Friday, August 1, 2008

Earth-Size Radio Telescope Opens Its Eye

Photo: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

Arecibo, Puerto Rico: The 1000-meter radio telescope dish at dawn.

This fall, the world's largest telescope will begin its scientific mission. Made up of radio telescopes in Chile, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Africa, and Sweden, the e-VLBI—for electronic very long baseline interferometer—creates in effect a telescope with a diameter of 11 000 kilometers; Earth's own diameter is about 12 750 km at the equator. Because a telescope's resolution is proportional to its size, the e-VLBI should see farther out in space and time and elucidate the finer structures of the most energetic phenomena in the universe, such as supernovas, pulsars, and black holes.

Although a smaller, Europe-wide e-VLBI has been in operation for more than a year, the full multicontinent version opened its eye only on 22 May 2008, when all seven sites were linked to a custom-built supercomputer, operated by the European VLBI Network (EVN), in a test observation.

VLBI increases the resolution of a pair of radio telescopes by using the time a particular radio wave arrives at each of them to estimate its frequency and pinpoint its origin. Although the technique has been in use since the mid-1980s, linking radio telescopes between other countries and continents in real time has not been possible until now.

Each of the radio telescopes used in the May test produced up to 1 gigabit per second of data. Until the EVN supercomputer was built, the only way to transport such large volumes of data across the globe for analysis was by recording them on magnetic media and then physically shipping the media to the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe, located in Dwingeloo, Netherlands.

The new system transports data via a large number of network providers. Just getting the data to EVN “was an enormous technical hurdle to overcome,” says Arpad Szomoru, head of technical operations and R&D at Dwingeloo. The supercomputer can handle flows of up to 100 terabytes per observation coming in from 16 radio telescopes.

Radio astronomers were initially skeptical that moving to real-time VLBI was worth the effort, says Huib van Langevelde, director at Dwingeloo. But the recent test showed that e‑VLBI collapses processes that would have taken weeks without the supercomputer networking into a matter of hours.

For the new intercontinental e-VLBI system to work, all the telescopes must observe the same astronomical radio source at exactly the same wavelength. All the stations have atomic clocks, synchronized to within a few millionths of a second, so that a radio wave's arrival can be precisely marked at every telescope. 

As Earth rotates, an observational target will drop beneath the horizon in relation to some telescopes and rise in relation to others. “The source is tracked by a changing set of telescopes,” says Szomoru. 

According to Szomoru, astronomers will get the most from the e-VLBI when they're tracking stellar explosions and other transient cosmic activity, including gamma-ray bursts and flaring microquasars. “It is now possible to observe a number of candidate cosmic sources and, if one of them is seen to come into an active state, do one or several follow-up observations, thus catching a flare in a microquasar at a very early moment, something which was not possible previously.”

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50 years, 50 giant leaps: How Nasa rocked our world

Today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration marks its first half-century of exploration and discovery. But missions to the Moon and beyond are only part of the story. Without Nasa's scientists, life on Earth would be very different indeed. Rob Sharp chronicles a technological revolution

1.The hand-held vacuum cleaner

The cordless miniature vacuum cleaner was born after Black & Decker developed a self-contained portable drill for the Apollo Moon landings between 1963 and 1972. The machine used a specially developed computer program, meaning it used less power to extract core samples from beneath the Moon's surface. That computer programme helped the company develop more battery-powered gadgets, among them, the cordless mini vacuum cleaner.

2.Air-cushioned trainers

In the early 1980s, a process known as "blow rubber moulding" was used to produce space helmets. Using this technology, former Nasa engineer Frank Rudy pitched an idea for an in-trainer shock absorber to the Nike Corporation. He envisaged a trainer with hollow soles filled with shock-absorbing material to cushion the impact of running. Rudy's idea included a pad of interconnected air cells and the resulting trainer was called the Nike Air.

3.Firefighter breathing apparatus

Before 1971, the average weight of breathing apparatus was more than 30 pounds. Carrying the extra weight was so physically gruelling that some firefighters opted to attack flames without any equipment. However, engineers at Nasa adapted the life-support systems used in spacesuits for use by emergency services. Four years later, experts had designed apparatus that weighed a third less and offered better fit and visibility.

4.Blankets for marathon runners

In 1964, Nasa developed a material capable of reflecting heat very effectively – a thin sheet of plastic coated with a metallic reflecting agent, usually gold or silver in colour. Used as a blanket, it reflects about 80 per cent of the wearer's body-heat back to them. It's used to keep accident victims warm, and by marathon runners after the finish.

5.Safer runways

Nasa researchers discovered that cutting thin grooves across concrete runways reduces the risk of an aircraft aquaplaning after landing. Excess water drains along the grooves, increasing tyre friction in wet conditions. The expertise has been adopted by airport operating authorities around the world.

6.Pill transmitters

Pill transmitters swallowed by astronauts to check their temperature and blood pressure are undergoing trials to be used as a way to monitor the health of foetuses in the womb. These pill-shaped gadgets can be used to monitor body temperature, pressure and other vital signs.

7.Faster racing cars

Carbon fibre was invented by the British in the 1960s (at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough), but was given a boost by its use in space flight. Carbon-fibre-reinforced graphite is used in the nose cone of the Space Shuttle. Strong, light and heat resistant, it is found in everything from tennis rackets to Formula One racing cars

8.The roof of the Millennium Dome

A flexible yet durable Teflon-coated fibreglass material was developed in the 1970s for use on astronauts' spacesuits. Teflon-coated fibreglass is now used for the roofs of many buildings worldwide, including the Dome in London.


It may seem strange, but the green movement owes a debt of gratitude to the rockets that blasted off into space. Efficient solar-power technologies – in which silicon crystals grown in a laboratory convert light into electrical energy – were first developed by Nasa in the early 1980s. The same technology is now widely used by companies manufacturing solar panels.

10.Personal storm warning system

The personal lightning detector is popular with boaters, golfers and those flying private planes, but this low-cost spin off was developed using Space Shuttle expertise. After being pointed at a cloud, the device detects the formation of lightning by analysing subtle changes in light level. The invention is now popular around the world.

11.The most impressive soundbite of all time

Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon on 21 July 1969 was one of the most historically important moments of the 20th century. His proclamation, which was heard by radio audiences around the world – "that's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" – remains one of the most famous statements ever uttered.

12.Better sunglasses

Nasa invented a special coatingusing a form of diamond-like carbonto protect its astronauts’ helmetsfrom being scratched by space particles. A modified form of this substance – which decreases surface friction and therefore reduces scratching – has since been used by many sunglasses manufacturers, including Ray-Ban, since 1988.

