Black Hole Image Makes History; NASA Telescopes Coordinated Observations

A black hole and its shadow have been captured in an image for the first time, a historic feat by an international network of radio telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). EHT is an international collaboration whose support in the U.S. includes the National Science Foundation.

Using the Event Horizon Telescope, scientists obtained an image of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87, outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon.
Credits: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

A black hole is an extremely dense object from which no light can escape. Anything that comes within a black hole’s “event horizon,” its point of no return, will be consumed, never to re-emerge, because of the black hole’s unimaginably strong gravity. By its very nature, a black hole cannot be seen, but the hot disk of material that encircles it shines bright. Against a bright backdrop, such as this disk, a black hole appears to cast a shadow.   

The stunning new image shows the shadow of the supermassive black hole in the center of Messier 87 (M87), an elliptical galaxy some 55 million light-years from Earth. This black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of the Sun. Catching its shadow involved eight ground-based radio telescopes around the globe, operating together as if they were one telescope the size of our entire planet. 

“This is an amazing accomplishment by the EHT team,” said Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Years ago, we thought we would have to build a very large space telescope to image a black hole. By getting radio telescopes around the world to work in concert like one instrument, the EHT team achieved this, decades ahead of time.”

To complement the EHT findings, several NASA spacecraft were part of a large effort, coordinated by the EHT’s Multiwavelength Working Group, to observe the black hole using different wavelengths of light. As part of this effort, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and Neil Gehrels SwiftObservatory space telescope missions, all attuned to different varieties of X-ray light, turned their gaze to the M87 black hole around the same time as the Event Horizon Telescope in April 2017. If EHT observed changes in the structure of the black hole’s environment, data from these missions and other telescopes could be used to help figure out what was going on. 

While NASA observations did not directly trace out the historic image, astronomers used data from NASA’s Chandra and NuSTAR satellites to measure the X-ray brightness of M87’s jet. Scientists used this information to compare their models of the jet and disk around the black hole with the EHT observations. Other insights may come as researchers continue to pore over these data. 

There are many remaining questions about black holes that the coordinated NASA observations may help answer. Mysteries linger about why particles get such a huge energy boost around black holes, forming dramatic jets that surge away from the poles of black holes at nearly the speed of light. When material falls into the black hole, where does the energy go? 

“X-rays help us connect what’s happening to the particles near the event horizon with what we can measure with our telescopes,” said Joey Neilsen, an astronomer at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, who led the Chandra and NuSTAR analysis on behalf of the EHT’s Multiwavelength Working Group. 

The story is published courtesy of NASA


Kids living near major roads at higher risk of developmental delays, NIH study suggests

Young children who live close to a major roadway are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communications skills, compared to those who live farther away from a major roadway, according to an analysis by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the University of California, Merced.

Moreover, children born to women exposed during pregnancy to higher-than-normal levels of traffic-related pollutants — ultra-fine airborne particles and ozone — had a small but significantly higher likelihood of developmental delays during infancy and early childhood. The study appears in Environmental Research.

“Our results suggest that it may be prudent to minimize exposure to air pollution during pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood—all key periods for brain development,” said Pauline Mendola, Ph.D., an investigator in the Division of Intramural Population Health Research at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the study’s senior author.

Previous studies have linked exposure to common air pollutants in pregnancy to low birthweight, preterm birth and stillbirth. A few studies have found a higher risk of autism and of lower cognitive functioning in children living near freeways, but results of studies about how prenatal and early childhood exposure to air pollution might affect development have been inconsistent.

Given that a large proportion of the U.S. population lives close to major roadways, which are major sources of air pollution, the researchers sought to determine if living near heavily traveled roads was linked to lower scores on developmental screens(link is external) — questionnaires or checklists that indicate whether a child is developing normally or needs to be referred to a specialist for further testing.

The researchers analyzed data from the Upstate KIDS Study. They matched the addresses of 5,825 study participants to a roadway data set, calculating the distance of each address to the nearest major roadway. For each participant, they matched home address, mother’s work address during pregnancy, and address of the child’s day care location to an Environmental Protection Agency data set(link is external) for estimating air pollution levels. From 8 months to 36 months of age, the children were screened every four to six months with the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, a validated screening measure evaluating five domains of child development: fine motor skills, large motor skills, communication, personal social functioning and problem-solving ability.

Compared to children living more than half a mile from a major roadway, children living from roughly 164 feet to .3 miles from a major roadway were twice as likely to have failed at least one screen of the communications domain.

The researchers also estimated exposures to ozone(link is external) and fine inhalable particles (PM2.5(link is external)), two pollutants produced by car traffic. Fine inhalable particles are 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair, can pass through the lungs’ defenses, and are absorbed directly into the bloodstream.

