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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Extreme Makeover: Outer Space Style

By BEN NEWMAN

The defining image of space exploration is set for a facelift as the spacesuit prepares for its first update since the late 1970s.

space suit
The Constellation Program mission requires two spacesuit system configurations to meet the requirements of Orion missions to the space station and to the moon.
(NASA)

NASA has selected a company to design and outfit new spacesuits made specifically for lunar exploration. The Constellation Space Suit System contract, announced last week, is a critical step in sending a manned mission to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

"We've now got all of our prime contracts in place," said Jeff Hanley, manager for the Constellation program at Houston's Johnson Space Center. He said he expects to have American astronauts "on [the] moon by end of the next decade."

The contract, awarded to Oceaneering International Inc of Houston, could be worth up to $745 million over the next 10 years. "We're ready to put them to work and get ready to put bootprints back on the moon," said Glenn Lutz, NASA project manager for Extravehicular Activity Systems.

Current suits, called extravehicular mobility units, like the ones used on the International Space Station and on shuttle missions, were "built for a completely different set of problems," and not for exploring the moon, Lutz said.

Early Spacesuits

Manned space flight began in 1961, and suit designers had to devise a way to maintain a stable internal pressure in the vacuum of space.

The first astronauts wore a suit called the Mark V suit -- a modified version of a pressure suit used by U.S. military pilots during high altitude flights. However, they did not inflate it, wearing it just in case the Project Mercury capsule lost pressure.

The Mercury missions ended in 1963, but the next generation of spacesuits was already being designed for Project Gemini. These new suits, despite being outfitted with temperature regulating systems, were the first designed to retain some flexibility when inflated.

On June 3, 1965, when Ed White became the first person to leave the relative safety of the spacecraft for the first spacewalk, he was wearing a Gemini spacesuit.

The Gemini suit was designed to work in zero gravity, but astronauts would need a much more sophisticated outfit if they were to achieve President Kennedy's goal of landing on the moon by the end of the decade.

space suit
Astronauts Gus Grissom, left, and John Young flew the first Gemini mission in March 1965. Their flight suits had portable air conditioners connected to them.
(NASA)
In addition to temperature and pressure control, astronauts had to be protected from the lunar terrain and moon dust while maintaining a degree of mobility to explore the landing site. The result was the iconic A7L Apollo spacesuit, instantly recognizable from images from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

Constellation Spacesuit

The EMUs NASA uses today are essentially a one-person spacecraft that protects astronauts from the hostile environment of deep space.

These suits "do great," Lutz said, "but they are built for floating in space" and not for exploring the lunar surface.

The Constellation missions will require astronauts to conduct experiments on the moon's surface, and the lunar explorers will need to be able to walk long distances over rocky terrain, climb ladders and bend to collect rock and dust samples -- all activities that would be difficult, if not impossible, using the Apollo spacesuit.

The new suits are being designed with a focus on increased dexterity, and to allow natural movement.

"We'll be able to put astronauts out on the lunar surface and turn them into explorers, geologists and educators," Lutz said. "Our design goal would be to make astronauts, when they're doing geology, look like a geologist on the surface of the Earth."

Lutz doesn't expect Oceaneering International Inc. and NASA to completely reinvent the iconic image of the NASA spacesuit.

"The jury's still out on what it will end up looking like," he said, adding, "It won't look drastically different from what people are used to seeing astronauts wear."

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Giant Solar Tsunami Viewed from NASA's STERO Spacecraft

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Just as earthquakes can set off huge tsunami waves on the surface of our oceans, a coronal mass ejection or flare can cause a tsunami on the Sun's surface—and it did on May 19, 2007. The waves generated by the explosions can travel at over a million kilometers per hour. The event was captured by NASA's twin Stereo spacecraft and was observed by a team at Trinity College, Dublin.

The event lasted for about 35 minutes and ultimately covered almost the full disk of the Sun. “The energy released in these explosions is phenomenal, about two billion times the annual world energy consumption in just a fraction of a second,” stated Long.

A previous observation of a solar tsunami was recorded by the SOHO spacecraft almost a decade ago but these images were misleading to scientists. Theorists were unable to match the anticipated behaviors of the tsunami to the observation because theory suggested that the solar tsunamis would travel much faster that observed. According to their calculations, tsunamis on the Sun should have had phenomenal speed due to the influence of the Sun's magnetic field on the solar material—making the waves magneto-acoustical in nature. With the improved capabilities of the Stereo's Extreme Ultraviolent Imager (EUVI) instruments they in fact measured speeds in agreement with the theory. In addition, by monitoring the Sun at four wavelengths which penetrate different layers of the Sun's atmosphere, astronomers could see how the wave moved vertically as well as horizontally.

“We were able to show for the first time that this wave actually propagates almost all the way from the surface of the Sun to high up in the Sun's atmosphere,” said Dr. Gallagher, a colleague of Long.

The researchers even saw the pressure wave reflect and refract off different regions of the Sun's atmosphere exactly as Earth's tsunami's do as they crash against land. This past April it was reported at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting by David Long.

Posted by Dr. Chandra Walker

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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 17

Eta Carinae and the Homunculus Nebula
Credit: N. Smith, J. A. Morse (U. Colorado) et al., NASA

Explanation: How did the star Eta Carinae create this unusual nebula? No one knows for sure. About 165 years ago, the southern star Eta Carinae mysteriously became the second brightest star in the night sky. In 20 years, after ejecting more mass than our Sun, Eta Car unexpectedly faded. This outburst appears to have created the Homunculus Nebula, pictured above in a composite image from the Hubble Space Telescope taken last decade. Visible in the above image center is purple-tinted light reflected from the violent star Eta Carinae itself. Surrounding this star are expanding lobes of gas laced with filaments of dark dust. Jets bisect the lobes emanating from the central star. Surrounding these lobes are red-tinted debris captured only by its glow in a narrow band of red light. This debris is expanding most quickly of all, and includes streaming whiskers and bow shocks caused by collisions with previously existing material. Eta Car still undergoes unexpected outbursts, and its high mass and volatility make it a candidate to explode in a spectacular supernova sometime in the next few million years.

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Most complex crop circle ever discovered in British fields

The most complex, "mind-boggling" crop circle ever to be seen in Britain has been discovered in a barley field in Wiltshire.


Most complex crop circle ever discovered in British fields

APEX PICTURES
The circle is a coded representation of pi to the 10th significant figure

The formation, measuring 150ft in diameter, is apparently a coded image representing the first 10 digits, 3.141592654, of pi.

It is has appeared in a field near Barbury Castle, an iron-age hill fort above Wroughton, Wilts, and has been described by astrophysicists as "mind-boggling".

Michael Reed, an astrophysicist, said: "The tenth digit has even been correctly rounded up. The little dot near the centre is the decimal point.

"The code is based on 10 angular segments with the radial jumps being the indicator of each segment.

"Starting at the centre and counting the number of one-tenth segments in each section contained by the change in radius clearly shows the values of the first 10 digits in the value of pi."

Lucy Pringle, a researcher of crop formations, said: "This is an astounding development - it is a seminal event."

Mathematics codes and geometric patterns have long been an important factor in crop circle formations. One of the best known formations showed the image of a highly complex set of shapes known as The Julia Set, 12 years ago.

