Some past Science News coverage was racist and sexist. We’re deeply sorry

In late 2019, with the 100th birthday of Science News a few years off, our team considered how we might celebrate. We realized that inviting the world to explore the more than 80,000 original reports of advances in science, medicine and technology in our archive was an obvious choice.

Newspaper magnate Edward W. Scripps and zoologist William E. Ritter founded Science Service, the original name of the news organization, to provide accurate, engaging news of science to the public. “The success of democratic government as well as the prosperity of the individual may be said to depend upon the ability of the people to distinguish between real science and fake,” wrote our founding editor Edwin Slosson in 1921.

But Science Service didn’t always live up to those ideals. As we planned for our centennial, we knew that alongside stories chronicling great feats of science there would be articles that we now find horrifying. Through much of its early history, this organization widely shared, and in some cases endorsed, ideas that were racist, sexist, xenophobic and otherwise prejudiced, as well as supposedly “scientific” justifications for immoral and unethical behavior.

We are deeply sorry.

Other publications, universities and nonprofit organizations have recently reckoned with their pasts. Our own efforts to grapple with previous coverage turned up specific examples of racism, sexism and prejudice against members of the LGBTQ community and others in reporting from the 1920s through the 1960s. Though the examples discussed below will be hurtful to some readers, we believe doing better in the future requires an honest and transparent examination of our past.

Our most egregious failing was our supportive coverage of eugenics, a field of study and associated practices born from the false belief that humankind could be improved if only the people judged to have the most desirable traits were allowed to reproduce. Francis Galton, a British polymath who coined the term in the late 1800s, wrote that eugenics would “give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”

Slosson and several of our founding board members were proponents of eugenics, which gained popularity in scientific communities in the United States in the early 1900s. But research of the day did not support the assertion that one group of people was genetically superior to another, and today’s science outright refutes that assertion.

Eugenics was used to justify racial, ethnic and other forms of discrimination. It led to the forced sterilization of over 60,000 people in the United States, including immigrants, Black people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, people in prisons and people facing poverty. It shaped immigration policies that kept Southern and Eastern Europeans out of the country for decades.

In the 1930s, Nazi Germany enlisted scientists and physicians to argue that society needed to be “cleansed” of people who posed a threat to its “genetic health.” Eugenic theories shaped Nazi policies of persecution and so contributed to the murders of millions of people in the Holocaust.
Science News, previously named Science News Letter, often covered eugenics approvingly, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. Watson Davis, who served at Slosson’s right hand, was director of Science Service from 1933 to 1966 and probably did more than anyone to shape editorial direction in our early decades; he was also on the board of the American Eugenics Society, a clear conflict of interest for a journalist.

In a 1922 article, Slosson equated population growth in districts in Great Britain that had overcrowding, poor education, high rates of death from tuberculosis and infant diseases with “evolution working backward.” An article from 1924 quotes eugenicists advocating for “numerical limitation and careful selection of immigrants.” Another from 1935 was headlined “Sterilization is urged to prevent blindness.”

In the late 1930s, Science News Letter reported on how proponents of eugenics sought to distance themselves from sterilization policies aimed at specific social, economic and racial groups. Yet this reporting included the disturbing passage: “On the average, it is found that those parents who provide the best home training for their children are also those with the best genetic stock.” And a headline from 1940 read, “Eugenics seen as vital to future of democracy.”

It’s not as if eugenics didn’t have critics at the time. Renowned anthropologist Franz Boas denounced it as early as 1916 and continued to do so throughout his career; he saw race as a social not biological construct. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu challenged what he called “the fallacy of race.” Other scientists pointed out that people’s living conditions played a major role in their health and behavior — it was not just nature, but also nurture. Science News in some cases covered these ideas, but for the most part failed to recognize them (or report on them) as counterpoints to eugenics.

