Wednesday, July 2, 2008

France plans revolution in space

By Matt McGrath
BBC science correspondent

Giove-B (Esa)
More than science: Projects such as Galileo carry political significance

Ambitious plans for European missions to the Moon and Mars are being considered by the French government.

It wants to kick-start a revolution in space by letting EU politicians not bureaucrats decide on priorities for the European Space Agency (Esa).

The French say that if Europe fails to change its approach to space, it will fall behind Japan, China and India.

Paris is seeking an alliance with the UK to drive the agenda forward during the French presidency of the EU.

'Political pilot'

President Nicolas Sarkozy's well-known admiration for all things American now extends to space exploration. Speaking to the BBC, a senior official involved in French space policy said that it was time to shake up the European Space Agency and make it more like the US space agency (Nasa) by giving it a new, politically-led direction.

The French take over the rotating presidency of the European Union on 1 July and are planning to make space policy a key area for reform.

The official said that Europe was in danger of becoming redundant in global space terms and it needed an agency that followed a clear political agenda.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
President Sarkozy has big ambitions in space

"The United States, Russia, China and Japan would not do what they do in space without a political motivation; Europe has only had a scientific motivation until now. So what we are saying is, let's get the same chances as the others.

"Beside the scientific pilot, let us have a political pilot, too, which will be the EU, because there is only the EU that can speak at that level."

But Alan Cooper, European space policy implementation manager with Esa in Paris, says that comparisons with Nasa are unfair.

"Nasa has the reputation it has on the strength of the programmes it has delivered," he told BBC News.

"It spends seven or eight times as much as Esa spends in a year. Its profile you would expect then to be seven or eight times higher than Esa. If you want the European space programme to have the same impact, it will need a higher profile and the investment to match those goals."

Record of success

The European Space Agency was formed in 1975, and its seventeen member-states include countries outside the EU - Switzerland and Norway. Canada also takes part in some projects under a co-operation agreement.

Its mission is to shape the development of Europe's space capability. Its objectives are scientific and industrial; and the latter is reflected in its funding arrangements. The agency invests in the space industry in each member-state roughly equal to the amount of money the member-state pays into Esa.

Concept system (Astrium)
A current debate centres on Europe having an independent crew vehicle

Esa has had many significant successes in space exploration. It has developed a launch site in French Guiana, become a major player in the business of commercial satellites, trained an astronaut corps and has contributed the Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station. It is also developing its own, controversial, global navigation system called Galileo.

But critics of Esa say it belongs to another age when European space activities were seen as a bridge between the American and Soviet space racers; and it is time it lost its dependence on others. Europe has no means of getting its own astronauts into space, for example.

Now, documents seen by the BBC indicate that the French plans for an overhaul of Esa are at an advanced stage. The papers say that a politically-led space enterprise is necessary for Europe to be taken seriously in the international arena.

The documents talk about the manned exploration of Mars and the need for Europe to play an "indispensable" part.

Funding issues

Commenting on the issue of Mars, the French official agreed it was now on the agenda.

"The French impetus would be to say that a European contribution to a human flight mission to Mars is something we should set as an objective.

It's exactly this kind of question that needs to be answered - this is highly political. You have to say, do you want to go human, to the Moon first, or do you want to go directly to Mars, which is the French position.

Plans at present only extend to the robotic exploration of Mars

"These are all political questions, of course. You can turn them into science, but they are political questions and Esa cannot answer them and this is why we need a political element."

Alan Cooper says that political leadership which comes with extra resources would be very welcome at Esa.

"If we are focussing on the question of whether we welcome an increase in political interest in space in Europe - clearly, yes, if that results in higher goals and the investment to match, we would be extremely happy about that.

"It's tempting to use a phrase like, 'he who pays the piper calls the tune', but really it's down to accountability. If you are accountable for the money you are spending, then you determine the rules under which it is spent. If someone else is raising that money, they have that accountability.

"I think what you are talking about is fundamentally changing the aims of Esa and if you want a fundamental shift in goals for Esa then it's got to be a decision for all the member states."

Joint interests

According to the French, the UK is their model partner in this endeavour.

The two countries had similar views on how business should be encouraged to get involved in space to develop commercial opportunities. And the two countries were now of the same view when it came to exploration, he said.

"It is mainly since the arrival of our new President that we have come up with a pretty British type of idea," the French official added. "Britain has always been pushing for exploration and by discussing our plans, we have had quite a good reaction from the British National Space Centre and from the ministry."

Ariane rocket (Esa)
France hosts Europe's spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana

But not everyone is happy with this political approach; and the French acknowledge there will be serious opposition from some countries.

"People are very much attached to the Esa which we understand. But this attachment translates into keeping the status quo, and we think this is not a good position; we think that Europe now needs political support otherwise the Chinese or the Indians will overtake us."

The French EU presidency also coincides with the next major meeting of Esa member-state ministers in November, when many of these issues are sure to be aired.

The acknowledgement that EU and Esa interests increasingly overlap led to the creation in 2004 of a Space Council in which shared concerns could be discussed.

Some space projects, such as the Galileo satellite-navigation system, are deemed so fundamental to the future economic well being of the EU that the driving force to implement them comes direct from the European Commission in Brussels.

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Earth's Cries Recorded in Space

By Robert Roy Britt

Earth emits an ear-piercing series of chirps and whistles that could be heard by any aliens who might be listening, astronomers have discovered.

The sound is awful, a new recording from space reveals.

Scientists have known about the radiation since the 1970s. It is created high above the planet, where charged particles from the solar wind collide with Earth's magnetic field. It is related to the phenomenon that generates the colorful aurora, or Northern Lights.

The radio waves are blocked by the ionosphere, a charged layer atop our atmosphere, so they do not reach Earth. That's good, because the out-of-this-world radio waves are 10,000 times stronger than even the strongest military signal, the researchers said, and they would overwhelm all radio stations on the planet.

Theorists had long figured the radio waves, which were not well studied, oozed into space in an ever-widening cone, like light from a torch.

But new data from the European Space Agency's Cluster mission, a group of four high-flying satellites, reveals the bursts of radio waves head off to the cosmos in beam-like fashion, instead.