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"Amazing" Dinosaur Trove Discovered in Utah

Brian Handwerk
Crowded with dinosaurs, petrified trees, and other prehistoric treasures, an ancient riverbed in Utah is surprising scientists. The discovery sheds new light on a Jurassic landscape dominated by dinosaur giants that lived 145 to 150 million years ago (prehistoric time line).

In just three weeks of work on federal land near Hanksville, Utah, paleontologists say they unearthed at least two meat-eating dinosaurs, a probable Stegosaurus, and four sauropods—long necked, long-tailed plant-eaters that could reach 130 feet (40 meters) long, making them the largest animals ever to have walked the Earth.

"So far [the paleontologists] have found not only scattered bones but partial and complete skeletons. It's really amazing," said Scott Foss, a paleontologist in the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM's) Salt Lake City office.

Big Sexy Dinosaurs

Some BLM employees and many locals had known that there were dinosaur bones to be found near Hanksville. But the recent dig led by scientists from the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois, was still a shocker.

"Nobody anticipated the scale or the scope of what was there. Once they started excavating, they realized that the magnitude was far more than they had expected," Foss said.

"About two weeks ago they notified us that this was pretty big and we'd better come and take a look."

The site, now known as the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry, is part of the Morrison formation. "[The formation is] where all the big sexy dinosaurs that we grew up learning about are most commonly found," Foss said.

Matthew Bonnan, of Western Illinois University, said, "In the late Jurassic you had the largest animals that ever walked the Earth.

"The sauropods sort of reached their zenith of size at this point," added Bonnan, who had just returned from the dig site.

Though the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry today is high and dry, it appears to have once been at a bend in a large, long-gone river.

A bar or other river feature likely collected the corpses of dinosaurs and other animals that died upstream and were washed down during high-water events over several centuries. The result is a logjam of fossilized bones.

The site's sandstone also encases freshwater clams, petrified trees, and other preserved matter. "There is potential that there could be burrows that contain fossil mammals. We have petrified logs—a whole group of things that I think are going to tell us something very detailed about this environment," Bonnan said.

(Related: "Ancient Mammal Relative Dug Burrows in Antarctica?" [June 9, 2008].)

The late Jurassic has been studied intensively for more than a century, yet some key questions linger.

"The big open question that remains is the environment in which the Morrison fauna and flora existed," said Hans-Dieter Sues, associate director for research and collections at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Sues has received funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.

Early geologists imagined the Morrison-formation region as a vast swamp, the imagined prime real estate for all those sauropods.

"But later geologists argued that the Morrison was deposited in a dry environment with just some large bodies of water," said Sues, who is not involved with the Hanksville-Burpee dig.

New Look at Familiar Dinos?

Whatever mysteries the new site may hold, it is unlikely to produce any new dinosaur species, Sues said.

"Except for some really small dinosaurs—including possible bird relatives/precursors—or a good skeleton of the giant Brachiosaurus, there is going to be little that is newsworthy regarding Morrison dinosaurs," he said.

"The big discoveries to be made lie with other groups of Morrison animals, such as flying reptiles and mammals, which are still mostly known from very fragmentary remains."

But team member Bonnan hopes the Hanksville-Burpee will eventually rival Utah's other major Jurassic fossil troves—Dinosaur National Monument and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.

"Even if we don't find anything new in terms of species, we're looking at old bones with new eyes and new technologies," he said.

"In the old days it was more about finding the 'biggest, baddest, bestest' dinosaurs, and a museum might have just cherry-picked those best specimens.

"Now there is more interest in the fossil assemblage—what does it tell you about the environment?"

The site will close for the season on Friday. But scientists are already anxiously awaiting the resumption of excavations next summer.

"It will take years to understand the real potential, or how big this site really is," BLM's Foss said. "But there is something there worth taking a really good look at."

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Changing Your Lifestyle Can Change Your Genes

New research shows that improved diet, meditation and other non-medical interventions can actually "turn off" the disease-promoting process in men with prostate cancer.


Here's some very good news: your genes are not your destiny. Earlier this week, my colleagues and I published the first study showing that improved nutrition, stress management techniques, walking, and psychosocial support actually changed the expression of over 500 genes in men with early-stage prostate cancer. This study was conducted at the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco in collaboration with Dr. Peter Carroll, Dr. Mark Magbanua, Dr. Chris Haqq, and others.

In this study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we studied gene expression in biopsies from 30 men who were diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer. These men had decided not to undergo conventional treatments such as surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy for reasons unrelated to the study. They had early, small-volume prostate cancer with stable prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels and Gleason scores of six or less, meaning that their tumors were not aggressive.

We biopsied their prostates at the beginning of the study and again three months later, after making comprehensive lifestyle changes. Since these patients did not have conventional treatments during this time, it enabled us to assess the effects of the lifestyle changes on gene expression without confounding interventions such as surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.

The changes included a plant-based diet (predominant fruits, vegetables, legumes, soy products, and whole grains low in refined carbohydrates), moderate exercise (walking 30 minutes per day), stress management techniques (yoga-based stretching, breathing techniques, meditation, and guided imagery for one hour per day), and participating in a weekly one-hour support group. The diet was supplemented with soy, fish oil (three grams/day), vitamin E (100 units/day), selenium (200 mg/day), and vitamin C (2 grams/day). These lifestyle changes are described more fully in my book, The Spectrum.

After three months, we repeated the biopsy and looked at changes in normal tissue within the prostate. We found that many disease-promoting genes (including those associated with cancer, heart disease, and inflammation) were down-regulated or "turned off," whereas protective, disease-preventing genes were up-regulated or "turned on." For example, a set of cancer-promoting oncogenes called RAS was down-regulated in these men. The Selectin E gene (which promotes inflammation and is elevated in breast cancer) was down-regulated. Another gene that suppresses tumor formation called SFRP was up-regulated, thereby reducing the risk of cancer. These genes are the target of many new drugs that are being developed. Clearly, changing lifestyle is less expensive, and the only side-effects are good ones. Dr. Craig Venter's pioneering research is showing that one way to change your genes is to synthesize new ones. Another may be to change your lifestyle.

The figure here provides a graphic representation of some of these changes in gene expression. Each line represents one of 31 genes that regulate "intracellular protein traffic" which affects how cells communicate with each other. The green color represents genes that are downregulated ("turned off") and the red color represents genes that are upregulated ("turned on"). As you can see, there are a lot more green (turned off) genes on the right side of the figure than on the left side.

For the past 31 years, I have directed a series of research studies showing that changes in lifestyle can make a powerful difference in our health and well-being, and how quickly these changes may occur. We showed that comprehensive lifestyle changes may stop or reverse the progression of coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, hypercholesterolemia, and other chronic conditions.

Two years ago, along with Dr. Carroll (Chair of Urology, UCSF) and others who also collaborated on the new gene expression study, we published the first randomized controlled trial showing that these lifestyle changes may slow, stop, or even reverse the progression of prostate cancer, which may affect breast cancer as well. When we published our earlier studies, we didn't understand many of the mechanisms by which these changes may have occurred. Now, our new study is beginning to provide some insight into what some of these genetic mechanisms may be.

Because we looked at normal tissue within the prostate (rather than the prostate tumor cells), it is likely that our findings may be generalized beyond men with prostate cancer. Also, people who are otherwise healthy may not need to make such intensive changes and have a spectrum of choices. We are still trying to understand the full significance of these findings--we've raised more questions than we've answered, and we need larger, longer-term studies--but it's already clear that you may be able to alter, at least to some degree, how your genes are expressed simply by changing your diet and lifestyle.

