Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mythbustin’ the Moon Hoax… Part I

I’m starting to receive a trickle of email informing me that the Mythbusters are tackling the Moon Hoax myth.

Yes, well, I need to divulge a secret: I know about it. I served as an informal advisor on the show. :-)

Second, no, before you ask: I have no idea how the testing went. They didn’t tell me anything about the results! Grrrrr.

Third, this looks like it’ll be an awesome episode. The build team — Kari, Grant, and Tory — went to Marshall Space Flight Center to use a vacuum chamber there (it was even reported in the local paper). Looks like they’ll be recreating Dave Scott’s famous feather and hammer drop from Apollo 15, as well as the hoax claim that dry lunar regolith can’t hold a footprint, and how the flag can wave in a vacuum.

There’s a NASA video on YouTube about the visit:

Fourth, the show will air on April 25. Mark your calendars! I know I’ll be watching, especially since I don’t know how exactly they tackled one or two of the issues we discussed. Reproducing the lunar surface in a studio can’t be terribly easy, but they’re a smart group. This should be a lot of fun to watch!

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Earth-like planet that supports life could be circling Sun's nearest neighbour

Another Earth could be orbiting one of the Sun's closest stellar neighbours, scientists believe.

Habitable rocky planets are likely to have formed in the Alpha Centauri system, a trio of stars 4.37 light years, or 25.8 trillion miles, away, a study has shown.

Astronomers say if such worlds exist they could be detected using a dedicated telescope.

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The Alpha Centauri star system could contain an Earth-like planet

Because it is so close, Alpha Centauri would probably be the first star system to be visited if interstellar travel ever becomes possible - a fact that has inspired numerous science fiction stories.

The three stars in the system are binary twins Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B and the much smaller and dimmer red dwarf, Proxima Centauri, which is a little nearer the Earth.

Scientists in California carried out computer simulations that suggest Earth-like planets may be orbiting Alpha Centauri B.

At least some are likely to be in the so-called "habitable zone" at just the right distance from their parent star to allow oceans, lakes and rivers to form without freezing or boiling away. Such planets are the best candidates for supporting life as we know it.

Anyone standing on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B would see two "suns" in the sky, a bright "primary" sun and a "secondary" sun which would be much weaker but still many times brighter than the full moon as seen from Earth.

Although Proxima Centauri is considered part of the same star system it is 0.21 light years from the other stars, or 13,000 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. It would only be visible at night.

The astronomers hope to carry out intensive studies of the Alpha Centauri system using the 1.5 metre telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

"I think the planets are there, and it's worth a try to have a look," said Professor Gregory Laughlin, one of the scientists from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Most of the more than 200 planets already discovered orbiting stars other than the Sun have been huge gas giants, similar to Jupiter.

Confirming the presence of small, Earth-like rocky planets around one of the Alpha Centauri stars will not be easy. Prof Laughlin said it would probably require five years of observation using a dedicated telescope.

Because of the brightness of Alpha Centauri B and its position in the sky, the astronomers are most likely to use the "Doppler" detection method.

This measures shifts in the light from the star to detect the tiny wobble induced by the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet. Most of the extra-solar planets identified so far have been found using the Doppler technique.

To study planet formation around Alpha Centauri B, the astronomers ran repeated computer models, each of which simulated 200 million years of stellar evolution.

Because of variations in the initial conditions, each simulation led to the formation of a different planetary system. But on every occasion a solar system was created with at least one planet about the size of the Earth.

In many cases, the simulated planets had orbits lying within the habitable zone of the star.

Also known as the "Goldilocks zone", this is the narrow orbital band where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold, but just right to allow the existence of liquid surface water and, possibly, life.

The research has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

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Cassini Spacecraft to Dive Into Water Plume of Saturn Moon

artist concept of Cassini flying past Enceladus This is an artist concept of Cassini flying past Enceladus. Image credit: NASA/JPL › Flyby media page - includes videos, interactives, images PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Cassini spacecraft will make an unprecedented "in your face" flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus on Wed., March 12.

The spacecraft, orchestrating its closest approach to date, will skirt along the edges of huge Old-Faithful-like geysers erupting from giant fractures on the south pole of Enceladus. Cassini will sample scientifically valuable water-ice, dust and gas in the plume.

