When it comes to cooling the planet, forests have more than one trick up their trees.
Tropical forests help cool the average global temperature by more than 1 degree Celsius, a new study finds. The effect stems largely from forests’ capacity to capture and store atmospheric carbon (SN: 11/18/21). But around one-third of that tropical cooling effect comes from several other processes, such as the release of water vapor and aerosols, researchers report March 24 in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change.
“We tend to focus on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but forests are not just carbon sponges,” says Deborah Lawrence, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “It’s time to think about what else forests are doing for us besides just absorbing carbon dioxide.”
Researchers already knew that forests influence their local climates through various physical and chemical processes. Trees release water vapor through pores in their leaves — a process called evapotranspiration — and, like human sweating, this cools the trees and their surroundings. Also, uneven forest canopies can have a cooling effect, as they provide an undulating surface that can bump hot, overpassing fronts of air upward and away. What’s more, trees generate aerosols that can lower temperatures by reflecting sunlight and seeding clouds.
But on a global scale, it wasn’t clear how these other cooling benefits compared with the cooling provided by forests’ capturing of carbon dioxide, Lawrence says. So she and her colleagues analyzed how the complete deforestation of different regions would impact global temperatures, using data gathered from other studies. For instance, the researchers used forest biomass data to determine how much the release of carbon stored by those forests would warm the global temperature. They then compared those results with other studies’ estimates of how much the loss of other aspects of forests — such as evapotranspiration, uneven canopies and aerosol production — affected regional and global temperatures.
The researchers found that in forests at latitudes from around 50° S of the equator to 50° N, the primary way that forests influenced the global average temperature was through carbon sequestration. But those other cooling factors still played large roles.
Forests located from 30° N to 30° S provided alternative benefits that cool the planet by over 0.3 degrees C, about half as much cooling as carbon sequestration provided. And the bulk of that cooling, around 0.2 degrees C, came from forests in the core of the tropics (within 10° of the equator). Canopy topography generally provided the greatest cooling, followed by evapotranspiration and then aerosols.
Forests in the far north, however, appear to have a net warming effect, the team reports. Clearing the boreal forests — which stretch across Canada, Alaska, Russia and Scandinavia — would expose more snow cover during the winter. This would decrease ground level temperatures because snow reflects much of the incoming sunlight back into the sky. Still, the researchers found that altogether, the world’s forests cool the global average temperature about 0.5 degrees C.
The findings suggest that global and regional climate action efforts should refrain from focusing solely on carbon emissions, Lawrence says. “There’s this whole service that tropical forests are providing that simply are not visible to us or to policy makers.”
The research shows that clearing tropical forests robs us of many climate-cooling benefits, says Gabriel de Oliveira, a geographer from the University of South Alabama in Mobile. But deforestation isn’t the only way that humans impair forests’ cooling ability, he says. Many forests are damaged by fires or selective logging, and are less able to help with cooling (SN: 9/1/21). It would be useful to consider how forest degradation, in addition to deforestation, impacts regional and global climate temperatures, de Oliveira says, to assess the impact of restoring and protecting forests (SN: 7/13/21). “It’s cool to see beyond carbon dioxide, but it’s also very important to see beyond deforestation.”
Like two great songwriters working side by side and inspiring each other to create their best work, the Magellanic Clouds spawn new stars every time the two galaxies meet.
Visible to the naked eye but best seen from the Southern Hemisphere, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are by far the most luminous of the many galaxies orbiting the Milky Way. New observations reveal that on multiple occasions the two bright galaxies have minted a rash of stars simultaneously, researchers report March 25 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.
Astronomer Pol Massana at the University of Surrey in England and his colleagues examined the Small Magellanic Cloud. Five peaks in the galaxy’s star formation rate — at 3 billion, 2 billion, 1.1 billion and 450 million years ago and at present — match similarly timed peaks in the Large Magellanic Cloud. That’s a sign that one galaxy triggers star formation in the other whenever the two dance close together. “This is the most detailed star formation history that we’ve ever had of the [Magellanic] Clouds,” says Paul Zivick, an astronomer at Texas A&M University in College Station who was not involved in the new work. “It’s painting a very compelling picture that these two have had a very intense set of interactions over the last two to three gigayears.”
Even as the two galaxies orbit the Milky Way at 160,000 and 200,000 light-years from Earth, they also orbit each other (SN: 1/9/20). Their orbit is elliptical, which means they periodically pass near each other. Just as tides from the moon’s gravity stir the seas, tides from one galaxy’s gravity slosh around the other’s gas, inducing star birth, says study coauthor Gurtina Besla, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
During the last encounter, which happened 100 million to 200 million years ago, the smaller galaxy probably smashed right through the larger, Besla says, which sparked the current outbreak of star birth. The last star formation peak in the Large Magellanic Cloud occurred only in its northern section, so she says that’s probably where the collision took place.
Based on the star formation peaks, the period between Magellanic encounters has decreased from a billion to half a billion years. Besla attributes this to a process known as dynamical friction. As the Small Magellanic Cloud orbits its mate, it passes through the larger galaxy’s dark halo, attracting a wake of dark matter behind itself. The gravitational pull of this dark matter wake slows the smaller galaxy, shrinking its orbit and reducing how much time it takes to revolve around the Large Magellanic Cloud.
The future for the two galaxies may not be so starry, however. They recently came the closest they’ve ever been to the Milky Way, and its tides, Besla says, have probably yanked the pair apart. If so, the Magellanic Clouds, now separated by 75,000 light-years, may never approach each other again, putting an end to their most productive episodes of star making, just as musicians sometimes flounder after leaving bandmates to embark on solo careers.
