Sunday, December 28, 2008

Scientists plan to ignite tiny man-made star

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent

man-made sun: National Ignition Facility (NIF), California
Inside the target chamber, where scientists will attempt to create an artificial sun. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

While it has seemed an impossible goal for nearly 100 years, scientists now believe that they are on brink of cracking one of the biggest problems in physics by harnessing the power of nuclear fusion, the reaction that burns at the heart of the sun.

In the spring, a team will begin attempts to ignite a tiny man-made star inside a laboratory and trigger a thermonuclear reaction.

Its goal is to generate temperatures of more than 100 million degrees Celsius and pressures billions of times higher than those found anywhere else on earth, from a speck of fuel little bigger than a pinhead. If successful, the experiment will mark the first step towards building a practical nuclear fusion power station and a source of almost limitless energy.

At a time when fossil fuel supplies are dwindling and fears about global warming are forcing governments to seek clean energy sources, fusion could provide the answer. Hydrogen, the fuel needed for fusion reactions, is among the most abundant in the universe. Building work on the £1.2 billion nuclear fusion experiment is due to be completed in spring.

Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, nestled among the wine-producing vineyards of central California, will use a laser that concentrates 1,000 times the electric generating power of the United States into a billionth of a second.

The result should be an explosion in the 32ft-wide reaction chamber which will produce at least 10 times the amount of energy used to create it.

"We are creating the conditions that exist inside the sun," said Ed Moses, director of the facility. "It is like tapping into the real solar energy as fusion is the source of all energy in the world. It is really exciting physics, but beyond that there are huge social, economic and global problems that it can help to solve."

Inside a structure covering an area the size of three football pitches, a single infrared laser will be sent through almost a mile of lenses, mirrors and amplifiers to create a beam more than 10 billion times more powerful than a household light bulb.

Housed within a hanger-sized room that has to be pumped clear of dust to prevent impurities getting into the beam, the laser will then be split into 192 separate beams, converted into ultraviolet light and focused into a capsule at the centre of an aluminium and concrete-coated target chamber.

When the laser beams hit the inside of the capsule, they should generate high-energy X-rays that, within a few billionths of a second, compress the fuel pellet inside until its outer shell blows off.

This explosion of the fuel pellet shell produces an equal and opposite reaction that compresses the fuel itself together until nuclear fusion begins, releasing vast amounts of energy.

Scientists have been attempting to harness nuclear fusion since Albert Einstein’s equation E=mc², which he derived in 1905, raised the possibility that fusing atoms together could release tremendous amounts of energy.

Under Einstein’s theory, the amount of energy locked up in one gram of matter is enough to power 28,500 100-watt lightbulbs for a year.

Until now, such fusion has only been possible inside nuclear weapons and highly unstable plasmas created in incredibly strong magnetic fields. The work at Livermore could change all this.

The sense of excitement at the facility is clear. In the city itself, people on the street are speaking about the experiment and what it could bring them. Until now Livermore has had only the dubious honour of being home of the US government’s nuclear weapons research laboratories which are on the same site as the NIF.

Inside the facility, the scientists are impatient. After 11 years of development work, they want the last of the lenses and mirrors for the laser to be put in place and the tedious task of adjusting and aiming the laser to be over, a process they fear could take up to a year before they can successfully achieve fusion.

Jeff Wisoff, a former astronaut who is deputy principal associate director of science at the NIF, said: "Everyone is keen to get started, but we have to get the targeting right, otherwise it won’t work.

"We will be firing laser pulses that last just a few billionths of a second but we will be creating conditions that are found in the interior of stars or exploding nuclear weapons.

"I worked on the building of the International Space Station, but this is a far bigger challenge and the implications are huge. When we started the project, a lot of the technology we needed did not exist, so we have had to develop it ourselves.

"The next step is looking at how ignition can be used to deliver something of value to the world. It has the potential to be one of the biggest achievements mankind has made."

Although other experiments have attempted to create the conditions needed for nuclear fusion, lasers are seen as the most likely technique to be able to provide a viable electricity supply.

If all goes well, the NIF will be able to fire its laser and ignite a fusion reaction every five hours, but to create a reliable fusion power plant the laser would need to ignite fusion around 10 times a second.

The scientists are already working with British counterparts on the next step towards a fusion power station. A project known as the High Powered Laser Research facility aims to create a laser-powered fusion reactor that can fire once every couple of minutes.

Prof Mike Dunne, director of the central laser facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, said: "The National Ignition Facility is going to finally prove fusion can be achieved with a laser. It will start an exciting new period in physics as it will prove what we are trying to achieve is actually be possible."

Original here

Top 100 Stories of 2008

#1: The Post-Oil Era Begins

12.22.2008 Electricity may be what fuels our future—electricity from renewables, nuclear, and even from burning biomass.

by Ben Hewitt


#3: The FDA Tackles Tainted Drugs From China

The realities of globalization hit the U.S. drug industry. 12.22.2008

#4: Slime Is Turning the Seas Into Dead Zones

Pollution, overfishing, and the rise of microbes spell doom for many bodies of water. 12.22.2008

#5: Nations Stake Their Claims to a Melting Arctic

Undiscovered oil and gas reserves below the ice set off a polar gold rush. 12.22.2008

#6: Phoenix Lander Strikes Ice on Mars

Finally, positive confirmation of what we long thought and hoped for 12.21.2008

#7: Invisibility Becomes More than Just a Fantasy

Researchers are cloaking materials from light, sound, and even matter itself. 12.21.2008

#8: Cavemen: They're Just Like Us

Neanderthals were a sophisticated bunch, according to new research. 12.21.2008

#9: Your Genome, Now Available for a (Relative) Discount

The first cost around $1 million; now, it's more like $200,000. 12.21.2008

#10: Coming to the Americas

Several studies sharpen the picture of life and migration through the Arctic and into the New World. 12.21.2008

#11: Effective Kidney Transplants Without a Lifetime of Powerful Drugs

A new technique help transplant patients live, even with mismatched organs. 12.20.2008

#12: Plastics Come Under Fire

The BPA debate rages on as the public demands action. 12.20.2008

#13: China Takes Its First Space Walk

A nation delights in its pioneering venture. 12.20.2008

#14: All Flus Lead to Asia

The Far East is the incubator of every strain—and the key to treating the disease. 12.20.2008

#15: The Lost Cities of the Amazon

What is now sparsely populated jungle held large urban settlements hundreds of years ago. 12.20.2008

#16: Researchers Produce Human Blood from Stem Cells

It's not quite the same, but lab-generated blood gets the job done. 12.19.2008

#17: Cell Reprogramming Could Help Cure Diabetes—and Other Diseases

Stem-cell guru says reprogramming adult cells might actually work better. 12.19.2008

#18: Two Alzheimer’s Drugs Show Promise

The new drugs use a totally different mechanism than most would-be treatments. 12.19.2008

