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White House Honors Two Techies for Making Programming Cool

Bay Area residents Carlos Bueno and Kimberly Bryant are helping to prepare kids to use programming concepts in daily life and work.

Tech Titans Join Forces on Internet Surveillance

More than 60 technology firms and other groups are urging the federal government to let companies disclose Patriot Act data requests.

The Story of Elon Musk and His 'Quest for a Fantastic Future'

Elon Musk has achieved success across multiple industries, with Tesla Motors, Solar City and SpaceX all under his leadership. A new biography by Bloomberg reporter Ashlee Vance digs into the stories behind Musk's success, the CEO's desire to colonize Mars and the respect and fear his employees reportedly have for him. Vance joins us to talk about his book, "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future."

Bay Area Startups Seek to Transform Health Care

Bay Area digital health startups raised $1 billion in venture capital in 2014, a 125 percent increase from the previous year. The sector promises better management and treatment of diseases like diabetes and improved access to health data. But health care is a notoriously challenging business and the rapid growth of this industry raises serious questions of privacy and efficacy. We'll take the pulse of the digital health industry. What new products and therapies offer real hope? And which are merely hype?

PBS NewsHour

Lock and load for New Horizons, flight plan for Pluto probe is set

The New Horizons probe will search for signs of clouds or an atmosphere on Pluto, as depicted in this artist's conception.
         The probe's final course was set on Friday. Illustration by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

The New Horizons probe will search for signs of an atmosphere and clouds on Pluto, as depicted in this artist’s conception. The probe’s final course was set on Friday. Illustration by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Having determined no last-minute course corrections are needed to avoid debris, the New Horizons team has radioed the flight plan to the spacecraft in advance of its close flyby of Pluto on July 14.

“IT’S HAPPENING! IT’S HAPPENING!” was the message scrawled across the New Horizons’ Facebook page at around 9 am EDT on Friday. “The command load (flight plan) for close flyby has been sent to New Horizons this morning! The load is racing to New horizons at the speed of light is now about at the orbit of Uranus.”

The New Horizons spacecraft is about the size of a baby grand piano and carries a suite of seven instruments, including optical cameras, spectrometers, dust impact counters, plasma particle detectors, and radio equipment. The main camera is called the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI.

“It’s very detailed imagery at closest approach,” New Horizons’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern said. “LORRI will allow us to map the surface of Pluto well enough that if we flew over New York City at the same altitude and looked down with LORRI, we could count the ponds in Central Park and the wharfs on the Hudson.”

Even traveling at the speed of light, it takes about four and a half hours for signals to travel the 3 billion miles between the spacecraft and Earth.

The transmission of the flight plan caps weeks of hazard assessments in which team members scoured images and other data gathered by the New Horizons probe to determine if any previously-unspotted moons, dust clouds or other rocky debris could pose a threat to the spacecraft as it zooms thorough the Pluto system at 31,000 miles per hour.

New color images from the New Horizons spacecraft show two very different faces of the mysterious dwarf planet, one with
         a series of intriguing spots along the equator that are evenly spaced. Each of the spots is about 300 miles in diameter, with
         a surface area that's roughly the size of the state of Missouri. Photo by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest
         Research Institute

New color images from the New Horizons spacecraft show two very different faces of the mysterious dwarf planet, one with a series of intriguing spots along the equator that are evenly spaced. Each of the spots is about 300 miles in diameter, with a surface area that’s roughly the size of the state of Missouri. Photo by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Traveling at that speed, the spacecraft will only spend about 12 hours in close proximity to Pluto and its five known moons. While it has been transmitting a steady stream of data during its approach, New Horizons is programmed to spend all its time and energy collecting images and other scientific data while it sails in the immediate vicinity of Pluto. The spacecraft will only start sending that close flyby data back once it is past Pluto.

“We decided early on that as the spacecraft flies by Pluto, the mission’s objective should be to acquire as much scientific material as we possibly can,” New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver said. “That means that we can’t have the antenna simultaneously pointing back to the earth, beaming back the data.”

Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, will be prime targets for New Horizons; though the other moons – Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos – will get their fair share of observation time as well.

Until now, scientists have not had access to much high-resolution data about Pluto – even images from the Hubble Space Telescope show it as a pixelated blob.

The first movie created by New Horizons reveals color surface features of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. The movie
         comprises six high-resolution black-and-white images from New Horizons’ LORRI instrument combined with color data from the
         Ralph Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer to produce the movie. Movie by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics
         Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

The first movie created by New Horizons reveals color surface features of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. The movie comprises six high-resolution black-and-white images from New Horizons’ LORRI instrument combined with color data from the Ralph visible and infrared imager/spectrometer to produce the movie. Movie by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

For Pluto proper, the science team is particularly interested in learning more about its atmosphere and surface features.

