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►  Scott Kelly Returns to Earth

Astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth on Wednesday after an unprecedented year in space for NASA, landing in frozen Kazakhstan with a Russian cosmonaut who shared his whole space-station journey. Their Soyuz capsule parachuted onto the central Asian steppes and ended a science-rich mission at the International Space Station that began last March and was deemed a steppingstone to Mars. It was a triumphant homecoming for Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko after 340 days in space. Kelly pumped his fist as he emerged from the capsule, then gave a thumbs-up. He smiled and chatted with his doctors and others as photographers crushed around him in the freezing cold, the AP reports.

“The air feels great out here,“ a NASA spokesman at the scene quoted Kelly as saying. “I have no idea why you guys are all bundled up.“ Clearly animated and looking well, he said he didn’t feel much different than he did after his five-month station mission five years ago. Kelly and Kornienko had checked out of the space station a few hours earlier. In total, they traveled 144 million miles through space, circled the world 5,440 times and experienced 10,880 orbital sunrises and sunsets during the longest single spaceflight by an American. The two spacemen faced a series of medical tests following touchdown. Before committing to even longer Mars missions, NASA wants to know the limits of the human body for a year, minus gravity.


►  Scientists Find Gene Linked to Gray Hair

Those unhappy with their gray hair now have to turn to a bottle of dye to cover it up, but a new study raises the possibility of being able to prevent hair from going gray in the first place. London researchers have identified a gene that causes hair to lose its natural color, reports the BBC. The culprit is called IRF4, and the revelation comes from the most comprehensive study of its kind involving more than 6,000 people from five different countries and different backgrounds. “We already know several genes involved in balding and hair color but this is the first time a gene for graying has been identified in humans,“ says lead author Kaustubh Adhikari of University College London. Don’t look for a magic pill anytime soon, but the discovery at least points scientists in the right direction.

As CNN explains: “If more studies can confirm the role of this cellular pathway in graying, researchers could look for proteins or enzymes that might be lacking in the pathway among those salt-and-pepper cases and perhaps find a way to supplement them with a pill or cream.“ The study in Nature Communications also identified genes related to curly hair, beard thickness, eyebrow thickness, and, yes, the monobrow, reports Medical Daily. The findings might have more serious uses beyond cosmetics, notes Popular Science. Insights into the genes that affect appearance can improve police forensics work and thus result in better profiles of suspects, and they can give anthropologists a better understanding of ancient civilizations.


►  We’ll Soon Know If Tut’s Tomb Holds Secrets

First came the theory, then a dribble of updates: In August 2015, University of Arizona archaeologist Nicholas Reeves made the case that Tutankhamun’s tomb also holds the remains of Nefertiti. Egyptian authorities had no comment at the time, but three months later, a duo of stories seemed to lend credence to the idea, at least of a hidden chamber. A “preliminary analysis indicates the presence of an area different in its temperature than the other parts of the northern wall,“ announced Egypt’s antiquities minister; further scans that month led Egyptian officials to say they were “approximately 90%“ certain a previously unknown chamber is present. Now, the next step in the process has been established.

Additional radar exams will take place April 2, and the Ministry of Antiquities will hold a subsequent press conference to share the findings. That update was provided in an emailed statement to Live Science in an apparent attempt to discredit a story picked up by the media last week (see the Independent’s version   H E R E ) in which the country’s tourism minister supposedly told Spanish media that the hidden chamber was packed with “treasures.“ Counters the statement, “The Ministry of Antiquities has not issued any statement concerning the results that have been reached so far.“

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►  Scientists Await Rare ‘Dragon’ Birth in Slovenia

When humans in the 15th century encountered olms—rare amphibians that have been roaming Earth’s caves for 200 million years—they thought they were baby dragons. Today we know little more about the blind creatures than our ancestors did. Olms inhabit the cave rivers of the Balkans, grow up to a foot long, can live for a century, and only need to eat once a decade, report the BBC and Slate. They also lay eggs about as often, which is why the 50 to 60 olm eggs stuck to the underside of a rock in Slovenia’s Postojna Cave are so remarkable. The cave hosts a wild olm population alongside an aquarium visited by a million tourists each year. On January 30, a female olm chose an area in the aquarium to lay her eggs, three of which are showing promising signs of growth, biologist Saso Weldt says. It will likely take at least four months for the eggs to hatch.

