Sunday, June 22, 2008

Life in outer space? Japan astronomers hunt aliens

TOKYO: Japan's biggest astronomical observatories are teaming up for an unprecedented quest to find out whether there is life in outer space.

The project, led by Japanese astronomers, will bring together a dozen or more observatories from all over the country to study one star that researchers see as a potential home to an extraterrestrial civilization.

"Everyone wonders at least once in their lifetime whether space is infinite and whether aliens really do exist," said Shinya Narusawa, chief researcher at Nishi-Harima Astronomical Observatory in western Japan.

The search for aliens and UFOs is not new to Japan. Last year, unidentified flying objects grabbed the headlines after a lawmaker submitted a question to the cabinet on whether the country had confirmed any cases of their existence. The government's answer: no.

In the scientific world, Japanese researchers have used antennas to catch radio signals from outer space and analyzed the prisms of celestial lights to see if any laser emissions from space can be found, Narusawa said.

Their searches have not been too fruitful so far. The new project will involve multiple astronomers filming one star over several nights some time next year, along with the usual light analysis and recording of radio signals.

"When there are some suspicious signals, sometimes it's hard to tell whether they are artificial ones coming from the earth, for example from machines, or whether they are coming from the stars in the natural world," Narusawa said.

With multiple participants observing one star, it will be easier to check on whether the signals received are actually from the natural world, he said, adding that they have not decided on which star to observe.

The participants are realistic about the slim chance of encountering signals from outer space during the short experiment, but they see a larger significance.

"By thinking about outer space, we hope this will be an opportunity where people can re-appreciate the earth and human beings," Narusawa said.

(Reporting by Yoko Kubota; editing by Sophie Hardach)

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Colliding with nature's best-kept secrets

Visiting a particle accelerator is like a religious experience, at least for Nima Arkani-Hamed.

Immense detectors surround the areas where inconceivably small particles slam into one another at super-high energies, collisions that may confirm Arkani-Hamed's predictions about undiscovered properties of nature.

Arkani-Hamed is only in his mid-30s, but he has distinguished himself as one of the leading thinkers in the field of particle physics.

His revolutionary ideas about the way the universe works will finally be put to the test this year at Switzerland's Large Hadron Collider, which will be the world's most powerful particle accelerator.

The accelerator, estimated to cost between $5 billion and $10 billion, could provide answers to questions physicists have had for decades. Thousands of scientists from around the world are collaborating on the project at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN.

If the results confirm any of Arkani-Hamed's predictions, they would be the first extension of our notions of space-time since Albert Einstein.

"We're essentially guaranteed that there's going to be something surprising," Arkani-Hamed said of the Large Hadron Collider, which will operate inside a 17-mile circular tunnel.

Regarded as a "gem," Arkani-Hamed is "opening our minds and creating a new world of ideas that challenge deep-grained preconceptions about spacetime," said Chris Tully, professor of physics at Princeton University, who is working on the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

"From the point of view of the big experiments at the LHC, there is no amount of money or craftsmanship that would produce the kind of insight that comes from sharing LHC data with a true visionary like Nima Arkani-Hamed," Tully said.

Formerly a professor at Harvard, Arkani-Hamed currently sits on the faculty at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where Einstein served from 1933 until his death in 1955.

"He was lured from Harvard to the IAS; I'm sure that's considered quite a coup," said Daniel Marlow, a physics professor at Princeton who is also collaborating on the CMS experiment.

Arkani-Hamed has had a hand in explaining how the world can operate according to Einstein's theory of general relativity, which describes the universe on a very large scale, and at the same time follow quantum mechanics, laws that describe the universe on a scale smaller than the eye can see.

Some of the key mysteries that stem from these clashing theories include why gravity is so weak, relative to the other fundamental physical forces such as electromagnetism and why the universe is so large. These issues come up because on an inconceivably small scale, the particles that make up our world seem to behave completely differently than one might imagine.

For example, if you are driving a car, your GPS tells you where you are, and your speedometer tells you how fast you are moving. But on the scale of particles like electrons, it is impossible to know both position and speed at once; the very act of trying to find out requires incredible amounts of energy.

If it takes so much energy just to try to pin down a particle, then, in theory, all particles should have temporary energy changes around them called "quantum fluctuations." This energy translates into mass, since Einstein famously said that mass and energy are interchangeable through the equation E=mc2.

"It makes it extremely mysterious that the electron, or indeed, everything else that we know and love and are made of, isn't incredibly more massive than it is," Arkani-Hamed said.

A theory that has emerged in recent decades that claims to bring some relief to physics mysteries like these is called superstring theory, or string theory for short. Previously, scientists believed that the smallest, most indivisible building blocks of our world were particles, but string theory says the world is made of extremely small vibrating loops called strings.

In order for these strings to properly constitute our universe, they must vibrate in 11 dimensions, scientists say. Everyone observes three spatial dimensions and one for time, but theoretical models suggest at least seven others that we do not see.

Arkani-Hamed proposed, along with physicists Savas Dimopoulos and Gia Dvali, that some of these dimensions are larger than previously thought -- specifically, as large as a millimeter. Physicists call this the ADD model, after the first initials of the authors' last names. We haven't seen these extra dimensions because gravity is the only force that can wander around them, Arkani-Hamed said.

String theory has come under attack because some say it can never be tested; the strings are supposed to be smaller than any particle ever detected, after all. But Arkani-Hamed says the Large Hadron Collider could lead to the direct observation of strings, or at least indirect evidence of their existence.

In fact, by slamming particles into one another, the Large Hadron Collider may detect particles slipping in and out of the dimensions that Arkani-Hamed has worked on describing.

Particle collisions should begin at the Large Hadron Collider in August or September, according to the US/LHC Web site. Evidence of theories such as the ADD model could be discovered by 2009, Marlow said.

Data reflecting Arkani-Hamed's work on large extra dimensions "would really provide the first confirmation in this very profound way we might think about nature," Marlow said.

Arkani-Hamed always had a great love of the natural world as a child. Though his parents are also physicists, he considers it his "act of teenage rebellion to become one too," as his mother wanted him to become a doctor.


