Thursday, January 1, 2009

NASA faults equipment in Columbia shuttle disaster

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- A NASA report on the last minutes of Space Shuttle Columbia cited problems with the crew's helmets, spacesuits and restraints, which resulted in "lethal trauma" to the seven astronauts aboard.

Columbia crew members were killed when the shuttle broke apart upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Columbia crew members were killed when the shuttle broke apart upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

But the report also acknowledged that "the breakup of the crew module ... was not survivable by any currently existing capability."

The spacecraft broke up while re-entering Earth's atmosphere near the end of its mission on February 1, 2003.

The NASA report found the astronauts knew for about 40 seconds that they did not have control of the shuttle before they likely were knocked unconscious as Columbia broke apart around them. Video Watch more details from the report »

The report also found that while crew members were wearing their pressurized suits, one astronaut did not have on a helmet, three were not wearing gloves and none lowered the visors before the module lost cabin pressure. One astronaut also was not seated.

"In this accident, none of those actions would have ultimately made any difference," said former shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, now a deputy NASA administrator.

The graphic, 400-page investigative report relied on video, recovered debris and medical findings, supplemented with computer modeling and analyses. It also includes many recommendations to make space travel safer for future astronauts.

A shuttle-program source told CNN the families of the astronauts who died were brought in specifically to look at the report and even in some cases to help with its preparation. The report took more than five years to complete.

"The members of this team have done an outstanding job under difficult and personal circumstances," said Johnson Space Center director Michael L. Coats. "Their work will ensure that the legacy of Columbia and her heroic crew continues to be the improved safety of future human spaceflights worldwide."

Columbia broke apart some 200,000 feet over Texas -- just minutes before it was to have touched down in Florida. The shuttle's wing was damaged on takeoff when a large piece of heat-reflecting foam ripped off and gouged a hole in it.

During re-entry, the hole allowed atmospheric gases to burn the wing and destroy the spacecraft. The oldest orbiter in the fleet, Columbia had just completed a 16-day science mission. Video Watch the view from the command deck as the shuttle enters the atmosphere »

Killed were commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, payload commander Michael Anderson and mission specialists David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force colonel who was Israel's first astronaut.

By request of the families of the Columbia astronauts, NASA released the report between Christmas and New Year's so that the astronauts' children would be at home where they could discuss the findings with their families in private, said former shuttle commander Pam Melroy, deputy project manager for the investigation team.

"It was a way for us to work through our grief about the accident," said Melroy about compiling the report. "This was one of the hardest things I've ever done."

The report stated that "after the crew lost consciousness due to the loss of cabin pressure, the seat inertial reel mechanisms on the crews' shoulder harnesses did not lock.

"As a result, the unconscious or deceased crew was exposed to cyclical rotational motion while restrained only at the lower body. Crew helmets do not conform to the head. Consequently, lethal trauma occurred to the unconscious or deceased crew due to the lack of upper body support and restraint."

Another section of the report focused on the pressure suits used by the space shuttle crew on launch and re-entry. It said the suits were not part of the initial design of the orbiter and that depressurization "occurred so rapidly that the crew members were incapacitated within seconds, before they could configure the suit for full protection from loss of cabin pressure."

Melroy said investigators took some comfort in data that suggests the Columbia crew died abruptly and without suffering.

"Of course, we were relieved," she told reporters during a NASA conference call Tuesday afternoon. "It is a very small blessing, but we'll take them where we can find them."

The NASA team's report evaluated every aspect of the crew cabin infrastructure, including the design of the safety belts and helmets worn by the crew. The report also included recommendations to improve spacecraft design and crew safety.

Those recommendations cover a broad range of subjects from crew training, procedures, restraints and individual safety equipment to spacecraft design methods and recommendations regarding future accident investigations.

"By learning these lessons and ensuring that we continue the journey begun by the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia, we help to give meaning to their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their families," the report stated. "It is for them, and for the future generations of explorers, that we strive to be better and go farther.

The report will have little if no effect on the nine remaining space shuttle flights to come. NASA is mothballing the shuttle program in 2010 as it begins a new program, Constellation, designed to send astronauts back to the moon.

