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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ocean worlds may be dying stars' last haven for life

by David Shiga

Large and distant ocean worlds could provide a last refuge for life around Sun-like stars, long after the heat of the stars' red giant phase sterilises closer-in, Earth-like planets, new calculations suggest.

Stars similar in mass to the Sun swell to become red giants at the end of their lives, engulfing their inner planets and roasting slightly more distant ones. The Sun itself is scheduled to enter this phase around 5 billion years from now, which should bake to death any remaining life here even before the planet is swallowed up altogether.

Far-sighted researchers have dreamed up outlandish schemes to allow future civilisations to move the Earth to a safe distance.

But new calculations suggest life could naturally hang on in more remote locales around red giants, reinforcing similar results from an earlier but less detailed study.

The new study focuses on the conditions needed for photosynthesis, including an atmosphere with enough carbon dioxide to support the process, and a temperature that would allow liquid water to exist on the planet's surface. The study was led by Werner von Bloh of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Warm cores

Life on planets the size of Earth would die off before the red giant phase begins, the team argues. That's because the planet's cooling core would stop the volcanic activity needed to replenish atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is gradually removed by the formation of carbon-containing rocks. Plants would thus run out of CO2 needed for photosynthesis.

But the cores of bigger planets, called super-Earths, would stay warm for longer, allowing CO2 to persist in their atmospheres. Recent discoveries suggest that super-Earths are common around other stars.

Those that start out farther from their parent star than Earth might be frozen during the star's youth and middle-age. But they would thaw out later, as the star's habitable zone - where temperatures are right for liquid water - moves outwards as the red giant phase progresses and the star's size and brightness grow.

Sweet spot

Where would a planet have to lie to enjoy habitable conditions for the longest amount of time during this process? Around a star with the Sun's mass, the 'sweet spot' would lie a little beyond the orbit of Mars, at around twice the Earth-Sun distance, the team says.

An ocean-dominated super-Earth would be best, because it would be best able to hold onto its CO2 atmosphere, the team says. The reactions that convert CO2 into carbon-containing rocks, and thus remove it from the atmosphere, require land exposed to air to function, so they slow down when exposed land is scarce.

A 10 Earth-mass planet at twice the Earth-Sun distance - whose surface was also 90% covered by water - would be in the red giant's habitable zone for 3.7 billion years, the team says. That's almost as long as life has existed on Earth, if the oldest and still controversial evidence is to be believed.

Too hot?

A 2005 study led by Bruno Lopez of the Observatoire de la Cote d'Azur in Nice, France, came to similar conclusions about the habitability of relatively distant planets, but relied on older data on how Sun-like stars evolve, and did not investigate the role of planet mass and fraction of ocean coverage.

William Danchi of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, US, who was involved in the 2005 study but not the new one, says the new results bolster the case for including red giants in searches for habitable planets.

Though close-in planets would be sterilised by the red giant, "maybe there's a new burst of life around a super-Earth farther away", he says.

But James Kasting of Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in either study, questions the assumptions underlying the new calculations, including setting the optimal temperature for photosynthesis-based life at 50° C, halfway between boiling and freezing.

"50° C would be almost uninhabitable for anything that lives on Earth except for some kinds of bacteria," he says, pointing out that Earth's average surface temperature is around 15° C.

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Did our cosmos exist before the big bang?


by Anil Ananthaswamy

ABHAY ASHTEKAR remembers his reaction the first time he saw the universe bounce. "I was taken aback," he says. He was watching a simulation of the universe rewind towards the big bang. Mostly the universe behaved as expected, becoming smaller and denser as the galaxies converged. But then, instead of reaching the big bang "singularity", the universe bounced and started expanding again. What on earth was happening?

Ashtekar wanted to be sure of what he was seeing, so he asked his colleagues to sit on the result for six months before publishing it in 2006. And no wonder. The theory that the recycled universe was based on, called loop quantum cosmology (LQC), had managed to illuminate the very birth of the universe - something even Einstein's general theory of relativity fails to do.

Einstein's relativity fails to explain the very birth of the universe

LQC has been tantalising physicists since 2003 with the idea that our universe could conceivably have emerged from the collapse of a previous universe. Now the theory is poised to make predictions we can actually test. If they are verified, the big bang will give way to a big bounce and we will finally know the quantum structure of space-time. Instead of a universe that emerged from a point of infinite density, we will have one that recycles, possibly through an eternal series of expansions and contractions, with no beginning and no end.

LQC is in fact the first tangible application of another theory called loop quantum gravity, which cunningly combines Einstein's theory of gravity with quantum mechanics. We need theories like this to work out what happens when microscopic volumes experience an extreme gravitational force, as happened near the big bang, for example. In the mid 1980s, Ashtekar rewrote the equations of general relativity in a quantum-mechanical framework. Together with theoretical physicists Lee Smolin and Carlo Rovelli, Ashtekar later used this framework to show that the fabric of space-time is woven from loops of gravitational field lines. Zoom out far enough and space appears smooth and unbroken, but a closer look reveals that space comes in indivisible chunks, or quanta, 10-35 square metres in size.

In 2000, Martin Bojowald, then a postdoc with Ashtekar at the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, used loop quantum gravity to create a simple model of the universe. LQC was born.

Bojowald's major realisation was that unlike general relativity, the physics of LQC did not break down at the big bang. Cosmologists dread the singularity because at this point gravity becomes infinite, along with the temperature and density of the universe. As its equations cannot cope with such infinities, general relativity fails to describe what happens at the big bang. Bojowald's work showed how to avoid the hated singularity, albeit mathematically. "I was very impressed by it," says Ashtekar, "and still am."

Jerzy Lewandowski of the University of Warsaw in Poland, along with Bojowald, Ashtekar and two more of his postdocs, Parampreet Singh and Tomasz Pawlowski, went on to improve on the idea. Singh and Pawlowski developed computer simulations of the universe according to LQC, and that's when they saw the universe bounce. When they ran time backwards, instead of becoming infinitely dense at the big bang, the universe stopped collapsing and reversed direction. The big bang singularity had truly disappeared (Physical Review Letters, vol 96, p 141301).

But the celebration was short-lived. When the team used LQC to look at the behaviour of our universe long after expansion began, they were in for a shock - it started to collapse, challenging everything we know about the cosmos. "This was a complete departure from general relativity," says Singh, who is now at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. "It was blatantly wrong."

Ashtekar took it hard. "I was pretty depressed," he says. "It didn't bode well for LQC." However, after more feverish mathematics, Ashtekar, Singh and Pawlowski solved the problem. Early versions of the theory described the evolution of the universe in terms of quanta of area, but a closer look revealed a subtle error. Ashtekar, Singh and Pawlowski corrected this and found that the calculations now involved tiny volumes of space.

