Friday, March 28, 2008

A mission to Mars, in Utah

Dress rehearsal: Members of an international group negotiate terrain at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. Team members test crew composition, tactics, and tools.
Dress rehearsal: Members of an international group negotiate terrain at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. Team members test crew composition, tactics, and tools.
courtesy of perry edmundson/expedition delta
  • Dress rehearsal: Members of an international group negotiate terrain at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. Team members test crew composition, tactics, and tools.
  • Biologist Cheryl Wartman tests crew composition, tactics, and tools at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah.
  • Home base: A two-level research station houses rotating teams working to establish practices that will transfer to eventual exploration of the Red Planet.

Research from desert simulations aimed at easing life on an eventual Red Planet trip.

Phillip Cunio celebrated his wife's birthday from Mars. He held a card up to his habitat webcam so she could see it online, and fellow crew members baked a cake.

Granted, this "Mars" was the Utah desert, but spending two weeks on a simulated mission to the Red Planet gave him a taste of what it would be like to fulfill his dream. And the freeze-dried flavor didn't dampen his enthusiasm.

Mr. Cunio moved into the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), just outside Hanksville, Utah, to test equipment being developed by the Space Logistics Project and other partners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. (

He was part of an eight-person international crew including engineers, a biologist, and a GPS expert all doing their own research. For two weeks, they traded earthly conveniences for scientific progress. They imposed a delay of roughly 20 minutes on e-mails. When they ventured outside their cylindrical two-level habitat, they had to wait in an airlock and don bulky simulated spacesuits – complete with boots, ski gloves, and bulbous helmets.

The Mars Society has been running mock missions since 2002 to promote – and prepare for – sending humans to a frontier that only telescopes and rovers have explored so far. "It's kind of a dress rehearsal," says Robert Zubrin, president and founder of the nonprofit society based in Lakewood, Colo. "We're looking to see what would work on Mars and what wouldn't – what skill mix, what character mix, what set of tools...." The society also operates a research station in Canada's Devon Island in the Arctic.

Mr. Zubrin believes a Mars program could inspire this generation of youths the way the 1960s moon program inspired him. The technology would be ready if the new American president would commit next year, he says: "We could be on Mars before the end of their second term."

During Cunio's mission in February, he tracked supplies in the MIT research team's Smart Small Logistics Container – garbage bags, batteries, latex gloves. Using RFID (radio-frequency identification), the small hexagonal container can communicate via a Web-based server when items have been removed and replaced.

Fellow MIT graduate student Arthur Guest did his two-week stint at the research station first, to set up and test the container, while Cunio and engineers from Aurora Flight Sciences provided remote support in Cambridge. Then the two switched places.

"This technology can be used for any exploration mission," Mr. Guest says. The Utah station "gives you a chance to take your idea, which you've designed in the laboratory setting, and then actually see how it works in a simulated environment," he adds. Cunio and a crewmate took the logistics container outside, walked 100 meters out and back, and strapped it to an ATV to test its transportability.

But time for research is restricted by the time needed for daily chores. The crew maintains a small greenhouse, which supplements their freeze-dried diet with hints of fresh food. Taking spacesuits on and off, and cleaning them, also takes time.

"Hygiene is conducted with a minimum of water," Cunio wrote in an e-mail from the habitat. For a "chemshower ... I use concentrated biodegradable soap ... a washcloth, the waterless shampoo, and some alcohol wipes.... It feels almost as refreshing as a regular shower."

The payoff is the feeling of being on Mars. "Some of the landscapes and geography in the Utah desert, with the red rocks and the outcrops, look a lot like the Martian environment that we're seeing from the exploration rovers that are there right now," Guest says. "You can see in all directions, and [you get] that feeling of isolation."

Two weeks is much shorter than the 2-1/2 years that Zubrin estimates for a real trip to Mars (six months to travel each way and a year and a half of field research). "You want to go to Mars with people who can laugh," he says. "If you lose your sense of humor, you're finished."

Cunio developed space wanderlust as a kid watching Cape Canaveral launches from his backyard in nearby Titusville, Fla. In high school, engineers and NASA employees mentored him. Now he's passing his discoveries on to the next generation.

During the second week of his mission, students sent Cunio questions and he answered over Skype. The fourth- to eighth-graders who tuned in at Parkside Christian Academy in Boston "asked about the force of gravity, spacesuits, and how dust storms start," says their teacher, Michael Dixon.

A graduate of MIT who teaches and runs a popular technology club at the school, Mr. Dixon had already brought in Cunio as a guest teacher before, and he says the personal connection made the lessons about Mars that much more engaging. "We're primarily an inner-city school ... and anytime you have exposure to things you normally wouldn't have exposure to, it's invaluable."

Cunio had to get permission to "break sim" (step out of the Mars simulation), he writes, because he wouldn't be able to use Skype if he were really on Mars.

He says that given an opportunity, no mission to Mars would be too long – if his wife could go with him. "I would even stay permanently if that were the only way to go."

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Amazing pictures as shuttle makes return to Earth after record 16-day mission to space station

The space shuttle Endeavour and its crew of seven have returned to Earth after a record 16-day mission that delivered part of a Japanese lab and a Canadian robot to the International Space Station.

After touching down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Endeavour's commander, Dominic Gorie said: "It was a super-rewarding mission, exciting from the start to the ending."

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Endeavour was supposed to land before sunset, but at virtually the last minute, clouds moved in.

As the astronauts took an extra swing around the planet, the sky cleared enough to satisfy flight controllers and - after asking Gorie for his opinion - they gave him the green light to head home.

It was only the 22nd space shuttle landing in darkness. Less than one-fifth of all missions have ended at nighttime; the last one was in 2006.

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Captured against the stunning backdrop of the Earth, an astronaut hangs precariously 250 miles above the Earth as the International Space Station hurtles through space at 17,000mph.

The £70billion structure - a giant network of pressurised cabins, solar panels and radiators - is now in its tenth year of construction yet still is only about 70 per cent complete.

Orbiting the Earth once every 90 minutes, it is the second-brightest thing in the night sky after the Moon and also the most expensive object ever built.

The station is designed to carry out scientific research and test the effects of life in space on humans - all in preparation for the day when mankind (eventually) ventures to Mars.

Due to be completed in 2010 and expected to operate until at least 2016, it has been continuously occupied by an average of three astronauts since the first crew arrived in November 2000.

While the scale of the space station has captured the imagination of many, it has also attracted its fair share of criticism.

Sceptics say the venture - a joint collaboration between America, Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada and Brazil - is a waste of money that could have gone to more useful experiments in space.

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Connected to the ISS by a wire and sweltering in a pressurised space suit, movement is cumbersome and difficult. Astronauts wear a rocket pack to control their movements

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But whatever the arguments about its usefulness, the specifications are mind-boggling. When finished, it will be made of 14 pressurised modules which serve as living quarters, corridors, science laboratories, airlocks, storage and docking compartments.

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Power for the ISS comes from the sun - and is collected by four pairs of vast solar panels, one of which can be seen here

The modules are connected to a giant truss 231ft long.

Power comes from a giant solar panel array which stretches nearly 200ft from the ship and is constantly tilted by computers so the panels face the sun.

These stunning images were taken from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which has just finished a mammoth two-week construction job.

The shuttle delivered the latest 14ft-long storage unit as well as a giant, two-armed robot called Dextre, which cost an eye-watering £100million.

Nasa has ten more flights scheduled to the space station before it retires its ageing Shuttle fleet in 2010.

After that, crews will be ferried to the station on Russian and European spacecraft.

In the meantime, constant work goes on inside ... and out.

Just don't drop the spanner.

The crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour carried out a record five spacewalks on their gruelling 12-day visit to the 200ft-long space station

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2-Seat Rockets for Space Tourism?

(LOS ANGELES) —A California aerospace company plans to enter the space tourism industry with a two-seat rocket ship capable of suborbital flights to altitudes more than 37 miles above the Earth.

