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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Titan's Surface Organics Surpass Oil Reserves on Earth

Saturn's orange moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth, according to new data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The hydrocarbons rain from the sky, collecting in vast deposits that form lakes and dunes.

The new findings from the study led by Ralph Lorenz, Cassini radar team member from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., are reported in the Jan. 29 issue of the Geophysical Research Letters.

"Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material -- it's a giant factory of organic chemicals," said Lorenz. "This vast carbon inventory is an important window into the geology and climate history of Titan."

At a balmy minus 179 degrees Celsius (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), Titan is a far cry from Earth. Instead of water, liquid hydrocarbons in the form of methane and ethane are present on the moon's surface, and tholins probably make up its dunes. The term "tholins"was coined by Carl Sagan in 1979 to describe the complex organic molecules at the heart of prebiotic chemistry.

Cassini has mapped about 20 percent of Titan's surface with radar. Several hundred lakes and seas have been observed, with each of several dozen estimated to contain more hydrocarbon liquid than Earth's oil and gas reserves. The dark dunes that run along the equator contain a volume of organics several hundred times larger than Earth's coal reserves.

Proven reserves of natural gas on Earth total 130 billion tons, enough to provide 300 times the amount of energy the entire United States uses annually for residential heating, cooling and lighting. Dozens of Titan's lakes individually have the equivalent of at least this much energy in the form of methane and ethane.

Part of an animation showing lakes on Titan This movie, comprised of several detailed images taken by Cassini's radar instrument, shows bodies of liquid near Titan's north pole.
› Video and full caption
"This global estimate is based mostly on views of the lakes in the northern polar regions. We have assumed the south might be similar, but we really don't yet know how much liquid is there," said Lorenz. Cassini's radar has observed the south polar region only once, and only two small lakes were visible. Future observations of that area are planned during Cassini's proposed extended mission.

Scientists estimated Titan's lake depth by making some general assumptions based on lakes on Earth. They took the average area and depth of lakes on Earth, taking into account the nearby surroundings, like mountains. On Earth, the lake depth is often 10 times less than the height of nearby terrain.

"We also know that some lakes are more than 10 meters or so deep because they appear literally pitch-black to the radar. If they were shallow we'd see the bottom, and we don't," said Lorenz.

The question of how much liquid is on the surface is an important one because methane is a strong greenhouse gas on Titan as well as on Earth, but there is much more of it on Titan. If all the observed liquid on Titan is methane, it would only last a few million years, because as methane escapes into Titan's atmosphere, it breaks down and escapes into space. If the methane were to run out, Titan could become much colder. Scientists believe that methane might be supplied to the atmosphere by venting from the interior in cryovolcanic eruptions. If so, the amount of methane, and the temperature on Titan, may have fluctuated dramatically in Titan's past.

"We are carbon-based life, and understanding how far along the chain of complexity towards life that chemistry can go in an environment like Titan will be important in understanding the origins of life throughout the universe," added Lorenz.

Cassini's next radar flyby of Titan is on Feb. 22, when the radar instrument will observe the Huygens probe landing site.

For images and more information visit: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov .

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the United States and several European countries.

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Cancer and the bacterial connection

Exposure to high levels of manure dust is linked to decreased incidence of lung cancer among dairy farmers, Italian studies have found. The flip side: Respiratory problems are common.

N the 1890s, a New York surgeon named William Coley tested a radical cancer treatment. He took a hypodermic needle teeming with bacteria and plunged it into the flesh of patients.

After suffering through weeks of chills and fevers, many showed significant regression of their tumors, but even Coley himself could not explain the phenomenon.

His experiments were sparked by the observation that certain cancer patients improved after contracting infections. One patient experienced regression in a tumor in her arm after developing Saint Anthony's fire, a streptococcus skin infection.

Doctors at the time considered Coley's bacterial mixtures to be more black magic than medicine, and with the advent of radiation therapy, the well-meaning doctor was soon consigned to the annals of quackery.

But today, some scientists think Coley had it right: Germs can teach our bodies how to fight back against tumors. Dr. John Timmerman, a cancer immunotherapy expert at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center, says this revolution has produced "the most exciting sets of compounds in cancer immunology."

These scientists have not yet proved their case. But new studies are revealing that certain cancers may be reduced by exposure to disease-causing bacteria and viruses, and pharmaceutical companies are testing anticancer treatments that capitalize on the concept by using bacterial elements to boost the body's natural immunity.

The studies also imply that our cleaner, infection-free lifestyles may be contributing to the rise in certain cancers over the last 50 years, scientists say, because they make the immune system weaker or less mature. Germs cause disease but may also fortify the body, a notion summed up in a 2006 report by a team of Canadian researchers as "whatever does not kill me makes me stronger."

Almost a century after Coley, in the 1980s, dermatologists began noticing that patients with severe acne, which is caused by another type of bacterium, have reduced rates of skin cancer, lymphoma and leukemia. According to a paper by Dr. Mohammad Namazi at the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences in Iran, studies showed that these bacteria, when injected into animals, appear to stimulate the immune system and shrink tumors.

More recent evidence for this phenomenon comes from studies on cotton and livestock workers, who are constantly breathing endotoxins, a component of bacterial cell walls that causes swelling of lung tissue.

In reports published in the last two years, Harvey Checkoway, a University of Washington epidemiologist, has found that female cotton workers in Shanghai have a 40% to 60% lower risk of lung, breast, and pancreas cancer than other factory workers.

Other recent studies by Giuseppe Mastrangelo at the University of Padua in Italy found that dairy farmers exposed to high levels of manure dust are up to five times less likely to develop lung cancer than their colleagues who work in open fields.

For the dairy farmers and cotton workers, "it's good news and bad news," Checkoway says. They have lower rates of cancer but tend to have higher rates of other respiratory problems. Sniffing cotton dust or inducing pimples is never going to be a therapy, he says, but studying the body's reactions to bacteria could explain why cancer rates go down upon endotoxin exposure. And that might help in developing anticancer drugs.

