April 26: The Day that Was

Every so often - say once or twice every few months - it really does seem, at least from the outside, as if Yemen is falling apart, and, gasp, could become a failed state - whatever that means. (The feeling on the ground is usually quite different.) Today was one of those days.

This morning a suicide bomber, identified as Uthman 'Ali al-Salawi, attacked the British ambassador's convoy. But more on that below.

We'll start in the country's far north, where News Yemen has a piece on the rising tensions between Yahya al-Huthi and Sayf al-Washali over who best represents the Huthis abroad.

Staying up North, the Huthis' local representatives are accusing the government of attempting to kill the fragile true. According to unnamed sources in the Huthis' camp an individual named Ibn 'Aziz (yes, I know, very helpful) entered the al-Mahadhir Market southwest of the city of Sa'dah with a military escort and opened fire, injuring three shoppers. (For the full and very complicated story - of which there are many different versions read the above link.)

In the same Mareb Press story the Huthis suggest that the government is trying to instigate a series of revenge killings between the Huthis and local tribes in the region. According to the paper, all of this suggests a seventh war. So much for peace, or rather the absence of war.

Down south, but still related to the war in Sa'dah, a number of soldiers from Radfan staged a demonstration to secure their "rights," which they argue include things like being paid, dealing with the families of their dead comrades killed in the war, helping recent retirees and those who have recently married.

The soldiers, at least according to the story, were careful to disassociate themselves from the Southern Movement and they also disputed government claims that they were deserters, claiming that they had been separated from their unit in the fog of war. The soldiers wore their military uniforms but carried their personal weapons. The demonstration when through downtown Habiylayn before paying honor to their fallen friends.

The pictures are telling, and I don't think the government wants a bunch of trained (at least to some degree) and armed men angry with it. At the moment, they are still adhering to a traditional Yemeni method of seeking redress, let's hope it lasts.

Also, in the south, Ali al-Qarmush, the head of security for the city of al-Baydha, was removed from his position and replaced by Colonel Muhammad al-'Amari. The move reportedly came amidst a deteriorating security situation.

Now back to San'a, and more bad news. Quite separate from the attempted assassination this morning, the head of the JMP's high council, 'Abd al-Wahhab Mahmud, came under fire from unknown assailants this morning as he was riding in a car on Mujahid Street in San'a.

This brings us full circle back to the suicide attack on Britain's ambassador to Yemen, Tim Torlot. The attack targeted Torlot's convoy on his way to work in the new and heavily fortified British Embassy near the Movenpick. (Unfortunately, this is probably the only time Nuqum will be mentioned in the western press.)

The attacker is reportedly a 22-year-old from Taizz, who was a bit disconnected from society. He had been in and out of high schools, dropping out multiple times. There is still little that is known about his background, although I'm told that he was known to the security services. Not surprisingly, the government is conducting a series of raids in Hay Musayk, the neighborhood next to the US Embassy and below the British Embassy. This neighborhood has produced suicide bombers before - the attack on the Spanish tourists in 2007 - and that attacker also received training in Marib, just as the government is suggesting this one did.

(Incidentally, and possibly unrelated, a young Saudi was killed in Marib in a car crash today. There is no known link - nor does the article even suggest the possibility of one - but given where he died and his nationality the question at least has to be asked. That is, of course, one of the problems with security: everyone becomes suspect.)

This is not, as some analysts have said, the first time AQAP has attempted to assassinate an individual (Remember, Muhammad bin Nayyif?). What this attack means is, at the moment, difficult to tell. As I told Paul Stephens of the Global Post earlier today, what comes next will go a long way in determining how much damage the US and Yemen did to AQAP's infrastructure in the past few months.

It is always the next piece of information that is the most important.

Certainly most AQAP's national leaders have survived recent raids, although the organization did lose some regional figures, as well as a key safe house, which I believed served as a media hub for the organization. How extensive those losses were remains to be seen.

AQAP has consistently shown itself to be an incredibly resilient organization, capable of adapting to changing circumstances in Yemen.

This was not a particularly sophisticated or well-thought out strike.

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."