Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jacques Piccard, Scientist Who Explored the Deep Seas, Dies at 86


GENEVA (AP) — Jacques Piccard, a scientist and underwater explorer who plunged deeper beneath the ocean than any other man, died Saturday, his son’s company said. He was 86.

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Pierre Andrieu/A.F.P. — Getty Images

Jacques Piccard in 2001.

Mr. Piccard died at his Lake Geneva home in Switzerland, according to the company, Solar Impulse.

Exploration ran in the Piccard family. Mr. Piccard’s father, Auguste, a physicist, was the first man to take a balloon into the stratosphere. His son, Bertrand, was the first man to fly a balloon nonstop around the world.

Jacques Piccard helped his father invent the bathyscaphe, a vessel that allows people to descend to great depths. On Jan. 23, 1960, he and Lt. Don Walsh of the United States Navy took the vessel, named the Trieste, into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific to a depth of 35,800 feet, nearly seven miles below sea level. It remains the deepest human dive ever.

“By far the most interesting find was the fish that came floating by our porthole,” Mr. Piccard said. “We were astounded to find higher marine life forms down there at all.”

Solar Impulse said the discovery of living organisms at such a depth played a crucial role in the prohibition of nuclear waste dumping in ocean trenches.

After the dive, Mr. Piccard continued to research the deep seas and worked for NASA.

He also built four mid-depth submarines, mesoscaphes, including the first tourist submarine. During the Swiss National Exhibition in 1964, he took 33,000 passengers into the depths of Lake Geneva.

Born in Brussels in 1922, Mr. Piccard was 9 when his father took his balloon into the stratosphere. He studied in Switzerland and worked as a university economics teacher, but abandoned teaching to help his father design the bathyscaphe.

Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

In April 1999, when Bertrand Piccard completed a round-the-world balloon trip with a Briton, Brian Jones, his team drew on Jacques’s experiences in the Gulf Stream to work out how best to use the jet stream to speed the balloon around the world.

They also made use of some of the ideas used by Auguste Piccard in his pioneering flights, including the notion of only partly inflating the balloon at takeoff to allow for the expansion of the gases at higher altitudes, and the use of an airtight capsule.

In a statement on Saturday, Bertrand Piccard said his father “passed on to me a sense of curiosity, a desire to mistrust dogmas and common assumptions, a belief in free will, and confidence in the face of the unknown.”

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Unknotting knot theory

By Julie Rehmeyer

New techniques are beginning to unravel the mysteries of knots, revealing a great mathematical superstructure in the process
SECRETLY THE SAMEVIDEO | Though these knots look different, mathematicians consider them the same. Twisting and pulling just the right way,without ever cutting the string, will make them look identical. Click on the video to watch the top knot untwist to look identical to the bottom one.Scharein, R. and

Sometimes, a simple, even childish question turns out to be connected to the deepest secrets of the universe. Here’s one: How many different ways can you tie your shoelaces?

Mathematicians have been puzzling over that question for a century or two, and the main thing they’ve discovered is that the question is really, really hard. In the last decade, though, they’ve developed some powerful new tools inspired by physics that have pried a few answers from the universe’s clutches. Even more exciting is that the new tools seem to be the tip of a much larger theory that mathematicians are just beginning to uncover. That larger mathematical theory, if it exists, may help crack some of the hardest mathematical questions there are, questions about the mathematical structure of the three- and four-dimensional space where we live.

One of the reasons knots have given mathematicians fits is that the same knot can appear in very different guises. Tug here, tug there, and soon a knot will become unrecognizable, but remain fundamentally unchanged. To allow a knotted string to wiggle around without danger of untying, mathematicians seal its two ends together, making it a knotted circle. The first question mathematicians have to answer is simply, when are two knots really, secretly the same?

