Thursday, May 15, 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 15

Sideways Galaxy NGC 3628
Credit & Copyright: Keith Quattrocchi

Explanation: Dark dust lanes cut across the middle of this gorgeous island universe, a strong hint that NGC 3628 is a spiral galaxy seen sideways. About 35 million light-years away in the northern springtime constellation Leo, NGC 3628 also bears the distinction of being the only member of the well known Leo triplet of galaxies not in Charles Messier's famous catalog. Otherwise similar in size to our Milky Way Galaxy, the disk of NGC 3628 is clearly seen to fan out near the edges. A faint arm of material also extends to the left in this sharp and deep view of the region. The distorted shape and faint tidal tail suggest that NGC 3628 is interacting gravitationally with the other spiral galaxies in the Leo triplet, M66 and M65.

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Youngest galactic supernova (not aliens) found

If you’re wondering what all the buzz has been about the past few days over a NASA discovery, then wait no longer. No, it’s not aliens or an incoming asteroid. Instead, it’s still very cool: astronomers have found the youngest supernova in the Milky Way.

First, before I explain, here’s the photo of the newest galactic family member:

It kind of looks like a baby head swaddled in a blanket. Or a really bad drawing of Caesar. Anyway, seriously, this is a big deal. Why?

When a star like the Sun dies, it blows off a lot of its outer layers, leaving behind a dense hot object called a white dwarf (FYI, I have a more detailed description of all this here). If the star is binary — it has a companion — then the immense gravity of the white dwarf can draw material off its mate, and that matter will pile up on the surface of the dwarf. If enough piles up at just the right rate, it can ignite in a thermonuclear fire. This sets off a chain reaction, and the entire star self-destructs. This creates an immense amount of energy — as much energy is released every second as the Sun emits for billions of years — and an octillion tons of gas is launched violently into space at a large fraction of the speed of light.

The event is so titanic that it can be seen clear across the Universe, and of course you don’t want one to happen too close*. But somewhat close is good: we can study them better.

We know how many stars like this there are in our galaxy (as well as massive stars which can also explode, although using a different mechanism), and we know roughly how long they live, so we should be able to predict how often one should go off. The answer is, about three per century, more or less.

But observationally, it’s been more less than more. That is, the last one we know of that blew up in the galaxy was over 400 years ago. That’s been a major pain for astronomers; statistically speaking, it’s a little weird that we haven’t seen one since the 1600s.

But that’s changed. After searching for literally decades, astronomers have found a supernova in our galaxy! It’s official name is G1.9+0.3, which doesn’t exactly make your heart sing, I know. But it’s very cool. It’s a remnant, the expanding gaseous debris from a supernova blast. It’s located very near the center of the galaxy, about 28,000 light years away, and it’s only at most about 140 years old.

The false-color image above shows the remnant as seen by the orbiting Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the ground-based Very Large (radio) Array in New Mexico. To give you a sense of scale, the object is about 13 light years across, or 80 trillion miles end-to-end. The orange crinkly stuff is extremely hot — millions of degrees hot — X-ray emitting gas, generated by vast magnetic fields in the gas. The bluer material is smoother radio wave emission also dominated by magnetic forces.

Together, they paint an interesting picture of this explosion. For one thing, it looks like a ring, or a smoke bubble. That’s a clear sign that it’s actually a shell of material, and not a solid sphere. A filled sphere of gas would be brightest in the middle and fainter near the edges (because we’re seeing more bright material when we look through the center of a sphere as opposed to near the edge), but a shell has the opposite behavior.

For another, it’s asymmetric: the gas is not expanding in a perfect sphere. Either it’s slamming into gas that existed outside the star before it blew up, or the explosion wasn’t perfectly spherical. That tells astronomers quite a bit about the physics of the explosion mechanism.

How do we know it’s young? Ah, an excellent question! I love this part: we’ve seen this sucker expand!

Here are two radio images of the remnant taken 23 years apart:

See how it’s gotten bigger over time? By measuring that expansion and knowing the time elapsed between the two pictures, we can extrapolate backwards to see how old the object is. If you do the math, all that gas was in one point about 140 +/- 30 years ago. That’s actually an upper limit to the age: it may have been less than that, if the expansion is slowing over time due to the material slamming into gas floating in space. That’s likely; that region of the galaxy is pretty thick with dust and gas.

In other words, this thing went off around the time of the American Civil War.

So that’s how we know it’s the youngest we’ve ever seen. But there’s more! We know the distance to the remnant as well. The amount of dust and gas between us and it can be measured and compared to known maps of the galaxy, kind of like knowing how far away distant mountains are by the amount of haziness you see between you and them. Combining the distance with the expansion measured means we can get a real velocity for the gas, and it’s a whopper: 14,000 kilometers per second, or 5% the speed of light! That’s fast. The amount of energy released in a supernova is numbing.

So you may also ask, why didn’t anyone see this thing when it went off? All things being equal, at that distance it should have been as bright as Venus in our skies, visible even in daylight! But all things are not equal: all the gas and dust between us and it absorb visible light, making this object almost totally invisible. It might have been visible to someone using a good telescope a century or more ago when the explosion took place, but that astronomer would have had to have been looking at just the right spot, and noticed a very faint star that wasn’t there a few weeks before — and this object sits in a part of the sky loaded with faint stars. It would be like noticing a new grain of sand on the beach. Unlikely, and in fact no one did notice.

