Lac de Gafsa

by Kim Willsher

The lake appeared in the Tunisian desert like a mirage; one minute there was nothing but scorching sand, the next a large expanse of turquoise water.

For locals, roasting in the 40C heat, the temptation to cool off in the inviting water quickly overcame any fears about the mysterious pool.

Hundreds flocked to what quickly became known as the Lac de Gafsa or Gafsa beach to splash, paddle, dive, and fling themselves from rocks into the lake, ignoring warnings that the water could be contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals, riddled with disease or possibly radioactive. Even after the water turned a murky green, they arrived in droves, undeterred.

“Some say it is a miracle, while others are calling it a curse,” Lakhdar Souid, a Tunisian journalist, told France 24 television.

“In the first few days, the water was crystal clear; a turquoise blue. Now it’s green and full of algae, which means it’s not being replenished.”

Mehdi Bilel was returning from a marriage in the north of the country when he spotted the lake in the desert canyon 25km from the city of Gafsa on the road from Om Larayes.

“After several long hours on the road without a break, I honestly thought I was hallucinating,” he told journalists. “I don’t know much about science and thought it was magic, something supernatural.”

Gafsa became the centre of the country’s mining industry after phosphate was discovered in the southern Tunisian region in 1886. Tunisia is now the world’s fifth largest exporter of phosphate, which is used in industry.

Shepherds discovered the lake, thought to be up to 18 meters deep and covering one hectare, three weeks ago. Local geologists suspect seismic activity may have ruptured the rock above the water table sending the liquid to the surface.

Other theories have suggested the canyon has simply collected rain water.

“News of the lake’s appearance has spread like wildfire and now hundreds of people, eager to escape a heatwave, go there to swim,” Souid wrote in the Tunisia Daily newspaper.

“This region is overflowing with large deposits of phosphate, which can leave behind radioactive residue so there is a real risk that the water is contaminated and carcinogenic. There’s no security of any kind.

“The site is certainly stunning and there are many large rocks perfect for diving, but it has become infested with green algae, meaning the water is stagnant and conducive to diseases.”

Ten days ago Hatef Ouigi, of Gafsa’s office of public safety, warned that the lake is dangerous and not fit for swimming in. He said this was a cautionary measure while scientists take samples and verify the water. “Depending on the results, we will take measures,” Ouigi said.

Since then, there has been no further official news, though experts have warned that if the lake has indeed formed because of a rupture in the water table, the cracks from which the water came could cause the water to flow the other way and drag swimmers to the bottom.

“There’s no security, no lifeguards and civil protection people only turned up in the first few days,” journalist Souid added.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/01/mysterious-lake-tunisian-desert-turquoise-green-sludge

Brain, artwork

Even if we cannot consciously see a person’s face, our brain is able to make a snap decision about how trustworthy they are.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the brain immediately determines how trustworthy a face is before it’s fully perceived, which supports the fact that we make very fast judgments about people.

Researchers at Dartmouth College and New York University showed a group of participants photos of real people’s faces, as well as computer-generated faces that were meant to look either trustworthy or untrustworthy. It’s been shown in the past that people generally think that faces with high inner eyebrows and prominent cheekbones are more trustworthy, and the opposite features are untrustworthy, which the researchers were able to confirm.

In a second part of their experiment, the researchers showed a separate group of participants the same images but for only about 30 milliseconds while they were in a brain scanner. They then did something called “backward masking,” which consists of showing a participant an irrelevant image or “mask” immediately after quickly showing them a face. The procedure makes the brain incapable of processing the face.

Even though the patients were not able to process the faces, their brains did. The researchers focused on activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for social and emotional behavior, and found that specific areas of the amygdala were activated based on judgments of trustworthiness or non-trustworthiness. This, the researchers conclude, is evidence that our brains make judgments of people before we even process who they are or what they look like.

Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://time.com/?xid=newsletter-brief#3083667/brain-trustworthiness/

Because Kent Brantly is a physician who has watched people die of Ebola, there was an especially chilling prescience to his assessment last week, between labored breaths: “I am going to die.”

His condition was grave. But then on Saturday, we saw images of Brantly’s heroic return to U.S. soil, walking with minimal assistance from an ambulance into an isolation unit at Emory University Hospital.

“One of the doctors called it ‘miraculous,'” Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported from Emory this morning, of Brantly’s turnaround within hours of receiving a treatment delivered from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “Not a term we scientists like to throw around.”