The dream is to create a sort of machine: Send in one of these looped knots, and out pops some result that would be the same regardless of the particular configuration of the knot. Because the answer wouldn’t vary with the arrangement of the knot, such a machine is called a “knot invariant.” And indeed, in 1927, mathematician J.W. Alexander created just such a “machine,” a method that produces a polynomial (an expression like 3x2 + 4x + 1) from any knot. The good news is that Alexander’s method always gives the same polynomial for a particular knot, even if the knot has been wiggled around to look very different. The bad news is that it can also give the identical answer for knots that really are different. For example, the granny knot and the square knot have identical Alexander polynomials.

LOTS OF KNOTSThis is the complete collection of knots that must cross themselves eight times. There are 49 knots with nine crossings, and 165 knots with ten crossings.Scharein, R.

Still, the Alexander polynomial was a start — and for nearly 60 years, it was about as far as mathematicians got. Then, in 1983, Vaughn Jones of the University of California, Berkeley, astonished everyone by creating a new and better knot invariant, one that could distinguish among many knots Alexander’s invariant couldn’t (such as the granny knot and the square knot).

The story quickly got even better. In 1988, physicist Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton turned Jones’ single invariant into a whole zoo of new invariants using a link he found between Jones’ method and quantum theory. The work earned Jones and Witten the Fields medal, one of the highest honors in mathematics, in 1990.

The Jones polynomial and Witten invariants were a tremendous advance, particularly because they were easy to compute. Still, they didn’t unlock all the secrets of knots. “If you could make money out of telling knots apart, the Jones polynomial would be a powerful tool,” says Stephen Sawin of Fairfield University. “It hasn’t given a great theoretical understanding, though.” In particular, just looking at the Jones polynomial of a particular knot didn’t seem to reveal much about the knot or its relationship to other knots.

In the late 1990s, two sets of researchers broke through this barrier nearly simultaneously using approaches that seemed to be unrelated to one another. Mikhail Khovanov of Columbia University developed a new invariant, the Khovanov homology, using techniques from algebra. It could distinguish between any two knots the Jones polynomial could tell apart — and also some the Jones polynomial couldn’t.

UNKNOTTING NUMBERSUntil recently, no one could prove that there's no way to untangle this knot by crossing the strands through one another just once. Knot Floer homology finally provided a proof.Scharein, R. and

Meanwhile, Peter Ozsváth of Columbia University and Zoltán Szabó of Princeton University developed an invariant called knot Floer homology using techniques from symplectic geometry, a branch of geometry with close ties to physics. Their method was an improvement on the Alexander polynomial, just as Khovanov’s was an improvement on the Jones polynomial. Furthermore, knot Floer homology could do something no other invariant before then had been shown to do: It could determine whether a loop was knotted at all, perfectly distinguishing an unknotted loop (called the “unknot”) from any knotted one.

Both techniques did much more than simply distinguish knots from one another, though. Instead of producing polynomials, they produced much richer mathematical objects that helped to reveal the structure that underlies knots, the relationships among knots, and the connections between knots and other areas of mathematics. It’s because of this richer structure that both techniques are called homologies. It was as if the Jones polynomial and the Alexander polynomial had been lifted to a new plane.

The techniques have begun to yield riches in information about knots. “It’s turned into a bit of an industry,” Ozsváth says. For example, suppose you have the power to cross the strands in a knot through one another. For a particular knot, how many times would you have to do that to unravel it? The answer is still not perfectly known, but knot Floer homology has provided much tighter bounds on that number.

Something else about the invariants has captured mathematicians’ imaginations, too. Khovanov homology and knot Floer homology had very different origins, yet in the end, the two techniques seemed strikingly similar, as if they were linked at a more fundamental level than mathematicians could yet describe. “The whole study seems to be showing pieces of a single, bigger structure,” Khovanov says. Khovanov homology would be one facet of that structure and knot Floer homology would be another.

Mathematicians can already see some other facets of that great gem of a superstructure as well. All the invariants that Witten found should fit in, and perhaps even much of the mathematical architecture that underlies the Jones polynomial should too. Indeed, Sergei Gukov of the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Santa Barbara has deepened the connection with quantum physics and string theory to “lift” the Witten invariants, just like Khovanov homology lifted the Jones polynomial. Revealing the full structure of the superstructure may be the work of a generation, Ozsváth says.

