Sunday, November 30, 2008

WHO Predicts How We Will Die in 2030

A global rise in tobacco use in the next two decades will help heart disease remain one of humanity’s leading killers, while HIV/AIDS deaths will peak in 2012 before making a steady decline. This is according to an update of the World Health Organization’s “Burdens of Disease” report, which measures the current sources of human mortality and looks at how health and safety trends are changing worldwide. The result is that the WHO can tell us not only what is killing us now but also what will – and won’t – be killing us in 2030.

The WHO report updates information on the global burden of disease based on measurements from 2004 and projects how disease will affect the human population through 2030. Perhaps the most significant change it predicts is a global decline in deaths from communicable diseases. HIV/AIDS, the sixth leading cause of death in 2004 worldwide, is expected to peak around 2012 and drop to the number ten position by 2030. Other communicable diseases are expected to decline more quickly; tuberculosis, the seventh leading cause of death in 2004, is expected to plummet to number 23.

The sharp decline in communicable disease death will mean an increased aging population, especially in lower income countries, which means a greater proportion of the global population will die from diseases developed later in life, such as ischemic heart disease and cancers. But changes in global development and behaviors will also contribute to increases in certain causes of death. The WHO indicates that a global increase in tobacco smoking in middle- and low-income countries will bolster deaths from cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and some cancers. And increased transportation development and more crowded roads will help increase deaths from traffic accidents.

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Sexy maths: Skills of a chess grandmaster

The 2008 chess Olympiad in Dresden

For a while, the chess Olympiad this year looked like producing a surprise winner but closer inspection of Israel's team sheet revealed that it was pretty much business as usual: half the players were named Boris!

Other than a brief blip in the 1970s, the biennial event has produced remarkably consistent results. From 1952 to 1990, the Soviet Union ruled the contest, and after the superstate's fragmentation either Russia or one of its former union satellites struck gold every time. As it turned out this year, the Soviet diaspora's turn in the spotlight was short-lived and Armenia triumphed for its second successive Olympiad.

Despite being connected by being born under the red flag, those that dominate the game are better categorised by their membership of a different club: the mathematical mafia. Legend has it that the game was invented by a mathematician in India who elicited a huge reward for its creation. The King of India was so impressed with the game that he asked the mathematician to name a prize as reward. Not wishing to appear greedy, the mathematician asked for one grain of rice to be placed on the first square of the chess board, two grains on the second, four on the third and so on. The number of grains of rice should be doubled each time.

The King thought that he'd got away lightly, but little did he realise the power of doubling to make things big very quickly. By the sixteenth square there was already a kilo of rice on the chess board. By the twentieth square his servant needed to bring in a wheelbarrow of rice. He never reached the 64th and last square on the board. By that point the rice on the board would have totalled a staggering 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains.

Playing chess has strong resonances with doing mathematics. There are simple rules for the way each chess piece moves but beyond these basic constraints, the pieces can roam freely across the board. Mathematics also proceeds by taking self-evident truths (called axioms) about properties of numbers and geometry and then by applying basic rules of logic you proceed to move mathematics from its starting point to deduce new statements about numbers and geometry. For example, using the moves allowed by mathematics the 18th-century mathematician Lagrange reached an endgame that showed that every number can be written as the sum of four square numbers, a far from obvious fact. For example, 310 = 172 +42 + 22 + 12.

Some mathematicians have turned their analytic skills on the game of chess itself. A classic problem called the Knight's Tour asks whether it is possible to use a knight to jump around the chess board visiting each square once only. The first examples were documented in a 9th-century Arabic manuscript. It is only within the past decade that mathematical techniques have been developed to count exactly how many such tours are possible.

It isn't just mathematicians and chess players who have been fascinated by the Knight's Tour. The highly styled Sanskrit poem Kavyalankara presents the Knight's Tour in verse form. And in the 20th century, the French author Georges Perec's novel Life: A User's Manual describes an apartment with 100 rooms arranged in a 10x10 grid. In the novel the order that the author visits the rooms is determined by a Knight's Tour on a 10x10 chessboard.

Mathematicians have also analysed just how many games of chess are possible. If you were to line up chessboards side by side, the number of them you would need to reach from one side of the observable universe to the other would require only 28 digits. Yet Claude Shannon, the mathematician credited as the father of the digital age, estimated that the number of unique games you could play was of the order of 10120 (a 1 followed by 120 0s). It's this level of complexity that makes chess such an attractive game and ensures that at the Olympiad in Russia in 2010, local spectators will witness games of chess never before seen by the human eye, even if the winning team turns out to have familiar names.

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2,700 Year Old Blond-Haired, Blue-Eyed Mummy Found In China

While international media is abuzz over the discovery of the world’s oldest stash of marijuana, a glaringly-obvious fact was inconspicuously left in the article: the pot stash was part of the tomb of a blond-haired, blue-eyed man who lived in China some 2,700 years ago.

Chinese legend is full of blond-haired, blue-eyed people who brought Buddhism to China and organized society there. Fully-preserved mummies showing clear Nordic facial structure, including red, and blond hair, were first discovered in the graveyards of the Tocharians in the Chinese Takla Makan desert back in the 1980’s. In January of this year, archaeologists using genetic testing have proven that Caucasians roamed China’s Tarim Basin 1,000 years before East Asian people arrived.

In fact, this new discovery of marijuana at a Caucasian grave site in China is not the first. That distinction goes to a 2,800 mummy who was discovered back in 2003. Archeologists at the time discovered a sack of marijuana leaves alongside the mummy.

Archeologists believe both mummies were likely shamen from the Gushi culture and used the herb as part of their religious practice.

Posted in Solutrean Truth.

Ocean currents can power the world, say scientists

By Jasper Copping

Ocean currents can power the world, say scientists
Existing technologies require an average current of five or six knots to operate efficiently, while most of the earth's currents are slower than three knots Photo: AP

The technology can generate electricity in water flowing at a rate of less than one knot - about one mile an hour - meaning it could operate on most waterways and sea beds around the globe.

Existing technologies which use water power, relying on the action of waves, tides or faster currents created by dams, are far more limited in where they can be used, and also cause greater obstructions when they are built in rivers or the sea. Turbines and water mills need an average current of five or six knots to operate efficiently, while most of the earth's currents are slower than three knots.

The new device, which has been inspired by the way fish swim, consists of a system of cylinders positioned horizontal to the water flow and attached to springs.

As water flows past, the cylinder creates vortices, which push and pull the cylinder up and down. The mechanical energy in the vibrations is then converted into electricity.

Cylinders arranged over a cubic metre of the sea or river bed in a flow of three knots can produce 51 watts. This is more efficient than similar-sized turbines or wave generators, and the amount of power produced can increase sharply if the flow is faster or if more cylinders are added.