Uncritical coverage of eugenics in Science News picked up again in the 1960s, during a resurgence in eugenic ideas. In 1964, the magazine published an article by Frederick Osborn, chairman of the board of editors of the American Eugenics Society, who was leading the rebranding of eugenics as an effort aimed at “saving genes for superior ability wherever they are found.”

Our early coverage was often racist, assumed white superiority and debased Indigenous cultures. An article from 1954 summarized the thoughts of one anthropologist, saying, “a Negro may have been black before he was a man.” Another from 1925 was headlined “American children claimed more intelligent than Chinese.” An article in 1921 on the coming popularity of the avocado described the raising of the fruit as a “white man’s job” because it required “a high order of intelligence.”

Coverage of women was focused primarily on their role as family caretaker. Issues of women’s rights, reproductive health, welfare and education received comparatively little attention. In a 1924 article titled, “How women control the future,” Slosson wrote that women’s right to vote was insignificant in relation to the role the woman has in the family.

Women were disparaged in other ways in our reporting. Headlines in particular were often patronizing or fed into existing stereotypes: “Women fatigue easily during first work days,” for example. A story headlined “Women’s personalities do not depend on age” led with, “A middle-aged woman may not have the figure of a young lady, but her emotional make-up is essentially the same.” An article from the 1960s quoted a source who blamed the issue of “No women in space” at least in part on the challenges of designing spacesuits for women, without any question or criticism.

Our coverage of the LGBTQ community through much of the 1950s and 1960s failed to question science that perpetuated bias, including characterizing gay men as having a “pathological personality.” We reported on psychotherapy that “cured” one gay man. One headline read: “Homosexuals need help.”

We were wrong in other ways. The same spirit of science boosterism that championed eugenics seems to have been behind enthusiasm for less sinister but still dangerous notions, including a 1945 article touting the use of the pesticide DDT in wall paint, and one from 1964 suggesting the use of nuclear explosives to dig a new Panama Canal. And, yes, in the late 1940s, we touted the marvels of asbestos-laden dish towels, and actually distributed them to readers.

Hindsight is of course easy, and some historians will warn us against applying today’s knowledge and perspectives to different times. With the exception of our 1960s eugenics coverage, our reporting was for the most part consistent with prevailing views among the people in power at the time. Yet we wish Science News had followed a different course. As journalists, we need to be skeptical and ask tough questions. It’s humbling to see that Science News journalists a century ago got so much wrong, and it pushes us to strive to do better.
So we ask ourselves, what are our current biases? Where are the gaps in our coverage? When are we narrow-minded? Whose voices are we amplifying and whose experiences are we omitting?

We are taking action to address our shortcomings. We have prioritized increasing the diversity of our staff through hiring. Because staff turnover can be slow, we are also seeking out freelance writers from countries and communities historically underrepresented in our coverage, as well as editors from those communities, who help us identify potential biases in story selection and language use. For several years, our writers have been growing an effort to track source diversity, which expanded after the Black Lives Matter movement gained national attention. They are holding themselves accountable for interviewing and quoting scientists with a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. And we are participating in staff training in diversity, equity and inclusion through the Poynter Institute and other organizations.

We are also looking to what science can tell us about bias, race and diversity. We increased coverage of the social sciences, including the challenges scientists face in defining race in the U.S. Census, the negative effects of racism on physical and mental health and how scientists are trying to study racial bias in policing. And we are reporting on how misinformation and disinformation about science warps people’s understanding of crucial issues such as climate change and COVID-19 vaccines.

Science will be key to building a safe and sustainable future for humankind and our planet. Though Slosson, our founding editor, didn’t always live up to his own ideals, we endorse his statement from a century ago that the ability of people to understand science, and distinguish between real science and fake, is essential to society’s success.

We know our efforts moving forward will be imperfect. We suspect if Science News survives another century, our future colleagues will look back on some of what we did with dismay. Yet we hope reckoning with our past, being transparent about what was terrible alongside what was great, will help us hold ourselves accountable today. And we ask our readers to hold us accountable as well.