Dr. Arthur Krieg, chief scientific officer of the Boston-based Coley Pharmaceutical Group, thinks the success of Coley's toxins comes largely from a difference between DNA of humans and bacteria and viruses.

In 1995, Krieg was at the University of Iowa working with strands of DNA created in the lab, hoping to find a way to turn off genes involved in the autoimmune disease lupus. To his surprise, this DNA stimulated the immune cells he was studying in lab dishes. "I got interested, and I got puzzled," he says.

His synthetic DNA contained several regions called CpGs. In humans, that region has a kind of chemical "cap" on it, but bacteria -- and Krieg's synthetic DNA -- lack that cap. Thus, in effect, exposure to that CpG makes the body "think" it's being assaulted by pathogens, and triggers the immune system to shift into attack mode -- and, in doing so, more effectively battle cancer cells.

Krieg saw medical potential: Maybe one could design small drugs with CpGs in them and use them as immunity boosters. After patenting the method, he left his university job and founded Coley Pharmaceutical Group, which was acquired by the New York-based drug company Pfizer in January.

Five years after his discovery, Krieg's first compound has proved safe in early trials but has not yet been proved effective. Last year, the injected compound failed to increase survival time in a trial of 1,600 lung cancer patients also undergoing chemotherapy. But Krieg thinks it will prove effective in other patients: "It's just a matter of finding the right way to use it," he says.

Timmerman is a strong believer in CpGs, and has been using them with the antibody drug Rituximab in his lab research on mice. Finding the right drug combination is key, he says: "It's very naive to think that a single off-the-shelf immune stimulant is going to magically treat cancer."

Krieg's CpG-based chemicals have proved useful in another arena. Because CpGs boost the immune system, they also can enhance certain vaccines. In a trial sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, one of Krieg's chemicals, VaxImmune, accelerated the body's response to anthrax vaccine by a factor of two -- from 40 days to 20. Other collaborations are exploring using CpG-containing DNA to develop hepatitis B vaccines and anti-asthmatic drugs. (The company has many CpG compounds, four in clinical trials.)

But Don MacAdam, chief executive of MBVax Bioscience in Ancaster, Canada, is not sure that the healing properties of Coley's fluids are due to a short strand of DNA. "The immune system is very complicated," he says, "Any of these therapies that are doing one little thing are very likely to fail."

And so MacAdam wants to revive the formulation that Coley himself found most effective -- a mixture of two kinds of bacteria, Streptococcus and Serratia. Such an extract would contain naturally occurring CpGs, endotoxins and other bacterial components that may have therapeutic potential.

MacAdam has solved Coley's major difficulty: maintaining consistency of the brew from batch to batch. His preparation has been tested on terminal cancer patients outside the U.S. and Canada, and he contends that 24 in 38 patients have shown signs of tumor regression, although nothing is published yet. Dr. Vikas Sukhatme, a professor at Harvard Medical School, says he hopes to run clinical trials once the product has been manufactured according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

Other groups have been experimenting with injections of other types of heat-killed bacteria, including Myobacterium vaccae, a tuberculosis relative. In two studies in January's European Journal of Cancer, researchers report that these bacteria may help fight certain lung and renal cancers.

The first study is a reanalysis of a trial with 162 patients who received heat-killed bacteria (and chemotherapy). In the original study, the treatment didn't seem to improve survival and in 2004, the company developing the therapy, London-based Silence Therapeutics, gave up on Mycobacterium.

But John Stanford, a shareholder in the company and a researcher at University College London, says these studies were poorly designed and analyzed. When he and collaborators re-analyzed the results, they found that Mycobacterium injections could increase survival of adenocarcinoma patients by four months. Stanford believes that part of the bacterial cell wall switches the body from producing ineffective antibodies to sending out cancer-killing blood cells.

In the second study, researchers reported that 60 renal cancer patients injected with Myobacterium survived just as long as those treated with standard chemotherapy.

Stanford has formed a company, Immodulon Therapeutics, and wants to run trials with a stricter and more intense injection regime, to repeat the results and, hopefully, extend patients' lives longer.

Although both Krieg and Timmerman are inspired by Coley's work, they question the philosophy behind reviving Coley's preparation and using other bacterial extracts. But, Krieg says, "as a physician you have to maintain a sense of humility and avoid being overly skeptical."

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An "Invisibility Cloak" For Sound?

Contrary to earlier predictions, Duke University engineers have found that a three-dimensional sound cloak is possible, at least in theory.

Such an acoustic veil would do for sound what the "invisibility cloak" previously demonstrated by the research team does for microwaves--allowing sound waves to travel seamlessly around it and emerge on the other side without distortion.

"We've devised a recipe for an acoustic material that would essentially open up a hole in space and make something inside that hole disappear from sound waves," said Steven Cummer, Jeffrey N. Vinik Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering. Such a cloak might hide submarines in the ocean from detection by sonar, he said, or improve the acoustics of a concert hall by effectively flattening a structural beam.


Cloak of Invisibility Demonstration
A 'metamaterials' copper cylinder can partially hide an object from microwave detection

As in the case of the microwave cloak, the properties required for a sound cloak are not found among materials in nature and would require the development of artificial, composite metamaterials.

The engineering of acoustic metamaterials lags behind those that interact with electromagnetic waves (i.e. microwaves or light), but "the same ideas should apply," Cummer said.

The report by Cummer's team is expected to appear in Physical Review Letters on Jan. 11.

In 2006, researchers at Duke and the Imperial College London used a new design theory to create a blueprint for an electromagnetic invisibility cloak. Only a few months later, the team demonstrated the first such cloak, designed to operate at microwave frequencies.

Cummer and David Schurig, a former research associate at Duke who is now at North Carolina State University, later reported in The New Journal of Physics a theory showing that an acoustic cloak could be built. But that theory relied on a "special equivalence" between electromagnetic and sound waves that is only true in two dimensions, Cummer said. A report by another team had also suggested that a 3-D acoustic cloak couldn't exist. It appeared they had reached a dead end.

