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Monday, April 7, 2008

NASA goes low-tech to fix high-tech problem

WASHINGTON (AP) -- To fix a potentially fatal shaking problem on its snazzy new moon rocket, NASA is considering something that works for mud-stained pickups: heavy-duty shock absorbers.

For nearly half a year, NASA's No. 1 technical problem in designing its Ares I rocket, which will eventually propel astronauts back to the moon, has been a sound wave vibration problem from its solid rocket motors.

If the vibrations hit the right frequency, they could shake the astronauts to death -- or at the least make it impossible for them to work. The astronauts would be in the Orion crew capsule launched on top of the Ares.

The leading solution is to put weight on springs in parts of the bottom end of the rocket and underneath astronauts' seats to dampen the vibrations. Think MacPherson struts, said Garry Lyles, who heads a NASA team working on the problem.

"These are actually absorbers that are used in vehicles today, especially 1-ton and 1½-ton pickup trucks," Lyles said Thursday.

He said it's possible that further analysis and tests will reveal that the shaking problem that's turned up in computer models of the still unbuilt Ares may be a non-issue. But engineers are seeking solutions just in case.

NASA is not ready to proclaim the case closed and still considers it the highest level of potential problem, Lyles said.

Ares project manager Steve Cook called it "a very manageable issue."

There are many such challenges that face NASA's return-to-the moon program, according to a report issued Thursday by outside federal auditors.

The Government Accountability Office highlighted other potential problems, including too much weight in both the rocket and Orion capsule, design issues with a new engine for a booster, insufficient facilities for certain types of testing, and private industry's inability to make the Orion capsule's 1960s-style peel-away heat shield.

None of the technical problems is "a fatal flaw," the report's author, Christine Chaplain, told a House Science subcommittee Thursday.

Former astronaut Kathryn Thornton, associate dean of engineering at the University of Virginia, said experts believe that one of the biggest problems is that the space agency is set on a schedule of returning people to the moon by 2020 without enough money.

Getting to the moon by that date is "exceedingly unlikely," she told the subcommittee.

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The Next Giant Leap For Mankind

A Bigger Leap For Mankind

With the Space Shuttle program ending soon, NASA is planning to return men to the moon in preparation for a manned flight to Mars. Bob Simon reports. | Share/Embed

(CBS) NASA is serious, very serious, about launching the most difficult mission ever attempted by the human race - putting an astronaut on Mars. The voyage will cover hundreds of millions of miles and take two-and-a-half years roundtrip. It sounds like science fiction.

To make it scientific fact, the United States needs to first flex its deep space muscles again on familiar terrain - the moon.

It’s been nearly 40 years since Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind and almost as long since the American public was truly captivated by the space program. You may not know it, but as 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon reports, the journey to send humans back to the moon and beyond has already begun.

From the mountains of Utah to the factory floors of Cleveland, from the space center in Houston to the marshes of Virginia, spacesuits are being tested, rockets are being fired, and capsules are being designed. The United States is once again aiming to launch astronauts to the moon and yes, even, to Mars.

"What’s impossible? What can’t we do if we wanna do it badly enough?" says Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. He calls his trip on Apollo 17 a visit to God’s front porch. He says anything seemed achievable in those days.

"When I came back from the moon in ’72, [I] stood on my soapbox and said, ‘We’re not only going back to the moon, we’re gonna be on our way to Mars by the turn of the century.' I believed it with my whole heart. But my glass has been half empty for the last 30 years. Now, it’s half full."

It’s half full because NASA is returning to what Cernan calls the romance of space: dramatic human missions to other worlds.

What will propel the astronauts is the new Ares rockets, but they won’t be ready until 2015.

Dr. Rick Gilbrech is NASA’s exploration chief.

"A lot of people don’t understand. They say, ‘Why can’t we go to the moon, we've already been there.' Well, we can’t really roll up the garage door and dust off the Saturn V rockets. That whole infrastructure was dismantled after the Apollo program."

The decision to dismantle Apollo and to cancel possible future trips to places like Mars was made during the Nixon era. Dr. Mike Griffin, NASA's current director, says that was wrong. "It has to rank as one of the colossal mistakes in history," he says.

And that mistake, Griffin says, led to the Space Shuttle, which he believes doesn’t generate as much excitement because it never leaves the Earth’s orbit. Griffin says Americans are bored by the space program because NASA has run a boring space program. The Space Shuttle will finally be retired in two years. In its place: the new exploration program called Constellation.

There is no question Mars is the ultimate goal, but why return to the moon? Why not go straight to Mars? "If we didn’t have a moon, we would. And we could. But it would be much riskier," Griffin says.

To get to Mars, the astronauts will need to travel several hundred million miles before landing. If something goes wrong along the way, the astronauts would never make it back to Earth.

Mars is a tough place to do business; Steve Squyres should know. He is the principal investigator for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Squyres and everyone at NASA were greatly relieved when they landed safely on the red planet four years ago.

The rovers have been a huge success in exploring Mars and transmitting rare pictures from there. Prior to their landing, roughly two-thirds of all missions to the planet had failed. Squyres calls Mars a spacecraft graveyard.

"The accuracy with which you need to target a landing site on the surface is like throwing a basketball from New York to Los Angeles and having it go through without touching the rim," he explains.

If the astronauts make that shot, if they land on Mars, they will face a deadly environment - radiation from solar flares, dangerous dust and temperatures that average 60 degrees below zero. And they’ll have to do it for up to 18 months. That’s how long it will take before the Earth and Mars align properly again for a faster return home. No astronauts have ever spent that amount of time on another world. Neil Armstrong was on the moon for less than a day.

"And I think it’s more responsible for us to go to the moon, check out these systems, make sure the life-support systems, the space suits, the little things we need for these long voyages, work properly," Gilbrech explains.

The new lunar missions will be about more than putting flags in the sand. This time, NASA wants its astronauts on the moon for weeks, even months, to work out any kinks.

"And going to the moon, staying for months, wearing the space suit all the time?" Simon asks.

"No," says Gilbrech. "We have planned to have habitats so that they’ll have short-sleeve environments." He says the goal is to have towns on the moon.

To help essentially colonize the moon, NASA is trying out a new generation of rovers.