Prenatal exposure to elevated PM2.5 led to a 1.6 to 2.7% higher risk of failing any developmental domain, while higher ozone exposure led to a .7 to 1.7% higher risk of failing a developmental domain. In contrast, higher postnatal exposure to ozone was linked to a 3.3% higher risk of failing most domains of the developmental screen at 8 months, a 17.7% higher risk of overall screening failure at 24 months, and a 7.6% higher risk of overall screening failure at 30 months.

These results led the researchers to conclude that early childhood exposure to air pollutants may convey a higher risk for developmental delays, compared to similar exposures in the womb. The study is associational and so cannot prove cause and effect. The authors noted that larger studies are necessary to confirm these links.

“It is not clear why exposure to pollutants after birth is linked to a higher risk of developmental delay,” said Sandie Ha, Ph.D., of the Department of Public Health at the University of California, Merced, and lead author of the study. “However, unlike exposure during pregnancy, exposure during childhood is more direct and does not go through a pregnant woman’s defenses.”

NIH researchers make progress toward Epstein-Barr virus vaccine

A research team led by scientists from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has determined how several antibodies induced by Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a herpesvirus that causes infectious mononucleosis and is associated with certain cancers, block infection of cells grown in the laboratory.

A cryo-EM image of the gH/gL/gp45 candidate vaccine constructNIAID

They then used this information to develop novel vaccine candidates that, in animals, elicited potent anti-EBV antibody responses that blocked infection of cell types involved in EBV-associated cancers.

Currently, there is no licensed vaccine for EBV. The virus is associated with certain cancers (nasopharyngeal and gastric) of epithelial cells, which form the lining of the body’s surfaces, as well as Burkitt and Hodgkin lymphomas, which are cancers of the immune system’s B cells. Worldwide, about 200,000 cases of EBV-associated cancers occur annually, resulting in 140,000 deaths.

Jeffrey I. Cohen, M.D., and Wei Bu, Ph.D., both of NIAID, led the investigation. Prior efforts to develop an EBV vaccine focused on a viral surface protein, gp350, that the virus uses to enter B cells. However, EBV infects not only B cells, but also epithelial cells that line the mouth and upper throat. These cells are usually infected after contact with saliva from an EBV-infected individual. The new research helps define the contributions of virus-neutralizing antibodies other than those directed at gp350 on B cells. Among other findings, the team determined that antibodies to viral proteins called the gH/gL complex play a major role in inhibiting EBV fusion with epithelial cells.

The scientists developed two vaccine candidates, one designed to elicit antibodies to gH/gL on epithelial cells and another that included gH/gL and another viral protein, gp42. The team tested the vaccines in a series of experiments in mice and monkeys. In both animal models, each of the experimental vaccines induced antibodies that potently inhibited epithelial cell fusion. The vaccine containing gp42 induced stronger B cell fusion inhibitory antibodies than the one containing gH/gL alone.

Unlike the gp350 candidate EBV vaccine, which protects only B cells from infection, the candidate vaccines described in the new paper elicited antibodies that could prevent EBV from fusing with both epithelial cells and B cells and thus may provide protection independent of cell type, the authors note. The team is planning to further develop one of the vaccine constructs with an eye toward human trials.

African Development Bank VP Amadou Hott joins new Senegal Cabinet

President Macky Sall of Senegal has announced the appointment of Amadou Hott, Vice President for Power, Energy, Climate and Green Growth at the African Development Bank, as Minister of Economy, Planning and Cooperation.

According to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, “I am delighted with the announced appointment of Amadou Hott. He has done a great job as a Vice President at the African Development Bank, where he has helped to adeptly position and manage our power, energy and climate work, including several innovative and transformative energy projects.”

Amadou Hott joined the African Development Bank in 2016.

Responding further to the announcement Adesina said, “Amadou has been a great member of the senior leadership group of the African Development Bank Group and has made immense contributions. While I will greatly miss him, he certainly will be a great addition to the cabinet of President Macky Sall, to help deliver on his vision for a faster transformation of Senegal. I am confident that Amadou will significantly contribute to the advancement of Senegal and strongly deepen the excellent partnership that exists between Senegal and the African Development Bank.”

Sierra Leone: Resident Minister Threatens Lazy Cocoa Farmers With God’s Sledge Hammer!

By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)

Res Min. East, Andrew Fatorma

Sierra Leone’s Resident Minister East, Andrew Fatorma, has urged local cocoa farmers to put more effort and employ best practice in growing better cocoa so they would earn more money and bring about desired change in their lives, communities and the nation in general; or risk facing divine wrath.

