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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Astronomers Discover a Supernova/Gamma Ray Burst Hybrid

Written by Ian O'Neill
Spiral galaxy NGC 2770 with two supernovae SN 2007uy and SN 2008D. Credit: NASA

Just when we thought we were beginning to understand what supernovae and gamma ray bursts were all about. Astronomers have just uncovered the true nature of what they thought was a regular supernova observed in January. At the time, it looked like a supernova emitting a 5-minute long burst of X-rays. But these X-rays were of a lower energy (known as "soft" X-rays) than expected leading some to believe this was a normal emission from a supernova explosion that was being observed during detonation (astronomers don't usually get the chance to observe a star as it explodes and usually have to make do with analysing the supernova remnant). However, it is now believed this strange supernova event may have been emissions from a dying star at an intermediate mass, neither producing a supernova nor a gamma ray burst, but a combination of both…

Orbiting above Earth on January 9th 2008, the NASA/STFC/ASI Swift telescope caught a rare glimpse of what seemed to be a "normal" supernova at the precise moment of detonation. This observation was completely by luck, as Swift was already observing a supernova remnant (SN 2007uy) in spiral galaxy NGC 2770 that had exploded the previous year (90 million light-years away near the Lynx constellation). Then, as Swift was retrieving data from the SN 2007uy remnant, SN 2008D blasted a 5-minute long burst of X-rays in the same galaxy making this the first supernova to be directly observed.

However, looks can be deceiving. Researchers from a host of institutions including Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have analysed the supernova data thoroughly and at first agreed with the original assessment that it was indeed "normal."

"What made this event very interesting is that the X-ray signal was very weak and 'soft', very different from a gamma-ray burst and more in line with what is expected from a normal supernova." - Paolo Mazzali, INAF's Padova Observatory/MPA, research leader.

Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital

Artist impression of the twin jets from a GRB. Credit: Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital

However, astronomers at the Asiago Observatory in Northern Italy had designated the event as a Type 1c supernova, more commonly associated with long-period gamma-ray bursts. Type 1c supernovae are generated by hydrogen-poor progenitor stars with helium-rich outer layers prior to exploding at the end of their lives. But SN 2008D generated soft X-rays more associated with smaller stellar explosions. Therefore SN 2008D was probably produced by a star that was massive at birth (approximately 30 solar masses), rapidly using up its hydrogen fuel in its short life until it was only 8-10 solar masses. At this point it exploded, probably creating a remnant black hole. This chain of thought has led Paolo Mazzali and his team to think SN 2008D was produced by an object of a mass at the boundary of a normal supernova and gamma-ray burst.

"Since the masses and energies involved are smaller than in every known gamma-ray burst related supernova, we think that the collapse of the star gave rise to a weak jet, and that the presence of the Helium layer made it even more difficult for the jet to remain collimated, so that when it emerged from the stellar surface the [X-ray] signal was weak." - Massimo Della Valle, co-investigator.

Researcher and co-author Stefano Valenti points out that this discovery indicates that all black hole-producing supernovae have the potential to be gamma-ray burst progenitors. "The scenario we propose implies that gamma-ray burst-like inner engine activity exists in all supernovae that form a black hole," he added.

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A new era in search for 'sister Earths'?

A Jupiter-sized planet passes in front of its star in this artists impression of a transiting exoplanet. Photo: NASA ESA and G. Bacon
A Jupiter-sized planet passes in front of its star in this artist's impression of a transiting exoplanet. Photo: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon

Research presented at a recent astronomical conference is being hailed as ushering in a new era in the search for Earth-like planets by showing that they are more numerous than previously thought and that scientists can now analyze their atmospheres for elements that might be conducive to life.

“This conference was very well timed. People came with new results. It clicked together. There was a lot of excitement,” said Professor of Astronomy Dimitar Sasselov, who heads Harvard’s Origins of Life Initiative and who co-chaired the conference’s Scientific Organizing Committee. “What happened this spring was a tipping point in the field.”
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) symposium, held in May at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, was sponsored by the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, the California Institute of Technology’s Michelson Science Center, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the IAU. Its focus was “Transiting Planets,” or the technique of discovering planets by measuring changes in the light of distant suns when a planet passes in front of them.

