Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sun's protective 'bubble' is shrinking

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent

sun protective bubble heliosphere
Data has shown that the sun's heliosphere is shrinking Photo: AP

New data has revealed that the heliosphere, the protective shield of energy that surrounds our solar system, has weakened by 25 per cent over the past decade and is now at it lowest level since the space race began 50 years ago.

Scientists are baffled at what could be causing the barrier to shrink in this way and are to launch mission to study the heliosphere.

The Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, will be launched from an aircraft on Sunday on a Pegasus rocket into an orbit 150,000 miles above the Earth where it will "listen" for the shock wave that forms as our solar system meets the interstellar radiation.

Dr Nathan Schwadron, co-investigator on the IBEX mission at Boston University, said: "The interstellar medium, which is part of the galaxy as a whole, is actually quite a harsh environment. There is a very high energy galactic radiation that is dangerous to living things.

"Around 90 per cent of the galactic cosmic radiation is deflected by our heliosphere, so the boundary protects us from this harsh galactic environment."

The heliosphere is created by the solar wind, a combination of electrically charged particles and magnetic fields that emanate a more than a million miles an hour from the sun, meet the intergalactic gas that fills the gaps in space between solar systems.

At the boundary where they meet a shock wave is formed that deflects interstellar radiation around the solar system as it travels through the galaxy.

The scientists hope the IBEX mission will allow them to gain a better understanding of what happens at this boundary and help them predict what protection it will offer in the future.

Without the heliosphere the harmful intergalactic cosmic radiation would make life on Earth almost impossible by destroying DNA and making the climate uninhabitable.

Measurements made by the Ulysses deep space probe, which was launched in 1990 to orbit the sun, have shown that the pressure created inside the heliosphere by the solar wind has been decreasing.

Dr David McComas, principal investigator on the IBEX mission, said: "It is a fascinating interaction that our sun has with the galaxy surrounding us. This million mile an hour wind inflates this protective bubble that keeps us safe from intergalactic cosmic rays.

"With less pressure on the inside, the interaction at the boundaries becomes weaker and the heliosphere as a whole gets smaller."

If the heliosphere continues to weaken, scientists fear that the amount of cosmic radiation reaching the inner parts of our solar system, including Earth, will increase.

This could result in growing levels of disruption to electrical equipment, damage satellites and potentially even harm life on Earth.

But Dr McComas added that it was still unclear exactly what would happen if the heliosphere continued to weaken or what even what the timescale for changes in the heliosphere are.

He said: “There is no imminent danger, but it is hard to know what the future holds. Certainly if the solar wind pressure was to continue to go down and the heliosphere were to almost evaporate then we would be in this sea of galactic cosmic rays. That could have some large effects.

“It is likely that there are natural variations in solar wind pressure and over time it will either stabilise or start going back up.”

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Scientist develops programme to understand alien languages

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent

A computer programme which could help identify and even translate messages from aliens in outer space has been developed by a British scientist.

Even if there are extra terrestrials are one day discovered, scientists fear their alien tongue may make it impossible to understand them.

Alien life form: the new programme would compare alien language sounds with those of  60 human languages
Alien life form: the new programme would compare alien language sounds with those of 60 human languages

But John Elliott of Leeds Metropolitan University believes he has come up with software which at least will decipher the structure of their language - and be the first step in understanding what they are saying.

Dr Elliott's programme would compare an alien language to a database of 60 different languages in the world to search see if it has a similar structure.

He believes that even an alien language far removed from any on Earth is likely to have recognisable patterns that could help reveal how intelligent the life forms are.

"Language has to be structured in a certain way otherwise it will be inefficient and unwieldy," he told New Scientist magazine.

Previous research had shown that it is possible to determine whether a signal carries a language rather than an image or music.

Dr Elliott, from Leeds Metropolitan University, has gone a step further by devising a way to pick out what might be words and sentences.

All human languages have "functional terms" that bracket phrases - words like "if" and "but" in English.

According to Dr Elliott, such terms in any language, are separated by up to nine words or characters.

This limit on phrase length seems to correspond to the level of human cognition - how much information we are able to process at once.

In an alien language, analysing these phrases might make it possible to gauge how clever the authors of the message are.

If they are much smarter than us, there would a lot of words packed into the phrases.

The programme should also be able to break a language up into crucial words such as nouns and verbs, even though their meaning is unknown.

It can, for instance, locate adjectives from the fact that they are almost always next to nouns.

Because languages have different word orders, Dr Elliott is amassing a library of the syntaxes of 60 human tongues.

If a message is received from outer space, it could be compared against this database. Scientists would then be able to see if it resembled anything human, or a mix of Earthly languages.

Dr Elliott admits that in order to translate what the aliens are actually saying it may still be necessary to have a "code book" of some sort.

But US linguist Dr Sheri Wells-Jensen, from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, points out that "you have to start somewhere".

She added: "My money is on being able to understand aliens."

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The week in science: diesels go green, bananas glow blue

By John Timmer

The case for fuel- and energy-efficient vehicles gets more compelling every year, and the two most popular stories this week both focused on new ways of getting more out of existing technology. One story focused on how two companies were managing to burn less fuel with diesel engines by figuring out ways of ensuring they never get switched on in the first place.

