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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The building blocks

Suppose we were time travellers, and could transmit one key item of modern knowledge to a great intellect of the ancient world - Aristotle, for instance. What would we choose to tell them, a single sentence that would most transform their view of the world? We could tell them the scale of the universe - that the stars are other suns, and that there are billions of them. Or that all species emerged, over billions of years, via natural selection.

But I think what would enlighten them most of all would be the knowledge that all the stuff in the world is made of atoms - not of earth, air, fire and water, as the ancients believed. But what are the atoms themselves made of? Are they like an onion-skin with layer upon layer of structure, or will we soon reach bedrock, in the sense that the stuff of the universe will be fully understood?

It might seem paradoxical that the biggest scientific instruments of all are needed in order to probe the very smallest things in nature. The micro-world is inherently "fuzzy" - the sharper the detail we wish to study, the higher the energy that is required and the bigger the accelerator that is needed.

The Cern laboratory in Geneva was set up in 1955, to bring together European scientists who wished to pursue research into the nuclear and sub-nuclear world. Physicists then had greater clout than other scientists because the memory of their role in the second world war was fresh in people's minds. Through a succession of projects - each too expensive for any single European country to fund - Cern has been at the forefront of endeavour to build ever more powerful accelerators probing ever smaller scales. This culminates in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Within its circular tunnel, 27km in circumference, protons hurtle around at 99.99% of the speed of light. The amazing technology combines huge civil engineering with microscopic precision.

Cern is a triumph of European collaboration, but it now has a global ascendancy, and is the premier laboratory in the world for particle physics. When it switches on this summer, the LHC will generate, in a microscopic region where beams of particles collide, a concentration of energy that has never been achieved before - a concentration that mimics, in microcosm, the conditions that prevailed in the universe during the first trillionth of a second after the big bang.

The impacts may generate particles of a novel kind never before detected in a laboratory (and which may even never have existed on the earth before). This possibility is especially interesting, because one of the most perplexing features of our universe is that there is a lot of material which isn't made up of ordinary atoms. It's possible that this "dark matter" consists of particles that are left over from the fiery beginning of the universe. The LHC may allow scientists to create and study these particles.

There are strengthening links between the sciences of the very large and the very small. It's even possible that the LHC might tell us about the nature of space itself. In everyday life we regard space as dull vacuum. But this dismissive attitude is as misleading as it would be for us to believe that invisible clear air is less substantial that the clouds floating in it. Most theorists suspect that space has an intricate structure - that it is "grainy" - but that this structure is on a much finer scale than any known subatomic particle. The structure could be of an exotic kind: extra dimensions, over and above the three that we are used to (up and down, backward and forward, left and right).

A polished surface may seem smooth, but when viewed under a microscope it has bumps and dips in it: likewise our space, viewed on an ultra-fine scale, may have extra dimensions. The favoured view is that these extra dimensions only manifest themselves on scales a trillion trillion times smaller than atoms, and one of the most fascinating outcomes from the LHC could be the first evidence for them.

Whatever comes out of the LHC, the results will be a stimulus to next-generation Einsteins who will achieve the next steps in a quest, which started in ancient times, to understand the building blocks of the natural world.

· Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal and president of the Royal Society

Asteroid anniversary recalls Earth's rocky history

Summertime — a time for sunny days, beach weekends and of course, leisurely reflections on the end of the world and the monster asteroids that could smack into us. The centennial anniversary of the last big impact, the 1908 Tunguska blast that rocked Siberia, falls Monday, June 30, bringing with it a reminder of the very slight chance that a hunk of space rock out there might have Earth's number.

The Tunguska "event" leveled nearly 800 square miles of swampy woodland in Siberia, traveling from the northwest to deliver a 5-megaton blast seen by hundreds of witnesses, including one who created a postage stamp of the explosion. A space rock about 50 yards long had zoomed into the Earth's atmosphere and exploded in mid-air.

