A newfound, oddly slow pulsar shouldn’t emit radio waves — yet it does

Astronomers have added a new species to the neutron star zoo, showcasing the wide diversity among the compact magnetic remains of dead, once-massive stars.

The newfound highly magnetic pulsar has a surprisingly long rotation period, which is challenging the theoretical understanding of these objects, researchers report May 30 in Nature Astronomy. Dubbed PSR J0901-4046, this pulsar sweeps its lighthouse-like radio beam past Earth about every 76 seconds — three times slower than the previous record holder.
While it’s an oddball, some of this newfound pulsar’s characteristics are common among its relatives. That means this object may help astronomers better connect the evolutionary phases among mysterious species in the neutron star menagerie.

Astronomers know of many types of neutron stars. Each one is the compact object left over after a massive star’s explosive death, but their characteristics can vary. A pulsar is a neutron star that astronomers detect at a regular interval thanks to its cosmic alignment: The star’s strong magnetic field produces beams of radio waves emanating from near the star’s poles, and every time one of those beams sweeps across Earth, astronomers can see a radio pulse.

The newfound, slowpoke pulsar sits in our galaxy, roughly 1,300 light-years away. Astrophysicist Manisha Caleb of the University of Sydney in Australia and her colleagues found it in data from the MeerKAT radio telescope outside Carnarvon, South Africa.

Further observations with MeerKAT revealed not only the pulsar’s slow, steady radio beat — a measure of how fast it spins — but also another important detail: The rate at which the spin slows as the pulsar ages. And those two bits of info revealed something odd about this pulsar. According to theory, it should not be emitting radio waves. And yet, it is.

As neutron stars age, they lose energy and spin more slowly. According to calculations, “at some point, they’ve exhausted all their energy, and they cease to emit any sort of emission,” Caleb says. They’ve become dead to detectors.

A pulsar’s rotation period and the slowdown of its spin relates to the strength of its magnetic field, which accelerates subatomic particles streaming from the star and, in turn, generates radio waves. Any neutron stars spinning as slowly as PSR J0901-4046 are in this stellar “graveyard” and shouldn’t produce radio signals.

But “we just keep finding weirder and weirder pulsars that chip away at that understanding,” says astrophysicist Maura McLaughlin of West Virginia University in Morgantown, who wasn’t involved with this work.

The newfound pulsar could be its own unique species of neutron star. But in some ways, it also looks a bit familiar, Caleb says. She and her colleagues calculated the pulsar’s magnetic field from the rate its spin is slowing, and it’s incredibly strong, similar to magnetars (SN: 9/17/02). This hints that PSR J0901-4046 could be what’s known as a “quiescent magnetar,” which is a pulsar with very strong magnetic fields that occasionally emits brilliantly energetic bursts of X-rays or other radiation. “We’re going to need either X-ray emission or [ultraviolet] observations to confirm whether it is indeed a magnetar or a pulsar,” she says.

The discovery team still has additional observations to analyze. “We do have a truckload more data on it,” says astrophysicist Ian Heywood of the University of Oxford. The researchers are looking at how the object’s brightness is changing over time and whether its spin abruptly changes, or “glitches.”

The astronomers also are altering their automated computer programs, which scan the radio data and flag intriguing signals, to look for these longer-duration spin periods — or even weirder and more mysterious neutron star phenomena. “The sweet thing about astronomy, for me, is what’s out there waiting for us to find,” Heywood says.

How I’ll decide when it’s time to ditch my mask

For weeks, I have been watching coronavirus cases drop across the United States. At the same time, cases were heading skyward in many places in Europe, Asia and Oceania. Those surges may have peaked in some places and seem to be on a downward trajectory again, according to Our World in Data.

Much of the rise in cases has been attributed to the omicron variant’s more transmissible sibling BA.2 clawing its way to prominence. But many public health officials have pointed out that the surges coincide with relaxing of COVID-19 mitigation measures.

People around the world are shedding their masks and gathering in public. Immunity from vaccines and prior infections have helped limit deaths in wealthier countries, but the omicron siblings are very good at evading immune defenses, leading to breakthrough infections and reinfections. Even so, at the end of February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted new guidelines for masking, more than doubling the number of cases needed per 100,000 people before officials recommended a return to the face coverings (SN: 3/3/22).

Not everyone has ditched their masks. I have observed some regional trends. The majority of people I see at my grocery store and other places in my community in Maryland are still wearing masks. But on road trips to the Midwest and back, even during the height of the omicron surge, most of the faces I saw in public were bare. Meanwhile, I was wearing my N95 mask even when I was the only person doing so. I reasoned that I was protecting myself from infection as best I could. I was also protecting my loved ones and other people around me from me should I have unwittingly contracted the virus.