Future vehicles may rely on plug-in hybrid or purely electric tech, meaning that battery power becomes essential. Existing lithium battery tech will operate more efficiently when metal hydrides are incorporated into the electrode design.

Planetary science took center stage in upstate New York this week, as the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences held its annual meeting. Ars had a correspondent on hand, and he provided reports on some of the planetary happenings, including a discussion of how gravity fuels the geysers of Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons.

Publishing drives the dissemination of scientific information, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a flawless system. One analysis of the publishing system, which suggested that the current system results in a systematic over-hyping of high-profile results (called a "winner's curse") appeared in the news section. Meanwhile, our own Chris Lee shared his thoughts on the scientific content of high-profile publications and concluded that, in some ways, they're less useful than their lower-profile peers.

Biology provided us with a couple of surprises this week. It turns out that ripe bananas don't only turn yellow; they glow blue. The ripening process results in a chlorophyll derivative that emits blue light when exposed to UV. Those of you with a black light are undoubtedly running off to check this.

Image © Wiley.

Deep in a South African mine, researchers have discovered what's really involved in living on the edge. So few nutrients are available that only a single species can hack it. Despite the tough environment, the organism has a large genome and a full complement of genes, simply because it needs them all to make it in the prevailing conditions.

Some of the other highlights from the week:

Check out Nobel Intent for your fix of the latest science news.

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UK wind farm plans on brink of failure

A maintenance boat works next to the turbines of the new Burbo Bank off shore wind farm in the mouth of the River Mersey. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A major threat to Britain's ambitions for renewable energy will emerge this week when wind industry leaders admit that targets set for 2020 are looking increasingly unrealistic.

They will use a high-profile conference in London to warn Gordon Brown that there is little chance of achieving the government's goal - of wind generating one third of all UK electricity within 12 years - without a huge injection of public money.

It comes as an Observer investigation reveals that planning delays, long delivery times, escalating costs, 10-year hold-ups in connection to the national grid and technical problems in building offshore windfarms all threaten to derail Brown's ambitions. The result could be electricity shortages by 2020, failure to meet climate change and energy targets and possible hefty fines from Europe.

The developments will come as a blow to the government. Last week Ed Miliband, the new minister for climate change, said Britain would increase its target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 from 60 to 80 per cent.

Brown will tell delegates at the annual conference of the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) this week that the UK industry is now a world leader. But others will claim that there is a severe shortage of engineers and companies are reviewing their commitments to wind energy because of spiralling costs. Britain is legally committed to generating 15 per cent of all energy from renewables by 2020. This means that wind power, which presently contributes about 4 per cent of UK electricity, must expand to generate 36 per cent within 12 years.

No country has tried to switch its electricity supply so quickly on this scale, and to achieve it the industry will need to build nearly 15,000 turbines, generating 35 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, on land and at sea. Many experts say it is technically feasible to meet the targets, but there is a growing conviction that the plans were rushed through so quickly by the government that it will now take substantial new money and guarantees to work.

It is a very different story elsewhere. This week, in a vast warehouse in Berlin, blades for the world's largest wind turbine are being handcrafted by teams of people and robots. Each is 20 metres longer than the wing of the world's largest aeroplane, and when perched on top of 140-metre concrete towers in Belgium next year their tips will soar nearly 250 metres above the ground - higher than any building in Britain.

Ten years ago most wind turbines in Europe could barely power 200 homes, but technological advances have been so great that this single seven megawatt (MW) machine, known as the Enercon E-126, should provide nearly 20 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year - enough to power a town the size of Penzance.

There are others even bigger being planned in the US, but independent analysts say there is little chance that one of these turbines will be installed in Britain for many years. Many are deeply sceptical, saying that the government should not have put so much faith in wind power without making it easier for the industry to operate.

'The numbers do not add up,' said energy analyst Professor Ian Fells of Newcastle University. 'It is physically impossible for the industry to meet its target. The most that any country has ever built offshore is 350MW in a year. But they need to install nearly 10 times that in 12 years, and most will be far offshore. It means they will have to install hundreds a week. They cannot do it.'

Even Maria McCaffery, chief executive at the BWEA, has admitted for the first time that the industry might not reach the ambitious targets. 'It's tough, but just about achievable,' she said. 'But how close we can get to the target depends on what happens in the next few years. It's not guaranteed, but it's too soon to be defeatist.'

Paul Cowling, head of Npower Renewables, one of the two largest wind companies in Britain, with 4.5GW of wind power planned but not yet approved, said: 'With the right commitments from government, it's just about do-able. But we have never had targets like this before. Everything must be joined up and a lot can go wrong.'

A senior executive in a power company, who asked not to be named, added: 'There is absolutely no room for manoeuvre. The old nuclear power stations will be out of service, the new ones will not be on stream and big renewable projects like the proposed Severn barrage have not even been agreed, let alone built. Wind is the main plank of the government's energy policy over the next 12 years, but if anything at all goes wrong anywhere, then the targets will be missed and we are all in trouble.'