During Apollo, the furthest the astronauts could ever venture out on their lunar rovers was six miles. NASA hopes the new rovers will let the astronauts explore 60 miles from their spacecraft. Technological advancements will help in another way. Think about this: There is more computing power in your average cell phone today than there was on any of the Apollo spacecraft that took the astronauts to the moon.

Another example of how the new missions might be different is the
robonaut, which looks like a cousin of C-3PO. It’s an early model of a robot that might assist the astronauts with mundane and sometimes dangerous tasks on the moon.

The astronauts who set up towns on the moon will need to learn to adapt. At the
Glenn Research Center near Cleveland, engineers are testing a machine that simulates one-sixth gravity.

"No matter how many times you see astronauts walking on the moon, you have no idea what it feels like," says Simon while walking on the vertical treadmill, a surreal machine that simulates the feel of walking on the moon.

Without exercise in space, the astronauts could lose significant bone mass and also see their muscles atrophy.

NASA isn’t using the moon just to train for Mars. Next year, it will launch orbiters around the moon and then essentially blast the lunar surface. In the midst of the debris field, NASA hopes to find evidence of hydrogen, which could one day help fuel trips home for the astronauts. But will there be any missions for the astronauts at all?

The biggest obstacle NASA faces is money. One critic has called the Constellation program "Apollo on food stamps." During the 1960s, 4 percent of the entire national budget was spent on space. Today one-sixth of 1 percent goes to NASA.

"The average American’s bill, if you will, for the space program, is 15 cents per person, per day," says Griffin. "I don’t know about you, but I spend more than that on bubble gum."

And there are worries there could be further cuts. Constellation is a tempting target in a difficult economy. The money squeeze is the main reason why the U.S. won’t set foot on the moon until 2020. A Mars landing won’t take place until about 2030. To defray costs for the trip to Mars, NASA may need an international partner. If it's up to Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., who tried to halt the Mars program, Americans won’t be part of any human missions to the planet. So what does he have against Mars?

"I don’t have anything against a lot of things I don’t wanna spend hundreds of billions of dollars on," says Rep. Frank. "Sending human beings there for the sole purpose of proving that we can do it and bringing them back requires an enormous amount of money at a time when we have a serious deficit, when we are not adequately funding a lot of very important needs right here at home."

Others wonder why NASA doesn’t simply continue to send rovers like Spirit and Opportunity to Mars. Miraculously, they not only survived the landing, they have survived for four years on the Martian surface. The rovers were originally supposed to last only three months. The rovers are cheaper and don’t put humans at risk. But what rovers can do in a day, humans could do in a minute. And manned missions to Mars could intensify a very important search, according to Squyres, the lead scientist for the rovers.

"We’re exploring Mars, fundamentally, because it may once have harbored life," he says. "So, by going to Mars we can address basic questions like, 'How did life first come to be? Is life common or rare throughout the universe?' These are big questions."

Discoveries by the rovers have given hints to the possibilities of life on Mars. Perfect, blueberry-like spheres on the surface are made of a mineral that is often formed in water on Earth. Last year, white dirt appeared in Spirit’s tracks. It was silica. The presence of water is required to produce such a high concentration. And inside what’s known as the Victoria Crater, Opportunity is finding proof that water once saturated the sub-surface of Mars. Water is the essential ingredient for life. Which brings up an if?

"This is a big if," Squyres says, "but if you could show that life arose independently on two different planets just in this one solar system, when you consider the multitudes of solar systems that there are out there, it takes no great leap of logic or faith or anything else to believe that life might actually be commonplace throughout the universe."

And if that isn’t enough to think about, the real issue may not be whether there was or is life on Mars, but whether there will be life on Mars.

Griffin says "I think Mars will figure prominently in the future of the human race. Well, I think Mars is in, in the distant future, is another home for human beings."

Human settlements on Mars: is it all just a dream? Will the American public even support traveling to places humans can barely imagine? That may be the biggest question of all.

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Solar System's 'look-alike' found

Almost 300 planets have now been found outside our Solar System

Astronomers have discovered a planetary system orbiting a distant star which looks much like our own.

They found two planets that were close matches for Jupiter and Saturn orbiting a star about half the size of our Sun.

Martin Dominik, from St Andrews University in the UK, said the finding suggested systems like our own could be much more common than we thought.

And he told a major meeting that astronomers were on the brink of finding many more of them.

The St Andrews researcher said this planetary system, and others like it, could host terrestrial planets like Earth. It was just a matter of time before such worlds were detected, he explained.

Dr Dominik told BBC News: "We found a system with two planets that take the roles of Jupiter and Saturn in our Solar System. These two planets have a similar mass ratio and similar orbital radius and a similar orbital period.

"It looks like this may have formed in a similar way to our Solar System. And if this is the case, it looks like [our] Solar System cannot be unique in the Universe. There should be other similar systems out there which could host terrestrial planets."

Dr Dominik presented his work at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast.

Ultimate goal

The newfound planetary system, which orbits the star OGLE-2006-BLG-109L, is more compact than our own and is about five thousand light-years away.

Although nearly 300 extrasolar planets have been identified, astronomers have consistently failed to find planetary systems which resemble our own. Dr Dominik said only 10% of systems discovered so far are known to host more than one planet.

But he explained that all the techniques currently used to find exoplanets were strongly biased towards detecting gas giant planets orbiting at short distances from their parent stars.

The OGLE planets were found using a technique called gravitational micro-lensing, in which light from the faraway planets is bent and magnified by the gravity of a foreground object, in this case a another star.

"It's a kind of scaled-down version of our Solar System. The star the planets are orbiting is half as massive as the Sun and they orbit half as distant to their host star as Jupiter and Saturn orbit around the Sun," said Dr Dominik.

He said that the ultimate goal for exoplanet researchers was to find habitable Earth-like and Mars-like planets. This aim was achievable, he said, because technology was improving all the time.

"I think it will happen quite soon," he said, adding: "Micro-lensing can already go below Earth mass and it has detected more massive planets in the habitable zone. So in the next few years, we will see something really exciting."

Dr Dominik said there was competition between teams of astronomers using micro-lensing and those who favoured the transit technique, which seeks to detect new planets when, from our point of view, they pass directly in front of the parent star they are orbiting. The planet blocks a tiny fraction of the star's light, causing the star to periodically dim.

