Sometimes astronomy can be challenging, but spotting Mars this weekend should be a breeze.
Step 1: Head outside right after sunset and look toward the southeastern sky.
Step 2: Find the full moon. (So far, so good, right?)
Step 3: Look up and to the right, and find what looks like a bright red star.
That’s Mars, our planetary neighbor — getting up close and personal.
This weekend is the “Mars opposition,” when the planet shines most brightly; at the end of the month, in a related event, we’ll have the “Mars close approach,” when there’s the shortest distance between the two planets.
The term “Mars opposition” is an old one, explains NASA scientist Michelle Thaller. It dates back to the days when astronomers had a more Earth-centric view of the universe.
During the Mars opposition early Sunday, Mars and the sun will be on opposite sides of Earth. When the sun is setting, Mars will be rising.
“The cool thing is, now that we understand that the Earth is a planet and that we’re all going around the sun together, we know that it means that this is the closest Mars ever gets to us,” Thaller says.
“And that means it’s the best time to look at Mars from Earth. … Mars is the largest we ever see.”
That’s still pretty small, she notes — the size of a star, not a large disc. (A recurring Internet hoax maintains that Mars sometimes gets as large as the moon, which, well, is a hoax). But it’ll be readily visible, near the moon all night long, and will be conspicuously bright for at least a week.
Mars opposition happens approximately every other year, although some years the planets are closer than others. The 2016 opposition event will be the closest the planets have been in more than a decade, EarthSky reports.
The Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of the proximity to turn its cameras — often focused at far-distant stretches of space — closer to home.
NASA released new Hubble photos of the Red Planet this week.
Mars, as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope this month as Mars and Earth approached opposition. NASA hide caption
toggle caption NASA
The image includes a glimpse of Martian weather — clouds on the face of the planet — as well as noteworthy landmarks, NASA explains:
“The large, dark region at far right is Syrtis Major Planitia, one of the first features identified on the surface of the planet by seventeenth-century observers. Christiaan Huygens used this feature to measure the rotation rate of Mars. (A Martian day is about 24 hours and 37 minutes.) Today we know that Syrtis Major is an ancient, inactive shield volcano. Late-afternoon clouds surround its summit in this view.
“A large oval feature to the south of Syrtis Major is the bright Hellas Planitia basin. About 1,100 miles across and nearly five miles deep, it was formed about 3.5 billion years ago by an asteroid impact.
“The orange area in the center of the image is Arabia Terra, a vast upland region in northern Mars that covers about 2,800 miles. The landscape is densely cratered and heavily eroded, indicating that it could be among the oldest terrains on the planet. Dried river canyons (too small to be seen here) wind through the region and empty into the large northern lowlands.
“South of Arabia Terra, running east to west along the equator, are the long dark features known as Sinus Sabaeus (to the east) and Sinus Meridiani (to the west). These darker regions are covered by dark bedrock and fine-grained sand deposits ground down from ancient lava flows and other volcanic features. These sand grains are coarser and less reflective than the fine dust that gives the brighter regions of Mars their ruddy appearance. Early Mars watchers first mapped these regions.”
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Seed labels from the J.C. Robinson Seed Co. Courtesy of Rob-See-Co hide caption
toggle caption Courtesy of Rob-See-Co
Most food, if we trace it back far enough, began as a seed. And the business of supplying those seeds to farmers has been transformed over the past half-century. Small-town companies have given way to global giants.
A new round of industry consolidation is now underway. Multibillion-dollar mergers are in progress, or under discussion, that could put more than half of global seed sales in the hands of three companies.
If there’s anyone who can trace the course of this transformation, and explain what drove it, it’s Ed Robinson.
For most of his life, Robinson ran the family business: the J.C. Robinson Seed Co. of Waterloo, Neb. He’s 92 years old now, feisty and full of opinions, especially about the seed business.