#19: Salmonella Outbreak Shines Light on Food Safety

Two deaths and countless dollars later, the chinks in the food system are exposed. 12.19.2008

#20: The “Doomsday Vault” Stores Seeds for a Global Agriculture Reboot

Humanity's chances to survive global warming and nuclear attacks just increased. 12.19.2008

#21: Plants Inspire a Better Way to Store Solar Energy

Using the principles of photosynthesis, scientists create more efficient storage for solar power. 12.18.2008

#22: Mercury Reveals Its Secrets

The planet comes into focus during NASA's first visit in 33 years. 12.18.2008

#23: Black Holes Birth Baby Stars

Computer simulations reveal the source of mystery constellations. 12.18.2008

#24: Gene Therapy Returns (Some) Sight to (Some) Blind People

Genetic tinkering helps repair one rare form of congenital blindness. 12.17.2008

#25: EPA Searches Soul, Tries to Figure out If It's a Climate Cop

The agency moves toward acting on greenhouse gases, but change will probably wait for Obama. 12.17.2008

#26: Sun Catcher Promises Cheaper Solar Power

Using laser technology, scientists build a low-cost solar concentrator. 12.17.2008

#27: Astronomers Spy the Youngest Planet Ever Found

The latest, newest protoplanet is a "dusty, rocky, gaseous lump." 12.17.2008

#28: Lithium May Be the Answer for Lou Gehrig’s Disease

A new study brings some hope that the disease can be treated. 12.17.2008

#29: A New Law Bans Genetic Discrimination

After over a decade, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act becomes law. 12.17.2008

#30: Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror

The birds pass the test for "rudimentary sense of self." 12.17.2008

#31: Fish Farming Threatens Wild Salmon

Lice, interbreeding, and contaminants are killing off the species. 12.16.2008

#32: DNA Sleuthing Cracks the Anthrax Case

Microbial forensics seems to have solved an infamous whodunnit. 12.16.2008

#33: The First Known Case of Virus-Attacks-Virus

Sputnik virus seems to have influenced evolution of the Mamavirus. 12.16.2008

#34: Anti-Malaria Gene Boosts HIV Vulnerability

An adaptation against tropical disease makes people of African descent more prone to AIDS. 12.16.2008

#35: Scientists Find the Key to Bringing Dead Zones Back to Life

Phosphorus levels can make or break a lake, it turns out. 12.16.2008

#36: Creationism Lurks in Public High Schools

One in six teachers say they believe the earth is 6,000 years old. 12.15.2008

#37: Shorebird Population Is in Rapid Decline

Australian and Asian birds are a clear example of population collapse. 12.15.2008

#38: Cholesterol Drugs Are Prescribed for High-Risk Kids

8-year-olds can now take statins to reduce the chances of heart disease. 12.15.2008

#39: Amazonian Tribe Doesn't Have Words for Numbers

The Pirahã people overturned scientists' belief about human cognition. 12.15.2008

#40: The First Known Binary Black Hole System

One of the most massive things in the universe turns out to have a little buddy. 12.15.2008

#41: A Synthetic Genome Is Built From Scratch

The art of recreating an entire bacterial genome. 12.14.2008

#42: Geneticists Uncover the Origin of Blue Eyes

A single genetic mutation gives life to baby blues. 12.14.2008

#43: Next-Level Quantum Spookiness

Photons instantaneously send signals over 11 miles. Einstein remains perplexed. 12.14.2008

#44: The Baffling Bee Die-Off Continues

Colony Collapse Disorder continues its relentless march. 12.14.2008

#45: Huge Population of Lowland Gorillas Found

For once, researchers come up with good news for an endangered species. 12.14.2008

#46: FDA Approves Food From Cloned Animals

Meat and milk products from cloned livestock may soon hit the shelves. 12.13.2008

#47: Biologists Watch HIV Replicate in Real Time

Using fluorescent proteins, researchers observer the virus forming. 12.13.2008

#48: Cyber Attacks May Be Connected With Real War

As tensions with Russia mounted, Georgia got slammed by hackers. 12.13.2008

#49: Plant Migration Tied to Climate Change

When the going gets hot, vegetation runs for the hills. 12.13.2008

#50: Confirmed: 1969 Meteorite Brought Genetic Building Blocks From Space

More evidence that asteroids may have led to the emergence of life on earth. 12.13.2008

#51: Physicists Build the World’s Smallest Transistor

The tiny device measures an astonishing 10 atoms by 1 atom. 12.12.2008

#52: Musical Ability Seems to Be 50 Percent Genetic

Beethovens of the world may have innate advantages like better signaling from inner-ear hair cells. 12.12.2008

#53: Bizarre Aquatic Creatures Are Secretly "Lesbian Necrophiliacs"

Asexual bdelloids aren't really asexual after all. 12.12.2008

#54: An “Elite” Immune System Can Prevent AIDS

A select few infected with HIV never become ill. 12.12.2008

#55: Polar Bears (Finally) Make the Endangered Species List

At long last, the government acknowledges the species is threatened. 12.12.2008

#56: Memory Training Can Make You Smarter

Your intelligence isn't just what you're born with. 12.11.2008

#57: Schizophrenia Linked to Large Genetic Alterations

Some sufferers of the disease have entirely unique DNA duplications or deletions. 12.11.2008

#58: Smart People Are Better Able to Keep a Beat

Good neural functioning is good neural functioning. 12.11.2008

#59: Low-Fat Is Officially Inferior to Low-Carb

A comprehensive study gives a big piece of ammunition to the Atkins crowd. 12.11.2008

#60: Mars Became Lopsided After Massive Asteroid Collision

After 30 years, the debate over the red planet's shape may be over. 12.11.2008

#61: A New Drug Delivers “Fitness” Without the Workout

Take a pill and simulate the effects of exercise. 12.10.2008

#62: Researchers Discover Why Wound-Licking Works

Compounds in saliva actually do speed healing. 12.10.2008

#63: Lizardlike Tuatara Sets a Speed Record for DNA Change

The reptile undergoes rapid molecular evolution but is largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. 12.10.2008

#64: Spain Gives Great Apes Legal Rights

The animals have the right to life and protection from harmful research practices. 12.10.2008

#65: Long-Prophesied Circuit Element Could Revolutionize Computing

Instant booting and decreased power consumption may soon be realities with the new "memristor." 12.10.2008

#66: Natural Selection Helped Indonesians Find the Perfect Canoe

Darwinian-style evolution pushes cultural change, a new paper argues. 12.10.2008

#67: Drilling, Not Earthquake, Caused Giant Hot Mud Volcano

Some claim an earthquake caused this mud river, but new research says otherwise. 12.10.2008