He remembers being impressed around age 14 that Newton's laws could enable him to calculate such things as the minimum speed that a space shuttle had to attain to escape the Earth's gravitational field. He'd wondered whether scientists had reached the figure of 11 kilometers per second by trial and error, shooting things in the air until the right speed emerged, until he could calculate it himself.

"When I figured out how to do that for myself, I just thought it was just the coolest thing, that little old me, scratching away on my piece of paper, could figure this out," he said. "From about 13 or 14, I knew that this is what I wanted to do."
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Mars Phoenix Tweets: "We Have ICE!"

By Alexis Madrigal

Dodo_020_0242_2There is water ice on Mars within reach of the Mars Phoenix Lander, NASA scientists announced Thursday.

Photographic evidence settles the debate over the nature of the white material seen in photographs sent back by the craft. As seen in lower left of this image, chunks of the ice sublimed (changed directly from solid to gas) over the course of four days, after the lander's digging exposed them.

"It must be ice," said the Phoenix Lander's lead investigator, Peter Smith. "These little clumps completely disappearing over the course of a few days, that is perfect evidence that it's ice."

The confirmation that water ice exists in the area directly surrounding the lander is big and good news for the Martian mission. NASA's stated goal for the Mars Phoenix was to find exactly this -- water ice -- and then analyze it. With the latest news, the first step is accomplished. All that's left now is to get the water into the Phoenix's instruments, a task which has occasionally proven more difficult than anticipated.

Still, this is the best opportunity that humanity has ever had to analyze extraterrestrial water in any form. That had the Phoenix Lander's persona fired up.

"Are you ready to celebrate? Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! w00t!!! Best day ever!!" the Mars Phoenix Lander tweeted at about 5:15 pm.

Their suspicions about water ice beneath the surface of Mars confirmed, scientists and the world will have renewed interest in the outcome of the soil analyses currently being conducted by the lander.

The samples are being examined for traces of organic molecules, among other substances, but the lander does not have instruments that could directly detect life.

See the full announcement from NASA. Or check out Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides' excellent new primer, "The Mars Ice FAQ: How Do You Know It's Water?"

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Supercomputer explores biochemical landscape to find memory switches

Blacksburg, Va. – Switches are a part of daily life, from snoozing your alarm, turning on the coffee maker, firing up your car engine, and so on until we turn off the lights at night. Researchers have now cataloged even more templates of possible switches within a living cell than we use throughout our day.

Naren Ramakrishnan, associate professor of computer science at Virginia Tech, USA, and Upinder S. Bhalla, at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India, found that cells can make use of thousands of switches to support important biological functions.

Cells use switches for determining what kind of cell to become – skin or blood, for instance, in responding to stress, and in communication with other cells. "A switch is like a memory unit," said Bhalla. "The state of the switch -- whether it is on or off, is like a computer memory that can store a bit of 0 or 1. Although real biological switches are quite complex and regulated in many ways, we have shown the simplest possible ways in which switches could work", Bhalla said.

The researchers report their work in the June 20 issue of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Computational Biology, in the article "Memory Switches in Chemical Reaction Space." Their collaboration began during a sabbatical visit by Ramakrishnan to NCBS in Bangalore, India. Ramakrishnan is a computer scientist whose expertise is in numerical simulation and data mining. Bhalla is a computational neuroscientist with broad interests in biochemical network modeling and simulation. They decided to use Virginia Tech's System X supercomputer to search for the many ways in which cells can implement switches.

"Our exploration using System X is rather like how a tinkerer or a kid puts together things to see if they do something useful. We took a lot of 'spare parts', each spare part being one chemical reaction, connected them together every which way, and we found that a surprising number of these artificially constructed networks actually were switches," said Ramakrishnan.

"Popular opinion used to be that there are a small number of ways in which switches can be realized by biology, but we found thousands of switches in our search," Ramakrishnan said.

The researchers report in PLoS Computational Biology, "We find nearly 4,500 reaction topologies, or about 10 percent of our tested configurations, that demonstrate switching behavior."

Their research also led to a comprehensive "map" of biochemical switches. The map further revealed that most of the switches form a "family" – that is, the switches are all related to one another. "This has important implications since it suggests how evolution might stumble upon a switch rather easily." Ramakrishnan said.

"Of course, there is more to cells than switches," Bhalla said. "But switching and memory are the most basic behaviors possible. Armed with our catalog of switches, we can now proceed to investigate more interesting behaviors like complex information processing."

Original here

In 2050, your lover may be a robot

MAASTRICHT (Netherlands): Romantic human-robot relationships are no longer the stuff of science fiction - researchers expect them to become reality within four decades.

And they do not mean simply, mechanical sex. "I am talking about loving relationships about 40 years from now," David Levy, author of the book Love + sex with robots, said at an international conference held last week at the University of Maastricht in the south east of the country.

"... when there are robots that have also emotions, personality, consciousness. They can talk to you, they can make you laugh. They can ... say they love you just like a human would say 'I love you', and say it as though they mean it ..."

Robots as sex toys should already be on the market within five years, predicted Levy, "a sort of an upgrade of the sex dolls on sale now".

These would have electronic speech and sensors that make them utter "nice sounds" when a human caresses their "erogenous zones".

But to build robots as real partners would take a bit longer, with conversation skills being the main obstacle for developers.

Scientists were working on artificial personality, emotion and consciousness, said Levy, and some robots already appear lifelike.

"But for loving relationships - that is something completely different. In loving relationships there are many more things that are important. And the most difficult of all is conversation," said the author.
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Fake Gems, Genuine Appeal

MANUFACTURED diamonds have become “as pure and nearly as big as the finest specimens hauled out of the ground,” Ulrich Boser reports in Smithsonian magazine ( This has profound implications for a number of industries, but producers of “natural diamonds,” the magazine reports, “are less enthusiastic.”

