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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Scientists: It Once Rained on Mars

By Alexis Madrigal

Martian_soil Drizzle once fell on Martian soil, according to a new geochemical analysis by Berkeley scientists, though the rain probably stopped several billion years ago.

Drawing on soil data from the five missions to Mars before the current Phoenix Lander and comparing it to information collected in Earth's driest places, the scientists concluded that water must have fallen from above, not welled up from below, as has been thought.

"The soil acts as a sort of an imperfect record of climate change," said Ronald Amundson, UC Berkeley professor of ecosystem sciences and the study's lead author. "We can study the chemistry of the soil and extract information about climate history."

Amundson's key observation is that Martian soil has a layer of sulfates sitting on top of chlorides. That's a pattern consistent with water moving downward from the atmosphere to the regolith in places on Earth.

Though he can't say for sure whether the precipitation on Mars fell as snow, sleet or rain, the evidence of reacting with rocks suggests that the water was liquid on the ground.

The work will be published later this month in Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta, the journal of the International Geochemical Society. It comes as interest in Martian soil has reached new heights. The Mars Rover missions used Martian soil composition to confirm that water once ran on the surface of the now-red planet. Now, the primary value of the Mars Phoenix Lander is its ability to recover and analyze Martian soil for evidence of the building blocks of life. This mounting evidence that liquid water existed on Mars and that subterranean water ice exists now has raised hopes that evidence could eventually be found of simple, extraterrestrial life on the planet.

Amundson's work draws heavily on ultra-dry environments on Earth that are known as Martian analogs. In particular, he has been studying the geochemistry of the Atacama desert in Chile.

"The chemical and physical similarities between the Martian landscape and the dry places on Earth convinced us that deserts held the key to learning about Mars," he said.

Though perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, Amundson's conclusion is: Where water and rocks meet, on Earth or Mars, the same types of things happen.

That sentiment seems to square with an increasing amount of scientific data being generated by recent Martian missions. As we reported a few weeks ago, scientists were able to compare the saltiness of Martian water to the Dead Sea merely from the geochemistry of the compounds left behind when the water evaporated.

"The Atacama Desert and the dry valleys of Antarctica are where Earth meets Mars," said Amundson. "I would argue that Mars has more in common geochemically with these climate extremes on Earth than these sites have in common with the rest of our planet."

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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 25

What is Hanny's Voorwerp?
Credit: Galaxy Zoo Project, ING

Explanation: What is that green thing? A volunteer sky enthusiast surfing through online Galaxy Zoo images has discovered something really strange. The mystery object is unusually green, not of any clear galaxy type, and situated below relatively normal looking spiral galaxy IC 2497. Dutch schoolteacher Hanny van Arkel, discovered the strange green "voorwerp" (Dutch for "object") last year. The Galaxy Zoo project encourages sky enthusiasts to browse through SDSS images and classify galaxy types. Now known popularly as Hanny's Voorwerp, subsequent observations have shown that the mysterious green blob has the same distance as neighboring galaxy IC 2497. Research is ongoing, but one leading hypothesis holds that Hanny's Voorwerp is a small galaxy that acts like a large reflection nebula, showing the reflected light of a bright quasar event that was visible in the center of IC 2497 about 100,000 years ago. Pictured above, Hanny's Voorwerp was imaged recently by the 2.5-meter Isaac Newton Telescope in the Canary Islands by Matt Jarvis, Kevin Schawinski, and William Keel.

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Scientists think big impact caused two-faced Mars

By ALICIA CHANG , AP Science Writer
(AP) -- Why is Mars two-faced? Scientists say fresh evidence supports the theory that a monster impact punched the red planet, leaving behind perhaps the largest gash on any heavenly body in the solar system.

Today, the Martian surface has a split personality. The southern hemisphere of Mars is pockmarked and filled with ancient rugged highlands. By contrast, the northern hemisphere is smoother and covered by low-lying plains.

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Three papers in Thursday's journal Nature provide the most convincing evidence yet that an outside force was responsible.

According to the researchers, an asteroid or comet whacked a young Mars some 4 billion years ago, blasting away much of its northern crust and creating a giant hole over 40 percent of the surface.

New calculations reveal the crater known as the Borealis basin measures 5,300 miles across and 6,600 miles long - the size of Asia, Europe and Australia combined. It's believed to be four times bigger than the current titleholder, the South Pole-Aitken basin on Earth's moon.

Astronomers have long puzzled over Mars' landscape ever since images beamed back in the 1970s showed different-looking halves. An orbiting spacecraft later observed the northern lowlands were on average 2 miles lower than the southern highlands and had a thinner crust.

Scientists who had no role in the studies said the latest research strengthens the case for a colossal Martian impact, but it does not rule out the other theory that hot rock from inside the planet could have welled up and formed the different crusts.

"The betting odds have gone up a lot in favor of the impact model," said Walter Kiefer, a staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

The idea of an ancient impact was first advanced by Steve Squyres of Cornell University and Don Wilhelms of the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1980s. Squyres, currently the lead scientist for the twin Mars rovers, had always hoped other scientists would "pick that ball up and run with it."

"It wasn't a totally nutty idea that there could have been an impact," Squyres said.

But finding evidence of one proved difficult because part of the basin rim is now covered by a bulging volcanic range.

For one study, a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory recreated what the Martian surface would have looked like before the volcanoes formed using gravity and surface measurements from spacecraft. They determined the impact basin is oval-shaped, similar to what would be expected if a space object had hit at an angle.

"The shape is really one of the key pieces of evidence that it was probably formed in a giant impact," said MIT postdoctoral researcher Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna, whose original "gut feeling" favored the other theory.

A separate group led by the California Institute of Technology developed 3-D simulations to determine the "sweet spot" of conditions that would form the basin.

According to their calculations, a 1,000-mile-wide object traveling at more than 13,000 miles per hour - or 24 times faster than a jetliner - would hit Mars at an angle between 30 and 60 degrees. The collision would be equal to an explosion of 75 to 150 trillion megatons of TNT.

In the third study, a team of researchers led by the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that shock waves from such an impact would disrupt the southern crust.

All three teams believe there was a single giant blow and not several small hits because there's no evidence of other basins.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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How did the universe begin?

By Miranda Marquit
One of the most interesting questions considered by astrophysicists deals with the start of our universe. Indeed, there is a great deal of speculation on the subject, with different theories about how the universe began, and what may have existed before the universe came into being.
Several prominent astrophysicists around the world are interested in answering these questions. In one paper, “No-Boundary Measure of the Universe,” published in Physical Review Letters, James Hartle, Stephen Hawking and Thomas Hertog calculate the probabilities that the no-boundary wave function predicts in terms of classical space-time possibilities.

