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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2008 May 10

Stars and Mars
Credit & Copyright: Doug Zubenel (TWAN)

Explanation: Wandering through the evening sky, on May 4th planet Mars stood in line with Castor and Pollux, the two bright stars of the constellation Gemini. In this time exposure of the celestial alignment, Mars actually takes on a distinct yellowish hue, contrasting in color with Pollux; a giant star known to have a Jupiter-class planet, and Castor; itself a multiple star system. Though in mythology Pollux and Castor are twin brothers, the two stars are physically unrelated and are about 34 and 50 light-years distant respectively. Included in the skyview are Procyon, alpha star of Canis Minor, and famous star cluster M44 also known as the Beehive Cluster. Dust in our own solar system reflecting sunlight creates the faint band of Zodiacal light emerging from the lower right corner of the frame. Just put your cursor over the picture for help with identifications. Of course, bright Mars can still be found in the western evening skies and tonight wanders near the crescent Moon.

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Canada Hunts for Killer Asteroids

NEOSSat will be the first spacecraft dedicated to identifying potentially dangerous space rocks


Asteroid Belt: Photo by NASA

In 2009, Canada plans to launch a suitcase-sized spacecraft that will be charged with spotting asteroids that could be on a collision course with Earth. There's already a big ground-based program underway. NASA regularly identifies and tracks asteroids, calculating the likelihood that they could at some point run into our pale blue dot.

But the Canadian Space Agency thinks that its Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite might be able to identify risky rocks that grounded telescopes can't see. And its total cost to build and launch will be just $10 million. So, even if it doesn't prove to be much better than ground-based observatories, as some experts suggest might be the case, the CSA won't be blowing its budget. And if it does spot a threat that NASA's NEO program doesn't catch, we'll all be saying thank you, before sending Bruce Willis up to blow the thing apart.

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A Manned Mission to Asteroid 2000 SG344?

080100neo_3 Those who keep track of such things will know that there is a lot of discussion as to where man will head next, in its continuing journey in to space. Bush wants us to head back to the Moon in 2020, and set up a lunar outpost. Experts want us to forget the Moon and head straight to Mars.

But a new report out of NASA is looking at sending a two man crew to rendezvous with 2000 SG344, an asteroid discovered in 1999 and with a diameter of 40 meters.

The asteroid, which was in 2000 given a high chance of striking Earth (but has since been relegated to unlikely, along with so many others), has been identified as a potential landing site for astronauts. However, more than just the next step in our outward journey, this mission would also provide experts with invaluable data about long term journeys.

The journey, approximately three months in total, would provide scientists with information on the psychological effect of a long term journey. In addition, it would give the astronauts the chance to test kits to convert subsurface ice in to drinking water, breathable oxygen, and possibly even hydrogen to top up the rocket fuel. All of these would greatly benefit NASA in their quest to eventually send man to Mars.

We’ve discussed many times that by the end of 2010 NASA’s fleet of shuttles will be put out to pasture. NASA will then replace them with their new spacecraft Orion, to be launched using a set of Ares rockets. In a study to be published next month, written by engineers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Ames Research Center in California, the plan to create a round trip mission to the asteroid are fleshed out fully, and provide experts with a taste of more complex missions, like ones that may one day face us as we head to Mars.

"An asteroid will one day be on a collision course with Earth. Doesn't it make sense, after going to the moon, to start learning more about them? Our study shows it makes perfect sense to do this soon after going back to the moon," said Rob Landis, an engineer at Johnson Space Centre and co-author of the report, which is due to be published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

Some of the complications they will face are the fact that asteroids do not have any gravity of their own. Thus the capsule would need to attach itself to the asteroid, possibly via firing anchors in to the surface. In addition, astronauts would not necessarily be able to walk around on its surface without being kicked in to orbit around the asteroid, or simply out in to space.

Landis also believes that, compared to a return trip to the Moon, a mission to a moving target such as an asteroid would capture the imaginations of the people more. "When we head back to the moon, I think we'll see many of the same scenes we saw in the 60s and 70s Apollo programmed. We've been to the moon; we got that T-shirt back in 1969. But whenever we've sent robotic probes to look at asteroids, we've always been surprised at what we've seen," he said.

Another bonus of heading to an asteroid is the possible answers it could provide scientists about the beginning of the universe. Many asteroids are remnants of the early universe, being formed from impacts and explosions many millions of years ago. Analyzing samples from them could thus shed light on conditions that existed well before Earth was around.

Posted by Josh Hill.

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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2008 May 9

Moon Meets Mercury
Credit & Copyright: P-M Hedén (Clear Skies, TWAN)

Explanation: On Tuesday, May 6, while standing on planet Earth and sweeping your binoculars along the western horizon just after sunset, you might have encountered this arresting skyscape. The view features a slender crescent Moon and bright planet Mercury separated on the sky by only about 2 degrees. Cradled in the sunlit lunar crescent, the night side of the Moon is faintly illuminated by earthshine -- sunlight reflected from planet Earth. Of course, the clouds in silhouette and fading twilight colors are common elements in pictures of the sky after sunset, but much less often seen is inner planet Mercury, usually hiding close to the Sun in Earth's sky. Still, the coming week will be a good time to spot Mercury near the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset. As for the Moon, tonight and tomorrow night the crescent Moon will wander close to Mars in the early evening sky.

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Exclusive Video: Meet the Spacecraft That Could Save NASA a Fortune


NASA scientists have built a dynamic little spacecraft in record time. It may someday rendezvous with asteroids, orbit Earth or Mars, and land on the moon -- for roughly one tenth the price of a conventional unmanned mission.

"This spacecraft will allow NASA to launch more missions, for less money," says William Marshall, a member of the team that built the satellite. "In the 1960's landing on the Moon took a team of thousands of people. Today that same task can be done with 30."

The new vehicle is designed around what Marshall's team calls a Modular Common Spacecraft Bus. It has a versatile octagonal box shape that can carry up to fifty kilograms of instruments so long as they can fit within the space sits atop the engine.

Reusable spacecraft architecture is a bit of a novelty for NASA, which has traditionally built spacecraft from the ground up for each new mission -- at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. By using a modular platform, NASA will no longer need to to reinvent the wheel again and again -- further reducing design costs.

Right now, the fourteen researchers are testing a prototype that is propelled by compressed air cylinders -- actually repurposed SCUBA tanks -- instead of a classic fuel and oxygen rocket. By using cold gas, the team can perform an indoor flight test every forty minutes, instead of having to wait several weeks or months between tests, as they would with rocket fueled engines. The compressed air propulsion system only allows the craft to hover for six or seven seconds, but that is more than enough time for the scientists to work out kinks in the design. When they switch to a conventional engine, most the flight control software will be nearly flawless.

Marshall says that it was not easy to get NASA headquarters to believe in their project. His supervisor, Alan Weston, turned to General Pete Worden, the director of Ames Research Center, who offered them $4 million in internal funding to get the project started. Using that money, the small team designed and built a working prototype in fifteen months.

When high-ranking NASA officials saw a flight test, they were impressed enough to include the team in an $80 million dollar mission to the moon. In that role, it will be called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.

"The progress that the NASA team is making on fast-development, low-cost planetary spacecraft shows we still have the right stuff," says Worden.

See below for exclusive videos of the spacecraft testing provided to Wired.com by NASA.

The first order of business was to test the compressed-air engine.

To avoid damaging the prototype, the team began by tethering the hover test vehicle with a bungee cord. Alan Weston, the project director, happens to have invented bungee jumping, so he had plenty of the elastic material lying around in his garage. This piece was actually used for the extreme sport before it became part of a flight testing rig.

Eventually, the team took the training wheels off. This is one of the first free flight tests.

This is a high pressure 'pop up' test.