It can be seen now because we have more advanced instruments these days. X-rays and radio waves are not as affected by intervening glop in the galaxy, and pass right on through. That’s why we can see it at all; even in big optical telescopes G1.9+0.3 is totally invisible.

So there you go. This object will be heavily studied now, I’m sure, because it’s the youngest such explosion we can see up close. It may help us understand how white dwarfs explode, and what the environment is like near the center of the galaxy, and how gas behaves when it violently expands in such a place.

And, well, it’s just cool. It’s been a mystery for a long time why we haven’t seen any young remnants — we expect there to be 60 of them younger than 2000 years, but only 10 are known — and now that we’ve seen this one we know they’re out there, but really just a pain to detect. You can bet that astronomers will look even harder for more of them now that we know they exist.

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Microsoft vs.Google: New Masters of the Universe?

Are Microsoft and Google in a space race? We think they are. Their rivalry is also, we believe, a precursor to the next great post-Internet technology boom: space exploration and development.
Microsoft just released its new Worldwide Telescope, which will access images from NASA's great fleet of space-born telescopes and earth-bound observatories such as the future Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, partially funded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, which is projected for ‘first light’ in 2014 in Chile's Atacama Desert -the world's Southern Hemisphere space-observatory mecca. The 8.4-meter telescope will be able to survey the entire visible sky deeply in multiple colors every week with its 3-billion pixel digital camera. The telescope will probe the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, and it will open a movie-like window on objects that change or move rapidly: exploding supernovae, potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids and distant Kuiper Belt objects.

LSST is truly an Internet telescope, which will put terabytes of data each night into the hands of anyone that wants to explore it. The 8.4-metre LSST telescope and the 3-gigapixel camera are thus a shared resource for all humanity — the ultimate network peripheral device to explore the universe.

Not to be outdone, Google early this spring joined MIT scientists who are designing a satellite-based observatory -the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)- that they say could for the first time provide a sensitive survey of the entire sky to search for earth-like planets outside the solar system that appear to cross in front of bright stars. Google will fund development of the wide-field digital cameras needed for the satellite.

"When starships transporting colonists first depart the solar system, they may well be headed toward a TESS-discovered planet as their new home," says George R. Ricker, senior research scientist at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at MIT.

Microsoft's new free software application called WorldWide Telescope allows everyone from space novices to astronomy professionals to easily explore galaxies, star systems and distant planets.

The WorldWide Telescope links together 12 terabytes -- the data equivalent of 2.6 billion pages of text -- of pictures from sources including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The experience is similar to playing a video game, allowing users to zoom in and out of galaxies that are thousands of light years away. It allows seamless viewing of far-away star systems and rarely-seen space dust in breathtaking clarity.

Microsoft said it will release the WorldWide Telescope free of charge as a tribute to Jim Gray, a Microsoft researcher who went missing off the coast of California while sailing last year. Gray worked on projects with astronomers to organize the vast amounts of data and images being pulled from satellites.

Google has a similar offering called Google Sky, a companion to its Google Earth program.

Features of WorldWide Telescope include virtual tours of different parts of space, led by expert educators and astronomers. People will be able to use the Microsoft program to create their own space tours, to share with their friends. The program is also notable for its high level of detail, its large volume of data and the ability to fine-tune the views, said Curtis Wong, principal researcher in Microsoft's Next Media Research Group.

"I expect that there are going to be a lot of people learning so much more about the sky, because we've taken away the limitations of light pollution and smog and bad weather," Wong said. "Those of us in Seattle, it's our chance to finally see the sky."

The program runs on the PC desktop but pulls data and images from the Internet. Google Sky can run in a standard Web browser or in the downloadable Google Earth program. But the system requirements for Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope program come with a catch: It works only in Windows XP or Windows Vista.

A test version of the software is available for download at

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Earth Set to Receive Alien Reply, Invasion in 2015?

If all goes well—or very wrong—Earth may receive a message from aliens from the Altair solar system as early as 2015. Japanese astronomers Hisashi Hirabayashi and Masaki Morimoto sent an email there back in 1983, which was lost and has just been re-discovered by the latter at the Nishi-Harima Astronomical Observatory. Hirabayashi says they were drunk at the time, which explains why some of the 13 71 x 71 pixel images are the molecular formula for ethanol, the kanji characters for "kanpai!" (cheers!), and the English word "toast." Check out some of the pictures and play drunk alien yourself after the jump.

According to Hirabayahsi, he "came up with that idea while drinking. The aliens probably won't understand that (kanpai and toast) part." We can only hope that whoever is looking for life at their radio telescope up there won't be drunk as well, if only to ensure good inter-planetary relations from the start. Example:

Obviously, this means: "Dear People of Altair, We are organisms who reproduce sexually to form families. Life on Earth started in the water." Kind of scary, but better than the alternative—after five whiskies: "Hey alien dudes, here on Earth we are all nudist. Some of us are giants with big tits. Others are giants with tiny penises. Fishes like to suntan on the beach. Turn the page to see us drunk. Kanpai!"

