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Monday, November 17, 2008

40 Years Later, It's Moon Race 2.0


By JEFFREY KLUGER / HOUSTON

You probably wouldn't have had much fun on the surface of the moon. It's not the exploring or the bouncing or the buggy-roving that would have bothered you. It's the worrying.

Landing on the moon is fine, but you need to get home too. That means heaving your multiton spacecraft back off the ground and up into space--and if that's going to happen, all its thousands of components have to work just so. There's no guarantee that they will--which is why the first time men landed on the moon, President Richard Nixon had a short address prepared just in case things went wrong. "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace," he would have said. When they're writing your obit while you're still alive, it's hard to have a good time.

But the astronauts themselves had a grand time on the moon--and the U.S. had just as much fun sending them there. For a big, loud, hootenanny nation like ours--one that has spent the better part of its history whooping its way west--having an empty landmass to explore a quarter-million miles (more than 400,000 km) offshore was a powerful tonic. The fact that the exploring took place in what was otherwise a very hard decade made the experience only more bracing.

By any measure, the current decade is a hard one too. And again--perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not--we're eyeing the moon. By 2015, to hear NASA tell it, a new manned spacecraft--the evocatively named Orion--will be carrying crews to Earth's orbit. By 2020, Orion will be paired with the lunar lander Altair. That same year, fresh American bootprints will be made on the lunar soil--the first since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Contractors have been chosen, metal is being cut, and most important, money has been allocated. "This is a real program," says Jeff Hanley, manager of NASA's Constellation program, which oversees manned exploration. "We're spending a couple hundred million dollars a month, and thousands of people are marching to a strategy."

Globalization is driving the new push. As the economies of Asia and Europe spread new wealth, more and more countries are realizing that the moon is within reach. Never mind the two-party U.S.-Soviet moon race of old. This time China is in the hunt. So are India, Japan and the entire 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA). On Oct. 22, India launched its Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, an unmanned lunar orbiter that marks the country's first table stakes in the moon game. China's Chang'e 1 spacecraft is already in lunar orbit, as is Japan's Selene. Europe's SMART-1 entered lunar orbit in 2003, and the ESA wants to go back. China broadly aims to have astronauts on the moon by 2020. The ESA is hoping to build a "global robotic village" by 2016 and a permanent manned base by 2024.

And none of this includes the private sector. Last fall, Google offered a $30 million prize to any group that lands a robot on the lunar surface before Dec. 31, 2012, travels at least 500 m (1,640 ft.) and sends back video. In the first six months after the prize was announced, 560 groups from 53 nations expressed interest. All at once, the moon, which has spent nearly 40 years as a cultural colony of the U.S. alone, has a lot of new claimants.

Robots First

The most powerful player in the moon race, apart from the U.S., is China. If the past hundred years were the American century, the next hundred could be China's, and nothing says rising power like a space program. "Chinese people have a lot of feeling for President Kennedy," says Li Jing, an astronomer formerly with the Chinese Academy of Science. "The Apollo project catapulted the U.S. into scientific leadership. The U.S.'s national power shot up. Chinese people are very clear about that."

In 2003, China acted on that clarity, launching its first manned mission, a 14-orbit flight by a lone astronaut. In 2005 a two-man crew went up for a five-day stay, and in September 2008, a three-man team flew a mission complete with a spacewalk.

But China's true fascination has long been the moon--at least since 1978, when the U.S. presented Beijing with a 1-g (.035 oz.) sample of lunar rock brought back by the Apollo 17 mission. Chinese officials razored off half of that moon crumb and gave it to scientists to study. "From that half a gram, we produced 40 papers," space scientist Ouyang Ziyuan told the People's Daily.

China won't be begging the U.S. for lunar scraps anymore. Chang'e 1, launched in October 2007 and named for China's goddess of the moon, is currently orbiting 125 miles (200 km) above the lunar surface. The ship is stuffed with equipment to study the ground and look for possible landing sites. Chang'e 2 is set to follow next year with another orbital mission, followed by a rover in 2012 and a robotic sample-return mission in 2017. A manned trip could come after that. "The Chinese have read the Apollo playbook," says Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

India's moon program is less ambitious--so far--but the country has a deep space tradition. The Indian government has been in the satellite-launching game since 1975, but it always focused on such bread-and-butter science as land-mapping, weather-forecasting and communications. In a country struggling with chronic poverty, even the most ambitious ruling party dared go no further. All that changed in 1998, when India and Pakistan rattled the world with dueling nuclear tests. In the heady, protech rush that followed, then Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee approved an Indian lunar push and chose to make the announcement as part of the Independence Day celebrations of 2003. A Chandrayaan-2 rover is planned for 2011.