“Theories regarding the beginning of the universe are expressed as wave functions,” Hartle tells PhysOrg.com. “The no-boundary wave function is one theory about the origins of the universe.” The goal of this particular work with Hawking and Hertog, he continues, was to model the universe and see what kind of probabilities exist that the current universe could have originated in a certain way.

The no-boundary proposal predicts that expansion in the early universe would have proceeded smoothly from a moment in time. The idea is that inflation was a feature of our early universe. “It collapsed from a previous large phase, bounced at a small but not zero radius, and expanded again to the large phase we are living in,” says Hartle.

The no-boundary wave function also states that space-time was not what we see today at the outset of universal expansion. “When the universe started out,” Hartle explains, “there wasn’t ordinary space-time. Instead of three space directions, as we have now, there were four space directions. At some point, a transition was made to ordinary space-time.”

Hartle and his colleagues examined models of the universe that were homogenous, isotropic and closed. A cosmological constant was assumed, as was a scalar field with quadratic potential. They looked at entire classical histories, examining the ideas of a singularity, such as a Big Bang, or considering a bounce with a finite radius. The point was to get a picture of which scenarios are most likely to produce a universe that is similar to what we see currently.

“Both things, a Big Bang or a bounce, are possible,” Hartle says. “However, we found a significant probability that the early universe might have bounced.”

Hartle does admit that the simple model used by him and his colleagues does have its limitations. For one thing, the universe is not completely homogenous as the model assumes. “You see a certain lumpiness in the real universe,” he concedes. However, most of the irregularities are small, and many of them can, in fact, be ultimately accounted for in a no-boundary proposal.

“Our model does make a number of strong assumptions,” Hartle continues. But, he insists, “this is a standard trade-off in physics. Our model is simplified so that we can analyze it completely.”

“In present cosmology, we test models to see if different proposals fit the universe that we see. In this instance, we see that the no-boundary wave function does,” Hartle says. “We see that there is a good chance the universe originated in a bounce.”

“We hope that can extend this to other, more sophisticated models, with different potentials and different degrees of freedom.”

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Can a Robot, an Insect or God Be Aware?

Our intuitions about consciousness in other beings and objects reveal a lot about how we think.

By Joshua Knobe


iStock/Valerie Loiseleux

Can a lobster ever truly have any emotions? What about a beetle? Or a sophisticated computer? The only way to resolve these questions conclusively would be to engage in serious scientific inquiry—but even before studying the scientific literature, many people have pretty clear intuitions about what the answers are going to be. A person might just look at a computer and feel certain that it couldn’t possibly be feeling pleasure, pain or anything at all. That’s why we don’t mind throwing a broken computer in the trash. Likewise, most people don’t worry too much about a lobster feeling angst about its impending doom when they put one into a pot of boiling water. In the jargon of philosophy, these intuitions we have about whether a creature or thing is capable of feelings or subjective experiences—such as the experience of seeing red or tasting a peach—are called “intuitions about phenomenal consciousness.”

The study of consciousness (see here and here) has long played a crucial role in the discipline of philosophy, where facts about such intuitions form the basis for some complex and influential philosophical arguments. But, traditionally, the study of these intuitions has employed a somewhat peculiar method. Philosophers did not actually go ask people what intuitions they had. Instead, each philosopher would simply think the matter over for him- or herself and then write something like: “In a case such as this, it would surely be intuitive to say…”

The new field of experimental philosophy introduces a novel twist on this traditional approach. Experimental philosophers continue the search to understand people’s ordinary intuitions, but they do so using the methods of contemporary cognitive science (see also here and here)—experimental studies, statistical analyses, cognitive models, and so forth. Just in the past year or so, a number of researchers have been applying this new approach to the study of intuitions about consciousness. By studying how people think about three different types of abstract entities—a corporation, a robot and a God—we can better understand how people think about the mind.

The Mental Bottom Line on Corporations
In one recent study, experimental philosophers Jesse Prinz of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and I looked at intuitions about the application of psychological concepts to organizations composed of whole groups of people. To take one example, consider Microsoft Corporation. One might say that Microsoft “intends to adopt a new sales strategy” or that it “believes Google is one of its main competitors.” In sentences such as these, people seem to be taking certain psychological concepts and applying them to a whole corporation.

But which psychological concepts are people willing to use in this way? The study revealed an interesting asymmetry. Subjects were happy to apply concepts that did not attribute any feeling or experience. For example, they indicated that it would be acceptable to use sentences such as:
• Acme Corporation believes that its profit margin will soon increase.
• Acme Corporation intends to release a new product this January.
• Acme Corporation wants to change its corporate image.
But they balked at all of the sentences that attributed feelings or subjective experiences to corporations:
• Acme Corporation is now experiencing great joy.
• Acme Corporation is getting depressed.
• Acme Corporation is experiencing a sudden urge to pursue Internet advertising.
These results seem to indicate that people are willing to apply some psychological concepts to corporations but that they are not willing to suppose that corporations might be capable of phenomenal consciousness.

Bots and Bodies
Perhaps the issue here is that people only attribute phenomenal consciousness to creatures that have the right sort of bodies. To test this hypothesis, we can look to other kinds of entities that might have mental states but do not have bodies that look anything like the bodies that human beings have.
One promising approach here would be to look at people’s intuitions about the mental states of robots. Robots look very different from human beings from a physical perspective, but we can easily imagine a robot that acts very much like a human being. Experimental studies could then determine what sorts of mental states people were willing to attribute to a robot under these conditions. This approach was taken up in experimental work by Justin Sytsma, a graduate student, and experimental philosopher Edouard Machery at the University of Pittsburgh and in work by Larry (Bryce) Huebner, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and all of the experiments arrived at the same basic answer.

In one of Huebner’s studies, for example, subjects were told about a robot who acted exactly like a human being and asked what mental states that robot might be capable of having. Strikingly, the study revealed exactly the same asymmetry we saw above in the case of corporations. Subjects were willing to say:
• It believes that triangles have three sides.
But they were not willing to say:
• It feels happy when it gets what it wants.

Here again, we see a willingness to ascribe certain kinds of mental states, but not to ascribe states that require phenomenal consciousness. Interestingly enough, this tendency does not seem to be due entirely to the fact that a CPU, instead of an ordinary human brain, controls the robot. Even controlling in the experiment for whether the creature had a CPU or a brain, subjects were more likely to ascribe phenomenal consciousness when the creature had a body that made it look like a human being.