It made a crucial difference. Now the universe according to LQC agreed brilliantly with general relativity when expansion was well advanced, while still eliminating the singularity at the big bang. Rovelli, based at the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille, France, was impressed. "This was a very big deal," he says. "Everyone had hoped that once we learned to treat the quantum universe correctly, the big bang singularity would disappear. But it had never happened before."

Physicist Claus Kiefer at the University of Cologne in Germany, who has written extensively about the subject, agrees. "It is really a new perspective on how we can view the early universe," he says. "Now, you have a theory that can give you a natural explanation for a singularity-free universe." He adds that while competing theories of quantum gravity, such as string theory, have their own insights to offer cosmology, none of these theories has fully embraced quantum mechanics.

If LQC turns out to be right, our universe emerged from a pre-existing universe that had been expanding before contracting due to gravity. As all the matter squeezed into a microscopic volume, this universe approached the so-called Planck density, 5.1 × 1096 kilograms per cubic metre. At this stage, it stopped contracting and rebounded, giving us our universe.

The pre-existing universe was squeezed into a microscopic volume

"You cannot reach the Planck density. It is forbidden by theory," says Singh. According to Bojowald, that is because an extraordinary repulsive force develops in the fabric of space-time at densities equivalent to compressing a trillion solar masses down to the size of a proton. At this point, the quanta of space-time cannot be squeezed any further. The compressed space-time reacts by exerting an outward force strong enough to repulse gravity. This momentary act of repulsion causes the universe to rebound. From then on, the universe keeps expanding because of the inertia of the big bounce. Nothing can slow it down - except gravity.

LQC also illuminates another mysterious phase of our universe. In classical cosmology, a phenomenon called inflation caused the universe to expand at incredible speed in the first fractions of a second after the big bang. This inflationary phase is needed to explain why the temperature of faraway regions of the universe is almost identical, even though heat should not have had time to spread that far - the so-called horizon problem. It also explains why the universe is so finely balanced between expanding forever and contracting eventually under gravity - the flatness problem. Cosmologists invoke a particle called the inflaton to make inflation happen, but precious little is known about it.

Cosmic recall

More importantly, even less is known about the pre-inflationary universe. Cosmologists have always assumed that they could ignore quantum effects and regard space-time as smooth at the onset of inflation, as general relativity requires. This had always been an educated guess - until now. LQC shows that at the time inflation begins, space-time can be treated as smooth. "This is not an assumption any more," says Singh. "It's actually a prediction from loop quantum cosmology."

The models developed by Ashtekar, Singh, Bojowald and Pawlowski represent an enormous step forward. This is the first time that a theory is able to make predictions about what was happening prior to inflation, while correctly predicting what happens post-inflation. "To do both of these things at the same time has been difficult," says Ashtekar.

If the universe we inhabit emerged from a previous cosmos, can we know something about the universe that preceded ours? LQC simulations show that it too would have had stars and galaxies. But opinions differ when it comes to the quantum phase just before and after the big bounce, when it is impossible to pin down the volume of the universe due to quantum fluctuations. Bojowald's calculations show that some of the information about the earlier universe is wiped out as it goes through the big bounce. In other words, there is no "cosmic recall" (Nature Physics, vol 3, p 523). In contrast, another detailed analysis done by Singh and Alejandro Corichi, of the Autonomous National University of Mexico in Michoacán, suggests otherwise (Physical Review Letters, vol 100, p 161302).

Ashtekar likens the spirited spat among his former postdocs and students to watching his children squabble. "It's much ado about nothing," he says. Though arguments about the universe possibly having a cosmic recall may be of philosophical interest, they are premature. "We should be worrying about making contact with experiments today."

That day may be near. The researchers' first target is the cosmic microwave background (CMB), a radiation released long after the universe's quantum phase. Even though the CMB originated 370,000 years after the big bang, its seeds were laid out much earlier, says Bojowald. "That could be a period when quantum gravity effects might play a role."

Bojowald has discovered that such effects would have dominated when, according to LQC, the universe went through a short phase of accelerated expansion before the onset of inflation. Dubbed superinflation, it occurred due to the immense repulsive forces of the high-density quantum universe rather than the presence of inflatons. Exactly how this phase might affect the CMB is unclear, but already there are hints that LQC might predict something different from classical cosmology. "This is what we are going to work on in the next two years. We are going to find robust predictions," says Singh.

Meanwhile, Ed Copeland of the University of Nottingham, UK, and his colleagues have shown that superinflation can produce the kind of quantum fluctuations in the fabric of space-time that eventually became seeds for the formation of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. This suggests that superinflation might make inflation unnecessary, thus removing what has essentially always been an add-on to standard cosmological theory. It is early days for superinflation, though, because it cannot yet solve the horizon and flatness problems that inflation so elegantly resolves.

Copeland says that future experiments might reveal whether our universe underwent inflation or superinflation by looking for a pattern of gravitational waves that only inflation could have created. These ripples in the fabric of space-time would have polarised the CMB, though the effect is too faint for today's instruments to detect. Things might change next year, however, when the European Space Agency launches the Planck satellite, promising the most detailed view of the microwave background to date. Copeland's work suggests that superinflation would suppress the production of gravitational waves at cosmological scales, and that there would be no such imprint in the CMB. "If you do detect them, it would probably count against LQC," he says.

Kiefer cautions that all the predictions of LQC are subject to one big caveat. The predictions of classical cosmology come from solving the equations of general relativity, albeit with certain simplifying assumptions about the universe. Ideally, LQC should be put on the same footing - all its equations should be derived from loop quantum gravity. Instead, Bojowald and others obtained LQC by starting with an idealised universe derived from general relativity and then using techniques from loop quantum gravity to quantise gravity in the model. "From a physicist's point of view, it is fully justified," says Kiefer. "Mathematicians perhaps would not be amused."

Rovelli agrees. To put LQC on a firmer foundation, he and his colleague Francesca Vidotto have been working to reconcile it with loop quantum gravity (www.arxiv.org/abs/0805.4585v1). "The conclusion is very positive," says Rovelli. "We are able to recover the equations of LQC, starting with something much closer to loop quantum gravity."

No wonder Rovelli is looking forward to upcoming experiments that could vindicate the theory. "I hope before dying to know whether loop quantum gravity is correct or not," he says. For a man who turned 50 only recently, he is being unduly pessimistic. A raft of experiments, of which Planck is only the first, will soon be measuring the CMB and looking for gravitational waves. A revolution in our notions of how our universe began may be closer than he thinks.