The Lynx, about the size of a small private plane, is expected to begin flying in 2010, according to developer Xcor Aerospace, which planned to release details of the design at a news conference Wednesday.

The company also said that, pending the outcome of negotiations, the Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded it a research contract to develop and test features of the Lynx. No details were released.

Xcor's announcement comes two months after aerospace designer Burt Rutan and billionaire Richard Branson unveiled a model of SpaceShipTwo, which is being built for Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism company and may begin test flights this year.

Xcor intends to be a spaceship builder, with another company operating the Lynx and setting prices.

The Lynx is designed to take off from a runway like a normal plane, reach a top speed of Mach 2 and an altitude of 200,000 feet, then descend in a circling glide to a runway landing.

Shaped something like a bulked-up version of the Rutan-designed Long-EZ homebuilt aircraft, its wings will be located toward the rear of the fuselage, with vertical winglets at the tips.

Powered by clean-burning, fully reuseable, liquid-fuel engines, the Lynx is expected to be capable of making several flights a day, Xcor said.

"We have designed this vehicle to operate much like a commercial aircraft," Xcor Chief Executive Officer Jeff Greason said in a statement.

Greason said the Lynx will provide affordable access to space for individuals and researchers, and future versions will offer improved capabilities for research and commercial uses.

Xcor has spent nine years developing rocket engines in a facility down the flightline from Rutan's Scaled Composites LLC at the Mojave Airport north of Los Angeles. It has built and flown two rocket-powered aircraft.

SpaceShipTwo is being developed on the success of SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first privately funded, manned rocket to reach space, making three flights to altitudes between 62 miles and 69 miles and winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Powered by a hybrid engine _ the gas nitrous oxide combined with rubber as a solid fuel _ SpaceShipTwo will be flown by two pilots and carry up to six passengers who will pay about $200,000 apiece for the ride.

Like its predecessor, SpaceShipTwo will be taken aloft by a carrier airplane and then released before firing its rocket engine. Virgin Galactic says passengers will experience about 4 1/2 minutes of weightlessness and will be able to unbuckle themselves to float in the cabin before returning to Earth as an unpowered glider.

Xcor's Lynx also is intended to return as a glider but with the capability of restarting its engine if needed.

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Futurist Ray Kurzweil Pulls Out All the Stops (and Pills) to Live to Witness the Singularity

Ray Kurzweil, the famous inventor, is trim, balding, and not very tall. With his perfect posture and narrow black glasses, he would look at home in an old documentary about Cape Canaveral, but his mission is bolder than any mere voyage into space. He is attempting to travel across a frontier in time, to pass through the border between our era and a future so different as to be unrecognizable. He calls this border the singularity. Kurzweil is 60, but he intends to be no more than 40 when the singularity arrives.

Kurzweil's notion of a singularity is taken from cosmology, in which it signifies a border in spacetime beyond which normal rules of measurement do not apply (the edge of a black hole, for example). The word was first used to describe a crucial moment in the evolution of humanity by the great mathematician John von Neumann. One day in the 1950s, while talking with his colleague Stanislaw Ulam, von Neumann began discussing the ever-accelerating pace of technological change, which, he said, "gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs as we know them could not continue."

Many years later, this idea was picked up by another mathematician, the professor and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who added an additional twist. Vinge linked the singularity directly with improvements in computer hardware. This put the future on a schedule. He could look at how quickly computers were improving and make an educated guess about when the singularity would arrive. "Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence," Vinge wrote at the beginning of his 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era. "Shortly after, the human era will be ended." According to Vinge, superintelligent machines will take charge of their own evolution, creating ever smarter successors. Humans will become bystanders in history, too dull in comparison with their devices to make any decisions that matter.

Kurzweil transformed the singularity from an interesting speculation into a social movement. His best-selling books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near cover everything from unsolved problems in neuroscience to the question of whether intelligent machines should have legal rights. But the crucial thing that Kurzweil did was to make the end of the human era seem actionable: He argues that while artificial intelligence will render biological humans obsolete, it will not make human consciousness irrelevant. The first AIs will be created, he says, as add-ons to human intelligence, modeled on our actual brains and used to extend our human reach. AIs will help us see and hear better. They will give us better memories and help us fight disease. Eventually, AIs will allow us to conquer death itself. The singularity won't destroy us, Kurzweil says. Instead, it will immortalize us.

There are singularity conferences now, and singularity journals. There has been a congressional report about confronting the challenges of the singularity, and late last year there was a meeting at the NASA Ames Research Center to explore the establishment of a singularity university. The meeting was called by Peter Diamandis, who established the X Prize. Attendees included senior government researchers from NASA, a noted Silicon Valley venture capitalist, a pioneer of private space exploration, and two computer scientists from Google.

At this meeting, there was some discussion about whether this university should avoid the provocative term singularity, with its cosmic connotations, and use a more ordinary phrase, like accelerating change. Kurzweil argued strongly against backing off. He is confident that the word will take hold as more and more of his astounding predictions come true.

Kurzweil does not believe in half measures. He takes 180 to 210 vitamin and mineral supplements a day, so many that he doesn't have time to organize them all himself. So he's hired a pill wrangler, who takes them out of their bottles and sorts them into daily doses, which he carries everywhere in plastic bags. Kurzweil also spends one day a week at a medical clinic, receiving intravenous longevity treatments. The reason for his focus on optimal health should be obvious: If the singularity is going to render humans immortal by the middle of this century, it would be a shame to die in the interim. To perish of a heart attack just before the singularity occurred would not only be sad for all the ordinary reasons, it would also be tragically bad luck, like being the last soldier shot down on the Western Front moments before the armistice was proclaimed.

In his childhood, Kurzweil was a technical prodigy. Before he turned 13, he'd fashioned telephone relays into a calculating device that could find square roots. At 14, he wrote software that analyzed statistical deviance; the program was distributed as standard equipment with the new IBM 1620. As a teenager, he cofounded a business that matched high school students with colleges based on computer evaluation of a mail-in questionnaire. He sold the company to Harcourt, Brace & World in 1968 for $100,000 plus royalties and had his first small fortune while still an undergraduate at MIT.

Though Kurzweil was young, it would have been a poor bet to issue him life insurance using standard actuarial tables. He has unlucky genes: His father died of heart disease at 58, his grandfather in his early forties. He himself was diagnosed with high cholesterol and incipient type 2 diabetes — both considered to be significant risk factors for early death — when only 35. He felt his bad luck as a cloud hanging over his life.

Still, the inventor squeezed a lot of achievement out of these early years. In his twenties, he tackled a science fiction type of problem: teaching computers to decipher words on a page and then read them back aloud. At the time, common wisdom held that computers were too slow and too expensive to master printed text in all its forms, at least in a way that was commercially viable.

But Kurzweil had a special confidence that grew from a habit of mind he'd been cultivating for years: He thought exponentially. To illustrate what this means, consider the following quiz: 2, 4, ?, ?.

What are the missing numbers? Many people will say 6 and 8. This suggests a linear function. But some will say the missing numbers are 8 and 16. This suggests an exponential function. (Of course, both answers are correct. This is a test of thinking style, not math skills.)

Human minds have a lot of practice with linear patterns. If we set out on a walk, the time it takes will vary linearly with the distance we're going. If we bill by the hour, our income increases linearly with the number of hours we work. Exponential change is also common, but it's harder to see. Financial advisers like to tantalize us by explaining how a tiny investment can grow into a startling sum through the exponential magic of compound interest. But it's psychologically difficult to heed their advice. For years, an interest-bearing account increases by depressingly tiny amounts. Then, in the last moment, it seems to jump. Exponential growth is unintuitive, because it can be imperceptible for a long time and then move shockingly fast. It takes training and experience, and perhaps a certain analytical coolness, to trust in exponential curves whose effects cannot be easily perceived.