“The age of the discovery of Earth-like planets started last week,” Sasselov said shortly after the conference concluded. “We can say this is the moment where we started the exploration of planets like Earth.”

Astronomers using a variety of techniques have discovered more than 300 planets circling other stars since 1995, when a Swiss team announced finding the first Jupiter-mass planet orbiting a sun-like star, but few of them bear any resemblance to rocky planets like Earth. Because planets are far smaller and dimmer than the star they circle, most techniques rely on detecting not the planet itself, but its effects on its star, such as changes in the star’s light or wobbles in the star’s rotation due to a planet’s gravitational tug as it circles. Consequently, most of the planets found so far have been large gas giants such as our own solar system’s Jupiter, Saturn, or Neptune, thought to be incapable of sustaining life.

That has been changing since the 2004 announcement of the discovery of the first “super-Earth,” a potentially rocky planet 14 times larger than Earth circling a star in the southern constellation Altar, and with the development of new instruments that astronomers believe will be able to find planets close to Earth’s size.
At the conference, Christophe Lovis, a scientist at the University of Geneva who is collaborating with the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, announced findings that small, rocky worlds are not only present in the universe, they’re common, outnumbering the large gas giants by as much as a 3-to-1 ratio.

“This finding was not expected and very welcome,” Sasselov said. “It means planets like Earth are abundant and we can study them.”

Sasselov said rocky planets up to five times Earth’s size should be detectable with the new generation of instruments coming on line such as the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative’s spectrometer equipped with the new laser astro-comb, developed at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The spectrometer which will be deployed in the Canary Islands for exoplanet research sometime in 2010.

“Five times larger than Earth is actually pretty good from the point of view of geochemistry and biochemistry,” Sasselov said. “Ultimately, we want to go down to sister Earths, as people call it. It’s my personal belief that super-Earths are as hospitable to life as Earths, but we need to compare them. People want to know if there are planets just like ours out there.”

The second major finding to emerge from the conference shows that researchers can get an idea of conditions on any planets that they do find, Sasselov said. Presented by Harvard’s Cabot Associate Professor of Astronomy David Charbonneau, the results presented the first compilation of the atmospheric spectrum of a planet orbiting another star.

The spectrum, put together for the atmosphere of a gas giant 60 light-years away, uses the light emitted or absorbed by the planet to detect what molecules are present in the atmosphere, in this case, methane, potassium, sodium, water vapor, and small particulate haze, among others. Though researchers have been able to detect single elements that make up the atmosphere of planets since 2001, this is the first time the complete makeup of the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet has been determined.

“We can actually do this; it is amazing,” Sasselov said. “We can look at a planet 60 light-years away and tell you what’s in the atmosphere. This is really a big deal.”

Knowing a planet’s atmospheric makeup can help astronomers determine whether the conditions for life are present.

“What really keeps me up at night is the potential to apply the techniques we’ve developed to study the atmospheres of gas giant exoplanets to the soon-to-be discovered Earth-like exoplanets,” Charbonneau said. “We could conduct a search for the presence of specific molecules indicating biological activity on the planet’s surface.”

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Microbes Beneath Sea Floor Genetically Distinct

Tiny microbes beneath the sea floor, distinct from life on the Earth's surface, may account for one-tenth of the Earth's living biomass, according to an interdisciplinary team of researchers, but many of these minute creatures are living on a geologic timescale.

"Our first study, back in 2006, made some estimates that the cells could double every 100 to 2,000 years," says Jennifer F. Biddle, PhD. recipient in biochemistry and former postdoctoral fellow in geosciences, Penn State. "Now we have the first comprehensive look at the genetic makeup of these microbes." Biddle is now a postdoctoral associate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The researchers looked at sediment samples from a variety of depths taken off the coast of Peru at Ocean Drilling Site 1229. They report their findings in the July 22 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The Peruvian Margin is one of the most active surface waters in the world and lots of organic matter is continuously being deposited there," says Christopher H. House, associate professor of geoscience. "We are interested in how the microbial world differs in the subsea floor from that in the surface waters."