13.First detailed map of another planet

In 1971, the Mariner 9 probe arrived at Mars and beamed a total of 7,329 images of the planet back to Earth. It provided the first global map of the surface of the Red Planet, including detailed views of its system of canyons and volcanoes, Valles Marineris.

14.The potential to preserve priceless art

After being first tested by Nasa, "polyamides" – incredibly strong and heat-resistant polymers – have been researched by the J Paul Getty Trust, which has discovered that one in particular may protect bronze statues from corrosion.

15.Car crash technology

"Explosive" bolts that can be remotely detonated to destroy them were used to free the Space Shuttle from its rocket boosters on blast-off. The technology has been adapted to create quicker and more powerful equipment to cut people out of car crashes. The cutters employ the same pyrotechnic "power cartridges" used on the Shuttle.

16.Longer golf shots

Wilson – one of the world's biggest golf ball manufacturers – has improved the performance of its golf balls by implementing technology used to test the aerodynamics of the Space Shuttle's external fuel tanks. These balls have a variety of specially configured dimples, which the company claims makes them travel further than conventional balls.

17.Plane wing-tips

Ever seen the vertical tip at the end of an aeroplane wing and wondered what it is? It's a called a winglet and was originally developed at Nasa's Langley Research Centre. The winglet produces a degree of forward thrust (to help the plane in take-off and flight), operating much like a boat sail, and reduces wingtip drag. The winglet has been in service since the 1970s, and is found on all types of aircraft.

18.Freeze-dried meals

Nasa developed freeze-drying technology for the food carried by the Apollo missions. After the process, the product retains 98 per cent of its nutritional value and weighs just 20 per cent of its original weight. Snacks based on this technology are exported by Nasa to many countries, with sales running to several million pounds a year.

19.Baby food

Through Nasa research on algae (which it was hoped could generate oxygen in space through photosynthesis), it was found that certain algae contain two essential fatty acids present in human breast milk. These acids play an key role in infants' mental and visual development. A synthetic ingredient that contains these acids is now added to baby food in 66 countries.

20.Warmer feet

Battery-powered thermal boots used by skiers are adapted from designs developed to keep astronauts warm during the Apollo space programme. Rechargeable batteries are worn inside the wrist of a glove, or the sole of a ski boot, and heat is generated by a small electrical circuit.

21.Increased understanding of the beginning of life

In 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope beamed images of the "Pillars of Creation" – columnar clouds of gas found in the distant Eagle Nebula – back to Earth. As well as being some of the most impressive images of space, these pictures changed scientists' understanding of the beginnings of life in the universe.

22.'Anti-gravity' treadmill

British marathon runner Paula Radcliffe has a stress fracture to her left leg, but aims to compete in the Beijing Olympics. She hopes to achieve this by training on a special "anti-gravity" treadmill developed by Nasa to help astronauts exercise in space. The machine operates in a high-pressure chamber which, in effect, cuts the weight of the user.

23.Hang gliders

In 1957, Nasa began testing various forms of wing for its Gemini space capsules. The wings' simplicity of design, ease of construction, along with their capability of slow flight and gentle landing characteristics, was picked up by hang-gliding enthusiasts. The hang glider the enthusiasts designed became the most successful in history and formed the basis for the more streamlined hang gliders used today.

24.Straighter teeth

Nitinol, an alloy used by orthodontists to wire teeth braces, was tested in satellites that needed to spring open after being folded into a rocket. Nitinol is durable and springs back into shape after bending.

25.Heat-absorbing sportswear

Athletes can perform more strenuous activity without becoming overheated, thanks to new sportswear inspired by the cooling systems used in astronauts' spacesuits. The clothes have packets of heat-absorbing gel positioned near parts of the body where the most heat is emitted.

26.Heart surgery

Bypass surgery is not the only means for doctors to deal with a blockage in the coronary artery. Nowadays, precise lasers can be used to clean arteries with extraordinary accuracy, while not damaging the walls of blood vessels. The lasers were originally developed by Nasa to monitor gases in the atmosphere of the Earth.

27.Life support for patients

Project Mercury, the first US human spaceflight programme, which ran from 1959 to 1963, developed sophisticated monitoring systems to track the physiological status of its astronauts. The same technology is used today in intensive care units and specialist heart units.

28.Medicinal light- emitting diodes

The light-emitting diode (LED) technology used in plant growth experiments on board the Space Shuttle has led to the development of hand-held LED units used for the temporary relief of muscle and joint pain, as well easing the symptoms of arthritis, stiffness, and muscle spasms. It is that hoped use of LED technology will spread to aid bone-marrow transplant patients in the near future.

29.Artificial limbs

Robotic technology has been used to create more dynamic artificial limbs. New foam technology – used as a shock absorber by Nasa – has brought about more natural-looking prostheses and has helped reduce wear and tear.

30.Intelligent underwear

A new bra developed as a space spinoff aids the detection of breast cancer by employing water flowing through tubes to cool the skin surface. When used in conjunction with thermography – a heat-detecting technique used to detect tumours – this adapted clothing, improves image resolution and makes it easier to pick up any cancers.

31.Detection of forest fires

Nasa fire-detection wizardry developed in the early 1990s is now used by the authorities in the USA to detect forest fires that might not be spotted soon enough on the ground, and pinpoint their location. Infrared technology identifies the extent of a fire so firefighters can be sent to the right places to tackle it.

32.Plant research

Nasa research into possible bases on the Moon and Mars is looking into the use of plants to provide food, oxygen and water, reducing the need for outside supplies. The research is based on hydroponics, in which plants grow in a liquid instead of in soil. It could be used in food production on Earth.

33.Chromosome analysis

Using Nasa image-processing technology, human chromosomes are being photographed via cameras mounted on microscopes. The images can then be digitised, allowing doctors to enhance the pictures. The technique can be used to detect infant abnormalities.

34.Less rubbish

Derived from technology on the Space Shuttle, a waste compactor that needs no electrical power has been developed for boats and recreational vehicles. The device has hand-operated ratchets that drive a pressure plate with a compressive force of 2,000 pounds – a more than ample amount to crush cans, for instance.

35.Better skiing

Nasa developed the know-how to keep spacecraft windows clear of condensation before launch by applying two thin coatings of a special detergent oil mix to them. This has since been applied to stop ski goggles, deep sea diving masks, spectacles and vehicle windows from steaming up.

36.Better brakes

Studies of high-temperature space materials allowed the development of more resilient and cheaper materials for brake linings. These substances are now found in truck brakes, cranes and passenger cars and make for better and more reliable braking at high speed.

37.Improved air quality

A US firm has created an air-quality monitoring system based on a Nasa scheme. The monitor can analyse the gases emerging from chimneys and determine the amount of individual gases present, helping to ensure that buildings meet emission standards.