Will our universe bounce?

According to the big bounce picture formulated by theoretical physicist Abhay Ashtekar and others, the cosmos grew from the collapse of a pre-existing universe. Will the same fate await us?It depends. We used to think that the universe was dominated by the gravity of its stars and other matter: either the universe is dense enough for gravity to halt the expansion from the big bang and pull everything back, or else it isn't, in which case the expansion would carry on forever. However, observations of distant supernovae in the past 10 years have challenged that view. They show not just that the universe is expanding, but also that the expansion is speeding up due to a mysterious repulsive force that cosmologists call "dark energy". So if the universe fails to contract, has it already bounced its last bounce?Perhaps not. Cosmologists are still very much in the dark about dark energy. Some theoretical models speculate that the nature of dark energy could change over time, switching from a repulsive to an attractive force that behaves much like gravity. If that happens, the universe will stop expanding and the galaxies will begin to rush together. A question mark also hangs over the universe's matter and energy density, which we have not measured with sufficient accuracy to be sure that the universe will not eventually stop expanding. If it turns out to be a smidgen greater than current observations, then it is a recipe for cosmic collapse.According to the big bounce, in both scenarios the universe will eventually collapse until it reaches the highest density allowed by the theory. At this point, the universe will rebound and begin expanding again - the ultimate in cosmic recycling.

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Water Vapor Confirmed on Alien Planet

By Clara Moskowitz


The unequivocal signature of water vapor has been found on a planet beyond our solar system.

Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers detected the steamy signature of water vapor in the light coming from a large exoplanet circling around a star about 63 light-years from Earth. Though it's not the first sign of water vapor around this planet, it's the strongest evidence yet.

The planet, HD 189733b, is what's called a "Hot Jupiter" — a boiling, gigantic gas planet more akin to our own Jupiter or Saturn than to a terrestrial planet like Earth. It's not a good candidate itself for alien life, but the successful detection of water vapor here, in the location and quantities that theorists predicted, bodes well for further studies of more promising locales for extraterrestrial life.

"It means we're starting to understand these objects a little bit better than we did when we first started," astrophysicist Adam Burrows of Princeton University told Wired.com. "It’s a trial run for the much more detailed investigations that will be possible in the years to come as we take this stepping stone from giant planets to terrestrial planets."

Though water vapor is thought to be fairly common on planets — even our own Jupiter has it — the discovery of its presence on another world is significant and points the way toward future discoveries, scientists say. Yesterday scientists announced that the Hubble Space Telescope had found carbon dioxide, which under the right circumstances could be connected to life, on the same planet. The presence of methane has also been detected.

Burrows and the research team, led by Carl Grillmair of the California Institute of Technology, used a technique known as the secondary-eclipse method to observe the infrared light coming from the planet. The world is so close to its star that normally the light from the two objects cannot be distinguished. But when the planet orbits behind the star, only the light from the star is visible. By subtracting the star's light from the total light of star plus planet, the scientists were able to isolate only the planet's light. When they separated the image into its constituent colors in a process called spectroscopy, they found the characteristic dip in light of a certain wavelength that results from water in the planet's atmosphere absorbing that light.

"We’re looking at the brightness of the planet, as opposed to the effect of the stellar light," Burrows said. "The data we have is the best spectrum ever taken of a planet outside the solar system."

In an article accompanying the research paper, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, astronomer Drake Deming of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, wrote, "We must first learn how to detect abundant molecules such as water before we can advance to identifying the more subtle signatures that scarcer molecules such as molecular oxygen leave in exoplanet spectra. Grillmair and colleagues have taken that first step."

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Violent Star-Forming Nebula Caught by Spitzer Telescope

By Clara Moskowitz
295928amain_bm17_2

A brand new photo of the Swan Nebula taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope reveals chaotic star-making in action.

In this infrared view, the gooey-looking red stuff is made up of tiny particles of dust. The sinister green glow represents superhot gas, and the brilliant white regions are where gas and dust interact.

Located about 6,000 light-years away, the Swan Nebula, or M17, is a turbulent circus where huge hot stars spew out radiation and fierce winds of charged particles. The gaseous gusts are thought to carve out a large cavity in the dust at the center of the picture, where new stars are forming. As the cavity pushes out, winds from other giant stars nearby push back, forming ripples of gas called bow shocks, like the ripples that pile up in front of speeding boats.

"The gas being lit up in these star-forming regions looks very wispy and fragile, but looks can be deceiving," said researcher Robert Benjamin of the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, in a press release. "These bow shocks serve as a reminder that stars aren't born in quiet nurseries but in violent regions buffeted by winds more powerful than anything we see on Earth."

The observations could help point the way toward a better understanding of how stars like our own sun first came into being, and how they spawned solar systems.

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Hubble Finds Carbon Dioxide on an Extrasolar Planet

This is an artists impression of the Jupiter-size extrasolar planet HD 189733b being eclipsed by its parent star. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have measured carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the planets atmosphere. The planet is a ...
This is an artist's impression of the Jupiter-size extrasolar planet, HD 189733b, being eclipsed by its parent star. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have measured carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the planet's atmosphere. The planet is a "hot Jupiter," which is so close to its star that it completes an orbit in only 2.2 days. Credit: ESA, NASA, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble), and STScI

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has discovered carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another star. This is an important step along the trail of finding the chemical biotracers of extraterrestrial life as we know it.

The Jupiter-sized planet, called HD 189733b, is too hot for life. But the Hubble observations are a proof-of-concept demonstration that the basic chemistry for life can be measured on planets orbiting other stars. Organic compounds can also be a by-product of life processes, and their detection on an Earth-like planet may someday provide the first evidence of life beyond Earth.
Previous observations of HD 189733b by Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope found water vapor. Earlier this year, Hubble astronomers reported that they found methane in the planet's atmosphere.

"This is exciting because Hubble is allowing us to see molecules that probe the conditions, chemistry, and composition of atmospheres on other planets," says Mark Swain of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Thanks to Hubble we're entering an era where we are rapidly going to expand the number of molecules we know about on other planets."

Swain used Hubble's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) to study infrared light emitted from the planet, which lies 63 light-years away. Gases in the planet's atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths of light from the planet's hot glowing interior. Swain identified not only carbon dioxide, but also carbon monoxide. The molecules leave their own unique spectral fingerprint on the radiation from the planet that reaches Earth. This is the first time a near-infrared emission spectrum has been obtained for an exoplanet.