This means they're more detectable to anyone who might be listening.

The Auroral Kilometric Radiation (AKR), as it is called, is beamed out in a narrow plane, as if someone had put a mask over a torch and left a slit for the radiation to escape.

This flat beam could be detected by aliens who've figured this process out, the researchers say. The knowledge could also be used by Earth's astronomers to detect planets around other stars, if they can build a new radio telescope big enough for the search. They could also learn more about Jupiter and Saturn by studying AKR, which should emit from the auroral activity on those worlds, too.

"Whenever you have aurora, you get AKR," said Robert Mutel, a University of Iowa researcher involved in the work.

The AKR bursts -- Mutel and colleagues studied 12,000 of them -- originate in spots the size of a large city a few thousand miles above Earth and above the region where the Northern Lights form.

"We can now determine exactly where the emission is coming from," Mutel said.

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Air Force Demonstrates 'Ghost Imaging'

By Sharon Weinberger

University_of_marylandAir Force funded researchers say they've made a breakthrough in a process called "ghost imaging" that could someday enable satellites to take pictures through clouds. The Air Force reports:

University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus, professor (Dr.) Yanhua Shih initiated ghost-imaging research in 1995, by using entangled photons. In the experiment, one photon passed through stenciled patterns in a mask to trigger a detector, and another photon was captured by a second detector. Surprisingly, an image of the pattern between the two detectors appeared, which the physics community called ghost-imaging.

In an article entitled "Reflection of a Ghost" that appeared in April's Physical Review, fellow researcher Dr. Keith Deacon indicated that ghost-imaging appears promising for future applications to satellite technology. Dr. Deacon said he believes ghost-imaging may enable a satellite to be equipped with a detector and that would be coupled with a second camera that would take images of the sun. That combination of technologies could generate ghost images of the Earth's surface, even if there are obstructing atmospheric conditions.

The image created in this new experiment is of a toy soldier.

[Image: University of Maryland]

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9/11 hero dog 'to be cloned'

Trakr, a dog that sniffed out survivors from under the rubble of the World Trade Centre after the September 11 terror attacks, may be cloned.

James Symington and his German shepherd, Trakr, searching through rubble at the World Trade Centre

The German shepherd, who lives with his owner, James Symington, in Los Angeles, was picked by BioArts International, a Californian cloning firm, as the most "clone-worthy" canine in a competition offering an owner a free chance to replicate their pet.

Mr Symington said he and Trakr were among the first search and rescue teams to arrive at the New York site after the attacks, and were responsible for locating the last human survivor under about 30 feet of debris.

Now aged 15, the dog no longer has use of his back legs due to a degenerative neurological disorder.

Trakr, a German shepherd with his owner James Symington
Trakr, with his owner James Symington

According to BioArts, experts believe the condition may be linked to exposure to toxic smoke at the World Trade Centre site. However, some specially-bred species of dogs suffer similar degenerative conditions.

"Trakr means the world to me," Mr Symington said. "To know that part of him is going to live on is just beyond words. It's the greatest gift I've ever received."

In the next month, BioArts said it would transport a sample of Trakr's DNA to the South Korean lab of its partner, the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, and the clone could be ready by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, another South Korean genetic company has announced that the clones of a US woman's beloved former pitbull terrier are due to be born within weeks.

The cloning of Booger, who died in 2006, came months ahead of schedule thanks to technical progress, RNL Bio announced in a statement.

"Three clones of Booger have been conceived in two surrogate mother dogs," the company said. The pups are expected around July 25.

The company originally charged $150,000 (£75,000) to clone Booger for Bernann McKinney, in what it claimed was the world's first commercial cloning.

But it agreed to reduce the price to $50,000 dollars as "a special discount to celebrate the first commercial deal".

"He was my partner, my pal, my friend... we had 10 years together," Mrs McKinney told the Korea Times, recalling her years with Booger.

Booger saved her life by chasing off a ferocious mastiff which bit her severely, she said. He is being re-created using the genetic code found in some of his ear tissue, which has been refrigerated.

The cloning was conducted by a Seoul National University team led by Professor Lee Byeong-Chun.

The team created the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy, on a non-commercial basis in 2005.

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Sarcasm Seen as Evolutionary Survival Skill

by Live Science

Thanks to Mark Gleason for the link.

Sarcasm Seen as Evolutionary Survival Skill
By Meredith F. Small, LiveScience's Human Nature Columnist

Humans are fundamentally social animals. Our social nature means that we interact with each other in positive, friendly ways, and it also means we know how to manipulate others in a very negative way.

Neurophysiologist Katherine Rankin at the University of California, San Francisco, has also recently discovered that sarcasm, which is both positively funny and negatively nasty, plays an important part in human social interaction.

So what?

I mean really, who cares? Oh for God's sake. Don't you have anything better to do that read this column?

According to Dr. Rankin, if you didn't get the sarcastic tone of the previous sentences you must have some damage to your parahippocampal gyrus which is located in the right brain. People with dementia, or head injuries in that area, often lose the ability to pick up on sarcasm, and so they don't respond in a socially appropriate ways.

Presumably, this is a pathology, which in turn suggests that sarcasm is part of human nature and probably an evolutionarily good thing.

How might something so, well, sarcastic as sarcasm, be part of the human social toolbox?

Evolutionary biologists claim that sociality is what has made humans such a successful species. We are masters at what anthropologists and others call "social intelligence." We recognize and keep track of hundreds of relationships, and we easily distinguish between enemies and friends.

More important, we run our lives by social calculation. A favor is mentally recorded and paid back, sometimes many years later. Likewise, insults are marked down on the mental score card in indelible ink. And we are constantly bickering and making up, even with people we love.

Sarcasm, then, is a verbal hammer that connects people in both a negative and positive way. We know that sense of humor is important to relationships; if someone doesn't get your jokes, they aren't likely to be your friend (or at least that's my bottom line about friendship). Sarcasm is simply humor's dark side, and it would be just as disconcerting if a friend didn't get your snide remarks.

