Thursday, July 31, 2008

Water on Mars Confirmed?

By Joe Pappalardo

In a discovery that could qualify as one of the most important in the history of space exploration, NASA’s Phoenix Mission may have confirmed the presence of water ice on the planet, Popular Mechanics has learned. The scheduling of a press conference for Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern by NASA and the University of Arizona has raised hopes in the space community that scientists will announce the breakthrough. When pressed for details, a spokesperson for the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory refused to elaborate beyond saying that the Phoenix team would unveil new findings from the ongoing robotic mission to Mars. If the rumor holds true, it would be the first direct confirmation of water ice beyond Earth.

Data from recent missions to Mars has been building toward a confirmation of the presence of water ice. However, “this would be the first time we held it in our hands, so to speak,” says Bryan DeBates, a senior aerospace education specialist at the Space Foundation. Evidence from other locations in the solar system, including Earth’s moon, Saturn’s Enceladus moon and Jupiter’s Europa moon, have strongly hinted at the presence of water—NASA confirmed a liquid lake on Saturn’s Titan moon on Wednesday—but no direct observation of water has been made.

If the presence of water is confirmed on a small patch near the lander, the volume of ice on the Martian surface could be “extraordinary,” says Mary Bourke, a planetary research scientist with the Planetary Science Institute in Tuscon, Ariz. The landing site was chosen because the porosity of the soil appeared to lend itself to a build-up of water ice—and that type of soil is widespread on Mars. The presence of widespread water would make any mission to establish a manned Martian base far more feasible. (Of course, the presence of water would also greatly increase the likelihood that life exists, or once did exist, on the planet.)

Staff operating the Phoenix Lander from mission control in Arizona have been closely watching a patch of what they believed to be ice that was uncovered as the lander descended. The Phoenix Mars Lander has been scraping samples and dropping them into a spectrometer that heats the samples to determine their chemical composition. On Sunday, the Phoenix team changed the way it dug to reduce friction that prematurely heated the samples. On Tuesday, NASA scientists stated that the surface of the patch, dubbed “Snow Queen,” has changed between June and July. A camera mounted on a robotic arm captured those changes, which include 4-in. cracks and a visibly rougher surface texture.

Sources within NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory hinted that the new findings could reveal details of the atmosphere as well as the ground—perhaps indicating that researchers have learned new lessons about the dynamics of the Martian environment by the way the exposed material reacts to the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere. The fractures could have appeared as ice sublimated off the surface. It’s also possible that temperature changes made the surface crack. However, any findings about the atmosphere could have come independently of observations of the ice surface, since there are atmospheric instruments such as laser radar on Phoenix, so any atmospheric findings could be separate from the water ice issue. For some Mars researchers, that would be fine. “Research into Mars’ atmosphere really needs to be beefed up,” Bourke says. “Any information about it could be invaluable.”

Also, two European orbiters circling Mars have recently captured geological features that indicate the planet once had standing water for thousands of years, including river valleys and 13,000-ft. waterfalls. Next step after confirming the ice would be finding out if life ever existed—or still does, in some deep Martian aquifer. “NASA’s mantra has been ‘Follow the ice to find life,’” says DeBates. And if life does not exist there, earthlings may import some. “Establishing a Mars colony is going to be a lot easier to maintain, having water there,” DeBates says.

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The Lagoons of Titan: Oily Liquid Confirmed on Saturn Moon

By Alexis Madrigal

Earthlings might be scrambling to find liquid hydrocarbons buried in our planet, but Saturn's moon Titan has plenty to spare.

Scientists say that a dark, smooth surface feature spotted on the moon last year is definitely a lake filled primarily with liquid ethane, a simple hydrocarbon.

"This is the first observation that really pins down that Titan has a surface lake filled with liquid," said the paper's lead author, University of Arizona professor Robert Brown.

The new observations affirm that Titan is one of the likeliest places to look for life in our solar system. Some astrobiologists have speculated that life could develop in the moon's hydrocarbon lakes, although it would have to be substantially different from known life on Earth, which requires liquid water.


Mixed in solution with the ethane, the lake is also believed to contain nitrogen, methane, and a variety of other simple hydrocarbons.

The Cassini-Huygens probe determined the chemical composition of the liquid by the way it reflected light, a technique known as spectrometry that has provided most of our knowledge about other planets' atmospheric compositions.

"It was hard for us to accept the fact that the feature was so black when we first saw it," Brown said. "More than 99.9 percent of the light that reaches the lake never gets out again. For it to be that dark, the surface has to be extremely quiescent, mirror smooth. No naturally produced solid could be that smooth."

Further, the scientists saw the specific absorption signature of ethane, which absorbs light at exactly 2-micron wavelengths.