As the hover vehicle dangles from a string and slowly rotates with lights blinking on the side, it reminds me of a flying saucer.

Photo Credit: William Marshall / NASA

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Is Mars Between Ice Ages?

R7996_18457 "Mars is not a dead planet -it undergoes climate changes that are even more pronounced than on Earth."

James Head of Brown University

The prevailing thinking is that Mars is a planet whose active climate has been confined to the distant past. About 3.5 billion years ago, the Red Planet had extensive flowing water and then fell quiet - deadly quiet. It didn't seem the climate had changed much since. Now, recent studies by scientists at Brown University show that Mars' climate has been much more dynamic than previously believed.

Dicksonetal_figure3 After examining stunning high-resolution images taken last year by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers have documented for the first time that ice packs at least 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) thick and perhaps 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) thick existed along Mars' mid-latitude belt as recently as 100 million years ago. In addition, the team believes other images tell them that glaciers flowed in localized areas in the last 10 to 100 million years - a blink of the eye in Mars's geological timeline.

This evidence of recent activity means the Martian climate may change again and could bolster speculation about whether the Red Planet can, or did, support life.

"We've gone from seeing Mars as a dead planet for three-plus billion years to one that has been alive in recent times," said Jay Dickson, a research analyst in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brown and lead author. "[The finding] has changed our perspective from a planet that has been dry and dead to one that is icy and active."

In fact, Dickson and his co-authors, James Head, a planetary geologist, and David Marchant, an associate professor at Boston University, believe the images show that Mars has gone through multiple Ice Ages - episodes in its recent past in which the planet's mid-latitudes were covered by glaciers that disappeared with changes in the Red Planet's obliquity, which changes the climate by altering the amount of sunlight falling on different areas.

NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey missions have provided evidence of a relatively recent ice age on Mars. In contrast to Earth's ice ages, a Martian ice age expands when the poles warm, and water vapor is transported toward lower latitudes. Martian ice ages wane when the poles cool and lock water into polar icecaps.

The catalysts of ice ages on Mars appear to be much more extreme than the comparable drivers of climate change on Earth. Variations in the planet's orbit and tilt produce remarkable changes in the distribution of water ice from Polar Regions down to latitudes equivalent to Houston or Egypt. Researchers, using NASA spacecraft data and analogies to Earth's Antarctic Dry Valleys, reported their findings in the journal Nature.

"Of all the solar system planets, Mars has the climate most like that of Earth. Both are sensitive to small changes in orbital parameters," said planetary scientist Dr. James Head of Brown University. "Now we're seeing that Mars, like Earth, is in a period between ice ages," he said. This evidence of recent activity means the Martian climate may change again and could bolster speculation about whether the Red Planet can, or did, support life.

Head and his team examined global patterns of landscape shapes and near-surface water ice Nasa's Mars orbiters mapped. They concluded a covering of water ice mixed with dust mantled the surface of Mars to latitudes as low as 30 degrees, and is degrading and retreating. By observing the small number of impact craters in those features and by backtracking the known patterns of changes in Mars' orbit and tilt, they estimated the most recent ice age occurred just 400 thousand to 2.1 million years ago.

Marchant, a glacial geologist who spent 17 field seasons in the Mars-like Antarctic Dry Valleys, said, "These extreme changes on Mars provide perspective for interpreting what we see on Earth. Landforms on Mars that appear to be related to climate changes help us calibrate and understand similar landforms on Earth. Furthermore, the range of microenvironments in the Antarctic Dry Valleys helps us read the Mars record."

According to the researchers, during a Martian ice age, polar warming drives water vapor from polar ice into the atmosphere. The water comes back to ground at lower latitudes as deposits of frost or snow mixed generously with dust. This ice-rich mantle, a few meters thick, smooths the contours of the land. It locally develops a bumpy texture at human scales, resembling the surface of a basketball, and also seen in some Antarctic icy terrains. When ice at the top of the mantling layer sublimes back into the atmosphere, it leaves behind dust, which forms an insulating layer over remaining ice. On Earth, by contrast, ice ages are periods of polar cooling. The buildup of ice sheets draws water from liquid-water oceans, which Mars lacks.

Dickson and the other researchers focused on an area called Protonilus Mensae-Coloe Fossae. The region is located in Mars's mid-latitude and is marked by splotches of mesas, massifs and steep-walled valleys that separate the lowlands in the north from the highlands in the south.

The team looked in particular at a box canyon set in a low-lying plain. Images show the canyon has moraines - deposits of rocks that mark the limits of a glacier's advance or the path of its retreat. The rock deposit lines appear to show a glacier that flowed up the box canyon, which "physically cannot happen," Dickson said.

Instead, the team deduced the ice in the surrounding plain grew higher than the canyon's walls and then flowed downward onto the top of the canyon, which had become the lowest point on the ice-laden terrain. The team calculated the ice pack must have been one kilometer thick by past measurements of height between the plain and the lip of the canyon. Based on the ice flow patterns, the ice pack could have reached 2.5 kilometers at peak thickness during a period known as the late Amazonian, the authors said.

The finding could have implications for the life-on-Mars argument by strengthening the case for liquid water. Ice can melt two ways: by temperature or by pressure. As currently understood, the Martian climate is dominated by sublimation, the process by which solid substances are transformed directly to vapor. But ice packs can exert such strong pressure at the base to produce liquid water, which makes the thickness of past glaciers on its surface so intriguing.

Dickson also looked at a lobe across the valley from the box canyon site. There, he saw a clear, semi-circular moraine that had spilled from an ancient tributary on to the surrounding plain. The lobe is superimposed on a past ice deposit and appears to be evidence of more recent glaciation. Although geologists can't date either event, the landscape appears to show at least two periods in which glaciation occurred, bolstering their theory that the Martian climate has undergone past Ice Ages.
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One Word - Bioplastics - The Technology Gains Momentum, But Hurdles Remain

It’s been 40 years since Mr. McGuire pulled Benjamin Braddock withdrawal apart from his degree and said: “I just want to say one word to you. … Just one word are you listening? Plastics …. There is a great future in plastics. ”

The future is still in plastics, but today Mr. McGuire probably whisper, “bioplastics”. Based on increases in the price of crude oil, from which most of the plastics are derived, consumers and interest in almost anything “green”, the timing is ideal for an increase in this next generation of plastics. The European trade group bioplastics planned annual capacity of more than three times the 1.5 million tonnes by 2011. BCC Research estimates the global market for biodegradable polymers to grow at a compound average growth rate of over 17 percent through 2012. Even so, bioplastics will include a small niche of the global market of plastic, which is expected to reach 500 billion pounds globally by 2010.

The case of bioplastics

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 6 percent of plastic made in the United States was recycled in 2005. (This compared with a reduction of 50 percent for the rate of recycling paper, 37 percent for metals and 22 percent for glass.) Plastic debuts in landfill is a life measured in thousands of years . Because most bioplastics are produced from agricultural-based renewable resources, under conditions that are biodegradable and compostable. The environment-friendly aspect of bio-based plastics appeal to companies seeking non-toxic containers which do not leach questionable chemicals, and that harmlessly back to nature after having been eliminated.

In addition, U.S. consumers get more than 100 billion polythene carrier bags each year, but only 1.2 percent are recycled. Reusablebags.com estimates up to 1 trillion plastic bags are delivered to consumers worldwide. It may be cheaper for retailers to hand a card or a bag of polyethylene, but the environmental cost of bioplastic bags is less in terms of disposal. Consumers like the lightweight plastic bags and tend to find more uses for them before throwing them away. Very few people bring them back to the warehouse, which explains the recycling rate miniscule. Substitution with bags of polyethylene bioplastic would be environmentally safe.

