Taliban secretly talks with Afghan government while violence escalates

While violence in Afghanistan surges upward, Taliban leaders are reportedly meeting with Afghan government officials to negotiate.

The Afghan government and its Taliban adversaries are secretly meeting amid surging warfare across the country, the U.S. military reported Thursday. U.S. officials said that Taliban leaders had rejected an offer from the government to meet back in February but are willing to meet now, raising hopes that the militant group may be willing to start working toward peace.

Fighting between the Taliban and government forces has escalated in recent months. Around 15,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in-country to aid the Afghan government, and on Wednesday, U.S. officials reported that they had killed dozens of Taliban leaders in an operation the week prior. That same day, a Taliban spokesman said that a Taliban militant suicide mission had killed nearly 30 Afghan police officers in the Afghan province of Logar.

“I call this talking and fighting,” U.S. Army General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “And, as [Defense Secretary James N. Mattis] has said, ‘violence and progress can coexist,’ and that’s what we’re seeing.”

The Taliban may be gaining ground, however. U.S. military data released in January said that as of October 2017, about 14% of Afghanistan’s districts were under the influence or control of the Taliban or other insurgent groups.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said that he would welcome the Taliban into Afghan civil society as a legal political party if they agree to recognize the constitution and end the violence. But Chris Meserole, a Brookings Institution expert on the Middle East, told Newsweek he is skeptical that the Taliban is really interested in peace. They might be expressing interest in talks because they have made military gains and now have “significant leverage with the central government,” he said, adding that “the question is what they’ll use it for.”

Scientists discover secrets behind Pluto’s dunes

A team of scientists has discovered the causes of Pluto’s unique icy dunes.

Scientists believe that Pluto’s dunes were likely formed by methane ice grains that were released into the planet’s rarified atmosphere.

After spatial analysis of the dunes and nearby wind streaks on Pluto’s surface—in addition to numerical and spectral monitoring—scientists believe that the sand-sized grains are the result of sublimation, which converts solid nitrogen directly into a gas.

Following this process, these grains are transported by Pluto’s moderate winds into the border of the ice plain and mountain range. The results suggests that these dunes likely formed within the last 500,000 years—maybe even earlier.

“We knew that every solar system body with an atmosphere and a solid rocky surface has dunes on it, but we didn’t know what we’d find on Pluto,” said Matt Telfer, lead author of the study. “It turns out that even though there is so little atmosphere, and the surface temperature is around -230?C, we still get dunes forming.”

“The New Horizons data has given us a new level of detail, but we had to work hard to explain how it was possible to get the supply of sediment, a non-cohesive surface and wind you need for dunes,” he continued. “It is another piece of the jigsaw in making sense of this diverse and remote body, and gives us a more fundamental understanding of the geological processes which are influencing it.”

The findings were published in Science.

Discovery of 838 new worlds beyond Neptune might support ‘Planet Nine’ theory

A team of scientists has discovered hundreds of new worlds in the region of space beyond Neptune.

A group of scientists discovered 838 minor planets on the other side of Neptune, which means the number of objects orbiting the sun just increased by 50 percent.

The data was gathered between 2013 and 2017 through the Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS), which used the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Maunakea, Hawaii to map out hundreds of “small worlds” located in the space beyond Neptune.

“This is the largest set of discoveries ever made,” said Queen’s University Belfast research fellow Michele Bannister. “These little icy worlds are important as they help us tell the solar system’s history. They can also help us test the idea that there’s a yet unseen planet lurking in the outer solar system.”

The team examined eight patches of space located away from the Milky Way star fields in search of points of light that were slow-moving and dim. The team hand-checked over 37,000 measurements over the course of five years, which led to the new discoveries.

“The new icy and rocky objects fall into two main groups,” Bannister said. “One includes those that reside on roundish orbits in the Kuiper belt, which extends from 37au to approximately 50au from the sun.”

“The other consists of worlds that orbit in a careful dance of avoidance with Neptune as it travels around the sun,” she continued. “These ‘resonant’ trans-Neptunian objects, which include Pluto, were pushed into their current elongated orbits during Neptune’s migration outwards.”

One theory related to the data suggests that “Planet Nine” could be causing the objects to cluster.

The findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

Nuclear scientists highlight key property that drives neutron decay

An international team of scientists has calculated the most precise value of axial.

