Saturday, May 31, 2008

Is China's Space Program Armed for Apollo 2.0? Live @ ISDC 2008

At a next-gen conference on the future of exploration, PM columnist and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds looks at how little we still know about the Chinese antisatellite test—but how far the country's out-of-this-world activity has come.
China shocked the world with its recent antisatellite missile test, but the motivations are still unclear nearly a year and a half later. (Illustration by Jeremy Cook)

WASHINGTON — It's not your father's space program anymore. That's one of the clear messages here at the International Space Development Conference, where the future of exploration is being picked apart by top minds looking for the Next Big Thing—and the Next Big Power in Space.
Yesterday's panel on the Chinese space program made that modern message especially clear, demonstrating just how far exploration has come since the days when "space" meant NASA and its Soviet counterpart ... and not much else.

I found the discussion particularly interesting, not just because it showed China surging ahead compared to relatively stagnant United States program, but because it was a reminder of just how little we know about the actual workings of the Chinese government. Economically, they've opened up. Politically, not so much. In space? That's tricky.

China's out-of-this-world interests are nothing new—they're currently on their eleventh five-year plan. And, in one reassuring view, China is operating like a "normal Asian power" as it accumulates capital, builds overseas markets and grows its industries, in space as elsewhere. On the other hand, some aspects of China's behavior, like its antisatellite weapon test last year, don't fit comfortably with this model, and suggest there's more going on than just market-building. Yet, 16 months later, Western analysts don't understand the decision process that led to that test, or even have a clear picture of who the decisionmakers were. Dean Cheng, the China specialist for research firm CNA, almost stated the obvious: "This has important implications for crisis management." Yeah, it suggests that it will go badly.

What's clearer is that the Chines have ambitious future plans for space. They're working on Lunar exploration, including a lander, a sample return mission and an eventual human mission. They're working on rendezvous and docking in orbit, and they're looking toward a manned spacelab. They're also building a new Long March V booster, which will be comparable to the Saturn V. What's more, China is selling commercial satellites on a turnkey basis, using all of its technology so that U.S. export control laws don't apply—something that appeals to customers like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

China views space as an asset at numerous levels: technological, political, commercial and militaristic. Now the U.S. remains the strongest military power in East Asia, and depends heavily on space. But when China proves its technological prowess, that gains political and diplomatic points among its neighbors and with client nations around the world. It also makes Chinese citizens proud—part of the government's effort to harness nationalism. And the Chinese government hopes that a big push in space will help produce a generation of scientists and engineers, as the Apollo program did here in the States.

Space experts differ on whether China wants to compete directly with the U.S.—perhaps, given our slow and fumbling efforts, beating us back to the Moon—or simply displace Japan as the prime technological power in Asia. On the one hand, the U.S. retains a huge lead, while China is still building up spacecraft, like lunar probes and orbital docking equipment, that we mastered back in the 1960s. On the other hand, like America in the 60s, China is forging ahead, while the U.S. in the 21st century is, at best, standing still.

Original here

Saturn's Titan has Implications for Understanding of Life Throughout the Galaxy

NASA's Cassini spacecraft buzzed Titan last month, coming close enough to taste the Saturnian moon's atmosphere. The data acquired has implications for our understanding of life throughout the galaxy, as well as Earth's own past.

Titan_ir_2The second largest moon in the solar system, Titan has long been of interest for hopeful exobioligists. As the only other body we know of with surface bodies of liquid, complete with nitrogen, methane and complete seasonal weather weather patterns (similar to Earth's). It even has beaches, though you'll need a little more than a swimsuit to visit. Vast bodies of chemicals constantly stirred by wind and wave, heated over a gentle sunlight heat with the occasional dash of articles from Saturn's magnetosphere for spice - a perfect recipe for life. Just like a certain planet you might be familiar with (look down if you forget).

Of course there a few minor differences from our own blue-green globe. There's no oxygen for one thing, but if you think that's a problem then you're guilty of "aerobic respiration prejudice" (don't worry, most multicellular organisms are). It's also really quite amazingly cold - so cold that it has awesomely-named "cryovolcanoes", where boiled (or even just melted) water is enough to set off seismic-level explosions. Again, that's a barrier that's been overcome by homegrown Earth bacteria, so there's no reason it couldn't be managed elsewhere.

Cassini's onboard instruments have detected hydrocarbons containing up to seven carbon atoms. How important is that for life? Here's a hint: molecules with carbon in them are called organic, and those without are inorganic. Carbon is kind of a big deal, and the more (and more complicated) carbon compounds present the further towards the great cosmic chemical cocktail that is "life" you are. Some scientists believe that the Titanian interior, with its greater temperature, could already host microbial life - but it'll be a while before we can check that (unless we get real lucky, and some alien cells get real unlucky, with a cryovolcano eruption). One thing's for sure - the craft is only on the sixth of forty-five planned flybys so we can expect to hear a lot more about this real soon.

PS Yes, it is ironic that we're expecting Titanic lifeforms to be single celled.

Posted by Luke McKinney. Photo Credit: James Estrin/New York Times.

Original here

Robot Dog Therapy

Do you crave the companionship of a pet, but can't be dogged by the commitment? New research suggests that robotic dogs can give you some of the same benefits you'd get from the real thing. This ScienCentral News video explains.

[If you cannot see the youtube video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: William Banks, St. Louis University
Length: 1 min 27 sec
Produced by Jessica Tanenbaum
Edited by Jessica Tanenbaum and James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

Original here

Is There a Solution to the "Continent of Plastic" that Pollutes the Pacific?

Trashpattern_2 The UN Environment Program estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter in every square mile of ocean, and a swirling vortex of trash twice the size of Texas has spawned in the North Pacific.

Plastic bags, once icons of customer convenience, cost more than 1.6 billion barrels of oil per year and leave the environment to foot the bill. Each year the world produces 500 billion bags, and they take up to 1,000 years to decompose. They take up space in landfills, litter our streets and parks, pollute the oceans and kill the wildlife that eat them.

Eco-friendly legislation that targets the production and distribution of plastic bags has been introduced in Israel, San Francisco, Ireland and China. Addiionally, a recent scientific discovery (see below) offers a potential long-term solution to the global plastic crisis.

Since stories have started surfacing more recently, many have wondered, if the rumors are true. Are there really 'continents', or massive floating garbage patches residing in the Pacific? Apparently, the rumors are true, and these unsightly patches are reportedly killing marine life and releasing poisons that enter the human food chain, as well. However, before you start imagining a plastic version of Maui, keep in mind that these plastic patches certainly aren't solid surfaced islands that you could build a house on! Ocean currents have collected massive amounts of garbage into a sort of plastic "soup" where countless bits of discarded plastic float intertwined just beneath the surface. Indeed, the human race has really made its mark. The enormous Texas-sized plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons.

But if there is an unfathomably massive collection of plastic junk out there, then why doesn't everyone already know about it, and why aren't we doing something about it?

Well, there are several reasons. First, no one is keen to claim responsibility for these monstrosities, which exists in one of the most remote spots on the planet. It's easier to ignore than to deal with, at least in the short term. Most of the plastic is floating just below the surface where explorers, researchers, and scientists can get a good close-up view, but it is nearly impossible to see the massive quantities of submerged trash in photographs taken from great distances. This makes it easier for naysayers to disregard the problem as a mere myth, in spite of all of the well-documented research to the contrary. Clean up seems nearly impossible at this point, so even those who are well aware of the situation have adopted the famous ostrich cliche of burying their heads in the sand. Even so, this polluted, chemical filled junk is finding it's way onto our dinner tables.

Sadly, marine researcher Charles Moore at the Algalita Marina Research Foundation in Long Beach says there’s no practical fix for the problem. He has been studying the massive patch for the past 10 years, and said the debris is to the point where it would be nearly impossible to extract.

"Any attempt to remove that much plastic from the oceans - it boggles the mind," Moore said from Hawaii, where his crew is docked. "There's just too much, and the ocean is just too big."

The trash collects in this remote area, known as the North Pacific Gyre, due to a clockwise trade wind that encircles the Pacific Rim. According to Moore the trash accumulates the same way bubbles clump at the center of hot tub.

