Eight stories you missed while on summer vacation | Science News for Students

Eight stories you missed while on summer vacation

Catch up on the science you may not have had a chance to read
Sep 4, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
a WHO health worker screening people for Ebola

A health worker with the World Health Organization works in Congo’s North Kivu Province. She is screening people who may have come in contact with someone sick with Ebola.

J. Kannah/WHO

Taking a break from the news every now and then can be healthy. And it’s especially understandable during summer vacation. That’s when you should be having fun with friends and family. But such a break means, of course, that you may have missed some big news. Some important. Some just fun. Here are eight stories to help you catch up.

An Ebola outbreak became an emergency

It’s been more than a year since an outbreak of Ebola began in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And in July, the World Health Organization officially declared this outbreak a public health emergency. There’s no worry of the disease spreading globally. But the risk in this region of Africa remains high.

a photo of an orange toad, Incilius periglenes, on a green leaf
The golden toad Incilius periglenes was once abundant in the cloud forests of Central America. Its last recorded sighting was May 15, 1989.
Papa Lima Whiskey/Wikimedia Commons

A million species could vanish from Earth

A new tally revealed just how many species humans could soon wipe off the planet. One million. That’s equal to 1 in every 8 animal or plant species. And it’s tens to hundreds of times faster than the extinction rate typical of the past 10 million years.

an image of Spiderman flying towards the viewer on against a dark and cloudy sky
A friendly neighborhood Spider-Man might help calm people’s fear of spiders, a new study shows.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Spider-Man can fight off spider fear

Lots of people are frightened of spiders and other creepy crawlies. But a study published earlier this year offers some hope. Watching a bit of the superheroes Spider-Man or Ant-Man may help people see spiders and ants less negatively. The scientists behind the research hope their work may one day help people with serious phobias.

sick boy
A measles infection can bring a rash, fever, cough and sore eyes. Other impacts of the virus, though, can last years after those initial symptoms are gone, scientists are finding.
CHBD/E+/Getty Images

How measles messes with the immune system

Some people may dismiss measles as being only a rash. But scientists now know it’s much more dangerous. The measles virus makes an all-out attack on the immune system. And it can leave people at risk of developing infections from other viruses and bacteria for years.

a photo of the hand of a 17-year old boy showing six fingers
An extra finger on the right hand of a 17-year-old boy is controlled by its own muscles and tendons.
C. Mehring et al/Nature Communications 2019

A sixth finger proves extra handy

About one or two in every 1,000 babies will be born with extra digits. And for some, spare fingers can be very helpful. Two people born with six fingers on their hands, for instance, can tie their shoes single handed.

girl at fountain
People throughout Central Europe fought to stay hydrated during the unexpectedly hot weather they encountered this summer.
CasarsaGuru/Getty Images

Climate change and a European heat wave

Extreme heat hit Europe in June, leading to broken records in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. Climate change didn’t cause the heat wave. But scientists calculate that it made the heat wave five times more likely than normal.

damaged road
This section of California’s State Route 178 crumbled and closed after a powerful magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the region on July 5.

Two large earthquakes rattled California

A magnitude 6.4 quake struck near the town of Ridgecrest on July 4. Then a magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook the area the next day. The earthquakes left scientists scrambling to explain what led to the temblors — and what they mean for the future.

an illustration of a ploonet
There’s a potentially new kind of space object out there. The “ploonet.” This is a moon that escaped the gravity of a gas giant. These ploonets might explain the existence of comets around distant stars, shown here in an artist’s illustration.
Lynnette Cook/Fuse/NASA

What’s a ploonet?

A ploonet is a planet that used to be a moon. Scientists have yet to actually find a ploonet. There aren’t any in our solar system. But they could be common elsewhere. Now, researchers just need to find one.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

bacteria     (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals). Bacteria are one of the three domains of life on Earth.

climate     The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

digit     A structure, like a finger or toe, at the end of the limbs of many vertebrates. 

earthquake     A sudden and sometimes violent shaking of the ground, sometimes causing great destruction, as a result of movements within Earth’s crust or of volcanic action.

Ebola     A family of viruses that cause a deadly disease in people. All cases have originated in Africa. Its symptoms include headaches, fever, muscle pain and extensive bleeding. The infection spreads from person to person (or animal to some person) through contact with infected body fluids. The disease gets its name from where the infection was first discovered in 1976 — communities near the Ebola River in what was then known as Zaire (and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

extinction     The permanent loss of a species, family or larger group of organisms.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

infection     A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some type of germ.

magnitude     (in geology) A number used to describe the relative size of an earthquake. It runs from 1 to more than 8 and is calculated by the peak ground motion as recorded by seismographs. There are several magnitude scales. One of the more commonly used ones today is known as the moment magnitude. It’s based on the size of a fault (crack in Earth’s crust), how much the fault slips (moves) during a quake, and the energy force that was required to permit that movement. For each increase in magnitude, an earthquake produces 10 times more ground motion and releases about 32 times more energy. For perspective, a magnitude 8 quake can release energy equivalent to detonating 6 million tons of TNT.

measles     A highly contagious disease, typically striking children. Symptoms include a characteristic rash across the body, headaches, runny nose, and coughing. Some people also develop pinkeye, a swelling of the brain (which can cause brain damage) and pneumonia. Both of the latter two complications can lead to death. Fortunately, since the middle 1960s there has been a vaccine to dramatically cut the risk of infection.

moon     The natural satellite of any planet.

outbreak     The sudden emergence of disease in a population of people or animals. The term may also be applied to the sudden emergence of devastating natural phenomena, such as earthquakes or tornadoes.

phobia     An extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood.    

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

solar system     The eight major planets and their moons in orbit around our sun, together with smaller bodies in the form of dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and comets.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

spider     A type of arthropod with four pairs of legs that usually spin threads of silk that they can use to create webs or other structures.

temblor     Another term for an earthquake or Earth-shaking tremor.

virus     Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.

World Health Organization     An agency of the United Nations, established in 1948, to promote health and to control communicable diseases. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The United Nations relies on the WHO for providing international leadership on global health matters. This organization also helps shape the research agenda for health issues and sets standards for pollutants and other things that could pose a risk to health. WHO also regularly reviews data to set policies for maintaining health and a healthy environment.