Planet Nine will be discovered in the next decade. Here’s why.

The planet that we are searching for is a little bit smaller and closer than we originally thought.

Planet Nine will be discovered in the next decade. Here’s why. | ...
  • Years ago, California Institute of Technology professor Konstantin Batygin was inspired to embark on a journey of discovering what lurked beyond Neptune. What he and his collaborator discovered was a strange field of debris.
  • This field of debris exhibited a clustering of orbits, and something was keeping these orbits confined. The only plausible source would be the gravitational pull of an extra planet—Planet Nine.
  • While Planet Nine hasn't been found directly, the pieces of the puzzle are coming together. And Batygin is confident we'll return to a nine-planet solar system within the next decade.
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American education: It’s colleges, not college students, that are failing

Who is to blame for the U.S.'s dismal college graduation rate? "Radical" educator Dennis Littky has a hunch.

Percentage of college student dropouts by age at enrollment: 2-year and 4-year institutions

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • COVID-19 has magnified the challenges that underserved communities face with regard to higher education, such as widening social inequality and sky-high tuition.
  • At College Unbound, where I am president, we get to know students individually to understand what motivates them, so they can build a curriculum based on goals they want to achieve.
  • My teaching mantra: Everything is permitted during COVID-19. Everything is permitted during COVID-19. Everything is permitted during COVID-19.
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The mystery of moving, mossy, ‘glacier mice’

Atop certain glaciers are herds of small mossy balls that somehow move together when no one's looking.

Image source: Carsten ten Brink/flickr
  • Weird but cute, "glacier mice" are actually balls of moss, dirt, and more.
  • The balls move, oddly, in packs, through some unknown means.
  • A new study tracked 30 glacier mice but still couldn't figure out what's going on.

Scientists have known about them at least since the 1950s, when Jón Eythórsson named them "jökla-mýs," which translates as "glacier mice." They're not actually mice. They're smallish balls of moss, and there are lots of them atop Alaska's Root Glacier. They can also be found on ice in Iceland, Svablard, and even South America, presumably places with just the right conditions, even if we don't know what those conditions are.

The really odd thing about them is that they apparently move in some unexplained way, though no ones has observed them doing so. It's just that repeated visits find them in different places.

And that's not the coolest part. "The whole colony of moss balls, this whole grouping, moves at about the same speeds and in the same directions," geologist Tim Bartholomaus of University of Idaho (UI) tells NPR. "Those speeds and directions can change over the course of weeks."

Bartholomaus, and two colleagues have published their research on glacier mice in Polar Biology.

Mice but not mice

Image source: Steve Coulson/ The University Center at Svalbard

The "glacier mice" nickname has stuck perhaps because glaciologists are so fond of the fuzzy things. They're pillow-like, soft, squeezable objects, comprised of different species of moss. Plus...

A 2012 study surprisingly found entire thriving habitats inside the mice. "I had expected to find some animals, but not so many," said study author and arctic biologist Steve Coulsonto to the New York Times. His research revealed springtails (six-legged insects), tardigrades, (of course), and simple nematode worms. And lots of them: In a single mouse, he found 73 springtails, 200 tardigrades, and 1,000 nematodes.

Co-author of the new, wildlife biologist Sophie Gilbert, also of UI, describes them:

They really do look like little mammals, little mice or chipmunks or rats or something running around on the glacier, although they run in obviously very slow motion."

Clues and an unsolved mystery

Some glacier mice are found perched on ice pedestals.

Image source: Fanny Dommanget/The University Center at Svalbard

His report recounts the efforts made by Bartholomaus and his co-authors, which also include biologist Scott Hotaling of Washington State University, to figure out how the mice are getting around.

The 2012 study had outfitted some mice with accelerometers and confirmed that they do rotate, but that's as far as its authors went into the balls' means of travel.

For Bartholomaus and his cohorts, there were some clues going into this.

For example, occasionally, balls are found perched on a pedestal of ice as seen above, perhaps shading that spot from melting sunlight until it finally melts and the ball rolls away.