But he added that there was little chance to detect Earth-like worlds in OGLE-2006-BLG-109L because the system was too distant for current techniques to resolve planets the size of our own.

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NYU dental professor discovers biological clock

A 3-D microscopic view of bone from a human femur showing incremental growth lines corresponding to a biological rhythm that repeats itself every eight days. The black hole at the top is a blood vessel canal. Credit: Dr. Tim Bromage

Why do rats live faster and die younger than humans? A newly discovered biological clock provides tantalizing clues.

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This clock, or biological rhythm, controls many metabolic functions and is based on the circadian rhythm, which is a roughly 24-hour cycle that is important in determining sleeping and feeding patterns, cell regeneration, and other biological processes in mammals.

The newly discovered rhythm, like the circadian rhythm, originates in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that functions as the main control center for the autonomic nervous system. But unlike the circadian rhythm, this clock varies from one organism to another, operating on shorter time intervals for small mammals, and longer ones for larger animals. For example, rats have a one-day interval, chimpanzees six, and humans eight.

NYU dental professor Dr. Timothy Bromage discovered the rhythm while observing incremental growth lines in tooth enamel, which appear much like the annual rings on a tree. He also observed a related pattern of incremental growth in skeletal bone tissue – the first time such an incremental rhythm has ever been observed in bone.

Reporting his findings today in the “Late-breaking News” session during the 37th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Dental Research, Bromage said, “The same biological rhythm that controls incremental tooth and bone growth also affects bone and body size and many metabolic processes, including heart and respiration rates. In fact, the rhythm affects an organism’s overall pace of life, and its life span. So, a rat that grows teeth and bone in one-eighth the time of a human also lives faster and dies younger.”

Humans have by far the most variation in these long-term incremental growth rhythms, with some humans clocking as few as five days, and others as many as ten. Correspondingly, humans have the most variability in body size among mammals. Future research will assess whether there is a link between slower growth rhythms and growth disorders. Since the autonomic nervous system controls human behavior, future research will also assess whether growth rhythms can be linked to variations in human behavior.

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New Species Of Infectious Disease Found In Amazon

nvestigating the tropical disease leptospirosis in the Peruvian Amazon, an infectious disease specialist from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine has uncovered new, emerging bacteria that may be responsible for up to 40 percent of cases of the disease. Patients with severe forms of leptospirosis have jaundice, renal failure and lung hemorrhage, with high fatality rates.

Joseph Vinetz, M.D., professor of medicine in UC San Diego’s Division of Infectious Diseases – working in collaboration with colleagues from Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru, and others – headed the study that led to discovery of the new species in the family of pathogens, Leptospira, which is spread from animals to humans.

Leptospirosis is a severe, water-borne disease transmitted from animals to humans, with tens of millions of human cases worldwide each year. Fatality rates can range as high as 20 to 25 percent in some regions, and it is particularly prevalent in tropical countries where poor people live under highly crowded condition, or in rural areas where people are exposed to water contaminated by the urine of Leptospira-infected animals such as rats.

The new species reflects Amazonian biodiversity, according to Vinetz, and the pathogen has apparently evolved to become an important cause of leptospirosis in the Peruvian Amazon region of Iquitos. There, Vinetz leads an international team of physicians from the U.S. and Peru in an NIH-funded training program studying malaria, leptospirosis and other infectious diseases that impact disadvantaged populations in developing countries.

The researchers found that the new species, Leptospira licerasiae – cultured from a very small number of patients, as well as eight rats – is significantly different from other forms of the bacteria at a genomic level and has novel biological features.

“This strain has fundamentally different characteristics,” said Vinetz, adding that the next step is to sequence its genome. “We think that hundreds of patients are infected with this pathogen, which is so unique that antibodies for the disease don’t react to the regular tests for leptospirosis.”

In testing 881 patients in a prospective clinical study of fever, the researchers found that 41 percent of them had antibodies that reacted only to this new strain of the bacteria, showing a much higher incidence of leptospirosis than previously suspected.

“This observation is relevant to other regions of the world where leptospirosis is likely to be common, because it’s necessary to identify the right strain of the Lepstospira in order to make the correct diagnosis,” Vinetz said.

Since isolation of the new Leptospira in people was rare despite the high prevalence of antibodies to this strain of the bacteria in the Amazonian population, Vinetz theorizes that the individuals with positive cultures may have a previously undiscovered immune system defect, making them more susceptible to the disease.

Journal reference: Matthias MA, Ricaldi JN, Cespedes M, Diaz MM, Galloway RL, et al. (2008) Human Leptospirosis Caused by a New, Antigenically Unique Leptospira Associated with a Rattus Species Reservoir in the Peruvian Amazon. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 2(4): e213. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0000213

Additional contributors to the paper include Michael A. Matthias, Jessica N. Ricaldi, Kailash Patra, and Mayuko Saito of UCSD, Manuel Cespedes of the National Institute of Health in Lima, Peru, M. Monica Diaz of the University of Tucuman, Argentina, Renee Paul N. Levett, ReneeL. Galloway and Arnold G. Steigerwalt of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta , Carlos Vidal Ore of the Peruvian Ministry of Health, Loreto, Peru, Eduardo Gotuzzo of Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, Lima, Peru, and Robert H. Gilman of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The study was supported by U.S. Public Health Service grants from the National Institutes of Health.

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Peering into the Heart, Safely

A quick peek: A Fourier domain scan of a stented left anterior coronary artery. The stent struts can be seen as bright, short dashes in the upper image. On the lower longitudinal scan, the stent, embedded in the irregular walls of the artery, can be seen stretching from 20 millimeters to 32 millimeters.
Credit: LightLab Imaging/Helios Heart Center

Getting a high-resolution picture of the interior of a coronary artery is difficult: to take a scan using existing technology, the heart has to be kept free of blood for 30 seconds. A new approach could dramatically reduce the time required for imaging, making it safer and easier for doctors to check stents for stability and keep track of new scar tissue.

The new method builds on an old technique called optical coherence tomography (OCT). This high-resolution medical imaging system has been in use in ophthalmology for more than a decade and is occasionally used to scan coronary arteries. But OCT is problematic because it cannot see through blood, so any area being scanned has to be flushed with saline. During the procedure, a special balloon is used to block incoming blood, which can cause damage to the tissue. Two US companies are working individually on a scanning method that would take a fraction of the time, greatly reducing the risk of damage to the heart.

