Monday, June 9, 2008

E.T. Hunters Shift Gears

The Ecliptic
The Ecliptic

June 6, 2008 -- Scientists scouring the skies for radio waves from any extraterrestrial neighbors had an epiphany recently: Assume ET knows about us and wants to make contact.

Under that framework, the best place to look for cosmic neighbors would be around stars that lie more or less along lines of sight of Earth, a region known as the ecliptic, or the plane of Earth's orbit.

From this vantage point, an extraterrestrial civilization would be able to detect Earth as it passes in front of the sun, much the same way scientists on Earth have found planets circling stars beyond our solar system.

The ecliptic encompasses about 3 percent of the sky.

"Our team hopes this is a concept that should lead rapidly to the detection of other civilizations -- if they exist," Johns Hopkins University astronomer Richard Henry told reporters at the American Astronomical Society meeting this week in St. Louis, Mo.

"It's conceptual breakthrough," Henry said. "If the hypothesis is correct, they know Earth exists, and they know there is life on Earth."

Advanced civilizations would have the tools to make a chemical analysis of Earth's atmosphere, Henry said, which would reveal our planet's atmosphere is rich with water and oxygen.

"The inescapable implication is that Earth has life," he said.

Advocates of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, believe that advanced civilizations would spend the resources necessary to make contact with their cosmic neighbors, particularly those within relatively direct earshot.

"Knowing where to look tremendously reduces the amount of radio telescope time we will need to conduct the search," Henry said.

The California-base SETI Institute is building a dedicated array of telescopes to hunt for alien radio signals. Henry and his team want to use the observatory to comb stars in the plane of Earth's orbit.

The first 42 radio dishes of the Allen Telescope Array were activated in October. Upon completion, the array, which is located in Hat Creek, Calif., just north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, will have 350 dishes.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen provided the seed money for the project, which is built around commercially available, 20-foot diameter radio dishes and telecommunications equipment.

Combined, the network has a wide field of view that is ideal for rapid surveys of the sky. Partners in the project include the University of California at Berkeley, the National Science Foundation and several corporate and individual donors.

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Astronomy Picture of the Day

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

2008 June 8

Mars Soil Sample Ready to Analyze
Credit: Phoenix Mission Team, NASA, JPL-Caltech, U. Arizona

Explanation: What surprises are hidden in the soils of Mars? To help find out, the Phoenix Lander Phoenix Lander which arrived on Mars two weeks ago has attempted to place a scoop of soil in Phoenix's Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA). Pictured above, the dirt-filled scoop approaches one of TEGA's eight ovens. Once in the oven, a soil material will be baked and the emitted gasses categorized by a mass spectrometer. Quite possibly, some of the light colored material visible in the scoop has the same composition as the light material imaged near the foot of the Lander, which may be ice. Phoenix is scheduled to spend the next three months digging, baking and chemically analyzing its immediate surroundings to better understand Mars and whether the boundary between ice and soil was ever capable of supporting life.

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Mars dirt fails to reach lander's testing oven

PHOENIX, Arizona (AP) -- The first sample of Martian dirt dumped onto the opening of the Phoenix lander's tiny testing oven failed to reach the instrument, and scientists said Saturday that they will devote a few days to trying to determine the cause.


The Phoenix lander's robotic arm is poised to dump dirt into one of its eight ovens.

Photos released by the University of Arizona team overseeing the mission showed a scoopful of dirt sitting on and around the open oven door after being dumped by the craft's 8-foot robot arm. But none of it made it past a screen and into the tiny chamber, one of eight on the craft designed to heat soil and test gasses for signs of water or organic compounds that could be building blocks for life.

Nothing seems to be wrong with the dirt delivery by the lander's robot arm, said William Boynton of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is overseeing the oven experiments. The dirt landed properly, and instruments show that a vibrator on the screen designed to help shake soil into the chamber was working.

However, an electronic eye positioned to detect dirt falling into the chamber didn't report any particles.

"We think everything is working correctly, although we don't really know for sure," Boynton said Saturday. "We're a little bit concerned about this, but we have some other things to check out."

The teams overseeing the experiments plan to spend several days going over possible reasons for the apparent failure, Boynton said.

It could be that the dirt is too dense or compacted to make it past the screen, which is there to allow only small particles into the oven. Or, it could be that incorrect readings from the vibrator made it look like it was working when it was not.

Even if this oven turns out to be unusable, the seven other ovens would be available for the mission's primary experiments.

In the meantime, scientists will turn their attention to using the arm's backhoe-like arm to take close-up photos of the surface and do additional digging.

Phoenix landed in Mars' northern plains May 25 for a three-month mission. It is not a rover like some Mars missions, and its instruments cannot directly detect past or present life.

The $420 million mission is being overseen by the University of Arizona, with support from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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On the Origin of a Theory

Leafing through the mail at his home outside London one June day 150 years ago, Charles Darwin came across an envelope sent from an island in what is now part of Indonesia. The writer was a young acquaintance, Alfred Russel Wallace, who eked out a living as a biological collector, sending butterflies, bird skins and other specimens back to England. This time, Wallace had sent along a 20-page manuscript, requesting that Darwin show it to other members of the British scientific community.

As he read, Darwin saw with dawning horror that the author had arrived at the same evolutionary theory he had been working on, without publishing a word, for 20 years. "All my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed," he lamented in a note to his friend the geologist Charles Lyell. Darwin ventured that he would be "extremely glad now" to publish a brief account of his own lengthy manuscript, but that "I would far rather burn my whole book than that [Wallace] or any man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit."