Whatever happens with the decoding of this binary message, at least it gives a little hope to Mulder-wannabes and tinfoil hatters all over the world, who may see alien contact in just seven years. Otherwise, the prospect was quite bad: US scientists sent another message to M13—the Hercules globular cluster—thinking that having a big concentration of stars, it may give us a bigger possibility of getting an answer back, instead of Elvis singing back "Return to Sender." Unfortunately, they didn't think that the waiting time to get a message back from a planet in M13 would be a bit too long: a mere 46,000 years.

While Hirabayashi is hopeful that his message was received in 1999 and now a reply is getting back to be received by any Jodie Foster listening out there, he knows that it's highly improbable that it would work. "I believe in aliens, but they are very difficult to find," he says.

If you add the fact that Altair may not have any planets at all, the chances are extremely slim. Still, he says that they did it because "it was good enough," and he is glad about it, especially after all the messages he got from schoolchildren everywhere: "children's response is the best thing."

What he doesn't realize is that children are small, talk in strange gibberish and get green sometimes, so his aliens may have contacted him already. [Sankei via Pink Tentacle]

Original here

Scientists are building database of bite marks

(AP) -- It has sent innocent men to death row, given defense attorneys fits and splintered the scientific community. For a decade now, attorneys and even some forensic experts have ridiculed the use of bite marks to identify criminals as sham science and glorified guesswork.
Now researchers at Marquette University say they have developed a first-of-its kind computer program that can measure bite characteristics. They say their work could lead to a database of bite characteristics that could narrow down suspects and lend more scientific weight to bite-mark testimony.
"The naysayers are saying, `You can throw all this out. It's junk science. It's voodoo. This is a bunch of boobs that are causing a lot of problems and heartaches for people,'" said team leader Dr. L. Thomas Johnson, a forensic dentist who helped identify victims of the cannibalistic Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. "It's a valid science if it's done properly."

Skeptics already are taking shots.

"Scientifically illiterate," Dr. Mike Bowers, a deputy medical examiner in Ventura County, Calif., and a member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology, said of Johnson's work.

Built around the assumption that every person's teeth are unique, forensic dentistry has used bite impressions to identify criminals for 40 years. Bite marks on a young woman helped convict serial killer Ted Bundy of murdering her and another college student.

But critics say human skin changes and distorts imprints until they are nearly unrecognizable. As a result, courtroom experts end up offering competing opinions.

"If the discipline lends itself to opposing experts, it's not science," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted inmates.

Since 2000, at least seven people in five states who were convicted largely on bite-mark identification have been exonerated, according to the Innocence Project.

In Arizona, Ray Krone was found guilty in 1992 of killing a Phoenix bartender based largely on expert testimony that his teeth matched bites on the victim. He was sentenced to death, won a new trial on procedural grounds, was convicted again and got life. But DNA testing in 2002 proved he wasn't the killer. Krone was freed and won a spot on the ABC reality show "Extreme Makeover" to remake his teeth.
In Mississippi, forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West has come under fire after he testified in two child rape-murders in the 1990s that bite marks positively identified each killer. Kennedy Brewer was sentenced to death in one case, and Levon Brooks got life in prison in the other.

DNA tests later connected a third man to one of the rapes, and investigators say he confessed to both murders. In Brewer's case, a panel of experts concluded that the bites on the victim probably came from insects. Brewer and Brooks were exonerated earlier this year.

Determined to prove that bite analysis can be done scientifically, Johnson and his team won about $110,000 in grants from the Midwest Forensic Resources Center at Iowa State University and collected 419 bite impressions from Wisconsin soldier volunteers.

They built a computer program to catalog characteristics, including tooth widths, missing teeth and spaces between teeth. The program then calculated how frequently - or infrequently - each characteristic appeared.

He hopes to collect more impressions from dental schools across the country to expand the database into something close to law enforcement's DNA databanks. With enough samples, the software could help forensic dentists answer questions in court about how rarely a dental characteristic appears in the American population. That would help exclude or include defendants as perpetrators, Johnson said.

He acknowledged that his software will probably never turn bite-mark analysis into a surefire identifier like DNA and that he would need tens of thousands of samples before his work would stand up in court.

But "this is the first step toward actually providing science for this type of pattern analysis," Johnson said.

Bowers, who often testifies for the defense in criminal cases, said Johnson should instead study how skin changes can distort bite marks.

Dr. David Sweet, a forensic dentist at the University of British Columbia, said he has been working on a database similar to Johnson's for the past decade. He said he has offered Johnson casts and reproductions of the hundreds of bite impressions he is making.

Dr. Robert Barsley, a Louisiana State University dental professor and vice president of the American Academy of Forensic Science, said he, too, would send Johnson hundreds of bite impressions.

"His work could certainly be a benefit," Barsley said. "I don't think it will solve the problem, but it would be a step in the right direction."

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Memory Distortion and its Connection to Reality

Memory Distortion and its Connection to Reality

"Memory is the scaffolding upon which all mental life is constructed."