People who grow up outside of cities are better at finding their way around than urbanites, a large study on navigation suggests. The results, described online March 30 in Nature, hint that learning to handle environmental complexity as a child strengthens mental muscles for spatial skills.
Nearly 400,000 people from 38 countries around the world played a video game called Sea Hero Quest, designed by neuroscientists and game developers as a fun way to glean data about people’s brains. Players piloted a boat in search of various targets.
On average, people who said they had grown up outside of cities, where they would have presumably encountered lots of meandering paths, were better at finding the targets than people who were raised in cities. What’s more, the difference between city dwellers and outsiders was most prominent in countries where cities tend to have simple, gridlike layouts, such as Chicago with its streets laid out at 90-degree angles. The simpler the cities, the bigger the advantage for people from more rural areas, cognitive scientist Antoine Coutrot of CNRS who is based in Lyon, France, and his colleagues report.
Still, from these video game data, scientists can’t definitively say that the childhood environment is behind the differences in navigation. But it’s plausible. “As a kid, if you are exposed to a complex environment, you learn to find your way, and you develop the right cognitive processes to do so,” Coutrot says.
Other bits of demography have been linked to navigational performance, including age, gender, education and even a superior sense of smell (SN: 10/16/18). Figuring out these details will give doctors a more precise baseline of a person’s navigational abilities. That, in turn, might help reveal when these skills slip, as they do in early Alzheimer’s disease, for instance.
A new measurement of the mass of an elementary particle, the W boson, has defied expectations. The result hints at a possible flaw in physicists’ otherwise stalwart theory of the fundamental bits and bobs of our world, known as the standard model.
That theory predicts a W boson with a mass of about 80,357 million electron volts, or MeV. But the new measured mass is larger, at 80,433.5 MeV, physicists with the Collider Detector at Fermilab, or CDF, collaboration report in the April 8 Science.
The finding could hint at new particles or other mysteries of physics yet to be discovered. “If confirmed, this would clearly mean very interesting new physics that we can explore,” says theoretical physicist Sven Heinemeyer of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Madrid.
Still, several earlier, less precise measurements found W boson masses more closely aligned with the standard model, including one from the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva. So physicists are awaiting further confirmation before declaring their prized theory incorrect. “CDF’s new result seems barely compatible with the previous ones, including its own previous result, which prompts questions,” says ATLAS physicist Maarten Boonekamp of the Institute of Research into the Fundamental Laws of the Universe at Université Paris-Saclay.
Discovered in 1983, the W boson plays an important role in the standard model (SN: 2/5/83). The particle comes in two varieties, with either positive or negative electric charge. Together with their uncharged partner, the Z boson, the particles carry the weak nuclear force, which is responsible for certain types of radioactive decay and plays an important role in the nuclear reactions that power the sun.
Using data that CDF collected from 2002 to 2011, the team looked for W bosons produced in collisions of protons and their antimatter counterparts, antiprotons, in the now-shuttered Tevatron particle collider at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill. (SN: 9/9/11). The analysis was designed so that researchers couldn’t tell what the end result was until they were done.
The moment of the unveiling was striking, says experimental particle physicist Ashutosh Kotwal of Duke University. “When the answer popped up … we were awestruck about what we might have just learned.”
With a precision of 0.01 percent, the new W boson mass measurement is about twice as precise as the previous record. “This is a very special measurement; this is a true legacy,” says experimental particle physicist Rafael Coelho Lopes de Sá of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who worked on measuring the W boson mass for another Tevatron experiment. “The level of dedication and care and detail … is amazing.”
The new measurement disagrees with the standard model expectation by 7 sigma, a measure of the statistical significance of a result. That’s well above the 5 sigma that physicists usually require to claim a discovery.
Still, “before getting too excited,” says ATLAS physicist Guillaume Unal of CERN, “I would like to see an independent measurement that confirms the CDF measurement.” In addition to the ATLAS measurement, described in 2018 in the European Physical Journal C, another measurement of the W boson’s mass from the CERN experiment LHCb was also in line with the standard model prediction, researchers reported in the January Journal of High Energy Physics.
“The W boson mass is notoriously difficult to measure,” says LHCb physicist Mika Vesterinen of the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. That explains why it took CDF so long to wrap up this analysis, published more than 10 years after the experiment ended.
Hopefully, scientists won’t have to wait that long for another measurement. The ATLAS and LHCb collaborations are already working on improved W boson mass analyses. CMS, another experiment at CERN, could also size up the particle.
If the new measurement holds up, it’s not yet clear what secrets of physics might be at play. New particles — such as those predicted by the theory of supersymmetry, which posits that each known particle has a heavier partner — could help shift the W boson mass upward (SN: 9/6/16). Intriguingly, Heinemeyer points out, those same particles might also help explain another recent physics mystery — the magnetic gyrations of muons reported by the Muon g−2 experiment (SN: 4/7/21).
Whatever physicists uncover, they’ll gain a new grasp on the particulars of this crucial particle, says theoretical physicist Nathaniel Craig of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “At the end of the day, the added energy and attention devoted to the W mass measurement … will be an immensely positive thing.”
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, many military analysts feared that the capital of Kyiv would fall within days of an attack, undermining any further resistance. Instead, the war is well into its second month. Ukrainian fighters have reversed some Russian gains, forcing a retreat from Kyiv and an apparent narrowing of Russia’s sights to the country’s eastern provinces, closest to Russia’s border.
What these analysts and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself missed, social scientists say, is research showing that people who live within the borders of Ukraine have identified more and more as Ukrainian — and less as Russian — since Ukraine’s independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
That trend intensified after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and started backing separatists in the Donbas region, political and ethnic studies scholar Volodymyr Kulyk said in a virtual talk organized by Harvard University in February. “Russians came to mean people in Russia,” said Kulyk, of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv.