These kinds of measurements are made more difficult by the hydrocarbon haze that engulfs the moon, making it hard to actually see the Titanic ground. Cassini scientists have to take advantage of narrow observation windows. One of these occurred in December 2007, which allowed them to catch this view of the lake, Ontario Lacus. At 7,800 square miles, it's slightly larger than the Earthbound Lake Ontario

Ethane is the byproduct of a solar-energy-induced reaction that transforms atmospheric methane, aka natural gas. Scientists believe ultrafine particles of ethane fall from the atmosphere to the surface and fill the lake.

Here on earth, ethane is used to create ethylene, which is used as an all-purpose chemical precursor and is the world's most-produced organic compound.

Brown and his team will publish their results in the July 31 issue of the journal Nature.

Image: Courtesy NASA. Ontario Lacus, which translates roughly to "Bigfoot track on Saturnian moon."

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Close-Up Images of 'Snow Queen' Show Changes

Animated GIF of Snow Queen
+ Larger image
This animation consists of two close-up images of "Snow Queen," taken several days apart, by the Robotic Arm Camera (RAC) aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- A distinctive hard-surface feature called "Snow Queen" beneath NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander visibly changed sometime between mid-June and mid-July, close-up images from the Robotic Arm Camera show.

Cracks as long as 10 centimeters, or about four inches, have appeared. A seven-millimeter (less than one-third inch) pebble or clod not seen there before has popped up on the surface. And some smooth texture on Snow Queen has subtly roughened.

Phoenix's Robotic Arm Camera, or RAC, took its first close-up image of Snow Queen on May 31, 2008, the sixth Martian day, or sol, after the May 25 landing. Thruster exhaust blew away surface soil covering Snow Queen as Phoenix landed, exposing a hard layer comprising several smooth, rounded cavities.

"Images taken since landing showed these fractures didn't form in the first 20 sols of the mission," Phoenix co-investigator Mike Mellon of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said. "We might expect to see additional changes in the next 20 sols."

Mellon, who has spent most of his career studying permafrost, said long-term monitoring of Snow Queen and other icy soil cleared by Phoenix landing and trenching operations is unprecedented for science. It's the first chance to see visible changes in Martian ice at a place where temperatures are cold enough that the ice doesn't immediately sublimate, or vaporize, away. Phoenix scientists discovered that centimeter-sized chunks of ice scraped up in the Dodo-Goldilocks trench lasted several days before vanishing.

The Phoenix team has been watching ice in the Dodo-Goldilocks and Snow White trenches in views from the lander's Surface Stereo Imager as well as RAC, but only RAC can view Snow Queen near a strut under the lander.

The fact that RAC is attached to the robotic arm is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that RAC can take close-ups of Snow Queen, while the Surface Stereo Imager can't see Snow Queen at all from the topside of the spacecraft. The disadvantage is that the robotic arm has so many tasks to perform that RAC can't be used for monitoring trench ice at some opportune times. Also, RAC hasn't been used to take up-close images of other icy places under the spacecraft cleared on landing because it would require the robotic arm to make a difficult and complex series of moves.

"I've made a list of hypotheses about what could be forming cracks in Snow Queen, and there are difficulties with all of them," Mellon said.

One possibility is that temperature changes over many sols, or Martian days, have expanded and contracted the surface enough to create stress cracks. It would take a fairly rapid temperature change to form fractures like this in ice, Mellon said.

Another possibility is the exposed layer has undergone a phase change that has caused it to shrink. An example of a phase change could be a hydrated salt losing its water after days of surface exposure, causing the hard layer to shrink and crack. "I don't think that's the best explanation because dehydration of salt would first form a thin rind and finer cracks," Mellon said.

"Another possibility is that these fractures were already there, and they appeared because ice sublimed off the surface and revealed them," he said.

As for the small pebble that popped up on Snow Queen after 21 sols -- it might be a piece that broke free from the original surface or it might be a piece that fell down from somewhere else. "We have to study the shadows a little more to understand what's happening," Mellon said.

The Phoenix mission is led by Peter Smith of The University of Arizona with project management at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and development partnership at Lockheed Martin, located in Denver. International contributions come from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, Denmark; Max Planck Institute, Germany; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

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Searching For Shut Eye: Possible 'Sleep Gene' Identified

In a recent study of fruit flies, scientists identified a gene that controls sleep. (Credit: iStockphoto)

While scientists and physicians know what happens if you don't get six to eight hours of shut-eye a night, investigators have long been puzzled about what controls the actual need for sleep. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine might have an answer, at least in fruit flies. In a recent study of fruit flies, they identified a gene that controls sleep.

