Friday, May 30, 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 30

Descent of the Phoenix
Credit: MRO-HiRISE, NASA, JPL, Univ. Arizona

Explanation: In this sweeping view, the 10 kilometer-wide crater Heimdall lies on the north polar plains of Mars. But the bright spot highlighted in the inset is the Phoenix lander parachuting toward the surface. The amazing picture was captured on May 25th by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Though the lander looks like it might be dropping straight into Heimdall, it is really descending about 20 kilometers in front of the crater, in the foreground of the scene. The orbiter was 760 kilometers away from Phoenix when picture was taken, at an altitude of 310 kilometers. Subsequently the orbiter's camera was also able to image the lander on the surface. The parachute attached to the backshell and the heat shield were identified in the image, scattered nearby. Of course, the Phoenix lander itself is now returning much closer views of its landing site as it prepares to dig into the Martian surface.

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CSI: Milky Way team works scene of dead star

This image shows a ghostly ring extending seven light-years across around the corpse of a massive star.  The collapsed star, called a magnetar, is located at the exact center of this image. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope imaged the mysterious ring around magnetar SGR 1900+14 in infrared light. The magnetar itself is not visible in this image, as it has not been detected at infrared wavelengths (it has been seen in X-ray light).

This image shows a ghostly ring extending seven light-years across around the corpse of a massive star. The collapsed star, called a magnetar, is located at the exact center of this image. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope imaged the mysterious ring around magnetar SGR 1900+14 in infrared light. The magnetar itself is not visible in this image, as it has not been detected at infrared wavelengths (it has been seen in X-ray light). (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Like a team of forensic detectives in a television show that could be called "CSI: Milky Way," a University of Chicago astrophysicist and his associates are piecing together how a mysterious infrared ring got left around a dead star that displays a magnetic field trillions of times more intense than Earth's.

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope detected the ring around magnetar SGR 1900+14 at two narrow infrared frequencies in 2005 and 2007. The ringed magnetar is of a type called a soft gamma repeater (SGR) because it repeatedly emits bursts of gamma rays.

“The universe is a big place, and weird things can happen,” said Stephanie Wachter of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology. “I was flipping through archived Spitzer data of the object, and that’s when I noticed it was surrounded by a ring we’d never seen before.”

Wachter enlisted Vikram Dwarkadas, a Senior Research Associate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, to help determine how the ring formed. Wachter, Dwarkadas and five other co-authors present the results of their investigation in the May 29 issue of the journal Nature.

“It’s the first time something like this has ever been seen around a magnetar,” Dwarkadas said. Magnetars come from massive stars that have exploded as a core-collapse supernova. “These stars are at least eight times the mass of the sun, or more massive than that,” he said.

Magnetars interest astrophysicists because of their mysterious and unusual characteristics. When massive stars collapse, they usually form compact objects called neutron stars or black holes. “We have no idea why some neutron stars are magnetars and some are not,” Dwarkadas said.

SGR 1900+14 seems to belong to a nearby cluster of massive stars that resides along the plane of the Milky Way. Since the most massive stars live the shortest lives, the object hints that perhaps only the most massive stars become magnetars.

When Wachter’s team began pondering the origin of the ring, “We thought initially of all the standard explanations,” Dwarkadas said. But the team considered and eliminated several possibilities before concluding that a powerful flare that burst from the magnetar formed the ring, which measures seven light-years across.

“It’s as if the magnetar became a huge flaming torch and obliterated the dust around it, creating a massive cavity,” said co-author Chryssa Kouveliotou, senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. “Then the stars nearby lit up a ring of fire around the dead star, marking it for eternity.”

A theoretical astrophysicist supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA, Dwarkadas specializes in various phenomena related to supernova remnants and stellar winds. He helped Wachter’s team systematically eliminate several potential causes for the ring.

Was the ring an infrared echo, a mass of dust lit up by a flare moving out from the magnetar? The 2007 Spitzer image showed no discernable change in the ring after two years. “If it hasn’t moved, it hasn’t changed, it can’t be an infrared echo,” Dwarkadas said. “It’s a stationary ring.”

Could the ring be a bubble blown by solar winds emitted from the star before it exploded? Shock waves of a supernova travel at approximately 10,000 miles a second. If the ring was a wind-blown bubble, the supernova shock wave would overtake it somewhere between a few decades to a century or two, at most.

“It would mean that the supernova should have actually gone through and destroyed the ring unless it was very, very recent,” Dwarkadas said. If the ring was a wind-blown bubble that somehow survived the supernova shock wave, “then you’d need a massive bubble,” he said. “We did some calculations and we ran some simulations, and it just didn’t work.”

Wachter’s team next considered whether the ring could be related to the supernova. That possibility also failed to pan out.

“If there is a supernova, there would be shocks. You would see X-ray, radio and optical emission. We looked at archival data, and there was no emission at any wavelength except in the Spitzer images,” Dwarkadas said.

The paper’s other co-authors are Jonathan Granot of the University of Hertfordshire, England; Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz of the University of California, Santa Cruz; Sandy Patel of the Optical Sciences Corporation, Huntsville, Ala.; and Don Figer at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

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How do I become an astronaut?

Photo courtesy NASA

If you are looking for a career that combines cool technology, interesting science and great adventure, you could hardly make a better choice than becoming an astronaut. And there is potential for growth in the field. With the construction of the International Space Station, there will be a permanent human presence in outer space and a need for astronauts. But becoming an astronaut in the U.S. space program is not easy, and the process can take several years.

There are three types of astronauts in the U.S. space program:

  • Commander/pilot
  • Mission specialist
  • Payload specialist
The commander is responsible for the mission, the crew and the vehicle. The pilot assists the commander in operating the vehicle and deploying satellites. The mission specialist works with the commander and pilots in shuttle operations, performs spacewalks and conducts experiments. The payload specialist performs specialized duties as the mission requires. Payload specialists are people other than NASA personnel, and some are foreign nationals.

The basic qualifications for becoming an astronaut include:

  • U.S. citizenship (for pilots and mission specialists)
  • Bachelor's degree (engineering, biological sciences, physical sciences, mathematics) from an accredited college or university
  • Three years of related experience after obtaining the bachelor's degree - A master's degree equals one year of experience, and a doctorate equals three years.
  • Passing a NASA space physical examination - Pilots need to pass a Class I physical; mission/payload specialists must pass Class II. Both are similar to civilian and military flight examinations.
  • More than 1,000 hours experience as pilot-in-command of a jet aircraft (pilots only)
  • Height of 64 to 76 inches (162.5 cm to 193 cm) for pilots, 58.5 to 76 inches (148.5 cm to 193 cm) for mission/payload specialists

To apply for an astronaut position, you fill out the appropriate forms and submit them to NASA, which accepts applications continuously. You can download the forms here. NASA then screens the applications, and you may be asked to go for a weeklong session where you will participate in personal interviews, medical tests and orientations. Your screening performance will be evaluated, and if you are lucky, you may be accepted as an astronaut candidate. NASA announces candidates every two years, selecting about a hundred men and women out of thousands of applicants.

If you are selected, you will report to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for training and evaluations, which last two years. During the training period, you will take classes in basic science (math, astronomy, physics, geology, meteorology, oceanography), technology (navigation, orbital mechanics, materials processing), and space shuttle systems. You will also be trained in land and sea survival techniques, SCUBA, microgravity, high- and low-pressure environments, and spacesuits. You must pass a swimming test (swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool in flight suit and tennis shoes, and tread water for 10 minutes). If you are a pilot, you will train in NASA's T-38 jet aircraft and shuttle training aircraft at least 15 hours each month. Mission specialists fly four hours each month.