Cummer wasn't convinced. "In my mind, waves are waves," he said. "It was hard for me to imagine that something you could do with electromagnetic waves would be completely undoable for sound waves."

This time, he started instead from a shell like the microwave cloak his team had already devised and attempted to derive the mathematical specifications required to prevent such a shell from reflecting sound waves, a key characteristic for achieving invisibility. On paper, at least, it worked.

"We’ve now shown that both 2-D and 3-D acoustic cloaks theoretically do exist," Cummer said. Although the theory used to design such acoustic devices so far isn't as general as the one used to devise the microwave cloak, the finding nonetheless paves the way for other acoustic devices, for instance, those meant to bend or concentrate sound. "It opens up the door to make the physical shape of an object different from its acoustic shape," he said.

The existence of an acoustic cloaking solution also indicates that cloaks might possibly be built for other wave systems, Cummer said, including seismic waves that travel through the earth and the waves at the surface of the ocean.

Collaborators on the study included Bogdan-Ioan Popa, David R. Smith and Marco Rahm of Duke; David Schurig of N.C. State University; John Pendry of Imperial College London; and Anthony Starr of SensorMetrix, Inc. in San Diego, Calif.

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Field Guide: Sarcastic Masters

They're smart, they're funny, and they know it. But is cracking jokes that put other people down truly wise?

If there's such a thing as a congenital smart aleck, Rachel Mosteller is it. The 27-year-old Houston journalist has been ready with a well-timed barb since her elementary-school years. "I made my first quip when I was about 10. My parents were getting divorced right around my birthday, and I said, 'Well, isn't that a great present,'" she recalls. "That made my mom pretty mad."

Mosteller has continued to hone her sensibility ever since. "I tend to use it when I think people are taking themselves too seriously," she says.

Certified wisecrackers may see their snarky remarks as clever diversions, but because the distinction between a joke and an insult can be nebulous, they can easily damage relationships and careers with their one-liners. Frustrated by her company's practice of feting model employees with Hallmark-style gifts, Mosteller posted a send-up of the policy on her blog, The Sarcastic Journalist, in 2005. "You go and do something spectacular (most likely, you're doing your JOB) and someone says, 'Why golly, that was spectacular.' Then they bring you chocolate and some balloons," she wrote. Though she never disclosed her real name or the company's, higher-ups got wind of the post and she was promptly fired.

So why do wisecrackers keep their bons mots coming at the risk of alienating others? Though they may not be aware of it, sarcasm is their means of indirectly expressing aggression toward others and insecurity about themselves. Wrapping their thoughts in a joke shields them from the vulnerability that comes with directly putting one's opinions out there. "Sarcastic people protect themselves by only letting the world see a superficial part of who they are," says Steven Stosny, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist and anger specialist. "They're very into impression management."

Because humor and hostility often come mixed together, it can be difficult to pinpoint a wisecracker's primary intent. "Sometimes sarcasm is humor—purely a Don Rickles kind of joking—and sometimes it's just innocently insensitive," Stosny says. "But other times, it's devaluing." Everyone benefits from a wisecracker's comic relief, but if you are the target of regular swipes, it's best to assertively call the joker out. His hilariousness doesn't give him the right to belittle you.


Genesis of the Jibe

"Just blurting out an insult is pedestrian at best," says Vacheh Joakim, an IT specialist in Los Angeles who prides himself on his sardonic wit. "But a sarcastic jab that can masquerade as a compliment is much more enjoyable, and it also gives the person being sarcastic a sense of superiority." Though Stosny and others theorize that such verbal jujitsu is rooted in insecurity, wisecrackers themselves, predictably enough, tend to admit feelings of inadequacy only indirectly. Joakim, for example, acknowledges the possibility of using sarcasm to compensate for shortcomings, but sidesteps a personal revelation: "Sarcasm doesn't help satisfy a Napoleon complex, but it does give you a little ego boost."

Albert Katz, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Western Ontario, has recently looked at the wisecrackers' focus on one-upsmanship from a biological perspective, showing that people whose brains are best equipped to understand sarcasm tend to have aggressive personalities. Subjects who scored high on aggression tests showed different patterns of brain activity in response to sarcasm than those who did not. The differences suggest that the aggressive subjects were processing nonliteral meaning more quickly. "Sarcasm is definitely a dominance thing—it's related to being top dog," Katz says, both for initiators of sarcastic banter and those who catch on and offer a retort.

A knack for sarcasm isn't necessarily linked to intelligence, says Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a neurologist at the University of Haifa in Israel. Some highly intelligent people who have autism or Asperger's syndrome, for example, may fail to understand jokes and sarcasm. But her research has shown that people who are particularly good at detecting sarcasm also tend to be better at identifying emotional facial expressions. They seem to understand social situations better overall, she says.

Such superior social intelligence may be behind Joakim's conclusion that those who can hang with sarcasm are always the most interesting conversation partners at a party.


Sarcasm's Slippery Slope

Everyone wants a witty partner, but sarcasm can sabotage relationships. Psychologist John Gottman has found that if partners display contempt toward each other—which commonly includes making sarcastic remarks—their odds of divorce rise dramatically. "People who use sarcasm don't see themselves as being hurtful, they see themselves as being funny," Katz says. "But recipients tend to interpret their remarks as hurtful."

"People are constantly getting mad at me," Mosteller says. "One time, this other mother was talking about how her kid's illness was being transmitted to the rest of the family. I said, 'Well, that's why I refuse to give my kids any kind of physical affection when they're sick. I just lock them in a room.' She thought I was serious and gave me this look. I thought, 'There goes a potential playdate.'"

Still, with a little discretion, a sarcastic bent can be channeled in positive directions—standard-bearers include Stephen Colbert and the creators of The Simpsons. Over the past two years, Mosteller has bounced back from her firing and carved out a freelance niche for her writing. Though she has trouble finding friends who appreciate her facetious approach to life, her family is more attuned to her wavelength than they used to be. "When I told them I was doing this article, one of them deadpanned, 'Great. Make us proud.'"