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Alex Eben Meyer

To visit the headquarters of Apollo Diamond, Mr. Boser had to meet his ride at a fast-food restaurant outside Boston that he was not allowed to name in his article. Apollo “is about as secretive as a Soviet-era spy agency,” he wrote. “Its address isn’t published.” he added. “The public relations staff wouldn’t give me directions. Instead, an Apollo representative picks me up at this exurban strip mall and drives me in her black luxury car whose make I am not allowed to name along roads that I am not allowed to describe as twisty, not that they necessarily were.”

The security is understandable. Bryant Linares, Apollo’s chief executive, told Mr. Boser that a man had approached him from behind at a conference a few years ago and warned him that, as Mr. Boser put it, “someone from a natural diamond company just might put a bullet in his head.”

The problem for the producers is that even though diamonds are not all that rare, people believe they are, so their price is substantially inflated.

Once people realize that manufactured diamonds are indistinguishable from the real thing, he said, that could change.

But it is their very ordinariness that could make either natural or manufactured diamonds highly valuable to industry. Diamonds “have the potential to dramatically change technology, perhaps becoming as significant as steel or silicon in electronics and computing,” Mr. Boser writes.

That might make them less appealing for engagement rings. But for those who believe that there is something about the beauty of diamonds that gives them appeal, the factory-made stones could fit the bill.

Mr. Boser said he took a sample from Apollo to Virgil Ghita, a jeweler in downtown Boston, who peered at the stone through his loupe.

“He lowers the loupe and looks at me for a moment,” Mr. Boser writes. “Then he studies the stone again, pursing his brow. He sighs. ‘There’s no way to tell that it’s lab-created,’ ” he said.

OIL SPECULATION Are speculators to blame for the spike in oil prices? The question has been under debate for months. Andrew Leonard writes at Salon’s How the World Works blog that the answer is yes and no (

Speculators are surely behind short-term moves in oil prices, both up and down. “But,” Mr. Leonard writes, “behind that backdrop of speculative froth” the real numbers “aren’t encouraging.”

Demand is falling in the United States and Europe, but rising elsewhere, particularly in China and India. And although supplies are rising, that is only because of OPEC. Non-OPEC production is actually down.

What is unknown, Mr. Leonard writes, is how much power OPEC can wield. It could be that OPEC is “facing the same cold realities of depleting resources that the non-OPEC world is slamming into.”

If so, regulating the speculators might not help in the long run.

HEALTHY SMOKES “We asked sports champions,” declared a magazine ad for Camel cigarettes in 1935. Camels, the sports champions responded, not only give you energy, but also “healthy nerves,” as the Olympic swimmer Stubby Kruger put it. “I smoke a great deal,” he said, “and Camels don’t ever ruffle my nerves.”

That and dozens of other cigarette ads making equally absurd claims can be found in all their vintage glory at the Gallery of Graphic Design ( DAN MITCHELL

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SimCity for Big Boys: Preparing for the Katrina of earthquakes

Feature -Have you ever wondered what could have been, if New Orleans and the federal government had been prepared for a devastating Hurricane such as Katrina? How many lives, structures and businesses could have been saved? Where do you put your money to build up a region’s defense against the next natural disaster? These are the questions scientists from the Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAE) are trying to answer in order to prepare local, regional and federal governments for a destructive earthquake that will hit the Midwest sooner or later.

Chasing news from the desk sometimes can distract you from what is going on in the real world and while I am personally not the guy who likes waiting at airports to jump on a crowded plane and fly coast-to-coast to visit press events (luckily we have other editors here at TG Daily who like to do that), an opportunity to leave the office for half a day to see something new is a welcome change.

Such an opportunity recently came along when Trish Barker, PR representative for the National Center of Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, invited me to visit the MAEviz team at the Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAE). MAEviz sounded about as familiar to me as it might to you right now (I had no idea what it was), but some research revealed that these guys are involved in predicting earthquake damage and that indication alone was interesting enough to justify the three hour drive down to the NCSA and learn how advanced earthquake research and damage prediction is these days.

The researchers were nice enough to walk me through their projects over several hours and patiently answer my questions and the more information I absorbed and wrote down, the more I wondered how this fascinating and complex work could be combined into an article. Close to the end of the day, I felt convinced that the prediction of earthquake damage is, in its very basics, very similar to playing SimCity. If you are in your late 20s or somewhere in your 30s and had access to a PC early on, I am sure you are familiar with this title (and if not, check Abandonware sites to download the game or play an online version here): You build a city, strategically place city services, balance a tight budget, come up with a structure of residential, business and industry areas, fine-tune the infrastructure over time in order to build a strong economy and prepare for disasters such as floods, fires or earthquakes (not to mention SimCity’s monsters).

MAEviz could be considered a very sophisticated and scientific version of SimCity. However, here you are not building a virtual city, but you are working with real cities, real streets, real businesses, real resources and also real lives. And it may reveal vulnerabilities of U.S. cities you may not expect, not like and not hear about from your government – for understandable reasons: At the very least, such data may give terrorists an easy map where U.S. cities are most vulnerable.

Construction and destruction

Much of the earthquake damage prediction is done through computer simulation, but simulation needs real-world data in order to be credible mature over time. The MAE, led by Amr Elnashai, is headquartered at the University of Illinois and is spread out over the University of Michigan, Washington University, University of Memphis, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, University of Texas at Austin and the University of Puerto Rico, pulls data from a variety of sources, including its own engineering efforts.

One of the numerous NCSA buildings in Urbana hides a huge construction hall that is actually used to construct or reconstruct actual concrete and steel structures to test their seismic vulnerability. An enormous, three story high concrete/steel wall (six feet of the structure are anchored into the ground) is used as the front end of engineering tests. It holds a movable steel structure weighing “several hundreds of tons” that can put structures such as reconstructed bridge peers under enormous horizontal and vertical stress. While it was unclear just how powerful this apparatus is, I was told that the setup can hit structures with about a million pounds.
It is hard to comprehend how much force that is, but it is definitely enough to reveal the limits of any concrete structure.


The process in itself is provided by the NCSA as a service to researchers who received the funds to run such a test (typically $50,000 for an average test run that includes construction (of one peer for about $17,000) as well as destruction and will yield several gigabytes of test data). The data set resulting from such a test belongs to a researcher for a time frame of about six months. After that, the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) will request the data for archival purposes.