The payoff from such work may be profound. Knot Floer homology has higher-dimensional analogues that can reveal the structures of three- and four-dimensional spaces, and it is expected that Khovanov homology does as well. Four-dimensional spaces have been especially difficult to understand. Higher-dimensional spaces have enough room that complications can work themselves out, and lower-dimensional spaces are so tight that complicated behavior can’t emerge in the first place, but in four dimensions, almost anything can happen. "Understanding four dimensions would be especially exciting," Ozsváth says, "because that’s the world we live in."

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All Hail Robo-Jellyfish!


Image via Festo

One of our lovely readers brought this amazing video to our attention and we think it’s so fantastic we just had to share it with you – a little something for the weekend:

Inspired by one of the most misunderstood animals of the marine world – the graceful jellyfish, leading electronics company, Festo have designed and created a pneumatic version of the gelatinous creature that moves remarkably like the real thing. There have been a number of other versions floating about over the past few years but none that have caught our attention quite as much as this mechanical offering.

Festo explain how the technological wonder, called Aquajelly, works:

“AquaJelly is an artificial autonomous jellyfish with an electric drive and an intelligent, adaptive mechanical system. AquaJelly consists of a translucent hemisphere and eight tentacles used for propulsion. At the centre of the AquaJelly is a watertight, laser-sintered pressure vessel. This comprises a central, electric drive, two lithium-ion-polymer batteries, the charge control device and the servo motors for the swashplate.”

The ultimate idea is to have a number of the robots autonomously working together via a short-range radio and LED system so that the group of Aquajellys imitate real life. Fascinating stuff.

Check out Festo’s website for more wicked wonders of the robotic world.

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Mass Relocations Planned as Sea Levels Rise

Trees Are Nature's Climate Air Conditioners, Study Finds

by Jeremy Elton Jacquot, Los Angeles
Image from twoblueday

If you're reading this, I probably don't need to waste my time trying to convince you that trees are great. They absorb carbon dioxide, they can be used to power small remote sensors and they're pretty darn nice to look at too. Now a new study by a team of scientists from Germany and the UK has discovered another beneficial property: they can block out the sun (and not just by providing shade), as The Guardian's David Adam reports.

Terpenes make forests nature's "climate air conditioners"
Boreal trees in countries like Canada, Scandinavia and Russia release chemicals known as terpenes that help thicken the clouds above them, producing an albedo effect that causes more sunlight to be reflected back into space. Terpenes, which are the major components of the essential oils found in many types of plants, have often been used as flavor additives for food, as fragrances for perfumes and in alternative medicine for aroma therapy. Some scientists think the trees may release them to protect themselves from air pollution or even to communicate (!).

Cutting down trees could be a double whammy for the climate
Dominick Spracklen, one of the study's leaders and the author of a forthcoming article in the Royal Society journal Philosophical Transactions A, believes this function makes trees the planet's "air conditioners." As a result, he says that cutting down trees could worsen climate change to a larger degree than was previously thought, and that protecting them, and planting new ones, should be one of our primary climate mitigation measures.

Adam explains the underlying sciences:

The team found the terpenes react in the air to form tiny particles called aerosols. The particles help turn water vapour in the atmosphere into clouds.

Spracklen said the team's computer models showed that the pine particles doubled the thickness of clouds some 1,000m above the forests, and would reflect an extra 5% sunlight back into space.

Discovery means trees could act as negative feedback on the climate
This may not sound like much but, as Spracklen puts it, every little bit helps. Since trees release more terpenes under warmer conditions, Spracklen and his colleagues think forests could act as a negative feedback on climate, weakening the impact of rising temperatures. While mainly found in forests of pine and spruce trees, they said that most other trees produced the chemicals as well (though maybe not as much) so the cooling effect should also be seen elsewhere.

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New York City’s Green Taxi Program Red Lighted By Federal Judge

Space station trash plunging to Earth

By Tariq Malik

NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson, an Expedition 15 flight engineer, tosses a hefty unneeded ammonia tank the size of a refrigerator ovebboard from the space station during a July 23, 2007 spacewalk. The tank is expected to reenter Earth's atmosphere on Nov. 2, 2008.

