Scientific American-Today in Science


“Humbling stars, Lahaina Banyan Tree, Burial of “vampire child” found in Poland.”

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August 16, 2023: Rare Wolf-Rayet stars, arborists examine the beloved Maui banyan tree and remains of a “vampire child” discovered in Poland.
Andrea Gawrylewski, Chief Newsletter Editor

Humbling Stars

Wolf-Rayet stars are the largest, hottest and rarest stars in the universe. Believed to be the final, fleeting stage in the lives of the most massive stars, Wolf-Rayets have pinwheels of gas and dust radiating from a surface whose temperatures can exceed 200,000 kelvins—30 times hotter than the sun—and radiation fields that can outshine the sun by factors of more than a million. When they go supernova, they trigger gamma-ray bursts, which last more than two seconds. Using data from the James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers recently discovered that the pinwheel of a Wolf-Rayet called WR140 is actually a binary system.
Why this is so cool: Astronomers are still hoping to pin down how these stars produce so much dust. Stardust can play a large role in the grand cycle of matter in the galaxy, perhaps most of all by shielding and cooling the gas throughout, allowing it to condense to form new generations of stars.
What the experts say: “Wolf-Rayets are humbling astronomers who think they understand how things work,” writes Peter Tuthill, an astronomer at the University of Sydney in Australia.
A series of images shows the motion of the dust spiral in the WR 104 system, which spins over the duration of one eight-month orbital cycle. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory/Peter Tuthill (model series)

More Than a Tree

Residents and local officials are holding on to hope that the beloved 150-year-old banyan tree at the heart of Lahaina survived the devastating wildfires on Maui on August 8. There is live tissue beneath its bark, yet the tree is like it’s “in a coma,” said Steve Nimz, an arborist who has inspected the banyan, in an interview with Hawaiian television station KITV on Monday. Scientists are not sure how resilient banyan trees are to fire. Thin-bark trees, banyans among them, typically fare poorly in wildfires. The heat and flames can readily penetrate their bark and reach the trees’ living cells.
Why this matters: Lahaina housed some of the most historically significant cultural properties and highest-ranking sacred remains of Hawaiian ancestors. The banyan tree has become an iconic symbol of the town and Hawaian history. A member of the fig tree family, banyan trees (Ficus benghalensis) are native to the Indian subcontinent and, by some accounts, the Lahaina banyan is the largest of its kind in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world.
What the experts say: “When you see black, that means it is charred, burned; it’s carbonized, and we have a big problem,” says Kevin Eckert, founder and president of the nonprofit conservation group Arbor Global on Oahu. “I did not see [char] in the very limited, very few photos. We’re not out of the woods by a long shot, but there is some hope.”
Lahaina, Hawaii’s, famed banyan tree appeared blackened after wildfires ripped through the island of Maui. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
• A “vampire child” was buried 400 years ago in what is now Poland, face-down and with an iron padlock on their foot to prevent them from rising from the grave. | 3 min read
• Using machine learning, neuroscientists reconstructed garbled but distinctive audio of a Pink Floyd song based on listeners’ brain activity. | 5 min read
• In the U.S. and many other countries, social isolation is a major risk factor for dying during a heat wave, compounding the dangers of deadly heat waves fueled by climate change. | 9 min read
• Nineteenth-century volcanologist Luigi Palmieri survived five eruptions of Mount Vesuvius over the course of 40 years studying, and living on, the volcano. | 10 min read
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•  Patents for neurotechnologies–devices that interact directly with the brain–have soared in the last 20 years, and they are becoming more powerful. This has led to concerns about mental privacy and human autonomy, writes Laura Y. Cabrera, assistant professor of neuroethics at Michigan State University. But the risks of these new devices are “similar to those for more familiar data-collection technologies, such as everyday online surveillance: the kind most people experience through internet browsers and advertising, or wearable devices,” she writes. | 5 min read
More Opinion
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• Scientists on Maui worry for their colleagues and research projects. | Science
• A look at the courageous editor Ursula Nordstrom whose children’s books, while some of the most beloved, also got her blowback. Some examples include: “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Harriet the Spy,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and other classics. | The Washington Post
• Legendary swimmer Diana Nyad writes about swimming in hot oceans off the coast of Florida. | The New York Times
I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that the Lahaina banyan tree pulls through. Am I the only one for whom trees hold a special place in the heart? If you’re like me, check out this beautiful feature article on the remarkable evolution of oak trees in America.
This newsletter is for you. Reach out anytime with thoughts and ideas: See you tomorrow!
—Andrea Gawrylewski, Chief Newsletter Editor


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