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Nothing grabs Huynh Thanh Huy’s eye like the contrasts of manufacturing jobs: bright faces in tough workspaces, half-covered with clouds of dust and metal sparks. Jobs like these are still new in Huy’s home country of Vietnam, but they have become plentiful over the last decade. A web of foreign corporations like Samsung, Intel and LG and more than 10,000 others have set up manufacturing centers there, propelling the country into a rapid period of industrialization. From 2014 to 2016 alone, the country added roughly 1.5 million manufacturing jobs.
In his photography, which he submitted as a part of the Smithsonian’s 17th annual photo contest, Huy captures the changing landscape of labor in Vietnam, highlighting the ways in which more traditional work—peeling coconuts, drying noodle mats—has co-existed with the rising crop of new manufacturing labor. His photographs frame people against the backdrop of their workspaces, emphasizing the staggering scale of their creations.
Huy, who grew up in a family that harvested coconuts in the countryside of Vietnam’s southern coast and now works as a manager at a German window company in Ho Chi Minh City, has witnessed these rapid shifts firsthand.
During his youth, photography was a rarity. “Buying one film camera was an extreme luxury only given to very rich people,” says Huy. But the first time Huy saw a black-and-white photo of his hometown, he knew he wanted to be able to document his changing country along the same lines. “I loved it so much and I used to wish to have one camera to capture photos by myself,” he says.
Today, Huy is drawn to the different ways agricultural and manufactured goods are produced. To better understand the experiences of his company’s workers, Huy visits manufacturing plants across the country, and it is through these tours that he meets the people behind his photography. When he visits a plant that catches his eye, he talks to the workers—and after his day job ends, he comes back with his camera. The fact that he’s already visited the plant for his day job has its benefits: he knows the rhythm of the space and encourages workers to go about their work as if he weren’t there. “I tell them, you do whatever daily job you do, don’t worry about me, I’m just your friend,” he says.
His photos of agricultural workers happen differently. When feeling overwhelmed by the pace of his job, Huy makes a habit of returning home, and in those moments of escape, he finds joy watching agricultural work. “I still love my countryside,” he says.
In one shot from a bamboo curtain shop outside Ho Chi Minh, Huy uses his Nikon D800E to immortalize the traditional art of stringing curtains. But, as Huy frames it, the dried bamboo pieces are so massive that the craftsperson seems to disappear beneath them.(Huynh Thanh Huy, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)
In another photo, taken at an oil warehouse in Hanoi, a worker checks the labels on a series of petroleum barrels. Through Huy’s eyes, the mass of deep blue oil barrels fills the frame—representative of his aim to, as he puts it, “find the beauty of industrial workers at their workshop, to capture nice moments during their jobs.”(Huynh Thanh Huy, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)
Huy took that photo after a multi-day business trip to the city. It was one of about eight shots in all, and Huy remembers that he had to snap them in a rush. “The warehouse workers advised me to keep away from the barrels as they could roll down unexpectedly,” he says.
Huy pays particular attention to an inherent by-product of manufacturing: the rise of disposable waste. With products from plastic to steel pipes designed without regard for sustainability, manufactured goods languish in the environment for long after their planned obsolescence. That’s why Huy has taken a special interest in photographing Vietnamese workers who have innovated ways to reuse manufactured goods. Through his photographs, he wants to show that solutions exist to our system of waste.
Among his featured subjects is a woman who dries out plastic containers that cook the nata de coco, a jellylike snack made from fermented coconut water, so that they can be used again; a man who works in a tire-recycling workshop in Quang Ngai city, cutting up tire rubber to be made into essential appliances; and a group that collects garbage at sunrise in the Ben Tre province.
Huy sees his art less as a hobby than as his mission. “I have to do something to contribute more awareness of the environment,” he says.
As Huy travels around Vietnam for his day job, he will continue to scout out ways to capture how the new economy has changed—and not changed—labor in his country. He hopes to continue to prioritize those workplaces that actively work with reusable material.