When to Take The Edge Off

Yes, you're sharp. But are you cutting too deep? Here's how to ensure people don't take what you say the wrong way.

  • Know your audience.

    People have as wide a range of tolerance for sarcasm as they do for liquor. "If the person at the receiving end of sarcasm knows it's meant as a joke, the reaction may be more positive," Joakim says. "But I try not to be sarcastic with total strangers. That's usually not pretty."

  • Scan before you send.

    It's best to avoid snarkiness in e-mails and text messages. Sarcasm is highly dependent on tone, while people tend to take typed notes more literally. As silly as those smiley-face emoticons are, use one if there is any possibility that your message could be misinterpreted.

  • Examine your motivations.

    Some people resort to over-the-top sarcasm in an attempt to shore up their own self-image. Consider whether you yourself harbor feelings of inadequacy. Once you feel comfortable with who you are, you won't need to hide behind a veil of sarcasm.

  • Err on the side of caution.

    If you're unsure how the target of your statement will respond, it's best not to unleash sarcasm at all, as Mosteller has learned. "If I'm around my husband's boss, I hold my tongue," she says. "I know that once I open my mouth, things are just going to keep coming."

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Like ants, humans are easily led

When it comes to being misled, humans are no more sophisticated than ants or fish.

Implications for evacuations and how to guide people safely in an emergency will arise from the discovery that most of us are happy to play follow-my-leader, even if we are trailing after someone who does not know where they are going and taking the most meandering route.

Even more striking, even when we are shown a faster route, we prefer to stick with the old one and tell others to take the long road too, a finding that could have lethal implications when it comes to evacuating a building or ship in an emergency.

"These results parallel similar findings in ants and fish, and show that very simple processes can underlie human behaviour" commented Dr Simon Reader of Utrecht University, who reports the findings today in the journal Biology Letters.

In the experiments, 72 people - 40 women and 32 men - were asked to complete questionnaires in one room, then taken to another room where they were to complete an experiment.

"We led them one of two routes into the room (while talking about other things), and, later, asked them to return to the starting room," said Dr Reader.

"All but one person took the route they had been led. What we were surprised by was how strong this effect was, even when the alternative route was much shorter," he said.

They preferred the long route even when the experimenter had drawn attention to the alternative route, or when the experimenter took the long route solely to pick up a fallen poster, eliminating the possibility that participants thought the experimenter had a good, but unknown, reason to take the long route.

By asking participants to collect the next guinea pig in the experiment, the scientists observed that each person in the chain copied the route of the participant before them: a simple tradition that meant the alternative route was never discovered.

In a fire or emergency, then, people would likely stick to the familiar evacuation route, even if it was much slower than an alternative.

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Why are thousands of bats dying in New York?

Mysterious ‘white nose syndrome’ spreading at alarming rate

A team led by Alan Hicks, a wildlife biologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, looks for bats in an abandoned limestone mine in Rosendale, N.Y., on Feb. 7.

ROSENDALE, N.Y. - Bats in New York and Vermont are mysteriously dying off by the thousands, often with a white ring of fungus around their noses, and scientists in hazmat suits are crawling into dank caves to find out why.

"White nose syndrome," as the killer has been dubbed, is spreading at an alarming rate, with researchers calling it the gravest threat in memory to bats in the U.S.

"This is definitely unprecedented," said Lori Pruitt, an endangered-species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bloomington, Ind. "The hugest concern at this point is that we do not know what it is."

A significant loss of bats is chilling in itself to wildlife experts. But —like the mysterious mass die-offs around the country of bees that pollinate all sorts of vital fruits and vegetables — the bat deaths could have economic implications. Bats feed on insects that can damage dozens of crops, including wheat and apples.

"Without large populations of bats, there would certainly be an impact on agriculture," said Barbara French of Bat Conservation International of Austin, Texas.

White nose syndrome has afflicted at least four species of hibernating bats, spreading from a cluster of four caves near Albany last winter to more than a dozen caverns up to 130 miles away.

Alan Hicks, a wildlife biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, said he fears a catastrophic collapse of the region's bat population and is urgently enlisting experts around the country to find the cause.

It is not even clear if the fungus around the bats' noses — something scientists say they have never seen before — is a cause or a symptom. It may be a sign the bats are too sick to groom themselves, said Beth Buckles, a veterinary pathologist at Cornell University.

The die-offs could be caused by bacteria or a virus. Or the bats could be reacting to some toxin or other environmental factor. Whatever it is, afflicted bats are burning through their winter stores of fat before hibernation ends in the spring, and appear to be starving.

The Northeast has generally had mild winters in recent years. But Hicks said he doubts that is the culprit in some way, since there are no reports of large die-offs in warmer states.

Nor are there any known links between what is wiping out the bees and what is killing the bats. The cause of the bee deaths is still a mystery, though scientists are looking at pesticides, parasites and a virus not previously seen in the U.S.

Researchers said there is no evidence the mysterious killer is any threat to humans. Scientists venturing into the caves wear hazardous-materials suits and breathing masks primarily to protect the bats, not themselves.

Hicks said it is possible that a cave explorer introduced the problem in the Albany-area caves and that it spread from there. "It could have been some caver in Tanzania with a little mud on his boot and a week later he's in a cave in New York," he said.

New York officials are asking people to stay out of bat caves in case humans are unwittingly spreading the problem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asking people not to enter caves with gear or clothing used in any New York and Vermont cave within the past two years.

The first inkling of trouble came in January 2007, when a cave explorer spotted an unusual number of bat carcasses around the mouth of a cave in the hills west of Albany. Within a month, people in the area were calling in with reports of bats flying outside in the middle of the day.

"We didn't know anything other than bats were coming out and they were just dying on the landscape," Hicks said. "They were crashing into snow banks, crawling into wood piles and dying."