These Ukrainian loyalists are now fighting tooth and nail for their country’s continued, sovereign existence.
“Putin underestimated Ukrainians’ attachment to their country and overestimated [their] connection to Russia,” says political scientist Lowell Barrington of Marquette University in Milwaukee. “One of his biggest mistakes was not reading social science research on Ukraine.”
Historic divide The common refrain is that Ukraine is a country divided along both linguistic and regional lines, political scientists Olga Onuch of the University of Manchester in England and Henry Hale wrote in 2018 in Post-Soviet Affairs.
While the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, most people speak both Ukrainian and Russian. People living in western cities, most notably Lviv, primarily speak Ukrainian and those in eastern cities closer to the Russian border primarily speak Russian.
The origins of those divisions are complicated, but can be traced back, in part, to between the late 18th century and early 20th century when western Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and eastern Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. Then, after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Ukraine was briefly an independent state known as the Ukrainian People’s Republic before being incorporated into the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. Putin seems to believe that national identities stay relatively fixed across time, says Hale, of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Social scientists refer to that idea as primordialism, the belief that individuals have a single nationalistic or ethnic identity that they pass on to subsequent generations. In other words, once a Russian, always a Russian.
That rigid mentality shows up in official documents and censuses conducted in the Soviet Union starting in 1932. That’s when government officials began recording every citizen’s natsionalnist, essentially a conflation of nationality with ethnicity. People in the Soviet Union fell into one of over 180 possible ethnic categories, such as Russian, Chechen, Tatar, Jewish or Ukrainian, political scientists Oksana Mikheieva and Oxana Shevel wrote in 2021 in a chapter of the book From ‘the Ukraine’ to Ukraine.
“Nationality was transformed into a characteristic of a person that was inherited from his parents, rather than chosen consciously,” says Mikheieva, a political scientist at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt and the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
While the Kremlin’s goal was to unite people of different nationalities under a single Soviet label, those with a Russian ethnicity remained at the top of the social ladder, write Mikheieva and Shevel, of Tufts University in Medford, Mass . Paradoxically, one’s nationality both provided a sense of belonging and deepened ethnic divides.
Putin, who served in the Soviet-era KGB, may have either directly or indirectly been counting on people to still view their nationality in this way. “He’s stuck in his formative years from the Soviet period,” says Elise Giuliano, a political scientist at Columbia University.
Shifting identity Today, primordialism has largely fallen out of favor among social scientists, Hale says. Most researchers now see ethnic and nationalistic identities as fluid, evolving and dependent on the political and social environment. Individuals may also consider themselves to have multiple ethnicities.
Some of that shift in thinking comes from the study of Ukraine itself. The country’s relatively recent independence in 1991 means that social scientists can track the Ukrainian people’s evolving sense of identity in real time. And Ukraine also made the unusual move of granting citizenship to nearly everyone living within its territorial borders at the time of independence. When Ukrainian passports became available in 1992, officials likewise stopped the Soviet practice of stamping them with the owner’s natsionalnist. During the 2000s, that category also disappeared from birth certificates.
These practices contrasted with countries such as Latvia and Estonia, which refused automatic citizenship to ethnic Russians in their countries, says Barrington, the Marquette political scientist. Consequently, Ukraine paved the way for the emergence of a civic, or chosen, identity.
In studying post-Soviet Ukraine, researchers wanted to know: Would people living in Ukraine, even those with non-Ukrainian natsionalnists, shed their Soviet identity and become Ukrainian?
Official censuses conducted before and after independence hinted that the percentage of people living in Ukraine and identifying as Ukrainian did increase after 1991. In 1989, about 22 percent of people identified as Russian, but by 2001, only about 17 percent did. Migration out of Ukraine cannot fully account for that change, researchers say.
Since 2001, no national censuses have been held in Ukraine. So scientists have instead had to rely on smaller but often more detailed surveys, many generated in collaboration with the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. Initially, researchers continued to use Soviet terminology on those surveys. Censuses and surveys shoehorn people into categories, Hale says, but understanding how people’s interpretation of those categories change over time, particularly when the social context changes, is useful (SN: 3/8/20). Researchers thus needed to look into what people meant when they chose a certain answer.
That work started with the “native language” question on surveys, which even in Soviet times was hard for researchers to interpret. Asking people what they considered to be their native language was meant to capture their language of everyday use. But people often selected the language that aligned with their ethnicity. For instance, about 12 percent of Ukrainians selected Russian as their native language on the 1989 census, Kulyk, the political and ethnic studies scholar at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, said in his talk. But other surveys conducted around that time that did distinguish between native language and language of everyday use revealed that over 50 percent of Ukrainians spoke Russian in everyday life.
That confusion surrounding the native language question carried over to post-Soviet Ukraine. Surveys conducted in the 1990s and 2000s showed that many people selecting Ukrainian as their native language did not necessarily speak the language, Kulyk reported in 2011 in Nations and Nationalism.
In a more recent analysis of three nationwide surveys in Ukraine — conducted in 2012, 2014 and 2017, and each involving roughly 1,700 to 2,000 respondents — Kulyk investigated responses to the question: “What language do you consider your native language?” In 2012, some 60 percent of respondents said Ukrainian and 24 percent said Russian. By 2017, over 68 percent of respondents selected Ukrainian and just under 13 percent selected Russian, he reported in 2018 in Post-Soviet Affairs.
Those numbers say little about actual language use, Hale says. Instead, the native language question is a way to gauge people’s shifting views of national identity. The growing number of Ukrainian “speakers” and the decreasing number of Russian “speakers” suggests that people are selecting the answer that’s in line with their Ukrainian civic identity, he says. “Knowing Russian isn’t any kind of predictor for supporting the Russian state. Instead, what is [becoming] more important is the civic identification with the Ukrainian state.”