“It is very significant because there is not a lot of data about anything [relating to] the reproduction of this group of animals,“ says a researcher, adding it would be “something amazing” if any olms hatched and developed. An olm—which the New York Times describes as having a “long sinuous body, stubby legs, and frilly gills”—laid eggs in Postojna Cave in 2013, but all were eaten by other olms or never hatched. This time researchers are allowing only the mother olm access to the eggs, which she monitors with her sense of smell; any that aren’t fertilized become food. Scientists are also protecting them from light and are adding extra oxygen to the area because they’re vulnerable to changes in water quality and temperature. “Now it’s up to them,“ says Weldt. “We are hoping that in a couple of months we can state that we have baby dragons.“


►  Leap Year Doesn’t Actually Happen Every 4 Years

Every four years, we get to celebrate leap year, with an extra day tacked onto the end of February to keep our calendar in sync with the solar year—the amount of time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun, or about 365.242159 days, per the Christian Science Monitor. Julius Caesar attempted to make up for that extra 0.242159 days every year by simply adding one whole day every four years, but that turned out to be a tad too much, an incremental change that had the calendar 10 whole days out of whack by 1582. Pope Gregory XIII tried to even things up by mandating that leap year not fall on centennial years, unless that year was divisible by four (so 2000 was considered a leap year, but not 1900). Which made things better but still “not a perfect fit,“ a University of Virginia astronomer says. (A Los Angeles Times graphic shows how hard it is to actually figure this stuff out.) Other leap-year morsels:

  • Despite the date’s unique status, many parents don’t want their kids to be leap babies (aka “leaplings” or “leapers”), FiveThirtyEight finds. Find out the lengths pregnant women go to to avoid that birthdate.
  • Quartz checks out some of the ways leap babies celebrate—and how they decide whether to mark their big day on February 28 or March 1.
  • Tradition holds that during leap years, women are actually encouraged to propose to men on February 29. The Guardian picks the brains of some on how they feel about this custom, including one woman who calls the entire concept of marriage “patriarchal.“
  • The Portland Press Herald offers insight into Smithfield, “Maine’s Only Leap Year Town,“ incorporated on February 29, 1840. Which makes it 176 years old Monday—or is that 43?

(Meet America’s oldest living leap-year baby.)


►  Girl, 12, Charged With a Crime Over Emoji Use

With the increasing popularity of emojis, courts sometimes find themselves in the strange position of having to decide whether a bomb emoji is the same as a bomb threat. Such is the case in Fairfax, Va., where a 12-year-old girl faces criminal charges of computer harassment and threatening her school after she posted a message to Instagram in December that included the words “Killing” and “meet me in the library Tuesday” along with gun, bomb, and knife emojis, the Washington Post reports. A school resource officer at Sidney Lanier Middle School learned of that post and others, and after interviewing students and seeking to obtain the IP address associated with the Instagram account, determined the 12-year-old Lanier student made the posts. She admitted to doing it, according to a search warrant, though she posted under the name of another student.

Ultimately, Fairfax County schools deemed the threat “not credible,“ a spokesperson says, but the girl was still charged. Her mother says her daughter is “a good kid” who’s “never been in trouble before,“ but that she posted the messages because she was getting bullied at school. A judge will ultimately have to determine whether the emojis she used were truly threatening, and the Post notes it’s not the first time: A grand jury in New York recently declined to indict a 17-year-old who posted a police officer emoji followed by three gun emojis on Facebook and was charged with making a terrorist threat, and that’s just one of several similar cases recently. “I think something is definitely lost in translation,“ says that teen’s lawyer. “These kids are not threatening cops, they are just trying to say, ‘I’m tough.‘ It’s posturing.“


►  Google Self-Driving Car Blamed for Crash

After six years and millions of miles of driving, one of Google’s self-driving cars has become a self-crashing car. The company has admitted that a self-driving Lexus SUV bears some responsibility for a February 14 crash in Mountain View, Calif., the Verge reports. But no people—or robots—were seriously harmed: According to the DMV’s accident report, the vehicle encountered sandbags placed around a storm drain when it approached an intersection. When it moved one lane over, it hit the side of a bus that it had incorrectly assumed would yield. The car was only traveling around 2mph at the time of the collision, which damaged its left front fender, the left front wheel, and a sensor. The 15 bus passengers were transferred to another vehicle.