The source of the geysers is of great interest to scientists who think liquid water, perhaps even an ocean, may exist in the area. While flying through the edge of the plumes, Cassini will be approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the surface. At closest approach to Enceladus, Cassini will be only 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the moon.

"This daring flyby requires exquisite technical finesse, but it has the potential to revolutionize our knowledge of the geysers of Enceladus. The Cassini mission team is eager to see the scientific results, and so am I," said Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Chart of Enceladus flyby trajectoryThis graphic shows the trajectory for the Cassini spacecraft during its close brush with the icy outpost of Enceladus on March 12, 2008. Image credit: NASA/JPL
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Scientists and mission personnel studying the anatomy of the plumes have found that flying at these close distances poses little threat to Cassini because, despite the high speed of Cassini, the plume particles are small. The spacecraft routinely crosses regions made up of dust-size particles in its orbit around Saturn.

Cassini's cameras will take a back seat on this flyby as the main focus turns to the spacecraft's particle analyzers that will study the composition of the plumes. The cameras will image Enceladus on the way in and out, between the observations of the particle analyzers.

Images will reveal northern regions of the moon previously not captured by Cassini. The analyzers will "sniff and taste" the plume. Information on the density, size, composition and speed of the gas and the particles will be collected.

"There are two types of particles coming from Enceladus, one pure water-ice, the other water-ice mixed with other stuff," said Sascha Kempf, deputy principal investigator for Cassini's Cosmic Dust Analyzer at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. "We think the clean water-ice particles are being bounced off the surface and the dirty water-ice particles are coming from inside the moon. This flyby will show us whether this concept is right or wrong."

In 2005, Cassini's multiple instruments discovered that this icy outpost is gushing water vapor geysers out to a distance of three times the radius of Enceladus. The moon is only 500 kilometers (310 miles) in diameter, but despite its petite size, it’s one of the most scientifically compelling bodies in our solar system. The icy water particles are roughly one ten-thousandth of an inch, or about the width of a human hair. The particles and gas escape the surface at jet speed at approximately 400 meters per second (800 miles per hour). The eruptions appear to be continuous, refreshing the surface and generating an enormous halo of fine ice dust around Enceladus, which supplies material to one of Saturn's rings, the E-ring.

Several gases, including water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, perhaps a little ammonia and either carbon monoxide or nitrogen gas make up the gaseous envelope of the plume.

"We want to know if there is a difference in composition of gases coming from the plume versus the material surrounding the moon. This may help answer the question of how the plume formed," said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for Cassini's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer at the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.

This is the first of four Cassini flybys of Enceladus this year. In June, Cassini completes its prime mission, a four-year tour of Saturn. Cassini's next flyby of Enceladus is planned for August, well into Cassini's proposed extended mission. Cassini will perform seven Enceladus flybys in its extended mission. If this encounter proves safe, future passes may bring the spacecraft even closer than this one. How close Cassini will be allowed to approach will be determined based on data from this flyby.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

For images, videos and a mission blog on the flyby, visit: . More information on the Cassini mission is also available at .

Media contacts: Carolina Martinez 818-354-9382
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
Headquarters, Washington

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The Top Ten Hubble Images of All Time - The Very Best Hubble Images

As the title says, this article lists the top ten Hubble space satellite images ever taken. Hubble has been in operation since 1990, and now after serving almost for 20 years it is time to list the very best images taken by Hubble. Please notice that this is my personal opinion based on beauty of the images as well as scientific value.

Hubble telescope is an optical telescope orbiting the Earth. The telescope was positioned to space in order to get higher quality images of deep space. Telescope on the surface of the planet are not able to reach the same quality due to interferences in atmosphere. Hubble is able to capture images of very dark objects, which cannot be seen by the telescopes on Earth. Anyhow, when observing bright objects, the quality level of Hubble is the same as telescopes on Earth.

Hubble circulates the Earth 595 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. It has been repaired four times and it has exceeded its estimated lifetime, but it is not anymore in good condition. Many parts of the telescope are malfunctioning, and it seems that Hubble will be dropped to ocean after 2010.

Number 10: Spiral Galaxy M74 (Hubble)

10-spiral-galaxy-m74-hubble.jpgHubble’s image of M74 is stunning. M74, also called as NGC 628, is a perfectly formed spiral galaxy. M74 is located roughly 32 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Pisces, the Fish. It has been estimated that there are about 100 billion stars in M74, which means it is slightly smaller galaxy than Milky Way. There are lots of images of galaxies in the Internet, some of them being very beautiful images, but I must say this image taken by Hubble is absolutely on of the most impressive images.