This statement was developed by the Science News Reckoning Team, including Emily Conover, Martina Efeyini, Cassie Martin, Elizabeth Quill and Cori Vanchieri, with insight and guidance from many members of the Science News staff. It has been endorsed by editor in chief Nancy Shute and the Science News senior staff.

When the Magellanic Clouds cozy up to each other, stars are born

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.

Where you grew up may shape your navigational skills

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 hole in a Triceratops named Big John probably came from combat

A gaping hole in the bony frill of a Triceratops dubbed “Big John” may be a battle scar from one of his peers.

The frill that haloes the head of Triceratops is an iconic part of its look. Equally iconic, at least to paleontologists, are the holes that mar the headgear. For over a century, researchers have debated various explanations for the holes, called fenestrae — from battle scars to natural aging processes. Now, a microscopic analysis of Big John’s partially healed lesion suggests that it could be a traumatic injury from a fight with another Triceratops, researchers report April 7 in Scientific Reports.

In summer 2021, Flavio Bacchia, director of Zoic LLC in Trieste, Italy, was reconstructing the skeleton of Big John, the largest known Triceratops to date, when he noticed a keyhole-shaped fenestra on the right side of its frill. Bacchia then reached out to Ruggero D’Anastasio, a paleopathologist at the “G. D’Annunzio” University of Chieti-Pescara in Italy who studies injuries and diseases in ancient human and other animal remains.

“When I saw, for the first time, the opening, I realized that there was something strange,” D’Anastasio says. In particular, the irregular margins of the hole were odd. He had never seen anything like it.
To analyze the fossilized tissues around the fenestra, he obtained a piece of bone about the size of a 9-volt battery, cut from the bottom of the keyhole. The rest of Big John sold at an auction for $7.7 million — the most expensive non–Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur fossil ever.

Looking at the bone under a scanning electron microscope, D’Anastasio and his team found evidence consistent with the formation processes of new bone that are usually observed in mammals. New bone growth is typically supported by blood vessels, and in the bone near the border of the hole, the tissue was porous and strewn with vascular canals. Farther from the fenestra, the bone showed little evidence of the vessels.

The team found that the irregularity of the hole margins that D’Anastasio had observed was also present at the microscopic level. The border was dappled with microscopic dimples called Howship lacunae, where, in one of the first steps of bone healing, bone cells eroded the existing bone to be replaced with healthy bone. The researchers also observed primary osteons, formations that occur during new bone growth.

In addition, a chemical analysis revealed high levels of sulfur, indicative of proteins involved in new bone formation. In mature bones, sulfur is present in only low quantities.
Taken all together, it was clear that this particular fenestra was a partially healed wound. “The presence of healing bone is typical of the response to a traumatic event,” D’Anastasio says.

Scientists can only hypothesize what happened so long ago. But the location and shape of the wound suggest that Big John’s frill was impaled from behind by a Triceratops rival, adding evidence to the idea that Triceratops fought with one another (SN: 1/27/09). It was probably an initial puncture that was pulled downward to create the keyhole shape, the researchers say.

“Pathology is a great tool to understand the behavior of dinosaurs,” says Filippo Bertozzo, a dinosaur paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels who was not involved in the study. Dinosaur behavior has long been in the realm of speculation, he says, but analyses like these can provide a glimpse into the lifestyle of these animals.

He adds that this particular wound is “not a Rosetta stone,” because it’s unlikely that all fenestrae are battle injuries. “Fenestration is still a big mystery.”

What’s also a mystery, D’Anastasio says, is why the bone remodeling seen in this Triceratops sample was more similar to healing observed in mammals than in other dinosaurs. And Big John himself might hold more secrets.

“We published an aspect, a paleopathological case,” D’Anastasio says. “The complete skeleton of Big John must be studied.”