But I will tell you a secret. I don’t really like wearing masks. They can be hot and uncomfortable. They leave lines on my face. And sometimes masks make it hard to breathe. At the same time, I know that wearing a good quality, well-fitting mask greatly reduces the chance of testing positive for the coronavirus (SN: 2/12/21). In one study, N95 or KN95 masks reduced the chance of testing positive by 83 percent, researchers reported in the February 11 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. And school districts with mask mandates had about a quarter of the number of in-school infections as districts where masks weren’t required (SN: 3/15/22).

With those data in mind, I am not ready to go barefaced. And I’m not alone. Nearly 36 percent of the 1,916 respondents to a Science News Twitter poll said that they still wear masks everywhere in public. Another 28 percent said they mask in indoor crowds, and 23 percent said they mask only where it’s mandatory. Only about 12 percent have ditched masks entirely.

Some poll respondents left comments clarifying their answers, but most people’s reasons for masking aren’t clear. Maybe they live in the parts of the country or world where transmission levels are high and hospitals are at risk of being overrun. Maybe they are parents of children too young for vaccination. Perhaps they or other loved ones are unvaccinated or have weakened immune systems that put them at risk for severe disease. Maybe, like me, they just don’t want to get sick — with anything.

Before the pandemic, I caught several colds a year and had to deal with seasonal allergies. Since I started wearing a mask, I haven’t had a single respiratory illness, though allergies still irritate my eyes and make my nose run. I’ve also got some health conditions that raise my risk of severe illness. I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, so I probably won’t die if I catch the virus that causes COVID-19, but I don’t want to test it (SN: 11/8/21). Right now, I just feel safer wearing a mask when I’m indoors in public places.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what would convince me that it was safe to go maskless. What is the number or metric that will mark the boundary of my comfort zone?

The CDC now recommends using its COVID-19 Community Levels map for determining when mask use is needed. That metric is mostly concerned with keeping hospitals and other health care systems from becoming overwhelmed. By that measure, most of the country has the green light to go maskless. I’m probably more cautious than the average person, but the levels of transmission in that metric that would trigger mask wearing — 200 or more cases per 100,000 population — seem high to me, particularly since CDC’s prior recommendations urged masking at a quarter of that level.

The metric is designed for communities, not individuals. So what numbers should I, as an individual, go by? There’s always the CDC’s COVID-19 Integrated County View that tracks case rates and test positivity rates — the percentage of tests that have a positive result. Cases in my county have been ticking up in the last few days, with 391 people having gotten COVID-19 in the last week — that’s about 37 out of every 100,000 people. That seems like relatively low odds of coming into contact with a contagious person. But those are only the cases we know about officially. There may be many more cases that were never reported as people take rapid antigen tests at home or decide not to test. There’s no way to know exactly how much COVID-19 is out there.

And the proportion of cases caused by BA.2 is on the rise, with the more infectious omicron variant accounting for about 35 percent of cases nationwide in the week ending March 19. In the mid-Atlantic states where I live, about 30 percent of cases are now caused by BA.2. But in some parts of the Northeast, that variant now causes more than half of cases. The increase is unsettling but doesn’t necessarily mean the United States will experience another wave of infections as Europe has. Or maybe we will. That uncertainty makes me uncomfortable removing my mask indoors in public right now.

Maybe in a few weeks, if there’s no new surge in infections, I’ll feel comfortable walking around in public with my nose and mouth exposed. Or maybe I’ll wait until the number of cases in my county is in single digits. I’m pretty sure there will come a day when I won’t feel the need to filter every breath, but for me, it’s not that time yet. And I truthfully can’t tell you what my magic number will be.

Here’s what I do know: Even if I do decide to have an unmasked summer, I will be strapping my mask back on if COVID-19 cases begin to rise again.

50 years ago, scientists thought a desert shrub might help save endangered whales

The sperm whale is an endangered species. A major reason is that the whale oil is heat-resistant and chemically and physically stable. This makes it useful for lubricating delicate machinery. The only substitute is expensive carnauba wax from the leaves of palm trees that grow only in Brazil … [but] wax from the seeds of the jojoba, an evergreen desert shrub, is nearly as good.

After sperm whale oil was banned in the early 1970s, the United States sought to replenish its reserves with eco-friendly oil from jojoba seeds (SN: 5/17/75, p. 335). Jojoba oil’s chemical structure is nearly identical to that of sperm whale oil, and the shrub is native to some North American desert ecosystems, making the plant an appealing replacement. Today, jojoba shrubs are cultivated around the world on almost every continent. Jojoba oil is used in hundreds of products, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, adhesives and lubricants. Meanwhile, sperm whale populations have started to recover under international anti-whaling agreements (SN: 2/27/21, p. 4).

Social mingling shapes how orangutans issue warning calls

Human language, in its many current forms, may owe an evolutionary debt to our distant ape ancestors who sounded off in groups of scattered individuals.