Ian Kiernan, the Australian founder of Clean Up the World, started his environmental campaign two decades ago after being shocked by the incredible amount of rubbish he saw on an around-the-world solo yacht race. He'll says he’ll never be able the wipe the atrocious site from his memory.

"It was just filled with things like furniture, fridges, plastic containers, cigarette lighters, plastic bottles, light globes, televisions and fishing nets," Kiernan says. "It's all so durable it floats. It's just a major problem."

Kiernan says it’s killing wildlife in a vicious cycle. Holding an ashtray filled with colorful pieces of plastic he told The Sydney Morning Herald, "this is the contents of a fleshy-footed shearwater's stomach. They go to the ocean to fish but there ain't no fish - there's plastic. They then regurgitate it down the necks of their fledglings and it kills them. After the birds decompose, the plastic gets washed back into the ocean where it can kill again. It's a form of ghost fishing, where it goes on and on."

A Dutch study in the North Sea of fulmar seabirds concluded 95 per cent of the birds had plastic in their stomachs. More than 1600 pieces were found in the stomach of one bird in Belgium.

The United Nations Environment Program says plastic is accountable for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals every year.

Since his first encounter with the gyre in 1997, Moore created the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to help study the problem. Canadian filmmaker Ian Connacher joined Moore last year to film the garbage patch for his documentary, I Am Plastic.

"The most menacing part is those little bits of plastic start looking like food for certain animals, or the filter feeders don't have any choice, they just pick them up," noted Connacher.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is hiding beneath the surface of the islands of garbage. Greenpeace reports that about 70 per cent of the plastic that makes it to the ocean sinks to the bottom, where it then smothers marine life on the ocean floor. Dutch scientists have found 600,000 tons of discarded plastic on the bottom of the North Sea alone.

A study by the Japanese geochemist Hideshige Takada and his colleagues at Tokyo University in 2001 found that plastic polymers soak up the resilient poisons such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls. The researchers found that non-water-soluble toxic chemicals can be found in plastic in levels as high as a million times their concentration in water. As small pieces of plastic are mistaken for fish eggs and other food by marine life, these toxins end up at the dinner table. But even without the extra toxins, eating plastic is hazardous to health.

It is estimated that 80 per cent of plastic found at sea is washed out from the land. The journal Science last year predicted seafood stocks would collapse by 2048 if overfishing and pollution continued. If the seafood stocks collapse, a lot of humans will follow. So, is there anything we can do to prevent this?

Greenpeace says embracing the three Rs - reduce, re-use and recycle - would help tackle the problem. Plastic recycling is lagging well behind paper and cardboard. Part of the reason is because many people aren’t even sure what recycling options exist in their area. But there are other challenges for plastic recycling too. Some plastics release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, and are more expensive to recycle than to simply create a new product from petrochemicals.

The widespread use of bioplastics could largely reduce the amount of plastic strewn around the world. Traditional petrochemical-based plastics are non-degradable and non-renewable; degradable plastic breaks into smaller pieces in UV light but remains plastic. Then there are two kinds of biodegradable plastic that break down in compost - one from a petrochemical resource, the other from a renewable resource such as corn or wheat, which is known as bioplastic. Bioplastic is by far the most environmentally friendly option. Dr Katherine Dean, of the CSIRO, says corporate firms are now becoming increasingly interested in bioplastics.

"When oil prices soared in 2005, that changed a lot of people's perspective, because bioplastic became quite cost-competitive," she says. "All of a sudden it wasn't just about doing the right thing."

The company Plantic Technologies, has developed biodegradable plastic for everything from food and beverage packaging to medical, agricultural and sporting applications. The chief executive of Plantic, Grant Dow, says once composted, the plastic would become nothing more than carbon dioxide and water.

"For all intents and purposes, it looks like plastic and feels like plastic and does the same thing as plastic in the application," he says.

"It will only biodegrade in the presence of heat, moisture and bacteria, so it will sit in your cupboard pretty much indefinitely, but when the bacteria get to it in compost, that's it. It's gone."

While parts of our oceans have already become inhospitable soups of plastic and plankton, we can at least mitigate the future consequences by making smart individual choices. Experts say the best way to mitigate the damage down the road is by buying less products that contain plastics or plastic packaging, recycling, lobbying for safer bio-degradable plastics, and by purchasing reusable cloth grocery bags among other strategies.

That said, a solution to the world's plastic crisis may have a possible long-term solution: a Waterloo, Canada teenager, Daniel Burd, has found a way to make plastic bags degrade faster -- in three months, he figures. Burd recently won the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa. He came back with a long list of awards, including a $10,000 prize, a $20,000 scholarship, and recognition that he has found a practical way to help the environment.

Burd’s discovery isolated two strains of bacteria (Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas) that work together to consume polyethelene plastic at record rates, yielding a culture that rendered plastic bags 43% decomposed after six weeks, with the only outputs being water and an infinitesimal amount of carbon dioxide. The system is cheap, energy efficient, and easily scalable for industrial applications. “All you need," Burd says "is a fermenter . . . your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags."

Burd's discovery will not solve the whirling vortexes of plastic garbage in the North Pacific, but with an infrastructure in place to harness Burd's innovation, there's hope to prevent future damage to the planet.

Posted by Rebecca Sato

Original here

Clive Thompson on How Man-Made Noise May Be Altering Earth's Ecology

Illustration: Gretchen Smelter

Bernie Krause listens to nature for a living. The 69-year-old is a field recording scientist: He heads into the wilderness to document the noises made by native fauna — crickets chirping in the Amazon rain forest, frogs croaking in the Australian outback.

But Krause has noticed something alarming. The natural sound of the world is vanishing. He'll be deep inside the Amazon, recording that cricket, but when he listens carefully he also hears machinery: The distant howl of a 747 or the dull roar of a Hummer miles way.

Krause has a word for the pristine acoustics of nature: biophony. It's what the world sounds like in the absence of humans. But in 40 percent of the locations where Krause has recorded over the past 40 years, human-generated noise has infiltrated the wilderness. "It's getting harder and harder to find places that aren't contaminated," he says.

This isn't just a matter of aesthetics. The contamination of biophony may soon become a serious environmental issue — Krause says that man-made sounds are already wreaking havoc with animal communication. We worry about the carbon emissions from SUVs and airplanes; maybe we should be equally concerned about the racket they cause.

Krause's argument is simple. In a biophony, animals divide up the acoustic spectrum so they don't interfere with one another's voices. He shows me a spectrogram of a wilderness recording, in which all the component noises are mapped according to pitch. It looks like the musical score for an orchestra, with each instrument in its place. No two species are using the same frequency. "That's part of how they coexist so well," Krause says. When they issue mating calls or all-important warning cries, they aren't masked by the noises of other animals.

But what happens when man-made noise — anthrophony, as Krause dubs it — intrudes on the natural symphony? Maybe it's the low rumble of nearby construction or the high whine of a turboprop. Either way, it interferes with a segment of the spectrum already in use, and suddenly some animal can't make itself heard. The information flow in the jungle is compromised.

Krause has heard this happen all over the world. For example, the population of spadefoot toads in the Yosemite region of the Sierras is declining rapidly, and Krause thinks it's because of low-flying military training missions in the area. The toad calls lose their synchronicity, and coyotes and owls home in on individual frogs trying to rejoin the chorus.

And as Krause has discovered, it doesn't take much to disrupt a soundscape. California's Lincoln Meadow, for example, has undergone only a tiny bit of logging, but the acoustic imprint of the region has completely changed in tandem with the landscape, and some species seem to have been displaced. The area looks the same as ever, "but if you listen to it, the density and diversity of sound is diminished," Krause says. "It has a weird feeling."

Biologists were initially skeptical of Krause's theory, but he's slowly gaining converts. Now even bigwigs like Harvard's E. O. Wilson have gone on record in support.

So how do you quiet an increasingly cacophonous world? Perhaps we should be developing not just clean tech but "quiet" tech, industrial machinery designed to run as silently as possible. More regulations could help, too. Cities have long had noise ordinances; wilderness areas could benefit from tighter protections as well.

Some of this is just about educating ourselves. We all recognize ecological tragedies by sight — when we see pictures of clear-cut areas, say, or melting Arctic ice shelves. Now we need to learn to listen to the earth, too.