Choosing Ukraine Researchers who study identity have also begun investigating Ukrainians’ responses to the question, “What is your natsionalnist?” which still occasionally appears on official paperwork, Mikheieva says.
Ukrainians filling out those forms can interpret the term as asking about their ethnic background in the Soviet sense, their chosen identity or some combination of both. What social scientists need to understand is how Ukrainians no longer under Soviet rule perceive themselves.
To that end, the three nationwide surveys Kulyk evaluated in his 2018 study all asked people multiple questions about nationality. In one, for instance, participants were told: “… some people consider themselves belonging to several nationalities at the same time. Please look at this card and tell which statement reflects more than the others your opinion about yourself.” People could then select a single nationality or some combination of Russian and Ukrainian nationalities. That work revealed that the percentage of people selecting only Ukrainian went up from 67.8 percent in 2012 to 81.5 percent in 2017.
What’s more, the greatest rise occurred among people living in the historically Russian strongholds of eastern and southern Ukraine. In 2012, some 40 percent of Ukrainians from that region selected “only Ukrainian” compared with almost 65 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, the percentage of eastern and southern Ukrainians identifying as “only Russian” decreased from roughly 17 percent in 2012 to less than 5 percent in 2017.
The actual percentage of Ukrainians allying with Russia might be slightly higher, however, as Kulyk and other researchers have been unable to collect more recent data from the Russian-controlled Crimean Peninsula and the disputed Donbas region.
More recent research also suggests that the Ukrainian people are gradually shedding their Soviet understanding of identity. For instance, in a 2018 survey of over 2,000 people, some 70 percent of respondents said that their Ukrainian citizenship constituted at least part of their identity, Barrington reported in 2021 in Post-Soviet Affairs. That’s due, in part, to Ukrainian leaders’ concerted efforts to shift away from ethnic nationalism and toward civic nationalism, Barrington wrote. Deprioritizing ethnicity weakens the linguistic and regional divides; civic nationalism, meanwhile, bonds people through “feelings of solidarity, sympathy and obligation.” Broadly speaking, researchers say, these surveys all show that identification with the Ukrainian state began immediately after the country achieved independence, and accelerated following Russian aggression in the region in 2014.
The current war, by extension, is almost certainly cementing many Ukrainians’ loyalty to their country, everyone interviewed for this story said. “In some paradoxical twist,” says Shevel. “Putin is basically unifying the Ukrainian nation.”
Identity grows stronger, and internal divisions weaker, when nations are under attack, says Giuliano, the political scientist at Columbia University. During an invasion, “you are going to rally around the flag. You’re going to support the country in which you live.”
A type of light commonly observed in astrophysics experiments and nuclear reactors can help detect cancer. In a clinical trial, a prototype of an imaging machine that relies on this usually bluish light, called Cerenkov radiation, successfully captured the presence and location of cancer patients’ tumors, researchers report April 11 in Nature Biomedical Engineering.
When compared with standard scans of the tumors, the Cerenkov light images were classified as “acceptable” or higher for 90 percent of patients, says Magdalena Skubal, a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Cerenkov radiation is generated by high-speed particles traveling faster than light through a material, such as bodily tissue (SN: 8/5/21). Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, but light travels more slowly through a material, allowing particles to overtake it. In Cerenkov luminescence imaging, or CLI, particles released by radiotracers cause the target tissue to vibrate and relax in a way that emits light, which is then captured by a camera.
Between May 2018 and March 2020, in the largest clinical trial of its kind to date, 96 participants underwent both CLI and standard imaging, such as positron emission tomography/computed tomography, or PET/CT. Participants with a variety of diagnoses, including lymphoma, thyroid cancer and metastatic prostate cancer, received one of five radiotracers and were then imaged by the prototype — a camera in a light-proof enclosure. Skubal and colleagues found that CLI detected all radiotracers, suggesting that the technology is more versatile than PET/CT scans, which work with only some radiotracers.
CLI images aren’t as precise as those from PET/CT scans. But CLI could be used as an initial diagnostic test or to assess the general size of a tumor undergoing treatment, says study coauthor Edwin Pratt, also of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “It would be a quick and easy way to see if there’s something off … [that warrants] further investigation,” Pratt says.
The findings strengthen the case for the technology as a promising low-cost alternative that could expand access to nuclear imaging in hospitals, says Antonello Spinelli, a preclinical imaging scientist at Experimental Imaging Centre in Milan, Italy, who was not involved in the research.
If you’re an aspiring life-form, you might want to steer clear of planets around orange dwarf stars.
Some astronomers have called these orange suns “Goldilocks stars” (SN: 11/18/09). They are dimmer and age more slowly than yellow sunlike stars, thus offering an orbiting planet a more stable climate. But they are brighter and age faster than red dwarfs, which often spew large flares. However, new observations show that orange dwarfs emit lots of ultraviolet light long after birth, potentially endangering planetary atmospheres, researchers report in a paper submitted March 29 at arXiv.org.
Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomer Tyler Richey-Yowell and her colleagues examined 39 orange dwarfs. Most are moving together through the Milky Way in two separate groups, either 40 million or 650 million years old. To Richey-Yowell’s surprise, she and her team found that the ultraviolet flux didn’t drop off from the younger orange stars to the older ones — unlike the case for yellow and red stars. “I was like, `What the heck is going on?’” says Richey-Yowell, of Arizona State University in Tempe.