OCT works by projecting a beam of light onto a surface, which then reflects a small amount of light back to the device. Due to the high speed at which light travels, reflection time is too brief to be measured directly. Instead, OCT relies on an interferometer, which measures the interference of noncoherent light. Because these light waves have a short wavelength, high-resolution images can be generated. (Intravascular ultrasound (IVUS) could also be used, but it typically has a resolution of 80 microns to 130 microns. OCT devices already on the market are able to measure down to the 15-micron level, providing far more detail.)

A number of companies are working on improving OCT using what is known as the Fourier domain. This mathematical formula is used to process a complex signal so that it can be differentiated into its component parts and analyzed. For OCT, this means that multiple wavelengths of data can be gathered simultaneously rather than sequentially, an improvement on previous generations of the technology. Sometimes called optical Fourier-domain imaging, this method substantially reduces the time required to perform a scan. Traditional OCT scanning requires multiple exposures of light aimed at specific points to make a full image. Fourier domain OCT exposes the entire area at once, reducing the time required to obtain a section from 30 seconds to two seconds. This reduction dramatically reduces the associated risks of the procedure. In two seconds, an area of artery 40 millimeters to 50 millimeters in size can be scanned, with an accompanying improvement in scanning resolution down to 10 microns.

Optical Fourier domain imaging is "a fairly well-established approach in principle," says Thomas Milner, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas, "and it's just starting to work its way into instruments that will be on the market soon."

Even though the basis of the Fourier domain OCT was conceived more than four years ago, the technological advances that make it practical are comparatively recent. Fourier domain OCT requires three important pieces of equipment: the scanning laser, the processing electronics, and the light detectors. "It's really in the last 24 months that all of this [technology] started to become available so you could look at it as a system," says Chris Peterson, vice president of research and development at LightLab.

An initial application for this technology will be to image stents after insertion to ensure they haven't shifted. A stent is an artificial buttress placed in an artery to keep it open, allowing the blood to flow freely. Research from Harvard University Medical School has shown that stent prolapsing can occur with shifts of less than 100 microns, a level that would go undetected by IVUS. The increased accuracy of OCT technology allows doctors to observe how well the stent is adhering to the arterial walls and to track small amounts of endothelial regrowth that would go unnoticed by IVUS. It could also be used postoperatively to check healing. The resolution of this scan is fine enough to allow doctors to identify small but significant plaque deposits that existing technology might overlook. The technology could also be used to carefully target biopsies, as cancerous cells could be identified in much smaller quantities than currently possible.

LightLab is not the only company trying to improve heart-imaging technology. CardioSpectra of Austin, TX, is working in a similar vein with Fourier domain OCT. The company was recently purchased by Volcano, one of the leading manufacturers of IVUS products. This $25 million acquisition would seem to suggest a strong future for the technology.

Chris Milner attests that work continues to expand the range of the device into other regions of medicine. "In the world of research, it's being explored in a number of areas; the [gastrointestinal] track, the bladder, and refinements to OCT technology are also being investigated."

This technology will be coming into use "in the very near the end of 2009 at the latest," says Craig Kelley, director of marketing for LightLabs.

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Logo carved onto human hair

Boing Boing Gadgets' Joel Johnson was at McMaster University yesterday where he met a researcher who used a focus ion beam microsocope to carve his school's logo on a human hair. I would love one for my wunderkammer! More info over at BBG.

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10 impossibilities conquered by science

What is truly impossible? To accompany Michio Kaku's article on the physics of impossibility, we have rounded up 10 things that were once thought scientifically impossible. Some were disproved centuries ago but others have only recently begun to enter the realm of possibility.

1. Analysing stars

In his 1842 book The Positive Philosophy, the French philosopher Auguste Comte wrote of the stars: "We can never learn their internal constitution, nor, in regard to some of them, how heat is absorbed by their atmosphere." In a similar vein, he said of the planets: "We can never know anything of their chemical or mineralogical structure; and, much less, that of organized beings living on their surface."

Comte's argument was that the stars and planets are so far away as to be beyond the limits of our sense of sight and geometry. He reasoned that, while we could work out their distance, their motion and their mass, nothing more could realistically be discerned. There was certainly no way to chemically analyse them.

Ironically, the discovery that would prove Comte wrong had already been made. In the early 19th century, William Hyde Wollaston and Joseph von Fraunhofer independently discovered that the spectrum of the Sun contained a great many dark lines.

By 1859 these had been shown to be atomic absorption lines. Each chemical element present in the Sun could be identified by analysing this pattern of lines, making it possible to discover just what a star is made of.

2. Meteorites come from space

Astronomers look away now. Throughout the Renaissance and the early development of modern science, astronomers refused to accept the existence of meteorites. The idea that stones could fall from space was regarded as superstitious and possibly heretical - surely God would not have created such an untidy universe?

The French Academy of Sciences famously stated that "rocks don't fall from the sky". Reports of fireballs and stones crashing to the ground were dismissed as hearsay and folklore, and the stones were sometimes explained away as "thunderstones" – the result of lightning strikes.

It was not until 1794 that Ernst Chladni, a physicist known mostly for his work on vibration and acoustics, published a book in which he argued that meteorites came from outer space. Chladni's work was driven by a "fall of stones" in 1790 at Barbotan, France, witnessed by three hundred people.

Chladni's book, On the Origin of the Pallas Iron and Others Similar to it, and on Some Associated Natural Phenomena, earned him a great deal of ridicule at the time. He was only vindicated in 1803, when Jean-Baptiste Biot analysed another fall of stones at L'Aigle in France, and found conclusive evidence that they had fallen from the sky.

3. Heavier-than-air flight

The number of scientists and engineers who confidently stated that heavier-than-air flight was impossible in the run-up to the Wright brothers' flight is too large to count. Lord Kelvin is probably the best-known. In 1895 he stated that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible", only to be proved definitively wrong just eight years later.

Even when Kelvin made his infamous statement, scientists and engineers were closing rapidly on the goal of heavier-than-air flight. People had been flying in balloons since the late eighteenth century, and by the late 1800s these were controllable. Several designs, such as Félix du Temple's Monoplane, had also taken to the skies, if only briefly. So why the scepticism about heavier-than-air flight?