I find this to be a profoundly hopeful message. Often, I hear people say, "Oh, I've got bad genes, there's nothing I can do about it"--displaying what I call genetic nihilism. Our findings (the first to show the effect of lifestyle changes on any kind of cancer genes) can be an antidote to genetic nihilism and, I hope, motivate people to begin making their own changes. In most cases, our genes are only a predisposition; they are not written in stone. And if we have a strong family history for diseases such as prostate cancer, breast cancer, or heart disease-- "bad genes"-- then we may need to make bigger changes in lifestyle in order to help prevent or even reverse chronic diseases. In the centuries-old debate about nature vs. nurture, we are learning that nurture affects nature as much as nature affects nurture. It's not all in our genes.

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Jellyfish outbreaks a sign of nature out of sync

A jellyfish off the coast of Israel. The dramatic proliferation of jellyfish in oceans around the world driven by overfishing and climate change is a sure sign of ecosystems out of kilter warn experts.
A jellyfish off the coast of Israel. The dramatic proliferation of jellyfish in oceans around the world, driven by overfishing and climate change, is a sure sign of ecosystems out of kilter, warn experts.

The dramatic proliferation of jellyfish in oceans around the world, driven by overfishing and climate change, is a sure sign of ecosystems out of kilter, warn experts.
"Jellyfish are an excellent bellwether for the environment," explains Jacqueline Goy, of the Oceanographic Institute of Paris. "The more jellyfish, the stronger the signal that something has changed."
Brainless creatures composed almost entirely of water, the primitive animals have quietly filled a vacuum created by the voracious human appetite for fish.

Dislodging them will be difficult, marine biologists say.

"Jellyfish have come to occupy the place of many other species," notes Ricardo Aguilar, research director for Oceana, a international conservation organisation.

Nowhere is the sting of these poorly understood invertebrates felt more sharply than the Mediterranean basin, where their exploding numbers have devastated native marine species and threaten seaside tourism.

And while much about the lampshade-like creatures remains unknown, scientists are in agreement: Pelagia noctiluca -- whose tentacles can paralyse prey and cause burning rashes in humans -- will once again besiege Mediterranean coastal waters this summer.
That, in itself, is not unusual. It is the frequency and persistence of these appearances that worry scientists.

Two centuries worth of data shows that jellyfish populations naturally swell every 12 years, remain stable four or six years, and then subside.

2008, however, will be the eighth consecutive year that medusae, as they are also known, will be present in massive numbers.

The over-exploitation of ocean resources by man has helped create a near-perfect environment in which these most primitive of ocean creatures can multiply unchecked, scientists say.

"When vertebrates, such as fish, disappear, then invertebrates -- especially jellyfish -- appear," says Aguilar.

The collapse of fish populations boost this process in two important ways, he added. When predators such as tuna, sharks, and turtles vanish, not only do fewer jellyfish get eaten, they have less competition for food.

Jellyfish feed on small fish and zooplankton that get caught up in their dangling tentacles.

"Jellyfish both compete with fish for plankton food, and predate directly on fish," explains Andrew Brierley from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. "It is hard, therefore, to see a way back for fish once jellyfish have become established, even if commercial fishing is reduced."

Which is why Brierley and other experts were not surprised to find a huge surge in the number of jellyfish off the coast of Namibia in the Atlantic, one of the most intensely fished oceans in the world.

Climate change has also been a boon to these domed gelatinous creatures in so far as warmer waters prolong their reproductive cycles.

But just how many millions, or billions, of jellyfish roam the seas is nearly impossible to know, said scientists.

For one things, the boneless, translucent animals -- even big ones grouped in large swarms -- are hard to spot in satellite images or sonar soundings, unlike schools of fish.

They are also resist study in captivity, which means a relative paucity of academic studies.

"There are only 20 percent of species of jellyfish for which we know the life cycle," said Goy.

And the fact that jellyfish are not commercially exploited, with the exception of a few species eaten by gastronomes in East Asia, has also added to this benign neglect.

But the measurable impact of these stinging beasts on beach-based tourism along the Mediterranean has begun to spur greater interest in these peculiar creatures whose growing presence points to dangerous changes not just in the world's oceans, but on the ground and in the air as well.

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Manhattan says goodbye to the car ... just a little

The New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has hit back, after his plans for a congestion charge for the city were rebuffed, with a modest but eye-catching scheme to carve a seven-mile path through the centre of Manhattan and turn it over ever so briefly to pedestrians.

For three Saturdays in August, a route linking Brooklyn Bridge in the south and the Upper East Side and Central Park in the north will be cleared of all traffic, unleashing what is expected to be a deluge of walking, cycling and dancing life on to New York's streets.

Under the title Summer Streets, the project will revive a little of the confidence lost over the city's inability to control its spiralling traffic after Bloomberg failed in April to convince the state assembly to back his congestion charge plan. "If it works, we'll certainly consider doing it again," the mayor said. "If not, we won't. We have never been afraid to try new ideas."

Many of Manhattan's arteries are blocked solid for the best part of 12 hours a day and the hope of green New Yorkers that they will eventually get to enjoy a traffic-free city looks like an ever more distant dream.

But at least between 7am and 1pm on August 9, 16 and 23, those New Yorkers will be able to experience what the island would be like if it were not owned by the car. The most impressive part of the project will be opening up Park Avenue up to 72nd Street - a grand gesture in one of the great thoroughfares of the city. Further south the route will pass along Fourth Avenue, Lafayette Street and Centre Street to link to the cycle path crossing Brooklyn Bridge.

Along the way there will be water stops, facilities for renting and repairing bikes, as well as free lessons in dance and yoga.

The idea has been modelled on the successful Ciclovía festival in Bogotá, Colombia, where every summer Sunday from 7am to 2pm more than a million people throng a route spanning 70 miles of the city's streets, including its major thoroughfare, the Carrera Séptima. More than 20 stages are provided in the city for free aerobics.

Bogotá's example has spawned a raft of imitations, several in the US. El Paso, Texas, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Chicago are all embarking on similar schemes. This Sunday, Portland, Oregon will clear six miles of streets for six hours.

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Fuel-Efficient 'Cute Ute' Concepts Could Resurrect the Dying SUV

Detroit says the SUV is (almost) dead. Long live the SUV? So says Jalopnik's editor-in-chief in his monthly guest analyis for PopularMechanics.com.















Fuel-efficient concept SUVs like (clockwise from top left) the Cadillac Provoq, Jeep Renegade, Mini Crossman and Hummer HX could be a sight for sore wallets—and the auto industry.

U.S. Supermarkets not doing enough to protect fish - Greenpeace report

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff

One subject you really get to know as a New England environment reporter is fish. Cod, haddock, dogfish, fluke - I can identify them all and even, when pressed, point out a mucus-spewing hagfish.

But I still get confused at the fish display in supermarkets. Is U.S. caught tuna okay to buy? Is eating decades-old Chilean sea bass really sustainable? There is so much conflicting information, I sometimes stand for ten minutes trying to remember if it's okay if I bake cod for dinner.


fish.jpg
Where are you buying your fish?