A "field" of cylinders built on the sea bed over a 1km by 1.5km area, and the height of a two-storey house, with a flow of just three knots, could generate enough power for around 100,000 homes. Just a few of the cylinders, stacked in a short ladder, could power an anchored ship or a lighthouse.

Systems could be sited on river beds or suspended in the ocean. The scientists behind the technology, which has been developed in research funded by the US government, say that generating power in this way would potentially cost only around 3.5p per kilowatt hour, compared to about 4.5p for wind energy and between 10p and 31p for solar power. They say the technology would require up to 50 times less ocean acreage than wave power generation.

The system, conceived by scientists at the University of Michigan, is called Vivace, or "vortex-induced vibrations for aquatic clean energy".

Michael Bernitsas, a professor of naval architecture at the university, said it was based on the changes in water speed that are caused when a current flows past an obstruction. Eddies or vortices, formed in the water flow, can move objects up and down or left and right.

"This is a totally new method of extracting energy from water flow," said Mr Bernitsas. "Fish curve their bodies to glide between the vortices shed by the bodies of the fish in front of them. Their muscle power alone could not propel them through the water at the speed they go, so they ride in each other's wake."

Such vibrations, which were first observed 500 years ago by Leonardo DaVinci in the form of "Aeolian Tones", can cause damage to structures built in water, like docks and oil rigs. But Mr Bernitsas added: "We enhance the vibrations and harness this powerful and destructive force in nature.

"If we could harness 0.1 per cent of the energy in the ocean, we could support the energy needs of 15 billion people. In the English Channel, for example, there is a very strong current, so you produce a lot of power."

Because the parts only oscillate slowly, the technology is likely to be less harmful to aquatic wildlife than dams or water turbines. And as the installations can be positioned far below the surface of the sea, there would be less interference with shipping, recreational boat users, fishing and tourism.

The engineers are now deploying a prototype device in the Detroit River, which has a flow of less than two knots. Their work, funded by the US Department of Energy and the US Office of Naval Research, is published in the current issue of the quarterly Journal of Offshore Mechanics and Arctic Engineering.

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Sue world leaders $1 billion for global warming?

In a global stunt, a U.S. environmental activist is poised to lodge a $1 billion damages class action lawsuit at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against all world leaders for failing to prevent global warming.

Activist and blogger Dan Bloom says he will sue world leaders for “intent to commit manslaughter against future generations of human beings by allowing murderous amounts of fossil fuels to be harvested, burned and sent into the atmosphere as CO2″.

He intends to lodge the lawsuit in the week starting Sunday, Dec. 6.

The prosecutor’s office at the ICC, the world’s first permanent court (pictured below right) for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, says it is allowed to receive information on crimes that may fall within the court’s jurisdiction from any source.

“Such information does not per se trigger a judicial proceeding,” the prosecutor’s office hastened to add.

The question is: will or should the prosecutor take on the case?

One might argue in defence that world leaders are in fact trying to impose climate-saving measures. In Vienna last year, almost all rich nations agreed to consider cuts in greenhouse emissions of 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Talks on a new climate treaty will be held in Poznan, Poland, from Dec. 1-12.

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the U.N. Climate Panel, says the cuts are needed to limit temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, an amount seen by the EU, some other nations and many environmentalists as a threshold for “dangerous” climate change.

Granted then that there is growing consensus that climate change poses a real threat, is it not only world leaders who are failing to prevent global warming?

Perhaps the global collective of individuals, governments and industry is to blame and the ICC lawsuit a valid publicity stunt in the constant battle to raise awareness and prompt action?

Because it’s action we need — and now, right?

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Recycling Manure Safely To Avoid Polluting Rivers and Streams

Researchers at North Wyke Research, and Lancaster and Exeter universities, have come up with an advice system to help farmers recycle manure safely and avoid polluting watercourses.

Organisms such as E coli may be present in animal manure and can pose a serious threat to human health. Irrigated crops are sometimes contaminated, shellfisheries can be vulnerable and bathing waters may be under threat, with subsequent effects for tourism.

This is particularly true in South West England, with its dairy industry and large numbers of summer visitors, and where some public beaches have failed to meet the requirements of the European Water Framework Directive. These are some of the reasons that led the team to focus on the Taw catchment of North Devon as a study area in this project, which is part of the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

The interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists, assessed the risk of water contamination at 77 farms, taking into account factors such as grazing

livestock and topography, and surveyed farmers to assess their knowledge about risk and find out how they managed manure on the farm.

They also monitored microbial water quality at fixed locations over several seasons.

The project has identified four factors that affect the level of risk:

  • Accumulated microbial burden to land (eg how manure is applied and deposited, stocking density)
  • Landscape transfer potential (eg the topography of the land, whether there are slopes, streams and so on)
  • Infrastructure (eg how the manure is stored, whether there is hard standing)
  • Social and economic obstacles (eg whether the farmer has had training about risk, whether he can afford to invest in infrastructure)

The team then constructed a model framework that shows the levels of risk in these four areas, expressed graphically as a “kite” shape. The colour shows the overall level of risk from green representing “low risk” to red representing “high risk.” The shape demonstrates where risk is highest. This provides a useful tool for farm advisers working with farmers, as reducing the risk reduces the shape of the kite.

Dr Dave Chadwick from North Wyke who led the project explained: “The project covered a lot of areas, including public perception of the risks involved, so it was very wide-ranging.

“Our examination of microbial evidence threw up some unexpected results. We found that untreated sewage from the farmhouse was a significant factor in the total microbial load in quite a few cases, and how and when manure is applied also has an effect. Some practices may have unintended consequences.

“Injecting slurry, for example, does reduce ammonia emissions, which is the intention, but also favours survival of organisms.

“So how can an individual farmer reduce the risk of polluting watercourses? The kite model is designed to help. It shows whether the farm is high risk, and how the farmer can apply his efforts most effectively and at least cost. So we expect it to be a particularly useful tool for farm advisers.”

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Should we recycle urine on Earth, too?

Getting past the "yuck" factor may be the most difficult part. (NEWSCOM)

By Eoin O'Carroll

After five days of tinkering, astronauts aboard the International Space Station ran their first successful test Tuesday of equipment that turns urine into drinking water.

Delivered to the station by the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the $154 million water recycling system, which also processes sweat and moisture from the air, is designed to quench astronauts’ thirst while requiring fewer costly resupply missions. Samples of the recycled water will be tested back on earth before astronauts aboard the station can start drinking from the system’s tap.

This raises a question: Can we build these things on earth? Maybe even for a little less than $154 million?

A thirsty planet

There’s definitely a need. According to the World Health Organization, some 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water. That’s almost 1 in 6 human beings. And according to the United Nations Development Programme, women and girls in developing countries collectively spend more than 10 million “person-years” hauling water from remote sources each year.