The problem was set out in 1716 by the scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg in an article describing a design for a flying machine. Swedenborg wrote: "It seems easier to talk of such a machine than to put it into actuality, for it requires greater force and less weight than exists in a human body."

Swedenborg's design, like so many, was based on a flapping-wing mechanism. Two things had to happen before heavier-than-air flight became possible. First, flapping wings had to be ditched and replaced by a gliding mechanism. And secondly, engineers had to be able to call on a better power supply – the internal combustion engine. Ironically, Nicolaus Otto had already patented this in 1877.

4. Space flight

From atmospheric flight, to space flight. The idea that we might one day send any object into space, let alone put men into orbit, was long regarded as preposterous.

The scepticism was well-founded, since the correct technologies were simply not available. To travel in space, a craft must reach escape velocity – for vehicles leaving Earth, this is 11.2 kilometres per second. To put this figure into perspective, the sound barrier is a mere 1,238 kilometres per hour, yet it was only broken in 1947.

Jules Verne proposed a giant cannon in his novel From the Earth to the Moon. However, such a sudden burst of acceleration would inevitably kill any passengers instantly, and calculations have shown no cannon could be powerful enough to achieve escape velocity.

The problem was effectively cracked in the early 20th century by two rocket researchers working independently – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Robert Goddard. Tsiolkovsky's work was ignored outside the USSR, while Goddard withdrew from the public gaze after scathing criticism of his ideas. Nonetheless, the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was eventually launched in 1957, and the first manned spaceflight followed four years later. Neither Tsiolkovsky nor Goddard lived to see it.

5. Harnessing nuclear energy

On 29 December 1934, Albert Einstein was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying, "There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will." This followed the discovery that year by Enrico Fermi that if you bombard uranium with neutrons, the uranium atoms split up into lighter elements, releasing energy.

Einstein's scepticism was, however, overtaken by events. By 1939, nuclear fission was better understood and researchers had realised that a chain reaction – one that, once started, would drive itself at increasing rates – could produce a huge explosion. In late 1942, such a chain reaction was produced experimentally, and on August 6 1945 the first atomic bomb used aggressively exploded over Hiroshima. Ironically, Fleet Admiral William Leahy allegedly told President Truman: "This is the biggest fool thing we've ever done – the bomb will never go off – and I speak as an expert on explosives."

Then, in 1954, the USSR became the first country to supply some of its electricity from nuclear power with its Obninsk nuclear power plant.

6. Warm superconductors

This is a strange case: a phenomenon can be observed and measured, but should not be happening. According to the best theories of superconductivity, the phenomenon of superconductivity should not be possible above 30 Kelvin. And yet some superconductors work perfectly well at 77 K.

Superconductors – materials that conduct electricity with no resistance – were first discovered in 1911. To see the effect, a material normally has to be cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero.

Over the next 50 years, many superconducting materials were discovered and studied, and in 1957 a complete theory describing them was put forward by John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and John Schrieffer. Known as "BCS theory", it neatly explained the behaviour of standard superconductors.

The theory states that electrons within such materials move in so-called Cooper pairs. If a pair is held together strongly enough, it can withstand any impacts from the atoms of the material, and thus experiences zero electrical resistance. However, the theory suggested that this should only be true at extremely low temperatures, when the atoms only vibrate slightly.

Then, in a classic paper published in 1986, Johannes Georg Bednorz and Karl Alexander Müller turned the field upside-down, discovering a material capable of superconducting at up to 35 K. Bednorz and Müller received the Nobel Prize for Physics the following year and more high-temperature superconductors followed. The highest cutoff temperature yet observed (admittedly under pressure) is 164 K. Yet, quite how this is all possible remains a topic of intense research.

7. Black holes

People who think of black holes as a futuristic or modern idea may be surprised to learn that the basic concept was first mooted in 1783, in a letter to the Royal Society penned by the geologist John Michell. He argued that if a star were massive enough, "a body falling from an infinite height towards it would have acquired at its surface greater velocity than that of light... all light emitted from such a body would be made to return towards it by its own proper gravity."

However, throughout the 19th century the idea was rejected as outright ridiculous. This was because physicists thought of light as a wave in the ether – it was assumed to have no mass, and therefore to be immune to gravity.

It was not until Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1915 that this view had to be seriously revised. One of the key predictions of Einstein's theory was that light rays would indeed be deflected by gravity. Arthur Eddington's measurements of star positions during a solar eclipse showed that their light rays were deflected by the Sun's gravity – though actually the effect was too small for Eddington's instruments to reliably observe, and it was not properly confirmed until later on.

But, once relativity was established, black holes became a serious proposition and their properties were worked out in detail by theoreticians such as Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Astronomers then began searching for them, and accumulated evidence that black holes are common with one at the centre of many galaxies (including our own) and the biggest ones being responsible for high-energy cosmic rays.

Perhaps the debate has not been entirely settled, though. Some controversial calculations, published in 2007, suggested that as stars collapsed into black holes, they would release a great deal of radiation, reducing their mass so that they do not form "true" black holes after all.

8. Creating force fields

This classic of science fiction went from wild speculation to verifiable fact in 1995 with the invention of the "plasma window".

Devised by Ady Hershcovitch from the Brookhaven National Laboratory, the plasma window uses a magnetic field to fill a small region of space with plasma or ionised gas. The devices, developed by Hershcovitch and the company Acceleron, are used to reduce the energy demands of electron beam welding.

The plasma window has most of the properties we associate with force fields. It blocks matter well enough to act as a barrier between a vacuum and the atmosphere. It also allows lasers and electron beams to pass through unimpeded and will even glow blue, if you make the plasma out of argon.

The only drawback is that it requires huge amounts of energy to produce plasma windows of any size, so current examples are very small. In theory, though, there is no reason they could not be made much bigger.

9. Invisibility

Invisibility is another staple of fantasy fiction, appearing in everything from Richard Wagner's opera Das Rheingold to H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man, and of course Harry Potter.

There is nothing in the laws of physics to say invisibility is impossible, and recent advances mean certain types of cloaking device are already feasible.

