Still Got Those Eclipse Glasses? Put Them Back On to See Huge Sunspots

If you didn't donate your eclipse glasses already, hold onto them for a little bit longer. Despite the name, the glasses can be used to look at the Sun anytime, and right now, you can use them to see some pretty amazing sunspots.

As Bob King of the astronomy blog Astro Bob writes, "Two large sunspot groups, regions 2673 and 2674, have made a beautiful mess of the Sun's otherwise smooth complexion." The latter has become one of the largest sunspots of the year.

Sunspots are areas of intense magnetic fields that appear dark against the surface of the Sun because they're cooler than the areas around them. Their presence is linked to space weather events like solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Their number waxes and wanes in roughly 11-year periods, and as astronomer Phil Plait tells Mental Floss, "we’re sliding into the minimum now." But that doesn't mean there are no sunspots. The longest period of time the Sun has gone without observable sunspots in the past few years was 15 days in March 2017.

This NASA video below shows the movement of a sunspot in July. That one was about 78,000 miles across—nearly 10 times the size of Earth.

Since sunspot sightings are on the downswing for now, this latest appearance is a good reason to get outside and stare at the Sun—with a few safety measures, of course. "These beauties just showed up a few days ago," Plait says. "Sunspots big enough to see with the naked eye are rare, but these are big enough to spot with proper protection."

Hopefully you didn't toss your eclipse glasses immediately after the August dalliance with totality, because there will be plenty of other solar events to look at before the next big solar eclipse in the U.S. in 2024. As always, we must remind you not to stare directly into the Sun, or at best, you'll probably see more spots than you bargained for. If you're not sure about the provenance of your eclipse glasses, make sure to check the certification listed on the temples.

[h/t Astro Bob and Phil Plait]

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Scientists Find a Possible Link Between Beef Jerky and Mania
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Scientist have discovered a surprising new factor that may contribute to mania: meat sticks. As NBC News reports, processed meats containing nitrates, like jerky and some cold cuts, may provoke symptoms of mental illness.

For a new study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists surveyed roughly 1100 people with psychiatric disorders who were admitted into the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore between 2007 and 2017. They had initially set out to find whether there was any connection between certain infectious diseases and mania, a common symptom of bipolar disorder that can include racing thoughts, intense euphoria, and irritability.

While questioning participants about their diet, the researchers discovered that a significant number of them had eaten cured meats before their manic episodes. Patients who had recently consumed products like salami, jerky, and dried meat sticks were more likely to be hospitalized for mania than subjects in the control group.

The link can be narrowed down to nitrates, which are preservatives added to many types of cured meats. In a later part of the study, rats that were fed nitrate-free jerky acted less hyperactive than those who were given meat with nitrates.

Numerous studies have been published on the risks of consuming foods pumped full of nitrates: The ingredient can lead to the formation of carcinogens, and it can react in the gut in a way that promotes inflammation. It's possible that inflammation from nitrates can trigger mania in people who are already susceptible to it, but scientists aren't sure how this process might work. More research still needs to be done on the relationship between gut health and mental health before people with psychiatric disorders are told to avoid beef jerky altogether.

[h/t NBC News]

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