Wednesday, April 2, 2008

First movie of 'tsunami' on Sun

'Tsunami' speeds through the Sun's atmosphere (Nasa Stereo Consortium)

Astronomers have captured the first footage of a solar "tsunami" hurtling through the Sun's atmosphere at over a million kilometres per hour.

The event was captured by Nasa's twin Stereo spacecraft designed to make 3D images of our parent star.

Naturally, this type of tsunami does not involve water; instead, it is a wave of pressure that travels across the Sun very fast.

Details were reported at the UK National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast.

In half an hour, we saw the tsunami cover almost the full disc of the Sun
David Long

In a solar tsunami, a huge explosion near the Sun, such as a coronal mass ejection or flare, causes a pressure pulse to propagate outwards in a circular pattern.

Last year's solar tsunami, which took place on 19 May 2007, lasted for about 35 minutes, reaching peak speeds about 20 minutes after the initial blast.

Co-author David Long, from Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Ireland, commented: "The energy released in these explosions is phenomenal; about two billion times the annual world energy consumption in just a fraction of a second.

Image of Sun (Stereo)
Two Stereo spacecraft are monitoring the Sun's activity

"In half an hour, we saw the tsunami cover almost the full disc of the Sun, nearly a million kilometres away from the epicentre."

His colleague Dr Peter Gallagher, who is also from TCD, said the shockwave moved out exactly like a tsunami on Earth.

"A series of troughs and crests in pressure causes it to propagate outwards. But on the Sun, we have hot gas," he explained.

"When I’m talking to someone in a room, my voice is carried by pressure waves in the gas that's between us; it's the much the same on the Sun."

However, it was not exactly the same, Dr Gallagher added, because on the Sun, magnetic fields also helped the waves along. The phenomenon is therefore known as a magneto-acoustic wave.

Theory problem

Solar tsunamis were originally discovered by the Soho spacecraft almost a decade ago.

However, the observations did not fit at all well with theory: the problem was that the waves were travelling too slowly.

After the two Stereo spacecraft launched in 2006, scientists were able to get images of the Sun at a much higher rate than was possible with Soho.

And when they observed a solar tsunami again last year, their observations matched theoretical predictions.

Artists impression of Stereo mission

"We found that the speed was probably twice as fast as we had previously thought," Dr Gallagher told BBC News.

"We've seen from this set of observations that if the time interval between images is too long, it’s easy to underestimate the speed that the waves are moving."

With Soho, the researchers were only able to take images in the upper section of the corona - the outer part of the Sun’s atmosphere.

Stereo's Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUVI) instruments monitor the Sun at four wavelengths, which allowed astronomers to see how the wave moved through the different layers of the solar atmosphere.

"We were able to show for the first time that this wave actually propagates almost all the way from the surface of the Sun to high up in the Sun's atmosphere," said Dr Gallagher.

The researchers even saw the pressure wave bouncing off irregular regions of the Sun’s atmosphere, generating reflections or diffraction patterns - exactly as tsunamis have been observed to do on Earth when they crash against land.

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Robonauts -Future of Robots in Space

"Robots in Space" has just been released, and for once it's not a movie dealing with invincible silicon overlords and rugged heroes who save the world but have no time to shave. Instead it's a book dealing with the role of both humans and robots in further space exploration, and how one can't progress without the other.

The suitability of robots for space missions is obvious: they're tough, they're precisely controllable, they don't sissy out and die without air and they can live for years on a battery. All the great big explorations recently - Mars, Enceladus, the Sun itself - have been conducted by our automated assistants while the wimpy humans potter around with their new garden shed in the back garden (aka "the ISS in orbit"). Since the machines can go so far, why do we need to bother at all? First of all, they're not very smart. Signals can only move at light speed, so communications with the Mars Rovers (for example) take eight minutes back and forth. They only program it once a day for safety's sake, so it's less "the ultimate RC car" and more "so carefully it makes chess Grandmasters look like skateboarding teenagers". By the time computer minds are smart enough to work out what to do by themselves, well, by that point we won't be telling them what to do anymore. We'll be asking if they could please send us back some data from where they go, and we'll be doing it politely.

The second and more important point, however, is that we HAVE to go. What's the point in space travel if we treat these incredible feats of space exploration as nothing but chores? "Oh, send a robot up to fix the satellite signal please, American Idol XV: Swimsuit Edition is on soon." One factor the book addresses is the critical loss of interest in space travel by the latest generation, aka "Them damn kids". Surveys have shown that many 18-25 year olds don't see the point in manned space exploration - the most convincing proof yet presented that many 18-25 years olds need a smack in the back of the head. One reason they mention is that it's "too far", a terrifying indication that the sheer damn-the-consequences inquisitiveness that drove our species out of the water, down from the trees and from caves to two-hundred meter towers may have finally been crushed under the weight of reality TV and YouTube. Too far? That's the entire point! Dismissing space travel as too much effort only encourages the image of the pasty, out-of-shape kid sloshing around a seat in front of a computer eating crumbs from their keyboard because the fridge is "too far" away.

Their other complaint was that it was too dangerous for the astronauts, whom they presumably think are poor innocent babies unaware of the risks of space flight. This is the real danger to modern space travel: a claim-culture generation who've been raised to believe that anything with risk is bad and should be avoided. No matter what the gains, or if the person taking the risk thinks its worth it. These are people for whom "personal responsibility" is like the Atari 2600 - they've heard of it, a few nutballs keep going on about it, but it's not something they've ever had to deal with. We live in a world where tag is banned in some schools because it's a game with losers - we've fallen a long way from the Saturn V heroics of men who sat on three-quarters of a million gallons of hyper-explosive liquid fuel to go to the moon, most of the extra thrust only required because their balls were so big.

The idea that space travel could be killed by modern hyper-caution isn't just sad, it's a goddamn travesty. To have left behind the dark ages of history, to finally live in a world where science and research could lift us to the heavens and then stifle ourselves by deciding that the couch is more comfortable? That a smaller iPod is worth more than a manned moonbase? That we'd rather watch an idiot blubbing over a burnout pop singer than images from another planet?

We can only hope this new book explains to a few why men have to go to the stars along with the machines - because you can't make it to space when you insist on being surrounded by cotton wool.

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Astronomers see 'youngest planet'

False colour map. Image: VLA and Pie Town antenna
Radio emissions from the HLTau system show the planet (top right)

An embryonic planet detected outside our Solar System could be less than 2,000 years old, astronomers say.

The ball of dust and gas, which is in the process of turning into a Jupiter-like giant, was detected around the star HL Tau, by a UK team.

Research leader Dr Jane Greaves said the planet's growth may have been kickstarted when another young star passed the system 1,600 years ago.

Details were presented at the UK National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast.

The scientists studied a disc of gas and rocky particles around HL Tau, which is 520 light-years away in the constellation of Taurus and thought to be less than 100,000 years old.