At the end of the two-year training period, you may be selected to become an astronaut. As an astronaut, you will continue classroom training on the various aspects of space shuttle operations that you started as an astronaut candidate. You will begin training on each individual system in the shuttle with the help of an instructor. After that, you will train in simulators for pre-launch, launch, orbit, entry and landing. Depending upon whether you are a pilot or mission specialist, you will learn how to use the shuttle's robotic arm to manipulate cargo. You will continue generic training until you are selected for a flight.

Photo courtesy NASA
Astronauts training underwater to build the International Space Station

Once you are selected for a flight, you will receive specific training for the mission at least 10 months prior to the flight. This includes training in flight simulators, full-scale mockups of the shuttle and space station, and underwater training for spacewalks. The simulations will prepare you for every type of emergency or contingency imaginable.

Photo courtesy NASA
View of Florida
from outer space

After your training, you will prepare for your flight with training in the shuttle itself (pilots), meetings and more simulations. After your flight, you will have several days of medical tests and discussions; these are called debriefings.

Astronauts are expected to stay with NASA for at least five years after their selection. They are federal civil service employees (GS-11 to GS-14 grade) with equivalent pay based on experience. They are eligible for vacation, medical and life insurance, and retirement benefits.

So, you can see that you will need education, hard work and steadfast dedication to become an astronaut. However, the view is tremendous!

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Bacteria-Run Computer Solves Math Puzzle

Gigs of Bacteria
Gigs of Bacteria

A new living computer, bred from E. coli bacteria instead of stamped from silica, has for the first time successfully solved a classic mathematical puzzle known as the Burnt Pancake Problem.

While this bacteria-based computer is more proof of concept than practical, a living computer might one day solve complex mathematical problems faster than silicon supercomputers.

"The computing potential of DNA far exceeds that of any other material," said Karmella Haynes, a researcher at Davidson University and lead study author. "If we figure out how to increase that capacity in a practical manner we will have much more computing power."

The Burnt Pancake Problem works like this: Imagine you are a diner owner. To promote your delicious fare, you want to create a golden pyramid of pancakes. Using a spatula, you have to rearrange an existing stack of different-sized pancakes, each of which is burned on one side. The aim is to sort the stack so the largest pancake is on the bottom and all pancakes are golden side up.

Each flip reverses the order and the orientation (i.e. which side of the pancake is facing up) of one or several consecutive pancakes. You want to stack them properly in the fewest number of flips.

If there are only a few pancakes, it's a relatively easy problem to solve. But as the number of pancakes increases, the possible number of solutions skyrockets.

For six pancakes, there are 46,080 possible solutions. For 12 pancakes, there are 1.9 trillion permutations.

A traditional, silica-based computer would run through every single possible solution to the problem, one at a time.

In a biology-based computer, each bacterium becomes a single computer that runs a different part of the problem simultaneously. Since a million bacteria-based computers can fit into a single drop of water, all of them working together could speed up the calculations dramatically.

Obviously E. coli can't flip real pancakes. Instead E. coli flip a section of their DNA. The "spatula" is a protein called flagellin, which was taken from salmonella bacteria and injected into the E. coli bacteria.

In salmonella, flagellin works like an on/off switch, determining which of two proteins will be produced to help hide, and keep alive, the bacteria when it infects an organism. In the computer, the proteins make a bacterium resistant to antibiotics and keep it alive -- but only if it solves the problem. If a bacterium can't solve the problem, i.e. flip the pancake into the correct order, antibiotics kill it.

So far the computer has only solved a two-pancake problem which, admittedly, isn't terribly difficult. Creating bacteria that can solve the Burnt Pancake Problem using multiple pancakes will be difficult, said Haynes.

Once a solution is found, however, it will be cheap to reproduce.

"All it would cost is about a tablespoon of sugar," said Haynes.

Don't expect to see a bacterial super computer at Best Buy any time soon though. According to Tom Knight, a synthetic biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "this will open the door to a wide variety of biological computing."

But that includes only simple computing, like telling researchers how many times they have encountered a certain chemical.

"This won't make your Xbox run faster," said Knight.

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Bioscientists photoshop their cultures to fake results

Jeff sez, "Researchers often use Photoshop to clean up the images they produce in the laboratory. If the experiment didn't go quite right, a bit of tampering can make a gel look like things did work. Editors at Science, Nature, and other journals are turning into detectives, using new tools to hunt for fraudulent images."

And the level of tampering they find is alarming. "The magnitude of the fraud is phenomenal," says Hany Farid, a computer-science professor at Dartmouth College who has been working with journal editors to help them detect image manipulation. Doctored images are troubling because they can mislead scientists and even derail a search for the causes and cures of disease.

Ten to 20 of the articles accepted by The Journal of Clinical Investigation each year show some evidence of tampering, and about five to 10 of those papers warrant a thorough investigation, says Ms. Neill. (The journal publishes about 300 to 350 articles per year.)

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Scientists heat matter to hotter than surface of the Sun

A laser in Oxfordshire has heated matter to 10 million Celsius, hotter than the surface of the Sun, marking a major landmark in research.The milestone in the field of high energy density physics has been reached by an international team from Japan, the EU and the US working at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
Cleaning a vacuum spatial filter for the Vulcan Petawatt Facility during its construction

Previously only ultra-thin layers of matter (less than one hundredth of a millimetre in thickness) had been heated to similar temperatures and this milestone, where 20 times greater volumes have been heated, takes scientists one step closer to laser fusion, the process that powers the Sun.

The Vulcan laser concentrated power equivalent to 100 times the world's electricity production into a tiny spot for a fraction of a second as part of an effort that will also help scientists to explore many astronomical phenomena in miniature, such as mini-supernovas and tabletop stars.

Writing in the New Journal of Physics, Prof Peter Norreys of the Rutherford and Imperial College London described how the Vulcan laser focused one petawatt of energy (one thousand million million watts) on a spot about one tenth the size of a human hair.

It only lasts for less than 1 picosecond (one millionth of a millonth of a second) but during that time, it is possible to heat materials above their normal melting point - allowing conditions that are found in exotic astrophysical objects such as supernova explosions, white dwarfs and neutron star atmospheres, to be created.

This is the key to the laser's power - it delivers modest energy in a microscopic unit of time. "This is an exciting development - we now have a new tool with which to study really hot, dense matter" says Prof Norreys, whose work is backed by a research council called the STFC.

The Vulcan team has been racing against the $14m Texas Petawatt laser which a few days ago reached greater than one petawatt, making it the highest powered laser in the world, the Titan laser at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the OMEGA EP facility at the University of Rochester, New York.

The UK has proposed an even more powerful laser facility, known as Hiper (High Power laser Energy Research), which will study the feasibility of laser fusion as a potential future energy source.

The scientists hope to use the effort to use lasers to fuse together isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, to release a vast amount of energy. The process naturally occurs in the core of the Sun where huge gravitational pressure allows this to happen at temperatures of around 10 million Celsius.

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'Horror frog' breaks own bones to produce claws

Male Hairy Frogs grow threads of vascularised skin during mating season (Image: Gustavocarra / Creative Commons License) - More images below
Male Hairy Frogs grow threads of vascularised skin during mating season (Image: Gustavocarra / Creative Commons License) - More images below

"Amphibian horror" isn't a movie genre, but on this evidence perhaps it should be. Harvard biologists have described a bizarre, hairy frog with cat-like extendable claws.

Trichobatrachus robustus actively breaks its own bones to produce claws that puncture their way out of the frog's toe pads, probably when it is threatened.

David Blackburn and colleagues at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, think the gruesome behaviour is a defence mechanism.