Climate change intensified deadly storms in Africa in early 2022

Climate change amped up the rains that pounded southeastern Africa and killed hundreds of people during two powerful storms in early 2022.

But a dearth of regional data made it difficult to pinpoint just how large of a role climate change played, scientists said April 11 at a news conference.

The findings were described in a study, published online April 11, by a consortium of climate scientists and disaster experts called the World Weather Attribution network.

A series of tropical storms and heavy rain events battered southeast Africa in quick succession from January through March. For this study, the researchers focused on two events: Tropical Storm Ana, which led to flooding in northern Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique in January and killed at least 70 people; and Cyclone Batsirai, which inundated southern Madagascar in February and caused hundreds more deaths.
To search for the fingerprints of climate change, the team first selected a three-day period of heavy rain for each storm. Then the researchers tried to amass observational data from the region to reconstruct historical daily rainfall records from 1981 to 2022.

Only four weather stations, all in Mozambique, had consistent, high-quality data spanning those decades. But, using the data on hand, the team was able to construct simulations for the region that represented climate with and without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

The aggregate of those simulations revealed that climate change did play a role in intensifying the rains, Izidine Pinto, a climatologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said at the news event. But with insufficient historical rainfall data, the team “could not quantify the precise contribution” of climate change, Pinto said.

The study highlights how information on extreme weather events “is very much biased toward the Global North … [whereas] there are big gaps in the Global South,” said climate scientist Friedericke Otto of Imperial College London.

That’s an issue also highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC cites insufficient Southern Hemisphere data as a barrier to assessing the likelihood of increasing frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones beyond the North Atlantic Ocean (SN: 8/9/21).

Here’s how NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has spent 1 year on Mars

One year ago, Ingenuity took its first flight on Mars. And its story since is that of a real-world little helicopter that could.

Ingenuity traveled to the Red Planet attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, and both arrived in Jezero crater last February (SN: 2/17/21). About six weeks later, the helicopter began what was meant to be only a 30-day technology demonstration to see if flight is possible in the thin Martian atmosphere.

It proved it could fly — and then some (SN: 4/19/21). Over the next couple weeks, Ingenuity took four more flights, each time going a bit farther, a bit faster and a bit higher. After those first test flights, Ingenuity’s mission morphed from a technology demonstration to operations, helping Perseverance traverse the surface by scouting the terrain ahead (SN: 4/30/21; SN: 12/10/21).
Before the helicopter arrived, scientists had two perspectives of Mars. “We have pictures taken from orbit around Mars, and then we have pictures taken by rovers driving on the ground,” says planetary scientist Kirsten Siebach of Rice University in Houston, who is not part of the Ingenuity team. “But now this has opened up an entirely new perspective on Mars.”

Ingenuity has surpassed all expectations. It has shown not only that flight is possible but also what is possible with flight. Science News discussed the helicopter’s big moments, collaboration with the rover and upcoming flights with Håvard Fjær Grip. He’s Ingenuity’s chief pilot and an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. His answers were edited for length and clarity.

SN: What does the “chief pilot” for a helicopter on another planet do?

Grip: The biggest part of the job is planning the flights. Ingenuity doesn’t know where it is or where it wants to go when it wakes up, so all of those decisions are made here [on Earth]. Every maneuver that the helicopter makes during the flight is planned here on the ground first, and then we uplink the instructions to Ingenuity. When it comes time to fly, it uses its onboard software to follow our instructions as precisely as possible.
SN: Ingenuity has completed 25 flights. Can you talk about how it’s exceeded expectations?

Grip: It is pretty great. We came there expecting to perform at most five flights within the 30-day window. And all of that was going to happen within in a small area that we carefully selected. We spent weeks figuring out exactly where to place the helicopter, studying these tiny little rocks. Everything was mapped out. And then things went so well when we started flying that almost immediately people started thinking, “Wow, let’s try to make use of this beyond those five flights.”