–Gerald Fischbach

Memory enables us to learn, make sense of the present, and contemplate the future via exploiting information from our past. The “scaffolding” is fragile and often flawed. Not a surprising claim, especially when juxtaposed along side of the fact that we are all prone to forgetting birthdays, names, and unintentionally warping anecdotes. What is curious, however, is the amount of power elicited by this seemingly faulty system. Ironically, this perplexing faculty is so profoundly central to our existence and understanding of the world around us; the importance that societies, new and old, place on eye-witness reports is a testament to the significance of accurate memory retrieval. Yet, the truth of the matter is that memory input often deviates substantially from the output. This so-called “memory distortion” raises some important questions: 1) is there much to gain from a seemingly flawed system? 2) what implications does this have for social memory and 3) related to the latter question, assuming that memory and reality are correlated, what new information does memory reveal about the nature of reality?

Daniel Schacter discusses seven types of memory distortion in his book entitled The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (1). He divides the “sins” into the following categories: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The “sins” of transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking are memory malfunctions that fall in to the class of omission—failure to bring to mind a desired fact, event, or idea. The remaining sins represent malfunctions in which some form of memory is present, but is either incorrect or unwanted. I will focus on the second class of “sins;” specifically those of misattribution, suggestibility, and bias.

Let us begin by reflecting on a narrative by Binjamin Wilkomirski (1) (2), a Holocaust survivor who vividly detailed the horrors of his childhood experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. In his memoir entitled Fragments, he recounts his earliest memories of childhood included witnessing his father being crushed to death against the wall of a house and his separation from his mother and siblings. After his liberation from the death camps, he was moved to Switzerland where he lived with a foster family. The book earned widespread critical admiration; upon reading it Jonathon Kozol raved “this stunning and austerely written work is so profoundly moving…so free from literary artifice of any kind that I wondered if I even had the right to offer it praise.” (2)

It turns out, however, that Wilkomirski was neither a Jew nor a survivor. The bases for his traumatic “memories” of Nazi horrors, whatever those may be, do not come from his own childhood experiences in a concentration camp. According to Stefan Maechler, the Swiss journalist who pursued the scandal, Bruno Dossekker— Wilkomirski birth name—never spent a day of his childhood in the hands of Nazis. Rather, young Bruno enjoyed life in peacetime Switzerland as a Swiss-born, wealthy Christian child. Even upon his exposé, Wilkomirski steadfastly professed that his account of his childhood was authentic and claimed that he had been secretly switched as a young boy with Bruno Dossekker upon his arrival in Switzerland.

Liar or not, what is of interest to us in this discussion is the following: Wilkomirski's alleged experiences in German-occupied Poland closely corresponded with real events of his factual childhood in Switzerland. This is the hallmark of the “sin” of misattribution. Memory misattribution often mistakes fantasy for reality or assigns a memory to the wrong source. Wilkomirski’s case is certainly extreme, but should not invalidate the frequency of memory misattribution in our daily lives.

In a study conducted by Intons-Peterson et. al (3), both younger and older adults were asked to remember the following list: bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, and drowsy. Participants recalled proportionately as many non-presented words as presented words. Moreover, when the non-presented words were scattered among presented ones in a recognition test, participants were more likely to say they had heard the nonpresented words than the presented ones. In a similar study (4), subjects were presented with the following words: candy, sour, sugar, bitter, good, taste, tooth, nice, honey, soda, chocolate, heart, cake, eat, and pie. They were then asked to take a minute to write down all remembered words. The next test entailed that subjects consider the words taste, point, sweet and identify which word was included in the original list. An overwhelming 80-90% of participants confidently, but incorrectly, selected the word sweet. While the word sweet yields a close association to the presented collective of words, this association should not nullify the fact that its selection still results in a memory malfunction. Schachter proposes in his book Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past (4) that "these [memory malfunctions] are produced by a general sense of familiarity that is strongest for conjunction words and weakest for entirely new words.” Incidents such as these are frightening reminders of the memory’s fallibility.

Similar to the “sin” of misattribution is that of suggestibility. In 1999, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus sought to explain how normal people can claim to have recovered memories of improbable experiences. With this in mind, she conceived the “lost-in-mall” technique to induce false memories (3). A sample experiment proceeded as such: an older brother, asked his younger brother to try to remember a time in which the younger had been lost in a shopping mall at age five. He initially recalled nothing, but after several days the child was able to produce a detailed recollection of the event. According to the older brother and family members, the younger brother had never been lost in a shopping mall; however this newly elucidated “false memory” became very real to the younger child. In a sample size of 24 participants, experimenters reported that a quarter of subjects falsely recalled being lost in the mall or a similar public place." (3) Subsequent studies performed by a variety of researchers generated false memories of such extreme events as taking a hot-air balloon ride, being hospitalized overnight, having a bizarre accident at a family wedding, having nearly drowned but been rescued by a lifeguard, being the victim of a vicious animal attack. (5)

Lastly is the “sin” of bias which manifests itself in several ways as defined by Schacter. This section will focus on what he terms the “stereotyping bias.” The following is an excerpt from a memoir by Brent Staples, an African American journalist, who recounts his experiences upon going for a walk as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago (6):

"My first victim was a woman—white, well dressed, probably in her early twenties. I came upon her late one evening on a deserted street in Hyde Park, a relatively affluent neighborhood in an otherwise mean, impoverished section of Chicago. As I swung onto the avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet, uninflammatory distance between us. Not so. She cast back a worried glance. To her, the youngish black man seemed menacingly close. After a few more quick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest. Within seconds she disappeared into a cross street… It was in the echo of that terrified woman's footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I'd come into—the ability to alter public space in ugly ways. It was clear that she thought herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse... In that first year, I was to become thoroughly familiar with the language of fear...but I have learned to employ what has proved to be an excellent tension-reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi…even steely New Yorkers hunching toward nighttime destinations seem to relax and occasionally they even join in the tune. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn't be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi's Four Seasons.”