The researchers say there are salamanders that force their ribs through their skin to produce protective barbs on demand, but nothing quite like this mechanism has been seen before.

The feature is also found in nine of the 11 frogs belonging to the Astylosternus genus, most of which live in Cameroon.

Instant weapon

"Some other frogs have bony spines that project from their wrist, but in those species it appears that the bones grow through the skin rather than pierce it when needed for defence," says Blackburn.

At rest, the claws of T. robustus, found on the hind feet only, are nestled inside a mass of connective tissue. A chunk of collagen forms a bond between the claw's sharp point and a small piece of bone at the tip of the frog's toe.

The other end of the claw is connected to a muscle. Blackburn and his colleagues believe that when the animal is attacked, it contracts this muscle, which pulls the claw downwards. The sharp point then breaks away from the bony tip and cuts through the toe pad, emerging on the underside.

Hirsute horror

The end result may look like a cat's claw, but the breaking and cutting mechanism is very different and unique among vertebrates. Also unique is the fact that the claw is just bone and does not have an outer coating of keratin like other claws do.

Because Blackburn has only studied dead specimens, he says he does not know what happens when the claw retracts – or even how it retracts. It does not appear to have a muscle to pull it back inside so the team think it may passively slide back into the toe pad when its muscle relaxes.

"Being amphibians, it would not be surprising if some parts of the wound heal and the tissue is regenerated," says Blackburn.

Males of the species, which grows to about 11 centimetres, also produce long hair-like strands of skin and arteries when they breed (see image). It is thought that the "hairs" allow them to take in more oxygen through their skin while they take care of their brood.

Spiky snack

In Cameroon, they are roasted and eaten. Hunters use long spears and machetes to kill the frogs, apparently to avoid being hurt by their claws.

"This is an incredible story," says Ian Stephen, curator of herpetology at the Zoological Society of London, UK. "Some frogs grow spines on their thumbs during breeding season, but this is entirely different."

"For me, it highlights the need for a lot more research on amphibians especially in light of the threat of mass extinctions," he adds.

The existence of frogs with erectile claws like cats was first described by Belgian zoologist George Boulenger in 1900 in frogs found in the French Congo, now the Republic of Congo.

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3 Ideas That Are Pushing the Edge of Science

Medical bots powered by sperm, clean fusion power, and two-dimensional time.

by Patrick Huyghe
Mouse sperm

Image courtesy of Atsushi Asano

1) Sperm-powered Nanobots
The next wave in health care may include a brigade of medical nanobots, devices tiny enough to ride the flow of blood through the body's arteries to a problem area. The bots might arrive at a clot, for example, and then using an internal power system, obliterate the clot with a precisely targeted drug or therapy. Designing a power source to accomplish such a task has been a challenge, but from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University comes a possible answer. The same molecular power packs that fuel sperm in their journey through the uterus and to a fallopian tube might be copied and used to keep the nanomachines running once they reach their targets.

Led by reproductive biologist Alex Travis, the engineering effort focuses on a chain of enzymes that metabolize glucose molecules into the biological fuel ATP (a process known as glycolysis), which enables sperm locomotion. Ordinarily the ATP provides sperm with enough energy to bend and flex their tails as they swim to the unfertilized egg. Travis’s plan is to copy the design of the sperm’s engine by slightly modifying a 10-enzyme glycolysis chain embedded in the sperm’s tail, and then to install it in nanobots.

Using mouse sperm, Travis has thus far modified the first two enzymes on the chain so that they bind to nickel ions attached to the surface of a tiny gold chip, which serves as a stand-in for a future nanobot. Now he needs to tweak the remaining enzymes so they can be attached too. If the spermlike motor works, it could someday use the body’s own energy source—glucose—to do such things as run super-tiny medical devices designed to release anticancer drugs or trigger the breakup of potentially deadly clots.

2) Fusion On Tap
Plasma physicist Eric Lerner
has a dream: a form of nuclear energy so clean it generates no radioactive waste, so safe it can be located in the heart of a city, and so inexpensive it provides virtually unlimited power for the dirt-cheap price of $60 per kilowatt—far below the $1,000-per-kilowatt cost of electricity from natural gas.

It may sound too good to be true, but the technology, called focus fusion, is based on real physics experiments. Focus fusion is initiated when a pulse of electricity is discharged through a hydrogen-boron gas across two nesting cylindrical electrodes, transforming the gas into a thin sheath of hot, electrically conducting plasma. This sheath travels to the end of the inner electrode, where the magnetic fields produced by the currents pinch and twist the plasma into a tiny, dense ball. As the magnetic fields start to decay, they cause a beam of electrons to flow in one direction and a beam of positive ions (atoms that have lost electrons) to flow in the opposite direction. The electron beam heats the plasma ball, igniting fusion reactions between the hydrogen and boron; these reactions pump more heat and charged particles into the plasma. The energy in the ion beam can be directly converted to electricity—no need for conventional turbines and generators. Part of this electricity powers the next pulse, and the rest is net output.

A focus fusion reactor could be built for just $300,000, says Lerner, president of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey. But huge technical hurdles remain. These include increasing the density of the plasma so the fusion reaction will be more intense. (Conventional fusion experiments do not come close to the temperatures and densities needed for efficient hydrogen-boron fusion.) Still, the payoff could be huge: While mainstream fusion research programs are still decades from fruition, Lerner claims he requires just $750,000 in funding and two years of work to prove his process generates more energy than it consumes. “The next experiment is aimed at achieving higher density, higher magnetic field, and higher efficiency,” he says. “We believe it will succeed.”

3) A Two-Timing Universe
For nearly a century, physicists have tried to reconcile Einstein’s vision of the universe (including three dimensions of space and one of time) with the bizarre realm of quantum physics, rife with such oddities as instant communication at a distance and being in two places at once. The effort to unify the views has resulted in a stream of elaborate hypotheses positing worlds with multiple dimensions of space, most notably string theory and its successor, M-theory.

Itzhak Bars, a theoretical physicist at the University of Southern California, thinks these hypotheses are missing a crucial ingredient: an extra dimension of time. By adding a second dimension of time and a fourth dimension of space to Einstein’s standard space-time, Bars has come up with a new model providing “additional information that remained hidden in previous formulations” of physics, including current versions of M-theory. Such a model could better explain “how nature works,” he says.

Physicists had never added a second dimension of time to their models because it opens the possibility of traveling back in time and introduces negative probabilities and other scenarios that seem nonsensical. In his equations Bars has solved these problems with a new symmetry that treats an object’s position and its momentum as interchangeable at any given instant.

Does this mean we could actually experience a second dimension of time? “Yes,” Bars says, “but only indirectly,” by thinking of the world around us as many shadows that look different depending on the perspective of the light source. “The predicted relations among the different shadows contain most of the information about the extra dimensions,” he explains. Next, Bars and his team are developing tests for two-time physics and investigating how to apply the theory to all the natural forces, including gravity. Adding two-time physics to M-theory, he says, should help us close in on “the fundamental theory that so far has eluded all of us.”

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Stonehenge 'a long-term cemetery'

Stonehenge may have been a cemetery for a ruling dynasty

Stonehenge served as a burial ground for much longer than had previously been believed, new research suggests.

The site was used as a cemetery for 500 years, from the point of its inception.

Archaeologists have said the cremation burials found at the site might represent a single elite family and its descendents - perhaps a ruling dynasty.

One clue to this idea is that there are few burials in the earliest phase, but that the number grows larger in later centuries, as offspring multiplied.