“Here are two kernels of corn,” he says, holding them up for me to inspect. “What the seed industry does is sell what’s inside this kernel. And the only way that the farmer knows what’s in there, is if he trusts the person who sold it!”
Seeds, with their hidden potential, are the lifeblood of agriculture, but the companies that sold them to farmers didn’t always attract much attention.
There used to be hundreds of family-run companies just like J.C. Robinson scattered across the Midwest.
“They were a band of wonderful people,” Robinson says.
Much of the work was mundane. They grew vegetables or grain, then collected the seeds carefully, dried them, sorted them and sold them to farmers.
There was, of course, competition among them. It was a race to create ever-more-productive seeds using plant breeding, cross-pollinating selected plants and selecting the best offspring.
The big companies did their breeding in-house. But smaller companies had other sources of top varieties, such as the breeding programs of universities. Those seeds were free for anyone to use.
One product of Iowa State University, a type of corn called B73, was so good that everybody used it. Its offspring had a distinctive look, with leaves pointing toward the sky.
“You could see it driving down the road,” says Steve Pike, who owned part of Fontanelle Seed Co. in Fremont, Neb. “Probably 60 percent of the corn at one time got to be that upright leaf.”
Rob-See-Co seeds, from an earlier era. Courtesy of Rob-See-Co hide caption
toggle caption Courtesy of Rob-See-Co
In 1970, J.C. Robinson partnered with several other seed companies and formed a group called Golden Harvest. It became one of the top five sellers of corn seed in the country. In the 1990s, J.C. Robinson built a big new seed processing plant and enlarged its headquarters in Waterloo.
And right about that time, the world changed.
Chemical companies like Monsanto found a way to genetically engineer crops. They inserted new genes into corn and soybeans, giving plants the power to kill insects, or survive weedkillers.
And farmers wanted those genes. Traditional seed companies, if they wanted to stay competitive, had to license those genes from their inventors. Many worried about being cut off from this new technology.
In 1998, Monsanto and other biotech companies started trying to buy some of the biggest seed companies outright. It gave them more control over an increasingly lucrative business.
Ed Robinson’s son Rob says an offer arrived to buy Golden Harvest. “It was an amount beyond belief,” he says. “I think it was $500 million.”
Ed Robinson (right) in 1948. He is speaking to Herb Johnson, who was in charge of shipping for the J.C. Robinson Seed Co. Courtesy of Rob-See-Co hide caption
toggle caption Courtesy of Rob-See-Co
The potential buyer — Robinson won’t say which company — arrived for a meeting accompanied by advisers. They sat down with all five Golden Harvest partners — old seed company families.
“One of their advisers was sitting next to Dad,” Rob Robinson says. “And this adviser was chanting ‘$500 million!’ to the group of owners sitting there. It wasn’t anything we’d experienced before.”
That deal didn’t go through. But in 2004, Golden Harvest agreed to be acquired by a Swiss-based company — Syngenta — for just under $200 million.
Rob Robinson has mixed feelings about the deal. “Originally, I regretted it. I felt that we needed to do it, for the future of the company. But I had sons … “
Robinson stops midsentence, unable for a moment to keep talking.
He gathers himself. “I think the only regret is that we had another generation ready to come into the business,” he says.
The big corn seed facility remains in Waterloo, and it’s busy. But the top executives who decide its fate are now in Syngenta’s headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. And soon, they may be sitting in Beijing. Syngenta has struck a deal to be acquired by Chem China, a state-owned enterprise there.
Ed Robinson, who ran the J.C. Robinson Seed Co. for 58 years, with his son Rob Robinson (left). Dan Charles/NPR hide caption
toggle caption Dan Charles/NPR
If the deals go through, it’s estimated that three of these companies will control more than half of global seed sales.
Ed Robinson doesn’t like it at all. “I wish the old-fashioned seed business were back,” he says. “I think the farmer would be better off, and the U.S. would be better off.”
