Photograph by David J. Philip, Associated Press
Photograph by David J. Philip, Associated Press
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Why science matters in a tough time

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

On Saturday, as I sat perched on the edge of my chair, two people made history when they soared skyward aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The launch marked a triumphant return to space from U.S. soil after a nine-year pause, and it demonstrated for the first time that astronauts could get into orbit using a commercially designed capsule flown on a reusable rocket. By all accounts, a new era of human spaceflight has begun.

That same day, a few blocks from my D.C. home, protesters had gathered around the White House in response to the killing of George Floyd—just one among the hundreds of demonstrations that have been happening around the world seeking justice for his death and action to correct continued systemic racism in this country.

As a science journalist, I’m frequently asked why anyone should care about space travel, or paleontology, or plate tectonics, and those questions get harder to answer when world events plunge us into social unrest. Why does it matter what a dinosaur ate for dinner 110 million years ago, or that seagrasses can change the chemistry of the Chesapeake Bay? Arguably, such discoveries are not the most important news developments right now. But I think we should still report on them, and we can use the continued progress of science both as inspiration during troubled times, and as a reminder of what we should be striving for: equality.

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"My work is about saving animals from extinction, and so many other scientists are also trying to save the planet so we can survive,” wildlife biologist Rae Wynn-Grant (pictured above with a newborn bear cub) told my colleagues. “We don’t have time to be caught up in stereotypes or barriers. Right now we have a bunch of people who aren’t involved because of barriers they face. That makes no sense.”

More recently, University of Georgia graduate student Sheridan Alford co-founded an event to encourage more black people to get involved in bird-watching, after a viral video showed a white woman calling the police on a black birder in New York City. “It’s really just about voices and accountability and understanding that everyone, especially black people, are human beings, and we would like the same treatment as everyone else,” Alford told High Country News.

Science is a fundamentally human endeavor, and it’s been encouraging to see a more diverse community get involved in science and break down pre-existing barriers, since that can only enrich our shared understanding of the world around us. I only hope that reading about the wonders of scientific discovery, even now, helps people from all backgrounds stay engaged and inspired.

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Your Instagram photo of the day

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Spinosaurus! In Morocco, a joint team of paleontologists and students from the University Hassan II Casablanca and the University of Detroit Mercy unearth a large Spinosaurus bone under the supervision of Nizar Ibrahim. Spinosaurus, one of the largest predatory dinosaurs of all time, is named after the elongated dorsal spines that supported an enormous “sail” on its back. In contrast with other dinosaurs, which are predominantly terrestrial, this behemoth was adapted to live in freshwater based on a long list of anatomical features—including its recently described paddle-shaped tail.

Related: First spinosaurus tail found confirms dinosaur was swimming

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Today in a minute

Your brain on music: When you’re listening to music, oxygenated blood flows to the parts of your brain involved in expression, understanding patterns, and interpersonal intentions. In a concert, the performer and the audience often seem to be moving as one to the rhythm and the melody. A new study says the greater the degree of that synchrony, the more the audience enjoys the performance, Scientific American reports. Yes, oldies fans, we said synchrony; not Synchronicity.

About those seagrasses: They really do perform some chemical magic while gently waving in the water. As they photosynthesize in the beating sunshine, seagrasses produce tiny granules of a carbon-based mineral. Researchers on the Chesapeake Bay found that this mineral flows through the water, and is able to offset human-caused acidification miles away, Nat Geo’s Alejandra Borunda reports. “It’s like the seagrasses are producing antacids that counter the indigestion of the bay,” says marine biologist Jeremy Testa.

Death knell? Rural hospitals were struggling before COVID-19 hit. Now, with many patients unwilling to go to a hospital for fear of infection, these medical centers have too few patients to stay afloat financially, Julia Sklar reports for Nat Geo. Will virtual medicine save them? In a word, no. “If you lose your hospital, you’ve pretty much lost your town,” says Ken Hunter, CEO of Kimball Health Services.

Why rubber bullets? The weapons used by law enforcement officials on many protesters and working journalists at this week’s ongoing protests were portrayed as feeling like being hit with a paintball. That’s if they were used properly, fired at a fleshy lower part of the body, such as a calf or thigh. For decades, medical researchers have condemned the use of the inaccurate weapon, and the permanent injuries being sustained over the past week were one reason, Insider.com reports. The injuries can include fractures, blindness, nerve damage, deep skin lacerations, and organ injury that leads to death.

This week in the night sky

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Strawberry lunar eclipse: The moon will reach its full phase on Friday and will pass through Earth’s outer shadow cone, offering what’s known as a penumbral lunar eclipse for sky-watchers in Central Asia, Australia, most of Africa, and the Middle East. This month’s full moon is popularly known as the strawberry moon in North America, because that’s when fields of these berries start to ripen. Unfortunately, the eclipse will happen during daylight in the Americas, but stargazers around the world can see the moon pair up with Jupiter early on Monday, and with Saturn on Tuesday. The action on both nights will happen in the southern sky about an hour to 30 minutes before local sunrise. — Andrew Fazekas

Out there: Where exactly is the edge of space? Depends on whom you ask.

The big takeaway

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Younger, shorter: Wooded behemoths around the world, like the 1,000-year-old oak trees seen above in western Germany, are in trouble. Beyond logging, they are becoming susceptible to droughts and increased forest fires, both products of climate change, and they are dying off faster. “The death rate is making forests younger, threatening biodiversity, eliminating important plant and animal habitat, and reducing forests’ ability to store excess carbon dioxide generated by our consumption of fossil fuels,” Nat Geo’s Craig Welch writes. In response, Israel is considering planting non-native trees that can deal with hotter weather, like acacias, rather than pine and cypress. “It won’t look the same,” acknowledges Tamir Klein at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science. “But I think it’s better to do this than just have barren land.”

Subscriber exclusive: What we can learn from trees

In a few words

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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.

Last glimpses

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Can we be ‘real’ again? How does a college student who has spent his entire life getting more dependent on computers and virtual experiences react to lockdowns and wall-to-wall Zoom? Oliver Whang compares it to ending a long-distance call with his twin brother when they were living apart for the first time. Suddenly, boom. Nothing. “No screen will ever replace the feeling of an arm around your shoulders,” Whang writes in National Geographic. Although quite capable of living virtually, Whang fears “that, going forward, some of us will never completely come out of self-quarantine; that dread and uncertainty will cause us to lose part of our physical connection to the world.”

Subscriber exclusive: My generation grew up online. Endless ‘virtual life’ would be terrifying

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good week ahead.