It wasn’t really what we were looking for. And we were amazed when we found it
Jane Greaves
University of St Andrews

The disc is unusually massive and bright, making it an excellent place to search for signs of planets in the process of formation.

The researchers say their picture is one of a proto-planet still embedded in its birth material.

Dr Greaves, from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, said the discovery of a forming planet around such a young star was a major surprise.

"It wasn't really what we were looking for. And we were amazed when we found it," she told BBC News.

"The next youngest planet confirmed is 10 million years old."

If the proto-planet is assumed to be the same age as the star it orbits, this would be some one hundred times younger than the previous record holder.

'Record holder'

Computer simulation of star and disc. Image: Greaves, Richards, Rice and Muxlow

But there is an intriguing suggestion that the gas giant, which is some 14 times the size of our Jupiter, could be even younger.

Using the Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes in the US, the researchers studied the system at emission wavelengths specifically chosen to search for rocky particles about the size of pebbles. The presence of these pebbles is a clue that rocky material is beginning to clump together to form planets.

In the UK, scientists used the Merlin radio telescopes based on Jodrell Bank in Cheshire to study the same system at longer wavelengths. This allowed them to confirm the emissions were from rocks and not from other sources such as hot gas.

In addition to detecting super-large dust in the disc around HL Tau, they also saw an extra bright "clump" of material.

This confirmed a so-called "nebulosity" seen a few years earlier at about the same position, by a team led by Dr Jack Welch of the Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland Array, US.

Formation theories

Dr Ken Rice, from the Institute of Astronomy in Edinburgh, said the discovery shed new light on theories of planet formation.

According to one model, planets form from the bottom up. Under this scenario, particles of rocky material collide and "stick" to one another, forming a bigger and bigger object.

But he thinks the proto-planet in HL Tau formed relatively quickly when a region of the disc collapsed to form a self-contained structure. This could occur because of gravitational instability in the disc itself.

Dr Rice said his computer simulations were such a good fit for the observations that it seemed the mechanism might really operate in nature.

Intriguingly, another young star in the same region called XZ Tau may have made a close pass of HL Tau about 1,600 years ago.

Although not required for planet formation, it is possible that this flyby perturbed the disc, making it unstable. This would be a very recent event in astronomical terms.

"It's possible it gave a 'yank' to one side of the disc around HL Tau, making it unstable, and that this was a 'trigger' for the planet to form," Dr Greaves explained.

"If the planet formed in the last 1,600 years, that would be incredibly recent."

The Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting 2008 continues until Friday at Queen’s University Belfast.

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Impressive dress-rehearsal for Jules Verne ATV

Jules Verne ATV seen 246.m metres from the Russian module
Jules Verne ATV seen 246.5 m metres from the Russian module

Jules Verne ATV today approached the International Space Station to within 11 m of the docking port on the Russian Zvezda module. The approach was part of a second ATV demonstration day which clears the way for the first rendezvous and docking attempt on 3 April.

“I’m known for my understatements, but the only word that comes to mind about today is impressive,” said John Ellwood, ESA’s ATV Project Manager. “It was impressive to see how Jules Verne, the staff at the ATV Control Centre, the control centres in Moscow and Houston pulled together today. It was a perfect dress-rehearsal for Thursday.”

Today’s manoeuvres included the first demonstration of the critical optical navigation system, using the European-developed Videometer technology. It was confirmed that ATV can use this system to autonomously navigate to within 11 m of the ISS.

“This demonstration day confirmes the performance of the vehicle is even better than we had hoped for,” said Nicolas Chamussy, Astrium ATV Project Manager. “This is a world premier for automated rendezvous using optical sensors, following the world’s first demonstration of relative GPS navigation between Jules Verne and the Station performed on Saturday.”

“Today was an important success for the Toulouse control centre to orchestrate a human-rated mission with the Station and it is a main step which is very promising for the docking attempt on Thursday,” added Lionel Baize, ATV-CC Project Manager for the French space agency, CNES. “It is an incredible challenge to have three control centres working together and to interact live with the ISS crew.”

ESA's ATV Control Centre, Toulouse, during Demonstration Day 2

ESA's ATV Control Centre, Toulouse, during Demonstration Day 2
Mission controllers at the ATV Control Centre (ATV-CC) in Toulouse, France, also confirmed they could issue very specific commands to Jules Verne, including Hold Retreat and Resume. These commands may have to be issued if any unforeseen problems occur in the ATV’s automatic guidance system.

Today’s demonstration also included the first active participation of the ISS crew in the mission. Once ATV had reached the 11-metre stand-off point, the astronauts were instructed to issue a Retreat command bringing Jules Verne back to the 19-metre point. The crew then issued an Escape command, which automatically took Jules Verne to a safe location away from the ISS.

The close approach to the ISS presented the ATV team with an opportunity to inspect some thermal blankets on the exterior of the spacecraft that had become degraded. “These were in exactly the positions that our thermal analysis had predicted. At the moment we do not envisage that this will have any impact on Thursday’s planned first docking attempt,” said John Ellwood, ESA’s ATV Project Manager. “We have addressed with our ISS partners the increase in power we might need to maintain the temperatures and we foresee no problems.”

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Rising prison population an undeclared national crisis

Nearly a month after a published study on increasing U.S. prison population revealed more than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars, two University of Michigan professors are aiming to elevate the public debate on prison reform.

The timing, they say, should coincide with the intensely debated presidential campaign, where the growing prison population topic should be considered along with the economy and Iraq War.

"This is an invisible subject," said U-M professor Buzz Alexander. "It's a crisis and no one is really talking about it."

In late February, the Pew Center on the States reported that about 2.3 million people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons, and local jails. Last year, population grew by 25,000. After three decades of growth, prison population has tripled. The results, according to Alexander and U-M professor Jeffrey Morenoff, show an alarming and widening gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged.

"The current system is destroying the life-course of those incarcerated, and not providing them with ways to become part of the American economic and cultural fabric," said Alexander, professor of English and founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project, which inspires inmates to express themselves through the arts.

"We are not making active efforts to rehabilitate people in prison," Morenoff said. "The rehabilitation ideal died in the 1970s and 1980s. But there are examples of rehab programs in and outside prison that are successful and lower rates of recidivism. The criminal justice system hasn't caught up with the social science."

Each U-M professor has his own way of drawing attention to what they both consider as a national crisis that goes unnoticed and hardly discussed. For Alexander, it's through engaging prisoners to create and participate in the arts; for Morenoff, it's through extensive research into the causes of recidivism rates.

Since 1990, Alexander has worked with state prisoners, offering workshops on visual and performing arts. The 13th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners runs through April 9. The exhibit is held at the Duderstadt Studio Gallery on U-M's North Campus.

Based on his first-hand experience working with prisoners, Alexander said the sentencing is often arbitrary, perfunctory, inhumane and singles outs ethnic and racial groups.

