Maybe a sign of life in the clouds of Venus

Researchers have established the “apparent presence” in the cloud layers of Venus of a gas which on Earth is associated with life, a discovery described by the NASA chief as “the most important event” in the search for life extraterrestrial.

The discovery, led by an astronomer at Cardiff University in the UK, was published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

This is the first time that this compound has been discovered in one of the four terrestrial planets of our solar system, “the Earth apart,” Jane S. Greaves, professor of astronomy and main author of the article.

Phosphine was detected by observing the Venusian atmosphere using two radio telescopes. It “could come from unknown processes of photochemistry or geochemistry, or, by analogy with the biological production of phosphine on Earth, thanks to the presence of life”, explains the study.

This compound is found in the gas giant planets of the solar system, such as Saturn, but it is not of biological origin, that is to say of the living. The traces of phosphine present in the Earth’s atmosphere, on the other hand, come exclusively from human or microbial activity.

“Of life on Venus? The discovery of phosphine, a by-product of anaerobic biology, is the most important event to date in the search for life outside the Earth”, said Jim Bridenstine, administrator of The NASA.

“It’s time to prioritize Venus,” he said, as past life research missions focus today on Mars, beset by American and other probes and robots.

For Professor Alan Duffy, an astronomer at Swinburne University in Australia, the discovery is “one of the most exciting signs I have ever seen of the possible presence of life outside of Earth.”

The presence of phosphine, a highly toxic compound, does not mismatch in the hellish atmosphere of the second planet closest to the sun. Also known as the Shepherd’s Star, its atmosphere of carbon dioxide, at 97%, bathes in a surface temperature of around 470 ° C with a pressure more than 90 times greater than ours.

But it is in the thick layer of hyper acidic clouds, covering the planet up to around 60 km of altitude, that the team of Jane Greaves supposes that the molecules of phosphine can be found.

“There the clouds are + temperate + around 30 degrees Celsius”, according to the study, which does not exclude that the gas forms at a lower and warmer altitude before rising.

“Venusian clouds”

But where does it come from? Prof. Greaves “hopes to have taken into account all the processes likely to explain its presence in the atmosphere of Venus”. Unless you identify a new one, there remains the hypothesis of a form of life.

If so, “we think (this life form) should be small, to float freely,” says the scientist, whose study “insists that the detection of phosphine is not a robust proof of life, only of an abnormal and unexplained chemistry “.

Phosphine is made up of one atom of phosphorus and three of hydrogen. Phosphorus is one of the six chemical elements of living things, but “even if a planet contained an abundance of phosphorus, it might lack another condition necessary for life, such as other elements, or its environment might be too hot, or too dry, ”warns Jane Greaves.

A priori, the atmosphere of Venus, “extremely dehydrating and hyper acidic”, is not conducive to life. But maybe its cloud layer could be.

NASA also discovered a decade ago microbial life in the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere.

This is why Pr. Greaves and her colleagues are calling for a more in-depth observation of the phenomenon. Ideally by freeing itself from the “filter” of the Earth’s atmosphere, thanks to a space telescope. And why not with a new visit, by probe.

The renewed interest in this long neglected planet is general: two of the four missions competing for the next exploration program of the NASA solar system concern Venus, recalled Thomas Zurbuchen, scientific director of the agency. The selection will take place next year.


African cities threatened by an Asian mosquito vector of malaria

Tens of millions of inhabitants of African cities are threatened by a species of malaria vector mosquito native to Asia and particularly adapted to the urban environment, warns a study published Monday, as malaria in Africa is concentrated today in rural areas.

Malaria is a disease triggered by a parasite (Plasmodium falciparum or vivax) transmitted mainly by around forty species of mosquitoes. About 400,000 people died in 2018, mostly children, especially in Africa.

On this continent, one of the main mosquitoes is Anopheles gambiae, nicknamed the most dangerous animal on Earth, but it does not like polluted puddles in cities and has not learned to lay its larvae in urban clean water reservoirs.