Speaking at the closing ceremony of a 21-days Training of Trainers workshop for Community Facilitators on Cocoa Integrated Crop and Pest Management (ICPM) and Farmers Field Schools (FFS) under the Cocoa Rehabilitation and Intensification Programme (CoRIP) organised by Solidaridad West Africa at Hotel Albertson, Kenema Town, on 29th March, 2019, the Resident Minister warned the participants to go back to their communities and put into effective practice what they have learnt or risk the wrath of God’s sledge hammer.

“You should remember that nobody forced you to come and participate in this training, you opted to be part of it. After people have taken time to groom you up to ensure that you transform your lives and this country and after here you go back and sit in your communities and forget about everything, God will use His sledge hammer on you,” swore the Resident minister.

He added: “You have gone through 21 days of quality training and to stay in Kenema from different locations in the country, that requires huge amount of money. They accommodated you, provided food for you and got an international consultant to train you, that is too much. The only way you can pay back is to put the knowledge and skills you have gained from this training into practical use to change the story of the cocoa industry and bring about the change that matters in your lives, your families, your communities and the country at large.”

The Resident Minister said his presence at the ceremony is to emphasise the premium His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio puts on agriculture as the engine for socio-economic growth in the country. In the past, he recalled, Sierra Leone had agriculturists who graduated with first and second degrees and even doctorates “but we have not got an agriculturist in this country practicing agriculture. We want to change that narrative”.

He encouraged the participants to go back and serve as ambassadors of the new cocoa industry in their communities.

“We are beginning to swear people who take up responsibility but fail to discharge such responsibility effectively and blame government when things don’t go right. When you talk about government it is not about the President alone, or his Cabinet; you are also in your small corner charged with the responsibility to transform your country but when you fail in that duty, you don’t condemn yourself but other people,” vowed the Resident Minister, adding that more often than not people ask for help but have never showed what they have done for their country in taking advantage of opportunities like this.

Expressing affection for the slogan: ‘better cocoa, more money’, chanted by the participants throughout the ceremony, the Resident Minister said if the country fails to produce better cocoa going forward, nobody should blame the Ministry of Agriculture or the Government.

“We will now not blame the ministers, but all of you because you have been trained to produce better cocoa. They have trained you and we are now looking and expecting you to deliver,” he challenged the participants.

The Resident Minister urged Solidaridad and its partners to effectively follow-up and monitor the outcomes.

“What has been happening in this country is that sometimes they trained people and because there is no follow-up or proper monitoring, it dies down like that. May be in due course, we’ll begin to even ask people to sit exam for the degrees they claim to have, so that after every five years you come to defend your degree. That is what is happening in other countries so that you don’t sleep on you oars,” he said.

A total of 102 participants took part in the training: 61 farmers selected by partners, 10 Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) extension staffs, 20 Field Officers of partners and 11 National Youth service personnel.

The training covered all the protocols from cocoa agronomy, pest management, disease management, rehabilitation, how to set up FFS and other programs that will enable farmers to grow sustainable cocoa.

According to the Consultant trainer, Sylvanus Agordorku, the farmers are expected to go to their communities to establish FFS in conjunction with their partners who they are working with. At these schools they are supposed to train cocoa farmers in planting, replanting and diversification and also for rehabilitation because the current program is meant for rehabilitation and new planting in the cocoa farms. Eventually, the old plantations will be taken care of during the course of the FFS training.

Furthermore, Sylvanus said the farmers are expected to plant food crops as rainy season crops in the cocoa farms that will be established so that they will have food security, food availability and food accessibility and thereby by help to reduce hunger.

“The old practice where farmers go to the food banks to borrow will be minimized or eradicated entirely during the course of the program ahead of us,” noted Sylvanus.

In Sierra Leone the CoRIP project, which is funded by the Dutch Government, is implemented in three (3) districts; namely Kenema, Kailahun and Kono- all in the Eastern region, where the land is fertile for cocoa farming. It seeks to support cocoa intensification and production improvements by facilitating improved farmers access to inputs and extension services and test and validate economically viable and operationally feasible service delivery models for production support services through the creation of Farmer Support Centers (FSCs).

As part of Solidaridad West Africa’s sustainability strategy, they work through local partners: F.T. Saad, Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Company, Randlyn Holdings and Trading Organic-SL Ltd. To date, a total of 765,920 improved cocoa varieties have been nursed by partners through Solidaridad’s support across the three (3) operational districts. These seedlings are expected to be distributed and planted by 27,500 smallholders’ cocoa farmers in the three districts. The 21 days training is part of Solidaridad’s efforts to ensure that these seedlings when distributed to farmers are maintained using Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).