“We should work together and think about how to rebuild production and make every country a sustainable, good environment,” Huy says.
Astronomers at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia have located the most massive neutron star on record, so dense that it may be close to the cusp of collapsing into a black hole.
Neutron stars are one of the evolutionary end points for high-mass stars. After they’ve spent most of their nuclear fuel near the end of their lives, the stars explode in bright supernovas, leaving behind an ultra-dense core of material. If that core is of a certain mass, it becomes a neutron star under the pressure of gravity. If it’s beyond a certain mass, it will collapse into a black hole. But researchers aren't exactly sure of the dividing line between the two—yet.
Astronomers are interested in neutron stars for various reasons. Most of these dense stars are less than 15 miles in diameter, but a single sugar cube worth of the star would weigh 100 million tons here on Earth. Certain neutron stars called pulsars emit beams of radio waves from their magnetic poles and rotate at a steady rate, which is why astronomers call them “cosmic lighthouses.”
In fact, the regularity of pulsars makes them useful in the hunt for elusive low-frequency gravitational waves. Any slight disruption in a pulsar’s regular rotation could be evidence of a gravitational wave passing through.
Green Bank Observatory and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have been cataloging pulsars for the last dozen years, reports Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodo. As part of their survey, they happened upon MSP J0740+6620, a pulsar about 4,600 light-years from Earth, according to a new study in the journal Nature Astronomy.
When they focused on the pulsar, they found that it had a companion white dwarf, or the cooling core of a smaller dead star. The two objects orbit each other, which helps scientists calculate the objects’ masses. When the white dwarf passes in front of the pulsar, it changes how the pulsar’s light moves through space, creating a time delay in its regular pulsing light.
By measuring that delay, researchers can determine the pulsar’s mass using a method called a Shapiro time delay. The team found that MSP J0740+6620 is about 2.14 times more massive than our own sun. That makes it the largest neutron star ever recorded—and close to the theoretical limit for the objects. But the mega-sized neutron star isn’t interesting just because it’s big.
“The orientation of this binary star system created a fantastic cosmic laboratory,” co-author Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory said in a press release. “Neutron stars have a tipping point where their interior densities get so extreme that the force of gravity overwhelms even the ability of neutrons to resist further collapse. Each 'most massive' neutron star we find brings us closer to identifying that tipping point and helping us to understand the physics of matter at these mindboggling densities.”
The finding could also help astrophysicists answer some big questions about neutron stars. For instance, researchers aren’t sure what’s going on inside the superdense cosmic objects, whether the neutrons inside them flow freely like a fluid or if they’re stuck in place. It’s also possible that the intense gravity crushes the neutrons into a stew of quarks and other exotic particles. And the more researchers learn about massive neutron stars, the closer they are to discovering the “tipping point” at which gravity runs wild, creating a black hole.
“These stars are very exotic,” co-author Maura McLaughlin of West Virginia University says in another press release. “We don’t know what they’re made of and one really important question is, ‘How massive can you make one of these stars?’ It has implications for very exotic material that we simply can’t create in a laboratory on Earth.”
The study is also a step forward in overturning previous thinking about neutron stars.
“For a long time we thought that neutron stars could only be around 1.4 times the mass of the sun,” Thankful Cromartie, the study’s lead author and West Virginia University graduate student, tells Catherine Thorbecke at ABC News. “[This study] is a pretty big leap forward in terms of discovering more and more massive neutron stars. I think the discovery is very compelling because it shows that we can use astrophysical observations as kind of a laboratory in space to do physics that we can’t do on Earth. We can’t exactly make neutron stars here on earth so the only way we have access to this astrophysics is by observing these neutron stars. I think it's a pretty darn cool tool to have access to.”
Inside the hallowed halls of the New York Stock Exchange is brilliant yellow diamond that once sparkled like the twinkling rays of the sun. But to gaze upon it now is to stare into nothingness, the diamond’s glistening facets transformed into a dark, flat void. As part of a collaboration between MIT researchers and the artist Diemut Strebe, this precious gem has been covered with a new substance so black that it swallows 99.995 percent of any incoming light, making it the blackest material on Earth.
