The National Hurricane Center has issued coastal warnings in the Gulf of Mexico regarding Tropical Storm Barry. The second named storm of the 2013 hurricane season, Barry is currently in the southwest corner of the gulf; it is expected to make landfall in Mexico Thursday morning.
The center says an Air Force reconnaissance aircraft determined Wednesday that the storm, formerly called Tropical Depression Two, had strengthened. Barry is currently about 75 miles east-northeast of Veracruz, Mexico.
Current forecasts show that Barry is only about 50 percent likely to hit Mexico's coast with sustained tropical-storm-force winds (40 mph or higher). As of 2:45 ET p.m. Wednesday, the storm was moving to the west at a speed of 10 miles an hour, with maximum winds of 40 mph.
Thanks to NPR's Russell Lewis for alerting us to this development.
Ever heard of the World Food Prize? It's sometimes called the "Nobel Prize for food and agriculture," but it has struggled to get people's attention. Prize winners tend to be agricultural insiders, and many are scientists. Last year's laureate, for instance, was Daniel Hillel, a pioneer of water-saving "micro-irrigation."
This year, though, the World Food Prize is likely to get some publicity, some of it in the form of anger and protests. This year's prize will go to three scientists who played prominent roles in creating genetically engineered crops: Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton, and Robert Fraley.
Of the three, Fraley is by far the youngest, but also the most pivotal and divisive. He's spent his entire career at Monsanto. He was hired in 1981 as one of the company's very first molecular biologists, led the company's intense drive to sell genetically engineered crops in the 1990s, and is now the company's chief technology officer. In fact, if there's a single person who most personifies Monsanto's controversial role in American agriculture, it's probably Robb Fraley.
(A bit of self-promotion: I told much of this story in a book about the origins of genetically engineered crops, Lords Of The Harvest, published in 2001. During research for the book, I also interviewed Fraley, Van Montagu and Chilton.)
The winners were announced Wednesday at the U.S. State Department, with Secretary of State John Kerry contributing his own remarks. It's hard to imagine a similar event taking place in Europe, where government authorities have refused to approve the planting or importation of some of these GMO crops.
Today's event reunited former scientific rivals. Thirty years ago, at a scientific meeting in Miami Beach, each of the award winners separately presented the results of experiments showing their first success in inserting genes into plants.
At the time, Van Montagu was at the University of Ghent, in Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton was at Washington University in St. Louis. Both were far more prominent in scientific circles than Fraley. They also later worked with biotech companies (Plant Genetic Systems and Syngenta, respectively), but neither had as much impact in the business world as Fraley.
The World Food Prize Foundation is a private, nonprofit organization with its headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa. It was set up in 1986 at the suggestion of Norman Borlaug, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the "green revolution" that increased grain harvests worldwide. Major funding for the prize, which is worth $250,000, was provided by John Ruan, a prominent Des Moines businessman. In its early years, the award was sponsored by General Foods.
The prize has been criticized in the past for close relationships with agribusiness companies. Last year, activist groups opposed to genetically modified food staged an "Occupy World Food Prize" protest during the formal awarding of the prize in Des Moines.
A vaccine against human papillomavirus — the most common sexually transmitted infection and the cause of almost all cervical cancer — is dramatically reducing the prevalence of HPV in teenage girls.
The first vaccine against HPV, Merck's Gardasil, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006. Cerverix, from GlaxoSmithKline, was approved in 2009.
In the first four years of immunizations, infections from the four strains of human papillomavirus targeted by tje vaccines plummeted by more than half among 14-to-19-year-olds in the United States.
Federal health officials say they were surprised by the number since only about 1 in 3 girls in this age group has received the full three-dose course of the vaccine. About half have received a single dose.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledges that the number of girls who have gotten the HPV vaccine is "very disappointing" and "certainly not good enough."
Still, Frieden tells Shots, "The vaccine works and works very well." The findings of the CDC study were released Wednesday in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
The vaccine has been controversial, with some parents worried about possible health risks, and others worrying that vaccination could encourage earlier sexual activity.
The study didn't find a decrease in the HPV strains covered by the vaccine in other age groups, a clue that the vaccine is responsible for the decrease among teenagers.
Researchers also didn't find any decrease in sexual activity among females in the target population that might explain why HPV prevalence is down, from nearly 12 percent to just over five percent.
The current recommendation is that girls get the HPV vaccine when they are 11 or 12, before the initiation of sexual activity, when the vaccine produces the best protection. Females up to age 26 are urged to get the three-shot course if they have not received the vaccine earlier.
The recommendation is similar for boys, in whom HPV can cause genital warts along with penile and anal cancers, except that the so-called catch-up vaccination is recommended for males only up to age 21.
The vaccine costs between $128 and $135 a dose, or around $400 for the full course, on the private market. Many insurers cover HPV vaccination, and the federally sponsored Vaccines for Children program provides it free of charge for qualified patients.
CDC officials say they intend to use the new results to press for wider use of HPV vaccines. The goal is to get 80 percent of adolescents fully vaccinated.
Frieden says the payoff will be tens of thousands fewer cases of cervical cancers and deaths.
"Of girls alive today between the ages of zero and 13, there will be 50,000 more cases of cancer if we don't increase the rates to 80 percent," Frieden says. "And for every single year we delay in getting to 80 percent, another 4,400 women are going to develop cervical cancer in their lifetimes — even with good screening programs."
