Saturday, July 19, 2008

Human Speech Traced to Talking Fish

From Don Knotts' portrayle of "Mr. Limpet" to the children's favorite "Nemo" and the tuna-pitching character in the "Sorry, Charlie" commercials, we all have seen fish that can talk. But that's just fiction, right?

Well ...

Researchers say real fish can communicate with sound, too. And they say (the researchers, that is) that your speech skills and, in fact, all sound production in vertebrates can be traced back to this ability in fish. (You got your ears from fish, too.)

The new study was led by Andrew Bass (we did not make this up) of Cornell University.

The scientists mapped developing brain cells in newly hatched midshipman fish larvae and compared them to those of other species. They found that the chirp of a bird, the bark of a dog and all the other sounds that come out of animals' mouths are the products of the neural circuitry likely laid down hundreds of millions of years ago with the hums and grunts of fish.

"Fish have all the same parts of the brain that you do," Bass explained.

His team traced the development of the connection from the midshipman fish's vocal muscles to a cluster of neurons located in a compartment between the back of its brain and the front of its spinal cord. The same part of the brain in more complex vertebrates, such as humans, has a similar function, indicating that it was highly selected for during the course of evolution.

The finding is published in the July 18 issue of the journal Science.

The fish that Bass studied are interesting in their own right.

After building a nest for his potential partner, the male midshipman fish calls to nearby females by contracting his swim bladder, the air-filled sac fish use to maintain buoyancy. The sound is a hum, something like a long-winded foghorn. Female midshipman dig it, and they only approach a male's nest if he makes this call.

During midsipman mating season, houseboat owners in San Francisco Bay have complained that their homes vibrate from the humming, which sound like a high-speed motor running underwater.

By better understanding how these fish hear, the study offers new avenues to explore the causes of human deafness, the researchers say.

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Cern lab goes 'colder than space'

LHC tunnel (M. Brice/Cern)
Superconducting magnets are cooled down using liquid helium

A vast physics experiment built in a tunnel below the French-Swiss border is fast becoming one of the coolest places in the Universe.

The Large Hadron Collider is entering the final stages of being lowered to a temperature of 1.9 Kelvin (-271C; -456F) - colder than deep space.

The LHC has thousands of magnets which will be maintained in this frigid condition using liquid helium.

The magnets are arranged in a ring that runs for 27km through the giant tunnel.

Once the LHC is operational, two particle beams - usually consisting of protons accelerated to high energies - will be fired down pipes running through the magnets.

These beams will then travel in opposite directions around the main ring at close to the speed of light.

At allotted points along the tunnel, the beams will cross paths, smashing into one another with cataclysmic force. Scientists hope to see new particles in the debris of these collisions, revealing fundamental new insights into the nature of the cosmos and how it came into being.

The most powerful physics experiment ever built, the LHC will re-create the conditions just after the Big Bang.

Currently, six out of the LHC's eight sectors are between 4.5 and 1.9 Kelvin, though all sectors of the machine have been down to 1.9 Kelvin at some stage over the last few months.

By comparison, the temperature in remote regions of outer space is about 2.7 Kelvin (-270C; -454F).

CMS detector at end of 2007 (M. Brice/Cern)
The CMS detector will search for the Higgs boson - the so-called "God particle"

Roberto Saban, the LHC's head of hardware commissioning, said that in order to obtain high magnetic fields without consuming too much power, the magnets were required to be "superconducting".

This is the property, exhibited by some materials at very low temperatures, to channel electrical current with zero resistance and very little power loss.

Helium exhibits spectacular properties at 2.2 Kelvin - becoming "superfluid". This allows it to conduct heat very rapidly, making it an extremely efficient refrigerant.

No particle physics facility on this scale has ever operated at such low temperatures. But, so far, the hardware was performing as predicted, Roberto Saban explained.

"We have a very systematic process for the commissioning of this machine, based on very carefully designed procedures prepared with experience we have gathered on prototypes."

He added: "Our motto is: no short cuts? exchanging a single component which today is cold, is like bringing it back from the Moon. It takes about three to four weeks to warm it up. Then it takes one or two weeks to exchange. Then it needs three to six weeks to cool down again.

"So, you see, it is three months if we make a mistake."

Two sectors of the LHC are currently not cold enough for testing to proceed. Electronics that control the cryogenic systems in these sectors are being moved to an area where they will be better shielded against particles that shoot out of the machine during collisions.

Closing the circle

One sector of the ring is being run as if the LHC was operational and carrying a beam. This is so that crews can de-bug software and hardware and gain experience of running operating cycles.

