Top stories: Firing up the stellarator, dinosaur evolution, and where to look for life in the Milky Way
Adapted from IPP by C. Bickel/24小时娱乐在线; K.Riebe/Clues Project (www.clues-Project.org); Image Courtesy of Victor Leshyk

Top stories: Firing up the stellarator, dinosaur evolution, and where to look for life in the Milky Way

Feature: Germany fires up bizarre new fusion reactor

Germany’s new Wendelstein 7-X stellarator was fired up for the first time this week, rounding off a construction effort that took nearly 2 decades and cost €1 billion. Initially and for the first couple of months, the reactor will be filled with helium—an unreactive gas—so that operators can make sure that they can control and heat the gas effectively. At the end of January, experiments will begin with hydrogen in an effort to show that fusing hydrogen isotopes can be a viable source of clean and virtually limitless energy. This special feature shares the story on how, despite high hopes for the stellarator, it was “hell on Earth” to build!

The most likely spots for life in the Milky Way

Our home galaxy isn’t as hospitable to life as you might think. Cosmic radiation, supernova explosions, and collisions with small galaxies make much of the Milky Way too hellish for biology. But a detailed new simulation that is used to map out the distribution of gas, which provides fuel for stars and material for planets, locates quiet and fertile neighborhoods for habitable life. Simulation findings reveal a surprising locale: wispy streams of stars flung far beyond the main body of the Milky Way.

Dinosaurs evolved much faster than previously thought

Dinosaurs evolved from dinosauromorphs—their smaller ancestors----—in just a few million years and not the 10 million years or more scientists had suspected. Findings from a new study are based on radioactive dating of rocks sandwiching the earliest fossils of those predecessors, suggests that paleontologists have long misjudged the overall pace of dinosaur evolution. The shorter time needed for true dinosaurs to evolve suggests that the shift in ecosystems associated with their appearance was smoother than previously thought. The question now is why early dinosauromorphs eventually faded away, whereas dinosaurs as a whole rose to dominance for almost 170 million years.

Cockroaches communicate via bacteria in their feces

Caution: You might not want to read this one while you snack on your holiday cookies or eggnog. Entomologists have long known that insects typically communicate using odors called pheromones, but they haven’t been able to agree on what aggregation pheromones encourage pesky roaches to stick close to one another. New findings show that gut bacteria in cockroaches pooped along with their feces emit odors that the roaches find attractive. When those bacteria are missing, cockroaches tend to be more independent and not hang out with others. These results could help us to understand how gut microbes in other organisms may likewise influence behavior in ways we have yet to appreciate. ??

New vaccination strategy stirs controversy in Italy

A government plan to boost vaccination rates and introduce a series of new vaccines in Italy has triggered protests from doctors and some public health experts. The National Vaccination Plan for 2016–18 (PNPV) would instantly make Italy a European front-runner in vaccination, but experts have questioned the need for several of the vaccines, and some suspect the hand of industry behind the government's new enthusiasm. Meanwhile, physicians worry about provisions in the PNPV that might punish them if they don't fully cooperate.

Alzheimer’s may mess with the eyes, disrupting sleep patterns

Nighttime restlessness is common among people with Alzheimer’s, but now, scientists may have figured out why: The disease appears to degrade melanopsin retinal ganglion cells. These cells are a special type of eye cell that send signals to the brain center responsible for circadian rhythms, our body’s daily clock telling our brain when it’s day or night. If the discovery holds up, it might offer clinicians a new way to monitor the progression of Alzheimer’s and could lead to treatments that restore a good night’s sleep to those suffering from the disease.

Feature: Can your mobile phone make you healthier?

Roughly 20 million people today wear a Fitbit. Many more seek out other devices and smartphone apps designed to count their steps, their calories, or their hours of sleep; to help them quit smoking, drinking, or stressing; or to help manage chronic illness. The distillation of daily life into a motivational stream of stats has become a booming industry—the world of the quantified self. This life-tracking craze has produced something that many clinical researchers covet: a deluge of intimate data about individuals’ moment-to-moment behavior in “the wild,” as researchers sometimes call the world outside the controlled environment of the lab or the clinic. This special feature explores how scientists are harnessing the power of mobile devices to improve behavioral research.