By winter's end, 8,000 to 11,000 bats were presumed dead in the four caves. The mystery affliction has spread much farther this winter.

Death counts are not in yet for this winter since afflicted bats die slowly. But Hicks said there are 200,000 or more bats hibernating in caves where white nose has been detected.

Hicks recently led a team of scientists into an abandoned mine in this Hudson Valley town about 80 miles north of New York City. He directed his headlamp on a cluster of seven brown bats, smaller than mice, hanging high on the limestone wall. Four had the telltale white flecks on their muzzles.

He tapped one of the afflicted bats with a long stick, and it fell, already dead. Another groggily spread its papery wings on Hicks' gloved hand. The sickly bat was put into a cardboard takeout-soup container to be put to death and studied, since it was doomed anyway.

A group of Indiana bats, a federally protected endangered species, was spotted hanging lower down in the mine for cooler air, a common strategy for sick bats.

Hicks whispered grimly: "These guys are toast."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Chicago to turn off lights for one hour

Chicago plans to join more than 20 other cities and shut off exterior lights on public buildings for an hour in an effort to raise environmental awareness.

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The voluntary hour of energy conservation is to occur worldwide on March 29 from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. as part of Earth Hour 2008, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, the Chicago Tribune reported Saturday.

It's "a symbolic gesture to remind us that we all share the responsibility of global warming," Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said Friday.

Exterior lights also will turn off for the hour on Chicago landmarks such as the Merchandise Mart, Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center, said a World Wildlife Fund statement.

Other participating cities include Toronto, Manila, Bangkok, Copenhagen, Melbourne and Tel Aviv.

Copyright 2008 by United Press International

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Total Lunar Eclipse

The Sun goes down. The Moon comes up. You go out and look at the sky. Observing the eclipse is that easy. Maximum eclipse, and maximum beauty, occurs at 10:26 pm EST (7:26 pm PST).


Above: A preview of the Feb. 20th lunar eclipse created by graphic artist Larry Koehn. Click on the links to view labels for other time zones: GMT, AST, EST, CST, MST, PST, Alaska, Hawaii.

A lunar eclipse happens when the Moon passes through the shadow of Earth. You might expect the Moon to grow even more ashen than usual, but in fact it transforms into an orb of vivid red.

Why red? That is the color of Earth's shadow.

Consider the following: Most shadows we're familiar with are black or gray; step outside on a sunny day and look at your own. Earth's shadow is different because, unlike you, Earth has an atmosphere. The delicate layer of dusty air surrounding our planet reddens and redirects the light of the sun, filling the dark behind Earth with a sunset-red glow. The exact tint--anything from bright orange to blood red is possible--depends on the unpredictable state of the atmosphere at the time of the eclipse. "Only the shadow knows," says astronomer Jack Horkheimer of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium.

Transiting the shadow's core takes about an hour. The first hints of red appear around 10 pm EST (7 pm PST), heralding a profusion of coppery hues that roll across the Moon's surface enveloping every crater, mountain and moon rock, only to fade away again after 11 pm EST (8 pm PST). No special filter or telescope is required to see this spectacular event. It is a bright and leisurely display visible from cities and countryside alike.

While you're watching, be alert for another color: turquoise. Observers of several recent lunar eclipses have reported a flash of turquoise bracketing the red of totality.

see caption"The blue and turquoise shades at the edge of Earth's shadow were incredible," recalls amateur astronomer Eva Seidenfaden of Trier, Germany, who took the picture at right during the European lunar eclipse of March 3-4, 2007. Dozens of other photographers have documented the same phenomenon.

Right: A "turquoise eclipse" photographed by Eva Seidenfaden of Trier, Germany, on March 4, 2007. [Larger image] [more]

The source of the turquoise is ozone. Eclipse researcher Dr. Richard Keen of the University of Colorado explains: "During a lunar eclipse, most of the light illuminating the moon passes through the stratosphere where it is reddened by scattering. However, light passing through the upper stratosphere penetrates the ozone layer, which absorbs red light and actually makes the passing light ray bluer." This can be seen, he says, as a soft blue fringe around the red core of Earth's shadow.

To catch the turquoise on Feb. 20th, he advises, "look during the first and last minutes of totality." That would be around 10:01 pm EST and 10:51 pm EST (7:01 and 7:51 pm PST).

Blood red, bright orange, gentle turquoise: it's all good. Mark your calendar in vivid color for the Feb. 20th lunar eclipse.

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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.


Large Binocular Telescope
Credit & Copyright: Stefan Seip (TWAN)

Explanation: With moonlight on the horizon, a starry sky and the northern Milky Way provide the background for this dramatic view of the World at Night. The imposing structure in the foreground houses the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), on Mount Graham, Arizona. Inside, the two 8.4 meter diameter mirrors of the LBT really are side-by-side on a common mount, an arrangement mimicking the design of more modest optical equipment usually carried around the neck. While not exactly portable, the benefits of the large scale binocular configuration adopted include an increase in sensitivity over a single mirror telescope and high resolution imaging for faint objects over a relatively wide field of view. An international collaboration operates the LBT Observatory.


Worldwide Hunt To Solve The Mystery Of Gamma-ray Bursts

Emeritus Professor Alan Wells discussed the breadth of international collaborations in new discoveries about gamma ray bursts obtained from the Swift satellite and coordinated observations from a global network of ground based telescopes at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston.

Gamma-ray bursts are short-lived events, lasting between a few milliseconds to a few minutes. The brightest of them emit more energy in a few seconds than our Sun will emit in its whole 10 billion year lifetime. Gamma ray bursts are occurring several times daily somewhere in the universe, fortunately at huge distances from our solar system. These fleeting explosions are precursors to the births of black holes.

The Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer satellite is a NASA mission with substantial UK and Italian participation. Swift was designed to solve the mystery of the origin of gamma ray bursts by pinpointing the burst and measuring the emissions from the huge fireball that occurs in the first few seconds of the burst's lifetime.

