Feb 22, 2018

Axios Science

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1. It's a conspiracy...

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Erin Ross writes: "Fake news" was rampant throughout the 2016 election — and it's still around. But it's hardly new: people have believed in conspiracy theories for ages, and scientists are no stranger to combating them.

The bottom line: From anti-vaccine conspiracies to climate change denial to those who believe in modern "fake news," many conspiracy theories are united by one idea: “Nothing is an accident. They never accept randomness,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol who studies climate change denial.

What's happening: Fake news, conspiracy theories and denial of science were the focus of many talks at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences in Austin this weekend.

Who the believers are: Conspiracy theories are not inherently partisan, and neither are anti-science ideas. Liberals and conservatives believe falsehoods about genetically modified organisms, and believe that vaccines cause autism. But some conspiracy theories are distinctly partisan.

Flat Earth: Perhaps one of the best-known conspiracy theories is that the Earth is flat. Now, believers have their own community built around YouTube videos.

Dig deeper: Read Erin's full story here.

2. Scientists put human cells in a sheep embryo

Researchers have successfully incorporated human cells into a sheep embryo — the first step in a process that they hope may one day allow them to grow replacement organs in other animals. The advance is one of several recent ones in a burgeoning field that is raising ethical questions.

The bottom line: Advances in the past year are important proofs-of-principle that this is even a plausible approach but an organ hasn't been grown in a large animal.

"We’re a long way away from getting a human tissue in a pig or sheep," says Thorold Theunissen, a stem cell biologist at Washington University School of Medicine. "It's a tantalizing prospect and important that more experiments are done.”

Why it matters: On average, 20 people in the U.S. die each day waiting for an organ and someone is added to the national transplant list every ten minutes, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

The big picture: Researchers have long tried to understand the environmental cues that turn stem cells into one cell type instead of another and then to replicate those signals in the lab — in hopes of developing therapies for Lou Gehrig's disease, strokes and other conditions.

Stem cells remain a bit of a black box but some clues may come from these experiments, Theunissen says. "It's not just about the whole tissue but also the individual cells."

Go deeper: Read the full story here.

3. Axios Science stories
  • Precision medicine: Scientists say that lab-created tissues from metastatic GI cancer tumors mimicked the response in the patient to drug treatments, which could help determine best treatment options, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.
  • Pigeons: Researchers find these birds carry clues about lead exposure in NYC neighborhoods, from Erin.
  • Peak human: Steve LeVine on a contrarian forecast that says the global population will peak at 9.5 billion people by 2070 — then decline.
4. For sale

Einstein's letter to Besso, 1929. Photo: Nate D. Sanders Auctions

Letters from Albert Einstein to his friend Michele Besso — an engineer and fellow patent examiner — are being auctioned today. From one:

“However, the very best thing, on which I have worked for days and half the nights, speculating and making calculations, is now completed and lying in front of me, compressed into seven pages with the title 'Unified Field Theory.' It looks antiquated, and the dear colleagues, including you, my dear, will initially stick their tongues out as far as possible…”
5. What we're reading elsewhere
6. Something wondrous

The beginning of a supernova in galaxy NGC 613. Credit: Víctor Buso and Gastón Folatelli

Many of the stellar activities astronomers observe in the universe happen over thousands and millions of years. But space and time are filled with fleeting events, too. When a supernova is born, for example, a shockwave travels from the star's collapsing core to its surface causing a short — on the order of minutes and hours — burst of light.

The chances of spotting one of these "shockwave breakouts"? Somewhere between 1 in 10 million and 1 in 100 million, according to astronomer Alex Filippenko from the University of California, Berkeley.

But on September 20, 2016, Víctor Buso did. The amateur astronomer just happened to be testing a new camera on his telescope and collecting images of galaxy NGC 613 — about 80 million light-years away from Earth — when a supernova was born within it. An international team of astronomers, including Filippenko, was then able to follow up and directly study the beginning of the supernova, the researchers report in Nature this week.

"He would not have made this discovery if he had been looking at any other galaxy out of 10-100 million," Filippenko says.

Why it matters: In these early moments of a supernova, there's a lot to be learned about the stellar events that spew life-allowing heavy metals across the universe. "We want to understand what kinds of stars explode, their evolutionary path to explosion, how they actually explode, and what elements (and in what quantities) they distribute," Filippenko says.