New studies warn of looming financial and supply problems. Last week the Carbon Trust, a government agency, warned that the steep rise in the price of building offshore farms could undermine the whole project. 'Currently the risk/return balance for offshore wind is not sufficiently attractive, and regulatory barriers would delay delivery well beyond 2020,' it said.

Tom Delay, the Trust's chief executive, added: 'Industry costs have become very, very expensive, and both government and companies need to work hard to tackle this. Without urgent action, there is a risk that little additional offshore wind power will be built by 2020.'

Cambridge Energy Research Associates says that Britain should expect a 20 per cent increase in offshore wind capital costs over the next few years on top of the 50 per cent increase in the past three years.

In August, energy consultancy Sinclair Knight Merz reported that most existing wind turbine manufacturers were booked solid for the next five years. 'The cost of offshore projects has doubled in five years,' it said.

That is not to mention the powerful opposition on the ground. Yesterday countryside protection groups warned that resistance to wind farms would be fierce and that planning delays, public inquiries and protests were inevitable. There are likely to be outcries in Cornwall, Wales, Yorkshire and Scotland when the scale of some of the farms is seen and it is understood that they will need hundreds of miles of 60-metre pylons to criss-cross some of Britain's most beautiful landscape.

Dr Frank Mastiaux, chief executive of the climate and renewables division of German electricity supplier E.ON, which is now building a 180MW offshore farm at Robin Rigg in the Solway Firth, said the UK targets were 'extremely challenging'. He added: 'Future wind farms will need to have thousands of turbines, each so big it would be like a football field turning on top of a steel mountain.'

One major problem is planning laws, which have been holding up dozens of projects for years.

Stephen Tinsdale, head of communications at Npower renewables, said: 'It can cost up to £200,000 just to put an application in, and you can expect it to take three to four years to go through planning. Two-thirds of all applications are refused. On top of that, there are conditions from the Ministry of Defence over radar and conditions by local authorities on when we can and cannot erect them. England has very few places left where you can build large farms. There are potential delays at almost every stage.'

New laws should make planning speedier for the industry, but the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will handle applications for all large farms and should be set up next year, has not been tested yet either in practice or in the courts.

Another problem facing companies is getting connection to the National Grid. Some companies in Scotland have been told to join a 13-year queue and are being asked for deposits of millions of pounds before the grid will agree to connect them. Currently, 115 Scottish renewable schemes, totalling 9GW of mostly wind power, are waiting to plug into the grid before they can supply electricity. Some already have planning permission but have to wait many years to connect.

'It is plausible to meet the target, but it is very deeply challenging,' said a spokeswoman for National Grid. 'We have signed agreements to connect 16GW of renewable generation throughout Great Britain, but over 75 per cent of this total is stuck in the planning system.

'Urgent reform to the UK's planning laws and energy regulation are needed. We're fully aware that some dates are later than some people would like. We will try to work with developers to bring the dates forward wherever possible.'

But in an unpublished paper submitted to the government, National Grid says that, while it is possible to connect new offshore farms in time, the onshore target of 14GW of wind is 'not credible'. 'This is an area where we are not optimistic. We believe that only 12.9GW is credible,' says the paper.

The real prize for governments looking for major increases in wind capacity is a series of giant 5-6GW farms with hundreds of the biggest turbines 10 to 20 miles offshore. The first are being planned to be built after 2014 in the Bristol Channel, the Wash and off Wales and Yorkshire. But wind companies are having increasing doubts about their financial viability. While they are technically feasible, they are already more than twice the cost of onshore farms and the price is spiralling upwards.

Signals that UK offshore farms may not be profitable came in June when Shell pulled out of the consortium planning to build Britain's biggest offshore farm, the London Array in the Thames Estuary, in favour of developing more profitable wind projects elsewhere. Then last week the government of Abu Dhabi stepped in to help the project after Royal Dutch Shell withdrew.

Other developers are questioning whether they can justify the investment needed in Britain. Shell and BP are competing in the US to build the world's largest wind farms. 'Many are now recosting their plans and are attracted by other countries who are tempting them with tax breaks and a freedom to build what they want practically anywhere,' said one analyst.

Npower's Cowling said: 'We are going to need different boats, a whole fleet of vessels, offshore cable installers, helicopters. We are already getting close to our hurdle rates. If things get worse, it makes it a marginal decision whether we invest in them or not. It's all very risky. Because the UK is a difficult place to do business, the utility companies will just go elsewhere. We are not threatening to go, but if a utility finds a project which it can build quickly, it will go there. We are committed to the UK, but it is difficult.

'Until you get absolute consent from government, people will dither and it will take longer to install farms. Industry costs have become very, very expensive, and both government and companies need to work hard to tackle this.'

Potentially more serious is growing competition from other countries both for turbines and other machinery, as well as engineers. The market for wind is very strong, with more than £40bn invested worldwide last year, demand for turbines going through the roof as countries rush to meet climate change targets, and the very few manufacturers producing turbines now looking only for large orders. Emerging Energy Research, a leading research and advisory firm analysing clean energy markets, expects the international wind power industry to increase 500 per cent over 12 years.