Like the Chinese program, the Indian one would not exist at all but for a roaring national economy--notwithstanding the current global slowdown. "What is the purpose of 8% growth if we can't make the spending necessary to sustain it?" asks Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India's NASA.

The biggest difference between the old moon race and the new one may be the role of the private sector. In 2004 pilot and aerospace designer Bert Rutan copped the $10 million Ansari X Prize by designing the first manned vehicle to fly to and from suborbital space twice within a week. In September 2007, aerospace engineer Peter Diamandis, ceo of the X Prize group, announced he was partnering with Google to offer a new, $30 million Lunar X Prize, with the goal of having a private rover toddling about the moon by the end of 2012.

The vast majority of the teams responding to the contest do not have the skill or seed money to compete seriously. But so far 14 groups do, and Google has okayed them as contestants. Made up mostly of aerospace and software pros, the teams are allowed to use commercial rockets to launch their probes but must build the ships and steer them to a moon landing on their own. The designers exhibit a surprising sangfroid about their work. "There's no magic. We did it in the '60s, and the physics are the same," says aerospace engineer Bob Richards, head of a design team.

The Humans Return

Robots, of course, are limited--Scouts and surrogates largely unsuited to the complex lunar work researchers want to undertake. Geologists hope to continue the studies of solar-system origins that the Apollo crews began (before Nixon scrapped the manned-moon program in favor of the ostensibly more practical and affordable space shuttle). Astronomers talk of placing a radio telescope on the moon's far side; energy experts want to mine the moon's helium 3, an isotope that could power clean-fusion reactors back on Earth. And anyone dreaming of a human presence on Mars knows that before you attempt long-duration stays on a body tens of millions of miles from home, it's best to practice on one nearby. "You wring these techniques out on the moon first," says Mark Geyser, manager of the Orion project.

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced a moon-Mars initiative that would commit NASA to those kinds of goals. Skeptics suspected this was just a bit of election-year candy--and that may have been part of the plan. But the initial idea was accompanied by some hardheaded trade-offs. The grossly overpriced International Space Station would be completed by 2010, allowing the outdated space shuttles to be retired. This would free up between $3 billion and $4 billion a year without increasing NASA's budget. Since Americans still need access to space, the shuttle would be replaced with an updated Apollo-style orbiter. Pair that with a souped-up lunar lander similar to the original, and you're back on the moon. "We're anchoring our models in Apollo data points," says Cleon Lacefield, a vice president and project manager for Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Orion orbiter.

Actually, NASA is doing Apollo one better. In the old lunar program, one massive Saturn V booster did all the lifting, but this time there will be two rockets. The Ares V, the larger of the pair, will be used to carry the new lunar lander as far as Earth's orbit and make unmanned cargo runs to the moon. The smaller Ares I will lift the command module, carrying four astronauts, to meet the lander. Dividing the job between two rockets frees up more payload space on the Ares V. And unlike the Saturn V, which had to be invented from the engine bells up, the Ares boosters will go the frugal route by adapting existing hardware, such as the solid-fuel boosters from the shuttle and an upper-stage engine from the Saturn rockets themselves.

One of the quirkiest features of the old Apollo missions was that while three men would fly to the moon, only two would descend to the surface; the third minded the mother ship. This time there will be a four-person crew, and all the crew members will get a chance to get dirty while the orbiter that is their ticket home waits unattended above. "We have greater control over the orbiter than we used to," says Clinton Dorris, deputy manager of the Altair lander program. What's more, with lunar campouts of up to six months planned--compared with the record three-day stay of Apollo 17 in 1972--leaving one crewmember alone is simply not tenable.

So far, Orion and the boosters are the furthest along in their production cycles, since every day that they delay extends the five-year period when Americans have no independent access to space. To fill that gap, the plan has been to thumb a ride to the space station with the Russians aboard their venerable Soyuz ships. But with tensions rising between Washington and Moscow since the Russian invasion of Georgia, worries are rising too. This could lead NASA either to postpone mothballing the shuttles--a bad idea when you're talking about a creaky fleet that's already claimed 14 lives--or to accelerate building the replacement vehicles.

It's no secret which option NASA prefers, but the question will be whether there's enough will and wallet to get the job done. The Wall Street crash does not portend big budgets for what some people see as a luxury agency like NASA. And President-elect Barack Obama may not feel much loyalty to a lunar program that so indelibly bears the Bush stamp. But having successfully reeled in Florida on Election Day, he's not likely to do anything to tick off its space-happy voters either. Plus, there are jobs to be created in a newly revived moon program. "When we won the Orion contract, we posted openings for 2,000 jobs," says Lockheed's Lacefield. "We received 30,000 applications."