The threat to his life's work could hardly have come at a worse moment. Darwin's daughter Etty, 14, was frighteningly ill with diphtheria. His 18-month-old son, Charles, would soon lie dead of scarlet fever. Lyell and another Darwin friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker, cobbled together a compromise, rushing both Darwin's and Wallace's works before a meeting of the Linnean Society a few days later, on July 1, 1858. The reading took place in a narrow, stuffy ballroom at Burlington House, just off Piccadilly Circus, and neither author was present. (Darwin was at his son's funeral; Wallace was in New Guinea.) Nor was there any discussion. The society's president went home muttering about the lack of any "striking discoveries" that year. And so began the greatest revolution in the history of science.

We call it Darwinism, for short. But in truth, it didn't start with Darwin, or with Wallace either, for that matter. Great ideas seldom arise in the romantic way we like to imagine—the bolt from the blue, the lone genius running through the streets crying, "Eureka!" Like evolution itself, science more often advances by small steps, with different lines converging on the same solution.

"The only novelty in my work is the attempt to explain how species become modified," Darwin later wrote. He did not mean to belittle his achievement. The how, backed up by an abundance of evidence, was crucial: nature throws up endless biological variations, and they either flourish or fade away in the face of disease, hunger, predation and other factors. Darwin's term for it was "natural selection"; Wallace called it the "struggle for existence." But we often act today as if Darwin invented the idea of evolution itself, including the theory that human beings developed from an ape ancestor. And Wallace we forget altogether.

In fact, scientists had been talking about our primate origins at least since 1699, after the London physician Edward Tyson dissected a chimpanzee and documented a disturbing likeness to human anatomy. And the idea of evolution had been around for generations.

In the 1770s, Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a physician and philosopher, publicly declared that different species had evolved from a common ancestor. He even had the motto "E conchis omnia" ("Everything from shells") painted on his carriage, prompting a local clergyman to lambaste him in verse:

Great wizard he! by magic spells
Can all things raise from cockle shells.

In the 1794 book of his two-volume Zoonomia, the elder Darwin ventured that over the course of "perhaps millions of ages...all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament," acquiring new traits and passing down improvements from generation to generation.

His contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge mocked this sort of evolutionary theory as "darwinizing." But it was by no means a family monopoly. Evolutionary questions confronted almost all naturalists of that era as expeditions to distant lands discovered a bewildering variety of plants and animals. Fossils were also turning up in the backyard, threatening the biblical account of Creation with evidence that some species had gone extinct and been supplanted by new species. The only way to make sense of these discoveries was to put similar species side by side and sort out the subtle differences. These comparisons led "transmutationists" to wonder if species might gradually evolve over time, instead of having a fixed, God-given form.

In 1801, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed that species could change in response to environmental conditions. Giraffes, for instance, had developed their fantastic necks to browse on the upper branches of trees. Lamarck mistakenly thought such traits could be acquired by one generation and passed on to the next. He is ridiculed, to this day, for suggesting that giraffes got their longer necks basically by wanting them (though the word he used, some scholars contend, is more accurately translated as "needing"). But his was the first real theory of evolution. If he had merely suggested that competition for treetop foliage could gradually put short-necked giraffes at a disadvantage, we might now be talking about Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian, evolution.

By the 1840s, evolutionary ideas had broken out of the scientific community and into heated public debate. The sensation of 1845 was the anonymous tract Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and it set both Darwin and Wallace on career paths that would converge in that fateful 1858 mail delivery. Vestiges deftly wove evolutionary ideas into a sweeping history of the cosmos, beginning in some primordial "fire-mist." The author, later revealed to be the Edinburgh journalist and publisher Robert Chambers, argued that humans had arisen from monkeys and apes, but he also appealed to ordinary readers with the uplifting message that evolution was about progress and improvement.

Vestiges quickly became a popular hit, a rose-tinted 2001: A Space Odyssey of its day. Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, and it was the talk of every gentlemen's club and social soiree, according to James A. Secord, author of Victorian Sensation. Jocular types greeted each other on the street with phrases like, "Well, son of a cabbage, whither art thou progressing?" Others took evolution more seriously. On a museum visit, Florence Nightingale noticed that small flightless birds of the modern genus Apteryx had vestigial wings like those of the giant moa, an extinct bird that had recently been discovered. One species ran into another, she remarked, much "as Vestiges would have it."

Clergymen railed from the pulpit against such thinking. But scientists, too, hated Vestiges for its loose speculation and careless use of facts. One indignant geologist set out to stamp "with an iron heel upon the head of the filthy abortion, and put an end to its crawlings." In Cambridge, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, an astronomer criticized the book's failure to explain how evolution might have occurred; Vestiges, in his view, was about as miraculous as the biblical account of Creation. (During this attack, the author, still anonymous, sat in the front row, probably trying not to squirm.) Even Darwin disliked what he called "that strange unphilosophical, but capitally-written book." He confided to a friend that the author's "geology strikes me as bad, & his zoology far worse."

Darwin had begun to develop his own theory of evolution seven years earlier, in 1838, while reading the demographer T. R. Malthus on factors limiting human population growth. It dawned on him that, among animals, hunger, predation and other "checks" on population could provide "a force like a hundred thousand wedges," thrusting out weaker individuals and creating gaps where better-adapted individuals could thrive. By 1844, he had expanded this idea into a manuscript of more than 200 pages.

