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How quakes could tip us off to the ‘Really Big One’

Episodic tremors
A map of coastal Washington state and British Columbia shows the sweep of an episodic tremor and slow slip event, or ETS, from February to April 2017. The colors denote the time of the event as shown on the color-coded time bar at the bottom. The gray circles on the color bar indicate the number of tremor events per day. (UNAVCO Graphic / Kathleen Hodgkinson)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Is it the tick of Earth’s heartbeat, or a ticking time bomb? Either way, instruments that monitor a 14-month pattern in seismic activity could serve as an super-early warning system for the “Really Big One,” the massive earthquake that’s expected to hit the Pacific Northwest sometime in the next few centuries.

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White House science adviser meets the scientists

Kelvin Droegemeier
White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier addresses the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., with a video image of him looming in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump’s newly minted science adviser reached out to his peers today at one of the country’s biggest scientific meetings and called for the establishment of a “second bold era” of basic research.

“I hope that you never forget that I am one of you, that I came from your ranks,” Kelvin Droegemeier, who was sworn in as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on Monday, told hundreds of attendees here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The University of Oklahoma meteorologist is coming into a job that was vacant for two years, in an administration that hasn’t exactly been viewed as science-friendly. The White House’s environmental policies are a particular sore point, in light of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and regulatory rollbacks.

But Droegemeier’s selection has gotten generally good reviews from the science community. AAAS CEO Rush Holt, a Ph.D. physicist and former congressman, took note of Droegemeier’s reputation as a “solid scientist” in his introduction.

“Everyone who works with him finds him to have a very accessible manner,” Holt said. “We scientists hope and trust that this will turn into accessible policy.”

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NASA follows up on twin-astronaut tests

Scott Kelly
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly gives himself a flu shot in 2015 during his nearly yearlong stay on the International Space Station. (NASA Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Almost three years after NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned from spending nearly a year in orbit, researchers are still poring over the data collected during an unprecedented study comparing his health with that of his earthbound twin brother.

They say the comparison hasn’t raised any red flags about long-term spaceflight on the International Space Station. “On the whole, it’s encouraging,” Craig Kundrot, director of NASA’s Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division, said here today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But the studies have raised questions about the potential impact of exposure to weightlessness and space radiation during longer missions to the moon and Mars.

“It’s mostly green flags, and maybe a handful of things that are roughly like yellow flags, things just to keep an eye on,” said Christopher Mason, a researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine who serves as the principal investigator for the Twins Study.

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Former VP Joe Biden comes out swinging for science

Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden, shown on a huge video screen, addresses the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas. (GeekWire Photo)

AUSTIN, Texas — Joe Biden may no longer be vice president, but he’s still leading the charge for his cancer moonshot, and for science funding as well.

“The United States government, at this point in our development, should be doubling and tripling down on investment in pure research across the board,” Biden said today in Austin at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

That line drew sympathetic applause from the hundreds of scientists and educators who turned out to see the 75-year-old statesman.

Biden is said to be considering a presidential run in 2020, and if that’s the case, his views on science could well be part of the platform.

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Asteroid miners might need applied astronomers

Planetary Resources asteroid
An artist’s conception shows a long-range view of mining robots working on an asteroid. (Planetary Resources Illustration)

AUSTIN, Texas — Mining asteroids for water and other resources could someday become a trillion-dollar business, but not without astronomers to point the way.

At least that’s the view of Martin Elvis, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who’s been taking a close look at the science behind asteroid mining.

If the industry ever takes off the way ventures such as Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources and California-based Deep Space Industries hope, “that opens up new employment opportunities for astronomers,” Elvis said today in Austin at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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So what if we find alien life? Don’t panic!

TESS spacecraft
An artist’s conception shows the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, monitoring a distant star and its planets. (NASA Illustration)

AUSTIN, Texas — If extraterrestrial life exists, there’s a chance we’ll detect it sometime in the next 20 years. And then what? A recently published study suggests that most folks will take the news calmly, if they care at all.

“How would we react if we find that we’re not alone in the universe? This question has been the cause of great speculation over the years — but, until now, virtually no systematic empirical research,” Michael Varnum, a psychologist at Arizona State University, said today in Austin at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In a study published by Frontiers of Psychology, Varnum and his colleagues suggest that revelations about life beyond our planet will be viewed more positively than negatively.

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How are gut microbes connected to memory?

Bacteria and brain
Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are studying how bacteria in the gut can affect the brain’s memory function. (PNNL Illustration)

AUSTIN, Texas — Can probiotic bacteria play a role in how well your memory works? It’s too early to say for sure, but mouse studies have turned up some clues worth remembering.

Preliminary results suggest that giving mice the kinds of bacteria often found in dietary supplements have a beneficial effect on memory when it comes to navigating mazes or avoiding electrical shocks.

One such study, focusing on mazes and object-in-place recognition, was published last year. And researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., are seeing similarly beneficial effects on memory in preliminary results from their experiments.

PNNL’s Janet Jansson provided an advance look at her team’s yet-to-be-published findings here today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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