“We’re going to be looking for hazes in Pluto’s atmosphere,” said Weaver. “We’ll be looking in stereo to see if there are deep valleys and high mountains. We’ll also be taking a time series of photographs so that we can tell whether or not it looks like things are moving across the surface…potentially from vents on the surface.”

Charon is also of huge interest, given the moon has the same diameter as Texas and is large enough to be a planet itself, Stern said.

“It may even have an ocean beneath its surface,” Stern said. “So we’re going to look very carefully at Charon to study its geology, its composition, its interior, and to search for an atmosphere around it.”

The post Lock and load for New Horizons, flight plan for Pluto probe is set appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Want to spot an outbreak before your friends? Look at this map

Reports of avian influenza from the past month via the website HealthMap. Photo by HealthMap.

Reports of avian influenza from the past month via the website HealthMap. Photo by HealthMap.

HealthMap is like the Reddit of emerging infectious disease. Created by researchers, epidemiologists and computer scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital in 2006, HealthMap combs online postings from around the globe to locate disease outbreaks in real-time.

PBS NewsHour correspondent Miles O’Brien paid a visit to HealthMap’s headquarters in Boston and chatted with its co-founder, John Brownstein. This digital map can’t spell out the exact number of cases happening in an area or the precise city streets to avoid if you’re worried about getting sick, but it does spot the newest outbreaks with quick precision. For instance, HealthMap caught a tip about last year’s Ebola outbreak nine days before the World Health Organization made their first public statement about the eventual epidemic. Public health experts at HealthMap also scan the data to create solutions for the social disruption caused by an outbreaks.

You can also watch NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan’s conversation with John Brownstein from August 2014 here.

The post Want to spot an outbreak before your friends? Look at this map appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

How a sniff of a flower could help diagnose autism in kids

Some children with autism don't react to pleasant or foul odors, according to a new study. Photo by deniseedgellslark/Getty
         Images

Some children with autism don’t react to pleasant or foul odors in the same ways as kids without autism, according to a new study. Photo by deniseedgellslark/Getty Images

The smell of freshly baked brownies can trigger a stampede to the kitchen, while the stench of a garbage dump makes us hold our breath. Now, a study from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel shows that not everyone takes a deep breath to capture a whiff of a cookie or plugs their nose when the smell of a skunk draws near.

Children with autism inhale through their nose or sniff with the same fervor across all smells — good or bad — according to the new study in Current Biology. The investigation found that children without autism take long, deep sniffs in response to pleasant aromas and short, shallow sniffs around unpleasant odors.

“The response is automatic, they do this without thinking,” said Liron Rozenkrantz, the lead neuroscientist on the project.

The team studied the sniffs of 36 children, half of which had autism. To measure each sniff, scientists used a ‘computer-controlled air-dilution olfactometer’ – a computer connected to a small collection of tubing and wires that stretched from ear to ear and rested just below the nose. The apparatus delivered scents and measured sniffs at the same time. Rose and shampoo scents served as pleasant aromas, while foul odors comprised sour milk and rotten fish odors. During the ten minute experiment, the kids watched a cartoon or played a simple computer game as a distraction.

The study found that autistic children with the weakest social skills had the most abnormal sniffing patterns. The researchers also determined that the autistic sniffing pattern isn’t due to a preference for good or bad smells. Children with autism were just as good as children without autism at pointing out items that generally smell good or bad in a visual task. However, there was no connection between sniffing behavior and the motor impairments seen with autism.

The researchers designed a computer algorithm that could recognize these autistic sniffing patterns. Ultimately, the program was able to successfully diagnose autistic children 81 percent of the time. Developing a non-verbal test to diagnose autism, such as this computer program, could help to plan early interventions.

An image depicting the measurement of nasal airflow while a child is presented with pleasant and unpleasant odors. Children
         were able to watch a cartoon during the ten minute experiment.  Photo by Ofer Perl

An image depicting the measurement of nasal airflow while a child is presented with pleasant and unpleasant odors. Children were able to watch a cartoon during the ten minute experiment.
Photo by Ofer Perl

This new computer program is good at spotting autism in children around seven years old, but questions remain over where it could detect autism earlier than four years old – the average age of diagnosis.

Noam Sobel, a neurobiologist and senior author on the study, definitely thinks it is possible but acknowledges more research is needed. It can be difficult to get older autistic children to try sniffing equipment, he said, but babies don’t refuse and the procedure is nonaversive. His four-month-old daughter didn’t fuss when he put the apparatus on her face. Now two years old, she showed a typical sniffing pattern, but “we need to see this in more than one case,” Sobel said. Future studies will look at younger children and different neurodevelopmental disorders.