"We spend -- or should spend -- a third of our lives sleeping," says Amita Sehgal, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience and an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). "The idea that so much time is spent in sleep is intriguing. Also, sleep deprivation has serious health consequences and impairs cognitive function."

This study was published in the latest Science.

Fruit flies typically sleep 12 hours a day. Sehgal and her team studied 3,500 fruit flies and found mutants that survived on little to no sleep – one to two hours a day or none at all. The sleepless flies had a mutation of a gene that Sehgal and her team have named Sleepless. They believe the Sleepless gene encodes a protein that affects whether potassium ion channels in the brain stay open or closed. When the channels are open, the brain is connected and working – the fly is awake. When closed, the channel shuts down and the fly sleeps. The insomniac fruit flies had less of the Sleepless-produced protein.

The lack of sleep didn't come without consequences. The Sleepless fruit flies lived about half as long as fruit flies that did not carry the mutation. They also experience impaired coordination and restlessness in their few hours of sleep.

Sleep is regulated by two processes: circadian and homeostatic. Circadian regulation affects the timing of sleep, and the homeostatic mechanism affects the need for sleep. The Sleepless gene affects the homeostatic mechanism.

Sleep isn't just for humans – it's been observed in everything from flies to dogs to people, indicating that it's essential to life. Insufficient and poor-quality sleep is an increasing problem in industrialized nations. In the U.S. alone, about 70 million people suffer from chronic sleep problems, which reduce workplace productivity, affect quality of life and can even be lethal.

"In the long term, we hope that human equivalents of our gene will be isolated and will not only further our understanding of human sleep, but perhaps also serve as drug targets to promote sleep or treat insomnia," says Sehgal.

In addition to Sehgal, Kyunghee Koh, William J. Joiner, Mark N. Wu, Zhifeng Yue, and Corinne J. Smith, all from Penn and HHMI, were authors on the paper. The National Institutes of Health, University of Pennsylvania, and the Burroughs-Wellcome Foundation provided funding for this research.

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They're Putting Anti-Aging Enzymes in the Water

Within about 10 years, you might be drinking anti-aging enzymes with your bottled water. California biochemists have a plan to keep the world younger and healthier by using nanotech to deliver an enzyme called CoQ10 to our drinking water. This coenzyme is naturally produced by the body, but in smaller and smaller amounts as we age. And yet it's vital for the body's basic functioning, as it helps our cells convert sugars to energy. Perhaps if we boost its presence in our bodies as we age, our organs will remain productive and healthy for much longer.

Decades ago, nutritionists lobbied the US government to add iodine to salt, because most US residents weren't getting enough iodine in their diets. Today, most of us here in the US accept that salt comes with iodine (though you can buy it without). Chemists like UC Santa Barbara's Bruce Lipshutz, who studies CoQ10, hope that in the future we will also accept the idea that CoQ10 comes in drinking water, perhaps along with several other vital vitamins and enzymes. So even if you want to grow old and die in the old-fashioned way, you may not be able to — at least, if you plan to drink water.

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HOUSTON -- There is real hope that what’s happening in a Houston lab might lead to a cure for HIV.


Researcher holds test tubes with separated HIV infected blood

“We have found an innovative way to kill the virus by finding this small region of HIV that is unchangeable,” Dr. Sudhir Paul of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston said.

Dr. Paul and Dr. Miguel Escobar aren’t talking about just suppressing HIV – they’re talking about destroying it permanently by arming the immune system with a new weapon lab tests have shown to be effective.

Ford Stuart has been HIV positive for 15 years. He’s on a powerful drug cocktail that keeps the disease in check.

“I’m on four different medications. Three of them are brand new, and it’s the first time that I’ve ever been non-detectible,” Stuart said. “I’m down to about – just for the HIV – about nine pills per day, five in the morning and four at night.”

But Stuart knows HIV mutates, and eventually it will learn how to outsmart his medications.

“The virus is truly complex and has many tricks up its sleeve,” Paul said.

But Dr. Paul thinks he’s cracked a code.

“We’ve discovered the weak spot of HIV,” he said.

Paul and his team have zeroed in on a section of a key protein in HIV’s structure that does not mutate.

“The virus needs at least one constant region, and that is the essence of calling it the Achilles heel,” Paul said.

KVUE's Lee McGuire reports
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That Achilles heel is the doctors’ way in. They take advantage of it with something called an abzyme.

It’s naturally produced by people, like lupus patients. When they applied that abzyme to the HIV virus, it permanently disarmed it.

“What we already have in our hand are the abzymes that we could be infusing into the human subjects with HIV infection, essentially to move the virus,” Paul said.

Basically, their idea could be used to control the disease for people who already have it and prevent infection for those at risk.

The theory has held up in lab and animal testing. The next step is human trials.