Void in San Francisco-and even in China

In San Francisco-based oil exchanges are banned from supermarkets and drug stores. Other communities both in the United States and internationally have taken note and are both to initiate outright fees or bans petroleum-based plastic bags. In January, China’s State Council banned the production of plastic bags, and beginning June 1, shops, supermarkets and retail outlets on a national scale are excluded from their transmission.

In Ireland, government officials approved a tax on plastic bags in 2002. When customers Getting hit with 33-cent fee for each and every plastic shopping bag, use switched within a matter of weeks to reusable cloth bags or rucksacks. Behavior consumer was changed and carrying a plastic bag of shopping was similar to wear fur or smoking in a crowded room, in a matter of a few years became socially unacceptable behaviour.

California has also banned called phthalates, chemicals, found in soft plastic, toys and products for children. The search for bisphenol-A (BPA), used to make polycarbonates, shows that the compound mimics the human hormone estrogen and was found to stimulate certain types of cancer, cause genetic damage, and leach the plastic bottles into food and drink .

Safer alternatives are beginning to appear. Bioplastica are displayed not only in food packaging, but in the automotive industry, medical devices, such as hardware for computer and electronics industry, on-the-go single (glasses, plates, cutlery), and production of toys.

Engineering bioplastics for expanded uses

Typically thought of as coming from corn, bioplastics can and are made from other plant-based raw materials such as potatoes, sugar beets, sugar cane, cassava, corn, tapioca, and oils from soybeans. The companies have produced hybrid bioplastics products incorporating a mixture of starch plant with conventional polymers that help manufacturers reduce their dependence on nonrenewable resources and add features such as resistance to heat or duration for their products, but not can claim to be completely biodegradable or compostable.

As technology continues to evolve, bioplastics will be engineered with resistance to heat and the strength needed for wider use. For example, Metabolix, a company of Massachusetts, has developed a biodegradable polymer called Mirel made by bacteria, corn, and the air that is able to withstand boiling water.

Innovative Enterprises will watch their raw materials, have their finger on the pulse of what is consumer demand, and you can assess the health risks of conventional plastics. They should also keep an eye on new technologies or raw materials materials that will help solve some of the first challenges associated with bioplastics as they move from niche sector for the mainstream. Cereplast take for example. The company now has 15 types of resins in its line Compostables ™, including a heat-resistant product CP-TH-6000 that can withstand heat up to 155p F. It also has a hybrid of resin which is resistant to heat up to 250p. To meet the demands of bioplastics Cereplast has announced it is building a new plant in Indiana. It will have half a billion pounds-when fully operational capability in 2010.

Completing the cycle Bio –

In the future, bioplastics products could be recycled into biodiesel. Researchers at the Polytechnic University of New York have developed a fuel-latent plastic that is tougher and more durable the level of polyethylene. After use, the product can be placed in a simple converter where enzymes break it down into biodiesel, suitable for home heating fuel. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded the university researchers $ 2.34 million for advance technology and the transfer to industry. The military has shown interest in their discovery for use on the battlefield where it could generate its own fuel and waste disposal at the same time.

Any company planning to jump on bioplastics at a production of resin or conversion of products to a plant-based alternative needs to stay abreast of what is happening on stage biofuels, too. Bioplastica could be the darlings of bio-based products industry at this moment, but will compete for resources with biofuels producers of limited resources. What could cause an increase in prices of raw materials, which could adversely affect the economy of both areas. Moreover, while bioplastics are perceived as environmentally friendly, environmental groups are raising questions about the food crops diverting resources for industrial uses. Some materials, such as corn, are more heavily dependent on agro-chemicals and water and other environmentalists are concerned about excessive or irresponsible could use our impact on the environment. They also worry that millions of acres of rainforest and savannah will be lost to make way for organic crops. This complicated equation environment could drastically alter the dynamics.

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Computer Game's High Score Could Earn The Nobel Prize In Medicine


Screen shot from the computer game Foldit. The player twists the protein and pulls its arms to move it into its most stable position, which is the shape it would take in nature. He earns the title "H-bond master" for forming new hydrogen bonds; "clash clear expert" for avoiding conflicting electrically charged side chains; and "packing expert" for wrangling the protein into a more compact shape. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Washington)

Gamers have devoted countless years of collective brainpower to rescuing princesses or protecting the planet against alien invasions. This week researchers at the University of Washington will try to harness those finely honed skills to make medical discoveries, perhaps even finding a cure for HIV.

A new game, named Foldit, turns protein folding into a competitive sport. Introductory levels teach the rules, which are the same laws of physics by which protein strands curl and twist into three-dimensional shapes -- key for biological mysteries ranging from Alzheimer's to vaccines.

After about 20 minutes of training, people feel like they're playing a video game but are actually mouse-clicking in the name of medical science. The free program is at http://fold.it/.

The game was developed by doctoral student Seth Cooper and postdoctoral researcher Adrien Treuille, both in computer science and engineering, working with Zoran Popovic, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering; David Baker, a UW professor of biochemistry and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; and David Salesin, a UW professor of computer science and engineering. Professional game designers provided advice during the game's creation.

"We're hopefully going to change the way science is done, and who it's done by," said Popovic, who presented the project today at the Games for Health meeting in Baltimore. "Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize."

Proteins, of which there are more than 100,000 different kinds in the human body, form every cell, make up the immune system and set the speed of chemical reactions. We know many proteins' genetic sequence, but don't know how they fold up into complex shapes whose nooks and crannies play crucial biological roles.

Computer simulators calculate all possible protein shapes, but this is a mathematical problem so huge that all the computers in the world would take centuries to solve it. In 2005, Baker developed a project named Rosetta@home that taps into volunteers' computer time all around the world. But even 200,000 volunteers aren't enough.

"There are too many possibilities for the computer to go through every possible one," Baker said. "An approach like Rosetta@home does well on small proteins, but as the protein gets bigger and bigger it gets harder and harder, and the computers often fail.

"People, using their intuition, might be able to home in on the right answer much more quickly."

Rosetta@home and Foldit both use the Rosetta protein-folding software. Foldit is the first protein-folding project that asks volunteers for something other than unused processor cycles on their computers or Playstation machines. Foldit also differs from recent human-computer interactive games that use humans' ability to recognize images or interpret text. Instead, Foldit capitalizes on people's natural 3-D problem-solving skills.

The intuitive skills that make someone good at playing Foldit are not necessarily the ones that make a top biologist. Baker says his 13-year-old son is faster at folding proteins than he is. Others may be even faster.

"I imagine that there's a 12-year-old in Indonesia who can see all this in their head," Baker says.

Eventually, the researchers hope to advance science by discovering protein-folding prodigies who have natural abilities to see proteins in 3-D.

"Some people are just able to look at the game and in less than two minutes, get to the top score," said Popovic. "They can't even explain what they're doing, but somehow they're able to do it."

The game looks like a 21st-century version of Tetris, with multicolored geometric snakes filling the screen. A team that includes a half-dozen UW graduate and undergraduate students spent more than a year figuring out how to make the game both accurate and engaging. They faced some special challenges that commercial game developers don't encounter.

"We don't know what the best result is, so we can't help people or hint people toward that goal," Popovic explained. The team also couldn't arbitrarily decide to make one move worth 1,000 bonus points, since the score corresponds to the energy needed to hold the protein in that shape.

Almost 1,000 players have tested the system in recent weeks, playing informal challenges using proteins with known shapes. Starting this week, however, the developers will open the game to the public and offer proteins of unknown shapes. Also starting this week, Foldit gamers will face off against research groups around the world in a major protein-structure competition held every two years.

