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Why COVID-19 Mutations Are Actually a Good Thing

Scientists are closely tracking mutations in the novel coronavirus, hoping that the virus evolves fast enough to give researchers hints about its future, but slow enough that the same researchers can make sense of, and keep up with, the changes.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Efforts to contain the virus and treat the people it infects both hinge in part on the pathogen’s mutation rate.

So far, SARS-CoV-2 is cooperating. The virus is mutating at a rate, and with effects, that most experts consider normal. “I’ve not seen any evidence of mutations that should cause significant concern,” Oscar MacLean, a University of Glasgow bioinformatician, told The Daily Beast. 

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Is the Moderna Coronavirus Vaccine Trial a Promising Start—or a Dead End?

The pharmaceutical firm Moderna has reported good results so far in trials of its novel-coronavirus vaccine, inspiring cautious optimism in scientists scrambling to contain the damage from the ongoing pandemic.

But these same scientists warn against getting too excited about early results, however positive. The world could still be a long way from having a working vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, to say nothing of deploying that vaccine on a large scale.

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You Heard That Smoking Protects Against COVID-19? Don’t Believe It

You may have seen the headlines: Smoking protects people from the new coronavirus. But this is one case where you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

The false narrative put out by a number of news outlets highlights an underlying problem. Scientific studies can be complicated, and it’s easy for non-experts, including reporters, to misread their findings.

The data on smoking and COVID-19 is buried in a wide-ranging report from Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. 

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This Planet Sucks. Good Thing We’re Looking Harder Than Ever for Life on New Ones.

With the coronavirus pandemic spreading and most of the United States under some kind of shelter-in-place order, a lot of us are feeling pretty alone right now.

So it’s the perfect time for science-writer Wade Roush to remind us that, in the cosmic sense, we might have a lot of company. On other planets and their moons. On asteroids hurtling through space. On meteorites that occasionally plummet to Earth’s surface.

“The more places we look, the more evidence we find that Earth doesn’t have a unique claim on the building blocks for life or the conditions needed to support life,” Roush told The Daily Beast. His new book Extraterrestrials, out now from MIT Press, is a handy, easy-to-read guide to what E.T. might look like, and how we’re going about finding him.

Roush, a longtime science journalist and space-lecturer who grew up watching science fiction movies and listening to famed astronomer Carl Sagan before become a “full-fledged Sagan-wannabe,” frames humanity’s search for alien life, and his book, in the context of the so-called “Fermi paradox.”

The paradox is named for physicist Enrico Fermi, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, who in 1947 reacted to a bunch of recent UFO sightings by asking his fellow scientists, “Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?”

What Fermi meant, Roush explains, is that the universe is vast and the human species and its animal kin should not be the only the life there is. It’s mathematically unlikely. But for all our radio receivers, telescopes, deep-space probes and planetary rovers, we haven’t found definitive proof that anyone else is out there.

What we have found, however, is lots of hints. And we’re finding them faster and faster as our technology improves and our willingness to believe in alien life deepens. 

A team of researchers from Harvard University, superconductor firm Plex Corporation, and science-supplier Bruker Scientific announced in February that they’d found evidence of a protein inside of a meteorite that plummeted to Earth in what is now Algeria.

Proteins are the “workhorse molecules of life,” to borrow NASA’s phrasing. They form the structure of organic tissue and make up the enzymes that regulate chemical reactions in living bodies.

Meanwhile, astrobiologists Dirk Schulze‑Makuch and Jacob Heinz revealed in a March paper that they’d found, on Mars, oil-like compounds called thiopenes. And where there’s oil, there’s usually life. 

Oh—and NASA’s InSight probe found evidence of seismic activity under Mars’ surface, which could point to ongoing volcanism on the Red Planet. Volcanoes can kick-start the evolutionary process.

These are encouraging signs for the growing number of scientists who are comfortable saying that finding alien life isn’t a matter of if, but when. But Roush, in writing his book and in an interview with The Daily Beast, was more cautious.