Meanwhile, every day in Houston, three people are diagnosed with HIV.

The doctors still need funding to launch human trials. In the world of HIV research, that’s often where things fall apart.

“Clinical trials are very expensive,” Paul said.

“That is the worry of the researcher. This is what nightmares are made of – that after 30 years of work, you find it doesn’t work,” Paul said.

But so far, it is working.

“This is the holy grail of HIV research, to develop a preventative vaccine,” Paul said.

“If we can get the viral loads down to a manageable level, that will preclude the need for these conventional drugs,” Escobar said.

Still, even if everything goes well, it’s at least five years before the research could help people with HIV.

The doctors know people like Ford Stuart are waiting.

“There are so many people struggling with the disease because it affects not only your body, but also your psyche, how you perceive yourself,” he said.

If nothing else, the research is promising for the tens of millions waiting for a cure.

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Walkers swallow RFID pills for science

by Donald Melanson

It seems like some researchers from Radbound University in The Netherlands took advantage of the recent Four Days Marches of Nijmegen walking race for a little experiment earlier this month, where they convinced ten volunteers to swallow an RFID pill as part of a study to monitor body temperature. Apparently, the pills recorded and transmitted the walkers' core temperature to a receiver in their backpack every ten seconds, which in turn sent the data via Bluetooth to a GPS-enabled phone that then relayed it to the operations center at Radbound. With all that info at their disposal, the researchers were able to monitor each walker and alert them if their temperature was reaching a dangerous level, or even alert others nearby if they weren't responding (which apparently wasn't necessary). As you might have guessed, the researchers are already hard at work planning an even larger test for next year's event, which they hope could eventually lead to the system being used at marathons and other sports events.

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Is There a Laziness Gene?

A pair of couch potatoes watch TV
A pair of couch potatoes watch TV.

Have you ever wondered why you can't get off the couch and exercise — despite paying for an expensive gym membership, despite your New Year's resolutions, even despite the doctor's scolding at your last checkup? Turns out that your inertia may be coded right into your genes.

Based on some intriguing preliminary studies in animals, J. Timothy Lightfoot, a kinesiologist, and his team at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, suggest that genetics may indeed predispose some of us to sloth. Using mice specially bred and selected according to their activity levels, Lightfoot identified 20 different genomic locations that work in tandem to influence their activity levels — specifically, how far the animals will run. Lightfoot's team is the first to identify these genetic areas and the first to figure out that they function in concert. The researchers say the areas they found on the mouse genome may have analogs in humans, and the UNC team is now gearing up to conduct a similar study in men and women. "We have put forward a fairly complete genomic map of the areas that are associated with regulation of physical activity," says Lightfoot, whose study is published in the current issue of the Journal of Heredity.

Lightfoot, who originally wanted to coach college basketball and is himself an avid athlete, began studying activity levels as a way to try to figure out why, given all we know about the overwhelming health benefits of physical activity, so many people still choose not to exercise. A lecture at Johns Hopkins University about genetics and lung disease served as Lightfoot's eureka moment, and he became interested in studying genes as our prime mover. For the new study, Lightfoot and his team bred two strains of mice — active and inactive. Researchers then crossbred two generations of the active and inactive mice, ending up with a study group of 310 genetically mixed offspring. At about 9 weeks old, each mouse was housed in an individual cage and given an exercise wheel. Researchers measured how far, how long and how fast the animals ran every day for three weeks, at the end of which the mice were genotyped.

Exercise-prone mice put in a good 5 to 8 miles per day (the equivalent of an average man running 40 to 50 miles a day) vs. 0.3 miles per day for inactive mice. While the exercise wheels of the activity-prone mice would turn all night, some of the sedentary mice devised ingenious ways to avoid activity. One stuffed wood shavings around the wheel and turned it into a bed; one used it as an, ahem, toilet; and one climbed on top of her wheel only to get a better look at the overhead sensors tracking her movements.

Although the animals' activity levels could not be entirely attributed to genes, researchers calculated that heredity accounted for about 50% of the differences in activity. They also found that activity-promoting genes were dominant traits in 75% of the exercise-loving mice. (Researchers don't know yet how often the activity-inclined genotype would naturally occur; Lightfoot says he found a fairly continuous range of activity levels, from extremely active to very low-active, in about 30 mice strains he tested.) "When we used to talk about activity, it was whether or not people decided to be active," says Lightfoot. "Now it's clear that there's an inherent drive as to whether one is active or not active."