A piece of space station trash the size of a refrigerator is poised to plunge through the Earth's atmosphere late Sunday, more than a year after an astronaut tossed it overboard.

NASA and the U.S. Space Surveillance Network are tracking the object — a 1,400-pound (635-kilogram) tank of toxic ammonia coolant thrown from the international space station — to make sure it does not endanger people on Earth. Exactly where the tank will inevitably fall is currently unknown, though it is expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere Sunday afternoon or later that evening, NASA officials said.

"This has got a very low likelihood that anybody will be impacted by it," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, in an interview. "But still, it is a large object and pieces will enter and we just need to be cautious."

NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson threw the ammonia tank from the tip of the space station's Canadian-built robotic arm during a July 23, 2007, spacewalk. He tossed away an unneeded video camera stand overboard as well, but that 212-pound (96-kilogram) item burned up harmlessly in the atmosphere early this year, Suffredini said.

NASA expects up to 15 pieces of the tank to survive the searing hot temperatures of re-entry, ranging in size from about 1.4 ounces (40 grams) to nearly 40 pounds (17.5 kilograms).

If they reach all the way to land, the largest pieces could slam into the Earth's surface at about 100 mph (161 kilometers per hour). But a splashdown at sea is also possible, as the planet is two-thirds ocean.

"If anybody found a piece of anything on the ground Monday morning, I would hope they wouldn't get too close to it," Suffredini said.

Known as the Early Ammonia Servicer, or EAS, the coolant tank is the largest piece of orbital trash ever tossed overboard by hand from the space station. Larger unmanned Russian and European cargo ships are routinely destroyed in the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean after their space station deliveries, but those disposals are controlled and preplanned.

The recent destruction of the European Space Agency's Jules Verne cargo ship was eagerly observed by scientists hoping to glean new information on how objects behave as they enter Earth's atmosphere. Observers aboard two chase planes caught photographs and video of the double-decker bus-sized spacecraft's demise, but no such campaign is possible with the returning ammonia tank.

The last object to re-enter Earth's atmosphere with prior notice was a small asteroid the size of a kitchen table that exploded in midair as it flew over Africa on Oct. 7.

It's taken more than year for the ammonia tank to slowly slip down toward Earth due to atmospheric drag. During its time aboard the station, the tank served as a coolant reservoir to boost the outpost's cooling system in the event of leaks. Upgrades to the station last year made the tank obsolete, and engineers were concerned that its structural integrity would not withstand a ride back to Earth aboard a NASA space shuttle.

Instead, they tossed it overboard, or "jettisoned" it in NASA parlance.

Suffredini said that while astronauts have accidentally lost a tool or two during spacewalks, the planned jettison of larger items is done with the utmost care to ensure the trash doesn't hit the station or any other spacecraft as it circles the Earth. Engineers also make sure the risk to people on Earth is low, as well.

"As a matter of course, we don't throw things overboard haphazardly," Suffredini said. "We have a policy that has certain criteria we have to meet before you can throw something overboard."

In the event the tank re-enters over land, NASA advised members of the public to contact their local authorities, or the U.S. Department of State via diplomatic channels if outside the U.S., if they believe they've found its remains.

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Bat Disease Fungus Identified


Al Hicks, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

A little brown bat with fungus on its muzzle.

Something is killing the little brown bats of the Northeast, and researchers may have fingered the culprit: a fungus.

David S. Blehert of the United States Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin and colleagues identified a fungus linked to white-nose syndrome, a condition that has affected bats in recent winters in upstate New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. The fungus, newly described, is unusual in that it grows in the cold, dotting areas of the bat’s skin with white strands. It penetrates the skin through hair follicles and sweat glands and may cause the bats to starve while they are hibernating, the researchers said.

“We do have good circumstantial evidence that this could be the primary pathogen” causing the deaths of large percentages of populations of little browns and other bats in caves in the region, Dr. Blehert said. The die-offs are one of the worst calamities to hit bat populations in the United States.