The twenty-something white women encountered by Staples in this narrative employs a wise evolutionary strategy. In her reference frame, the black male represents a potential murderer, rapist, or robber as substantiated by negative media images and statistics that highlight the high percentage of black males in American prisons. One might argue that this fact alone is sufficient to warrant the behavior of the woman in his story. Such "energy saving" mechanisms simplify the heavy task of comprehending a complex social world that otherwise requires a considerable cognitive effort to size up every new individual. Thus by convention, we rely on generalizations. Unfortunately, such gross oversimplifications exclude an overwhelming body of information regarding the nature of the world around us. In fact, from a purely genetic standpoint, this logic is simply ludicrous; there exists no biological rational to explain why an entire race of people would be more predisposed to delinquency (holding all other parameters constant). In this example, Staples was simply a normal, criminal-record-free college student going for a walk. What is particularly interesting about his account is this: by simply whistling a tune, he has the ability to completely reshape the way in which he is perceived—a testament to the malleability of our “world view.”

Related to this is a study conducted at Yale University. There, researchers revealed that upon reviewing a list of male names, college students of all races were more likely to claim that they recognized local criminal names when presented with “stereotypically black” names, such as Tyrone Washington and Darnell Jones then when presented with “stereotypically white” names such as Adam McCarthy or Frank Smith. Ironically, none of the presented names were those of known criminals (1) (4). Such biases demonstrate how generic memories shape our interpretation of the world, even when we are unaware of their existence or influence. However memory biases are not limited to that of stereotyping; Schacter speaks of biases of consistency/change—biases that lead us to reconstruct the past as overly similar to, or different from the present—and that of the ego, the bias that overemphasizes the importance of the self in every situation. Clearly, these biases have some serious implications regarding the validity of our individual perception of the world around us. It is often incomplete and altered as all the abovementioned data suggests. If "memory is the scaffolding upon which all mental life is constructed,"—and it’s all in the head—what does this mean for us in terms of our understanding of reality?

Before this question is addressed, let us first do justice to the more positive aspects of memory that have evaded the discussion thus far. First, it should be pointed out that memory does a remarkably decent job of handling incredible volumes of information that in short time spans. Schacter argues that in illuminating the “sins” of memory, we should not forget the inherent “blessings.” The nervous system’s ability to filter out clutter is really quite extraordinary. That only specific events are remembered in a given situation should not be taken lightly; in fact the same systems that allow for distortion allow for efficient human functioning. A malfunctioning memory is often the price we pay for flexibility and adaptability—processes and functions that otherwise serve us well in many respects.

While this is slightly reassuring, I am left more unsettled then anything. I contemplate the implications of the sum of this information on understanding of social memory and reality. The human being eternally seeks harmony, balance, and consistency in places where such virtues are implausible. As a result, we slant memory processes in order to achieve these results via the mechanisms described above. What of our histories? If they are recorded by flawed memories, does this not perpetuate distortion? If I believe in historical distortions, is not some part of the sensory input that I receive about the world around me thereby altered? Does the faultiness of memory place humanity at risk of losing touch with a fundamental realness—a universal something that is more accurate than the distortion? I believe so—I believe that there exists a truth that man/woman is incapable of bearing witness to unless we are able to surmount the limitations of our memory and or own physiological make-up. Grime, yes, but who ever said such prospects have to invalidate the human experience?

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Middle class relaxing with marijuana

A variety of middle-class people are making a conscious but careful choice to use marijuana to enhance their leisure activities, a University of Alberta study shows.

A qualitative study of 41 Canadians surveyed in 2005-06 by U of A researchers showed that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ marijuana user, but that people of all ages are selectively lighting up the drug as a way to enhance activities ranging from watching television and playing sports to having sex, painting or writing.

“For some of the participants, marijuana enhanced their ability to relax by taking their minds off daily stresses and pressures. Others found it helpful in focusing on the activity at hand,” said Geraint Osborne, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus in Camrose, and one of the study’s authors.

The study was published recently in the journal Substance Use and Misuse.

The focus was on adult users who were employed, ranging in age from 21 to 61, including 25 men and 16 women from Alberta, Quebec, Ontario and Newfoundland whose use of the drug ranged from daily to once or twice a year. They were predominantly middle class and worked in the retail and service industries, in communications, as white-collar employees, or as health-care and social workers. As well, 68 per cent of the users held post-secondary degrees, while another 11 survey participants had earned their high school diplomas.

The study also found that the participants considered themselves responsible users of the drug, defined by moderate use in an appropriate social setting and not allowing it to cause harm to others.

The findings should open the way for further scientific exploration into widespread use of marijuana, and government policies should move towards decriminalization and eventual legalization of the drug, the study recommends.

“The Canadian government has never provided a valid reason for the criminalization of marijuana,” said Osborne. “This study indicates that people who use marijuana are no more a criminal threat to society than are alcohol and cigarette users. Legalization and government regulation of the drug would free up resources that could be devoted to tackling other crime, and could undermine organized crime networks that depend on marijuana, while generating taxes to fund drug education programs, which are more effective in reducing substance abuse,” Osborne added.