Vestas, the world's biggest turbine maker, now has a £6bn order book and its turbine prices have risen 74 per cent in the past three years. China plans 100GW of wind power by 2020, a ten-fold increase from today. Texas alone plans more wind power than is expected to be installed in Britain in the next 20 years. The net result is that prices are escalating and orders for equipment taking longer and longer.

'Everyone wants wind power. If you ordered today you could possibly get a turbine in 2011. But you would have to be a serious order,' said an Enercon spokesman. 'It is a very good time for wind.'

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Switzerland Places Ban on the Humiliation of Plants

One Mystery of Jet Streams Explained

By Jeremy Hsu, Staff Writer

The Jupiter/Saturn cases (top and middle) develop eastward wind at the equator (shown in red), with multiple weaker banded flows at high latitudes, similar to Jupiter and Saturn (though with speeds that are too slow on Saturn). The Uranus/Neptune case (bottom) has westward wind at the equator and eastward winds at high latitude, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Credit: Adam Showman/University of Arizona

Planetary scientists have long puzzled over why fast-moving rivers of air called jet streams flow eastward at the equator of Jupiter and Saturn, but go westward on Uranus and Neptune. Now a new simulation has begun unraveling that mystery by showing how turbulent thunderstorms create the jet streams.

Whether a jet stream flows east or west seems to depend on the amount of water vapor in a planet's atmosphere — but researchers confess that the "how" still eludes them.

"Under these conditions, the eastward equator flow prefers low water vapor abundance," said Yuan Lian, an atmospheric dynamics researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "The westward equator flow prefers high water vapor abundance. However, we still don't know exactly how this happens."

The equatorial jet stream goes westward on Earth, but all the other jet streams on our planet go eastward, including the one that frequently dips down from the Arctic to bring winter storms across North America.

Rivers of air

Jet streams feed on swirling eddies that can form the basis of thunderstorms on giant planets. Eddies don't necessarily all merge together to form a jet stream — some can simply spin off their angular momentum into the jet to sustain howling wind speeds.

Some jet streams have clocked in at 400 mph (644 km/h) on Jupiter, and almost 900 mph (1,448 km/h) on Saturn and Neptune. Wind speeds on Venus can hit almost 230 mph (370 km/h).

"You have a little vortex that gets stretched out and sheared apart by the wind," said Adam Showman, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona. "As it's shearing apart, it gives the jet stream a little push."

Eddies and vortexes themselves form from rising water vapor. The vapor condenses in the cooler upper latitudes of planet atmospheres and releases energy in the form of heat, which disturbs the surrounding atmosphere.

Simulating the flow

Showman and Lian estimated that Uranus and Neptune contain 10 times as much water vapor as Jupiter and Saturn. They plugged the data into their simulation runs and found that they came up with jet streams with directions matching those observed on each planet.

"We took our best guess with our best models for each of the planets," Showman told "We did a bunch of simulations varying the water. Even if we don't think the planet has that amount, it allows us to understand role of water in that simulation."

The simulations also came up with the 20 jet streams each for Jupiter and Saturn, as well as three jet streams each for Uranus and Neptune. Likewise, they produced simulated storms similar to thunderstorms previously spotted on Jupiter and Saturn.

Yet the question remains as to why jet streams at the equator go either east or west.

Stability, stability

Without knowing the details, researchers can only speculate on water vapor condensation creating a topsy-turvy atmosphere. A more unstable atmosphere may result in jet streams that happen to form in an eastward- or westward-running direction.

"When you have this occurring in a complicated 3-D circulation, it can develop latitudinal temperature differences," Showman noted. "More water vapor means more temperature differences that change the stability of the atmosphere."

However, a better understanding will have to wait for improved simulations. Lian pointed out that the simulated jet streams did not quite reach the high speeds of real jet streams. The current model also ignored some processes such as precipitation, evaporation and cloud formation.

"We want to include as many factors as we can," Lian said. "That way, we can probably produce jet speeds similar to observations."

The findings were detailed at the 40th annual meeting of Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomy Society in Ithaca, New York.

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Stone Age man took drugs, say scientists

By Jonathan Wynne-Jones

It has long been suspected that humans have an ancient history of drug use, but there has been a lack of proof to support the theory.

Now, however, researchers have found equipment used to prepare hallucinogenic drugs for sniffing, and dated them back to prehistoric South American tribes.

Quetta Kaye, of University College London, and Scott Fitzpatrick, an archeologist from North Carolina State University, made the breakthrough on the Caribbean island of Carriacou.

They found ceramic bowls, as well as tubes for inhaling drug fumes or powders, which appear to have originated in South America between 100BC and 400BC and were then carried 400 miles to the islands.

While the use of such paraphernalia for inhaling drugs is well-known, the age of the bowls has thrown new light on how long humans have been taking drugs.

Scientists believe that the drug being used was cohoba, a hallucinogen made from the beans of a mimosa species. Drugs such as cannabis were not found in the Caribbean then.

Opiates can be obtained from species such as poppies, while fungi, which was widespread, may also have been used.

Archeologists have suggested that humans were extracting mind-expanding drugs from mescal beans and peyote cacti as far back as 5,000 years ago, but have not found direct evidence that this is true.

They consider that drugs were being used to induce spiritual or trance-like states by people who had religious beliefs.