The researchers used a metagenomic approach to determine the types of microbes residing in the sediment 3 feet, 53 feet, 105 feet and 164 feet beneath the ocean floor. The use of the metagenomics, where bulk samples of sediment are sequences without separation, allows recognition of unknown organism and determination of the composition of the ecosystem.

"The results show that this subsurface environment is the most unique environment yet studied metagenomic approach known today," says House. "The world does look very different below the sediment surface." He notes that a small number of buried genetic fragments exist from the water above, but that a large portion of the microbes found are distinct and adapted to their dark and quiet world.

The researchers, who included Biddle; House; Stephan C. Schuster, associate professor; and Jean E. Brenchley, professor, biochemistry and molecular biology, Penn State; and Sorel Fitz-Gibbon, assistant research molecular biologist at the Center for Astrobiology, UCLA, found that a large percentage of the microbes were Archaea, single-celled organisms that look like Bacteria but are different on the metabolic and genetic levels. The percentage of Archaea increases with depth so that at 164 feet below the sea floor, perhaps 90 percent of the microbes are Archaea. The total number of organisms decreases with depth, but there are lots of cells, perhaps as many as 1,600 million cells in each cubic inch.

" These microbes influence the Earth's long-term carbon cycle and also these microbes may be quite ancient," says Biddle.

If the rest of the world is like the Peruvian Margin, then at least one tenth and as much as a third of the Earth's biomass could be these tiny microbes living in the mud. However, this population lives at an unusual rate. Single-celled organisms usually consume food for energy and then rather than grow larger, simply divide and reproduce themselves. While the Bacteria Escherichia Coli, as an example, doubles its numbers every 20 minutes, these Archaea double on the order of hundreds or thousands of years and consume very little energy.

"In essence, these microbes are almost, practically dead by our normal standards," says House. "They metabolize a little, but not much."

According to House, organisms metabolizing at such slow rates is what we could expect to find in other areas of our solar system because such environments have much less energy available than on Earth. Perhaps, similar organisms may be in hydrothermal vents beneath the ice of Europa -- the second moon of Jupiter -- or in subsurface aquifers of Mars.

"We do not expect the microbes in other places to be these microbes exactly," says House. "But, they could be living at a similar slow rate."

Biddle notes that these microbes could survive major Earth impacts by asteroids, so the subsea floor could be a refuge for life during extinction events. Now this study shows they may be a reservoir of novel genetic material as well. Her future research will focus on understanding the lifestyle of the microbes.

"For example, how do they die?" asks Biddle. "It is a simple question that we cannot answer."

The National Science Foundation, the NASA Astrobiology Institute, U.S. Department of Energy and Pa. Department of Health supported this work.

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Harvard Researchers Create Computer Language That can Penetrate the "Mind" of a Cell

Humancellstained_2 "This language is stepping into an unknown universe, when your computer starts building things for you."

Jeremy Gunawardena, director of the Virtual Cell Program in Harvard Medical School's department of systems biology

Enter into the world of Little b, a computational language developed by a team of Harvard Medical School researchers.

"Through incorporating principles of engineering, we've developed a language that can describe biology in the same way a biologist would," says Gunawardena. "The potential here is enormous. This opens the door to actually performing discovery science, to look at things like drug interactions, right on the computer."

The analogy is of writing a document with pen and paper. You need the pen, the paper, and the paper is blank, you’ve got nothing to work with; you have to create everything from the bottom up. You probably have that information available to you, but you have to put it down on the pen and paper.

Little b, a program written in a programming language called LISP, a language used widely in the field of artificial intelligence research, is not like our analogy. It has the ability to bypass the limitations of most programs and languages, and create its own code that, in turn, can write its own code. "LISP isn't like typical programs, it's more like a conversation," says Gunawardena. "When we input data into Little b, Little b responds to it and reasons over the data."

Gunawardena’s impetus for the creation of Little b is not for something as mediocre as looking in to the human genome, but the human protein. The protein does much more of the work, and is home to a massive wealth of genomic information far and away past the simple DNA. In particular, Gunawardena’s lab works on kinases, otherwise known as a phosphotransferase, an enzyme that transfers phosphate groups from molecules to molecules.