Under the traditional view, cremation burials were dug at the site between 2,700 BC and 2,600 BC, about a century before the large stones - known as sarsens - were put in place.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, from the department of archaeology at the University of Sheffield, and his colleagues have now carried out radiocarbon dating of burials excavated in the 1950s that were kept at the nearby Salisbury Museum.

Their results suggest burials took place at the site from the initiation of Stonehenge, just after 3,000 BC, until the time the large stones appear at about 2,500 BC.


Timewatch animation revealing the history of Stonehenge

The earliest cremation burial dated - a small pile of burned bones and teeth - came from one of the pits around the edge of Stonehenge known as the Aubrey Holes and dates to between 3,030 BC and 2,880 BC - roughly the time when the Stonehenge monument was cut into Salisbury Plain.

The second burial, from the ditch surrounding Stonehenge, is that of an adult and dates to between 2,930 BC and 2,870 BC.

The most recent cremation comes from the ditch's northern side and was of a 25-year-old woman; it dates to between 2,570 BC and 2,340 BC, around the time the first arrangements of sarsen stones appeared at Stonehenge.

The latest findings are the result of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a collaboration between five UK universities. Details of the research are to be featured in National Geographic magazine.

Royal circle?

Professor Parker-Pearson, who leads the project, said: "I don't think it was the common people getting buried at Stonehenge - it was clearly a special place at that time."

He added: "Archaeologists have long speculated about whether Stonehenge was put up by prehistoric chiefs - perhaps even ancient royalty - and the new results suggest that not only is this likely to have been the case, but it also was the resting place of their mortal remains."

Two other Stonehenge experts, Professor Tim Darvill, from the University of Bournemouth, and Professor Geoff Wainwright, from the Society of Antiquaries, have a different theory about the monument.

They are convinced that the dominating feature on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire was akin to a "Neolithic Lourdes" - a place where people went on a pilgrimage to get cured.

They recently carried out a two-week excavation at the site to search for clues to why the 4,500-year-old landmark was erected.

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Opposite sex drives you crazy -- the causes

(LifeWire) -- As Walter Christensen, a 53-year-old physics professor from Pomona, California, discovered, when it comes to cuddling, women know what they want. When he and his lover spend the night together, he's usually awoken around 3 a.m. with a familiar request.

"She calls out, 'Spoon, spoon!'" he says. He willingly obliges with front-to-back cuddling -- even though he admits he probably wouldn't do so without being asked.

"I like the feeling of her wanting to do that," he says, "so I do it out of a sense of responsibility."

His lover, 32-year-old art-history scholar Natalie Valle, appreciates the attention.

While the differences between the sexes drive some couples to distraction, being aware of them enhances relationships, as Christensen and Valle can attest. Is there hope for the rest of us? Researchers have found that science can be used to explain a lot of behavior that widens the gender gap, and in so doing may help couples understand each other better.

1. Women want to cuddle

What you think: Women love to cuddle after sex, whereas men just want to fall asleep.

What the experts say: "During sexual intercourse, oxytocin is released in both men and women, and that encourages bonding within the couple," says Dr. Marianne J. Legato, founder of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University and author of "Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget."

Oxytocin is a hormone often associated with love because its levels increase during intimate acts like hugging, kissing and intercourse. However, "testosterone neutralizes the effect of oxytocin, so men are less likely to want to prolong contact after orgasm."

2. Men hate shopping

What you think: Men hate to go shopping with their mate because they think it's a waste of time.

What the experts say: Men do enjoy shopping when they get to "hunt" for a specific item, whereas women enjoy "grazing" for items. This goes back to our hunting and gathering days, when losing focus could mean losing the week's meal.

"Men are much more task-oriented," says Robert Schwarz, a psychologist and director of the Mars and Venus Counseling and Wellness Center in Haverford, Pennsylvania. "They hunt it, they kill it, they buy it and they go out."

In the aptly titled 2007 study "Men Buy, Women Shop," University of Pennsylvania researchers found that factors having to do with speed and convenience were the most important for men. Of the 1,250 male and female shoppers surveyed by phone, finding parking near the store or mall entrance was the No. 1 problem men said they encountered when shopping (29 percent of respondents), whereas women cited "lack of help" as their chief complaint (also 29 percent).

3. Women make mountains out of molehills

What you think: Women obsess about every little thing; men seem to have it all under control.

What the experts say: Men are problem-solvers and tend to bring up a problem only in order to search for its solution, says Schwarz. The "eureka" moment of problem-solving increases the level of dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical, in the brain. (This also explains why men will wait until it's absolutely necessary to stop and ask for directions.)

Women relieve stress by talking and relating their problems to others, which produces serotonin, said to enhance moods and ward off depression.

4. Men are impervious to cold

What you think: Men are content to freeze, while women always want to turn up the thermostat.

What the experts say: According to the Mayo Clinic, women are more sensitive to cold than men are, but not because they like to feel warm and cozy. Because women on average are smaller than men, their metabolic rate tends to be lower. This means their bodies generate less heat. They also tend to have less fat, which acts as insulation, on their upper bodies and around their waists, as well as less muscle mass, which also helps keep the body warm.

5. Women Love 'chick flicks'

What you think: Women prefer romantic movies (aka "chick flicks") while men like action and adventure.

What the experts say: Women may like romantic movies better than men, but in a 2007 study at Kansas State University, men rated romantic movies "higher than most people would have guessed," says psychology professor Richard Harris, who led the survey of 265 Kansas State students. On a scale of 1 to 7, men gave the movies a 4.8, while women rated them a 6.

However, "we found that when seeing the film on a date ... if one party makes the decision, then they stay true to those stereotypes, with guys choosing to go to a violent film and women choosing a romantic film," Harris told the Reuters news agency in January.

Jose Ferraro can relate. He spent New Year's Day at the theater, dozing through the romantic drama "Atonement" with his wife, Kyle.

"She tricked me into going," says the 44-year-old engineer from Yorba Linda, California.

His wife, Kyle, a 49-year-old fitness instructor, fesses up: "I said there was some fighting in it," she admits.

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The 6 Most Badass Stunts Ever Pulled in the Name of Science

Scientists have a PR problem. If TV is to be believed, doctorates are awarded in the form of fishbowl glasses and a tendency to stutter. Sometimes movies try to help out by portraying action scientists, like in The Core, but usually do more harm than good since it's generally restricted to truly terrible movies, like in The Core.

Here we look at seven self-endangering scientists who only wear lab coats because you can't get explosive-bear-proof tuxedos outside of MI6. Each one of these researchers has been voted "Most likely to inject themselves with the Omega Serum while shouting, 'Dammit, there's no time for testing!'"

John Paul Stapp, Scientist and Human Bullet

While other so-called heroes run around saving useless things like kittens and "civilians," John Paul Stapp looked at jet fighter pilots and thought, "Those poor guys need my help." Yes, the manliest profession in the world since "Grizzly Bear Rodeo" was outlawed, and World War II veteran Dr. Stapp was the man who saved them.

He served as a flight surgeon in WWII, and after the war performed critical research on the effects of sudden deceleration on the human body. His human body. He used a rocket armed with four rocket engines and a total thrust of 6,000 pounds. The wider scientific community believed the human body could not survive more than 18 Gs of deceleration--Stapp hit 35. Because he goddamn could.

Above: Science

He became the fastest man in the world, moving faster than a bullet--632 miles per hour.

In 1954 he decelerated from 120 miles per hour to 0 in 1.4 seconds, and gained two huge black eyes from the force of his own slammed-forward eyeballs punching him on the inside of the face. The impact blinded him for two days, during which we must imagine his response was to walk around and simply dare the world to put things in his way. Oh, and he also broke his back, arm, wrist, lost six fillings and the icing on the cake? He got a hernia.

His response? He built a bigger rocket.