A number of programs, including from the New England Aquarium, exist to help consumers choose fish wisely, but Greenpeace today went a step further and released a report that grades supermarkets on their sustainable seafood policies and practices.

It's not good news. The report shows that most U.S. supermarkets continue to purchase seafood with little consideration for the health of fish stocks they sell and even less concern for where or how seafood was caught.
No supermarket did well, with the top scorers receiving only four out of ten possible points. The top five markets are:

Whole Foods, Ahold USA, Harris Teeter, Wegmans and WalMart. At the bottom of the list are Supervalu, Trader Joe's, H.E. Butt, Price Chopper and Publix.

Supermarkets were graded on buying practices, support for sustainability, labeling, transparency and how many Greenpeace-determined "Red List" products - 22 of the world's most destructively fished and farmed species - were for sale.

Still, there is some good news. Several large supermarkets are developing seafood policies and are beginning to remove some of the most endangered species from their shelves, the report notes.

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10% of U.S. Electricity From Solar by 2025


Solar energy currently generates .1% of the electricity used in the U.S. According to a study released today, this will change rapidly as the cost of electricity increases and the cost of solar energy drops.

The Utility Solar Assessment Study produced by Clean Edge and Co-op America finds that solar energy is already reaching cost parity with conventional sources in some areas of the U.S. where electric rates are highest. By 2015, this will be achieved in many more areas, including Boston, San Diego, and New York. By 2025, cost parity will be achieved throughout the U.S.

The implications of this are huge. The U.S. solar photovoltaic market now relies heavily on state incentives to lower the cost of solar energy. Many people utilize solar energy because it is “the right thing to do” or businesses like the positive publicity solar brings.

Unique Advantages of Solar Electricity

Solar energy does not have fuel costs, like power generated from coal, natural gas, oil, or nuclear energy. The maintenance costs of solar are relatively low , it can generate electricity at the point of use, and emits no carbon. Solar is ideally suited to produce peak electricity, when demand is highest on the power grid and utility companies pay the highest rates. This is also where there is the greatest growth in electricity demand.

“The daily and seasonal variation in grid load in the United States matches solar availability,” said John O’Donnell, executive vice president of Ausra. Solar effectively generates electricity when the rates and demand are the highest.

Action is Needed to Advance Widespread Use of Solar Energy

Solar Companies

Large-scale use of solar energy depends on prices dropping to $3 per peak watt of electricity by 2018, according to the study. This involves quickly implementing advanced technologies in a cost-effective manner. Solar technology needs to be easier to install, thus reducing installation costs and other installations barriers.

Utility Companies

Utilities have become more and more interested in solar energy. California is a great example, where many utilities have signed purchase agreements for solar plant output. The U.S. will also need trained workers, which is another opportunity for utilities to take the lead.

A large investment in solar energy is needed for 10% of U.S. electricity to be generated by solar energy by 2025. Utilities will need to invest between $26 and $33 billion per year, a pretty hefty sum. To put this number in perspective, utilities invested $70 billion in 2007 on new power plants and transmission and distribution centers.

Solar Regulation and Policy

There is currently a 30% commercial tax credit for solar energy, but it is set to expire at the end of the year. There are purchase agreements for 3.2 gigawatts of concentrated solar power during 2007, but these solar power plants cannot be constructed before the tax credit expires. A long-term extension of the renewable energy tax credit is needed for large-scale use of solar energy. Many states also have renewable portfolio standards, but a national renewable portfolio standard would also help strengthen the industry.

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Its Back Against the Wall, Airline Industry Looks to Come Clean

By Dave Demerjian
Jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney is developing a geared turbofan jet engine that could be as much as 20 percent more fuel efficient than conventional jet engines. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines are rushing to develop more efficient engines and airframes as well as alternatives to jet fuel.
Pratt & Whitney

These are tough times for any industry that burns a lot of fossil fuel or emits a lot of carbon dioxide, and the air travel business does both. The airlines never gave it much thought before, but with sky-high oil prices and mounting concern about global warming threatening not just their bottom line, but their existence, they're getting serious about reducing the industry's carbon footprint.

"They’re definitely in bad shape," says John Scholle, an economist with Global Insight. "And going forward, things look bleak."

It is against this backdrop that executives from the U.S. commercial aviation industry gather later this week in Washington D.C. to plot a new course.

The Air Transport World Eco-Aviation conference marks the first time the industry has come together on such a large scale to talk about the environment. The conference underscores the severity of the issues facing commercial aviation and the need to begin addressing them collectively and quickly.

With airline passenger growth rates and aircraft emissions expected to double by 2020 and 2030, respectively, time is of the essence.

Rising fuel prices have airlines around the world hemorrhaging money, and losses could hit $6.1 billion this year. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are threatening to crack down on emissions. And environmentalists are lining up against an industry that, like the automakers before it, has long considered environmental responsibility an afterthought.

Commercial aviation has seen tough times before, experts say, but never before has the challenge been so great and the prospects so grim.

Topping the conference agenda is determining how big a role government should play in regulating aviation-related emissions. This is an issue of mounting importance now that the European Union says airlines must join its carbon trading program and with environmentalists petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate aircraft emissions. It is, they say, the only way to get the airlines to clean up their act.

"Market mechanisms for cutting pollution won't work," says Danielle Fugere of Friends of the Earth, the group that filed the petition.

The airline industry disagrees, of course, and says it has increased fuel efficiency 110 percent since 1978. It also claims to have reduced emissions 4 percent between 2000 and 2006, despite a 12 percent increase in passengers and a 22 percent climb in cargo. "Airlines are already motivated to reduce fuel burn and the resulting greenhouse gases as much as possible," says Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs for the Air Transport Association.

Much of that progress has come by replacing outdated planes with more fuel-efficient models. The industry has long counted on technology to reduce fuel consumption and says advancements in engine designs, composite materials and airframe construction will make tomorrow's airliners leaner and greener. "Less weight equals less power," says Ernest Arvi, CEO of aviation consultancy The Arvi Group. “Less power equals less fuel, and less fuel equals less pollution.”

Perhaps the biggest example of the trend is Boeing's much-delayed 787 Dreamliner, which uses composite construction to produce an aircraft the company says is 20 percent more fuel efficient and produces 20 percent fewer emissions than similarly sized aircraft. Pratt & Whitney promises similar performance improvements from its geared turbofan jet engine.

But even the most fuel-efficient airplane relies on fossil fuel, an increasingly expensive commodity. Jet fuel recently topped $150 a barrel, a price for which no airline has a business plan. That's got them pushing hard to develop biofuels. Virgin Atlantic recently made a test flight of a Boeing 747 fueled by a mixture of kerosene and biofuel derived from coconut and babassu oil. But the emphasis is on algae, led by Boeing's recent commitment to the alt fuel and efforts by JetBlue and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to turn pond scum into fuel.

Christopher Surgenor, editor of GreenAirOnline, says algal fuel is the most promising alternative because "It has the right properties for a jet fuel and can be produced in comparatively large quantities." But others say it's too early in the game to pick a winner, and Arvi warns that narrowing the research to one field "is self-defeating. It stifles innovation."

For all the advancements in engines and airframes, the system we use for moving all those planes around is stuck in the 1940s. Airlines say replacing the radar-based air traffic control infrastructure with a satellite system would reduce fuel consumption and cut emissions by 10 to 15 percent while making the business of getting planes in and out of airports more efficient. Adopting a more efficient means of approaching airports -- called "continuous descent approach" -- would further cut fuel consumption and emissions while also reducing noise.