#68: Solved: The Mystery of Gravity-Defying Sap

One synthetic tree accomplishes what loads of scientists never could. 12.10.2008

#69: Physicists Create a Perfect Place to Store Electricity

New "superinsulator" can hold a charge forever without leakage 12.10.2008

#70: A Single Electron Is Caught on Film

Scientists make one of the world's most remarkable movies. 12.10.2008

#71: Slime Molds Show Surprising Degree of Intelligence

A creature with no brain can learn from and even anticipate events. 12.09.2008

#72: Prozac Cures Lazy Eye

The antidepressent might be the answer to wiping out amblyopia for good. 12.09.2008

#73: Giant Ice Meteors Fall From Clear Skies

20-pound chunks of ice falling on a sunny day? It's no urban myth. 12.09.2008

#74: Viruses Are Put to Work Building Superbatteries

Engineers turn viruses into little engineers. 12.09.2008

#75: Chilies' Fire Is Self-Defense Against a Surprising Foe

Capsaicin keeps fungus from chomping on pepper plants but does nothing to dissuade hungry bugs. 12.09.2008

#76: Europe’s Oldest Hominid Makes Its Debut

Archaeologists in Spain uncover the remains of a 1.2-million-year-old human. 12.09.2008

#77: X-Rays Reveal Ship-Wreckage to Be 2,000-Year-Old Astronomy Computer

The Antikythera Mechanism tracked heavenly movements like clockwork. 12.09.2008

#78: The Galaxy that Spins a Giant Magnetic Web

This "fiery spiderweb" uses magnetic fields to survive tough storms. 12.09.2008

#79: The Ancient Rat as Big as a Bull

This giant rodent weighed as much as a compact car. 12.09.2008

#80: Invented: Self-Healing Rubber Made From Vegetable Oil and Pee Ingredient

Hydrogen bonds let ripped material re-form. 12.09.2008

#81: Smart-Matter Robots Reassemble Themselves

Like the Terminator T-1000, these robots can fix themselves after being scattered. 12.08.2008

#82: The New Immune System Weapon: A DNA Catapult in Your Gut

Triggered by harmful bacteria, cells fling killer webs of DNA to ensnare the intruder. 12.08.2008

#83: Bulletproof Paper Is Stronger Than Kevlar

New nanopaper is not only super-strong, but made from renewable materials. 12.08.2008

#84: 9,000-Year-Old Milk Cartons Found

A new study examines the world's oldest cattle ranchers. 12.08.2008

#85: Smackdown Over Ancient "Hobbit" Continues

A mysterious skeleton puzzles scientists who wonder if it was human. 12.08.2008

#86: You, Too, Have a Photographic Memory

When put to the test, your brain remembers images with astonishing accuracy. 12.07.2008

#87: Speedy Sperm Explains Flower Power

The quickest out of the gate, angiosperms dominate the plant world. 12.07.2008

#88: Bacteria Can Control the Weather

The tiny organisms may play a big role in causing precipitation. 12.07.2008

#89: Archaeologists Find the World’s Oldest Arrowheads

While others were still hurling spears, these ancient people were felling prey with arrows. 12.07.2008

#90: The Platypus Genome Is a Mash-Up of Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals

One animal, three completely different ancestors. 12.07.2008

#91: Humans Have 5 Universal Facial Muscles—and 10 Optional Ones

For the first time, psychologists mapped muscle variation in the face. 12.05.2008

#92: A 380-Million-Year-Old Fish Gives Birth

Paleontologists unearth a prehistoric pregnant skeleton. 12.05.2008

#93: Physicists Discover the Source of Earth’s "Mystery Hiss"

A strange electromagnetic wave follows the path of sound waves through water. 12.05.2008

#94: Seaweed Creates Its Own Sunscreen

The soggy brown kelp protects itself with iodides. 12.05.2008

#95: Organic Matter Found in Saturn's Mystery Moon

Icy Jets from the planet's sixth-largest moon contain primitive components of life. 12.05.2008

#96: Ancient Traders Sailed the South American Seas

Using no more than sail-bearing rafts, these travelers carried goods almost 4,000 miles. 12.04.2008

#97: All-Powerful Astronomers Turn "Dwarf Planets" Into "Plutoids"

Faced with an outcry over ungainly titles, the IAU comes up with a better alternative. 12.04.2008

#98: You're More Like a Sponge Than a Comb Jelly

A gelatinous zooplankton can now trace its roots back to the world's first life. 12.04.2008

#99: Jupiter Grows (and Loses) a New Spot

The massive planet passed behind the sun and arrived with a brand new decoration. 12.04.2008

#100: This Animal Has the Strongest Bite on Earth

A bite from the biggest great white sharks leaves nearly every other species—both alive and extinct—in the dust. 12.04.2008

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Real-time Gene Monitoring Developed

The fly above is 65 days old (roughly equivalent to 65 years old for a human). Its green fluorescence indicates that the hsp22 gene has turned on. (Credit: Photo/Courtesy of John Tower laboratory

Imagine having GeneVision: the uncanny ability to view the activity of any chosen gene in real time through a specially modified camera.

With GeneVision, military commanders could compare gene expression in victorious and defeated troops. Retailers could track genes related to craving as shoppers moved about a store. "The Bachelor" would enjoy yet one more secret advantage over his love-struck dates.

Frightening? Perhaps. Ethically suspect? Certainly. Preposterous? Not quite.

A new study in BMC Biotechnology correlates real-time gene expression with movement and behavior for the first time. The proof-of-concept experiment in fruit flies opens a new door for the study of genes' influence on behavior.

The authors, from the University of Southern California and Cambridge University, tagged genes with a harmless molecule known as Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP).

When a gene was active, the flies gave off a fluorescent glow. A camera fitted with a special filter detected the glow, whose intensity was then measured automatically.

At the same time, a multiple-camera system designed by first author and USC graduate student Dhruv Grover tracked the movement of each fly in three dimensions.

The result: an exact picture of gene activity at every point and time of a fly's life.

"We can correlate behavior with certain genes and find genes that may be responsible for certain behaviors," Grover said.

The 3-D tracking and real-time measurement of gene activity are both firsts in live animal studies, the researchers said.

The methods also delivered new insights on aging in the fruit fly, long a model organism for the study of biological processes.

The levels of two genes, hsp70 and hsp22, spiked in the hours before the death of a fly.

The genes are known to respond to oxidative stress. Lead author John Tower, associate professor of molecular and computational biology at USC, speculated that the genes were reacting to a sharp increase in oxidative stress as the fly began dying of natural causes.

"We're really interested in why the fly is dying, and this is potentially a good inroad to being able to study that," he said.

Oxidation – the chemical process behind rust and food spoilage – takes place constantly in the body as a byproduct of metabolism.

"Burning that fuel to produce energy is toxic," Tower said.

The real-time methods developed by Tower's group painted the poignant picture, even if only for flies, of an animal's last attempt to fight off death.

Other animals soon will be studied the same way, Grover predicted.