More Rockets = More Science

He lived to 89 and his research has saved lives around the world ever since. Oh, and in case Dr. Stapp hasn't made a mockery of your life's work and achievements just yet: The whole time he he was slinging his own body around like a fleshy cannon shell, he was also running an after-hours clinic for the families of servicemen at the base where he worked, making house calls and providing free medical care. Every night.

Yeah, you sit up straighter now when you're reading about a real man, you loser.

Drs. Warren and Barry Marshall Drink Stomach-Eating Germs

Drs. Warren and Marshall isolated the bacteria responsible for stomach ulcers, but the wider scientific community maintained that stress, lifestyle and general whining were the real cause. Dr. Marshall countered with the little known "frat party" method of science, declaring, "I'll fucking show you" and drinking the vial of filthy bacteria they'd culled from the stomachs of ulcer suffers.

He was positive he was right before he drank it, and when he immediately developed gastritis with achlorhydria, nausea, vomiting and halitosis he was damn sure. We're talking absolutely, positively, "coming down from a mountain and founding a religion" sure.

"Why, yes, I do regret drinking stomach poison."

In true movie-style, this was a daring experiment that broke all the rules--right down to the first rule of biology labs: "Don't drink things in the vials here." Suitably impressed, the Nobel Prize committee awarded him and Dr. Marshall the prize, and presumably some breath mints.

So what could be more disgusting than that?

Albert Hoffman Invents LSD, and Soaks His Brain In It

Dr. Albert Hoffman developed Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-25 in 1938. Five years later he accidentally absorbed a tiny dose through his skin and had to stop working, experiencing intoxication, dizziness and two hours of mind-bending hallucinations. Clearly a man who knows how to party, his first response was "I gots to get me some more of that shit."

He didn't mess around. Three days later he took 250 micrograms, now known to be over 10 times the threshold dose for humans. He later claimed that this was a miscalculation, but we're fairly sure when he said that he winked and added, "Right, guys?" He spent the rest of the day in a state scientifically categorized as "high off his tits." He was unable to speak clearly, he saw sounds, was afraid of witches, threatened by his furniture and watched the best fireworks display the world has ever seen go off inside his eyeballs.

"Science rules!"

The next day he decided, "The world must share this feeling," and spent the rest of his life campaigning for LSD applications, despite some idiot hippies getting it banned and ruining it for everyone.

Dr. Hoffman's heaping helping of acid has had effects on science development since: Professor Crick, one of the men who figured out a little thing called DNA, admitted that he used LSD to boost his powers of thought which should be obvious. While we're sure that decoding DNA took all kinds of "science" and "experiments," when your final result is "All life is like spelled out in an alphabet of chemicals, man, two helices spiraling around each other and it's the same way for all the animals and plants and everything," then we don't care how correct that might be. There's only one thing to be said: totally high.

Stubbins Ffirth Eats Yellow Fever

The line between heroic bravery and complete stupidity is a blurred one and Stubbins Ffirth sprinted over it while chugging a bowl of vomit. Seriously.

Perhaps driven to insanity by his ridiculous name, trainee doctor Ffirth attempted to prove that Yellow Fever isn't contagious (Note: it actually is). His "experiments" were maniacal displays of filth, lack of self-respect and absolute depravity, so it's pity he lived a full two centuries before the invention of the internet.

Ffirth's great-great-granddaughter and her friend.

He subjected himself to possible infection by victims in every conceivable manner--and his brain could conceive manners that would make yours lock itself in the bathroom with a bucket of bleach.

He jammed infected patient vomit, blood and urine into every orifice. This includes several holes he cut in his arm, dripping pus from dying men into his eyes, and he rounded off a nice day of horrific self-mutilation with a filling lunch of fried puke.

Amazingly, these experiments neither got him locked up as a fucking lunatic nor infected him. Real scientists later found that this is because Yellow Fever is blood-borne, and that the late-stage (translation: dying) patients Stubbins was using as a smorgasbord were no longer very contagious.

Still, the odds of his not catching something are on par with playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun, but having it jam on a winning lottery ticket that just dropped out of the sky.

HEAF Tempts the Explosion Gods

The High Explosives Applications Facility, the single coolest-named facility in the entire world, decided to show off how precisely they could control their new metal-melting laser. Instead of shooting an apple off their least-favorite employee's head, they decided to demonstrate the laser's precision by cutting through the shell of a Stinger missile. Yes, the type that blow up. No, they didn't take out those explosive bits first.

That's the segment they lasered out of the shell, and that powder still attached is ammonium perchlorate which is practically chemical-ese for "goddamn explosive." Amazingly, this research was not unveiled on a huge television in front of the United Nations before demanding a million dollars--it's just what they do there. We can imagine the daily conversations of the staff:

"What are you doing today, honey?"

"Well, dear, we're going to fire a massively intense laser into the side of a live missile."

"Oh, that's nice, be sure to take your extra Ziploc bags in case you get blown into chunks. Remember what happened to Jenkins!"


Werner Forssmann Stabs His Own Damned Heart

In 1929, Werner Forssmann was a surgical trainee who wanted to learn about the heart. Unlike other wimpy doctors at the time, instead of learning about it from books or dead animals, he went for the more classic investigatory approach of "poke it with something."

Without any supervision, advice, or regard for that concept you call "survival," he cut a hole in his arm and pushed a catheter all the way up the limb and jammed it into his still-living heart.

A female nurse had volunteered for the procedure, and while he wouldn't risk anyone else (perhaps shouting "Dammit, it's too dangerous!"), he needed her to hand him the necessary surgical tools. So he laid her on the surgical table, gave her a painkiller, then performed the procedure on himself while she wasn't looking. That's right, this guy shoved two feet of cable into his own cardiac system as a sleight-of-hand trick, thereby permanently upstaging David Copperfield 27 years before he was even born.

He then walked--WALKED, mind you--with a tube hanging out of his fucking heart like some kind of price tag to the X-Ray room and presumably said "Hey guys, check out what I just did."

"I'm a very good doctor."

When another doctor desperately tried to pull the catheter out of him (perhaps shouting "Dammit, it's too dangerous!"), Werner had to kick him away because his hands were full with the cable running into his own heart. At this point it's clear that if a 10-man SWAT team composed entirely of Arnold Schwarzeneggers had attacked Forssman, he'd have beaten the life out of every single one, then performed lifesaving research on the corpses.

He was fired, probably for being tougher than everyone and everything else in the building (including the concrete foundations)--27 years later they gave him a Nobel Prize.

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Snowmen To Become The Next Endangered Species?

Since polar bears have been officially recognised as endangered, our attention turns to the next species perilously close to extinction - nivicolous hominis, known by children the world over as the common Snowman.

New research from Christoph Marty, a climatologist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Researchin Davos has shown a continuous and marked reduction in snow coverage at lower altitudes - indicating a critical loss of habitat for the common Snowman, normally found in gardens at an altitude of between 200 and 800 meters where the majority of Swiss children live.

The release of Marty’s research - based on records from 34 weather stations between 200 and 1,800 metres above sea level going back for at least 60 years - marks the first time that ’snow days’ at these altitudes have been investigated. The research suggests that with winter city temperatures currently hovering close to the melting point of snow we are on the verge of a tipping point, which could see snowmen wiped out forever.

Analysis of data from Italy, Austria, Germany and France shows similar patterns elsewhere in Europe.

More important, however, may be the impact of warming winters on tourism, particularly in some of the lower Swiss resorts which are already under pressure with winter snow coverage becoming more and more sparse every year.

There has so far been no official response from conservation groups, although some Snowmen have staged protests outside government buildings to raise awareness of their plight.