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The San Francisco Earthquake from above, 1906

Bird's-eye view of ruins from the San Francisco earthquake
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Bird's-eye view of ruins of San Francisco from Captive Airship, 600 feet above Folsom Street between Fifth and Sixth Sts., May 5, 1906
Geo. R. Lawrence Company
gelatin silver print; 20 x 47 in.
LOT 5785, no. 9 (OSF) P&P

The San Francisco earthquake occurred on April 18, 1906, at 5:13 A.M. It was followed by the largest fire to date in the nation's history, as gas lines ruptured, power lines fell, and chimneys collapsed. The fire was extinguished three days later, after it destroyed four square miles of the city and left nearly 3,400 people dead.

This panorama was taken almost three weeks after the earthquake, by George Lawrence of Chicago. Lawrence built his own large-format cameras and specialized in aerial photography. His earlier aerial photographs were taken from hydrogen balloons, but after a few life-threatening accidents, he began to use unmanned kites, which he named "captive airships," to obtain aerial views. The camera's shutter was tripped by an electrical current carried by an insulated wire that had been incorporated into a steel kite line. The photograph shows details such as tents that served as temporary offices, people, horse-drawn wagons, and even a streetcar.


The San Francisco Earthquake, from Nob Hill, 1906

Panoramic view from Nob Hill of the ruins from the San Francisco earthquake
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Ruins of San Francisco, Cal.; c1906
William Graham
gelatin silver print; 7.5 x 36 in.
PAN US GEOG - California, no. 240 (E size) P&P

This photograph was taken from Nob Hill, two blocks south of the Fairmount Hotel. Most of the soundly constructed buildings in the affluent Nob Hill area sustained little damage from the earthquake, but none escaped the fire as it swept up the hill the next day. Many of the city blocks visible in this image were dynamited by the War Department to create a fire barrier to slow the advance of the flames, but few attempts succeeded.

This view looks down Powell Street toward Market Street. Several hotels under construction can be seen on either side of Powell Street. The ruins of the Emanuel Synagogue are in the center. Ships were scratched into the negative by hand, perhaps to show the location of the bay more clearly. The outlines of buildings and background landmarks were highlighted on the negative to add clarity to the print.


Cyclone in Baytown, Texas, 1919

Panoramic view of the oil fields in Baytown, Texas, after a cyclone
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon The Goose Creek Oil Field after the cyclone hit it, 5/24/19
Frank G. Allen
gelatin silver print; 9.5 x 71 in.
PAN US GEOG - Texas, no. 1 (F size) P&P

When a cyclone storm hit Baytown, Texas, on May 24, 1919, the Goose Creek Oil Field suffered tremendous property damage. According to some accounts, the relatively mild 39-mile-per-hour winds destroyed more than 1,450 oil derricks. Although many people were injured, only one was killed. Goose Creek residents did not allow the storm to prevent them from voting in the local election; the polls remained open that day.


Storm in Corpus Christi, Texas, 1919

Panoramic view of the destruction from a tropical storm in Corpus Christi, Texas
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Corpus Christi, Texas, after storm, Sept. 14th, 1919
C. W. Henningsen
gelatin silver print; 9 x 66.5 in.
PAN US GEOG - Texas, no. 2 (F size) P&P

In early September, 1919, a tropical storm formed over the north Atlantic Ocean, swept its destructive force across the Caribbean Islands of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas, and slammed into the coast of Texas, just south of Corpus Christi. The hurricane, known later as the "Corpus Christi Storm," clocked 72 miles per hour and covered major parts of the city with a 10-foot tidal wave. The bodies of hundreds of people, as well as the bodies of cattle (from nearby Mustang Island), floated into the city and points north, resulting in severe sanitation problems. According to early accounts, more than half of the bodies found were buried without identification. An estimated 2,287 people were killed, and property damage was extensive.

Especially hard hit was the North Beach section depicted in this panorama. The men posing for this photograph may be hauling away lumber from a destroyed lumberyard.

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Young Adults Drink to Boost Their Chances of Hooking Up

The Social Lube: Booze helps? What a shocker. Photo by Fernando de Sousa

In testament to a tried-and-true move in the human mating game, European scientists have noticed that young people in bars and nightclubs across the land are using alcohol and drugs to grease the wheels of foreplay.

The results of a survey of 1,341 European clubgoers, which were recently published in the journal BMC Public Health, indicate that a third of 16 to 35-year-old males and a quarter of females intentionally drink alcohol to increase their chances of sex. Drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy were chosen to prolong or improve sex. It’s no accident, the research team concluded, that sexual activity often accompanies substance abuse.

“Trends in recent decades have resulted in recreational drug use and binge drinking becoming routine features of European nightlife,” said lead author Mark Bellis, a public-health researcher from Liverpool John Moores University in England.

The researchers also learned from their study cohort that coupling while drunk or high was strongly associated with morning-after reports of unsafe sex or feelings of regret. These negative outcomes, Bellis said, do not appear to discourage this mating strategy.