The last few years have seen a rash of reports concerning experimental invisibility cloaks, ever since a basic design for one was produced in 2006. These devices rely on metamaterials to guide light around objects. The first of these only worked on microscopic objects and with microwaves.

It was thought that modifying the design for visible light would prove very challenging, but in fact it was done just one year later - albeit only in two dimensions and on a micrometre scale. The engineering challenges involved with building a practical invisibility cloak remain formidable.

10. Teleportation

This is a word with a long and rather dubious history. It was coined by the paranormalist writer Charles Fort in his book Lo! and was subsequently seized on by legions of science fiction writers; most famously as the "transporter" in Star Trek.

Despite its fantastical origins, physicists have achieved a kind of teleportation thanks to a bizarre quantum phenomenon called entanglement. Particles that are entangled behave as if they are linked together no matter how wide the distance between them. If, for example, you change the "spin" of one entangled electron, the spin of its twin will change as well.

Entangled particles can therefore be used to "teleport" information. Performing the trick with anything larger than an atom was once thought impossible, but in 2002 a theoretical way to entangle even large molecules, providing they can be split into a quantum state known as superposition, was described.

More recently, an alternative idea, dubbed "classical teleportation", was proposed for making a beam of rubidium atoms effectively disappear in one place and reappear elsewhere. This method would not rely on entanglement, but transmitting all the information about these atoms through a fibre optic cable so that they can be "reconstructed" somewhere else.

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Meteorites delivered the 'seeds' of Earth's left-hand life

Flash back three or four billion years — Earth is a hot, dry and lifeless place. All is still. Without warning, a meteor slams into the desert plains at over ten thousand miles per hour. With it, this violent collision may have planted the chemical seeds of life on Earth.

Scientists presented evidence today that desert heat, a little water, and meteorite impacts may have been enough to cook up one of the first prerequisites for life: The dominance of “left-handed” amino acids, the building blocks of life on this planet.

In a report at the 235th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, Ronald Breslow, Ph.D., University Professor, Columbia University, and former ACS President, described how our amino acid signature came from outer space.

Chains of amino acids make up the protein found in people, plants, and all other forms of life on Earth. There are two orientations of amino acids, left and right, which mirror each other in the same way your hands do. This is known as “chirality.” In order for life to arise, proteins must contain only one chiral form of amino acids, left or right, Breslow noted.

“If you mix up chirality, a protein’s properties change enormously. Life couldn’t operate with just random mixtures of stuff,” he said.

With the exception of a few right-handed amino acid-based bacteria, left-handed “L-amino acids” dominate on earth. The Columbia University chemistry professor said that amino acids delivered to Earth by meteorite bombardments left us with those left-handed protein units.

“These meteorites were bringing in what I call the ‘seeds of chirality,’” stated Breslow. “If you have a universe that was just the mirror image of the one we know about, then in fact, presumably it would have right-handed amino acids. That’s why I’m only half kidding when I say there is a guy on the other side of the universe with his heart on the right hand side.”

These amino acids “seeds” formed in interstellar space, possibly on asteroids as they careened through space. At the outset, they have equal amounts of left and right-handed amino acids. But as these rocks soar past neutron stars, their light rays trigger the selective destruction of one form of amino acid. The stars emit circularly polarized light—in one direction, its rays are polarized to the right. 180 degrees in the other direction, the star emits left-polarized light.

All earthbound meteors catch an excess of one of the two polarized rays. Breslow said that previous experiments confirmed that circularly polarized light selectively destroys one chiral form of amino acids over the other. The end result is a five to ten percent excess of one form, in this case, L-amino acids. Evidence of this left-handed excess was found on the surfaces of these meteorites, which have crashed into Earth even within the last hundred years, landing in Australia and Tennessee.

Breslow simulated what occurred after the dust settled following a meteor bombardment, when the amino acids on the meteor mixed with the primordial soup. Under “credible prebiotic conditions”— desert-like temperatures and a little bit of water — he exposed amino acid chemical precursors to those amino acids found on meteorites.

Breslow and Columbia chemistry grad student Mindy Levine found that these cosmic amino acids could directly transfer their chirality to simple amino acids found in living things. Thus far, Breslow’s team is the first to demonstrate that this kind of handedness transfer is possible under these conditions.

On the prebiotic Earth, this transfer left a slight excess of left-handed amino acids, Breslow said. His next experiment replicated the chemistry that led to the amplification and eventual dominance of left-handed amino acids. He started with a five percent excess of one form of amino acid in water and dissolved it.

Breslow found that the left and right-handed amino acids would bind together as they crystallized from water. The left-right bound amino acids left the solution as water evaporated, leaving behind increasing amounts of the left-amino acid in solution. Eventually, the amino acid in excess became ubiquitous as it was used selectively by living organisms.

Other theories have been put forth to explain the dominance of L-amino acids. One, for instance, suggests polarized light from neutron stars traveled all the way to earth to “zap” right-handed amino acids directly. “But the evidence that these materials are being formed out there and brought to us on meteorites is overwhelming,” said Breslow.

The steps afterward that led towards the genesis of life are shrouded in mystery. Breslow hopes to shine more light on prebiotic Earth as he turns his attention to nucleic acids, the chemical units of DNA and its more primitive cousin RNA.

“This work is related to the probability that there is life somewhere else,” said Breslow. “Everything that is going on on Earth occurred because the meteorites happened to land here. But they are obviously landing in other places. If there is another planet that has the water and all of the things that are needed for life, you should be able to get the same process rolling.”

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Earth's beginning: the origins of "left-handed" forms

Evidence that the building blocks of terrestrial life were delivered from outer space is published today.

Molecules can come in left and right handed forms and one puzzle is that most life on Earth contains left handed amino acids, the building blocks of proteins that build and operate the bodies of living things.

Now an American team has found evidence that meteorites delivered the 'seeds' of Earth's left-hand life.

This sinister start to life came around four billion years ago when Earth was a hot, dry and lifeless place.

In a report at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, New Orleans, Prof Ronald Breslow, Columbia University, described how our amino acid signature came from outer space, when an object from outer space planted the chemical seeds of life on Earth.

The term that chemists use to describe left and right handed molecules is chirality. "If you mix up chirality, a protein's properties change enormously. Life couldn't operate with just random mixtures of stuff," he says.