The LHC's magnets must also undergo electrical testing. Each sector of the machine contains about 200 electrical circuits. Each circuit may consist of as many as 154 magnets or as few as one.

They are being tested for their ability to handle very high currents - up to 12,000 Amps .

"We power each circuit, making sure it goes to its design current. But above all, we are verifying that all the protection systems around it - which are there to detect an eventual quench - are operating as expected," said Roberto Saban.

A quench occurs when some part of the magnet starts to heat up, becoming resistant to electrical current. Engineers have built in a recovery system to detect these quenches before they affect the magnetic field bending particles around the ring and shut off the circulating beams.

The machine's cool-down should take another two weeks to complete, provided no serious problems are found. Electrical testing of the magnets may take another couple of weeks.

Before the LHC is "switched on" for the first time, the proton beams have to be boosted to high energies in a chain of particle accelerators called the injectors.

Once the machine is cold, operators will inject beams into the main ring, threading them through each independent sector of the LHC until they close the circle.

A timing, or synchronisation, system is used to ensure each of these sectors behaves as if they were a single machine.

When the LHC is switched on it will operate at an energy of five trillion electron-volts. It will then be shut down for the winter, so that the magnets can be "trained" to handle a beam run at seven trillion electron-volts.

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Alzheimer's Drug Reverses Cognitive Decline Over 12 Month Period In Early Human Testing

ScienceDaily (July 18, 2008) — A drug once approved as an antihistamine in Russia improved thinking processes and ability to function in patients with Alzheimer's disease in a study conducted there, said an expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The findings are published in the journal The Lancet.

"More research is needed, but we are encouraged by the effect the drug Dimebon had on Alzheimer's patients" said Dr. Rachelle Doody, professor of neurology at BCM and lead author of the study.

In the study, the authors noted that Dimebon is the first drug for Alzheimer's disease that demonstrated continued improvement in patients over a 12 month period. Other approved drugs do not have this effect.

Half of the 183 patients in the Russian study received Dimebon; the other half were given a placebo or an inactive pill. Clinicians at the study sites then monitored the patients' progress over the next year on five different outcomes. All of those in the study had mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.

"What we saw in the clinical trial is that people on the medication continued to improve over time," Doody said. "Those on placebo continued to decline."

Researchers believe the medication works by stabilizing mitochondria, the cellular components that produce energy, and possibly by inhibiting brain cell death. Researchers evaluated patients' thinking and memory ability, overall function, psychiatric and behavioral symptoms, and ability to perform daily activities.

"Usually at this point in a drug's development, we are happy to see improvement in one of the outcome measures," Doody said. "We saw improvement in all five."

Some participants complained of occasional dry mouth, but no one opted out of the study because of the side effects.

"As we continue research, we hope to replicate these results," Doody said. "My belief is that this drug will turn out to be useful for Alzheimer's disease, regardless of the stage of the disease."

Doody said this is only the first study looking into the effects of Dimebon on Alzheimer's disease. She also noted that it involved only a relatively small population from one specific region of the world. The ongoing Phase 3 study will include several international locations including the United States.

Other researchers who contributed to this study include: Dr. Svetlana I. Gavrilova, Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, Moscow, Russia; Dr. Mary Sano, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City, NY; Dr. Ronald G. Thomas, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA; Dr. Paul S. Aisen, formerly with Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, DC and now at the University of California, San Diego; ; Dr. Sergey O. Bachurin, Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Physiologically Active Compounds, Chernogolovka, Russia; Drs. Lynn Seely and David Hung, Medivation, Inc., San Francisco, CA.

Funding for this study came from Medivation, Inc., the company developing the drug worldwide. Doody is also a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory board for Medivation, Inc.

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Gore Sets Alternative Energy Challenge

WASHINGTON (AP) - Just as John F. Kennedy set his sights on the moon, Al Gore is challenging the nation to produce every kilowatt of electricity through wind, sun and other Earth-friendly energy sources within 10 years, an audacious goal he hopes the next president will embrace.

The Nobel Prize-winning former vice president said fellow Democrat Barack Obama and Republican rival John McCain are "way ahead" of most politicians in the fight against global climate change.

Rising fuel costs, climate change and the national security threats posed by U.S. dependence on foreign oil are conspiring to create "a new political environment" that Gore said will sustain bold and expensive steps to wean the nation off fossil fuels.

"I have never seen an opportunity for the country like the one that's emerging now," Gore told The Associated Press in an interview previewing a speech on global warming he planned to give Thursday in Washington.

Gore said he fully understands the magnitude of the challenge.