EcoWorldly will be monitoring reported sightings of the increasingly rare Snowman during the coming winter, and will continue to report our findings.

See also on Green Options: Bush Administration Seeks Endangered Species Status for the Elusive ‘Climate Skeptic’

Images from Wikipedia, published under a Creative Commons license. (Interestingly, the leading Wikipedia Image was taken about 100 meters from this writer’s house).

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Peru Guards Its Guano as Demand Soars Again

Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Workers collect guano on Isla Guañape off Peru, which conserves the resource to prevent depletion. Guano's status as an organic fertilizer has increased demand. More Photos »

ISLA DE ASIA, Peru — The worldwide boom in commodities has come to this: Even guano, the bird dung that was the focus of an imperialist scramble on the high seas in the 19th century, is in strong demand once again.

Surging prices for synthetic fertilizers and organic foods are shifting attention to guano, an organic fertilizer once found in abundance on this island and more than 20 others off the coast of Peru, where an exceptionally dry climate preserves the droppings of seabirds like the guanay cormorant and the Peruvian booby.

On the same islands where thousands of convicts, army deserters and Chinese indentured servants died collecting guano a century and a half ago, teams of Quechua-speaking laborers from the highlands now scrape the dung off the hard soil and place it on barges destined for the mainland.

“We are recovering some of the last guano remaining in Peru,” said Victor Ropón, 66, a supervisor from Ancash Province whose leathery skin reflects his years working on the guano islands since he was 17.

“There might be 10 years of supplies left, or perhaps 20, and then it will be completely exhausted,” said Mr. Ropón, referring to fears that the seabird population could be poised to fall sharply in the years ahead. It is a minor miracle that any guano at all is available here today, reflecting a century-old effort hailed by biologists as a rare example of sustainable exploitation of a resource once so coveted that the United States authorized its citizens to take possession of islands or keys where guano was found.

As a debate rages over whether global oil output has peaked, a parable may exist in the story of guano, with its seafaring treachery, the development of synthetic alternatives in Europe and a desperate effort here to prevent the deposits from being depleted.

“Before there was oil, there was guano, so of course we fought wars over it,” said Pablo Arriola, director of Proabonos, the state company that controls guano production, referring to conflicts like the Chincha Islands War, in which Peru prevented Spain from reasserting control over the guano islands. “Guano is a highly desirous enterprise.”

Guano is also an undeniably strenuous enterprise from the perspective of the laborers who migrate to the islands to collect the dung each year. In scenes reminiscent of open-pit gold mines on the mainland, the laborers rise before dawn to scrape the hardened guano with shovels and small pickaxes.

Many go barefoot, their feet and lower legs coated with guano by the time their shifts end in the early afternoon. Some wear handkerchiefs over their mouths and nostrils to avoid breathing in guano dust, which, fortunately, is almost odorless aside from a faint smell of ammonia.

“This is not an easy life, but it’s the one I chose,” said Bruno Sulca, 62, who oversees the loading of guano bags on barges at Isla Guañape, off the coast of northern Peru. Mr. Sulca and other workers earn about $600 a month, more than three times what manual laborers earn in the impoverished highlands.

Peru’s guano trade quixotically soldiers on after almost being wiped out by overexploitation. The dung will probably never be the focus of a boom as intense as the one in the 19th century, when deposits were 150 feet high, with export proceeds accounting for most of the national budget.

The guano on most islands, including Isla de Asia, south of the capital, Lima, now reaches less than a foot or so. But the guano that remains here is coveted when viewed in the context of the frenzy in Peru and abroad around synthetic fertilizers like urea, which has doubled in price to more than $600 a ton in the last year.

Guano in Peru sells for about $250 a ton while fetching $500 a ton when exported to France, Israel and the United States. While guano is less efficient than urea at releasing nitrates into the soil, its status as an organic fertilizer has increased demand, transforming it into a niche fertilizer sought around the world.

“Guano has the advantage of being chemical-free,” said Enrique Balmaceda, who cultivates organic mangoes in Piura, a province in northern Peru. “The problem is, there isn’t enough of it to meet demand with new crops like organic bananas competing for what’s available.”

That explains why Peru is so vigilant about preserving the remaining guano, an effort dating back a century to the creation of the Guano Administration Company, when Peru nationalized the islands, some of which were British-controlled, to stave off the industry’s extinction.

Since then, Peru’s government has restricted guano collection to about two islands a year, enabling the droppings to accumulate. Workers smooth slopes and build walls that retain the guano. Scientists even introduced lizards to hunt down ticks that infested the seabirds.

The guano administrators station armed guards at each of the islands to ward off threats to birds, which produce 12,000 to 15,000 tons of guano a year.

“The fishermen instigate the most mischief here,” said Rómulo Ybarra, 40, one of two guards stationed at Isla de Asia, which otherwise has no regular inhabitants. (The island has a tiny cabin called Casa del Chino, a reference to the Asian ancestry of former President Alberto K. Fujimori, who used to come here to unwind in solitude.)

“When the fishermen approach the island, their engines scare away the guanay,” Mr. Ybarra said, referring to the prized guanay cormorant. “And further out at sea, the fishing boats pursue the anchoveta, something we cannot control.”

The anchoveta, a six-inch fish in the anchovy family, is the main food of the seabirds who leave their droppings on these rainless islands. The biggest fear of Peru’s guano collectors is that commercial fishing fleets will deplete their stocks, which are increasingly wanted as fish meal for poultry and other animals as demand for meat products rises in Asia.

While the bird population has climbed to 4 million from 3.2 million in the past two years, that figure still pales in comparison with the 60 million birds at the height of the first guano rush. Faced with a dwindling anchoveta population, officials at Proabonos are considering halting exports of guano to ensure its supply to the domestic market.

Uriel de la Torre, a biologist who specializes in conserving the guanay cormorant and other seabirds, said that unless some measure emerged to prevent overfishing, both the anchovetas and the seabirds here could die off by 2030.

“It would be an inglorious conclusion to something that has survived wars and man’s other follies,” Mr. de la Torre said. “But that is the scenario we are facing: the end of guano.”

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Gas Prices Taking Effect: 11 Billion Fewer Miles Driven This March

It seems like high gas prices are finally having an affect on the US. For a while, people got by on the hope that prices were just in a spike, but with oil prices soaring above even the most cynical forecasts, it looks like expensive gas, and changed driving habits, are here to stay.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) just released their March, 2008 numbers, and they show a huge decline of 4.3% over last March. 4.3% might not seem like a whole lot, but just by looking at the above graph, you can see that any drop would be in huge contrast to the trend over the last 25 years.

2008 marks the first time since 1979 that there has been a drop in miles travelled in over the month of March. This drop corresponds to 11 billion less miles traveled, according to FHWA. Over the first quarter of 2008, greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector have also dropped 9 million metric tons compared to past years, something that no amount of political posturing has yet to accomplish.

As we come up on the most heavily travelled summer months and a national average price for unleaded gasoline about to pass the magic $4.00 mark, it will be interesting to see if this trend continues. When more data comes out, we’ll be sure to cover it. In the meantime, you can check out these breakdowns of miles travelled in both city and rural areas over the last 3 years:

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Algae Startups Confront Promise of Miracle Fuel With Big Summer

After years of hype as the mucky green grail of the oil crunch, algae is finally taking on its "impossible" hurdles to move from test tubes to barrels. With key players in this budding industry laying their bets on the winning biofuel formula, how long will it take before slime powers your life?
Researchers studying genetically modified superplants and algal cultures at the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawaii Authority soon will utilize the new "hybrid" tube-to-pond system currently being constructed by HR BioPetroleum. (Photography courtesy of Shell)

The fluorescent green mantle of biofuel savior has come to rest upon algae—slimily, sure, but for good reason. Algae grows in fresh water or salt water or sewage, rather than competing with food crops for land or resources. And algae actually sucks out the pollution from coal-fired power plants, with a theoretical yield of oil per acre that's hundreds of times greater than, say, corn.
But after all the hype—and there's been plenty of it—the fact remains that nobody has yet proven they can cheaply and reliably transform the stuff from a thick, green slurry to a finished fuel capable of making a dent in America's 870 million–gallon-per-day petroleum habit.