But Vestiges heightened Darwin's characteristic caution. He hesitated to publish partly because radicals were taking up evolutionary theory as a way to undermine the idea of a divinely ordained social hierarchy. Darwin himself sat comfortably in the upper ranks of that hierarchy; he had inherited wealth, and his closest colleagues were other gentlemen naturalists, including the clergy. Admitting transmutationist beliefs in these circles, Darwin had written to his friend Hooker, would be like "confessing a murder." But beyond that, he also hesitated because the abuse being heaped onto Vestiges drove home the need for detailed evidence. Darwin, at age 37, backed away from theorizing and settled down to describing the minute differences within one invertebrate group: the barnacles. He would spend the next eight years at it, at some peril to his sanity.

Wallace was more receptive to Vestiges. He was just 22 when the controversy raged. He also came from a downwardly mobile family and had a penchant for progressive political causes. But Vestiges led him to the same conclusion about what needed to be done next. "I do not consider it as a hasty generalization," Wallace wrote to a friend, "but rather as an ingenious speculation" in need of more facts and further research. Later he added, "I begin to feel rather dissatisfied with a mere local collection.... I should like to take some one family to study thoroughly—principally with a view to the theory of the origin of species." In April 1848, having saved £100 from his wages as a railroad surveyor, he and a fellow collector sailed for the Amazon. From then on, Wallace and Darwin were asking the same fundamental questions.

Ideas that seem obvious in retrospect are anything but in real life. As Wallace collected on both sides of the Amazon, he began to think about the distribution of species and whether geographic barriers, such as a river, could be a key to their formation. Traveling on HMS Beagle as a young naturalist, Darwin had also wondered about species distribution in the Galápagos Islands. But pinning down the details was tedious work. As he sorted through the barnacles of the world in 1850, Darwin muttered darkly about "this confounded variation." Two years later, still tangled up in taxonomic minutiae, he exclaimed, "I hate a Barnacle as no man ever did before."

Wallace was returning from the Amazon in 1852, after four years of hard collecting, when his ship caught fire and sank, taking down drawings, notes, journals and what he told a friend were "hundreds of new and beautiful species." But Wallace was as optimistic as Darwin was cautious, and soon headed off on another collecting expedition, to the islands of Southeast Asia. In 1856, he published his first paper on evolution, focusing on the island distribution of closely related species—but leaving out the critical issue of how one species might have evolved from its neighbors. Alarmed, Darwin's friends urged him to get on with his book.

By now, the two men were corresponding. Wallace sent specimens; Darwin replied with encouragement. He also gently warned Wallace off: "This summer will make the 20th year (!) since I opened my first-note-book" on the species question, he wrote, adding that it might take two more years to go to press. Events threatened to bypass them both. In England, a furious debate erupted about whether there were significant structural differences between the brains of humans and gorillas, a species discovered by science only ten years earlier. Other researchers had lately found the fossil remains of brutal-looking humans, the Neanderthals, in Europe itself.

Eight thousand miles away, on an island called Gilolo, Wallace spent much of February 1858 wrapped in blankets against the alternating hot and cold fits of malaria. He passed the time mulling over the species question, and one day, the same book that had inspired Darwin came to mind—Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population. "It occurred to me to ask the question, Why do some die and some live?" he later recalled. Thinking about how the healthiest individuals survive disease, and the strongest or swiftest escape from predators, "it suddenly flashed upon every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain—that is, the fittest would survive." Over the next three days, literally in a fever, he wrote out the idea and posted it to Darwin.

Less than two years later, on November 22, 1859, Darwin published his great work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, and the unthinkable—that man was descended from beasts—became more than thinkable. Darwin didn't just supply the how of evolution; his painstaking work on barnacles and other species made the idea plausible. Characteristically, Darwin gave credit to Wallace, and also to Malthus, Lamarck and even the anonymous "Mr. Vestiges." Reading the book, which Darwin sent to him in New Guinea, Wallace was plainly thrilled: "Mr. Darwin has given the world a new science, and his name should, in my opinion, stand above that of every philosopher of ancient or modern times."

Wallace seems to have felt no twinge of envy or possessiveness about the idea that would bring Darwin such renown. Alfred Russel Wallace had made the postman knock, and that was apparently enough.

Richard Conniff is a longtime contributor to Smithsonian and the author of The Ape in the Corner Office.

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Experimental Drug Makes the Immune System Revolt Against Cancer

A biotech company, founded by researchers from the University of Munich, has developed a fascinating way to make the immune system fight cancer.

On Thursday, Micromet Inc. announced that its experimental drug, MT103, had impressive results in a test upon seven Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma patients. All of them had failed at least three conventional treatments, but showed signs of recovery after receiving doses of a two-headed antibody.

BiTE antibodies, or bispecific T cell engagers, are highly-engineered biological molecules with sticky ends. One side can cling to CD19, a protein found on cancerous B cells, and the other half can grab onto CD3, which is found on cytotoxic T cells. By momentarily drawing those cells together, the drug can coax the cytotoxic T cells into fighting the disease.

Training the immune system to fight cancer may be one of the best ways to keep it from coming back after several rounds of standard treatment. In most cases, surgery and radiation cannot get rid of every last cancer cell. Traditional chemotherapy may halt the growth of tumors, but it will not finish them off. Even after the best treatments, clusters of cancerous or pre-cancerous cells, called micrometastases, often drift around in the body and lodge themselves into vital organs.

To eliminate those lingering killers, many researchers have turned to cancer vaccines, which can convince the body to hunt down stray cancer cells and destroy them when they flare up. BiTE antibodies are another way to harness the defensive power of our immune systems.