For instance, one in 36 adult Hispanic men, one in 15 black adult men; and one in nine black men ages 20 to 34 are behind bars. While rates of violent crimes has fallen by 25 percent over the last 20 years, prison population has tripled. Overall, the U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation. Second is China, with 1.5 million people in behind bars.

While there appears a public need to make sure people are punished for crimes, the financial cost to incarcerate are staggering. Morenoff estimates that it costs $25,000-$30,000 per year (in public money) to incarcerate each prisoner. That cost increases significantly with older prisoners and those who need medical care.

"Right now, we have punishment for the sake of deterrence, and making examples of people," Morenoff said. "But the deep-seated reason is that people feel that justice is being served.

"You would think that sending more people to prison would lower crime rates, but there is some evidence, albeit controversial, that communities which send more people to prison have higher crimes rates," he said. "Incarceration can deplete communities of their assets and disrupt their social fabric, which can actually increase crimes rates.

"It's still an open question."

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Teleportation, time travel and aliens - a vision of tomorrow today

Scientists currently have the best chance in history of making contact with aliens. Photograph: Graham Turner

Einstein gave hope to scientists chasing the most outlandish theories when he famously declared: "If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it."

He then proved the existence of black holes and the notion that time passes more slowly the faster you travel.

Now one of the world's most distinguished physicists has scrutinised some of science fiction's other concepts, such as teleportation and forcefields, and is convinced that they too can become reality.

Professor Michio Kaku, of City University in New York, has ruled out time travel for at least a few millennia, but believes invisibility cloaks and telepathy could be possible this century.

"So many times predictions are made that certain things are impossible only to find them becoming possible a decade or a few decades later," he said. In his new book, The Physics of the Impossible, published in the UK today, Kaku rates seemingly impossible phenomena according to how likely they are to happen.


When Gene Roddenberry was planning the early episodes of the cult sci-fi series Star Trek Paramount studios, who financed the project, said the special effects necessary to recreate ships taking off and landing were too expensive. Roddenberry needed another way to get his characters down onto the surface of the uncharted worlds they were visiting. "He said, 'we'll just beam them onto the planet and save a tonne of money'," said Kaku.

That money-saving decision did much to cement teleportation as the epitome of the sci-fi way to get around, but teleportation is actually already being done by physicists. It relies on a deeply strange phenomenon called quantum entanglement, which physicists have already used to "teleport" a photon 89 miles between La Palma and Tenerife in the Canary Island group. But Kaku concedes that Captain Kirk will have to wait a couple of centuries. "You are not actually moving the photons from one place to another because you are destroying the original. What materialises at the other end is your twin which has all the information of the previous object."

Time Travel

The Cambridge physicist Professor Stephen Hawking spent much of his career attempting to prove that time travel is impossible. If it were possible, he reasoned, why have we not been visited by voyagers from the future? But he was forced to conclude that there is actually nothing in the laws of physics that prevents moving in time.

"He changed his mind about 10 years ago," said Kaku, "There was no way to ban time travel from happening. So now he says that time travel is possible, but not practical."

The way it might work would be to take a trip through a worm hole connecting one point in space and time with another. The laws of physics suggest that the intense gravity of a black hole is enough to rip the fabric of space and time, making a worm hole possible.

"What we physicists want to do is create our own wormhole so that if you walk through the looking glass you may go backwards in time," said Kaku. Stabilising a black hole would require large amounts of an exotic form of energy called negative energy, thought to be impossible. "But we can now make it in the laboratory," said Kaku.


One reason why no one has met any time travellers from the future might be, Kaku suggested, because they are able to make themselves invisible. "Invisibility a la Harry Potter's cloak is no longer out of the question," he said. He rates it as the sci-fi technology that is likely to happen soonest. Perhaps the most promising new development is the creation of an exotic new substance called a metamaterial. By eliminating reflections and shadows, it renders an object invisible.

Alien Contact

Scientists currently have the best chance in history of making contact with aliens. Although humanity has been combing the skies for signs of life for decades, the search so far has been haphazard. Astronomers have detected around 300 planets in other solar systems, but these are generally large Jupiter-like planets which do not look like a good bet for harbouring life.

Satellites will greatly enhance scientists' ability to detect Earth-like planets. "We've only scanned about a thousand stars and that's nothing. We haven't even scanned the stars in our neighbourhood," said Kaku, "We hope to analyse a thousand times more data than was collected in all the sweeps of the past. And that's why we are much more optimistic that we will make contact with alien life." He thinks contact with an alien civilisation could happen within decades.


Being able to predict the future is very difficult to reconcile with the known laws of physics. "It would set off a major shake-up in the very foundations of modern physics if precognition was ever proved in reproducible experiments," said Kaku.

The impossible takes longer: Michio Kaku's ratings

Type 1 impossibilities

Impossible today, but do not violate the known laws of physics. Might be possible this century or the next: force fields, invisibility, phasers and death stars, teleportation, telepathy, psychokinesis, robots, UFOs and aliens, starships, antimatter and anti-universes

Type 2 impossibilities

Technologies that sit at the edge of our understanding of the physical world. May be realised millenia or millions of years in the future: faster-than-light travel, time travel, parallel universes

Type 3 impossibilties

Technologies that violate the known laws of physics. If they turn out to be possible, they would represent a fundamental shift in our understanding of physics: perpetual motion machines, precognition

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World’s First Commercially Viable Cellulosic Ethanol Plant Online 2009

Range Fuels Inc. announced yesterday it has secured over $100 million in Series B funding, an investment that could make it the first company to seriously commercialize cellulosic ethanol. The first phase of construction will produce 20 million gallons of mixed alcohols per year by 2009, and has the potential to expand to up to 120 million gallons.

Range Fuels says their facility will break down any type of plant material (eg agricultural waste or wood chips) by a two-step thermochemical process. This differs from competing methods of producing cellulosic ethanol, which involve breakdown of plant material with heat and/or acid, and treating it with costly ($0.50/gallon) enzymes.

Range Fuels skips the enzymatic part and uses a process similar to Coskata Inc.: biomass is broken down by extreme heat and pressure, which converts it into a mixture of gases (H2 and CO) called syngas. The syngas is fed through proprietary catalysts that converts it into a mixture of alcohols, and a bit more sorting and processing produces a renewable vehicle fuel. See Range Fuel’s interactive explanation (as depicted above).

The only difference between Range Fuels and the Coskata process seems to be that Coskata relies on proprietary microorganisms instead of chemical catalysts to convert the syngas into ethanol. In any case, the race is on. Coskata said earlier this year it would start building commercial facilities after a 40,000 gallon per year demo plant goes online in late 2008.