An international team that includes scientists from the multiple U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories has calculated the highest-precision value yet of a fundamental property of protons and neutrons called axial coupling.

Axial coupling determines the strength of the interactions that causes neutrons to decay into protons, and can be used to determine the lifespan of neutrons.

“The fact that neutrons decay into protons is a very, very important fact in the universe,” said Enrico Rinaldi, who helped develop simulations that are essential to the new calculation. “It basically tells you how atomic nuclei—made of protons and neutrons—were created after the Big Bang.”

In order to calculate axial coupling, the team used resources from the DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF)

“This was an intense two-and-a-half-year project that only came together because of the great team of people working on it,” said André Walker-Loud from Berkeley Lab.

The team hopes to use supercomputers to generate more statistics and drive the value’s margin of uncertainty down to approximately 0.3 percent.

“That’s where we can actually begin to discriminate between the results from the two different experimental methods of measuring the neutron lifetime,” said Chia Cheng “Jason” Chang, a postdoc at Berkeley Lab. “That’s always the most exciting part: When the theory has something to say about the experiment.”

The findings were published in Nature.

Self-assembling ‘Lego-like’ chemicals might create future hydrogen fuel cells

In the future, hydrogen cells might be created from “Lego-like” chemicals.

A new study suggests that the future of creating hydrogen fuel cells lies in cofacial cobalt porphyrins. It’s a mouthful to say, and you probably haven’t heard of these compounds before if you’re not involved in the field of chemistry. But these compounds, which are created by “Lego-like” chemicals, could be a big advancement in alternative energy.

The compounds assemble themselves in the laboratory from “Lego-like” building blocks that are added into a flask, stirred together, and heated. Over time, the blocks join together until they end up in their final form.

And since the material is cheap and easy to create in large quantities, its an ideal candidate for replacing the expensive platinum catalysts used in modern hydrogen fuel cells.

“To bring down the price of hydrogen vehicles and make them a realistic option for more people, we need a catalyst that’s cheaper than platinum,” said Timothy Cook, senior author on the study. “The catalyst we made can be self-assembled in huge quantities. It has ruthenium and cobalt in it—much cheaper metals—and, yet, it works as well or better than a commercially available platinum catalyst that we tested alongside it.”

“It is truly rewarding to work on the fundamental chemistry of this project, which could have a large impact on carbon-neutral energy conversion,” said Amanda Oldacre, the first author on the study. “Using self-assembly techniques, we are able to make cheaper materials in 48 hours, without the difficult, time-consuming purification steps that other methods for synthesizing new compounds require.”

The findings were published in Chemistry – A European Journal.

Scientists discover 121 giant planets that might have habitable moons

There are 121 giant planets with moons that could sustain life.

A paper that is set to release in The Astrophysical Journal identifies 121 giant planets with moons that might be able to support life. The work will help researchers design future telescopes that can examine these moons in more detail to look for signs of life, also referred to as biosignatures.

Although massive, Jupiter-like plants are not habitable themselves, they might harbor rocky moons, referred to as exomoons, that could hold life.

“There are currently 175 known moons orbiting the eight planets in our solar system,” said Stephen Kane, an associate professor of planetary astrophysics and co-author on the study. “While most of these moons orbit Saturn and Jupiter, which are outside the Sun’s habitable zone, that may not be the case in other solar systems. Including rocky exomoons in our search for life in space will greatly expand the places we can look.”

Scientists have long speculated that exomoons could be habitable, and the new research highlights potential candidates.

“Now that we have created a database of the known giant planets in the habitable zone of their star, observations of the best candidates for hosting potential exomoons will be made to help refine the expected exomoon properties,” said Michelle Hill, an undergraduate student at the University of Southern Queensland and co-author on the study. “Our follow-up studies will help inform future telescope design so that we can detect these moons, study their properties, and look for signs of life.”

The findings were published on the pre-print server arXiv.

China invites UN countries to use upcoming space station

China recently invited United Nations countries to use its upcoming space station.

China announced Monday that all United Nations (UN) countries are invited to uses its future China Space Station.

Shi Zhongjun, China’s Ambassador to the UN, made the invitation in Vienna among other international organizations, and claims the invitation is open and inclusive.