The Alliance for Climate Protection, a bipartisan group he leads, estimates the cost of transforming the U.S. to clean electricity sources at $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion over 30 years in public and private money. But he says it would cost about as much to build greenhouse gas-polluting coal plants to satisfy current demand.

"This is an investment that will pay itself back many times over," Gore said. "It's an expensive investment but not compared to the rising cost of continuing to invest in fossil fuels."

Called an alarmist by conservatives, Gore has made global warming his signature issue. He portrayed Thursday's speech as the latest and most important phase in his effort to build public opinion in favor of alternative fuels.

Gore knows politicians fear action unless voters are willing to sacrifice — and demand new fuels.

"I hope to contribute to a new political environment in this country that will allow the next president to do what I think the next president is going to think is the right thing to do," Gore said. "But the people have to play a part." He compared his challenge to Kennedy's pledge in May 1961 to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Gore narrowly lost the presidential race in 2000 to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush after a campaign in which his prescient views on climate change took a back seat to other issues. In the 2008 presidential race, both the Republican and Democrat candidates support action to curb the gases blamed for global warming.

While dismissing a suggestion that he pulled his punches eight years ago, Gore said his goal now is to "enlarge the political space" within which politicians can "deal with the climate challenge."

To meet his 10-year goal, Gore said nuclear energy output would continue at current levels while the U.S. dramatically increases its use of solar, wind, geothermal and clean coal energy. Huge investments must also be made in technologies that reduce energy waste and link existing power grids, he said.

Gore's proposal would represent a significant shift in where the U.S. gets its power. In 2005, the United States produced nearly 3.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, with coal providing slightly more than half of that energy, according to government statistics. Nuclear power accounted for 21 percent, natural gas 15 percent and renewable sources, including wind and solar, about 8.6 percent.

Coal's share of electricity generation is only expected to grow come 2030, according to Energy Department forecasts, while renewable energy would still only provide 11 percent of the nation's power.

Without action, the cost of oil will continue to rise as fast-growing China and India increase demand, Gore said. Sustained addiction to oil also will place the U.S. at the mercy of oil-producing governments, he said, and the globe would suffer irreparable harm.

Government experts recently predicted that, at the current rate and without an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, world energy demand will grow 50 percent over the next two decades. The Energy Information Administration also said in its long-range forecast to 2030 that the world is not close to abandoning fossil fuels despite their role in global warming.

While electricity production is only part of the nation's energy and climate change problem, Gore said, "If we meet this challenge we will solve the rest of it."
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East Coast Getting Tidal Energy Projects

Two fair-sized tidal energy projects are on their way to the east coast. First up is (ready for this mouthful?) the Edgartown-Nantucket Tidal Energy Plant Water Power Project. The project proposes 50 underwater turbines turned by the ebb and flow of the tide. A 3 mile-long transmission line would carry the electricity generated to land, where it would be sold to local utilities. Edgartown and Nantucket would be the beneficiaries of the 2 MW of peak output.

The second project is planned for Vineyard Sound and it has a slightly more manageable title: The Cape and Islands Tidal Energy Project. This project is looking at clusters of underwater turbines – each with the ability to put out between 1 and 3 MW during peak tide – with up to 150 of these energy generators installed. The proposed turbines are on the scale of what was recently installed off Ireland, which is a 1.2 MW turbine and touted as the world’s largest.

Right now the projects are doing research to see if this kind of output is possible, and if it can be done cheaply enough to make it viable. From what they can tell, the 1.5 meters-per-second average current speed probably won’t hack it to turn the turbines fast enough for them to create enough electricity to make the project worth while. It takes a current speed of about 2 meters-per-second to get that kind of energy generation going. Locals, and EcoGeeks, are eagerly awaiting more test results to find out if these projects could work.

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Last-Ditch Resort: Move Polar Bears to Antarctica?

If the most dire climate predictions come to pass, the Arctic ice cap will melt entirely, and polar bears could face extinction.

So why not pack a few off to Antarctica, where the sea ice will never run out?

It may seem like a preposterous question. But polar bears are just the tip of the "assisted colonization" iceberg. Other possibilities: moving African big game to the American Great Plains, or airlifting endangered species from one mountaintop to another as climate zones shrink.

"It's a showdown. The impacts of climate change on animals have become apparent. And it's time to decide whether we're going to do something," said Notre Dame ecologist Jessica Hellmann, co-author of an influential 2007 Conservation Biology paper (.pdf). "Reducing CO2 is vital, but we might have to step in and intervene."

Once dismissed as wrongheaded and dangerous, assisted colonization -- rescuing vanishing species by moving them someplace new -- is now being discussed by serious conservationists. And no wonder: Caught between climate change and human pressure, species are going extinct 100 times faster than at any point in human history.