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Scientists aim to unlock deep-sea “secrets” of Earth’s crust

RSS James Cook

Scientists from Durham University will use robots to explore the depths of the Atlantic Ocean to study the growth of underwater volcanoes that build the Earth’s crust.

The Durham experts will lead an international team of 12 scientists aboard Britain’s Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Cook which will set sail from Ponta Delgada, San Miguel, in the Azores, on Friday, May 23.

During the five-week expedition they will use explorer robots to map individual volcanoes on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge tectonic plate boundary – which effectively runs down the centre of the Atlantic Ocean - almost two miles (3km) below the surface of the sea.

They will then use another robot, called ISIS, to collect rock samples from the volcanoes which will be dated using various techniques to shed more light on the timescales behind the growth of the Earth’s crust and the related tectonic plates.

As tectonic plates – formations that make up the Earth’s shell - are pulled apart by forces in the Earth, rocks deep down in the mantle are pulled up to fill the gap left behind. As the rocks rise they start to melt and form thousands of volcanoes on the sea floor which eventually cluster into giant ridges.

The ridges along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge plate boundary are each about the size of the Malvern Hills and contain hundreds of individual volcanoes.

Principal investigator Professor Roger Searle, in the Department of Earth Sciences, at Durham University, said: “The problem is that we don’t know how fast these volcanoes form or if they all come from melting the same piece of mantle rock.

“The ridges may form quickly, perhaps in just 10,000 years (about the time since the end of the last Ice Age) with hundreds of thousands of years inactivity before the next one forms, or they may take half-a-million years to form, the most recent having begun before the rise of modern humans.

“Understanding the processes forming the crust is important, because the whole ocean floor, some 60 per cent of the Earth’s surface, has been recycled and re-formed many times over the Earth’s history.”

Professor Searle’s team will include scientists from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, the Open University, the University of Paris and several institutions in the USA.

They will date the volcanoes using radiometric dating (which measures the radioactive decay of atoms) and by measuring the changing strength of the Earth’s magnetic field through time as recorded by the natural magnetism of the rocks.

Co-investigators on this project are Professors Jon Davidson and Yaoling Niu of Durham University’s Earth Sciences Department, and Dr Bramley Murton of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

The work is funded by a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council, which also owns and operates the RRS James Cook.

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GM Engineers Say All Cars Should Have Gas Mileage Displays

Last week I spent some time with GM discussing their new HCCI technology. After taking their test vehicle, a Saturn Aura, for a test spin, I was very impressed with the heads up display (HUD) that kept track of whether the car was in HCCI or SI mode. Upon returning to the conference room, my first question for the GM techs was whether or not something indicating HCCI mode or gas mileage would show up on the production models of cars equipped with this technology.

I don’t know quite what I expected for an answer, but it certainly wasn’t the one I got. Paul Najt seemed to like the question, and came to the same conclusion that I’ve long had, which is that fuel economy can become like a game. Cars (like many hybrids) with fuel economy displays were mentioned, and some in the room even commented that they believed the knowledge would automatically make people try to get better fuel economy.

More after the break!

I agreed heartily, but I didn’t expect the final answer: “It’s ultimately a marketing decision.” While this makes sense, don’t you think that some control should be left in the hands of the engineers? I mean, GM is asking their people to design a fuel efficient engine to get people through this gas crunch and into the future while still being economically viable, but it’s not the engineers that get to decide if a $10 piece of electronics will be part of that effort?

While I was there I was also told by an engineer who’d recently moved to the US from Germany that in the US people sometimes drive cars that are plain “unnecessary.” Coming from Germany, he and his family were used to a market for much smaller cars, one that GM and its Opel brand is a part of. However, it seems that globally General Motors is in the business of selling what people want, and not necessarily what people need. This mentality is certainly understandable from a business perspective, but I implore GM to consider that if marketing research shows that people don’t want fuel economy displays, it’s because they don’t know how much the feedback could improve their gas mileage.

Seeing that this is one of the things that makes the Prius so popular, and something that other manufacturers are phasing in, I hope GM pushes on with it. Do you think they will, or are ye of little faith (as I sometimes, admittedly, am)?

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The Sky Serpent: Twenty-Five Turbines in One

Image via popular science

Attempting to continue our wind power theme, we were doing some digging and what we found was something truly spectacular. A California man has constructed a design that features twenty-five small turbines in lieu of the massive blades on a modern wind power plan. One day this may approach the production capacity of the behemoths.

Doug Selsam’s Sky Serpent is the right invention at the right time: traditional turbines are perpetually on back order, and he has 3kw of generation capacity that’s far more affordable and requires fewer materials to build.Selsam, who attended college at UC-Irvine but didn’t graduate, has very little formal training in the ways of physics or wind power, which is probably what left him prepared to break the mold. “This is a 1,000 year-old design” he says of the single-bladed turbine, “I knew if I could get more rotors, I could get more power.”

While on the surface that is in fact true, it flies against the dogma of the engineers and physicists that dominate the wind power community. The complicated physics of ensuring each rotor doesn’t simply encounter the prop wash of the ones in front of it, may have been enough to drive them away. However, Selsam figured out a method: he’s found the proper angle to align his string of rotors at in order to ensure they all have flow, and the optimum spacing for the rotors themselves.