Last year, Krause brought biophony to the masses by creating an extraordinarily cool add-on for Google Earth. Download it from his site and you can click on dozens of locations worldwide to hear snippets of their soundscape.

I select the Amazon rain forest and my office is suddenly filled with a mesmerizing mix of hoots, cries, and rustling. It's spooky — like nothing I've ever heard before.

And like nothing I'll ever hear again, if we don't watch out. "Earth has a voice," Krause says. "We can't let it go silent."


Original here

Floating Wind Turbines Could Revolutionize Wind Power

The first large-scale ocean-based wind power project is set for beginning research.

StatoilHydro announced plans to test offshore wind turbines, starting with a 2.3-megawatt turbine measuring 65 meters high, buoyed and tied down by three anchors. While not the only ocean-bound wind turbine project in the works, this new project, called Hywind, will launch in 2009 off the coast of Norway and is particularly unique because of how far off shore the turbines can be placed. Because they float instead of being tied to the ocean floor, they’re operable in depths up to a whopping 700 meters. And when the average ocean depth off Norway is about 1,450 meters, this means they can go way, way off-shore.

Issues to be analyzed include the cost of getting the power generated back to landlubber users, its efficiency at generating power while being knocked around in waves and storms, and the ability to safely perform maintenance on the units. This research will take a good chunk of time before offshore wind farms are a reality, or even practical. Not mentioned in the article but also important to research is any impact on marine life, especially sea birds, that not only a single unit but an entire fleet of wind turbines may have.

This is an interesting alternative to land-based wind farms, which seem to be getting bigger and bigger. Ocean-based wind farms will take out some of the ugly factor, though they present more obvious technical issues than land-based turbines. Yet, they may be more practical for large-scale power creation for big cities than flying wind power generators, depending on how the testing goes.

The undertaking is huge, but I am optimistic that utilizing our vast ocean space for generating sustainable power is in the near future. It may even be possible to combine water-generated power with the wind-generated power, maximizing efficiency of the resources invested in creating the turbines.

Meanwhile, I would love to see bright painted letters donning the first turbine "Ishmael".

Original here

Restoring Rare Beauties

BIOLOGIST Arthur Shapiro has been chasing butterflies since he was a teenager in Philadelphia. He’s netted them in exotic locales from the Alaskan Subarctic to the Andes. But Shapiro, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California–Davis, is also an expert on common North American butterflies, those familiar species that breed in home gardens and feed on plants at the edges and in fallow pockets of modern cities, towns and suburbs. For more than 36 years, Shapiro, whose wild graying hair and beard call to mind a frontier mountain man, has regularly walked fixed routes monitoring butterfly populations at ten sites from Suisun Bay to the Sierra Nevada. Lately, his biweekly hikes have inspired mostly questions—and worry.

“I used to be able to walk 15 minutes from my lab and find common sootywing larvae. Now I know of only one permanent colony in the whole county,” Shapiro says. “Butterflies that were once considered utterly common, including willow hairstreak, large marble and West Coast lady, are going into a tailspin, and nobody knows why.”

Other lepidopterists share Shapiro’s concern. Worldwide, many butterfly species have begun to falter and even disappear. In this country, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has designated 23 species as endangered or threatened.

Fewer colorful insects fluttering around the garden is more than an aesthetic loss. Butterflies play a key role in plant reproduction, transporting pollen from flower to flower. They provide food for birds and other insects. “People may say, ‘Why care about butterflies? They’re just insects.’ But butterflies are bellwethers for ecosystems, and we’re seeing butterflies at risk across the U.S.,” says Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based national nonprofit that campaigns for invertebrate conservation. “Everywhere you look, there are butterflies in decline. That really tells us something is wrong.”

Butterflies suffer from the same ills that plague all wildlife these days: habitat loss, pollution, invasive species and global warming. But experts say the insects also face unique hurdles. Their dizzyingly complicated life cycles may take one or two years to complete. They spend long periods as vulnerable larvae and pupae. And they form complex interdependent relationships with entire suites of other animals and plants.

In addition, many butterflies have extremely exact needs that may vary depending on life stage. In California, home to 15 of the federally protected species, larvae of the endangered San Bruno elfin, for example, prefer the leaves of sedum, a succulent. Later larval stages feed on the plant’s flowers, while adults are believed to sip nectar from manzanita, huckleberry and other plants. The endangered Smith’s blue, native to sand dunes of California’s central coast, has mouthparts that exactly match the depth of buckwheat flowers. “Since their life cycles can be so complex, it’s not enough to just set aside land or to save one host plant,” explains John Shuey, chair of the conservation committee of The Lepidopterists’ Society and director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy’s Indiana office.

Further complicating butterfly conservation, the biological details of their lives often remain murky. In many cases, scientists do not even know what a species’ caterpillar looks like or what the adult eats. Take Southern California’s Laguna Mountains skipper: When scientists gathered at a recent conference devoted to the species, they realized they still did not know which nectar plants it uses for food or whether it produces one or two broods a year. “There’s a whole world of things we don’t know, things that no one has had the time or money to study yet,” says Jaret Daniels, assistant director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera Research at the University of Florida. “Oftentimes, we don’t have the information to make informed decisions about which species are declining.”

Daniels and most other researchers point to habitat loss as the number one cause of butterfly declines—and in the United States, perhaps no habitats have been so thoroughly changed as the meadows, grasslands and sparsely wooded prairies, barrens and savanna often favored by butterflies. Since these ecosystems are so easy to turn into subdivisions, farms and industrial parks, they have all but disappeared from most of the lower 48 states. In the Midwest, for example, less than 1 percent of pre-settlement oak savanna remains; in the Northwest, it’s less than 3 percent. With space limitations that severe, it can be difficult to bring a species back from the brink, or even to convince authorities that it is an achievable goal worth the trouble.

A decade ago, for instance, John Fleckenstein, a zoologist with the Washington National Heritage Program, conducted a butterfly survey in the grasslands of Puget Trough. “Grasslands have taken a hit from development here,” he says. Fleckenstein ended up capturing two island marble butterflies, a species that had not been seen since 1908. Intensive surveys of more than 200 sites between 2005 and 2007 turned up island marbles at 44 locations. Fleckenstein estimates that the number of individual butterflies is in the low 100s. “The island marble is in trouble,” says Hoffman Black of the Xerces Society, which has teamed up with the Center for Biological Diversity to wage a so far unsuccessful battle to get the species listed as endangered. “With populations this small, just a small fluctuation, a disease or a big storm, can send it spiraling.”

Even intact habitats can be risky places for butterflies. Since the insects spend long periods as soft, slow-moving caterpillars, or as immobile pupae busy metamorphosing into butterflies, activities such as “hiking and horseback riding, even crews removing invasive species, can wipe out an endangered colony,” says Hoffman Black.

On an undulating stretch of sand dunes some 60 miles southeast of Reno, Nevada, a less benign pursuit threatens the Sand Mountain blue, a species found nowhere else on Earth. Though no subdivisions or industries sprawl over the nearly 5,000-acre Sand Mountain Recreation Area, on weekends the dunes become one of the West’s most extreme spots for off-road vehicle enthusiasts. “Off-road vehicles strip the vegetation, including Kearney buckwheat [where the blue feeds and pupates]. So not only is the host plant lost, but the butterflies are run over,” says desert ecologist Daniel Patterson, southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has sued for federal protection of the butterfly.

As with legions of other creatures, global warming also threatens to wreak havoc on butterflies. In North America, butterfly experts report that some cool-loving species seem to be moving to higher elevations as their native habitats get too hot. “We’re clearly seeing climatic effects where species are moving upslope,” says Shapiro. A 2005 study in Spain showed that 16 butterflies have shifted their ranges upward 700 feet over the last 30 years.

But what happens when there is no more upslope? That situation may soon face the Uncompahgre fritillary, a species that favors tundralike environments above 13,000 feet in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. The butterfly flits in and out of patches of dwarf willow, a plant that depends on constant watering by year-round snowpack. Before 1995, scientists knew of only two Uncompahgre colonies. Intensive searching by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program revealed more, the last discovered in 1998. But experts now worry that increasing temperatures may cause the species’ habitat to vanish completely.