Moore's law — the observation by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles roughly every 18 months — is another example of exponential change. For people like Kurzweil, it is the key example, because Moore's law and its many derivatives suggest that just about any limit on computing power today will be overcome in short order. While Kurzweil was working on his reading machine, computers were improving, and they were indeed improving exponentially. The payoff came on January 13, 1976, when Walter Cronkite's famous sign-off — "and that's the way it is" — was read not by the anchorman but by the synthetic voice of a Kurzweil Reading Machine. Stevie Wonder was the first customer.

The original reader was the size of a washing machine. It read slowly and cost $50,000. One day late last year, as a winter storm broke across New England, I stood in Kurzweil's small office suite in suburban Boston, playing with the latest version. I hefted it in my hand, stuck it in my pocket, pulled it out again, then raised it above a book flopped open on the table. A bright light flashed, and a voice began reading aloud. The angle of the book, the curve of its pages, the uneven shadows — none of that was a problem. The mechanical voice picked up from the numerals on the upper left corner — ... four hundred ten. The singularity is near. The continued opportunity to alleviate human distress is one key motivation for continuing technological advancement — and continued down the page in an artificial monotone. Even after three decades of improvement, Kurzweil's reader is a dull companion. It expresses no emotion. However, it is functionally brilliant to the point of magic. It can handle hundreds of fonts and any size book. It doesn't mind being held at an angle by an unsteady hand. Not only that, it also makes calls: Computers have become so fast and small they've nearly disappeared, and the Kurzweil reader is now just software running on a Nokia phone.

In the late '70s, Kurzweil's character-recognition algorithms were used to scan legal documents and articles from newspapers and magazines. The result was the Lexis and Nexis databases. And a few years later, Kurzweil released speech recognition software that is the direct ancestor of today's robot customer service agents. Their irritating mistakes taking orders and answering questions would seem to offer convincing evidence that real AI is still many years away. But Kurzweil draws the opposite conclusion. He admits that not everything he has invented works exactly as we might wish. But if you will grant him exponential progress, the fact that we already have virtual robots standing in for retail clerks, and cell phones that read books out loud, is evidence that the world is about to change in even more fantastical ways.

Look at it this way: If the series of numbers in the quiz mentioned earlier is linear and progresses for 100 steps, the final entry is 200. But if progress is exponential, then the final entry is 1,267,650,600,228,229,400,000,000,000,000. Computers will soon be smarter than humans. Nobody has to die.

In a small medical office on the outskirts of Denver, with windows overlooking the dirty snow and the golden arches of a fast-food mini-mall, one of the world's leading longevity physicians, Terry Grossman, works on keeping Ray Kurzweil alive. Kurzweil is not Grossman's only client. The doctor charges $6,000 per appointment, and wealthy singularitarians from all over the world visit him to plan their leap into the future.

Grossman's patient today is Matt Philips, 32, who became independently wealthy when Yahoo bought the Internet advertising company where he worked for four years. A young medical technician is snipping locks of his hair, and another is extracting small vials of blood. Philips is in good shape at the moment, but he is aware that time marches on. "I'm dying slowly. I can't feel it, but I know its happening, little by little, cell by cell," he wrote on his intake questionnaire. Philips has read Kurzweil's books. He is a smart, skeptical person and accepts that the future is not entirely predictable, but he also knows the meaning of upside. At worst, his money buys him new information about his health. At best, it makes him immortal.

"The normal human lifespan is about 125 years," Grossman tells him. But Philips wasn't born until 1975, so he starts with an advantage. "I think somebody your age, and in your condition, has a reasonable chance of making it across the first bridge," Grossman says.

According to Grossman and other singularitarians, immortality will arrive in stages. First, lifestyle and aggressive antiaging therapies will allow more people to approach the 125-year limit of the natural human lifespan. This is bridge one. Meanwhile, advanced medical technology will begin to fix some of the underlying biological causes of aging, allowing this natural limit to be surpassed. This is bridge two. Finally, computers become so powerful that they can model human consciousness. This will permit us to download our personalities into nonbiological substrates. When we cross this third bridge, we become information. And then, as long as we maintain multiple copies of ourselves to protect against a system crash, we won't die.

Kurzweil himself started across the first bridge in 1988. That year, he confronted the risk that had been haunting him and began to treat his body as a machine. He read up on the latest nutritional research, adopted the Pritikin diet, cut his fat intake to 10 percent of his calories, lost 40 pounds, and cured both his high cholesterol and his incipient diabetes. Kurzweil wrote a book about his experience, The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life. But this was only the beginning.

Kurzweil met Grossman at a Foresight Nanotech Institute meeting in 1999, and they became research partners. Their object of investigation was Kurzweil's body. Having cured himself of his most pressing health problems, Kurzweil was interested in adopting the most advanced medical and nutritional technologies, but it wasn't easy to find a doctor willing to tolerate his persistent questions. Grossman was building a new type of practice, focused not on illness but on the pursuit of optimal health and extreme longevity. The two men exchanged thousands of emails, sharing speculations about which cutting-edge discoveries could be safely tried.

Though both Grossman and Kurzweil respect science, their approach is necessarily improvisational. If a therapy has some scientific promise and little risk, they'll try it. Kurzweil gets phosphatidylcholine intravenously, on the theory that this will rejuvenate all his body's tissues. He takes DHEA and testosterone. Both men use special filters to produce alkaline water, which they drink between meals in the hope that negatively charged ions in the water will scavenge free radicals and produce a variety of health benefits. This kind of thing may seem like quackery, especially when promoted by various New Age outfits touting the "pH miracle of living." Kurzweil and Grossman justify it not so much with scientific citations — though they have a few — but with a tinkerer's shrug. "Life is not a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study," Grossman explains. "We don't have that luxury. We are operating with incomplete information. The best we can do is experiment with ourselves."

Obviously, Kurzweil has no plan for retirement. He intends to sustain himself indefinitely through his intelligence, which he hopes will only grow. A few years ago he deployed an automated system for making money on the stock market, called FatKat, which he uses to direct his own hedge fund. He also earns about $1 million a year in speaking fees.

Meanwhile, he tries to safeguard his well-being. As a driver he is cautious. He frequently bicycles through the Boston suburbs, which is good for physical conditioning but also puts his immortality on the line. For most people, such risks blend into the background of life, concealed by a cheerful fatalism that under ordinary conditions we take as a sign of mental health. But of course Kurzweil objects to this fatalism. He wants us to try harder to survive.

His plea is often ignored. Kurzweil has written about the loneliness of being a singularitarian. This may seem an odd complaint, given his large following, but there is something to it. A dozen of his fans may show up in Denver every month to initiate longevity treatments, but many of them, like Matt Philips, are simply hedging their bets. Most health fanatics remain agnostic, at best, on the question of immortality.

Kurzweil predicts that by the early 2030s, most of our fallible internal organs will have been replaced by tiny robots. We'll have "eliminated the heart, lungs, red and white blood cells, platelets, pancreas, thyroid and all the hormone-producing organs, kidneys, bladder, liver, lower esophagus, stomach, small intestines, large intestines, and bowel. What we have left at this point is the skeleton, skin, sex organs, sensory organs, mouth and upper esophagus, and brain."

In outlining these developments, Kurzweil's tone is so calm and confident that he seems to be describing the world as it is today, rather than some distant, barely imaginable future. This is because his prediction falls out cleanly from the equations he's proposed. Knowledge doubles every year, Kurzweil says. He has estimated the number of computations necessary to simulate a human brain. The rest is simple math.

But wait. There may be something wrong. Kurzweil's theory of accelerating change is meant to be a universal law, applicable wherever intelligence is found. It's fine to say that knowledge doubles every year. But then again, what is a year? A year is an astronomical artifact. It is the length of time required by Earth to make one orbit around our unexceptional star. A year is important to our nature, to our biology, to our fantasies and dreams. But it is a strange unit to discover in a general law.

"Doubling every year," I say to Kurzweil, "makes your theory sound like a wish."