But his son, Rob Robinson, says the changes were probably necessary. Without those big companies, he says, we wouldn’t have the new technology.
“The dollars that it takes today, the investment it takes to do biotech research is massive, and difficult for an independent seed company like the J.C. Robinson Seed Co. to afford,” he says.
But he has been able to resurrect one small piece of that old-fashioned world.
He’s started a small but growing seed company, using the original name that his great-grandfather used: Rob-See-Co. Robinson says the company tries to operate in a way that takes farmers back to a less complicated time. “We’re kind of a throwback. We’re from a simpler world,” he says.
He’s also able to work with his two sons.
But he couldn’t go back completely to the old times. He’s not breeding his own new varieties and corn hybrids. The seeds he sells are supplied by Syngenta.
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr chant slogans after breaking into Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone on Friday. Ahmad al-Rubaye /AFP/Getty Images hide caption
toggle caption Ahmad al-Rubaye /AFP/Getty Images
For the second time this month, demonstrators stormed Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to Iraq’s parliament, government buildings and embassies.
NPR’s Alison Meuse reports the Iraqi Interior Ministry confirmed that “indirect fire and tear gas were used to quell today’s protests.” The government also declared a citywide curfew.
“Riot police are dealing with anyone trying to damage state institutions in accordance with the law,” Iraq’s military says, according to Reuters.
Witnesses told the news service that “dozens” of protesters were injured from “tear gas and live fire,” though the use of live fire has not been confirmed. The Associated Press says one of its reporters “saw several protesters badly wounded and one was shot in the head” and adds that the demonstrators had been cleared out by evening.
News photos showed shocked-looking demonstrators carrying wounded colleagues out of the melee.
Many of the protesters were supporters of fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been publicly pressuring Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to follow through on promised reform measures. As we reported earlier this month, they’re frustrated by government deadlock that continues to delay anti-corruption measures. Reuters says, “Sadr did not explicitly call for Friday’s demonstration.”
The news service also reports that the demonstrators included people from other groups, many of them frustrated with the government’s failure to provide security.
— susannah george (@sgreports) May 20, 2016
Friday’s incident follows a series of deadly attacks in Iraq’s capital. Alison notes that “the past 10 days have seen the bloodiest string of ISIS attacks since the start of the year.”
The crackdown by security forces stands in contrast to the Green Zone breach earlier this month. As NPR’s Hannah Bloch reported, that demonstration had been “chaotic but largely peaceful.” Protesters withdrew from the area hours after they entered. Since then, according to the AP, delays of the reform legislation have left “the country’s government gridlocked and the parliament unable to convene.”
Donald Trump is introduced by National Rifle Association executive director Chris Cox (left) and NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre Friday at the organization’s convention in Louisville, Ky. Mark Humphrey/AP hide caption
toggle caption Mark Humphrey/AP
Then National Rifle Association announced its endorsement of Donald Trump Friday, just before the apparent Republican nominee addressed the National Rifle Association at its annual conference in Louisville, Ky.
“To get the endorsement, believe me, is a fantastic honor,” Trump said, adding that he and his sons are members of the NRA. “They’re much better shooters than I am,” he said.
“They have so many rifles and so many guns, I tell you, sometimes even I get a little concerned,” Trump said.
Saying the Second Amendment is “under attack” and “on the ballot in November,” Trump laid out his case as the best candidate to protecting gun rights and hit at Hillary Clinton’s stance on guns.
“The only way to save our Second Amendment is to vote for someone you know named Donald Trump,” he said “I will never let you down.”
Clinton and Trump, now likely opponents in the general election, are sure to increasingly clash on the issue. Clinton favors stricter background checks and holding dealers and manufacturers liable for crimes committed with their weapons.
“Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment … we’re going to preserve it, we’re going to cherish it, we’re going to protect it,” Trump said. “Crooked Hillary Clinton is the most anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment candidate ever to run for office.”