When I spoke to Christian Itlin, CEO of Micromet, he said that many blockbuster cancer drugs are made from antibodies, and there is some evidence that they work by stirring up the immune system -- even though that is not how they were meant to operate. His company does intentionally what others have done accidentally -- making drugs that train the body to viciously attack cancer. In theory, their strategy could be used to combat many varieties of the deadly disease, but their treatment for lymphoma happens to be furthest along in the pipeline.

Since this was a very early trial, which was meant meant to assess the safety rather than effectiveness of the new drug, the good news should be a source of cautious optimism. Three more clinical trials of the BiTE antibody are starting in Germany. Two are for lymphoma. The newest one is meant to attack colorectal, gastrointestinal, and lung cancer.

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Harnessing the Weather

Could new technology help humans eliminate "acts of God"?

by Donovan Webster
NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

Not far from the Dead Dog Saloon, behind a body shop on the main street of Grantsville, Utah, stands a rusting, four-foot-tall metal box. The box sits atop a tank of gaseous silver iodide that, when fired up, sends a plume downwind toward the nearby Oquirrh Mountains. Once carried up on the wind, each silver iodide crystal forms a core, or nucleus, around which water droplets collect. Since silver iodide has a crystalline structure similar to that of ice, it allows the tiny water droplets to coalesce until they are big and heavy enough to fall out of the sky, ultimately increasing snowfall between 10 and 15 percent a year. That’s more water for later release across the state’s thirsty desert during spring and baking summer, more water for irrigation, livestock, human consumption, and sports. It means millions of dollars in water-related revenues for the state’s economy every year.

The Utah cloud-seeding effort comes courtesy of North American Weather Consultants, America’s oldest weather modification company, located in an upscale office park in nearby Sandy, Utah. Founded in the 1950s, the group is currently run by two solid-citizen scientists with commercial aims, Don Griffith and Mark Solak, who have spent their careers working in privately funded weather modification efforts around the country and the world.

In Colorado they seeded the Gunnison River drainage, a series of reservoirs and dams in the west of the state. In California they run seeding programs for the Santa Barbara County Water Agency, a group that says the effort may increase rain in target areas up to 20 percent a year.

In reality, cloud seeding is pretty low tech: A tank of silver iodide is topped by a burner and surrounded by a perforated-metal wind arrester. The whole contraption is hooked to a tank of propane to provide the flame and warmth that lifts the silver iodide into the atmosphere. ”We’ve got lots of cloud-seeding units in mountainous areas all around Utah,” Solak says. When wind, temperature, and humidity are just right, the company calls local residents, who are paid a fee to go out and turn on a cloud-seeding unit, sending a plume of silver iodide downwind. Why an array of cloud seeders? Although a single plume cannot change the world, a group of such seeders, each responsible for a small shift in precip­itation, can often tilt the balance locally, driving rainfall or decreasing the intensity of storms.

“In weather modification, the uniniti­ated think you must make huge impacts on the atmosphere to get a desired result,” Griffith says. “But it’s actually the opposite. If we just make tiny modifications to existing conditions, little touches here and there, the changes then cascade upward using the existing weather’s natural actions, and that’s what gets the biggest results.”

While coaxing more rain or snow seems a modest achievement, projects on the drawing board might revolutionize our relationship with the elements and eliminate those tragic, weather-based “acts of God.” Imagine the ability to steer hurricanes offshore or shatter twisters, to prevent drought and heat waves, and to stop that worst of all nightmares—the melting of the polar ice caps and the flooding of coastal cities as the planet warms. The insight from weather modification’s old guard—that tiny changes can engender profound atmospheric shifts—has been embraced by more recent, cutting-edge investigators, those conceiving weather-changing satellites and using physics theories to invent a climate of choice.

“Weather systems are large, and our inputs as humans are so small you’d think we’d have no influence at all,” says Ross N. Hoffman, chief scientist and vice president of research and development at Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Yet with the help of new, highly nuanced computer models, Hoffman is working to alter weather based on tiny tweaks in the chaotic motion of air. Already he has shown, at least on the computer screen, that small changes in wind and air temperature—in fact, no more than 3 to 5 degrees—could have redirected hurricane Iniki away from landfall in 1992 and reduced the strength of hurricane Andrew that same year. His colleagues hope to obliterate tornadoes and eliminate the scourge of drought using everything from lasers to tiny, solar-powered satellites orbiting Earth.

Efforts to change the weather seem more important than ever in this age of extremes, from killer hurricanes to furious nor’easters to ravaging floods. In 2007 alone, summer flooding in Great Britain cost that nation nearly $6 billion, while torrential rains in China displaced more than 500,000 people, with losses to property and crops in excess of $1 billion. And anyone considering recent weather has to recall the disastrous 2005 hurricane season, which birthed Katrina, Rita, and Wilma and cost the United States not only 2,280 lives but nearly $140 billion in losses. Three years later, from Biloxi to New Orleans to Houston, that destruction is still being repaired. According to the National Weather Service, the past decade was both the hottest and among the most meteorologically violent since the agency began keeping records.

When you consider that some of the most extreme weather has been driven by humans—that we have already been changing the weather, and in a negative way—the impetus to set things right makes particular sense. Our mechanized, urbanized, industrial society has burned so much fossil fuel that we have overburdened the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, pushing the earth’s elements out of balance. The greenhouse effect may be linked to hurricanes in summer and brutal storms in winter. If we cannot change the weather back, the melting of the ice caps, the flooding of our cities, and the destruction of crops may be next. If we have indeed wrecked the weather, perhaps we can set it right again.

NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

Changing the weather has been a scientific quest since the 16th century, when rogue intellectual Leonardo da Vinci asked the city fathers of Verona to shoot cannon­balls skyward to halt the hail. But it wasn’t until after World War II, at the improbable site of the General Electric Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, that a plan went into effect. In the beginning, a team that included atmo­spheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut (brother of novelist Kurt) sent up a plane and released dry ice into clouds on four days during November and December 1946. Whether by coincidence or through actual impact, the last day of seeding saw the heaviest snowfall of the winter around Schenectady. Vonnegut went on to invent what amounted to a nucleating machine: He dissolved silver iodide in acetone, sprayed the solution through a nozzle to make droplets, and then literally burned the droplets, producing trillions of nuclei; under the right conditions, each could form the core of a drop of water or flake of snow. But General Electric, wary of potential lawsuits, gradually moved away from direct involvement in weather research.

By the 1960s the U.S. military had taken the reins. Its effort, called Project StormFury, aimed to weaken hurricanes by seeding their upper reaches with silver iodide crystals, nucleating agents that would increase the amount of ice swirling around in the storm. The idea was that as water became ice, it would release heat. The heat, in turn, would widen the eye of the storm and decrease the strength of its winds.

Unfortunately, StormFury’s statistical findings were ambiguous. While human manipulations did sometimes seem to weaken hurricanes, test flights into the storms never provided proof. “What we didn’t know at the time,” says Charles Hosler, professor emeritus of meteorology at Penn State University and former StormFury panel chairman, “is that measuring the forces inside hurricanes is far more complex than what was possible with the equipment of the time.”

The shuttering of StormFury in 1983 signaled a new age of skepticism and the end of major federal funding for weather-control research. Indeed, while many practitioners pointed to statistical evidence suggesting their techniques worked, it was usually impossible to prove it; one could never precisely predict what would have happened had the intervention not taken place. Amid such doubt, the federal government backed off, and weather modification became the province of private companies and local municipalities.

Some of these efforts have thrived. Less than an hour’s drive from Grantsville is one of the most successful and scientifically validated weather-modification operations in the world. The wizard behind the curtain is Richard Blair, CEO and chief bottle washer of Barken Fog Ops, a fog-abatement company in Salt Lake City. The company’s mission: to expunge the crippling cold fogs at Salt Lake City International, which would otherwise shut the airport down. The fogs visit from October to March, anytime a stubborn pool of cold air settles across the Salt Lake Valley between the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains. Whenever a front of warmer air sweeps over the frigid pool, the result is a fog that hovers roughly 1,000 feet aboveground, socking the airport in.

The first, tiny effort to deal with the problem took place decades ago, when pilots distributed buckets of ice over the fog. As the mix fell, it interacted with suspended water vapor, clearing the fog every time.

Today, working out of a civilian hangar, Blair can be found directing flights most mornings from October through February. Fog Ops has an agreement with Salt Lake City International through its largest operator, Delta Airlines, to banish the fog.

It’s not uncommon for Blair to get a 2 a.m. telephone call asking, “Can you stand by?” By 5 a.m. Blair and his crew—a pilot, a grinder, and a man with a bucket to fill the grinder’s hopper—are ready. As the warm upper atmosphere gains heat under the rising sun, the fog grows ever denser, and Blair’s team heads off to work. They load six insulated boxes of dry ice crystals into the company’s twin-engine Piper Chieftain and fly just above the fog, blanketing the runways.

“We’re usually flying up in the sunshine, just above the fog,” Blair says. “As the aircraft makes a turn you can see a little glint coming from down below as the first ice crystals begin to form. Then a hole opens up in the fog.” Occasionally, Blair says, the atmosphere will become so saturated with supercooled water molecules that the effort kicks off a four-hour snowstorm.

Despite unintended snow, the effort is a raging success. In the end the airlines pay Fog Ops less than $1 in fees for each plane that lands at Salt Lake City International. (They also pay a seasonal retainer.) With some 450 planes arriving daily, and potential losses of $50,000 to $900,000—depending on the particulars of the flight —for each plane that can’t get in or out, the value of fog abatement is staggering. Relatively small payments to Fog Ops provide carriers with the assurance that flights will run regularly and on time.

About 800 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, in the wide-open plains of western North Dakota, hail suppression is the goal. Hail forms inside powerful thunderstorms, often when warm, moist air rises rapidly in the atmosphere. In the Dakotas, these storms can have devastating effects on crops. For more than 30 years, the state of North Dakota has been seeding clouds with silver iodide both to abate the hail and to create rain. “We have eight aircraft standing ready,” says Darin Langerud, director of the North Dakota State Water Commission’s atmospheric research board, “and when conditions are right to promote rain or to suppress hail, they go up.”

“The hail suppression program is one of our great successes,” Langerud says. “We know this because we’ve worked with crop insurance companies for statistics. We compared virtually identical seeded and nonseeded areas of farmland, and the area where the seeding had been done showed a 45 percent lower incidence of hail-damage claims. We’re not saying that hail didn’t fall, but it fell in smaller pieces, which ultimately did less crop damage on the ground.”

It is one thing to increase rainfall or reduce the size of hailstones. But when it comes to controlling truly huge, complex, chaotic events like hurricanes and tornadoes, the fix remains theoretical. At least for now, the testing ground is a computer simulation or often just the space inside a physicist’s head.

“With powerful weather forces like hurricanes and tornadoes,” Ross Hoffman of AER says, “the biggest impediment to learning more about them and their structure is that you often can’t get good observations, since the conditions are just too extreme. In many cases the weather you’re hoping to measure renders your instruments unreliable near the event’s peak activity, just when you need them to measure best.” Still, those obstacles haven’t stopped Hoffman and others from hypothesizing how such systems might be modified and then simulating the fix on a computer screen.