God in the Machine
What if something has no body? How does that change our conceptions of what conscious experience might be possible? We can turn to the ultimate disembodied creature: God. A recent study by Harvard University psychologists Heather Gray, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner looked at people’s intuitions about which kinds of mental states God could have. By now, you have probably guessed the result. People were content to say that God could have psychological properties such as:
• Thought
• Memory
• Planning
But they did not think God could have states that involved feelings or experiences, such as:
• Pleasure
Pain
• Fear

In subsequent work, the researchers directly compared attributions of mental states to God with attributions of mental states to Google Corporation. These two entities—different though they are in so many respects—elicited exactly the same pattern of responses.

Looking at the results from these various studies, it is hard to avoid having the sense that one should be able to construct a single unified theory that explains the whole pattern of people’s intuitions. Such a theory would describe the underlying cognitive processes that lead people to think that certain entities are capable of a wide range of psychological states but are not capable of truly feeling or experiencing anything. Unfortunately, no such theory has been proposed thus far. Further theoretical work here is badly needed.

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Betting on a Cure

Getty Images
Could drug therapy curb an addiction to gambling?

This summer, two scientists are making a risky bet: that they can treat gambling addiction solely by administering drugs. Both researchers have just begun small trials of pharmacotherapies traditionally used for treating alcoholism. They hypothesize that gambling releases the same kind of feel-good chemicals that alcohol does, and that the drugs may tamp down the thrill of betting just enough to help "problem gamblers" resist the allure.

So far, the early results are encouraging—and that's saying something, given that the trials recruited patients for the express purpose of taking the drugs and then exposing themselves to temptation. But doctors have been trying to treat gamblers with similar therapies for years, with mixed results at best. Can these researchers succeed where past attempts have failed? Or are they still a few cards short of a good hand?

The first of this summer's two trials is the brainchild of Judy Grisel, a psychologist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. The legwork for it began several years ago, when Grisel sent a student into video gambling parlors along the northwestern border of South Carolina. ("She smelled like smoke for three straight months," Grisel says.) The student gave 60 of the regulars at the gaming parlors $50 in exchange for letting her watch while they played a game called Shamrock 7s—a variation of video poker that is "a very repetitive, mind-numbing game, with no strategy," says Grisel. Half of the gamblers took a placebo. The other half took a drug called Naltrexone, which is approved for treating alcoholism and drug addiction.

"People who take the drug tend to drink more slowly and leave bars earlier," says Grisel. "They say things like, 'Well, I've got a lot going on tomorrow,' or 'I had a long week.' They don't seem to enjoy drinking as much." Naltrexone works by blocking opiate receptors—a crucial step in the pathway for processing dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter that activates the brain's sense of reward. Essentially, the drug is designed to keep people from enjoying addictive behaviors as much as they normally might.

Sure enough, Grisel and her student found that those gamblers who took Naltrexone weren't nearly as active in the parlors as the control group was. "They bet about half as much money," she says. "It wasn't a knock-your-socks-off effect, but it was significant." Alas, any hopes for identical follow-up tests were thwarted: Shortly after the experiment, South Carolina outlawed video gambling parlors. So this summer, Grisel and another student will try to replicate the results with Naltrexone in the lab. Her second student has designed a computer-based card game and will watch to see whether gamblers taking Naltrexone are less willing to risk large amounts of money while playing.

Meanwhile, a similar trial is getting under way across the country at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Dennis McNeilly, a psychiatrist at the UNMC, has built his experiment around Acamprosate, which has a different mechanism of action than Naltrexone but is also designed to decrease cravings for alcohol. A recent small study found that it could also cut back on behaviors tied to problems of impulse control, such as compulsive eating, in some patients.

McNeilly plans to recruit about 20 people who are healthy except for their gambling addictions, people who "have truly tried to stop gambling, but can't," he says. (His experiment has no control group, which means that his results won't be conclusive, but they could potentially point the way for further research.) He will give all of his gamblers Acamprosate three times a day for eight weeks, and then ask them to evaluate their cravings in that time period. "These are individuals who arrange their days and their lifestyles around gambling. They are thinking about it all day long," he says. "So we'll want to see if they still plan their days around it, and if they actually do bet less. We want to know how people experience taking this drug: What kind of difference does it make in their lives? The whole idea is that ultimately we want to help people get to a point where they can have fewer cravings so they can say, 'Gee, this isn't as much fun anymore.'"

There are two main problems the trials might run into: Either the drugs won't work, or they'll work a little too well. The first objection is backed up by other studies that have shown that drugs designed to tamp down urges may have limited success. Studies of Acamprosate have shown that when the drug works in alcoholics, it does so only if used in combination with counseling and group therapy. And studies of Naltrexone have gone both ways: Some paint it as a huge success, but others are more skeptical. One recent trial published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that almost 40 percent of patients who took Naltrexone managed not to gamble for at least a month (the placebo rate was a comparatively measly 10 percent). But another trial of Naltrexone and gamblers, published in the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry in 2002, found that the drug was less likely to help "patients with poorer social and occupational functioning due to urges and thoughts about gambling"—in other words, those who need help the most.

Mark Stacy, a neurologist at Duke University, says he's tried using this type of drug in Parkinson's patients, who sometimes develop compulsive gambling behaviors as a result of medications that boost their dopamine levels. (In Parkinson's, the brain's dopamine-producing neurons atrophy and die, so many drugs used to treat the illness affect the dopamine "pleasure" pathways, often with unexpected results.) "Nothing really seems to work [to treat gambling addiction in those patients]," he says. "We've never been able to treat compulsivity very well."

Part of the problem, according to Stacy, is that drugs like Naltrexone are targeting the "D2" dopamine pathway in the brain, which is associated with rewards, but not another pathway, "D1," which is more closely associated with compulsive behaviors. "The next wave of addiction treatments," he says, will need to attack both pathways instead of "just going after one neurotransmitter constellation." It's possible, he adds, that just going after the D2 dopamine pathway could make gambling problems even worse, since the compulsion pathway will still be open for business.

The second objection—that dopamine blockers might work too well—centers on the basic mechanism of Naltrexone, which is a crude one. Because it works by stopping the brain from processing the chemical that makes an activity feel good, it could cause some patients to lose pleasure in other areas of life. Studies show that Naltrexone treatment doesn't trigger depression in most patients, but Grisel says that the drug might make some of life's most fun activities seem "gray and uninspiring" to former addicts. "If someone's just sitting at their desk having a regular day and they took this drug, they wouldn't be able to tell a difference," she says. "But if they were about to have sex or listening to a concert by their favorite band, they probably wouldn't enjoy that as much."

Ultimately, that may turn out to be the biggest problem with these drugs. Forget for a minute how well they work: If losing the capacity to experience joy is a risk, what patient would be willing to take them?

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What is a Dimension Anyway?

A Whole New Dimension to Space
In everyday life the number of dimensions refers to the minimum number of measurements required to specify the position of an object, such as latitude, longitude and altitude. Implicit in this definition is that space is smooth and obeys the laws of classical physics.