"The beauty of it is now, if GFP can be linked to any gene … you could track it over time, and you could look at the expression of that gene. It's much easier than looking at it through the microscope, having a grad student sit there and take pictures every few hours and look at the (gene) expression change. This is just running on its own," he said.

It was Grover's thesis adviser Simon Tavare, a professor of molecular and computational biology at USC and faculty member at Cambridge, who suggested how to track flies in three dimensions.

"After that we started to think about, 'Can we look at the expression of certain genes over time, as they're moving?' " Grover recalled.

"That would be really interesting."

Even more interesting, for everyday life, would be a mosquito zapper guided by the tracking system – an application that Grover and Tower say just might be feasible.

As a Stanford undergraduate in computer science, Grover took no biology courses. After earning a master's at USC in computer science, he switched to the doctoral program in molecular and computational biology. The project to correlate movement and gene expression became his nearly complete Ph.D. thesis.

Junsheng Yang, another USC graduate student, contributed to the study. Computer vision expert Isaac Cohen, who has since left USC for Honeywell, assisted Grover in the early stages of the project.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center supported the research.

Original here

Two centuries on, a salute to Charles Darwin: Hero for our age

By Desmond Morris

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin: His observations undermined the traditionally held view of 'stability of species'

There is a strange object sitting on my desk as I write. It is a shiny sphere of fossilised, primeval slime. Known technically as stromatolites, this blue-green slime was the original ooze from which all life on this planet evolved.

This painfully slow process began about 3,000 million years ago and has led, ultimately, to us, the extraordinary human species.

Whenever my gaze happens to fall upon my lump of fossilised slime I experience a strange sensation, a deep respect, for I am looking at my most ancient ancestor.

Yours, too, unless you still believe in the tale of Adam and Eve and a talking serpent in the Garden of Eden.

In a few weeks, on February 12 to be exact, the scientific world will be celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the man whose theory of the gradual evolution of living things has changed the way in which most of us see the world in which we live.

Thanks to him, we see ourselves as part of nature, instead of separate from it and superior to it. If it weren't for him, we would not be concerned about the way we have, in our arrogant past, ravaged the small planet on which we live.

What kind of a man was Charles Darwin? To the naive mind he is sometimes pictured as a giant intellect of Victorian England, with his long, flowing white beard and his solemn expression, the product of a brilliantly studious education and intense academic application.

Well, no. In reality he was a mess, both physically and mentally, which makes his gigantic contribution to human understanding even more extraordinary.

He was the son of a sickly mother who died when he was eight.

Her lack of impact on him is clear when, as an adult, he wrote a letter of condolence to a grieving friend that opened with the remarkable statement: 'Never in my life having lost one near relation, I dare say I cannot imagine how severe grief such as yours must be.'

Charles Darwin

Darwin (inset) and an artist's impression of the Beagle, the ship which took him to all parts of the world

His father, a doctor, was a giant of a man, weighing more than 24 stone and capable of cutting sarcasm and tyrannically enforced views. He had been disappointed by his son's failure to do well at school, an education that Charles later described as 'simply a blank'.

The young Darwin had instead taken great pleasure in collecting shells and watching birds in his spare time, but his father decided his son must attend Edinburgh University to study medicine and follow in his own footsteps.

Charles found the lectures there either 'awful' or 'dull', but was too scared of his father to tell him that he did not wish to become a physician.

After two years his exasperated father gave up this attempt, stating that Charles was 'doing no good' at his studies.

Unassuming beginnings

Instead the old man decided his son should become a clergyman and must go to Cambridge to read for Holy Orders. This was an even bigger failure. Charles later wrote: 'My time there was wasted - as completely as at Edinburgh and at school.'

He fell in with a dissipated sporting set and spent a great deal of time in the countryside on shooting trips. Luckily, one of Charles's teachers at Cambridge had spotted the young man's interest in field studies and recommended him for the unpaid role as naturalist on board the Beagle, a ship that was about to set off to explore the world.

His father refused, forcing Charles to turn down the offer, but a supportive uncle intervened and in December 1831 the Beagle sailed with Darwin on board.


Desmond Morris's interest in evolution was inspired by his hero, Darwin. This photo is from the 1950s

The rest, as they say, is history. Away from has father's domineering presence and from failed attempts to embrace medicine or theology, Charles was at last in his element.

He described the first day on the Beagle as 'a birthday for the rest of my life'. He spent the next five years sailing around the world on that small (only 90ft long) ship, collecting specimens wherever he was able to land.

He was astonished at the huge variety of exotic creatures that he encountered, and little by little began to formulate his ideas about their relationships and the way they had managed to adapt to so many environments.

At any interesting landfall he would rise before daylight and often travelled long distances on horseback. On one occasion he had ridden 80 miles in a burning sun, but commented that he was 'but little fatigued'.

His health was robust and he often out-stripped his companions when on collecting expeditions. He was a man on fire with an all-consuming curiosity about the natural world. He wrote home saying: 'I literally could hardly sleep at night through thinking of my day's work.'

In 1835, four years after leaving home, he had travelled all around South America to the Pacific, where he was able to spend four crucial weeks on the Galapagos Islands.

It was there that he first sensed that the traditional idea of the 'stability of species' - that all animals have always been the way they are now, created by God in some distant past - was being undermined by his observations.

A land iguana in the Galapagos Islands

A land iguana in the Galapagos Islands

He saw how a variety of birds, apparently with a common ancestor, had adapted to the slightly different conditions on each of the Galapagos Islands.

This was the moment when the concept of evolution by natural selection first began to form in the mind of the young Charles Darwin - who was still only in his mid-20s. It would take nearly a quarter of a century before it would see the light of day in his book The Origin Of Species.

After five years away, in 1836 the Beagle returned home to England. Despite his fear that a wife would mean a 'terrible waste of time' because of the need for socialising, Charles was soon married and, significantly, within a few months of his wedding was already complaining about being too tired to go out to parties.

An honest, objective observer

The third phase of his life was about to begin, and how different it would be - a long period of almost constant illness accompanied by slow, painstaking work on his many scientific investigations.

For much of the rest of his life he was a walking textbook of stress symptoms. He suffered from sweating hands, heart palpitations, a swimming head, swoonings, flatulence, gastric pains, vomiting, boils, chronic anxiety, fits of depression, panic attacks and hyperventilation.

On bad days he would lie on his sofa for hours, groaning and grumbling. After 30 years of robust, vigorous good health, this change was bizarre and has led to much debate as to its cause.

Desmond Morris

The author of this essay, Desmond Morris, says Darwin's contribution to human understanding should be celebrated

Several explanations have been offered. The first sees him as the victim of a parasitic disease picked up in the tropics, but the symptoms do not quite fit with this idea.

The second sees him simply as a poor physical specimen who inherited his weaknesses. His mother had been a chronic invalid, his brother, Erasmus, was constantly ill, and he had a grandfather who suffered nervous breakdowns and an uncle who was a depressive.