We started this next phase where, to be useful at all, we had to fly away from this carefully selected area. I’m really proud of that. We’ve been able to take this technology that was designed for this very limited mission and extend it to go and land different places on Mars and to travel across terrain that, originally, we had never planned on traveling across.

It’s lasted now for over a year since we deployed it to the surface. I don’t think any of us had imagined that that would be possible.

SN: Have there been any specific flights that have stood out to you?

Grip: Obviously, the first flight. That was the most important flight; it still is. We had a more challenging [time on] flight six. It became exciting, because we had an anomaly during the flight. [A glitch led to navigation images being marked with the wrong time stamps, which caused Ingenuity to sway back and forth during its flight.] Ingenuity had to power through that and survive and get down on the ground in one piece.

We’ve had some flights that have been dedicated to scouting activities. We went to an area where the rover was going to spend several months, and we went ahead of the rover and scouted [it] out so the rover drivers could be more efficient in finding safe ways to drive. Those were flights 12 and 13. Then some of these longer flights have been exciting. Flight No. 9, until a few days ago, was the biggest thing we’d ever done, at [a distance of] 625 meters. And with flight 25, we just beat that and flew more than 700 meters.

SN: There was a flight recently that had to be postponed because of a dust storm, right?

Grip: That’s correct. That was flight No. 19. With flying, whether it’s on Mars or here on Earth, you’re worried about weather. We always look at the weather before flying. And every time we’ve done that [on Mars], it had been more or less the same. Then the afternoon before we were about to open flight 19, we were notified that we had a dust storm. That delayed us by quite a bit. When we woke up from that, we had dust on our navigation camera lens, and sand covered our legs partially. We had to fly out of that, and it was a new challenge for the helicopter, but again, it tackled that perfectly.
SN: Ingenuity has flown through two seasons on Mars. As seasons change, so does air pressure. Does that affect the helicopter?

Grip: Yeah, that’s a pretty big deal. We knew, for several years before launch, exactly when we were going to land and where we were going to land. Our design was geared towards the first few months after landing, and that coincided with a particular season [spring] in Jezero crater on Mars. We could [ahead of launch] predict reasonably well what the air density would be. And when we extended [the mission] beyond that, the air density started dropping. To be able to keep flying, we had to increase our rotor speed. In fact, we increased it above anything we tested on Earth. Now we’ve come out of summer, the density has started climbing again, and we’ve been able to go back to our original rotor speed and also extend our flight time.

SN: What comes next? Are there any big flights planned soon?

Grip: We’re going to make our way over to the river delta that Perseverance is headed toward. We’ve just completed the biggest obstacle to doing that, flight 25, which was getting across this region called Séítah, which has a lot of sand and varied terrain. And when we get to the river delta, there are a few different options on the table: to help the rover drivers, to scout out targets, or even potentially to do some scouting on behalf of the next Mars mission. Perseverance is the first part of a sample return campaign. It’s sampling right now. And those samples will be left on the surface and will be eventually picked up — that’s the plan anyway — and sent back to Earth.

SN: What does Ingenuity mean for future exploration?

Grip: This is a new era. Aviation in space is now a thing. We can’t think about Mars exploration without aerial assets as part of that. I think that’s the most exciting thing.

‘Goldilocks’ stars may pose challenges for any nearby habitable planets

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.

Why taking medications during pregnancy is so confusing

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 Large Hadron Collider has restarted with upgraded proton-smashing potential

After a hiatus of more than three years, the Large Hadron Collider is back.

Scientists shut down the particle accelerator in 2018 to allow for upgrades (SN: 12/3/18). On April 22, protons once again careened around the 27-kilometer-long ring of the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, located at the particle physics laboratory CERN in Geneva.