As promising as these ideas appear, don't look for them at your local airport anytime soon. "Next generation aircraft will begin to arrive in two to three years, but modernized air traffic control is at least a decade away," says Scholle, the analyst from Global Insight. He's even less optimistic about alt fuels. The economics needed to make it work just aren't there. "We’re at least five years away from alt-fuels being anything but a publicity stunt," he says.

And that is exactly what critics call the commercial aviation industry's push to clean up its act -- a publicity stunt. "The only reason they’re having this thing is so it looks like they care. The industry is positioning itself to look like it's addressing environmental issues, so the government doesn’t do it for them," aviation consultant Mike Boyd says of the upcoming conference. Critics said the same thing when Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, hailed his company's experiments with biofuels.

But the industry and its defenders say there's more than green washing going on here, and to suggest otherwise is both cynical and shortsighted. "Those of us working in aviation are no different than anyone else," Arvi says. "We care about the environment and we want a clean planet. We just don't want the industry to get ruined in the process."

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Weather Pattern Changes: Jet Stream Shifting

One of the main drivers of world’s weather is moving due to climate change. As this ScienCentral News report explains, scientists are finding that the jet stream, that river of air that pushes storms across the country, is moving towards the north and south poles.

[If you cannot see the youtube video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]


Interviewee: Cristina Archer,
Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford
Length: 1 min 30 sec
Produced by Jack Penland
Edited by Chris Bergendorff
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc, with additional footage
courtesy NOAA and NASA.

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Mars team ponders whether lander sees ice or salt

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Is the white stuff in the Martian soil ice or salt? That's the question bedeviling scientists in the three weeks since the Phoenix lander began digging into Mars' north pole region to study whether the arctic could be habitable.

Shallow trenches excavated by the lander's backhoe-like robotic arm have turned up specks and at times even stripes of mysterious white material mixed in with the clumpy, reddish dirt.

Phoenix merged two previously dug trenches over the weekend into a single pit measuring a little over a foot long and 3 inches deep. The new trench was excavated at the edge of a polygon-shaped pattern in the ground that may have been formed by the seasonal melting of underground ice.

New photos showed the exposed bright substance present only in the top part of the trench, suggesting it's not uniform throughout the excavation site. Phoenix will take images of the trench dubbed "Dodo-Goldilocks" over the next few days to record any changes. If it's ice, scientists expect it to sublimate — or go from solid to gas, bypassing the liquid stage — when exposed to the sun because of the planet's frigid temperatures and low atmospheric pressure.

"We think it's ice. But again, until we can see it disappear ... we're not guaranteed yet," mission scientist Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis said Monday.

Even if it's not ice, the discovery of salt would also be significant because it's normally formed when water evaporates in the soil.

Preliminary results from a bake-and-sniff experiment at low temperatures failed to turn up any trace of water or ice in the scoopful of soil that was delivered to the lander's test oven last week. Scientists planned to heat the soil again this week to up to 1,800 degrees, said William Boynton of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Phoenix landed in the Martian arctic plains on May 25 on a three-month, $420 million mission to study whether the polar environment could be favorable for primitive life to emerge. The lander's main job is to dig into an ice layer believed to exist a few inches from the surface.

The project is led by the University of Arizona and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The lander was built by Lockheed Martin Corp.

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Were Meteorites the Origin of Life on Earth?

A new study finds that a pair of chemical building blocks similar to those in genetic material was present in a meteorite before it fell to Earth in the 1960s. Researchers say the finding makes it slightly more plausible that meteorite bombardments may have seeded ancient Earth with life's raw materials, potentially paving the way for life itself.

Part of the scientific mystery of how life emerged is the origin of chemical building blocks: Were they created by chemical reactions on Earth or did they, perhaps, hitch rides on meteorites that may have germinated our and other planets in our solar system with the same molecules? By studying meteorite fragments, such as those that fell in 1969 near the town of Murchison, in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria, researchers have learned that they contain carbon-based compounds that most likely formed in space, including sugars and amino acids.

They were not sure, however, about a class of compounds called nucleobases, which when fused with sugar molecules are the building blocks of nucleic acids such as DNA (the stuff of genes) and its close cousin RNA (produced when genes switch on). Researchers have speculated that life may have arisen from RNA molecules that acquired the ability to copy themselves. But they have had a hard time generating nucleobases in experiments designed to mimic chemical conditions on the early Earth, says Zita Martins, a chemist and astrobiologist at Imperial College London.

To check the origin of two nucleobases—uracil, found in RNA, and xanthine, a common cellular constituent—Martins and her colleagues analyzed the ratio of carbon isotopes in the two compounds. Most carbon on Earth consists of carbon 12, named for the number of protons and neutrons in its atomic nucleus, rather than its slightly heavier cousin, carbon 13.

Martins and her colleagues compared carbon isotopes in the Murchison nucleobases to soil samples from Murchison as well as to a common mineral. As expected if the nucleobases were forged in deep space, they were richer in carbon 13—by 44.5 percent for uracil and 37.7 percent for xanthine—compared with the other samples, the group reports in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

"It really clarifies at least that the building blocks of genetic material, the nucleobases, were available" in the early Earth, Martins says. "We are not saying that only meteorites contributed to the building blocks of life," she adds, "but it's a very great contribution."

The concentration of nucleobases in the Murchison meteorite is relatively low. Martins and her co-workers needed 0.5 ounce (15 grams) of space rock to extract their sample, compared with milligram-size samples for other chemicals, she says. But researchers believe that space rocks and dust once rained onto Earth in billions of tons per year.

Other researchers say the finding appears to be solid, although some are skeptical of its significance. Robert Shapiro, a professor emeritus and senior research scientist in chemistry at New York University, says that because of their low concentration, extraterrestrial nucleobases were unlikely to have played much of a role in kick-starting life. "They're a subunit of a subunit of DNA," he says. "My opinion is that their amounts were utterly unimportant and insignificant." He says he would be more impressed if whole nucleosides—bases plus sugars—were found in meteorites in concentrations similar to those of amino acids.

And researchers may yet discover ways that Earthly chemistry—perhaps around hydrothermal vents—could have generated nucleobases and other compounds.

Conel Alexander, a geochemist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington who specializes in meteorites, says that without more data, claims about the amounts and sources of molecules on early Earth should be taken with a grain of salt. "It really comes down to quantitative arguments about how much was made on Earth [and] how much was brought in from space," he says. "Any honest person would keep an open mind about the whole issue."
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Science: why we scream

Apes play a key role in human evolution. But our facial muscles also have a story to tell, says Roger Highfield

It is a familiar scene from countless horror films: the heroine, eyes wide and mouth gaping, prepares to scream as the killer approaches. But now scientists have discovered that, in doing so, she is obeying not the dictates of her director but the laws of evolution.

A woman screaming
Be afraid. Be very afraid

The reason for this is that our facial expressions have a purpose. Even if there is nothing scary around, pulling a scared face will make you more alert. Similarly, the disgusted face we make when encountering a bad smell is designed to cut out the offensive odour.

The idea that the faces we make at times of high emotion did not evolve randomly, but have some evolutionary benefit, was first proposed by Charles Darwin. If they boosted our chances of surviving, he thought, they would be selected for in the gene pool.