He's not thrown off. A year, he replies, is just shorthand. The real equation for accelerating world knowledge is much more complicated than that. (In his book, he gives it as: .)

He has examined the evidence, and welcomes debate on the minor details. If you accept his basic premise of accelerating growth, he'll yield a little on the date he predicts the singularity will occur. After all, concede accelerating growth and the exponential fuse is lit. At the end you get that big bang: an explosion in intelligence that yields immortal life.

Despite all this, people continue to disbelieve. There is a lively discussion among experts about the validity of Moore's law. Kurzweil pushes Moore's law back to the dawn of time, and forward to the end of the universe. But many computer scientists and historians of technology wonder if it will last another decade. Some suspect that the acceleration of computing power has already slowed.

There are also philosophical objections. Kurzweil's theory is that super-intelligent computers will necessarily be human, because they will be modeled on the human brain. But there are other types of intelligence in the world — for instance, the intelligence of ant colonies — that are alien to humanity. Grant that a computer, or a network of computers, might awaken. The consciousness of the this fabulous AI might remain as incomprehensible to us as we are to the protozoa.

Other pessimists point out that the brain is more than raw processing power. It also has a certain architecture, a certain design. It is attached to specific type of nervous system, it accepts only particular kinds of inputs. Even with better computational speed driving our thoughts, we might still be stuck in a kind of evolutionary dead end, incapable of radical self-improvement.

And these are the merely intellectual protests Kurzweil receives. The fundamental cause for loneliness, if you are a prophet of the singularity, is probably more profound. It stems from the simple fact that the idea is so strange. "Death has been a ubiquitous, ever-present facet of human society," says Kurzweil's friend Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius radio and chair of United Therapeutics, a biotech firm on whose board Kurzweil sits. "To tell people you are going to defeat death is like telling people you are going to travel back in time. It has never been done. I would be surprised if people had a positive reaction."

To press his case, Kurzweil is writing and producing an autobiographical movie, with walk-ons by Alan Dershowitz and Tony Robbins. Kurzweil appears in two guises, as himself and as an intelligent computer named Ramona, played by an actress. Ramona has long been the inventor's virtual alter ego and the expression of his most personal goals. "Women are more interesting than men," he says, "and if it's more interesting to be with a woman, it is probably more interesting to be a woman." He hopes one day to bring Ramona to life, and to have genuine human experiences, both with her and as her. Kurzweil has been married for 32 years to his wife, Sonya Kurzweil. They have two children — one at Stanford University, one at Harvard Business School. "I don't necessarily only want to be Ramona," he says. "It's not necessarily about gender confusion, it's just about freedom to express yourself."

Kurzweil's movie offers a taste of the drama such a future will bring. Ramona is on a quest to attain full legal rights as a person. She agrees to take a Turing test, the classic proof of artificial intelligence, but although Ramona does her best to masquerade as human, she falls victim to one of the test's subtle flaws: Humans have limited intelligence. A computer that appears too smart will fail just as definitively as one that seems too dumb. "She loses because she is too clever!" Kurzweil says.

The inventor's sympathy with his robot heroine is heartfelt. "If you're just very good at doing mathematical theorems and making stock market investments, you're not going to pass the Turing test," Kurzweil acknowledged in 2006 during a public debate with noted computer scientist David Gelernter. Kurzweil himself is brilliant at math, and pretty good at stock market investments. The great benefits of the singularity, for him, do not lie here. "Human emotion is really the cutting edge of human intelligence," he says. "Being funny, expressing a loving sentiment — these are very complex behaviors."

One day, sitting in his office overlooking the suburban parking lot, I ask Kurzweil if being a singularitarian makes him happy. "If you took a poll of primitive man, happiness would be getting a fire to light more easily," he says. "But we've expanded our horizon, and that kind of happiness is now the wrong thing to focus on. Extending our knowledge and casting a wider net of consciousness is the purpose of life." Kurzweil expects that the world will soon be entirely saturated by thought. Even the stones may compute, he says, within 200 years.

Every day he stays alive brings him closer to this climax in intelligence, and to the time when Ramona will be real. Kurzweil is a technical person, but his goal is not technical in this respect. Yes, he wants to become a robot. But the robots of his dreams are complex, funny, loving machines. They are as human as he hopes to be.

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Living Upside-down Shapes Spiders For Energy Saving

An "upside-down" spider, Uloborus sp. from Almería (Spain). (Credit: Eva De Mas)

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Spain and Croatia led an investigation into the peculiar lifestyle of numerous spider species, which live, feed, breed and 'walk' in an upside-down hanging position. According to their results, such 'unconventional' enterprise drives a shape in spiders that confers high energy efficiency, as in oscillatory pendulums.

The great majority of land animals evolved to use the ground as the main support for their motion. Accordingly, they evolved legs capable of supporting the weight of their whole bodies, enabling them to move around with their heads above their feet. However, many spider species found it more convenient to literally turn their world upside down. They spend most of their lives hanging suspended by their legs, and 'walk' by swinging under the influence of gravity.

Intrigued by this evolutionary phenomenon, a team of biologists from the Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas (CSIC, Almería) in Spain, joined by an astrophysicist from the University of Split, Croatia, conducted an inquiry into biological advantages and caveats of such a peculiar lifestyle by studying over a hundred spider species. One of their focal questions was the evolutionary importance of 'bridging' -- the technique many spiders use to move between remote plants by building their own silk bridges, which they cross by 'walking' suspended upside-down from them.

Earlier research by other authors indicated that for monkeys this suspensory way of locomotion might be a more energetically efficient way of transportation than 'regular' walking on the ground. To this end, the authors took several spider species into the laboratory and compared how they handle two different types of movement - walking on the ground and bridging from branch to branch.

"We discovered that spiders that live upside-down have evolved disproportionately longer legs relative to 'normal' spiders, which enables them to move faster while bridging than while 'normally walking' on the ground. Particularly 'clumsy' walkers are larger spiders, because their long legs -- otherwise so convenient for bridging -- do not allow an easy lifting of their relatively large body mass" says Dr. Jordi Moya-Laraño from Spain, the principal investigator on this project.

For Dr. Dejan Vinkovi, astrophysicist from Croatia, this research is more than a biology study. "As a physicist, I was particularly interested in the energetics of upside-down locomotion" he says. "With this research we finally proved that the energetic efficiency of such motion stems from the same physical principle used to run the grandfather's clock -- motion of a pendulum under the influence of gravity."

Dr. Eulalia Moreno, co-author of the study, adds: "We started this collaboration with Dr. Moya-Laraño because I had studied the form and function of legs in tits, birds that, similarly to spiders, hang upside-down while foraging. Now, we have a much better understanding of how an animal shape should evolve when animals spent most of their lifetime hanging upside-down."

These results have implications for the evolution and ecology of spiders. For example, small spiders that hang from their webs should be able to leave their webs in search for prey by walking on the ground, as found in some tiny spiders, something that large spiders will be unable to do efficiently.

Journal reference: Moya-Laraño J, Vinkovi D, De Mas E, Corcobado G, Moreno E (2008) Morphological Evolution of Spiders Predicted by Pendulum Mechanics. PLoS One 3(3): e1841. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001841

Adapted from materials provided by Public Library of Science, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.


Public Library of Science (2008, March 26). Living Upside-down Shapes Spiders For Energy Saving. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 28, 2008, from­ /releases/2008/03/080325203450.htm

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Slow parenting part three: let babies learn to think for themselves

Being force-fed classical music and foreign languages does not make a child genius. In fact, it can lead to anxiety and aggression, says author Carl Honoré in our final extract from his new book

Babies listening to music
Too much, too young: any beneficial effects of listening to classical music as a baby last just 20 minutes

When researchers in the Nineties found that listening to Mozart enhanced university students' spatial reasoning, an entire industry sprang up based on the claim that flooding the nursery with piano concerti could boost a baby's brain.

Today, you can still buy albums and DVDs trumpeting the so-called "Mozart effect". The only problem is that the Mozart effect is nonsense.