The LHC is coming out of hibernation gradually. Researchers started the accelerator’s proton beams out at relatively low energy, but will ramp up to slam protons together at a planned record-high energy of 13.6 trillion electron volts. Previously, LHC collisions reached 13 trillion electron volts. Likewise, the beams are starting out wimpy, with relatively few protons, but will build to higher intensity. And when fully up to speed, the upgraded accelerator will pump out proton collisions more quickly than in previous runs. Experiments at the LHC will start taking data this summer.

Physicists will use this data to further characterize the Higgs boson, the particle discovered at the LHC in 2012 that reveals the source of mass for elementary particles (SN: 7/4/12). And researchers will be keeping an eye out for new particles or anything else that clashes with the standard model, the theory of the known particles and their interactions. For example, researchers will continue the hunt for dark matter, a mysterious substance that so far can be observed only by its gravitational effects on the cosmos (SN: 10/25/16).

After several years of operations, the LHC will shut down again to prepare the High-Luminosity LHC (SN: 6/15/18), which will further boost the rate of proton collisions and allow for even more detailed studies of the fundamental constituents of matter.

Muons spill secrets about Earth’s hidden structures

Inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza lies a mysterious cavity, its void unseen by any living human, its surface untouched by modern hands. But luckily, scientists are no longer limited by human senses.

To feel out the contours of the pyramid’s unexplored interior, scientists followed the paths of tiny subatomic particles called muons. Those particles, born high in Earth’s atmosphere, hurtled toward the surface and burrowed through the pyramid. Some of the particles imprinted hints of what they encountered on sensitive detectors in and around the pyramid. The particles’ paths revealed the surprising presence of the hidden chamber, announced in 2017 (SN: 11/25/17, p. 6).

That stunning discovery sparked plans among physicists to use muons to explore other archaeological structures. And some researchers are using the technique, called muography, to map out volcanoes’ plumbing. “You can see inside the volcano, really,” says geophysicist Giovanni Leone of Universidad de Atacama in Copiapó, Chile. That internal view could give scientists more information about how and when a volcano is likely to erupt.
Muons are everywhere on Earth’s surface. They’re produced when high-energy particles from space, known as cosmic rays, crash into Earth’s atmosphere. Muons continuously shower down through the atmosphere at various angles. When they reach Earth’s surface, the particles tickle the insides of large structures like pyramids. They penetrate smaller stuff too: Your thumbnail is pierced by a muon about once a minute. Measuring how many of the particles are absorbed as they pass through a structure can reveal the density of an object, and expose any hidden gaps within.

The technique is reminiscent of taking an enormous X-ray image, says Mariaelena D’Errico, a particle physicist at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics in Naples, Italy, who studies Mount Vesuvius with muons. But “instead of X-rays, we use … a natural source of particles,” the Earth’s very own, never-ending supply of muons.

Physicists have typically studied cosmic rays to better understand the universe from whence they came. But muography turns this tradition on its head, using these cosmic particles to learn more about previously unknowable parts of our world. For the most part, says particle physicist Hiroyuki Tanaka of the University of Tokyo, “particles arriving from the universe have not been applied to our regular lives.” Tanaka and others are trying to change that.
No particle like it
Awkward cousins of electrons, muons may seem like an unnecessary oddity of physics. When the particle’s identity was first revealed, physicists wondered why the strange particle existed at all. While electrons play a crucial role in atoms, the heavier muons serve no such purpose.

But muons turn out to be ideal for making images of the interiors of large objects. A muon’s mass is about 207 times as large as an electron’s. That extra bulk means muons can traverse hundreds of meters of rock or more. The difference between an electron and a muon passing through matter is like the difference between a bullet and a cannonball, says particle physicist Cristina Cârloganu. A wall may stop a bullet, while a cannonball passes through.