The researchers are now able to use Little b as a scientific collaborator, rather than as a simple passive tool. "This language is stepping into an unknown universe, when your computer starts building things for you," says Gunawardena. "Your whole relationship with the computer becomes a different one. You've ceded some control to the machine. The machine is drawing inferences on your behalf and constructing things for you."

At the moment, Little b acts very much like those unnamed programs I mentioned at the top. They are for the early adopters who know the code back to front. But the researchers realize that in order for the program to get out of that early adopter community, it has to be made more accessible. "The next step is to create an interface that's easy to use," says Gunarwardena. "Think of web page development. Lots of people are creating web pages with little or no knowledge of HTML. They use simple interfaces like Dreamweaver. Once we've developed the equivalent, scientists will be able to use our system without having to learn Little b."

Posted by Josh Hill.

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What’s Lurking in Your Countertop?


SHORTLY before Lynn Sugarman of Teaneck, N.J., bought her summer home in Lake George, N.Y., two years ago, a routine inspection revealed it had elevated levels of radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. So she called a radon measurement and mitigation technician to find the source.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

TESTING Reports of granite emitting high levels of radon and radiation are increasing.

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

DETECTION Using devices like the Geiger counter and the radiation detection instrument Stanley Liebert measures the radiation and radon emanating from granite like that in Lynn Sugarman’s kitchen counters.

“He went from room to room,” said Dr. Sugarman, a pediatrician. But he stopped in his tracks in the kitchen, which had richly grained cream, brown and burgundy granite countertops. His Geiger counter indicated that the granite was emitting radiation at levels 10 times higher than those he had measured elsewhere in the house.

“My first thought was, my pregnant daughter was coming for the weekend,” Dr. Sugarman said. When the technician told her to keep her daughter several feet from the countertops just to be safe, she said, “I had them ripped out that very day,” and sent to the state Department of Health for analysis. The granite, it turned out, contained high levels of uranium, which is not only radioactive but releases radon gas as it decays. “The health risk to me and my family was probably small,” Dr. Sugarman said, “but I felt it was an unnecessary risk.”

As the popularity of granite countertops has grown in the last decade — demand for them has increased tenfold, according to the Marble Institute of America, a trade group representing granite fabricators — so have the types of granite available. For example, one source, Graniteland ( offers more than 900 kinds of granite from 63 countries. And with increased sales volume and variety, there have been more reports of “hot” or potentially hazardous countertops, particularly among the more exotic and striated varieties from Brazil and Namibia.

“It’s not that all granite is dangerous,” said Stanley Liebert, the quality assurance director at CMT Laboratories in Clifton Park, N.Y., who took radiation measurements at Dr. Sugarman’s house. “But I’ve seen a few that might heat up your Cheerios a little.”

Allegations that granite countertops may emit dangerous levels of radon and radiation have been raised periodically over the past decade, mostly by makers and distributors of competing countertop materials. The Marble Institute of America has said such claims are “ludicrous” because although granite is known to contain uranium and other radioactive materials like thorium and potassium, the amounts in countertops are not enough to pose a health threat.

Indeed, health physicists and radiation experts agree that most granite countertops emit radiation and radon at extremely low levels. They say these emissions are insignificant compared with so-called background radiation that is constantly raining down from outer space or seeping up from the earth’s crust, not to mention emanating from manmade sources like X-rays, luminous watches and smoke detectors.

But with increasing regularity in recent months, the Environmental Protection Agency has been receiving calls from radon inspectors as well as from concerned homeowners about granite countertops with radiation measurements several times above background levels. “We’ve been hearing from people all over the country concerned about high readings,” said Lou Witt, a program analyst with the agency’s Indoor Environments Division.

Last month, Suzanne Zick, who lives in Magnolia, Tex., a small town northwest of Houston, called the E.P.A. and her state’s health department to find out what she should do about the salmon-colored granite she had installed in her foyer a year and a half ago. A geology instructor at a community college, she realized belatedly that it could contain radioactive material and had it tested. The technician sent her a report indicating that the granite was emitting low to moderately high levels of both radon and radiation, depending on where along the stone the measurement was taken.