Number 9: Interacting Galaxy Pair Arp 87

9-interacting-galaxy-pair-arp-87.jpgThese two galaxies perform an intricate dance in this great Hubble image. The galaxies, containing a huge amount of stars, swing past each other just like in a slow motion movie. It is amazing to think how large-scale phenomenon this really is. This galaxy pair, also known as Arp 87, is located in constellation Leo, the Lion, approximately 300 million light-years away from Earth.

Number 8: Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 Bombards Jupiter

8-comet-p-shoemaker-levy-9-bombards-jupiter.jpgThis Hubble image shows how comet Shoemaker-Levy crashes into the surface of the gigantic Jupiter. As we know, a comet impact could destroy the life on Earth. This Hubble image of Shoemaker-Levy crashing into Jupiter gives us a clue of the awesome size of Jupiter. This Hubble image is important because this was the first time we were able to observe real time two objects colliding in space. t is a pity I missed this phenomenon when it happened. I mean, I was not prepared and I did not see this happening in real time.

Number 7: Firestorm of Star Birth In Galaxy NGC 604

7-firestorm-of-star-birth-in-galaxy-ngc-604.jpgHubble image of NGC 604 is probably one of the most beautiful and space images. This massive star-birth region is comparable to Orion nebula M42, but it is vastly larger in extent. There are approximately 200 brilliant blue stars within a cloud of glowing gases some. The nebula is about 1,300 light-years across and it is nearly 100 times the size of the Orion Nebula. I said above that the galaxy image is one of the most impressive images taken. I have to say the same again. This image of NGC 604 is also ine of the most impressive space images I have seen.

Number 6: Saturn

6-saturn.jpgSaturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second biggest planet in the Solar System. Saturn has always been interesting and very much photographed object due to its beautiful rings. This Hubble image is so sharp and good that Saturn almost looks like a toy. This planet is definitely my favorite planet.

Number 5: Light Echoes From Red Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis – October 2002

5-red-supergiant-star-v838-monocerotis.jpgV838 Monocerotis is a variable star in the constellation Monoceros about 20,000 light years from the Sun. Hubble telescope photographed this major outburst of the star which was initially understood as a nova eruption. The reason for the outburst has not been understood yet, but several theories have already been defined, such as an eruption related to stellar death processes and a merger of a binary star or planets. This image is in my list of top ten Hubble images of all time because it is so beautiful. It is simply an awesome picture.

Number 4: Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16): Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region

4-gas-pillars-in-the-eagle-nebula-m16-pillars-of-creation-in-a-star-forming-region.jpgAre those undersea corrals? No, those dark pillar-like structures are columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust. They are incubators, places where new stars are born. They are part of the “Eagle Nebula”, also called M16. This Hubble image is simply stunning. It makes you stop, watch and wonder. The majestic pillars are beautiful with all their shapes and shadows. This image makes me wondering, dreaming and “flying” around those aweome pillars. This image is absolutely stunning and impressive.

Number 3: A Giant Hubble Mosaic of the Crab Nebula

3-a-giant-hubble-mosaic-of-the-crab-nebula.jpgThe Crab Nebula, one of my all-time favorite night sky objects, is here photographed by the Hubble telescope. This six-light-year wide nebula is an expanding remnant of a star’s supernova explosion. With all its colors and sharp lines, the image is definitely one of the best Hubble images of all time. I saw this image long time ago when it was first published. I was impressed back then, but I still keep on wondering how sharp this image is. It is amazing, absolutely amazing space image. I just wonder what kind of images we will see in 30 years if images now are so amazing already.
Number 2: The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104)

2-the-majestic-sombrero-galaxy-m104.jpgOne of the most photographed objects in the sky is the Sombrero Galaxy (M104). This very beautiful galaxy, looking like a sombrero or a disk, is like made for photographing. The photogenic Sombrero Galaxy is here photographed by the Hubble telescope. The result is very sharp image with fabulous lights and colors. This image is the second best Hubble image ever taken.