Finally, of course, there's the question that's dogged every manned flight since the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin first went into orbit in 1961: Why bother? Space planners have always justified today's flights as necessary rehearsals for tomorrow's--we can't live on Mars if we don't learn to live on the moon first. True enough, but couldn't we just do neither? As for deep-space observatories on the far side of the moon, the Hubble telescope has done perfectly well alone in orbit, with only a few maintenance missions in 18 years. How much harder would it be to build a moon-based telescope that didn't need any?

None of that, of course, reckons with the other piece of the equation--the wholly unscientific joy we feel when we do something as preposterous as putting people in space. None of it reckons either with the primal jolt Americans have always gotten from competition--the gunning-the-engine moment when we decide that if China and Japan and India and Europe are peeling out for the moon, the U.S. can surely beat them there. That ain't sensible, and that ain't science, but as it was 40 years ago, it sure is fun.

Original here

Quick-witted octogenarians 'have unusual brains'

By Daily Telegraph reporter

They owe their quick wits to a lack of fibrous tangles which normally make an appearance in the brain late in life.

The accumulating protein tangles, known as "tau", are thought to kill off neurons, leading to poor memory.

Moderate numbers of them are found in the brains of most elderly people, and much larger numbers in Alzheimer's patients.

But somehow the brains of mentally nimble octogenarians are protected against tangles.

Scientists made the discovery after examining the brains of five deceased people who performed remarkably well in memory tests when they were more than 80 years old.

Most people have an elderly grandparent or aunt who puts youngsters to shame with their quiz skills or ability to rattle through crossword puzzles.

Professor Changiz Geula, from Northwestern University in Chicago, wondered if there was something about their brains that set them apart.

To find out, he recruited a group of "super-aged" individuals and subjected them to memory tests.

Some of them carried out the tasks as well as 50-year-olds. For example, after being told a story they were able to remember it immediately and accurately recall its details 30 minutes later. They could also memorise a list of 15 words and recall them after 30 minutes.

When five of the volunteers died, their brains were dissected and examined by the researchers.

They were found to contain far fewer tau tangles than the average brain of someone over 80.

"This new finding in super-aged brains is very exciting," said Prof Geula, from the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Centre at the university's Feinberg School.

"It was always assumed that the accumulation of these tangles is a progressive phenomenon through the ageing process. But we are seeing that some individuals are immune to tangle formation and that the presence of these tangles seems to influence cognitive performance."

Individuals with few tangles performed better in memory tests, he said.

The research, presented at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in Washington DC, is part of a larger "super-ageing" study taking place at Northwestern University.

The investigation's aim is to identify high-functioning people over the age of 80 and see what factors contribute to their quick wits.

Professor Clive Ballard, director of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "Dementia is caused by diseases of the brain and robs people of their lives. It is not a natural part of ageing, but age is the biggest risk factor.

"This small study may be a stepping-stone to further research that helps us understand why some people retain good cognitive function in later life.

"This research suggests that older people with good memory do not experience the same brain changes that develop in those with poor memory.

"Further research can build upon these findings and look specifically at the brain characteristics which enable people to stay healthy and sharp in later life."

Original here

Can everyone be an Einstein?

Time to buff up your brain, to send your synapses to the spa. How about a couple of hours of sudoku? No? Well, fire up your Nintendo DS and pump up your neurons with Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training games — “Keep your brain sharp and in shape.” Nicole Kidman says she does it and she’s always right about everything. Or go on the net and test your brain out at brainmetrix.com before going for a real synapse sauna at braingle.com . Stave off senility by signing up at happy-neuron.com , massage the grey matter between your ears by joining lumosity.com (the “fast, fun and effective way to take care of your brain”), or go to sharpbrains.com to get “high-quality, research-based information and guidance to navigate the brain-training and cognitive-fitness market.” Or, better still, read a good book.

“There’s no empirical evidence that these games produce improvements,” says Nancy Andreasen, one of the world’s most distinguished neuroscientists and author of The Creative Brain. “Saying you spend half an hour a day playing sudoku and you won’t get Alzheimer’s, or playing any of these brain games and you’ll lose less grey matter than somebody who doesn’t — well, nobody has ever done that study.”

“These games definitely work because you get better at playing them,” says Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The big question is: do these skills generalise to normal everyday thoughts? That hasn’t been studied.”

But don’t despair: Susanne Jaeggi, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, may be able to help. She has devised a brain-training game that actually works. It’s a strange, complex game involving sequences of squares on a computer screen, and it definitely improves “fluid intelligence” — the part of your mind that deals directly with the raw newness of experience or, as defined by Jaeggi, “the ability to reason and to solve new problems independently of previously acquired knowledge”.

And there is some evidence that the games in MindFit (mindweavers.com ) do work. Baroness (Susan) Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, says it does. Short-term memory and basic reaction time are said to be improved by 20 minutes’ play three times a week.