PHOTO GALLERY: This week in science

"People were knocked off their feet hundreds of miles away," writes astronomer Phil Plait in his upcoming book Death from the Skies! These are the Ways the World Will End. Years later, a scientific expedition to the remote region found trees knocked sideways in straight lines radiating 15 miles away from the blast.

Science journals this week brought us more warnings of asteroid hazards, looking even further back in time. Buried under the Chesapeake Bay and its surroundings hides a 35.4 million year-old impact crater about 56 miles across. A team led by Gregory Gohn of the U.S. Geologic Survey reports in the current Science journal that not only was the blast one that dwarfs the Tunguska event, but the crater might still hold some bad news.

Gohn and his colleagues took 3-mile-deep cores from the center of the crater, which is below a farm on Virginia's Eastern Shore. They found, 3,600 feet down in the cores, evidence that the asteroid impact blew a 900-foot thick "megablock" of granite three miles from the crater's center in the first 10 minutes of the explosion. Another 1,800 feet of impact-shifted rock sits atop the granite, with the whole mass hidden away down in the muddy depths of the placid bay.

Inside the granite layer, the team found few microbes — a left-over effect of the blast sterilizing the region, the authors suggest — but lots of trapped seawater. The trapped seawater is a hazard for anyone unlucky enough to drill that deep for drinking water.

In the current Nature, three teams of authors detail a much bigger blast even further back, about 4.4 billion years ago, when the planets had just formed. This one happened to Mars, when an asteroid the size of Pluto scalped the Red Planet's northern hemisphere, delivering a 7,700 billion megaton strike that deformed the planet, leaving the northern lowlands a smooth plain and the southern highlands a mottled badland. Any life on the early planet would have been sterilized instantly, says Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led one of the studies detailing the 6,600 mile-wide impact basin, the biggest one left in the solar system.

The only bigger known strike happened to Earth at about the same time, a 2,390 trillion megaton blast triggered by the collision of a Mars-sized object with Earth's northern hemisphere. The resultant blast left no crater, but is thought to have created the moon from the impact debris.

Asteroids and comets are still out there, of course. SOHO, the international solar astronomy satellite, reported its 1,500th comet discovery on Friday.

And Apophis, a nearly 900-foot-long asteroid, will pass no closer than 18,300 miles of Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029, appearing as a bright spot above the Atlantic Ocean, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. All told, astronomers have spotted more than 5,000 such "Near-Earth Objects" since the 1990s.

In terms of risk to Earth, astronomer David Morrison of NASA's Ames Research Center says a Tunguska-magnitude strike could happen once every two centuries and a bigger impact, a "civilization-threatening" million-megaton strike, could happen once every 2 million years. Even though astronomers have spotted more of these nearby asteroids in the last two decades, the estimated odds of an impact have actually declined, as Morrison notes in a May issue of NEO News, his asteroid newsletter.

Scientists only started to worry about these impacts in the 1960s, when researchers such as Gene Shoemaker realized the moon was covered with impact craters. And in 1980, Science published a study detailing how an asteroid strike, centered in the Gulf of Mexico near the Yucatan peninsula, was implicated in the extinction of dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, raising more concern.

The NASA authorization bill passed last week by the U.S. Congress notes the dinosaur-exterminating blast in calling for the space agency to keep tracking nearby asteroids.

Also in the current Nature, astronomer Alan Harris of the Space Science Institute looks at the history of "Spaceguard," the effort to track nearby asteroids that started in the 1990s. Spaceguard found there is "little risk of a cataclysmic impact in the next century," writes Harris, who adds: "The sky isn't falling, but there are still good reasons for keeping an eye on it."

Original here

Bacteria evolve; Conservapedia demands recount

Noises off

This is a story that starts in triumph, takes a detour through farce, and inadvertently ends raising some profound questions. The triumph is one of scientific progress in the study of evolution; the farce comes courtesy of those who run Conservapedia, who apparently can't believe that any scientific evidence can possibly support evolution. The questions, however, focus on what access the US public should have to the research that their tax dollars support.