It had been thought that the fungus was a secondary symptom of whatever was killing the animals — a virus or a toxin like an environmental contaminant. But the fact that the identical organism was found in bats from several caves “kind of rules out the possibility that there are all kinds of fungi out there and that opportunistically they are infecting the animals,” said Alan C. Hicks of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, a co-author of a paper on the fungus published online by Science.

Dr. Blehert said that the infection could have led to starvation because of the way bats hibernate — they cycle through two-week stages of deep torpor interrupted by brief wakeful periods. The fungal infection may make the bats wake up more often, and since each period of wakefulness uses up vast stores of fat, the bats may deplete their energy reserves much sooner than normal.

More research is needed to determine how to combat the die-offs, but one thing is clear, Dr. Blehert said — just spraying a cave with fungicide could do more harm than good. “Wiping out all the fungal organisms in a cave probably would be a bad idea,” he said.

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Pictured: World's first truly blue roses go on display in Japan

By Lizzie Smith

They are the stuff of legend - signifying mystery and traditionally believed to be able to grant the owner youth.

For years breeders have crossed different colours of roses in an effort to create the impossible. But rose petals lack the enzyme needed to create a blue pigment and the breeders always failed.

Now for the first time, thanks to genetic engineering, blue roses finally exist.

The stuff of legend: Blue roses have gone on display in Japan and will be on sale next year

The stuff of legend: Blue roses have gone on display in Japan and will be on sale next year

The very first truly blue roses have gone on display in Japan and will be on sale to the public next year.

After 13 years of research the Japanese Suntory company have finally perfected the mythical flower.

Working with the Australian company Florigene the researchers took the delphinidin gene, which creates the blue colour, from a petunia. They then inserted it into a mauve rose called the Cardinal de Richelieu.

The resultant flower was a dark burgundy colour due to an excess of the blue pigment cyanidin.

After using RNAi technology to reduce this the final blue rose was today unveiled at the annual Flower Expo held at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, Japan.

Genetically engineered: The flowers have a gene from a petunia inserted in them

Genetically engineered: The flowers have a gene from a petunia inserted in them

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Voyage of the Bacteria Bots Self-propelled microbots navigate through blood vessels.

By Kristina Grifantini

Plot and go: Researchers plot a trajectory for their bacteria-powered microrobots, which are guided using an MRI machine.
Credit: The NanoRobotics Laboratory, École Polytechnique de Montréal (EPM)

The 1966 science-fiction movie Fantastic Voyage famously imagined using a tiny ship to combat disease inside the body. With the advent of nanotechnology, researchers are inching closer to creating something almost as fantastic. A microscopic device that could swim through the bloodstream and directly target the site of disease, such as a tumor, could offer radical new treatments. To get to a tumor, however, such a device would have to be small and agile enough to navigate through a labyrinth of tiny blood vessels, some far thinner than a human hair.

Researchers at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, in Canada, led by professor of computer engineering Sylvain Martel, have coupled live, swimming bacteria to microscopic beads to develop a self-propelling device, dubbed a nanobot. While other scientists have previously attached bacteria to microscopic particles to take advantage of their natural propelling motion, Martel's team is the first to show that such hybrids can be steered through the body using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

To do this, Martel used bacteria that naturally contain magnetic particles. In nature, these particles help the bacteria navigate toward deeper water, away from oxygen. "Those nanoparticles form a chain a bit like a magnetic compass needle," says Martel. But by changing the surrounding magnetic field using an extended set-up coupled to an MRI machine, Martel and his colleagues were able to make the bacteria propel themselves in any direction they wanted.

The bacteria swim using tiny corkscrewlike tails, or flagella, and these particular bacteria are faster and stronger than most, says Martel. What's more, they are just two microns in diameter--small enough to fit through the smallest blood vessels in the human body. The team treated the polymer beads roughly 150 nanometers in size with antibodies so that the bacteria would attach to them. Ultimately, the researchers plan to modify the beads so that they also carry cancer-killing drugs.

