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Winter solstice 2016: What is it; when does it happen; Stonehenge connection

Get ready, Wednesday night is going to be a long one.

Wednesday marks the winter solstice, so that means we will see the least amount of sunlight making the night the longest of the year.

What’s a solstice and why is my day going to drag on? Here are six things to know about the longest night of the year.

1. What is a winter solstice?

The winter solstice (solstice is Latin for “sun standing still”) happens at the same time for everyone on Earth. It represents the exact moment when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted at its furthest point away from the sun.

2. Why is this night any longer than any other night?

The night is longer because you will see the fewest hours of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere today as the earth hits its farthest tipping point. The sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, with more sunlight seen in the Southern Hemisphere.

3. Is the winter solstice celebrated?

It sure is, and has been for centuries. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25, just days after the solstice, and many believe the date of Dec. 25 was chosen to overshadow the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti, according to

The word “Yule” -- used to describe the Christmas season -- is believed to have come from the Norse word “jol” which referred to the winter solstice festival. Wiccans celebrate Alban Arthan – or the rebirth of the Sun God. Today, celebrations are set for Poland, Pakistan, Iran and Guatemala, among other places around the world. 

4. Is the solstice always on Dec. 21?

Technically, the solstice can happen any day between Dec. 20 and Dec. 23 because the calendars we use aren’t the same length as a solar year. The 2016 solstice happens on Wednesday at 5:44 a.m. EST

5. When is the shortest night of the year?

 The summer solstice happens in June. Take the winter solstice explanation and flip it – Northern Hemisphere tilted toward the sun, longer days, shorter nights.

6. What does Stonehenge have to do with it?

Stonehenge is an ancient monument in England that is often mentioned in the same breath as the winter solstice. Some say the monument, which dates to between 3,000 and 2,000 BC, could have been a burial ground from its earliest beginnings. Others, say it’s a landmark for visits from space aliens. The only thing that is known for sure about the structure -- built without the aid of cranes or computers -- is that it sits perfectly along a straight line with sunrise on the winter solstice.

Newly discovered spider bears striking resemblance to 'Harry Potter' sorting hat

A team of scientists thought there was something familiar about a new species of spider that they discovered in the mountains of southern India. The insect looked surprisingly like the sorting hat used in J.K. Rowling’s famed Harry Potter series.

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The spider’s "sub-triangular abdomen" gave it a distinctive cone shape. Combined with its inconspicuous brown coloring, the spider looks remarkably like the hat used to sort students of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry into the appropriate school houses.

The researchers, who told The Washington Post that they are Rowling fans particularly enamored with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” gave the arachnid a Potter-themed name: Eriovixia gryffindori.

In a paper published in the Indian Journal of Arachnology, the scientists who found the spider wrote that the name is “an ode from the authors for magic lost, and found, in an effort to draw attention to the fascinating but oft overlooked world of invertebrates and their secret lives.”

Javed Ahmed, the lead author of the paper, told the Earth Touch News Network the 7mm spider mimics dead leaves in the Western Ghats mountain range.

"Naming the spider after a beloved series icon has certainly made a lot of people take notice," Ahmed told the news site. "Once people realize just how fascinating, unique and essential these wonderful organisms are, the (unfounded) fear and loathing vanishes." 

The spider has gotten a great deal of attention online – including from Rowling herself.

On Twitter the author wrote that was "truly honored" by the name choice.

"Congratulations on discovering another 'fantastic beast!'" she wrote in a tweet to Ahmed.

Prehistoric tooth from extinct seal found in Florida

No one has seen a Caribbean monk seal for six decades, and none have been sighted in Florida in nearly a century.

Now archaeologists say they have found a prehistoric tooth from the extinct animal, also known as the West Indian Seal, along the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach. They say it's the first evidence ever that the seal lived in what's now Palm Beach County, which was mostly uninhabited — at least by white settlers — until the late 1800s.

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Archeologists from the Broward County-based Archaeological and Historical Conservancy found the tooth last month, executive director  Robert S. Carr told the Palm Beach Post Tuesday from Davie. He said his group is "99.9 percent sure" it's from one of the long-gone seals; "the tooth is "very distinctive."