And it’s only getting worse. As a study published in Nature in April predicts that, by 2025 more than half of the world’s countries will face freshwater stress or shortages, and by 2050, as much as 75 percent of the world’s population could face freshwater scarcity.

A cheap and reliable urine-to-potable-water device could solve what is arguably the world’s No. 1 problem, so to speak.

It wouldn’t be the first time that NASA’s water-purification technology spins off into the developing world. In 2006, engineers from the space agency helped develop a system for the northern Iraqi village of Kendala, which filters and purifies water from nearby streams, wells, and swamps.

H20 is H20

If you think about it, enjoying a refreshing glass of erstwhile whiz is not as disgusting as it sounds. What is “new” water anyway? As NASA astronaut Sandra H. Magnus told the New York Times after pointing out that water flushed down our toilets eventually evaporates and rains down into our reservoirs. “We drink recycled water every day — on a little bit longer time scale.”

The concept of treating our bodily waste as a useful product is probably alien to most of us, but it hasn’t always been that way. In ancient Rome, human urine was put to work tanning leather and whitening togas. The stuff was so valuable that the 1st-century emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on it.

Is it technically possible?

Aside from revulsion, a major obstacle to widespread urine recycling is the energy needed. You can distill it, but that requires bringing it to a boil. If you’re the outdoors type, you may know how to construct a solar still – which uses a plastic sheet to create a sort of greenhouse effect to evaporate ground water and condense it into a cup.

The Watercone, a simple solar still designed to purify sea water, holds great promise as an inexpensive solution. But its maker remains silent on whether the award-winning device would work with urine.

Inventor Dean Kamen has no such reservations. The mind behind the Segway scooter appeared on the Colbert Report in March, claiming that his energy-sipping Slingshot vapor compression distiller could produce 1,000 liters of water a day out of any wet substance, including the ocean, a puddle, a chemical waste site, or “a 50-gallon drum of urine.”

But how does it taste?

The New York Times’s John Schwartz had the opportunity to sample NASA’s recycled water at the Kennedy Space Center. The verdict: “Not bad, actually,” although he noted that it tasted faintly of iodine, which was added to the water near the end of the process.

If these systems become widespread, we’ll need a way to rid our recycled-urine water of that iodine flavor. Camping shops often sell little vitamin C tablets along with their iodine purification crystals to cut the harsh taste. But you can save your money on those overpriced tablets by dropping in a pinch of a substance that, even after NASA perfects its recycling system, will continue to hold pride of place in the space program: Tang.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Supersonic plumes of water erupt from Saturn's moon raising hopes of micro life under surface

By Daily Mail Reporter

Huge plumes of water vapor and ice particles are spewing from Saturn's moon Enceladus at supersonic speeds, scientists report.

When the Cassini spacecraft flew through a gigantic geyser of dust and gas close to the surface of Enceladus, it collected samples of ice and gas.

Astronomers say the plumes may be erupting from an underground ocean, which would make Enceladus the third place in the solar system suspected to support life, even if only microbial organisms.

Saturn plumes

Geyser-like eruptions of ice particles and water vapor shoot from the south pole of Saturn's moon, Enceladus

'There are only three places in the solar system we know or suspect to have liquid water near the surface - Earth, Jupiter's moon Europa and now Saturn's Enceladus,’ Joshua Colwell, one of the researchers at the University of Central Florida, said.

‘Water is a basic ingredient for life and there are certain implications there,’ he added.
Images taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005 revealed huge gysers shooting from fissures in the south pole of Enceladus, reminiscent of the famed Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park in the United States but on a grand scale.

But the latest mission suggest that the gas and dust are spewing at more than 1,300 mph - faster than sound - making the case that Saturn is hiding a reservoir of liquid water.


The ridged icy surface of Enceladus was captured by Cassini during a flyby last month

Data from Cassini's Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph instrument, a high-tech imaging instrument, suggest that cracks extend below the surface and act as nozzles that channel water vapor from an underground liquid water reservoir.

Focusing the instrument at a distant flickering star also showed that the water vapours – which intermittently blocked its starlight – form narrow jets as they blast into space.

'We think liquid water is necessary for life and there is more evidence that there is liquid water there,' said lead researcher Candice Hansen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

'You also need energy, you need nutrients, you need organics. It looks like the pieces are there. Whether or not there's actually life, of course, we can't say.'

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World’s Rarest Gorilla Gets Protection in New National Park in Cameroon

Friday, November 28, 2008

Scientists Begin to Decode Whale Speak


Cetaceans are known to be among the most clever and intelligent of all mammals. They have brains that are roughly the same size as humans or larger, which are similarly or superiorly complex (although differently evolved in structure). This has led some marine biologists to speculate that whales, and other Cetaceans, could be as intelligent as humans, and may even have several unknown communicative abilities, that surpass our current understanding through sonar and other means.

Critics say that if cetaceans were as smart as us there’d be more evidence of it. But what type of evidence would suffice? The fact that Cetaceans are suffering from (rather than creating) the kind of environmental suicide that humans indulge in, is not necessarily proof of inferiority.

It is known that the prehistoric predecessors of Cetaceans were land animals who returned to the sea where there was relatively little fear of large predators and an abundant food supply. Dolphins and whales appear to have rich communicative powers among themselves and are very playful. It is also known that dolphins can use tools and teach their children how to use tools. Dolphins are one of the few animals other than humans known to mate for pleasure rather than strictly for reproduction. They form strong bonds with each other, which leads them to stay with their injured and sick. Dolphins also display protective behavior towards humans, by keeping them safe from sharks, for example.

Now Australian scientists studying humpback whales sounds say they have begun to decode the whale's mysterious communication system. They say they’ve already identified male “pick-up lines” as well as motherly warnings.

Scientists from the University of Queensland working on the Humpback Whale Acoustic Research Collaboration (HARC) project are trying to break the mysterious communication systems of whales. Whalesong is said to be audible to other whales halfway across the planet. But what do all their melodic squeaks, moans, grumbles and singing mean? The scientists have begun recording some of the whales’ extensive repertoire in an effort to answer that very question.

Recording whale sounds over a three-year period, scientists discovered at least 34 different types of whale calls, with data published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

"I was expecting to find maybe 10 different social vocalizations, but in actual fact found 34. It's just such a wide, varied repertoire," University of Queensland researcher Rebecca Dunlop told Reuters.

The researchers studied migrating east humpback whales, as they traveled up and down Australia's east coast, and recorded 660 sounds from 61 different groups. Dunlop says that some of the sounds recorded could have multiple meanings depending on how they are grouped, for example, but some sounds appeared to have one clear meaning, such as the “purr” sound from males ready to try their luck with an available female. High frequency “screams” were associated with disagreements. A “wop” sound was common when mothers were together with their young.