Highlights of the Range Fuels Process:

  • Fuel production costs “significantly less” than either enzymatic cellulosic ethanol or corn-grain ethanol, the latter of which currently costs about $2/gallon.
  • Higher fuel production rates for each ton of biomass than enzymatic and corn-grain ethanol, which decreases cost, biomass needed, and land use.
  • Uses 75 percent less water than corn ethanol and 60% lower emissions than corn-grain ethanol
  • Cost competitive with gasoline as long as oil stays above $50/barrel.
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The List: Solar Power’s New Megaplants

Record-breaking oil prices, soaring greenhouse-gas emissions, and the rise of carbon trading all add up to one thing: a new dawn for solar power. From New Mexico to Australia, governments and businesses are collaborating to create enormous plants that will each bring clean electricity to tens of thousands.

Mojave Desert, Southern California

Megawatts: 500, will possibly expand to 850

Expected cost: Undisclosed

Projected completion date: 2011

Plan: California not only boasts the highest concentration of hybrid cars in the United States, but it can now also claim the world’s largest solar energy project. Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems, working with utilities firm Southern California Edison, is developing an enormous, 4,500-acre thermal solar generating station in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert. The station will initially encompass 20,000 40-foot-tall, dish-shaped mirrors and produce 500 MW of electricity. And the site might expand to 850 MW—making it at least 500 MW more powerful than any of the other large solar plants in the pipeline. Stirling’s dish technology uses mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on the receiver of a device called a Stirling engine. When the hydrogen inside the receiver expands, it creates enough pressure to kick the engine into gear and drive an electricity generator without any need for gasoline or water, and without producing emissions. The company claims its process is nearly twice as efficient as other solar technologies, and Stirling is also planning to construct a 300 MW site in California’s Imperial Valley. Construction of the Mojave Desert facility is due to begin in the middle of this year.

Tres Cantos, Spain

Megawatts: 300, an expansion from its current 55

Expected cost: $390 million - $470 million

Projected completion date: 2010

Plan: BP Solar, a division of energy company BP, announced a year ago that it has begun construction of a mega solar plant at its European headquarters in Tres Cantos, at a site it acquired in 2002. The project will employ innovative photovoltaic technology that utilizes high-quality antireflective materials coated on solar cells and silver paste screen-printed on the back and front of the cells to improve the efficiency of its panels. It helps that BP Solar will reportedly be able to sell its energy to the national grid at 575 percent of the cost of production—and the company has entered a 25-year contract with the Spanish government that obliges utilities to purchase the plant’s electricity. Tata BP Solar (a joint venture between India’s Tata Power Company and BP Solar) is also undertaking the construction of a similar facility in Bangalore, India, which is also set to produce 300 MW.

Deming, New Mexico

Megawatts: 300

Expected cost: $1.6 billion

Projected completion date: 2011

Plan: With help from a 30 percent federal tax credit for renewable energy, Governor Bill Richardson has vowed to make sun-drenched New Mexico the “Saudi Arabia of renewable energy.” That would make New Solar Ventures’ Deming plant, which began construction in 2006, the equivalent of the famous Ghawar oil field. Located 230 miles southwest of Albuquerque, the plant will incorporate a $650 million solar-panel-producing factory as well as a massive $950 million solar farm. The potential 3,200-acre site will take advantage of its 350 days of sunshine a year to power 240,000 homes using special patented photovoltaic technology.

Gila Bend, Arizona

Number of megawatts: 280

Expected cost: $1 billion

Projected completion date: 2011

Plan: “Solana,” meaning “a sunny place” in Spanish, is an apt name for the nascent solar farm situated about 70 miles outside Phoenix, where summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Specialty solar technology firm Abengoa Solar, supported by Arizona Public Service Company (APS), is developing a solar farm spanning 1,900 acres. Abengoa Solar will make use of something called “solar power trough technology.” The secret? Parabolic mirrors track the sun’s path and concentrate its energy to heat a fluid to more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit, which in turn converts water into steam that spins turbines to generate electricity. The electricity can then be stored and used even after the sun sets. The farm is expected to have 2,700 parabolic trough collectors and power about 70,000 homes. APS has already contracted to buy Solana’s power for 30 years, which will move APS a third of the way by 2011 toward achieving the state’s mandate of having 15 percent of the company’s electricity derived from renewable sources by 2025.


Ashalim, Israel

Megawatts: 250

Expected cost: $600 - $700 million

Projected completion date: Not set

Plan: The Israeli government is currently seeking bids from companies around the globe to build and operate two solar thermal plants at a 1,000-acre site in the central Negev Desert. Australian, Spanish, and Israeli companies have already expressed interest, and a final deal is expected to be reached by the end of the year. The government envisages that the plants will produce 3 percent of Israel’s electricity, and the project is part of the government’s drive to ensure that 5 percent of Israel’s electricity comes from the sun by 2016. In light of security concerns, the plant will be located about 19 miles from the Egyptian border and about 34 miles southeast of Gaza, out of range of the Qassam rocket attacks employed by Palestinian fighters.

Mildura, Australia

Megawatts: 154

Expected cost: $270 million

Projected completion date: Power generation to begin in 2010, plant completion by 2013

Plan: In the largest solar project in Australia to date, Hong Kong-owned TRUenergy is set to construct a major solar plant in southeastern Australia, near Mildura. Using technology developed by Melbourne firm Solar Systems, the project will utilize mirror arrays that concentrate light onto advanced high-efficiency photovoltaic cells, lowering the required size of cells—and therefore the cost. The plant is expected to generate emission-free power for 45,000 homes (avoiding the 437,000 tons of annual greenhouse-gas emissions that a coal-fired plant with a similar power output would produce). The project has secured about $120 million in funding from the federal and state governments, along with private investment through TRUenergy’s parent company. Construction on the plant will begin next year and continue to 2013, but don’t be fooled by the size of the project: It would account for just 0.1 percent of Australia’s electricity generation in 2006.

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The Amazing Shrinking Black Hole

Scientists have found a pint-sized black hole that is the smallest ever identified. And the new technique they debuted should help researchers refine their knowledge of how these massive objects form.

In the life cycle of stars, mass is destiny. Red dwarfs, only a fraction of our sun's mass, don't seem to die. But supergiants live only a few million years before blowing themselves up in supernovae, leaving incredibly dense cores that coalesce into black holes. In between is a range of middleweights, including a type of supernova remnant called a neutron star, which can pack a sun's worth of mass into an asteroid-sized body. Astrophysicists have wondered where neutron stars leave off and black holes begin. Theoretical models predict the threshold at somewhere between 1.7 and 2.7 times the sun’s mass.

Because these objects cannot be observed directly--and small ones are particularly difficult to detect--astronomers must measure their gravitational or energetic effects on nearby stars or surrounding material. But this method only goes so far. The lightest black hole found previously weighed about 6.3 times as much as the sun--still quite a bit larger than that threshold.