With relatives like that, he may simply have been following in his family's footsteps.

The third explanation saw him as being intensely neurotic about his theory of evolution and the devastating impact it would have upon the deeply religious Victorian society in which he lived.

On his travels, he had, almost by accident, been thrust up against an inescapable truth: that life forms had not been rigidly created by God, but had been slowly evolved from ancestral types, forever changing as they competed with one another and adapted to environmental changes.

As an honest, objective observer, he could not allow himself to gloss over this biological truth, even if it meant causing untold outrage among devout Christians of his day.

The mental pressure under which this put him is thought to have caused all the classic stress symptoms from which he suffered for the last 40 or so years of his life. In other words, he was sick, but his ailments were all the result of his inner emotional conflicts, rather than by some tropical parasites.

Finally, there is the view that he was a malingerer and hypochondriac, using his ailments to give him an excuse to stay shut away in his country house, while the furious debate about his theory of evolution raged elsewhere.

Yes, he was sick, but not as sick as he made out. This enabled him not only to avoid the public controversy, but to escape the heavy social duties of Victorian life, too, and therefore to have more time to devote to his studies.


Darwin's great-grandson, Randal Keynes, and National History Museum bird curator Jo Cooper examine mockingbirds Darwin brought back to England from the Galapagos Islands

The truth is, he was bitten by some nasty bugs in South America and was probably left with a residue of physical weakness. Add to that his family background and his understandable horror at the profoundly anti-religious message of his discoveries, and you have the perfect setting for the magnification of his ailments.

And if he found that, to his delight, his condition left him greater time for the solitary scientific studies that meant more to him than anything else, you have a perfect recipe for constant ill-health - a weakened condition that nevertheless allowed him to work for three or four hours most days.

A rare individual

The point is, Charles Darwin was one of those rare individuals who devoted themselves entirely to the pursuit of knowledge, to the detriment of everything else in their lives. He was, and remains, one of our greatest ever thinkers - a man whose discovery changed the way we see the world.

As a lifelong naturalist myself, he is not only a personal hero but the root from which all my own professional studies stemmed. Which is why I feel it so important to celebrate the anniversary of his birth - if only because I fear many of his core discoveries are in danger of becoming muddled through the prism of modern spiritualism.

For there are plenty of people today - not all of them religious fundamentalists - who seem to think Darwinian evolution cannot explain why, for the most part, humans are a uniquely civilised species.

After all, they posit, how can Darwinism explain empathy, charity or self-sacrifice? How can it explain the 'good deeds' of humans, whether religious or not?

With its emphasis on 'the survival of the fittest', isn't Darwinism simply an excuse for rampant capitalism and personal greed?

To answer this attack, we need to take a closer look at the biology of our species. In our ancient past, when we were evolving as a tribal species, the competition between individuals had to be tempered by a greatly increased urge to cooperate with our companions if our tribe was to flourish.


Darwin's observations led him to formulate his Theory of Evolution - that all creatures, including man, have evolved in their environments over time

By a division of labour and by assisting one another, we also helped ourselves to succeed. And one of our great survival weapons was our ability to communicate with one another in much greater detail than other species.

When we developed language, we also became greatly interested in symbolism. The word 'tree' did not look like a tree or sound like a tree, but it nevertheless conjured up an image of a tree in our minds.

Making one thing stand for another in this way was a habit that spread through all aspects of our lives. If we feel protective towards a kitten, it is because the little animal acts as a symbol of a human child and stimulates our parental urges.

If a nun sees each human being as one of 'God's children', then she will want to help them all, as though they were real children. Our good deeds are extensions of our powerful parental feelings, or our inborn urge to co-operate with the members of our tribe.

We are not helpful to one another because of some sophisticated moralising, but because we have evolved that way. It is as much a part of our animal nature as is our urge to compete with one another.

That is the way we are, and there is no need to introduce the pious teachings of the Church to make us good - it is already in our genes.

Creationists will have none of this, and insist that all of nature is the work of what they now call an 'intelligent designer'.

If such a being existed, this monstrous designer would have to accept the responsibility for having created all the wonderful life forms we see around us, and then of cruelly inventing countless unspeakable agonies for them in the shape of leprosy, cholera, cancer, syphilis, plague, malaria, AIDS, fevers, parasitic worms and the rest.

What a charmer this designer must be; creationists are welcome to their hideous creation.

No, Darwinian competition is a much more reassuring scenario. In this, we will, as a species, devote more and more energy to defeating these viruses, bacteria and other parasites. Eventually, we will eradicate them.

We will refuse to accept that it is God's design that we should be made to suffer from these afflictions forever more. We will do our best to improve our lot on this small planet, and to see ourselves as part of a larger, natural environment.

Then, one day, when a major crisis occurs - a massive epidemic that nearly wipes us all out, or a huge asteroid that strikes Earth - we will be ready to evolve a little further and to survive this disaster because natural selection will be able to find just enough of us who can cope with whatever new environment comes our way.

Sooner or later, inevitably, there will be a gigantic planetary upheaval of some kind and Homo post-sapiens will eventually emerge from the chaos.

Let's just hope that it turns out to be Homo super-sapiens, and not Homo sub-sapiens.

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Men enjoy computer games 'because of basic urge to conquer'

By Matthew Moore

Nintendo wii - Men enjoy computer games 'because of basic urge to conquer'
Gender differences may help explain why males are more attracted to, and more likely to become 'hooked' on video games than females Photo: CLAIRE LIM

Playing on computer consoles activates parts of the male brain which are linked to rewarding feelings and addiction, scans have shown. The more opponents they vanquish and points they score, the more stimulated this region becomes.

In contrast, these parts of women's brains are much less likely to be triggered by sessions on the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii or Xbox.

Professor Allan Reiss of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford University, California, who led the research, said that women understood computer games just as well as men but did not have the same neurological drive to win.

"These gender differences may help explain why males are more attracted to, and more likely to become 'hooked' on video games than females," he said.

"I think it's fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial. It doesn't take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species – they're the males.

"Most of the computer games that are really popular with males are territory and aggression-type games."

In the study, published recently in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, scientists wired up a series of men and women to an MRI scanner while they played a video game, which involved competing to win on-screen territory by clicking on a series of balls.

After analysing the MRI data, the researchers found participants showed activation in the brain's mesocorticolimbic centre, the region typically associated with reward and addiction.

Male brains, however, showed much greater activation, and the amount increased as they gained more territory. This was not the case with women.

Three structures within the reward circuit – the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex – were also shown to influence each other much more in men than in women.

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Rat embryonic stem cells created

Genetically engineered rats should follow soon, providing new models of human disease.

ratGenetically engineered rats: coming to a lab near you.Alamy

Rat pluripotent stem cells - the essential ingredient for making genetically engineered versions of the animals - have finally been created after decades of effort in the field.