In a stroke of luck, another team of researchers supplied part of the answer. As yellow sunlike stars age, they spin more slowly, causing them to be less active and emit less UV radiation. But for orange dwarfs, this steady spin-down stalls when the stars are roughly a billion years old, astronomer Jason Lee Curtis at Columbia University and colleagues reported in 2019.
“[Orange] stars are just much more active for a longer time than we thought they were,” Richey-Yowell says. That means these possibly not-so-Goldilocks stars probably maintain high levels of UV light for more than a billion years.
And that puts any potential life-forms inhabiting orbiting planets on notice. Far-ultraviolet light — whose photons, or particles of light, have much more energy than the UV photons that give you vitamin D — tears molecules in a planet’s atmosphere apart. That leaves behind individual atoms and electrically charged atoms and groups of atoms known as ions. Then the star’s wind — its outflow of particles — can carry the ions away, stripping the planet of its air.
But not all hope is lost for aspiring life-forms that have an orange dwarf sun. Prolonged exposure to far-ultraviolet light can stress planets but doesn’t necessarily doom them to be barren, says Ed Guinan, an astronomer at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who was not involved in the new work. “As long as the planet has a strong magnetic field, you’re more or less OK,” he says.
Though far-ultraviolet light splits water and other molecules in a planet’s atmosphere, the star’s wind can’t remove the resulting ions if a magnetic field as strong as Earth’s protects them. “That’s why the Earth survived” as a life-bearing world, Guinan says. In contrast, Venus might never have had a magnetic field, and Mars lost its magnetic field early on and most of its air soon after.
“If the planet doesn’t have a magnetic field or has a weak one,” Guinan says, “the game is over.”
What’s needed, Richey-Yowell says, is a study of older orange dwarfs to see exactly when their UV output declines. That will be a challenge, though. The easiest way to find stars of known age is to study a cluster of stars, but most star clusters get ripped apart well before their billionth birthday (SN: 7/24/20). As a result, star clusters somewhat older than this age are rare, which means the nearest examples are distant and harder to observe.
Obstetrician Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman was treating patients in New York City when the COVID-19 pandemic swept in. Hospitals began filling up. Some of her pregnant patients were among the sick.
It was a terrifying time. Little was known about the virus called SARS-CoV-2 to begin with, much less how it might affect a pregnancy, so doctors had to make tough calls. Gyamfi-Bannerman remembers doctors getting waivers to administer the antiviral drug remdesivir to pregnant COVID-19 patients, for instance, even though the drug hadn’t been tested during pregnancy.
“Our goal is to help the mom,” she says. “If we had something that might save her life — or she might die — we were 100 percent using all of those medications.”
These life-or-death decisions were very familiar to obstetricians even before the pandemic. Pregnant women have long been excluded from most drug testing to avoid risk to the fetus. As a result, there’s little data on whether many medications are safe to take while pregnant. This means tough choices for the roughly 80 percent of women who will take at least one medication during pregnancy. Some have serious conditions that can be dangerous for both mother and fetus if left untreated, like high blood pressure or diabetes.
“Pregnant women are essentially like everybody else,” Gyamfi-Bannerman says. They have the same underlying conditions, requiring the same drugs. In a 2013 study, the top 20 prescriptions taken during the first trimester included antibiotics, asthma and allergy drugs, metformin for diabetes, and antidepressants. Yet even for common drugs, the only advice available if you’re pregnant is “talk to your doctor.” With no data, doctors don’t have the answers either.
What’s frustrating to many doctors and researchers is that this lack of information is by design. Even the later stages of most clinical trials, which test a new drug’s safety and efficacy in people, specifically exclude pregnant people to avoid risk to the fetus. But in the wake of a pandemic that disproportionately harmed the pregnant population, researchers are questioning more than ever whether this is the best approach.
Typically, researchers have to justify excluding certain groups, such as older adults, from clinical trials in which they might benefit. “You never have to justify why you’re excluding pregnant people,” says Gyamfi-Bannerman, who now heads the obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science department at the University of California, San Diego. “You can just go ahead and exclude them.
“The exclusion of pregnant people in clinical trials is a huge, historic problem,” she says, “and it really came to light with COVID.”
Pregnant in a crisis Teresa Mathews was 43 years old when she found out she was pregnant in June 2020, just as the pandemic was tearing across the United States. “I was really worried,” she says. In addition to her age as a risk factor, Mathews has sickle cell trait, meaning she carries one defective gene copy that makes her prone to anemia and shortness of breath. COVID-19 also causes shortness of breath, so Mathews feared her unborn child could starve for oxygen if she caught the virus.
What’s more, the baby would be her first. “I don’t want to say it melodramatically, but it was my last chance of having a baby, right? So I didn’t really want to take chances.” She went into full lockdown for the rest of her pregnancy.
For good reason. A study during the pandemic’s first year in England found that pregnant women who got the virus were about twice as likely to have a stillbirth or early birth. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November 2020 that pregnant women are about three times as likely as other women to land in intensive care with COVID-19, and 70 percent more likely to die from the infection (SN Online: 2/7/22). So when the race for a vaccine began, many doctors and officials hoped that vaccines would be tested in pregnant women and shown to be safe. There were promising signs: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration encouraged vaccine developers to include pregnant women in their trials. A large body of previous research suggested that risks would be low for vaccines like those for COVID-19, which do not contain live viruses.
But ultimately the three vaccines that the FDA cleared for use in the United States, from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, excluded pregnant people from their initial clinical trials. After its vaccine was authorized for emergency use in December 2020, Pfizer began enrolling pregnant women for a clinical trial but called it off when federal officials recommended that all pregnant women get vaccinated. The company cited challenges with enrolling enough women for the trial, as well as ethical considerations in giving a placebo to pregnant individuals once the vaccine was recommended.