But what if space is not so well behaved? What if its shape is determined by quantum processes in which everyday notions cannot be taken for granted? For these cases, physicists and mathematicians must develop more sophisticated notions of dimensionality. The number of dimensions need not even be an integer, as in the case of fractals—patterns that look the same on all scales.

Cantor Set : Take a line, chop out the middle third and repeat ad infinitum. The resulting fractal is larger than a solitary point but smaller than a continuous line. Its Hausdorff dimension [see next page] is 0.6309.

Sierpinski Gasket: A triangle from which ever smaller subtriangles have been cut, this figure is intermediate between a one-dimensional line and a 2-D surface. Its Hausdorff dimension is 1.5850.

Menger Sponge: A cube from which subcubes have been cut, this fractal is a surface that partially spans a volume. Its Hausdorff dimension is 2.7268, similar to that of the human brain.

Generalized Definitions Of Dimensions

Hausdorff Dimension
Formulated by the early 20th-century German mathematician Felix Hausdorff, this definition is based on how the volume, V, of a region depends on its linear size, r. For ordinary three-dimensional space, V is proportional to r3. The exponent gives the number of dimensions. “Volume” can also refer to other measures of total size, such as area. For the Sierpi´nski gasket, V is proportional to r1.5850, reflecting the fact that this figure does not even fully cover an area.

Spectral Dimension
This definition describes how things spread through a medium over time, be it an ink drop in a tank of water or a disease in a population. Each molecule of water or individual in the population has a certain number of closest neighbors, which determines the rate at which the ink or disease diffuses. In a three-dimensional medium, a cloud of ink grows in size as time to the 3/2 power. In the Sierpi´nski gasket, ink must ooze through a twisty shape, so it spreads more slowly—as time to the 0.6826 power, corresponding to a spectral dimension of 1.3652.

Applying the Definitions
In general, different ways to calculate the number of dimensions give different numbers, because they probe different aspects of the geometry. For some geometric figures, the number of dimensions is not fixed. For instance, diffusion may be a more complicated function than time to a certain power.

Quantum-gravity simulations focus on the spectral dimension. They imagine dropping a tiny being into one building block in the quantum spacetime. From there the being walks around at random. The total number of space­time building blocks it touches over a given period reveals the spectral dimension.

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Will a Computer “Symbiote” be Implanted in Future Human Brains?

Computerbrain Will future humans have computers implanted in their brains? Researchers are developing a neural implant that can think independently—just like the human brain does. Creepy? Yeah. Cool? Definitely. Scientists at the University of Florida aren’t just creating a neural implant that can translate human brain signals, but one that can act independently to increase its efficiency and synergy with the brain as it learns new things.

"In the grand scheme of brain-machine interfaces, this is a complete paradigm change," said Justin C. Sanchez, Ph.D., a UF assistant professor of pediatric neurology and the study's lead author. "This idea opens up all kinds of possibilities for how we interact with devices. It's not just about giving instructions but about those devices assisting us in a common goal. You know the goal, the computer knows the goal and you work together to solve the task."

These “brain computers” are programmed with complex algorithms that can interpret thoughts. But the algorithms used in current brain-machine interfaces are incapable of adapting to change, Sanchez explains. They are order-takers, but not adaptive problem-solvers.

"The status quo of brain-machine interfaces that are out there have static and fixed decoding algorithms, which assume a person thinks one way for all time," he said. "We learn throughout our lives and come into different scenarios, so you need to develop a paradigm that allows interaction and growth."

Sanchez and his colleagues tested out evolving brain-machine interface using rats.

The rats’ brains were fitted with tiny electrodes that capture thought signals. Three rats were taught how to move a robotic arm toward a target using just their thoughts. Each time they succeeded, the rats were rewarded.

The computer, on the other hand, was programmed to earn as many points as possible by figuring out how to help the rat. The closer a rat moved the arm to the target, the more points the computer received, which helped the computer determine which brain signals lead to the most rewards. The computer then knew how to streamline the process to make it more efficient and ultimately easier for the rats.

The researchers made things progressively more difficult for the rats by requiring them to hit targets that were placed farther and farther away. However, the symbiotic relationship between the computer and the rats allowed the rats to complete tasks more efficiently each time despite the increasing difficulty.

So how does this all apply to humans? Well, there’s not a lot of legitimate funds available out there to turn humans into superhuman cyborgs “just for fun” (well, other than DARPA funding, of course), so initially the technology will be developed for therapeutic applications, such as allowing paraplegics victims to control their own limbs again and so forth.

However, there is a whole slew of other fantastic sci-fi inspired applications that are theoretically possible with this type of computer “symbiote” implants. For example, how would you like to be able to calculate enormous equations in your own head? You’d just think about what you wanted calculated and your neural implant would do the work for you instantaneously. Or how would you like the entire library of congress stored neatly in your brain where you can access any kind of information you’d ever want instantly just by thinking about. You wonder to yourself, “When was Abraham Lincoln born?” Your symbiote could then theoretically feed the correct answer back to you in what felt as natural as your own thoughts.

Mental work like creating company reports and term papers would become ridiculously easy. It’d be better than having a photographic memory, but of course with a neural implant you could theoretically have one of those too! Your implant could easily store an image of everything you’ve ever looked at, especially the way micro data storing technology is developing.

Neural implants would also allow people to control heavy machinery (or gigantic evil robots) with nothing but their thoughts remotely—perhaps even halfway around the world. However, giving a “thinking” computer a portion of the steering wheel, could conceivably raise a whole new class of questions about who’s really in charge. Up until now, brain-machine interfaces have always been designed as a one-way conversation between the brain and a computer. The brain gives the instructions and the computer merely follows commands. But now, according to findings published this month online in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, the system UF engineers created gives the computer a say in that conversation, as well.

Just imagine the autoworker in court convincingly replacing the outdated “devil made me do it” argument with “my neural implant made me do it…I mean, sure I thought about crushing my boss with that 2 ton metallic robot arm, but I had no idea my neural implant would take me so seriously.”

Marvel Comics first coined the term symbiote to denote a sentient organism that bonds with other organisms in a co-captain style of control where both organisms think synergistically—although the symbiote always seems to have the upper hand. In sci-fi, symbiotes have incredible adaptive attributes and quickly adapt to and enhance the abilities of the human they bond to while granting them a range of other incredible powers to boot. Traditional comic book symbiotes have been biological extraterrestrial aliens, but the real life expression of symbiotes could end up being advanced computer systems—hopefully programmed without the volatile and murderous urges that defined their fictional counterparts. In theory, a computer-brain interface could allow people to download a program that makes them think more creatively. You could download a movie you’ve been wanting to watch and just relax anywhere while it plays out in your head.