In her study published by the American scientific journal Pnas, medical entomologist Marianne Sinka, a researcher at the University of Oxford, maps the expansion of another species, the Anopheles stephensi, native to Asia, and which, she has learned to exploit the water reservoirs of cities, where she slips through the smallest hole to deposit her larvae (especially those made of cement and bricks).

“It is the only species to have succeeded in penetrating central urban areas,” the scientist told AFP.

Stephensi caused the first outbreak in Djibouti in 2012, a city where malaria hardly existed, and has since been observed in Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere.

Marianne Sinka used a model to predict the places in Africa where the environment was most suitable for the introduction of this imported mosquito: places with high density, where it is hot, and of course with sufficient rainfall.

The study concludes that 44 cities are “highly adapted” to the insect, and that 126 million Africans who are spared today are at risk, mainly in the equatorial region.

“The 40% of people who live in urban areas could suddenly be vulnerable and infected with malaria, it would be very serious”, warns the researcher.

How to protect yourself from it? Unlike African mosquitoes, which like to bite humans when it is cooler so at night, bed nets would be less effective, she says, because stephensi likes to bite in the evening, when it is still hot. Better to install mosquito nets on the windows, soak the walls with insecticides, and cover the body.

But the most essential measure is to target the larvae and thus remove any stagnant water, as well as to close any water reservoir tightly. This is what worked in India, recalls Ms. Sinka.


He contributed to the downfall of Nixon, Bob Woodward, the journalist who ‘infuriates’ US presidents

Almost 50 years after exploding the Watergate scandal, investigative journalist Bob Woodward continues to win the Unes and shake the White House, whose most secret doors he is having opened.

American journalist Bob Woodward pictured on June 13, 2012 in Washington

Last coup: in his book “Rage”, to be published on September 15, the 77-year-old writer-reporter reveals that Donald Trump told him in February that he was aware of the seriousness of the new coronavirus.

“I always wanted to minimize” the danger, also confessed to him in March the Republican president, much criticized for his management of the pandemic which has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States.

As in 1974, when he brought down President Richard Nixon thanks to a high-ranking FBI source nicknamed “Deep Throat”, Bob Woodward succeeded in gaining the confidence of his interlocutor.

From December to July, he interviewed the president on almost 20 occasions, recording with his endorsement their nine hours of exchanges. Then, meticulously, he met his entourage, consulted the meeting notes, retrieved official documents.

This is how a young reporter for the Washington Post, he had investigated with his colleague Carl Bernstein into the robbery of a Democratic Party office in the Watergate building, and revealed the dirty tricks of the president’s re-election campaign. Nixon.

The two men made a book from it, “The President’s Men”, whose film adaptation in 1976 with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman earned them notoriety far beyond the American borders.


In reality, Bob Woodward, by his own admission, has few similarities to the energetic Redford. He speaks quietly, often wears a shapeless jacket and tie, and calls himself “boring.”

With the regularity of a metronome, every two years he publishes a work that reveals the wings of American power to which he has unparalleled access.

His highly factual style pen, sometimes criticized for his attention to secondary details, has dissected the workings of the Supreme Court, the CIA or the Central Bank. But it is to relate the mandates of presidents that it is the most verbose.

The last tenants of the White House have all received one (George Bush), two (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) and even four (George W. Bush) chronicles of their presidency. Before “Rage”, Donald Trump was portrayed in “Fear”, published in 2018, as a paranoid and uneducated leader.

“It’s rubbish,” thundered the impetuous president, who at the time had not been questioned by the journalist.

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the president’s close allies, admitted that he then advised Donald Trump to speak to Bob Woodward, as George W. Bush had done on several occasions during his tenure.

“I told him, he’s a recognized presidential author, it’ll give you an opportunity to give your side of history, and the president has agreed,” he told Daily Beast.

“A tragedy”

By accepting, Donald Trump may not have measured the great strength of his interlocutor: “his ability to make responsible adults pour themselves out”, according to former CIA boss Robert Gates who, in 2014, had estimated that the journalist would have made a very good spy.