38.Life-saving heart technology

One benefit of Nasa's work in telemetry – wireless control of devices – has been the creation of a heart pacemaker that can be controlled remotely. With no invasive procedures, a physician communicates with the pacemaker via a wireless device held over the patient's chest.

39.A possible end to water shortages

Research into using bacteria as a means to remove impurities and purify water is being still being undertaken by Nasa. The system makes use of scant resources by turning waste water from respiration, sweat and urine into drinkable liquid and it's hoped that this could help poorer communities in developing countries.

40.More competitive swimming

Some of the swimsuits favoured by professional swimmers utilise technology found in spacesuits. The rubber is covered with barely visible grooves that reduce friction and aerodynamic drag by modifying the flow of water over an athlete's body. These suits are 10 to 15 per cent faster than conventional swimsuits and could give an athlete the winning edge.

41.The self-righting life raft

Developed for the Apollo programme, the raft fully inflates in 12 seconds and is stable during extremely adverse weather conditions. The craft are now used by coastguards around the world.

42.Home blood pressure kits

When Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space some 37 years ago, Nasa scientists had to invent an automatic measuring device to find out how blasting off affected the astronaut's blood pressure. Blood-pressure kits based on this design subsequently went mainstream.

43.Hydraulic rescue cutters

A rescue tool used by fire departments across America uses battery technology first employed by Nasa. The cutting technology – used to free accident victims from wreckage – employs a miniature version of the power cartridges first used on the Space Shuttle and is 50 per cent lighter (and 70 per cent cheaper) than previous rescue equipment. The cutters work more quickly than conventional ones and were used in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma Federal Building bombing.

44.Satellite television

On 10 July 1962, a television transmission showed the American flag fluttering outside a communications centre in Andover, Maine. It was made possible after Nasa launched its Telstar satellite, the world's first active communications satellite, at 4.35 that morning.

45.Voice-controlled wheelchairs

Voice-controlled wheelchairs make use of Nasa robot voice recognition technology and are fitted with microcomputers that can respond to oral commands. The chairs help people with severe disabilities to perform daily tasks such as turning on appliances.

46.Mine-clearing technology

A type of surplus rocket fuel favoured by Nasa has been used to create a device that can destroy land mines safely. The gadget uses the fuel to burn a hole in the mine's casing and to burn away the explosive contents, making it easier to clear land of mines.

47.Long-life tyres

The technology used to make parachutes to land exploratory probes was adapted by tyre companies to create tyres five times stronger than steel. Such technology, pioneered for use in tyres by Goodyear in the late 1970s, employs long-chain molecular structures to increase tread lives by 10,000 miles, meaning that we can all drive further for less.

48.Eye screening

Nasa image-processing techniques are used to detect eye problems (errors in refraction, or the bending of light on to the retina) in children. An electronic flash from a 35mm camera sends light into the child's eyes, and an image of the patient's optical reflexes is then produced.

49.The personal alarm system

The pen-sized ultrasonic transmitters used by prison guards, teachers and the elderly and disabled to signal for help is based on technology derived from space telemetry. The pen transmits a silent signal to a receiver that will display the exact location of the emergency, enabling help to be sent.

50.The first photos of Saturn's rings

In 1977, the probe Voyager 1 took almost 16,000 images of Saturn, its moons and its rings. The resulting photographs detected the presence of "spokes" within the planet's ring patterns, which led scientists to reconsider theories about their formation.

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NASA selects lunar concepts projects

NASA selects lunar concepts projects
NASA's Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley speaks during news conference announcing Boeing as the contractor for the upper stage element of the Ares I rocket at NASA headquarters in Washington on August 28, 2007. The rocket will carry astronauts to the International Space Station and the Moon. (UPI Photo/Roger L. Wollenberg)

The U.S. space agency said it has selected 11 companies and one university to develop concepts as to how astronauts will live and work on the moon.

Each organization will conduct a 180-day study focused on a topic relevant to lunar surface systems.

The selected organizations and their projects are:

-- Alternative Packaging Options: Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston.

-- Avionics: Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE:HON) of Glendale, Ariz.

-- Energy Storage: ATK Space Systems Group of Brigham City, Utah; Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio; and Hamilton Sundstrand of Canoga Park, Calif.

-- Minimum Habitation Functions: The Boeing Co. (NYSE:BA) of Huntington Beach, Calif.; ILC Dover of Frederica, Del.; and the University of Maryland.

-- Regolith Moving Methods: Astrobotic Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh and Honeybee Robotics of New York.

-- Software: The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., and United Space Alliance of Houston.

The awards total approximately $2 million, with a maximum individual award of $250,000.

"These studies provide new ideas to help the Constellation Program develop innovative, reliable requirements for the systems that will be used when outposts are established on the moon," said Jeff Hanley, Constellation Program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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Martian Water Is Red Herring in Fledgling Alien Intelligence Hunt

Turning the Phoenix Mission's confirmation of water ice on Mars into a thought experiment on the search for little green men (or at least some super microbes), PM's resident geek offers an instant analysis on two diverging worlds—scientific research for alien life (losing funding) and open-source fanaticism for alien intelligence (losing credibility).

Mars Express acquires sharpest images of martian moon Phobos

Mars Express closed in on the intriguing martian moon Phobos at 6:50 CEST on 23 July, flying past at 2.96 km/s, only 100 km from the centre of the moon. The ESA spacecraft’s fly-bys of the moon have returned its most detailed full-disc images ever, also in 3-D, using the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board.

Phobos is what scientists call a ‘small irregular body’. Measuring 27 km × 22 km × 19 km, it is one of the least reflective objects in the Solar System, thought to be a captured asteroid or a remnant of the material that formed the planets.

Phobos in 3-D

Phobos in 3-D
The best full-disc images of Phobos ever

The HRSC images, which are still under processing, form a bounty for scientists studying Phobos. They are a result of observations carried out over several close fly-bys of the martian moon, performed over the past three weeks. At their best, the pictures have a resolution of 3.7 m/pixel and are taken in five channels to obtain images in 3-D and to perform analyses of the physical properties of the surface.

The images obtained by several other spacecraft so far have either been of a lower resolution, or not available in 3D and have not covered the entire disc of Phobos. This is also the first time that portions of the far-side of the moon have been imaged in such high resolution (Phobos always faces Mars on the same side).

Potential Phobos-Grunt landing site
Potential Phobos-Grunt landing site

Scientific bounty

In observing Phobos, Mars Express benefits from its highly elliptical orbit which takes it from a closest distance of 270 km from the planet to a maximum of
10 000 km (from the centre of Mars), crossing the 6000 km orbit of the martian moon. Mars Express imaged the far-side of Phobos (with respect to Mars) for the first time after NASA’s Viking mission in the 1970s, by flying outside the spacecraft’s orbit around Mars.