‘We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved, there wouldn’t have been a collision,“ Google said in a statement. “That said, our test driver believed the bus was going to slow or stop to allow us to merge into the traffic, and that there would be sufficient space to do that.“ There have been other crashes involving Google cars, but this is the first time the company hasn’t blamed them on human drivers, Reuters reports. The company says it has learned from the experience and adjusted its software so that its vehicles fully understand that buses are “less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles, and we hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future.“

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►  Matt Damon’s Martian Hero Gets His Own Plant

Matt Damon’s character in The Martian made botanists look like rock stars, which, shockingly, doesn’t happen very often. The reward for the fictional Mark Watney: There’s now a plant named after him, reports Time. Chris Martine of Bucknell University found a bush tomato plant in Australia and called it Solanum watneyi after the character who first appeared in Andy Weir’s 2011 book, he explained previously in the Huffington Post. It’s fitting: The new species is related to the potato (Solanum tuberosum) that Watney grew on Mars in the book and film and thrives in red soil. Weir’s take, per a release: There could be no “higher honor.“


►  Conquer the Classics in 20 Minutes a Day

As daunting as it may seem, you can read Crime and Punishment—20 minutes at a time. Serial Reader is a free iOS app that breaks down dozens of the classics into manageable chunks that are sent to your iPhone or iPad each day at a time you choose, Chris Taylor reports at Mashable. At that rate, the aforementioned Dostoyevsky tome will take you 79 days to read. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein comes in at 28 days. And you could finish The Star Lord by Boyd Ellanby in just 10. “This just might be the reading mode of the future,“ Taylor writes. Good e-Reader points out that serialized fiction first became popular in the newspapers of Victorian England. And after decades on the decline, it “is now making a rebound thanks to the iPhone.“

Even publisher Simon & Schuster is getting in on the action with an app called Crave, which charges a fee, as do apps Pigeonhole and Rooster. What makes Serial Reader different is that it’s free, according to the Washington Post. “Users should know that the key word here is ‘classics,‘“ Hayley Tsukayama writes. “You’re not going to find modern bestsellers.“ And if you’re the type of reader who likes to skip ahead, she notes, Serial Reader can be frustrating. However, it’s an “elegant solution” to the problem of finding time to read. Taylor says he found the 20-minute reading time to be an overestimate—it took him, “not a particularly fast reader,“ about 15 minutes to complete a day’s reading. Also, he notes, you can download an entire text if you choose.


►  Why a NASA Engineer Has Lived With ‘Nagging Guilt’

Bob Ebeling, 89, has carried a terrible burden for 30 years. He was among several engineers who tried to stop the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, saying the booster rockets’ rubber seals wouldn’t seal correctly in cold weather. They were unsuccessful in their challenge to contractor Morton Thiokol, and the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after it lifted off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts on board. Ebeling has been blaming himself ever since, NPR reports. “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,“ he says, “But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me. You picked a loser.‘“ Soon after the shuttle disaster, Ebeling quit his job, daughter Kathy Ebeling tells the Washington Post. He spent the rest of his career working on a bird refuge, “helping people and not destroying people,“ she says.

But Ebeling’s burden has lightened lately thanks to support from fellow engineers and vindication from some of those involved in launching the Challenger, NPR writes in a follow-up. “Your efforts show that your care for people comes first for you,“ writes engineer Jim Sides. “God didn’t pick a loser. He picked Bob Ebeling.“ Robert Lund, a Thiokol VP who approved the launch, called Ebeling and said, “You did all that you could do.“ George Hardy, a former NASA official involved in the launch, sent Ebeling a letter: “You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you,“ he writes. “You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.“ Ebeling, who suffers from prostate cancer and has home hospice care, says he “know[s] that is the truth that my burden has been reduced.“ Kathy Ebeling says the letters have helped her father find peace. “He doesn’t have to die with this nagging guilt,“ she tells the Post. “He can die free.“


►  The Party Is Over at Zenefits

Just two years ago, Zenefits was heralded as one of the fastest-growing software startups ever. Earlier this month, “institutionalized cheating” finally caught up to the San Francisco-based firm that has raised more than $500 million at a $4.5 billion valuation, and hard-partying co-founder and CEO Parker Conrad, 35, was forced to resign, BuzzFeed reports. Now Zenefits is laying off 250 employees (17%), Tech Crunch reports. So how did a Silicon Valley darling go so wrong? BuzzFeed and Business Insider take a look at some of the risky (and risqué) things that have happened at Zenefits.