Sobel wonders “whether olfactory impairment is at the heart of the social impairment in autism.” Social chemosignals, like olfaction, are a major component in all mammals. Dog owners see this when their furry friend gets up close and personal with another pup out for a walk.

“Even though we aren’t consciously aware of it, humans pick up on these signals – fear, social dominance and sexual reciprocity. Imagine a world where you get all those signals wrong, you are going to be socially impaired,” Sobel said, suggesting that distorted sniffing may contribute to impaired social skills.

The post How a sniff of a flower could help diagnose autism in kids appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

The science of sleeping in, and why you probably shouldn’t

Photo by Robert Daly/Getty Images.

Puberty delays the circadian clock, meaning teens are wired to stay up later. But this has its challenges. Photo by Robert Daly/Getty Images.

I hate sleeping in, but that’s mainly because I can’t. Almost every day, since I was a teen, regardless of whether it’s a weekday, weekend or holiday, I wake up at 6 am.

As an early bird, I admit to some delusions of morning grandeur — “Let’s wake up early Saturday and climb a mountain!” — but being a morning lark has proved annoying to others in my life, particularly those who function by “catching up” on sleep over the weekends.

Maybe you’ve experienced this too? Your boyfriend/girlfriend/life partner/spouse groans as you roll out of bed at the crack of dawn, eager to climb mountains. Brunch invitations are a logistical quagmire; do you starve yourself for hours or eat breakfast twice in one morning?

work-life-balance-badge

Night owls have the opposite problem. I’ve heard them hoot, “If only I could go to bed early and wake up early. I’d be so productive!”

Is this true though? Does waking early improve productivity? Is there a downside to shifting the sleep schedule from weekday to weekend? Would we be better off if we could switch our sleep schedule preference, known as our chronotype? PBS NewsHour tracked down two sleep experts to explain the science of sleep.

Did sleeping in evolve to give teens a sexual edge?

When we’re newborns, we need oodles of sleep, as much as 17 hours in chunks spread throughout the day. But as we age, less sleep is required, and we settle into a nighttime schedule that is controlled by two biological processes: our homeostatic sleep drive and our circadian rhythm.

Sleep drive alerts the body to when it needs sleep. Imagine carrying a bucket of water throughout the day. We wake up to an empty bucket that gradually fills as we perform our daily duties. The longer that we stay awake, the more that the bucket fills, until our bodies succumb and demand sleep.

“Sleep drive accumulates the longer you’re awake, and then dissipates with sleep,” said psychologist Brant Hasler of the University of Pittsburgh, who studies how sleep and circadian rhythms influence reward seeking. Sleep empties the bucket, leaving you fresh, unburdened and alert in the morning.

Your circadian rhythm, on other hand, is a roller coaster that regulates your alertness and grogginess during the day.

“This rhythm would be present even if we lived in a cave,” said Kelly Glazer Baron, a clinical health psychologist at Northwestern University, who says that our circadian clocks are governed by a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This timekeeping pocket of 20,000 neurons cycles your blood pressure, body temperature and sleep hormones like melatonin throughout the day to control alertness and drowsiness. External factors like light exposure and physical activity determine when this rollercoaster peaks — for most people that’s right after waking and during the late afternoon — and when it hits sluggish low-points — 1 pm to 3 pm and at night. The evening lull in your circadian clock should ideally sync with a full sleep drive bucket, allowing you to fall asleep comfortably.

Enter puberty. Puberty delays the circadian clock, meaning teens are naturally wired to stay up later. During this time, Hasler said, it takes longer to fill the sleep drive, feel tired and want sleep.

Children get sleepy soon after sunset, but most teens — especially boys — prefer to stay awake about three hours longer and sleep in later the next day. Then around the age of 20, our schedules creep back again toward being morning larks. This same pattern holds in other mammals. But why?

“The evolutionary perspective has been that sleep-phase delay allows adolescents to pursue autonomy, and animal researchers put it towards competition for mates,” Hasler said. “By staying up later, they’re not competing with parents for reproductive success, which gives an advantage.”

In other words, in the days of primeval humans, adolescents might have used this trait to compete with older alpha males and females who slept earlier, given that heightened sexual activity tends toward “eveningness” in animals as well as men and women today.

Illustration by fuzzyscience

The circadian clock. Illustration by fuzzyscience

Your “lazy” teen might just be tired

Research has shown that sleep loss due to early morning school schedules can increase a teen’s risk toward obesity, mood disorders like depression, drug use and automobile accidents.