Hurricanes, the largest and most damaging weather events, peak in late autumn, when winds coming off the coast of West Africa meet thunderstorms clustered over the warm tropical ocean. The resulting disturbance can form a self-sustaining low-pressure vortex, or what is called a tropical depression; as the system intensifies it becomes a tropical storm. Then, if the winds of this self-sustaining system top 75 miles an hour, it earns a new name: hurricane. In the end, the greater the difference between the temperature of the sea and that of the upper atmosphere, the more powerful the storm.

After studying this dynamic, Hoffman suggested a scheme to weaken a hurricane or shift its path by heating and cooling the atmosphere in complex patterns. While his plan would, theoretically, help tame the weather, we have no reliable way to heat or cool the atmosphere over large enough areas to move a massive storm. “So today,” Hoffman says, “while I can demonstrate that steering a hurricane is possible using computer simulations, we still don’t have a practical way to do it.”

Another hurricane-moderating hy­­poth­­esis, this one advanced by Daniel Rosenfeld of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and William Woodley, an independent weather-modification researcher based in Colorado, holds that seeding a hurricane’s lower reaches with microscopic dust particles—perhaps microbits of salt—would generate minute water droplets by giving the vapor something to attach to. The droplets would eventually be carried into the storm’s higher altitude, cooling the hurricane through evaporation in the same manner that sweat cools human skin. As the droplets evaporated, they would cool the air in the lower levels of the storm, diminishing its intensity. “Our simulations show that this would be the outcome,” Woodley says.

Even as enhanced computer modeling and more precise measurement bring control of extreme weather closer, those pushing the envelope find themselves facing the same hurdle as Bernard Vonnegut and his colleagues at General Electric half a century ago: the risk of getting sued.

“So here we are, back to weather modification’s critical issue,” says Michael Garstang, distinguished research professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. “If you cannot predict very precisely what would have happened with, say, a hurricane before you began manipulating it, you’ve left yourself wide open to litigation. There’s just too big an opportunity for people to say: ‘You created this. You made it worse.’”

Charles Hosler agrees. “That’s exactly why there will never be large-scale weather modification or weather control in America. All weather is good for somebody and bad for somebody else.” When altered weather causes a problem for people, he contends, those people are likely to sue.

On this subject Hosler speaks from experience. Along with colleagues, he was once sued by a sightseer riding a ski lift. After the lift’s motor was hit and halted by lightning, the man jumped rather than wait for rescuers; on landing, he broke his leg. Then he discovered that Hosler and his team had been studying thunderclouds nearby. Soon all parties were involved in a lawsuit that was eventually tossed out of court.

Hosler recalls another colleague, this one working in hail abatement research in Pennsylvania, who ran afoul of local fruit farmers who worried that the effort might cause a drought and ruin their livelihood. They reacted by shooting bullets into the sky, hitting a plane flown by student pilots. “People, they get really emotional about their weather,” Hosler says.

If getting sued over a little lightning has some scientists in a tizzy, imagine the risk for those who seek to change the climate in a major way. Nevertheless, some mavericks feel we have no choice as we deal with global warming. Astrophysicist Gregory Benford of the University of California at Irvine, for instance, suggests dispersing tiny particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from us.

And then there’s Roger Angel, an astronomer and optical scientist at the University of Arizona who, working under a NASA grant, seeks to launch trillions of two-foot-wide disks of transparent film into orbit around Earth, a million miles up. The disks, each 250 nanometers thick and tended by “sheepdog” spacecraft to keep them in place, would shade us just enough to reduce sunlight by roughly 2 percent, cooling the planet back to preindustrial temperatures and perhaps moderating some of the destructive weather we have had in recent years.

“I estimate that the program would take 20 years and cost about $5 trillion,” Angel says. But what if, once shaded, Earth begins to overcool? Angel has a contingency there. “Over time, these disks will want to drift out of orbit. We could make it so they stayed in place for only so long.”

On the 8th of August, 91,000 people will be sitting in an open-air stadium in Beijing for the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics. With thousands of athletes in competition and millions of people watching the event on television, the last thing the Chinese government wants is a rainstorm to spoil this well-planned spectacle.

Tinkering with the weather is old hat for the Chinese, who have employed various cloud-busting techniques to trigger rainfall in their drought-plagued northern provinces, an area that includes Beijing, since the 1950s. For the Olympics, the world’s largest weather modification bureau will set up several banks of rocket launchers outside the city to blast threatening clouds with silver iodide and force them to release their rain before it reaches the Olympic stadium. The bureau has also been practicing a less well-honed strategy that involves overseeding the clouds to actually prevent rainfall; this technique increases the number of ice crystals in a cloud but decreases their mean size, which makes them less likely to fall as rain.

“None of these techniques is a proven technology,” says Roelof Bruintjes, an expert in weather modification at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. “I am very skeptical of their having any chance of success.” Of course, the Chinese know full well that weather control is still more art than science. They are just hoping to beat the odds, which, according to historical records, call for a 50 percent chance of rain sometime during the events.

When the wrong weather hits the wrong region at the wrong time, the human and economic consequences can be devastating. Here is a list of the most costly events in recent times:

- Hurricane Mitch, an unusually slow-moving storm, ambled into Central America in 1998 and dumped almost six feet of rain, primarily on Honduras and Nicaragua. The combination of ferocious winds, heavy rainfall, flooding, and mud slides added up to more than 10,000 deaths, millions left homeless, and more than $5 billion in damage.