Now two astrophysicists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, have used a new technique to find an even smaller black hole. It's a relative pipsqueak, weighing only 3.8 solar masses and orbiting a binary partner about 10,000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Ara. The object is only about the size of Manhattan. The researchers spotted it by using the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer spacecraft to detect the periodic x-ray bursts emitted when compressed and superheated incoming material reaches the edge of the black hole.

"With this new record-holder, we've advanced closer to the boundary between black holes and neutron stars," says Nikolai Shaposhnikov. He and co-author Lev Titarchuk reported their results this week at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Los Angeles and have submitted a paper on the find to the Astrophysical Journal.

The results are "particularly intriguing" because they confirm the lower end of the mass range for black holes predicted by the models, says theoretical astrophysicist Vicky Kalogera of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The new detection method is not yet widely accepted by the astrophysical community, she says, but Shaposhnikov and Titarchuk applied it to several other black holes, whose masses scientists had determined with the conventional detection method, and the results have been consistent. "So we have no instance where the two methods disagree," Kalogera says.

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Jules Verne Shuttle Replacement Is Giant Leap for A.I: First Look

The space shuttle fleet, for all its sophisticated engineering, is basically an orbital delivery truck. It’s also nearing a well-earned retirement, and this week the world gets a close look at its replacement: a pilotless, fully automated spaceship.

The Jules Verne is the first of seven probable Automated Transfer Vehicles, built by the European Space Agency to deliver cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. On Thursday at 9:40 am EST the 20.7-ton ATV will make its first rendezvous with the station. French engineers at an ESA command center in Toulouse, France, have been testing the craft in orbit over the past two days, bringing the delivery ship into the first phases of a docking approach and evaluating how it handles abort scenarios. The navigation software, solar arrays and collision avoidance systems have all worked fine; apart from a slight inconsistency between the oxidizer and propellant in the fuel mix, the flight has been perfect. For the past several days the Jules Verne has been lingering 1000 miles away from the ISS, the two spacecraft circling the planet together until showtime.

This is only the latest unmanned vehicle to resupply the ISS; Russian Progress modules have been ferrying cargo back and forth for years. But the Jules Verne can carry twice as much water and three times as much dry cargo. It can also haul away 14,330 pounds of waste per trip, about 10,000 pounds more garbage and human excreta than its Russian equivalent.

A Progress module could be guided into its dock by astronauts inside the ISS—with the new ATVs, station residents can only abort the procedure if something goes wrong. The ‘abort’ command triggers software that maneuvers the vehicle away from the station and positions it with its solar arrays pointed toward the sun. Also, the ground crew in Toulouse monitors the flights closely and can end the orbital coupling. On Earth and above it, the only available view of the procedure will be provided by a camera fitted with an optical alignment device overlaid with telemetry data. On Thursday, all eyes will be fixed to the video screen as a computer gently guides the two fragile spacecraft together.

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Tooth Regeneration May Replace Drill-and-Fill

Dentistry has taken the same approach to tooth decay — filling cavities — for decades, but new techniques for rebuilding teeth from the inside out could transform the profession over the next decade.
Photo: Hollingsworth/Corbis

The next time your children get cavities, they might get tooth regeneration instead of fillings.

That's because materials scientists are beginning to find just the right solutions of chemicals to rebuild decayed teeth, rather than merely patching their holes. Enamel and dentin, the materials that make teeth the strongest pieces of the body, would replace the gold or ceramic fillings that currently return teeth to working order.

"What we're hoping to have happen is to catch [decaying teeth] early and remineralize them," said Sally Marshall, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco. Marshall gave a talk last week at the spring meeting of the Materials Research Society on rebuilding the inner portions of teeth.

While regrowing your uncle's toothless grin from scratch is still a decade away, the ability to use some of the body's own building materials for oral repair would be a boon to dentists, who have been fixing cavities with metal fillings since the 1840s. Enamel and dentin are remarkably strong and long-lasting, and they can repair themselves. But as scientists are continuing to find out, dentin in particular is a remarkably complex structure.

The outer covering of teeth is enamel. The body makes it by growing tiny mineral crystals in a highly regular crystal lattice. Underneath that ceramic-like covering, dentin is like hard clay reinforced by fibers of collagen, similar to the way adobe bricks contain clay reinforced by straw fibers.

"The tooth is a beautiful structure," said Van Thompson, dentistry professor and chairman of New York University's Department of Biomaterials and Biomimetics.

But teeth, because they are made from minerals, are susceptible to what is essentially erosion. Acids, like those produced by bacteria or Coca-Cola, demineralize the enamel of the teeth. Usually the body is constantly repairing small amounts of damage, Marshall said. But when the body's defenses become overwhelmed, bacteria break through into the dentin below, and you get tooth decay, commonly called a cavity.

The acid produced by the bacteria eats into the minerals in the dentin, turning it mushy and useless. Normal dentin is twice as stiff as pinewood, but damaged dentin is more like rubber, which makes it pretty hard to chew with.

Marshall's newest work, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Structural Biology, focuses on regrowing dentin in damaged teeth with the help of a calcium-containing solution of ions (electrically charged particles).

By putting a layer of the solution on individual test teeth, Marshall has already been able to remineralize some parts of the teeth. The challenge is to get the crystals to regrow throughout the dentin.

To heal properly, the crystals need to form from the bottom of the tooth up to the enamel. Marshall isn't sure whether that's happening yet, but she is confident that she'll find a way to restore dentin functionality over the next few years.

Stephen Bayne, professor of dentistry at the University of Michigan, noted that while many groups are working on regrowing teeth, Marshall has "incredible stature" in dentistry for her groundbreaking work helping dentists understand the structure of the tooth.

Still, even with the recent progress, the very complexity that Marshall and other researchers have discovered in the humble tooth is likely to keep her technique out of your local dentist's office for a few more years.

"We're still a ways from being able to grow back dentin and enamel," Bayne said.

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Scientists Discover 356 Animal Inclusions Trapped In Opaque Amber 100 Million Years Old

Paleontologists from the University of Rennes (France) and the ESRF have found the presence of 356 animal inclusions in completely opaque amber from mid-Cretaceous sites of Charentes (France). The team used the X-rays of the European light source to image two kilogrammes of the fossil tree resin with a technique that allows rapid survey of large amounts of opaque amber. This is the only known method to discover inclusions in detail in fully opaque amber.

Examples of virtual 3D extraction of organisms embedded in opaque amber: a) Gastropod Ellobiidae; b) Myriapod Polyxenidae; c) Arachnid; d) Conifer branch (Glenrosa); e) Isopod crustacean Ligia; f) Insect hymenopteran Falciformicidae. (Credit: M. Lak, P. Tafforeau, D. Néraudeau (ESRF Grenoble and UMR CNRS 6118 Rennes))

Opaque amber has always been a challenge for paleontologists. Researchers cannot study it because the naked eye cannot visualize the presence of any fossil inclusion inside. In the Cretaceous sites like those in Charentes, there is up to 80% of opaque amber. It is like trying to find, in complete blindness, something that may or may not be there.