E. coli have evolved the ability to
metabolize citrate in the lab.

Ars covered the research earlier this month, when a paper reporting it was first published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. Richard Lenski and his colleagues have been conducting a long-term experiment in bacterial evolution, one that has encompassed over 30,000 generations of bacteria going back over 20 years. Many of the bacteria have evolved the ability to better utilize the sugar available in their cultures, but one strain underwent at least three distinct changes (at generation 27,000, 31,000 and 33,000) that enabled them to access citrate present in the medium—something their parents were incapable of. Lenski saved samples of every culture at intervals of 500 generations, and his paper suggested his lab was going back and sequencing the genomes of the intermediaries to try to find out the genetic basis for the evolution of this new trait.

Conservapedia meets cognitive dissonance

The denizens of Conservapedia were not amused. They apparently subscribe to the belief that acceptance of some scientific data goes against conservative values. The site tends to present the views of mainstream science and "creation science" as equally valid scientific perspectives, as evidenced by their discussion of kangaroo origins (which is actually much improved since we first checked). The site's relevant sympathies with creationism can be seen in its discussion of information, which uncritically repeats William Dembski's claim that "information cannot be created by natural (nonintelligent) causes." Despite never defining how to measure biological information, Dembski has used this claim to rule out evolutionary origins for new biological capacities.

Clearly, Lenski's bacteria appear to have evolved a significant new capacity. Fortunately, the residents of Conservapedia found a way out of this logical conundrum: Lenski was either misinterpreting his data, or he faked it. In an open letter to Lenski, Conservapedia's Andy Schlafly (an attorney with an engineering background) wrote, "skepticism has been expressed on Conservapedia about your claims, and the significance of your claims, that E. Coli [sic] bacteria had an evolutionary beneficial mutation in your study." Their solution? Show them the data: "Please post the data supporting your remarkable claims so that we can review it, and note where in the data you find justification for your conclusions."

Lenski replied, noting that the whole purpose of scientific paper is to discuss and display data and to use them to justify conclusions; the data were in the paper itself. He also pointed out he'd placed a copy of the paper on his website for those without subscriptions to PNAS. Lenski also spent some time reexplaining some of his conclusions, and pointing out errors and misconceptions in the letter he had received. This response prompted a second letter from Schlafly, suggesting he wanted to review the data underlying the data presented in the paper, and noting that the work is taxpayer funded, giving him a right to it as a taxpayer.

Backstage drama

From here on out, standard Internet drama ensued. By the time of his next reply, Lenski had apparently read the discussion pages attached to the letters, and discovered that Schlafly hadn't actually bothered to read the paper he was demanding the data for. He has also discovered that some Conservapedia members were simply calling the whole thing a hoax, and accusing him of having engaged in research fraud. As a result, Lenski was apparently very annoyed, and his second letter is far more assertive.

Lenski again notes that the paper actually contained the relevant data, and that Schlafly's complaints suggested he wouldn't know what to do with any further data were Lenski to provide it to him. In this, he was backed up by a number of Conservapedia members, who said more or less the same thing in the attached discussion. Several of those individuals are apparently now ex-Conservapedia members, having had their accounts blocked for insubordination. In fact, anyone who questioned Schlafly's demands seem to have been branded an opponent of public access to scientific data; the statement, "I'll add your name to the list above of people who oppose the public release of data" peppers Schlafly's responses throughout the discussion.

Problems with group think and incendiary discussions are common complaints about what happens behind the scenes at Wikipedia. The irony here is that Conservapedia was ostensibly founded as a response to precisely that behavior. It appears that the victims may now be trying the role of oppressors on for size.

What should scientists share?


Lenski has offered to share the bacteria used in his work.

Lenski's primary argument is that the data needed to evaluate his conclusions are in the paper. Having read the paper, it appears that Lenski is completely correct; some of the data is depicted in graphical form instead of the raw, underlying numbers, but this appears to be largely a matter of making the data easier to interpret. In his response to Conservapedia, Lenski states (accurately) that the underlying data are in the form of the bacteria themselves, which he has stored in freezers at Michigan State. If Schlafly wants those, he can go through the standard channels. He needs to demonstrate that he can store and use them properly and that his use would serve some scientific purpose. If those conditions are met, Schlafly can go through Michigan State's standard Material Transfer Agreement procedures.

