Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Super-Space Cube "to Link All Known Technologies"

Darpasats_2 A super-sophisticated space cube of technology - and this one isn't bent on our assimilation. That's probably because it's only five centimeters to a side, and Borg that you can hold in your hand aren't intimidating no matter how much they insist that "size is irrelevant".

The cute little computer is some literally space-age technology, built by the Shimafuji corporation for operation off the planet. Rather ominously like it's Borg brethren, the cube is designed to link up to all known space technologies - those of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japan Aerospace exploration Agency (JAXA, and it's always nice to see an organization prepared to mangle capitalisation for a good acronym).

While armed with the usual USB and Firewire ports, the SpaceCube acts as an international systems ambassador using SpaceWire connections. It turns out that astronauts don't want to see messages like "Error: The driver for the Oxygen Processor could not be found 00xxxxxeeff333", so while Earth businesses fill up your hard drive with multiple generations of drivers (and Sony act the arsehole with proprietary formats), the space agencies built their own standard.

It's not just the connections that are built for extraterrestrial operation: the unit is highly impact resistant, of course compact, and draws aminuscule five watts to operate. We're not sure how it can produce big showers of sparks when the station is hit, but forty years of Star Trek assure us it will. The trade off for these tiny requirements is less than impressive specs: a 300 MHz processor and only 16 MB of RAM.

Then again, we sent men to the moon with less processing power than your phone has now - and it's not as if people who get to go into space need to fill up their lives with Warcraft.

Posted by Luke McKinney

About Death, Just Like Us or Pretty Much Unaware?

As anybody who has grieved inconsolably over the death of a loved one can attest, extended mourning is, in part, a perverse kind of optimism. Surely this bottomless, unwavering sorrow will amount to something, goes the tape loop. Surely if I keep it up long enough I’ll accomplish my goal, and the person will stop being dead.

Last week the Internet and European news outlets were flooded with poignant photographs of Gana, an 11-year-old gorilla at the Münster Zoo in Germany, holding up the body of her dead baby, Claudio, and pursing her lips toward his lifeless fingers. Claudio died at the age of 3 months of an apparent heart defect, and for days Gana refused to surrender his corpse to zookeepers, a saga that provoked among her throngs of human onlookers admiration and compassion and murmurings that, you see? Gorillas, and probably a lot of other animals as well, have a grasp of their mortality and will grieve for the dead and are really just like us after all.

Nobody knows what emotions swept through Gana’s head and heart as she persisted in cradling and nuzzling the remains of her son. But primatologists do know this: Among nearly all species of apes and monkeys in the wild, a mother will react to the death of her infant as Gana did — by clutching the little decedent to her breast and treating it as though it were still alive. For days or even weeks afterward, she will take it with her everywhere and fight off anything that threatens to snatch it away. “The only time I was ever mobbed by langurs was when I tried to inspect a baby corpse,” said the primatologist Sarah Hrdy. Only gradually will she allow the distance between herself and the ever-gnarlier carcass to grow.

Yes, we’re a lot like other primates, particularly the great apes, with whom we have more than 98 percent of our genes in common. Yet elaborate displays of apparent maternal grief like Gana’s may reveal less about our shared awareness of death than our shared impulse to act as though it didn’t exist. Dr. Hrdy, author of “Mother Nature” and the coming “Mothers and Others,” said it made adaptive sense for a primate mother to hang onto her motionless baby and keep her hopes high for a while. “If the baby wasn’t dead, but temporarily comatose, because it was sick or fallen from the tree, well, it might come back to life,” Dr. Hrdy said. “We’re talking about primates who have singleton births after long periods of gestation. Each baby represents an enormous investment for the mother.”

Everywhere in nature, biologists say, are examples of animals behaving as though they were at least vaguely aware of death’s brutal supremacy and yet unpersuaded that it had anything to do with them. Michael Wilson, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota who has studied chimpanzees at Jane Goodall’s research site in Gombe, said chimps were “very different from us in terms of what they understand about death and the difference between the living and the dead.” The Hallmark hanky moment alternates with the Roald Dahl macabre. A mother will try to nurse her dead baby back to life, Dr. Wilson said, “but when the infant becomes quite decayed, she’ll carry it by just one leg or sling it over her back in a casual way.”