Exactly how that drive plays out in the body is still a mystery. There are two theories, Lightfoot says: Genes may affect either the way muscles work — perhaps causing them to use energy more efficiently and preventing fatigue — or some higher-order biochemical circuit in the brain, such as levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine or serotonin. Researchers have examined the muscle tissue of the mice in the study, however, and early data, which has not yet been published, suggests that there's no difference in their function. So the researchers' best guess is that the drive to exercise is at least partly influenced by brain chemicals — a reasonable hypothesis, given that dopamine or serotonin plays a significant role in several human drives and behaviors, including hunger, addiction, mood and movement disorders like Parkinson's disease.

Chemistry is not destiny, of course. Lightfoot hopes to use his research to help determine which patients may need a bigger boost to get moving — he thinks that perhaps close supervision by trainers or rewards for exercising will encourage genetic lazybones to get to the gym. And maybe one day, he speculates, there might even be a drug to compensate for what your genes won't give you. A drug that makes you want to exercise? Now that's a pill worth swallowing.

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Can Ball Lightning Be Created in Microwave Ovens?

Littered across the Internet are dozens of home videos of people putting a lit match into their microwave oven, turning it on and waiting for the inevitable chaos to ensue: a spitting, sputtering ball of brilliant white fire that seems to hang magically in the air until it floats upward and scorches the hell out of the microwave ceiling.

Some of the mischievous miscreants responsible for turning their kitchens into science experiments claim to have recreated a mysterious natural phenomenon known as ball lightning,” which resembles the fiery spheres created in the microwave and is thought to be the byproduct of lightning strikes. But are these glowing orbs created in an appliance normally reserved for reheating leftovers really the same thing as ball lightning?

Several scientists in the relatively small field of “ball-lightning-ology” say that it isn’t quite the same thing. “It’s not the same as the ball lightning that we are talking about,” says Antonio Pavão, a professor of chemistry at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil who has successfully created a ball lightning-like phenomenon in his lab.

Reports often describe naturally-occurring ball lightning as a luminescent white-blue or white-orange ball, which are, on average, about the size of a grapefruit. It can move through the air on its own for seconds and even minutes, bouncing off most things it touches until it either fades away or explodes. Sightings are reported most often during thunderstorms when lightning actively strikes the ground. Not to be taken lightly, ball lightning has reportedly even killed people.

But until recently scientists did not take the phenomenon very seriously, and some did not even think it existed at all. Several theories were floated around to explain the mechanism of ball lightning, but only one has gained ground in recent years. It was proposed by John Abrahamson and James Diniss, professors of chemical engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The inspiration for their theory were the glass-like globules of silicon, called fulgurites, found in the ground after lightning hits silicate-rich soil (silicates are compounds containing silicon and oxygen.) They proposed that, in addition to the formation of fulgurites, inconceivably small particles of pure silicon, smaller than 100 nanometers, were being vaporized and ejected out into the air during a lightning strike.

Once in the air, these silicon particles would begin to condense together and react with oxygen in the atmosphere, giving off heat and light and creating a fiery sphere of ball lightning.

A nice theory, but only in the last several years have scientists been able to verify it by creating something similar to ball lightning in the lab. For example, a group at Tel-Aviv University in Israel created a ball lightning-like effect by shooting microwaves at blocks of silicate. However, the effect only lasted for a scant 30 milliseconds once the microwaves were turned off.

More recently, Pavão’s research group in Brazil created a ball lightning-like effect that lasted anywhere from eight to ten seconds, which more closely mimics the behavior of the real thing. Pavão sent an electric current into a wafer of pure silicon, conditions strikingly similar to those of real lightning hitting the ground.

According to both Pavão and Abrahamson, the spectacle that you can create in your microwave oven is more like the Tel-Aviv University group’s experiment than actual ball lightning. Outside energy from the microwave is sustaining the fireball instead of internal chemical energy caused by reaction with the atmosphere. “The important difference is the lifetime of the balls,” says Pavão. “The natural phenomenon is different because there is no need for an additional source of energy and the lifetime is minutes.”

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Stanford physics lab embroiled in naming spat

David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor

Stanford's famed high-energy physics laboratory is in a tussle with the U.S. Department of Energy over naming rights to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, better known as SLAC.

The Energy Department, which pays SLAC's annual $300 million bill, wants to rename the lab to reflect changes in the direction of research since the facility opened 46 years ago.

On top of that, Energy Department officials have filed an application to trademark whatever new name the lab is finally given so no one else can use it.

University officials oppose any copyright plan with the Stanford name in it, and many SLAC scientists oppose any name change at all. Protest petitions at the lab have been circulating for weeks.

One eminent physicist, who asked to remain anonymous because he didn't want his name entangled in a political brouhaha, called the renaming issue "bizarre, petty and even stupid."

Stanford officials who insist the government can't copyright the venerable university's name have countered with an offer that would give federal officials a royalty-free "perpetual" license to use the Stanford and SLAC names.