This explains why everyone, from a City trader in London to a hunter-gatherer in Africa, uses the same expression when frightened. "Whether they're from Toronto or Papua New Guinea, people raise their eyebrows and eyelids during fear, or raise their upper lips and wrinkle their noses during disgust," says Dr Adam Anderson of the University of Toronto.

His study, written with Joshua Susskind and other colleagues, has been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. As we reported yesterday, it found that people asked to make frightened expressions had a wider range of vision, faster eye movements and an increased sense of smell as they breathed more rapidly through their nostrils.

Those making the opposite expression, of disgust - with eyes and mouth scrunched up, rather than widened - had a smaller range of vision and a decrease in nasal volume, meaning that they saw and smelt less of what had offended them.

The discovery comes in the wake of the suggestion by William James, the pioneering philosopher and psychologist, that making a particular face contributes to feeling the related emotion. Moving your face into certain configurations changes the blood flow to the brain and the way you feel - so smiling, for example, helps to make you happy.

But in another recent study, a scientist at the University of Portsmouth questioned the idea that all facial expressions are universal. Strangely, Dr Bridget Waller and anatomists at two universities in Pittsburgh reported in the American Psychological Association journal that the facial muscles that control our expressions are not common to everyone.

We all have a core set of five facial muscles that control our ability to produce standard expressions which convey anger, happiness, surprise, fear, sadness and disgust. But there are up to 19 muscles present in the face, and many people do not possess all of them.

The risorius muscle, which controls expressions of extreme fear, is found in only two thirds of people.

"Everyone communicates using a set of common signals," says Dr Waller, "so we would expect to find that the muscles do not vary. The results are surprising. Some less common facial expressions may be unique to certain people."

In other words, while we all know instinctively how to look afraid, not all of us can do it quite as expressively as in the movies.

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Jellyfish and human eyes assembled using similar genetic building blocks

Jellyfish may seem like simple blobs of goo, but some are surprisingly sophisticated. The box jellyfish (Tripedelia cystophora), for example, is a fast and active hunter and stalks its prey with the aid of 24 fully functioning eyes. These are grouped into four clusters called rhopalia, which lie on each side of its cube-like body. Together, they give the box jellyfish a complete 360 degree view of its world and make it highly manoeuvrable.

Boxjellyfish.jpgEach eye cluster, four eyes are merely pits containing light-sensitive pigments, but two are remarkably advanced and carry their own lenses, retinas and corneas. The lenses are good enough to produce images that are free of distortion and even though the views are blurrier than those we see, these complex 'camera-type' eyes are very similar to those of more advanced animals like ourselves and other vertebrates.

But these similarities extend to a more fundamental level. Even though jellyfish are the most ancient group of animals to have a well developed visual system, it turns out that their eyes are built with many of the same genetic building blocks that ours are.

The eyes have it

All animal eyes, from the familiar human version to the compound eye of insects, contain two basic components. They have a photoreceptor - a cell that converts streams of light into chemical signals - and a dark pigment that focuses said streams. The photoreceptors always work through a partnership between a protein called an opsin and a chemical called retinal. When light strikes retinal, the molecule's shape changes and it separates from opsin. That triggers a chemical signal that ends in an electrical impulse travelling to the brain.

Vertebrates and invertebrates differ in both the pigments and the photoreceptors they use, and both groups have their own distinctive opsins and signalling cascades. Zbynek Kozmik from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic found that the box jellyfish is unusual in the structure of its photoreceptors are closer to those of the back-boned vertebrates than the spineless invertebrates.

Jellyfisheyee.jpgWhen Kozmik looked for box jellyfish genes that are involved in sight, he found that their opsin protein is also similar to the versions found in vertebrate eyes. With further tests, Kozmik confirmed that the jellyfish's opsin is a fully functioning visual protein. It sticks to retinal and is particularly sensitive to blue-green light.

The similarities didn't stop there. Kozmik found that the chain of proteins that carry the message passed on by opsin, are again similar to those used by vertebrates. And just as our eyes use the dark pigment melanin, so do those of the box jellyfish. Amid its genome, Kozmik found the jellyfish versions of human gene called Oca2 and Mitf that are essential for creating melanin. The genes are switched on in a part of the jellyfish eye that's littered with granules of pigment, which were identified as melanin through chemical tests.

Parallel or conserved?

Despite the massive evolutionary gulf that separates jellyfish and vertebrates, both groups construct their eyes using similar genetic components. It's possible that they kept an ancient 'eye program' that their shared ancestor already had, but Kozmik thinks that this is unlikely. If any such program existed, it would have eventually been abandoned by many animal groups, for most sighted invertebrates, such as octopuses and insects, build their eyes with a very different set of genes. Kozmik argues that eyes provide such an important advantage that there's no obvious reason why any group of animal should abandon one working system of building them, in favour of a completely different one.

Instead, it's more likely that jellyfish and vertebrates evolved their eyes by independently recruiting the same genetic building blocks, in a case of parallel evolution. That's not unfeasible - there are other examples of large networks of genes being co-opted for new purposes, and computer models have estimated that it would only take about half a million generations to evolve a sophisticated camera-type eye from a simple patch of light-sensitive cells.

In fact, it's likely that the jellyfish's advanced camera-type eye evolved from the primitive cup-like versions that sit next to them on the rhophalia. These simpler eyes contain proteins called crystallins, which help to build the lenses of the advanced ones. And mitf gene which helps to produce melanin in the camera-type eyes is also active in the cup-like ones.

The eyes of the box jellyfish tell us yet again that important innovations, such as eyes, evolve by changing how existing groups of genes are used, rather than adding new ones to the mix.

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Charles Darwin: 'Is man an ape or an angel?

In 1842, Queen Victoria went to London Zoo. She was not amused: "The orang-outang is too wonderful… he is frightfully, and painfully, and disagreeably human." A hundred and thirty-seven years later, David Attenborough entranced the world when he cavorted with gorillas in Life on Earth.

An ape
Chimps are our closest kin

What amazed everyone, once again, was just how human they seemed - and, for the gorillas watching, how happy the famous presenter was to be checked for fleas. Far from finding that frightful, most people (and, perhaps, most gorillas) were charmed and delighted.

That great post-Victorian shift in attitude came from that most Victorian figure, Charles Darwin. A hundred and fifty years ago this month, one great stink was about to replace another. In June 1858, the London sky burnt furiously and the sewage in the Thames began to reek, so much so that the House of Commons had its curtains soaked in chemicals to keep the smell at bay.

Soon, the rains came and the Great Stench cleared, but on July 1 an overheated group of moustachioed men met at the Linnean Society to consider important business: to elect a vice-president, to accept a book on grasses, and to read aloud a note, On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection by a Mr Darwin and a Mr Wallace (neither of whom was present).

The event had no impact (there was only one comment: that "all that was new was false, and what was true was old"). But a year later came The Origin of Species, this time written by Darwin without the aid of Alfred Russell Wallace.

With it came the greatest intellectual stink of the 19th century. As Disraeli put it: "Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories." Most of his fellows agreed. Now, though, the idea that Homo sapiens is a shaven ape is both the foundation of modern biology and part of popular culture, where it belongs.

What was the Darwin-Wallace paper all about? Its logic is simple. There exists, within all creatures, variation passed from one generation to the next. More individuals are born than can live or breed. As a result, there develops a struggle to stay alive and to find a mate.