“Schulze-Makuch and Heinze say they think the Curiosity rover found thiophenes in mud dug up on Mars,” Roush said. “Thiophenes are ring-like carbon compounds that, here on Earth, can be a component of fossil fuels like oil. And the Harvard-Plex-Bruker team says they found a molecule inside an Algerian meteorite that consisted of a chain of amino acids. In the context of Earth life we call those proteins.”

“These kinds of complex molecules can be components for life, or markers of past life. But you can’t jump from there to the conclusion that there is or was life on Mars, or that the Algerian meteorite came from a place where there were protein-producing organisms,” Roush added. 

“All the studies really show is that there are probably lots of ways for these complex molecules to form, and lots of places where conditions are right for their formation. Life is a complex chemical dance, and you need the right dance partners to get it going and keep it going.”

The good news, Roush said, is that those dance partners “seem to be pretty common out in space and on other worlds.” 

If that’s the case, we just have to keep looking, following the biological bread crumbs from potential microbial life on Mars or some other nearby planet or moon all the way to the possibility of thinking beings like us. Or unlike us. 

There’s more good news. We are looking. Wider and farther than ever before. 

In 2022, the European Space Agency plans to launch its Rosalind Franklin probe. Named for an English chemist who helped define the molecular structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin is a decade newer than the current Curiosity rover and boasts better instruments.

NASA’s also sending a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which might contain a subsurface ocean capable of supporting life. The agency’s even eyeing Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that has its own saltwater ocean.

“And there are a lot more other exciting missions in the planning,” Schulze‑Makuch told The Daily Beast.

How soon those or future missions might gather data that we can look at and then say, with conviction, that we’re not alone in the universe… well, no one knows. Certainly not Roush.

But he posits another possibility, one that perhaps only a lifelong writer could put into words. Maybe, just maybe, other life is out there. And it’s watching us as we look for it. Maybe our increasingly sophisticated and earnest search will eventually qualify us for admission into the universe’s community of intelligent species.

Maybe, in other words, aliens will some day contact us instead of waiting for us to contact them.

“Ah, there you are,” Roush, in his book, imagines extraterrestrials saying as we finally break through. “We wondered when you’d come along.”

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The Clone Wars’ Finale Is So Thrilling It’ll Make You Forget About ‘The Rise of Skywalker’

The final episodes of season seven of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the Disney+ animated series, aren’t just great episodes of an excellent TV show. Taken together, they amount to one of the best Star Wars movies in many years.

Mild spoilers follow.

The four-episode arc beginning with “Old Friends, Not Forgotten” and ending with Monday night’s “Victory and Death” are darker in tone than even Rogue One, boast a lightsaber duel that might even surpass the iconic Darth Maul-versus-the Jedi fight from The Phantom Menace and include character moments that are as heartbreaking as Han Solo’s response to Princess Leia’s declaration of love in The Empire Strikes Back.

But the episodes don’t just include moving and exciting moments. They tell a story. About a young woman growing up, working out what she believes in, making hard decisions then living with the consequences.

The Clone Wars in its 12-year run on TV, as well as in the uneven 2008 movie that launched the series, has been an ensemble show. Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker and Skywalker’s apprentice Ashoka Tano are the major characters, but the show also closely follows clone troopers Rex, Cody and Fives, among others.

The final four episodes of The Clone Wars tighten their focus. They are Ashoka’s story.

No longer the grating teenager we tolerated early in the series, Ashoka is now a young woman. She’s seen the galaxy. Explored metaphysical realms. She even kind of died once.

She’s witnessed atrocities. Led soldiers in battle. Watched them fall in battle because of her decisions. She’s been hurt by the people closest to her. She even quit the Jedi Order after being wrongly accused of a crime.

Petite and bright-eyed, Ashoka still sort of looks like a kid. But her looks belie her growth as a character. She’s wiser now. More vulnerable. And more powerful. The events of the final four episodes of The Clone Wars test her humanity and her skills as a force-user.

It’s the final days of eponymous, galaxy-spanning conflict that old Ben Kenobi mentioned in passing in Star Wars and which is the major subject of the prequel trilogy. Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ashoka and a force of clones have cornered insurgents loyal to Maul—yes, he survived getting bisected in The Phantom Menace—on Mandalore, the home planet of the Mandalorians, one of whom has his own live-action show.

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