Number 1: Most Distant Galaxy Candidates in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field

1-ultra-deep-field.jpgHow would you define what is the number one Hubble image? I would say the number one Hubble image must be one of the most important space images ever taken and it must also be fabulous from artistic point of view. There is no question, the number one Hubble image is this Ultra Deep Field image in which we can see a huge number of galaxies. The faintest objects are less than one four-billionth the brightness of stars that can be seen with the naked eye. Their light has taken nearly 13 billion years to reach Earth, and so these objects represent some of the earliest star-forming galaxies to form in the universe. Ladies and gentleman, this is the number one Hubble image ever taken.

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18 Months Until Custom-Made, Oil-Pooping Bacteria

Craig Venter has his own scientific institute. He led the private effort to sequence the human genome and was one of Time Magazine's 2007 most important people. And he's been building new life. He builds chromosomes from scratch, inserts the new chromosomes in bacteria, and then "boots up" the organisms.

The DNA he produces in his laboratory are the largest molecules ever created by people and he can individually determine what DNA to include and which to exclude. He can put in junk DNA that, when decoded, simply spells his own name, or is a poem. But, most importantly, he's working to build in code that can force the little bugs into becoming solar-powered crude oil factories.

The new organisms, which Venter says should be multiplying in the lab in the next 18 months, would need high concentrations of CO2 (say, from the smokestack of a coal plant) to convert it to oil at maximum efficiencies. He can alter the octane of the fuel by altering the genes of the organism and, by selecting the best of thousands of molecules, he can "unnaturally select" the most efficient oil producers.

They're calling it 4th generation biofuel, and you can expect that it will be only the first application of this fascinating and somewhat alarming new technology. You can hear Venter himself explain the possibilities of this new technology with Chris Anderson at the recent TED conference in the video above.

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Tiny Palau skeletons suggest "hobbits" were dwarfs

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tiny skeletons found in the caves of the Pacific islands of Palau undercut the theory that similar remains found in Indonesia might be a unique new species of humans, researchers reported on Monday.

The Palau skeletons, which date to between 900 and 2,800 years ago, appear to have belonged to so-called insular dwarfs -- humans who grew smaller as a result of living on an island, the researchers said.

They said their findings, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, show it is possible the same thing happened on the Indonesian island of Flores, where small skeletons dating back 15,000 to 18,000 years ago have intrigued scientists since they were discovered in 2004.

Some groups have proposed that the Flores humans, who would have been about three feet (one meter) tall as adults, represented a distinct species called Homo floresiensis.

Others argue they were small because of nutritional deficiencies, genetic defects or because they were similar to pygmies, dwarfs or other shorter types of people.

Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and colleagues say they cannot explain the Flores skeletons, but said they found some similar remains in Palau, one of the islands of Micronesia.

"These rock islands contain numerous caves and rock shelters, and many of these sites contain abundant fossilized or subfossilized human remains," they wrote in their report, published on the Internet here

"At least ten burial caves have been discovered in the rock islands, and excavations at one of them (Chelechol ra Orrak) has produced the skeletal remains of at least 25 individuals," they added.

Like the skeletons found on Flores, these are very small, with small heads and some features that are considered primitive for modern Homo sapiens, Berger's team said.

They are smaller even than living pygmies, they added.

One adult male would have weighed around 95 pounds (43 kg) and one female would have weighed around 64 pounds (29 kg), they estimated.

Such "insular dwarfism" has been seen in several species of animals including extinct mammoths and elephants from islands off Siberia, California and the Mediterranean.

The Palau skeletons are clearly modern humans, however, the researchers note. They cannot closely examine the skulls yet as they are embedded in rock. The Flores skeleton had very small skulls with tiny brain cases.

(Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Will Dunham and Philip Barbara)

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How wild asses became donkeys of the pharaohs

The ancient Egyptian state was built on the backs of tamed wild asses. Ten skeletons excavated from burial sites of the first Egyptian kings are the best evidence yet that modern-day donkeys emerged through domestication of African wild asses. The 5000-year-old bones also provide the earliest indications that asses were used for transport.

The skeletons suggest that the smaller frames of today's donkeys hadn't yet evolved. Instead, the bones resemble those of modern-day Nubian and Somali wild asses, which are much larger than today's donkeys.

Extensive wear on the joints of the excavated skeletons shows that the animals lived their lives transporting heavy loads. Cargoes may have included stone for a nearby temple at the excavation site in Abydos, 500 kilometres south of Cairo, as well as wine, grain and precious stones.