And some scientists say that figure is too conservative. The real extinction rate, they say, is a full 1,000 times higher than normal. The last time such annihilation took place was during the time of the dinosaurs. And though many conservationists say that saving species by transplanting them is foolish, others say there's no choice.

"They want the world to be what it was before. But it's not going to happen," said Australian ecologist Hugh Possingham, author of an assisted-colonization article published Thursday in Science (citation page).

The language of Possingham's paper is understated -- its centerpiece is a risk-benefit flow chart -- but the recommendations are radical. He proposes a systematic analysis of Earth's threatened species, identifying those suitable for last-ditch uprooting.

That the scientific world's most august publication carries such a proposal marks a sea-level shift in conservationist consciousness, say researchers. Others have weighed the idea, but Possingham's team came down firmly in favor.

Adding to the momentum, the Ecological Society of America's annual meeting in August will be preceded by a three-day discussion of assisted colonization, by ecologists, policy wonks and lawyers.

But not everyone is in a rush. "I think it's a bad idea," said Duke University biologist Jason McLachlan, also a co-author of the Conservation Biology paper. "There are a million examples of invasive species introduced with good intentions that caused all sorts of damage."

Unfortunately, perhaps, for the polar bear, it's a perfect example of McLachlan's objections. Cost and logistics aside, the bears would wreak havoc in an ecosystem unprepared for them.

"Antarctic penguins and seals aren't adapted to surface predators," explained Steven Amstrup, the chief U.S. Geological Survey polar-bear researcher. "The bears would have a field day for a while, because they could walk right up to them and eat them. For a short period of time, it would be great, but in the end the whole system would probably collapse."

Accounts of destruction wrought by invasive species are legion, from wild hogs in the southern United States and zebra mussels in the Great Lakes to cane toads in Australia and mongeese in Hawaii. An endangered species that now seems sympathetic could quickly become a villain.

But assisted-colonization proponents believe their animals, unlike other invasive species, would be carefully selected and their effects anticipated.

"You work out what the risks are before you take action," said Possingham. "You go through these decision trees, and start by doing some trials under very controlled circumstances, then we'll learn about it."

Things could still go wrong, said Hellmann, but the consequences pale in comparison to those of climate change and inaction. And for animals whose natural habitat has been eradicated, or who live -- as did the golden toad of Costa Rica's cloud forest -- in rapidly changing places from which they cannot escape, there may be no other option.

"If all other conservation methods fail, and evidence shows that a species is in danger of extinction, then assisted migration becomes an option that we should consider seriously," said Nature Conservancy ecologist Patrick Gonzalez.

McLachlan, however, has other reasons for opposition. Assisted colonization could be seen as a quick-fix panacea, distracting people from the necessary task of preserving habitat and braking climate change. More philosophically, there's something troubling about treating nature as a zoological theme park.

"We're destroying any semblance of the idea that a place has its own biota and history," he said. "It's not just saving a couple whooping cranes, it's redesigning the entire biota of Earth. And that's incredibly creepy to me."

Hellmann agrees that assisted colonization could be mistaken as a convenient solution. But the purity of nature, she said, is now a myth.

"You can find signatures of humanity in the deepest jungles and remote locations. This idea of pristine nature doesn't really apply," she said. "If assisted colonization will have benefits, it seems strange not to cross some arbitrary line."

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Opinion: Biofuels, Food Prices and Global Warming Roundup

The current rate at which biofuels are falling out of favor is largely founded on biased ideologies, which have been shaped by widespread political and corporate agenda-pushing from all sides of the fence.Biofuels food and climate change

But first, a digression.

Part 1: When an egg was just an egg

I remember a time when an egg was just an egg. Nobody argued about that. It was a blissful time. Yet, for all its strengths, it was a fragile time held together by unsupported conclusions and limited knowledge.

Part 2: The Time of the Bad Egg

Like many a simple concept before it, the idea of an egg as “just an egg” was consumed in a storm of health consciousness and bad hair. I shall call this storm “the 80s.” Richard Simmons was sweating to the oldies, and cholesterol, it was determined, should be ripped from your body. Just like that, eggs were bad.

Part 3: The Time of Ambiguity; When an Egg is Only Halfway Decent if Eaten in Moderation

Luckily for us, we snapped out of the 80s. Sweatbands disappeared and Jazzercise faded from our collective memory. We got around to doing some research and found that there are such things as good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Turns out you need some of both to remain healthy. And eggs were good again…. but only if you eat less than 7 a week.