It's also easy to imagine how sarcasm might be selected over time as evolutionarily crucial. Imagine two ancient humans running across the savannah with a hungry lion in pursuit. One guy says to the other, "Are we having fun yet?" and the other just looks blank and stops to figure out what in the world his pal meant by that remark. End of friendship, end of one guy's contribution to the future of the human gene pool.

Fast forward a few million years and the network of human relationships is wider and more complex, and just as important to survival. The corporate chairman throws out a sarcastic remark and those who "get" it laugh, smile, and gain favor. In the same way, if the chair never makes a remark, sarcastic people are making them behind his or her back, forming a clique by their mutually negative, but funny, comments. Either way, sarcasm plays a role in making and breaking alliances and friendship.

Thanks goodness, because life without out sarcasm would be a dull and way too nice place to be, if you ask me.

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Human-pig hybrid embryos given go ahead

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

A licence to create human-pig embryos to study heart disease has been issued by the fertility watchdog.

This marks the third animal-human hybrid embryo licence to be issued by Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the first since the Commons voted in favour of this controversial research last month.

An HFEA spokesman said it had approved an application from the Clinical Sciences Research Institute, University of Warwick, for the creation of hybrid embryos. The centre has been offered a 12 month licence with effect from today, July 1.

The effort at the University of Warwick is led by Professor Justin St John. "This new license allows us to attempt to make human pig clones to produce embryonic stem cells," he said, where embryonic stem cells are able to turn into the 200 plus types in the body.

"We will take skin cells from patients who have a mutation for certain kinds of heart disease (cardiomyopathy, which makes the heart lose its pumping strength) and put them into pig eggs after their chromosomes have been removed. We will then make embryos so that we can attempt to derive embryonic stem cells which will allow us to study some of the molecular mechanisms associated with these heart diseases.

"Ultimately they will help us to understand where some of the problems associated with these diseases arise and they could also provide models for the pharmaceutical industry to test new drugs. We will effectively be creating and studying these diseases in a dish.

"But it's important to say that we're at the very early stages of this research and it will take a considerable amount of time. There is still a great deal to learn about these techniques and much of our early work will involve understanding how we can make the hybrid cloning process as efficient as possible."

The study is aimed at understanding the way power-producing structures in cells, called mitochondria, are passed from egg to embryo. In the hybrid, the mitochondria mostly come from the egg, initially making up around half of the DNA by weight, and the team will do experiments in order to ensure that the trace of human mitochondrial DNA takes over, not least because it is designed to work with human nuclear DNA.

"The key thing we are doing is trying to create stem cells without any animal DNA in them. So even though these hybrid embryos normally have a small percentage of animal DNA , we are hoping to create cells that would have human chromosomes and human mitochondrial DNA." The reason is that, as the team puts it, "mixing of these two diverse populations of mitochondria can be detrimental to cellular function."

Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat science spokesman, commenting on the HFEA decision to issue a license to the University of Warwick to create hybrid embryos combining human skin cells with enucleated pig eggs, said: "This application is a further indication of the interest in this sort of research by UK scientists, the decision of the HFEA to issue a license following stringent checks demonstrates that it is considered both necessary and ethical."

"While this approval comes under the existing 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, both houses of Parliament have recently voted by large majorities to allow it into the future," said Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, of the MRC National Institute For Medical Research.

"It is good news that this license has been issued at a time when parliament has expressed overwhelming support for this research after an excellent public debate. I suspect other similar applications will follow and hopefully this research can now progress without the hype."

Teams in Newcastle and London are already creating hybrids. The former have already created hybrids with cow eggs to study the basics of how the use of genes changes in early development, the latter a range of species to generate stem cells from people with neurodegenerative disorders.

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July 1, 1858: Darwin and Wallace Shift the Paradigm

By Randy Alfred

Charles Robert Darwin (above) has enjoyed far more fame than Alfred Russel Wallace, but they are in fact co-discoverers of natural selection as the means of organic evolution.1

1858: The Linnaean Society of London listens to the reading of a composite paper on how natural selection accounts for the evolution and variety of species. The authors are Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Modern biology is born.

Scientists of the time knew that evolution occurred. The fossil record showed evidence of life forms that no longer existed. The question was, how did it occur?

Darwin had been working on his theory since 1837, soon after his epic voyage on the HMS Beagle. The hypermethodical naturalist wanted not only to classify the prodigious variation he had observed, but also to explain how it came to be.

He felt he would need to publish extensive documentation of natural selection to overcome popular resistance to so radical a notion. So he planned a comprehensive, multivolume work to convince scientists and the world.

Darwin was still working on his magnum opus when in June 1858 he received a letter from an English naturalist working in Malaysia. Alfred Russel Wallace was young and brash. When he conceived of natural selection, he didn't plan a 10-volume lifework. He just dashed off a quick paper on the subject and mailed it to the author of The Voyage of the Beagle, asking him to refer it for publication if it seemed good enough.

Darwin was crestfallen. Was he about to lose credit for two decades of work? Wallace had suggested that Darwin forward the paper to Scottish geologist Charles Lyell. Along with English botanist Joseph Hooker, Lyell was one of a small handful of people Darwin had shown early drafts of his own work on natural selection.

Darwin wrote to Lyell and Hooker, and they arranged for a joint paper to be read at the forthcoming meeting of the Linnaean Society of London. (Founded in 1788 and named for Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who devised the binomial system of taxonomy, it is the world’s oldest active biological society.)

Neither Darwin nor Wallace attended the meeting. Wallace was still in Malaysia. Darwin was at home with his wife mourning the death of their 19-month-old son just three days earlier.

The secretary of the society read the 18-page paper, comprising four parts:

  1. The readers' own letter of introduction explaining the extraordinary circumstances;
  2. An excerpt from Darwin's unpublished draft, part of a chapter titled, "On the Variation of Organic Beings in a State of Nature; on the Natural Means of Selection; on the Comparison of Domestic Races and True Species";
  3. An abstract of Darwin's 1857 letter on the subject to Harvard University botanist Asa Gray;
  4. Wallace's manuscript, "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type."

The paper and the meeting did not cause an immediate sensation. Other papers were read the same day. The society had routine business to transact. The meeting was long (.pdf). But the paper was accepted for publication in the society's Proceedings later that year.