"I think nature has provided an excellent solution to how to make small things swim," says Bradley Nelson, a professor at ETH Zurich, who has researched the use of artificial flagella. "What's interesting about Sylvain's work is that he's actually using nature to do it and not just learning from it."

Last year, Martel and his group published research in the journal Applied Physics Letters detailing how they used an MRI machine to maneuver a 1.5-millimeter magnetic bead with a bacteria propeller through the carotid artery of a living pig at 10 centimeters per second. The researchers' latest work, presented at the IEEE 2008 Biorobotics Conference last week, shows that they can track and steer microbeads and bacteria or bacteria alone through a replica of human blood vessels using the same approach. The group has carried out similar experiments in rats and rabbits, according to Martel.

The bacteria bots wouldn't be able to make it in larger blood vessels in on their own, however. The current would be too strong for them to swim against. So the researchers envisage using a larger, magnetically steerable microvehicle to carry the bots close to a tumor. "The vehicle will be a type of polymer, or possibly another type of material," says Martel. "We have a way to release the bacteria while the vehicle stays there and dissolves."

Martel's vehicle contains magnetic nanoparticles and can be moved at about 200 microns per second. He says that he and his team correct the microvehicle's course approximately 30 times a second. While they have developed the microvehicle and bacterial microbots independently, they are now working to combine the two technologies. "We think in two years we'll be able to do that," says Martel.

"This work is promising but, as with any transformative idea, there are a lot of challenges that need to be addressed," says Bahareh Behkam, an assistant professor at Virgina Polytechnic Institute, who has also used bacteria to propel microbeads. She suggests that it could be difficult to maintain normal blood flow and to retrieve the magnetic particles from the body after the procedure is complete.

Some researchers also question whether the body's immune system would attack the bacteria before they could reach a tumor, but Martel defends the approach. "We are very confident from our preliminary tests that this [scenario] will not be an issue," he says. Because the immune system has not encountered these bacteria before, he says, it would not have time to wipe out the microbots before they reach their target.

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Is cannabis being doped with Viagra?

THAT illegal drugs are not always pure is no surprise, but is cannabis being laced with a Viagra-like compound?

Dries de Kaste and colleagues at the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven, the Netherlands, analysed a liquid that police found being sold on the streets of Utrecht as a "marijuana adulterant".

They found compounds called homosildenafil (HS) and thiohomosildenafil (THS) in it, which belong to the same class of compounds as sildenafil, sold as Viagra. All three inhibit the breakdown of an enzyme that dilates blood vessels in the penis, increasing blood flow.

De Kaste does not know why HS and THS are being added to cannabis, but speculates that it could be to enhance the uptake of its psychoactive constituents, or to exploit a perception that marijuana use affects libido.

HS and THS were not destroyed when they were "smoked" using a laboratory simulator (Forensic Science International, DOI: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2008.09.002). The health effects of inhaling such "erectogenics" - and the compounds they produce when burned - are unknown.

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Quiet wind turbine could provide up to 30% of a home's power

by Lisa Zyga

The Swift wind turbine developed by the Scottish company Renewable Devices was designed for quiet roof-top performance. Credit: Cascade Engineering.
The Swift wind turbine, developed by the Scottish company Renewable Devices, was designed for quiet roof-top performance. Credit: Cascade Engineering.

Originally designed by Scotland-based Renewable Devices, the Swift wind turbine is being sold in the US by Cascade Engineering of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Unlike many existing small wind turbines, the Swift turbine is designed to reduce noise. At seven feet in diameter, it consists of five thin blades encircled by a ring. The ring reduces vibration and diffuses the noise to a level of less than 35 decibels.

Cascade says that the wind turbine should be positioned at least two feet above the roof line in locations with average wind. Its two fins direct the turbine to face the wind, with the ability to turn 360 degrees. The blades power a generator, which produces about 1.5 kilowatts with a 14-mph wind.

Over a year, the turbine can generate about 2,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is a significant percentage of the 6,500 to 10,000 kilowatt-hours per year that US households typically consume (estimates are from the US Energy Information Administration).