The sci-fi inspired implications are staggering. Will it give humans ESP using blue tooth technology to “beam” thoughts directly from one implant to another? What if you could somehow remotely override someone else’s neural computer? In theory you could control their physical actions and even their words. Or what if neural implants become commonplace enhancements for those who can afford it, effectively separating the human race into two major classes—superhuman vs the non-enhanced?

The questions and implications are endless, and while they are all likely far away possibilities, we now know its not just fiction. In reality, technological advancements often lead to real changes that are much stranger that fiction. The eventual melding of the human mind with advanced computer technology would revolutionize the world ways that we cannot even possibly imagine.

Posted by Rebecca Sato

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Full speed ahead for nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology might be very tiny but its implications can be quite large. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)
Nanotechnology might be very tiny but its implications can be quite large. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Nanotechnology holds vast potential for producing energy efficient products and processes — from purifying water to making better solar cells. In my Business of Green column this week, I write about how the market for such products could be worth trillions of dollars in coming years.

But the science of the small (as nanotechnology often is described) is throwing up vast, new challenges for regulators.

Nanotechology involves materials that are one billionth of a meter in size. Such particles may more readily penetrate biological membranes, cells, tissues and organs that larger particles cannot. The result is growing concern about the long-term effects on humans and other forms of life.

Everyone from health and environmental campaigners to business leaders agrees that reconciling the pros and cons of nanotechnology is going to be hard work, and that a full understanding of the properties of these materials could take years to establish.

Where they disagree is what to do now.

Groups like Friends of the Earth Europe have called for a moratorium on nanotechnology products until there are new laws that guarantee public safety. But governments and other authorities are taking a different course. The European Commission, which is the executive rule-making body for the European Union, says that current legislation, including its law on chemicals, is adequate for now.

In the case of biofuels, proponents say that the current generation of crop fuels may have contributed to the hike in food prices that is hurting many parts of the poor world. But they also say these fuels were a necessary step to the next generation of fuels that could come from sources like algae and switchgrass that do not compete with food.

Speeding ahead with the commercialization of nanotechnologies may also involve difficult tradeoffs. The question remains: Are they worth making?

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Ancient Giant Wombat Sex Differences Were Huge

wombat picture


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They may have been vegetarians, but the ancient wombats that roamed Australia were a frightening lot. Up to 9 feet (3 meters) long and 70 inches (180 centimeters) tall, some of the marsupials weighed as much as a pickup truck and stood as tall as a person. Others were much smaller, about the weight of a compact car.

This size variation has led paleontologists to debate just how many ancient wombat species existed, with estimates ranging from 2 to 20.

But a new study, published in the current issue of the journal Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, suggests that—despite their vastly different sizes—ancient wombats all belonged to the same species, and that gender differences accounted for the huge size gaps.

Today's wombats, found throughout much of southern Australia, are more modest in appearance—short-legged, plant-eaters about 3.2 feet (1 meter) long. They hardly resemble their giant Ice Age ancestors, the largest marsupials to roam Earth from about two million to 10,000 years ago.

Fossil Teeth

Researchers analyzed fossil teeth of giant wombat specimens.

"I suspected that just looking at teeth might give a much clearer picture of who was related to who," said study author Gilbert Price, a paleontologist of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

"I figured the study would reveal that two, maybe three species once roamed the continent," Price said.

[Related: "Tooth Study Suggests Humans Caused Australian Ice-Age Extinctions" [January 24, 2007].)

In humans and other mammals, males and females often diverge drastically in size—a trait known as sexual dimorphism. Analyzing fossil teeth can thus prove an effective strategy to study ancient species.

Unlike the rest of the body, which is subject to the demands of sexual display, back teeth such as molars tend to only be involved in eating. Since both sexes of a particular species usually eat similar foods, their teeth should look the same.

Price leveraged this fact while comparing more than a thousand ancient wombat teeth held in museums around the world. He discovered that the fossils all showed similar patterns.

This indicated just one giant wombat species existed and that paleontologists were mistaking the differently sized male and female giant wombats for separate species.

The discovery helps explain why the bones of different-size wombats—male and female—are often found together.

Mistakes Made

Andy Currant is a paleontologist at the British Natural History Museum in London who was not involved in the study.

"Most large fossil herbivores tend to tune down to a smaller number of taxa [biological classifications] when you look at them closely," he said.

But, he added, the mistakes made by early investigators are easy to forgive. Researchers used to be hypersensitive to variation in specimens and did not really understand how much variation there can be between males and females within a population, he said.

Marcelo Sánchez, a paleontologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, said: "Solving such a specific taxonomic problem may not seem important. But individual-species research like this is ultimately what major claims about evolution depends[s] upon."

"Now we need to figure out why these giants went extinct," he added.

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'X-Men' frogs sprout claws on demand

David C. Blackburn
Predators beware! A close-up of the foot of a living Trichobatrachus robustus showing the white bony claws protruding from the tips of the toes.

By Maggie Fox


WASHINGTON - At least 11 species of African frogs carry a built-in concealed weapon — they can sprout claws on demand to fight off attackers, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.

When threatened, the frogs can puncture their own skin with sharp bones in their toes that they then use to claw their attackers, David Blackburn and colleagues at Harvard University reported.

"It's surprising enough to find a frog with claws," Blackburn, a graduate student, said in a statement.

"The fact that those claws work by cutting through the skin of the frogs' feet is even more astonishing. These are the only vertebrate claws known to pierce their way to functionality."

Image: Astylosternus perreti,  one of the species with the bony claws.
David C. Blackburn
You don't mess with the Astylosternus perreti, one of the frog species with the bony claws.

Blackburn became aware of the frogs when one scratched him in Cameroon.

He looked at museum specimens of 63 African frog species. In 11 central African species the bones at the ends of the toes were pointed and hooked, with smaller, free-floating bones at their tips.

"These nodules are also closely connected to the surrounding skin by dense networks of collagen," Blackburn said. "It appears they hold the skin in place relative to these claw-like bones, such that when the frog flexes a certain muscle in the foot, the sharp bone separates from the nodule and bursts through the skin."

While the finding is new to science, it is not news to locals. "Cameroonian hunters will use long spears or machetes to avoid touching these frogs," Blackburn said. "Some have even reported shooting the frogs."

Image: Frog claw skeleton
David C. Blackburn
In this close-up image of the skeleton of a frog claw, the bones are stained red and the sheath suspending the small bony nodule is somewhat blue.

For their part, the frogs probably use this defense rarely, Blackburn said.

"We suspect, since the frog does suffer a fairly traumatic wound, that they probably use these claws infrequently, and only when threatened," he said.

"Most vertebrates do a much better job of keeping their skeletons inside," he added.