Rising temperatures can also cause butterflies to get out of sync with the food plants they depend on. Along North America’s West Coast, a study led by Camille Parmesan, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, showed that the range of Edith’s checkerspot is contracting. According to Parmesan, who has studied the species for more than two decades, 80 percent of the populations in the southern portion of its range in Mexico have become extinct. The reason, she believes, is that warmer temperatures are causing host plants on which butterflies lay their eggs to dry up before caterpillars hatch.

Fortunately, the plight of checkerspots, fritillaries and other butterflies has begun to rally a wide variety of organizations trying to save the insects. Many efforts focus on the obvious goal of restoring habitat, but some butterfly lovers are trying more radical solutions: In many states, scientists from universities, zoos and conservation groups have reared generations of butterflies in captivity so they can be reintroduced. Portland’s Oregon Zoo, for instance, has partnered with The Nature Conservancy and Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to raise Oregon silverspots until they pupate, then return them to their native coastal headland habitat. Once common from northern California to Washington, only 57 Oregon silverspots were tallied in 1998. Today, though still imperiled, they number in the hundreds.

A handful of conservation biologists are even floating the idea of “assisted migration”—taking butterflies from places where they are threatened and moving them to more congenial locales. The critically endangered bay checkerspot, for example, could be whisked from its native San Francisco Bay Area—becoming too developed and too warm—north to a cooler, more rural place. But the issues are complex: Do you just move the butterfly? Or do you have to move its host plant and other elements of its habitat? And how do you know if a butterfly will integrate smoothly into its new habitat without disturbing the natives?

“We’re going to have to seriously consider assisting species in moving to new habitats—humans have put up too many barriers to expect wildlife to follow changing climate on its own,” says Parmesan. “The biggest questions will be ethical, deciding which species to assist, which areas are okay to invade, and when to let nature take its course, even when that means allowing something to go extinct.”

Dozens of zoos and natural history museums, meanwhile, have featured butterfly exhibits to encourage public awareness. Volunteer-based butterfly monitoring censuses like Monarch Watch and the Florida Butterfly Monitoring Network track the health of butterfly populations. In 2001, FWS, along with a coalition of universities, zoos and conservation organizations—including NWF—formed the Butterfly Conservation Initiative to promote habitat restoration, research and public education.

Thanks to such efforts, at least a handful of butterflies have been saved from oblivion. In Florida, populations of the showy, black-and-yellow-streaked Schaus swallowtail already had begun to plummet by the 1970s. The pressures of mosquito spraying, overcollecting and decline of the tropical hardwood habitat where the insect lives pushed it onto the endangered list in 1984. Then, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed Schaus habitat, the wild lime and torchwood forests that cover high elevation hammocks of the upper Florida Keys. When the storm surge receded, fewer than 20 of the butterflies survived in the wild.

Luckily, the University of Florida’s McGuire Center had just collected 100 Schaus eggs to use in a captive-breeding program. By simulating daily spring rains with a garden hose and hand pairing butterflies, its scientists successfully reared the eggs to adults. For three years, they reintroduced the butterflies at seven sites. Though droughts and hurricanes have brought numbers down from highs of about 1,400 in 1996 and 1997 to some 200 today, scientists say the colonies seem to be self-perpetuating.

To the north, Karner blue butterflies once flew over states from Minnesota to Maine, living in grassy, sandy barrens and savannas cleared periodically by natural fires. Then fire suppression and development reduced the insect’s numbers; by 1992, only six states still had Karner blues. The butterfly’s plight inspired a far-flung coalition: federal and state wildlife agencies, universities, zoos and nonprofits that have been rearing Karner blues to reintroduce to the wild. Private landowners in Michigan, Wisconsin and other states have restored habitat, as have military installations and parks. Karner blue reintroductions are now underway in northern Indiana, Ohio and New Hampshire and are being planned for Michigan. Though many populations remain small, they seem to be hanging on.

“We’re working our way to recovering viable populations throughout its range,” says Cathy Carnes, the Wisconsin-based Karner blue recovery coordinator for FWS. “People recognize that by recovering Karner blues they’re doing more than saving one species, they are restoring imperiled ecosystems and a host of other species that depend on them.”

Heather Millar is a Brooklyn, New York-based writer.

Original here

Friday, May 30, 2008

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2008 May 30

Descent of the Phoenix
Credit: MRO-HiRISE, NASA, JPL, Univ. Arizona

Explanation: In this sweeping view, the 10 kilometer-wide crater Heimdall lies on the north polar plains of Mars. But the bright spot highlighted in the inset is the Phoenix lander parachuting toward the surface. The amazing picture was captured on May 25th by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Though the lander looks like it might be dropping straight into Heimdall, it is really descending about 20 kilometers in front of the crater, in the foreground of the scene. The orbiter was 760 kilometers away from Phoenix when picture was taken, at an altitude of 310 kilometers. Subsequently the orbiter's camera was also able to image the lander on the surface. The parachute attached to the backshell and the heat shield were identified in the image, scattered nearby. Of course, the Phoenix lander itself is now returning much closer views of its landing site as it prepares to dig into the Martian surface.

Original here

CSI: Milky Way team works scene of dead star

This image shows a ghostly ring extending seven light-years across around the corpse of a massive star.  The collapsed star, called a magnetar, is located at the exact center of this image. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope imaged the mysterious ring around magnetar SGR 1900+14 in infrared light. The magnetar itself is not visible in this image, as it has not been detected at infrared wavelengths (it has been seen in X-ray light).

This image shows a ghostly ring extending seven light-years across around the corpse of a massive star. The collapsed star, called a magnetar, is located at the exact center of this image. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope imaged the mysterious ring around magnetar SGR 1900+14 in infrared light. The magnetar itself is not visible in this image, as it has not been detected at infrared wavelengths (it has been seen in X-ray light). (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Like a team of forensic detectives in a television show that could be called "CSI: Milky Way," a University of Chicago astrophysicist and his associates are piecing together how a mysterious infrared ring got left around a dead star that displays a magnetic field trillions of times more intense than Earth's.

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope detected the ring around magnetar SGR 1900+14 at two narrow infrared frequencies in 2005 and 2007. The ringed magnetar is of a type called a soft gamma repeater (SGR) because it repeatedly emits bursts of gamma rays.

“The universe is a big place, and weird things can happen,” said Stephanie Wachter of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology. “I was flipping through archived Spitzer data of the object, and that’s when I noticed it was surrounded by a ring we’d never seen before.”

Wachter enlisted Vikram Dwarkadas, a Senior Research Associate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, to help determine how the ring formed. Wachter, Dwarkadas and five other co-authors present the results of their investigation in the May 29 issue of the journal Nature.

“It’s the first time something like this has ever been seen around a magnetar,” Dwarkadas said. Magnetars come from massive stars that have exploded as a core-collapse supernova. “These stars are at least eight times the mass of the sun, or more massive than that,” he said.

Magnetars interest astrophysicists because of their mysterious and unusual characteristics. When massive stars collapse, they usually form compact objects called neutron stars or black holes. “We have no idea why some neutron stars are magnetars and some are not,” Dwarkadas said.

SGR 1900+14 seems to belong to a nearby cluster of massive stars that resides along the plane of the Milky Way. Since the most massive stars live the shortest lives, the object hints that perhaps only the most massive stars become magnetars.

When Wachter’s team began pondering the origin of the ring, “We thought initially of all the standard explanations,” Dwarkadas said. But the team considered and eliminated several possibilities before concluding that a powerful flare that burst from the magnetar formed the ring, which measures seven light-years across.

“It’s as if the magnetar became a huge flaming torch and obliterated the dust around it, creating a massive cavity,” said co-author Chryssa Kouveliotou, senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. “Then the stars nearby lit up a ring of fire around the dead star, marking it for eternity.”

A theoretical astrophysicist supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA, Dwarkadas specializes in various phenomena related to supernova remnants and stellar winds. He helped Wachter’s team systematically eliminate several potential causes for the ring.

Was the ring an infrared echo, a mass of dust lit up by a flare moving out from the magnetar? The 2007 Spitzer image showed no discernable change in the ring after two years. “If it hasn’t moved, it hasn’t changed, it can’t be an infrared echo,” Dwarkadas said. “It’s a stationary ring.”