Part 4: The Point

From a human health perspective eggs are confusing, and still not very well understood. They’ve been researched to death, yet we still don’t know exactly how they interact with the human body. The only thing I can say about eggs with any confidence is that in ten years time, new research will make the case for eggs even more confusing, yet people will still eat them.

And eggs are tiny.

Now scale up… no, go larger. Ah, that’s it, something Earth-sized.

In the last decade we’ve come a long way in our ability to measure and understand the Earth and how it works. We’ve realized that perhaps we do have an impact on our environment and that, indeed, there might be a limit to the amount of oil we can squeeze out of our planet.

But the more we’ve figured out, the harder it has become to separate the forest from the trees. The further along we get in trying to change how we power and energize our world, the more we see an increasing global volatility in social, economic, and environmental interactions.

Is it all related, or is it a coincidence? Are biofuels driving up food prices or is it the beginning of the effects of human-caused global warming? Will biofuels even reduce our effect on global warming? Have biofuels, themselves, caused a spike in oil prices? Holy crap. I don’t know.

“Should I eat eggs or not?” you start to ask yourself.

Then, at just this moment — and like all good vultures, I might add — the opportunists begin to circle overhead, casting shadows on the scurrying populace below.

“How can I further my own group’s agenda given the current climate of confusion?” they ask. “I know, we’ll put egg whites in a box and sell them for ten times the price,” they chorus together.

And the politicization begins and the confusion gets worse.

So what does the latest crop of politicized findings tell us about biofuels, food prices and global warming?

On the topic of food vs. fuel:

Well that certainly settles it, doesn’t it?

On the topic of global warming and energy conservation:

Again, clear as mud.

On the topic of biofuels and rising fuel prices:

Are we sensing a trend here? Damn you, ideological vultures. Stop clouding my vision.

What conclusions can we draw from all this?

If not all biofuels have the same effect on global warming, how could they have the same effect when it comes to food prices? If biofuels only account for 1% of all the world’s fuel production, how can they account for 40% of the world’s rising fuel prices?

Do most people even know what a biofuel actually is? I mean, that sounds like a stupid question, but there’s a huge misconception out there which is driven by a lack of understanding: not all biofuels are created equal. I cannot stress this enough.

Listen to any newscast or radio show dealing with the topic of biofuels and you’ll hear a lot about “ethanol” or “biodiesel,” but you won’t hear a single peep about what type of ethanol or biodiesel it is.

To the average person, a biofuel is a biofuel regardless of whether it’s biodiesel or bioethanol, whether it comes from soybeans or switchgrass, or whether it’s derived from an algal pool or cropland. And this is exactly what the circling vultures want the average person to think. It makes it easier to push agendas.

Just like in the case of our lowly egg, biofuels started with the implicit assumption that they were good. “Of course they’re good” we thought “how could it be bad to grow our own fuel from renewable crops?”

But then the bad hair and the health consciousness set in. “Of course biofuels are bad,” came the conventional wisdom “they’re the root of all our problems.”

And this is where our egg analogy breaks down. You see, an egg is simply an egg. It will always be an egg. Sure, we can pump it with Omega-3s and stuff it in a box with added vitamins and minerals, but it’s still an egg. The source is always the same.

A biofuel can be a multitude of different things with very different sources depending on how it’s made and where it’s used. Unlike eggs, biofuels have ambiguity built-in. For someone to try and convince you otherwise is shameful.

The Take Home:

This built-in ambiguity means that all biofuels must be analyzed and judged independently: you can’t lump biofuels into a single category.

The truth about biofuels is complicated and not easy to explain in 30-second soundbites or 200-word articles. Understanding what they are and what they can accomplish takes some personal initiative.

So when you find yourself wondering whether biofuels are the harbinger of global doom or the bright light at the end of the tunnel, don’t let the vultures convince you that they know what the answer is.

Every single organization on the planet has an agenda to push. Because of the confusion and ambiguity surrounding the production of biofuels, it’s easy to twist the information to suit your message.

Truth is, nobody knows what kind of effect the production of biofuels is having on food prices, global warming, and rising fuel costs. Does that mean we should stop moving forward? No.

It is clear that the world needs some sort of energy solution. Will it be electric derived from solar, wave, wind, or geothermal? Will it be hydrogen? Will it be second generation biofuels? I’d be stupid to answer that question. More than likely it will be a complex combination of the above.

Until such time as we get to where we’re going, we’ll just have to wait and see what comes of it all. In the meantime, it’s important to do research and build markets for all of these things because one day we’ll be in survival mode and need one of them to stave off disaster.

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