The former reality TV presenter no doubt felt as early as August that he had opened up too much. “Bob Woodward’s book will be BIDON as usual,” he tweeted preemptively.

On Thursday he counterattacked: “Bob Woodward had my statements for months, if he thought they were so bad and dangerous why didn’t he immediately make them known to save lives?”

Before him, several voices were raised, especially on the internet, to reproach the journalist for having put the promotion of his book before the health of Americans.

The person, faithful to his reputation for rigor, defended himself by explaining that he wanted to check what the president knew exactly and on what date, before publishing.

He who has always prided himself on avoiding making judgments, to concentrate on the narration of the facts, however, made a departure from this rule. The president’s freedoms with the truth are “a tragedy,” he said in an interview to appear on CBS on Sunday.


The coronavirus would be able to invade the brain, according to a study

The headaches, confusion and delusions experienced by some Covid-19 patients could be the result of a direct invasion of the brain by the coronavirus, according to a study published Wednesday.

Research is still preliminary but provides clues to support what was only a largely unproven theory.

According to the study, led by Yale University immunologist Akiko Iwasaki, the virus is able to duplicate itself inside the brain, and its presence deprives neighboring brain cells of oxygen. The frequency of this situation is not yet clear.

S. Andrew Josephson, head of the department of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco, praised the techniques used in the study, saying that “understanding whether or not there is direct viral involvement in the brain is extremely important. important”.

He added, however, that he would remain cautious until the research was peer reviewed.

It wouldn’t be entirely shocking if Sars-CoV-2 was able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, a structure that surrounds blood vessels in the brain and tries to block foreign substances.

But doctors until now believed that the neurological consequences seen in about half of hospitalized Covid patients could be the result of an abnormal immune response – “the cytokine storm” – causing inflammation of the brain, rather than a invasion of the brain by the virus.

Professor Iwasaki and her colleagues decided to approach the issue in three ways: by infecting lab-created mini-brains (brain organoids), by infecting mice and by examining the brains of patients who have died from Covid-19.

In brain organoids, the team found that the virus was able to infect neurons and then “hack” into the neuron cell’s machinery to duplicate itself.

Infected cells caused surrounding cells to die by depriving them of oxygen.

One of the main arguments against the theory of direct brain invasion was that the brain does not have high levels of a protein called ACE2, to which the coronavirus clings, and which is found in abundance in d other organs such as the lungs.

But the team found that the organoids had enough ACE2 to facilitate the entry of the virus, and the proteins were also present in the brains of deceased patients.

The team also looked at two groups of mice: one was genetically engineered to have ACE2 receptors only in the lungs, the other only in the brain.

Mice infected with the lungs had lesions in this organ; the infected animals in the brain quickly lost weight and died quickly, a potential sign of increased lethality when the virus enters the brain.

The brains of three patients who died of severe complications from Covid-19 also showed traces of the virus, to varying degrees.


Strong, striking and militant: the Mostra des heroines

Militant, submerged in pain, in love with the challenge of conventions … Women and the fight for feminism are at the heart of many films competing for the Golden Lion, which will be awarded on Saturday in Venice (Italy).

(Left to right) Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli and British actors Romola Garai

and Patrick Kennedy during the presentation of the film “Miss Marx” at the Venice Film Festival (Italy), September 5, 2020

The festival, criticized in recent years for its lack of parity, seems to have changed gear for its 77th edition, with eight directors in official competition out of a total of 18 filmmakers.

More broadly, the debate on the place of women, central since the #MeToo wave, continues to agitate the world of cinema in recent years. At the Mostra, strong and outstanding heroines have been omnipresent since the opening of the competition on September 3.

By the grace of the 7th art, Eleanor Marx, daughter of the famous theorist of communism Karl Marx, comes out of the shadows of history with a biopic, “Miss Marx”, in competition. This film by the Italian Susanna Nicchiarelli is a hymn to feminism mixing contemporary music and images from the 19th century and balancing, like her heroine, between reason and feelings.

The youngest child of Karl Marx was one of the first feminist activists to combine, at the end of the 19th century, class struggle and fight for gender equality.