While the installation cost run at around $10,000, state rebates and tax credits could help lower the upfront cost; for example, a renewable energy tax credit gives consumers $1,000 back for residential systems and $4,000 for commercial buildings. Depending on these incentives and performance levels, Cascade estimates that the upfront cost could be made up in as little as three years.

So far, Cascade has installed nine Swift turbines in the US and has a backlog of 25 orders. Orders come from about half residential and half commercial customers. In Scotland, Swift turbines have been installed at 250 sites.

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Ultrasound Can Give You Memories of Learning Things in College

By Ed Grabianowski

Want to remember doing something, like attending 400 lectures on molecular cell biology, without ever actually having to do it? A special kind of ultrasound can trigger neurons in your gray matter, and the team of Arizona State neuroscientists who discovered this immediately played the Total Recall card. They're already talking about implanting memories of everything from fake vacations to learning kung fu.

Ultrasound has a lot of great uses, like creating an image of an unborn baby or testing the internal structure of a piece of metal without destroying the piece. What we mean by "ultrasound" is a pressure wave with a frequency above about 20 kHz, the upper limit of hearing for most humans. By measuring the different rates of reflection off of different surfaces, we can use it as a sort of "sonic x-ray" on some materials, including pregnant women's tummies. Scientists have known for decades that ultrasound causes changes in muscle and nerve tissues, but the ASU team studied exactly what happens at the cellular level. They found that LILF ultrasound starts a series of reactions that eventually trigger synapses within the brain.

The short-term relevance of the research could revolutionize certain medical procedures that require neuron stimulation. A host of therapies for various mental conditions currently require implantation of electrodes into the brain, and thus are seldom performed due to the risk. Ultrasound might be able to do the job non-invasively and open the door to these treatments for tens of thousands of patients.

For now, the researchers are focused on giving Arnold Schwarzenegger a fake vacation to Mars. Lead investigator William Tyler weighed on the potential for ultrasonic brain control:

"One might be able to envision potential applications ranging from medical interventions to use in video gaming or the creation of artificial memories along the lines of Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in 'Total Recall.' Imagine taking a vacation without actually going anywhere? Obviously, we need to conduct further research and development, but one of the most exhilarating prospects is that low intensity, low frequency ultrasound permit deep-brain stimulation procedures without requiring exogenous proteins or surgically implanted medical devices."

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Rare dragon-like reptile found breeding in New Zealand for the first time in 200 years

By Daily Mail Reporter

A rare dragon-like reptile with lineage dating back to the dinosaur age has been found nesting on the New Zealand mainland for the first time in about 200 years, officials said.

Four leathery, white eggs from an indigenous tuatara, which once roused fears of extinction, were discovered today by staff at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington, conservation manager Rouen Epson said.

'The nest was uncovered by accident and is the first concrete proof we have that our tuatara are breeding,' Epson said.


Rare: Tuatara are the last descendants of a species that walked the earth with the dinosaurs 225 million years ago

'It suggests that there may be other nests in the sanctuary we don't know of.'

Tuatara, dragon-like reptiles that grow to up to 32 inches (80 centimeters), are the last descendants of a species that walked the earth with the dinosaurs 225 million years ago, zoologists say.

They have unique characteristics, such as two rows of top teeth closing over one row at the bottom.

They also have a pronounced 'third eye' on the top of their skull. This white patch of light-sensitive skin - called its parietal eye - slowly disappears as they mature.

A native species to New Zealand, tuatara were nearly extinct on the country's three main islands by the late 1700s due to the introduction of predators such as rats.

Tuatara eggs

Hope: The discovery of the four rare eggs is 'concrete proof' that the tuatara are breeding and suggests there are more nests undiscovered in the sanctuary

They still live in the wild on 32 small offshore islands cleared of predators.

A population of 70 tuatara was established at the Karori Sanctuary in 2005. Another 130 were released in the sanctuary in 2007.

The sanctuary, a 620-acre (250-hectare) wilderness minutes from downtown Wellington, was established to breed native birds, insects and other creatures securely behind a predator-proof fence.