"SLAC's record is pretty distinguished, and with the university's offer of a license to use the Stanford name, what more do they need?" said Burton Richter, SLAC's former director and one of the Nobelists who won his prize there. "I'm really bewildered."

Devon Streit, an associate director of the Energy Department's science office, said SLAC is a national laboratory and the federal agency has renamed many of its 16 other national labs to reflect their new research directions. It also has trademarked their names to protect them from commercial exploitation, and the same will be true of any new name that's chosen for SLAC, Streit said.

A new name for SLAC, she said, should reflect the new missions and research efforts that scientists there are now undertaking.

Over the past five decades, the atom-smashing work of SLAC's 2-mile-long linear accelerator has revealed countless secrets of the subnuclear particles that make up all matter, and three Nobel prizes have gone to scientists working there. Particle physics has long been SLAC's prime focus.

Now the lab has at least two new major research missions, including a focus on photon science that deals with the fundamental particles of light, and particle astrophysics that explores the riddles of everything from supernovas and black holes to the origin of the universe.

"We're unbelievably excited about these new missions for the lab," Streit said.

For photon science, SLAC engineers and scientists are building a huge new device called the Linac Coherent Light Source, a free-electron laser to produce hard X-rays - 10 billion times brighter than any X-ray beam on Earth. The laser will probe the arrangement of atoms in materials of all kinds, including the atomic properties of living molecules.

"That machine will be really cool," Streit said.

SLAC's director, Persis Drell, is on vacation and couldn't be reached for comment, but a university spokesman said Drell has accepted that the laboratory's name will be changed and has asked SLAC staff members to propose new ones. A short list of suggested names will be forwarded to Stanford President John L. Hennessy, but Energy Department officials will have the final say. No deadline has been set.

Opponents believe any name change will hurt the lab's ability to draw scientific talent.

"The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is manifestly identified with Stanford University, and this connection is critical for recruiting the best scientists and engineers," said Martin Breidenbach, a particle physicist at SLAC and a Stanford professor. "Changing the name will weaken that link."

Drell agrees, according to the Stanford News Service. "SLAC has a long, illustrious history and the name evokes that history," Drell is quoted as saying.

Construction of the linear accelerator on the Stanford campus began in 1962, and when it was finished under the leadership of the now-deceased Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky, it was hailed not only as a feat of engineering and science, but also because it was completed on time and below its budget of $114 million - something no big scientific machine of the time had ever equaled.

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1 Million Electric Cars on Spain’s Roads by 2014

Utah's Solar Fired Furnace to Power California for Less Than the Cost of Coal or Gas

Editor's Note: With this post we welcome John Pendlebury to Celsias. John lives in Ireland and writes about how technology affects the world.

solarlensIn an arid region of the western U.S. known as the Great Basin, the desert floor has recently been reaching temperatures in excess of 1,300 degrees Farenheit. No, this isn't due to global warming, but perhaps part of the solution to it. A Utah based company called IAUS (International Automated Systems Inc.) has developed a solar lens technology that transmits solar energy with an efficiency of 92%.

A California energy consortium has invested in the first stage of the project. Twenty specially designed solar towers are being erected close to the Great Basin in Delta, Utah. Each tower holds four solar lenses that follow the sun as it crosses the clear blue desert sky. Each lens will focus the sun's rays onto specially designed heat exchangers that will convert the solar energy to super-heated steam. The heat exchangers double as high-efficiency turbines that will drive electrical generators to produce alternating current output.

Later stages will involve placing 1000 towers over 700 acres of desert. With each tower having a capacity to produce 100 kW of power, the entire field stands to produce close to 100 MW of power when finished. That's enough energy to power 50,000 average Californian homes. Once generated, the power will travel around five miles to be integrated with the U.S. national power grid.

solarpodThe key to the success of the project are the unique thin-film solar lenses. Lenses of this size are typically heavy and expensive to produce. IAUS have developed a technique of embedding magnifying material into cheap, light, rolled plastic. The plastic is composited into extremely large Fresnel lenses. The lenses are light, relatively cheap to manufacture and easy to maintain. This compares favourably with traditional solar collectors.

The plant is located in one of the best solar locations in the country due to its high altitude and thin air. Solar energy is absorbed as it travels through our atmosphere, so placing a solar energy plant in a rarefied environment allows more solar radiation to be captured. IAUS also point out that the land on which the final solar plant is to be situated is one tenth the price of equivalent land in California. Combined with the comparatively inexpensive cost of the plant equipment, this means that the entire facility would cost roughly half of what a coal fired power plant would cost to construct.

solartowerThe solar power plant will produce no pollutants and any CO2 used in its production will be quickly offset by its operation. Coal, and other fossil fuels must be extracted from the earth and transported to antiquated furnaces for burning, increasing the solar plant's attractiveness, as its fuel is delivered daily by the sun. Although the sun does not always shine on the solar plant, the company believe that using a heat storage mechanism, they can deliver power around the clock at an estimated production cost of 5 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour. With such competitive production costs, IAUS say that their solar power plant will not only beat the price of coal, but be the first commercial solar power plant to compete favourably with gas powered stations.