Muons are plentiful, so there’s no need to create artificial beams of radiation, as required for taking X-ray images of broken bones in the doctor’s office, for example. Muons “are for free,” says Cârloganu, of CNRS and the National Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics in Aubière, France.
Another crucial upside of muons: “They’re also very easy to detect,” says nuclear physicist Richard Kouzes of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. A simple detector made of strips of plastic and light sensors will do the trick. Other muon detectors require little more than a specialized version of photographic film. There’s no other particle like it, Kouzes says.

Muons have a negative electric charge, like an electron. Their antiparticles, antimuons, which also shower down on Earth, have a positive charge. Muon detectors capture tracks of both negatively and positively charged varieties. When these particles pass through material, they lose energy in various ways, for example, by colliding with electrons and knocking them loose from their atoms.

With that energy loss, muons slow down, sometimes enough to stop. The denser the material, the fewer muons will make it through to a detector placed underneath or to the side of the material. So large, dense objects such as volcanoes or pyramids cast a muon shadow. And any gaps within those structures will appear as bright spots within that shadow, because more muons can slip through. Interpreting such dappled shadows can open a vista into hidden worlds.

Probing pyramids
Muography proved itself in a pyramid. One of the first uses of the technique was in the 1960s, when physicist Luis Alvarez and colleagues looked for hidden chambers in Khafre’s pyramid in Giza, a slightly smaller neighbor of the Great Pyramid. Detectors found no hint of unexpected rooms, but proved that the technique worked.

Still, the idea took time to take off, because muon detectors of the era tended to be bulky and worked best in well-controlled laboratory conditions. To spot the muons, Alvarez’s team used detectors called spark chambers. Spark chambers are filled with gas and metal plates under high voltage, so that charged particles passing through create trails of sparks.

Now, thanks to advances in particle physics technologies, spark chambers have largely been replaced. “We can make very compact, very sturdy detectors,” says nuclear physicist Edmundo Garcia-Solis of Chicago State University. Those detectors can be designed to work outside a carefully controlled lab.

One type of resilient detector is built with plastic containing a chemical called scintillator, which releases light when a muon or other charged particle passes through (SN Online: 8/5/21). The light is then captured and measured by electronics. Later this year, physicists will use these detectors to take another look at Khafre’s pyramid, Kouzes and colleagues reported February 23 in the Journal for Advanced Instrumentation in Science. Compact enough to fit within two large carrying cases, the detector “can be carried into the pyramid and then operated with a laptop and that’s all,” Kouzes says.
A different but particularly low-maintenance type of detector, called a nuclear emulsion film, was crucial to uncovering the Great Pyramid’s hidden void in 2017. Nuclear emulsions record particle tracks in a special type of photographic film. The detectors are left in place for a period of time, then brought back to a lab for analysis of the tracks imprinted in them.

Particle physicist Kunihiro Morishima of Nagoya University in Japan helped discover the secret chamber through work on an international project called ScanPyramids. “Nuclear emulsions are lightweight, compact and do not require a power supply,” he explains. That meant that multiple detectors could be placed in prime viewing locations in one of the pyramid’s rooms, the Queen’s Chamber, and a small niche next to it. The detectors’ measurements were supplemented with plastic scintillator detectors inside the Queen’s Chamber, and gas-based detectors outside the pyramid.
Since the discovery of the void, Morishima and colleagues have been taking additional measurements to better sketch out its properties. The team placed emulsion detectors in 20 locations in the pyramid, as well as gas detectors in several different spots. Using their new array of instruments, the researchers determined that the void is over 40 meters long. Its purpose is still unknown.

A more extensive survey of the Great Pyramid, placing much larger detectors outside the pyramid, is being planned by another team of researchers. The detectors will be periodically moved to measure muons from multiple angles, the team reported March 6 in the Journal for Advanced Instrumentation in Science. The result, says co­author and particle physicist Alan Bross of Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., will offer a 3-D view of what’s inside (SN: 12/18/21 & 1/1/22, p. 44).