Empson said that the four eggs - the size of pingpong balls - are likely the first of a larger number because the average nest contains around ten eggs.

The eggs were immediately covered up again to avoid disturbing incubation.

If all goes well, juvenile tuatara could hatch any time between now and March, Empson said.

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on a tightrope

on a tightrope by wildphotons.
Being on a tightrope is living. Everything else is waiting. -- Karl Wallenda

I never did find out how this Mountain Goat, Oreamnos americanus, managed to get down. I was there for more than an hour and it kept licking away at the mineral in the rock. It was a sheer drop below, there was no apparent way up or sideways. But then other’s did some amazing feats of climbing that the best mountain climbers would be envious of. Goat Lick Overlook, Glacier National Park, MT

When contacting us regarding this print, please refer to image file Mountain Goat, Oreamnos americanus, Goat Lick Overlook, Glacier National Park, MT. Fine Art Prints are available: 24”x36” $595, 16”x24” $395, 8”x12” $195. We donate 10% of purchases to environmental or educational causes. All images are available at no charge for use by environmental, charitable, or educational organizations as long as the source is properly referenced and the image remains unedited. For commercial use, please contact us.

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'Living Fossil' Tree Contains Genetic Imprints Of Rain Forests Under Climate Change

The distinctive trunk and aerial roots of the tropical tree Symphonia globulifera in a rain forest in Panama. (Credit: Rolando Pérez, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)

A "living fossil" tree species is helping a University of Michigan researcher understand how tropical forests responded to past climate change and how they may react to global warming in the future.

The research appears in the November issue of the journal Evolution.

Symphonia globulifera is a widespread tropical tree with a history that goes back some 45 million years in Africa, said Christopher Dick, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who is lead author on the paper. It is unusual among tropical trees in having a well-studied fossil record, partly because the oil industry uses its distinctive pollen fossils as a stratigraphic tool.

About 15 to 18 million years ago, deposits of fossil pollen suggest, Symphonia suddenly appeared in South America and then in Central America. Unlike kapok, a tropical tree with a similar distribution that Dick also has studied, Symphonia isn't well-suited for traveling across the ocean—its seeds dry out easily and can't tolerate saltwater. So how did Symphonia reach the neotropics? Most likely the seeds hitched rides from Africa on rafts of vegetation, as monkeys did, Dick said. Even whole trunks, which can send out shoots when they reach a suitable resting place, may have made the journey. Because Central and South American had no land connection at the time, Symphonia must have colonized each location separately.

Once Symphonia reached its new home, it spread throughout the neotropical rain forests. By measuring genetic diversity between existing populations, Dick and coworker Myriam Heuertz of the Université Libre de Bruxelles were able to reconstruct environmental histories of the areas Symphonia colonized.

"For Central America, we see a pattern in Symphonia that also has been found in a number of other species, with highly genetically differentiated populations across the landscape," Dick said. "We think the pattern is the result of the distinctive forest history of Mesoamerica, which was relatively dry during the glacial period 10,000 years ago. In many places the forests were confined to hilltops or the wettest lowland regions. What we're seeing in the patterns of genetic diversity is a signature of that forest history."

In the core Amazon Basin, which was moist throughout the glacial period, allowing for more or less continuous forest, less genetic diversity is found among populations, Dick said. "There's less differentiation across the whole Amazon Basin than there is among sites in lower Central America."

The study is the first to make such comparisons of genetic diversity patterns in Central and South America. "We think similar patterns will be found in other widespread species," Dick said.

Learning how Symphonia responded to past climate conditions may be helpful for predicting how forests will react to future environmental change, Dick said.

"Under scenarios of increased warmth and drying, we can see that populations are likely to be constricted, particularly in Central America, but also that they're likely to persist, because Symphonia has persisted throughout Central America and the Amazon basin. That tells us that some things can endure in spite of a lot of forest change. However, past climate changes were not combined with deforestation, as is the case today. That combination of factors could be detrimental to many species—especially those with narrow ranges—in the next century."

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