Could the ring be a bubble blown by solar winds emitted from the star before it exploded? Shock waves of a supernova travel at approximately 10,000 miles a second. If the ring was a wind-blown bubble, the supernova shock wave would overtake it somewhere between a few decades to a century or two, at most.

“It would mean that the supernova should have actually gone through and destroyed the ring unless it was very, very recent,” Dwarkadas said. If the ring was a wind-blown bubble that somehow survived the supernova shock wave, “then you’d need a massive bubble,” he said. “We did some calculations and we ran some simulations, and it just didn’t work.”

Wachter’s team next considered whether the ring could be related to the supernova. That possibility also failed to pan out.

“If there is a supernova, there would be shocks. You would see X-ray, radio and optical emission. We looked at archival data, and there was no emission at any wavelength except in the Spitzer images,” Dwarkadas said.

The paper’s other co-authors are Jonathan Granot of the University of Hertfordshire, England; Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz of the University of California, Santa Cruz; Sandy Patel of the Optical Sciences Corporation, Huntsville, Ala.; and Don Figer at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

Original here

How do I become an astronaut?

Photo courtesy NASA

If you are looking for a career that combines cool technology, interesting science and great adventure, you could hardly make a better choice than becoming an astronaut. And there is potential for growth in the field. With the construction of the International Space Station, there will be a permanent human presence in outer space and a need for astronauts. But becoming an astronaut in the U.S. space program is not easy, and the process can take several years.

There are three types of astronauts in the U.S. space program:

  • Commander/pilot
  • Mission specialist
  • Payload specialist
The commander is responsible for the mission, the crew and the vehicle. The pilot assists the commander in operating the vehicle and deploying satellites. The mission specialist works with the commander and pilots in shuttle operations, performs spacewalks and conducts experiments. The payload specialist performs specialized duties as the mission requires. Payload specialists are people other than NASA personnel, and some are foreign nationals.

The basic qualifications for becoming an astronaut include:

  • U.S. citizenship (for pilots and mission specialists)
  • Bachelor's degree (engineering, biological sciences, physical sciences, mathematics) from an accredited college or university
  • Three years of related experience after obtaining the bachelor's degree - A master's degree equals one year of experience, and a doctorate equals three years.
  • Passing a NASA space physical examination - Pilots need to pass a Class I physical; mission/payload specialists must pass Class II. Both are similar to civilian and military flight examinations.
  • More than 1,000 hours experience as pilot-in-command of a jet aircraft (pilots only)
  • Height of 64 to 76 inches (162.5 cm to 193 cm) for pilots, 58.5 to 76 inches (148.5 cm to 193 cm) for mission/payload specialists

To apply for an astronaut position, you fill out the appropriate forms and submit them to NASA, which accepts applications continuously. You can download the forms here. NASA then screens the applications, and you may be asked to go for a weeklong session where you will participate in personal interviews, medical tests and orientations. Your screening performance will be evaluated, and if you are lucky, you may be accepted as an astronaut candidate. NASA announces candidates every two years, selecting about a hundred men and women out of thousands of applicants.

If you are selected, you will report to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for training and evaluations, which last two years. During the training period, you will take classes in basic science (math, astronomy, physics, geology, meteorology, oceanography), technology (navigation, orbital mechanics, materials processing), and space shuttle systems. You will also be trained in land and sea survival techniques, SCUBA, microgravity, high- and low-pressure environments, and spacesuits. You must pass a swimming test (swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool in flight suit and tennis shoes, and tread water for 10 minutes). If you are a pilot, you will train in NASA's T-38 jet aircraft and shuttle training aircraft at least 15 hours each month. Mission specialists fly four hours each month.

At the end of the two-year training period, you may be selected to become an astronaut. As an astronaut, you will continue classroom training on the various aspects of space shuttle operations that you started as an astronaut candidate. You will begin training on each individual system in the shuttle with the help of an instructor. After that, you will train in simulators for pre-launch, launch, orbit, entry and landing. Depending upon whether you are a pilot or mission specialist, you will learn how to use the shuttle's robotic arm to manipulate cargo. You will continue generic training until you are selected for a flight.

Photo courtesy NASA
Astronauts training underwater to build the International Space Station

Once you are selected for a flight, you will receive specific training for the mission at least 10 months prior to the flight. This includes training in flight simulators, full-scale mockups of the shuttle and space station, and underwater training for spacewalks. The simulations will prepare you for every type of emergency or contingency imaginable.

Photo courtesy NASA
View of Florida
from outer space

After your training, you will prepare for your flight with training in the shuttle itself (pilots), meetings and more simulations. After your flight, you will have several days of medical tests and discussions; these are called debriefings.

Astronauts are expected to stay with NASA for at least five years after their selection. They are federal civil service employees (GS-11 to GS-14 grade) with equivalent pay based on experience. They are eligible for vacation, medical and life insurance, and retirement benefits.

So, you can see that you will need education, hard work and steadfast dedication to become an astronaut. However, the view is tremendous!

Original here

Bacteria-Run Computer Solves Math Puzzle

Gigs of Bacteria
Gigs of Bacteria

A new living computer, bred from E. coli bacteria instead of stamped from silica, has for the first time successfully solved a classic mathematical puzzle known as the Burnt Pancake Problem.

While this bacteria-based computer is more proof of concept than practical, a living computer might one day solve complex mathematical problems faster than silicon supercomputers.

"The computing potential of DNA far exceeds that of any other material," said Karmella Haynes, a researcher at Davidson University and lead study author. "If we figure out how to increase that capacity in a practical manner we will have much more computing power."

The Burnt Pancake Problem works like this: Imagine you are a diner owner. To promote your delicious fare, you want to create a golden pyramid of pancakes. Using a spatula, you have to rearrange an existing stack of different-sized pancakes, each of which is burned on one side. The aim is to sort the stack so the largest pancake is on the bottom and all pancakes are golden side up.

Each flip reverses the order and the orientation (i.e. which side of the pancake is facing up) of one or several consecutive pancakes. You want to stack them properly in the fewest number of flips.

If there are only a few pancakes, it's a relatively easy problem to solve. But as the number of pancakes increases, the possible number of solutions skyrockets.

For six pancakes, there are 46,080 possible solutions. For 12 pancakes, there are 1.9 trillion permutations.

A traditional, silica-based computer would run through every single possible solution to the problem, one at a time.

In a biology-based computer, each bacterium becomes a single computer that runs a different part of the problem simultaneously. Since a million bacteria-based computers can fit into a single drop of water, all of them working together could speed up the calculations dramatically.

Obviously E. coli can't flip real pancakes. Instead E. coli flip a section of their DNA. The "spatula" is a protein called flagellin, which was taken from salmonella bacteria and injected into the E. coli bacteria.

In salmonella, flagellin works like an on/off switch, determining which of two proteins will be produced to help hide, and keep alive, the bacteria when it infects an organism. In the computer, the proteins make a bacterium resistant to antibiotics and keep it alive -- but only if it solves the problem. If a bacterium can't solve the problem, i.e. flip the pancake into the correct order, antibiotics kill it.

So far the computer has only solved a two-pancake problem which, admittedly, isn't terribly difficult. Creating bacteria that can solve the Burnt Pancake Problem using multiple pancakes will be difficult, said Haynes.

Once a solution is found, however, it will be cheap to reproduce.

"All it would cost is about a tablespoon of sugar," said Haynes.

Don't expect to see a bacterial super computer at Best Buy any time soon though. According to Tom Knight, a synthetic biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "this will open the door to a wide variety of biological computing."

But that includes only simple computing, like telling researchers how many times they have encountered a certain chemical.

"This won't make your Xbox run faster," said Knight.

Original here

Bioscientists photoshop their cultures to fake results

Jeff sez, "Researchers often use Photoshop to clean up the images they produce in the laboratory. If the experiment didn't go quite right, a bit of tampering can make a gel look like things did work. Editors at Science, Nature, and other journals are turning into detectives, using new tools to hunt for fraudulent images."

And the level of tampering they find is alarming. "The magnitude of the fraud is phenomenal," says Hany Farid, a computer-science professor at Dartmouth College who has been working with journal editors to help them detect image manipulation. Doctored images are troubling because they can mislead scientists and even derail a search for the causes and cures of disease.