Wild orangutans’ social worlds mold how they communicate vocally, much as local communities shape the way people speak, researchers report March 21 in Nature Ecology & Evolution. This finding suggests that social forces began engineering an expanding inventory of communication sounds among ancient ancestors of apes and humans, laying a foundation for the evolution of language, say evolutionary psychologist Adriano Lameira, of the University of Warwick in England, and his colleagues.

Lameira’s group recorded predator-warning calls known as “kiss-squeaks” — which typically involve drawing in breath through pursed lips — of 76 orangutans from six populations living on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where they face survival threats (SN: 2/15/18). The team tracked the animals and estimated their population densities from 2005 through 2010, with at least five consecutive months of observations and recordings in each population. Analyses of recordings then revealed how much individuals’ kiss-squeaks changed or remained the same over time.
Orangutans in high-density populations, which up the odds of frequent social encounters, concoct many variations of kiss-squeaks, the researchers report. Novel reworkings of kiss-squeaks usually get modified further by other orangutans or drop out of use in crowded settings, they say.

In spread-out populations that reduce social mingling, these apes produce relatively few kiss-squeak variants, Lameira’s group finds. But occasional kiss-squeak tweaks tend to catch on in their original form in dispersed groups, leading to larger call repertoires than in high-density populations.

Low-density orangutan groups — featuring small clusters of animals that occasionally cross paths — might mirror the social settings of human ancestors. Ancient apes and hominids also lived in dispersed groups that could have bred a growing number of ways to communicate vocally, the researchers suspect.

Invasive jorō spiders get huge and flashy — if they’re female

Some thumbnail-sized, brown male spiders in Georgia could be miffed if they paid the least attention to humans and our news obsessions.

Recent stories have made much of “giant” jorō spiders invading North America from eastern Asia, some large enough to span your palm. Lemon yellow bands cross their backs. Bright red bits can add drama, and a softer cheesecake yellow highlights the many joints on long black legs.

The showy giants, however, are just the females of Trichonephila clavata. Males hardly get mentioned except for what they’re not: colorful or big. A he-spider hulk at 8 millimeters barely reaches half the length of small females. Even the species nickname ignores the guys. The word jorō, borrowed from Japanese, translates to such unmasculine terms as “courtesan,” “lady-in-waiting” and even “entangling or binding bride.”
Mismatched sexes are nothing new for spiders. The group shows the most extreme size differences between the sexes known among land animals, says evolutionary biologist Matjaž Kuntner of the Evolutionary Zoology Lab in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The most dramatic case Kuntner has heard of comes from Arachnura logio scorpion spiders in East Asia, with females 14.8 times the size of the males.

With such extreme size differences, mating conflicts in animals can get violent: females cannibalizing males and so on (SN: 11/13/99). As far as Kuntner knows, however, jorō spiders don’t engage in these “sexually conflicted” extremes. Males being merely half size or thereabouts might explain the relatively peaceful encounters.

When it comes to humans, these spiders don’t bother anybody who doesn’t bother them. But what a spectacle they make. “I’ve got dozens and dozens in my yard,” says ecologist Andy Davis at the University of Georgia in Athens. “One big web can be 3 or 4 feet in diameter.” Jorō spiders have lived in northeastern Georgia since at least 2014.
These new neighbors inspired Davis and undergraduate Benjamin Frick to see if the newcomers withstand chills better than an earlier invader, Trichonephila clavipes, their more tropical relative also known as the golden silk orb-weaver. (The jorō also can spin yellow-tinged silk.) The earlier arrival’s flashy females and drab males haven’t left the comfy Southeast they invaded at least 160 years ago.

Figuring out the jorō’s hardiness involves taking the spider’s pulse. But how do you do that with an arthropod with a hard exoskeleton? A spider’s heart isn’t a mammallike lump circulating blood through a closed system. The jorō sluices its bloodlike fluid through a long tube open at both ends. “Think of a garden hose,” says Davis. He has measured heart rates of monarch caterpillars, and he found a spot on a spider’s back where a keen-eyed observer can count throbs.

Female jorō spiders packed in ice to simulate chill stress kept their heart rates some 77 percent higher than the stay-put T. clavipes, tests showed. Checking jorō oxygen use showed females have about twice the metabolic rate. And about two minutes of freezing temperatures showed better female survival (74 percent versus 50 percent). Lab tests used only the conveniently big jorō females, though male ability to function in random cold snaps could matter too.

Plus jorō sightings in the Southeast so far suggest the newer arrival needs less time than its relative to make the next generation, an advantage for farther to the north. The adults don’t need to survive deep winter in any case. Mom and dad die off, in November in Georgia, and leave their hundreds of eggs packed in silk to weather the cold and storms.

Reports on the citizen-observer iNaturalist site suggest that in Georgia, jorō spiders already cover some 40,000 square kilometers, Davis and Frick report February 17 in Physiological Entomology. Sightings now stretch into Tennessee and the Carolinas. But how far the big moms and tiny dads will go and when, we’ll just have to wait and see.