Phobos-Grunt (roughly translated as Phobos soil), a Russian sample-return mission, is due for launch in 2009. It is expected to land on the far-side of Phobos at a region between 5° south to 5° north, and 230° west to 235° west.


The HRSC observations have been awaited eagerly to better assess the choice of and characterise the landing site.

The moon's remarkably grooved surface can be seen in the pictures quite clearly. The origin of these grooves is still debated. It is not known whether they are produced by ejecta thrown up from impacts on Mars, or if they result from the surface regolith, or soil, slipping into internal fissures.


In this image, at least two families of grooves with distinct orientations can be seen along with what is either a chain of pits or craters.

The stereo observations (resolution 3.7 m/pixel) are important for structural analysis and they will be used to derive a digital terrain model (a 3-D map of the surface that includes elevation data). The extra photometric channels (at 7.4 m/pixel) make it possible to study the properties of the Phobos regolith at micron to millimetre scales.

Geometry of the Phobos flyby

Geometry of the Phobos flyby
An operational challenge

Managing the close fly-bys was an operational challenge, made possible by spacecraft operations engineers and scientists who worked together to specially optimise Mars Express’s trajectory and obtain the best possible views.

The observation made use of a spacecraft slew, a special manoeuvre whereby the body of the spacecraft is rotated against the direction of motion, to effectively lower the speed at which the target passes in the field of view of the camera. This makes it possible to avoid blurring of the pictures despite the high fly-by velocities, whilst maintaining acceptable exposure time.

Phobos fly-by animation

The HRSC Super Resolution Channel (SRC) also observed during this close fly-by, with a nominal resolution of 90 cm/pixel. As expected, despite the slew, some residual motion blur has crept into the image, but much detail will be recovered after further processing.

In the days running up to the observation, the primary star-tracker - a navigation device that helps the spacecraft point its instruments at the target accurately - experienced some temporary difficulty in recognising the star constellations in its field of view, leaving the spacecraft operating on its secondary system. Concerned that this might affect this critical observation, the team at ESA's European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, worked intensely to recover the primary system and were able to switch back successfully two days before the fly-by.

Notes for editors:

The Principal Investigator (PI) for the HRSC experiment on ESA’s Mars Express is Prof. Dr Gerhard Neukum, who also designed the camera technically. The HRSC science team consists of 45 Co-Investigators from 32 institutions located in 10 nations. The camera was developed at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) under the PI in cooperation with industrial partners (EADS Astrium, Lewicki Microelectronic GmbH and Jena-Optronik GmbH). It is operated through ESA/ESOC by the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, where systematic processing of the image data is carried out. The scenes shown here were processed by the PI group at the Institute for Geosciences of the Freie Universitaet Berlin in cooperation with the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin.

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Couch Mouse to Mr. Mighty by Pills Alone

Mike Batista, center, with other members of the Old School P.E. class at the recreation center in Newport, N.H.


For all who have wondered if they could enjoy the benefits of exercise without the pain of exertion, the answer may one day be yes — just take a pill that tricks the muscles into thinking they have been working out furiously.

Researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego reported that they had found two drugs that did wonders for the athletic endurance of couch potato mice. One drug, known as Aicar, increased the mice’s endurance on a treadmill by 44 percent after just four weeks of treatment.

A second drug, GW1516, supercharged the mice to a 75 percent increase in endurance but had to be combined with exercise to have any effect.

“It’s a little bit like a free lunch without the calories,” said Dr. Ronald M. Evans, leader of the Salk group.

The results, Dr. Evans said, seem reasonably likely to apply to people, who control muscle tone with the same underlying genes as do mice. If the drugs work and prove to be safe, they could be useful in a wide range of settings.

They should help people who are too frail to exercise and those with health problems like diabetes that are improved with exercise, Dr. Evans said.

The chemicals involved are already available, and such muscle-enhancing drugs would also have obvious appeal to athletes seeking to gain an edge in performance. Dr. Evans said athletes often showed up at public lectures he had given and asked him about the drugs.

With money from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Dr. Evans has devised a test to detect whether an athlete has taken the drugs and has made it available to the World Anti-Doping Agency, which prepares a list of forbidden substances for the International Olympic Committee. Officials at the anti-doping agency confirmed that they were collaborating with Dr. Evans on a test but could not say when they would start using it.

Experts not involved in the study agreed that the drugs held promise for treating disease. Dr. Johan Auwerx, a specialist in metabolic diseases at the University Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, said the result with Aicar looked “pretty good” and could be helpful in the treatment of diabetes and obesity. “The fact you can mimic exercise is a big advantage,” he said, “because diet and exercise are the pillars of diabetes treatment.”

Dr. Richard N. Bergman, an expert on obesity and diabetes at the University of Southern California, said the drugs might prove to have serious side effects but, if safe, could become widely used. “It is possible that the couch potato segment of the population might find this to be a good regimen, and of course that is a large number of people.”

The idea of a workout in a pill seems almost too good to be true, but Dr. Evans has impressive research credentials, including winning the Lasker Award, which often presages a Nobel Prize. He is an expert on how hormones work in cells and on a powerful gene-controlling protein called PPAR-delta, which instructs fat cells to burn off fat.

Four years ago he found that PPAR-delta played a different role in muscle. Muscle fibers exist in two main forms. Type 1 fibers have copious numbers of mitochondria, which generate the cell’s energy and are therefore resistant to fatigue. Type 2 fibers have fewer mitochondria and tire easily. Athletes have lots of Type 1 fibers. People with obesity and diabetes have far fewer Type 1 and more Type 2 fibers.

Dr. Evans and his team found that the PPAR-delta protein remodeled the muscle, producing more of the high-endurance Type 1 fiber. They genetically engineered a strain of mice whose muscles produced extra amounts of PPAR-delta. These mice grew more Type 1 fibers and could run twice as far as on a treadmill as ordinary mice before collapsing.

Given that people cannot be engineered in this way, Dr. Evans wondered whether levels of the PPAR-delta protein could be raised by drugs. Pharmaceutical companies have long tried to manipulate PPAR-delta because of its role in fat metabolism, and Dr. Evans found several drugs were available, although they had been tested for different purposes.

In a report in the Friday issue of Cell, he described the two drugs that successfully activate the muscle-remodeling system in mice, generating more high-endurance Type 1 fiber. The drug GW1516 activates the PPAR-delta protein but the mice must also exercise to show increased endurance. It seems that PPAR-delta switches on one set of genes, and exercise another, and both are needed for endurance.

Aicar improves endurance without training. Dr. Evans believes that it both activates the PPAR-delta protein and mimics the effects of exercise, thus switching on both sets of genes needed for the endurance signal.

Aicar signals to the cell that it has burned off energy and needs to generate more. The drug is “pretty much pharmacological exercise,” Dr. Evans said.