The exchange actually touches on some of the issues relevant to the free exchange of scientific data and materials, although that surely wasn't Schlafly's intent. In general, most scientists would agree that the open exchange of ideas and reagents benefits the scientific community, and that the public has a right to the know about the research they've funded. For this reason, the NIH has requested that all papers that describe research it has funded be made open access within six months of their publication; Lenski's beaten that deadline by over five months.

NIH

But his second letter raises some significant limits to how far he'll go in handing out the raw materials of his research. In addition to the issues described above, Lenski also intends to make sure he fulfills his ethical obligations as a research mentor by ensuring that his grad students and post-docs who performed the hard work of maintaining the experiment are the ones who benefit by publishing a description of it. He also made no mention of sharing the preliminary data for what his paper explicitly stated was the next step: sequencing the genomes of the new bacteria and their ancestors.

In terms of the argument over public access to taxpayer-funded data, the situation is fairly straightforward. Organizing raw data for public exchange takes time and money, which taxpayers would also foot the bill for. It's generally most efficient for the data to be organized once the gathering stage is complete; taxpayers get a better value for their money this way. In the same manner, it makes no sense for taxpayers to foot the bill for the preparation and shipping of samples to someone like Schlafly, who lacks the facilities or knowledge to do scientific work with the material.

But there's often a large gap between organization and analysis of data and its publication. Here, the ethical concerns—ensuring that the people who did the work receive credit for it via publication—often conflicts with the principles of openness and rapid progress. It's possible some other lab would be able to analyze the sequence data Lenski is gathering more rapidly and thoroughly; by fulfilling his ethical obligations, Lenski may actually be slowing the progress of science. This has been a source of tension within the scientific community for decades, one that has only been exacerbated by the fact that more data is now in electronic form and easy to exchange. It's not something I expect to see resolved any time soon.

Whither Conservapedia?


Lenski is keeping the genome data private
until his students can publish it.

Although he's brought up some interesting issues regarding the conduct of publicly funded scientific research, Schlafly appears to remain blissfully unaware of it. Schlafly only named specific data that he felt were missing on Friday, two weeks after the exchange of letters started; his comments in the discussion attached the letter exchange suggests he primarily questions Lenski's ability to recognize when bacterial contamination crops up in the experiment. Throughout the discussion, however, Schlafly has demonstrated a scientific illiteracy that undercuts his own arguments by demonstrating that any time Lenski or his coworkers spend accommodating Schlafly would truly represent a waste of taxpayer money.

Of course, that lack of understanding might be expected from someone who seems to believe that there are distinct conservative and liberal forms of science. Still, you can sense the beginnings of a response to the fact that the situation may be spiraling out of Conservapedia's control. When a contributor suggested the exchange was making the site look bad, the response indicated that the any problems could be dismissed as a case of biased perception: "What sort of Liberal defeatism are you bound up in, and why do you assume, without examining the facts of the matter, that this has not gone well?"

As to the longer-term prospect, that Lenski's genome sequencing will actually reveal the creative power of evolution in greater detail, that's apparently nothing that can't be handled by a post-hoc rationalization. "But how are we to know," one contributor asks, "if these traits weren’t 'potentiated' by the Creator when He designed the bacteria thousands of years ago, such that they would eventually reveal themselves when the time was right?"

How indeed? It's precisely the inability to test such a contention that led the scientific community to give up on supernatural explanations in the first place.

Original here

Welcome to the particle menagerie

Christening a particle is not easy. Do you name it after the person who proposed its existence, or the person who discovered it? Or do you give it a label that is abstract, poetic, whimsical, onomatopoeic, or just plain descriptive?