"The wop was probably one of the most common sounds I heard, probably signifying a mum calf contact call," said Dunlop.

Perhaps something like, “Junior, Junior! Get over here now!”

Dunlop says there are clear similarities with human interaction.

"Its quite fascinating that they're obviously marine mammals, they've been separated from terrestrial mammals for a long, long, long time, but yet still seem to be following the same basic communication system," she said.

The scientists are hoping that further research on the subject will reveal more of their mysterious “language” and what effects boats and man-induced sonar are having on migrating whales.

Posted by Rebecca Sato

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Can Obama's Stimulus Plan Spur Green Jobs in the U.S.?

By John Carey

Workers examine panel at a factory in China, a leader in solar panel manufacturing Wang Xiaochuan/Xinhua/Sipa

Barack Obama's plan to pull the country out of recession has a strong green hue. Conventional wisdom says Washington won't have the stomach or the dollars to tackle long-term issues like climate change or dependence on foreign oil when the economy is in the tank and oil prices have plunged. Wrong conclusion, Obama says. These problems, "left unaddressed, will continue to weaken the economy and threaten national security," he said on Nov. 18 in a video message to a climate summit meeting in California.

His fix? Obama plans to set ambitious targets for reducing emissions that cause global warming—and to invest $15 billion or more per year in energy efficiency, renewables like wind and solar, biofuels, nuclear power, and "clean" coal. Beyond the environmental benefits, says the President-elect, the investment "will also help us transform our industries and steer our economy out of this economic crisis by generating 5 million new green jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced."

Whether or not a "green" stimulus will create millions of American jobs is hotly debated by economists. On the one hand, the seeds of the transformation have already been planted thanks to market forces, such as overall higher energy prices, and government policies like tax credits for renewable energy. But there are also major questions. Many executives and experts say the most effective policy to push America toward a clean, efficient energy future is putting a price on emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, thus raising the price of energy. That's a tough sell now to Americans struggling to pay their bills. There's also a danger that the government could steer investments to the wrong technologies. Remember synfuels, President Jimmy Carter's experiment to reduce dependence on foreign oil? Most important, a green stimulus plan from Uncle Sam may end up sending billions of dollars to foreign companies instead of to Main Street, since the U.S. lags in such crucial industries as solar panels and wind turbines. Will green technologies become today's VCRs and flat-panel TVs, invented in the U.S. and commercialized elsewhere?

But the fear of enriching overseas companies simply makes a green stimulus more necessary and urgent, proponents argue. Without a plan like Obama's, which would expand U.S. markets for new technologies, American companies may fall even further behind. Michael R. Splinter, CEO of Applied Materials (AMAT) in Santa Clara, Calif., is a believer in the need for government support. Splinter has seen his business of supplying equipment for factories to make solar panels soar beyond his wildest projections. But 97% of the company's equipment goes to foreign manufacturers, who then sell panels in the U.S. It seems like the U.S. has "given up on manufacturing," Splinter laments. "Right now we are on a path to being a second-tier player in clean energy technology."

A plan like Obama's could turbocharge American industries, Splinter and other executives say. Why have European companies become world leaders in wind and solar power? Because a number of governments guarantee that anyone who supplies renewable power to the electric grid will get a premium price for that power. That cost is then passed along to customers.


Similar incentives could work magic in the U.S., says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. America already has a vibrant green-energy sector, so the transformation could be rapid. There are upward of 3 million Americans employed in green jobs, ranging from renewable-power startups to businesses with products that reduce waste and pollution or boost energy efficiency.

And even when goods come from foreign companies, some of the jobs will be in the U.S. One growing trend is for European and Asian manufacturers to build factories in America so they can be closer to what promises to be the world's largest market.

Spanish wind company Gamesa is bringing 1,000 jobs to several factories in Pennsylvania and its North American headquarters in Philadelphia. In Memphis, Sharp opened its first plant outside of Japan for making solar panels.

Some green industries are homegrown by nature. Biofuel refineries need to be built near the crops that provide the feedstock. Even more jobs would be created by making U.S. houses and buildings more energy efficient, argues economist Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "There is about $26 billion in retrofitting on public buildings that could be done the day after legislation is signed," Pollin says. "The job impacts are very high. Each $1 million in spending would bring about 18 jobs."

What could Washington do to grow the green economy? Limit emissions of greenhouse gases, thus raising the price of using fossil fuel and steering the industry toward more environmentally friendly alternatives. Continue or boost tax credits for biofuels, wind, and solar. Make infrastructure investments, such as building transmission lines needed to bring power from large solar power plants in the desert or from North Dakota's windswept prairies. And increase federal dollars for energy research and development, aiding programs that have withered during years of declining funding. All of this, proponents say, would foster enough innovation to help American companies leapfrog their overseas rivals. "America's future depends on our ability to spark an energy revolution," argues Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield.

Skeptics wonder, however, if such a sweeping transformation is possible. "The optimist in me wants to believe it," says Matthew E. Kahn, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The cynic in me asks, is this like FDR jobs creation in the guise of green jobs?" Kahn believes that rather than spending federal dollars, the best approach is simply increasing the price of carbon—which is politically difficult.

Passing Obama's green stimulus package will be an uphill battle, and its success if implemented is far from certain. But the nation's financial mess is so bad that the President-elect has a freer hand. He also needs to show action on climate change to help restore America's reputation around the world—and to bring China and India on board. The surge earlier this year in oil prices (expected to rise again after the recession ends) even has brought traditional opponents of renewable energy and climate action to the bipartisan table, as long as they get expanded drilling rights. Says Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "Energy policy can create jobs, give an economic lift, and get us out of this ditch."

with Adam Aston

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Two degree rise could spark Greenland ice sheet meltdown: WWF

Graphic on a WWF study on the meltdown of Arctic ice. The WWF has warned that a less than two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures might be sufficient to spark a meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet and Arctic sea ice.
Graphic on a WWF study on the meltdown of Arctic ice. The WWF has warned that a less than two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures might be sufficient to spark a meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet and Arctic sea ice.

"Scientists now suggest that even warming of less than 2 degree Celsius might be enough to trigger the loss of Arctic sea ice and the meltdown of the Greeland Ice Sheet," the WWF said in a statement to accompany the findings.

"As a result, global sea levels would rise by several metres, threatening tens of millions of people worldwide."

The melting of Arctic sea ice could affect ecosystems, while a meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet could lead to a sea level rise of up to seven metres, with a devastating impact for the rest of the world.

The WWF urged governments meeting for UN climate talks in Poland starting Monday to "develop a strong negotiation text for a new climate treaty" due at the end of next year.

Kim Carstensen, WWF Global Climate Initiative leader said: "The early meltdown of ice in the Arctic and Greenland may soon prompt further dangerous climate feedbacks accelerating warming faster and stronger than forecast.