He said the drugs worked off a person’s genetics, pushing the body to an improved set-point otherwise gained only by strenuous training. “This is not just a free lunch,” he said. “It’s pushing your genome toward a more enhanced genetic tone that impacts metabolism and muscle function. So instead of inheriting a great set-point you are using a drug to move your own genetics to a more activated metabolic state.”

Aicar has been tested for various diseases since 1994 and is in advanced trials for treating a heart condition known as ischemic reperfusion injury. But neither Aicar nor GW1516 has been tested in people for muscle endurance, so the side effects of the drugs, particularly over the long term, are not precisely known.

That may change if pharmaceutical companies pursue Dr. Evans’s findings. “The drugs’ effect on muscle opens a window to a world of medical problems,” he said. “This paper will alert the medical community that muscle can be a therapeutic target.”

The drugs activate at least one of the chemical pathways triggered by resveratrol, a substance that also showed increased endurance in mice. Resveratrol is found in red wine though in amounts probably too low to significantly affect muscle.

In 2006 Dr. Auwerx and colleagues at University Louis Pasteur showed that large doses of resveratrol would make mice run twice as far as usual on a treadmill before collapsing. It is unclear just how resveratrol works, but one of its effects may be to bind with a protein that helps activate PPAR-delta. Dr. Auwerx’s resveratrol-treated mice remodeled their muscle fibers into the Type 1, with greater endurance.

That is the same result Dr. Evans has found can be obtained with Aicar. The relationship between the two drugs is not yet clear. Dr. Evans believes that resveratrol acts on so many pathways in the cell, particularly at high doses, that it is hard to know how it is achieving any given effect, whereas the role of Aicar and GW1516 is well defined. But Dr. Auwerx said he did not think Aicar was necessarily working in the way Dr. Evans described.

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Cheap Catalyst Could Turn Sunlight, Water Into Fuel

Nocera2 A new catalyst makes it feasible to split water with solar power.

MIT chemists say the catalyst, used in conjunction with cheap photovoltaic solar panels, could lead to inexpensive, simple systems that use water to store the energy from sunlight.

In the process, the scientists may have cleared the major roadblock on the long road to fossil fuel independence: Reducing the on-again, off-again nature of many renewable power sources.

The catalyst enables the electrolysis system to function efficiently at room temperature and at ordinary pressure. Like a reverse fuel cell, it splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. By recombining the molecules with a standard fuel cell, the O2 and H2 could then be used to generate energy on demand.

"You've made your house into a fuel station," Daniel Nocera, a chemistry professor at MIT said. "I've gotten rid of all the goddamn grids."

Solar energy currently makes less than one percent of the world's electricity. The main drawback of the technology, preventing wider adoption, is that solar systems only make power while the sun is shining. At night or on cloudy days, those in need of power must look elsewhere. So storage of electrical energy has been a long-sought after technological advance. Batteries work but they're too big and expensive. Fuels, fossil or renewable, are different: They act as their own storage, allowing for easy transport and usage. That's one reason that coal and oil have such a dominant hold on the world's energy market.

The MIT discovery could help transform electricity generated through solar energy into a fuel, making it more competitive with fossil fuels. That could prove to be a major milestone in clean technology.

"I think it's a very interesting discovery," said Tom Mallouk, a chemistry professor at Penn State. "It's one of those papers that really has the potential to change the field."

The key advancement in Nocera's Science paper is the development of an oxygen-producing catalyst made of cobalt and phosphate. Splitting water requires two half-reactions, one to create oxygen gas and the next to create hydrogen. For decades, Mallouk said, scientists have been trying to reduce the cost of the oxygen part of the reaction, with little success.

"The hydrogen side of the cell is only two electrons per molecule. The oxygen side is four electrons per molecule," Mallouk said. "There is a rule in electrochemistry that the more electrons you have the more complicated the process is."

It's important to note that Nocera's breakthrough is in making it cheaper and simpler to split water by electrolysis. Expensive machines have long been able to do the same thing, but only by using iridium alloys or exotic nanoparticles.

The new catalyst is remarkable because its made of common materials and can operate at room temperature and normal pressure. Without the need to heat and pressurize the water, the energy needs and cost of running the process overall are much lower. And that could make a standard solar array on a home a viable source of electricity for creating all the hydrogen a household would need.

The joke in clean tech circles about hydrogen is that "hydrogen is the fuel of the future and always will be." But that's in large part because producing hydrogen has been so expensive and energy-intensive to produce. Most of the power in the world comes from fossil fuel, too, so making hydrogen generated tons of greenhouse gases.

"It's never an issue in energy of whether you can do it or not," Nocera said. "It's whether you can do it cheaply."

And whether or not the setup will prove cost-effective remains to be seen. It still uses a platinum catalyst to produce hydrogen, for example.

Erik Straser, a leading clean technology investor with the venture capital firm, Mohr-Davidow, termed the technology "promising," but said the new paper didn't shed light on its economic viability.

"I think that having operation at room temp and standard pressure is a key innovation," he wrote in an e-mail to "What is not there are any of the metrics that would let you determine whether this made economic sense (a huge issue in these energy technologies)."

Other scientists are, however, hard at work trying to find cheaper hydrogen producing catalysts, including a group of scientists led by Bjorn Winther-Jensen who published work on a carbon-based catalyst in the same issue of Science this week.

Nocera himself admits that he hasn't "driven down the whole road" on what the setup could cost. And, solar panels remain very expensive on a per-kilowatt basis, even as innovation in the field continues to drive costs down for consumers.

Still, despite the questions about the commercial viability of the technology, Nocera said that the Bob Metcalfe-run venture capital firm, Polaris, had "swooped in" on the technology and was filing for patent protections.

Though Nocera doesn't expect retail systems to be available for the better part of a decade, the questions about the viability of his idea should begin to be answered soon, as prototype designs attempt to deliver on his big promises.

"Within two years, you'll start seeing module designs," Nocera said. "A lot of my MIT colleagues are raring to go and work on this and they are all engineers and they're pretty damn good."

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'Major discovery' from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution

Anne Trafton, News Office

In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn't shine.

Daniel Nocera describes new process for storing solar energy
View video post on MIT TechTV

Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today's announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. "This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said MIT's Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun's energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

The key component in Nocera and Kanan's new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity -- whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source -- runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.

Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.

The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it's easy to set up, Nocera said. "That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," he said.

'Giant leap' for clean energy

Sunlight has the greatest potential of any power source to solve the world's energy problems, said Nocera. In one hour, enough sunlight strikes the Earth to provide the entire planet's energy needs for one year.

James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis who was not involved in this research, called the discovery by Nocera and Kanan a "giant leap" toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale.

"This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind," said Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London. "The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem."