Scientists at Leicester's Space Research Centre are part of the international team working on the Swift, having had a major role in the development of the X-ray telescope, which has been responsible for many of the discoveries made by Swift.

Since its launch in 2004, Swift has discovered over 292 gamma-ray bursts, and pin-pointed a further 320 bursts detected by other satellites. Swift's rapid response - it was named after the bird, which catches its prey "on the fly" - has been critical to understanding these titanic events.

Adapted from materials provided by University of Leicester, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

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New Poll Gauges Americans' General Knowledge Levels

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Thanks to the Internet and other trappings of the Information Age, facts and figures now come cheaper and faster than ever before. But where does that leave good, old-fashioned general knowledge, the kind people carry around in their heads?

A new Gallup poll includes three questions that tap Americans' level of general knowledge. Overall, most Americans did well, answering these questions correctly.

In anticipation of Independence Day, Americans were asked if they could identify the specific historical event celebrated on July 4th. Fifty-five percent say it commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence (this is a common misconception, and close to being accurate; July 4th is actually the date in 1776 when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration, which was officially signed on August 2nd.) Another 32% give a more general answer, saying that July 4th celebrates Independence Day.

When Americans are asked to identify the country from which America gained its independence, 76% correctly name Great Britain. A handful, 2%, think America's freedom was won from France, 3% mention some other country (including Russia, China, and Mexico, among others named), while 19% are unsure.

Groups that have higher degrees of self-reported patriotism (see Gallup's Fourth of July release), such as older people and whites, are also more likely to correctly name the country from which America gained its independence. Only 66% of those aged 18-29 know that America gained its independence from England, compared to 79% of those aged 30 and older. The knowledge gap is even wider on the basis of gender and race:

  • 85% of men compared to only 69% of women know that America's freedom was won from England
  • 80% of whites vs. 54% of blacks answered correctly

Four out of Five Americans Know Earth Revolves Around Sun
Probing a more universal measure of knowledge, Gallup also asked the following basic science question, which has been used to indicate the level of public knowledge in two European countries in recent years: "As far as you know, does the earth revolve around the sun or does the sun revolve around the earth?" In the new poll, about four out of five Americans (79%) correctly respond that the earth revolves around the sun, while 18% say it is the other way around. These results are comparable to those found in Germany when a similar question was asked there in 1996; in response to that poll, 74% of Germans gave the correct answer, while 16% thought the sun revolved around the earth, and 10% said they didn't know. When the question was asked in Great Britain that same year, 67% answered correctly, 19% answered incorrectly, and 14% didn't know.

The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,016 adults, 18 years and older, conducted June 25-27, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

As far as you know, what specific historical event is celebrated on July 4th?

Signing of the Declaration of Independence/day it was signed 55%
Independence Day 32
Birth of United States 1
Other 6
No opinion 6
100%

As far as you know, from what country did America gain its independence following the Revolutionary War?

England/Great Britain/United Kingdom 76%
France 2
Other 3
No opinion 19
100%

As far as you know, does the earth revolve around the sun, or does the sun revolve around the earth?

Earth revolves around the sun 79%
Sun revolves around the earth 18
No opinion 3
100%
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Leading thinkers identify greatest challenges facing humanity


The experts single out sunshine as a "tantalizing source of environmentally friendly power, bathing the Earth with more energy each hour than the planet's population consumes in a year". (Photograph: Waltraud Grubitzsch/EPA/Corbis)

Reversing the effects of ageing, reprogramming genes to prevent diseases and producing clean energy are some of the biggest challenges for the next 50 years, according to a group of leading experts.

The pace of advances in technology means the rate of progress will be 30 times faster in the next half century than in the past 50 years, futurologists believe — and that opens up the prospect of innovation in many fields.

Better understanding of our genes could lead to more personalised medicines and longer, healthier lives; communication technology should get faster and cheaper; and we will hopefully find more environmentally sustainable ways of living.

The 18-strong team of scientists, entrepreneurs and thinkers was convened by the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to identify problems for technology in the 21st century that, if solved, would change the world. The group included biologist Craig Venter, inventor Dean Kamen, Google co-founder Larry Page and Harvard University professor of international development Calestous Juma.

They presented their report and list of challenges today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston.

Quality of life

The NAE group focused on four areas: sustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of living. "As the population grows and its needs and desires expand, the problem of sustaining civilisation's continuing advancement, while still improving the quality of life, looms more immediate," they wrote in their report.

"Old and new threats to personal and public health demand more effective and more readily available treatments. Vulnerabilities to pandemic diseases, terrorist violence, and natural disasters require serious searches for new methods of protection and prevention."

The provision of clean energy was a priority. They identified sunshine as a "tantalizing source of environmentally friendly power, bathing the Earth with more energy each hour than the planet's population consumes in a year".

But capturing that power, converting it into something useful and then storing it posed a challenge. "We only need to capture one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the Earth to meet 100% of our energy needs," said Ray Kurzweil, a renowned futurologist and a member of the NAE expert group, in a presentation at the AAAS. "This will become feasible with nanoengineered solar panels and nano­engineered fuel cells to store the energy in a highly decentralised manner."

Clean water

Alongside clean energy came clean water, which was in "seriously short supply in many regions of the world. New technologies for desalinating sea water may be helpful, but small-scale technologies for local water purification may be even more effective for personal needs."

Personalised medicines were another challenge. The recent sequencing of the human genome and a better understanding of how the body works offered scientists a way to identify the things that determine the health of an individual.

"An important way of exploiting such information would be the development of methods that allow doctors to forecast the benefits and side effects of potential treatments or cures," they wrote.

Genetic technology allowed scientists to switch off selected strands of DNA and new techniques in gene therapy enabled them to modify the behaviour of genes. "Within one to two decades, we will be in a position to stop and reverse the progression of disease and ageing, resulting in dramatic gains in health and longevity," said Kurzweil.