"The carbon dioxide is kind of the main focus of the excitement, because that is a molecule that under the right circumstances could have a connection to biological activity as it does on Earth," Swain says. "The very fact that we're able to detect it, and estimate its abundance, is significant for the long-term effort of characterizing planets both to find out what they're made of and to find out if they could be a possible host for life."
This type of observation is best done for planets with orbits tilted edge-on to Earth. They routinely pass in front of and then behind their parent stars, phenomena known as eclipses. The planet HD 189733b passes behind its companion star once every 2.2 days. This allows an opportunity to subtract the light of the star alone (when the planet is blocked) from that of the star and planet together prior to eclipse, thus isolating the emission of the planet alone and making possible a chemical analysis of its "day-side" atmosphere.

In this way, Swain explains that he's using the eclipse of the planet behind the star to probe the planet's day side, which contains the hottest portions of its atmosphere. "We're starting to find the molecules and to figure out how many of them there are to see the changes between the day side and the night side," Swain says.

This successful demonstration of looking at near-infrared light emitted from a planet is very encouraging for astronomers planning to use NASA's James Webb Space Telescope when it is launched in 2013. These biomarkers are best seen at near-infrared wavelengths.

Astronomers look forward to using Webb to spectroscopically look for biomarkers on a terrestrial planet the size of Earth, or a "super-Earth" several times our planet's mass. "The Webb telescope should be able to make much more sensitive measurements of these primary and secondary eclipse events," Swain says.

Swain next plans to search for molecules in the atmospheres of other exoplanets, as well as trying to increase the number of molecules detected in exoplanet atmospheres. He also plans to use molecules to study changes that may be present in exoplanet atmospheres to learn something about the weather on these distant worlds.

Provided by Hubble Centre

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"So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!" -A Saturn Moon Teaming with Organic Chemicals: A Galaxy Insight

219290main_pia10361a516_3 NASA's Cassini spacecraft discovered a surprising organic brew erupting in geyser-like fashion from Saturn's moon Enceladus during a close flyby on March 12. Scientists are stunned that this tiny moon is so active, "hot" and teeming with water vapor and organic chemicals.

"Enceladus has got warmth, water and organic chemicals, some of the essential building blocks needed for life," said Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We have quite a recipe for life on our hands, but we have yet to find the final ingredient, liquid water, but Enceladus is only whetting our appetites for more."

Can fish be far behind?

"A completely unexpected surprise is that the chemistry of Enceladus, what's coming out from inside, resembles that of a comet," said Hunter Waite, principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "To have primordial material coming out from inside a Saturn moon raises many questions on the formation of the Saturn system."

"Enceladus is by no means a comet. Comets have tails and orbit the sun, and Enceladus' activity is powered by internal heat while comet activity is powered by sunlight. Enceladus' brew is like carbonated water with an essence of natural gas," said Waite.

The Casssini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer saw a much higher density of volatile gases, water vapor, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as organic materials, some 20 times denser than expected. This dramatic increase in density was evident as the spacecraft flew over the area of the plumes.

New high-resolution heat maps of the south pole by Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer show that the so-called tiger stripes, giant fissures that are the source of the geysers, are warm along almost their entire lengths, and reveal other warm fissures nearby. The warmest regions along the tiger stripes correspond to two of the jet locations seen in Cassini images.

"These spectacular new data will really help us understand what powers the geysers. The surprisingly high temperatures make it more likely that there's liquid water not far below the surface," said John Spencer, Cassini scientist on the Composite Infrared Spectrometer team at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

Previous ultraviolet observations showed four jet sources, matching the locations of the plumes seen in previous images. This indicates that gas in the plume blasts off the surface into space, blending to form the larger plume.

At closest approach, Cassini was only 30 miles from Enceladus. When it flew through the plumes it was 120 miles from the moon's surface. Cassini's next flyby of Enceladus is in August.

The first step toward answering the question of whether life exists inside the subsurface aquifer of Enceladus is to analyze the organic compounds in the plume. Cassini's March 12 passage through the plume provided some measurements that help us move toward an answer, and preliminary plans call for Cassini to fly through the plume again for more measurements in the future. Ultimately, another mission in the future could conceivably land near the plume or even return plume material to Earth for laboratory analysis.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Posted by Casey Kazan.

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Scientists extract images directly from brain

ATR mind reader --

Researchers from Japan’s ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories have developed new brain analysis technology that can reconstruct the images inside a person’s mind and display them on a computer monitor, it was announced on December 11. According to the researchers, further development of the technology may soon make it possible to view other people’s dreams while they sleep.

The scientists were able to reconstruct various images viewed by a person by analyzing changes in their cerebral blood flow. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, the researchers first mapped the blood flow changes that occurred in the cerebral visual cortex as subjects viewed various images held in front of their eyes. Subjects were shown 400 random 10 x 10 pixel black-and-white images for a period of 12 seconds each. While the fMRI machine monitored the changes in brain activity, a computer crunched the data and learned to associate the various changes in brain activity with the different image designs.

Then, when the test subjects were shown a completely new set of images, such as the letters N-E-U-R-O-N, the system was able to reconstruct and display what the test subjects were viewing based solely on their brain activity.

For now, the system is only able to reproduce simple black-and-white images. But Dr. Kang Cheng, a researcher from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, suggests that improving the measurement accuracy will make it possible to reproduce images in color.

“These results are a breakthrough in terms of understanding brain activity,” says Dr. Cheng. “In as little as 10 years, advances in this field of research may make it possible to read a person’s thoughts with some degree of accuracy.”

The researchers suggest a future version of this technology could be applied in the fields of art and design — particularly if it becomes possible to quickly and accurately access images existing inside an artist’s head. The technology might also lead to new treatments for conditions such as psychiatric disorders involving hallucinations, by providing doctors a direct window into the mind of the patient.

ATR chief researcher Yukiyasu Kamitani says, “This technology can also be applied to senses other than vision. In the future, it may also become possible to read feelings and complicated emotional states.”

The research results appear in the December 11 issue of US science journal Neuron.

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Leaping robot could aid space exploration

Engineer Rhodri Armour helped develop the "Jollbot", the first robot with the ability to leap over obstacles and roll over smoother terrain.

By Amelia Tomas

A robot that can jump like a grasshopper and roll like a ball might be the next best thing for space exploration.