With the exception of a few right-handed amino acid-based bacteria, left-handed "L-amino acids" dominate on earth and Prof Breslow believes that this lefty dominance originated at the dawn of life.

"These meteorites were bringing in what I call the 'seeds of chirality,'" says Prof Breslow.

These amino acids "seeds" formed in interstellar space, possibly on asteroids as they careened through space.

At the outset, they have equal amounts of left and right-handed amino acids. But as these rocks soar past some classes of stars, their light rays trigger the selective destruction of one form of amino acid.

The reason is that these stars, called neutron stars, emit light of a certain handedness - light can be in left and right handed form too, which is how Polaroid glasses work.

Experiments have shown that this destroys the right handed amino acids. Evidence of this left-handed excess has been found on the surfaces of meteorites, which have crashed into Earth even within the last hundred years, landing in Australia and Tennessee.

Working with Mindy Levine, he simulated what happened on Earth, after the dust settled following a meteor bombardment, when the amino acids on the meteor mixed with the primordial soup.

In desert-like temperatures, and with a little bit of water, these cosmic amino acids caused a kind of domino effect, causing an existing amino acids in living things on Earth to convert to the left handed form.

Thus far, Prof Breslow's team is the first to demonstrate that this kind of handedness transfer is possible under these conditions.

His next experiment replicated the chemistry that led to the amplification and eventual dominance of left-handed amino acids.

He started with a five percent excess of the left handed of amino acid dissolved in water and found that, if the amino acid formed crystals, they would be a 50-50 blend of the two, enriching the water in the left handed form.

Eventually, only the left handed form was left dissolved and it is in this dissolved form that it would have contributed to life.

"The evidence that these materials are being formed out there and brought to us on meteorites is overwhelming," says Prof Breslow.

However, the steps afterward that led towards the genesis of life are shrouded in mystery.

"This work is related to the probability that there is life somewhere else," said Breslow. "Everything that is going on Earth occurred because the meteorites happened to land here. But they are obviously landing in other places. If there is another planet that has the water and all of the things that are needed for life, you should be able to get the same process rolling."

But elsewhere in the universe, it could be possible that right handed life dominated. "I'm only half kidding when I say there is a guy on the other side of the universe with his heart on the right hand side," he says.

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Turbine technology is turning the tides into power of the future

SeaGen Tidal System

SeaGen Tidal System

The world’s first deep-water device to generate electricity from the tides on a commercial scale is due to start operating within weeks.

A seagoing crane barge has lowered the 1,000-tonne double turbine into place and an operation to fix it to the seabed with 12 metre (40 ft) pins begins today.

The SeaGen Tidal System at Strangford Lough in Co Down, Northern Ireland, is designed to produce enough electricity to supply 1,000 homes.

The system, made by Marine Current Turbines (MCT) and assembled at the Harland and Wolff dockyard in Belfast, boasts two 16m blades which will be turned by the water streaming in and out of Strangford Lough at up to 8 knots.

Martin Wright, managing director of MCT, said: “By the middle of May we will have completed the bulk of commissioning. We’ll start by turning the turbines by hand. After that we’ll try with low loads and by July we hope she’ll be fully commissioned."

“If this is successful, we are looking to build, at the end of 2010 or more likely 2011, a tidal farm. That would be off the Anglesey coast.”

Mr Wright said that the current state of tidal energy technology was equivalent in aviation terms to the first biplanes. Developments are advancing rapidly, however, and firms based in Britain are playing a central role in the emerging industry.

As work on SeaGen was being carried out, the Government also gave approval for a prototype generator, developed by Pulse Tidal, to be tested in the Humber estuary, near Grimsby.

The £900,000 Pulse Tidal trial involves 11 metre hydrofoils that rise and fall with the tide like a dolphin’s tail to generate electricity. The small prototype device is designed to have a capacity of 0.15 megawatts, but if successful an array of 1 MW devices would be produced to supply 70,000 homes.

Strangford Lough and Anglesey are among the best locations possible for tidal energy devices because of the speed and power of the tidal stream.

The holy grail for tidal energy experts, however, is the Pentland Firth, between the Scottish mainland and the Orkney Islands, where up to 3 million tonnes of water race though a narrow area of sea every second. Mr Wright described the Pentland Firth as “the big prize – the Saudi Arabia of tidal stream”, but said the technology to take full advantage of the location was “a generation beyond us”. Once attainable it could supply up to 15 per cent of Britain’s electricity.

He added: “Tidal energy has the great advantage of being predictable and no other system can harness the power of the tidal currents in the way this one can.”

Lunar Energy, another tidal energy technology firm, hopes later this year to begin installing the world’s first tidal farm in Pembrokeshire. The eight turbines are expected to be operational by 2010.

An initiative to build a huge wind farm at sea will be unveiled today as the industry demands clear guidelines on where it can develop renewable energy. The power firm E.ON is applying to build a £700 million wind farm, big enough to supply 195,000 homes with electricity, five miles from the Yorkshire coast. Wind farms on land and at sea are expected to have to provide a significant proportion of Britain’s electricity if it is to meet its renewable energy target, but wind farm developments have been put in doubt by the discovery that they can impair the efficiency of radars.

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Ten Innovative Green Homes

In an attempt to create a more sustainable domicile, some homeowners use energy-efficient light bulbs, swap out normal showerheads for low-flow ones, or put on a sweater so they can turn down the thermostat. However, others are taking sustainability—and their homes—to the next level. These ten innovative designs move the owner off the grid, into the trees, and toward a more environmentally-sound future.

Earthbag House

Photo courtesy of

Sandbags protect houses from floods, but aren’t normally considered building material. However, Kelly Hart, a constructor who runs the Web site, built this house out of misprinted rice bags filled natural material (earthbags). The outside layer is papercrete, recycled paper mixed with small amounts of cement. The earth bags provide insulation, weatherproofing, and are easy to construct. According to his Web site, the house requires minimal use of wood, concrete, and steel for construction, and many recycled materials were used. The heating is primarily solar—air tubes provide cooling and food is grown in a central greenhouse.

Build Local, Build Green

Photo courtesy of home owners

My friends Becky and Grant spent nearly two years building this house, located in Northern California. Their overall approach has been to build small, build natural, and use as much reclaimed and local materials as possible. To this end, they’ve succeeded.