There is expected to be about a five-year hiatus in manned U.S. space flight as NASA transitions to the new program, which it hopes will launch in 2015.

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Update: Mars Rovers approaching five years of service, still kicking

By Rick C. Hodgin

Pasadena (CA) - The two Mars rovers operating right now on the surface of Mars, Spirit and Opportunity, will turn five the 3rd and 24th respectively. Their original 90-days of service has been surpassed by more than 20x as both rovers still carry out missions even today on the red planet - weather permitting, of course.

Artist's rendition of the rover Spirit on surface of Mars. The rovers are nearly as tall as an average person and send back stereoscopic images (two cameras) which present images as our eyes would see them. View the slideshow (link below) for some truly amazing images from Spirt and the other rover, Opportunity. Credit: NASA.

Together, the rovers have sent back over 250,000 images, travelled more than 13 miles, climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with Martian sand traps and aging and failing equipment. They survived dust storms and sent back more than 36 GB of data via the Mars Odyssey craft permanently in orbit around Mars.

Spirit and Opportunity's energy levels are falling year after year due to an accumulation of dust on the craft's solar panels, along with slowly deteriorating batteries. Said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and Opportunity, "This last winter was a squeaker for Spirit. We just made it through." Spirit was barely able to gather enough solar energy each day to maintain internal heat levels each night to keep delicate instruments and circuits from damage due to extreme cold (it gets well below -100 degrees F on Mars).

New missions are scheduled for Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit will first drive about 200 yards and south of a location observed in 2006 called "Home Plate." It is a plateau and may yield support information about what is believed to be a remnant of explosive volcanic material. Later it will head for a house-sized pit called Goddard.

Opportunity is already off to a place called "Endeavour Crater." It's approximately 14 miles in diameter and more than 20x larger than another crater called Victoria where Opportunity has spent most of the last two years. Opportunity's total journey will be seven miles (as the crow flies) to get there, though it will actually be much longer as the Rover must avoid many obstacles.

Opportunity is already more than one mile along on its journey, and has taken several high resolution images of interesting formations along the way. [When I think about Spirit and Opportunity, I cannot help but get an image of Wall-e in my mind, especially with the image above. If only there were more rovers on Mars that Spirit could get replacement parts from.]

The service Spirit and Opportunity have given mankind exceeded everybody's expectations, both inside and outside of NASA. The information they continue to send back takes our imaginations to flight, soaring with possible future manned missions to Mars and setting first foot on another world. That would be something.

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Too much thinking 'can make you fat'

Too much thinking 'can make you fat'
Despite the low energy cost of mental work, students who participated in the research consumed 23.6 per cent more calories after intellectual tasks Photo: ALEXANDER BRATTELL

Researchers found the stress of thinking caused overeating with heavy thinkers seeking out more calories.

The research team, supervised by Dr Angelo Tremblay, measured the spontaneous food intake of 14 students after each of three tasks.

The first was relaxing in a sitting position, the second reading and summarizing a text, and finally completing a series of memory, attention, and vigilance tests on the computer.

After 45 minutes at each activity, participants were invited to eat as much as they wanted from a buffet.

The researchers had already discovered that each session of intellectual work requires only three calories more than the rest period.

However, despite the low energy cost of mental work, the students spontaneously consumed 203 more calories after summarizing a text and 253 more calories after the computer tests.

This represents a 23.6 per cent and 29.4 per cent increase, respectively, compared with the rest period.

Blood samples taken before, during, and after each session revealed that intellectual work causes much bigger fluctuations in glucose and insulin levels than rest periods.

Jean-Philippe Chaput, the study's main author, said: "These fluctuations may be caused by the stress of intellectual work, or also reflect a biological adaptation during glucose combustion."

The body could be reacting to these fluctuations by spurring food intake in order to restore its glucose balance, the only fuel used by the brain.

Mr Chaput added: "Caloric overcompensation following intellectual work, combined with the fact we are less physically active when doing intellectual tasks, could contribute to the obesity epidemic currently observed in industrialised countries.

"This is a factor that should not be ignored, considering that more and more people hold jobs of an intellectual nature."