"I get a lot of people telling me that they've got thousands of gallons, but when I actually ask for a sample I can get maybe two," says Jennifer Holmgren, director of the UOP renewable energy and chemicals division, which is working to refine jet fuel from feedstocks that include algae.

"Google some of the numbers, and you've got people claiming that right now they're producing 35,000 gallons per acre per year, and they'll be producing 100,000 gallons—and that's just impossible," says Solix Biofuels lead scientist Bryan Wilson, a veritable grandfather with two successful years in the fledgling algae industry. "There's probably not more than a few barrels floating around right now."

Two years ago, there were less than a handful of companies chasing the next wave of so-called "pond scum" power. Today, there are dozens, many backed by big energy industry players such as Chevron and Shell. Last year, DARPA granted UOP $6.7 million to study how "second-generation" feedstocks, or nonfood crops, could turn into JP-8 jet fuel for U.S. Air Force and NATO fighters. Just this month, Airbus and JetBlue announced goals to replace 30 percent of jet fuel with second-gen biofuels by 2030. Air New Zealand and Dutch airline KLM have similar plans in the works.

All that's missing, for now, is all that oil they need to refine.

"It's frustrating for the outside world, but we've been learning how to do agriculture for about 5000 years, and we've been learning how to make oil from algae now for only a couple of years. So there's a lot of learning, and the curve is pretty steep," Wilson says. "This is probably going to be the first summer that you're getting anything more than just test tubes of oil produced."

This is algae's second coming. The first attempt, run by the U.S. government in the wake of the last oil crisis, was killed in 1996 by the Clinton administration while oil hovered around $20 per barrel. But even now, with record-high petroleum prices, algae stands in no position to compete, and hurdles remain at every stage of production.

Just choosing which kind of algae to start with is a herculean task. There are well over 100,000 species, each adapted to grow in different environments at different rates, and each capable of producing different amounts of oil—or none at all. The government collected more than 3000 different strains from all over the world in the 1980s, 300 of which were deemed promising. Today, many algal strains have been engineered into genetically modified superplants—the secret formulas of biofuel startups—but there is, as yet, no proven winner. Not to mention, there remains the small matter of how to make the algae flourish, how to cheaply dry several million gallons of subsequent slush, and how to get the oil out of minuscule cell walls and into the metaphorical barrel.

"It's not as easy as running a combine through a field of canola to get the seeds and crush them," says Michael Weaver, CEO of the Washington biofuels company Bionavitas. "For anybody who thinks that we can go from ‘Hey, let's look at algae,' to full-on fuel production in the period of the past three to five years, it's just never going to happen that way."

A number of pilot plants scheduled to come online in the next several months will likely give the most accurate glimpse of algae's future: how much oil it can produce, how soon and whether it will live up to its promise. GreenFuel, one of the oldest names in algae, already operates a pilot plant in Arizona, where it houses algae in large, clear plastic bags. Solix will break ground this summer on a new plant in Colorado, growing algae in what are essentially 230-ft.-long, 5-ft.-high freezer pops, suspended vertically in shallow pools; a smaller array, with eight 65-ft.-long bioreactors, has entered production in recent weeks. HR BioPetroleum, which signed a deal with Shell last year to produce biodiesel from algae, is currently building a pilot plant in Hawaii using a "hybrid system"—growth begins in long, clear, horizontal tubes before being dumped into open ponds to multiply further. Blitzing the ponds with algae for a short time has the advantage of rendering species invasion a nonissue, the company says.

"The jury is out on all of them—nobody has fully demonstrated that their system is going to be affordable and scalable, and be robust in terms of operations and maintenance and the ability to produce a large amount of oil routinely," says Ron Pate, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories who evaluated algal oil in conjunction with DARPA's jet fuel project last year. "There are a lot of naysayers out there, and that's fine. It's good to be skeptical. But at the same time, I think there's enough promise with algae that it needs to be given a better shot than what's been done in the past."

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Panda reserve mulls moving after quake damage

SHANGHAI, China (AP) -- The world's most famous panda reserve wants to find a new home after its current one was badly damaged by this month's deadly earthquake in China.

Two giant pandas sit together last week at the Wolong panda reserve in China's Sichuan province.

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"It's better to move, I think," Zhang Hemin, the chief of the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve, said by phone Thursday.

The Wolong reserve is just 20 miles from the epicenter of the May 12 quake, which has killed more than 68,000 people, including five reserve staff members.

One panda remains missing. Conditions remain so bad that the Chinese government last week arranged an emergency food shipment of about 5 tons of bamboo for the 47 pandas still at the reserve. Many panda enclosures were heavily damaged.

"What I'm worrying about are secondary disasters, such as severe aftershocks," Zhang said. "The road is easily blocked by rocks falling from the mountain. There would be no way to get the food in."

The reserve's location in a damp, narrow valley several hours' drive from the capital of Sichuan province put it in harm's way during the 7.9-magnitude quake, which tossed down boulders the size of cars. Most of the staffers, tourists and pandas were outside at the time.

According to an article by the only journalist at the reserve during the quake, Shanghai Morning Post's Wu Fei, some pandas froze and looked at the sky, not moving even when their handlers tried to get them going.

Other handlers picked up baby pandas by the scruff of their necks, one in each hand, and ran, Wu said in his article published May 18.

The on-the-spot rescue was complicated because some of the pandas were in what the Chinese call their "falling in love period," being particularly excitable and prone to attack, reserve researcher Heng Yi told Wu for the article.

Some pandas have been moved to another breeding center in the Sichuan capital, Chengdu, and eight were flown to Beijing last weekend for a previously scheduled six-month stay at the Beijing Zoo for the Olympics.

Meanwhile, any move of the Wolong reserve has to wait for a damage assessment by geologists, Zhang said.

Another panda reserve, China's largest, has been forced to cancel its patrols and annual panda census because of aftershocks and blocked roads, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.

"We've not been able to get into the heart of the forests to check if the giant pandas are OK," Huang Huali, deputy director of the Baishuijiang Nature Reserve Administration, told Xinhua.

The reserve is in Sichuan and neighboring Gansu province and is about 62 miles from the quake's epicenter.

The rare panda is a powerful symbol of China. About 1,590 pandas are living in the wild, mostly in Sichuan and the western province of Shaanxi. An additional 180 have been bred in captivity in hopes of increasing the species' chances of survival.

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Cost cuts still top of the heap as IT goes green

The avatar of IBM researcher Donna Dillenberger stands in a virtual environment designed to facilitate power management.

The avatar of IBM researcher Donna Dillenberger stands in a virtual environment designed to facilitate power management.

They haven't quite got round to installing composting toilets in the data centre yet but chief information officers are caring more about the environment these days.

Research firm IDC says instituting green IT policies and procedures ranks at number 21 in the list of challenges chief information officers will deal with in 2008.

It may seem low, but it's the first time the question was included in IDC's annual survey.

"There's a lot of noise and hype around being green that is driven by politics, but it does offer advantages for organisations, so a year from now I wouldn't be surprised if it was in the top 10," says Doug Casement, IDC New Zealand's IT management programme manager.

