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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

260 - You’ll Never Moonwalk Alone


On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. He didn’t moonwalk alone – ‘Buzz’ Aldrin joined him on the surface – and he didn’t walk far.

After travelling hundreds of thousands of kilometers, the landing crew of the Apollo 11 lunar mission barely covered an area the size of a football pitch.

Many thanks to John Mark Boling for sending in this extremely cool map, found at this page of the NASA history division website.

If ‘football’ makes you think of a game played with helmets, please substitute ’soccer’. And if soccer is too alien for your liking, this map from the same website overlays the ground covered by the Apollo 11 landing team on a baseball diamond

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Mixed signals from NASA about fate of Mars rover

(CNN) -- NASA sent conflicting signals Monday evening about what an official told CNN is a planned $4 million budget cut in NASA's Mars Exploration Rover program.

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An artist's concept of one of the Mars Exploration Rovers on Mars' surface.

Initially the Rover program's principle investigator, Steve Squyres, said one of two vehicles operating on the planet will be suspended because of the cut. He said he learned he would have to trim $4 million from the program's $20 million budget.

He said the move would probably force the rover Spirit into hibernation.

But, he said, the rover could be reactivated if funding is later restored. Squyres also said the cuts would mean layoffs among a staff of 300 scientists who operate and analyze the rovers.

But shortly after CNN.com published the story, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said the agency will not shut down one of the two Mars rovers, according to spokesman Bob Jacobs.

"There is a process that has to be followed for any mission to be canceled and the cancellation of the Mars Exploration Rovers is not under consideration," Jacobs said. "There is an ongoing budget review within the agency's Mars exploration program. However, shutting down of one of the rovers is not an option."

NASA headquarters spokesman Dwayne Brown confirmed the budget directive had been issued. The cut's purpose is to offset cost overruns with the Mars Science Laboratory, a rover set to launch next year, he said.

Spirit was designed, along with its twin, Opportunity, to be a robotic geologist. The rovers have examined Martian rocks and soil, looking for telltale signs of water.

Opportunity hit pay dirt when it found evidence that salty sea once stood in the area now called Meridiani Planum.

NASA spent $800 million to build and launch Spirit and Opportunity to Mars. They landed about three weeks apart in January 2004, on opposite sides of the planet. Both were designed for 90-day missions but are still operating more than four years later.

Squyres also said he has been told to expect an $8 million budget cut in fiscal year 2009.

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Too Much Information? Study Shows How Ignorance Can Be Influential

University of Southern California researchers provide a challenge to the classic economic model of information manipulation, in which knowing more than anybody else is the key to influence. Instead, economists Isabelle Brocas and Juan D. Carrillo present a situation -- commonly observed in real life -- in which all parties have access to the same information, but one party still manages to control public opinion.

For example, a pharmaceutical company such as Merck may be obliged to make public the findings of all studies related to a new drug. Preliminary trials may indicate no short-term side effects, and the company may elect not to perform follow-up trials before releasing the drug on the market.

"Optimally, you want to provide enough information so the other party reaches a certain level of confidence, but stop once you reach that level," Brocas explained. "Otherwise, it may be the case that more information causes the confidence level to go down."

The study, "Influence Through Ignorance," is the first to thoroughly examine situations in which power comes from controlling the flow of public information, as opposed to the possession of private information.

As Brocas and Carrillo explain, there are secrets -- facts that are deliberately withheld -- and there are facts that are not known to anybody.

"It's not necessary to have extra information," Brocas said. "You can induce people to do what you want just by stopping the flow of information or continuing it. That's enough."

Notably, the party manipulating the flow of information must deliberately choose to remain uninformed as well -- which can backfire.

In Merck's case, a study released five years after the drug was introduced on the market showed that taking Vioxx significantly increased the risk of heart attacks. Merck funded the study, which had been intended to see if the painkiller was also effective against colon polyps.

Now, embroiled in a $4.85 billion settlement, the company claims that Vioxx poses no statistically significant long-term risk to the heart once it is no longer taken. This claim is disputed: Merck stopped monitoring patients after only a year, discontinuing the study once the drug was taken off the market.

Similarly, the researchers explain, the head of a council may terminate discussion and introduction of new evidence about, say, whether to continue searching for weapons of mass destruction. Calling for a vote when sentiment seems biased in a certain direction effectively curtails how much all members, including the chairperson, know about the issue at stake.