The results of the study, carried out at Universite Laval in Quebec, Canada, are published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

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Sharks have weak bites, say scientists

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent

Great white - Sharks have weak bites, say scientists
Compared with mammals sharks have incredibly weak bites for their size Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Researchers have found that sharks in fact have very weak jaws for their size and can bite through their prey only because they have very sharp teeth - and because they can grow to be so big.

"Pound for pound, sharks don't bite all that hard," Daniel Huber of the University of Tampa in Florida, who led the study, said

Dr Huber and the team studied 10 different shark species and measured the bites of small sharks such as sand sharks.

They tested larger sharks by knocking them out and using electricity to stimulate the jaw muscles.

They found sharks can do a lot of damage simply because their teeth are so sharp and their jaws are so wide. However compared with mammals they have incredibly weak bites for their size.

"Our analysis showed that large sharks do not bite hard for their body size, but they generally have larger heads," they wrote in their report, published in the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology.

Their studies of shark jaws show that lions or tigers win hands down when it comes to jaw strength but sharks prevail in the water because of their wide jaw size.

A 20ft (6-metre) great white shark can 'bite through anything that you come across,' the team added, noting that all species often have to resort to a sawing motion to break apart their prey.

Mammals have evolved much more efficient jaw muscles, Huber noted.

Dr Huber is part of a research group that has been studying the hunting prowess of great white sharks.

The team created an eight-foot great white shark in 3-D digital form that demonstrates how the animal functions, including measurements of the force of its bite.

Dr Huber said the research could lead to advances in protective swim wear and shark-proofing equipment. It could also contribute to the understanding of the flexible cartilage that forms sharks' skeletons.

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Cracking A Tough Nut For Semiconductor Industry

Typical low-k film test for material toughness using the new NIST technique. The indentation instrument that punches the triangular hole registers the forces involved. That plus the length of the resulting cracks determines the toughness of the film, which is about 2.4 micrometers thick. (Color added for clarity.) (Credit: NIST)

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a method to measure the toughness—the resistance to fracture—of the thin insulating films that play a critical role in high-performance integrated circuits. The new technique could help improve the reliability and manufacturability of ICs and, better yet, it’s one that state-of-the-art microelectronics manufacturers can use with equipment they already own.

At issue is the mechanical strength of so-called “low-k” dielectric layers—electrically insulating films only a couple of micrometers thick that are interleaved between layers of conductors and components in microprocessor chips and other high-performance semiconductor devices. As IC features like transistors have gotten ever smaller and crammed more closely together, designers are preventing electrical interference or “cross-talk” by making the insulating films more and more porous with nanoscale voids—but this has made them more fragile. Brittle fracture failure of low-k insulating films remains a problem for the industry, affecting both manufacturing yields and device reliability. To date, there has been no accurate method to measure the fracture resistance of such films, which makes it difficult to design improved dielectrics.

NIST researchers believe they have found an answer to the measurement problem in a new adaptation of a materials test technique called nanoindentation. Nanoindentation works by pressing a sharp, hard object—a diamond tip—and observing how much pressure it takes to deform the material. For roughly 20 years, researchers have known how to measure elasticity and plasticity—the forces needed to bend a material either temporarily or permanently—of materials at very small scales with nanoindenters. But toughness, the force needed to actually break the material, has been, well, tougher. Thin films were particularly problematic because they necessarily must be layered on top of another stronger material, such as a silicon wafer.

The new NIST technique requires a slight modification of the nanoindentation equipment—the probe has to have a sharper, more acute point than normally used—and a hefty dose of theory. Pressing carefully on the dielectric film generates cracks as small as 300 nanometers, which are measured by electron microscopy. Just how the cracks form depends on a complex interaction involving indentation force, film thickness, film stress and the elastic properties of the film and the silicon substrate. These variables are plugged into a new fracture mechanics model that predicts not only the fracture toughness but also another key value, the critical film thickness for spontaneous fracture.

Using this methodology, device manufacturers will be able to eliminate some candidate interconnect dielectric films from consideration without further expensive device testing. The measurement technique and model were published in a two-part series in the Journal of Materials Research.