I was told that the facility also accepts requests from outside parties such as governments or companies. In all sincerity of the matter, walking through the construction hall gives the inexperienced visitor a sense of a huge playground for earthquake researchers – a dream come true for anyone who likes to build elaborate sandcastles and later level them to the ground. NCSA representatives said that there is currently a testing backlog of a few months for the facility. Once a test is approved and scheduled, it takes about four weeks to set up a test.

Simulated impact on a peer

There is an enormous complexity behind those tests with numerous variables impacting an actual damage to a structure during an earthquake. Depending on the soil, the angle and the strength an earthquake hits a structure, the outcome may be very different. The MAE team says that there simply isn’t enough data to reliably simulate an impact of an earthquake on a bridge through a computer, which is why there are actual physical tests. However, researchers do simulate bridge spans since they do not “travel” during an earthquake. If a bridge collapses during earthquake, it will not be because of the span, but because of the peers, I was told.

There are many fascinating tests going on and I have to admit that I was surprised to learn about the dangers of a possible earthquake in the Midwest, which is apparently just a matter of time and could be much more devastating than an earthquake caused by the St. Andreas fault. The New Madrid fault was the origin in an 1812 quake, which was felt all the way to Washington DC. It is expected that the fault will cause an earthquake very 200 to 300 years, which means that the risk for the Midwest is already substantial. It is worrisome worrying is the fact that there have been very few earthquake preparations in the Midwest and the soft soil along the Mississippi river, whose water has penetrated the ground of nearby to a depth of about 1000 m (3000 ft), provides a perfect scenario for a very destructive quake. According to the MAE scientists, a strong New Madrid quake could travel far, causing skyscrapers to shake and causing windows to fall out of buildings as far as Chicago.

Simulated impact on a wall
Closer areas, such as Memphis or St. Louis could be affected in a much more serious way, we heard, and facing what is now commonly described as the Katrina of earthquakes. Most of us are very aware of Katrina, which has become a synonym for natural disasters that should be taken serious. At the very least, Katrina has woken up people and government agencies that there are real natural threats we should be prepared for.

Apparently, the danger of such a quake is known among scientist and even government agencies, but what exactly is done about? Well, Memphis simply should not have been built where it has been built in the first place, we were told. But correcting that mistake and leveling the city to the ground, or relocating it a few hundred miles away, is not a realistic option. So scientists are trying to find ways to limit the potential impact of an earthquake through simulation: Governments can use the findings and data to reorganize a city structure and limit damage to structures and the economy as well as loss of life.

Simulating the worst case scenario

Hazus has been the standard tool for predicting and estimating earthquake damage for the past 10 years. MAEviz is coming in as a new and more modern solution, but MAE scientists stressed that it is not a replacement for Hazus, but a solution that is intended to be used in parallel. It is based on more recent findings and more importantly, it is open source, which means that scientists around the world can contribute and extend the code. The MAEviz team, which is led by Jim Myers at NCSA, will celebrate the software’s second birthday this August.

MAEviz interface

MAEviz is a data-centric application and since it is open source, anyone can download and use it. However, substantial scientific knowledge, and lots of input data is required to come up with useful results and at least I did not find my way through it. However, if you can get the software running and convince it to process simulations, it can deliver stunning results – and you don’t even need a supercomputer: A decent desktop PC is enough to get a basic result within 15 to 20 minutes and more sophisticated data within 60 to 90 minutes. In the example of Memphis, the behavior and impact to 240,000 buildings can be simulated. These simulations were already done and presented to FEMA, which we heard is very interested in the findings, but hasn’t applied them to potential preparations so far. Detailed results have not been released for obvious reasons - such as exposure of vulnerabilities to terrorists – but there was little doubt that, at least in the case of this city, an earthquake poses a substantial risk.

Broken down to its very basics, MAEviz truly is a complex version of SimCity, with the difference that the city already exists, a natural force is simulated and improvements are suggested by scientists to the local, regional or national government as a result. It is basically a risk assessment and analysis tool - the most sophisticated we have seen so far – that enables scientists to go through What-if scenarios: Data input includes hazards, inventory (buildings and other structures, population, etc.) and fragility models. The output consists of damage prediction and actual decision support.

MAEviz damage forecast
The analysis features cover impacts on buildings, bridges, potentially developing hazards, likely casualties and socioeconomic effects. In fact there is a network of more than 40 analysis tools that allows scientists far beyond the direct damage of an earthquake, but estimate secondary impacts such as likely repair costs, revenues lost by businesses or street damage. As a result, MAEviz supplies information that can highlight recommended changes to city structures, relocation of buildings and a strategic placement of first responder services, possible evacuation routes or even possible safe locations of tent cities. These results are always tied to the estimated cost and answer questions like: What if I had $10 million? Where should I invest these funds to achieve the best possible result in damage protection in the case of an earthquake? Is retrofitting of building the answers or should I build new? It is generally assumed that $1 spent on possible improvements can save $5 in response cost, so MAEviz is a tool that can save governments millions and, in extreme cases, billions of dollars in the case of a devastating natural disaster.

Data preservation

I’d like to also touch a related topic Jim Myers and his team appeared to be very concerned of. Tools like MAEviz rely on data – lots of data that is accumulated over a long time frame. Storing and preserving data as well as making sure that data remains accessible for 50 or 100 years is a key problem for the scientists.
NCSA has data available that is about 20 years old and made sure that the formats the data is stored in are well documented. Microsoft’s approach to keep a tight leash on its formats and keep them proprietary is considered by researchers as a “time bomb”. Even if it is unlikely that Microsoft is going away anytime soon, the question is – will they still be around in 50 years and will there be enough documentation to read data from today’s files? And if not, can the technology be reverse engineered?

Especially projects like MAEviz highlight that there is a need for a common, open data format. The value could tremendous and the possible impact of data loss just as devastating as natural disasters.