The "Jollbot" is the first robot with the ability to leap over obstacles and roll over smoother terrain, said engineer Rhodri Armour and colleagues from the University of Bath's Center for Biomimetic & Natural Technologies in England. The machine, announced last week, is a desirable candidate for surface surveys of planets or moons, he said, because of these advantages:
  • The Jollbot's spherical build allows it to roll in any direction, giving it the maneuverability of wheels without the problem of overturning or getting stuck in potholes.
  • Its cage-like surface is flexible and small — weighing less than two pounds — meaning it won’t get damaged easily after high jumps and is therefore less expensive than other conventional exploration robots.
  • Its jumping capabilities are controlled by electrical motors that slowly store the energy needed to spring into a leap, mimicking the natural movement of grasshoppers that follow a "pause and leap" motion by storing muscle energy in spring-like elements, then rapidly releasing the energy to make the jump.
The robot gets ready to jump by squashing itself slowly — storing energy in the process — and then releases that energy all at once, Armour said, springing upwards in the air to almost 20 inches.
Scientists are currently researching ways to improve the Jollbot's engineering so that it can power itself in space, such as including a stretchy skin of solar cells on the outside of the robot, and robotic control sensors to enable it to sense its environment.

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Hitler's pub dart bomb: The secret Nazi weapon drawn up to terrorise Britain

By Daily Mail Reporter


Hitler

The drawings for the 'Silent Dart' were found in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Towards the end of the war Hitler became increasingly desperate to find 'weapons of terror' which he could use against the Allies

With deadly accuracy and at speeds of up to 700mph, it could have pinpointed Nazi targets and wreaked havoc on Britain.

At least, that is what German scientists believed as they plotted this weapon of terror.

Hitler became increasingly desperate for a way to thwart his enemies at the end of the Second World War.

And so the Nazis dreamed up the Silent Dart.

The glider would be released from a larger aircraft. Guided by a Luftwaffe pilot inside, the dart would dive towards the ground carrying its 1,000kg bomb.

At the last moment, the pilot would release the bomb and inflate a huge balloon attached to the craft.

As the bomb hit its target, the balloon was supposed to whisk the glider far up above the danger area, so it could travel to safety.

The plans, which have come to light more than 60 years after their creation, may sound implausible - but pencil drawings of the dart found by the Allies in July 1945 show that for the Nazis, it may have seemed a real possibility.


drawings

These previously unseen drawings were rescued from Hitler's Chancellery at the end of World War II. The glider carrying the bomb has been designed in the shape of a pub dart

Luftwaffe pilot

The bombs would have been guided by a Luftwaffe pilot such as this one photographed during a raid over London

Auctioneer Richard Davie, who is selling the sketches, said: 'There is no date on the plans so we don't know whether they were not acted upon because there was no time, or whether there was another reason.

'The glider would have used the flying principle of a pub dart. It would be released from a mother ship and then directed by a pilot, which is not a job I would want.

'Then as the pilot released the bomb a balloon would simultaneously inflate and this would add stability and elevation to the glider.

'This enabled the pilot to get away from the blast so he could make safety and then have another go - unlike a Kamikaze pilot.

'It would have worked a bit like a Kamikaze mission but without the death of the pilot.

'The designs were found at the Reich Chancellery, in Berlin, at the end of the war and have rarely been seen since.'

The drawings were discovered by Richard Rex, who had been sent to Germany to help establish a medical dispensary for use during the Potsdam Conference.

german bomb

The drawings are undated but go into detail about how the cockpit should be constructed and where the various instruments should sit

Rescue

Rescue workers and policemen pull a woman from the wreckage of a surface shelter which was destroyed by a flying bomb. The V1 and V2 bombs were all put into operation towards the end of the war

flying bomb in fligh

This is a Nazi flying bomb in flight immediately after release.

The conference had been convened to decide how defeated Germany was to be governed in the post-war world.

They belonged to his family and were then sold to a private collector who is in turn selling them, International Autograph Auctions explained.

Retired Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork, who is an aviation historian, said: 'Towards the end of the war a lot of highly unusual projects were developed by the Nazis.

'However implausible this might appear to us, German scientists were renowned for their resourcefulness and invention.

'While this sounds an implausible way of getting a bomb on target the Germans were increasingly desperate by the end of the war.

'They were desperate to find a terror weapon which is why they developed the V1, V2 and the V3.'

The plans, which are thought to be worth between ?2,000 and ?3,000, will be sold in London on Saturday.

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Brain swelling blamed in many Mount Everest deaths

Climbers (ascending the snowy left side the mountain) from the Olympic torch Reuters – Climbers (ascending the snowy left side the mountain) from the Olympic torch relay team head towards …

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A brain swelling condition related to low oxygen levels in the air may have caused many of the deaths of people climbing Mount Everest, researchers said on Tuesday.

An international team led by Paul Firth of Massachusetts General Hospital studied the 212 reported deaths from 1921 to 2006 on Mount Everest, the highest on Earth.

Hazards awaiting those who dare to climb the 29,000-foot (8,850 meter) Himalayan mountain include extreme cold, whipping winds, changing weather, treacherous climbs and avalanches. Oxygen content in the air is only a third of that at sea level.

"Nobody was attacked by any Yeti or anything else," Firth said, referring to the "abominable snowman" of legend.

Firth said that while the cause of some deaths could not be determined with certainty, many appeared to have been the result of high-altitude cerebral edema.

In this condition, low oxygen levels cause cerebral blood vessels to leak fluid into surrounding brain tissue, triggering swelling. Confusion and loss of coordination follow.

Many deaths occurred above 26,000 feet in an area dubbed "the dead zone," particularly among people who already reached the summit and were climbing back down.

"Of the guys who died up at 8,000 meters (26,000 feet), a large number of them were developing neurological symptoms. In other words, they were getting confused, comatose or they were having a loss of coordination," said Firth, whose findings appear in the British Medical Journal.

This seemed consistent with high-altitude cerebral edema, he said in a telephone interview. "If you go too fast and you haven't adapted to the low oxygen levels, then you can get various types of high altitude illness."

He had expected to find more lung problems but in fact they were rare.

The researchers speculated that many of the deaths attributed to falls or the person vanishing during the climb may have been due to high-altitude cerebral edema.

The study showed that 1.3 percent of mountaineers who climbed above their Everest base camp died.

(Editing by Alan Elsner and Julie Steenhuysen)

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GENIUSES WHO WERE ACTUALLY CRAZY

Seeing as how well last week's Newton blog went down with everybody, here's another science based one.

Isaac Newton 1643-1727

Why he was a genius:
When he was a student he became frustrated by the limitations of mathematics so set about inventing calculus. He invented calculus... Later he laid the foundations for spectroscopy, proposed the four laws for scientific reasoning, then proceeded to describe gravity in his spare time (the apple did not hit him on the head btw) thus making sense of the way the universe works and the relationships between every physical entity. From artillery shell trajectory to the tides of the sea his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica explained everything and instantly became, and remains to this day, regarded as the most important scientific work ever. Without him, modern engineering would most likely be...well your car would probably only have one BHP - because it would be a horse.