Every hour, enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth to satisfy the power needs of the whole planet for an entire year. Yet, at present only 1% of the worlds energy is derived from solar power. Will the Utah solar power plant be the nexus that changes all of that? Let's hope so. IAUS have a similar project under way in Texas and interest in the solar power project has been observed as far afield as China and Australia.

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10 Big Questions for Maverick Geneticist J. Craig Venter on America's Energy Future

(Photograph by Michael Nagle/Getty Images)

Independent geneticist J. Craig Venter raced an international consortium of scientists to map the human genome in the 1990s. Now he's putting the same cutting-edge science to work on today's energy crisis, engineering a whole new generation of biofuels. In a rare in-depth interview, we talked to Venter recently about his latest project to save the world, as well as historical flubs, today's presidential candidates and the future of genetics. —Chris Ladd

So how did you get from mapping the human genome to creating biofuels?
We considered the biggest issues facing society that we thought we could impact. What's happening to the environment and getting weaned off oil and coal are the biggest issues out there.

Is it similar to the genome project? More daunting?
Nobody thought that such a massive project as sequencing the human genome could be undertaken by a single team, like we did. But that challenge is minor compared to trying to replace the 30 billion barrels of oil that we use globally each year, and the 3 billion tons of coal. The scale of that is beyond my imagination.

I think the real challenge won't necessarily come from biology, because biology is infinitely scalable, but from engineering. [If we can overcome that,] we have the potential to stop using oil and coal hopefully within the next 10 to 20 years, and even start reducing the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

How do you plan to do that?
We're working on what we call second-, third- and fourth-generation fuels. Like corn-based ethanol, a first-generation biofuel, our second- and third-generation fuels start with sugar as the feedstock. But unlike it, we're making fuels that have very high energy content, don't mix with water and have very low freezing points—well under 100 degrees below centigrade. They have the potential of working in high-altitude aircraft.

And the fourth-generation fuels?
We're using a unique type of algae that we've genetically engineered to turn sunlight and CO2 into C8 and C10 and larger lipids. The people that initially grew algae viewed it as farming—you know, you grow a bunch of algae and then you harvest it. But it's totally different if the algae are chemical factories. Ours continuously secrete these molecules, so we get constant production of something that can basically be used right away as biodiesel.

So they perform better than traditional biofuels—but will they actually be better for the environment?
Because we actually have to feed them concentrated CO2, we can take CO2 streams from power plants, cement plants and other places. People view CO2 as a contaminant—they want to bury it in the ground or pump it into wells to hide or sequester it. We want to take all that waste product and convert it into fuel.

When do you hope to have these fuels in people's cars?
Our goal is to have multiple things on the market within five years. We're looking now at how to scale this up. Our molecules are much higher energy density [than ethanol], but even so we need to produce hundreds of billions of gallons if we're really going to make a dent in oil use.

This is national security. We seem to be fighting wars at least in part over oil, we're sending most of our money to the Middle East and other places, and we're investing as a nation almost nothing in alternatives.

Since the 1970s oil crisis, a number of policies have been enacted to increase energy independence. Do you think they've been effective?
Had we followed intellectually where we were back in the Carter era, we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we do today. We've had a lot of short-term thinking from administrations that basically trades off the health of the planet for economic gain for the business community—and for their own re-election. We don't reward our leaders for making long-term beneficial decisions for society. It's like the stock market—all that matters is the next quarter, not where you are 10 years from now.

Do you think there's potential for change with the current presidential candidates?
I think either candidate would be orders of magnitude better than what we had in this administration, but I think Obama would be a few orders of magnitude better than McCain. Although McCain has been a longtime supporter of changes in the CAFE standards—trying to get higher-mileage cars—and has consistently been shouted down by his colleagues.

What about McCain's recent pledge to offer a $300 million prize for a better electric car battery?
Industry is very motivated to make new batteries. Whoever makes a better battery is going to make a fortune, and having a government incentive to do that doesn't necessarily move it along. In fact, if it's like the human genome project, it could just slow it down.

Where do you see the science of genetics going in the near future?
I see it as parallel to the electronics industry in the 1940s and '50s, a stage when all of the things that enabled computers came out of just a few handfuls of components—resistors, transistors, capacitors—and people were pretty much limited only by their imagination. My team has discovered more than 20 million new genes, so we're in a biological universe. There are no fundamental limits. I think we're going to see the next 25 years as some of the most innovative in the history of science.