However, the paleontologists Malvina Lak, her colleagues from the University of Rennes and the ESRF paleontologist Paul Tafforeau, together with the National Museum of Natural History of Paris, have applied to opaque amber a synchrotron X-ray imaging technique known as propagation phase contrast microradiography. It sheds light on the interior of this dark amber, which resembles a stone to the human eye. “Researchers have tried to study this kind of amber for many years with little or no success. This is the first time that we can actually discover and study the fossils it contains”, says Paul Tafforeau.

The scientists imaged 640 pieces of amber from the Charentes region in southwestern France. They discovered 356 fossil animals, going from wasps and flies, to ants or even spiders and acarians. The team was able to identify the family of 53% of the inclusions.

Most of the organisms discovered are tiny. For example, one of the discovered acarians measures 0.8 mm and a fossil wasp is only 4 mm. “The small size of the organisms is probably due to the fact that bigger animals would be able to escape from the resin before getting stuck, whereas little ones would be captured more easily”, explains Malvina Lak.

Water to see tiny fossils better

The surface features of amber pieces, like cracks, stand out more in the images than the fossil organisms in the interior when using synchrotron radiation. In order to solve this problem, scientists soaked the amber pieces in water before the experiment. Because water and amber have very similar densities, immersion made the outlines of the amber pieces and the cracks almost invisible. At the same time, it increased overall inclusion visibility, leading to better detection and characterization of the fossils.

Classification of species

Once discovered on the radiographs, some of the organisms were imaged in three dimensions and virtually extracted from the resin. The high quality of these 3D reconstructions enables paleontologists to precisely study and describe the organisms. The success of this experiment shows the high value of the ESRF for the study of fossils. “Opaque amber hosts many aspects of past life on our planet that are still unknown, and the use of third generation synchrotron sources will continue to play an important role in unveiling them”, asserts Malvina Lak.

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Blind to Change, Even as It Stares Us in the Face

GOOD EYE In deciding what to focus on, we scan and sweep until something sticks out and brings our bouncing cones to a halt, as shown above.

Leave it to a vision researcher to make you feel like Mr. Magoo.

When Jeremy Wolfe of Harvard Medical School, speaking last week at a symposium devoted to the crossover theme of Art and Neuroscience, wanted to illustrate how the brain sees the world and how often it fumbles the job, he naturally turned to a great work of art. He flashed a slide of Ellsworth Kelly’s “Study for Colors for a Large Wall” on the screen, and the audience couldn’t help but perk to attention. The checkerboard painting of 64 black, white and colored squares was so whimsically subtle, so poised and propulsive. We drank it in greedily, we scanned every part of it, we loved it, we owned it, and, whoops, time for a test.

Dr. Wolfe flashed another slide of the image, this time with one of the squares highlighted. Was the highlighted square the same color as the original, he asked the audience, or had he altered it? Um, different. No, wait, the same, definitely the same. That square could not now be nor ever have been anything but swimming-pool blue ... could it? The slides flashed by. How about this mustard square here, or that denim one there, or this pink, or that black? We in the audience were at sea and flailed for a strategy. By the end of the series only one thing was clear: We had gazed on Ellsworth Kelly’s masterpiece, but we hadn’t really seen it at all.

The phenomenon that Dr. Wolfe’s Pop Art quiz exemplified is known as change blindness: the frequent inability of our visual system to detect alterations to something staring us straight in the face. The changes needn’t be as modest as a switching of paint chips. At the same meeting, held at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University, the audience failed to notice entire stories disappearing from buildings, or the fact that one poor chicken in a field of dancing cartoon hens had suddenly exploded. In an interview, Dr. Wolfe also recalled a series of experiments in which pedestrians giving directions to a Cornell researcher posing as a lost tourist didn’t notice when, midway through the exchange, the sham tourist was replaced by another person altogether.

Beyond its entertainment value, symposium participants made clear, change blindness is a salient piece in the larger puzzle of visual attentiveness. What is the difference between seeing a scene casually and automatically, as in, you’re at the window and you glance outside at the same old streetscape and nothing registers, versus the focused seeing you’d do if you glanced outside and noticed a sign in the window of your favorite restaurant, and oh no, it’s going out of business because, let’s face it, you always have that Typhoid Mary effect on things. In both cases the same sensory information, the same photonic stream from the external world, is falling on the retinal tissue of your eyes, but the information is processed very differently from one eyeful to the next. What is that difference? At what stage in the complex circuitry of sight do attentiveness and awareness arise, and what happens to other objects in the visual field once a particular object has been designated worthy of a further despairing stare?

Visual attentiveness is born of limited resources. “The basic problem is that far more information lands on your eyes than you can possibly analyze and still end up with a reasonable sized brain,” Dr. Wolfe said. Hence, the brain has evolved mechanisms for combating data overload, allowing large rivers of data to pass along optical and cortical corridors almost entirely unassimilated, and peeling off selected data for a close, careful view. In deciding what to focus on, the brain essentially shines a spotlight from place to place, a rapid, sweeping search that takes in maybe 30 or 40 objects per second, the survey accompanied by a multitude of body movements of which we are barely aware: the darting of the eyes, the constant tiny twists of the torso and neck. We scan and sweep and perfunctorily police, until something sticks out and brings our bouncing cones to a halt.

The mechanisms that succeed in seizing our sightline fall into two basic classes: bottom up and top down. Bottom-up attentiveness originates with the stimulus, with something in our visual field that is the optical equivalent of a shout: a wildly waving hand, a bright red object against a green field. Bottom-up stimuli seem to head straight for the brainstem and are almost impossible to ignore, said Nancy Kanwisher, a vision researcher at M.I.T., and thus they are popular in Internet ads.

Top-down attentiveness, by comparison, is a volitional act, the decision by the viewer that an item, even in the absence of flapping parts or strobe lights, is nonetheless a sight to behold. When you are looking for a specific object — say, your black suitcase on a moving baggage carousel occupied largely by black suitcases — you apply a top-down approach, the bouncing searchlights configured to specific parameters, like a smallish, scuffed black suitcase with one broken wheel. Volitional attentiveness is much trickier to study than is a simple response to a stimulus, yet scientists have made progress through improved brain-scanning technology and the ability to measure the firing patterns of specific neurons or the synchronized firing of clusters of brain cells.

Recent studies with both macaques and humans indicate that attentiveness crackles through the brain along vast, multifocal, transcortical loops, leaping to life in regions at the back of the brain, in the primary visual cortex that engages with the world, proceeding forward into frontal lobes where higher cognitive analysis occurs, and then doubling back to the primary visual centers. En route, the initial signal is amplified, italicized and annotated, and so persuasively that the boosted signal seems to emanate from the object itself. The enhancer effect explains why, if you’ve ever looked at a crowd photo and had somebody point out the face of, say, a young Franklin Roosevelt or George Clooney in the throng, the celebrity’s image will leap out at you thereafter as though lighted from behind.