Computer intelligence

The NAE report also hailed the potential of advanced computer intelligence, which it said would enable automated diagnosis and prescriptions for treatment.

Kurzweil went further on artificial intelligence. "Once non-biological intelligence matches the range and subtlety of human intelligence, it will necessarily soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge."

He added: "Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in the environment, our bodies and our brains, providing vastly extended longevity, full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses … and enhanced human intelligence."

The experts said none of the challenges would be met, however, without the economic and political will. "Despite environmental regulations, cheaper polluting technologies often remain preferred over more expensive, clean technologies," they wrote.

The group did not rank the challenges, though members of the public can vote on which they think is most important, at engineeringchallenges.org.

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An Exhibition at the National Museum of American History

These photographs are from the exhibition, Information Age: People, Information & Technology in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The exhibition displays visually and interactively how electrical information technology has changed our society over the last 150 years.
Smithsonian Photographs by:
Alfred Harrell, Laurie Minor-Penland, Eric Long, Jeff Tinsley and Dane A. Penland

Samuel Morse's original telegraph transmitter and receiver, 1837. Today's information age began with the telegraph. It was the first instrument to transform information into electrical form and transmit it reliably over long distances. The original Morse telegraph did not use a key and sounder. Instead it was a device designed to print patterns at a distance. The transmitter, in front, had code slugs shaped in hills and valleys. These represented the more familiar dots and dashes of Morse code. These patterns were printed at a distance by the receiver (shown in the rear). It recreated the hills and valleys as the arm was pulled back and forth by an electro-magnet, which was responding to the signals sent by the transmitter. Morse developed a key and sounder for his first commercial telegraph in 1844. ==Smithsonian Photo #89-22161 by Laurie Minor-Penland.

Morse/Vail telegraph key, 1844. This register was used to send the message "What Hath God Wrought" on the experimental line between Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland. ==Smithsonian Photo by Alfred Harrell.

Morse/Vail telegraph register, 1844. This register was used to receive the message "What Hath God Wrought" on the experimental line between Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland. ==Smithsonian Photo by Alfred Harrell.

An Edison Stock Printer. Labeled, "Gold & Stock Telegraph Co. Edison's Patent No. 215". As the electric telegraph sped information across the country, bankers and businessmen realized that they could profit from immediate knowledge of stock prices and other crucial data. The new technology shortened the time for decision-making and increased the pace and stress of the business day. But early telegraph service was expensive. Outside the business community, use of the telegraph spread slowly. ==Smithsonian Photo by Alfred Harre

The Atlantic cable of 1858 was established to carry instantaneous communications across the ocean for the first time. Although the laying of this first cable was seen as a landmark event in society, it was a technical failure. It only remained in service a few days. Subsequent cables laid in 1866 were completely successful and compare to events like the moon landing of a century later. Here, the cable on the left is representative of a style that remained in use for almost 100 years. The cable on the right, a coaxial cable, was part of the first transatlantic telephone cable laid in 1956. ==Smithsonian Photo by Alfred Harrell.

Alexander Graham Bell's early telephone equipment. To the right in this photograph are several of Bell's early experimental telephones. They depended on creating variable electrical patterns in wires as a needle moved up and down in a liquid. This approach led to problems with static. Later models, the telephones to the left, relied on the principles of magnetic induction. ==Smithsonian Photo #89-21085 by Laurie Minor-Penland.

A Bell commercial magneto-telephone from 1877. This was one of the first telephones on which both transmission and reception were done with the same instrument. ==Smithsonian Photo #74-2496 by Alfred Harrell.

Late 19th and early 20th-century telephones , including the tombstone (rear left), battery box wall model (rear center), and Strowger dial phone (right front). This group of telephones shows the changing design of instruments from the late 19th through the early 20th century. Note that the earlier telephones have no dials. Dialing a number only became possible after automated equipment was developed to make connections originally handled by human operators. ==Smithsonian Photo #89-22162 by Laurie Minor-Penland.

Information Processing devices. A doctor's stethoscope; a Hollerith Tabulating Machine, sorter, and pantograph punch; and (upper right) an Arithmeter, a type of cylindrical slide rule used by the insurance industry to compute average life expectancies. Industrialization in the 19th century made life faster and more complex. To cope with these demands, new means of calculating, sorting and processing information were invented. ==Smithsonian Photo by Laurie Minor-Penland.

Progress in Communications . An NBC microphone, Magnavox loudspeaker, Echophone "Cathedral" radio (1934), Western Electric Scissor phone and Edison stock exchange ticker. The advent of the telegraph led to a flood of inventions for communicating information in electrical form. ==Smithsonian Photo by Laurie Minor-Penland.

The ENIGMA Machine and Bombe. Armed forces have always been dependent on communications. During World War II, the German Army and Navy tried to keep their communications secret by using encryption devices called Enigma machines. These sophisticated coding devices could generate over 1 trillion different coding patterns. The Germans believed they were too sophisticated for Allied forces to break them. But in one of the best-kept secrets of the war, first the Poles, and later the British and Americans succeeded in deciphering messages. The wooden device in the foreground is a 4 rotor German Enigma machine, used for encoding. The large machine in the background is a "Bombe," used for breaking the code. Working out the details of codebreaking machines was one of the developments that fostered electronic computers. ==Smithsonian Photo by Laurie Minor-Penland.

The ENIAC, or the Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer, was a large digital electronic computer developed by the US. Army and University of Pennsylvania late in World War II. This photograph shows only a small section of a machine that stretched around the walls of a room 30' by 50.' ENIAC was designed to compute ballistics tables, a task that required many tedious electronic calculations. But the designers made it programmable, so that it could also be set to perform many other calculation tasks. Because of its speed and flexibility, ENIAC set the stage for the emergence of the post-war computer industry. ==Smithsonian Photo #90-7164B by Laurie Minor-Penland.