When pregnant people were excluded from vaccine trials, doctors knew it would be difficult to convince pregnant patients to take a vaccine that hadn’t been tested during pregnancy.
Mathews says she would have been willing to get vaccinated while pregnant if there had been data to support the decision. But the choice was made for her. Her daughter, Eulalia, was born healthy in February 2021, shortly before the vaccines became available to all adults in Mathews’ hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. At that point, there was still no clear guidance on whether to get vaccinated while pregnant or nursing. Officials at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., were worried about that lack of direction. Diana Bianchi, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, called for more COVID-19 vaccine research in the pregnant population in a February 2021 commentary in JAMA. She wrote, “Pregnant people and their clinicians must make real-time decisions based on little or no scientific evidence.”
Meanwhile, social media and pregnancy websites filled the void with conspiracy theories and scary stories about vaccines causing infertility or miscarriages. Alarmed, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warned last October that “the spread of misinformation and mistrust in doctors and science is contributing to staggeringly low vaccination rates among pregnant people.”
Indeed, the CDC had issued an urgent health advisory the month before warning that only 31 percent of pregnant people were fully vaccinated, compared with about 56 percent of the general population. (CDC and many experts favor “pregnant people” as a general term. Science News is following the language used by sources, and refers to pregnant women when a study population was designated as such.)
“Every week, I look at the number of pregnant people who have died due to COVID. Right now, the most recent statistic is 257 deaths,” Bianchi said in January. “I look at that and I say, that was a preventable statistic.”
After the vaccines received emergency use authorization, the CDC analyzed the outcomes for nearly 2,500 vaccinated pregnant people and found no safety concerns related to pregnancy. The agency recommended vaccination for anyone who is pregnant, lactating or considering becoming pregnant. But that recommendation arrived more than six months after the first vaccine became available. Since then, the vaccines have also proved to be highly effective in pregnancy. More than 98 percent of COVID-19 critical care admissions in a group of more than 130,000 pregnant women in Scotland were unvaccinated, researchers reported in January in Nature Medicine. And all of the infants who died had unvaccinated moms.
“The story of COVID is yet another cautionary tale,” says Anne Lyerly, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who trained as an obstetrician and gynecologist. “It highlighted what we’re up against.” Researchers have an ethical duty, she says, not only to protect fetuses from the potential risks of research, but also to ensure that “the drugs that go on the market are safe and effective for all the people who will take them.”
Good intentions Increasingly, scientists are questioning what Gyamfi-Bannerman calls a “knee-jerk” tendency to exclude pregnant individuals from clinical trials. In 2009, Lyerly and colleagues formed the Second Wave Initiative to promote ethical ways to include pregnant women in research. As their ideas have spread, more researchers — mostly women — have held conferences and spearheaded research. Collectively, they’re pushing back on the prevailing culture “that pregnant people need to be protected from research instead of protected through research,” Bianchi says.
“We got here with good intentions,” says Brookie Best, a clinical pharmacologist at UC San Diego who studies medication use among pregnant people. “There were some terrible, terrible tragedies of pregnant people taking a drug and having bad outcomes.”
The most famous of these was thalidomide. Starting in the late 1950s, the drug was prescribed for morning sickness, but it had never been tested in pregnant people. By the early 1960s, it became clear that it caused birth defects including missing or malformed limbs (SN: 7/14/62, p. 22). Afterward, drug companies were reluctant to take on the risk, or legal liability, of potential birth defects. While the FDA enacted new safety rules in response to the thalidomide disaster, the agency did not require testing during pregnancy before drugs went to market.
In 1977, the FDA recommended the exclusion of all women of childbearing age from the first two phases of clinical trials. When the U.S. Congress passed a bill in 1993 requiring that women and minorities be included in clinical research, the requirement did not extend to pregnant women. Some scientists still see plenty of good reasons not to include pregnant women in clinical trials. For example, reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan has seen unexpected health effects crop up long after substances were deemed safe. With that in mind, Swan, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, says that observational studies that follow women and their children after a drug has been approved remain the best approach. These studies are “expensive, and very slow,” she admits, but safer.
For decades, that level of precaution has extended to essentially all medications. As a result, the reproductive effects of a medicine aren’t usually discovered until long after a drug enters the market. Even then, such research is not required for most new drugs, so doctors and researchers must take the initiative. Typically, this happens through pregnancy registries, which enroll pregnant volunteers who are taking a particular drug and follow them throughout pregnancy or beyond.
But voluntary registries leave huge data gaps. A 2011 review of 172 drugs approved by the FDA in the preceding decade found that the risk of harm to fetal development was “undetermined” for 98 percent of them, and for 73 percent there was no safety data during pregnancy at all.
That doesn’t mean all those drugs are dangerous. Relatively few drugs cause major birth defects, and many of those fall into known classes. For example, ACE inhibitors used to control blood pressure have been linked to a range of issues, including kidney and cardiovascular problems in infants, when taken during pregnancy. But the potential for more subtle, long-term effects has been trickier to tease out.
For instance, several studies in the 2010s reported links between mothers taking antidepressants during pregnancy and their kids having developmental problems like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Some moms became afraid to treat their own depression. But in 2017, studies of siblings found no difference in these conditions among children who had been exposed to antidepressants in the womb and those who had not (SN: 5/13/17, p. 9). More likely, the problem was the depression the mom was experiencing, the studies suggested, not the drugs.
No legal requirement How the contents of a pregnant woman’s medicine cabinet might affect her child depends on a host of factors, including how the drug works and whether it crosses the placenta. The main way to gauge whether a drug may harm a fetus is through animal studies called developmental and reproductive toxicology, or DART, studies. But drug companies often don’t begin these studies until they’ve already gotten clinical trials rolling.