'Just the beginning'

Currently available electrolyzers, which split water with electricity and are often used industrially, are not suited for artificial photosynthesis because they are very expensive and require a highly basic (non-benign) environment that has little to do with the conditions under which photosynthesis operates.

More engineering work needs to be done to integrate the new scientific discovery into existing photovoltaic systems, but Nocera said he is confident that such systems will become a reality.

"This is just the beginning," said Nocera, principal investigator for the Solar Revolution Project funded by the Chesonis Family Foundation and co-Director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center. "The scientific community is really going to run with this."

Nocera hopes that within 10 years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell. Electricity-by-wire from a central source could be a thing of the past.

The project is part of the MIT Energy Initiative, a program designed to help transform the global energy system to meet the needs of the future and to help build a bridge to that future by improving today's energy systems. MITEI Director Ernest Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, noted that "this discovery in the Nocera lab demonstrates that moving up the transformation of our energy supply system to one based on renewables will depend heavily on frontier basic science."

The success of the Nocera lab shows the impact of a mixture of funding sources - governments, philanthropy, and industry. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million this spring to launch the Solar Revolution Project, with a goal to make the large scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.

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How Snakes Got Their Fangs

By Jeanna Bryner, Senior Writer

The Asian vine snake (Aheatulla prasina) sports rear fangs. The enlarged teeth in front of the jaw are not fangs, but teeth used for grabbing their prey, which are fast lizards. Credit: © Freek Vonk.

Biologists have sunk their teeth into the question of snake fang development, revealing how these poison prickers have evolved from regular teeth and allowed snakes to become such champion biters.

The research suggests that both rear and front fangs in venomous snakes developed from separate teeth-forming tissue at the rear of the mouth — unlike the situation for non-venomous snake dentition and human teeth. This finding, detailed in the July 31 issue of the journal Nature, could explain why snakes flourished beginning some 60 million years ago, geologically soon after non-avian dinosaurs went extinct.

"The snake venom system is one of the most advanced bioweapon systems in the natural world," said lead researcher Freek Vonk of Leiden University in the Netherlands. "There is not a comparable structure as advanced, as sophisticated, as for example a rattlesnake fang and venom gland."

Fang factors

Snake fangs are sharp, enlarged teeth positioned along the upper jaw at the front or rear of a snake's mouth and connected to venom glands. Only the venomous snakes, which are considered advanced snakes, sport such fangs, while the non-venomous snakes like pythons are equipped with only the normal rows of teeth.

And sometimes even a venomous snake will impart a "dry" bite, not delivering the potent venom.

Most venomous snakes, including grass snakes, have fangs positioned in the rear of the mouth, while a few groups, including rattlesnakes, cobras and vipers, have fangs jutting down from their upper jaws in the front of the mouth.

"If you want to eat a very dangerous prey, like a big rat with razor-sharp rat teeth, then it would be more advantageous to have your fangs in front of the mouth so you can just bite it quickly and then let go," Vonk told LiveScience, "instead of biting it and holding on and then chewing the venom into the tissue, because then the rat can bite back.

Fang development

To figure out how both types of snake fangs evolved from non-fanged species, Vonk and his colleagues looked at fang development in 96 embryos from eight living snake species. Here are their names:

Non-venomous snakes:

  • Water python (Liasis mackloti)

Venomous front-fanged snakes:

  • Indonesia pit viper or Hageni’s treeviper (Trimeresurus hageni)
  • Rhombic Night Adder (Causus rhombeatus)
  • Malayan pit viper (Calloselasma rhodostoma)
  • Asian spitting cobra (Naja siamensis)
  • Cape Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus infuscatus)

Rear-fanged venomous snakes:

  • Rat snake (Elaphe obsolete)
  • Grass snake (Natrix natrix)

The team's analyses showed that the front and rear fangs develop from a separate teeth-forming tissue at the back of the upper jaw. For all front-fanged venomous snake species, the front fangs displaced forward during embryo development by rapid growth of the embryonic upper jaws. The rear fangs stayed put where they formed.

That's unlike the dental development scenario for humans and non-venomous snakes, such as pythons. As an embryo, all of our teeth in the upper jaw sprout from one tooth-forming tissue, while all the bottom teeth develop from another tooth-forming tissue.

"The uncoupled rear part of the teeth-forming tissue evolved in close association with the venom gland, thereafter forming the fang-gland complex," Vonk said. "The uncoupling allowed this to happen, because the rear part of the teeth-forming tissue did not have constraints anymore from the front part."

Super snakes

The separate development of the rear part of the tissue, Vonk said, may have played a major role in snakes' ability to diverge into the 3,000 species found throughout the world today.

"It sheds light on one of those nagging questions in herpetology — how did a diversity of fang types among snakes evolve?" said David Kizirian, a herpetologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who was not involved in the study.

The research was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, Dutch government, Dutch Technology Foundation, Curatoren fund, LUSTRA fund, Australian Research Council, Australian Academy of Science, Whitman College and Leiden University Fund.

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Despite Overwhelming Evidence, Creationists Cling to Unreality

By Nathan Schneider, AlterNet.

The great Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin once wrote -- or, rather, sighed -- that "creationism is an American institution."

As an institution, creationism has crossed social strata as easily as it crosses decades. Despite all that science and secularism can do to explain it away, the crusade against evolution -- the foundation of modern biology -- is as intransigent, and strangely modern in its anti-modernism, as ever. The actor-author-documentarian-presidential speechwriter Ben Stein, with his movie Expelled, has become only the latest in the long line of its media-savvy critics. Today, around half of all Americans prefer creationism, in some form, to the scientific consensus.

Few know this better than Lauri Lebo, author of The Devil in Dover: An Insider's Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America. When the trial over intelligent design theory in Dover, Pennsylvania, caught the attention of the world, Lebo was the lead local reporter covering the case. For her, the controversy was personal as well as professional; as the trial unfolded, she struggled to come to terms with the impending death of her Pentacostal father, desperate for assurance that he would see her in the creationist-only hereafter. In The Devil in Dover, Lebo combines the dramas of family and courtroom into an engrossing story, trading illusions of journalistic objectivity for hard-won personal truths.

An American Pastime

The Dover trial followed in the footsteps of its notorious predecessor, the famed Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. Like Dover, Dayton was a set-up, orchestrated by money and interests from far away. The ACLU backed Clarence Darrow, the great freethinking lawyer, against the towering populist politician William Jennings Bryan, who fought, literally, to his death -- he died, exhausted and disgraced, a week after the trial ended. All of it was immortalized by H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun, one of the foremost journalists of his generation. Since then, evolution trials have become a kind of national pastime, with a big one occurring every few decades and smaller ones even more often than that: Arkansas in 1968, the Supreme Court in 1987, and Georgia in 2004, to name a few.