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How many species live in the sea?

  • NewScientist.com news service
  • Catherine Brahic

How many species are there in the sea? Some 230,000 recorded so far, all of which will soon be available to anyone at the click of a mouse.

The World Register of Marine Species is launched today by the Census of Marine Life. Once complete, it will provide the first definitive list of all known species in the world's oceans.

The Register is freely accessible online and includes descriptions of the species and photos. It will allow both the public and scientists to identify species they come across and easily recognise entirely new species.

Until now censuses have been incomplete, focussing on single species or regions, making proper assessment of the impact of humans on oceans difficult. "Convincing warnings about declining populations of fish and other marine species must rest on a valid census," says Mark Costello of the University of Auckland, co-founder of the World Register.

Jesse Ausubel of the Sloane Foundation, which funds the Census of Marine Life, says he was first struck by the need to catalogue marine species in 2000, when he realised the UN Environment Programme's Global Biodiversity Assessment had little information on what lived in the sea.

Lack of a list

Ausubel asked the author of the report's only chapter on marine life, Frederick Grassle of Rutgers University, US, how many species there were in the sea. He was told that the best estimate was between 1 and 10 million.

"I asked him if he could at least give me a list of the species that were known at the time," says Ausubel. Grassle was embarrassed to admit he could not. "How could there not be a list in the year 2000 of what we knew to live in the oceans?" marvels Ausubel.

Since then, the Census of Marine Life has worked to establish such a list. With the help of experts worldwide, they are painstakingly reviewing and compiling published records of marine species. Much of the work has focussed on identifying species given different names that are in fact the same.

The sperm whale, for instance, has been found to have 4 different Latin names, and one sponge species, the breadcrumb sponge, has 56.

Millions more

So far, the catalogue contains 122,000 species, about half the estimated 230,000 known species. It should be complete by 2010.

But there are still millions more ocean species to be discovered. Meeting in Belgium on 20-21 June, marine taxonomists discussed Grassle's estimate of between 1 and 10 million total marine species.

"We think that a million is reasonable," says Ausubel, adding that experts have little idea what the upper limit could be. The group hope to be able to make a more informed guess once they have finished cataloguing those that have already been described.

Mysteries of the Deep Sea - The deep sea is one of the harshest habitats on Earth, but is home to many remarkable creatures. Learn more in our comprehensive special report.

Endangered species - Learn more about the conservation battle in our comprehensive special report.

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How a Man-Made Tornado Could Power the Future

Editor's Note: Each Wednesday LiveScience examines the viability of emerging energy technologies — the power of the future.

Coiled up in a tornado is as much energy as an entire power plant. So a Canadian engineer has a plan to spin up his own twister and extract energy from its tethered tail.

It all depends on heating the air near the surface so that it is much warmer than the air above.

"You can generate energy whenever you have a temperature gradient," said Louis Michaud. "The source of the energy here is the natural movement of warm and cold air currents."

These so-called convective air currents are only useful if they can be channeled in some way. That is why Michaud proposes using a tornado as a kind of drinking straw between the warm ground below and the cold sky above. Wind turbines placed at the bottom could generate electricity from the sucked-up air.

Whirlwind tour

Tornadoes and hurricanes form when sun-heated air near the surface rises and displaces cooler air above. As outside air rushes in to replace the rising air, the whole mass begins to rotate.

Michaud got the notion of a man-made tornado — what he calls the Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE) — while working as an engineer on gas turbines.

"When I looked further into it, I didn't run into anything that was impossible," Michaud told LiveScience.

The AVE structure is a 200-meter-wide arena with 100-meter-high walls. Warm humid air enters at the sides, directed to flow in a circular fashion. As the air whirls around at speeds up to 200 mph, a vacuum forms in the center, which holds the vortex together as it extends several miles into the sky.

The concept is similar to a solar chimney with the swirling walls of the vortex replacing the brick walls of the tower. But the AVE can reach much higher into the sky where the air is colder.

With wind turbines at the inlets to the arena, Michaud calculates that as much as 200 megawatts of electricity (enough for a small city) could be extracted without draining the vortex of its power.

"Look at natural tornadoes that destroy a house or carry off a car and still have plenty of energy left over," he said.

Waste heat

Michaud imagines the AVE could get its warm air from the exhaust of a power plant.

"Most power plants reject more than half of the heat that they make," he said.

The AVE could generate energy from this waste heat because it connects the ground to the upper atmosphere where the temperature gets as low as negative 60 degrees Celsius (80 degrees below zero Fahrenheit). This cold reservoir draws the warm air up fast enough to turn turbines.

"All you have to do is send the heat up there," Michaud said, and the extra energy from the AVE could increase the output of a power plant by 40 percent.

Making the tornado dependent on a waste heat supply would also be a built-in safety feature. "If it came off the base, there would be nothing to sustain the vortex," Michaud said.

He said the vortex might produce a little extra precipitation in the surrounding area.

To build a 200 megawatt AVE facility would cost $60 million, Michaud estimates. This implies a cost per megawatt that is lower than all existing power generation technologies.

Michaud has tested many small prototypes and is currently working on a 4-meter wide AVE near his home in Ontario. The research comes mostly out his own pocket book, as he has not found an investor yet.

"Utility companies are risk-adverse," he said. "They prefer to buy from established vendors."

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DIY Electric Motorcycle Kicks Butt, Gets 300 eMPG


A year ago, EcoModder forum member Ben Nelson got an old, non-running motorcycle and converted it to electric drive. He’d never had a motorcycle before and wasn’t an expert with electric vehicles, but in true DIY nature, he learned as he went along.

DIY electric motorcycle The bike was never designed to be a fast, flashy race bike, but rather a cheap and effective way to get around town in style. Ben is currently building an electric car, but by all accounts a motorcycle is a great (and slightly less expensive) step down the road to electric vehicles. In the end Ben had built himself a motorcycle with speed up to 40 mph and a range of around 15 miles, all for less than $2000. The best thing about the conversion is that, unlike many, it is completely street legal, with full registration and insurance.

Here’s what Ben has to say about the costs of this project:

$100 for original cycle
$500ish for motor (used on Ebay)
$300ish for New Alltrax AXE 48v 300 amp programmable controller
$160 EACH for 4 Optima yellow top 55AH batteries.

I am also including in this total cost, a motorcycle safety class, new helmet, a year of insurance, lots of little trips to the hardware store, etc.

So, the total cost for the bike was really only about$1500, with a few new parts (like the controller) that could’ve been found used if you’re running on a tighter budget. Currently, the bike is only using three of those four batteries, as Ben is trying to find out how to mount the 4th battery and up the bike to 48 volts.

