As expected, the college hoops season is off to a rocky start. Here’s what health experts have to say about the upcoming season

We’re a week into the 2020-21 college basketball season, and the 11-time national champion UConn women’s basketball team has been strangely absent from fans’ TV screens. That’s how it’ll stay until at least mid-December.

Five days prior to what would have been the Huskies’ season opener, a member of the program (not a player or coach) tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in a two-week pause of team activities that wiped out the team’s three early nonconference games. The shutdown arose less than a week after the UConn men returned from a shutdown of their own due to a player testing positive.

With COVID-19 cases surging nationwide, UConn is far from the only school that needed to delay the start of its basketball season or pause things a few days in after someone contracted the virus. In the Big East alone, nine of 11 member schools have publicly disclosed temporary shutdowns for either one of their basketball teams this fall. Six teams have paused activities within the last two weeks.

In interviews with The Courant, public health and medical experts offered best practices as the NCAA moves forward with its season. Here’s what those experts had to say about the risks of playing basketball and how programs can mitigate them moving forward.

Basketball is a challenge

Basketball isn’t the first college sport to return to play, but it is one with unique challenges. It’s played indoors, where the virus is believed to spread more easily. Close contact in games, though relatively transient, is unavoidable. Smaller rosters mean fewer people pose a risk in contracting the virus, but also make the quarantining or isolation of even a handful of players more detrimental.

We’ve seen how basketball can be held safely: The NBA and WNBA had zero COVID-19 cases during their three-month “bubble” seasons, which took place at clean sites in Orlando and Bradenton, Fla., and featured daily testing. For financial, logistical and philosophical reasons, adopting that exact model is infeasible for college sports, though variations are being explored. Mohegan Sun is currently hosting 30+ teams at “Bubbleville,” while the Big East’s contingency plans for after the new year include a bubble or series of mini-bubbles involving shorter stays.

Dr. Karl Minges, chair of health administration and policy at the University of New Haven, said that the long-term effects of COVID-19 remain unclear (there’s not enough data yet, for example, to rule out that the virus can cause cardiac issues like myocarditis), and there’s plenty of evidence that it disproportionately affects Black and Latino people. Per the NCAA, 68 percent of Division I women’s basketball players and 77 percent of men’s players are people of color.

Even with schools and jurisdictions like UConn’s prohibiting fans at games, there’s growing evidence that outbreaks on college campuses have negative impacts on the broader community. A study in La Crosse, Wis. showed that COVID-19 clusters from college campuses were responsible for infections, and deaths, in nursing homes.

Travel is risky

Actual gameplay may not be the

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Cyprus rocky testing ground for Mars

Planetologists and geologists arrived in Cyprus to test out the equipment in the Troodos mountains, which officials say has geol
Planetologists and geologists arrived in Cyprus to test out the equipment in the Troodos mountains, which officials say has geological similarities with Mars

International and Cypriot experts on Friday discussed a research project to test space equipment on the Mediterranean island before sending it to Mars to measure the age of its rocks, officials said.


Planetologists and geologists arrived in Cyprus earlier this month to test out the equipment in the Troodos mountains, which officials say has geological similarities with the red planet.

The project is funded by the European Commission and on Friday a first meeting involving the Cyprus Space Exploration Organisation (CSEO) and the Geological Surveys Department got underway.

“The meeting discussed the objectives of the international space programme, the geological needs and the most suitable locations for the project,” the government’s Geological Survey Department said.

The rock-measuring project is “very innovative since there are no previous accurate measurements of the age of the rocks of Mars from previous missions”, it added in a statement.

It noted however that “the geology of the Troodos Mountains has a lot in common with the rocks of Mars”.

Acting director of the Geological Survey Department, Christodoulos Hadjigeorgiou, said Friday’s meeting went well with local know-how of the landscape offered to international scientists.

The CSEO is taking part in a major international research project on Mars, in collaboration with three other European countries as well as the United States.

CSEO head George Danos said the space project “highlights once again the uniqueness of our country’s geology, which can help prepare space missions to other celestial bodies”.