"This is the very dawn of the Egyptian state, the engine of which was the donkey," says Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, US, a member of the research team.

The only anatomical signs of the transition from ass to donkey are changes in the metatarsal bone of the lower leg, which made the leg more compact – presumably an adaptation to cope with carrying loads.

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Handheld DNA Detector

A researcher at the National University at San Diego has taken a mathematical approach to a biological problem - how to design a portable DNA detector. Writing in the International Journal of Nanotechnology, he describes a mathematical simulation to show how a new type of nanoscale transistor might be coupled to a DNA sensor system to produce a characteristic signal for specific DNA fragments in a sample.

Samuel Afuwape of the National University, in San Diego, California, explains that a portable DNA sequencer could make life easier for environmental scientists testing contaminated sites. Clinicians and medical researchers too could use it to diagnose genetic disorders and study problems in genetics. Such a sensor might also be used to spot the weapons of the bioterrorist or in criminal forensic investigations.

The earliest DNA biosensors used fluorescent labels to target DNA, but these were expensive and slow. The next generation used mediator molecules to speed up the process and labeled enzymes to make the sensors highly selective for their target molecules. None of these systems were portable, however, and the current research trend is towards systems that use no molecular labels and have avoid costly reagents.

Nevertheless, DNA biosensors are already becoming ubiquitous in many areas, but the instrumentation is usually limited to the laboratory setting. Afuwape says that a commercially viable, off-the-shelf handheld DNA biosensor that could be used in environmental, medical, forensics and other applications might be possible if researchers could unravel the basic molecular machinery operating at the interface between sample and detector.

Afuwape suggests that a new type of electronic device, the ion-selective field-effect transistor (ISFET), might be integrated into a DNA biosensor. Such a sensor would be coated with thousands of known DNA sequences that could match up - hybridize - with specific DNA fragments in a given medical or environmental sample.

The key to making the system work is that the ISFET can measure changes in conductivity. Constructing a sensor so that the process of DNA hybridization is coupled to a chemical reaction that generates electricity would produce discrete electronics signals. These signals would be picked up by the ISFET. The characteristic pattern of the signals would correspond to hybridization of a known DNA sequence on the sensor and so could reveal the presence of its counterpart DNA in the sample. Afuwape's mathematical work demonstrates that various known chemical reaction circuits involving DNA could be exploited in such a sensor.

"The ISFET is proving to be a powerful platform on which to design and develop selective, sensitive, and fast miniature DNA sensors," says Afuwape, "such portable DNA sensors will find broad application in medical, agriculture, environmental and bioweapons detection."

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Robotic drumstick keeps novices on the beat

A machine that controls a novice's drumstick to help them learn how to play could be the first of a string of robotic musical teachers. The device has also been found to cut the time it takes to pick up new rhythms, according to a study.

Music teachers often guide a student's hand to get across complex or subtle movements, says Graham Grindlay, a computer scientist who developed the device while at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, US. "I had the idea of a drum kit that would guide you through the playing," he says.

Grindlay previously experimented with guiding a drumsticks tip using magnets, but found a mechanical system more effective.

This approach resulted in what Grindlay has dubbed the Haptic Guidance System (HAGUS), which has a drumstick attached to a set of motors. The user grasps the stick with their arm held in position by an adjacent brace (see image, right) so their hand is guided by the action of the motors.

Haptic interfaces use motorised joysticks or other devices to give people physical feedback or let them feel virtual objects as if they were real.

Drum machine

A skilled drummer can use HAGUS to "record" a specific set of beats for it to later teach to a beginner.

When the novice uses HAGUS and tries to play the same beats, the device guides the drumstick using its motors. In this way it can teach users to alter the tempo, by speeding up or slowing down, or to hit the drum with varying strength to match the expert's playing.

Grindlay used 32 people who had no experience of drumming to test HAGUS's effect on learning new rhythms.

He found that when using the robotic teacher, subjects learned how hard to hit the drum 18% more accurately than when they tried to mimic a rhythm after just hearing it. There was also a smaller beneficial effect on people's timing.

Two-handed approach

"More difficult, coordinated motions would be especially good for this kind of system," Grindlay says. "Usually the approach is to learn to play with each hand separately, and then combine them." But he hopes that using HAGUS devices on both hands at once could help people learn that coordination faster.