Juvenile chimpanzees display signs of genuine grief when their mothers die. In one famous case in Gombe, when a matriarch of the troop named Flo died at the age of 50-plus years, her son, Flint, proved inconsolable. Flint was 8 years old and could easily have cared for himself, but he had been unusually attached to his mother and refused to leave her corpse’s side. Within a month, the son, too, died.

Yet adult chimpanzees rarely react with overt sentimentality to the death of another adult, Dr. Wilson said. As a rule, sick or elderly adults go off into the forest to die alone, he said, and those that die in company often do so at the hands of other adults, who “sometimes make sure the victim is dead, and sometimes they don’t,” he said. The same laissez-faire attitude toward death-versus-life applies to chimpanzee hunting behavior. “When they’re hunting red colobus monkeys, they will either kill the monkeys first or simply immobilize them and start eating them while they’re still alive,” Dr. Wilson said. “The monkey will continue screaming and thrashing as they pull its guts out, which is very unpleasant for humans who are watching.”

For some animals, the death of a conspecific is a little tinkle of the dinner bell. A lion will approach another lion’s corpse, give it a sniff and a lick, and if the corpse is fresh enough, will start to eat it. For others, a corpse is considered dangerous and must be properly disposed of. Among naked mole rats, for example, which are elaborately social mammals that spend their entire lives in a system of underground tunnels, a corpse is detected quickly and then dragged, kicked or carried to the communal latrine. And when the latrine is filled, said Paul Sherman of Cornell University, “they seal it off with an earthen plug, presumably for hygienic reasons, and dig a new one.”

Among the social insects, the need for prompt corpse management is considered so pressing that there are dedicated undertakers, workers that within a few minutes of a death will pick up the body and hoist or fly it outside, to a safe distance from hive or nest, the better to protect against possible contagious disease. Honeybees are such compulsive housekeepers that if a mouse or other large creature, drawn by the warmth or promise of honey, happens to make its way into the hive and die inside, the bees, unable to bodily remove it, will embalm it in resin collected from trees. “You can find mummified mice inside beehives that are completely preserved right down to their whiskers,” said Gene E. Robinson, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

But all is not grim for those dead in tooth and claw. Researchers have determined that elephants deserve their longstanding reputation as exceptionally death-savvy beings, their concern for the remains of their fellows approaching what we might call reverence. Reporting in the journal Biology Letters, Karen McComb of the University of Sussex and her colleagues found that when African elephants were presented with an array of bones and other natural objects, the elephants spent considerably more time exploring the skulls and tusks of elephants than they did anything else, including the skulls of rhinoceroses and other large mammals.

George Wittemyer of Colorado State University and his colleagues described in Applied Animal Behavior Science the extraordinary reactions of different elephants to the death of one of their prominent matriarchs. “One female stood over the body, rocking back and forth,” Dr. Wittemyer said in an interview. “Others raised their foot over her head. Others touched their tusks to hers. They would do their behaviors, and then leave.”

They were saying goodbye, or maybe, Won’t you please come back home?

Long-life gene that triples chance of living to 100 found

Men who have two copies of a "long life gene" triple their odds of living nearly a century, according to a study published today.

The advantage is all down to having two "letters" of the six billion letter human genetic code that are the same and the scientists who report the find believe that this kind of understanding could have important implications for living longer and lowering the risk for age-related disease and disability.

Charles Yogi, age 85, active track and field athlete living who lives in  Hawaii
Charles Yogi, age 85, active track and field athlete living who lives in Hawaii

The gene linked with better health and a longer life is called FOXO3A and although similar genes have been shown to prolong life span in other species, this is the first time that FOXO has been linked directly to longevity in humans.

The findings from the Hawaii Lifespan Study will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Drs Bradley Willcox, Tim Donlon, David Curb and colleagues at the Kuakini Medical Centre, Honolulu, and colleagues in Japan.

They conclude the link is "strong, highly significant."

They have been following the health of 8,000 Japanese-American men who have had periodic health exams since the mid 1960s and, says Dr Willcox, no other study has tracked such a large group of men for this long, in such detail.

One location on the gene FOXO3A stood out as having a link with enjoying old age.