Was this a remarkable case of simultaneous discovery? Not quite. It was more like simultaneous announcement. What is remarkable is that both Darwin and Wallace credited their central insight to reading Thomas Malthus' essay, Population, first published in 1798.

Darwin read Malthus in 1838 and immediately realized how it applied to his own work. Wallace had read it around 1846, but first saw its import for explaining evolution while he lay recovering from fever in Malaysia a dozen years later.

Malthus observed that population was held in check because not every individual would survive to reproduce. As Wallace wrote, "It suddenly flashed upon me ... in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain -- that is, the fittest would survive."

But the same differences in temperament that had led to Darwin's delay and Wallace's rush to publication now worked to Darwin's advantage ... and ultimately greater fame. Wallace was already on to his next big thing: amassing huge collections of natural specimens in hopes of winning both fame and fortune.

Darwin was on to his next big thing: At the urging of his friends, he published a magnificent one-volume summary of his work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, in 1859.

That produced an intellectual and cultural splash, perhaps the largest of the 19th century. And it is the sesquicentennial of the book next year, along with the bicentennial of Darwin's birth, which will be more widely marked than the 1858 event.

But our story does not end here ... quite. Both Darwin and Wallace acknowledged they did not know the precise mechanism by which the traits of the successful surviving organisms in one generation were passed on to their descendants in the next.

Two years before the Darwin-Wallace paper, an obscure Austrian monk by the name of Gregor Mendel had started work on crossbreeding varieties of peas. He discovered the patterns and importance of recombinant recessive and dominant traits. Mendel read his paper, "Experiments on Plant Hybridization," in 1865, and published it the following year.

But Mendel's work received little notice and was cited a mere three times over the next 35 years. Just as the significance of Malthus' observation had remained unnoticed until the time was ripe, so did Mendel's contribution.

Only in 1900 -- in near-simultaneous publications by three different European botanists -- was Mendel's work rediscovered, with its apparent application as the mechanism that had eluded Darwin and Wallace.

Sociologist Robert K. Merton postulated that "multiples" in science and invention are frequent, naming examples like the calculus, natural selection, the telegraph, the telephone and the automobile. He suggested that many more innovations and advances go unheralded because primacy of publication or patent deters many others from being submitted to the public. Instead, researchers will seek a new and often related line of advance.

The saga of Darwin and Wallace, though, remains an extraordinary example:

  • It involved not a simple invention or discovery but a paradigm shift, inventing the reigning paradigm that organizes modern biology -- and in some sense all modern science.
  • The work of two scientists who worked independently was announced at precisely the same date and place, in a joint paper.
  • It's a multiple example of "multiples," spread across the entire globe and an entire century.

Ideas and concepts, even paradigms, come to fruition because of their social and historical milieu, as Merton and others have so aptly shown. If an idea arrives on the scene too far in advance, if the seeds are sown too early -- as with Malthus and Mendel -- that field may lay fallow for decades. The world of scientists is a social one of human beings whose ideas, predilections, vision and insight -- as well as their blind spots and limitations -- are the product of their cultures.

If it is true, in the words of Darwin contemporary Victor Hugo, that nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come, then perhaps it is also true that nothing is so powerless as an idea whose time has yet to come.

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Happiness is rising around the world

" rel="lightbox" href="">I have this funny feeling things are going to be OK..

People in most countries around the world are happier these days, according to newly released data from the World Values Survey based at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Data from representative national surveys conducted from 1981 to 2007 show the happiness index rose in an overwhelming majority of nations studied.

"It's a surprising finding," said U-M political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who directs the World Values Surveys and is the lead author of an article on the topic to be published in the July 2008 issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. "It's widely believed that it's almost impossible to raise an entire country's happiness level."

The 2007 wave of the surveys also provides a ranking of 97 nations containing 90 percent of the world's population. The results indicate that Denmark is the happiest nation in the world and Zimbabwe the unhappiest. The United States ranks 16th on the list, immediately after New Zealand.

During the past 26 years, the World Values Surveys have asked more than 350,000 people how happy they are, using the same two questions.

"Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy, not at all happy?" And, "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?"

Combining responses to these two questions, Inglehart and colleagues constructed an index of subjective well-being that reflects both happiness and general life satisfaction.

In the 52 countries for which a substantial time series is available (covering 17 years on average), this index rose in 40 countries and fell in only 12. The average percentage of people who said they were "very happy" increased by almost seven points.

"Most earlier research has suggested that happiness levels are stable," Inglehart said. "Important events like winning the lottery or learning you have cancer can lead to short-term changes, but in the long run most previous research suggests that people and nations are stuck on a 'hedonic treadmill.' The belief has been that no matter what happens or what we do, basic happiness levels are stable and don't really change."

The new findings from the World Values Surveys not only show that during the past 25 years, happiness has in fact risen substantially in most countries. Fully as important as the fact that happiness rose is the reason why. In recent decades, low-income countries such as India and China have experienced unprecedented rates of economic growth, dozens of medium-income countries have democratized and there has been a sharp rise of gender equality and tolerance of ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians in developed societies.

Economic growth, democratization and rising social tolerance have all contributed to rising happiness, with democratization and rising tolerance having even more impact than economic growth. All of these changes have contributed to providing people with a wider range of choice in how to live their lives---which is a key factor in happiness.

The people of rich countries tend to be happier than those of poor countries, but even controlling for economic factors, certain types of societies are much happier than others.

"The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives," Inglehart said.

As an example, Inglehart points to the tolerant social norms and democratic political systems in Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada all of which rank among the 10 happiest countries in the world.

"The events of the past 25 years have brought a growing sense of freedom that seems to be even more important than economic development in contributing to rising happiness," Inglehart said. "Moreover, the most effective way to maximize happiness seems to change with rising levels of economic development. In subsistence-level societies, happiness is closely linked with in-group solidarity, religiosity and national pride. At higher levels of economic security, free choice has the largest impact on happiness."

He also notes that the largest recent increases on the subjective well-being index, measuring both happiness and life-satisfaction, occurred in the Ukraine, followed by Moldova, Slovenia, Nigeria, Turkey and Russia.