Beginning in the fall, Foldit problems will expand to involve creating new proteins that we might wish existed -- enzymes that could break up toxic waste, for example, or that would absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Computers alone cannot design a protein from scratch. The game lets the computer help out when it's a simple optimization problem -- the same way that computer solitaire sometimes moves the cards to clean up the table -- letting the player concentrate on interesting moves.

Eventually, the researchers hope to present a medical nemesis, such as HIV or malaria, and challenge players to devise a protein with just the right shape to lock into the virus and deactivate it. Winning protein designs will be synthesized in Baker's lab and tested in petri dishes. High-scoring players will be credited in scientific publications the way that top Rosetta@home contributors already are credited for their computer time.

"Long-term, I'm hoping that we can get a significant fraction of the world's population engaged in solving critical problems in world health, and doing it collaboratively and successfully through the game," Baker said. "We're trying to use the brain power of people all around the world to advance biomedical research."

Foldit includes elements of multiplayer games in which people can team up, chat with other players and create online profiles. Over time the researchers will analyze people's moves to see how the top players solve puzzles. This information will be fed back into the game's design so the game's tools and format can evolve.

The research is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Microsoft Corp. and Adobe Systems Inc., and through fellowships at Nvidia Corp. and Intel Corp.

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Scientists Build Nano Hot Rods

CARBON NANOTUBE: Arizona State researchers improved the speed of their nanomachines by inserting carbon nanotubes into the nanomotors' platinum.
Courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Martin McCarthy

Like a team of laboratory gearheads, Arizona State University (A.S.U.) researchers have found a way to soup up microscopic "nanomachines" that may someday be used to deliver lifesaving medications or test the quality of drinking water in remote regions of the world. In place of turbochargers and high-octane gas, the scientists tweaked their engine design and used an additive to speed the oxidation of hydrogen peroxide into fuel to create nanomachines 350 times more powerful than any previously built.

A nanomachine is a tiny device of less than a micron (one millionth of a meter, or about four one-hundred-thousandths of an inch) in size that scientists hope will soon be able to carry out a variety of medical and research functions, such as the targeted delivery of anticancer drugs, more efficiently and quickly than is possible today. Over the past few years, scientists have built hydrogen peroxide–fueled nanomachines from gold, platinum and nickel. The problem is that none of them were powerful or fast enough to perform practical scientific applications, because they could move no faster than 10 microns per second.

But Joseph Wang, director of the A.S.U. Biodesign Institute's Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors, graduate teaching assistant Rawiwan Laocharoensuk and lab associate Jared Burdick report in the journal ACS Nano that they succeeded in ramping up the nanomechanisms' average speed to 60 microns per second (which is nearly as fast as the systems that propel microorganisms) by inserting carbon nanotubes into the platinum.

They cranked them up even more—to 200 microns per second (equivalent to 100 of the nanomachine's body lengths)—by also adding hydrazine, an ammonia-derived chemical compound that accelerates hydrogen peroxide oxidation.

"For the first time, we took synthetic nanomotors and made them more powerful," Wang says. "Previous nanomachines were too weak to carry heavy cargo."

A.S.U.'s work builds on various researchers' nanomotor tinkering over the past few years. The National Institutes of Health two years ago awarded a Purdue University research team $7 million over five years to study the potential use of a nanomotor, a microscopic biological machine, in diagnosing and treating diseases such as cancer, AIDS, hepatitis B and influenza. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Toronto have likewise studied the development of nanomotors, but have not experimented with the enhancements Wang and his team introduced.

Nanomachines are modeled after microorganisms found in the body. Proteins called kinesins, for example, are natural nanomotors that support cellular functions such as mitosis (the chromosomal process that creates two nuclei from one parent nucleus) and meiosis (when the number of chromosomes per cell is reduced by one half).

Some environmentalists and consumer advocates have raised concerns about the potential safety risks of nanotechnology, noting that few studies have been done to assess possible dangers of such puny and hard to detect particles on the human body. But Wang dismisses these concerns, noting that he uses nontoxic building materials. "Platinum and gold are not harmful to the body in these small quantities," he says, adding that his team's work paves the way for creating nanomotor-based sensing systems for monitoring chemicals—including glucose—in the body, although a practical application is still years away.

"We expect that these studies will lead to even more energy-efficient nanomotors and will open up new opportunities for nanoscale vehicle systems" that could transport and release loads of medication throughout the body, the researchers write in ACS Nano. The carbon nanotube–infused contrivances that Wang and his team created were able to move even when hauling cargo 10 times larger in diameter than them.

Needless to say, the human body does not produce hydrogen peroxide needed to fuel nanomotors, so Wang and his colleagues are working on ways to synthesize it from glucose. The use of nanomotored substances to deliver drugs is several years away. (They would have to go through numerous clinical trials and get U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval before anyone could use them, for example, to carry insulin for diabetics or deliver drugs that could open clogged arteries.) But Wang says that such minimotors could be used within the next two years as part of sensors that could detect impurities (metals or microbes) in drinking water—and, eventually, to remove them.

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Sad Explanations for Supernatural Phenomena

I was pleased to see the recent news about alien images appearing on a wall in Canada.

If you haven't seen the story, the upshot is that some reflected light shows up every non-overcast day on someone's house in Calgary, and the resulting image looks something like a cross between Gollum and the Reddit mascot. Thus, aliens.

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This is nonsense, unfortunately. I would love for even one of the completely wall-slappingly insane phenomena that bubble up these days to be true.

If even one funnel-shaped cloud or particularly reflective seagull ended up being an actual alien craft, if even one person's Pomeranian really did house the mind of an ancient Egyptian emperor, if even one winged hominid got run over by a meth-infused trucker and examined by reputable scientists, then I could be happy in a world that's even weirder than it initially appears to be. Tragically, though, none of them pan out in the long run.

And yet, people keep devising theories. Some, not content to come up with explanations for unexplained phenomena, instead go to great lengths to come up with bizarre takes on explained phenomena.

Exhibit One: Rods

On some videos and photos, you can see odd smudges made up of a straight line with a sort of twirly fuzz around it. What are these things? Well, one theory is that they are creatures living in the atmosphere, invisible to the naked eye but for some reason able to be caught on videotape.

This theory is wrong. While I love the idea that your basic handheld Panasonic camera has mystical-vision powers, the fact is that you can capture "rod" video of your own by pointing a camera set to a slow shutter speed at a bunch of insects. The paranormal response? Yeah, those rods are insects, but there are other rods that are visually identical to the insects, but which are actually rods!

Exhibit Two: Orbs

If rods are too interesting for you, check out orbs. Where rods take the form of moving blurs, orbs manifest themselves as roughly circular blobs. Spine-chillingly circular!

Here's how it works. You take a photo of something with your cheapie digital camera, and the picture has a translucent gray dot on it. Clearly there's no explicable way for weird little visual artifacts to end up on digital photos, so they must be the spirits of the departed. This one's just sad. It's like you want to see Bigfoot, but you hate camping, so you just classify the dust bunnies under the couch as cryptids and call it a day.

Exhibit Three: Crowd Demons

I'm being a bit unfair here, because crowd demons aren't really a well-known phenomenon among the desperately wacky crowd, but the idea is so deliciously stupid I'm highlighting it here in hopes it will catch on.

On the GhostStudy.com website, you'll find a photo that purportedly shows two demons sitting next to each other at a musical recital. The site suggests that if you look long enough you'll see a shadow ghost.

It also says it shows "a dinosaur attacking a man (however, this is most likely an illusion)."

Yeah, most likely. There is less than a 50 percent chance that the photo actually shows a demon dinosaur eating a guy's head. Another guy found a bunch of crowd demons at a Republican rally. I'm not actually seeing most of those, but maybe I just don't have the patience to play a proper game of Where's Weirdo?