This creates a catch-22, because clinical trials can’t include pregnant people until DART studies suggest it’s safe to do so. That’s why Lyerly and others pushing for change say that pharmaceutical companies should start doing these studies earlier, before clinical trials begin.
In 2018, the FDA issued draft guidance to help the pharmaceutical industry decide how and when to include pregnant people in clinical trials (SN Online: 5/30/18). That guidance is an encouraging first step, Lyerly says, but it didn’t change any of the stringent rules for when pregnant people could be included in research.
Plus, it’s all completely voluntary, says Leyla Sahin, acting deputy director for safety in FDA’s Division of Pediatric and Maternal Health. “We advise industry…. We tell them we recommend that you include pregnant women in your clinical trials,” Sahin says. “But there’s no requirement.”
In fact, the FDA doesn’t even have the legal authority to create a requirement. In that sense, Sahin says, “we’re where pediatrics was 20 years ago.” Until Congress passed the Pediatric Research Equity Act of 2003, children were routinely excluded from clinical trials just as pregnant women are now. The pediatric law required drug companies to gather data on the safety and effectiveness of medications in children and to provide FDA an appropriate plan for pediatric studies.
Congress could pass a similar law for pregnancy. And in 2020, a government task force recommended exactly that to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees FDA. But “it’s almost like it’s gone into this black hole,” Sahin says. “We haven’t heard from HHS. We haven’t heard from Congress.” Stocking the medicine cabinet Until clinical trials during pregnancy become more routine, pregnant people face an untenable choice — take a drug without knowing its safety, or leave their medical conditions untreated.
Case in point: A group of 91 doctors and scientists published a consensus statement in September 2021 in Nature Reviews Endocrinology warning that acetaminophen, the most commonly used drug during pregnancy, may harm fetal development. Research suggests the drug disrupts hormones, with effects ranging from undescended testicles in male infants to an increased risk of ADHD and autism spectrum disorder in boys and girls.
But as is often the case with drugs and pregnancy, there’s not exactly a consensus among doctors about what pregnant people should do. In response to the new paper, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement saying the evidence wasn’t strong enough to suggest doctors should change their standard practice, which is to recommend acetaminophen be taken as needed and in moderation.
Acetaminophen is an active ingredient in more than 600 medications, including Tylenol, and is estimated to be used by up to 65 percent of pregnant people in the United States. It has long been the preferred pain medication and fever reducer during pregnancy because the FDA recommends against the anti-inflammatory drugs known as NSAIDs — such as ibuprofen and aspirin — in the second half of pregnancy. Those drugs have been linked to rare fetal kidney problems and low amniotic fluid levels.
While at the University of Copenhagen, clinical pharmacologist David Kristensen began studying acetaminophen’s effects on fetal development after noticing that the drug is structurally similar to chemicals that disrupt hormones. In 2011, he and colleagues published animal and human studies linking acetaminophen use during pregnancy with concerning effects in infants, including undescended testicles.
“My ears perked up when I heard that,” says Swan, the Mount Sinai reproductive epidemiologist and coauthor of the 2021 acetaminophen review. She had seen similar effects with maternal exposure to phthalates, chemicals used in plastics that are known to alter the activity of hormones needed to regulate fetal development.
She and colleagues surveyed 25 years of acetaminophen studies. The group found that five out of 11 relevant studies linked prenatal acetaminophen use to urogenital and reproductive tract abnormalities in children, and 26 out of 29 epidemiological studies linked fetal exposure to acetaminophen with neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems. The strength of these links varied, but were “generally modest,” the authors wrote.
“We’re looking at subtle effects here,” Swan says, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important.” With such widespread use, “there’s a good chance that a fair number of offspring are affected.”
Although Swan is wary of testing new drugs in pregnant women, she would like to see better research on medications during pregnancy. “There’s a whole range of options short of doing human study,” she says.
To start with, Swan says, scientists need better data on what medications pregnant women are taking, and how much. That means more studies should ask women to keep daily logs of every pill they take. Researchers can also do more studies of drugs’ reproductive effects in animals, she notes, and even transplant human tissues such as brain, liver or gonads into animals to learn how they respond to drugs.
Not the same vulnerability The cultural shift around pregnancy research may be gaining momentum.
Government-funded research is one key area for change. In 2016, the 21st Century Cures Act established an interagency task force on research specific to pregnant and lactating women. It included officials from NIH, CDC and FDA, as well as medical societies and industry. One of the task force’s recommendations was acted upon in 2018: removing pregnant women as a “vulnerable” group in a federal regulation called the Common Rule, which governs federally funded research. Pregnant women had been listed along with children, prisoners and people with intellectual disabilities as vulnerable and thus requiring special protections if included in research.
Unlike the other groups in that list, pregnant people “don’t have a diminished capacity to provide informed consent,” says Lyerly, the bioethicist at the University of North Carolina. That rule change alone could help “change the culture of research.”
Meanwhile, researchers are forging ahead with studies on many drugs used during pregnancy. HIV drugs are among the most studied, says Best of UC San Diego, in part because the virus can pass from pregnant women to their fetuses. “So right off the bat, everybody knew that we needed to treat these [pregnant] patients with medication,” she says. Yet data on HIV drugs during pregnancy lagged as much as 12 years after FDA approval. Many pregnant women appear to be willing to participate in research. More than 18,000 pregnant people had enrolled in the COVID-19 vaccine pregnancy registry as of March, and every year many volunteer for other pregnancy registries.