Scientists have long been able to alter the DNA in mouse embryonic stem cells, routinely creating mice with missing, added or altered genes. But the same techniques have not worked in rats, whose larger size can make them better models for certain disorders in humans. Although some techniques do exist for genetically manipulating rats, they are far more limited than those used in mice.

Twenty-seven years ago, researchers thought that genetically engineered rats would follow quickly after the development of the technique in mice. "We and others worked very, very hard [on rats] and got nowhere," recalls Martin Evans of Cardiff University, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies for work that made 'knockout' (loss of function) and 'knockin' (gene replacement or addition) mice possible.

Researchers led by Austin Smith of the University of Cambridge, UK, and Qi-Long Ying of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, now report in Cell that they have derived rat embryonic stem (ES) cells that can transfer their genome into the sex cells of a growing rat1,2. Smith's team has also shown that the rat ES cells can be genetically manipulated. Neither has produced a genetically engineered rat yet. But Stem Cell Sciences, a company Smith co-founded, is already in discussions with pharmaceutical companies and animal providers to create and distribute knockout rats, says the company's chief executive Alastair Riddell. Ying says that the first genetically engineered rat from ES cells could be born within as little as six months.

Rat switch

Both Evans and Capecchi agree that moving from rat embryonic stem cells to genetically engineered rats should be swift and straightforward. However, they think mice have now become so well studied and well established that knockout rats may be less appealing. "Does this mean that everyone will switch to rats? I doubt it," says Capecchi, explaining that the cost of keeping laboratory rats is about ten times as great as for mice.

But some researchers are eager to apply the development in their own work. "Having access to genetically engineered rats would allow us to design more sophisticated experiments," says Viviane Tabar, a scientist and neurosurgeon at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "I definitely would use such rats in some of my experiments." Mouse spinal cords and other organs are so small that they make cell-transplant studies very difficult, she says. Moreover, rats are capable of more complex behaviour, making them better suited for studying some brain diseases.

Stem Cell Sciences has patent claims covering both the conditions used to derive the cells, as well as rat pluripotent stem cells themselves, says George Schlich, the company's intellectual-property lawyer. However, it is uncertain whether the company could control scientists' use of the technique.

And a complementary technique for making rat stem cells has recently been developed. Earlier this month, researchers led by Sheng Ding of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, Hongkui Deng of Peking University and Lei Xiao of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, created induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from cultured rat cells3,4. Along with genetic-engineering techniques like those used to create mouse and human iPS cells, culture conditions used by Deng and Ding were similar to those reported by Ying and Smith. Though these iPS cells have not yet been used to produce sex cells, the availability of both rat ES and iPS cells should enable a greater variety of experiments to be devised to compare the potential of the two cell types.

Culture club

Smith and Ying made their breakthrough by adapting the way ES cells are cultured. Mouse ES cells are generally grown in cultures containing proteins and cell extracts that prevent the cells from differentiating too quickly, conditions that proved unsuitable for rat ES cells. But while working as a postdoc in Smith's lab, Ying identified combinations of small molecules that allow mouse ES cells to grow stably, without the proteins and cell extracts. Both Smith and Ying applied these culture conditions to making rat ES cells after Ying established his own lab.

Ying thinks that these small molecules could allow ES cells to be derived in species beyond mice and rats. He is currently working with collaborators at the Second Military Medical University in Shanghai, China, to generate ES cells from large animals such as cows and pigs. Besides helping to create genetically engineered livestock, ES cells for large animals could help scientists study potential stem-cell therapies in species closer in size to the human patients who might receive them.

Ying says the next key step is to optimize the enzymes and reagents used to manipulate mouse ES cells so that they work better in rat cells. The researchers are also trying to identify the best rat strains to use for generating ES cells and host embryos, as well as to identify better culture conditions.

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Australian arrested in Egypt for trying to smuggle 2,000-year-old animal mummies

By Daily Mail Reporter

An Australian teacher who stuffed his luggage with 2,000-year old animal mummies and religious figurines wrapped as gifts has been arrested, an Egyptian airport security official said.

The man was heading to Thailand when a security official became suspicious of the wrapped figurines that were placed amid souvenir ceramic pots in his suitcase.

When security officials opened the case, they found two mummies of a cat and an ibis, a long-beaked bird, both dating back to 300 B.C.

A mummy like this one was discovered in the teacher's luggage

The confiscated collection also included 19 figurines of the revered ancient Egyptian gods of Horus and Thoth, wrapped as gifts.

Horus is a falcon-headed god, who represented the greatest cosmic powers for ancient Egyptians. Thoth is believed to have given the Egyptians the gift of hieroglyphic writing.

The man was arrested and has been charged with smuggling antiquities, which can carry a penalty of as much as 15 years.

The Egyptian antiquity chief Zahi Hawass said later in a statement that the seized artifacts altogether weighed about 12lbs.

An antiquity official at the airport described the bust as rare because of the number of items involved and the age of the items.

Animal mummification was a common practice throughout Egyptian history.

Thousands of mummified animals and many animal deity figurines were found from Egypt's Late Period, between 330 B.C. and 30 B.C.

Certain animals, such as ibises, falcons, and cats, were thought to be holy, the living representatives of Egyptian gods.

Another unlucky traveler in Cairo's airport was stopped Wednesday with 56 cartridges, 20 pieces of live ammunition and an old bayonet that dates back to World War II.

The Canadian passenger, who was heading to Switzerland, was freed. He told the authorities he picked up the ammunition in the Egyptian north coast town El Alamein, the site of one of the most decisive battles in World War II.

He said he was unaware transporting the ammunition would be illegal.

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Amateurs are trying genetic engineering at home

By MARCUS WOHLSEN, Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO – The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself.

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

"People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process," she said.

So far, no major gene-splicing discoveries have come out anybody's kitchen or garage.

But critics of the movement worry that these amateurs could one day unleash an environmental or medical disaster. Defenders say the future Bill Gates of biotech could be developing a cure for cancer in the garage.

Many of these amateurs may have studied biology in college but have no advanced degrees and are not earning a living in the biotechnology field. Some proudly call themselves "biohackers" — innovators who push technological boundaries and put the spread of knowledge before profits.

In Cambridge, Mass., a group called DIYbio is setting up a community lab where the public could use chemicals and lab equipment, including a used freezer, scored for free off Craigslist, that drops to 80 degrees below zero, the temperature needed to keep many kinds of bacteria alive.

Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, said amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels, but they might also try, for example, to use squid genes to create tattoos that glow.

Cowell said such unfettered creativity could produce important discoveries.

"We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game," he said.

Patterson, the computer programmer, wants to insert the gene for fluorescence into yogurt bacteria, applying techniques developed in the 1970s.

She learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model.

Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog organization, warned that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage.

"Once you move to people working in their garage or other informal location, there's no safety process in place," he said.

Some also fear that terrorists might attempt do-it-yourself genetic engineering. But Patterson said: "A terrorist doesn't need to go to the DIYbio community. They can just enroll in their local community college."