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Easy as 1, 2, 3

People come into the world ready to count its wonders

Illustration by Jon Berkley

THE baby is just one day old and has not yet left hospital. She is quiet but alert. Twenty centimetres from her face researchers have placed a white card with two black spots on it. She stares at it intently. A researcher removes the card and replaces it by another, this time with the spots differently spaced. As the cards alternate, her gaze starts to wander—until a third, with three black spots, is presented. Her gaze returns: she looks at it for twice as long as she did at the previous card. Can she tell that the number two is different from three, just 24 hours after coming into the world?

Or do newborns simply prefer more to fewer? The same experiment, but with three spots preceding two, shows the same revival of interest when the number of spots changes. Perhaps it is just the newness? When slightly older babies were shown cards with pictures of household objects instead of dots (a comb, a key, an orange and so on), changing the number of items had an effect separate from changing the items themselves. Could it be the pattern that two things make, as opposed to three? No again. Babies paid more attention to rectangles moving randomly on a screen when their number changed from two to three, or vice versa. The effect even crosses between senses. Babies who were repeatedly shown two spots perked up more when they then heard three drumbeats than when they heard just two; likewise when the researchers started with drumbeats and moved to spots.

“One great blooming, buzzing confusion” was how William James, a 19th-century psychologist, described the way he thought the world looked to a newborn baby. But these experiments, and many others like them over the past few decades, have convinced researchers that, on the contrary, babies are born with many ways of making sense of what they see and hear. The trick is to use their love of novelty to work out what is happening inside their brains: when shown the same things repeatedly, babies’ eyes wander; when the scene changes, their gaze returns. That makes visible what to them constitutes a change in the world around them worthy of notice.

Dot and carry one

One of those ways of understanding the world is by number. People are born with an innate sense of how many items there are in small collections. Experiments in which older children and adults are shown randomly arranged dots and asked to say quickly how many there are show this sense is retained throughout life. Up to three or four items, and the number is immediately visible without counting. Within a limited range, humans are born arithmeticians, too. When babies a few months old were shown dolls placed and removed from behind a screen they had correct expectations of the number of dolls they would see when the curtain was drawn aside, and were surprised when trickery meant those expectations were violated. In fact, they were more surprised to see the wrong number of dolls than the right number, but different-looking ones.

Some animals also seem able to perceive and understand small numbers. From the 1930s Otto Köhler, a German zoologist, trained ravens to open boxes with the same number of dots on the lid as a card held by a researcher. One raven learnt to distinguish two, three, four, five and six dots. Rats can learn to ignore a certain number of doors in a maze before choosing which one to enter. Chimpanzees have been taught to match the numerals 1 to 6 to the number of objects in a display and to find oranges hidden in two different places and point to the numeral that indicates their total number.

Even more strikingly, some wild animals appear to understand and use numerical facts without training. Karen McComb of the University of Sussex, in England, played a variety of recordings of lions roaring at night in the Serengeti National Park—different numbers of lions; their roars in sequence and overlapping; and so on. She wanted to test the theory that, since fights between lions are very costly, when lions heard large numbers of intruders’ roars they would withdraw unless they were in superior numbers. The best explanation of what she observed was that lions estimated the number of intruders from the number of different-sounding roars, compared that number to the number in their own group and then decided whether to attack or slink away.

That humans (and perhaps other animals) come ready-supplied with numbers contradicts two popular rival theories: the Platonic and the constructivist. Plato thought numbers (and geometric objects such as circles) existed in some abstract, eternal and perfect realm, of which mortals were granted only an occasional glimpse. Constructivists follow Jean Piaget, a Swiss child psychologist, in thinking that by moving things in the real world around and observing the results people “construct” an understanding of number in the first few years of their lives. The distinction, though abstract, has practical relevance too. Could “maths-phobes” be born, rather than made? Can they be cured? And could mathematics be taught better to all?

Numbers on the brain

Brian Butterworth, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, has spent much of his career teasing out which bits of humans’ understanding of numbers are innate—and which learnt, and how. He thinks people are born with brain circuits that are dedicated to recognising and understanding the number of items in small collections. On this foundation an entire “number sense” is built, as children realise that bigger and bigger numbers can be reached by adding “one more” and learn by experience how these bigger numbers behave.