The brain is not, as the brain trainers like to say, a muscle. It is a 1.3-kilogram crème caramel-like mix of fat, water and proteins driven by electricity and chemicals called neurotransmitters. As far as we know, it is, unless it belongs to Kerry Katona, the most complex thing in the universe. It’s made to last, at best, about 100 years. It shrinks and deteriorates with age. By the time you’re 30 you’re probably past your intellectual peak. This is a problem, as we’re living longer and longer, and the danger is that we’ll just get stupider and stupider.

It’s a particular problem for baby-boomers, the large, rich, spoilt generation born after the second world war. They’ve had everything, they run the world, but now they’re in their fifties and sixties. They love themselves to bits. But the selves they love are just so many crème caramels soon to pass their sell-by date. Already they can see the signs. Why did you leave your phone in the freezer? Why do you lose your glasses six times a day? These are symptoms of age-associated memory impairment (AAMI). It happens to everybody, but the boomers didn’t think it would happen to them. If brain- enhancing tactics are suddenly fashionable, it’s because of boomer self-love.

Perhaps, in desperation, they’ll take supplements said to improve brain function — co-enzyme Q10, ginseng, bacopa. Or perhaps they’ll look on the bright side: the brain, though unquestionably mortal, is surprisingly resilient. We’ve known this since 4.30pm on September 13, 1848. It was at that moment than an iron rod an inch-and-a-quarter thick and 3ft 8in long was blasted through the head of an American railroad worker called Phineas P Gage. Large parts of his brain were destroyed, but his recovery was almost complete. Much about this story is controversial. But what is clear is that it inspired all subsequent investigations of the brain, from surgery to neuroscience. Gage’s survival, more or less intact, also shows the brain’s staggering ability to work around problems.

There’s one more bright spot. If we work the brain, we can grow new brain cells.

“There is a gradual growing awareness that challenging your brain can have positive effects,” says Dr Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University. “Every time you challenge your brain, it will actually modify the brain. We can indeed form new brain cells, despite a century of being told it’s impossible.”

So your brain may be rotting, but there should, in theory, be something you can do to keep it reasonably fresh. The important concept here is “brain plasticity”, the ability of the brain to change and adapt.

“We are literally remaking our brains,” writes Andreasen in The Creative Brain, “— who we are and how we think, with all our actions, reactions, perceptions, postures, and positions — every minute of the day and every day of the week and every month and year of our entire lives.”

Yet, even knowing this, there used to be precious little we could do about it, because humans are notoriously averse to having their brains taken out and examined while in use. The electroencephalograph (EEG) — a way of observing brain activity via electrodes on the skull — was of some use. But it was not until the early 1990s, with the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), that we found we could watch the brain actually working. If MRI delivers half of what many people expect it to deliver, these could turn out to be the most revolutionary machines in human history.

These are, be warned, very early days, so any extravagant claims about ways of improving your brain on the basis of evidence from MRI machines are likely to be snake oil.

“There is this over-complicated thing we barely understand,” says Professor Lawrence Parsons at Sheffield University, “because we’re only at the beginning; we’re still looking at the circuit diagrams.”

But — and these may be the most interesting findings of all — there are tentative signs that we are making some headway in discovering something about the most important human qualities of all — insight, inspiration and creativity. These are what make all of us who we are. And, from psychiatry and psychology, we may even have made a start on the understanding of genius. Over the last few years, neuroscientists and psychologists have just begun to focus on all of these most elusive, precious and human characteristics.

At 6pm on August 5, 1949, a fireman named Wag Dodge and his crew found themselves cut off by a wildfire in Mann Gulch River Valley, Montana. A wall of flame was coming towards them at 30mph. Dodge took a match out of his pocket and set fire to the grass immediately in front of him, stepped into the cleared space, covered his face and pressed himself into the ground so that he could breathe the thin layer of air beneath the smoke cloud. The fire rushed over him and he survived. The other 13 members of the crew hadn’t heard his order to do the same. They all died.

Like the story of Phineas Gage, the story of Wag Dodge has become an inspiration to neuroscientists. Why and how did he do what he did under such extreme conditions? “Wag Dodge — he’s a great one,” says Mark Jung Beeman, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois. “It was particularly interesting in such a stressful situation. He was at the point where he basically gave up. He must have had some pretty awesome frontal lobes. Normally, high stress would limit creative, flexible or insight-type thinking, but not in this case.” Beeman’s phrase “at the point where he basically gave up” is crucial. Dodge had been struggling to find a way to escape the flames for some time. When, finally, the situation seemed to be hopeless, it is thought he had a moment of relaxation, of giving up, and that moment became his eureka moment.