Ten to 20 of the articles accepted by The Journal of Clinical Investigation each year show some evidence of tampering, and about five to 10 of those papers warrant a thorough investigation, says Ms. Neill. (The journal publishes about 300 to 350 articles per year.)

Original here

Scientists heat matter to hotter than surface of the Sun

A laser in Oxfordshire has heated matter to 10 million Celsius, hotter than the surface of the Sun, marking a major landmark in research.The milestone in the field of high energy density physics has been reached by an international team from Japan, the EU and the US working at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
Cleaning a vacuum spatial filter for the Vulcan Petawatt Facility during its construction

Previously only ultra-thin layers of matter (less than one hundredth of a millimetre in thickness) had been heated to similar temperatures and this milestone, where 20 times greater volumes have been heated, takes scientists one step closer to laser fusion, the process that powers the Sun.

The Vulcan laser concentrated power equivalent to 100 times the world's electricity production into a tiny spot for a fraction of a second as part of an effort that will also help scientists to explore many astronomical phenomena in miniature, such as mini-supernovas and tabletop stars.

Writing in the New Journal of Physics, Prof Peter Norreys of the Rutherford and Imperial College London described how the Vulcan laser focused one petawatt of energy (one thousand million million watts) on a spot about one tenth the size of a human hair.

It only lasts for less than 1 picosecond (one millionth of a millonth of a second) but during that time, it is possible to heat materials above their normal melting point - allowing conditions that are found in exotic astrophysical objects such as supernova explosions, white dwarfs and neutron star atmospheres, to be created.

This is the key to the laser's power - it delivers modest energy in a microscopic unit of time. "This is an exciting development - we now have a new tool with which to study really hot, dense matter" says Prof Norreys, whose work is backed by a research council called the STFC.

The Vulcan team has been racing against the $14m Texas Petawatt laser which a few days ago reached greater than one petawatt, making it the highest powered laser in the world, the Titan laser at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the OMEGA EP facility at the University of Rochester, New York.

The UK has proposed an even more powerful laser facility, known as Hiper (High Power laser Energy Research), which will study the feasibility of laser fusion as a potential future energy source.

The scientists hope to use the effort to use lasers to fuse together isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, to release a vast amount of energy. The process naturally occurs in the core of the Sun where huge gravitational pressure allows this to happen at temperatures of around 10 million Celsius.

Original here

'Horror frog' breaks own bones to produce claws

Male Hairy Frogs grow threads of vascularised skin during mating season (Image: Gustavocarra / Creative Commons License) - More images below
Male Hairy Frogs grow threads of vascularised skin during mating season (Image: Gustavocarra / Creative Commons License) - More images below

"Amphibian horror" isn't a movie genre, but on this evidence perhaps it should be. Harvard biologists have described a bizarre, hairy frog with cat-like extendable claws.

Trichobatrachus robustus actively breaks its own bones to produce claws that puncture their way out of the frog's toe pads, probably when it is threatened.

David Blackburn and colleagues at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, think the gruesome behaviour is a defence mechanism.

The researchers say there are salamanders that force their ribs through their skin to produce protective barbs on demand, but nothing quite like this mechanism has been seen before.

The feature is also found in nine of the 11 frogs belonging to the Astylosternus genus, most of which live in Cameroon.

Instant weapon

"Some other frogs have bony spines that project from their wrist, but in those species it appears that the bones grow through the skin rather than pierce it when needed for defence," says Blackburn.

At rest, the claws of T. robustus, found on the hind feet only, are nestled inside a mass of connective tissue. A chunk of collagen forms a bond between the claw's sharp point and a small piece of bone at the tip of the frog's toe.

The other end of the claw is connected to a muscle. Blackburn and his colleagues believe that when the animal is attacked, it contracts this muscle, which pulls the claw downwards. The sharp point then breaks away from the bony tip and cuts through the toe pad, emerging on the underside.

Hirsute horror

The end result may look like a cat's claw, but the breaking and cutting mechanism is very different and unique among vertebrates. Also unique is the fact that the claw is just bone and does not have an outer coating of keratin like other claws do.

Because Blackburn has only studied dead specimens, he says he does not know what happens when the claw retracts – or even how it retracts. It does not appear to have a muscle to pull it back inside so the team think it may passively slide back into the toe pad when its muscle relaxes.

"Being amphibians, it would not be surprising if some parts of the wound heal and the tissue is regenerated," says Blackburn.

Males of the species, which grows to about 11 centimetres, also produce long hair-like strands of skin and arteries when they breed (see image). It is thought that the "hairs" allow them to take in more oxygen through their skin while they take care of their brood.

Spiky snack

In Cameroon, they are roasted and eaten. Hunters use long spears and machetes to kill the frogs, apparently to avoid being hurt by their claws.

"This is an incredible story," says Ian Stephen, curator of herpetology at the Zoological Society of London, UK. "Some frogs grow spines on their thumbs during breeding season, but this is entirely different."

"For me, it highlights the need for a lot more research on amphibians especially in light of the threat of mass extinctions," he adds.

The existence of frogs with erectile claws like cats was first described by Belgian zoologist George Boulenger in 1900 in frogs found in the French Congo, now the Republic of Congo.

Original here

3 Ideas That Are Pushing the Edge of Science

Medical bots powered by sperm, clean fusion power, and two-dimensional time.

by Patrick Huyghe
Mouse sperm

Image courtesy of Atsushi Asano

1) Sperm-powered Nanobots
The next wave in health care may include a brigade of medical nanobots, devices tiny enough to ride the flow of blood through the body's arteries to a problem area. The bots might arrive at a clot, for example, and then using an internal power system, obliterate the clot with a precisely targeted drug or therapy. Designing a power source to accomplish such a task has been a challenge, but from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University comes a possible answer. The same molecular power packs that fuel sperm in their journey through the uterus and to a fallopian tube might be copied and used to keep the nanomachines running once they reach their targets.

Led by reproductive biologist Alex Travis, the engineering effort focuses on a chain of enzymes that metabolize glucose molecules into the biological fuel ATP (a process known as glycolysis), which enables sperm locomotion. Ordinarily the ATP provides sperm with enough energy to bend and flex their tails as they swim to the unfertilized egg. Travis’s plan is to copy the design of the sperm’s engine by slightly modifying a 10-enzyme glycolysis chain embedded in the sperm’s tail, and then to install it in nanobots.

Using mouse sperm, Travis has thus far modified the first two enzymes on the chain so that they bind to nickel ions attached to the surface of a tiny gold chip, which serves as a stand-in for a future nanobot. Now he needs to tweak the remaining enzymes so they can be attached too. If the spermlike motor works, it could someday use the body’s own energy source—glucose—to do such things as run super-tiny medical devices designed to release anticancer drugs or trigger the breakup of potentially deadly clots.

2) Fusion On Tap
Plasma physicist Eric Lerner
has a dream: a form of nuclear energy so clean it generates no radioactive waste, so safe it can be located in the heart of a city, and so inexpensive it provides virtually unlimited power for the dirt-cheap price of $60 per kilowatt—far below the $1,000-per-kilowatt cost of electricity from natural gas.

It may sound too good to be true, but the technology, called focus fusion, is based on real physics experiments. Focus fusion is initiated when a pulse of electricity is discharged through a hydrogen-boron gas across two nesting cylindrical electrodes, transforming the gas into a thin sheath of hot, electrically conducting plasma. This sheath travels to the end of the inner electrode, where the magnetic fields produced by the currents pinch and twist the plasma into a tiny, dense ball. As the magnetic fields start to decay, they cause a beam of electrons to flow in one direction and a beam of positive ions (atoms that have lost electrons) to flow in the opposite direction. The electron beam heats the plasma ball, igniting fusion reactions between the hydrogen and boron; these reactions pump more heat and charged particles into the plasma. The energy in the ion beam can be directly converted to electricity—no need for conventional turbines and generators. Part of this electricity powers the next pulse, and the rest is net output.

A focus fusion reactor could be built for just $300,000, says Lerner, president of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey. But huge technical hurdles remain. These include increasing the density of the plasma so the fusion reaction will be more intense. (Conventional fusion experiments do not come close to the temperatures and densities needed for efficient hydrogen-boron fusion.) Still, the payoff could be huge: While mainstream fusion research programs are still decades from fruition, Lerner claims he requires just $750,000 in funding and two years of work to prove his process generates more energy than it consumes. “The next experiment is aimed at achieving higher density, higher magnetic field, and higher efficiency,” he says. “We believe it will succeed.”