Ah, but:
Newton would often be found immobile in his bed having forgotten to get out as he was too busy having "thoughts". Granted I could also be said to suffer from this malady although Newton was unravelling the secrets of the universe and I'm more likely to be thinking about f#cking your mum. I won't be immobile either. And to be honest it was probably safer for him to keep horizontal, once out and about he displayed a curiosity bordering on suicidal. He once stuck a large needle "betwixt my eye and the bone as near to the back side of my eye as I could" and on another occasion he stared at the sun for "as long as I could bear." The stated scientific explanation for these experiments was "too see what would happen." Newton also managed to fit his world shaping discoveries in around his real passions, which were trying to turn lead into gold and writing long treatises on the loony religious sects he was a member of. He was also famously aloof and capricious; although he developed calculus his didn't bother to share it with anyone for 30 years because he intensely disliked "intellectual matters" and went into a major strop when someone disputed his interpretation of the inverse square law, and promptly refused to release the final volume of his Principia until everyone agreed that he was undeniably right and that the other guy was a wank. During 4 years of being in the British parliament the only recorded thing he said was that there was a draft and could someone close the window. Genius? Yes. Mental egomaniac masochist? F#ck aye.


Henry Cavendish 1731 - 1810

Why he was a genius:
Cavendish was probably the most gifted scientist of his day, most famously measuring the weight of the Earth with uncanny accuracy despite working with equipment which consisted of a needle tied to the end of some string. A small needle. His experiments with electricity were decades if not a century ahead of their time, he did the groundwork for the discovery of the "noble gases" (the last of which wasn't discovered until 1962), predicted, described or discovered...deep breath...Ohm's Law, Dalton's Law of Partial Pressure, Richter's Law of Reciprocal Motion, the principals of electronic conductivity, Charles Law of Gases and quite probably much, much more.

Ah, but:
The reason all those laws that were just listed aren't called the Cavendish Law of whatever is because he suffered from "shyness to a degree bordering on disease." So bad, in fact, he didn't bother mentioning any of these discoveries to anyone. He had secret staircases added to his home so as to avoid his housekeeper because being in the company of a woman caused him "extreme distress". She communicated with him by letter. An admirer arrived at his door and caught him by surprise, the unwelcome visitor was able to heap one sentence worth of praise and exultation on to the great man before Cavendish let out a strangled scream and fled into some nearby woods to hide. It was several hours before he could be coaxed back to his home. The rare times he ventured out in to society people were advised "to speak as if it were into a vacancy, do not look directly in his eyes nor address him by name". Despite his work having the potential to advance human knowledge by over a hundred years in some fields, he was usually too busy hiding under tables when the milkman came round. It could be said that he was the first true nerd. But to do so would do him a disservice, he was a bona fide genius with crippling social anxiety. Knowing HTML and having a level 80 WOW character isn't in the same league you unwashed virgin pricks.


Carl Linnaeus 1707 - 1778

Why he was a genius:
Describing the multitude of species before Linnaeus developed his system of binomial nomenclature was, in short, a f#cking nightmare. The same species of plant or cat or bacteria could have up to 30 different names due to the variety of competing naming conventions. Some of these conventions would result in animals being categorised by how noble they looked or how nice they were to eat...seriously. By reducing names down to genus and species he simplified taxonomy and allowed a far better understanding of the natural world than could previously be imagined. He also had an uncanny knack for arranging species correctly despite Darwin's opus being over 100 years away. He correctly indentified whales and cows as belonging to the same family for example.

Ah, but:
Scientists at the time were hopeful that the new system of classification would eliminate the crude terms popular among the commoners at the time for fauna, such as Mare's Fart, Open Arse and Bum-Towel. Unfortunately Linnaeus was a raging pervert. He was particularly keen on naming flowers and clams after ladies genitals. He was apparently struck by their similarities...so he duly named some clams as Vulva, Labia, Anus, Hymen and Pubes and flowers got labelled with "Promiscuous Intercourse", "Barren Concubines", and "Parted Legs". It's not too much of a stretch of the imagination to surmise that he at least masturbated into a Venus Fly trap at some point. At least masturbated...When it came to classifying animals he made room for Dragons (probably naming them "Flying Fire-Breathing Tw#t Lips) yetis, four-footed humanlike things, and whatever other crazy sh#t he heard while he was trying to nail a sexy looking geranium. He also lacked any form of modesty; he frequently described his work as "the greatest achievement in the realm of science" and demanded that his tombstone should read "Prince of Botanists". It doesn't. But it is frequently covered in fresh flowers.

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Sweet Find in Search for Alien Life

By Jeanna Bryner, Senior Writer

This molecular structure shows glycolaldehyde, which is the most basic sugar and can react to form ribose, the central component of RNA (similar to DNA). Credit: IRAM

A sugar molecule that's linked to the origin of life has been detected in a region of our galaxy where habitable planets could exist. The sweet find is good news in the search for alien life, the researchers say.

Called glycolaldehyde, the sugar molecule is considered a life ingredient because it can react with a substance called propenal to form ribose, a central constituent of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is similar to DNA and considered one of the central molecules in the origin of life.

An international team of scientists used the IRAM radio telescope in France to detect glycolaldehyde in a massive star-forming region of space, some 26,000 light-years from Earth. (One light-year is the distance light will travel in a year, or about 6 trillion miles, or 10 trillion km.)

They looked for the emission of certain wavelengths within the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Molecules each emit a distinctive band of radio wavelengths, which can be used as a fingerprint for the molecules.

"This is an important discovery as it is the first time glycolaldehyde, a basic sugar, has been detected towards a star-forming region where planets that could potentially harbor life may exist," said researcher Serena Viti of the University College London.

Previously, the organic sugar had been detected toward the center of our galaxy, where conditions are extreme and not conducive to planet-forming compared with the rest of the galaxy.

The new discovery, which will be detailed in a forthcoming issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, was in an area distant from the galactic center. In addition, the sugar was found in a swirl of gas and dust around a collection of stars. "Possibly, this material is actually rotating around the stars, which may imply that it's a disk and that's where planets may form," Viti told SPACE.com.

She added, "Also the fact that it's just a normal star-forming region suggests that the production of this molecule could be common throughout the galaxy."

The detection of one life ingredient also improves the chances that the molecule exists alongside other molecules essential to life and in regions where Earth-like planets may exist, she said.

"The fact that a basic sugar so directly linked to RNA is common makes you think the basic ingredients for life are out there," Viti said. "They're not just on Earth."