I have said it before and I will say it again. We are often just too consumed with our own little world around us to notice how technology is changing and improving our life. In my case that has been Fermilab and the NCSA supercomputer systems before and MAE is just another example. I highly recommend to check out the projects that may be going on in your area and find out whether you can learn more about these projects on site. In many cases, you will find visitor centers and scientists who are willing to share details about their work.

MAEviz, of course, is just one project at NCSA (which, by the way where Marc Andreesen invented the web browser) that will make you think for more than 15 minutes after you have left the building.

I personally was impressed with the sophistication of earthquake damage prediction and the advances scientists have made in this area. However, you can always look at it from different sides and if you are an emotional person, you may be disturbed about the fact that a software simulates the environment you live in and local governments makes “efficient” decisions as a result. Whether we like to hear it or not, the questions asked and answers provided by MAEviz also include human lives: Applying recommendations made by the software will impact human life and may decide which earthquake improvements will be made in which regions.

For the virtual world of SimCity, MAEviz would be the perfect tool to build the perfect city, protect human life and limit earthquake damage to a minimum.

In reality, MAEviz confronts governments with choices. Choices that always appear to represent compromises between limited funds and the best possible protection for a certain geographic area.
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Earth Will Survive After All, Physicists Say

That black hole that was going to eat the Earth? Forget about it, and keep making the mortgage payments — those of you who still have them.

A new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider scheduled to go into operation this fall outside Geneva, is no threat to the Earth or the universe, according to a new safety review approved Friday by the governing council of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or Cern, which is building the collider.

“There is no basis for any concerns about the consequences of new particles or forms of matter that could possibly be produced by the LHC,” five physicists who comprised the safety assessment group wrote in their report. Whatever the collider will do, they said, Nature has already done many times over.

The report is available at

The physicists, who labored anonymously for the last year and a half, are John Ellis, Michelangelo Mangano, Gian Giudice and Urs Wiedemann, of Cern, and Igor Tkachev, of the Institute for Nuclear Research in Moscow. In a press release, Cern’s director general Robert Aymar said, “With this report, the Laboratory has fulfilled every safety and environmental evaluation necessary to ensure safe operation of this exciting new research facility.”

It is full speed ahead, they say, on the new machine, which is designed to accelerate protons, the building blocks of ordinary matter, to energies of 7 trillion electron volts and then bang them together to produce tiny primordial fireballs, miniature versions of the Big Bang. Physicists will comb the detritus from those fireballs in search of forces and particles and even new laws of nature that might have prevailed during the first trillionth of a second of time.

Some critics have argued, however, that Cern has ignored or downplayed the risk that the collider could produce a black hole that would swallow the Earth, or that it could create some other dangerous particle.

The safety group, however, pointed out that cosmic rays have produced equivalently energetic collisions with the Earth and other objects in the cosmos over and over again. “This means that Nature has already completed about 1031 LHC experimental programs since the beginning of the Universe,” they write. But the stars and galaxies endure.

The new report, which is an update and expansion of a previous 2003 report, pays particular attention to the issue of black holes, which could be produced according to some speculative variations of the already speculative string theory. Could one eat the Earth? These same theories predict that the black holes would immediately disintegrate, the authors say. But if stable black holes could somehow be produced, they would also have been produced by cosmic ray collisions.

The report draws heavily on a dense 96-page analysis by Steven B. Giddings of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Dr. Mangano, which will be available on the physics archive on Monday. In that paper, Dr. Giddings and Dr. Mangano conclude, “Indeed, conservative arguments based on detailed observations and the best-available scientific knowledge, including solid astronomical data, conclude, from multiple perspectives, that there is no risk of any significance whatsoever from such black holes.”

The difference between these two ways of making black holes is that the ones from cosmic rays would be going near the speed of light and would shoot through the Earth with no effect, while collider black holes would be at rest relative to the Earth and could be captured. But if such black holes from cosmic rays existed, the physicists concluded, dense cinders like neutron stars or white dwarfs would capture them and get eaten. But that doesn’t happen; such objects continue to exist.

The safety report was itself reviewed and approved by another panel of scientists outside Cern. And so, after 14 years and $8 billion, the future of physics is almost here.

Cern’s engineers are in the process of cooling the superconducting magnets that power the protons around their 17-mile racetrack down to within 3 degrees Fahrenheit of absolute zero. They are on track, they say to begin circulating protons in the machine in August and to begin colliding them a couple of months later.

Because the engineers have not yet finished “training” the magnets to carry the currents necessary to propel the protons to full energy, the plan is for the colliding protons to have 5 trillion electron volts apiece initially, still five times more energetic than physicists have achieved before.

In the winter, when Cern traditionally shuts down for a period, the magnets will be trained for the full energy. In the spring the collider will start up again with 14-trillion volt collisions. And physicists can finally stop holding their breaths.

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of authors of the report. There are five, not four. Gian Giudice of Cern is also an author.

Original here

Mysterious Brain Cells Linked to Blood Flow

Nearly a century after the discovery of strange star-shaped cells in the brain, scientists say they have finally begun to unravel their function.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology report in Science that it appears astrocytes—named for their stellar form—provide nerve cells (neurons) with the energy they need to function and communicate with one another, by signaling blood to deliver the cell fuels glucose and oxygen to them.

When astrocytes were first discovered, it was believed that they were bit players in the brain. But the new research indicates they may actually be major operators that, when out of whack, may help trigger mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

Study coauthor Mriganka Sur, a neuroscientist and head of MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, says his team saw astrocytes in action while examining brain activity in ferrets.

Using technology called two-photon microscopy, Sur and his colleagues observed that astrocytes in the visual cortex (part of the brain responsible for vision) activated and blood flow increased to nerve cells just seconds after the neurons had fired or sent out signals.

Sur believes the astrocytes—which are as plentiful in the brain as neurons—may control the strength and length of nerve cell communications. Consequently, he says, if astrocytes fail, so, too, may nerve cell connections, potentially leading to still largely unexplained neurological disorders.

"A great many genes that have been linked to autism and schizophrenia are likely to be active in astrocytes," Sur says. "We believe astrocytes will have a huge role in understanding certain brain diseases."