“The outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it,” Dr. Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organization, said on Friday in a plea for international help containing the virus. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives, but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”

In that light, and because Ebola is notoriously incurable (and the strain at large its most lethal), it is overwhelming to hear that “Secret Serum Likely Saved Ebola Patients,” as we do this morning from Gupta’s every-20-minute CNN reports. He writes:

Three top secret, experimental vials stored at subzero temperatures were flown into Liberia last week in a last-ditch effort to save two American missionary workers [Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol] who had contracted Ebola, according to a source familiar with details of the treatment.

Brantly had been working for the Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse as medical director of the Ebola Consolidation Case Management Center in Monrovia, Liberia. The group yesterday confirmed that he received a dose of an experimental serum before leaving the country.

In Gupta’s optimistic assessment, Brantly’s “near complete recovery” began within hours of receiving the treatment that “likely saved his life.” Writebol is also reportedly improved since receiving the treatment, known as zMapp. But to say that it was a secret implies a frigid American exceptionalism; that the people of West Africa are dying in droves while a classified cure lies in wait.

The “top-secret serum” is a monoclonal antibody. Administration of monoclonal antibodies is an increasingly common but time-tested approach to eradicating interlopers in the human body. In a basic monoclonal antibody paradigm, scientists infect animals (in this case mice) with a disease, the mice mount an immune response (antibodies to fight the disease), and then the scientists harvest those antibodies and give them to infected humans. It’s an especially promising area in cancer treatment.

In this case, the proprietary blend of three monoclonal antibodies known as zMapp had never been tested in humans. It had previously been tested in eight monkeys with Ebola who survived—though all received treatment within 48 hours of being infected. A monkey treated outside of that exposure window did not survive. That means very little is known about the safety and effectiveness of this treatment—so little that outside of extreme circumstances like this, it would not be legal to use. Gupta speculates that the FDA may have allowed it under the compassionate use exemption.

A small 2012 study of monoclonal antibody therapy against Ebola found that it was only effective when administered before or just after exposure to the virus. A 2013 study found that rhesus macaques given an antibody mix called MB-003 within the 48-hour window had a 43 percent chance of surviving—as opposed to their untreated counterparts, whose survival rate was zero.

This Ebola outbreak is the largest in the history of the disease, in terms of both cases and deaths, 729 887 known so far. As Chan warned in her call for urgent international action, the outbreak is geographically the largest, already in four countries with fluid population movement across porous borders and a demonstrated ability to spread by air travel. The outbreak will be stopped by strategic quarantines and preventive education, primarily proper handling of corpses. More than 60 aid workers have become infected, but many more will be needed to stem the tide.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), is encouraged by the antibody treatment.

“Obviously there are plans and enthusiasm to expand this,” Fauci told me. “The limiting factor is the extraordinary paucity of treatment regimens.” Right now the total amount available, to Fauci’s knowledge, is three treatment courses (in addition to what was given to Brantly and Writebol).

NIAID did some of the original research that led to the development, but this is owned by Mapp Biopharmaceuticals. “They are certainly trying to scale up,” Fauci said, “but I’ve heard that their capability is such that it’s going to be months before they have a substantial number of doses, and even then they’re going to be limited.”

“We’re hearing that the administration of this cocktail of antibodies improved both Dr. Brantly and Ms. Writebol, but you know, we don’t know that,” Fauci said, noting the sample size (two) of this small, ad hoc study. Proving effectiveness would require a much larger group of patients being compared to an untreated group. “And we don’t know that they weren’t getting better anyway.”

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/the-secret-ebola-treatment/375525/

By Jason Samenow

On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with the Earth’s atmosphere. These plasma clouds, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), comprised a solar storm thought to be the most powerful in at least 150 years.

“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado tells NASA.

Fortunately, the blast site of the CMEs was not directed at Earth. Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially disastrous outcome would have unfolded.

“I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did,” Baker tells NASA. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”

A CME double whammy of this potency striking Earth would likely cripple satellite communications and could severely damage the power grid. NASA offers this sobering assessment:

Analysts believe that a direct hit … could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.

According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.

CWG’s Steve Tracton put it this way in his frightening overview of the risks of a severe solar storm: “The consequences could be devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general.”

Solar physicists compare the 2012 storm to the so-called Carrington solar storm of September 1859, named after English astronomer Richard Carrington who documented the event.

“In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event,” Baker tells NASA. “The only difference is, it missed.”

During the Carrington event, the northern lights were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii according to historical accounts. The solar eruption “caused global telegraph lines to spark, setting fire to some telegraph offices,” NASA notes.