"While most ex-communist countries show low levels of happiness, many of them show large recent increases in subjective well-being," Inglehart said. "The collapse of communism was generally followed by a sharp decline in well-being, which tended to rise again with economic recovery."

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Scientist identify brain 'core' that could reveal secrets of thought

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

After centuries searching for the seat of consciousness, scientists have identified a good place to look.

A "core" region of the brain has been identified by an international team which has produced the first complete high-resolution map of the human cerebral cortex, the wrinkly surface of the brain where awareness, thought and other features of high level thinking reside.

The core of the brain is encircled - Scientist identify brain 'core' that could reveal secrets of thought
The core of the brain is encircled

The team traced the connections between millions of brain cells and identified a highly connected single network core, or hub, that may be key to the workings of both hemispheres of the brain.

The work by the researchers from Indiana University, University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, and Harvard Medical School marks a major step in understanding the most complicated and mysterious organ in the universe.

They believe the discovery will be an invaluable tool for interpreting brain scans and understanding the brain. As for consciousness, that quest will have to wait until neuroscientists can agree on a precise definition of what they are talking about.

The study not only provides a comprehensive map of brain connections (the brain "connectome"), but also describes a novel application of a non-invasive technique that can be used by other scientists to continue mapping the trillions of neural connections in the brain at even greater resolution, which is becoming a new field of science termed "connectomics."

The team hopes to use the information to build biologically realistic models in a computer which in turn will "help us understand processes that are difficult to observe, such as disease states and recovery processes to injuries," said Dr Olaf Sporns, co-author of the study in the journal PLoS Biology and a neuroscientist at Indiana University.

Until now, scientists have mostly used scanners to measure hotspots of brain activity - locating which parts of the brain use more blood during perception or cognition - but there has been little understanding of the role of the underlying anatomy in generating this activity.

In this new study, the Swiss team of neuroimaging researchers could trace out fibres that extend between brain cells by measuring how they interfered with the diffusion of water molecules through brain tissue.

The study applies this technique to the entire human cortex, resulting in maps of millions of neural fibres running throughout this highly furrowed part of the brain.

At Indiana University, Dr Sporns then carried out a computer analysis trying to identify regions of the brain that played a more central role in the connectivity, serving as hubs in the cortical network. Surprisingly, these analyses revealed a single highly and densely connected structural core in the brain of all participants.

"The core, the most central part of the brain, is in the medial posterior portion of the cortex, and it straddles both hemispheres," Sporns said.

"This wasn't known before. Researchers have been interested in this part of the brain for other reasons. For example, when you're at rest, this area uses up a lot of metabolic energy, but until now it hasn't been clear why."

Most important, in a study of five volunteers doing various tasks, they found that the connections of the brain did influence the overall activity. "This means that if we know how the brain is connected we can predict what the brain will do," said Dr Sporns.

Dr Sporns and Dr Patric Hagmann now plan to look at more brains to map brain connectivity as brains develop and age, and as they change in the course of disease and dysfunction.

Co-authors include Reto Meuli, University Hospital Centre and University of Lausanne; Leila Cammoun and Xavier Gigandet, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne; Van Wedeen, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical Centre; and Christopher Honey, Indiana University.

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How Does Language Exist In The Brain?

The “La Mente Bilingüe” research team that doctor Itziar Laka leads in the Faculty of Arts at the University of the Basque Country analyses bilingual processing of language. The aim is to find out how the brain acquires and manages languages and to discover in what way languages being similar or different is influential in this process.

In order to understand how we become fluent in a language and to better comprehend bilingualism, the La Mente Bilingüe (“the bilingual brain”) research team at the Faculty of Arts of the University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU analysed the acquisition process for languages. As Doctor Itziar Laka, Director of the team, explained, “language is not something that circulates out there somewhere; although we have ways of representing it, language exists in the brain”.

In October 2007 they began the BRAINGLOT project, focusing on bilingualism, in collaboration with numerous research teams and under the coordinating leadership of Dr. Nuria Sebastián from the University of Barcelona. This project links neurosciences and linguistics and, within this, “we respond to the questions most concerning linguistics: How are languages organised in the brain? Does there exist some interchange of influences between them? Is it important that the languages are similar or not? When is a second language learnt?”

Acquisition of language

Despite much research on acquisition of languages amongst monolingual persons, scientists still have to ask themselves basic questions about bilingual acquisition: How do babies realise that they are in a bilingual environment? What are the clues for them in discovering this? How is discrimination between languages produced in infants? “We have just begun research in this line and working with children requires taking it slowly, the prior preparation period being very long”, explained Ms Laka.

For the moment, work is being carried out with small children of four, five and six and the aim is to undertake the study with even younger children. In fact, we start to be fluent in a language before birth; if we wait for a child to say its first words in order to study the acquisition process for or the initiation of a language, it is too late”.

The acquisition of languages amongst bilingual persons is a theme that is as complex as it is mysterious “For example, if we analyse two syllables that sound the same with a machine that measures sound frequencies, we will see that they are not exactly the same; so, how does the baby know it is hearing the same syllable? What is – for him or her – “the same” or “different”? The Mente Bilingüe team aims to respond to these questions by means of an experimental methodology and, to this end, the researchers are preparing specific material based on their investigations in the field of phonology.

Different ways of processing the language

“We do not know how bilingual persons represent and manage their languages and it is in the monolingual situation that we understand the processing mechanisms better - bilingualism being much less understood”, explained Ms Laka. As regards the structure of the language, the order of words is a good example for studying bilingualism. “Basque has a free order of words, but something we linguists call neutral or canonical order exists, i.e. that which requires less effort from the brain”, she explained.

According to the terminology of linguistic typology, Basque is a SOV (subject-object-verb) language, and Spanish or English are, on the other hand, SVO type. In the Mente Bilingüe team we want to find answers to questions such as: “For those persons whose mother language is Spanish and then learn Basque after the age of five, which of these typologies or word orders do they use in language processing? Do they use the same mechanisms for processing word order as do native Basque speakers who have subsequently learnt Spanish?”