Chris Chafe of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University, California, US, says the study does a "wonderful job" of showing how haptics can help learner musicians.

It shows that with the system, he adds, "training goes up and I imagine accuracy of skilled players does, too."

A paper on Hagus will be presented at the IEEE Virtual Reality 2008 conference this week.

Robots - Learn more about the robotics revolution in our continually updated special report.

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March 10, 1876: 'Mr. Watson, Come Here ... '

Alexander Graham Bell demonstrates speaking into the telephone using a model prototype in 1876.
Early Office Museum

1876: Alexander Graham Bell makes the first telephone call in his Boston laboratory, summoning his assistant from the next room.

The Scottish-born Bell had a lifelong interest in the nature of sound. He was born into a family of speech instructors, and his mother and his wife both had hearing impairments. While ostensibly working in 1875 on a device to send multiple telegraph signals over the same wire by using harmonics, he heard a twang.

That led him to investigate whether his electrical apparatus could be used to transmit the sound of a human voice. Bell's journal, now at the Library of Congress, contains the following entry for March 10, 1876:

I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: "Mr. Watson, come here -- I want to see you." To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.

I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, "You said 'Mr. Watson -- come here -- I want to see you.'" We then changed places and I listened at S [the speaker] while Mr. Watson read a few passages from a book into the mouthpiece M. It was certainly the case that articulate sounds proceeded from S. The effect was loud but indistinct and muffled.

Watson's journal, however, says the famous quote was: "Mr. Watson come here I want you."

That disagreement, though, is trifling compared to the long controversy over whether Bell truly invented the telephone. Another inventor, Elisha Gray, was working on a similar device, and recent books claim that Bell not only stole Gray's ideas, but may even have bribed a patent inspector to let him sneak a look at Gray's filing.

After years of litigation, Bell's patents eventually withstood challenges from Gray and others -- perhaps by right, perhaps by virtue of bigger backers and better barristers. In that respect, the controversy recalls the patent battle over the telegraph and foreshadows later squabbles over the automobile, the airplane, the spreadsheet, online shopping carts, web-auction software, and the look and feel of operating systems.

One thing we know for sure: Mr. Watson was at work that day in Bell's lab. The telephone call did not interrupt his dinner with a special offer for home repairs or timeshare vacations in Florida.

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Milanese Children Suffer as City Named Pollution Capital of Europe

After years of close competition, we finally have a clear winner in the “Pollution Capital of Europe” contest.
Image by Trista B

While Milan may be better known for fashion and (everywhere except America) excellent soccer teams, it appears that it’s also the most polluted city in the whole of Europe.

More alarming is the effect the pollution seems to be having. Toxic fumes, mostly from traffic, appear to be raising infant mortality rates and making children across the city sick, according to the city’s Macedonio Melloni hospital.

Ironically, the announcement comes on the heels of the new “ecopass”, a congestion charge designed to help reduce traffic and air pollution in the city.

Milan has very high levels of pm10s, small particles with a diameter of less than 10 micrometres. These are produced mostly by car exhaust and have been linked with breathing problems, heart disease and cancer. The levels of pm10s in Milan have been over the safety limit for 60% of the days since the ecopass was implemented.

Now, a hospital study has shown that children are at high risk of serious health issues when pm10 levels are high. A study at the Milanese hospital compared the admission rates of children with the pm10 levels for the day. In a 10-day period with safe levels, only 176 children were admitted. When pm10 levels topped more than double the safe limit, more than 400 children were admitted in a 10-day period.

Dr Alessandro Fiocchi, lead author of the study, said the results “confirmed the urgent need to limit the damage that is affecting one child in four in the region”.

Emily Backus is the leader of Milan’s Parents Against Smog. She said the ecopass was a token gesture and was not surprised it has had so little effect. Backus said: “The pollution charge introduced January 1 covers just 4 per cent of the city’s territory and is not particularly onerous: a 10-year-old diesel truck can tool about the historic centre for €2.5 with the purchase of 50 passes.”

Perhaps the biggest signifier that pollution is a problem in the city is the response by the fashion elite. Nowadays, smog masks are the newest accessory worn by the Milanese fashion crowd.