In that battle, those who bear certain variants prevail over others who are less well endowed. Such inherited differences in the ability to pass on genes - natural selection - mean that advantageous forms become more common as the generations succeed. In time, as new versions accumulate, a lineage may become so modified that it can no longer exchange genes with others that were once its kin. A new species is born.

In 1858, almost nothing was known of human evolution. Now, though, Darwin's whole case can be advanced in terms of apes and monkeys, of chimps and gorillas, and of men and women. We know more about our own past than that of any other species. A modern Darwin would turn to our own family of primates for all the evidence he needed.

Our new understanding of genetics makes the case. Every sperm and every egg ever made by all the billions of men and women who have ever lived is unique; a degree of diversity once almost unimaginable. Such variation is the key to the past and to the present - to ancestry and to kinship. It links life into a common web of descent.

The primates cluster together in a group that includes rabbits and flying lemurs, but does not admit horses, dogs or bats. Their kinship is revealed by a certain piece of mobile DNA that hops around the genome. It has been inserted in just the same place in all those creatures, proof that they share a common ancestor distinct from that of all other furry beings.

Chimps are our closest kin. They are not like us in many ways. They are hairy and do not show the whites of their eyes. The animals cannot float in water or cry when upset, do not bother with adolescence and, even in zoos, do not get Alzheimer's disease.

Male chimpanzees seal up their mates with a sticky plug after sex, while men do not. Females publicise the fact that they are fertile (unlike women, who conceal all signs of that crucial moment). Using a laser, we can measure how fast sperm swim.

Those from rhesus macaques, who have lots of mates, swim faster and lash harder than those of gorillas (where one male more or less monopolises the females). Chimpanzee sperm are almost as energetic as those of the macaque, while ours lag well behind (although they do beat the gorilla).

The much-quoted fact that we share 98 per cent of our genes with chimps misses the many bits that have been inserted or removed in the two lines. The real level is around 95 per cent - itself remarkable enough.

We have lost more DNA than the chimp since the split, and the human line is feebler than once it was. We became shaved monkeys because the code for the hair protein no longer functions. Samson lost his strength with his locks, and so did we: the DNA responsible for certain powerful muscles (particularly those in the jaw), is out of action in ourselves, compared with our closest relative.

A chimp-style déjeuner sur l'herbe is also best avoided, for the animals have enzymes that break down the poisons in raw plants that are fatal to us. Chimpanzees need no kitchens, but they have kept many of the taste and smell genes lost in humans, perhaps because they need to be more careful when choosing food.

A closer look at the genes also hints that there has been more natural selection in the chimp line than in our own since the split: one gene in 60 bears the mark of the Darwinian lash, compared to half as many in humans.

And yet, as yet, no chimp has made a television programme. Mankind's success lies not in our bodies, but in our brains. Darwin noted: "There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense" - and he was right. Our cortex, the thoughtful bit, is five times larger than that of the chimpanzee. Baby chimps are born with a brain almost as big as an adult's.

Human babies, in contrast, continue to invest in grey matter until they are about two. Certain human brain genes have multiplied themselves when compared to their chimp equivalents. The brain uses a quarter of the entire energy of the body at rest - twice the proportion in chimps.

How can we afford it? We eat no more food than our kin, but we have a richer diet, with more meat and fewer roots, shoots and leaves. As a result, we need smaller intestines: the way to man's mind was through his guts.

That mind made the London sewers that cured the Great Stink, the theory of evolution, Life on Earth, and more. Disraeli was wrong. Man may be an ape, but his brain is on the side of the angels. Just watch Sir David Attenborough to see how.

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace's paper outlining the theory of natural selection was a milestone in the history of science - but how did it come about?

In an exclusive video interview, filmed for The Daily Telegraph, Sir David Attenborough discusses their breakthrough with Roger Highfield. Their work, he says, was not only an intellectual triumph - it was "one of the most heartening examples of good behaviour in science".

The idea that all animal life is related had been around since classical Greek times, but Darwin and Wallace suggested, for the first time, a mechanism by which that came about. The two arrived at the idea in very different ways: Darwin worked methodically, using his remarkable ability to make sense of a vast amount of data; Wallace had a brainwave while suffering from fever. He acknowledged the evidence accumulated by Darwin, which ensured the idea would be taken seriously: as Sir David says, "the two men had great respect for one another".

  • Sir David Attenborough on Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace's groundbreaking paper
  • Steve Jones is professor of genetics at University College London. His book 'Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise' (Little, Brown) was shortlisted for this year's Royal Society Prize for Science Books. The main prize was won last night by Mark Lynas for 'Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet' (HarperCollins)

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    High-Speed Storm Radars to Track Tornadoes, Fend Off Tragedy


    When tornadoes start killing Boy Scouts, the world pays attention. But even as a deadly EF-4 tornado whipped through Little Sioux, Iowa, with 145-mph-plus winds last Wednesday night, federal climate scientists and a group of university researchers were in the early phases of testing high-tech replacements for an aging Doppler radar system. Twisters across the United States in 2008 are headed for a record-setting pace (February's 148 nearly doubled a 37-year-old record); however, by 2013 a new network of satellites could be triangulating microfrequencies from the sky to Wi-Fi for real-time reactions to dangerously shape-shifting weather patterns.
    America's current system for detecting tornadoes—about 120 Next Generation Radar, or NEXRAD, devices tracking a storm's direction and velocity—has been the backbone of weather prediction since the early 1990s, but experts say it is deeply flawed. The radars are tilted upward from the Earth half a degree, which may not seem like much—until you factor in the curvature of the Earth. By the time you get 40 or 50 miles out, radar beams are more than one-half mile high, therefore missing the bottom third of the troposphere where severe weather often begins to form. And at 5 to 6 minutes for a complete area scan, NEXRAD simply remains too slow.

    The Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) network aims to address both problems, with short-range-satellites targeting the bottom of a storm and refreshing much more often—as in every minute. "CASA radars are gap-filling radars," explains Harold Brooks, a research meteorolgist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is developing the system with four schools across the country. "While the main NEXRAD radars give a really good view of the storm aloft, CASA radars could be set up to probe that area where the NEXRAD radars don't see."

    This new rig borrows technology from the U.S. Navy, which for years has been using a similar system to track vessels on the seas. CASA radars, however, will be installed just a few miles away from each other on rooftops, cell towers and other existing infrastructure. The first testbed is a network of four nodes in the middle of Tornado Alley in southwestern Oklahoma; other early sites include Houston and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. CASA officials expects to see at least quasi-operational CASA networks within the next five years to address some well-known gaps in the NEXRAD system, and widespread deployment within the next 15 years.

    Aiming for nearby clouds, CASA's low-power nodes send out 10-watt microwave frequencies, which then bounce back before being sent to a processing unit in the bottom of the node over a gigabit Ethernet connection. The information is wirelessly transmitted to a central location over a 2-megabit-per-second DS3 connection. Here, data from all the nodes is collected and run through weather-predicting algorithms, which are growing more sophisticated as this new data is made available—and as new threats speed up research.