He says astrocytes may also shed light on brain activity captured on scans such as fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which measure blood flow allowing scientists to diagnose strokes (areas that are deprived of blood or oxygen) and regions activated during tasks and activities from solving problems to daydreaming.

The reason, according to a Science editorial by neuroscientists Fred Wolf and Frank Kirchhoff of Germany's Max Planck Institute: the findings indicate fMRI "reflects the responses of both cell populations [neurons and astrocytes] in the brain."

Sur says that when the team blocked astrocytes, blood flow did not increase to firing neurons. That means, he says, that "[fMRI is] really measuring astrocyte activation. Thus, anything that influences astrocytes is likely to influence fMRI readings."

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Artificial tornado plan to generate electricity

Most of us know that tornadoes are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and dangerous. But a Canadian engineer thinks they could be the future of electricity generation. He wants to make electricity from artificial tornadoes.

Louis Michaud, a retired petroleum engineer in Sarnia, Ontario, plans to use the waste heat from conventional power plants to create an "atmospheric vortex engine" - a small, controlled tornado that would drive turbines and generate electricity. "I'm confident that we could control these things," he says. Michaud also thinks solar powered tornados generated using the sun's heat could also work.

His latest design is a circular wall 200 meters across and 100 meters high without a roof. Air carrying the waste heat would be blown in from vents on the sides, spinning around the walls into a vortex that becomes just like a real tornado. Once started, the vortex would draw in more hot air from vents in the wall, pulling it past turbines and generating electricity.

Michaud calculates that a vortex engine of this size would create a tornado about 50 meters in diameter and generate between 50 and 500 MW of electricity.

He first patented the idea in 1975 as a "whirlwind power system", you can see a diagram from the document above. Since then Michaud has made various models, you can see a video of one of the latest, 4 meters in size, here (.mpg format).

A recent assessment by an independent engineering consultant Clem Bowman and colleagues concluded the idea deserves more research. But for that to happen Michaud needs more funding, he hopes to interest a power plant operator.
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When It Comes to Brains, Size Matters

Findings of a three-year study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside and the University of Florida, Gainesville run counter to the popular belief that women have better language skills than men.

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In a study of 200 university students, the researchers found that women and men performed similarly on tests of language and reading skills. Differences in brain organization between men and women may be driven by sex differences in brain size, they said.

“People have said women have relatively larger language areas of the brain,” said Christine Chiarello, UCR professor of psychology. “In none of our language tasks were women better than men. When you account for differences in brain size between men and women there are few differences in the relative size of areas. While there are differences between men and women, those differences are minimal compared to the wide range of individual differences in both sexes.”

The study, “Size Matters: Cerebral Volume Influences Sex Differences in Neuroanatomy,” was published recently in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The researchers gathered demographic data, tested language and reading skills, and performed magnetic resonance imaging to map brain structures of 100 female students and 100 male students. The men and women were similar in age, parental education and proportion of students who were right- or left-handed.

There were great individual differences in brain organization, brain size and where language and speech are processed, Chiarello said. For most people, speech and language are processed in the left half of the brain.
Differences in brain size account for much of the variance in brain structure size that at first glance might appear to be attributable to sex, Chiarello said. On average, the brains of men in the study were 13 percent larger than the women.

Men and women “confront similar cognitive challenges using differently sized neural machinery,” the researchers wrote. Their findings imply that “any sex-specific adaptations to overall brain size are not associated with large relative differences in the size of various cerebral regions. In this respect, our results suggest that brain size matters more than sex.”

Study co-authors include Chiarello; Christiana M. Leonard and Stephen Towler of the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida; UCR graduate students Suzanne Welcome and Laura K. Halderman; Ron Otto of the Computerized Diagnostic Imaging Center, Riverside; and Mark A. Eckert of the Medical University of North Carolina.
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How To - Build a lucid dream machine

Lucid Dream Mask

Here's an instructable detailing plans for an AVR based device which helps you realize you're dreaming -

What is Lucid Dreaming? Lucid Dreaming is when you are sleeping and dreaming and that you are aware that your are asleep and that you are dreaming, yet you don't wake up. This can be great, giving you full control of your dreams, jumping off of buildings, going into space, whatever your mind can create.

The Lucid Dream Machine is a pair of glasses that you wear while you are sleeping. About 4 hours into your sleep the AVR microcontroller pulse LEDs that shine through your eyelids. This half wakes you up. The flashing lights helps you become aware (in your sleep) that your are sleeping and dreaming, in doing so you become more likely to be able to control your dreams.

While I'm not sure "jumping off of buildings" is my top pick for a lucid dreaming activity - this project definitely seems worth a try. - The Lucid Dream Machine

As a simpler alternative, you could try wearing a digital watch and train yourself to always check it twice. Our brains have difficulty reproducing the same digits twice - upon second glance in a dream the numbers usually appear incorrect, thus clueing you in on your current state of consciousness. I've used this technique myself with good results.

Lucidreammask Crop

Are Rechargeable Batteries That Great?

There are numerous claims that rechargeable batteries are the way to go, but are they that much better than our everyday alkaline batteries? And are they truly worth all that extra money?

It's a guarantee that batteries will die. After providing power to everything from cameras, to remote controls and your kids toys, there comes a point when batteries must move on to battery heaven. This year alone, one person will throw away an average of 8 batteries and Americans together will purchase close to 3 billion dry-cell batteries. So how do you stop yourself from following the crowd of battery tossers and buyers? RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES! Not only will you save money, but you will be taking advantage of renewable energy.

Clearly it is cheaper to reach for our old friend alkaline (whether it be those AA, AAA,C,D or 9-volts that we love so dearly), but once you pay the initial expense (Best Buy offers a Duracell 4 pack of AA batteries and charger stand for $12.99) for rechargeable batteries, there is no more expenses to owning these batteries. Rechargeable batteries can last up to 1,000 charges (longer if stored in the fridge) saving you about $80 a year, on average.

As for the environment, batteries can and will leak harmful chemicals (mercury, lead and cadmium) into landfills. Probably the best news is that rechargeable batteries are easy to recycle. And, because batteries can be recharged and reused numerous times, they contribute less waste to landfills, overall.