Pyramids in other parts of the world are also getting closer scrutiny. Garcia-Solis and colleagues are now planning muography of the Maya pyramid known as El Castillo at Chichén Itzá in Mexico. Morishima and colleagues, as well, are planning work on Maya pyramids.

Scientists hope such studies might reveal new chambers, or features not visible with other techniques for peering inside of objects. Ultrasound, ground-penetrating radar or X-rays, for example, can only penetrate a short distance from the surface, Bross explains. Muons, on the other hand, give an in-depth picture. For studying pyramids, Bross says, “muons really are ideal.”

Peering inside a volcano
Vesuvius is a known menace in Naples and the surrounding municipalities that snuggle up against the volcano’s flanks. Infamous for destroying the ancient city of Pompeii in A.D. 79, the volcano has been quiescent since 1944, when a major eruption destroyed several nearby villages (SN: 2/29/20, p. 5). But if it erupted, it would endanger the lives of roughly 600,000 people who live closest to it, and many others in the vicinity.

“Vesuvius always scared me,” D’Errico says. “I was born and I live under this volcano.” Now, as part of the Muon Radiography of Vesuvius experiment, or MURAVES, she seeks to better understand the volcano and its dangers.
Using muon detectors 1.5 kilometers from the volcano’s crater, the team is mapping out muon densities — and thus rock densities — at the top of Vesuvius’ cone. In a paper posted February 24 at arXiv.org, the researchers presented preliminary hints of density differences between the volcano’s northwestern and southeastern halves. MURAVES is still collecting data; future observations should help scientists understand finer details of the volcano’s internal structure, which is thought to be layered due to repeated eruptions.

Information about a volcano’s structure can help scientists predict what hazards to expect in an eventual eruption, such as where landslides might occur. And that could help scientists know what steps to take to reduce risks to people living nearby, says Cârloganu, who studied the dormant volcano Puy de Dôme near Clermont-Ferrand, France, with muography and is now working to image the aptly named island of Vulcano in Italy.

When Mount St. Helens in Washington erupted in 1980, for example, an entire flank of the volcano collapsed. The disaster killed 57 people and caused widespread damage. Knowing where a volcano’s structural weaknesses lie could help scientists better predict how an eruption might play out, and what areas sit inside the danger zone, Cârloganu says.

Cârloganu thinks muons will be useful for pointing out structural weaknesses, but not for giving a warning when the volcano is going to blow. Other researchers are more optimistic about muons’ capability for giving timely forewarnings.

Muography is ripe for inclusion in volcano early-warning systems, Leone, Tanaka and colleagues wrote last November in Proceedings of the Royal Society A. But more work needs to be done to integrate muography with other established methods that help warn of an upcoming eruption, Leone says. These methods include seismic measurements, as well as observations of ground deformation and volcanic gas emissions.

Tanaka and colleagues are studying Sakurajima, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, near Kagoshima, Japan. One of the volcano’s craters, the Showa crater, erupted frequently until 2017 when the activity abruptly shifted to another crater, Minamidake. Comparing muography data taken before and after this shift revealed that a new, dense region had formed below the Showa crater, Tanaka and colleagues reported in 2019 in Geophysical Research Letters. That hints at the reason Showa’s eruptions stopped: It was clogged with a dense plug of solidified magma, Tanaka says.
These results suggest that scientists can use muography to help predict volcanic eruptions, Tanaka says. In fact, using deep learning techniques on the muography data from Sakurajima, Tanaka and colleagues reported in Scientific Reports in 2020 that they were able to predict whether the volcano would erupt the next day, by analyzing the previous week’s data. The technique correctly predicted eruption days of the volcano more than 72 percent of the time, and correctly predicted non-eruption days more than 85 percent of the time.

Just as the discovery of X-rays unveiled a whole new way of seeing the world, harnessing muons could change our perspective on our surroundings. Attitudes toward a particle once thought to be unnecessary — unwanted and unloved by physicists — have been transformed. One day, perhaps, muons could save lives.