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L.A. Quake Was Minor, but Is America Ready for the Big One?

By Erik Sofge
Spectators look at a Pomona, California, scene where bricks collapsed into an alley from an unoccupied building during a magnitude 5.4 earthquake on July 29th. (Photograph by David McNew/Getty Images)

Yesterday morning, Los Angeles dodged another bullet. The earthquake that originated near Chino Hills, roughly 35 miles east of downtown L.A., was powerful enough to rattle homes and damage a hotel near the epicenter. But with a magnitude of 5.4, it was classified by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as a moderate quake—one of 39 such events in the country this year. A moderate earthquake could pose a serious threat in some regions, particularly in places like New York City, where many brownstones were built more than a century ago. In Southern California, where seismic upheaval is practically routine, this quake left few signs of its passage.

“Engineered structures are meant to withstand a 5.4 earthquake,” says Jamie Steidl, a research seismologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Institute for Crustal Studies. “Even non-engineered, old, unreinforced masonry structures should still be okay. There’s lots of old stuff in Long Beach, and in some of these cities that have been around awhile—older brick buildings that aren’t reinforced. But at this magnitude, we’re not even pushing what the building code was 80 years ago.” The quake preparedness of Los Angeles was put to the test yesterday, but only barely.

The Chino Hills event, minor as it may have been, was a reminder of the United States’ earthquake vulnerability. In Japan and Mexico, researchers have developed earthquake early warning systems, which can detect seismic activity and trigger a sequence of automated responses. This is a frantic sort of race, since the waves created by an earthquake propagate at some 3 kilometers, or nearly 2 miles, per second. In Japan, where quakes tend to start in offshore subduction zones, some areas would have a minute or more to prepare for the worst. “There’s a whole bunch you can do in 60 seconds,” says Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC). “Shutting off gas mains. Conditioning the electrical grid for what’s going to happen. In hospital situations, especially during surgery, there’s a lot you can do.”

So far, Japan’s early warning system hasn’t done very much—it failed to detect the country’s last two moderate quakes. But in the United States, the outlook is even worse, since no such earthquake early warning system exists, though some preliminary research is underway. “Right now, we’re just fiddling with the concepts,” says Jordan. “We’re not into operational testing, yet.” Coincidentally, says Jordan, a Caltech team reported that its experimental detection gear had been off-line when the Chino Hills earthquake hit.

Realistically, however, if the recent quake had been severe, closer to the 6.7 magnitude that the USGS says is almost certain to hit the state in the next few decades, an earthquake early warning system wouldn’t have helped. The quake simply occurred too close to Los Angeles, with the ground-shaking waves hitting the city in less than 20 seconds. That’s why most of the research into early warning is focused on the San Andreas fault, which can produce earthquakes as close as 40 km (25 miles) from L.A., or as far as 200 km (nearly 125 miles) south of the city. With enough distance, a system-wide alert becomes viable. “Think of an earthquake as a cascade of events,” Jordan says. “They can generate tsunamis, which take some time to hit. Fire following earthquakes, that’s one of the biggest problems you can have. So you get the firetrucks ready, the station doors open. If you know what is happening, you can begin to prepare for what is going to happen later in that cascade.”

As limited as an earthquake early warning detection might be, the potential benefits—particularly in Southern California—seem clear. “It’s something we should be pushing a lot harder than we’re pushing. And we’ve fallen behind other countries. We’ve been a little remiss, to be honest,” Jordan says. He believes a system could be up and running in California in five years, at the earliest. That’s assuming that government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the USGS greenlight additional funding for research. Unfortunately, Jordan thinks it could take a large disaster to make that happen.

In the meantime, the SCEC is helping to prepare for just such a disaster, with the United States’ largest earthquake drill. Scheduled for this November, the Great Southern California Shakeout will test the region’s response to a simulated 7.8 magnitude quake at the southern end of the San Andreas fault. Using supercomputers, seismologists have created a scenario that calculates where the most severe damage would occur, how many fires might be started, and how many lives could be lost. The event will include at least 5 million participants throughout the region, from schools and firefighters to agencies like FEMA. “In a recent meeting, the L.A. County Fire Chief told us, ‘We’ve never really thought this through,’” Jordan says. “A lot of the standard operation procedures wouldn’t apply. That’s what we learned from Katrina. A big enough hammer blow shatters the system. We want to make sure that when that hammer comes down this time, and it’s going to come, the system doesn’t break.”

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US Army Works to Cut its Carbon “Bootprint”… ba da bum!

World’s Largest Wind Farm Planned In Oregon