Being green means thinking about things like power consumption, encouraging staff to use the printer less, maybe outsourcing to data centres which can more efficiently provide computing resource.

The top challenge for chief information officers, as it seems to be every year, is cost reduction.

Developing effective business cases for IT investment has jumped from 10 to two, which Casement says reflects IT professionals becoming more business-focused than in the past.

"They're thinking about how to use IT to be a more effective organisation," he says.

It also may be why meeting user expectations dropped from four to nine in the list of challenges.

"It's not that CIOs don't care. It's because as they focus more on the business and the internal customers, they are doing a better job delivering what users want."

Migrating to new hardware and software platforms is a constant challenge for IT departments, as is keeping abreast of new technology.

Recruiting and retaining skilled staff has been a high priority for the past four years and comes in at number four.

An increasing part of keeping staff in a fast-changing technology environment is keeping their skills up to date. Reskilling and staff development moved up from 12 to seven.

The focus seems to be working. Turnover of IT staff dropped below 8 per cent for the first time since 2002.

Organising and using data, which dropped off the radar last year, is back to 10.

"For years, people have talked about business intelligence. We're now starting to see it happen in the real work," Casement says.

Tools to mine data are getting more affordable, and data warehousing and business intelligence was one of the main spending areas in 2007.

Other areas where dollars changed hands included video-conferencing and putting in voice-over-internet protocol.

That reflects the increased availability of bandwidth and the emergence of simpler management tools.

Money was also spent on service-oriented architecture, rethinking the way applications are developed by breaking business processes down into smaller modules or services which can be strung together more flexibly.

John Holley, the chief information officer for the Auckland Regional Council, says service-oriented architecture is a big push for his organisation.

"To do stuff quicker and smarter, we need to be agile," Holley says.

"The environment we are working in is changing. People are expecting almost unlimited choice. They expect personalisation and customisation."

That is going to mean making more information available through the parts of the council which face the public, such as its website and call centre, and making sure internal systems and data stores work well together.

It also means people having access to their data and applications from wherever they are, as long as they can get internet access.

Holley says it's still early days.

"We talk about connected government, so what sort of tools can I use to link things together?

"Service-oriented architecture says how I can link stuff."

He says the upgrade of the council's core SAP business system has exposed many of the services which previously could only be accessed by writing expensive interfaces.

"A lot of people have talked about service-oriented architecture, but now the big vendors like SAP, Oracle and IBM are delivering it," Holley says.

"We can now pull data out of SAP and link it to other systems."

Holley says the council is also taking the green message seriously and looking at steps like power use, recycling and reducing the organisation's carbon footprint.

There are limits, though.

"Unlike a lot of businesses, we really are 24-7 because we do civil defence," Holley says.

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Songstress Guzzles Millions of Gallons of Water a Year

Performing for years in the Vegas desert apparently hasn't taught diva Celine Dion much about water conservation.

celine dion house
Construction in front of Florida property owned by Celine Dion.
(David Spencer/Palm Beach Post/ZUMA)

Amid a worsening drought that's sucked Florida dry for the past two years, the pop legend used 6.5 million gallons of water last year at her home on Jupiter Island, Fla., according to a study done by the Palm Beach Post.

That's nearly 18,000 gallons of water a day, about 100 times more than the 170-gallons-per-day the average resident uses every day, according to the Florida-based U.S. Water Institute. Dion's annual water usage could fill more than 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

And she doesn't even live there.

A 9,800-square-foot home is under construction at the South Florida address. Dion's publicist did not return phone calls for comment.

Florida residents and national experts were appalled when Dion's high water use was reported in the Post.

"It's outrageous for an individual to be using that much water," said Wendy Graham, the director of the U.S. Water Institute. "Clearly, they either have a huge leak in their irrigation system or an outrageous landscaping regime."

For the past few years, according to Graham, Florida, along with much of the southeast United States, has experienced a water shortage due to increased population and record-low rainfall. In addition to causing a spike in water prices, the drought has created a tug of water in the northern part of Florida with neighboring Georgia, over water from Georgia's Lake Lanier.

"If we want to protect our ecosystem, we're certainly going to have to be more careful," Graham said. "Definitely, anything like 6 million gallons per year is way out there."

Half State's Water for Landscaping

South Florida has a whole host of water-related issues. With miles of wetlands, including the Everglades, to protect, conserving water is more important than ever, according to Drew Martin, the Lake Worth, Fla.-based conservation chair for the Sierra Club in South Florida.

Experts estimate that at least 50 percent of Florida's water is used for landscaping. Martin says consumers need to return to using native plants, instead of water-guzzling plants that are popular.

"One of the big problems is with landscaping and the way it's done," Martin said. "This all begins with the landscaping company."

Jupiter Island city officials, however, defended Dion's water use, saying that the songstress needed lots of vegetation to maintain her privacy.

"Irrigation accounts for the bulk of any homeowner's water use. Since they have larger properties with an abundance of vegetation -- ideal for ensuring privacy, which is of special importance to well-known personalities -- it looks like higher-than-usual water usage. In reality, per acre, it's only a little above average," said Shannon Dunne, director of utilities for South Martin Regional Utilities, which provides water for Jupiter Island.

The Sierra Club's Martin blames the South Florida Management Water District, which gives utility companies permits for water use, for extreme use like Dion's, which he calls "totally unnecessary."

"People are pretty much permitted to use as much water as they want. [The district] has allowed people to over-water," Martin said. "If someone like Celine Dion planted natural plants and used 'zeroscaping,' then she probably wouldn't need to use so much water. ... The state's basically going to run out of water because we do not restrict what people used in the first place."

City Says Restrictions Working

Water district spokesman Randy Smith says the district's current two-day-a-week water restrictions are helping to curb overall use.

"We've seen that to be a very effective program, and you can see that in the amount of water that's distributed," Smith said.

The district oversees how much water is allowed to be taken from water aquifers by utilities, but doesn't oversee individual use, like Dion's. Smith said the amount of water leaving aquifers has dropped under the restrictions, but he did not offer data to support that claim.

"People realize the finite resource that we're dealing with in water," he said. "We've had two years of a severe drought. You can physically see it in your lakes and your ponds. ... The same thing happens to the underground that happens to the surface water."

Smith also pointed out that, in the past, the restrictions have been even more severe than they are now.

"We're coming into what, historically, has been the rainy season," he said. "We're hoping that this year we'll get back to a more average rainfall."

Rising Water Bills?

But conservation may not be the only answer. Graham doesn't believe Florida will run out of water; instead, she thinks the state will have to learn how to manage water better, possibly through price.

"We haven't hit that point where the normal person's water bill even comes close to their cable bill or their Internet bill," she said. "Until that becomes a part of the monthly budget and a meaningful consequence [to water overuse], you won't see a lot of change unless it's part of a core belief."

But a multimillionaire, like Dion, is unlikely to be affected, Graham said.

Sanford Berg at the University of Florida Public Utilities Research Center is searching for the sweet spot that would be profitable for companies, while at the same time encourage consumers to better understand their impact on the water table.

"One of the worst things you could do would be to subsidize water, to keep the price of water artificially low, somehow," Berg said. "Most utilities have rate block structures; the unit price is greater the more you consume."

But that unit price markup is unlikely to be large enough to deter someone as wealthy as Dion, he said. "If I were the utility, I would increase the rate for someone who is using 6 million gallons of water," Berg said. "At some point, I would make that really expensive and if she wants to continue to have a tropical paradise and is willing to pay for it, that will allow the utility to invest in water conservation measures."

"At some point, Celine will get the message -- or her accountant will."

Barbara Paulsen contributed to this report.

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