"Overall, the ability of to control the flow of news and remain publicly ignorant gives the leader some power, which is used to influence the actions of the follower," the researchers wrote. "Our result suggests that the chairperson, the President and media can bias the decision of the committee, electorate and public by strategically restricting the flow of information."

Brocas and Carrillo are in the midst of a follow-up to the study that gauges how well individuals intuitively understand the "influence through ignorance" phenomenon: "We're interested in whether people understand their ability to manipulate information and if they do it optimally," Brocas said.

The paper also provide implications for several important variants, such as how public opinion is affected when there is more than one source of information available to everyone and it is not excessively costly to obtain.

Competition, supported by media diversity and public sources of research funding, not only induces outlets to release more information but also causes the "influence through ignorance" effect to diminish -- and under certain circumstances to vanish -- the researchers found.

Journal reference: Brocas, Isabelle and Juan D. Carrillo, "Influence Through Ignorance." The RAND Journal of Economics: 38:4; 931-947. DOI: 10.1111/j.0741-6261.2007.00119.x

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

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Paint on Solar Power!


Installing solar panels on the roof of every new building in the world would go a long way towards solving our energy needs, but as we all know, solar panels are costly and often difficult to install. But what if the solar panel was an integral part of every building? What if solar cells could be painted on building products? Well, according to a team from Swansea University this type of technology will soon be coming to a hardware store near you.

The Swansea Solar Paint project is led by Dave Worsley, who, together with his team, were researching ways to make make steel last longer. By chance that they started to focus on the degradation of paints in steel surfaces, when they realized that their research could lead them to develop a new way of getting energy from the sun.

The idea is to coat every piece of steel cladding with a solar cell paint. As steel is passed through the rollers multiple coatings of of the solar cell system are applied to it. Based on the preliminary research, the materials that are being applied are suited to capturing low level solar radiation, which means that they should work just as well in areas where the sun doesn’t directly shine on them.

It’s not the first project which aims to develop paint that can convert solar energy into electricity, longtime readers will probably remember this project, from a few months ago. What is interesting about this one, is that the process, if successful, can be scaled massively and quickly. Think about the possibilities of having every roof clad with a durable, electricity-generating steel finish!

If the Solar Paint project gets off the ground, it is expected that they would be able to press around 30 to 40m2 a minute. This may not sound like much, but put it into perspective: according to Dr. Worsley, if all the steel cladding produced by just one manufacturer was produced to be energy generating, at a very conservative energy exchange rate of 5%, it would be the equivalent of 50 wind farms, or roughly 4,500 gigawatts of electricity, per year. If you ask us, this is a project that might be worth looking into.

+ Colorful idea sparks renewable electricity from paint @ Swansea University


+ Paint on Solar Panels on Inhabitat 2007


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Huge Antarctic ice chunk collapses

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A chunk of Antarctic ice about seven times the size of Manhattan suddenly collapsed, putting an even greater portion of glacial ice at risk, scientists said Tuesday.

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Scientists flocked to take pictures and shoot video after a massive chunk of the Wilkins ice shelf collapsed in Antarctica.

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Satellite images show the runaway disintegration of a 160-square-mile chunk in western Antarctica, which started February 28. It was the edge of the Wilkins ice shelf and has been there for hundreds, maybe 1,500 years.

This is the result of global warming, said British Antarctic Survey scientist David Vaughan.

Because scientists noticed satellite images within hours, they diverted satellite cameras and even flew an airplane over the ongoing collapse for rare pictures and video.

"It's an event we don't get to see very often," said Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. "The cracks fill with water and slice off and topple... That gets to be a runaway situation."

While icebergs naturally break away from the mainland, collapses like this are unusual but are happening more frequently in recent decades, Vaughan said. The collapse is similar to what happens to hardened glass when it is smashed with a hammer, he said.

The rest of the Wilkins ice shelf, which is about the size of Connecticut, is holding on by a narrow beam of thin ice. Scientists worry that it too may collapse. Larger, more dramatic ice collapses occurred in 2002 and 1995.

Vaughan had predicted the Wilkins shelf would collapse about 15 years from now.

Scientists said they are not concerned about a rise in sea level from the latest event in Antarctica, but say it's a sign of worsening global warming.

Such occurrences are "more indicative of a tipping point or trigger in the climate system," said Sarah Das, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

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