CDC officials say that HPV vaccines have a very good track record for safety following distribution of 56 million doses in this country.
"We have a very clear idea of the safety," Frieden says. "We've looked at all the adverse events that have been reported. Virtually all have not been serious. Among the serious events, the main issue has been fainting, redness and swelling at the injection site and other temporary symptoms."
Last week Japanese health officials suspended their recommendation to vaccinate girls between 14 and 19 against HPV after some reports of pain and numbness following injection. Japanese officials say they want to investigate a possible link.
"The outcomes they were concerned about are things we have looked for in our data system here in the U.S.," says the CDC's Dr. Cindy Weinbaum. "We found a total of about a dozen reports that related to something like regional pain syndrome such as Japan was reporting."
Weinbaum says the CDC found "really no consistency among them that would suggest anything specifically related to the vaccine."
The CDC has investigated 42 reports of deaths among HPV vaccine recipients.
"The cause of these deaths has been very varied," Weinbaum says. "It's everything from cardiovascular to infectious, neurologic and hematologic. Again, there's no consistent pattern of deaths that have occurred after vaccination that would give us any cause to be concerned" that the vaccine was responsible.
I visited Toy Fair in New York City hunting for ideas for our summer series about kids' culture. One of the big takeaways was the increasing popularity of construction games such as Legos. Sales shot up nearly 20 percent last year. Now, it seems, every major toy manufacturer is scrambling to add new games geared toward kids building things.
Concurrently, I happened to visit the National Building Museum, where an impressive exhibition, PLAY WORK BUILD, showcases the museum's vast collection of block sets and building toys. It also takes blocks into the future - with the David Rockwell-designed Imagination Playground, an azure-blue block fantasy for the under-5 crowd.
That prompted this story on blocks, which starts with a small business selling wooden blocks made in the U.S. (specifically the Unblock, designed and created by the Azmani family in Wisconsin) to the gigantic Legos, Hasbros and Mattels of the world, selling high-concept blocks that often seem like nothing so much as vehicles for cross-promotional licensing.
"That it's three dimensional," she offered. "That it's nonrepresentational, it doesn't have anything until a child gives it a name or function. And usually, blocks are modular. They relate to each other in some forms in ratio of size, or shape. They're predictable, so they keep their shape, no matter the material. And blocks basically rely on balance for building."
What would Maria Montessori or Friedrich Froebel think of Minecraft? They were pioneers of early education who made block play central to their philosophies. Minecraft is the hugely popular virtual game that invites its 10 million players to manipulate a world made of blocks.
"Montessori was quite a brilliant woman. I think she'd be very interested in what's going on today," Hewitt observes dryly. She was polite about Minecraft ("It just doesn't have that sensory feeling for me") but copped to a real fascination with new games that synthesize real blocks and with ones on screens. For example, the inevitable Lego-Minecraft tie-in, or a math-based game, Building Blocks, that uses actual and virtual blocks.
But Hewitt believes the lesson of blocks is even more fundamental and powerful than exploring ideas of geometry, spatial relations, patterning and numbers. When kids play with blocks, they're beginning to build.
"The ability to construct has to do with our whole culture — where do we live, how do we make our homes," she says. "It's really the beginning of thinking about survival.
Kids have loved blocks for so long and so loyally, it's a bit of a surprise Hollywood has not attempted to cash in. Blocks: The Movie. Sounds like a blockbuster.
It won't be quite like Bruce Willis in Armageddon, but maybe you'll feel just as much a hero.
The White House and NASA are seeking the public's help in hunting for asteroids that could someday smash into Earth. They're also looking for a perfect space rock to capture so that astronauts could go there and study it.
The crowdsourcing effort announced Tuesday is an extension of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program, which was created to "coordinate NASA-sponsored efforts to detect, track and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that could approach the Earth.
"This is really a call to action to find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told The Washington Post.
The newspaper adds:
"Citing planetary defense, the administration has decided that the search for killer rocks in space should be the latest in a series of 'Grand Challenges,' in which the government sets an ambitious goal, helps create public-private partnerships and sometimes offers prize money for innovative ideas."
Garver said in a statement that while "95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth's orbit" have been found, the space agency needs help tracking the smaller ones.
NASA, according to the Post, says there are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth asteroids at least 100 meters in diameter, but only a quarter of them have been detected. Congress passed legislation in 2005 requiring NASA to hunt down 90 percent of all "near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter" by 2020 — an asteroid of that size is considered big enough to take out a city.
(To see what an asteroid could do if it did hit, check out Purdue University's "Impact Earth" calculator.)
The subject took on a particular urgency after a 55-foot space rock slammed into the ground near Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February, injuring more than 1,000 people and shattering windows all over the city. And there was that massive asteroid that zipped past Earth in February.
As NPR's Elise Hu has reported, scientists told a Senate panel in March that humans currently have no way to stop an asteroid on collision course with Earth without "a few years' " warning. Still, they put the odds of asteroids one kilometer in diameter or larger hitting the planet as a "once every few thousand year" event.
As for actually visiting an asteroid, NASA hopes to accomplish this within a decade through its Asteroid Redirect Mission. Although there are several potential space rocks on NASA's radar, the perfect candidate has yet to be found, which is where the crowdsourcing effort also comes into play.
Of course, whether Congress will fund that mission is another matter.