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PHOTO IN THE NEWS: "Medusa" Worms Found in Mud Volcano

These new, undersea worms don't have eyes to turn you into stone.

But their resemblance to snake-haired Medusa (above) wasn't lost on discoverer Ana Hilário, who plans to name at least one after the mythological Greek monster.

Hilário, of Portugal's University of Aveiro, and colleagues recently found 20 species of the tiny worms, called frenulates, in mud volcanoes in the Gulf of Cádiz, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Spain.

Mud volcanoes are places where methane-filled fluids seep from the seafloor, providing energy for "exceptionally rich ecosystems," Hilário said in an email.

(Related: "Giant Deep-Sea Volcano With 'Moat of Death' Found" [April 14, 2006].)

But scientists know little about the elusive frenulates, tube-dwelling worms that survive thanks to bacteria that live inside a special organ in their bodies.

The worms absorb chemicals such as methane from sediment and deliver the substances, via their blood, to the bacteria, which in turn produce organic carbon. The carbon nourishes both creatures.

Hilario has already named another genus from the expedition Bobmarleya—the worm's "dreadlocked" appearance reminded her of the Jamaican singer, she said.

—Christine Dell'Amore

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Dinosaurs were 'airheads', say scientists

By Daily Mail Reporter

Fearsome dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus rex were actually full of hot air, scientists said.

A team from Ohio University found the brains of the predators had a surprising number of air pockets, and theorized that it would have helped them to catch bigger prey.

Researchers Lawrence Witmer and Ryan Ridgely used CT scans to examine the skulls of five dinosaurs in 3D, including the deadly T. rex.

They found the skulls had curving airways that extended from the nostrils to the throat, creating a large amount of air space. The dinosaurs also had several sinus cavities (similar to the pockets that give us sinus headaches). Overall, the amount of air-filled space was much greater than the brain cavity.

dinosaur

Full of hot air: The T-rex had more air space than brain cavity

'We always knew dinosaurs had relatively small brains, so we might regard them as being airheads, and we can see that's kind of true,' said Mr Witmer.

The researchers said the air spaces could have lightened the dinosaurs' heads by as much as 18 per cent, than if they had been fully solid structures.

T. Rex

Full of hot air: The T-rex had more air space than brain cavity

They estimated that a fully fleshed-out T.rex head weighed more than 1,100lbs (500kg) and would have weighed a couple of hundred pounds more without air.

The weight saving could have helped the predators to move around, put on more bone-crushing muscle and even take larger prey.

'Sinuses may be performing different roles in different species,' Mr Witmer said.

'Scientists have tended to focus on things such as bones and muscle, and ignored these air spaces.

'If we’re going to decipher the mysteries of these extinct animals, maybe we need to figure out just why it is that these guys were such airheads.'

The T rex lived on the planet between 68 to 65 million years ago and had a long heavy tail to balance the weight from its massive head.

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When 2 + 2 = major anxiety: Math performance in stressful situations

Imagine you are sitting in the back of a classroom, daydreaming about the weekend. Then, out of nowhere, the teacher calls upon you to come to the front the room and solve a math problem. In front of everyone. If just reading this scenario has given you sweaty palms and an increased heart rate, you are not alone. Many of us have experienced math anxiety and in a new report in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, University of Chicago psychologist Sian L. Beilock examines some recent research looking at why being stressed about math can result in poor performance in solving problems.

Much of Beilock's work suggests that working memory is a key component of math anxiety. Working memory (also known as short term memory), helps us to maintain a limited amount of information at one time, just what is necessary to solve the problem at hand. Beilock's findings suggest that worrying about a situation (such as solving an arithmetic problem in front of a group of people) takes up the working memory that is available for figuring out the math problem.

The type of working memory involved in solving math problems may be affected by the way the problems are presented. When arithmetic problems are written horizontally, more working memory resources related to language are used (solvers usually maintain problem steps by repeating them in their head). However, when problems are written vertically, visuo-spatial (or where things are located) resources of working memory are used. Individuals who solve vertical problems tend to solve them in a way similar to how they solve problems on paper. Beilock wanted to know if stereotype-induced stress (i.e. reminding women of the stereotype that "girls can't do math") would result in different results for solving vertical versus horizontal math problems. The findings showed that the women who had been exposed to the negative stereotype performed poorly, although only on the horizontal problems (which rely on verbal working memory). Beilock suggests that the stereotype creates an inner monologue of worries, which relies heavily on verbal working memory. Thus, there is insufficient verbal working memory available to solve the horizontal math problems.

It has generally been shown that the more working memory capacity a person has, the better their performance on academic tasks such as problem solving and reasoning. To further explore this, Beilock and her colleagues compared math test scores in individuals who had higher levels of working memory with those who had less. The subjects took a math test either in a high pressure situation or low pressure situation. It turns out that the subjects with higher working memory levels performed very poorly during the high pressure testing situation—that is, the subjects with the greatest capacity for success were the most likely to "choke under pressure". Beilock surmises that individuals with higher levels of working memory have superior memory and computational capacity, which they use on a regular basis to excel in the classroom. "However, if these resources are compromised, for example, by worries about the situation and its consequences, high working memory individuals' advantage disappears," Beilock explains.

As more schools start emphasizing state-exam based curricula, these studies will become increasingly relevant and important for the development of exams and training regimens that will ensure optimal performance, especially by the most promising students.

###

Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, publishes concise reviews spanning all of scientific psychology and its applications. For a copy of the article "Math Performance in Stressful Situations" and access to other Current Directions in Psychological Science research findings, please contact Barbara Isanski at 202-293-9300 or bisanski@psychologicalscience.org

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Bush Administration Eviscerates Endangered Species Act

The Bush administration today issued a final rule eliminating the Endangered Species Act requirement that federal agencies consult with independent scientists.

"This action eviscerates key protections that have helped safeguard and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years," said John Kostyack, Executive Director of Wildlife and Global Warming for the National Wildlife Federation.

"Our government is founded in a system of checks, balances and accountability," he said. "President Bush has violated each of these principles by finalizing this rule in his waning days of power."

The rule comes after eight years of overt hostility toward the Endangered Species Act, saving the worst attack for last.

"Wildlife and marine biologists form the pillars of scientific integrity that support the Endangered Species Act," Kostyack said. "Knocking them out of the decision-making process will erode the foundation of this bedrock law and make it significantly harder to protect endangered species.

"More than 200,000 citizens voiced their opposition to these rollbacks. Not only has the Administration chosen to move forward, they have made matters worse by barring federal agencies from addressing the reality of global warming and its impacts on imperiled wildlife. The Bush administration has demonstrated complete disregard for public opinion with this action."