So now that you're interested in rechargeable batteries, here are your options:

Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) - known for its long life but lower voltage potential than its competitors.

Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) - higher voltage that the NiCd, but requires more charges.

Lithium-ion-more expensive than other rechargeable batteries, but stores more energy and lasts longer between charges. They’re perfect for battery-operated tools and they’re better for the environment because they don’t contain harmful toxins. And lithium is a natural metal therefore available in great quantities.

And even though rechargeable batteries live longer than alkaline, there comes a time when they will die as well. But don't go throwing them away, check out the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation ( or call 877-273-2925. If there is not a site in your area to recycle your other rechargeable batteries, like those old cell phone batteries, check out EarthWorks website ( and they can send them off for you.

Ion Microprobe Technology Reveals Earth was Habitable 4.3 Billion Years Ago

Early_earth_2 A team of scientists led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geologists Takayuki Ushikubo, Valley and Noriko Kita have completed an analysis of ancient minerals called zircons which shows liquid water existed at least 4.3 billion years ago and that heavy weathering by an acrid climate possibly destroyed the surface of the Earth's earliest continents when the planet was a mere 150 million years old.

Zircons, the oldest known materials on Earth, offer a window in time back as far as 4.4 billion years ago. Because these crystals are exceptionally resistant to chemical changes, they have become the gold standard for determining the age of ancient rocks, says UW-Madison geologist John Valley.

Valley previously used these tiny mineral grains — smaller than a speck of sand — to show that rocky continents and liquid water formed on the Earth much earlier than previously thought, about 4.2 billion years ago.

Ushikubo, the first author on the new study, says that atmospheric weathering could provide an answer to a long-standing question in geology: why no rock samples have ever been found dating back to the first 500 million years after the Earth formed.

"Currently, no rocks remain from before about 4 billion years ago," he says. "Some people consider this as evidence for very high temperature conditions on the ancient Earth."

Previous explanations for the missing rocks have included destruction by bombardment of meteorites and the possibility that the early Earth was a red-hot sea of magma in which rocks could not form.

The current analysis suggests a different scenario. Ushikubo and colleagues used a sophisticated new instrument called an ion microprobe to analyze isotope ratios of the element lithium in zircons from the Jack Hills in western Australia. By comparing these chemical fingerprints to lithium compositions in zircons from continental crust and primitive rocks similar to the Earth's mantle, they found evidence that the young planet already had the beginnings of continents, relatively cool temperatures and liquid water by the time the Australian zircons formed.

"At 4.3 billion years ago, the Earth already had habitable conditions," Ushikubo says.

The zircons' lithium signatures also hold signs of rock exposure on the Earth's surface and breakdown by weather and water, identified by low levels of a heavy lithium isotope. "Weathering can occur at the surface on continental crust or at the bottom of the ocean, but the [observed] lithium compositions can only be formed from continental crust," says Ushikubo.

The findings suggest that extensive weathering may have destroyed the Earth's earliest rocks, he says.

"Extensive weathering earlier than 4 billion years ago actually makes a lot of sense," says Valley. "People have suspected this, but there's never been any direct evidence."

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can combine with water to form carbonic acid, which falls as acid rain. The early Earth's atmosphere is believed to have contained extremely high levels of carbon dioxide — maybe 10,000 times as much as today.

At those levels, you would have had vicious acid rain and intense greenhouse effects. "That is a condition that will dissolve rocks," Valley says. "If granites were on the surface of the Earth, they would have been destroyed almost immediately — geologically speaking — and the only remnants that we could recognize as ancient would be these zircons."

Posted by Casey Kazan. Adapted from a University of Wisconsin release. Image credit: Joe Tucciarone.

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Germany 'is world's greenest country'

Germany has been labelled the world's greenest country after it cut its energy use by more than any other state in 2007.

  • EU greenhouse gas emissions fall slightly
  • Follow Germany's lead, invest to save energy
  • Angela Merkel's green image under attack
  • German use of oil, gas and coal in 2007 fell by 5.6 per cent compared with 2006, according to a new report from BP. Global energy consumption, driven by China, America and India, rose by 2.4 per cent in the same year.

    A coal-fired power station in Berlin: Germany 'is world's greenest country' after cutting emissions
    Coal-fired power station in Berlin: Germany cut its emissions by 5.6 per cent

    The report emerged as the German government passed a new round of environmental laws designed to ensure the country meets ambitious carbon dioxide reduction targets.

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the laws as "crucial for climate protection" and said they would help Germany reduce its 1990 level of emissions by 40 per cent come 2020.

    The laws, which target high polluting lorries and make energy saving designs compulsory for homes built after 2009, should allow Germany to shave 35 per cent off 1990 emissions.

    German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the extent of the laws was "the largest worldwide" and said that, with rising energy costs they amounted to "a money-saving programme, a piggy bank". He said Germany was looking at ways of cutting the final five per cent of carbon emissions to reach its 40 per cent goal by 2020.

    Nonetheless, Germany's Green party and environmental campaigners said the package did not go far enough, and criticised the shelving of proposals to tie car taxes to how much individual models pollute.

    Even the council of experts which helped advise the government while the laws were being drafted has said they do not take full advantage of emerging technologies.

    The influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said that German legislation was dispensing with "'native' energies like nuclear and coal, while favouring Russian gas and oil".

    "The hens are doing the fox a favour by leaving the coop door open," it said.

    But while the BP world energy report confirmed that Germany made one of the world's biggest cuts in nuclear energy last year, with use falling 16 per cent on 2006 levels, it also revealed that oil and gas use was slashed too.

    Only coal consumption increased, as Germany's total energy use fell by 5.6 per cent.

    The UK, where oil and coal consumption also fell, managed an overall reduction of 3.8 per cent, making it runner up to Germany in European energy reduction. The EU as a whole reduced its energy use by 2.2 per cent.