His most recent work has confirmed that to develop a better understanding of numbers than that of a newborn baby, it is not necessary to be able to count with words. He collaborated with some Australian researchers to test aboriginal children in the country’s Northern Territory who were monolingual speakers of one of two languages, Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa, in which the only number words are one, two, few and many. (Words for numbers have generally arisen when and where people grow crops or keep herds; hunter-gatherer bands, who have no herds or other stores of wealth, need not keep track of surpluses, or balances of trade.)

Since the children were too old for the baby-staring trick, but unable to answer the question: “How many?”, researchers laid out counters, then put them away and asked the children to “do as I did”. To check that they were using the number of the counters, rather than mimicking their pattern, the researchers banged sticks together and asked them to “make the counters like the noises”. The children performed about as well as English-speaking aboriginal children living in Melbourne.

Historically, one common method of counting has been to use body parts to keep track of a running total. The base-ten system used in modern arithmetic originates with the fingers, and linguistic traces of that fact remain in the similarity of “five”, “finger” and “fist”, and the dual meaning of “digit”. Some think that the original inhabitants of Europe were 20-counters who used fingers and toes—the use of “score” for both 20 and keeping count may be a remnant. And there remain tribal peoples who have elaborate methods using eyes, nostrils, elbows and so on.

Illustration by Jon Berkley

Arithmetically, bases 12, 24 and 60 have their appeal (they have more factors than ten’s measly two). All three are still employed when telling the time, and 4,000 years ago the Babylonians used base 60 to do some pretty advanced mathematics. But fingers are particularly obvious and useful for keeping count. In another recent piece of work, Dr Butterworth and Robert Reeve of the University of Melbourne watched (English-speaking) five- and six-year-olds counting and doing simple sums. Most used their fingers, but around a quarter did not. Slightly more than half of the non-finger-counters were good arithmeticians, who presumably had outgrown needing to use their fingers. The others, who were decidedly weak, did not seem to have realised that their fingers could help.

More than 80 years ago Josef Gerstmann, an Austrian neurologist, described a set of problems that seem to arise simultaneously in people who have suffered damage to the left parietal lobe of the brain: finding writing difficult or impossible, being unable to understand arithmetic or tell right from left, and having difficulty in identifying one’s fingers. There is still no agreement on whether these symptoms constitute a syndrome, but the bits of the brain used for storing facts about numbers and for representing the fingers are close to each other. Mental representations of numbers and of fingers may therefore be functionally connected.

In 2005 Dr Butterworth and his colleagues asked people to perform tasks that required dexterity, and others that involved matching pairs of numbers, while the area of their parietal lobes known as the left angular gyrus was stimulated by a magnetic field. Dexterity and recall of facts involving numbers were both impaired. So the connection between numbers and fingers may be more profound than the handiness of fingers for keeping count.

Easy for some

If numbers had been invented by some prehistoric genius, then learning how to use them would be a matter of intelligence and practice. But what comes naturally to most is lacking in a few. Just as some people are born colour-blind, or lose colour vision after a brain injury, others are “number-blind”: unable to comprehend what everyone else sees effortlessly. That deficit may leave other abilities—including other mathematical abilities—unimpaired.

Dr Butterworth tells the story of Charles, a young man with lifelong mathematical difficulties. He could add two one-digit numbers only if he used his fingers. Sums involving two-digit numbers or multiplication or subtraction were beyond him. When shopping, he understood neither prices nor change. Tests showed he was not merely maths-phobic. Not only was he far slower than the average, but the pattern of his results was strange.

In one test Charles was shown a pair of digits and asked to name the larger number. The bigger the gap, the faster most people can do this: they say “nine” faster when shown 9 and 2 than when shown 9 and 7. But with Charles, the reverse was the case—and the researchers could see why. Rather than telling the answer directly, he was counting on from one number (on his fingers) until he got to the other, which meant he must have started at the smaller, or he got to ten, in which case he must have started at the bigger. Most strikingly, he lacked the fundamental numerical ability possessed by most newborns: being able to tell the number of objects in a small group simply by looking. When asked how many dots were on a sheet of paper, he counted on his fingers—even when there were only two.