    The high-speed-transmission approach, dubbed Distributed Collaborative Adaptive Sensing (DCAS), can respond to quickly changing weather conditions in real time. Based on faster and more comprehensive data collection, DCAS processing can refocus the CASA radars on a particularly interesting part of a storm (like an area that looks like it might develop a tornado) without losing track of an entire storm cell. "The system is continuously diagnosing the atmosphere and reallocating resources using wireless Internet as a backbone," says David McLaughlin, an engineering professor from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who directs the CASA team. "At the core, this is a system that is able to focus the resources where and when the need is greatest. We can keep track of evolving hotspots—rotations and things like that—as nature spins them up."

    Even with next-generation satellites and other storm-tracking technology in place, human know-how at the eye of the storm will always trump prevention research—and the Iowa Boy Scouts are only the most recent case study in disaster preparedness gone mostly right but still frighteningly sour. Brenda Philips, director of industry, government and end-user partnerships for the CASA team at UMass, is working with emergency responders, sociologists, human factors engineers and others to figure out how the massive data-gathering abilities of the CASA system can be fine-tuned to help would-be survivors take their own action.

    "People want to know the tornado is going down their street," she says. "That's what makes people respond to warnings." Under the current NEXRAD Doppler system, a warning could be statewide, leading to false alarms for most of its residents. While the CASA rig and its corresponding data algorithms probably won't be able to predict the exact path of a tornado, they will combine to shrink the warning zone. And even shrinking those locations by a partial form factor could help save more of those at the heart of the storm. Someday, it could even allow isolated campers like the fallen Boy Scouts enough time to drive to underground shelter.
    Original here

    In all fairness to the people of Indonesia and Malaysia, they are just trying to provide for their families.

    My gut tells me that at this point in time and with our world’s scientific knowledge, there is no excuse for building something that isn’t energy efficient on at least some level. Luckily, even large scale, high profile construction projects are on the same bandwagon.

    The New York Power Authority and UTC Power are hooking up to create one of the world’s largest fuel cell installations. The Freedom Tower and three other new towers under construction at the WTC site are getting 12 fuel cells – the PureCell Model 400 – that will increase energy efficiency for the buildings. This particular model of fuel cells is reportedly one of the cleanest, quietest and more energy efficient on-site power generating technologies available, delivering twice the power and double the lifetime of the previous model – apparently nothing but the best for the Freedom Tower. Though, at the current rate of research and improvements, they may be outdated pretty quickly. The cells are reported to not require any fossil fuel to produce their 400 kilowatts of energy each, and they meet the strictest air emissions requirements in the US. But from what I can find on UTC's website, the PureCell still needs to be plugged in to the grid, hence, fossil fuels are burned elsewhere. But, the plans are to waste not, want not, as the thermal energy generated by the fuel cells will be used for cooling and heating.

    This project, like any similar project in our country, doesn’t come without a few feathers to stick in one’s hat. At times, that seems like the whole reason behind some eco-friendly construction. The incorporation of these fuel cells scores points for LEED certification, a significant goal for all the WTC tower projects. Then, there is also the symbolism, which, honestly, I think really does go a long way in promoting green thinking among the general public:

    "One of the most important building projects in the nation will be equipped with space-age energy technology that uses an electrochemical process to produce clean on-site power," Gov. David Paterson said. "The fuel cells and other measures will help make the new World Trade Center towers an exemplar of environmental sustainability and will signal to the world New York State's commitment to greater energy security and reduced dependence on foreign oil. I can think of few sites in the country where the symbolism of this is more important."

    Symbolism aside, fuel cells may not have been the best bet for generating power, considering some other ideas that could have been utilized on buildings of this scale. For instance, solar windows, solar panels on the roof, wind microturbines…all of which cart around less negative impact than fuel cells. There are quite a few tower projects that could be used as examples for better ideas. But, steps are steps are steps.

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    Rainforest And Endangered Species Being Destroyed By Palm Oil Industry


    Here at Gardenmandy.com our main focus is to help people grow organic gardens. Part of organic gardening is learning to live in harmony with nature. We do sometimes get a little off the subject of gardening to call attention to other matters. This happens to be one of those times.

    Orangutan\'s are being killed by the Palm Oil insustry.


    While still on the subject of living harmoniously with nature, I want to talk about the harms of Palm Oil.

    Right now palm oil is the second, behind soybean, most produced oil in world. It is estimated that within the next five years, palm oil will surpass soybean oil to become the leading vegetable oil produced.

    Malaysia and Indonesia are the two leading suppliers of palm oil, contributing 89% to the world’s demand. In the past 20 years the area devoted to plantations has increased by 43%.

    What’s causing this great increase?
    First, in 2006 the FDA began to require that companies label Trans fat in their products. Knowing that the consumer was aware of the dangers of Trans fat, they needed to switch to a healthier, inexpensive alternative. Well, at least something that seemed healthier. Enter palm oil. While it may not contain any Trans fat, it is high in saturated fat. As we all know, a diet high in saturated fat is bad for our heart and cholesterol.

    Next there has been a huge increase in the demand for biofuel. While North and South America get most of their biolfuel from soybean oil, there are a number of countries in Europe who use palm oil. By the year 2020 it is expected that the demand for palm oil will double.

    Because of this huge demand, thousands of acres of rainforest are being cut down every year to make way for new plantations. As a result, hundreds of animals are loosing their habit including the endangered Sumatran Tiger, Asian Elephant, Sumatran Rhinoceros and both the Sumatra and Borneo Orangutan.

    According to the March/April 2008 issue of Science Illustrated Magazine, if we continue at the current rate of deforestation, 98% of the rainforest in these areas will be destroyed by 2022.

    Not only are these animals lives being threaten by loosing their habitat but they are also being tortured and killed when they wander onto plantations looking for food. There have also been reports of bonuses being offered to workers who kill orangutans and behead them.

    Just a few of the reports of torture include orangutans having their hands and fingers cut off, being beat to death, gasoline poured on them and being lit on fire, as well as mothers being poached and their babies being sold on the black market. There have even been reports of these animals being used for prostitution and in some cases being buried alive.


    The pictures that are provided at this site are both horrific and sickening,
    but it is happening and we need to be more aware of it. If you don’t know where your palm oil is coming from, odds are you are unknowingly contributing. Now you do know so you can do something about it.

    On top of loosing their habitat to both plantations and out of control fires that are burned to prepare the land, being tortured and being poached, pesticides that are used for the palm kernel are seeping into their water supply.

    In all fairness to the people of Indonesia and Malaysia, they are just trying to provide for their families.

    However, there are better ways to achieve this. There are a number of companies and organizations, including The World Wildlife Fund, that are involved in The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. They are setting standards which must be met for sustainable palm oil. This is a huge step in stopping the destruction of rainforest and precious ecosystems.

    However, until this method is perfected and widely accepted, we all need to do our part. I encourage you all to visit http://redapes.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/bospalm_oil_report.pdf for extremely helpful tips including, making your local grocery stores aware of this issue, and raising awareness in your community.

    Plus, they provide many other suggestions for what you can do to help save the lives of our close cousin, the orangutan.
    If we do not stop the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia, estimates conclude the orangutan will be extinct in 10 years! As it is now there are 15 times more deer in the state of Colorado alone than there are orangutans in the world.

    Before you purchase anything, that package of cookies, chips, ice cream, cereal, laundry detergent, lotion, even shampoo, look at the ingredients. Chances are you will find palm oil listed. It is becoming a staple of our food and soap products, but orangutans are paying for it with their lives.

    We can do something to help! Thousands of lives depend on it.

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