As obvious as the rational explanations for all these phenomena are, I'm a bit sad. I'd enjoy living in a world filled with normally invisible creatures that only show their true, blurry forms on discount audiovisual equipment. Kind of like YouTube, only with more flying and fewer anime clips.

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Brittlestars can survive acid oceans

But the biological cost of maintaining their skeletons may be too high.

Brittlestars: some could grow faster in more acidic waters.Brittlestars: some could grow faster in more acidic waters.Punchstock

As carbon dioxide levels rise, most researchers have assumed that increasingly acidic oceans will compromise the calcification processes of ocean organisms.

But new results show that one delicate species, a brittlestar, actually bumps up the speed of shell production, or calcification, under such conditions1. This is the second species that has been recently reported to increase its rate of calcification in acidic waters.

The first report, released in Science, showed a widespread species of phytoplankton building its shells at faster rates, with seemingly no ill effects2 (see Phytoplankton responding to climate change). But the newest report, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shows that although brittlestars can do the same trick, they might not be so lucky.

The brittlestars — starfish-like creatures that burrow in coastal sediments — prevent more acidic ocean water from dissolving their spindly arms by creating more shell material from minerals in the surrounding water. To do so, they speed up their metabolism using up their own muscle to create the needed energy.

On balance, this response could ultimately leave the brittlestars paralyzed in their burrows. “The take-home message is that calcification is only one process that’s going to be affected,” says study author Hannah Wood, a marine biologist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, UK.

Armed conflict

Wood and her colleagues studied Amphiura filiformis, a species of brittlestar that lives off the coasts of Northern Europe.

To investigate the effects of ocean acidification on these creatures, the team studied brittlestars under four different levels of ocean acidity. The organisms were observed for 40 days, and the level of calcium in their arms was recorded, as was the amount of oxygen the brittlestars took in, which was used as a measure of metabolic rate.

Since predatory fish often bite off brittlestar arms, the team removed arms occasionally to study arm regrowth under acidic conditions. The brittlestars always succeeded in regrowing their arms, and surprisingly, the regrown arms were actually longer and contained more calcium under more acidic conditions than they did in ordinary-pH seawater.

But although the regenerated arms were apparently more robust in the more acidic water, the muscles inside all of their arms — the regenerated ones and the original ones — contained large empty spaces. Since brittlestars use their arms to collect food and burrow, the researchers speculate that the reduction in muscle will affect survival.

Trying too hard

"They are overcompensating,” says Wood. And in the long term, the muscular and metabolic strains will "create a deficit they can't maintain", she says.

"The point that they make is very important," says Christopher Sabine, a chemical oceanographer at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington. "It is something that we’ve been saying all along, that we need to look beyond calcification", to other effects of acidic waters on such organisms, he says. In the wild, Sabine adds, the consequences of ocean acidification may be more severe, as the brittlestars would have to compete for resources.

The fate of the brittlestars remains unclear. Survival rates of their larvae are so low that it can take decades to create a new generation. With ocean pH levels expected to plummet, "there's not enough generation time for evolutionary adaptation," says Wood.

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Why beauty is an advert for good genes

Why beauty is a biological advert for good genes
High and low symmetry composite faces for macaques, Hadza, and Europeans

Beautiful people are healthier and live longer, according to a study of sex appeal.

The discovery has come from research conducted across cultures and species that focused on one trait that earlier work found was attractive: symmetry.

No one disputes that symmetrical faces, such as that of Kate Moss, are more attractive.

But why? One idea is that the trait is an advert of genetic quality or fertility.

An alternative view is that preferences for a symmetrical face arose from cultural factors and say nothing about health, fecundity and other biological factors.

Now support for the idea that a symmetrical face is indeed a strong advert of mate ‘quality’ is published today in the journal PLoS One by Dr Anthony Little of the University of Stirling and colleagues.

Using mug shots of Europeans, the Hadza of Tanzania, one of the last hunter gatherer cultures, and macaque monkeys, measurements were made and people were asked to judge the masculinity of the most and least symmetric pictures.

Whether a member of a troop or a tribe, symmetric males had more masculine facial proportions and symmetric females had more feminine facial proportions.

"In humans, if you look at female models, for example, they tend to be pretty symmetric and at the extremes of femininity," Dr Little says.

He adds "One good face trait deserves another - symmetric men and women appear to have other good face traits".

The findings back the claim that the masculinity/femininity of faces is linked with symmetry and hence advertise quality, that is good genes.

Biological quality can mean many things but as symmetry and femininity/masculinity arise during development then one explanation for the findings is that "both traits could advertise quality in terms of resistance to disease, or environmental stresses and that might mean people with these traits are healthier and live longer," says Dr Little.

We seek a partner with good looks because this is a biological advert that says good genes are to be found in this particular body to help our own genes thrive in the next generation.

He adds that a second paper in the journal Behavioural Ecology shows that people who prefer more symmetric faces prefer more extreme faces, that is a rugged male face or a beautiful feminine female face.

Dr Little concludes that "overall our work suggests that symmetry and masculinity in faces signal the same thing and that these signals are present across human populations and also in our non-human primate relatives."

The researchers are still collecting data on facial beauty at www.alittlelab.com.

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Dino-Era Bird Fossil Found; One of Oldest Known

dinosaur bird picture A fossil of a new species of dinosaur-era bird found in China is one of the oldest ever discovered, experts say in a new study. The new bird, called Eoconfuciusornis zhengi, or "the dawn of the Confucius bird," is predated only by the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx, which lived during the Jurassic period.

Chinese and British paleontologists discovered the well-preserved fossil along a forested lakeside in the country's northern Hebei Province.

"Eoconfuciusornis provides a new piece in the puzzle of the evolution from Archaeopteryx to more advanced birds," said study co-author Zhou Zhonghe, executive director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.

Etched in Stone

The fossil bird likely plunged into a lake 131 million years ago, where it drifted to the bottom and was quickly covered in sediment. Over time the animal became encased in mudstone.

The specimen's fully developed, modern-looking wings and symmetrically balanced tail feathers were etched into the stone in curved lines of black and brown.

"The brown and black may reflect the original colors, but these might alternatively have been the bright reds, blues, and yellows of modern birds," said study co-author Mike Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Lead author Zhang Fucheng, a professor at the Beijing institute, added: "Eoconfuciusornis was extraordinarily well preserved for the fossil to have contained such depth of detail."

The study appeared recently in the journal Science in China.

Awkward to Smooth

Archaeopteryx was likely an awkward flier, weighted down with a long bony tail, teeth, and other physical features of a dinosaur.

The newfound bird and a long lineage of descendants, which lived between 120 and 131 million years ago in the Cretaceous period, had developed a skeletal and muscle structure that provided more maneuverability and powered flight, Zhou said.

But Eoconfuciusornis and Archaeopteryx did share a limited ability to ascend from flat, low surfaces—an anatomical drawback that would have made both birds vulnerable to attack, Zhou said.

Eoconfuciusornis probably lived in trees and had claws to help it climb trunks and perch on branches, Zhou said.

It also likely glided across lakes to track and target fish, he added.

Remarkable Diversity

Xu Xing is a paleontologist at the Chinese paleontology institute who was not involved in the new study.

"The new discovery of Eoconfuciusornis adds to the remarkable diversity of the species known to be capable of flying or gliding in this part of the world 125 million years ago," Xu said.

In 2003 Xu discovered the 128-million-year-old fossil of the strange, four-winged dinosaur Microraptor gui, which he said probably could glide from tree to tree.

And earlier this year scientists unearthed the fossil of a miniature pterosaur that also soared across the same Cretaceous-period lakes and forests as Eoconfuciusornis.

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Enlarge Photo

World's Strangest Creature? Part Mammal, Part Reptile

The platypus sports a patchwork of features from mammals, reptiles and birds. Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation.