In 2007, the German research ministry finally commissioned a crack team of neuroscientists, psychologists, educationalists and philosophers to investigate all the research done on the phenomenon.

Their conclusion: even if listening to Mozart does boost spatial-temporal reasoning (and not all studies have shown this), the effect lasts no more than 20 minutes.

A misreading of science, coupled with soaring expectations, also fuels many doomed attempts to teach foreign languages to infants. Research in the Nineties showing that babies possess a unique ability to learn any tongue sent parents scampering off to buy Berlitz tapes in the hope of turning their newborns into mini-polyglots. It didn't work.

Why? Because babies tune into a language only when it is spoken to them regularly by a real person. In more recent experiments, infants exposed only to foreign language DVDs or audiotapes or bilingual toys absorbed nothing at all - not one word or phrase, not one single sound.

Nor did they arrive at school with more appetite for conjugating French verbs or identifying Mandarin symbols.

Does that mean that foreign language classes with real teachers are the answer? My neighbour takes his two-year-old to Mandarin lessons every Saturday morning. "Chinese is the future," he says. "The sooner she starts, the better." Again, that depends.

Research shows that in order to become bilingual, children need to be exposed to a foreign language for at least 30 per cent of their waking hours.

That means taking proper immersion classes, or spending a big chunk of the day speaking the other language with a parent or nanny, or with other toddlers in a nursery. It does not mean stuffing an hour of Mandarin instruction between gymnastics and the Saturday morning shopping trip.

It also transpires that not learning a second language in the early years does not mean a lifetime of monolingualism. The latest research shows that the brain goes on developing long after the early years, that there is no "critical window" that closes forever on the third birthday.

The bottom line seems to be that infant-cramming is often pointless and may even backfire. Skills gained through forcefeeding often have to be relearnt later. One London music teacher tells of a girl driven by her parents to master the violin from the age of three.

She surged ahead of her peers, yet by the age of six her technique was so distorted that she had to spend months relearning the basics.

"The worst part was that the other children, who had been playing to their ability level, hit their stride and left her behind," says the teacher. "It was a classic case of the tortoise and the hare."

Too much stimulation can interfere with sleep, which babies need in order to process and consolidate what they have learnt during their waking hours. When parents get anxious about milestones, the infant can get stressed, too.

If a baby's brain becomes flooded with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, the chemical change can become permanent over time, making it harder to learn, or to control aggression, in later life and increasing the chance of depression.

So what is the right way to treat an infant? Well, the question itself is flawed. However much we may want science to provide a step-by-step guide to the early years, our patchy knowledge of brain development makes this impossible.

Yet there are some clear guidelines. One is that all infants thrive on one-to-one interaction with plenty of eye contact. A baby scrutinising his parent's face, deciphering the emotions and expressions flickering across it, is doing the neural equivalent of the Jane Fonda workout.

Gazing into his eyes, smiling, nuzzling, adopting exaggerated facial expressions, tickling, pronouncing words v-e-r-y slowly, kissing, and imitating sounds back and forth may not look like much compared to the showier thrills of baby sign language, but it is actually a rich and stimulating conversation - and you don't need a specialist to teach you how to do it because it comes naturally to all of us.

This loving interplay between parent and infant helps to build the latter's pre-frontal cortex, the "social" part of the brain that governs empathy, self-control, and the capacity to read nonverbal signals from other people - the very skills that teachers identify as the most important for thriving in kindergarten and beyond. It can also immunise children against stress.

Around the world, child-development experts are issuing the same advice to anxious, impatient parents: every baby develops at a different speed. The early years are important, but they are not a race.

Spend less time trying to enrich your baby and more time getting to know him. Trust your instincts - instead of mimicking whatever the alpha mother in the playground is doing.

Like world peace, "early education" sounds like a no-brainer - how can anyone quibble with getting children off to a flying start? The problem is that academic hothousing is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

True, it can sometimes yield the sort of results that make teachers gawp and parents crow: but what about the longer term? Does all that early learning pay off later?

No. The latest research suggests that reaching learning milestones early is no guarantee of future academic stardom.

One study in Philadelphia found that, by the age of seven or eight, there was no discernible gap between the performance of children who spent their pre-school years in nurseries that were rigidly academic and those who came from laid-back, play-based ones. The only difference was that the hothoused kids tended to be more anxious and less creative.

While many believe that knowing letters, numbers, shapes and colours is the best preparation for school, teachers take a very different view. They say that the child who arrives at reception socially adept, who knows how to share, empathise and follow instructions, will stand a better chance of mastering the three Rs later on.

The argument that more testing and toil is the best way to shape them for life in the 21st century is starting to fray at the edges. A report by King's College London suggests that the cognitive development of British children is slowed by spending too little time messing around outdoors.

"By stressing only the basics - reading and writing - and testing like crazy you reduce the level of cognitive stimulation," says Philip Adey, professor of education at King's College. "Children have the facts but they are not thinking very well."

In the future, the biggest rewards will go not to the yes-men who know how to serve up an oven-ready answer, but to the nimble-minded innovators who can think across disciplines, delve into a problem for the sheer hell of it and relish the challenge of learning throughout their lives.

These are the people who will come up with the next Google, invent an alternative fuel, or devise a plan to slay poverty in Africa.

One of the central nostrums of modern parenting is that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is winning entry to an elite university. Nothing makes a parent preen more than announcing that Junior will be starting at Oxford or Cambridge in September.

But even if such famous universities deliver pedigree and bragging rights, are they always worth the effort? Surely a degree from a top university is the ticket to a bulging pay packet and a prestigious job?

That may be true in more rigid cultures such as South Korea, but it seems to be increasingly less so elsewhere. At last glance only seven CEOs from the top 50 Fortune 500 companies earned their undergraduate degrees at an Ivy League college.

What seems to count for more is the kind of person you are when you arrive on campus, rather than the campus itself. One well-known study concluded that the chief predictor of higher income in later life was whether a student had applied to a prestigious university, not whether he actually attended one.

"Essentially, what we found was the fact that you apply to those kinds of elite places means that you are ambitious, and you'll do well in life wherever you go," says Stacy Dale, a researcher with the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

Think about that for a moment: that means the main purpose of our education system, and our main aim as parents, should not be to manoeuvre children into a chart-topping university. It should be to raise imaginative, disciplined, dynamic children with a lust for learning and life.

Studies in Britain and other countries also suggest that university students who come from the state system go on to earn better degrees. There are various theories for this. One is that because state schools are less prone to hothousing and micro-managing, their pupils learn the self-discipline and self-motivation that are essential in university and, later, in the workplace.

Many of us schedule, push, polish and protect our children to the limit of our budget and ability. But then, when it comes to imposing discipline, we go a bit wobbly. Welcome to the central paradox of modern child-rearing.

Does that mean children's behaviour is worse today than in the past? Hard to say, but there are troubling signs. One major study found that 15-year-old Britons are more than twice as likely to lie, steal or disobey figures of authority than they were in 1974. And in 2006 the charity Kidscape blamed permissive parents for creating a new playground scourge: the middle-class bully.

How did we get here? One factor is the modern habit of putting our children on a pedestal. At nursery schools, children sing Frère Jacques with the lyrics switched to: "I am special. I am special. Look at me.

Look at me." Every doodle ends up on the fridge door, every sports trophy on the mantelpiece, every academic achievement in the Christmas round robin. Many of us have absorbed the idea that high self-esteem is the springboard to success - that if a child grows up believing herself to be a star, then eventually she will be. But is that really true?

A recent review of more than 15,000 studies concluded that high self-esteem does not boost grades or career prospects, nor does it cut alcohol use or curb violent behaviour.

Obviously, self-confidence is an asset, but children who are over-praised can end up more worried about maintaining their image and more inclined to undermine their peers to do so, as well as more likely to look to parents and teachers for approval. Instead of making things happen, they sit around anxiously waiting for the world to fit their vision of how it should be.