"Responsible politicians cannot dare to waste another second on delaying tactics in the face of these urgent warnings from nature."

© 2008 AFP

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Biologists find new environmental threat in North American lakes

Water flea Daphnia is known to be a key component of many aquatic foodwebs. Credit: Shelley Arnott
Water flea, Daphnia, is known to be a key component of many aquatic foodwebs. Credit: Shelley Arnott

Along with scientists from several Canadian government laboratories, the team has documented biological damage caused by declining levels of calcium in many temperate, soft-water lakes.

Calling the phenomenon "aquatic osteoporosis," Queen's PhD candidate Adam Jeziorski, lead author of the study, notes that calcium is an essential nutrient for many lake-dwelling organisms. "Once calcium declines below a certain threshold, some keystone species can no longer reproduce," he says. "These species and other organisms that feed on them are endangered."

The study is published today in the prestigious journal Science.

The researchers examined a water flea, Daphnia, known to be a key component of many aquatic foodwebs. Having identified the calcium levels that would damage Daphnia in a laboratory setting, they worked with government scientists to assemble hundreds of "water quality time series" from across the province, explains Biology professor Norman Yan from York University, the Canadian research lead on the threat to aquatic life of calcium decline. "Our hope was to determine if damage was already occurring at key sites, and then see how common these conditions were across the province," he says.

However, calcium decline occurred in many lakes before people knew about the problem and monitoring programs had been put in place. By studying tiny fossils and other indicators in sediment accumulated at the bottom of each lake, Queen's paleoecologist professor John Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change, and his colleagues were able to reconstruct environmental trends over the past 200 years. The researchers found that key invertebrate species were disappearing in the lakes with declining calcium levels, often starting in the 1970s.

Linking the problem to the long-term effects of acid rain on forest soils, as well as to logging and forest re-growth, the researchers note that, despite signs of chemical recovery from recent reductions in sulphur dioxide emissions, lower calcium levels may delay the biological recovery of lakes from acidification. "This has important management implications," says team member Dr. Andrew Paterson of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and adjunct professor at Queen's University. "It was a combination of experimental work, paleoecological research and long-term monitoring that helped to identify this emerging threat," he adds.

The authors conclude that the phenomenon of calcium decline is causing widespread transformation of aquatic food webs in boreal lakes in North America, and in other acid-sensitive regions of the globe. While their work focuses on the water flea Daphnia, they note that all life in lakes requires calcium, and many creatures including crayfish, mollusks and fish have quite high calcium demands. They are all at risk, say the researchers, but we don't yet know if calcium levels have fallen to the point of damage.

"This is all very worrisome," concludes Dr. Smol, recipient of the 2004 NSERC Herzberg Gold Medal as Canada's top scientist and co-director of Queen's Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL). "The good news is that we have found the 'miner's canary' in the form of these water f
leas that track the decline in calcium levels. The bad news is that many lakes have already passed these critical thresholds."

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Fruit 'n' veg power: How I charged my iPod using an onion soaked in Lucozade

By Jonathan Margolis

During one of the gloomiest weeks in recent memory, the story that Owen Louis, a 21-year-old student in Portsmouth, had succeeded in powering his iPod by plugging it into an onion soaked in Lucozade came as a shaft of brilliant sunshine.

Not only was it reassuring to learn that students still have the urge, eccentricity and time to do something as, well, student-like as trying to charge up an iPod using a vegetable, but the possible benefits for our stretched budgets and the environment, of being able to power our gadgets with past-its-best greengrocery, lightened hearts across the land.

Owen Louis

Onion 'cell'-er: Student Owen Louis with his veg-powered iPod

Batteries are, after all, extraordinarily expensive. Even cheap supermarket ones, which have about half the life of decent brands, cost nearly two quid a packet - and they can't be recycled.

Recharging technological trinkets such as iPods from the mains doesn't come free, either; it costs the best part of 2p each time and at the same time supposedly contributes, however slightly, to global warming.

But imagine if that droopy celery in the fridge or those pears that have gone soft in the fruit bowl could turn themselves, like a sort of horticultural Superman, into a source of energy?

The more you think about Mr Louis's onion discovery, the more enticing a prospect fruit 'n' veg power begins to seem.

With a decent number of windfall apples in the autumn, could you not power your whole house?

And, as I always carry a few spare batteries with me on trips abroad for gadgets such as tape recorders and cameras, could I now start taking along a bruised apple or mouldy courgette instead - and impress the world with my raised level of greenness?

The first thing to establish, of course, was whether it was actually true that fruit and veg are a secret, unexploited energy source.


Onions: They'll make your eyes run and run your iPod too

A vague memory surfaced of a chemistry teacher at my school called Mr Clayton, who used to insist you could squeeze electricity out of a lemon if you stuck a piece of zinc and another of copper into it. But then he was completely insane.

A chat on the phone with young Owen in Portsmouth didn't suggest he was quite Nobel Prize material, either.

From my memory of physics and chemistry, the method he used - plunging the iPod's charger lead plug (the USB connection) deep into the drink-sodden onion - was unlikely to work.

Plus he admitted that the wheeze had come about after a heavy night in the pub, so it was highly possible that his - how can I say? - experimental method had been less than rigorous.

What this needed was a proper test. First of all, I thought I'd better find out if the science stood up, in theory at least. It does.

Mr Clayton may have been nuts (he wore suits made of home-woven cloth and drove a homemade car) but he certainly knew his chemistry.

When you put two different metals - say, copper and zinc - in an acidic medium such as a fruit or vegetable and connect them up on the outside, they go bananas (to stick to fruit terms) and start trading ions and electrons between each other as fast as they can.

The copper acts as a positive terminal and the zinc as the negative one - just like a car battery, which uses neither fruit nor onion, but sulphuric acid.

It is the different chemical reactions of the acid on each metal that causes an electrical charge to flow between these two terminals.

There's not a lot of it in the case of a lemon - a volt per piece of greengrocery at most, the textbooks say, and even then at only a fraction of an amp, meaning there's not much oomph there.

As any schoolboy used to know, a volt is not much good without a lot of current in the form of amps behind it.

So unless you were to connect hundreds of pieces together to form a massive battery, you're not going to change the world.

You won't even get much more than five volts out of a dozen or so pieces of fruit and veg. But five volts happens to be just enough to power an iPod.

In theory, then, it could work. I didn't have a lab coat to hand, but I do own plenty of electronic gubbins, so out came the soldering iron, wire strippers and multi-test meter, which I use occasionally to mend stuff. Not very successfully, I might add.

First, I had to butcher an iPod charger lead to establish which two of its several wires carry the current to power up the iPod.

It would be no use applying the mighty power of the onion to the bit of the device where the music goes in.