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Video: Solar + Robots = AWESOME

Written by Katie Fehrenbacher

Combining solar and robots could never be bad (Wall-E!), but at the Solar Power International convention it wasn’t about solar-powered robots as much as it was robotics that can help with the manufacturing and production of solar gear. There were at least four booths touting robotics for stacking solar panels, assembling products and inspecting systems.

We took this short 15-second video of the solar robotic solution from Adept. In the video the Adept Quattro quickly picks up and places the solar products into exact locations, which the company says maximizes productivity and minimizes breakage.

There were also robotics from Reis that appeared to be moving whole solar panels and working on integration:

And there were robotics companies looking to move more substantially into the solar industry, like Staubli, out of Duncan, S.C.

In a sea of solar panels mounted around the show floor, it wasn’t hard to figure out why the conference attendees were crowded around the robots — as one onlooker wisely noted: “People like to watch things that move.”

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Black and white TV generation have monochrome dreams

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent

Do you dream in black and white? If so, the chances are you are over 55 and were brought up watching a monochrome television set.

New research suggests that the type of television you watched as a child has a profound effect on the colour of your dreams.

Children watching Andy Pandy on a black and white TV
Children watching Andy Pandy on a black and white TV

While almost all under 25s dream in colour, thousands of over 55s, all of whom were brought up with black and white sets, often dream in monchrome - even now.

The findings suggest that the moment when Dorothy passes out of monochrome Kansas and awakes in Technicolor Oz may have had more significance for our subconscious than we literally ever dreamed of.

Eva Murzyn, a psychology student at Dundee University who carried out the study, said: "It is a fascinating hypothesis.

"It suggests there could be a critical period in our childhood when watching films has a big impact on the way dreams are formed.

"What is even more interesting is that before the advent of black and white television all the evidence suggests we were dreaming in colour."

Research from 1915 through to the 1950s suggested that the vast majority of dreams are in black and white but the tide turned in the sixties, and later results suggested that up to 83 per cent of dreams contain some colour.

Since this period also marked the transition between black-and-white film and TV and widespread Technicolor, an obvious explanation was that the media had been priming the subjects' dreams.

However it was always controversial and differences between the studies prevented the researchers from drawing any firm conclusions.

But now Miss Murzyn believes she has proved the link. She re-looked at the old studies and combined them with a survey of her own of more 60 people, half of which were over 55 and half of which were under 25.

She asked the volunteers to answer a questionnaire on the colour of their dreams and their childhood exposure to film and TV.

The subjects then recorded different aspects of their dreams in a diary every morning.

Miss Murzyn found there was no significant difference between results drawn from the questionnaires and the dream diaries - thus proving that the previous studies were comparable.

She then analysed her own data to find out whether an early exposure to black-and-white TV could still have a lasting effect on her subjects' dreams, 40 years later.

Only 4.4 per cent of the under-25s' dreams were black and white. The over-55s who had had access to colour TV and film during their childhood also reported a very low proportion of just 7.3 per cent.

But the over-55s who had only had access to black-and-white media reported dreaming in black and white roughly a quarter of the time.

Even though they would have spent only a few hours a day watching TV or films, their attention and emotional engagement would have been heightened during this time, leaving a deeper imprint on their mind, Miss Murzyn told the New Scientist.

"The crucial time is between three and 10 when we all begin to have the ability to dream," she said.

"Television and films which by their very nature are interesting and emotionally engaging and even dreamlike. So when you dream you may copy what you have seen on the screen.

"I have even had a computer game player who dreams as if he is in front of a computer screen."

Miss Murzyn concedes it's still impossible to verify whether the dreams are actually in black-and-white, or whether media exposure somehow alters the way the mind reconstructs the dreams once we wake.

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World's first dog lived 31,700 years ago, ate big

Image: Husky
Getty Images
In shape, the Paleolithic dogs most resembled the Siberian husky (as the one shown here), researchers say, but in size, they were somewhat larger, probably comparable to large shepherd dogs.

By Jennifer Viegas

An international team of scientists has just identified what they believe is the world's first known dog, which was a large and toothy canine that lived 31,700 years ago and subsisted on a diet of horse, musk ox and reindeer, according to a new study.

The discovery could push back the date for the earliest dog by 17,700 years, since the second oldest known dog, found in Russia, dates to 14,000 years ago.

Remains for the older prehistoric dog, which were excavated at Goyet Cave in Belgium, suggest to the researchers that the Aurignacian people of Europe from the Upper Paleolithic period first domesticated dogs. Fine jewelry and tools, often decorated with depictions of big game animals, characterize this culture.

If Paleolithic dogs still existed as a breed today, they would surely win best in show for strength and biting ability.

"In shape, the Paleolithic dogs most resemble the Siberian husky, but in size, however, they were somewhat larger, probably comparable to large shepherd dogs," added Germonpré, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

For the study, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the scientists analyzed 117 skulls of recent and fossil large members of the Canidae family, which includes dogs, wolves and foxes.

Skeletal analysis revealed, "the Paleolithic dogs had wider and shorter snouts and relatively wider brain cases than fossil and recent wolves," said Germonpré, who added that their skulls were also somewhat smaller than those of wolves.