By 2004, members of Dover's school board began working with the Thomas More Law Center, an organization of conservative Christian lawyers ("the sword and shield for people of faith"), to insert alternatives to evolution in the high school biology curriculum. They were joined by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based group that formed following the 1987 Supreme Court decision against teaching "creation science" in public schools. It has aggressively promoted the theory of "intelligent design," seemingly an even more scientific creationism, which was specifically designed to slip past the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. When word got out about the school board's plans, the ACLU came to Dover looking to stop intelligent design in its tracks.

Dover held its own as courtroom theater. While on the stand, biologist and devout Catholic Ken Miller gave a slideshow that turned Judge John E. Jones III (and Lebo) into transfixed college kids. The defendant school board members bore witness to their Christian faith in the face of humiliation, disgrace, and finally, a lost election. Plaintiff Cyndi Sneath, despite having "no big degrees," pleaded against the indoctrination of her children. Richard Thompson, the lead lawyer from Thomas More, preached a fiery "revolution in evolution" to the press outside the courtroom, while nearly dozing off in court. As in 1925, there were really two trials going on: one carried out in a court of law, and one blasted around the world by camped-out news correspondents.

In 1925, the creationists won in court -- but lost in the papers and public opinion. In 2005, they lost both.

The Devil in Dover details the demise of the school board's case unforgivingly. Nearly from the start, Lebo insists, board members lied about their intentions for introducing intelligent design. Before the lawyers taught them more secular-sounding language, they spoke openly about creationism and Christianity at meetings. "Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross," one challenged. "Won't somebody stand up for him?" Though these remarks were recorded by cameras and newspapers, the board members claimed to have never said them, in order to meet the legal requirement for "secular purpose."

Early on, seeing how the case would go, the Discovery Institute withdrew its support. The board members pressed on, intent on carrying out their religious duty against the demonic religion of Darwinism. Bearing witness in this way, even in hopeless causes, became a badge of merit; worldly defeat could still mean spiritual victory. In her tender portraits, Lebo reveals how creationism fits into the fabric of faith in these men's lives -- the same faith that carries them through personal illness and the "war on terror." After 9/11, Dover parents petitioned to bring back prayer in schools, and six months later, a mural in the high school depicting evolution was destroyed by a janitor. Clearly, the heart of the matter is about more than scientific doctrines. In court, the board members couldn't even summarize the central claims of the intelligent design theory.

Judge Jones's verdict, filed just before the close of 2005, was damning both for the Dover school board and for intelligent design as a whole. "ID is not science," he ruled, and therefore has no place in science classes. Despite the board's hopes that the George W. Bush-appointed judge would be sympathetic to their values, in his verdict he recognized the whole thing as "breathtaking inanity" meant to sneak around the law.

In Lebo's narrative, the court's decision is a triumphant moment. It brings the board members' outright deception, which included painful accusations against her fellow reporters, to justice. She asks again and again how these Christians can blithely ignore the Ninth Commanement and bear such false witness. She asks her father too, and the question erodes what Christian faith she was once able to feign for him.

"I now had a story that didn't just parrot the two sides," she writes. "I could write the truth." To the dismay of the editors at her paper in a largely fundamentalist town, Lebo's dispatches shed the pretense of "equal treatment" for evolution and creationism. She joined in the defamation of intelligent design and celebrated its banishment from ninth grade science class.

Time to Change the Subject

Creationists often cast their plight as a fight against censorship -- being unfairly silenced for simply exploring the scientific possibility that God had a hand in making us. In such debates, the First Amendment see-saws back and forth between two dictates: free speech and the disestablishment of religion. They are the political and legal engines that have kept the evolution controversies going all these decades. And they promise a future of even more intransigence.

The pro-evolution science establishment wants to protect the methodology and public support that have allowed it to learn so much already and poise it for endless more. Secularists want to protect the American legal tradition that keeps church and state comfortably separate. Religious fundamentalists want to bear witness to the created truth of God before the invented truths of people, winning even as they lose. Together they are a recipe for endlessness. Lebo's characters, one by one, come to realize the futility of trying to convince each other. In a recent interview with AlterNet, she confessed, "I don't know where the common ground is."

If anywhere, the common ground seems to lie in the tradition of debate itself. That, at least, all the partisans share, and all know their place in it. With their separate roles carved out and well-established, it could go on forever, with a modicum of court-enforced sportsmanship keeping things from getting out of hand.

To move beyond this hallowed American quagmire, it will become necessary to change the subject. Evolution's biggest gains in public schools happened in the late 1950s, free from courtroom drama. When Russia scared the United States half to death by launching the Sputnik satellite into space, everyone agreed that there was no time for funny business. We couldn't risk getting behind the Reds in science education. The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study was launched and generously funded, setting forth a scientist-approved, evolution-based curriculum that schools eagerly adopted. In the spirit of nationalism, Christians began folding evolution snugly into their faith, at least until the young-earth creationist Henry Morris called them back to task in the sixties and seventies.

Despite its theatrical appeal, battling creationists will not fix science education. Teaching science will -- with high standards, qualified teachers, and access to lab equipment. If it is necessary to point out how abysmally American students fare compared to those in other countries, so be it. School board members comfortable with and interested in science themselves would see little need for theological distractions. But as a portrait of our present folly, The Devil in Dover paints a national pastime in living, local color. The note Lebo ends on, for good reason, is impassioned stalemate.

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What traffic? Go to work on a Jetpack

By David Usborne in New York

Harrison Martin, son of the inventor Glenn Martin, demonstrates the Jetpack at an airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin


Harrison Martin, son of the inventor Glenn Martin, demonstrates the Jetpack at an airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Put away the Gulf Stream and park your Lamborghini, the ultimate in transportation accessories is on the market and will be yours for just £50,000, if you are prepared to wait one year for delivery. This is the machine that will really impress your friends – assuming you don't mow them down upon arrival.

Meet the Martin Jetpack, a contraption unveiled at a US air show yesterday. It is a real-life version of the toy we all fantasised about as children (and some of us as adults) and which Sean Connery as James Bond got to wear in the early minutes of Thunderball. Simply attach, the manufacturers claim, and up you go. No more traffic jams as you slice through the air at speeds of up to 186mph.

Developed in secret over the past 10 years by Glenn Martin, an inventor based in New Zealand, the jetpack made its public debut at AirVenture, an annual experimental aerospace show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The pilot yesterday was Glenn's son, Harrison, and he showed it off without mishap. The company, that also launched an accompanying website, calls it the "world's first practical jetpack".

Mr Martin may have succeeded where many others have failed. In the US, the now defunct Bell Aerosystems attempted to bring the dream of jetpack travel to reality in the 60s and 70s, notably with the so-called rocket belt. It never came close to being pursued commercially, however. In the 50s, the US military tested something called the Hiller Flying Platform. It didn't work too well either.