If you don't like the onion and Lucozade combination, then solar power may be another way of recharging your iPod without plugging it into the mains

Apart from anything else, if the onion did push out any power, should I apply the volts to the wrong bits, it would probably blow the iPod's - or in my case, iPhone's - delicate circuits.

Next, the task was to secure a supply of copper and zinc bits to stick in the fruit.

I got copper and some zinc nails in Homebase, but they were only zinc and copper-plated, so when I set up my first test battery I could squeeze only a barely measurable fraction of a volt from even a lemon, which is the most common source of fruit power.

I eventually located pure zinc and copper bits in a children's chemistry set.

I also bought a large number of onions, plus lemons, oranges and apples in case of onion failure.

Young Owen's Lucozade detail posed less of a problem supplies wise, though none of my scientist friends with whom I discussed the experiment thought it would make any difference.

The notion even occurred that the whole of this week's onion-in-Lucozade-powering iPods story might be a cleverly conceived marketing stunt to make us associate Lucozade with energy. Perish the thought. So to the test.

Not since the giant Cern collider was turned on in Switzerland can there have been as much tension around a scientific experiment, although mine was mostly because I had by then spent almost a whole day getting my zinc and copper bits and didn't fancy discovering I'd wasted my time.

I started, Owen- style, with a single Lucozade-soaked onion and used his method of simply sticking the ordinary iPod charger lead into it. Not a volt to be seen.

I then did a test run with a lemon and the proper zinc and copper connections, one piece of each metal stuck into the fruit, just to make sure the principle was correct. Bingo.

When I connected the meter, I got half a volt from a single citrus. That must be why electricians call electricity juice, I thought.

On to onions. Out of respect to Owen again, I continued the apparently pointless Lucozade bath procedure and connected my first soaked onion.

Amazingly, it kicked up more than a lemon on my meter - almost an entire volt.

By the time I'd connected eight onions together, it wasn't so much bingo as 'eureka!'.

Five volts, the holy grail of iPodery.

I even cried, but that was probably just the onions.

I then connected up the whole, increasingly smelly, apparatus to the iPod lead I'd butchered.

By then I had deliberately run down my iPhone to complete flatline battery dead level.

Even when you pressed the 'on' switch for several seconds, there wasn't a peep of life in it.

But connected to my onion battery, the screen began to glow faintly and indicate that, yes, it was charging.

It doesn't do so for long - five to ten seconds at a time. And the onions do wear out rather quickly. I might have to try a few more varieties before the technology is quite there.

It had been one of those science experiments which has absolutely no practical use at all, just the kind that old Mr Clayton liked.

I don't quite see fruit-and-veg power becoming a viable way of keeping the DVD going if the end of the world comes and the power goes out.

But the principle is rather glorious, isn't it? You can charge an iPod from onions. Not very well, but it's possible.

And with a few hundred, you could almost certainly charge your phone completely.

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Europe tackles space ambitions amid financial crisis

ESA wants member states to pay for €1 billion of the total cost of its ExoMars rover and hopes to cover the remaining €200 million through cooperation with the US and Russia (Illustration: ESA)

ESA wants member states to pay for €1 billion of the total cost of its ExoMars rover and hopes to cover the remaining €200 million through cooperation with the US and Russia (Illustration: ESA)

European nations met on Tuesday to decide how to carve up €10 billion of spending needed to maintain the region's activities in space and tackle new initiatives amid rising pressure on budgets.

Science ministers from the 18 members of the European Space Agency and Canada meet every three years to agree on funds for the agency, which is beefing up ambitions in exploration to catch up with attention-grabbing initiatives from China and India.

The agency's €10.4 billion funding request comes in the midst of a financial crisis and fears of recession but is likely to be almost entirely approved by politicians, officials said.

However, nations were expected to haggle over their share of key projects before issuing a final breakdown on Wednesday.

"Ministers were very positive," ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain told a news conference after the first of day of talks. "Some said that we have to go against the economic cycle and that this is the best time to invest in space."

ESA's €3 billion annual budget is dwarfed by NASA's, which is more than €13 billion ($17 billion). Europe also faces pressure from new space powers such as China, which recently performed a spacewalk, and India, which has sent a probe to the MoonMovie Camera and hopes to begin launching human missions.

Mars rover

Key ESA projects include a €1.2 billion expanded version of an existing project called ExoMars to land a rover on the surface of Mars and drill down 2 metres into the soil to take soundings. The cost has roughly doubled since an earlier plan.

"It is more complex as a mission and more expensive. We are asking for more money but it is worth more," said ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina.

ESA wants member states to pay for €1 billion of the total cost and hopes to cover the remaining €200 million through cooperation with the US and Russia.

Other proposals submitted by ESA include a request for funds to study the development of an unmanned re-entry vehicle dubbed ARV to bring cargo back from the International Space Station. The move is needed as the US space shuttle nears retirement.

Passing the hat

Europe sent up its first one-way re-supply vehicle - known as ATV - to the 10-year-old structure in March, but unlike the ATV, which burns up on re-entry, the ARV would land safely.

About a third of ESA's €3 billion annual budget comprises mandatory spending on the agency's scientific projects, such as Europe's share of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The rest must be paid for by passing the hat around between nations at the ESA conference table. Dordain said ministers had not yet agreed on spending for the International Space Station.

New ESA projects also include a bid to help prevent costly satellites from being destroyed by space debris.

Early warning

The mounting cloud of debris in orbit poses a threat to infrastructure from telecommunications satellites to the International Space Station.

Europe relies on data from US military early warning command NORAD to dodge millions of pieces of debris that is large enough to track. But ESA has been charged with developing Europe's own security measures in cooperation with the European Union.

ESA also wants to develop a geostationary satellite called the European Data Relay Satellite that could beam data from satellites, rockets and planes back to the ground more quickly.

Both systems are designed for civil use but will use technology that could ultimately have applications in defence.

In a massive commercial project that could also have security implications, ESA is partly responsible for developing the Galileo navigation system - a rival system to the US Global Positioning System - on behalf the European Commission.

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Iran 'fires second space rocket'

BBC map

Iran says it has launched its second space rocket, the Kavosh 2, in a successful follow-up to the first launch in February.

State media said that two more tests would be needed before an Iranian-built satellite could be launched into orbit.

Iran denies that its long-range ballistic technology is linked to its atomic programme.

It is already under international pressure to give up its nuclear work, which it says is purely civilian.

The US referred to the February satellite launch as "unfortunate", given the questions over its nuclear work.

Iranian state TV says the rocket was carrying a space lab and a data-monitoring and processing unit.

"Kavosh 2 completed its mission and returned to earth with a special parachute after 40 minutes," the channel reported.

It added that the rocket had been designed and built by Iranian aerospace experts.

Much of Iran's technological equipment derives from modified Chinese and North Korean kit.

Earlier this month Iran said it had test-fired a new medium-range missile.