The Mente Bilingüe researchers employ two methodologies, amongst others, to investigate the order of words: one analysed the behaviour of word order processing and the other the electrophysiology involved in the processing (the electric signals produced in the brain). This last technique is known as ERP (Evoked Response Potential). In the behavioural methodology the experimental individuals were sat in front of the computers of the Elebilab laboratory at the Faculty of Arts.

Either written or auditory cues were provided by the computers with sentences of various structures and the time measured for the individuals to read/listen and respond to the prompts. “For example, the brain needs much less time for processing the Basque sentence, ‘otsoak ardiak jan ditu’ (the wolf has eaten the sheep) than to understand ‘ardiak otsoak jan ditu’ (the wolf has eaten the sheep), although both are grammatically correct”.

The ERP technique is useful for analysing how we process the language. The subjects wear a cap fitted with 60 electrodes, with the aim of measuring the electricity generated by the brain. “This is very valuable information for us as it enables us to measure with precision the effort made by the brain given certain structures”, Dr Laka explained. The first research work undertaken in the Basque Country using the ERP technique was published in 2006 by the member of Mente Bilingüe, Mr Kepa Erdozia.

Apart from questions of syntactic processing, they are also analysing the effect of age on the bilingual brain with respect to phonology, vocabulary and grammar, amongst other phenomena. “To date, we know the age of acquisition of a language influences the phonology, given that those learning a language at infancy do not have an accent when speaking; those learning at an adult age may or may not”, explained Ms Laka. In the same way, it is well known that the age of acquisition of a language does not have an influence on vocabulary. “As regards grammar, our research shows that it should not be understood as a whole but that inside it there are some phenomena that do show effects of acquisition and others that do not”, she added.

Bilingual control

The researchers at the University of Barcelona who have collaborated with the UPV/EHU team have concluded that highly proficient bilingual individuals and those less competent in one of their two languages do not employ the same mechanisms to change from one to the other. Also, the fact of having to control two languages with frequency trains the brain and this training may slow down the loss of certain cognitive features that appear with ageing. “We are investigating to see if these effects found amongst bilingual persons who speak Catalan and Spanish are replicated in those who speak Basque and Spanish, in order to judge if the distance between languages has any effect”, states Dr. Laka.

For scientists this is of great interest – analysing and comparing two bilingual populations who share one of their two languages. Moreover, Catalan and Spanish are very similar syntactically, while Basque and Spanish are highly dissimilar in this respect. As regards phonology, the reverse is the case, Spanish differs more from Catalan than it does from Basque. Thanks to this, researchers can better distinguish the effects in the brain that distance has between languages.

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Who Might Win McCain’s Battery Competition? Part I: Firefly

All Aboard the Train that Never Stops!

Written by Joshua Liberles

Taiwanese inventor Peng Yu-Lun has an innovative idea to make train transportation even more efficient: get rid of the stops. No, he's not proposing that passengers are thrown on and off of fast-moving trains or that passengers are eliminated from the equation altogether. Instead, Yu-Lun envisions a small separated car perched atop the train. When the train enters a station, this car slides along on elevated rails that smoothly and gradually remove the car from the rest of the train and bring it to a stop.

Another identical car travels from these elevated tracks and gradually slides along the top of the train to pick up speed for boarding passengers. The end result: a train with no need to stop at stations.

Check out the video demonstration below, in Taiwanese, of what such a train would look like:

Sure, regenerative braking – the process that converts the energy typically wasted as heat when slowing down and storing it as electrical power in batteries – is a terrific energy saving solution. Many hybrid cars, such as the Prius, use regenerative braking and it's starting to appear aboard hybrid diesel/electric trains as well. But more efficient still is to maintain your momentum and dispense with a train's need to make stops.

Huge amounts of power go into bringing an entire train's mass to a halt at stations and then reaccelerating it back up to speed. By keeping the main portion of the train on the move, the energy savings could be huge.

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Is Obama a Shill for the Ethanol Lobby?

It may not be surprising that any politician from Illinois, the United States’ second largest corn-producing state, supports ethanol, but in Senator Obama’s case, this does come as a bit of a shock. I don’t like to inject EcoModder into political discussions very often, but when it comes down to our possible future president and his views on ethanol as a future fuel source, it’s important that we all be informed.

The reason I say that I am a little shocked by Obama’s support of ethanol is that, however you feel about the man, you have to admit he is usually aware of the popular opinion held by those considered to be experts of whatever field. Those experts, at least the ones concerned with the economy and the environment, tend to believe that corn-based ethanol production isn’t exactly a winner. The main supporters of corn-based ethanol are, after all, farm lobbyists. One just doesn’t expect Obama, with his strong stances on lobbyists and special interests, to be one to buy into the mega-farm corn lobbying.

Here’s what the NYT has to say on that count:

Mr. Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views. And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates.

As far as policy is concerned, Obama’s support for ethanol is based primarily on foreign policy and security concerns, not environmental ones. Supporting ethanol, he believes, is a way to divest money and interest from foreign and often hostile powers. With that money staying home not only will the US have greater energy independence, but will send less of its money abroad.

Senator McCain, on the other hand, is a staunch supporter of free trade and wants to end tariffs on foriegn ethanol as well as end subsidies to the US ethanol industry. Sure, McCain’s recent plan to secure $300 million for EV batteries doesn’t exactly smack of free trade, but he certainly doesn’t seem to believe in corn ethanol as a solution to the brewing energy crisis.

You can’t fault McCain for being inconsistent on ethanol, at least, because it seems he’s opposed it since longer than most of us knew about it, dating back to his failed 2000 primary election bid.

So where does this leave voters, people interested in the environment, economics, and the future of transportation in the US? While I have no interest in telling you who to vote for, it’s clear that even though McCain and Obama share the goal of energy independence and greenhouse gas reductions, they intend to go about it in very different ways. It is, in my view, not very likely that either candidate will be changing their opinions anytime soon.

While Obama will continue to support government intervention and ethanol, and McCain the opposite, it is also true that either individual, as President, will need to make compromises on their positions in order to create effective policy. It is here that all citizens, regardless of political affiliation, have the ability to influence the policy makers. My advice: vote for who you like and support the views you find important, because it doesn’t have to end at the ballot box.