Democritus proposed the existence of a particle, so he could have named it the democriton, but instead this modest Greek philosopher decided to coin the word a-tomos, meaning 'not cuttable', which explains the origin of the word atom. Perversely, today we use the word atom to describe something that is 'cuttable', because we know that even the smallest atom, hydrogen, has components that can be pulled part. So we could rename atoms 'aatoms', which is to say 'not not cuttable'.

Inside the atom we find the electron, which also traces its name back to Ancient Greece. Elektron is Greek for amber, and the ancients knew that rubbing amber with a dry cloth would enable it to attract very light objects. We now know that this is because rubbing amber can generate a charge, otherwise known as static electricity, so 19th century scientists used the term electron to describe the first particle that was proven to carry a charge.

The rest of the atom is made of neutrons and protons, and in turn these are made of quarks. The story of quarks dates back to the 1960s when physicists discovered a menagerie of new subatomic particles. It was Murrary Gell-Mann who proposed that all these particles (and protons and neutrons) were made of just three types of quark. The name was based on a line from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!". In this context, quark is probably a corruption of quart (as in quarts of beer), which means it should not be pronounced to rhyme with Mark.

Gell-Mann had quite a flair for naming concepts in physics. The existence of three quarks led to composites of quarks being classified into groups of eight, which Gell-Mann dubbed the Eightfold Way. This was a reference to a Buddhist proverb about the path to nirvana: "Now this, O monks, is noble truth that leads to the cessation of pain; this is the noble Eightfold Way."

Gell-Mann's three quarks were named up, down and strange. The up and down quarks formed a natural pair, but the strange quark was the odd one out, hence the name. In 1974 its partner was discovered and to celebrate its welcome arrival it was dubbed the charm quark

Two more quarks were discovered, and were initially called truth and beauty. They were the focus of my thesis when I worked at Cern in the late 1980s, but sadly I could not boast that I was researching the physics of truth and beauty, because by this time they had been renamed more prosaically as top and bottom quarks

It is unlikely any more quark types will be discovered at Cern when the LHC fires up this summer, but they will be studied in closer detail than ever before. In particular, physicists will scrutinise the particles that bind quarks together, predictably known as gluons, because they act like a glue.

Sometimes the order of discovery is a factor in the naming of particles. In the 1960s and 70s, many physicists were trying to predict the particles that might carry the weak nuclear force, which is responsible for radioactivity. When they formulated a theory, they sensibly named one type of weak-force carrier the W particle. The other type was given the name Z, partly because physicists believed there wouldn't be any more particles left to discover.

Of course, the LHC will also be hunting for new particles. One of the theories being tested is supersymmetry, the idea that every known particle has a partner awaiting discovery in a high-energy collision. When the idea was proposed, the sudden doubling of the number of fundamental particles could have been a headache for the physicists who named things. Their solution was to add an s onto particle names to get the supersymmetric "sparticles". So the partners of the quark and electron became squarks and selectrons. The convention has some unfortunate consequences: the family of particles known as leptons have supersymmetric partners called, well, sleptons

Supersymmetric particles could be discovered at Cern in the coming years but other hypothetical particles are much less likely, such as the axion, which was posited in 1977 to solve problems in the way that quarks and gluons interact. The theorists who came up with it named their proposed particle after an American brand of laundry detergent, because it was supposed to clean up a rather messy problem in fundamental physics.

There is no sign of axions yet, but if they exist they could explain the vast quantity of missing matter in the universe. There are so many candidates for this so-called dark matter that scientists have coined catch-all acronyms. One umbrella term suggests the missing matter is made of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs). Alternatively, the mysterious dark particles may have aggregated into large collections known as MAssive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs

If all this makes it sound as if physicists make things up as they go along, wait until you hear my favourite particle moniker. This acronym encompasses all the dark matter candidates and truly reflects our level of understanding of this particular subject - Dark Unknown Nonreflective Nondetectable Objects, or DUNNOs, a term which should only be spoken by physicists while shrugging their shoulders. Well, at least they're honest.