When everything you do is praised to the heavens, you may start to believe your own press. Such narcissism may help on The X-Factor - though even there it can backfire - but it doesn't wash in the real world.

Putting a child on a pedestal makes it harder for him to take risks, to experiment, to stick with a difficult task, to make mistakes and learn from them. Anything that smacks of failure would disappoint his parents and therefore tarnish his credentials as an alpha child.

Another downside of putting a child on a pedestal is that it makes it harder to say no. It may not be pleasant when children sulk, slam doors or hiss "I hate you", but let's face it: that's part of the parenting deal.

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Planet in Progress? Evidence Of A Huge Planet Forming In Star System

Coronagraphic image of the polarized light around the star AB Aurigae, showing the distribution of dust in the inner part of a complex disk of material around this star. The shaded middle region is covered to block out light from the star. The inset at upper right is a blow-up of the depleted region of dust to the NNW of the star. (Credit: Image courtesy of American Museum Of Natural History)

Astrophysicists have a new window into the formation of planets. Ben R. Oppenheimer, Assistant Curator in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, and colleagues have imaged a structure within the disk of material coalescing from the gas and dust cloud surrounding a well-studied star, AB Aurigae. Within that structure, it appears that an object is forming, either a small body currently accreting dust or a brown dwarf (a body intermediate between stars and planets) between 5 and 37 times the mass of Jupiter. The observations, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, represent a significant step toward direct imaging and study of exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the Sun), and may bear on theories of planet and brown dwarf formation.

Young stars generally have material widely spread around them that organizes itself into a disk over time. Astronomers believe that this is where planets form. The new image, which is sensitive to the dust around the star but not starlight, shows a horseshoe-shaped structure orbiting AB Aurigae with two denser, brighter clumps of material in a ring around the star next to a darker area. This darker area, a structure relatively depleted of widespread material previously predicted in models of planet formation but never seen before, is thought to be the point at which material is coalescing into a planet or brown dwarf.

Further imaging of this area shows a barely visible spot dead center, a spot too bright to be light reflected off a formed planet but consistent with an object in the process of development that is accreting new material. The two brighter clumps, equidistant from the hole and presumably trailing and leading it in its orbit around the star, seem similar to the Trojan objects that orbit the Sun along with Jupiter. Such a structure has been predicted to form in disks where a planet is present, because of the gravitational interaction between the planet and the star it orbits.

“The deficit of material could be due to a planet forming and sucking material onto it, coalescing into a small point in the image and clearing material in the immediate surroundings. This would look like a hole in the disk,” says Oppenheimer. “We are seeing something happening in the disk that seems to be indicative of the formation of a small body, either a planet or a brown dwarf.”

Finding planets outside of our solar system is a new phenomenon. It is only in the last 15 years that nearly 300 extrasolar planets have been identified around distant stars. Most of these objects are more massive than Jupiter, orbit very close to their stars, and are identified by indirect methods such as the wobble created by the gravitational pull. None of the known exoplanets have yet been imaged or seen directly, because the light of a star overwhelms the faint glow of a nearby planet.

Oppenheimer and his colleagues circumvented this glare by attaching a coronagraph to a unique U.S. Air Force telescope on Maui, Hawaii. The telescope compensates for turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere, permitting extremely high image quality from the ground. The Lyot Project coronagraph, built on a floating table in a clean-room optics lab at the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the Museum and named for the French astronomer who invented solar coronagraphy, blocks light from the center of the image of a nearby star to reveal faint objects around it. Stellar coronagraphs have been routinely used for several decades, but the Lyot Project’s is more precise and exceeds the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Oppenheimer’s team used additional polarization filters to detect even fainter objects much closer to the star than previously possible. Polarization selects light scattered off the disk, distinguishing it from the light of the star, which is not generally polarized. The technology enabled the team to see the disk of material around AB Aurigae with unprecedented sensitivity. Objects up to 100,000 times fainter than and just half an arcsecond from the star (an angle about 100 times finer than the human eye can discern) could be imaged. This is thousands of times better than other instruments.

AB Aurigae is well-studied because it is young, between one and three million years old, and can therefore provide information on how stars and objects that orbit them form. One unresolved question about planet formation is how the initial thick, gas-rich debris disk evolves into a thin, dusty region with planets. The observation of stars slightly older than AB Aurigae shows that at some point the gas is removed, but no one knows how this happens. AB Aurigae could be in an intermediate stage, where the gas is being cleared out from the center, leaving mainly dust behind.

“More detailed observations of this star can help solve questions about how some planets form, and can possibly test competing theories,” says Oppenheimer. “And if this object is a brown dwarf, our understanding of them must be revamped.” Brown dwarfs have been found orbiting stars since a team (which included Oppenheimer) first discovered one in 1995, but they are not believed to form in circumstellar material.

The team contributing to this research included Douglas Brenner, Anand Sivaramakrishnan, and Remi Soummer of the Department of Astrophysics, AMNH; Sasha Hinkley and Neil Zimmerman of the Department of Astronomy, Columbia University; Jeffrey Kuhn and David Harrington of the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii; James Graham and Marshall Perrin of the Department of Astronomy, University of California at Berkeley; James Lloyd of the Department of Astronomy, Cornell University; and Lewis Roberts of the Boeing Company, now at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder Program, and individual donors. The U.S. Air Force provided access to the AEOS telescope and significant financial support for the project.

This depleted region and the denser clumps near the ends of the white guide lines seem to indicate the formation of a small body within the depleted region. The scale of the image is indicated by the arrow, which corresponds to about 300 times the distance between the Earth and Sun. The orbit of a planet like Neptune, if it were orbiting this star, would be at the edge of the black circle on this scale.

Journal reference: B. R. Oppenheimer et al. The Solar-system scale disk around AB Aurigae. Astrophysical Journal. June 10, 2008.

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How to Age-Proof Your Memory

Drink a cocktail, gossip, and other surprising ways to boost your brain power


Roshini Raj, MD, a Health magazine contributor and part of the magazine's Health Expert Network, is board-certified in gastroenterology and internal medicine with degrees from the New York University School of Medicine and Harvard University. Currently Dr. Raj is an attending physician at NYU Medical Center's Tisch Hospital in New York City. She also serves as an assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, and she has a special interest in women's health and cancer screening. She has also published several research articles on colon-cancer screening.

Dr. Raj has discussed health topics on numerous television outlets, including NBC's Today show, ABC's Good Morning America, CNN, FOX News, and Discovery Health. She has been quoted in publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Men's Health, Women's Health, and Fitness on the state of health care and other health news of the day. Dr. Raj is often called upon to explain and demystify complicated health topics.

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Humans 'learnt to gamble from chimps'

Humans may have inherited their propensity to gamble from chimpanzees, scientists say.

  • Chimps beat humans in memory test
  • Female chimpanzees 'sell' sex for fruit
  • Chimpanzees need role models
  • In a study, common chimpanzees were found to be more likely to take risks in seeking food than bonobos, their endangered close relative found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Chimpanzees (left) took risks in the study and bonobos (right) played it safe
    Chimpanzees (left) took risks in the study and bonobos (right) played it safe

    Researchers say the results demonstrate how species' food-gathering techniques and experiences shape how willing they are to engage in risky behaviour.

    They believe modern humans are willing to gamble to gain favourable outcomes because our ancestors shared potentially rewarding foraging and hunting techniques with chimps.

    In the experiment, five chimps and five bonobos at Leipzig Zoo in Germany were presented with repeated choices between two upside-down bowls, one of which consistently covered four grape halves and another covered between one and seven.

    The two species diverged from a common ancestor less than one million years ago and share many characteristics, including body size and appearance.

    However in the wild bonobos rely heavily on feeding from ground-based vegetation, which is a fairly consistent source of food, whereas chimps spend time foraging for fruit and hunting of monkeys - both of which take time and involve greater risk.