“Through this cooperation we will create new jobs for scientists in our country and new research projects in collaboration with international space agencies,” he added.



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Leaf-cutter ants have rocky crystal armor, never before seen in insects

Leaf-cutter ants are named for their Herculean feats: they chomp foliage and carry unwieldy pieces, like green flags many times their size, long distances to their colonies. There they chew up the leaves to feed underground fungus farms. Along the way, the insects brave all manner of predators—and regularly engage in wars with other ants.



a close up of an animal: The fungus-farming ant Acromyrmex echinatior has a newfound type of biomineral covering that serves as armor.


© Photograph by Eduard Florin Niga / Eddimage Photography

The fungus-farming ant Acromyrmex echinatior has a newfound type of biomineral covering that serves as armor.




Acromyrmex echinatior’s armor helps it survive wars with other ant species


© Photograph courtesy of Eugenia Okonski, Smithsonian Institution

Acromyrmex echinatior’s armor helps it survive wars with other ant species


But these insects are even tougher than previously thought.

A new study shows that one Central American leaf-cutter ant species has natural armor that covers its exoskeleton. This shield-like coating is made of calcite with high levels of magnesium, a type found only in one other biological structure: sea urchin teeth, which can grind limestone.

Bones and teeth of many animals contain calciferous minerals, and crustaceans, such as crabs and lobsters, have mineralized shells and other body parts. But before this finding, no type of calcite had been found in any adult insect.

In leaf-cutter ants, this coating is made of thousands of tiny, plate-like crystals that harden their exoskeleton. This “armor” helps prevent the insects from losing limbs in battles with other ants and staves off fungal infections, according to a paper published November 24 in the journal Nature Communications.

The discovery is especially surprising because the ants are well known. “There are thousands of papers on leaf-cutter ants,” says study co-author Cameron Currie, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We were really excited to find [this in] one of the most well-studied insects in nature,” he says.

Though this paper looked only at one species, Acromyrmex echinatior, Currie and colleagues suspect other related ants have the biomineral too.

Ants covered in rock

Long before humans or their immediate ancestors evolved, about 60 million years ago, leaf-cutter ants invented their own form of agriculture. These underground fungal farms are the result of a symbiotic relationship that provides food for ant larvae and protection for the fungus, and each ant species has its own species of fungi.

Some of the nearly 50 species of leaf-cutter ants, including the ant in the study, also harbor a symbiotic bacterium to keep their gardens from becoming infected by other harmful fungi. This microbe coats young workers; as they meander through their fungus gardens, the bacteria secrete chemicals that kill the invasive fungi.

A former postdoctoral researcher in Currie’s lab, Hongjie Li—now a researcher at Ningbo University in China—began studying these bacteria and soon became intrigued by strange, tiny crystals covering the ants’ exoskeleton. He convinced geologists to help him study the mineral-like material, using several types of imaging techniques, including electron microscopy, to characterize the composition.

When Li got the results one fall morning in 2018 showing the ants are covered in a type of biomineral not previously seen

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Leaf-cutter ants are coated in rocky crystal armor, never before seen in insects

Leaf-cutter ants are named for their Herculean feats: they chomp foliage and carry unwieldy pieces, like green flags many times their size, long distances to their colonies. There they chew up the leaves to feed underground fungus farms. Along the way, the insects brave all manner of predators—and regularly engage in wars with other ants.

But these insects are even tougher than previously thought.

A new study shows that one Central American leaf-cutter ant species has natural armor that covers its exoskeleton. This shield-like coating is made of calcite with high levels of magnesium, a type found only in one other biological structure: sea urchin teeth, which can grind limestone.

Bones and teeth of many animals contain calciferous minerals, and crustaceans, such as crabs and lobsters, have mineralized shells and other body parts. But before this finding, no type of calcite had been found in any adult insect.

Acromyrmex echinatior’s armor helps it survive wars with other ant species

Photograph courtesy of Eugenia Okonski, Smithsonian Institution

In leaf-cutter ants, this coating is made of thousands of tiny, plate-like crystals that harden their exoskeleton. This “armor” helps prevent the insects from losing limbs in battles with other ants and staves off fungal infections, according to a paper published November 24 in the journal Nature Communications.