The platypus sports fur like a mammal, paddles its duck feet like a bird and lays eggs in the manner of a reptile.

Nature's instruction manual for this oddball, it turns out, is just as much of a mishmash.

Researchers just mapped the genome of a female platypus from Australia. The genetic sequence of this Aussie monotreme (a type of mammal) is detailed in the May 8 issue of the journal Nature.

"The platypus is a very ancient offshoot of the mammal tree, so it was 166 million years ago that we last shared a common ancestor with platypuses," said study team member Jenny Graves, head of the Comparative Genomics Group at the Australian National University. "And that puts them somewhere between mammals and reptiles, because they still maintain quite a lot of reptilian characteristics that we’ve lost, for instance they still lay eggs."

She added, "So we can use them to trace the changes that have occurred as we went from being a reptile, to having fur to making milk to having live-born young."

The primitive mammal lives in burrows in Eastern Australia dug along the banks of streams and rivers that it relies on for food. Its flat, streamlined body extends just 20 inches (50 centimeters), tipped with a tail that resembles a ping-pong paddle and four webbed feet. The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is one of only two mammals — the other is the echidna (spiny anteater) — that lays eggs. And unlike other mammals, the male platypus can deliver venom from a tiny spur on each hind limb.

To sort out the evolutionary relationships among platypuses and other animals, the team compared the genome of a female platypus nicknamed Glennie with those of humans, mice, dogs, opossums and chickens. (Chickens were included to represent egg-laying animals, such as extinct reptiles, that passed on much of their DNA to the platypus and other mammals in the course of evolution.)

At roughly 2.2 billion base pairs, the platypus genome is about two-thirds the size of the human genome, the researchers found. It shares more than 80 percent of its genes with other mammals.

Like humans, platypuses carry an X and a Y chromosome. But unlike humans, the X and Y are not sex chromosomes. "That means we can go right back to the time when our sex chromosomes were just ordinary chromosomes minding their own business and ask well what happened, what made them into sex chromosomes," Graves said.

The researchers revealed the animal has 52 chromosomes, including 10 sex chromosomes.

The genome also included sections of DNA linked to egg-laying and others for lactation. Since the platypus lacks nipples, the pups suckle milk from the mother's abdominal skin.

Another oddity: When paddling through the water, a platypus keeps its eyes, ears and nostrils closed, and its duck-bill serves as an antenna, sensing the faint electric fields surrounding prey. Even so, the platypus genome reveals the animal held onto genes for odor-detection.

The study, which included more than 100 scientists from across the globe, was funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

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Waste Paper Furniture


Designer Jens Praet makes furniture from shredded paper. He compressed it with resin into a mold, and out comes a new piece of furniture. I'm not sure how eco-friendly that resin is, or how much paper it uses (I'm guessing a lot, which keeps it out of a landfill), but the material technique sure is neat, and strong! Via Core77.
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Climate Models Overheat Antarctica, New Study Finds

This map of Antarctica shows the approximate boundaries of areas that have warmed or cooled over the past 35 years. The map is based on temperatures in a recently-constructed data set by NCAR scientist Andrew Monaghan and colleagues. The data combines observations from ground-based weather stations, which are few and far between, with analysis of ice cores used to reveal past temperatures. (Credit: Illustration by Steve Deyo, UCAR)

Computer analyses of global climate have consistently overstated warming in Antarctica, concludes new research by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and Ohio State University. The study can help scientists improve computer models and determine if Earth's southernmost continent will warm significantly this century, a major research question because of Antarctica's potential impact on global sea-level rise.

"We can now compare computer simulations with observations of actual climate trends in Antarctica," says NCAR scientist Andrew Monaghan, the lead author of the study. "This is showing us that, over the past century, most of Antarctica has not undergone the fairly dramatic warming that has affected the rest of the globe. The challenges of studying climate in this remote environment make it difficult to say what the future holds for Antarctica's climate."

The study marks the first time that scientists have been able to compare records of the past 50 to 100 years of Antarctic climate with simulations run on computer models. Researchers have used atmospheric observations to confirm that computer models are accurately simulating climate for the other six continents. The models, which are mathematical representations of Earth's climate system, are a primary method for scientists to project future climate.

Antarctica's climate is of worldwide interest, in part because of the enormous water locked up in its ice sheets. If those vast ice sheets were to begin to melt, sea level could rise across the globe and inundate low-lying coastal areas. Yet, whereas climate models accurately simulate the last century of warming for the rest of the world, they have unique challenges simulating Antarctic climate because of limited information about the continent's harsh weather patterns.

The study was published on April 5 in Geophysical Research Letters. It was funded by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's primary sponsor, and the Department of Energy.

The authors compared recently constructed temperature data sets from Antarctica, based on data from ice cores and ground weather stations, to 20th century simulations from computer models used by scientists to simulate global climate. While the observed Antarctic temperatures rose by about 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.2 degrees Celsius) over the past century, the climate models simulated increases in Antarctic temperatures during the same period of 1.4 degrees F (0.75 degrees C).

The error appeared to be caused by models overestimating the amount of water vapor in the Antarctic atmosphere, the new study concludes. The reason may have to do with the cold Antarctic atmosphere handling moisture differently than the atmosphere over warmer regions.

A chilling ozone hole

Part of the reason that Antarctica has barely warmed has to do with the ozone hole over the continent. The lack of ozone is chilling the middle and upper atmosphere, altering wind patterns in a way that keeps comparatively warm air from reaching the surface. Unlike the rest of the continent, the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by several degrees, in part because the winds there are drawing in warmer air from the north. The models generally capture these wind changes, although sometimes incompletely.

The study delivered a mixed verdict on Antarctica's potential impact on sea-level rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which operates under the auspices of the United Nations, has estimated that sea-level rise could amount to 7 to 23 inches (18-59 centimeters) this century, in part because of melting glaciers worldwide. The Geophysical Research Letters paper suggests that warming in Antarctica over the next century could offset that by about 2 inches if the continent warms by 5.4 degrees F (3 degrees C), as computer models have indicated. The reason is that the warmer air over Antarctica would hold more moisture and generate more snowfall, thereby locking up additional water in the continent's ice sheets.

But the authors caution that model projections of future Antarctic climate may be unreliable.

"The research clearly shows that you can actually slow down sea-level rise when you increase temperatures over Antarctica because snowfall increases, but warmer temperatures also have the potential to speed up sea-level rise due to enhanced melting along the edges of Antarctica," says Monaghan, who did some of his research at Ohio State University before coming to NCAR. "Over the next century, whether the ice sheet grows from increased snowfall or shrinks due to more melt will depend on how much temperatures increase in Antarctica, and potentially on erosion at the ice sheet edge by the warmer ocean and rising sea level."

"The current generation of climate models has improved over previous generations, but still leaves Antarctic surface temperature projections for the 21st century with a high degree of uncertainty," adds co-author and NCAR scientist David Schneider. "On a positive note, this study points out that water vapor appears to be the key cause of the problematic Antarctic temperature trends in the models, which will guide scientists as they work to improve the climate simulations."

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under primary sponsorship by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, NASA, or other funding agencies.

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Why the Cyclone in Myanmar Was So Deadly

It was Asia's answer to Hurricane Katrina—though with a reported 100,000 killed, it was many times more deadly. Packing winds upward of 120 miles an hour (193 kilometers an hour), Cyclone Nargis became one of Asia's deadliest storms by hitting land at one of the lowest points in Myanmar (also called Burma) and setting off a storm surge that reached 25 miles (40 kilometers) inland.

"When we saw the [storm] track, I said, 'Uh oh, this is not going to be good,'" said Mark Lander, a meteorology professor at the University of Guam.