He said it's 500 to 1,000 years old.

Carr also said in a press release that the seal's "occurrence at a prehistoric site in Palm Beach indicates that it was also hunted by prehistoric peoples including the Jeaga. He added that monk seal remains in Florida "are rare, but also have been found (at) Tequesta sites at the mouth of the Miami River and other sites along the Florida coast and the Bahamas."

To read more, go to

December supermoon to rise at peak of annual meteor display

The last of three supermoons in row will be in the sky Dec. 16, according to NASA.

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It won't be like the spectacular sight in November, when the supermoon became the closest full moon to Earth since 1948. That won't occur again until 2034.

>> Related: November supermoon yields spectacular views

But NASA said that if clouds cooperate, North America will have a chance to see this week's display.

What's special about this event is that the supermoon coincides with the peak of an annual meteor display, December's Geminids.

The moon will make for poor meteor-viewing conditions.

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NASA told that the light of the full moon will reduce visibility "five- to tenfold."

A full or new moon is designated as a supermoon when it is at its closest point on its orbit to Earth. Scientists say that during that time, the moon seems much larger than normal because it shines 30 percent more moonlight onto Earth and comes as much as 14 percent closer to the planet then it is when its at its furthest point from Earth.

Nov. 14 supermoon will offer spectacular view

Male birth control shot effective, study finds, but researchers worry about side effects

Men can take hormone injections to prevent pregnancy in their partners with nearly the same success rate that women have with the pill, according to a newly released study. However, as with hormonal treatments for women, the side effects could pose problems.

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The study was conducted from September 2008 to May 2012, although researchers said in a news release that they stopped enrolling people in 2011 because of the rate of reported adverse effects – specifically depression and other mood disorders. One person reported depression that was "probably related" to the contraceptive, according to the study, published online last week in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

The trial involved more than 300 men between the ages of 18 and 45 and their partners in Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Chile, India, Indonesia and Italy.

Of the 274 couples who made it to the "efficacy stage" of the study, only four became pregnant, giving the shots a nearly 96 percent rate of success.

"More research is needed to advance this concept to the point that it can be made widely available to men as a method of contraception," said one of the study's authors, Mario Philip Reyes Festin, of the World Health Organization in Geneva. "Although the injections were effective in reducing the rate of pregnancy, the combination of hormones needs to be studied more to consider a good balance between efficacy and safety."

The study involved giving participating men a series of injections to lower their sperm counts and requiring them to use the injections as their primary form of contraception. To be approved for the study, couples had to have been monogamous for at least a year before joining.

According to The Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group that focuses on reproductive issues, 40 percent of all pregnancies were unintended in 2012, the most recent year for which information is available.

The side effects, however, were too much for some participants, including 20 couples who dropped out because of their reactions.

According to researchers, many participants – nearly 46 percent – reported getting acne, and a majority of them said it was "probable" that their skin issues stemmed from the hormone injections. Thirty-eight percent of men said the injections gave them an increased libido. Seventeen percent of participants reported "emotional disorders" over the course of the study, although most considered their symptoms mild.

"Despite the adverse effects, more than 75 percent of participants reported being willing to use this method of contraception at the conclusion of the trial," researchers said.

Scientists search unusual star for signs of extraterrestrial life

Scientists have pointed one of the world's largest telescopes at a star located nearly 1,500 light-years from Earth in an investigation into purported signs of an advanced civilization in the area.

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The search is part of the Breakthrough Listen Project, a program created in 2015 with $100 million in funding and an aim to search the solar system for evidence of intelligent life.

Scientists at UC Berkeley in California are turning the Green Bank radio telescope toward KIC 8462852 – more commonly known as Tabby's Star – to investigate an unusual dimming pattern visible from Earth. Scientists have speculated that the strange pattern could be evidence of a highly advanced civilization living in the area that is capable of building "orbiting megastructures" to capture the star's energy, researchers said.