Born in London in 1855, cultured and brilliant, she believed in the liberating power of culture and art. She committed suicide at 43, against a backdrop of romantic setbacks.

“Telling Eleanor’s life is talking about themes so modern that they are still revolutionary today”, according to the director, for whom this story highlights the “difficulties and contradictions” of the emancipation of women.

Two roles for Vanessa Kirby

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Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic at the presentation of her film “Quo Vadis, Aida?” at the Venice Film Festival (Italy), September 3, 2020

As for actresses, the British Vanessa Kirby, one of the stars of the series “The Crown”, is illustrated by her interpretation of the leading roles in two films.

She plays a woman in 19th century rural America, who must escape the jealous vigilance of her husband to live out his passion for her neighbor (Katherine Waterston), in “The World to Come”.

This film by Mona Fastvold, one of the rare American works present this year in Venice, puts the question of emancipation at the heart of its remarks: “It was not so long ago that women could not choose this what they did with their days and even less who they could love, “said Vanessa Kirby.

The actress hopes to carry a larger message: “Briefly, in their life (these women) were able to have a little bit of intimacy, a connection, which we all deserve in our lives”

The interpreter of Princess Margaret in The Crown is also in competition in “Pieces of a Woman”, directed by a man, the Hungarian Kornel Mundruczo, but co-written with his wife Kata Weber.

She plays there, alongside the American Shia LaBeouf, a mother who loses her child at birth. The home birth scene, shot in sequence over almost 40 minutes, is an actress performance.

The film questions the emancipation of a mother, in front of her husband, her family and the rest of society, after such a trauma. Trying to stay true to the pain of women in these situations was “very scary” on the set, Vanessa Kirby said.

But one of the “strongest” female figures projected on the Lido screens is arguably the Bosnian Jasna Djuric, who plays the heartbreaking role of a mother desperately trying to save her family from the Srebrenica massacre (more of 8,000 deaths in July 1995), in “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, by Jasmila Zbanic.

War is a “men’s game”, on which the director, also Bosnian, explains having wanted to cast a “feminist” look.

A female point of view also claimed, but in a completely different genre, by the French filmmaker Nicole Garcia, who films in “Lovers” the torments of a young woman (Stacy Martin) struggling with a love triangle.

Her heroine, unlike many others in this Mostra, struggles to have control over her destiny and seems to be subject to men’s decisions. “I’ve always made films where female characters are (…) afraid of men, of being humiliated by men, of being constrained by them,” she remarks.


36% drop in consolidated sales at the end of June

Rabat – The consolidated turnover of the National Railways Office (ONCF) stood at 1.57 billion dirhams (MMDH) for the first half of 2020, down 36% compared to that of completed at the end of June 2019.

Consolidated investments committed to this date reached 776 million dirhams (MDH), a decrease of 19% compared to June 2019, indicates the Office in a press release.

The group’s net debt recorded an increase of 2% to nearly 44.29 billion dirhams as of June 30, 2020, adds the same source.

In social matters, turnover for the first half of 2020 stood at more than 1.38 billion dirhams, down 21% compared to the same period a year earlier. Investments amounted to 708 million dirhams (-18%) and net debt stood at more than 44.14 billion dirhams (+ 2.43%), mainly corresponding to loans intended for the financing of the investment program. of the ONCF.

In addition, and in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Office affirms that the health safety of employees, customers and all stakeholders is the absolute priority of the Office, indicating in this sense that a battery preventive and proactive measures have been put in place.

“Following the effects of the pandemic, the ONCF revised its objectives on the basis of a gradual resumption of traffic, in line with the pace of socio-economic activity while ensuring the optimization of charges. Office also ensures the adaptation of its investments to relaunch its activities and maintain the course on growth and performance, “said the same source, noting that the revised budgets of the Office were approved by the Board of Directors held. in April 2020.


a hummingbird amazes science with its countertenor song

Its song has long been confused with the whisper of the wind in the Ecuadorian moor, but scientists today marvel at having discovered the countertenor bird: a hummingbird with a unique song, the highest of all.