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Journey to the Center of Floating Junk Earth

The Pit of Life and Death

Written by Richard Solensky

Just outside Butte, Montana lies a pit of greenish poison a mile and a half wide and over a third of a mile deep. It hasn't always been so - it was once a thriving copper mine appropriately dubbed “The Richest Hill in the World.” Over a billion tons of copper ore, silver, gold, and other metals were extracted from the rock of southwestern Montana, making the mining town of Butte one of the richest communities in the country, as well as feeding America’s industrial might for nearly a hundred years. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Anaconda Mining Company was in charge of virtually all the mining operations. When running underground mines became too costly in the 1950’s, Anaconda switched to the drastic but effective methods of “mountaintop removal” and open pit mining. Huge amounts of copper were needed to satisfy the growing demand for radios, televisions, telephones, automobiles, computers, and all the other equipment of America’s post-war boom. As more and more rock was excavated, groundwater began to seep into the pit, and pumps had to be installed to keep it from slowly flooding.

By 1983, the hill was so exhausted that the Anaconda Mining Company was no longer able to extract minerals in profitable amounts. They packed up all the equipment that they could move, shut down the water pumps, and moved on to more lucrative scraps of Earth. Without the pumps, rain and groundwater gradually began to collect in the pit, leaching out the metals and minerals in the surrounding rock. The water became as acidic as lemon juice, creating a toxic brew of heavy metal poisons including arsenic, lead, and zinc. No fish live there, and no plants line the shores. There aren’t even any insects buzzing about. The Berkeley Pit had become one of the deadliest places on earth, too toxic even for microorganisms. Or so it was thought.

In 1995, an analytic chemist named William Chatham saw something unusual in the allegedly lifeless lake: a small clump of green slime floating on the water's surface. He snagged a sample and brought it to biologist Grant Mitman at the nearby Montana Tech campus of the University of Montana, where Mitman found to his amazement that the goop was a mass of single-celled algae. He called in fellow Tech faculty Andrea and Don Stierle, experts in the biochemistry of microorganisms. The Stierles had recently been trekking about the northwest, looking for cancer-fighting compounds in local fungi with great success. Coincidentally, the Stierles’ funding had just run out, and they needed a new project. They leapt at the opportunity to study these bizarre organisms.

After examining the slime under a microscope, the researchers identified it as Euglena mutabilis, a protozoan which has the remarkable ability of being able to survive in the toxic waters of the Berkeley Pit by altering its local environment to something more hospitable. Through photosynthesis, it increases the oxygen level in the water, which causes dissolved metals to oxidize and precipitate out. In addition, it pulls iron out of the water and sequesters it inside of itself. This makes it a classic example of an extremophile. Euglena mutabilisEuglena mutabilisExtremophiles are organisms that can tolerate and even thrive in environments that will destroy most other living things. Some can even repair their own damaged DNA, a trait which makes them extremely interesting to cancer researchers. The Stierles reasoned that where there’s one extremophile, there may be others – most likely blown in by the wind. Given their previous successes with strange microorganisms, the researchers believed that the Berkeley Pit and its fledgling extremophile population could produce some medically useful chemicals.

The Stierles were so intrigued by the possibilities that they started work even before securing funding. A squadron of expert researchers was recruited from the undergrads at Montana Tech, and even from a local high school. They collected water samples, isolated microorganisms, and cultured them. The team eventually identified over 160 different species, but they lacked the equipment needed to isolate the interesting chemicals from the microorganisms. Shlepping around western Montana, the Stierles begged and borrowed time at other facilities while they doggedly processed the cultured organisms. Their tenacity led to the discovery of a number of promising chemicals. Three of these, berkeleydione, berkeleytrione, and Berkeley acid, came from species of the fungus Penicillium that had never been seen before, and were therefore named after the Berkeley Pit.

The next step was to see what effect these chemicals had, if any, on other living cells. Thanks to modern biochemical assay techniques, dozens of chemicals can be tested against one organism– or one chemical against dozens of organisms– in a single pass. For reasons that are not entirely clear, many compounds which attack cancer cells are also harmful to brine shrimp, therefore most modern assay tests include the brine shrimp lethality test as a standard procedure. The Stierles exposed swarms of tiny crustacean volunteers to the Berkeley Pit chemicals, and to their delight, five of the chemicals showed anti-cancer properties. Further tests revealed that berkeleydione helped slow the growth of a type of lung cancer cell, and Berkeley acid went after ovarian cancer cells. All five were passed along to the National Cancer Institute for further study.

Other researchers are looking into the Pit as well - not for cancer-fighters or other drugs, but simply for ways to help clean the place up. In 1995, a flock of migrating snow geese stopped at the massive pond for a rest, and at least 342 of them died there. Authorities now use firecrackers and loudspeakers to scare away migrating waterfowl, but there have been a few smaller die-offs nonetheless. Also, on certain mornings, a sinister mist creeps out of the Pit and wraps its tentacles around the streets of Butte. Citizens are understandably anxious about this potentially poisonous fog of doom. The water level is rising at a rate of several inches a month, and if unchecked it will spill over into the area’s groundwater in twenty years. Biochemical assayThat danger has earned the area the dubious distinction of being one of the EPA’s largest Superfund sites. Normally such water is treated by adding lime to the water to reduce the acidity and remove much of the metal, however the Berkeley Pit is so saturated with undesirables that this process would produce tons of toxic sludge every day. Other methods are safer, but are prohibitively expensive. Currently, the EPA's plan is to focus on containment.

Grant Mitman believes that the best way to clean up the Pit is to use the algae that already live there. E. Mutabilis, for one, tends to grow in clumps. These clumps clean up their neighborhoods enough for other extremophiles to move in. These organisms would collect the metals within their own cells, and upon dying they would sink to the bottom and drag the metals with them. To Mitman, it’s all a matter of finding the right mix of extremophiles for a self-sustaining algal colony. Once the right mix is found, there are many other mine-contaminated waters awaiting treatment that could use a similar biology-based cleanup.