Genetic code is written in an alphabet of four chemical units, strung together to make the double helix molecule of DNA. Of the four letters in the alphabet (A, T, C, G), the majority of participants in the study had the T letter at a key location in the gene. However, those who had G at this location had better health at the date of the original exam.

Each gene comes in two copies and the team found the longevity effect of this letter was additive: those with one copy doubled their odds of living an average 98 years, with some living as long as 106 years.

Men who had two G copies did even better and almost tripled their odds of living nearly a century, and were markedly healthier at older ages, in terms have having less heart disease, stroke and cancer "We screened 213 of the long-lived participants' DNA and 402 of the average-lived, focusing on five genes," explained Dr Willcox.

These genes were selected for good reason because they involved in the insulin pathway and signalling, which studies of other animals have shown is linked with longevity, for instance through the influence of a gene called DAF-16 in the case of nematode worms.

"We then calculated how the DNA bases found at three locations on each gene were correlated with a comprehensive set of health criteria including chronic diseases, disability and insulin levels. What we found was very surprising and exciting."

While non-genetic factors, including diet, physical activity, health habits, and social influences are important, up to half of the variation in human lifespan might be explained by genetic differences.

However, studies of candidate "longevity-associated" genes in humans, "longevity genes," have generally been disappointing. Few replications have been observed across populations, with the exception of the APOE gene.

The team says that studies of FOXO genes and their effect on ageing should now be extended to other populations, such as Caucasians.

Carriers of the G version are more common in whites and blacks than Japanese, according to the Haplotype Map data from the Human HapMap project, a sister project to the Human Genome Project, that looks at variation within the human genome in four main populations - blacks, whites, Japanese and Chinese.

"FOXO3A does not appear to account for the Japanese or Okinawan longevity advantage (we looked at both populations - no differences)", said Dr Willcox, "but it could help explain longevity advantages within different human populations."

Green cement may set CO2 fate in concrete

Back when Stanford Professor Brent Constantz was 27 he created a high-tech cement that revolutionized bone fracture repair in hospitals worldwide. People who might have died from the complications of breaking their hips lived. Fractured wrists became good as new.

Now, 22 years later, he wants to repair the world.

Constantz says he has invented a green cement that could eliminate the huge amounts of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere by the manufacturers of the everyday cement used in concrete for buildings, roadways and bridges.

His vision of eliminating a large source of the world's greenhouse CO{-2} has gained traction with both investors and environmentalists.

Already, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla is backing Constantz's company, the Calera Corp., which has a pilot factory in Moss Landing (Monterey County) churning out cement in small batches.

And Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, says it could be "a game changer" if Constantz can do it quickly, on a big scale and at a decent price.

"It changes the nature of the fight against global warming," said Pope, who has talked with Constantz about his work.

That might sound like hyperbole, but the reality is that for every ton of ordinary cement, known as Portland cement, a ton of air-polluting carbon dioxide is released during production. Worldwide, 2.5 billion tons of cement are manufactured each year, creating about 5 percent of the Earth's CO{-2} emissions.

When Constantz learned about the high CO{-2} levels, he thought he could do better. After all, the majority of his 60 patents have to do with medical cement.

He claims his new approach not only generates zero CO{-2} , but has an added benefit of reducing the amount of CO{-2} power plants emit by sequestering it inside the cement.

To make traditional cement, limestone is heated to more than 1,000 degrees Celsius, which turns it into lime - the principal ingredient in Portland cement - and CO{-2}, which is released into the air.

Constantz uses a different approach, the details of which remains secret pending publication of his patent.

At his pilot factory, a former magnesium hydroxide facility that made metal for World War II bombs, magnesium crunches underfoot as Constantz, wearing a pressed, blue button-down shirt with rumpled shorts and sandals, outlines how the process works.

He pointed to two enormous smokestacks billowing flue gases full of carbon dioxide next door at Dynegy, one of the West's biggest and cleanest power plants.

Constantz takes that exhaust gas and bubbles it through seawater pumped from across the highway. The chemical process creates the key ingredient for his green cement and allows him to sequester a half ton of carbon dioxide from the smokestacks in every ton of cement he makes.