Its 2,000-km (1,240-mile) range would be capable of reaching Western Europe.

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Amateur astronomer captures dawn of the universe from back garden observatory

By John Bingham

One of the pictures taken by astronomer Greg Parker from his back garden 'Portaloo' observatory
Photo: Barcroft

Stretching millions - even billions - of light years into space, this is not the usual view one might expect from the back of a house.

Yet these extraordinary images show what Greg Parker, an amateur astronomer, was able to record with an 11in telescope in his garden in the New Forest.

While some husbands choose to relax with a radio in their garden shed, the 54-year-old engineering professor makes nightly visits to a small white dome-shaped observatory to gaze at the stars.

Nicknamed "the Portaloo" by his wife and with more than a passing resemblance to a swing topped bin, the fibreglass structure sits wedged into decking on his patio.

But it has enabled him to capture images to rival even those from Nasa telescopes and his photographs have now been published in a new book, Space Vistas.

One star-like quasar he caught on camera through his reflecting telescope is just a shade under 12 billion light years away.

"That's almost at the beginning of the whole universe," he remarked casually.

Many of the images are the result of hundreds, even thousands of separate exposures each taking between one minute and 20 minutes.

They were taken with a specialised digital camera which is cooled down to allow for longer exposures, bolted on to the telescope.

He then emailed each picture to Noel Carboni, an expert in astrophotography based in Florida, and co-author of the book, who processed them to bring out details such as the dust and gas clouds known as nebulae which initially appear feint.

The swirling yellow, red and blue disc of the Andromeda Galaxy featured in the book, took several years and was the result of more than 40 hours of exposures.

"That's a close one, it is only 2.2 million light years away," he joked.

"In Galactic terms that's a day trip."

Prof Parker, whose full time job is teaching at Southampton University, describes the astronomy as a "hobby" dating back to childhood.

"I had a telescope when I was eight or nine," he said.

"But when I was 12 my parents wanted to see New Zealand so we spent a couple of years in New Zealand.

"When you see what real dark skies are like without light pollution it triggers something."

Among his admirers is Sir Patrick Moore, presenter of the BBC's The Sky At Night.

"The pictures are of real scientific value, and they are also works of art," Sir Patrick wrote in the foreword to the book.

"You will enjoy them, and you will learn a great deal from them, as I did."

But despite his success, Prof Parker has no plans to give up the academic life.

"When your hobby becomes your job it can sometimes lose its appeal so it is probably a good idea to keep it as an obsession," he said.

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Simple New Method Detects Contaminants In Life-saving Drug

The blood-thinning drug heparin is highly effective when used to prevent and treat blood clots in veins, arteries and lungs, but earlier this year its reputation as a lifesaver was sullied when contaminated heparin products caused serious allergic reactions that led to a large number of deaths.

Now, University of Michigan researchers have demonstrated a simple, inexpensive method for detecting contaminants in heparin, a development that could prevent such tragedies in the future.

The method relies on potentiometric polyanion sensors originally developed in the lab of U-M researcher Mark Meyerhoff as a tool for detecting heparin in blood. In the latest work, Meyerhoff and coworkers show that the disposable sensors also can be used to distinguish pure heparin from heparin that is tainted with small quantities of oversulfated chondroitin sulfate (OSCS), the culprit in the recent deaths.

"In this technique, the magnitude of the voltage you get from the sensing membrane is dependent on polyion charge density," Meyerhoff said, "and because the contaminant has a higher charge density than heparin, the method allows us to detect the contaminant in the presence of excess heparin."

The new method is simpler and less expensive than analytical methods such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and capillary electrophoresis (CE), which have been suggested for detection of OSCS contaminants.

Meyerhoff, who is the Philip J. Elving Professor of Chemistry, envisions the procedure being used on site in drug manufacturing plants to screen raw materials or finalized, biomedical grade heparin products for contaminants.

The new method is described in a paper published online Nov. 14 in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

Meyerhoff's coauthors on the paper are graduate student Lin Wang and former graduate student Stacey Buchanan, who is now a faculty member at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich.

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Did Neanderthal cells cook as the climate warmed?

by Ewen Callaway

This Neanderthal skeleton was found in 1856 in the Neander Valley in Mettmann (Image: Action Press / Rex Features)

This Neanderthal skeleton was found in 1856 in the Neander Valley in Mettmann (Image: Action Press / Rex Features)

Neanderthals may have gone extinct because their cells couldn't cope with climate change, according to a new hypothesis presented at a genetics conference this month.

Metabolic adaptations to Ice Age Europe may have proved costly to Neanderthals after the continent's climate started to change, says Patrick Chinnery, a molecular biologist at Newcastle University, UK.

He and colleague Gavin Hudson identified potentially harmful mutations in the newly sequenced Neanderthal mitochondrial genome. In particular, the researchers found genes that are associated with neurodegenerative diseases and deafness. "If they were found in modern humans they would be bad news," Chinnery says.

The extinction of Neanderthals, close relatives of modern humans, some 25,000 years ago remains unexplained.

One theory holds that they were physically outcompeted by modern humans , another that they were economically eclipsed by us.. Yet another theory suggests that Neanderthals couldn't adapt to climate change.

Cooked cells?

The discovery of harmful mutations in the Neanderthal mitochondrial genome supports the climate-change idea, with a twist.

Chinnery and Hudson suggest that mutations in mitochondria helped Neanderthals cope with the cold weather, but that when the climate started fluctuating between warm and cold periods, they were at a disadvantage.

In all cells, from yeast to human, a mitochondrion's main job is to produce the energy that powers cells - this takes the form of a chemical called ATP. Our mitochondria do this quite efficiently under ideal conditions, making 36 ATP molecules with the energy stored in a single molecule of glucose sugar.

Mutations that sap this efficiency would generate heat instead - a potentially useful trick for Neanderthals who are known to have had adaptations to cold weather, Chinnery says. However, a warmer and less climatically stable habitat could have spelled trouble for Neanderthals with such mutations.

Perhaps the Neanderthals' mitochondrial DNA adapted them to the cold, and they couldn't cope when the climate started to change, he says.

Mum's mitochondria

However, with only a single Neanderthal DNA sequence decoded so far, that hypothesis remains provisional.

"This 'n of 1' experiment raises a question which needs to be tested on a large number of cases," Chinnery says.

They might not have to wait long. "We hope to be able to provide [Neanderthal] subjects for doing that kind of analysis really soon," says Edward Green, a researcher at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Green and colleague Svante Pääbo published the first complete Neanderthal mitochondrial genome earlier this year.

However, Green cautions against reading too much into a Neanderthal's - or a human's - mitochondria.

Unlike DNA in the cell's nucleus, mitochondrial DNA does not reflect a healthy mix of maternal and paternal genes. We inherit all mitochondrial genes from our mothers, so a potentially advantageous gene has no way to spread through a population, without bringing along the rest of the genome.