"It would create a big storm surge. It was like Katrina going into New Orleans."

(See photos of the cyclone damage and watch survivors tell their stories.)

"Cyclone" is the name given to a hurricane when it occurs in the northern Indian Ocean or, as is the case with Cyclone Nargis, the Bay of Bengal (see map). (Get the basics on hurricanes/cyclones.)

Deadly Path

Forecasters began tracking the cyclone April 28 as it first headed toward India. As projected, the storm took a sharp turn eastward. But it didn't follow the typical cyclone track, which leads to Bangladesh or Myanmar's mountainous northwest.

Instead, the cyclone swept into the low-lying Irrawaddy River Delta in central Myanmar. The result was the worst disaster ever in the impoverished country.

It was the first time such an intense storm is known to have hit the delta, said Jeff Masters, co-founder and director of meteorology at the San Francisco-based Web site Weather Underground.

He called it "one of those once-in-every-500-years kind of things."

"The easterly component of the path is unusual," Masters said. "It tracked right over the most vulnerable part of the country, where most of the people live."

When the storm made landfall early Saturday at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, the cyclone's battering winds pushed a wall of water as tall as 12 feet (3.7 meters) some 25 miles (40 kilometers) inland, laying waste to villages and killing tens of thousands. Most of the dead were in the delta, where farm families sleeping in shacks barely above sea level were swept to their deaths.

Almost 95 percent of the houses and other buildings in seven townships were destroyed, Myanmar's government says. UN officials estimate 1.5 million people were left in severe straits.

"When you look at the satellite picture of before and after the storm, the effects look eerily similar to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in how it inundated low-lying areas," said Ken Reeves, director of forecasting for AccuWeather.com.

(See satellite images of the New Orleans area before and after Hurricane Katrina.)

The Irrawaddy Delta "is huge, and the interaction of water and land lying right at sea level allowed the tidal surge to deliver maximum penetration of sea water over land," Reeves said.

"Storms like this do most of their killing through floods, with salt water being even more dangerous than fresh water."

The delta had lost most of its mangrove forests along the coast to shrimp farms and rice paddies over the past decade. That removed what scientists say is one of nature's best defenses against violent storms.

"If you look at the path of the [cyclone] that hit Myanmar, it hit exactly where it was going to do the most damage, and it's doing the most damage because much of the protective vegetation was cleared," said Jeff NcNeely, chief scientist for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

"It's an expensive lesson, but it has been one taught repeatedly," he said. "You just wonder why governments don't get on this."

Global Warming?

Some environmentalists suggested global warming may have played a role.

Last year the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that warming oceans could contribute to increasingly severe cyclones with stronger winds and heavier rains.

"While we can never pinpoint one disaster as the result of climate change, there is enough scientific evidence that climate change will lead to intensification of tropical cyclones," said Sunita Narain, director of the India-based environmental group Centre for Science and Environment.

"Nargis is a sign of things to come," she said.

"The victims of these cyclones are climate change victims, and their plight should remind the rich world that it is doing too little to contain its greenhouse gas emissions."

Weather experts, however, are divided over whether global warming is a factor in catastrophic storms.

At a January conference of the American Meteorological Society, some experts postulated that warmer ocean temperatures may actually reduce the strength of cyclones and hurricanes.

Masters, at Weather Underground, said Wednesday that, in the case of Nargis, the meteorological data in the Indian Ocean region "is too short and too poor in quality to make judgments about whether tropical cyclones have been affected by global warming."

Unnecessary Deaths?

Despite assertions by Myanmar's military government that it had warned people about the storm, critics contend the junta didn't do enough to alert the delta and failed to organize any evacuations, perhaps resulting in unnecessary deaths.

"Villagers were totally unaware," said 38-year-old Khin Khin Myawe, interviewed in the hard-hit delta town of Labutta.

"We knew the cyclone was coming but only because the wind was very strong. No local authorities ever came to us with information about how serious the storm was."

The India Meteorological Department, one of six regional warning centers set up by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), began sending regular storm advisories April 27. The information appeared in Myanmar's state-run newspapers, on radio, and on television 48 hours ahead of the storm.

But the international advisories said nothing about a storm surge. And Myanmar, unlike its neighbors Bangladesh and India, has no radar network to help predict the location and height of surges, the WMO said.

There also wasn't any coordinated effort on the part of the junta to move people out of low-lying areas, even though information was available about the expected time and location of landfall.

"How is it possible that there was such a great death toll in the 21st century, when we have imagery from satellites in real time and there are specialized meteorology centers in all the regions?" said Olavo Rasquinho of the UN Typhoon Committee Secretariat.

Bangladesh has a storm-protection system that includes warning sirens, evacuation routes, and sturdy towers to shelter people—measures that were credited with limiting the death toll from last year's Cyclone Sidr to 3,100.

Atiq A. Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies and a disaster specialist, said Myanmar's death toll would have been lower if it had had such a system.

"Taking some action to move people from affected areas would have dramatically helped reduce the numbers of causalities. Absolutely," Rahman said.

But junta officials and some weather experts said evacuating a large area with millions of residents would have been nearly impossible, given the poor roads, the distance to some villages, and the likely refusal of some families to leave.

"Even if they warned them, they can't go anywhere. Or they are afraid to go anywhere, because they are afraid of losing their property," said Lander, the University of Guam professor.

"It is debatable how much of a mass exodus you could have had."

Lily Hindy contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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Want to Help the Environment? Eat Insects.

David Gracer lifts a giant water bug, places his thumbs in a pre-sliced slit in its underside, and flips off its head. “Smell the meat,” he says, sniffing the decapitated creature, and the people gathered around the table willingly oblige. Members of the New York Gastronauts, a club for adventurous eaters, they murmur appreciatively as they scoop out and swallow the grayish, slightly greasy insect flesh.

“Perfumey, tastes like salty apples,” one says. “Like a scented candle blended with an artichoke,” another adds.

The giant water bug, or Lethocerus indicus, a three-inch-long South Asian insect that looks uncannily like a local cockroach, is just one of the items on the menu of this bug-eating bacchanal. The Gastronauts’ meal may seem more like a reality TV stunt than a radical environmental strategy, but Gracer is on a serious mission to shake up how we all think about our food supply. Gracer, a self-described “geeky poet/nature boy” who teaches composition at a community college in Providence, Rhode Island, has made it his duty to persuade ordinary Americans to eat insects.

Gracer wants people to move away from getting their protein from traditional livestock such as cows, pigs, and chickens because raising livestock has a huge negative impact on the environment, regardless of whether the animals belong to subsistence farmers in developing countries or a Western industrial conglomerate (see “Warning: Contains Pork By-Products,” page 40). A United Nations report released in 2006 calls the livestock sector “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” The report notes that, among other adverse impacts, livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. (That’s more than what is produced by transportation worldwide.) And the problem is only going to grow, with global production of meat reaching 465 million tons by 2050, double the amount produced in 2000.

“Americans have no idea how wasteful these large mammals are,” Gracer says. “If you want to feed a lot of people, insects are the best choice in terms of getting the biggest bang for your buck.” Insects, he claims, are nutritious. Although they typically contain less protein by weight than beef or chicken—100 grams of giant water bugs or small grasshoppers, for example, have about 20 grams of protein, compared with 27 grams in the same amount of lean ground beef—they do have other benefits. For instance, grasshoppers contain just one-third of the fat found in beef, and water bugs offer almost four times as much iron. A 100-gram portion of the cooked caterpillar Usata terpsichore has about 28 grams of protein. In their dried form, as they are commonly sold in Africa, insects such as grasshoppers may contain up to 60 percent protein.