Most people would call it inspiration, but neuroscientists prefer the more modest title of “insight”. Beeman is one of a group trying to unravel this extremely elusive phenomenon using MRI and EEG. There are two ways of solving problems: analytic and inspirational. With analytic you just plod your way through the work, reasoning your way to the solution. But often you grind to a halt and give up — exactly what Dodge seemed to do.

Up to this point your brain has been working through a limited number of connections, all directly related to the problem at hand. When you stop, the connections loosen; new connections, new possibilities, can be formed. You may even find that some random object — a bird, a tree — somehow inspires you. Finally you reach the eureka moment, you say “Aha!” and your problem is solved.

“It’s not really inspiration,” says Earl Miller. “There’s really no such thing. It’s more like a reconfiguration of old thoughts. I know from my own experience that most of my insight comes when I’m not thinking about a problem. I work until I’m really caught in a rut, and then I take a walk or play music or drift off to sleep and the solution will occur to me.”

Or, in the more technical language of a paper by Beeman and others on the phenomenon, “Although all problem-solving relies on a largely shared cortical network, the sudden flash of insight occurs when solvers engage distinct neural and cognitive processes that allow them to see connections that previously eluded them.”

In fact, the whole process seems to be centred on one small part of the brain: the anterior superior temporal gyrus. This seems to be the point at which bits of information stored far

apart in the brain are brought together. This may be an important clue as to how the brain organises itself. But it’s only the beginning. At Goldsmiths College in London, Dr Joydeep Bhattacharya says the real issue is not the “Aha!” moment itself, but the way it is produced in the brain and how we recognise it.

“We need to know the brain processes involved, to find how this moment is strong enough to reach consciousness. We know insight does not come from the sky.”

This is the problem with all neuroscience.

We don’t really know what we are seeing

when we watch the brain work. Is it the thing itself — the thought, the flash of insight — or just an aspect of it, the bark rather than the dog? “We’re just not at the point where we can

answer these big interpretive questions,” says Lawrence Parsons at Sheffield.

Parsons himself has conducted some of the most extraordinary experiments in an attempt to track the creative pathways of the mind. He has had tango dancers in his MRI machine. Of course, they couldn’t actually tango, but he did provide a board on which they could do some of the steps. He has also worked on musical improvisation, with Jarvis Cocker, among others, stuck inside his machine. He came up with plenty of information about what parts of the brain lit up. But at this point there’s not much we can do with it. Neuroscience lacks a big theory.

“It may be 300 years before we can do things like enhance our creativity,” says Parsons with a gloomy chuckle. “Some say in 20 years we can make you smarter, but I’m a pessimist.”

There is one important link between musical improvisation and the “Aha!” moment that saved Wag Dodge’s life. Improvisation was found to be accompanied by “a dissociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex”. The prefrontal cortex is to the brain what a conductor is to an orchestra. It pulls the whole show together. In humans it is a third of the whole brain, compared with around 5% in dogs and cats. If you want to find where the thing you call “me” is located, the prefrontal cortex would be a good place to start.

The point about that “dissociated pattern” is that it echoes the loosening of connections that precedes the “Aha!” moment. Insight and creativity, perhaps even genius, do seem to be linked to a brain that can disorganise itself and freewheel, making new and unexpected connections. As Nancy Andreasen puts it, the creative act may “begin with a process during which associative links run wild, creating new connections, many of which might seem strange or implausible. The disorganised mental state may persist for many hours, while words, images and ideas collide. Eventually order emerges, and with it the creative product”.

So, with that in mind, answer this question: how many uses can you think of for a brick? Or this: what would happen if people no longer needed to sleep?

These were questions asked in psychological tests specifically designed to measure creativity. They have been attacked as far too subjective. But they do point to a crucial way of defining creativity. If you are now idly imagining dozens of uses for a brick or the novelties of a sleepless world, then you are probably a divergent thinker. If, instead, the questions make you impatient — a brick is for building walls, dammit — then you are a convergent thinker.

Divergent thinkers habitually wander around their own minds, looking for links, however absurd or surreal. Convergent thinkers look for the one correct answer. The discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953 was a clear example of convergent thinking — the one correct answer was a double helix.

Meanwhile, on August 10, 1788, one of the greatest of all examples of divergent thinking came into the world. It was Mozart’s last symphony, the Jupiter, and the final movement is not an answer: it is an explosive assertion of the joy of our apparently limitless creativity. If anybody was a diverger, it was Mozart.

But, of course, creative divergers who can think of 101 uses for a brick are treading a fine line. There has always been a romantic link between madness and genius, and too much divergence can undoubtedly drive you crazy. What science we now have suggests that the link might be true. Oddly, however, high creativity has not so far been found to be linked with schizophrenia, as most people expected, but with mood disorders — notably bipolar disorder or manic depression.