The discovery is especially surprising because the ants are well known. “There are thousands of papers on leaf-cutter ants,” says study co-author Cameron Currie, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We were really excited to find [this in] one of the most well-studied insects in nature,” he says.

Though this paper looked only at one species, Acromyrmex echinatior, Currie and colleagues suspect other related ants have the biomineral too.

Ants covered in rock

Long before humans or their immediate ancestors evolved, about 60 million years ago, leaf-cutter ants invented their own form of agriculture. These underground fungal farms are the result of a symbiotic relationship that provides food for ant larvae and protection for the fungus, and each ant species has its own species of fungi.

Some of the nearly 50 species of leaf-cutter ants, including the ant in the study, also harbor a symbiotic bacterium to keep their gardens from becoming infected by other harmful fungi. This microbe coats young workers; as they meander through their fungus gardens, the bacteria secrete chemicals that kill the invasive fungi.

A former postdoctoral researcher in Currie’s lab, Hongjie Li—now a researcher at Ningbo University in China—began studying these bacteria and soon became intrigued by strange, tiny crystals covering the ants’ exoskeleton. He convinced geologists to help him study the mineral-like material, using several types of imaging techniques, including electron microscopy, to characterize the composition.

When Li got the results one fall morning in 2018 showing the ants are covered in a type of biomineral not previously seen in any insect, he was ecstatic.

“There was rock on the ants,” Li says. “I found rock ants!”

Li says the ant’s armor is very similar

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Rogue Rocky Planet Found Adrift in the Milky Way

Not all planets orbit stars. Some are instead “free-floating” rogues adrift in interstellar space after being ejected from their home systems. For decades astronomers have sought to study such elusive outcasts, hoping to find patterns in their size and number that could reveal otherwise hidden details of how planetary systems emerge and evolve.

Of the handful known so far, most free floaters have been massive gas giants, but now researchers may have found one small enough to be rocky—smaller even than Earth. If its rogue status is confirmed, the roughly Mars-to-Earth-mass object would be the most diminutive free-floating planet ever seen. Yet finding such small worlds could soon become routine, thanks to NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, set to launch in the mid-2020s.

Most planet-hunting methods rely on observing subtle changes in a star’s light to discern any orbiting companions. But free-floating worlds, of course, have no star. Instead astronomers use a quirk of Einstein’s general theory of relativity to locate these lost planets: All massive objects warp spacetime around themselves, similar to how a bowling ball stretches a rubber sheet, and can act as lenses to magnify far-distant sources. When a “lensing” foreground planet is properly aligned with a background star, it amplifies that star’s light, causing a slight brightening. This technique is known as microlensing, and astronomers first pioneered it to find black holes.

Of the approximately 100 worlds found to date by microlensing, only four have been identified as free-floating. All the rest are planets that spin around their stars on orbits that are stretched out so long that they typically elude detection through other standard planet-hunting techniques. It is possible that the newfound wee world, known as OGLE-2016-BLG-1928, could be attached to a star. But if so, its orbit would place it at least eight times as far from its stellar host as the Earth is from the sun. Confirming the planet’s likely free-floating status will require a few more years—time enough for any potential parent star, should it exist, to shift its position so that its light can be separated from that of the background star.

“It’s really a very exciting result,” says Andrew Gould, an astronomer at the Ohio State University and an author of the preprint paper describing the result. That study, which was led by Przemek Mróz of the California Institute of Technology, has been submitted to Astrophysical Journal Letters, where it is currently under review. “It’s a huge milestone to get this planet,” Gould adds.

“This is a very robust result and almost certainly a low-mass planet,” says astronomer Scott Gaudi of Ohio State, who is leading the science team working to determine the best observing strategy for NASA’s Roman telescope and was not part of the group that found the new world. “This gives us the first little peek at the likely distribution of a population of Earth-mass planets in the galaxy,” he says.

At the “Hairy Edge”

Most planets form from the gas and dust left over

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