This is the first model of the 45 rpm record player manufactured by RCA in the 1950's. The 45 rpm record was first introduced in 1949 by RCA. It quickly became popular among young people as a medium for popular songs. Rock and Roll music and the "45" grew up together. ==Smithsonian Photo by Eric Long

Homebrew Computer Club. Many of pioneer developers of personal computers prided themselves on being members of the "counter culture." They met at places like the "homebrew computer club" in Silicon Valley, California, and dreamed of giving computer power to individuals. The interest of such hobbyists helped create a viable market for personal computers, even before their capabilities were far too limited for office use. ==Smithsonian Photo #90-15065 by Jeff Tinsley.

An Apple I Computer. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the most famous members of the Homebrew Computer Club, designed the Apple I in 1976. It was a kit computer. Users bought the workings and built their own case. Many leaders in mainline computer companies like IBM and Digitial did not believe that personal comptuers were powerful enough to have a market. Sales of the Apple I and other PC's that followed proved them wrong. ==Smithsonian Photo #92-13442 by Eric Long.

Robot Auto Factory. This exhibit scene shows a welding robot in context, doing spot welding on an auto body. Most industrial robots used in the United States today do jobs that are monotonous, repetitive or dangerous to humans. Even so, they are replacing many jobs previously held by people. Robots in American car plants are often part of an elaborate computer network that controls all parts of the production process, from ordering parts to painting. The two computer screens in the lower right hand corner of the scene are terminals on this network. ==Smithsonian Photo #90-15048 by Jeff Tinsley.

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An analog video disc and a digital CD-Rom disc, shot to show the rainbow-like reflections coming from their surfaces. New techniques of encoding and distributing digital information are pacing the spread of the information age throughout society. ==Smithsonian Photo #90-6894 by Dane A. Penland.

Top 5 Ways to Hack the Surface of the Earth

It's another installment of Entropist, a scifi culture column by futurist design maven Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDG BLOG. If we can hack Wiis and iPods and old Segas, make garage door openers into mobile phones and cause elevators to run backwards -- or turn upside-down, or do whatever it is that elevator hacks are supposed to do -- then could we also hack the surface of the earth? Could we hack geology? Could we use plate tectonics to re-direct whole island chains, color rocks, print cities out of magma, and build mountains where mountains have no right to be? Here are the Entropist's top five ways to change the surface of the earth.

1) Earthquake Towers

In 2005, scientists discovered that a new skyscraper in Taiwan might be causing earthquakes. Called Taipei 101, it was temporarily the tallest building in the world, before towers like the Al Burj were anything but rumors. "At more than 500 metres," we read back then, "Taipei 101 in Taiwan is the world's tallest building. But now geologists fear that its size and weight may have transformed a stable area into one susceptible to earthquake activity."
The building is so heavy, exerting such "exceptional downward stress" on the earth beneath it, that it might have "reopened" an ancient tectonic fault. If true, this discovery "may have far-reaching implications for the construction of other buildings and man-made megastructures."

At the very least, we should ask: What would happen if we built more of them? Could we build fourteen of these things in San Francisco, in an act of long-term tectonic warfare, and destroy the whole city within a decade?

Conversely, could we build just the right number of these, at just the right spots, throughout the greater Los Angeles basin and thus nail the tectonic plates in place -- weighing southern California down and zipping the San Andreas Fault up tight? It'd be seismic acupuncture, a new form of therapy against continental drift. Perhaps one gigantic tower exactly placed in outer Tokyo could make the whole Pacific Rim freeze up. That is, till a rogue group of German terrorists arrives and wreaks havoc... Directed by John McTiernan. It's geology as a military campaign, enacted through architectural design.

2) Tectonic Warfare

In the wildly under-appreciated 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) likes to ride boats with Grace Jones and grin a lot. He likes blimps and he has blonde hair. He has a plan. He wants to blow up the San Andreas fault, cause some sort of catastrophic earthquake, and thus flood Silicon Valley. Which is just a bunch of car dealerships and seafood restaurants, in any case. But this flood will make Zorin's own microchip business go through the roof... or something. He'll then rule the planet.

Needless to say, Zorin's plan fails. Bond makes it with a geologist and the world goes back to sleep. But the central idea is worth pursuing: Could we bomb faultlines all over the earth, causing earthquakes? If not, why not? I'm reminded of a TV show I watched last weekend, about Mount St. Helens. Mount St. Helens is supposedly going to erupt any year now -- but today it just sits there, sort of steaming. It's bit boring, frankly. So why don't we bomb it? Let's see what that thing is capable of! Unmanned drones from a nearby air base climb to 25,000 feet. It's 3 o'clock in the morning. They open fire. They hack the earth, in other words, applying the landscape theories of Max Zorin. Think of it as Zorinism: tectonic warfare.

3) Igneous Printheads

Inkjet printers require small, spongy reservoirs of liquid ink to operate. But there are alternatives to ink.
There is magma.

A magma chamber is a "reservoir of molten rock material beneath the earth's surface." It "is connected to the earth's surface by a vent." So what if we took control of the vent? What if we could print new landforms, selectively directing and solidifying liquid rock where we want? Could we attach a kind of igneous printhead, guiding magma into new forms? I'm thinking here of the concrete-printing machines of Behrokh Khoshnevis, or even just 3D printing. In other words, could we rapid-prototype experimental mountain forms, attaching igneous printheads to reservoirs of liquid rock and printing landscapes on the earth above?

4) Colored Magma

Could we dye these magmatic streams using metals - injecting huge amounts of copper, or iron, into a domesticated magma well, extruding colored rocks only a few days later? And could we print cathedrals with it, spraying their vaults and buttresses into place with a deep liquid mixture of green and red?

5) Slow Sculpture

In his novel Iron Council, China Miéville proposes something called slow sculpture. Miéville describes an artist who creates literally geological works of art on a time scale that exceeds any individual human life.

Huge sedimentary stones... each carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.
So could we leave slow sculptures sitting, undiscovered, in the rocks and mountains all around us?

And what long-term geological hacks might have been left for us someday to discover?

[Note: The last two photos were taken by Paraflyer]

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