· Simon Singh is the author of Big Bang and will be presenting "5 Particles", part of BBC Radio 4's special coverage of the LHC switch-on later this summer

Original here

Mars Candy Sequences Chocolate Genome for $10M


Addiction to the beans of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, has been attributed to cultures as ancient as the Mayans and Aztecs, whose leaders guzzled fermentations of them, and used them as currency. Today the cacao tree is responsible for a $13 billion dollar-a-year chocolate industry in the U.S. alone.

However, in the face of climate change and the spread of diseases, chocolate companies are getting jittery about the strength of their cacao tree stocks. Mars Candy, along with IBM and the USDA, hopes to ensure the survival of at least some mutant form of the cacao tree by plunking out $10M to sequence the entire genome of the plant. Howard Yonashapiro, Chief Plant Scientist for Mars Candy, says the sequenced genome will “allow cacao breeders to much more efficiently introduce desired traits and to produce entirely new lines of cacao plants leading to a vast number of farmer benefits.”

So maybe Mars will find pathogen resistance in some form of twinkie-corn and blast that “desired trait” into the cacao seed - allowing their plantations and profits to continue exactly as they are. But what about these "vast number of farmer benefits" they speak of?
Currently, 6.5 Million subsistence cacao tree farmers in South America and Africa, including slaves and children, provide the basis for all chocolate today. The chocolate industry has been booming for decades, with or without GMOs, but apparently those profits haven't been enough to raise the farmers out of poverty. So Mars - how about sending some sugar back to your workers by going fair trade with them? In the meantime, we’ll probably keep looking for more responsible chocolatiers, like Envirovore wrote about here.

A Capitalist Dream: Company Designs and Maintains Organic Garden In Your Backyard

Tuscany Farming

Most environmentally aware Americans would love a personal organic vegetable garden, but how many people actually have the time to cultivate one?. Thanks to a San Francisco-based company called MyFarm, Bay Area denizens can pay a weekly fee to have a backyard garden designed and maintained by professionals.

Customers choose between a Personal Installation (just enough food for themselves) and an Owner Member Installation (enough food for MyFarm to sell to other members). Owner members receive a discounted membership.

The company leaves no gardening detail ignored. Each garden is tested for toxins and receives a drip irrigation system to automatically water the vegetables. MyFarm even maintains a compost pile and takes care of all pesky weeds that arise.

MyFarm founder Trevor Paque envisions a decentralized urban farm in San Francisco, made up of a network of organic urban vegetable gardens where clients in sunny areas grow tomatoes for those in foggier areas, and those in the foggy parts of town grow broccoli and other cool-weather veggies for those in warmer climes.

Paque and his crew do all work by hand and follow permaculture farming principles to ensure the long-term sustainability of each garden. Sample garden produce includes artichokes, spinach, squash, sweet peppers, carrots, and peas.

While some people may protest that a service such as MyFarm downplays the importance of individual farming and gardening skills, I believe that this is an important step in creating a local food economy. After all, in today’s era of high food and gas prices, shouldn’t we welcome a service that wants to provide high-quality produce close to home?

Original here

Few places on Earth are as untouched as the "Crown of the Continent" — a 10-million-acre expanse of mountains, valleys and prairies in Montana and Canada. The area has sustained all the same species — including grizzlies, lynx, moose and bull trout — for at least 200 years.

Now — in one of the most significant conservation sales in history — The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land have preserved 320,000 acres of forestlands in western Montana that provide valuable habitat for species in the Crown of the Continent.

"There hasn't been an animal extinction here since Lewis and Clark encountered it in the early 19th century," explains Kat Imhoff, the Conservancy's state director in Montana. "It's the only such ecosystem in the Lower 48 states."

The deal is part of the Conservancy’s large-scale efforts to protect forestlands around the world — the majority of which are working forests supplying sustainably harvested timber.

Over the past five years, the Conservancy has protected 3.5 million acres of forestlands — at a time when nearly one-half of Earth’s original forest cover is gone and global deforestation rates continue to rise.