The National Wildlife Federation will work through the courts and with Congress and the Obama administration to undo the damage done today.

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1/5 of Coral Reefs Lost Due to Acid-Filled Oceans

Poznań, Poland
Associated Press

The world has lost nearly one-fifth of its coral reefs, and much of the rest could be destroyed by increasingly acidic seas if climate change continues unchecked, a conservation group warned Wednesday. Rising temperatures from greenhouses gases are the latest and most serious threats to coral, which are already being damaged by destructive fishing methods and pollution, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

About 19 percent of coral reefs have disappeared during the last 20 years, said IUCN's director general, Julia Marton-Lefèvre.

"If current trends in carbon dioxide emission continue, many of the remaining reefs will be lost in the next 20 to 40 years," Marton-Lefèvre said at Wednesday's U.N. talks, which are focused on creating a new climate change treaty.

"Climate change must be limited to the absolute minimum if we want to save coral reefs. We need to move forward and substantially cut emissions," she said.

(Get global warming solutions.)

Devastating Loss

Increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which fuels global warming, is raising ocean levels and temperatures, said Olof Linden of the World Maritime University in Malmö, Sweden.

When oceans absorb carbon dioxide from air, the gas reacts with water to produce carbonic acid.

That makes the water more acidic, dissolving the calcium shells of reef-building coral and other creatures that rely on the mineral.

(Related: "A Third of Reef-Building Corals at Risk of Extinction" [July 10, 2008].)

A report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, of which IUCN is a member, also said all the world's coral reefs could be considered threatened if current forecasts from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and coral reef experts are heeded.

Because such reefs are home to more than a quarter of all marine species, their loss could be devastating for biodiversity in the world's oceans, experts say.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Obama and Gore Meet, Envisioning a New Era in U.S. Climate Leadership

President-elect Barack Obama  with former Vice President Al Gore in Chicago.
President-elect Barack Obama with former Vice President Al Gore in Chicago.

By Dan Shapley

President-elect Barack Obama met with former vice president turned failed presidential candidate turned Nobel Prize-winning climate champion Al Gore Tuesday.

Obama emerged from the meeting talking about global warming as a national security threat, according to Reuters, and renewable energy as an economic opportunity, which evidently satisfied Gore, who has championed the idea of transforming all U.S. electricity production to clean sources within 10 years. Obama hasn't embraced that goal, exactly, but he has pledged to invest something on the order of $150 billion over 10 years into renewable energy, energy efficiency and the like, while enacting a defacto tax on carbon via a cap-and-trade regulation similar to the one that reduced the threat from acid rain.

While no one expected Gore to be offered, or to accept, a position in the administration -- he's repeatedly said he doesn't want one -- there was news that another former environmental heavyweight from the Clinton Administration would be returning to Washington. Carol Browner, Clinton's EPA administrator and subsequently the chairwoman of the Audubon Society, among other roles, will take on a role as an environmental and energy adviser in some unspecified capacity, according to the Washington Post.

The convergence of Clinton-era environmental bigwigs at Obama's transition headquarters in Chicago, however, doesn't erase George W. Bush's legacy, which by all accounts is dismal. Despite a handful of praise-worthy regulations, such as those regulating diesel emissions from construction equipment, and the prospect of new ocean sanctuaries being preserved thanks largely to the lobbying of First Lady Laura Bush, the Bush legacy has been roundly denounced by environmental advocates of all types.

If nothing else, Bush was consistent: from the early days of closed-door energy policy meetings held by Vice President Dick Cheney with fossil fuel-burning power companies to the midnight regulations being approved now that will allow for greater air pollution, reduce the ability of citizens to avoid toxic exposure and reduce protections for endangered lands and creatures.

The EPA, particularly, has suffered from rampant politicization, as decision-making once left to scientists has been handed over to ideologues, as an ongoing series in the Philadelphia Inquirer makes clear.

It's little surprise, then, that advocacy groups are calling loudly for the restoration of a strong federal role in environmental protection. That sentiment was also heard in Poznan, Poland, where the latest round of United Nations negotiations over a new climate change treaty wrapped up clear targets set for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Obama has clearly stated near-term and long-term goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, which was, up until recently, the world's pollution leader. Gore, who is as keenly aware of the failures of Bush environmental policy as anyone on Earth, will, with his tremendous clout and following, no doubt be holding Obama accountable.

Recap: Obama's Speech on Global Warming

In a speech delivered via video to a bipartisan climate summit in California in November, Obama pledged to take strong action to combat global warming. Here's what he had to say:


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Climate change experts 'lose faith' in renewable technology

David Adam in Poznan

Support for renewable energy technology to fight global warming is weakening in the face of worldwide economic problems and the true scale of the carbon reductions required, a survey published today has suggested.

Figures presented at the UN climate talks in Poznan, Poland, show that climate experts have less faith in alternative energy than they did 12 months ago.

The survey shows less support for wind energy, solar power, biofuels, biomass and hydrogen energy as technologies with "high potential" to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere over the next 25 years.

There was also less support for carbon capture and storage, new nuclear build, small-scale hydropower and natural gas stations as viable ways to hit targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Eric Whan of Globescan, which carried out the survey of "climate decision makers", said: "As the climate crisis deepens they could be becoming less optimistic that individual technologies may be able to solve the problem."

The survey, supported by groups including the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme and the Pew Centre for Global Climate Change, questioned 1,000 senior figures across governments, pressure groups and companies in 115 countries over the last few weeks.

Almost three-quarters of the experts agreed in the survey that "equitable economic growth and development and significant progress in combating climate change can be achieved at the same time".

Asked to rate the likely success of low-carbon technologies in the mid-term, they showed less confidence than a similar survey 12 months ago. Support for offshore wind farms, the bedrock for ambitious UK renewable energy plans, was down to 61%, from 65% last year. Solar electricity generation was rated as having high-potential by 66% of respondents, down from 74%. Support for hydrogen power was 32%, down from 36% in 2007.

The respondents also warned that a deep recession would make a new global deal on climate harder to achieve. Some 44% agreed that the current economic crisis will significantly delay or compromise the "achievement of effective climate change agreements".

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat, said the Poznan talks were edging towards an agreement on how rich countries could pay to help developing nations adapt to the effects of climate change. "On adaptation I would say the glass is two-thirds full," he said.

But he said this week's talks were unlikely to agree a long-term goal for overall carbon reductions by 2050.

The Poznan negotiations aim to set the stage for a new global treaty of climate change to succeed the Kyoto protocol to be agreed in Copenhagen at a meeting this time next year.

De Boer said: "We're at a very important moment in time, and at a very important moment of political stock taking."

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