Gyamfi-Bannerman says that in her experience, plenty of pregnant patients are willing to volunteer, even for experimental drugs, if there’s potential to benefit from the drug and they will be monitored closely. At Columbia University, she helped lead a clinical trials network called the Maternal Fetal Medicine Units Network that specifically studies complications during pregnancy. “It’s a very safe and protective environment,” she says.
As for next steps, a few policy changes could make a big difference, Best says, like “getting those preclinical studies done earlier and allowing people who accidentally get pregnant while participating in a clinical trial to make the choice of whether or not to stay.” Right now, “if you get pregnant, you’re out. Boom, that’s it,” she says. “But they were already exposed to the risk, and now they’re not getting the benefit. And so we don’t think that’s actually ethical.”
Thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women to treat morning sickness, without ever having been tested in pregnant women. “We took the wrong lesson from thalidomide,” Lyerly says. “The first lesson of thalidomide is that we should do research, not that we shouldn’t.”
The NFL schedule release isn't the most interesting event on the league's offseason calendar, but it still serves an important purpose for fans. It helps them to plan which NFL games they might like to attend during the season.
Once the schedule is announced, the NFL's most eager fans tend to circle the matchups they most want to see in the upcoming season. The 2022 campaign will be no different, and there are plenty of marquee matchups on this year's game slate.
Cowboys vs. Buccaneers; Chiefs vs. Bills; Seahawks vs. Broncos; there are plenty of high-end matchups at which NFL fans will want to be. But just how expensive will those top-tier games get? The prices can get a little bit out of control, even for bargain hunters.
Which of this year's 256 games are the most expensive, and which are the cheapest? The Sporting News breaks down the NFL's hottest (and coldest) tickets using the price from TicketSmarter.com.
MORE: Buy 2022 NFL season tickets with TicketSmarter
Most expensive NFL tickets for 2022 season There are currently 17 games during the NFL season that have an average ticket price of $800 or higher. The most expensive of the bunch is the Packers vs. Giants game, which is commanding an average price of $2,136 per ticket. That contest is set to be played in London at the Tottenham Hotspur's stadium.
The Seahawks vs. Buccaneers game is also set to have an average price of greater than $1,000 per ticket. That contest is the first in NFL history to be played in Germany, so Munich residents will relish a chance to play in the game.
Another notably expensive game is Russell Wilson's return to Seattle, which will be the most expensive game played on American soil this year. The Broncos are participants in two of the games that feature average ticket prices over $1,000 while the Buccaneers lead the pack with four appearances in such games.
Below is a look at the most expensive games of the 2022 NFL season. This includes the high and low prices to get into the stadium thanks to TicketSmarter. MORE:
Cheapest NFL tickets for 2022 season If you're looking for a cheap way to get to an NFL game this season, you're in luck. There are about a dozen and a half games at which it shouldn't be too hard to land favorably priced tickets.
There are 19 games in the NFL where the average ticket price is less than $220, and 10 of them have a price tag of $200 or lower. Unsurprisingly, many of the teams that are coming off down seasons or are projected to have rough 2022 campaigns are on the list.
The Lions, Panthers, Falcons, Jaguars and Texans are frequently on the list of teams with the lowest average price. The Jaguars and Texans both have tickets available at as low as $32, and the Colts have discounted their game against the Jaguars to a minimum price of $32. The cheapest overall game right now is set to take place on Oct. 2 when the Seahawks travel to Detroit to take on the Lions. The average ticket price for that contest is $158 while the highest-priced ticket for the game is just $804. Only two other games on the schedule — Panthers at Ravens and Dolphins at Lions — have maximum ticket prices in the $800 range.
Below is a look at the least expensive games of the 2022 NFL season. This includes the high and low prices to get into the stadium thanks to TicketSmarter. MORE: LeSean McCoy rips Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy, explains why he isn't a head coach
How much do NFL tickets cost by team? Unsurprisingly, the Buccaneers ($757.26) have the highest average ticket price for any NFL team in 2022. That makes sense given that Tom Brady is in what could be his last NFL season, so fans are willing to pay a premium to see him play once again.
Beyond the Bucs, only three other teams have tickets that cost an average of more than $600. They are the Cowboys ($690), the Raiders ($674) and the Patriots ($643).
The Lions have the NFL's cheapest ticket, as their games cost, on average, about $224. The Jaguars ($258), Jets ($265), Cardinals ($276) and Browns ($282) are the league's other four teams that have an average ticket cost of under $300.
Below is a full look at the list of average ticket prices, via TicketSmarter. Please note that this average includes events at all venues, including away games.
From cylindrical nanotubes to the hollow spheres known as buckyballs, carbon is famous for forming tiny, complex nanostructures (SN: 8/15/19). Now, scientists have added a new geometry to the list: a twisted strip called a Möbius carbon nanobelt.
Möbius strips are twisted bands that are famous in mathematics for their weird properties. A rubber band, for example, has an inside and an outside. But if you cut the rubber band crosswise, twist one end and glue it back together, you get a Möbius strip, which has only one face (SN: 7/24/07).
In 2017, researchers created carbon nanobelts, thin loops of carbon that are like tiny slices of a carbon nanotube. That feat suggested it might be possible to create a nanobelt with a twist, a Möbius carbon nanobelt. To make the itsy-bitsy twisty carbon, some of the same researchers stitched together individual smaller molecules using a series of 14 chemical reactions, chemist Yasutomo Segawa of the Institute for Molecular Science in Okazaki, Japan, and colleagues report May 19 in Nature Synthesis.
While carbon nanotubes can be used to make new types of computer chips and added to textiles to create fabric with unusual properties, scientists don’t yet know of any practical applications for the twisty nanobelts (SN: 8/28/19; SN: 2/8/19). But, Segawa says, the work improves scientists’ ability to make tiny carbon structures, especially complicated ones.