News this Week

Science  30 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6260, pp. 488

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  1. This week's section

    A sweeping panorama of the Milky Way

    A small section of the Milky Way photo, showing the volatile Eta Carinae star system.


    Astronomers at Germany's Ruhr University Bochum have unveiled a 46-billion-pixel panorama of the Milky Way, the largest such image ever assembled. The stunner was stitched together from 268 smaller images taken from an observatory in northern Chile between September 2010 and May 2015. Some of the areas (such as the one pictured) were observed as many as 272 times, because astronomers were surveying the skies for stars or other objects whose brightness varied over time. The team identified more than 64,000 variable stars, nearly 90% of which were previously unknown, the researchers reported online last week in Astronomical Notes. The team's 194-gigabyte image covers a 1323-square-degree swath of the sky, an area more than 6500 times the size of the full moon. At you can view the entire ribbon of the Milky Way or zoom in on your favorite star or nebula to see it in several different wavelengths.

    China's coastal wetlands nearing critical red line

    A wetland outside Hong Kong, China.


    Along China's coastline, rapid development has transformed marshes and mudflats into ports and urban sprawl. The decline of wetlands is nearing a “red line,” a critical threshold below which the losses could inflict severe and lasting harm on ecosystems—driving numerous migratory bird species to the brink of extinction and jeopardizing nearly 20% of the world's fisheries, a new report from Chinese and U.S. scientists warns. Half of China's coastal wetlands have disappeared over the past 50 years, as well as 70% of its mangrove forests and 80% of near-shore coral reefs, according to the analysis, released last week by China's State Forestry Administration, the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, and the Paulson Institute, a nonprofit based in Chicago, Illinois. On 25 April, China's central government decreed that no fewer than 53.33 million hectares of wetlands must be conserved. However, the new report forecasts that if current and planned coastal reclamation continue unabated, by 2020 the government's red line “will be broken.”

    “They say every piece of bacon takes 8 minutes off your life. I should have died in like 1752.”

    Tweet by @Pillownaut, aka NASA contractor Heather Archuletta, reacting to a World Health Organization finding that processed meat causes cancer.

    Around the world


    Government shakes up science

    Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who replaced Tony Abbott on 15 September, this week appointed neuroscientist Alan Finkel to be the country's chief scientist. Finkel, who says that two of his priorities will be to boost the nation's innovation record and to set it on the road to a fossil-free future, will take up the post in January. The government also announced last week that it will not help establish an Australian Consensus Centre (ACC), a version of climate contrarian Bjørn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus Center. The government of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who in 2009 dismissed climate change as “absolute crap,” intended to support an ACC that would study overseas aid, Australian prosperity, agriculture, and regional issues (Science, 24 April, p. 377). Abbott's government had failed to appoint a science minister for over a year.

    Cuixmala, Mexico

    Scientists study giant hurricane

    Patricia, seen from the International Space Station.


    Hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane on record, made landfall on the west coast of Mexico on 23 October. Fueled by an unusually deep layer of warm water in the eastern Pacific—an effect of El Niño—Patricia grew from a Category 1 to a Category 5 storm in just 1 day, with winds topping 200 miles per hour (322 km) as it neared land. Patricia came ashore along a sparsely populated stretch of coast, causing few casualities. Patricia was one of the first hurricanes to be studied by the WB-57, a U.S. Navy bomber outfitted by NASA to fly above hurricanes and study their interaction with the stratosphere. “We've never been able to measure the upper third or so of a hurricane,” says Kerry Emanuel, a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “I think we're going to learn a lot from that.”

    Geneva, Switzerland

    Malaria vaccine needs pilot tests

    The world's first malaria vaccine, known as RTS,S or Mosquirix, needs to be tested more before any decision can be made on its wider use, according to the World Health Organization's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE). RTS,S, developed by GlaxoSmithKline, is not a great vaccine; it protects only about a third of young children against severe malaria (Science, 1 May, p. 481). Children need four shots of RTS,S, three given a month apart and the fourth 18 months later—a tough schedule to follow in malaria-affected countries. The panel recommended three to five large pilot projects enrolling up to 1 million children total to determine how to deliver the vaccine effectively. Plans for the studies could be ready by the time SAGE meets again in April next year.

    Washington, D.C.

    Budget plan could help research

    The U.S. Congress is moving toward adopting a belated budget agreement that would give domestic science agencies a bit more money in 2016. The tentative agreement would add $50 billion to a current $1.016 trillion limit on discretionary spending, with the increase divided equally between military and civilian agencies. It's not as large as the $71 billion boost requested by President Barack Obama, and legislators must still agree on how to offset the additional spending. But the deal will allow congressional spending panels to bump up allocations to individual agencies for the fiscal year that began on 1 October. The new agreement also adds $30 billion to FY 2017 spending levels. But it won't permanently remove a 10-year spending cap imposed by a 2011 budget law that led to the dreaded “sequestration” cuts in 2013.

    Geneva, Switzerland

    Better detection ups TB numbers

    The number of people who developed active cases of tuberculosis (TB) jumped from an estimated 9 million in 2013 to 9.6 million in 2014, according to a new global report by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO attributes the spike to improved data, particularly from Indonesia, which doubled its estimated caseload from the previous year to 1 million. “The trend in TB incidence globally as well as in Indonesia is still downward since around 2000,” the report stresses. Countries are supposed to report everyone who develops symptomatic forms of the disease, but only reported 6 million new cases last year; the other 3.6 million in the WHO estimate were either undiagnosed or unreported. WHO estimates that TB killed 1.5 million people in 2014, the same number as in 2013; more than 25% of these deaths occurred in people who were infected with HIV, and 8% had multidrug-resistant TB. For the first time in decades, there were more deaths from TB than from HIV/AIDS, which killed 1.2 million people last year.