Trump, meanwhile, said he would “guarantee that law-abiding Americans have the right to self-defense, 100 percent.”
“Without defense, we don’t have a country,” he said, adding that he feels it is more important than economic issues.
This campaign, Trump has previously vowed to “totally protect” the Second Amendment, and has said more gun ownership would help prevent mass shootings. He echoed that theory his remarks Friday while talking about recent shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. “If we had guns on the other side, it wouldn’t have been that way,” he said. “I would have — boom,” he continued, making a gun gesture.
Trumps current stance on guns is a shift from the candidate’s earlier statements on the issue.
In 2000, he supported a ban on assault weapons and longer waiting periods, as he wrote in his book The America We Deserve (h/t NPR’s Sarah McCammon):
“I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun. With today’s Internet technology we should be able to tell within 72-hours if a potential gun owner has a record.”
A typical label includes safe cooking instructions. This label on blade-tenderized beef sold at Costco recommends 160 degrees as the minimum internal temperature, which doesn’t require a three-minute rest time. Lydia Zuraw/KHN for NPR hide caption
toggle caption Lydia Zuraw/KHN for NPR
A new label on some of the steaks in your grocery store highlights a production process you may have never heard of: mechanical tenderizing.
This means the beef has been punctured with blades or needles to break down the muscle fibers and make it easier to chew. But it also means the meat has a greater chance of being contaminated and making you sick.
The labels are a requirement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that went into effect this week.
“Blade tenderized,” that label might read, followed by safe cooking instructions: “Cook until steak reaches an internal temperature of 145 F as measured by a food thermometer and allow to rest for three minutes.” (Other labels might simply recommend cooking to 160 degrees, which doesn’t require a three-minute rest time.)
Why do you need to be so careful about how you cook tenderized meat?
If pathogens like E. coli or salmonella happen to be on the surface of the steak, tenderizing can transfer those bacteria from the surface to the inside. Since the inside takes longer to cook and is more likely to be under-cooked, bacteria have a higher chance for survival there.
And without a label, you can’t tell if you need to be especially careful with your steak.
Before labeling became a requirement, the grocery giant Costco voluntarily began labeling its mechanically tenderized beef in 2012, after an E. coli outbreak in Canada was linked to its blade-tenderized steaks. Lydia Zuraw/KHN for NPR hide caption
toggle caption Lydia Zuraw/KHN for NPR
“It doesn’t look any different,” says a spokesperson for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “It’s not filled with [visible] holes from the needle piercings.”
Mechanical tenderizing is not uncommon: Approximately 2.7 billion pounds, or about 11 percent of the beef labeled for sale, has been mechanically tenderized, according to FSIS. The new labels will affect an estimated 6.2 billion servings of steaks and roasts every year.
And it’s not unheard of for tenderized beef to be linked with food poisoning: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked six outbreaks of food-borne illness since 2000 that were linked to mechanically tenderized beef products prepared in restaurants and consumers’ homes.
In 2009, 21 people in 16 states were infected with the most common strain of dangerous E. coli, called O157. Nine had to be hospitalized, and one victim developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially fatal kidney disease. USDA food safety officials connected the illnesses to blade-tenderized steaks from National Steak and Poultry, and the company recalled 248,000 pounds of beef products.
“We need to improve how we tell consumers and the food service workers about the particular risks that would be involved in cooking it so that they can reduce the risk of illness,” says Patricia Buck, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Buck, who has been pushing for the labeling rule since 2009, says she’s “very excited” to see it happening. “I think it’s an important step in the direction we need to go.”
Even before the label became a requirement, Costco had been voluntarily labeling its meat. According to Consumer Reports, the grocery giant began labeling its mechanically tenderized beef in 2012 after an E. coli outbreak in Canada was linked to its blade-tenderized steaks.
Consumer advocate Buck lost her toddler grandson to an E. coli O157 infection in 2001. “I don’t like scaring people,” she says, “but on the other hand, people don’t really know that these can be really deadly pathogens.”
Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Egyptians pray for the victims of EgyptAir flight 804 at the al-Thawrah Mosque in Cairo on Friday. The Egyptian military said it had found some wreckage of the plane, which was carrying 66 people when it went down early Thursday.over the Mediterranean Sea. Amr Nabil/AP hide caption
toggle caption Amr Nabil/AP
After the regular Friday prayers at Cairo’s Sultan Hussain Mosque, it was time to say prayers for the dead.
Worshippers outside for the overflow service stood in neat rows through four calls of “God is great.” They said silent prayers in between.
Afterward, Khalid al-Kassam, 67, received hugs and claps on the back from many friends. His brother and sister-in-law, plus their son and his wife, were all on Egypt Air Flight 804.
The son and his wife have two small girls, one age 2, the other just eight months old. The children were not on the plane. They stayed with relatives in Cairo while their parents and grandparents went for what Kassam said was a vacation to Paris.
“What can you say? It’s life. It’s life. And there are many tragedies, not only ours. There are tragedies,” said Kassam.
Egypt’s military said the navy has found some of the wreckage and some human remains of EgyptAir flight 804, which went down in the Mediterranean Sea early Thursday. There’s still no word on what caused the crash that killed 66 people.
A friend of the Kassam family, Khalil Kandil, described Ghassan Abu Laban, the father of those two little girls left behind, as a “gentle” person who had been married three years. His wife was from Syria, Kandil says.
“All these accidents, you always hear about them, and they’re somebody else,” Kandil adds. “That’s the first time for me to have somebody I really know, know very well, that he’s taken away.”
But it’s not just a personal loss that Kandil feels. He’s a businessman. He has worked in heavy industry and shipping consumer goods to neighboring countries. He says in the end, the deadly crash just adds to the current woes of the region.
“At the end of the day, nobody will care a lot about why this plane crashed. Is it really a terrorist act or a [mechanical] failure? It’s just another problem adding to the area, killing the tourism,” he said.
A sense of deep sorrow sprinkled with fatalism permeated the crowd on the mosque sidewalk. Mariam Abu Shakra, who just graduated from college, came to pay her respects even though she did not know any of those killed.
“It affected a lot of people,” she said. “And it’s not something small. It’s not something someone could be quiet about – it’s something huge. I don’t know, I just see it as something really big.”
Mayte Torres/Getty Images
Aristotle wrote that imitation is natural to human beings from childhood, and he observed that this is one of our advantages over the so-called lower animals.
A human being is “the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation,” he said.
In the last two millennia, we have learned very little that would contradict Aristotle’s believe that imitation — the ability to see others and do what they do — is critical for human learning and development. But is it true that we learn “at first” by imitation?
Notice, it is one thing to say that humans learn by imitation, and another to say that imitation is innate, an in-born capacity that is triggered at birth. For the last 30 years, or so, this innateness hypothesis has been widely accepted on the strength of experimental evidence supposedly showing that neonates reliably mimic facial gestures (such as sticking out the tongue). The discovery in the 90s of cells in the frontal lobes of monkeys that fire not only when an animal performs an action, but also when they witness that very action being performed by another — so-called “mirror neurons” — seemed, to many, to give a clue to the mechanisms underlying our in-born capacity to imitate.
One prominent cognitive scientist went so far as to say that mirror neurons are likely to do for psychology what DNA did for biology; they are a plausible candidate for the neural machinery that lets us, from the moment of birth, perceive and understand each other and that, in turn, make human relationships and human society possible. And this, despite the fact that there is no direct evidence of the existence of these cells in human beings. (For more on mirror neurons and what they explain or don’t explain, here’s a recording of a debate last year at NYU.)