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Regenerate Your Brain? -The Science Says It's Possible

Human_brain_receptors_2_2 Contrary to popular belief, recent studies have found that there are probably ways to regenerate brain matter.

Animal studies conducted at the National Institute on Aging Gerontology Research Center and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, for example, have shown that both calorie restriction and intermittent fasting along with vitamin and mineral intake, increase resistance to disease, extend lifespan, and stimulate production of neurons from stem cells.

In addition, fasting has been shown to enhance synaptic elasticity, possibly increasing the ability for successful re-wiring following brain injury. These benefits appear to result from a cellular stress response, similar in concept to the greater muscular regeneration that results from the stress of regular exercise.

Additional research suggests that increasing time intervals between meals might be a better choice than chronic calorie restriction, because the resultant decline in sex hormones may adversely affect both sexual and brain performance. Sex steroid hormones testosterone and estrogen are positively impacted by an abundant food supply. In other words, you might get smarter that way, but it might adversely affect your fun in the bedroom, among other drawbacks.

But if your not keen on starving yourself, there are other options. Another recent finding, stemming from the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and Iwate University in Japan, reports that the herb rosemary contains an ingredient that fights off free radical damage in the brain. The active ingredient, known as carnosic acid (CA), can protect the brain from stroke and neurodegeneration such as Alzheimer’s and from the effects of normal aging.

Although researchers are patenting more potent forms of isolated compounds in this herb, unlike most new drugs, simply using the rosemary in its natural state may be the most safe and clinically tolerated because it is known to get into the brain and has been consumed by people for over a thousand years. The herb was used in European folk medicine to help the nervous system.

Another brain booster that Bruce N. Ames, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, swears by his daily 800 mg of alpha-lipoic acid and 2,000 mg of acetyl-L-carnitine, chemicals which boost the energy output of mitochondria that power our cells. Mitochondrial decay is a major factor in aging and diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes. Elderly rats on these supplements had more energy and ran mazes better.

Omega-3s fatty acids DHA and EPA found in walnuts and fatty fish (such as salmon, sardines, and lake trout) are thought to help ward off Alzheimer's disease. (In addition, they likely help prevent depression and have been shown to help prevent sudden death from heart attack).

Turmeric, typically found in curry, contains curcumin, a chemical with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In India, it is even used as a salve to help heal wounds. East Asians also eat it, which might explain their lower rates (compared to the United States) of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, in addition to various cancers. If curry isn’t part of your favorite cuisines, you might try a daily curcumin supplement of 500 to 1,000 mg.

Physical exercise may also have beneficial effects on neuron regeneration by stimulating regeneration of brain and muscle cells via activation of stress proteins and the production of growth factors. But again, additional research suggests that not all exercise is equal. Interestingly, some researchers found that exercise considered drudgery was not beneficial in neuronal regeneration, but physical activity that was engaged in purely for fun, even if equal time was spent and equal calories were burned, resulted in neuronal regeneration.

Exercise can also help reduce stress, but any stress-reducing activity, such as meditation and lifestyle changes, can help the brain. There is some evidence that chronic stress shrinks the parts of the brain involved in learning, memory, and mood. (It also delays wound healing, promotes atherosclerosis, and increases blood pressure.)

It should go without saying that short-term cognitive and physical performance is not boosted by fasting, due to metabolic changes including decrease in body temperature, decreased heart rate and blood pressure and decreased glucose and insulin levels, so you’re better off not planning a marathon or a demanding work session during a fasting period.

As part of a healthy lifestyle the prescription of moderating food intake, exercising, and eating anti-oxidant rich foods is what we’ve long known will boost longevity, but it’s good to know that we can bring our brains along with us as we make it into those golden years without being the 1 in 7 who suffers from dementia. Keep your fingers crossed and eat some rosemary chicken.

Posted by Rebecca Sato

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US Becomes Largest Wind Power Producer in the World

Activists attack Japanese whalers with stink bombs

Activists attack Japanese whalers with stink bombs AFP/HO/File – The Japanese harpoon whaling vessel "Yushin Maru No. 2" (left) crosses the bow of the Sea Shepherd's …

TOKYO (AFP) – Militant environmentalists said they had pelted stink bombs at a Japanese whaling ship in Australian waters in their latest bid to disrupt hunting of the protected creatures.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said it "pursued and delivered 10 bottles of rotten butter and 15 bottles of a methyl cellulose and indelible dye mixture" to the Kaiko Maru vessel Friday evening.

A Japanese government-backed whaling body claimed that the activists' ship rammed into the left side of the Japanese vessel, damaging a bulwark.

"We cannot tolerate disruptive activities that threaten the safety of the crew members," Minoru Morimoto, head of the Institute of Cetacean Research, which carries out Japan's whale hunting operations, said in a statement.

Sea Sepherd said in an online statement however it was the Japanese ship that "steered hard" and struck the group's ship "Steve Irwin", although neither vessel suffered serious damage.

Paul Watson, the captain of the activists' ship, said in the statement that his crew was trying to push the Japanese whalers out of Australian waters. Sea Shepherd is an international group with headquarters in the United States and Australia.

Japan kills hundreds of whales a year in the name of research despite an international moratorium on commercial whaling.

Tokyo makes no secret of the fact that the meat ends up on dinner tables and accuses Westerners of insensitivity to its whaling culture.

For the past four years Watson has led a Sea Shepherd vessel trying to impede the whaling ships during their hunting season.

Watson claimed earlier this year that his ship's hounding of the Japanese whalers last season had saved the lives of 500 of the giant mammals.

But the activists' repeated attacks have led Japan to label them as "terrorists."

After an earlier attempt to pelt a Japanese harpoon boat with stink bombs, Watson told AFP on Monday that the activists would continue trying to hamper the whalers.

"We will just harass them, blockade them, do everything to prevent them from resuming whaling," he said at the time.

"Most likely they will run and we will chase and they'll run and we'll chase and that's fine. As long as they are running they are not killing whales."

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Burning Coal at Home Is Making a Comeback

Laura Pedrick for The New York Times

Kyle Buck of Sugarloaf, Pa., fills a stove with anthracite coal as his wife, Kelly, plays with their daughter Lila.


SUGARLOAF, Pa. — Kyle Buck heaved open the door of a makeshift bin abutting his suburban ranch house. Staring at a two-ton pile of coal that was delivered by truck a few weeks ago, Mr. Buck worried aloud that it would not be enough to last the winter.

“I think I’m going through it faster than I thought I would,” he said.

Aptly, perhaps, for an era of hard times, coal is making a comeback as a home heating fuel.

Problematic in some ways and difficult to handle, coal is nonetheless a cheap, plentiful, mined-in-America source of heat. And with the cost of heating oil and natural gas increasingly prone to spikes, some homeowners in the Northeast, pockets of the Midwest and even Alaska are deciding coal is worth the trouble.