Charles’s deficit, though severe, seemed to affect his numerical abilities alone. Numerical deficits in people of otherwise normal abilities can be even more striking in cases of brain damage. Lisa Cipolotti, a neuropsychologist, studied a Signora Gaddi, who used to run a hotel and keep its accounts. After a stroke she could find the number of things in a small group only by counting—when asked how many arms a crucifix had, she got Dr Cipolotti to hold out her arms so she could count them. Signora Gaddi’s problems seemed to affect only numbers. She could still read, speak and reason, remember historical and geographical facts, and order objects by their physical size.

In fact, Signora Gaddi’s difficulties went even deeper than Charles’s. The stroke which damaged her innate understanding of small numbers also robbed her of the entire numerical edifice built on that foundation. For her, numbers stopped at four. When asked to count up from one, she got to four and no further. If there were more than four dots on a page she could not count them. She could not say how old she was or how many days were in a week, or even tell the time.

“I hated maths at school”

From Barbie dolls programmed to say “math class is tough” to ministers of state who will parse and analyse a sentence but refuse to answer “what’s half of three-quarters?”, maths-phobia is everywhere. One reason is that mathematics builds on itself, so that one missed step can lead to a lifetime of failure. Nor does it help that sums have unambiguously right and wrong answers, making it all too clear to schoolmates just what a child does and doesn’t know. But amidst the stragglers are those whose problem runs deeper than fear and loathing: the “dyscalculic”, as researchers have taken to calling those whose number sense is impaired. Numerical tests given to a representative sample of children in Havana suggest their proportion in the general population is 3-6%.

Sceptics may feel this is a learning disability too far—another chance for middle-class parents to classify little Johnny as different, rather than thick. And perhaps dyscalculia will collect a penumbra of dubious cases around it, as dyslexia has. But perhaps not. Dyslexia manifests itself as a difficulty with a highly unnatural activity: reading. The best single predictor of dyscalculia, by contrast, is abnormal slowness in counting a few dots on a page, a task that most find trivially easy.

The researchers at University College have created a dyscalculia screener, which they think should be used to test all children early in life. With luck, diagnosis will progress to treatment: they are working on a remedial programme too. But even if dyscalculics never fully develop the sense of numbers they were born without, their mathematical careers need not be over before they have started. There are entire fields of mathematics where numerical manipulation is peripheral: logic and geometry, for example. Dr Butterworth recalls an eminent geometrician (“I won’t say his name; it would embarrass him”) who approached him after he had given a talk on his research. “He said: ‘You know, I have always been dreadful at arithmetic.’ So I asked: ‘What’s seven eights?’ He just mumbled: ‘Oh, that’s trivial, there’s an algorithm for that,’ and walked away.”

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Moods 'spread like ripples through friends' say scientists

By Stephen Adams

Moods 'spread like ripples through friends' say scientists
Moods - good and bad - tended to travel more freely in same-sex groups. Photo: GETTY

How grumpy people feel can be influenced not only by the state of mind of those closest to us, but also by friends of friends that we have never met like ripples from "pebbles thrown into a pond" , claim scientists.

Professor James Fowler of the University of California, said each 'unhappy connection' decreased the chance of a person being happy by seven per cent.

However, the effect works both ways with each 'happy connection' increasing the chance of a person's happiness by nine per cent.

The team led by Dr Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Harvard Medical School, and including Professor Fowler, made their conclusions after analysing 53,228 social connections between 5,124 individuals over time.

Dr Christakis said: "If you drop one pebble in a pond, it will create ripples out from the pebble."

He added: "Most people will not be surprised that people with more friends are happier, but what really matters is whether those friends are happy."

Moods - good and bad - tended to travel more freely in same-sex groups, they report in New Scientist magazine.

They found a happy friend increased the odds of someone being happy by 15 per cent - but that a friend of a friend boosted the chance by about 10 per cent, and a friend of a friend of a friend by about six per cent.

That was triple the two per cent chance of being happier caused by a £3,500 pay rise.

Despite physical proximity, the mood of a cohabiting partner was less than 10 per cent likely to have an effect.