Image: Dog
Political pets

Which candidate is your pet supporting? Send your photos.

DNA studies determined all of the canids carried "a substantial amount of genetic diversity," suggesting that past wolf populations were much larger than they are today.

Isotopic analysis of the animals' bones found that the earliest dogs consumed horse, musk ox and reindeer, but not fish or seafood. Since the Aurignacians are believed to have hunted big game and fished at different times of the year, the researchers think the dogs might have enjoyed meaty handouts during certain seasons.

Germonpré believes dog domestication might have begun when the prehistoric hunters killed a female wolf and then brought home her pups. Recent studies on silver foxes suggest that when the most docile pups are kept and cared for, it takes just 10 generations of breeding for morphological changes to take effect.

The earliest dogs likely earned their meals too.

"I think it is possible that the dogs were used for tracking, hunting, and transport of game," she said. "Transport could have been organized using the dogs as pack animals. Furthermore, the dogs could have been kept for their fur or meat, as pets, or as an animal with ritual connotation."

Image: Dog skull
Mietje Germonpre
The skull of what may be the earliest known dog, which dates to 31,700 years ago. The prehistoric skull was excavated at Goyet Cave in Belgium.

Ancient, 26,000-year-old footprints made by a child and a dog at Chauvet Cave, France, support the pet notion. Torch wipes accompanying the prints indicate the child held a torch while navigating the dark corridors accompanied by a dog.

Susan Crockford, a University of Victoria anthropologist and an evolutionary biologist at Pacific Identifications, Inc. in Canada, told Discovery News that "this is an important paper."

Crockford, however, is not convinced the Aurignacians domesticated dogs. She instead suspects dogs may have undergone "self-domestication" from wolves more than once over history, which could explain why the animals appear and then seemingly disappear from the archaeological record.

Crockford details the possible process in her book, Rhythms of Life: Thyroid Hormone and the Origin of Species. She theorizes that the genes that control thyroid rhythms, allowing individuals to adapt to changing environmental conditions, can, over time, lead to the evolution of new species.

"I think that for these Paleolithic-age canids, the process got started and then stopped, leaving some individual wolves with a few of the features of early dogs, but not all of them," she said.

Germonpré does not dismiss Crockford's theory, which she described as "a very interesting model." She hopes more information will come to light in the future about these very early canines. An extensive study on their teeth and jaws is already in the works.

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The Hypocrisy of the World Wildlife Fund's Eco Tour

by Dave Demerjian

Lush plant life and exotic wild animals. Formal dinners and luxury accommodations. Twenty five adventurous days in 11 different countries, all reached by private jet. Sounds like a great vacation, sure, but also an expensive exercise in hypocrisy by the World Wildlife Fund.

The organization does an admirable job protecting the world's flora and fauna from the impact of human development and global climate change. We applaud so noble a cause, but it is hard to take the WWF seriously when it organizes a fundraising trip that will spew 1,200 tons of carbon dioxide shuttling well-heeled donors around the globe on a private jet.

The WWF says the tour allows adventurous travelers — those who can pony up the $64,950 ticket price, anyway — to "touch down in some of the most astonishing places on the planet to see the top wildlife, including gorillas, orangutans, rhinos, lemurs and toucans."

Good thing they aren't planning to visit any glaciers.

While the whole thing is way over the top, it's the private jet that really gets us. The 88-seat, luxuriously appointed jet will transport passengers on a whirlwind tour with stops in such far-flung places as the Amazon, Easter Island, Chile, Malaysia, Laos, Nepal and London.

We're not sure what kind of plane the WWF is using — the sales pitch says only that it is "a specially outfitted private jet." But an excellent piece by Steven Milloy in JunkScience notes that flying the 36,000 mile route in a Boeing 757 would burn about 100,000 gallons of jet fuel and produce more than 1,200 tons of CO2. Milloy says that's the same as putting 1,560 SUVs on the road for the three weeks the eco-adventurers are jetting around the world. He uses the WWF's carbon footprint calculator to estimate it would cost $44,000 to offset the emissions — though the WWF's brochure (.pdf) doesn't say anything about offsets.

It gets even harder to take once you read the WWF's mission statement, which states it is committed to "protecting natural areas and wild populations of plants and animals, including endangered species; promoting sustainable approaches to the use of renewable natural resources; and promoting more efficient use of resources and energy and the maximum reduction of pollution."

Um, hello?

We disagree with a lot of what Milloy has said in the past — he's dedicated an entire page of his website to debunking the myth of climate change — but in this case he's spot on. An organization that implores us to do our part by carpooling, embracing fluorescent bulbs, replacing our old appliances and taking other steps toward eco-friendliness shouldn't be taking wealthy donors on a 25-day pollution-fest.

The WWF does good work, and like every other nonprofit, it needs money to carry out that work. But a fundraising trip like this is a bad idea. There must be a better way.

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Eight-month delay for LHC

Broken magnets put particle collider in limbo.

Broken magnets at CERN will need to be replaced.Broken magnets at CERN will need to be replaced.M. Brice/CERN

Details of last month's accident at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's premier particle accelerator, are emerging — and confirm that the machine will not restart before late May or early June 2009.