  • Zenefits, which also has an office in Arizona, offers free HR software, and then makes money through commissions selling health insurance. To close insurance deals, sales reps reportedly threatened customers with an imaginary implementation fee.
  • Zenefits reportedly used a program, called a macro, which helped sales reps skirt California requirements that health insurance brokers must have 52 hours of pre-licensing training. The macro allowed reps to stay logged into an online course, “even while they were sleeping or doing something else.“
  • While Zenefits’ software seemed slick on the front end, it was glitchy. Much of the actual work was done manually. Mistakes and carelessness led to some clients unknowingly going without insurance for stretches of time.
  • Health insurance brokers in California must score at least a 60% on a state exam to get a license. Anyone at Zenefits who scored much higher than that was branded a nerd. The closer to 60% the better—after all, “D is for done,“ managers would say.
  • Boozing and raucous behavior were mainstays at Zenefits (the new CEO has since banned drinking at work). On a conference stage in 2015, 30-year-old sales executive Sam Blond (aka Agent Blond or 007) recalled being “over-served” at Bobo’s steakhouse and engaging in a wrestling match with Conrad. In general, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, there was a “frat-house” atmosphere at the company that included partying in Vegas and celebratory shots. Though there was an attempt at moderation: One email sent to employees read, “Do not use the stairwells to smoke, drink, eat, or have sex.“

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►  CEO Tim Cook defends Apple’s resistance in FBI iPhone case

CUPERTINO, CA — Apple CEO Tim Cook got a standing ovation Friday at his first stockholder meeting since his company’s epic clash with the FBI unfolded. He defended the company’s unbending stand by saying: “These are the right things to do.“

On Thursday, the tech giant formally challenged a court order to help the FBI unlock an encrypted iPhone used by a murderous extremist in San Bernardino, California.

Federal officials have said they’re only asking for narrow assistance in bypassing some of the phone’s security features. But Apple contends the order would force it to write a software program that would make other iPhones vulnerable to hacking by authorities or criminals in the future.

Major tech companies are also rallying to Apple’s cause, and now plan a joint “friend of the court” brief on its behalf. Facebook said it will join with Google, Twitter and Microsoft on a joint court filing. A Twitter spokeswoman confirmed that plan, but said that different companies and trade associations will likely file “multiple” briefs.

Apple filed court papers on Thursday that asked U.S. Magistrate Sheri Pym to reverse her order on the grounds that the government had no legal authority to force the company to weaken the security of its own products. The company accused the government of seeking “dangerous power” through the courts and of trampling on its constitutional rights.

The dispute raises broad issues of legal and social policy, with at least one poll showing 51 percent of Americans think Apple should cooperate by helping the government unlock the iPhone.

But it’s unclear how the controversy might affect Apple’s business. Analysts at Piper Jaffray said a survey they commissioned last week found the controversy wasn’t hurting the way most Americans think about Apple or its products.

At least one shareholder at Friday’s meeting voiced support for the company’s stance.

“Apple is 100 percent correct in not providing or doing research to create software to break into it,“ said Tom Rapko, an Apple investor from Santa Barbara, California, as he waited in line to enter the auditorium at Apple’s headquarters. “I think if you give the government an inch, they’ll take a yard.“

Cook offered only brief remarks about the FBI case, and most questions from shareholders concerned other aspects of Apple’s business. But the CEO won praise during the meeting from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Internet rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“We applaud your leadership,“ said Jackson, a longtime civil rights leader and former adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. “I recall the FBI wiretapping Dr. King in the civil rights movement,“ Jackson added. “We cannot go down this path again. Some of us do remember the days of (former FBI director J. Edgar) Hoover and McCarthy and Nixon and enemies lists.“

Apple’s share price has seen little change since the issue erupted in the news last week. Overall, though, the company’s stock has declined in recent months over worries that iPhone sales were slowing around the world.

A hearing on the iPhone legal dispute is scheduled for next month.


►  How Pretty Faces Affect Your Memory

Want to give your memory a boost? Trying gazing at a good-looking person of the opposite sex—if you’re a man, at least. Recent studies show that guys who look briefly at an image of an attractive woman fare better in memory tests than men who gaze at more “average” faces, Pacific Standard reports. “Although intuition might suggest that exposure to highly attractive people would be distracting and would impair cognitive performance, mating goals might lead people to display desirable mental traits,“ write the researchers led by psychologist Michael Baker. Published in Evolutionary Psychology, one study had 58 psychology students hear a story while glimpsing 10 faces of the opposite sex for seven seconds each; half saw “attractive” faces and half “average-looking ones,“ says Pacific Standard.

Quizzed after, men who saw pretty faces better recalled the story, while women’s memory was hardly affected. The next test split 123 students into groups that saw images before and after hearing the same story—with one group seeing attractive faces before and average after, one vice versa, and one seeing only average ones. Again, those who saw attractive faces first fared better, though this was less true among women. The pictures “are likely to have primed a short-term mating goal,“ the researchers say. The studies seem to conflict with earlier research showing that men’s cognitive performance declines when socializing—or even thinking about socializing—with a woman, a study reported by Pacific Standard in 2012. But as Baker points out, glancing at an image is far less stressful than actually socializing. Or as New York puts it, “Ha-ha, men. Ha-ha.“

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