"Everyone, every SETI program telescope, I mean every astronomer that has any kind of telescope in any wavelength that can see Tabby's Star has looked at it," said Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and co-director of Breakthrough Listen. "It's been looked at with Hubble, it's been looked at with Keck, it's been looked at in the infrared and radio and high energy and every possible thing you can imagine, including a whole range of SETI experiments. Nothing has been found."

The telescope will watch the star, located in the Cygnus constellation, for eight hours three separate times over the next two months, according to Berkeley researchers.

Tabby's Star has generated much speculation since citizen scientists flagged it for its strange dimming pattern. Unlike other stars, which briefly dim one or two percent, Tabby's Star dims by as much as 22 percent for days at a time and at irregular times, according to researchers.

The star is named for Tabetha Boyajian, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University who studied the star's dimming patter last year during her postdoctoral training at Yale University.

Researchers don't, however, expect to find inarguable proof of extraterrestrial life while viewing Tabby's Star.

"I think that ET, if it's ever discovered ... It'll be some bizarre thing that somebody finds by accident," said Dan Wethimer, chief scientist at Berkeley SETI. "And then we look more carefully and we say, 'Hey, that's a civilization.'"

The results of the observations won't be known for more than a month after the experiment concludes because of the data analysis needed to pick out patterns in the radio emissions and finish the investigation.

What if robots could send messages humans can’t read? Google did that

The computers have a secret, and some people are worried.

According to a story from New Scientist, researchers working on the Google Brain Project announced recently that computer systems they created based on a system of artificial neurons have not only created a basic encryption technique, but have learned how to keep it a secret.

In a paper titled, “Learning to protect communications with adversarial neural cryptography,” researchers with the Google Brain Project, which is a deep learning research venture at Google, reported that two neural network systems they created worked together to come up with a message, encrypt the message and then decode it.

In the paper, researchers said, “'We ask whether neural networks can learn to use secret keys to protect information from other neural networks.” That question was answered when the neural network that created the encryption system did just that.

Researchers with the Google Brain Project use deep learning, a branch of machine learning based on a set of algorithms, to conduct research.

>> Read more trending stories

In deep learning, computer systems called neural networks use algorithms, or specific rules to be followed in calculations, to try to teach themselves how to do certain tasks.

Here’s how the encryption processed worked:

Researchers Martín Abadi and David Andersen created three “neural networks,” or computing systems using something like an artificial neuron. A neuron in the human body is a nerve cell responsible for transmitting information to other nerve cells, gland cells, or to muscle.

The neural networks created by Abadi and Anderson have names: Alice, Bob and Eve. Each of the networks had a specific job. For Alice, it was to send a secret message to Bob; for Bob, it was to decode the message that Alice sent; for Eve, it was to eavesdrop on Alice’s message and try to decode it.

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According to the paper, something interesting happened. Alice eventually, and on her own, created an encryption system, despite the fact she was not taught how to build out such a system. The paper emphasized that the encryption system Alice came up with is very basic, but the fact that Alice was able to create something no one thought neural networks could achieve was remarkable in itself.

What Alice created was a 16-bit message with each bit representing either a “1” or a “0.” She took the original message and mixed it up (cipher text) before sending it to Bob. Alice and Bob had an agreed upon a set of numbers that was the key used to decipher the message, according to the researchers.

Next, Bob did his part by converting Alice’s cipher text message back into plain text. It took 15,000 attempts, but Bob got it.

Then came Eve. Eve’s job, remember, was to try to figure out what Alice and Bob were saying. Eve managed to get half of the message figured out, but researchers say Eve’s attempt was more akin to someone getting it right by guessing the numbers.

Scientists did see something notable from the research – the networks were not very good, initially, at creating, decoding, or trying to decipher a coded message, but with practice, they not only created a system, but kept that system secret from the developers. As a post in New Scientist pointed out, the way the machine learning works prevents even the researchers from figuring out what kind of encryption method Alice came up with.

The neural networks are considered a form of artificial intelligence, which encompasses the theory that computer systems will be able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence.