But Mr Martin is apparently serious about getting your business. Pay no attention to the not-so-sleek looks of his invention. Take to the skies in his jetpack and onlookers might assume Superman is passing overhead with a drum kit hanging from his shoulders. Nor will there be any music system options. Commuting with the jetpack will be noisier than a visit to a two-stroke lawnmower derby.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, there are no actual jets involved here. The thrust of a jet tends to be a little trickier to tame than the power generated by the two piston-engine fans that you will find in a Martin Jetpack. But let's not quibble, it looks like the real thing. Technically, it is an ultralight aircraft that, according to the website, is already in compliance with regulations of the Federal Aviation Authority in the United States. As such, moreover, buyers will not need a special licence to fly one. If that sounds alarming, rest assured that Mr Martin's company will insist that every purchaser take a training course before turning the ignition key.

"To attempt to fly any aircraft without professional instruction is extremely foolhardy," the site says under a headline, "How do I learn to fly?" And while it may be an "ultralight" be aware that what you will be tying to your back weighs a good 250lb and generates 600lb in thrust.

A company official in New Zealand said yesterday that the books were open for orders at once at a price tag of $100,000 (roughly £50,000). "We are not going to guarantee an actual delivery date," Jan Harvey said, "but we are saying 2009, roughly 12 months from order."

In truth, Mr Martin does not seem seriously to be suggesting his jetpack will one day replace the automobile as the transport mode of choice. He is hoping instead that it will become more of a sports toy for the very adventurous. "I've made the jetski for the sky," he said in Oshkosh.

So far, Mr Martin has kept test-flights at super-low altitude, usually between 3ft and 6ft off the ground. (A demonstration video shows a pilot gunning the pack while two helpers cling onto its sides to prevent man and machine zipping up into space.) In theory, however, the pack can fly unimpeded for 30 minutes and go as high as 8,000ft. Instead of airbags, the jetpack comes with a parachute deployed by a small explosive in the event of disaster aloft.

Worried that if you buy a pack you may fail the training? Never fear, Mr Martin has thought of that. "If for some reason they're not co-ordinated enough, we'll send them their money back and give it to the next person in the queue," he said.

High flyers: the pioneering rocket men

For many, the jetpack will forever be associated with the master of gadgets, James Bond. Bond used it to flee from his enemies in the 1965 film, Thunderball. His pack had been developed for the US Army. Millions of people watched in amazement during the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, as Kinnie Gibson took his "Rocketman" jet pack to the sky, landing safely in the stadium. A firm called Skywalker Jets devised a prototype rocket pack that could keep a pilot in the air for five minutes. Hopes of mass production were foiled by an estimated £100,000 price tag. Another recent design came from the German firm Jet-Cat. Its take on the device, which contains foldable wings, made a six-minute flight to the Swiss town of Bex.

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The Chemistry of Sex Drive: It's All in Your Head (and in Your Drugs)

Scientists are just starting to understand the way that sex drive can be influenced by certain neurotransmitters—chemicals in the brain—mostly by observing our reactions to drugs that are intended to treat other conditions.

The most obvious example is what happens to many patients who take selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants: Their libidos shut down. SSRIs increase brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate mood, but the drugs have also become notorious for dampening sex drive.

Then there are other drugs—such as Mirapex (prescribed for restless legs syndrome) and Requip (for Parkinson's disease)—that affect levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and often have the side effect of creating an excessive sex drive.

New theory: Sex drive is a reflex
These drug reactions serve to show us that our sex drive is at least partly a function of our body chemistry. But emotions have a major role as well. We know that, instinctively—but now scientists are starting to try to explain it.

One theory is that sex is a reflex—automatic except that your emotions can override it.

open quoteYou're rubbing up against another person on a dance floor. You'll feel desire, all right. But only if you're not worried about safety, if it has been a nice day, if, if, if ...close quote
—Irwin Goldstein, MD, Director of San Diego Sexual Medicine

The classic reflex test is the one where the doctor hits the tendon in your knee with a mallet, and the tendon contracts, all by itself. "Let's say the doctor is trying to do this test, and outside there's a robbery with gunshots," posits Irwin Goldstein, MD, director of San Diego Sexual Medicine and the editor in chief of The Journal of Sexual Medicine. Your brain will override the reflex; your leg will stay still.

Now, Dr. Goldstein says, consider the sex reflex. "You're rubbing up against another person on a dance floor," he suggests. You'll feel desire, all right. But only "if ..." says Dr. Goldstein. "If you're not worried about safety, if it has been a nice day, if, if, if ..."

And if not? Your brain can inhibit the response and you just won't be "interested."

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Could the world see its first 'practical' jetpack?

A jetpack that might one day be able to take 30-minute jaunts across the sky got its public debut today. New Zealand company Martin Jetpack unveiled the device at the Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Applications for the pack might include some activities where a small aerial vehicle might be useful, like search-and-rescue operations and firefighting. But in the end, inventor Glenn Martin says, "people will use it for fun, as a jetski or snowmobile for the sky". At a target price of $100,000, it will be for thrill-seekers with deep pockets.

Martin has been working on the pack for 27 years, he says. But he has kept its development a secret until recently.

While the pack is powerful, it is unlikely you'll be able to barrel headfirst across the sky, Superman-style. The 113-kilogram pack is designed to lift a pilot vertically, although the company expects pitching the pack slightly could enable it to move horizontally at more than 97 kilometres per hour (60 miles per hour), the limit for experimental ultra-light craft.

Today's demonstration drew a large crowd. Many were hoping that Martin's 16-year-old son, Harrison, who piloted the pack, would be performing figure-eights. But for the safety of onlookers, two men held the pack down; it lifted off vertically and only cleared the ground by several feet (see video).

The craft sounds much like a high-powered lawnmower, and it created enough wind to blast sand on the concrete ground at nearby onlooker's feet and cameras.

'Jetpack' may not be the most accurate term for Martin's device. The pack is actually run by a water-cooled, piston engine, similar to a car. This drives the large downward-facing fans on either side of the pilot. Flaps at the bottom of the fans are used to direct air and steer the pack.

So far, the company has performed most of its tests 1.8 metres (6 feet) above the ground, but Martin says tests at 152 metres (500 feet) might be six months away.

The jetpack also contains safety features. The pack has a ballistic parachute which can be deployed only 30 metres (100 feet) above the ground. The undercarriage of the craft also has shock absorbers.

Jetpacks haven't been known for their safety; pilots have broken their backs flying them. But Martin has enough faith in his pack that his wife and one of his sons have tested the vehicle. Harrison says he has only crashed the pack once, when he went head-over-heels in an earlier prototype.

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