3) A Two-Timing Universe
For nearly a century, physicists have tried to reconcile Einstein’s vision of the universe (including three dimensions of space and one of time) with the bizarre realm of quantum physics, rife with such oddities as instant communication at a distance and being in two places at once. The effort to unify the views has resulted in a stream of elaborate hypotheses positing worlds with multiple dimensions of space, most notably string theory and its successor, M-theory.

Itzhak Bars, a theoretical physicist at the University of Southern California, thinks these hypotheses are missing a crucial ingredient: an extra dimension of time. By adding a second dimension of time and a fourth dimension of space to Einstein’s standard space-time, Bars has come up with a new model providing “additional information that remained hidden in previous formulations” of physics, including current versions of M-theory. Such a model could better explain “how nature works,” he says.

Physicists had never added a second dimension of time to their models because it opens the possibility of traveling back in time and introduces negative probabilities and other scenarios that seem nonsensical. In his equations Bars has solved these problems with a new symmetry that treats an object’s position and its momentum as interchangeable at any given instant.

Does this mean we could actually experience a second dimension of time? “Yes,” Bars says, “but only indirectly,” by thinking of the world around us as many shadows that look different depending on the perspective of the light source. “The predicted relations among the different shadows contain most of the information about the extra dimensions,” he explains. Next, Bars and his team are developing tests for two-time physics and investigating how to apply the theory to all the natural forces, including gravity. Adding two-time physics to M-theory, he says, should help us close in on “the fundamental theory that so far has eluded all of us.”

Original here

Stonehenge 'a long-term cemetery'

Stonehenge may have been a cemetery for a ruling dynasty

Stonehenge served as a burial ground for much longer than had previously been believed, new research suggests.

The site was used as a cemetery for 500 years, from the point of its inception.

Archaeologists have said the cremation burials found at the site might represent a single elite family and its descendents - perhaps a ruling dynasty.

One clue to this idea is that there are few burials in the earliest phase, but that the number grows larger in later centuries, as offspring multiplied.

Under the traditional view, cremation burials were dug at the site between 2,700 BC and 2,600 BC, about a century before the large stones - known as sarsens - were put in place.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, from the department of archaeology at the University of Sheffield, and his colleagues have now carried out radiocarbon dating of burials excavated in the 1950s that were kept at the nearby Salisbury Museum.

Their results suggest burials took place at the site from the initiation of Stonehenge, just after 3,000 BC, until the time the large stones appear at about 2,500 BC.


Timewatch animation revealing the history of Stonehenge

The earliest cremation burial dated - a small pile of burned bones and teeth - came from one of the pits around the edge of Stonehenge known as the Aubrey Holes and dates to between 3,030 BC and 2,880 BC - roughly the time when the Stonehenge monument was cut into Salisbury Plain.

The second burial, from the ditch surrounding Stonehenge, is that of an adult and dates to between 2,930 BC and 2,870 BC.

The most recent cremation comes from the ditch's northern side and was of a 25-year-old woman; it dates to between 2,570 BC and 2,340 BC, around the time the first arrangements of sarsen stones appeared at Stonehenge.

The latest findings are the result of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a collaboration between five UK universities. Details of the research are to be featured in National Geographic magazine.

Royal circle?

Professor Parker-Pearson, who leads the project, said: "I don't think it was the common people getting buried at Stonehenge - it was clearly a special place at that time."

He added: "Archaeologists have long speculated about whether Stonehenge was put up by prehistoric chiefs - perhaps even ancient royalty - and the new results suggest that not only is this likely to have been the case, but it also was the resting place of their mortal remains."

Two other Stonehenge experts, Professor Tim Darvill, from the University of Bournemouth, and Professor Geoff Wainwright, from the Society of Antiquaries, have a different theory about the monument.

They are convinced that the dominating feature on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire was akin to a "Neolithic Lourdes" - a place where people went on a pilgrimage to get cured.

They recently carried out a two-week excavation at the site to search for clues to why the 4,500-year-old landmark was erected.

Original here

Opposite sex drives you crazy -- the causes

(LifeWire) -- As Walter Christensen, a 53-year-old physics professor from Pomona, California, discovered, when it comes to cuddling, women know what they want. When he and his lover spend the night together, he's usually awoken around 3 a.m. with a familiar request.

"She calls out, 'Spoon, spoon!'" he says. He willingly obliges with front-to-back cuddling -- even though he admits he probably wouldn't do so without being asked.

"I like the feeling of her wanting to do that," he says, "so I do it out of a sense of responsibility."

His lover, 32-year-old art-history scholar Natalie Valle, appreciates the attention.

While the differences between the sexes drive some couples to distraction, being aware of them enhances relationships, as Christensen and Valle can attest. Is there hope for the rest of us? Researchers have found that science can be used to explain a lot of behavior that widens the gender gap, and in so doing may help couples understand each other better.

1. Women want to cuddle

What you think: Women love to cuddle after sex, whereas men just want to fall asleep.

What the experts say: "During sexual intercourse, oxytocin is released in both men and women, and that encourages bonding within the couple," says Dr. Marianne J. Legato, founder of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University and author of "Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget."

Oxytocin is a hormone often associated with love because its levels increase during intimate acts like hugging, kissing and intercourse. However, "testosterone neutralizes the effect of oxytocin, so men are less likely to want to prolong contact after orgasm."

2. Men hate shopping

What you think: Men hate to go shopping with their mate because they think it's a waste of time.

What the experts say: Men do enjoy shopping when they get to "hunt" for a specific item, whereas women enjoy "grazing" for items. This goes back to our hunting and gathering days, when losing focus could mean losing the week's meal.

"Men are much more task-oriented," says Robert Schwarz, a psychologist and director of the Mars and Venus Counseling and Wellness Center in Haverford, Pennsylvania. "They hunt it, they kill it, they buy it and they go out."

In the aptly titled 2007 study "Men Buy, Women Shop," University of Pennsylvania researchers found that factors having to do with speed and convenience were the most important for men. Of the 1,250 male and female shoppers surveyed by phone, finding parking near the store or mall entrance was the No. 1 problem men said they encountered when shopping (29 percent of respondents), whereas women cited "lack of help" as their chief complaint (also 29 percent).

3. Women make mountains out of molehills

What you think: Women obsess about every little thing; men seem to have it all under control.

What the experts say: Men are problem-solvers and tend to bring up a problem only in order to search for its solution, says Schwarz. The "eureka" moment of problem-solving increases the level of dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical, in the brain. (This also explains why men will wait until it's absolutely necessary to stop and ask for directions.)

Women relieve stress by talking and relating their problems to others, which produces serotonin, said to enhance moods and ward off depression.

4. Men are impervious to cold

What you think: Men are content to freeze, while women always want to turn up the thermostat.

What the experts say: According to the Mayo Clinic, women are more sensitive to cold than men are, but not because they like to feel warm and cozy. Because women on average are smaller than men, their metabolic rate tends to be lower. This means their bodies generate less heat. They also tend to have less fat, which acts as insulation, on their upper bodies and around their waists, as well as less muscle mass, which also helps keep the body warm.

5. Women Love 'chick flicks'

What you think: Women prefer romantic movies (aka "chick flicks") while men like action and adventure.

What the experts say: Women may like romantic movies better than men, but in a 2007 study at Kansas State University, men rated romantic movies "higher than most people would have guessed," says psychology professor Richard Harris, who led the survey of 265 Kansas State students. On a scale of 1 to 7, men gave the movies a 4.8, while women rated them a 6.

However, "we found that when seeing the film on a date ... if one party makes the decision, then they stay true to those stereotypes, with guys choosing to go to a violent film and women choosing a romantic film," Harris told the Reuters news agency in January.

Jose Ferraro can relate. He spent New Year's Day at the theater, dozing through the romantic drama "Atonement" with his wife, Kyle.

"She tricked me into going," says the 44-year-old engineer from Yorba Linda, California.

His wife, Kyle, a 49-year-old fitness instructor, fesses up: "I said there was some fighting in it," she admits.