Comparing the energy content of gasoline to that used by the motorcycle, Ben’s determined that on average, his bike gets the equivalent of 300 mpg:


This shows that not only is the electric version more efficient, but if you crunch the numbers comparing the current price of gas to the price of grid energy, you’ll see that this motorcycle is not only cool and environmentally friendly, but has the potential to save a bit of money. For more info on eMPG, check out this thread.

electric motorcycle blows upHowever, Ben’s story isn’t all gumdrops and happy endings. One day, while out riding the motorcycle he managed to blow up the controller. He and the bike are fine and he’s got it going again, but when attempting a DIY project like this, especially because it involves a vehicle responsible for your safety, it’s always good to go in with open eyes and be ready for the unexpected. That said, it wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds.

Besides being a great ecomodder, Ben is also pretty good with video. Check out these two that he put together, the first one is his neighbor’s reaction to the electric bike and the second is Ben talking about the project:

For more depth about the building and the tech specs behind this bike, check out Ben’s site and his build thread. More inspiration for EV motorcycles can be found at the motorcycle section of the Austin EV album. You can even find Ben’s bike on there.

UPDATE: I talked to Ben and he told me that he had in fact added the forth battery, and that with that and the system running 48v his top speed has been increased to 45 mph and the range to 20 miles. Sorry for the error!

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Billion Acres of Fallow Farmland Could Grow Biofuels

A billion acres of farmland around the world have been abandoned and could now be used to grow biofuel crops, a new study suggests.

One of the criticisms of biofuels such as ethanol from corn or rice is that the crops eat into land that could be used to grow food, which is increasingly in short supply globally, causing frustration and hunger that have led to protests and riots. The alternative of clearing forests to grow biofuel crops is unacceptable to many.

Yet somewhere between 1 billion and 1.2 billion acres of agricultural land is lying fallow, the study finds. That compares to about 3.8 billion acres that are currently in use.

The researchers caution, however, that biofuels will be no magic bullet to resolving possible energy crises in the future.

"Our results showed that if you used all these abandoned agricultural lands, you might obtain up to 8 percent of current energy needs," said Elliott Campbell, a postdoctoral fellow in biology at Stanford University and lead author of the report. "So this result is basically showing us that biofuels could be a meaningful, but a small portion of our total energy future."

The study, based on satellite imagery and historical maps, is detailed today in the online edition of the journal Environmental Science &Technology. It was funded by the Carnegie Institution and the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford.

Land has fallen out of agricultural production for a variety of reasons. In some instances, new technologies or infrastructure have made land with better soil available, as when farmers in the eastern United States left their farms for the richer prairie soils of the Midwest. Elsewhere, soil erosion or depleted soil nutrients have forced farmers away from plots that could still support other crops such as switchgrass that could be used for biofuel.

"These abandoned agricultural lands are distributed throughout the world, in places with a variety of different climates," Campbell said. "So the type of plant species that might give you the most biomass per year would probably depend on the local climate."

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Nanosilver in your socks = nanohazard in the environment?

Tiny particles of silver designed to kill germs are being put into socks to control odor. But as this ScienCentral News video explains, what happens to that nanosilver later is concerning some scientists.

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


Interviewee: Troy Benn, Arizona State University;
Sean Murdock, NanoBusiness Alliance;
Andrew Maynard, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Length: 2 min 18 sec
Produced by Sandy Chase
Edited by Sandy Chase and James Eagan
Copyright – – Ã�© ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy
Troy Benn, Arizona State University;
ABC News; and Iowa State University.

Socks with a silver lining

Several manufacturers are incorporating nano-sized particles of silver into socks to kill bacteria that cause odor. But does the silver stay in the socks? And what happens to it if it washes out? Arizona State University's Troy Benn tested a variety of socks containing nanosilver. He wrote in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that some socks released nearly all of their nanosilver within the first four washings.

Surprisingly, says Benn, "Others that contained a lot of silver in the sock didn't release any silver that was detectable." He says there must be some differences in the manufacturing process. "We assume there is a way to contain the silver within sock because we did see a large difference between different manufacturers of the sock material."

For someone with diabetes or a soldier in the field, says Benn, a sock that kills microbes and prevents infection could be critical, but for other people, "The question is whether the benefits really outweigh the potential environmental cost"


Silver, the wonder drug

Silver is a naturally-occurring element, and is present in trace amounts in the environment. It is a natural antimicrobial. But as with many things, you can have too much of a good thing. In larger concentrations, silver is a pollutant. When it is used in industries like photographic film manufacturing, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) places strict regulations on the amount of silver that can be released into the environment.

The Romans placed silver coins in wine to preserve freshness, and fixed them to wounds to help them heal with fewer infections. Silverware was also prized for preserving food and having some antimicrobial properties. Hospitals still use silver wound dressings for burn victims. And until recently, doctors routinely put silver nitrate drops in the eyes of newborns to prevent eye infections.

When things get small

Nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate matter on the nano scale, or billionths of a meter, the scale of individual molecules. Nanosilver is an unfathomably fine dust that — thanks to its enormous surface area — is a very potent microbicide. Silver has fairly low toxicity to humans, although drink enough of it and your skin will turn an alarming shade of gray or even blue, a permanent but otherwise apparently harmless condition called argyria.

Making silver into nanoparticles allows it to be mixed into soaps, plastic food containers, teddy bear stuffing, and toothpaste. And it is also used to coat everything from endotracheal tubes to elevator buttons to baby pacifiers.

In 2003, Samsung introduced a line of SilverCare washing machines that flush clothes with silver ions to disinfect them. (Silver ions are positively charged, reactive silver atoms.) The admirable goal was to reduce the amount of hot water (and energy) needed to disinfect clothes. Clothes doused in silver could be washed in cool water and still be fresh. A little silver might even stay in the clothes and keep them from stinking while you wear them.

But because silver kills "pests," the EPA considers it a pesticide. Products that are used to kill microbes are supposed to be registered with the EPA under FIFRA. That involves extensive safety and environmental impact testing related to the specific use of the product. Samsung is in the process of registering their SilverCare washing machines. They were pulled from U.S. markets in 2006, but they are on sale again during the application process, which can last a year or more.

Should the EPA regulate Nanosilver?

Unfortunately, silver has been shown to harm fish and other aquatic organisms. And since it is such a powerful microbicide, environmentalists worry that flushing silver-containing wash water down the drain and dumping nanosilver products into landfills could affect the base layer of the ecosystem, the tiny bacteria and other microorganisms that every other living thing depends on — a scenario that is raising a lot of concern.