Obscuring the beauty of a $2 million diamond might seem like a strange thing to do, but the blackest of all blacks is itself a coveted prize. The craze began with Vantablack, an ultra-black coating developed by Surrey Nanosystems that absorbs 99.96 percent of light. In 2016, the artist Anish Kapoor acquired the exclusive rights to use Vantablack in an artistic capacity, which rankled other artists—most notably Stuart Semple, who created the world’s “pinkest pink” and “most glittery glitter,” and made them accessible to all artists except Kapoor. Extending the squabble, Kapoor posted an Instagram photo of his raised middle finger, coated in Semple’s pink pigment.
Semple subsequently created his own super-dark acrylic paint, and in 2017, the Massachusetts-based NanoLab released its own light-obliterating black coating called Singularity Black. Both substances were available for artists to purchase and use, though neither were as dark as Vantablack. The MIT black, however, is the darkest of them all, “10 times blacker than anything that has previously been reported,” according to the university.
Ironically, the new black on the block came about by accident. Brian Wardle, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and Kehang Cui, a former MIT postdoctoral student who is now a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, made the discovery while tinkering with ways to grow carbon nanotubes (CNTs) on electrically conducting materials like aluminum, according to CNN’s Kendall Trammell. CNTs are tiny carbon cylinders that trap and absorb light—they were used in the manufacture of both Vantablack and Singularity Black.
“With this sort of class of materials, it's actually natural processes that create them,” Wardle explains in an interview with Carol Off of the CBC. “We grow them from a catalyst nanoparticle seed, super saturated with gaseous carbon, and then that starts to extrude a carbon hollow tube very quickly. And when you get lots of catalyst particles working next to each other, and you get 50 billion per square centimetre, you can grow grass or, if you get the recipe right, you can grow a forest of these nanotubes.”
Wardle and Cui suspected that growing CNTs on aluminum would enhance the material’s thermal and electrical properties, and they turned out to be right. But the researchers did not anticipate just how dark the resulting substance would be. They found that it was gulping up light from every angle, to an even greater degree than Vantablack. And that’s when they turned to Strebe, an artist-in-residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology.
Strebe wanted to showcase the new ultra-black on a diamond because like CNTs, diamonds are made from carbon, yet they are highly reflective. “The unification of extreme opposites in one object and the particular aesthetic features of the CNTs caught my imagination for this art project,” Strebe explains.
The choice of venue for the new exhibition, which is titled “The Redemption of Vanity,” was also deliberate. “[T]here's a concept called ‘over painting’ where you maybe devalue something valuable,” Wardle tells Off. “But when you do that, perhaps actually you increase its value. So it's a bit of a challenge to the art community and that was part of the reason why we debuted the art piece at the New York Stock Exchange.”
It’s not just the art world that is interested in materials of nearly unfathomable blackness. According to MIT, the famed astrophysicist John Mather is already looking into the possibility of using the new black as the basis for a huge “star shade,” which would shield space telescopes from stray light. It was NASA, in fact, that commissioned Singularity Black from NanoLabs to reduce the glare on instruments used to observe distant stars.
Wardle and Cui have published details about discovery in the journal ACS-Applied Materials and Interfaces. But they think it’s only a matter of time before a new contender for the title of blackest black comes along.
“I think the blackest black is a constantly moving target,” Wardle says. “Someone will find a blacker material, and eventually we’ll understand all the underlying mechanisms, and will be able to properly engineer the ultimate black.”
American open water marathon swimmer Sarah Thomas just became the first person to swim across the English Channel four times, nonstop.
According to the BBC, the 37 year old began her epic feat early on Sunday morning, finishing 54 hours later on the shores of Dover. Strong tides stretched the four crossings from what was originally planned to be an 84-mile swim into a 130-mile-long slog. Previously, four other swimmers have made triple crossings of the channel, but Thomas is the first to swim the Channel four times.