“I don’t really know what the numbers are telling me about my risk,” Ms. Zick said. “I don’t want to tear it out, but I don’t want cancer either.”

The E.P.A. recommends taking action if radon gas levels in the home exceeds 4 picocuries per liter of air (a measure of radioactive emission); about the same risk for cancer as smoking a half a pack of cigarettes per day. In Dr. Sugarman’s kitchen, the readings were 100 picocuries per liter. In her basement, where radon readings are expected to be higher because the gas usually seeps into homes from decaying uranium underground, the readings were 6 picocuries per liter.

The average person is subjected to radiation from natural and manmade sources at an annual level of 360 millirem (a measure of energy absorbed by the body), according to government agencies like the E.P.A. and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The limit of additional exposure set by the commission for people living near nuclear reactors is 100 millirem per year. To put this in perspective, passengers get 3 millirem of cosmic radiation on a flight from New York to Los Angeles.

A “hot” granite countertop like Dr. Sugarman’s might add a fraction of a millirem per hour and that is if you were a few inches from it or touching it the entire time.

Nevertheless, Mr. Witt said, “There is no known safe level of radon or radiation.” Moreover, he said, scientists agree that “any exposure increases your health risk.” A granite countertop that emits an extremely high level of radiation, as a small number of commercially available samples have in recent tests, could conceivably expose body parts that were in close proximity to it for two hours a day to a localized dose of 100 millirem over just a few months.

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

A radiation detection instrument.

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

A Geiger counter.

David J. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University in New York, said the cancer risk from granite countertops, even those emitting radiation above background levels, is “on the order of one in a million.” Being struck by lightning is more likely. Nonetheless, Dr. Brenner said, “It makes sense. If you can choose another counter that doesn’t elevate your risk, however slightly, why wouldn’t you?”

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and is considered especially dangerous to smokers, whose lungs are already compromised. Children and developing fetuses are vulnerable to radiation, which can cause other forms of cancer. Mr. Witt said the E.P.A. is not studying health risks associated with granite countertops because of a “lack of resources.”

The Marble Institute of America plans to develop a testing protocol for granite. “We want to reassure the public that their granite countertops are safe,” Jim Hogan, the group’s president, said earlier this month “We know the vast majority of granites are safe, but there are some new exotic varieties coming in now that we’ve never seen before, and we need to use sound science to evaluate them.”

Research scientists at Rice University in Houston and at the New York State Department of Health are currently conducting studies of granite widely used in kitchen counters. William J. Llope, a professor of physics at Rice, said his preliminary results show that of the 55 samples he has collected from nearby fabricators and wholesalers, all of which emit radiation at higher-than-background levels, a handful have tested at levels 100 times or more above background.

Personal injury lawyers are already advertising on the Web for clients who think they may have been injured by countertops. “I think it will be like the mold litigation a few years back, where some cases were legitimate and a whole lot were not,” said Ernest P. Chiodo, a physician and lawyer in Detroit who specializes in toxic tort law. His kitchen counters are granite, he said, “but I don’t spend much time in the kitchen.”

As for Dr. Sugarman, the contractor of the house she bought in Lake George paid for the removal of her “hot” countertops. She replaced them with another type of granite. “But I had them tested first,” she said.

Where to Find Tests and Testers

TO find a certified technician to determine whether radiation or radon is emanating from a granite countertop, homeowners can contact the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists ( Testing costs between $100 and $300.

Information on certified technicians and do-it-yourself radon testing kits is available from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site at, as well as from state or regional indoor air environment offices, which can be found at Kits test for radon, not radiation, and cost $20 to $30. They are sold at hardware stores and online.

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Peak's Plasmablade is Sci-Fi-like Surgical Tool of the Future

Cutting open a person for surgery using a plain old scalpel seems pretty barbarian compared to this new cutting tool from Peak. Instead of a sharp metal edge, or even an electrosurgical cutter, the Plasmablade uses pulses of plasma generated around its tip to locally cut and cauterize flesh such as skin, fat and muscle. It has the advantages of not damaging nearby tissue since its generated heat remains short term and local, and there's less... uh... smoke to worry about than with electrosurgical tools. If you can stomach the idea, there's a pretty graphic demo video of the blade in action. Just don't be eating while you watch.