Behaviour including drinking, smoking and even obesity can spread in a similar manner, the team claim.

Last year his team found a person's risk of gaining weight increased significantly when friends gained weight. If their friends gained weight a similar but lesser effect was evident on the individual.

He said: "Obesity appears to spread through social ties."

Sceptics may question how a person one has never met can have a direct influence on mood, and ask how the effects of individual friendships can be teased out of a mass of social connections.

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A Willy Wonka Who Wants to Feed the World

By Brandon Keim


Ask America's foremost molecular gastronomist about the Willy Wonka comparisons, and Homaro Cantu will insist that he's just an average guy who likes cheeseburgers. But it's not cheeseburgers that have earned the Chicago chef fame: it's dishes prepared with industrial lasers, inkjet printers and liquid nitrogen.

Look beneath the technical sophistication, though, and Cantu's kitchen pyrotechnics are revealed as explorations of possible answers to a very simple question: What is food? And if the cuisine at Moto, his "molecular tasting lab," can be described as postmodern, Cantu himself has little time for gastro-academic posing. He's driven by a techno-utopian vision of decentralized food in which the world's ever-growing appetites are met by a radical transformation of agriculture itself — and it all begins in our kitchens.

"Make enough food for everyone. That's the end game," says Cantu. "And to get there, we have to start thinking a little crazier about what food is." talked to Cantu about his tastes and vision. What have you been working on lately?

Homaro Cantu: We've been trying to incorporate food from the green world, and started growing microalgae. You can get 10,000 to 30,000 gallons of algae per acre. It can be grown in salt or fresh water, in a whole variety of temperatures. It increases the food supply rather than depleting it, and it's a net energy gain.

For $300 we built a photobioreactor that produced 15 gallons of food per month. The idea was to take algae, process it into sushi and fuel, and deliver it it in a truck running on algae biofuel. And we're just a bunch of chefs. If we can figure this out, I don't know why others can't. Hearing about algae or jellyfish as dietary staples depresses me. Those aren't exactly humanity's first choices in food.

Cantu: I can't think of a time in the history of man when food was in excess. We're dealing with the same old problems we've dealt with for 60,000 years.

Look at corn, at how many products come out of it — food, plastics — on one crop a year. Algae provides eight crops per year. It's the responsible thing to do. Algae is the perfect food plant. It doubles cell mass every twelve hours, depending on the strain. The Japanese have a long lifespan in part because they eat different forms of algae.

Of course, we were also doing this to entertain ourselves. Does that sense of play motivate your work?

Cantu: Sure. The world is full of challenges, but with those come opportunity, and I'm an opportunist. It's fun to be in it, creating all these exciting new ways to live, rather than doing the same old boring thing. That's how mankind has evolved. We're just starting to see it in the kitchen in the restaurant world, but it's been going on in the food processing world for 40 years. When I think of food processing, I think of food being stripped of its flavor and character — the opposite of dining.

Cantu: I'm not going to pin myself down and say that we don't support processed foods. Sixty-five percent of food in America is genetically modified or processed. We're part of that.

There's two ways to look at it. Let's say you have a food printer and eight cartridges, and grow eight crops on the roof, and that's all you need to replicate any food product you can imagine, from mom's apple pie to a cheeseburger with French fries. That would decentralize the food structure, and you'd know exactly where your food comes from.

At the other extreme, you have what we've been doing: agriculture. The thing that came after permaculture. The forest goes away, and we plant neat straight rows. But it's not sustainable over the long haul. In the end we're going to want to keep the pleasurable eating experience we have today, and technology is going to step in and decentralize that.

I support farmers, whether the farmer is a guy next door or a guy that lives in the breadbasket of America. But why cook these decentralized foods with printers or lasers?

Cantu: We have sautee pans and burners, too. You can't print a great pizza unless you know how to make a great pizza. There's a lot to be said for classic cuisine. Are there principles that guide the design of your dishes?

Cantu: Make enough food for everyone. That's the end game. And to get there, we have to start thinking a little crazier about what food is. What is food?

Cantu: It's what enables us to live — and more than that, it's dense energy storage. If you look at it from that point of view, you start shooting two birds with one shot.

