So Much for Earth Being Special: There Could Be 20 Billion Just Like It

Science & Space

The planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope is deservedly celebrated for some of its more dramatic discoveries: a world with two suns, for example, a planet half-shrouded with clouds, a planet whose size and composition are a near match to Earth’s. But the ship is in some ways a pretty prosaic machine — a robot census taker, no more, no less, hanging in space and counting heads, to determine how many stars other than our own are home to planets. Like a census taker too, however, it has to make some pretty elaborate inferences.

It’s not possible to detect and count every single planet in the Milky Way, any more than it’s possible to shake the hand and take the name of every single person living in the U.S. In both cases, a sort of statistical sampling is often involved. When you know enough about most of the…

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Urban Wastelands: The World’s 10 Most Polluted Places

Science & Space

Climate change may get most of the attention, but the biggest environmental risk to human health today isn’t global warming. It’s industrial pollution, often in poor cities and towns where factories, power plants and chemical facilities face little to no regulation.  A new report from the Blacksmith Institute—an NGO that addresses industrial pollution—estimates that industrial pollution poses a health risk to more than 200 million people around the world, often through elevated levels of cancer, respiratory disease and other illnesses. The report names and shames ten of the most polluted places on the planet, which range from the oil-contaminated Niger Delta in Nigeria to the badly polluted Soviet-era industrial town of Dzerzhinsk in Russia. Life in these places can be short and brutal, but the good news is that cleaning up this sort of old industrial pollution is often much cheaper and easier than dealing with the pervasive problem of…

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Falling Stars: Starfish Dying From “Disintegrating” Disease

Science & Space

When marine researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz traveled to Alaska this summer, they noticed something unsettling in the waters near Sitka: populations of starfish were losing their arms. Then other reports started pouring in to their laboratory: from Southern California to British Columbia, uncounted numbers of one of America’s best known sea species appeared to be disintegrating.

It’s normal for a tiny portion of starfish populations to suffer from so-called “wasting syndrome.” If the creatures’ skin is wounded or becomes too dry, little lesions can become infected and lead to the loss of arms. But the disease is typically isolated to one or two starfish among hundreds in a rocky tide pool. And even in bad cases, it rarely stretches beyond a single population. “The spatial extent is unprecedented,” says Pete Raimondi, chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at UC Santa Cruz, which monitors starfish…

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