With comparatively very little formal education, Doug Seslam is running circles around some of the best engineers in the world. One day you may see strings of wind rotors stretching across the sky because of his incredible work.

Below are some concept images of how they could look in the future. All images below via Speaker Factory

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Bush Administration Lists Polar Bears as Threatened Species

A polar bear
As many as two-thirds of the world's polar bears may disappear within the next 50 years, as Arctic sea ice melts due to global warming.
Photo: Ansgar Walk/Wikimedia Commons

After months of delay, the Bush Administration will list polar bears as a threatened species, but there's doubt the decision will actually result in additional meaningful protection for the Arctic icon in an era of global warming.

The court-ordered decision came at the behest of environmental groups that first petitioned, then sued, to see a decision made.

The decision is the culmination of a three-year legal and bureaucratic saga with potentially big implications for climate change policy.

“This decision is a watershed event because it has forced the Bush administration to acknowledge global warming's brutal impacts,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, and lead author of the 2005 petition. “It’s not too late to save the polar bear, and we'll keep fighting to ensure that the polar bear gets the help it needs through the full protections of the Endangered Species Act. The administration's attempts to reduce protection to the polar bear from greenhouse gas emissions are illegal and won't hold up in court.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service listing should trigger a range of conservation efforts under the Endangered Species Act, including possibly protecting Arctic territory coveted by oil and gas companies, or limiting greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat at the Earth's surface, fuel global warming and lead to the loss of Arctic sea ice.

"Should" is the operative word. The Bush Administration is arguing that existing legal protections for polar bears are about as good as it gets, and that the listing will neither inspire new greenhouse gas policy nor immediately lead to the designation of new protected habitat.

“After months of delay, the Interior Department has finally recognized that polar bears are on the brink of extinction," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said. "But the administration’s decision is riddled with loopholes, caveats, and backhanded language that could actually undermine protections for the polar bear and other species."

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Pollution Sensitive EPA Dress by 2nd Skin

It is one thing to be concerned about a ‘bad hair day’, but imagine wearing smart fashion that alerts you to the threat of a stinky ‘bad air day’. Stephanie Sandstrom’s EPA Dress, currently on view in the San Francisco Exploratorium’s 2nd Skin Exhibition responds to bad air – and that’s not all, it cleverly creates the wrinkles to prove it! Looking crumpled and tired may no longer be an indicator of a late night out, but rather an intelligent way of interpreting your surroundings as well as detecting lurking health hazards. And if that’s not enough to get you totally charged up, consider the Piezing motion-powered dress that redefines future-forward fashion with femme-bot sex appeal.

Designer Sandstrom has embedded her EPA dress with sensors that are able to intelligently read the surrounding atmosphere and in turn create telling kinks in the fabric’s surface. On days when the air quality is particularly poor, the EPA dress looks as if it has been pulled out of the laundry bin or from the back of one’s closet. It’s a scary prospect to think that our clothes might take on a texture of their own, but if this is a viable way for us to see our true selves or rather the state of our environment, well then, we are all for it!

2nd Skin: Imaginative Designs in Digital & Analog Clothing demonstrates the melding of science and technology with art and fashion as a means to examine both cutting-edge innovation as well as environmental awareness. Another striking piece from the exhibit’s opening night runway show was Amanda Parkes’ ‘Piezing’ dress, which generates power via the human body’s motion and piezoelectric material. Electricity is generated in response to applied mechanical stress around the joints of the elbows and hips of the garment. This motion-generated electricity is then stored as voltage in a centralized small battery and can be discharged for use as needed in the future.

Second Skin or second chance - all good examples of sustainable style being about smart dressing as well as environmental awareness while revealing critical new layers.

+ 2nd Skin: Imaginative Designs in Digital & Analog Clothing
+ San Francisco Exploratorium

Motion-powered ‘Piezing’ dress by Amanda Parkes, image courtesy of James Patten

EPA (bad air quality detection) dress by Stephanie Sandstrom, image courtesy of Will Meeker

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Retracted green light on GM crops feeds suspicions

English:Image via Wikipedia

Like if we haven’t learned enough with the past from playing God men still wants to do it in the search of high profits.

Seems like we haven’t learned enough from our previous experience from playing God. Now we play with food modifying its genetic structure in order to obtain higher profits. Just now we start detecting problems like unstable proliferation of some crops and destruction of the natural genetic structure of the old ones through cross polinization. Also, GM crops can result in people and animals developing resistance to certain types of antibiotics which are used to treat diseases.

Worlds leaders are starting to take more attention into the matter because of thousands of complains and petitions made by Greenpeace supporters and negative observations from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Institute Pasteur and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Lately the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has had a remarkable action when it retracted the green light for a new type of GM potato and two types of GM maize to be grown. Though it was a good step in denying the previous given green light to the new GM crops of potato and maize how do we know that EFSA didn’t made the same mistake before and we are producing crops that harm the human being and the environment? The European commission has ordered a second investigation on these crops but shouldn’t a second investigation be done to all GM crops since EFSA got it wrong this time?

These crops may deliver health problems that might only be noticeable a few generations after, isn’t this a cause for concern too?

Another fact is that most probably the GM crops that produce their own insecticides and other GM crops may have a negative impact on the environment and because of that the EFSA should have rejected the crops right away since we know so little about the future problems that it may bring us.

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