- The European heat wave of 2003 is estimated to have cost 35,000 to 50,000 lives, and its accompanying drought brought notable crop shortfalls. It is worth remembering, however, that drought in one part of a country is sometimes balanced by excess rain elsewhere.

Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, is in a class by itself: In addition to the loss of life, it caused $40 billion in insurance losses. Thirty oil platforms and nine refineries were destroyed or forced to shut down, and tens of thousands of jobs were lost. Some estimates place the eventual total cost of the disaster at $200 billion.

- The Australian drought of 2006–2007 sliced about 1 percent off the country’s total economic output over the last few years, at the same time reducing wheat production and devastating farm incomes.

Carl Brenner

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The cheesy secret behind successful decision making


Tryptophan is present in several foods - and cheese is a particularly good source

t may look like an ordinary cheese sandwich – but it could contain the vital ingredient that helps you successfully negotiate that pay rise.

Scientists have found that people with high levels of the brain chemical serotonin are more likely to succeed in delicate negotiations affecting their own interests. Serotonin is manufactured in the body from the amino acid, tryptophan, which is present in several foods – and cheese is a particularly good source.

Eating a cheese sandwich before entering the boss's office could therefore give your brain that vital edge.

Psychologists at the University of Cambridge who manipulated the diets of volunteers to alter their serotonin levels found that when the levels of the brain chemical were low the volunteers were more likely to allow emotion to rule their heads and make decisions that harmed their long-term interests.

But when the levels of serotonin were high they behaved in a more rational, level-headed fashion, putting their own material advancement ahead of the short-term satisfaction of telling their boss exactly what they thought of them.

It is one of the first studies to demonstrate the role of serotonin in regulating emotion and aggression in social decision making. The findings help explain why some people tend to over-react to a perceived unfairness, becoming angry and combative, when they haven't eaten.

People with short fuses have traditionally blamed a shortage of calories – "low blood sugar" – for their bad temper. But the Cambridge psychologists say fluctuations in serotonin levels have more subtle effects.

To test the theory, the researchers manipulated serotonin levels in 20 volunteers aged from 20 to 35.

The volunteers were asked to fast overnight before being given a protein-rich drink in the morning, followed some four hours later (once it was digested), with a request to participate in a financial negotiation called the Ultimatum Game. All the volunteers participated twice – once receiving a shake with tryptophan removed and once receiving a normal, tryptophan-rich shake.

The game, which has been used for decades in studies of economic behaviour, involves one player proposing to split a sum of money, say £10, with a partner. If the partner accepts, both players receive their agreed shares but if the partner rejects the offer, neither player is paid.

Normally players tend to reject about half of all offers of less than £2.50 (25 per cent of the total stake), even though this means they receive nothing, because their anger at the perceived unfairness outweighs their interest in the cash.

But among players with low serotonin who had received the tryptophan-free shake, the rejection rate rose to 80 per cent.

Molly Crockett, of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, who led the study published in Science Express, said: "The Ultimatum Game is a favourite of economists to show that human decisio making is not rational. If it were rational we would accept every offer, even those that are really unfair, but that is not what happens."

She concluded: "Our results suggest serotonin plays a critical role in social decision making by keeping aggressive social responses in check. Changes in diet and stress cause our serotonin levels to fluctuate naturally, so it is important to understand how this might affect our everyday decision making."

How to get serotonin in your diet

Serotonin is manufactured in the body from the amino acid tryptophan, which is present in most protein-based foods. High levels of tryptophan are found in cheese, meat, soya beans, sesame seeds, chocolate, oats, bananas, dried dates, milk and salmon.

Turkey is reputed to contain high quantities of the amino acid, which is said to account for the air of contentment that reigns immediately after Christmas dinner. But analysis shows that turkey contains only marginally more than chicken, pork or beef – and somewhat less than cheese.

Tryptophan is sold in healthfood stores as a dietary supplement that is claimed to act as "nature's tranquilliser", boosting serotonin levels and making us happier, calmer and less stressed. Its sleep-inducing properties are, however, more likely to be linked with the quantity of food eaten than the amount of tryptophan it contains – as the near-universal urge to snooze after a large meal confirms.

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Novel bacterial species found trapped in Greenland's ice

Todd Sowers of Penn State uses a band saw to cut samples of ice core for analysis.
Todd Sowers

Todd Sowers of Penn State uses a band saw to cut samples of ice core for analysis.

A team of Penn State scientists has discovered a new ultra-small species of bacteria that has survived for more than 120,000 years within the ice of a Greenland glacier at a depth of nearly two miles. The microorganism's ability to persist in this low-temperature, high-pressure, reduced-oxygen and nutrient-poor habitat makes it particularly useful for studying how life, in general, can survive in a variety of extreme environments on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the solar system.

The work will be presented by Jennifer Loveland-Curtze, a senior research associate in the laboratory led by Jean Brenchley, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State, at 10:30 a.m. June 3 at the 108th American Society for Microbiology General Meeting in Boston. (Extreme Environments-I, poster N-156).

This new species is among the ubiquitous, yet mysterious, ultra-small bacteria, which are so tiny that the cells are able to pass through microbiological filters. In fact, some species have been found living in the ultra-purified water used for dialysis. "Ultra-small cells could be unknown contaminants in media and medical solutions that are thought to have been sterilized using filters," said Loveland-Curtze.

The ultra-small size of the new species could be one explanation for why it was able to survive for so long in the Greenland glacier. Called Chryseobacterium greenlandensis, the species is related genetically to certain bacteria found in fish, marine mud and the roots of some plants. The organism is one of only about 10 scientifically described new species originating from polar ice and glaciers.