'A Landmark Conservation Project' That Also Benefits People

The initiative — known as the Montana Legacy Project — helps more than nature. Crucial to the deal are its benefits to people, including:

  • Maintaining the forests in sustainable timber management — keeping jobs in Montana and maintaining local businesses.
  • Promoting continued public access to these lands for fishing, hiking and other recreational pursuits.
  • Helping to curtail a growing trend nationwide — the conversion of timberlands into residential developments.

"This is a landmark conservation project that will benefit the environment and help to maintain strong local businesses," says Imhoff.

Stopping Habitat and Landscape Fragmentation

The land is being sold to the Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land by Plum Creek Timber Company, the largest private landowner in the United States and owner of 1.2 million acres of forestlands in Montana.

In recent years, a downturn in the timber industry has led companies such as Plum Creek and International Paper to divest their holdings and sell their land — much of which has been bought by developers and subdivided into smaller parcels, fragmenting large landscapes.

The lands covered in the agreement include multiple parcels spread across western Montana, primarily in Swan Valley and areas surrounding Missoula.

Together, these lands provide crucial pathways for wide-ranging animals such as grizzly bears and wolverines to feed, breed and rear their young. The area also includes some of the most popular recreation lands in the western United States.

Under the Montana Legacy Project, the purchased lands will be transferred into a mixture of private, state and federal ownership, allowing sustainable timber harvesting for Plum Creek for up to 15 years.

Conservation easements will restrict subdivision and home development on the vast majority of lands sold into private ownership. And maintaining public access for recreation will be a top priority. Neither the Conservancy nor The Trust for Public Land will retain long-term ownership of any lands.

The Farm Bill's Role

Funding for the $510 million purchase could come from several private and public sources—including a new Qualified Conservation Forestry Bonds program that was included in the recently passed federal Farm Bill.

The bonds were designed to help fund the purchase of ecologically important lands that are adjacent to existing U.S. Forest Service owned-lands. The purchased lands would eventually be conveyed to the Forest Service. Funding for the purchase is also being sought from other sources, including the state of Montana, private philanthropists and investors.

This would be the first forest-protection effort to receive these newly designated bonds, which were championed by U.S. Senator Max Baucus of Montana.

"This project is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to protect these lands for our families and future generations," said Montana Senator Max Baucus, who helped facilitate the agreement.

"It will keep jobs in Montana, help maintain our communities and our working forests, and preserve public access for hunting and fishing. This will be the most significant land conservation project in the state's history, by far, and I'm proud to be part of it."

(June 2008)

Original here

Volkswagen to Produce Plug-In Hybrid Electric Cars in 2010

Hot on the heels of the announcement that Mercedes will produce electric cars, comes the news that fellow German manufacturer Volkswagen plans to produce a test fleet of plug-in hybrid electric cars by 2010.

A few months ago, to much excitement from the automotive press, the company unveiled a diesel-electric Golf but, according to VW chief Martin Winterkorn, “the future belongs to electric cars.” To help in mapping out the road to this electric future, the company have unveiled a plug-in hybrid powertrain, called the Twin-Drive, which will make its first appearance in a Golf kitted out with a 122-horsepower diesel engine, twinned with an 82-horsepower electric motor.

A key difference between the VW approach and typical hybrids is that instead of the battery providing supplemental power to the combustion engine, the Twin-Drive will work the other way around. According to Winterkorn, “here the diesel or gasoline engine supplements the e-motor.”

The car will use lithium-ion batteries and have a range of 31 miles on purely electric power. Over the last few months, Volkswagen has invested heavily in li-ion battery technology. In addition to teaming up with Sanyo in a $769 million dollar development project, the company has also formed the Lithium-Ion Battery 2015 Alliance (LIB2015) with Bosch, BASF, Evonik and others, backed up by a €60 million investment from the German government.

Volkwagen says it will have a test-fleet of twenty Twin-Drive Golf’s on the road in 2010, but there is still no news on plans to ramp-up commercial production. Given the level of investment being ploughed into the technology, I have a hunch that such an announcement won’t be too long in coming.

Original here

Sinclair dreams of 'flying cars'

Personal flying machines will be a reality, home computer and electric car pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair has said.