Whether lured into attentiveness by a bottom-up or top-down mechanism, scientists said, the results of change blindness studies and other experiments strongly suggest that the visual system can focus on only one or very few objects at a time, and that anything lying outside a given moment’s cone of interest gets short shrift. The brain, it seems, is a master at filling gaps and making do, of compiling a cohesive portrait of reality based on a flickering view.

“Our spotlight of attention is grabbing objects at such a fast rate that introspectively it feels like you’re recognizing many things at once,” Dr. Wolfe said. “But the reality is that you are only accurately representing the state of one or a few objects at any given moment.” As for the rest of our visual experience, he said, it has been aptly called “a grand illusion.” Sit back, relax and enjoy the movie called You.

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Logos offer a guide to secret military research

Clockwise from top left: Ghost Squadron. For search and rescue; National Reconnaissance Office. Dragon is code for infrared imaging on advanced KH-11 satellites; Desert Prowler. May represent Groom Lake, Nev., a k a Area 51; Special Projects Office. Oversaw F-117A stealth fighter support; 4451st Test Squadron. Stealth fighters; 413th Flight Test Squadron. Possibly referring to simulated or real electronic threats against aircraft.
(Trevor Paglen)

Skulls. Black cats. A naked woman riding a killer whale. Grim reapers. Snakes. Swords. Occult symbols. A wizard with a staff that shoots lightning bolts. Moons. Stars. A dragon holding the Earth in its claws.

No, this is not the fantasy world of a 12-year-old boy.

It is, according to a new book, part of the hidden reality behind the Pentagon's classified, or "black," budget that delivers billions of dollars to stealthy armies of high-tech warriors. The book offers a glimpse of this dark world through a revealing lens — patches — the kind worn on military uniforms.

"It's a fresh approach to secret government," Steven Aftergood, a security expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, said in an interview. "It shows that these secret programs have their own culture, vocabulary and even sense of humor."

One patch shows a space alien with huge eyes holding a stealth bomber near its mouth. "To Serve Man" reads the text above, a reference to a classic "Twilight Zone" episode in which man is the entree, not the customer. "Gustatus Similis Pullus" reads the caption below, dog Latin for "Tastes Like Chicken."

Military officials and experts said the patches are real if often unofficial efforts at building team spirit.

The classified budget of the Defense Department, concealed from the public in all but outline, has nearly doubled in the Bush years, to $32 billion. That is more than the combined budgets of the Food and Drug Administration, the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Those billions have expanded a secret world of advanced science and technology in which military units and U.S. government contractors push back the frontiers of warfare. In the past, such handiwork has produced some of the most advanced jets, weapons and spy satellites, as well as notorious boondoggles.

Budget documents tell little. This year, for instance, the Pentagon says Program Element 0603891c is receiving $196 million but will disclose nothing about what the project does. Private analysts say it apparently aims at developing space weapons.

Trevor Paglen, an artist and photographer finishing his Ph.D. in geography at the University of California, Berkeley, has managed to document some of this hidden world. The 75 patches he has assembled reveal a bizarre mix of high and low culture where Latin and Greek mottos frame images of spooky demons and sexy warriors, of dragons dropping bombs and skunks firing laser beams.

"Oderint Dum Metuant," reads a patch for an Air Force program that mines spy satellite images for battlefield intelligence, according to Paglen, who identifies the saying as from Caligula, the first-century Roman emperor famed for his depravity. It translates "Let them hate so long as they fear."

Wizards appear on several patches. The one hurling lightning bolts comes from a secret Air Force base at Groom Lake, northwest of Las Vegas in a secluded valley. Paglen identifies its five clustered stars and one separate star as a veiled reference to Area 51, where the government tests advanced aircraft and, UFO buffs say, captured alien spaceships.

The book offers not only clues into the nature of the secret programs, but also a glimpse of zealous male bonding among the presumed elite of the military-industrial complex. The patches often feel like fraternity pranks gone ballistic.

The book's title? "I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me," published by Melville House. Paglen says the title is the Latin translation of a patch designed for the Navy Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 4, at Point Mugu, California. Its mission, he says, is to test strike aircraft, conventional weapons and electronic warfare equipment and to develop tactics to use the high-tech armaments in war.

"The military has patches for almost everything it does," Paglen writes in the introduction. "Including, curiously, for programs, units and activities that are officially secret."

He said contractors in some cases made the patches to build esprit de corps. Other times, he added, military units produced them informally, in contrast to official patches.

Paglen said he found them by touring bases, noting what personnel wore, joining alumni associations, interviewing active and former team members, talking to base historians and filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

A spokesman for the Pentagon, Commander Bob Mehal, said it would be imprudent to comment on "which patches do or do not represent classified units." In an e-mail message, Mehal added, "It would be supposition to suggest 'anyone' is uncomfortable with this book."

Each year, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a private group in Washington, publishes an update on the Pentagon's classified budget. It says the money began to soar after the two events of Bush's coming into office and terrorists' 9/11 attacks.

What sparked his interest, Paglen recalled, were Vice President Dick Cheney's remarks as the Pentagon and World Trade Center smoldered. On "Meet the Press," he said the nation would engage its "dark side" to find the attackers and justice. "We've got to spend time in the shadows," Cheney said. "It's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective."

In an interview, Paglen said that remark revived memories of his childhood when his military family traveled the globe to bases often involved in secret missions. "I'd go out drinking with Special Forces guys," he recalled. "I was 15, and they were 20, and they could never say where they where coming from or what they were doing. You were just around the stuff."

Intrigued by Cheney's remarks as well as his own recollections, Paglen set off to map the secret world and document its expansion. He traveled widely across the Southwest, where the military keeps many secret bases. His labors, he said, resulted in his Ph.D. thesis as well as a book, "Blank Spots on a Map," that Dutton plans to publish next year.

The research also led to another book, "Torture Taxi," that Melville House published in 2006. It described how spies kidnapped and detained suspected terrorists around the globe.

"Black World," a 2006 display of his photographs at Bellwether, a gallery in Chelsea, showed "anonymous-looking buildings in parched landscapes shot through a shimmering heat haze," Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times, adding that the images "seem to emit a buzz of mystery as they turn military surveillance inside out: here the surveillant is surveilled."

In this research, Paglen became fascinated by the patches and started collecting them and displaying them at talks and shows. He said a breakthrough occurred around 2004, when he visited Peter Merlin, an "aerospace archaeologist" who works in the Mojave Desert not far from a sprawling military base. Merlin argued that the lightning bolts, stars and other symbols could be substantive clues about unit numbers and operating locations, as well as the purpose of hidden programs.