Officials at CERN, Europe's particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, say that the time is needed to overhaul a sector of the 27-kilometre-long machine, after an electrical failure on 19 September caused some 6 tonnes of ultra-cold liquid helium to leak into its tunnel. A preliminary report issued on 16 October says that as many as 29 of the nearly 10,000 magnets used to guide the accelerator's proton beam will need to be replaced. Further magnets may need to be removed and inspected, and modifications must also be made to prevent future accidents. "It's a serious incident," says James Gillies, a spokesman for the laboratory.

Still, CERN is confident it has the resources to make the repairs. No more than 24 dipole magnets and 5 quadrupole magnets were damaged; CERN has 30 dipole magnets — each weighing 35 tonnes — in reserve, as well as sufficient quadrupoles, says Gillies. Replacement magnets are already being tested in a facility above the buried accelerator tunnel. Nevertheless, Gillies says that the damage will take all of CERN's winter shutdown period to repair. Not including labour and the spares, the work will cost an estimated 100,000 Swiss francs (US$90,000), he says.

The LHC's superconducting magnets generate enormous fields by circulating huge electrical currents with virtually no resistance. To work correctly, they must be immersed in liquid helium and kept at a temperature of just 1.9 kelvin. During the 19 September test, the accident report says, a weld in a superconducting wire connecting two magnets heated above its operating temperature. That in effect turned the wire into a resistor — causing a massive 8.7 kiloamps of power to arc through the liquid helium and puncture into the surrounding vacuum vessel.

“The amount of helium released was larger than the valves were designed to handle.”

In just milliseconds, the arc managed to vaporize a "significant fraction" of the nearly metre-long connection between the two magnets, says Jim Strait, an accelerator physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, who has been consulting on the accident investigation. The liquid helium flowed through the hole and into an insulating region of vacuum, which was meant to work as a thermos to keep the magnets cool. Relief valves designed to allow the helium to escape were overwhelmed and, within seconds, the pressure in the machine became powerful enough to wrench magnets off their concrete supports.

Strait says that the relief valves' tolerances were based on "incorrect assumptions" about how much helium might escape in an accident. "The total amount of helium released was larger than the valves were designed to handle," he says. "You could call it a design error."

Gillies says that "clearly something was wrong" with the models of how much helium could be released, but he adds that it is difficult to foresee every possible scenario. "This thing is its own prototype," he says.

The electrical arc also penetrated the beam pipes, allowing soot from the accident to contaminate the pipes. "It's a mess in the affected spots," Strait says.

CERN is looking at adding extra relief valves and developing new diagnostics to catch such a failure before it occurs. A late May or early June start-up seems ambitious to Strait, but he has faith in the team at CERN. "It looks very difficult to me, but I would not count them out," he says.

Those awaiting the start of the machine remain stoic. "We are a bit disappointed," says Peter Jenni, a spokesman for the ATLAS detector, which employs more than 2,500 physicists. "But we all understand that in such an enterprise, things can go wrong."

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World's longest insect discovered

A recently identified stick insect, from the island of Borneo, almost the length of a human arm, is the world's longest insect. A specimen can be seen at the Natural History Museum's „Creepy Crawlies" gallery.

A giant stick insect named Phobaeticus chani, meaning "Chan's megastick".
Foto: AP

A giant stick insect named Phobaeticus chani, meaning "Chan's megastick".

The specimen was found by a local villager and handed to Malaysian amateur naturalist Datuk Chan Chew Lun in 1989, according to Philip Bragg, who formally identified the insect in this month's issue of peer-reviewed journal Zootaxa. The insect was named Phobaeticus chani, or „Chan's megastick,“ in Chan's honor.

Paul Brock, a scientific associate of the Natural History Museum in London unconnected to the animal's discovery said there was no doubt it was the longest extant insect ever found.

Looking more like a solid shoot of bamboo than its smaller, frailer cousins, the dull-green insect measures about 22 inches (56.7 centimeters), if its delicate, twig-like legs are counted. There are 14 inches (35.7 centimeters) from the tip of its head to the bottom of its abdomen, beating the previous record body length, held by Phobaeticus kirbyi, also from Borneo, by about an inch (2.9 centimeters).

Stick bugs, also known as phasmids, have some of the animal kingdom's cleverest camouflage. Although some phasmids use noxious sprays or prickly spines to deter their predators, generally the bugs assume the shape of sticks and leaves to avoid drawing attention.

„Their main defense is basically hanging around, looking like a twig,“ Brock said. „It will even sway in the wind.“

For Bragg, who works as a schoolteacher and catalogues stick bugs as a hobby, the discovery showed the urgency of conservation work.

„There aren't enough specialists around to work on all the insects in the world,“ he said. „There's going to be stuff that's extinct before anyone gets around to describing it.“

The Phobaeticus chani is now a part of the Natural History Museum's „Creepy Crawlies“ gallery. It went on display Thursday.