He told BBC Radio 4's PM programme that soon it would be "economically and technically possible" to create flying cars for individuals.

Sir Clive is best-known for the Spectrum computer and his failed electric car effort, the C5.

"I'm sure it will happen and I am sure it will change the world dramatically," he predicted.

Despite his pioneering work in the field of computers, Sir Clive told BBC Radio 4 he was not an internet user.

"I don't use it myself directly," he said, explaining that as an inventor he tried to avoid "mechanical and technical things around me so they don't blur the mind".

Sir Clive Sinclair

He said the internet was "just wonderful and quite amazing" and its growth was not something he had predicted back in the 1980s.

"It has totally surprised me. I utterly failed to foresee that."

The celebrated inventor is not working on developing flying car technology currently but said he would "love to be involved" with any effort.

As a pioneer in personal transport, he said "flying cars were technically entirely possible".

"It would need to be automatically controlled because we can't all learn to fly.

"The vehicle would take off from your home and fly to wherever you want to go."

Sir Clive said personal flying machines would have to be electric powered, because petrol engines were not reliable enough.

 Clive Sinclair holding one of his firms products - a TV set which can receive up to 13 channels on a two-inch screen. For a programme in the BBC World Service series, 'The Young Idea', Gordon Snell (
Sir Clive pioneered many electronics fields - including portable TVs

But, he admitted, his 1980s venture into electric cars "didn't achieve the success I expected".

He said: "We did sell quite a few thousand. Looking back I can see why [we didn't have success].

"It was a bit daunting to go into traffic."

The rising cost of oil, combined with environmental concerns, have made alternative-energy powered cars a goal once more.

"Long before the C5, and ever since, I have strongly believed in electric vehicles. I am glad to say it's all happening at long last."

Sir Clive produced an electric powered bicycle, called the Zike, in 1992, but it too failed to capture the public's imagination.

His latest project is the A-Bike, a lightweight, foldable bicycle. But, he said, he still harboured hopes of returning to the electric car field.

"The thing is - to do an electric car is obviously a huge investment. I'd need huge success in the electric bike field," he said.
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Oxymoron of the day: Green NASCAR?

Yep, that's right. NASCAR is going green. How can the sport of cars going around a track for no purpose other than the sole enjoyment of going (or watching someone else go) really fast (hopefully faster than the other guy) be going green? Are they getting a bunch of electric Tesla Roadsters to race? As Ryan McGee of ESPN reported in his article, Darrell Walltrip (three-time Cup winner who's turned his talent into his new role as a TV analyst) says "The coolest thing about these cars is the noise...Forty-three electric cars rolling by going 'weeeeeee' just isn't all that cool."

So no. They're not doing that. Instead, they're looking to an invasive plant, the kudzu. In a nut shell, they'd take kudzu, mash it up into ethanol...

And turn NASCAR from this... Into this....

(Some of you might know that NASCAR has been using ethanol and ethanol blends for some time...however, this has all been corn based. And corn isn't necessarily stellar biofuel stuffs.) Just to give you a little background around this crazy kudzu plant...it was introduced to the US in 1876 from its native Japan with the hope of being a food source, as well as ornamental groundcovering.

Unfortunately, the kudzu took a little bit too well to American soil - between 1935 and 1950, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged farmers in the southeastern United States to fight soil erosion by planting kudzu. And then it took over. And I mean, it REALLY took over. This bad boy can grow a foot a day. Yeah, you heard me - 12 inches a day! Holy crap, is right. It's had devastating effects on the environs of the southeastern US, consuming vehicles, homes, and choking the life out of trees and other plants.

But have no fear! Your children, your homes, your cars...they will all be saved. By NASCAR!

In all seriousness...it might not be a terrible biofuel. According to Dr. Rowan Sage, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, kudzu could be a solid option. Growing it would clearly be a snap because it's so voracious all on its own. Harvesting existing "crops" would (hopefully) help restore some ecosystems. And if the fuel is at all efficient....perhaps we've found the silver lining to the "plant that ate the South."

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