While in the water, Thomas was not allowed to rest. Every 30 minutes, her support crew would throw her a bottle filled with a protein recovery drink infused with electrolytes to keep her going.
Though the swim itself was difficult, just getting to the starting point was a challenge. Thomas, a veteran Colorado-based swimmer who has crossed the Channel twice before and even swam 104.6 miles of Lake Champlain in 2017, had begun planning her swim two years ago. But in November of 2017, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer according to Jonathan Cowie of Outdoor Swimmer. Throughout her treatment process, which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she kept on swimming with her eye on the epic Channel crossing.
Before her swim, she reflected about her journey on Facebook: “I’ve been waiting for this swim for over 2 years now and have fought so hard to get here. Am I 100%? No. But I’m the best that I can be right now, with what I've been through, with more fire and fight than ever.”
Thomas also noted that she was dedicating her attempt to other cancer survivors. “This is for those of us who have prayed for our lives, who have wondered with despair about what comes next, and have battled through pain and fear to overcome. This is for those of you just starting your cancer journey and those of you who are thriving with cancer kicked firmly into the past, and for everyone in between.”
Despite being stung on the face by a jellyfish, the swimmer faced relatively good conditions for the first three legs of the journey. But when she took the last turn toward England, things suddenly got dark, windy and choppy. The end was the most harrowing of all. “In the last 400 meters into the beach, she was caught in the tide and was just not going anywhere. And so we had to do some screaming and yelling and get her to dig deep and she found it after all that time. I’m pretty proud of her,” Thomas’s mother, Becky Baxter, told BBC Radio, reports The Guardian.
At 6:30 A.M. on Tuesday, Thomas set foot on Dover’s Shakespeare Beach, celebrating with M&M’s and champagne.
“I just can't believe we did it. I'm really just pretty numb,” she told the BBC upon her arrival. “There was a lot of people on the beach to meet me and wish me well and it was really nice of them, but I feel just mostly stunned.” She also announced that she planned to sleep for the rest of the day.
“She is a freak of nature. She really had to dig deep to finish this,” Baxter says. “She could have quit many, many times. There were several obstacles, but she never quits.”
Other marathon swimmers congratulated Thomas on the extraordinary feat. “Extraordinary, amazing, super-human!!!,” Lewis Pugh, an endurance swimmer who was the first to swim the Arctic Ocean in 2007 and the first to complete long-distance swims in the world’s five oceans, wrote on Twitter. “Just when we think we’ve reached the limit of human endurance, someone shatters the records.”
According to the Channel Swimming Association, the body that tracks Channel swims, the first person to cross the 21-mile strait between England and France was Englishman Matthew Webb, who completed the feat in 21 hours, 45 minutes in 1875. Since then, there have been 2,483 successful crossings, including 1645 solo swims and 838 by relay teams.
In 1926, American competition swimmer Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the channel. While Thomas’s feat is incredible and will be hard to beat, it still does not earn her the title Queen of the Channel. That honor is currently held by British swimmer Alison Streeter, who has crossed the Channel at least 43 times since 1982.
For the past decade, scientists have been fascinated by how the bacteria in our guts influence our health and determine whether we get sick. Yet a big question has remained unanswered: How did we get those original microbes at the beginning of our lives?
A study titled “Baby Biome” released today in Nature offers a clue: It turns out the way we were born plays an important role in determining which of the 5,000 different species of microorganisms colonize our guts. A group of scientists from the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Sanger Institute, University College London and the University of Birmingham, analyzed the gut microbiota DNA from 596 newborns in British hospitals and concluded that babies delivered via caesarean section had different gut microbes than those who were born vaginally.
“We really sat down to try and design a study that would allow us to understand how babies are colonized with microbes in the first moments after birth,” Nigel Field, a molecular biologist at UCL and co-author of the new research, said at a press conference. “We think that can be a really critical moment in life because babies are sterile when they’re in the womb, and the moment they are born is a moment when the immune system has a huge of number of bacteria that it’s presented with … that sets the immune system for future life.”
