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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
Much to my mom’s chagrin, my father is a notorious believer in the “five-second rule”—when a chip falls on the floor, he has no compunction about picking it up and popping it in his mouth. I didn’t pick up that habit, but I also didn’t understand why mom got so agitated about it; he never seemed to come down with a stomach bug. And in a way, science backs him up: Stuff dropped on the floor does pick up a shocking amount of bacterial hitchhikers, but if you’re at home and you’ve been keeping things tidy, you’re not likely to have really harmful microbes on your floors in the first place.
Of course, that was before COVID-19. These days, I don’t touch a delivery box or a doorknob without vigorously washing my hands, much less sit down to a meal. Anything that hits the floor goes right in the trash, and then I wash my hands again.
From the start, “wash your hands” has been the mantra from health experts around the world as the most basic measure for protecting people and slowing the spread of this coronavirus. But what happens when access to clean water is a luxury, not a given? A single 20-second wash uses more than half a gallon of water, Nilanjana Bhowmick reports for Nat Geo. In rural India (pictured above), high percentages of households don’t have running water piped in, and many people rely on trucks to deliver set amounts every day. Sometimes, the trucks don’t come. The problem is compounded by drought and groundwater contamination. As a result, washing hands isn’t as much of a cultural norm.
Rural India isn’t alone. According to the CDC, about 663 million people around the world don’t have access to “improved” water sources, including piped water in homes and water from protected wells or springs. Some early reports even suggest that clean water access in the U.S. may be an emerging concern, as the ongoing pandemic strains the ability of utility managers to staff treatment plants and maintain water infrastructure.
While immediate solutions are not yet clear, the hope in India is that COVID-19 may be a wake-up call for the nation’s government to take quick action to tackle clean water shortages, and for people there to embrace hand-washing more widely. Here at home, perhaps it will finally convince my dad that the five-second rule is hogwash.
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Your Instagram photo of the day
A flash of light: A rare fireball, almost as bright as the moon, lights up the sky over Chile’s Atacama Desert for a second. Fireballs are meteors brighter than the planet Venus (the brightest object in the night sky after the moon). Most visible meteors do not create meteorites. They are caused by particles ranging in size from a small pebble to a grain of sand. The brilliant flash of light is not caused so much by the mass but by its high kinetic energy, generated by speed. A fireball like this is generated by a tennis ball-size meteoroid and may reach the ground in the form of a small rock, depending on its composition (ice, metal, or rock).
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Today in a minute
DIY masks: Are they safe? So far, the evidence is scant and mixed, and while a few ideas show promise, there is some concern that stopgap measures could make things worse, Emily Sohn writes for Nat Geo. Even if the cloth masks aren’t perfect, they could theoretically slow the spread of a disease by helping keep the virus from escaping people’s noses and mouths. On the flip side, experts warn that homemade masks, while better than nothing, could provide a false sense of security. Their emphasis remains on social distancing, hand-washing, and keeping your fingers away from your face.
Gulls only: Their cliffside homes have become dangerous with erosion. Now, threatened Arctic kittiwakes are getting “boutique hotels” to nest in northern Norway. Towns are allowing the gulls to take over a few abandoned buildings to build their numbers, writes Cheryl Katz for Nat Geo.
Another way to test? More than a dozen research groups worldwide have started analyzing wastewater for the new coronavirus as a way to estimate the total number of infections, given that most people will not be tested, Nature reports. Monitoring influent at this scale could provide better estimates for how widespread the coronavirus is than testing, because wastewater surveillance can account for those who have not been tested and have only mild or no symptoms. A hat tip to Nat Geo’s Douglas Main for finding this story.
Not baboon remains: That’s what researchers thought they were removing from a quarry in South Africa. Instead, the bones were the oldest fossils of human ancestors called Homo erectus, yielding clues about our evolution, reports Tim Vernimmen for Nat Geo. The fossils were found near two other types of human ancestors, and all the remains date back about 2 million years. One million years later, only Homo erectus still walked the Earth.
This week in the night sky
Super Pink Moon: Named not for its color, but for its arrival with springtime blossoms, April’s full pink moon rose last night around sunset. It was about 15 percent bigger and 20 percent brighter than an average full moon because it was closest to Earth in its elliptical orbit. (The moon will still be plenty big and bright tonight if you missed the moonrise last night). Also, over the next few mornings, early risers will see the waning gibbous moon glide past Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. See if you can spot the four largest moons of Jupiter with a pair of binoculars. —Andrew Fazekas
Related: Nick Drake’s haunting Pink Moon, via YouTube.
The big takeaway
Transitioning toward adulthood: Finding work, love, and independence can be especially difficult for those on the spectrum, Judith Newman writes for Nat Geo. She set out to discover the answers to two questions that bedevil her about her own 18-year-old autistic son. “Will he find love, and will he find work that means something to him and allows him to at least partially support himself?” Newman says she knows one thing: “If there are more than an estimated four million autistic people in the U.S., there are surely a great deal more than four million neurotypical people who love them.” Above, Max Barns, 7, swings in a specially designed room in his Pittsburgh home.
Subscriber exclusive: For autistic youths entering adulthood, a new set of challenges awaits
Related: This discovery could help doctors detect autism earlier
In a few words
Subscriber exclusive: Once, nearly all famous scientists were men. That’s changing.
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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The last glimpse
Cadillac Ranch: Tail fins point into the rain at this RV Park in Amarillo, Texas. Long before stay-at-home orders, Nat Geo writer Craig Welch and photographer David Guttenfelder took a cross country road trip—from the Pacific to the U.S. capital—in an electric car. It was a vantage point to understand how more than a billion gas-guzzling vehicles are changing the world’s climate. In Michigan, they met an engineer building electric vehicles who expects their type of cross-country journey to be commonplace within a decade. He says his kids—all under age 5—will never know a world “where charging wasn’t ubiquitous.”
Subscriber exclusive: The Great American Road Trip, with a twist
This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Eslah Attar. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org . Thanks for reading, and stay safe.