“In due course, we expect the trainees to adopt the knowledge acquired in their farms, train other farmers (ToT) and demonstrate commitment to attend future trainings,” said John Maada Paul Sinah, Solidaridad Programme Manager for oil palm in Sierra Leone. “We will be conducting follow-up visits to all trainees and farms to verify whether the knowledge gained over these three weeks are reflected on the farmers and farms.”

Meanwhile, one of the participants, Ade Momoh, described the training as very timely and an eye-opener.

“All what I was doing before was actually following what I learnt from my parents who were also cocoa farmers. It has been very beneficial to me but I was never exposed to new methods to improve on my cocoa farming business, as I was just using the old method I inherited from my father. Now I am happy to learn about new methods I need to apply in the field that will change the life style of my cocoa production for better,” said the 44-year-old famer from Kailahun District, who claims to have been a cocoa farmer since 2004.

He said he will return to his community full of new ideas and confidence, and will apply them in his cocoa farm.

Credit: Development and Economic Journalists Association-Sierra Leone (DEJA-SL).

No community, country or region should be made to feel too small – says Ernest Bai Koroma

Sierra Leone’s former President, Ernest Bai Koroma, informed stakeholders that to consolidate peace requires opening the political space by encouraging genuine inclusiveness in governance.

“No community, country or region should be made to feel too small or inadequate to be accorded its rightful place in development,” he said.

Sharing his experience at the Horasis Global Meeting in Caiscais, Portugal, the former president said “As soon as we came into government, our first major action was to reform the anti-corruption legislation, giving more autonomy to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC)”

“It now has the power not only to investigate but to prosecute as well: we have created an institution to fight corruption and strengthen transparency.”

The event usually gathers business leaders, heads of governments, key cabinet ministers, and eminent thought leaders to advance solutions to the most critical challenges facing the world. During this year’s four – day global conference, participants are expected to share their insights in view of the current ‘fragile and fractious’ state of our world.

Recognised as a champion of peace in Africa, Sierra Leone’s former President was invited to deliver a special message on how the world could work together to attain sustainable peace. President Ernest Bai Koroma succeeded in consolidating peace in a country which had suffered one of the world’s most brutal and destructive armed conflicts in recent memory.

At a joint press conference in Freetown on 5 March 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “Sierra Leone represents one of the world’s most successful cases of post-conflict recovery, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.”

By the time President Koroma left office in 2018, the International Peace Index ranked Sierra Leone as the most peaceful country in West Africa and one of the most peaceful in Africa.

During the administration’s time of economic growth and change, the country was devastated by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in early 2014. Sierra Leone was the hardest hit country but overcame the deadly disease through President Koroma’s steady leadership and by cooperation with neighboring nations and international aid organizations to fight the disease. The World Health Organization declared Sierra Leone was Ebola-free in March 2016.
Koroma states, “We had a projected growth of 13.2 percent before the epidemic broke out, and we were considered one of the most transformed countries in terms of governance. We have conducted free and fair elections, we have strengthened our institutions, we are fighting against corruption, we are a religiously-tolerant country, and we have been reported to be the most peaceful country in West Africa.”

Physicians may overprescribe antibiotics to children during telemedicine visits

Children are more likely to be overprescribed antibiotics for colds, sinus infections and sore throats during telemedicine visits than during in-person visits to primary care providers or urgent care facilities, suggests a study funded by the Eunice Kennedy ShriverNational Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the National Institutes of Health. The study, conducted by Kristin Ray, M.D., of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and colleagues, appears in Pediatrics.

Many companies offer visits in which patients can connect with physicians outside of their primary care practice through audio-video conferencing, often on their cell phones or personal devices. The researchers compared antibiotic prescribing practices from the billing data of 4,604 telemedicine visits, 38,408 urgent care visits, and 485,201 primary care visits for children up to 17 years old with respiratory infections. They found that children were more likely to receive prescriptions for antibiotics during telemedicine visits (52%), compared to urgent care visits (42%) and visits with primary care providers (31 percent). Clinical guidelines for antibiotic prescriptions were less likely to be followed after telemedicine visits (59%), compared to urgent care (67%) or primary care visits (78%). These clinical guidelines are intended to prevent inappropriate use of antibiotics, such as to treat viral infections for which they are ineffective, and to guide selection of the most appropriate antibiotic for bacterial infections. Inappropriate antibiotic use(link is external) increases bacterial resistance to these drugs, eventually making many infections difficult to treat.

The authors theorize that physicians providing telemedicine visits may overprescribe antibiotics because they cannot closely examine patients or perform tests, potentially limiting their ability to distinguish between bacterial and viral infections.