“The Little Ecuadorian Star”

Commonly called “the little Ecuadorian star”, this hummingbird barely 14 centimeters tall is capable of emitting high-pitched sounds.

Oreotrochilus chimborazo sings at a fundamental frequency of 13.4 kilohertz (kHz), which can go up to 16 kHz, according to a study published in July in the journal Science Advances, when the vast majority of birds emit sounds ranging from 2 to 8 kHz.

“The fundamental frequency is important because it indicates the frequency with which the syrinx, the equivalent of our larynx, which produces sound, vibrates”, explains to AFP Fernanda Duque, Ecuadorian neuroscientist at the University of Georgia, in the United States. united, author of the article.

Still amazed by her discovery after five years of work, the 32-year-old scientist notes that some hummingbirds emit vocalizations that reach 8 kHz, “but it is rare to hear songs above 10 kHz, which is why these vocalizations are important, ”she explains.

In addition, “the Ecuadorian little star” is the only hummingbird that can live at 5,200 meters above sea level, defying the extreme cold of the Ecuadorian paramos, these humid high altitude moors of the equatorial regions, a vital ecosystem that acts like a sponge retaining the water.

The country has some 130 species of hummingbirds, or 40% of the 300 recorded on the American continent, the only one where they live.

“Un sssss”

The males of the Oreotrochilus chimborazo species give such a loud song that it can drown out the sound of the wind hitting the moor and the chuquiragua, those shrub plants that are their favorite food.

“I heard that sound, but it didn’t even occur to me that it could be a bird’s song. To me it sounded like the whisper of the wind in the meadow, like a ‘sssss’ “, remembers the husband of Fernanda Duque, the Ecuadorian scientist Carlos Rodriguez, 33, who studies the evolution of birdsong at the University of Texas, in the United States.

He even thought that sound was the buzz of an insect. “But I found that every time I heard this sound I saw the hummingbird,” he explained.

And “among the sounds we are used to hearing, whispers are those that have higher frequencies, higher than whistles,” he emphasizes. And with age, he recalls, hearing abilities decrease and are no longer able to pick up the hummingbird’s countertenor song.

Oreotrochilus chimborazo lives in the Chakana Nature Reserve, on the slopes of the Ecuadorian volcano Antisana (50 km south-east of Quito), where the study was carried out.

It is in this habitat that Efraín Cepeda, member of the Jocotoco Nature Protection Foundation, also observed it. When the hummingbird begins to sing, perched on the chuquiragua plant, its neck widens and the feathers on its head move as if to form a wave that changes color by iridescence, he explains.

This hummingbird has a crown that goes from purple to blue, depending on the light. These colors and the frequency of his song are the mode of communication he uses “in specific social contexts which are the defense of a territory and seduction”, explains Fernanda Duque.

The researcher also identified that the males and females of Oreotrochilus chimborazo live on different territories and that only the males interpret this high-pitched song, more complex than the other vocalizations that the species can perform.


EU reserves 225 million doses of CureVac vaccine potential

The European Commission announced Thursday that it had reserved 225 million doses of the potential Covid-19 vaccine from the German CureVac, the fourth agreement of this type found by the EU with laboratories.

Chart on COVID-19 vaccines under development according to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine.

Discussions with CureVac should result in an early purchase contract, the EU executive said in a statement.

The envisaged contract “would allow all EU member states to buy the vaccine and also to donate to low and middle income countries or to transfer it back to European countries,” he said.

The initial purchase would be 225 million doses on behalf of EU member states, once the efficacy and safety of a vaccine has been demonstrated.

This is the fourth agreement reached in connection with the purchase of vaccines by the Commission.

Brussels has already reserved 300 million of the vaccine in preparation for the French Sanofi, and 400 million for that of the American Johnson & Johnson.

On August 14, the Commission also signed an advance purchase contract with the Swedish-British pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million additional doses.