    "Issues such as energy security, energy trade and alternative energies [are ] at the forefront of the political agenda worldwide," noted BP chief executive Tony Hayward. "Continued weakness in oil supply and increasing demand highlight the challenges we all face in maintaining secure energy supplies. "

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    10 Most Destructive Tornadoes From Around the World

    Most of the world’s most destructive tornado events occur in the United States, but tornadoes do cause violent destructive damage in other countries around the world. The most destructive tornadoes cause massive loss of property, and many precious lives are lost during these storm events each year.

    Tornadoes are classified in categories ranging from F0 to F6, and these categories differ by the wind speed and size of the tornado once it has made contact with the ground. Around the world some of these tornadoes have wiped out whole towns and killed hundreds of people. Some of these storms were so violent and destructive that they made it in this article, so that we can always be reminded of the seriousness of getting to a safe place when a tornado is barreling down on us.

    Sometimes the most destructive tornado events happen when multiple tornadoes seemingly work together to wipe out the landscape like an enormous pencil eraser. When this type of weather event happens, the aftermath resembles that of a war zone after days of carpet-bombing. The environment is dangerous and deadly, because of leaking gas lines and live electrical wire scattered all about.

    Tornadoes are nothing to play around with, so do not grab your video camera to try to catch a glimpse of the massive wall of dark blowing wind charging in your path. Losing your life or putting the lives of others is just not worth trying to record the event. No, instead get to a room or a place on the lowest area of your home and away from any windows (as breaking windows and flying glass could cause injury or death). Keep flashlights, batteries, a weather radio, matches/lighter, and a first aid kit in a safe place, so when or if they are ever needed, then you will have them ready when you need them the most.

    Tri-State Tornado - March 18, 1925

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    One of the most well documented tornadoes that hit the United States plowed through the Tri-State region of Missouri, southern Illinois and parts of southwest Indiana. The 219-mile path of destruction that the tornado left behind killed 695 people and injured an incredible 2,771 people, while causing a massive loss in property. The tornado probably a F5 is the next to the most destructive category of tornado with a sustained wind speed of 261 mph to 318 mph and has the power to destroy strong wood framed houses and cause noticeable damage to steel-reinforced concrete buildings in its path.

    Talladega County, Alabama Tornado - March 21, 1932

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    A massive F4 tornado tore through the county of Talladega leaving in its wake killed 70 people and injuring more than 325. The extent of the damage accounted for 600 homes either totally destroyed or damaged. The tornado is considered to be the most destructive storm ever recorded in the area.

    Gainesville, Georgia Tornado - April 6, 1936

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    The potential destructive power of one tornado can level many buildings and kill hundreds of people, but when two equally violent tornadoes cross paths, then the destructive force can break weather records like what happened in 1936, in Gainesville, Georgia. When two violent twisters joined forces just west of the city to form a ½ mile wide funnel that utterly destroyed 285 buildings, killed 203 people and injured another 934 people, this was the worst tornado event in the county's history.

    Indiana Tornadoes - April 11, 1965

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    The deadliest and most destructive day in Hoosier history happened on Palm Sunday (April 11) 1965, killing 265 people, injuring 1700 plus people in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. During this storm event, there were 11 reported tornadoes that ripped through 20 counties, leveling and damaging buildings and homes that were estimated to cost $30 million dollars.

    Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada Cyclone - June 30, 1912

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    A massively destructive cyclone (tornado) marched through regions of Canada in mid-afternoon on June 30, 1912 south of Regina in Saskatchewan Canada. The tornado charged violently across 18 ½ miles of earth for a terrifying three minutes that killed 28 people, injuring 2500 people and causing more than $1.2 million dollars in damage. An estimated 500 buildings were either damaged or totally destroyed. In 1912, $1.2 million dollars was a whole lot of money and any time life is lost, it is devastating in any amount.

    Edmonton, Canada Tornado - July 31, 1987

    In Edmonton, Canada, a freighting tornado event that killed 27 people and destroyed or damaged many buildings in the area was captured on video, so that people can see how destructive these storms can be. Besides, running from the terrifying winds that can left buildings off of their foundations and throw them through the air like sacks of potatoes, there usually is large hail, flooding and heavy rains accompanying these storms that can wipeout whatever the tornadoes missed.

    Bulahdelah Tornado, New South Wales, Australia - January 1, 1970

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    In terms of destruction, the Bulahdelah Tornado that struck near the city of Newcastle in New South Wales Australia was estimated to be a mighty F4 or F5 tornado that destroyed more than one million trees, but on the bright side no lives were lost during the event. The environmentally impact will take decades to recover from and no amount of money can speed up the growth time of the trees that are planted to replace the trees that were lost.

    Tennessee Tornado - November 21, 1900

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    Leaving behind a path of destruction and over 50 people dead and hundreds of buildings and houses damaged or destroyed. The Tennessee Tornado was about 350 yards wide and destroyed everything that was in the storm's path. The tornado continued to wreak havoc in Arkansas and Mississippi where the tornado devastated the cotton crops on many farms and uprooting trees, and then depositing those trees in the cotton fields. The tornado suspected to have been a F4 or F5 flattened buildings, libraries and damaged about 2-miles of train track between the McKenzie and Henry Station.

    For the complete story of these events, read this New York Times article. Please be warned that this article was written in 1900 and the description of some of the people that survived or died in the tornadoes would be considered a bit racist in today's language.

    Carolinas Tornado Outbreak - March 28, 1984

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    Throughout the afternoon and evening hours of March 28, 1984, an ominous serious of tornadoes were preparing to devastate the Carolinas. As twenty-two tornadoes touched down causing over $200 million dollars in property damage and killing 57 people, while leaving 1,248 injured. The violent tornado outbreak swept across the state in a show of force that will remain in the memories of the survivors for many years to come.

    Pennsylvania-Ohio Tornadoes - May 31, 1985

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    In the late afternoon-evening of May 31, 1985 a series of deadly tornadoes push a path of nearly mind boggling devastation as on this day out of the 41 tornadoes reported a total of 27 tornadoes struck a powerful one-two punch to the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Hundreds of buildings and homes were damaged or completely leveled, which totaled more than $450 million dollars in property damage. There was even a higher loss of life in which 75 deaths and 1,025 injuries were reported to authorities.

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