The link has been made by several highly authoritative studies, both by leading American scientists. Kay Jamison, a professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, studied poets, playwrights, novelists, biographers and artists and found 38% had been treated for an affective illness — ie, mood disorder.

Joseph Schildkraut, a Harvard psychiatrist, studied 15 abstract-expressionist painters from the 1950s — 50% had psychiatric issues, mainly mood disorders. And Nancy Andreasen studied students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the leading school of its kind in the world. Again there was a phenomenally high percentage of mood disorders.

Andreasen admits she was looking for schizophrenia. This did not mean she expected the students to be full-blown schizophrenics — this is an illness that can destroy the sort of high-level functioning required for true creativity. But she did expect to find schizoid relatives and tendencies. But bipolarity seemed to be the primary condition of the smart young writers.

So what, you might wonder, does all this mean for you, a boomer with brain rot who sometimes leaves his phone in the freezer and his glasses God knows where? What must you do?

The short answer — and the one on which all are agreed — is: use it or lose it. The plasticity of the brain means that it is able, in the face of injury or decay, to find ways of adapting itself to preserve strong patterns of activity. So, if you play chess all the time, you probably will be almost as good at 80 as you were at 40. You would probably also be almost as good at Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training games. But so what? Read books, good books — nothing works better.

The longer answer is that there are potentially beneficial techniques suggested by our still- limited knowledge of the workings of the brain. Jaeggi’s fluid-intelligence game works, but it’s lab-based at the moment and has yet to be adapted for general use.

Nancy Andreasen offers four suggestions to which you should allocate 30 minutes a day — choose a new and unfamiliar area of knowledge and explore it in depth, spend some time meditating or just thinking, practise observing and describing things, and practise imagining. This is quite a punishing workout but it makes perfect sense and, unlike the Nintendo DS, it does seem to describe a better way of life.

Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, suggests reading out loud at breakfast, making lists of related objects (say, yellow ones, or those beginning with A), and change hands — brush your teeth with your left hand if you’re right-handed. Again, this makes perfect sense: these tricks make your brain deal with the unfamiliar as opposed to getting locked in old patterns of thought.

But there’s going to be a lot of snake oil on the market in the decades, if not centuries, before we can come up with any more solid prescriptions to save our highest creative selves from brain rot. The brain workout is already as much of a boomer must-do as the body workout. In fact, it’s clearly a lot more important. The best advice I ever heard came from a Spanish neurologist, Damaso Crespo. He said I should do 100 yards a day, not sprinting but walking. But I had to walk with a friend and talk all the time. It’s the walking, the talking and the friendship that feed the brain; the sprint just feeds dumb muscles.

In the end you die, and it seems likely that the miracle of the world inside your particular 1.3 kilograms of crème caramel dies with you. Perhaps you had insight, inspiration, perhaps you created, perhaps you were a genius.

Perhaps, one day, neuroscientists and psychologists will finish their maps and tell us how it’s all done. But will they really?

One last time and date. At 8pm on January 27, 1756, Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria. He spent most of the next 35 years giving the best ever account in music of why your life is worth living, even though his own ended in poverty, suffering and disappointment. He never had electrodes stuck to his head, nor was he slid inside an MRI machine. And, even if he had been subjected to our mind probes, what would that have told us? Probably what we knew already: that this happened just once.

So forget the Nintendo, forget everything. Listen to what the human mind can do. Brain workouts are all very well but, stripping away the science and the rhetoric, they all come down to the same simple injunction: pay attention, because you pass this way only once.

Original here

Schwarzenegger Orders California to Prepare for Sea-Level Rise


The world has never seen such freezing heat

By Christopher Booker

A surreal scientific blunder last week raised a huge question mark about the temperature records that underpin the worldwide alarm over global warming. On Monday, Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is run by Al Gore's chief scientific ally, Dr James Hansen, and is one of four bodies responsible for monitoring global temperatures, announced that last month was the hottest October on record.

Snow in London
A sudden cold snap brought snow to London in October

This was startling. Across the world there were reports of unseasonal snow and plummeting temperatures last month, from the American Great Plains to China, and from the Alps to New Zealand. China's official news agency reported that Tibet had suffered its "worst snowstorm ever". In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration registered 63 local snowfall records and 115 lowest-ever temperatures for the month, and ranked it as only the 70th-warmest October in 114 years.

So what explained the anomaly? GISS's computerised temperature maps seemed to show readings across a large part of Russia had been up to 10 degrees higher than normal. But when expert readers of the two leading warming-sceptic blogs, Watts Up With That and Climate Audit, began detailed analysis of the GISS data they made an astonishing discovery. The reason for the freak figures was that scores of temperature records from Russia and elsewhere were not based on October readings at all. Figures from the previous month had simply been carried over and repeated two months running.