The FDA's just okayed it for marketing in the US, so it may be coming to an OR near you soon. [Peak Surgical via Medgadget]

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Texas To Build Wind Power Superhighway

7 Funniest Green LOLCats

Although some might argue that they have jumped the shark, lolcats seem to be everywhere these days, having spread far beyond the imageboard 4chan in 2005. They appear regularly all over the Internet, from social news sites to chumby ads, and have been covered in Time. Some 61% of the Bible has now been translated into lolspeak.

Although lolcats are based on animals (and the form of expression evolved beyond cats long ago, notably to a certain elephant seal), the heavily anthropomorphized images rarely relate directly to the natural world, beyond basic needs (om nom noming, looking for things to om nom nom, and so on) -- until now.

The new website Global Warming Hates Kittens takes the Internet phenom to new levels, with the tagline "Kittens are very concerned about climate change." The site encourages users to submit their cat photos, then links a humorous caption to legit info about the very real threat posed by climate change. (Course some might argue that they aren't true lolcats, since they don't have the text superimposed on the image, true macro style. That's why I took the liberty to combine their images and text via

As an example, Global Warming Hates Kittens shows a placid scene of a cat relaxing above a gorgeous Venetian canal. The caption "Venice kitten sez: Global warmingz takes mai home" links to information about the dangers of sea level rise. The site will only be as good as the community of users, but it seems like a good way to get more people engaged in thinking about climate change, while having some fun.

In honor of Global Warming Hates Kittens, here's my list of the best "green" lolcats from the Net:

1. May I Present to You… The Ocean

All kidding aside, the world's oceans are in serious jeopardy, from growing dead zones, overfishing, oil spills, floating plastic and much more, not to mention widespread disruption from global warming. The Earth is largely an aquatic planet, and the health of the oceans effect the health of us all.

funny pictures
moar funny pictures

2. gudbai beachez

Global Warming Hates Kittens links this adorable little trooper to a WWF report about the potentially devastating effects of worldwide sea level rise, which is expected to be as much as 5 mm per year over the next 100 years. That means disappearing nations in the Pacific, loss of crucial wetlands and rising floodwaters.

humorous lolcat of a cat stalking birds

3. Delta squad had no idea…

Everyone knows cats are born hunters, but few people realize that domestic cats kill hundreds of millions of birds a year in the U.S. Much of the carnage is caused by feral cats, of which there are legions. This is increasingly worrying biologists, since so many American birds have experienced precipitous population declines in recent decades. Cats can also kill mammals, frogs and other critters, some of which are endangered.

funny lolcat of a chickadee bird on the head of a kid looking through binoculars

4. Bird watchin

Birdwatching is an enormously popular hobby, and birders have long been some of the leaders in conservation, from John James Audubon right up to the present day. Sadly, experts say 25% of U.S. birds are imperiled, largely from habitat loss, but also from predation (lolcats), pollution, oil spills and other problems.

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5. I keep mai tree?

Global Warming Hates Kittens reminds us that climate change poses massive threats to the world's forests, which are crucial not only as habitat for countless species, but which also mitigate several of the Earth's systems, including weather and the water cycle. Forests are also the source of many useful products, from lumber to medicines. Just as kittens have an easier time climbing up trees than coming down, it isn't as easy to regenerate forests as it is to damage them.

lolcat of bird hitting a window, fail


Each year, between 100 million and 1 billion birds die from hitting glass, which makes the material about as deadly to our feathered friends as feral cats. The slaughter can be reduced by better positioning of buildings and panes, and avoiding glass walls of death.

funny pictures
moar funny pictures

7. o noes global warmingz

With this image Global Warming Hates Kittens points out that every species on Earth is likely to be affected with widespread disruptions, from rising seas to spreading of disease, mass migrations, changes in plant growth and more. Even lolcats are not immune, mighty as they are. Perhaps even Ceiling Cat.

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Beyond Wind Plan, Pickens Eyes Pipelines in Drought-Ridden U.S.