With metals concentrated at the bottom, and cleaner water at the top, the Pit could conceivably be reopened. The bottom sludge could be collected and processed for its ever-more-valuable metal content, and the water could be used for industry or agriculture. While it might not be safe to drink, the water could still be worth a quarter million dollars a year in a water-hungry West. In the meantime, the Pit has become a popular tourist attraction. There's a small museum and gift shop located well above the water level. A number of National Historic Landmarks related to mining are in the area, which has prompted some people to call for the creation of a National Park centered on the Pit. With luck, what was once the Richest Hill in the World could eventually provide riches of a different sort.

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4 Real-Life WALL*E Robots Cleaning Up After Nuke Waste

By Michael Milstein
Much like the fictional cleaning robot currently packing movie theaters, robots are being used to clean humanity’s worst messes. At Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, where plutonium for Cold War nukes was made, robots are on the front line of the cleanup effort. The job is to empty about 150 basketball-court-sized tanks of nuclear and chemical waste before their contents reach the Columbia River. Exposure to the material would kill a human within moments. Sounds like a job for robots. Since there won’t be any attention from Pixar, we again salute the little guys going a bit beyond the iRobot Looj in their daring damage control.


The only way in or out of most of the tanks is through foot-wide pipes in their roofs, so engineers at Hanford use this robotic dozer, which opens into a string of pieces that fit through the inlets. Once inside, Foldtrack reassembles like a toy Transformer. The robot uses a 3000 psi water stream to blast at sludge from up to 20 ft. away. A remote driver directs the robot as it uses a dozer blade to push the waste toward a pump for transfer to safer, double-shelled tanks. Once its job is done, the $500,000 robot is sealed, forever, in the empty tank.

Salt Mantis

This robot may not look like much but a glorified fire hose, but it’s hiding a valuable secret. The Salt Mantis can shoot water at up to 35,000 psi to blast tough toxic salts that build up inside nuclear waste tanks. The water jets from a tiny orifice made of gems, including sapphires—the only material that can (literally) stand up to the pressure. The robot’s crosslike body scissors together to squeeze into the narrow opening of the sludge tanks. While inside it moves around by remote control, since onboard electronics would fry from the exposure to radiation.

Off-Riser Sampling System, aka "Possum"

It used to be that human cleaners had to just guess if the radioactive area they were cleansing was, indeed, clean. Like a faithful retriever, the Possum rolls to the far, dark reaches of waste tanks, scooping up samples with its bulldozerlike blade so engineers can tell exactly what, and how much, is left inside. The Possum comes equipped with a camera so operators can locate target waste and control the device.

Tandem Synthetic Aperture Focusing Technique (T-SAFT), aka "Tank Crawler"

Hanford relies on 28 double-shell radioactive waste storage tanks to contain its sludge. This bot creeps on magnetic feet to look for cracks or corrosion. Each robotic foot can demagnetize to step, then remagnetize to affix itself to the wall. It scans the tanks with ultrasonic and electrical conductivity sensors. The results have been encouraging—cleanup crews found that all the tanks are holding up well. And that’s good news, because the sludge the other robots are removing is being relocated into vessels like these.

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Ocean Sucking Up More Ozone than First Thought

Ozone_hole_2 The day that someone finally manages to create a climate model that accurately predicts the full range of planetary weather systems, I think we will probably be a hundred years too late. It is such a tough challenge, attempting to pin together the whole range of influences that go in to making our planets weather what it is.

More proof of this difficulty is found in a recent discovery by researchers working off the west-African coast of Cape Verde. What the researchers found has totally shifted the thinking concerning two types of greenhouse gases: ozone and methane.

The group found that 50% more ozone is being destroyed above the Atlantic Ocean than was previously thought. As a result, through the release of halogens from the seawater, 12% more methane is being chewed up as well.

"At the moment this is a good news story: more ozone and methane being destroyed than we previously thought," says Alastair Lewis of the National Center for Atmospheric Science in Leeds, UK. "But the tropical Atlantic cannot be taken for granted as a permanent sink for ozone. The composition of the atmosphere is in fine balance here."

Methane and ozone number 2 and 3 on the list of most important anthropogenic greenhouse gases, those created by man. However, once again heralding back to the inability to clearly predict what is happening to our weather systems, ozone has commonly been very imprecisely measured in terms of where and in what quantities it is being produced and subsequently removed.

This is not a surprise, considering that ozone is often found to be removed above tropical oceans, where the data is rare. This is why an international team, including Lewis, headed to the Cape Verde Atmospheric Observatory, located at 16.848N, 24.871W (use Google Earth), to be the first to use the Observatory for this purpose.

Ozone is known to be broken down largely by sunlight and water vapor, through the production of hydroxyl radicals, which then in turn remove the methane from the atmosphere. Other things, like iodine and bromine, are also known to break down ozone, and when the researchers plugged these two values in to their climate model they were better able to predict the decay of ozone in the region. The results point to the creation of an ozone sink created by these chemicals.

"It has come as a surprise to find these chemicals, not only in coastal regions with lots of iodine rich seaweed, but also in the middle of the Atlantic ocean," says Lewis. "We have no reason to think that our study area is different from other tropical ocean regions, so similar ozone destruction could be happening on a huge global scale," he added.

However we need to be careful not to change the balance, as it is very fine. "It will only take a small increase in nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel combustion, carried here from Europe, West Africa or North America on the trade winds, to tip the balance from a sink to a source of ozone," explains Lewis.

Posted by Josh Hill.

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Arctic ice cap could melt by 2070, Russia warns

By Moscow correspondent Scott Bevan

A Russian parliamentary committee has warned that the Arctic ice cap may be gone by 2070, wiping out animal species and displacing the region's indigenous people.

The North Affairs Committee of Russia's Upper House of Parliament has prepared a report which outlines a bleak future for the Arctic.

Committee member Yury Vorobyov has told the Interfax news agency that the thickness of ice in the Arctic Ocean has nearly halved in the past 30 years.

Overall, he says the ice cover has shrunk by almost a third in the past century.

Mr Vorobyov has warned that ongoing melting could disrupt the traditional lifestyle of northern indigenous people as large areas flood, and some animal species including polar bears will become extinct.

He says these dangers have to be taken into account by the Russian Government in its policies for the region.

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Court Halts Construction of Coal-Fired Power Plant in Georgia

National Action Plan on Climate Change Launched: Solar Energy to Change the Face of India