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3M taps into wind-power business with new `Wind Tape’

by Bob Geiger Staff Writer

Dr. Mike Strommen (Photo: Bill Klotz)
Dr. Mike Strommen (Photo: Bill Klotz)
3M Co., best known for its Scotch Tape, Post-it brand notes and adhesives, is going into the wind-energy business, with a new line of fillers and protective coverings that can extend the life of wind turbine blades.

The 3M Wind Tape product line, part of the $24.5 billion Maplewood-based company’s new Renewable Energy division, puts 3M Co. in the middle of the scramble to develop renewable energy that will reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and pare global greenhouse gas emissions.

“About two years ago, we started an effort to search for wind-energy business partners,” said Dr. Mike Strommen, global wind-energy segment leader for the company’s renewable energy division. “Of our 55,000-plus products, many of them would be a natural match for the wind industry.”

3M quietly rolled out clear and opaque Wind Tape in mid-2007 – one year before the formation of the Renewable Energy division that includes solar and wind power was announced.

That tape, designed to cover the leading edge of huge wind turbine blades, was developed in reaction to so-called “Voice of Customer,” or VOC, sessions to discuss emerging needs of customers, manufacturers and other product users.

Although Strommen wouldn’t name 3M customers, VOC meetings likely put 3M executives in the same room with U.S. and European-based with wind turbine manufacturers General Electric, Acciona, Gamesa, Nortel and Vestas.

Designed to protect the leading edge of 120-foot, 12-ton fiberglass turbines, 3M’s Wind Tape comes in eight-inch wide, 54-foot rolls that cost at least $288.

That’s pretty expensive for a roll of tape, but Strommen said many turbine blades with a factory finish have significant damage after just two years of generating electricity.

“It has a lot to do with wind and erosion control,” he said. “Wind (turbine) blades spin at 180 miles-per-hour. Remember that these blades are composite materials. After a year or two years of use, you can get erosion or pitting at the leading edge of that (turbine) blade.

“That pitting can affect the structural integrity of that blade. Wind turbine blades are not short or sleek – they range up to 120 feet in length, weigh 12 tons and cost an average of $100,000,” he said.

By protecting turbine blades against damage, he estimated that Wind Tape could add between seven and 10 years to the life of a blade.

“This is a polyurethane tape. It has a high elongation or stretch, and spreads that impact out over a larger area,” Strommen said.

3M’s Wind Tape is a natural progression from erosion-control tape the company manufactures to shield helicopter blades, which aren’t nearly as large as wind turbines or in rural areas when a service call is required.

Wind Tape is only one of several products that 3M has created or is designing to the fast-growing wind energy industry.

Domestic wind-energy production surpassed 20 gigawatts in September, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). The Washington, D.C.-based trade organization ranks Minnesota fourth in wind energy production, with 1.366 megawatts.

Tall wind turbines located mostly in rural areas drive most such power generation, which is attractive to investors; the segment is growing because of available tax credits and state-mandated reductions in carbon emissions to curb global warming.

“Our impetus for doing this is that 2007 turbine manufacturing grew 30 percent to $36 billion (globally),” Strommen said. “Reasons for this are that wind-generated electricity has become price-competitive with coal. The wind industry believes that it won’t need the Production Tax Credit (PTC) because of the increasing cost of fossil fuel-produced energy.”

Still, AWEA and other wind energy interests lobbied for the PTC, which gives renewable energy producers a two-cent credit for each kilowatt hour of electricity generated. That $17 billion measure was tucked into the $810 billion Wall Street bailout bill recently passed by Congress.

Growth of the wind-energy industry was underscored by a technical market research report issued in August by Wellesley, Mass.-based BCC Research.

The report indicated that that U.S. wind turbine components and systems would be worth $60.9 billion in 2013 – more than five times the 2008 market value of $11.2 billion.

3M wants to be part of the aggressive growth forecast contained in BCC’s report, which equates to a compound annual growth rate of 40 percent.

“The reality of 3M is we’re a materials firm,” Strommen said. “We don’t sell as much in the aftermarket as we do in the manufacturing process.”

And there’s plenty of manufacturing and product tweaking that will occur as wind-energy developers strive to generate more power that 3M wants to be part of.

Additionally, 3M’s presence in 60 countries around the world translates to additional products and revenues as global renewable energy efforts increase.

How many manufacturers?

“Almost all of them,” Strommen said. “We do business in 60 countries. And we have wind-energy teams that are calling on them.

“Up until now, they didn’t have 3M Renewable Energy on their cards. Now 3M Renewable Energy will be on their cards,” he said.

In addition to 3M’s Wind Tape, the company’s wind-energy products include turbine-blade coatings to protect from temperature extremes, fillers and blade fillers. The industry’s boom also has created an opportunity for 3M to sell its existing respiratory products to turbine-blade fabricators, Strommen said.

Reducing icing, a concept with which Minnesotans are familiar, could pare the seven days a year that wind turbines are down to remove ice accumulations, Strommen said.

And blade weight could become lighter through another product innovation being worked by 3M technicians: Glass microspheres with a diameter of 18 micrometers top improve productivity because a lighter blade can spin faster.

Finally, because wind-turbine blades are exposed to the elements, an application of a drag-reducing sharkskin-like skin could be helpful, Strommen said, in much the same way as the high-tech swim suits used by the U.S. Olympic team.

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