Zhiqiang Hu from the University of Missouri-Columbia has shown that silver ions and nanosilver can kill the kinds of microbes that are used in wastewater treatment plants to process waste. "We are really concerned if they are going to discharge into the wastewater system, they're probably going to cause some environmental impact."

nanosilver attacks bacteria
Nanosilver attacks microorganism cell wall.
image: Zhiqiang Hu, University of Missouri

Hu says introduction of large amounts of silver could interfere with the bacteria's ability to break down sewage. Also, solid biomass from treatment facilities is sometimes distributed to farms as fertilizer, and that could carry silver to the soil. "If the level of the metal made of those silver [particles] is high enough," says Hu, "that probably can cause environmental impact in the soil systems." Plants depend on nitrogen-fixing bacteria in soil. Kill that bacteria and crops and other plants won't grow.

There are several potential holes in the theory, though. Transport of nanosilver and silver ions through all these stages has yet to be documented. (Hu and his colleagues are doing research to determine that now.) Silver may combine with other elements along the way and become less harmful or precipitate out and get trapped by wastewater filters. Another consideration is that using silver in washing machines may significantly reduce the amount of detergent and water needed to wash clothes, which would reduce pollution and conserve precious water.

But with nanosilver now in hundreds of products that are not required to be registered with the EPA, is this more useful — but possibly more harmful — form of silver becoming ubiquitous and unregulated?

The EPA tends to exclude two categories of microbicides from their regulations (except in cases where there is clear evidence of some toxic or environmental impact.) 1) Personal care products and cosmetics like hand-sanitizing gels and antibacterial toothpastes usually fall under FDA regulation. 2) Antimicrobials designed to protect the product itself, like those in mildew-resistant paint, tend to get a pass on EPA regulation. Only when the product disperses a pesticide or toxic chemical is the EPA really interested.

Many other products that contain nanosilver have since removed all mention of any antimicrobial properties. This is a gray area, according to Dale Kemery of the EPA. If the product still contains silver but makes no claim, it can fall through the regulatory cracks.

This has left citizens with less information about the products they choose.

One ounce = one ton

Another problem with regulating nanosilver is figuring out how to quantify its risks. Typically, pollution is regulated by the amount of contaminant in the environment by weight or volume. But these may not be useful measures of the effects — either positive or negative — of nano-sized particles. The reactive part of silver is on its surface, and nano-sized particles have thousands or even millions of times the surface area of bulk material. That means one ounce of nanosilver dust could have the same surface area as one ton of bulk silver, depending on the particle size. Eventually, regulations might have to be based on number of particles per volume or even a calculated surface area.

Looking forward

In 2008, the EPA launched the Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program, which invites companies to send in any data they have of the characterization of nanomaterials and any safety and environmental research results that they have produced. The EPA also funds research of the impact of new materials.

But some people feel it's not enough. For one thing, the program is voluntary. Companies can exclude materials or results that they don't care to share with the public. And environmental groups are wary to let industry be responsible for its own safety testing. The U.S. has a long history of failing to respond to the danger of hazardous materials in a timely manner.

Sean Murdock of the Nanobusiness Alliance says many people don't realize how far we've come in predicting and responding to potential hazards. "In all of these things, manufacturers are doing testing to ensure that they're safe. And frankly, we've much more robust science to help understand both the short term safety as well as the long-term safety of the materials that we're working with."

Price of innovation

This year, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the major government funding for nanotechnology research, is up for reauthorization. Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor to the policy group Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, would like to see a larger portion of those funds put toward environmental, health, and safety research. "Nanotechnology industries are desperate for clarity and a reduction in uncertainty here. So they want the research that is going to show us which nanomaterials are harmful and how to use them safely, because without that clarity, they just cannot do business."

Lux Research predicts that globally, $2.6 trillion worth of goods will incorporate nanotechnology by 2014. Maynard says now is the time to get the safety issues right: as nanotechnology moves from the laboratory to the factory. "Governments clearly want to see a new technology like nanotechnology come along which is going to stimulate the economy, lead to new jobs. But again, they don't want to create a legacy of harm that somebody else is going to have to clear up."

Publications: Environmental Science & Technology, April 2008; Water Research, March 2008.
Research funded by: National Science Foundation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Water Environment Research Foundation, and the University of Missouri Research Board.

by Sandy Chase

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Brazil Seizes Livestock to Protect Rain Forest


Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

Cattle grazed last November in a deforested area of Assis, in the Brazilian Amazon. Ranchers have been blamed for deforestation.

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — In an unprecedented move against rogue cattle ranchers in the Amazon, the Brazilian government has seized livestock grazing there illegally, the new environment minister announced Tuesday.

Officials carted off 3,100 head of cattle that they said were being raised on an ecological reserve in the state of Para, in an operation intended to serve as a warning to other ranchers grazing an estimated 60,000 head on illegally deforested land in Amazonia, the environment minister, Carlos Minc, said.

“No more being soft,” Mr. Minc told reporters in the capital, Brasilia. “Those that don’t respect environmental legislation, your cattle are going to become barbecue for Fome Zero,” he said, referring to the government’s food program for the poor.

Mr. Minc said the cattle would be auctioned in two weeks and the proceeds go to Fome Zero, as well as to health programs for indigenous peoples and to finance cattle removal operations.

Though Mr. Minc announced the strategy on Tuesday, the seizure took place June 7 by federal police and agents from Ibama, the government environmental agency. The cattle’s owner had been fined 3 million reais ($1.86 million) in 2005 for illegal deforestation and had ignored a court order to remove the livestock.

Fears have been growing over the future of the world’s biggest rain forest. Though annual deforestation figures fell to a 16-year low of 4,333 square miles in 2007 — from a nine-year high of 10,571 square miles in 2004 — government agencies reported this year that deforestation was on the rise again, and cattle farmers were blamed for much of the increase.

A recent report by the environmental group Friends of the Earth said that Brazil’s growing dominance of the global beef market was in large part because of the expansion into the Amazon, where land is cheap.

Brazil surpassed Australia and the United States to become the world’s biggest beef exporter in 2004, and has more than 200 million head of cattle. The report said a third of Brazil’s fresh beef exports last year came from the Amazon, and three of every four head of cattle added to Brazil’s herd since 2002 were added in the region.

Mr. Minc said that thanks to operations like those announced on Tuesday, ranchers with cattle in embargoed and protected areas such as indigenous reservations and forestry reserves are starting to move their herds for fear of having their livestock confiscated. He also announced that Ibama had begun legal proceedings to seize another 10,000 cattle grazing on illegally deforested land in Rondônia state.

Environmental advocates lauded the move but warned that it must be the first of many if Brazil is to have any chance of seriously stemming deforestation.

“This can be a good way of at least showing the government is concerned about the contribution of ranching to the problem of deforestation,” said Peter May, associate director of Friends of the Earth Brazil. “It’s an important strategy, but if they do it just once and then never do it again it will be seen as a media event.”

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