“Firstly, the cooperation will be open to all countries, regardless of their capabilities in outer space exploration,” he said. “Secondly, it will be very inclusive, embracing governments, international organizations, private entities and research institutes and it will be carried out through the use of various means.”

The announcement was met with applause, especially from representatives from other developing countries.

“I think it’s very generous of China to offer space technology for other countries,” said Priyanee Wijesekera, a representative of Sri Lanka. “China has been a good friend of Sri Lanka for the past 70 years. So I’m sure we will be making use of it, because Sri Lanka itself cannot afford space technology, but there’s so much benefit that we can get.”

After the announcement, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) released official letters to all of the Permanent Missions in Vienna and New York, in addition to offices of the United Nations. This marks the beginning for the three-month application period for industries, public organizations, and private sector organizations with scientific orientation.

Scientists predict a future ‘worse than extinction’

A Russian theoretical physicist believes that humans might be approaching a fate “worse than extinction.”

Russian theoretical physicist Alexander Berezin has predicted a pretty depressing future for our civilization, claiming that it “is even worse than extinction.”

In his new paper, Berezin uses Fermi’s paradox to come to his bleak conclusion about humanity’s future. The paradox asks why we have not found extraterrestrial life yet if the universe is so vast. Berezin believes that the answer lies in our technological advancement, which he claims is not at a high enough level to find alien life.

And when we do reach this level of technological advancement and discover alien civilizations, he believes humans will have to eradicate “all competition to fuel its own expansion.”

But Berezin believes that this destruction of other life forms won’t be a conscious act.

“They simply [will] not realize, in the same way that a construction team demolishes an anthill to build a property because it has no incentives to protect it,” Berezin said.

However, Berezin believes “we are here, our planet and our star are relatively intact, and we are already contemplating the first interstellar probes,” and he “hopes to be wrong” about the possibility of humans destroying the alien life that we have been searching for over the years.

The findings were published in the pre-print archive arXiv.

Oldest lizard fossil from Italian Alps suggests species evolved alongside dinosaurs

A new study examines an ancient lizard fossil that provides a key evolutionary link between lizards and dinosaurs.

A new fossil of Megachirella wachtleri found in the Italian Alps, which is the oldest lizard fossil ever, suggests that the species evolved around the same time that dinosaurs did. The results fill in a longtime gap in the reptile family tree and fossil record.

After analyzing the fossilized creature, which is the size of a human finger, researchers determined that it is the closest thing that we know of to the ancestor of all modern snakes and lizards

“I immediately thought that it could be this missing link that we were hoping for,” said lead author Tiago Simoes.

After a CT scan, the team revealed many features in its clavicle, skull, arm, and wrist that are only found in lizards.

Marc Jones, a researcher from the University of Adelaide and the Natural History Museum in London who wasn’t involved in the study, says the study is a great assessment of available evidence.

“Lizards are a highly diverse and ecologically important group today but their early evolution remains mysterious,” he said. “Any new developments such as this discovery will be significant. It’s great to see lizards, rather than dinosaurs or mammals, get some attention for a change.”

However, he notes that some scientists might be disappointed by the fossil’s lack of key lizard features, such as the knee and ankle.

The findings were published in Nature.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s honeymoon: Where could they be?

Where is Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s honeymoon?

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are said to be on their honeymoon, but no one seems to know their exact location. According to ABC News, the couple is rumored to be spending time in Africa.

“It is believed they are spending some time in Africa, possibly Namibia, and probably taking another trip after that as part of the honeymoon,” said Roya Nikkhah, an ABC News royal contributor.

Four weeks after the two first met on a blind date in London last July, Harry, 33, whisked Meghan, 36, to Africa. “I managed to persuade her to come and join me in Botswana and we camped out with each other under the stars,” Harry said in his post-engagement interview with Markle last November. “She came and joined me for five days out there, which was absolutely fantastic.”

Harry also included Botswana in Meghan’s engagement ring. The main stone in Meghan’s ring is sourced from Botswana, while the diamonds surrounding it are from the jewelry collection of Harry’s mother, the late Princess Diana.

Last year, Harry said that Botswana will always have sentimental value to him. “I first came in 1997, straight after my mum died,” he said. “My dad told my brother and me we were going to Africa to get away from it all.”