VIDEO: Videography on postilions

“The European Commission is keeping its promise to ensure that Europeans and the world have rapid access to a safe vaccine that protects us against the coronavirus. Each round of negotiations we conclude with the pharmaceutical industry brings us closer to victory against this virus” , welcomed the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, quoted in the press release Thursday.


Thirty new marine species discovered in the Galapagos

Thirty new marine species have been discovered in the depths of the Ecuadorian Galapagos archipelago reserve, the management of this reserve, one of the largest in the world, announced on Monday.

Among the new invertebrates discovered are four species of okupa lobster, fifteen species of coral, one species of starfish and eleven species of sponges, the Galapagos National Park (PNG) said in a statement.

These discoveries were made using unmanned underwater devices that can descend to a depth of 3,400 meters, the PNG said.

“The depths of the sea remain the last frontier on Earth, and this study provides an exhaustive knowledge of” the fauna that lives there, said Spanish oceanologist Pelayo Salinas de Leon, member of the Charles Darwin Foundation (FCD) and of the National Geographic specialty television station’s Pristine Seas project, which led the study.

The explorations, which took place in 2015 and the results of which have just been revealed, focused on three seamounts located in the reserve, on the outskirts of Darwin and Wolf Islands.

“These underwater mountains are found in the Galapagos Marine Reserve and are protected from destructive human practices such as bottom trawling or deep-sea mining, practices which have catastrophic effects on these fragile communities,” he said. underlined Mr. Salinas de Leon.

With 138,000 square kilometers, the Galapagos Marine Reserve is the second largest in the world. Its depths conceal very diverse habitats that nourish the biodiversity of the islands, located some 1,000 kilometers from the Ecuadorian coast.

There is also between the Darwin and Wolf Islands, in the north of the archipelago, a natural sanctuary of 38,000 square kilometers which is home to the largest population of sharks in the world.

The Galapagos have one of the most fragile ecosystems, with unique flora and fauna. They served as a field of study for the British naturalist Charles Darwin who then developed his theory of the evolution of species.


Scientists have developed a mini ‘beetle’ robot that moves forward without a battery

A team from the University of Southern California has developed an 88 milligram robot that moves, climbs and carries loads using artificial muscles, after solving a problem that has long held engineers in check: the source of energy on such small robots.

They named their robot “RoBeetle”, or beetle robot. It is only 15 millimeters in length, which makes the robotic beetle “one of the lightest and smallest autonomous robots ever created,” its inventor, Xiufeng Yang, told AFP.

“We wanted to create a robot whose weight and size would be comparable to those of real insects”, adds the researcher, the first author of the article describing the invention Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

Most robots need electric motors to move forward, and therefore batteries. But the smallest existing batteries weigh between 10 and 20 times more than the 50 milligram beetle the team took as a reference animal.

Xiufeng Yang’s team therefore developed an artificial muscular system based on a liquid fuel, in this case methanol, capable of providing ten times more energy than a battery of identical mass.

Muscles are made of an alloy of nickel and titanium wires (Nitinol) which contract lengthwise when heated (unlike most metals, which lengthen). The heat was caused by the contact between the methanol vapor emanating from the tank and a catalyst sheathing the wires (a platinum powder).

The steam heated the wires, the “muscles” contracted, then microvalves automatically stopped the combustion, and the muscles stretched again, triggering the reopening of the valves and a new cycle of contraction-extension of the muscles, until exhaustion. of the tank.

The system was able to move the beetle’s front legs forward on flat surfaces, like glass, or rough, like the top of a mattress, for up to two hours in a row – with up to 2.6 times its weight on the back.

By comparison, “the smallest four-legged battery-powered robot weighs one gram and operates for about 12 minutes,” Xiufeng Yang said.

What can these mini-robots be used for? Infrastructure inspections, rescue missions after a natural disaster, even artificial pollinations or environmental monitoring programs.

But for the time being, the lack of on-board electronics, and the fact that it only knows how to move forward, limit its usefulness, point out roboticists Ryan Truby and Shuguang Li, of MIT and Harvard respectively, in a commentary published by the same journal.