Raising insects has a low impact on the environment. They require little water, perhaps because they obtain much of their moisture from their food. It takes 869 gallons of water to produce a third of a pound of beef, about enough for a large hamburger. By contrast, to supply water to a quarter pound of crickets, Gracer simply places­ a moist paper towel at the bottom of their tank and refreshes it weekly. Insects, he says, also need less food and space than vertebrate sources of protein and therefore could replace or supplement food resources that may become scarce in the future, such as fish stocks, which a recent study indicates may collapse by 2048.

Founded in 2005, Gracer’s company, a one-man operation called Sunrise Land Shrimp, educates people about insect eating, or entomophagy. On a roughly monthly basis, Gracer will visit a high school or give a public lecture, and he recently appeared on The Colbert Report (video). Not long ago he traveled to Thailand to attend a United Nations workshop on entomophagy. “I would love to counteract the portrayal of entomophagy that we see on Fear Factor and Survivor,” he says. “It’s my interest to bring it out of the zone of freakdom.” But even Sunrise Land Shrimp doesn’t sell insects—yet. In the United States insects are generally available only as novelty foods, such as the salt-and-vinegar-flavored crickets sold by Hotlix, a California company that specializes in insect-based candies.

Outside the United States, though, in Botswana and Zimbabwe, insect gathering is becoming commercialized. And rural villagers in southern Africa harvest caterpillars from the local mopane trees. Traditionally, mopane caterpillars have been an important source of protein for the villagers, but more recently they have also been packaged and sold as a regional delicacy.

In fact, at least 1,400 species of insects are eaten around the world, and the practice dates back thousands of years. However, even commercially distributed species such as the mopane caterpillar are harvested from wild insect populations, meaning that they are subject to year-to-year fluctuations and problems of overharvesting. What is needed to stabilize the insect food supply is the development of farms. “I’ve been working for a long time on trying to convince people that farming insects for the production of animal protein and other materials might be a good idea,” says Robert Kok, chairman of the department of bioresource engineering at McGill University, near Montreal. “Even if they didn’t want to eat them ‘whole hog,’ so to say, it would be possible to extract the protein and oil from them and then manufacture food products from those components,” Kok adds.

William White of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Houma, Louisiana, is skeptical that this will ever come to pass in the United States, where food tends to be overabundant rather than scarce, at least among those above the poverty line. “I don’t believe that we’ve reached the level of scarcity in our food supply, at least in Western societies, where people would be willing to incorporate insects at any level in their diet,” White says. “Certainly in the United States, the [response to] insects almost borders on a phobia.” As Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and the author of What to Eat, puts it, “I think people would have to be desperate for food to make insects a principal part of their diet.” There are other obstacles too: Some insects, such as sea shrimp, cause food allergies; others sequester toxins from plants or may harbor pesticide residues.

Even if we don’t all switch to Bug Burgers, Gracer and his insects are helping to change our habit of making knee-jerk decisions about what we should and shouldn’t be eating. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, 854 million people around the world went hungry in 2003. Really thinking about our food choices could be the first step toward feeding our planet’s ever-growing population in a sustainable manner.

Gracer continues to spend much of his spare time speaking at museums and schools about the benefits and joys of bug eating. In the long term, though, he has grander plans: He would like to import edible insects such as the popular mopane caterpillars or set up a commercial operation selling insects already available here, such as spicy Mexican grasshoppers, or chapulines. He knows his mission is not an easy one; for one thing, there is the small matter of funding. “If I did this for a living, my family and I would be eating bugs all the time,” he says.

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Harnessing sunlight on the cheap

For a project that could be on the very cutting edge of renewable energy, this one is actually decidedly low tech--and that's the point.

A team of students, led by mechanical engineering graduate student Spencer Ahrens, has spent the last few months assembling a prototype for a concentrating solar power system they think could revolutionize the field. It's a 12-foot-square mirrored dish capable of concentrating sunlight by a factor of 1,000, built from simple, inexpensive industrial materials selected for price, durability and ease of assembly rather than for optimum performance.

Rather than aiming for a smooth parabolic surface that would bring the sunlight to a perfect focus, the dish is being made with 10-inch-wide by 12-foot-long strips of relatively low-cost, lightweight bathroom-type mirror glass. The frame is assembled from cheap aluminum tubing, with holes drilled in precise locations using a simple jig for alignment, so that the struts can be assembled into a framework that passively snaps into just the right parabolic curvature.

The control mechanism, which allows the dish to track the sun automatically across the sky, is also remarkably simple--photocells mounted on each side of the dish with opaque baffles, which cast a shadow on the cell when it drifts out of alignment, connect to a simple circuit that turns on small electric motors to push the dish back into the right position.

"The technical challenge here is to make it simple," Ahrens explains. The team is keeping careful track of all the costs for parts and the time spent on assembly, to provide a baseline for figuring out what an eventual large-scale field of such dishes would cost. "We're using all commodity materials that are all in high production," he says.

That's in stark contrast to most attempts to build solar dish concentrating systems, which have tended to use expensive custom-made equipment to achieve high efficiency. A few large companies that have built such prototypes tend to "turn it into an ultimate high-tech, high-end project," says Jefferson Tester, HP Meissner Professor of Chemical Engineering, who has been advising the student-led group. "Then Spencer came along and said, 'We're going to fundamentally change this and make this an affordable technology for popular, widespread deployment.'"

Ahrens thinks that in mass production the dishes can be competitive in cost with other energy sources and could produce heat for space heating and electric power at the same time.

The prototype isn't quite finished yet, because of delays in getting the mirror glass shipped from the factory. And the details of assembly and operation could well present some unexpected stumbling blocks, as is so often the case with new designs, Tester says. Still, "they're smart kids, they know what they're doing," he says. "That's how you learn."

This is not the kind of thing you'd build for a single-home, backyard power system, however. Because the highly concentrated sunlight will be so powerful, the team is employing several precautions to safeguard against potential safety risks, and the prototype will not operate in public without supervision.

Instead, the systems are designed to be deployed in large, utility-scale fields, fenced in to protect anyone from being in the wrong place. But because the beam comes to a focus about 12 feet from the surface, the danger is strictly localized--no risks for adjacent buildings or for planes flying overhead, Ahrens explains. When not attended, the dish will be covered "parked" pointing straight up, and will be mounted 7 feet above ground.

The students working on the project, because of their close proximity, will have to take precautions, wearing all-white clothing, to reflect the light, and welder-type goggles to protect their eyes.

Ahrens believes that such a design could quickly produce both hot water for space heating and electricity for the grid at prices that would be competitive today, unlike conventional photovoltaic systems that are still far too pricey for baseload generation. "In the sunbelt, our dish would make about 10,000 peak watts of heat and 3,500 peak watts of electricity," he says. Deployed in large numbers, the systems could make a big difference: "One square meter of concentrator is worth about one barrel of oil per year," he says.

"It's designed for long life--we hope they will last more than 30 years with good maintenance--and for indigenous manufacturing in the developing world with minimal tooling," Ahrens says. "We want to get something up that will be kind of viral and be widely adopted around the world."

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Ford Becomes First Automaker to Join the Climate Registry


Last year we wrote about the Climate Registry. John said: "Good metrics are a necessity for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from stationary sources. "Good" means everyone uses an agreed-to baseline year, to which all changes are compared, uniform methods for estimating emissions, and validation by third parties. With good metrics, plans for reduction, regardless of whether they are voluntary or mandatory, will be of higher value. The Climate Registry meets all these prerequisites."


Well, this year Ford became the first automaker to join voluntarily the Climate Registry, showing that it at least has the intention (we'll have to see how much action will follow) to be more transparent and accountable when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Most members of the registry are states and provinces, and it is a good sign to see big companies also joining. We encourage others to follow Ford's example, and then to take action to reduce their emissions. ::Official Ford Announcement

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