Original here

The 6 Most Badass Stunts Ever Pulled in the Name of Science

Scientists have a PR problem. If TV is to be believed, doctorates are awarded in the form of fishbowl glasses and a tendency to stutter. Sometimes movies try to help out by portraying action scientists, like in The Core, but usually do more harm than good since it's generally restricted to truly terrible movies, like in The Core.

Here we look at seven self-endangering scientists who only wear lab coats because you can't get explosive-bear-proof tuxedos outside of MI6. Each one of these researchers has been voted "Most likely to inject themselves with the Omega Serum while shouting, 'Dammit, there's no time for testing!'"

John Paul Stapp, Scientist and Human Bullet

While other so-called heroes run around saving useless things like kittens and "civilians," John Paul Stapp looked at jet fighter pilots and thought, "Those poor guys need my help." Yes, the manliest profession in the world since "Grizzly Bear Rodeo" was outlawed, and World War II veteran Dr. Stapp was the man who saved them.

He served as a flight surgeon in WWII, and after the war performed critical research on the effects of sudden deceleration on the human body. His human body. He used a rocket armed with four rocket engines and a total thrust of 6,000 pounds. The wider scientific community believed the human body could not survive more than 18 Gs of deceleration--Stapp hit 35. Because he goddamn could.

Above: Science

He became the fastest man in the world, moving faster than a bullet--632 miles per hour.

In 1954 he decelerated from 120 miles per hour to 0 in 1.4 seconds, and gained two huge black eyes from the force of his own slammed-forward eyeballs punching him on the inside of the face. The impact blinded him for two days, during which we must imagine his response was to walk around and simply dare the world to put things in his way. Oh, and he also broke his back, arm, wrist, lost six fillings and the icing on the cake? He got a hernia.

His response? He built a bigger rocket.

More Rockets = More Science

He lived to 89 and his research has saved lives around the world ever since. Oh, and in case Dr. Stapp hasn't made a mockery of your life's work and achievements just yet: The whole time he he was slinging his own body around like a fleshy cannon shell, he was also running an after-hours clinic for the families of servicemen at the base where he worked, making house calls and providing free medical care. Every night.

Yeah, you sit up straighter now when you're reading about a real man, you loser.

Drs. Warren and Barry Marshall Drink Stomach-Eating Germs

Drs. Warren and Marshall isolated the bacteria responsible for stomach ulcers, but the wider scientific community maintained that stress, lifestyle and general whining were the real cause. Dr. Marshall countered with the little known "frat party" method of science, declaring, "I'll fucking show you" and drinking the vial of filthy bacteria they'd culled from the stomachs of ulcer suffers.

He was positive he was right before he drank it, and when he immediately developed gastritis with achlorhydria, nausea, vomiting and halitosis he was damn sure. We're talking absolutely, positively, "coming down from a mountain and founding a religion" sure.

"Why, yes, I do regret drinking stomach poison."

In true movie-style, this was a daring experiment that broke all the rules--right down to the first rule of biology labs: "Don't drink things in the vials here." Suitably impressed, the Nobel Prize committee awarded him and Dr. Marshall the prize, and presumably some breath mints.

So what could be more disgusting than that?

Albert Hoffman Invents LSD, and Soaks His Brain In It

Dr. Albert Hoffman developed Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-25 in 1938. Five years later he accidentally absorbed a tiny dose through his skin and had to stop working, experiencing intoxication, dizziness and two hours of mind-bending hallucinations. Clearly a man who knows how to party, his first response was "I gots to get me some more of that shit."

He didn't mess around. Three days later he took 250 micrograms, now known to be over 10 times the threshold dose for humans. He later claimed that this was a miscalculation, but we're fairly sure when he said that he winked and added, "Right, guys?" He spent the rest of the day in a state scientifically categorized as "high off his tits." He was unable to speak clearly, he saw sounds, was afraid of witches, threatened by his furniture and watched the best fireworks display the world has ever seen go off inside his eyeballs.

"Science rules!"

The next day he decided, "The world must share this feeling," and spent the rest of his life campaigning for LSD applications, despite some idiot hippies getting it banned and ruining it for everyone.

Dr. Hoffman's heaping helping of acid has had effects on science development since: Professor Crick, one of the men who figured out a little thing called DNA, admitted that he used LSD to boost his powers of thought which should be obvious. While we're sure that decoding DNA took all kinds of "science" and "experiments," when your final result is "All life is like spelled out in an alphabet of chemicals, man, two helices spiraling around each other and it's the same way for all the animals and plants and everything," then we don't care how correct that might be. There's only one thing to be said: totally high.

Stubbins Ffirth Eats Yellow Fever

The line between heroic bravery and complete stupidity is a blurred one and Stubbins Ffirth sprinted over it while chugging a bowl of vomit. Seriously.

Perhaps driven to insanity by his ridiculous name, trainee doctor Ffirth attempted to prove that Yellow Fever isn't contagious (Note: it actually is). His "experiments" were maniacal displays of filth, lack of self-respect and absolute depravity, so it's pity he lived a full two centuries before the invention of the internet.

Ffirth's great-great-granddaughter and her friend.

He subjected himself to possible infection by victims in every conceivable manner--and his brain could conceive manners that would make yours lock itself in the bathroom with a bucket of bleach.

He jammed infected patient vomit, blood and urine into every orifice. This includes several holes he cut in his arm, dripping pus from dying men into his eyes, and he rounded off a nice day of horrific self-mutilation with a filling lunch of fried puke.

Amazingly, these experiments neither got him locked up as a fucking lunatic nor infected him. Real scientists later found that this is because Yellow Fever is blood-borne, and that the late-stage (translation: dying) patients Stubbins was using as a smorgasbord were no longer very contagious.

Still, the odds of his not catching something are on par with playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun, but having it jam on a winning lottery ticket that just dropped out of the sky.

HEAF Tempts the Explosion Gods

The High Explosives Applications Facility, the single coolest-named facility in the entire world, decided to show off how precisely they could control their new metal-melting laser. Instead of shooting an apple off their least-favorite employee's head, they decided to demonstrate the laser's precision by cutting through the shell of a Stinger missile. Yes, the type that blow up. No, they didn't take out those explosive bits first.

That's the segment they lasered out of the shell, and that powder still attached is ammonium perchlorate which is practically chemical-ese for "goddamn explosive." Amazingly, this research was not unveiled on a huge television in front of the United Nations before demanding a million dollars--it's just what they do there. We can imagine the daily conversations of the staff:

"What are you doing today, honey?"

"Well, dear, we're going to fire a massively intense laser into the side of a live missile."

"Oh, that's nice, be sure to take your extra Ziploc bags in case you get blown into chunks. Remember what happened to Jenkins!"


Werner Forssmann Stabs His Own Damned Heart

In 1929, Werner Forssmann was a surgical trainee who wanted to learn about the heart. Unlike other wimpy doctors at the time, instead of learning about it from books or dead animals, he went for the more classic investigatory approach of "poke it with something."

Without any supervision, advice, or regard for that concept you call "survival," he cut a hole in his arm and pushed a catheter all the way up the limb and jammed it into his still-living heart.

A female nurse had volunteered for the procedure, and while he wouldn't risk anyone else (perhaps shouting "Dammit, it's too dangerous!"), he needed her to hand him the necessary surgical tools. So he laid her on the surgical table, gave her a painkiller, then performed the procedure on himself while she wasn't looking. That's right, this guy shoved two feet of cable into his own cardiac system as a sleight-of-hand trick, thereby permanently upstaging David Copperfield 27 years before he was even born.

He then walked--WALKED, mind you--with a tube hanging out of his fucking heart like some kind of price tag to the X-Ray room and presumably said "Hey guys, check out what I just did."

"I'm a very good doctor."

When another doctor desperately tried to pull the catheter out of him (perhaps shouting "Dammit, it's too dangerous!"), Werner had to kick him away because his hands were full with the cable running into his own heart. At this point it's clear that if a 10-man SWAT team composed entirely of Arnold Schwarzeneggers had attacked Forssman, he'd have beaten the life out of every single one, then performed lifesaving research on the corpses.

He was fired, probably for being tougher than everyone and everything else in the building (including the concrete foundations)--27 years later they gave him a Nobel Prize.

Original here