Most scientists contend that changes to mitochondrial genes instead occur by chance, making them a good marker for human and Neanderthal ancestry.

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Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise

By Michael Shermer

Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern—call it “apat­ternicity”). In my 2000 book How We Believe (Times Books), I argue that our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the ancestors of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning, and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.

Unfortunately, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. (Thus the need for science with its self-correcting mechanisms of replication and peer review.) But such erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution.

In a September paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, “The Evolution of Superstitious and Superstition-like Behaviour,” Harvard University biologist Kevin R. Foster and University of Helsinki biologist Hanna Kokko test my theory through evolutionary modeling and demonstrate that whenever the cost of believing a false pattern is real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, natural selection will favor patternicity. They begin with the formula pb > c, where a belief may be held when the cost (c) of doing so is less than the probability (p) of the benefit (b). For example, believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is only the wind does not cost much, but believing that a dangerous predator is the wind may cost an animal its life.

The problem is that we are very poor at estimating such probabilities, so the cost of believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind is relatively low compared with the opposite. Thus, there would have been a beneficial selection for believing that most patterns are real.

Through a series of complex formulas that include additional stimuli (wind in the trees) and prior events (past experience with predators and wind), the authors conclude that “the inability of individuals—human or otherwise—to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them will often force them to lump causal associations with non-causal ones. From here, the evolutionary rationale for superstition is clear: natural selection will favour strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.”

In support of a genetic selection model, Foster and Kokko note that “predators only avoid nonpoisonous snakes that mimic a poisonous species in areas where the poisonous species is common” and that even such simple organisms as “Escherichia coli cells will swim towards physiologically inert methylated aspartate presumably owing to an adaptation to favour true aspartate.”

Such patternicities, then, mean that people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.

Original here

Written by Ophelia Deroy

(editor's note) Why are we interested in famous people? Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that social information served as gossip is inherently interesting for us - information about alliances, personal hatreds, couple formation and splits, is intrinsically rewarding to our brain - wherever it comes from, irrelevant though it might be to our own lives. Here, philosopher Ophelia Deroy sketches a different point of view.

"Fame" by David Bowie and John Lennon (1975) .

Perhaps it’s the imaginativeness of tabloids titles which surprises me every morning – anyway, stardom system remains very puzzling to me. I assume it serves a function – and even if it is obviously orchestrated by the medias and business companies (sponsorship for sport celebrities, brand names for singers, etc.), there must be something it appeals to in people...

What is the point of celebrity ?

But is it so sure ? Nick Couldry (LSE) complains about a lack of empirical evidence that celebrities really serve a function. The standard positions in debates about stardom and celebrity culture assume, at root, that the (quasi-industrial) production of celebrity discourse must contribute to some wider social function, whether we call it identity-formation or social integration or both. Here, for example, is McKenzie Wark: ‘we may not like the same celebrities, we may not like any of them at all, but it is the existence of a population of celebrities, about whom to disagree, that makes it possible to constitute a sense of belonging’ (M. Wark (1999) Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace. Sydney: Pluto, p. 33,).

But, as Couldry asks, “where is the evidence that people ‘identify’ with celebrities in any simple way, or even that they regard ‘celebrity culture’ as important, rather than a temporary distraction, let alone that celebrities ‘make possible’ everyone’s sense of belonging?”. I guess the question is biaised (nobody claims that people “identify with celebrities in a simple way” ) but still, it addresses a legitimate worry : interest in celebrities life goes far beyond people for whom reference to these celebrities play a role in identity-formation or in conversation. Who has never read Hello Magazine over one’s shoulder in the tube? How come we all know about Madonna’s divorce – even when not caring for it? It is less obvious to me what function collecting these information serve for people whose sense of identity or belonging doesn’t apparently mix with celebrity gossips ? Is pure distraction a fair motive here?

The “it can happen to you too” effect .

Well, perhaps the question has to be addressed at a more general level. In a recent paper, Toby Young (the son of the sociologist Michaël Young, author of “The Rise of the Meritocracy”) compares attitudes to celebrities and to lottery :

Some commentators believe that the preponderance of reality shows and their casts of freaks and wannabes—the lumpen celebritariat—have devalued the whole notion of stardom. Yet the YouGov survey discovered that appearing on a reality television programme was a popular career option among teenagers, and another poll found 26 per cent of 16 to 19 year olds believe it is easy to secure a career in sports, entertainment or the media. If the existence of the celebrity class does play a role in securing people's consent to our winner-takes-all society, then the fact that the entry requirements are so low helps this process along. If people believe there is a genuine chance they might be catapulted to the top, they're more likely to endorse a system in which success is so highly rewarded. To paraphrase the advertising slogan for the National Lottery, it could be them. As with the lottery, people may know that the actual chances of winning are low but the selection mechanism itself is fair—a level playing field.

The paper concludes that the hidden function of celebrities would thus be to secure the consent of ordinary people to the unequal distribution of rewards, in a unfair absence of genuine equality of opportunity. Basically, you accept an unfair, qua arbitrary system if you think it’s nonetheless fair, qua almost random. Becoming famous is a question of luck – and you just wish you’ll be one of the lucky fews in the limo.

But then, if being famous is about being noticed and admired, you must known that you won’t be admired for any quality of yours – but just for being lucky, which anyone could have been.

Isn’t there here a resilient trace of the idea that people have « their own luck », and a kind of fate – that they bear responsibility for being lucky or not ?

At least this makes sense of two things.

The flux

First, why there should be a constant renewal of living celebrities – by contrast with a system with more perenial stars, or (dead, mythical) legendary figures : it shows that there is actually room for newcomers, and entertains every body’s dream to get his moment of fame.

Why celebrities are not heroes – but aren’t they still prestigious ?

Second, that there is room for typologies of celebrities. The ones that Young is talking about (by which he seems to mean some sort of pop stars) have nothing more special than their audience, except the fact that they managed to become famous – something which cannot be seen as a special achievement, on his perspective, but also has to be accessible to everyone. This contrasts with celebrities acknowledged for (a) their (moral, intrinsic) qualities or (b) their superior achievements, or (c) both. The later encourage a kind of deference, and their prestige rely on the fact that not everybody could have done what they did, or be where they are. So – questions –
How come that the first ones enjoy a kind of prestige, but without deference ? Is this a good typology of famous people ? Do you have another one ? Is there any constant among different cultures, and is the « random-star » just characteristic of (some) contemporary societies ?

The Limo problem

Still, Young’s analysis doesn’t distinguish between the desirability of being famous, and the desirability of having the material advantages that can go with fame (the limo), but not necessarily do. Also, it doesn’t seem that fame is desired as a mean – but as an end. You want to be in the Limo, not necessarily to have it. Or do you ?

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