"These symbols," Paglen wrote, "were a language. If you could begin to learn its grammar, you could get a glimpse into the secret world itself."

His book explores this idea and seeks to decode the symbols. Many patches show the Greek letter sigma, which Paglen identifies as a technical term for how well an object reflects radar waves, a crucial parameter in developing stealthy jets.

A patch from a Groom Lake unit shows the letter sigma with the "buster" slash running through it, as in the movie "Ghost Busters." "Huge Deposit — No Return" reads its caption. Huge Deposit, Paglen writes, "indicates the bomb load deposited by the bomber on its target, while 'No Return' refers to the absence of a radar return, meaning the aircraft was undetectable to radar."

In an interview, Paglen said his favorite patch was the dragon holding the Earth in its claws, its wings made of American flags and its mouth wide open, baring its fangs. He said it came from the National Reconnaissance Office, which oversees developing spy satellites. "There's something both belligerent and weirdly self-critical about it," he remarked. "It's representing the U.S. as a dragon with the whole world in its clutches."

The field is expanding. Dwayne Day and Roger Guillemette, military historians, wrote an article published this year in The Space Review ( on patches from secret space programs. "It's neat stuff," Day said in an interview. "They're not really giving away secrets. But the patches do go farther than the organizations want to go officially."

Paglen plans to keep mining the patches and the field of clandestine military activity. "It's kind of remarkable," he said. "This stuff is a huge industry, I mean a huge industry. And it's remarkable that you can develop these projects on an industrial scale, and we don't know what they are. It's an astounding feat of social engineering."

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Why we don't always learn from our mistakes

If you are struggling to retrieve a word that you are certain is on the tip of your tongue, or trying to perfect a slapshot that will send your puck flying into a hockey net, or if you keep stumbling over the same sequence of notes on the piano, be warned: you might be unconsciously creating a pattern of failure, a new study reveals. The research appears today in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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Karin Humphreys, assistant professor in McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, and Amy Beth Warriner, an undergraduate student in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, suggest that most errors are repeated because the very act of making a mistake, despite receiving correction, constitutes the learning of that mistake.

Humphreys says the research came about as a result of her own experiences of repeatedly getting into a tip-of-the-tongue (or TOT) state on particular words.

“This can be incredibly frustrating – you know you know the word, but you just can’t quite get it,” she said. “And once you have it, it is such a relief that you can’t imagine ever forgetting it again. But then you do. So we began thinking about the mechanisms that might underlie this phenomenon. We realized that it might not be a case of everyone having certain words that are difficult for them to remember, but that by getting into a tip-of-the-tongue state on a particular word once, they actually learn to go into that incorrect state when they try to retrieve the same word again.”

Humphreys and Warriner tested 30 students to see if their subjects could retrieve words after being given a definition. e.g. “What do you call an instrument for performing calculations by sliding beads along rods or grooves” (Answer: abacus). They then had to say whether they knew the answer, didn’t know it, or were in a TOT. If they were in a TOT, they were randomly assigned to spend either 10 or 30 seconds trying to retrieve the answer before finally being shown it. Two days later, subjects were tested on those same words again. One would assume that having been shown the correct word on Day 1 the subject would still remember it on Day 2. Not so. The subjects tended to TOT on the same words as before, and were especially more likely to do so if they had spent a longer time trying to retrieve them The longer time in the error state appears to reinforce that incorrect pattern of brain activation that caused the error.

“It’s akin to spinning one’s tires in the snow: despite your perseverance you’re only digging yourself a deeper rut,” the researchers explained.

There might be a strategy to solve the recurrence of tip-of-the-tongue situations, which is what Warriner is currently working on for her honours thesis.

"If you can find out what the word is as soon as possible—by looking it up, or asking someone—you should actually say it to yourself,” says Humphreys. “It doesn't need to be out loud, but you should at least say it to yourself. By laying down another procedural memory you can help ameliorate the effects of the error. However, what the research shows is that if you just can't figure it out, stop trying: you’re just digging yourself in deeper."

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UK's first hybrid embryos created

Newcastle University's hybrid embryos
They may look like any three-day-old embryos, but in fact these are hybrids

Scientists at Newcastle University have created part-human, part-animal hybrid embryos for the first time in the UK, the BBC can reveal.

The embryos survived for up to three days and are part of medical research into a range of illnesses.

It comes a month before MPs are to debate the future of such research.

The Catholic Church describes it as "monstrous". But medical bodies and patient groups say such research is vital for our understanding of disease.

They argue that the work could pave the way for new treatments for conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Egg shortages

Under the microscope the round bundles of cells look like any other three-day-old embryos.

In fact they are hybrids - part-human, part-animal.

We are dealing with a clump of cells which would never go on to develop
Professor John Burn
Newcastle University

They were created by injecting DNA derived from human skin cells into eggs taken from cows ovaries which have had virtually all their genetic material removed.

So what possible justification can scientists offer for doing what the Catholic Church has branded "experiments of Frankenstein proportion"?

The Newcastle team say they are using cow ovaries because human eggs from donors are a precious resource and in short supply.

The hybrid embryos are purely for research and would never be allowed to develop beyond 14 days when they are still smaller than a pinhead.

Scientists want to extract stem cells, the body's master cells, from the embryos, in order to increase understanding of a whole range of diseases from diabetes to stroke and ultimately to produce treatments.

Professor John Burn from Newcastle University says the research is entirely ethical.

"This is licensed work which has been carefully evaluated. This is a process in a dish, and we are dealing with a clump of cells which would never go on to develop. It's a laboratory process and these embryos would never be implanted into anyone.

"We now have preliminary data which looks promising but this is very much work in progress and the next step is to get the embryos to survive to around six days when we can hopefully derive stem cells from them."

Free vote allowed

The research in Newcastle was approved by the UK's fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which more comprehensively attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular bill
Cardinal Keith O'Brien

It acted ahead of the passing of new legislation which will specifically allow the creation of hybrid embryos so as not to hold back research.

The bill setting out the new legislation is not due to be debated in the House of Commons until next month.

It is highly controversial and last week Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave in to demands for a free vote on the issue.

Critics from the Roman Catholic Church say the creation of hybrids is immoral.

"It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which more comprehensively attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular bill," Cardinal Keith O'Brien, archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh declared last week.

Dr David King, of Human Genetics Alert, said: "For anyone who understands basic biology, it is no surprise that these embryos died at such an early stage.

"Cloning is inefficient precisely because it is so unnatural, and by mixing species it becomes even more unnatural and unlikely to succeed.

"The public has been grossly misled by the hype that this is vital medical research.

"Even if stem cells were ever to be produced, like cloned animals, they would have so many errors of their metabolism that they would produce completely misleading data."

Not for the first time developments in science have outpaced the debate from legislators.

For supporters of embryo research the creation of hybrid embryos is a small but significant move forward.

For opponents it is a step too far.

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