Constantz believes his cement would tackle global warming on two fronts. It would eliminate the need to heat limestone, which releases CO{-2}. And harmful emissions can be siphoned away from power plants and locked into the cement.

The same process can also be used to make an alternative to aggregate - the sand and gravel - that makes up concrete and asphalt, which would sequester even more carbon dioxide from power plants.

"The beauty here is we're taking this old industrial polluting infrastructure and turning it into something that will save the environment," Constantz said.

On a per-person basis, the United States is the world's worst CO{-2} polluter from all sources. But according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China just surpassed the U.S. for total carbon dioxide emissions.

China is expected to produce 47 percent of the world's 2.5 billion tons of cement this year, Constantz said.

To power its new buildings and sustain its building boom, China constructs at least one coal-fired power plant a week. Each one belches out enough CO{-2} to cancel the benefits of every hybrid on U.S. roadways, said Constantz.

A CO{-2} molecule can travel from Beijing to San Francisco in less than a day through atmospheric circulation, he said. So even with California mandating that CO{-2} emissions fall to 1990 levels by 2020, a crisis remains.

"Carbon dioxide is a global problem, not a regional problem," he said.

As far as cost, Constantz estimates his cement would retail for $100 a ton versus roughly $110 for Portland.

The reason no one invented it before now, he said, is that people didn't truly understand the dangers of CO{-2} until less than a decade ago.

Skeptics question product

He has skeptics.

Portland cement has a track record of more than 100 years, and any new material would have to get incorporated into building codes, noted Rick Bohan, director of construction and manufacturing technology for the Portland Cement Association in Skokie, Ill.

And Tom Pyle, a Caltrans engineer who serves on the cement subgroup of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Climate Action Team, acknowledged that the technology is possible, but he still wants to examine Constantz's cement.

"We hope they have a carbon-reducing viable construction material," he said. "They need to show up with a bag of this so we can test it."

Constantz is confident he will prove himself. Initially, he proposes mixing his new invention with Portland cement to ease a conservative industry into a new product. Concrete bigwigs have invited him to speak about Calera cement at their annual World of Concrete in Las Vegas next February.

Power plant partnerships

Constantz envisions building cement factories next to power plants the world over. A team is scouting out U.S. locations. While Dynegy has supplied Constantz with some flue gas, it hasn't entered into a formal agreement.

"As we're looking into the future, we're very interested in technology that would help capture CO{-2} from the flue gases and turn it into a product that offers a benefit," said Dynegy spokesman David Byford.

It could be good for business. California has mandated emissions reductions. And Congress is working on legislation that would allow high polluters to buy credits from those with low emissions. Power plants would have a huge incentive to sequester their CO{-2} in cement.

But even if Constantz succeeds, the world would still need to do much more to fight CO{-2} emissions, said Chris Field, director of the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford. "It's a big, long complicated game," he said. "As we develop each new segment of the solution we need to embrace it and deploy it and work hard to develop the next segment of the solution."

Coral basis of idea

Big ideas can form in haphazard ways. The one for bone cement began during a televised football game, when Constantz read an osteoporosis article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Three weeks later, as he studied a coral reef, it occurred to him he could maybe synthesize coral skeletons in human bones.

His new cement mimics how coral reefs form, too. Coral uses the magnesium and calcium present in seawater to create carbonates much as he's using CO{-2} and seawater to make carbonate.

This latest invention took 18 months to conceive and execute. He feels it's one of the most important things he's ever done.

"Climate change is the largest challenge of our generation," he said.

Who is Brent Constantz?

Profession: An associate consulting professor in Stanford's department of geological and environmental sciences and founder of the Calera Corp. Created and sold three other companies - Norian Corp., Corazon Technologies Inc. and Skeletal Kinetics.

Education: UC Santa Barbara, bachelor's of science (1981); UC Santa Cruz, doctorate (1986)

Family: Married and father of four.

Pastime: Surfing and rock climbing.

Concrete facts about cement

2.5 billion tons of hydraulic cement is produced worldwide annually. Add sand and gravel and that makes more than 9,000 million cubic yards of concrete. That's more than enough concrete to pave an eight-lane highway from the Earth to the moon and back again - twice.

If you stayed on the planet, that same eight-lane highway would circle the Earth almost 40 times.