Famed scientists Stephen Hawking, director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge, warned at a conference in London last week that artificial intelligence could develop a will of its own that is in conflict with that of humanity. Or, he said, if care is taken to avoid certain risks, it could be helpful to humanity.

"Alongside the benefits, AI will also bring dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many," Hawking said.

To read the research paper, click here.

Humans killed nearly two-thirds of the world's wildlife over 50 years, report says

By the end of the decade, global wildlife populations could be just one-third of what they were 50 years ago because of humans, scientists warned in a World Wildlife Fund report released Thursday.

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According to the Living Planet Report 2016, populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. The report tracks more than 14,000 populations of more than 3,700 species.

"Wildlife is disappearing within our lifetimes at an unprecedented rate," said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International. "This is not just about the wonderful species we all love; biodiversity forms the foundation of healthy forests, rivers and oceans. Take away species, and these ecosystems will collapse along with the clean air, water, food and climate services that they provide us."

Wildlife populations have been hardest hit by the loss and degradation of their habitats due to unsustainable agriculture and logging and changes to freshwater systems, according to the WWF report. Currently, one-third of the planet's land area is covered in farmland and agriculture accounts for nearly 70 percent of our water use.

Other threats to wildlife include pollution, climate change, species overexploitation and the introduction of invasive species and disease.

Freshwater populations have been hardest hit, according to WWF, with populations falling a staggering 81 percent between 1970 and 2012, due mostly to habitat loss and degradation. The habitats are particularly difficult to protect, the nonprofit said, because they're affected by everything from pollution to dams and often cross administrative and political borders.

"Importantly however, these are declines, they are not yet extinctions – and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations," said Ken Norris, director of science at the Zoological Society of London.

In its report, the WWF outlines a number of measures aimed at reforming the way humans interact with the planet in order to stymie wildlife losses. The nonprofit notes that global initiatives aimed at stopping global warming, such as the Paris climate deal, will help support wildlife growth.

"The world is reaching a consensus regarding the direction we must take," the report says. "Furthermore, we have never before had such an understanding of the scale of our impact on the planet, the way the key environmental systems interact or the way in which we can manage them."

Still, more work needs to be done to address environmental degradation, according to the report.

"We must create a new economic system that enhances and supports the natural capital upon which it relies," the report says. "These kinds of changes to societal values are likely to be achievable only over the long term and in ways that we have not yet imagined."

This is what football can do to a child's brain after just one season

The results of a new study may have some parents rethinking whether they allow their children to play football.

>> Watch the news report here

Three million children in the U.S. play in tackle football programs. While many doctors and scientists have taken a look at the impact of concussions, new research by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center studied the impact of less-serious blows to the head that are common during games.

The study included 25 players between the ages of 8 and 13 and was centered on a youth program in Winston-Salem, N.C. Each boy was outfitted with a helmet that measured the severity and frequency of head blows.

“This is important, particularly for children, because their brains are undergoing such rapid change, particularly in the age category from maybe 9 to 18. And we just don’t know a lot of about it,” Dr. Chris Whitlow, a lead researcher, told NBC News.

Researchers say their findings indicated that even at this young age, the boys were receiving pretty hard hits.

The doctors then performed MRIs on the players and determined there were some changes in the brain’s white matter, the tissue that connects the gray matter of the brain.

“We have detected some changes in the white matter,” Whitlow said. “And the importance of those changes is that the more exposure you have to head impacts, the more change you have.”

Young players who did not have concussions were also found to have been impacted by repeated hits. Brain changes were found even after a single season of playing the sport.

>> Read more trending stories

So far, doctors are not cautioning parents against letting their children play football since there are still some unclear areas following the study. Doctors don’t know if these changes will continue as the boys play football. They also don’t know what long-term impact the repeated blows to the head will have on the players.

Still, some parents say the sport is worth the risk — for now — because of the joy it brings to their children. Football also encourages their kids to stay on top of their grades.

Kindra Ritzie-Worthy has two sons who play football. She says they take their footballs everywhere they go. One even sleeps with his ball.

“Worth the risk?” she told NBC. “I say absolutely.”

The study is published in the journal Radiology.

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