Ninety percent of the exterior walls are made from straw bale; the downstairs exterior walls are covered with earth and lime plaster. The interior walls are plastered with clay gathered from their land, resulting in a beautiful, neutral-toned finish with a velvety texture. The cedar siding was milled onsite, using diseased trees from their property. The redwood deck, interior doors, and cabinetry in the kitchen use local reclaimed or restored wood. Insulation is from recycled denim and strategic placement of windows ensures natural cooling. They also have a solar hot water heater, a bountiful veggie garden, fruit trees, clucking chickens, and, as if the industriousness never ends, a baby on the way. Sustainability for generations to come!

Modular Earthship

Photo courtesy of

I’m not sure if I’m ready for a hemp Earthship, but luckily I have options. They come in packaged, modular, hybrid, and custom; the above is an example of a modular Earthship. With water catchment from the roof, reuse of greywater, solar panels, and composting toilets, I could definitely tune in with nature, turn off the TV, and drop off the grid.

Project BioDome

Photo courtesy of

Edward Dilley, creator of Project Biodome, has a vision: pull drinking water from the air, gather heat and electricity from the sun, and live completely supplied for in his geodesic sustainable dome. Somewhere in the mountain near Elko, Nevada, he seems to be doing just that. According to his Web site, you can order a kit and construct one yourself. Might want to look into local building codes first.

Tree House

Photo courtesy of

If you aren’t afraid of heights, the 02 Sustainability Tree House could serve as your next home away from home. It is made from small amounts of eco-friendly resources and is hung by cables rather than bolted into trees, as to not disturb your structural helpers.


Photo courtesy of

The P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E., which stands for Prototype for Advanced Ready-Made Amphibious Small-Scale Individual Temporary Ecological Dwelling (phew!) is a verbosely named structure that attaches to pre-existing, abandoned structures. The sustainably-built prefabricated homes would turn blighted areas into usable ones and limit urban sprawl.

Lightweight Concrete House

Photo courtesy of

Concrete is usually associated with boring, grey buildings, but it is actually an earth-friendly building material that can be poured to make creative structures, as this house, built by sculptor/builder Steve Kornher, shows. Lightweight concrete needs less steel structural reinforcement than traditional building materials and is a good insulator, helping to cut back on heating costs. Concrete is often made from natural, local materials.

A Yurt to Call Home

Photo courtesy of

If we really wanted to minimize our home’s impact on the earth, we’d all be living out of tents. As much fun as tents are for a camping trip, tents aren’t really made to house the masses (where would you put the flat screen TV?). A happy compromise is a yurt. Yurts are like big tents, but are much more durable, insulating, and can be pimped out with hardwood floors, fireplaces, TVs—you name it. Yurts are constructed with minimal materials, create little disruption to the surrounding ecosystem, and facilitate natural lighting and heating.

Green Roof Strawbale Home

Photo courtesy of

Roofs aren’t traditional places to grow a garden, but growing green on top of buildings has several advantages: it can prevent storm water runoff and pollution, conserve energy, extend the life of the roof, and it looks cool. This house, located in Wrightsville, PA, has a living roof and is constructed of strawbale and cob walls—renewable, biodegradable, construction materials that help insulate. It’s green inside and out.

That Roundhouse

Photo courtesy of

That roundhouse, located in Wales, doesn’t just look earth-friendly, it really is. It was constructed using a wood frame, cobwood and recycled window walls, and a straw-insulated turf roof. Solar power and wind turbine are used for electricity; there is a compost toilet, and reed beds to clean greywater.

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Earth in crisis, warns NASA's top climate scientist

Global warming has plunged the planet into a crisis and the fossil fuel industries are trying to hide the extent of the problem from the public, James Hansen, seen here, NASA's top climate scientist says

"We've already reached the dangerous level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," James Hansen, 67, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, told AFP here.
"But there are ways to solve the problem" of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which Hansen said has reached the "tipping point" of 385 parts per million.

In a paper he was submitting to Science magazine on Monday, Hansen calls for phasing out all coal-fired plants by 2030, taxing their emissions until then, and banning the building of new plants unless they are designed to trap and segregate the carbon dioxide they emit.

The major obstacle to saving the planet from its inhabitants is not technology, insisted Hansen, named one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2006 by Time magazine.

"The problem is that 90 percent of energy is fossil fuels. And that is such a huge business, it has permeated our government," he maintained.

"What's become clear to me in the past several years is that both the executive branch and the legislative branch are strongly influenced by special fossil fuel interests," he said, referring to the providers of coal, oil and natural gas and the energy industry that burns them.

In a recent survey of what concerns people, global warming ranked 25th.

"The industry is misleading the public and policy makers about the cause of climate change. And that is analogous to what the cigarette manufacturers did. They knew smoking caused cancer, but they hired scientists who said that was not the case."

Hansen says that with an administration and legislature that he believes are "well oiled, our best hope is the judicial branch."

Last year Hansen testified before the US Congress that "interference with communication of science to the public has been greater during the current administration than at any time in my career."

Government public relations officials, he said, filter the facts in science reports to reduce "concern about the relation of climate change to human-made greenhouse gas emissions."

While he recognizes that he has stepped outside the traditional role of scientists as researchers rather than as public policy advocates, he says he does so because "in this particular situation we've reached a crisis."

The policy makers, "the people who need to know are ignorant of the actual status of the matter, and the gravity of the matter, and most important, the urgency of the matter," he charged.

"It's analogous to an engineer who sees that there's a flaw in the space shuttle before it is to be launched. You don't have any choice. You have to say something. That's really all that I'm doing," he explained.

Hansen was in Wilmington to receive a 50,000 dollar Common Wealth Award for outstanding achievement, along with the former prime minister of Australia John Howard, the US actress Glenn Close, and NBC news anchor Ann Curry.

The awards are provided by a trust of the late Ralph Hayes, a former director of Coca Cola and Bank of Delaware, now PNC. In 29 years, 165 former honorees in seven fields have included former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former US newsman Walter Cronkite, French marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Howard, who would not sign the Kyoto protocol when he was in office, told AFP: "I thought it was the right policy at the time because the major emitters" were not on board."

He added: "You need a new Kyoto protocol with all the major emitters committed to it. Then you are cooking with gas."

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