And, so, it can only be considered an event of significance that, according to a study published this month in Current Biology, there is no evidence of imitation on the part of children in the first 9 weeks of life. More than 100 children were tested at weeks 1, 3, 6 and 9, using as models facial gestures, hand gestures and, as controls, inanimate objects; that is, each child was presented by nine natural face or hand gestures and then with two non-social things. There was no indication whatsoever that children were more likely to perform the movement or make the expression they were witnessing than they were any other movement.
Which is, of course, not to deny the importance of imitation for human learning, development and social life. But any theory that takes the innateness hypothesis for granted — such as the belief in an inborn imitation module realized in the mirror neuron system — can be considered undermined. In the words of the authors: “Our results undermine the idea of an innate imitation module and suggest that earlier studies reporting neonatal imitation were methodologically limited.”.
The authors of the study — Janine Oostenbroek, Thomas Suddendorf, Mark Nielsen, Jonathan Redshaw, Siobhan Kennedy-Costantini, Jacqueline Davis, Sally Clark, Virginia Slaughter — note that it is more likely that children learn to imitate or, at least, that they acquire the ability to do so, at something more like six months of age, as the great Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) had proposed.
As is typically the case with good science, there are still many questions unanswered. The fact that kids acquire the ability to imitate does not mean that they don’t acquire this ability by nature, just as many would argue that although kids aren’t born with the ability to talk, they are born with the ability to learn to talk. This would indicate that the opposition of learned vs. innate is perhaps too crude to help us understand our ability to make sense of each other.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe
A member of Doctors Without Borders looks out over the general hospital in the Central African Republic’s capital city, Bangui, in April 2014. Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
toggle caption Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images
Doctors Without Borders says it is suspending its work in areas the Central African Republic after gunmen ambushed a convoy and killed one of the aid group’s drivers.
The attack near the border with Chad is one of many recent attacks on the group’s staff members, highlighting the risks they are exposed to while treating patients in many of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones.
The ambush happened Wednesday, when armed men stopped a two-car convoy carrying doctors and patients. “The team was forced out of the cars and onto the ground,” the group said in a statement. “They were robbed of personal belongings and medication. In the course of the incident, which lasted for more than 40 minutes, one of the drivers was shot and killed.”
Michelle Chouinard, the group’s head of mission in the CAR, said the staff and patients “endured prolonged harassment, including bullets shot close to their heads and repeated verbal threats that they would be killed.”
She adds: “It is absolutely unacceptable that a team of medical workers and their patients were attacked while returning from providing lifesaving medical care.”
Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF, says it will suspend operations in the area “until such time as it receives adequate guarantees for the safety for its staff and the acceptance of its medical and humanitarian activities.”
The Central African Republic slid into chaos in 2013 when “mainly Muslim Seleka fighters toppled former president Francois Bozize. Christian militias responded to Seleka abuses by attacking the Muslim minority,” Reuters reports. It adds that 1 in 5 people have fled their homes because of the violence.
NPR’s Gregory Warner reports that attacks against the group have sharply increased around the world. He adds: “That’s one reason the group is boycotting next week’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, calling it a ‘fig-leaf of good intentions’ that fails to demand safety for unarmed aid workers or hold world leaders accountable for conflict.”
Michiel Hofman, a senior security adviser for Doctors Without Borders, tells NPR’s Jackie Northam that the group has regularly comes under “small-scale attack, such as looting and burning” over the years. But as Jackie reports, “over the last few years there’s been a dramatic increase of aerial attacks on its clinics or hospitals it supports. Those have been in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, on civilian medical facilities that should be untouchable under international humanitarian law.”
U.S. airstrikes killed 42 people when they hit a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in 2015, an incident that the Pentagon says was caused “by human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures.”
In April, a missile hit a hospital in embattled Aleppo, Syria. The attack killed at least 27 people. And as NPR’s Jason Beaubien reports, over the past seven months, “four MSF facilities in Yemen were hit by airstrikes.”
The group says that last year, 75 hospitals it manages or supports were bombed.