The new study found that babies born via caesarean section had more harmful pathogens picked up in the hospital that could expose them to future infections—pathogens that were more likely to have antimicrobial resistance—compared to vaginally delivered babies.
“The babies born vaginally seem to have acquired their bacteria from their mother, and the acquired bacteria are found in their mother’s gut,” he says. “[In] the babies born by caesarean that transmission pattern is disrupted. The more common bacteria that are found in babies born by caesarean are bacteria associated with hospital settings.”
The research could help shed light on previous studies that found babies born via caesarean section had a slightly higher risk of immune-related diseases that can affect them later in life, such as asthma and other allergic conditions.
However, the researchers stress that the microbiomes of babies born via caesarean section eventually resembled those born vaginally. “We also found that these differences largely even out over time,” Field says. “By the time babies are weaned around six to nine months, these differences have largely disappeared. That’s really important because we don’t know the long-term consequences of these findings.”
The finding that babies’ microbiomes ultimately look similar regardless of how they were born is a crucial take-home message for mothers, who doctors say shouldn’t worry if they have undergone a caesarean section, which is often a life-saving intervention. In the United States, some 32 percent of all deliveries in 2017 were caesarean, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study authors also genetically sequenced the gut microbiomes of 175 mothers in addition to their babies and learned that the vaginally born infants’ guts were not determined by bacteria found in the vaginal canal they encountered during birth, as some researchers have previously thought. The finding calls into question the controversial practice of vaginal swabbing or “seeding,” in which doctors smear some of the mother’s vaginal fluid on the face or mouth of babies born by caesarean in an attempt to mimic the vaginal birth experience.
“There’s no evidence that it works,” says David Eschenbach, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington School of Medicine who studies the role of inflammation on preterm delivery. He cautioned that vaginal seeding could be dangerous because it exposes babies to potential infectious pathogens found in the mother’s vaginal secretions, such as the herpes simplex virus, hepatitis and Group B strep. “Vaginal seeding seems natural but has these potential downsides,” he says.
Eschenbach says the Baby Biome project was a large validation study. “It backs up what others have suspected for a long time,” he says, adding that new whole genome-sequencing science allowed the researchers to learn more about gut bacteria than was possible with previous culturing methods. “This is an important area for research. The hypothesis is that it’s the very early microbes that get to the baby that might determine whether the baby’s immune system has a normal or accelerated inflammatory response.”
One lingering question is about the role of antibiotics in shaping the gut bacteria of babies born by caesarean section. Women undergoing caesarean surgery are routinely given antibiotics to reduce the impact of incision site infections, and the drugs can kill desired bacteria along with harmful microbes. “What we’re trying to do is understand how modern clinical practices impact the formation of the human ecosystem right at birth,” says co-author Trevor Lawley, a microbiome researcher at Wellcome Sanger. The babies of mothers who took antibiotics but gave birth vaginally also had lower levels of the normal bacteria—but to a lesser extent that the caesarean infants.
“This [study] suggests that the effect of caesarean delivery on the infant microbiome is related to maternal antibiotic exposure, not lack of exposure to vaginal bacteria at birth, as some have previously argued,” says Lisa Stinson, a research fellow at the University of Western Australia who has published widely on infants’ microbial exposure and immunity. She says she’d like to see more research on the role of breast milk in restoring infants’ gut bacteria.
Researchers are still working to piece together how various factors affect the gut microbiome during and shortly after birth. Previous research has identified possible differences in the development of intestinal microbes based on breast milk or formula feeding, though the method of birth may have an even more significant effect.
“We can’t be making people feel guilty because of decisions they might not have control over,” says Steven Townsend, assistant professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt University, explaining that many women need caesarean sections for medical reasons or are unable to breastfeed. His research on the infant gut microbiome found that breastfeeding can restore the gut bacteria of caesarean babies within just six weeks. Infants also receive good bacteria from other sources, such as intimate skin-to-skin contact, he says. “Although we do see differences early in life, we also see that everyone eventually arrives to the same place with the same quality of health,” he says.