Burning coal at home was once commonplace, of course, but the practice had been declining for decades. Coal consumption for residential use hit a low of 258,000 tons in 2006 — then started to rise. It jumped 9 percent in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration, and 10 percent more in the first eight months of 2008.

Online coal forums are buzzing with activity, as residential coal enthusiasts trade tips and advice for buying and tending to coal heaters. And manufacturers and dealers of coal-burning stoves say they have been deluged with orders — many placed when the price of heating oil jumped last summer — that they are struggling to fill.

“Back in the 1980s, we sold hundreds a year,” said Rich Kauffman, the sales manager at E.F.M. Automatic Heat in Emmaus, Pa., one of the oldest makers of coal-fired furnaces and boilers in the United States, in a nod to the uptick in coal sales that followed the oil crises of the 1970s.

“But that dwindled to nothing in the early 1990s — down to as many as 10 a year,” he said. “It picked up about a year ago, when we moved about 60 units, and then this year we’ve already sold 200.”

Dean Lehman, the plant manager for Hitzer Inc., a family-owned business in Berne, Ind., that makes smaller, indoor coal stoves, said his stoves were on back order until March. And Jeffery Gliem, the director of operations at the Reading Stove Company and its parent, Reading Anthracite, in Pottsville, Pa., which supplies coal and stoves to 15 states in the Northeast and Midwest, said the uptick in interest was the largest he had seen in 30 years.

“In your typical year you might have five, six, seven thousand stoves being sold,” Mr. Gliem said. “This year it was probably double that.”

The coal trend is consistent with steep increases in other forms of supplementary heating that people can use to save money — most of them less messy than coal. Home Depot reports that it has sold more than 80,000 tons of pellet fuel, a sort of compressed sawdust, for the season to date. That is an increase of 137 percent compared with the same period last year, said Jean Niemi, a company spokeswoman.

Coal may never make economic sense in areas far from where it is mined. But in places within reasonable delivery range, the price tends to be stable, compared with heating oil or natural gas. Prices for natural gas more than tripled in recent years before plunging in the last few months amid the downturn.

Coals vary in quality, but on average, a ton of coal contains about as much potential heat as 146 gallons of heating oil or 20,000 cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration. A ton of anthracite, a particularly high grade of coal, can cost as little as $120 near mines in Pennsylvania. The equivalent amount of heating oil would cost roughly $380, based on the most recent prices in the state — and over $470 using prices from December 2007. An equivalent amount of natural gas would cost about $480 at current prices.

Mr. Buck said he could buy coal for $165 a ton. On a blustery afternoon recently, he was still studying the manual for his $2,300 Alaska Channing stoker, which gave off an intense heat in the den. An automated hopper in the back slowly dispensed fine anthracite coal chips into the stove’s belly, and every couple of days, Mr. Buck emptied the ash. He said he hoped the stove would cut his oil consumption in half.

“Now, somewhere, you’ve got to take into account the convenience of turning up your thermostat, versus having two tons of coal to shovel and the hopper and ashes to deal with,” Mr. Buck said. But if the $330 worth of coal in his makeshift bin “heats the house for the winter,” he added, “you can’t beat it.”

Wesley Ridlington, a homeowner in Fairbanks, Alaska, bought an outdoor coal furnace for $13,000 in March and uses it as his main source for heat and hot water.

On a recent evening, as the temperature hovered around 23 below zero, Mr. Ridlington worked to free up the rotating burning plate inside the furnace, which he figured was jammed by a pebble. He did not seem to mind the glitch, or, for that matter, loading the furnace twice a week and emptying the ash pan every night. “It takes a little bit of time,” he said, “but for the savings, it’s worth it.”

Mr. Ridlington said he was typically burning 1,500 gallons of oil each winter to heat his 3,300-square-foot home. At last year’s prices, that would have cost about $7,000, he said. This winter, he expects to burn nine tons of coal at a cost of about $1,400.

“The initial cost was expensive,” he said. “But in three to five years, it’ll be paid for, even with prices going down. And if fuel goes back up again, it’ll be even more savings.”

Rob Richards, who owns a business in Fairbanks that sells spas, pool tables, and now outdoor coal furnaces, said that when oil prices were higher, he could promise fuel cost savings of more than 75 percent and a payback of 18 months for an outdoor coal furnace. With oil prices down again, orders for furnaces have dropped off, and the savings are closer to 50 percent with a few years’ time to recoup the cost, he said.

“Still, you’re looking at a quick payback,” Mr. Richards added.

Coal was a dominant source of heat for American homes for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Americans were still burning more than 50 million tons for heating in 1950, according to the federal statistics.

But coal, primarily used today in power plants and steelmaking, has not been used for heating on a large scale for decades. Cleaner and more easily distributed forms of heating fuel — including natural gas, electricity and oil — displaced coal, and residential use dropped precipitously, to 2.8 million tons by 1975, and then to less than 500,000 tons by 2000.

Even with the recovery of the last couple of years, residential use of coal in the United States, at less than 300,000 tons today and representing a fraction of 1 percent of all coal use, is “not even a blip on the screen,” said Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association.

Still, even amid the steep decline, small upticks similar to the current one have appeared from time to time, and residential use of coal never entirely went away.

In Homer, Alaska, fall storms wash crude coal onto the beach from underwater deposits. In the mountains of eastern Kentucky or the hills of central Pennsylvania, residents can simply dig it out of the ground.

“As long as people have been mining coal up there,” said John Hiett of Kentucky’s Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, “people have burned coal in their houses.”

Government data suggest that about 131,000 households use coal as their primary source of heat, with perhaps 80,000 more using it as a secondary source. Those numbers are small enough that issues relating to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have remained largely off the radar.

Burning coal does throw fine particles into the air that can pose problems for some people, similar to the problems involved in burning wood — though wood stoves and fireplace inserts are increasingly subject to regulation to cut down on pollutants.

“Coal stoves don’t have that,” said James E. Houck, the president of Omni Environmental Services, a firm in Portland, Ore., that tests air quality. “And there’s no regulatory pressure for them to have it.”

In some localities where residential coal burning is becoming a factor, that might be changing. In Fairbanks, air quality experts suspect the increase in coal burning — along with increased wood burning — is contributing to concentrations of fine particles well above federal limits.

“We see it as a real health hazard to Fairbanks,” said Jim Conner, the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s air quality specialist.

Concerns like these have not deterred companies marketing coal. Back East, the Blaschak Coal Corporation, a midsize supplier of anthracite in Mahanoy City, Pa., still emblazons company trucks and baseball caps with images of Santa Claus lugging a sack of coal.

“Everybody’s looking at wherever they can to save money,” said Daniel Blaschak, a co-owner of the company. “ ’Cause guess what? We no longer have disposable income. We are up to our necks in debt. And there’s very few things we can’t live without, but heat is one of them.”

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