To study the bacterium in the laboratory, the research team, which also includes Senior Research Associate Vanya Miteva, filtered the cells from melted ice and incubated them in the cold in low-nutrient, oxygen-free solutions. The scientists then characterized the genetic, physiological, biochemical and structural features of the species. The team hopes that its studies of this species, as well as others living in the Greenland glacier, will reveal more about how cells survive and how they may alter their biochemistry and physiology over time.

"Microbes comprise up to one-third or more of the Earth's biomass, yet fewer than 8,000 microbes have been described out of the approximately 3,000,000 that are presumed to exist," said Loveland-Curtze. "The description of this one species is a significant step in the overall endeavor to discover, cultivate and use the special features held by these organisms."

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Energy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Scientists find 245 million-year-old burrows of land vertebrates in Antarctica

Cara Fritz/Oregon State University Christian Sidor digs for tetrapod fossils in Allan Hills, part of the southern Victoria Land area of Antarctica, during field work in January 2006.

For the first time paleontologists have found fossilized burrows of tetrapods -- any land vertebrates with four legs or leglike appendages -- in Antarctica dating from the Early Triassic epoch, about 245 million years ago.

The fossils were created when fine sand from an overflowing river poured into the animals' burrows and hardened into casts of the open spaces. The largest preserved piece is about 14 inches long, 6 inches wide and 3 inches deep. No animal remains were found inside the burrow casts, but the hardened sediment in each burrow preserved a track made as the animals entered and exited.

In addition, scratch marks from the animals' initial excavation were apparent in some places, said Christian Sidor, a University of Washington assistant professor of biology and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the UW.

"We've got good evidence that these burrows were made by land-dwelling animals rather than crayfish," said Sidor, who is lead author of a paper describing the find, which is being published in the June edition of The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Co-authors are Molly Miller, a geology professor at Vanderbilt University, and John Isbell, a geosciences professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Fossils of tetrapod bones from later in the Triassic period have been found in a section of Antarctica called Victoria Land, but the fossil burrows predate those bone fossils by at least 15 million years, Sidor said.

The fossilized burrows were collected in 2003 and 2005-06 from the Fremouw Formation at Wahl Glacier and from the Lashly Formation at Allan Hills, both toward the outer edges of Antarctica.

Despite the absence of fossil bones, the burrows' relatively small size prompted Sidor to speculate that their owners might have been small lizardlike reptiles called Procolophonids or an early mammal relative called Thrinaxodon.

Burrows, some containing tetrapod bones, have previously been excavated in South Africa, which is considered to be perhaps the world's richest fossil depository, and those burrows are nearly identical to the fossils unearthed in Antarctica. During the Triassic period, Antarctica and South Africa were connected as part of a supercontinent called Pangea.

Because even at that time Antarctica was substantially colder than South Africa, and because sea levels likely were higher than today, it is much rarer to find fossils there that date from as far back as the Early Triassic.

"Everywhere has a spotty fossil record, but Antarctica has an extremely spotty fossil record because it is difficult finding exposed rocks amid all the ice," Sidor said.

At the time the burrows were dug, Antarctica would have been ice free. However temperatures still would have been quite cold, since both areas where the burrows were found are within the Antarctic Circle and so experience at least one day a year of complete darkness.

"We have documented that tetrapods were burrowing, making dens in Antarctica, back in the Triassic," Sidor said. "There are lots of good reasons for burrowing at high latitudes, not the least of which is protection from the elements."


For more information, contact Sidor at (206) 221-3285, (206) 221-4181 or; or Miller at (615) 322-3528 or; or Isbell at (414) 229-2877 or

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USDA Says Ethanol Accounts for Only 3% of Increased Cost of Food

USDA biofuels briefing, Ed SchaferOn Monday, USDA officials met with reporters to discuss just how closely biofuels (specifically corn-based ethanol) are linked to the increasing price of food. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who has vehemently defended biofuels before, had this to say:

One theory that has been widely discussed in recent weeks is that the nation’s growing demand for biofuels and the crops needed to produce them is the real culprit behind higher food prices, both at home and abroad. Yet the evidence that we have seen. . .does not support this.

It’s true that higher demand for corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel has led to higher prices for those crops over the past couple of years. But we do not have a one on one relationship between higher prices for those commodities and what consumers are paying for foods at the retail level. There are many factors at work. . .

So just how much is ethanol contributing to global food prices? According to Schafer:

On the international level, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors estimates that only 3 percent of the more than 40 percent increase we have seen in world food prices this year is due to the increased demand on corn for ethanol.

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Obama Reacts to Climate Change Bill

The Senate today failed to pass cloture on the Lieberman-Warner bill, thus likely punting any climate-change legislation to next year. The Obama campaign responded to the defeat:

As this week's debate on climate change has unfolded, the American people and those watching us around the world had every reason to hope that we would act. Every credible scientist and expert believes action is necessary. This is critical and long overdue legislation that represents a good first step in addressing one of the most serious problems facing our generation.

Like many of my Senate colleagues, I believe the legislation could have been made even better. Had there been a substantive Senate debate about some of the concerns with this bill, I believe the outcome could have generated broad support. It certainly would have received my support.

Unfortunately, the Republican leadership in the Senate has chosen to block progress, rather than work in a good faith manner to address this challenge. This is a failure of our politics and a failure of leadership -- a President who for years denied the problem, and a Republican nominee, John McCain, who claims leadership on the issue but opposes this bipartisan bill....

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