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3 Extreme Ways To Go Green

This article was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker, and appears in the March-April 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Recycle, schmecycle. These days, saving the Earth requires a lot more than just collecting cans.

1. Build Your House Out of Tires

Two decades ago, architect Michael Reynolds realized that a tree-hugging utopia would never be possible if homes weren’t inexpensive, easy to build, and environmentally friendly. His solution? The Earthship.

Earthships are built out of used tires that have been packed with dirt and then stacked in a brick-style pattern. Construction is almost obscenely simple, though time-consuming. It can take as long as half an hour to properly pack each tire. But what you lose in free time, you make up for in energy savings. Earthship walls absorb heat quickly and release it slowly, allowing the houses to maintain a natural temperature of around 60 degrees. They also use filtration systems to collect and recycle water so that, even in desert conditions, it doesn’t need to be pumped in. [Images courtesy of Nicaragua Real Estate News.]

While living in an Earthship may take more work than living in a split-level in the suburbs, the eco-friendly homes have become surprisingly popular. Several Earthship subdivisions have opened up in the past few years, including the Greater World Earthship Community near Taos, New Mexico, which was founded in 1994. Greater World residents build their own homes and, in an interesting twist on subdivision bylaws, are expressly forbidden from hooking up to public utilities or digging wells on their land. Here are photos of a few Greater World Earthships:





[Images courtesy of]

2. Fight Oil Spills with Mushrooms

In the war against ocean pollution, environmentalists have a new ally in mushrooms. As nature’s morticians, mushrooms have the unique ability to take dead things and make them pretty again by turning decomposed matter into nutrients. In fact, they’re so adept at tearing down and rebuilding chemical compounds that even oil spills are no match for their natural abilities.

In November 2007, when an oil tanker sprang a leak in San Francisco Bay, 58,000 gallons of oil seeped into the water and beaches. A group of local activists decided to take the cleanup into their own hands, using a technique originally developed to dispose of used motor oil. They headed for the shore and laid out mats made of human hair that were covered in oyster mushrooms. The hair quickly soaked up all the oil, while the mushrooms digested the dangerous chemicals. Within 12 weeks, only harmless compost remained. Although technically illegal (the EPA and the Coast Guard prefer leaving toxic waste to trained cleaning squads), the hair-and-mushroom technique was a success. Actually, the process is so simple and cost-effective that grassroots organizations and local governments are encouraging federal officials to use it as a way to clean up contaminated soil on old factory sites and hurricane-damaged areas of New Orleans.

3. Dumpster-Dive for Dinner

Once upon a time, environmental idealists could make a statement simply by giving up steak. But today the ante has been upped. And freeganism has answered the call.

As the name suggests, freeganism is an off-shoot of veganism, meaning that most practitioners avoid all products made from animals. But the “free” part refers to how freegans get their victuals. Method No. 1? Digging through the dumpster.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans pitch 245 million tons of waste a year, much of which is salvageable. In addition to unfashionable furniture and clothes, plenty of edible food ends up in the garbage. According to unofficial freegan spokesman Adam Weissman, that waste is directly tied to capitalism, which freegans see as an oppressive economic system. To avoid contributing to it, they become scavengers—collecting the vast majority of what they eat, wear, and use from other people’s garbage. Often, these “urban foragers” will meet in designated locations at designated times to rummage together in a group, typically focusing on dumpsters behind retailers, offices, schools, and other places of high-volume disposal.


It’s not as beggarly as you might imagine. Most freegans aren’t homeless, and many of them have 9-to-5 jobs. They eat pretty well, chowing down on practically fresh veggies, day-old bread, and canned goods. Food poisoning is a risk, but smart freegans know to skirt bacteria-prone produce and avoid canned goods that are bulging or oozing. They’re also big on community involvement. Veteran freegans train newbies in dumpster-diving technique and foraging for wild plants. They also organize “freemarkets,” where goods and services are given away or bartered instead of sold. In fact, many trade goods via a Web site called, and the community even has its own section on Craigslist.

Additionally, freegan-run organizations like Food Not Bombs (FNB) reclaim food to cook hot meals for the homeless. Using items that are either donated to them by stores or recovered from the trash, FNB members set up public stations to feed anyone who requests a meal. With chapters in more than 200 cities across the globe, the organization is slowly trying to prove that there is such a thing as a free lunch. [Images courtesy of Emo.ware.]

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