The latter two behaviors might stem from how adolescents judge rewards and sensation seeking, according to Hasler. In a 2012 study, his team looked at the fMRI brain scans of teenagers while the teens made judgments about monetary rewards. The weekday-weekend shift in sleep reduced brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and striatum, which govern why we pursue rewards and our sense of fulfillment once we receive a reward, respectively.

According to the study, less prefrontal cortex activation might impair a teen’s ability to weigh the pros and cons of different rewards, leading to risk taking. Meanwhile, “there are some models of substance abuse showing that reduced reward sensitivity causes people to seek out greater, higher and more intense rewards to get the same bang for the buck, said Hasler.

“We get these kids in the clinic with delayed sleep phase disorder. They’re failing out of school or struggling terribly in school, because they can’t get up on time. We have to find ways to help them,” Hasler said.

Baron agrees, suggesting that in an ideal world both teens and adults would have school schedules or jobs that match their sleep preference or chronotype. About 10 percent of people lean toward being morning larks, while 30 percent are night owls, according to a 2007 study by chronobiologist Till Roenneberg. The majority of people fall somewhere in between. (You can discover your chronotype by taking this questionnaire, by keeping a sleep diary or by wearing a sleep tracking device, Baron said).

“I treat night owls with delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. We can give sleep behavior recommendations, light therapy or melatonin to shift their sleep times to earlier,” she said. “But they’re never going to like it as much or feel as good as they do at night.”

Sleeping late on the weekend feels good…at least in the beginning

The adolescent habit of sleeping in is hard to break as we become adults, especially on the weekends. And lifestyle disrupts our preferred schedules. Night owls are forced to rise early for school or work. Social activities keep early risers up late. This disharmony between societal obligations and our sleep cycles is called social jetlag, a concept coined by Roenneberg. And social jetlag has some unpleasant side effects.

“People like to sleep in on the weekends because it makes them feel better,” Baron said. “The problem is you’re at a greater disadvantage for getting on track during the week.” Sleeping late upsets the balance between the sleep drive and the circadian clock. And shortchanging our slumber throws our sleep and circadian patterns out of whack, which at best, manifests as crankiness/grogginess and at worst, as illnesses like depression or infections.

Also, you’re kidding yourself if you think that you’ve adjusted to a misaligned, weekday-weekend sleep schedule. Studies shows that over time, people lose their self-awareness of their sleep impairment. Their reaction times slow and they judge themselves as less sleepy than they actually are.

“That’s one of my big fears about what’s going on in greater society. People think that they’ve trained themselves to get by on less and less sleep, but what they’ve really done is lose track of the effects. They lack awareness of how bad it’s really getting,” Hasler said.

There are health consequences for tweaking your sleep schedule, especially staying up later than normal.

We’ve looked at sleep timing, meal timing and weight regulation. People who go to bed late eat more fast food and fewer fruits and veggies,” said Baron. This pattern is independent of sleep duration, so even when subjects get the requisite seven to eight hours of sleep at night, they still eat more calories. Others have reported that social jetlag might increase BMI, particularly in people who are already overweight, Baron said. Two recent studies from Finland and South Korea have linked being a night owl to diabetes.

Going to sleep early on Sunday won’t save you

So you’ve partied like a rockstar on Friday and Saturday night, and plan to recover by turning in early on Sunday. Sorry, this probably won’t work, Baron says. It creates something he calls “sleep onset insomnia.” Staying up late over the weekend combines with anticipatory workweek stress to keep you up late.

“You’re nervous about the week, and you try to get in bed earlier, but since you’ve shifted later over the weekend, you’re body’s not ready to sleep then. That’s probably almost everyone’s Sunday night,” Baron said.

Here’s a better gameplan, says Hasler: wake at a your normal time on weekends and take short naps.

“It’s better to not sleep in on the weekends and then take an afternoon nap to make up for lost sleep,” Hasler said. That’s because sleeping late changes when external signals, like light exposure, interact with the circadian clock — causing it to start later.

But don’t go overboard with cat naps.

“Naps are definitely an effective countermeasure for sleep loss, but it can be hard to gauge the impact the following night,” said Baron. “For people with sleep problems, often I would say catch up for one hour, but less than two.”

For occasions like Daylight Savings, when schedules are forced to shift, Baron recommends gradually shifting before clocks spring forward.

“In the days before Daylight Savings, gradually move your bedtime and set your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier every day,” Baron said.

The post The science of sleeping in, and why you probably shouldn’t appeared first on PBS NewsHour.