By Michael Milstein

Billionaire hedge-fund manager T. Boone Pickens testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday to outline his new wind-power plan, but it's a water pipeline initiative that could reshape the landscape of Texas' drought dilemma. (Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens recently detailed his plan to wean America off foreign oil by blanketing the Great Plains with wind turbines. But Pickens also has a lesser-known plan that is centered on another commodity, one every bit as vital to America's future as energy—water. If it all works out, his water plan could remake Pickens as a whole new kind of baron.

Pickens is in the planning stages of a $1.5 billion initiative to pump billions of gallons of water from an ancient aquifer beneath the Texas Panhandle and build pipelines to ship them to thirsty cities such as Dallas. So far, no city has taken up his water company, Mesa Water, on the offer. But company officials and experts agree that a continuation of the drought impacting large portions of the United States could turn Pickens into something of a water baron. His yet-to-be-built pipeline would follow the same 250-mile corridor as electric lines carrying power from his wind farms. Pickens prompted the creation of a public water supply district, run by his employees, that can claim private land for the pipeline route through eminent domain. (Follow the pipeline's path here.)

A drought has drained water from Texas and much of the rest of the United States. That could make water an increasingly profitable commodity for those who hold the rights. According to his Web site, Pickens owns rights to more water than anyone else. "In general, there's a lot of it, it's just not in the right place," says Robert Stillwell, legal counsel for Mesa Water (and board member of the water supply district), which continues to acquire water rights in rural Texas. He dismisses questions about whether the water would be cost-competitive. For cities looking at their future water needs, he says, "cost becomes irrelevant." As far as Mesa's pipeline snaking across the Texas heartland, Stillwell insists that "it's going to happen, it's just a matter of when."

Pickens is not pioneering the use of big pipelines to transport water: A 330-mile pipeline in Australia supplies water to 100,000 people and California moves water from its northern rivers to its southern deserts with a massive network of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumps. Even in the Texas Panhandle, 323 miles of pipeline deliver water from Lake Meredith to Amarillo, Lubbock and other cities. Texas law allows private companies to pump water and sell it to cities; some have done so on much smaller scales than Pickens plans to do. But his project may become the biggest, with its profitability depending on coming municipal desperation caused by shrinking supply.

Water is such a basic human necessity that people may not like to think of it as a commodity, despite the billions of plastic bottles of it sold every year. But as population growth and climate change put new pressure on supplies, more regions may now have no choice but to look further and further away for water, says Michael Campana, a professor at Oregon State University and director of its Institute for Water and Watersheds. "If that's the case, then you can bet that money or some other item of value will change hands," he says. "We will see more such transactions in the future." Campana think Pickens is making a wise bet on a future in which (in Pickens's words) "water is the new oil," but says it may take longer than the oilman expects for the bet to pay off.

That dry future is not hard to imagine, given that the southeast United States is suffering through a lingering drought that last fall put Atlanta within weeks of running out of drinking water. Nearly a decade of drought in the Southwest has left Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the nation, about half-full. The situation is dire in Pickens's domain, as well. The Texas Water Development Board predicts that the state's water demand will rise 27 percent by 2060, even as the supply drops about 18 percent, because the dry conditions fill reservoirs with silt and depleted aquifers. Without new supplies, by 2060 more than 85 percent of Texans will not have enough water to last through a drought, the board projects.

Mesa Water would pump its water from the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground water reservoir in North America with about 100 times as much water as Lake Mead holds when full. The company says it's merely delivering unused water to an area that can use it, not so different from oil, which has already made Pickens a fortune.

Dallas water officials have so far been noncommittal about buying the water; a federal judge this month denied the city's attempt to build a huge reservoir in East Texas, and in the aftermath city officials reassured the public that Dallas has about 30 years of water on hand. But Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club's Texas Chapter, sees the pumping plan as no less than mining of groundwater—taking more water much faster than nature can replace it. Pumping already pulls water from the aquifer 10 times faster than it refills, he says. "Basically you're mining the future of the Ogallala," Kramer says. "That's really the type of water supply you need to save until a crisis, when you have 10 years of drought."

For its part, Mesa says it can deliver enough water to supply 1.5 million Texans at a competitive price without drawing the aquifer down even halfway for 125 years. Though the price may not seem like a bargain now, it may be only a matter of time.

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