The error was so glaring that when it was reported on the two blogs - run by the US meteorologist Anthony Watts and Steve McIntyre, the Canadian computer analyst who won fame for his expert debunking of the notorious "hockey stick" graph - GISS began hastily revising its figures. This only made the confusion worse because, to compensate for the lowered temperatures in Russia, GISS claimed to have discovered a new "hotspot" in the Arctic - in a month when satellite images were showing Arctic sea-ice recovering so fast from its summer melt that three weeks ago it was 30 per cent more extensive than at the same time last year.

A GISS spokesman lamely explained that the reason for the error in the Russian figures was that they were obtained from another body, and that GISS did not have resources to exercise proper quality control over the data it was supplied with. This is an astonishing admission: the figures published by Dr Hansen's institute are not only one of the four data sets that the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies on to promote its case for global warming, but they are the most widely quoted, since they consistently show higher temperatures than the others.

If there is one scientist more responsible than any other for the alarm over global warming it is Dr Hansen, who set the whole scare in train back in 1988 with his testimony to a US Senate committee chaired by Al Gore. Again and again, Dr Hansen has been to the fore in making extreme claims over the dangers of climate change. (He was recently in the news here for supporting the Greenpeace activists acquitted of criminally damaging a coal-fired power station in Kent, on the grounds that the harm done to the planet by a new power station would far outweigh any damage they had done themselves.)

Yet last week's latest episode is far from the first time Dr Hansen's methodology has been called in question. In 2007 he was forced by Mr Watts and Mr McIntyre to revise his published figures for US surface temperatures, to show that the hottest decade of the 20th century was not the 1990s, as he had claimed, but the 1930s.

Another of his close allies is Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, who recently startled a university audience in Australia by claiming that global temperatures have recently been rising "very much faster" than ever, in front of a graph showing them rising sharply in the past decade. In fact, as many of his audience were aware, they have not been rising in recent years and since 2007 have dropped.

Dr Pachauri, a former railway engineer with no qualifications in climate science, may believe what Dr Hansen tells him. But whether, on the basis of such evidence, it is wise for the world's governments to embark on some of the most costly economic measures ever proposed, to remedy a problem which may actually not exist, is a question which should give us all pause for thought.

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Optimistic: T. Boone Pickens Expects Obama Administration to Implement Pickens’ Plan


EPA Coal Decision Levels Playing Field for Wind, Solar

By Alexis Madrigal

Building an alt-energy power plant is risky and expensive, but thanks to a new ruling by an Environmental Protection Agency panel, building a coal plant may become riskier and more expensive.

The Environmental Appeals Board blocked the EPA from issuing a permit to a proposed coal plant addition near Vernal, Utah, about 150 miles east of Salt Lake City.

Perhaps more importantly, the quasi-independent board, composed of four highly regarded, experienced judges, ruled that the EPA needs to develop a single nationwide standard for dealing with carbon dioxide.

"I don't want to understate its significance. I think it's very significant," said Bob Graham, chair of Jenner & Block’s Environmental, Energy and Natural Resources Law Practice, a noted environmental law expert who was not involved with the case. "In the long run, it advances the ball on climate change issues and that's positive."

On Thursday, the EPA panel blocked the Bonanza Coal Power Plant's bid for a permit, reversing an earlier decision, and placing over 100 coal plants into regulatory limbo. The rulemaking process will likely yield greater CO2 emissions regulation and will take more than a year, say lawyers familiar with the EPA process. That puts prospective coal power-plant builders in a tough spot, especially with financing already in short supply thanks to the credit crunch. The ruling introduces more risk into the coal industry, which could drive away investors and their limited cash.

And that, said the Sierra Club's chief climate counsel, David Bookbinder, is good news for new clean tech companies.

"Where do you think that money is going to go? It's going to go to wind. It's going to go to solar. It's going to go to something that's going to get built," Bookbinder said. "This is incredibly good for green energy."

Following a landmark 2007 decision by the Supreme Court that carbon dioxide could be regulated as a pollutant under the 1970s-era Clean Air Act, environmental groups have been pushing the EPA to stop issuing permits to coal plants, which produce massive amounts of CO2. But under the Bush administration, the EPA had resisted taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sources.

Still, the Sierra Club persisted, using a relatively small addition to Deseret Power Electric Cooperative's preexisting Bonanza Power Plant in Utah, to make a stand against the permitting process. They lost the first round, when the Denver regional EPA office issued a permit, saying they need not consider greenhouse emissions. On appeal, however, the Sierra Club appears to have won a much wider-reaching victory.

The Board did not actually side with the Sierra Club's interpretation of the Clean Air Act, but in deciding to send the decision back to the EPA with the instruction to come up with a nationwide plan for regulating greenhouse gases, the Sierra Club effectively stopped new coal plants in their tracks.