NASA says the July 2012 storm was particularly intense because a CME had traveled along the same path just days before the July 23 double whammy – clearing the way for maximum effect, like a snowplow.

“This double-CME traveled through a region of space that had been cleared out by yet another CME four days earlier,” NASA says. ” As a result, the storm clouds were not decelerated as much as usual by their transit through the interplanetary medium.”

NASA’s online article about the science of this solar storm is well-worth the read. Perhaps the scariest finding reported in the article is this: There is a 12 percent chance of a Carrington-type event on Earth in the next 10 years according to Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc.

“Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct,” Riley tells NASA. “It is a sobering figure.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2014/07/23/how-a-solar-storm-nearly-destroyed-life-as-we-know-it-two-years-ago/

A self-taught 16-year-old coder from Seattle, Washington, has created a web browser plug-in that won’t let you forget the pervasive and corrupting influence of money in politics.

Called “Greenhouse,” the plug-in picks out the names of any members of Congress on a given web page. Users can then mouse-over those members of Congress to see their top donors, and what percentage of their funding came from small-dollar donations. Here’s an example, taken from a story in today’s New York Times about climate skeptics’ opposition to new carbon emission regulations:

Readers of this article, with the “Greenhouse” plug-in installed, might draw a connection between Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe’s climate skepticism and the money his 2012 campaign received from the oil and gas industry and the mining industry ($558,150 and $150,850 respectively).

Nicholas Rubin, the concerned (but not-yet-old-enough-to-vote) citizen behind the plug-in, first became interested in the issue when he gave a school presentation on corporate personhood while in the seventh grade. About a year later, Lawrence Lessig — the Harvard law professor and activist — provided Rubin with further inspiration. “I went to see Larry Lessig talk about campaign finance at the town hall here in Seattle. Both of these events sparked an interest in me,” Rubin told BillMoyers.com. “It made me angry. I remember asking my dad (multiple times) questions like ‘How is this legal?’”

When it came time to test the project, Rubin got in touch with Lessig, who signed on as the first beta tester. “He loved Greenhouse, and helped me by giving feedback and ideas along the way,” Rubin said.

Read more about the plug-in and try it out at Rubin’s site, allaregreen.us »

teeth 1

Surgeons in Mumbai have removed 232 teeth from the mouth of an Indian teenager in what they believe may be a world-record operation.

Ashik Gavai, 17, sought medical help for a swelling on the right side of his lower jaw and the case was referred to the city’s JJ hospital, where they found he was suffering from a condition known as complex odontoma, said head of dentistry Sunanda Dhivare-Palwankar.

“We operated on Monday and it took us almost seven hours. We thought it may be a simple surgery but once we opened it there were multiple pearl-like teeth inside the jaw bone,” she said.

After removing those they found a larger “marble-like” structure that they struggled to shift and eventually had to “chisel out” and remove in fragments.

Ashik’s father, Suresh Gavai, said the family had been worried that the swelling was a malignant growth.

“I was worried that it may turn out to be cancer so I brought him to Mumbai,” Gavai told the Mumbai Mirror newspaper.

Dhivare-Palwankar said the literature they had come across on the condition showed a maximum of 37 teeth being removed in such a procedure, whereas she and her team had counted more than 232 taken from Gavai’s mouth.

“I think it could be a world record,” she said.

Gavai’s jawbone structure was maintained during the operation so it should heal without deformities, the surgeon added.

Thanks to Dr. Nakamura for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/24/indian-boy-has-232-teeth-removed

A Japanese jeans maker has found a new way of capitalising on zoo animals. Zoo Jeans are producing jeans “designed by dangerous animals”. Denim is wrapped around tyres, which are then thrown to the lions who enjoy ripping and biting at the material. This produces that all-important designer, distressed look.

Rather than simply being a marketing gimic, there is actually value in this from an animal welfare perspective. Involving lions and the zoo’s other large carnivores in the activity is part of what’s called environmental enrichment. This is the provision of stimuli to help improve well-being. It’s a win-win activity for many zoos, who can make alternative profits from their animals, which tend to be used to provide extra facilities for them.

Wrapping denim around a tyre to make enrichment devices for toothy carnivores is just one way that zoos have profited from their animals’ hobbies over the years. Since their inception, zoos have looked for different ways to fund their activities. London Zoo when it first opened would let in penniless visitors for a cat or dog to be fed to the carnivores. Visitors with money were offered other things to keep themselves amused as they looked at the animals.

read more: http://theconversation.com/jeans-designed-by-lions-and-tigers-are-a-win-win-for-zoos-28988