    The researchers, whose findings are published today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, found the captive chimps were more likely to opt for the riskier option in the tests, while the bonobos usually played it safe.

    Psychologist Sarah Heilbronner, of Duke University, North Carolina, said: "In doing so, bonobos may avoid some of the risk incurred by chimpanzees in their frugivorous foraging.

    "Our results suggest that species-specific feeding ecologies can strongly influence risk preferences.

    "Though humans systematically violate many of the normative principles of economic theory, few researchers have considered preferences in relation to the environment in which they evolved.

    "As humans did not evolve in the context of modern economies, many of our preferences are likely tailored to providing adaptive foraging and other evolutionarily relevant decisions.

    "An evolutionary approach to economic preferences can offer keen insights into the nature of decision making."

    Original here

    Dolphin woos with wood and grass

    The Amazon river dolphin's
    unique courtship

    A South American river dolphin uses branches, weeds and lumps of clay to woo the opposite sex and frighten off rivals, scientists have discovered.

    Researchers observed adult male botos carrying these objects while surrounded by females, and thrashing them on the water surface aggressively.

    Writing in the journal Biology Letters, they say such behaviour has never before been seen in any marine mammal.

    The boto lives in only two rivers, and numbers are thought to be declining.

    A group of British and Brazilian researchers studied the dolphin's unique courtship behaviour over three years in the Mamiraua Reserve, a flooded rainforest area on the Amazon.

    "You see them coming up with bits of wood or lumps of rock in a very ritualised manner," recalled Tony Martin from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University.

    They may be fairly numerous now, but they're going downhill fast and we can't see any end to it
    Tony Martin
    "Quite often they'd slowly come up above the surface in a vertical posture holding this stuff in their mouths, then sink down rotating on their own axis.

    "They would also throw it or smash it against the surface, and it does appear that the waving around and bashing is to impress the ladies; but at the same time there's a lot of aggression between adult males, and we have to infer that's part of it."

    Professor Martin's group established that rock carrying and branch thrashing were almost exclusively the preserve of adult males, and that they did it more when lots of adult females were present.

    Although the males were more aggressive towards each other at these times, they were never seen to hit each other with the rocks or plants.

    Sound theory

    Three years ago, scientists found bottlenose dolphins in Australian waters carrying pieces of sponge, either to help with foraging or to defend against predators.

    But using objects for socio-sexual display is a novel finding.

    "I naively imagined this kind of thing was seen in other mammal species," said Professor Martin.

    "But I was quite surprised when I consulted friends and colleagues, and it turns out that only chimps do anything similar - and that's much less sophisticated."

    How and why the boto evolved the behaviour is unclear; although as cetaceans communicate largely with sound, it appears likely that the displays also create an impressive auditory impact on females, rival males, or both.

    Hooked on boto

    This research stemmed from a larger project, Projeto Boto, aimed at conserving the Amazon dolphin and its habitat.

    River dolphins are among the most threatened of all cetaceans; the baiji, a native of the Yangtze in China, may already have gone extinct in the last two years, while numbers of the Indus or blind river dolphin of South Asia are believed to be down to around the 3,000 mark.

    Harpooned boto. Image: Projeto Boto / Tony Martin
    Botos are increasingly turning up harpooned, their flesh used for bait
    Compared to these species, the South American dolphin is in good health in its traditional haunts along the Amazon and Orinico rivers. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species suggests "there are probably tens of thousands of botos in total".

    But the future does not appear secure. The Red List concludes that the boto is threatened by dams (causing fragmentation of their habitat) and pollution, such as from mercury used in gold mining.

    "With growing human populations in Amazonia and Orinoquia, the conflicts between fisheries and dolphins are certain to intensify", it notes.

    Projeto Boto has found that fishermen are increasingly catching the dolphins for use as bait to catch a fish, the piracatinga, which usually feeds on dead flesh.

    Meat from the caiman, a close relative of the alligator, is also used for this purpose.

    Projeto Boto scientists are regularly finding dead dolphins, either harpooned or entangled in ropes.

    "We lost half of the animals from our study area in just five years," said Tony Martin.

    "They may be fairly numerous now, but they're going downhill fast and we can't see any end to it."

    Original here

    Mythbusted – people who wear glasses aren’t geeks

    Latest research into myopia or shortsightedness reveals that people who wear glasses are not stereotypical geeks or nerds.

    “We have literally busted the myth that people who wear glasses are introverted or have particular personality characteristics. They are more likely to be agreeable and open, rather than closed and introverted,” said A/Prof Paul Baird of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Eye Research Australia.

    Myopia or shortsightedness is a complex eye condition which affects about one in four Australians.

    In the word’s biggest study into factors linked to myopia, and utilising the University’s Australian Twin Registry, 633 twins and a comparative group of 278 family members were involved in the study over a four year period.

    For the first time in a study into personality and myopia, participants were analysed using a state-of-the-art measure of the five major personality factors (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism), administered by psychologists from the University of Melbourne.

    Results revealed that comparison of family members and twins showed no link between myopia and introversion; however there was a significant but small association with myopia and Agreeableness.

    “Working together we have been able to generate more comprehensive and consistent results than previously obtained regarding personality and myopia, “said Nick Haslam from the School of Behavioural Science at the University of Melbourne

    The results have important social and preventative implications.

    “Good eye care is really important but unfortunately there are not always good associations with wearing glasses,” says Baird.

    “This shows that people, particularly children, should not avoid or delay wearing glasses due to preconceived ideas about what it would imply about their personalities.”

    The personality focus provides a key element in a series of studies to identify factors involved in myopia. The other elements investigated were environmental and genetic factors.

    Shortsighted people have difficulty seeing distant objects, making it difficult to engage in everyday activities such as driving and watching television.

    The research has been published in the March issue of the international eye journal Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.

    Original here

    Japanese Man to “Hang 10″ in Pacific Journey with Wave-Powered Boat

    boat, wave power, alternative energy

    There are various ways to travel the sea in style. One of the most environmentally friendly ones would certainly be using sails alone. I mean, wind is free, right?

    Well, a Japanese man named Kenichi Horie is attempting to be just as environmentally friendly but without the sails.

    How does he do it? With a wave-powered boat. Wave power has been discussed quite a bit recently, with a lot of applications including traditional grid energy generation. However, Kenichi is taking things to the next level by powering his ocean going vehicle with the very thing it bobs atop.

    As you can see in the photo (click for larger view), the boat is powered by two fins that raise and lower with the tide, which drive the propellers. On board energy is provided by solar panels and the boat is primarily made out of recycled aluminum.

    By sailing from Japan to Hawai’i, Kenichi and his Suntory Mermaid II hope to set a Guinness World Record for the longest distance traveled in this type of wave-powered ocean goer. To be sure, this boat doesn’t go very fast (it’s got about half of the speed potential of a diesel powered craft), but this type of innovation is certainly interesting to see. As long as recreational sailing exists, why not try to minimize environmental impact as much as possible, right?

    In fact, if you visit the sailor’s page you can track his progress as he crosses the wide Pacific. As of writing he looks to be almost there!

    Original here

    Still mail bills? Study says go green, go online

    1 of 1Full Size

    NEW YORK (Reuters) - Think your family going green won't make a difference? Wrong, says a U.S. study released on Thursday that shows one household ditching paper statements for Web transactions would save 24 square feet of forest a year.

    The PayItGreen Alliance said it believed this was the first detailed study commissioned to determine the impact of one individual household on the environment and it hoped to get across the message that every green step counted.

    The study found the average U.S. household receives about 19 bills and statements from credit card companies and banks every month and makes about seven payments by paper each month.

    By switching to electronic bills, statements and payments, the average American household would save 6.6 pounds of paper a year, save 0.08 trees, and not produce 171 pounds of greenhouse gases -- the equivalent of driving 169 miles.

    The survey, whose results were vetted by the Environmental Protection Agency, said it would also mean avoiding the deforestation of 24 square feet of forest, the release of 63 gallons of wastewater into the environment, and save 4.5 gallons of gasoline used for mailing.

