

The WHO report, released Tuesday, lists the coronavirus' possible origin scenarios in order of their likelihood. At the top is the possibility that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host, perhaps at a wildlife farm in China. Last on the ranking is the controversial theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab.

But in a press conference Tuesday, the WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he does "not believe that this assessment was extensive enough."

"Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy," he said. Tedros added that members of the international WHO team who traveled to China "expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data."

Following the report's release, the US and a dozen other countries have called for an independent investigation into the coronavirus' origins - one that would be "free from interference and undue influence," The Wall Street Journal reported.

A lab leak is 'extremely unlikely,' but the WHO didn't audit Wuhan labs

Tedros said the lab-leak hypothesis should "remain on the table," since the WHO experts spent only hours at each high-level biosafety lab in Wuhan.

Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist specializing in animal disease, said during the press conference that the group didn't do "a full investigation or audit" of any particular lab. Overall, he added, the possibility of a lab leak "did not receive the same depth of attention and work" as other hypotheses about the virus' origin.

Still, the report offers compelling reasons why it's extremely unlikely the virus escaped from a lab.

The team found no evidence that samples of the new coronavirus existed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists were studying various coronaviruses prior to the pandemic, before the first COVID-19 cases were reported in December 2019.

The WHO also didn't find any records indicating that viruses closely related to the new coronavirus were kept in any Chinese lab before that month. There were also no viruses that, when combined, could have produced the new coronavirus.

wuhan institute of virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

Additionally, none of the staff in any Wuhan labs studying coronaviruses reported cases of respiratory illnesses "during the weeks/months prior to December 2019," the report said.

Blood samples from staff during that time (which are taken routinely from biosafety lab workers to monitor their health) also all tested negative for coronavirus antibodies. This suggests no lab workers got infected prior to the pandemic.

'This is something coming out of our labs'

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Members of the World Health Organization's team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic attend a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021.

The WHO team's report did reveal, however, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) moved to a new location in early December 2019. The new facility happened to be about 8 miles from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, to which China's first cluster of cases was linked.

That proximity, coupled with the fact that there were multiple labs in Wuhan studying coronaviruses at the time the pandemic began, has led to speculation about a possible link between a lab and the market outbreak.

"Even the staff in these labs told us that was their first reaction when they heard about this new emerging disease, this coronavirus: 'This is something coming out of our labs,'" Embarek said.

"They all went back to their to their records and work to try to find out if there was a link but nobody could find any trace of something similar to this virus in in their records or their their samples," he added.

But Embarek's team didn't have the resources to fully verify that claim.

"A team of scientists is not qualified to conduct a detailed audit of WIV's records, or get access to institutional files, lab notebooks, databases, or freezer inventories," virologist Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and member of the WHO team, told Science.

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A car that's part of a convoy carrying the World Health Organization team of researchers arrives at the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine also known as the Hubei Province Xinhua Hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.

Dominic Dwyer, a WHO microbiologist who's worked in high-level biosafety labs before, said on Tuesday that the team was "satisfied there was no obvious evidence of a problem," in any of the labs they visited. He noted as well that a complete forensic examination of a lab is a complex process, and that was "not what we were there to do."

The WHO team did, however, speak with managers and staff at the labs about their safety protocol, and confirmed the facilities were well-managed.

A wealth of evidence points to the conclusion that bats first passed the coronavirus to an animal, the WHO experts said. Then that animal population passed it along to humans. Indeed, a May study revealed that the new coronavirus shared 97.1% of its genetic code with a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China's Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

Bats are common virus hosts - cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.

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