Another clue is the intact nature of the healthy moss that serves as each ball's surface — it's a sign that they all have their turn in the sun. Says Gilbert, "These things must actually roll around or else that moss on the bottom would die."

One obvious explanation was quickly ruled out — they're not simply rolling downhill, because many of them were found to be on level surfaces.

For the study, the researchers tagged 30 of the mice with a loop of wire and colored beads that identified each ball. They tracked their position of 54 days in 2009, and again in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Bartholomaus explains, "By coming back year after year, we could figure out that these individual moss balls were living at least, you know, five, six years and potentially much, much longer."

Although the researchers expect the movements of the balls would be individualized and random, that's not what they found. The balls moved about an inch a day, and together, like a herd of animals.

Also, they periodically changed direction, says Bartholomaus. "When we visited them all, they were all just sort of moving relatively slowly and initially toward the south." However, "Then they all started to speed up and kind of start to deviate toward the west. And then they slowed down again and progressed even farther to the west."

Wind, maybe? Measurements of the dominant winds in the area ruled that out. Sunlight patterns also failed to account for the movement of these packs of mice.

So, what's going on? Admits Barholomaus, "We still don't know. I'm still kind of baffled."

Suggestions

Given scientists' affection for the little balls, other people are also rolling the idea around in their minds. Ruth Mottram of the Danish Meteorological Institute suggests to NPR, "I think that probably the explanation is somewhere in the physics of the energy and the heat around the surface of the glacier, but we haven't quite got there yet."

Another theory put forward is that the moss on a ball's underside grows and pushes it over and forward, cueing up the next moss to begin growing in the same way. If growth rates from ball to ball are similar, this could explain their herd-like movement.

The mystery is reminiscent of the "sailing stones" of Death Valley that perplexed scientists for years unit their secret was revealed: They're pushed around by the wind as they temporarily float on wet melting ground ice.

How swipe-based dating apps are impacting your mental health

Online dating has evolved, but at what cost?

The evolution of online dating has led us to swipe-based dating apps, but are they too damaging to our mental health?

Photo by Tero Vesalainen on Shutterstock
  • Some dating apps allow individuals to interact and form romantic/sexual connections before meeting face to face with the ability to "swipe" on the screen to either accept or reject another user's profile. Popular swipe-based apps include Tinder, Bumble, and OkCupid.
  • Research by Western Sydney University and the University of Sydney has linked the experience of swipe-based dating apps to higher rates of psychological distress and/or depression.
  • Not all time spent on these apps is damaging, however. Up to 40 percent of current users say they previously entered a serious relationship with someone they met through one of these apps.
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Scientists observe strange lights in the heart of the Milky Way

Astronomers spot periodic lights coming from near the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

Hot spots around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way may produce periodic lights.

Credit: Keio University
Surprising Science
  • Astronomers in Japan observe periodic lights coming from the region near the black hole at the center of our galaxy.
  • The twinkling may be produced by hot spots in the accretion disk around the black hole.
  • The mysterious region studied features extreme gravity.
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You’re not going far from home – and neither are the animals you spy out your window

Maybe you've been wondering if you're seeing one persistent squirrel or a rotating cast of characters.

Photo by Toimetaja tõlkebüroo on Unsplash
Surprising Science

Watching the wildlife outside your window can boost your mental well-being, and it's something lots of people have been doing a lot more of lately.

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Now you can track vitamin C intake on your skin

A new wearable patch has been created at the University of California San Diego.

68 year-old citrus grower Peter Spyke cuts a tangerine at Arapaho Citrus Management grove in Fort Pierce, Florida on November 21, 2019.

Photo by Gianrigo Marletta / AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A team at the University of California San Diego has developed a non-invasive skin patch that measures your vitamin C levels.
  • An electrode sensor measures vitamin C in your sweat.
  • The researchers hope this leads to the development of multivitamin patches that track nutritional deficiencies.
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