How can we get something new into the food supply while serving another purpose, such as making plastic? We're going to start working with things that grow easily in varied climates, and the end result will be printed food that grows on your roof. Decentralizing food is the wave of the future. Now that molecular gastronomy has gone relatively mainstream, do you see yourself as being different from other practitioners?

Cantu: There's different parts to what I do. There's the restaurant, and everything I do outside.

In the restaurant, our food looks different. You'll have a Cuban sandwich that looks like a Cuban cigar with ash on it. We specialize in the transmogrification of known food products into other forms. That's the biggest difference between us and the others.

But it isn't always the restaurant. It's me and the pastry chef, working out of sheer curiosity. If you showed the average tinkerer how to do this, they'd do it in a heartbeat. That's what I like about this — and it's the stuff that you'll see in a year or two that sets us apart.

We're going to show people how to make plastic from potatoes. How to make styrofoam peanuts from two ingredients and a microwave, and you'll eat them, too. There will be a polymer oven you can put in your microwave and 30 seconds later, it's 500 degrees hot. Instead of using a gas oven or giant electric oven, you'll shrink it down to the size of your hand and only heat the space you need. If you walk into a kitchen and it's hot, there's wasted energy there. Our kitchen isn't hot. Are you aware of what's going on, at the molecular level, with your dishes?

Cantu: Yes and no. We think of things in simple terms: how can we end world hunger? And then you investigate that.

Recently I started thinking about how people can eat the stuff they don't eat now, that already grows around them. If you can turn that into food and make it taste good, you've got an answer. I can't tell you more about this, but let's just say I've had my neighbors eating twigs and branches by giving them a supplemental product that makes it taste good.

You have to have some understanding of chemistry, of how taste receptors work, of how people perceive food. But it starts with that initial crazy question: What is food?

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From Solar Panels to Sarah Palins: The Top 10 Green Politics Stories of 2008

Billion-gallon sludge flood could change utility

Image: Sludge-covered area
Wade Payne / AP
This area near Harriman, Tenn., was flooded by a billion gallons of coal waste.

KINGSTON, Tenn. - The spill of more than a billion gallons of coal ash from a power plant in East Tennessee may change the way the nation's largest government-owned utility stores coal waste.

Roane County officials are pushing the Tennessee Valley Authority to quit using large retention ponds filled with water and fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants.

One of the ponds burst Dec. 22 at a plant roughly 35 miles west of Knoxville, sending a flood of gray sludge over about 300 acres and destroying three homes along the Clinch River.

KINGSTON, Tenn. - The spill of more than a billion gallons of coal ash from a power plant in East Tennessee may change the way the nation's largest government-owned utility stores coal waste.

Roane County officials are pushing the Tennessee Valley Authority to quit using large retention ponds filled with water and fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants.

One of the ponds burst Dec. 22 at a plant roughly 35 miles west of Knoxville, sending a flood of gray sludge over about 300 acres and destroying three homes along the Clinch River.

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Global warming: Reasons why it might not actually exist

2008 was the year man-made global warming was disproved, according to the Telegraph's Christopher Booker. Sceptics have long argued that there are other explanations for climate change other than man-made CO2 and here we look at some of the arguments put forward by those who believe that global warming is all a hoax.

Global warming: Some icebergs are melting -but not necessarily because of mankind's actions
Some icebergs are melting -but not necessarily because of mankind's actions Photo: REUTERS

Temperatures are falling, not rising

As Christopher Booker says in his review of 2008, temperatures have been dropping in a wholly unpredicted way over the past year. Last winter, the northern hemisphere saw its greatest snow cover since 1966, which in the northern US states and Canada was dubbed the "winter from hell". This winter looks set to be even worse.

The earth was hotter 1,000 years ago

Evidence from all over the world indicates that the earth was hotter 1,000 years ago than it is today. Research shows that temperatures were higher in what is known as the Mediaeval Warming period than they were in the 1990s.

The earth's surface temperature is not at record levels

According to Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies analysis of surface air temperature measurements, the meteorological December 2007 to November 2008 was the coolest year since 2000. