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Expert Voices

Potential life faces tough road near neighboring stars

star and planet
Proxima b planet, orbiting Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star. Photo: Education Images / UIG via Getty Images

Small stars are unpredictably violent, as seen in recent observations of a powerful flare ejected from our nearest neighbor Proxima Centauri that wowed astronomers. Proxima b, a small rocky planet orbiting within the star's "habitable zone," was surely irradiated when the star flared to over 1,000 times its usual brightness in a matter of 10 seconds. Whether life could survive such extreme conditions is unknown.

Why it matters: Proxima b was a tantalizing candidate in the search for life that perhaps has been all but wiped out. Small dwarfs are the most common variety of stars in our galaxy. It's possible that the majority of planets — which we continue to learn are common, too — circle these weak stars. And, we're finding more and more planets in the habitable zones of these red dwarf stars, meaning liquid water could potentially exist on their surfaces. But if they aren't hospitable, the arena to look for viable life may shrink again.

One more thing: If any life arises on a planet like this, they'll have a view quite unfamiliar to us. Their small parent star is less energetic, and instead of emitting bright white light it instead fills their skies with redder hues.

Paul Sutter is a cosmological researcher at Ohio State University's Center for Cosmology and Astro-Particle Physics.

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The worst flu season in eight years

Note: Activity levels are based on outpatient visits in a state compared to the average number of visits that occur during weeks with little or no flu virus circulation; Data: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

This year's flu season caught many experts off guard with both its sustained prevalence and its virulence. At its peak, there was a higher level of flu-like illnesses reported than any other year during the past eight years. Watch in the visual as it hits its peak around Week 18.

Why it matters: Public health officials try to capture this data when developing the next year's vaccines. And, of course, they want to find better ways to prevent severe flu seasons. There's a "Strategic Plan" to develop a universal vaccine to protect against a wider range of influenza viruses, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells Axios.

Steve LeVine 17 hours ago
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The stakes for who wins the AI race

A sentient computer saying 'Hello World' in English, Chinese and Russian.
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

One of the most urgent themes in technology is the global rivalry for dominance of the evolving sector of artificial intelligence — geopolitical and economic supremacy is said to be at stake. Experts view the U.S. and China as the top contenders, but other nations, including Russia, are working on AI, too.

What it means: In its latest edition, the Economist draws a sharp line as to the extraordinary ramifications of the race. "The global spread of a technosystem conceived in, and to an unknown extent controlled by, an undemocratic, authoritarian regime could have unprecedented historical significance," the magazine wrote.