    "Individuals who think they are only one person and can't really have an impact should re-evaluate their position. Even small contributions can have a impact when aggregated," said Craig Vaream, a member of the PayItGreen Alliance and JPMorgan Chase.

    JPMorgan Chase is one of about 16 members of the alliance which is made up of financial services companies and also includes Bank of America and the Federal Reserve Banks.

    The alliance is lead by NACHA, the non-profit electronics payment association, that represents more than 11,000 financial institutions who are encouraging customers to conduct more transactions online.

    The group was set up in 2007 to promote the positive environmental impact of choosing electronic payments, bills, and statements instead of paper.

    It found that Americans each year mail 26 billion bills and statements and 9 billion payments in paper form with the related production and transportation consuming 755 million pounds of paper, 9 million trees, and 512 million gallons of gasoline.

    The survey found that if 10 percent of U.S. households, or about 11.4 million households, gave up paper bills and statements the results would be significant.

    It would save 75,469,808 pounds of paper, 905,638 trees, avoid producing 1.96 million pounds of greenhouse gases which was the equivalent of taking 162,861 cars off the road.

    It would also preserve 6,202 acres of forest from deforestation, avoid creating 719,800,685 gallons of wastewater which is enough to fill 1,090 Olympic-size swimming pools, and avoid filling 3,071 garbage trucks with waste.

    (Writing by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Patricia Reaney)

    Original here

    Top 15 Unexpected Uses For Biodiesel

    While virtually everyone is familiar with the use of biodiesel as a substitute for diesel fuel, there are a few novel uses that may not have crossed your radar. Biodiesel can produce hydrogen, clean up oil spills, degrease your tools, heat your home, and more.

    Here’s My Top 15 Unexpected Uses for Biodiesel:

    1. Producing Hydrogen for Fuel-Cell Vehicles

    This was the big story of the month: Researchers at InnovaTek have developed hand-sized microreactors that can turn biodiesel (or any other liquid fuel) into a hydrogen stream for use in an adjoining fuel-cell. Chevron has already invested $500,000 to develop hydrogen refueling stations for fuel-cell powered cars. InnovaTek hopes to eventually install the microreactors in vehicles, which would allow cars to fill up on biodiesel but be powered by a much more efficient and even cleaner-burning electric drivetrain. See the full story here.

    2. Cleaning Up Oil Spills

    Biodiesel is known for being environmentally benign, but who would have thought it could help clean up oil-spills? Biodiesel has been tested as potential cleaning agent for shorelines contaminated with crude oil, and has been found to increase the recovery of crude oil from artificial sand columns (ie, the beach). It’s also been used in commercial biosolvents shown to be effective in coagulating crude oil and allowing it to be skimmed off the surface of water. In 1997, the product Cytosol was licensed by the California Department of Fish and Game as a shoreline cleaning agent.

    3. Generating Electricity

    In addition to producing hydrogen for vehicle fuel (see #1), fuel-cells have power-generation applications that could utilize biodiesel. The military has already invested $1.8 million in mobile power-generation using this technology, and it could be available for civilian applications in the near future.

    Biodiesel is already used in conventional power generation. In 2001, UC Riverside installed a 6 megawatt backup-generator system powered by 100% biodiesel. The project was a success, and operating smoke typical to diesel generators was virtually non-existent. Biodiesel can be used in backup systems where the substantial reduction in emissions really matters: hospitals, schools, and other facilities usually located in residential areas. It can also be used to supplement solar power in off-the grid homes (for instructions, see Kemp 2006).

    Petroleum usage by electrical utilities in 2006 amounted to 115,370,000 barrels of oil, an amount that could be completely replaced by US biodiesel production.

    4. Heating Your Home

    Bioheat has has grown in popularity over the last few years, and biodiesel can be used as a home heating oil in domestic and commercial boilers (Number 2 heating oil is virtually identical to petrodiesel). While a 20% biodiesel blend (B20) can be used without modification, higher blends may affect rubber seals and gaskets in older equipment. High blends of biodiesel will also clean out fuel pipes, which can improve heating efficiency but may initially cause fuel filter clogging.

    A 20% biodiesel blend will reduce the emissions of both sulfur dioxide (SO2 - acid rain) and nitrogen oxides (NOx - pollutants that contribute to ground-level ozone) by 20% over the entire range of air settings.

    There may be a business in your area that specializes in bioheat. Check out Portland Green Heat for an example.

    5. Camping: Cooking and Illumination

    It’s possible to use biodiesel instead of kerosene in some non-wick lanterns and stoves. For example, BriteLyt Petromax multi-fuel lanterns will work just fine with biodiesel (they’ll burn just about anything). BriteLyt also makes multifuel stoves. But at 4lbs., it isn’t something you’d want to take backpacking.

    I’ve always wondered if traditional camp-stoves could handle biodiesel. For example, the MSR WhisperLite Internationale and the Primus Multifuel are designed to run on a number of fuels, including gasoline, diesel, and kerosene. There is some anecdotal evidence that they can use biodiesel, but I thought it would be better to ask the manufacturer, MSR. Here’s the response I got from Cascade Designs (a distributor):

    Thank you for contacting Cascade Designs Inc.
    We have seen stoves come back that had biodiesel used in them and they are severely clogged to the point that the stove cannot be revived. So the short answer is no one cannot use biodiesel in any of our stoves. Rest assured that our designers are taking this into consideration and a stove that can burn biodiesel is being discussed for the future.

    Keep in mind, however, that many auto manufacturers say the same thing about using B100 in their diesel cars and trucks. I suspect the stoves mentioned above might have been clogged by the owners trying to use straight vegetable oil (brilliant idea). For lamps and stoves that will work with biodiesel, check out the resources available on JourneyToForever’s list.

    6. Cleaning Up Tools and Grease

    B100 is such a good solvent that it can clean dirty or greasy engine or other machine parts. Fill a bucket with B100 (100% biodiesel), drop in the tool or part that needs cleaning, and see what happens (note: best to try this with less-expensive tools first). Also, biodiesel makes an awesome bike-chain degreaser/lubricator. If you chain starts to squeak, just add a little B100 and see what a world of difference it makes.

    Biodiesel can also be used as an industrial solvent for metal cleaning, which is advantageous due to its lack of toxicity or environmental impacts.

    7. Adding Lubricity to Diesel Fuel

    In 2006, all diesel fuel was required to reduce its sulfur concentration from 500 ppm to 15 ppm. Since sulfur provided most of the fuel’s lubricity, a substitute is required to keep diesel engines functioning properly and avoid premature injection pump wear (ie failure). Biodiesel naturally has less than 15 ppm sulfur concentration anyway, and adding just 1 to 2% biodiesel can restore the lubricity to diesel fuel.

    8. Removing Paint and Adhesives

    Biodiesel can replace the exceedingly toxic products designed for paint removal. It’s probably best used for smaller-scale and non-critical applications (ie not on your car’s custom paint job).

    Biodiesel can also be used to remove adhesive residues, like those left by duct tape.

    The last 7 uses I’ve heard about but wasn’t able to substantiate. If you know something about these, or have a resource to contribute, feel free to add it here:

    9. Asphalt Cleanup Agent

    10. Hand Cleaner

    11. Crop Adjuvant

    12. Screen Printing Ink Remover

    13. Auto Wax Remover

    14. Corrosion Preventative

    15. Metal Working Lubricant

    So how can you find Biodiesel in your area? Check out 6 Ways To Find And Use Biodiesel Anywhere.

    For more information on using biodiesel, see Gas 2.0’s biodiesel guide or the following posts:

    Biodiesel Guide: 7 Steps to Buying a Diesel
    Learn How To Make Biodiesel On YouTube
    How Biodiesel Fuel-Cells Could Power The Future (And Your Car)
    Study: Buying Biodiesel May Be A Gamble

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