"It's punting in a technical, legal sense but what it does is give us everything we wanted," Bookbinder said. "This plant is dead and every other one is going to have to sit around."

The current EPA, for its part, was none too happy that they must reconsider their policies, even if it will ultimately give the organization wider powers.

"While we are disappointed that the issue was remanded, EPA looks forward to the opportunity to consider this issue on remand," the agency said in a statement. "EPA is firmly committed to taking sensible action to address the long-term challenge of global climate change."

The definition of "sensible action," however is likely to change under Barack Obama, who many policy watchers anticipate will grant the EPA far more leeway to deal with greenhouse gas regulation.

"Do I think that the Obama administration would pursue this further? Yes, I think they will," Graham said.

The American Petroleum Institute filed a brief opposing the Sierra Club, arguing that the Clean Air Act, a version of which first passed in 1963 long before climate change became an environmental issue, is the wrong vehicle for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

"Overall, API does not support regulating greenhouse gases under the current Clean Air Act because it would be a mess," said Lee Hayden, the American Petroleum Institute's Washington, D.C., representative. " It's not designed for greenhouse gas emissions."

But the Appeals Board decision combined with the Supreme Court ruling makes it likely that the EPA will begin using the Clean Air Act in just that way, which will have implications that will reverberate through the economy.

The stricter the EPA limits on carbon dioxide, the more money coal plant operators will have to throw at technologies to reduce their CO2 emissions. That will eventually make coal power more expensive, which climate-change action advocates hope will make solar, wind, nuclear and other low-carbon technologies more competitive.

"I'm feeling pretty damn good today," said Bookbinder.

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Britain's water mills given role in clean energy generation

Alok Jha, green technology correspondent

A salmon jumps Could weir on the river Tweed in the Scottish Borders

A salmon jumps Could weir on the river Tweed in the Scottish Borders. Photograph: PA

Britain's iconic water mills, some of which date back to the 11th century, are to become a major force in the fight against climate change.

Mill owners around the UK have started to refurbish their old buildings and install turbines in order to show that they can be used as a source of clean electricity.

Government figures suggest that if the resource is fully tapped, small-scale hydropower from the old mills and weirs could provide up to 10,000GWh per year - 3% of the UK's electricity needs.

"There are a number of hydropower groups that have become established in the country and we're all in the process of installing micro hydropower to generate electricity,' said Anthony Battersby, the head of the Somerset-based Mendip Power Group. With more than 20,000 mill sites across the UK, the potential is huge. If government predictions are correct, the transformation of the water mills would save almost 5.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from entering the atmosphere.

Battersby has spent £450,000 on work to convert Tellisford Mill on the river Frome so that it can generate 60kW of power at peak output, enough for more than 50 homes. With a group of local mill owners he has plans for dozens of other conversions over the coming months. There are similar groups across the UK, with several dozen projects in various stages of planning or construction.

"At the moment, most of these are old historic mill sites, which have been used for corn grinding, dye mills, edge-tool mills," Battersby said. "The Domesday Book has in it about 5,600 mill sites, one of which is ours. Water has been harnessed as a source of energy here for over a thousand years."

Environmental campaigners have welcomed the move to convert mills, but warned that a wide-scale adoption of the technology will be hampered unless key elements of the government's energy bill are strengthened when it is debated for the final time by MPs on this week.

"We think the idea of taking the remnants of the last industrial revolution and giving them new life in a future green industrial revolution is incredibly exciting," said Dave Timms of Friends of the Earth. The campaign group says that conversions could provide a useful income stream for local communities whilst helping the UK to meet its climate change targets.

UK homes are responsible for 27% of the country's carbon dioxide emissions. According to the Energy Saving Trust, up to 40% of the UK's electricity could be generated by small-scale renewable energy systems such as hydropower.

The energy from rivers and streams can be harnessed relatively easily using propeller-based turbines with minimal disruption to the flow of the water. Most individual systems would be small, probably no more than 50KW.

David Williams, the chief executive of the British Hydropower Association, said mill sites had been overlooked for too long. "The interest has just ballooned recently. What we are seeing is that it's community interest - people are more willing to work together now. Rather than developing a hydro scheme on their own mill, if they do it as a community, they get better grants and they're looking at it more holistically."

One example of a community scheme is Settle Hydro, a 50KW electricity plant paid for by a local community in Yorkshire. Shares in the scheme cost £1 each and the £300,000 plant will generate enough electricity for 50 homes.

Mill owners are now planning to work together nationally to launch a network of hydropower operators called River Power Microhydro. This will encourage the conversion of mills into electricity generators and members will include community schemes for hydropower, water companies and public bodies such as English Heritage or the Environment Agency who own or control weirs or mill sites.

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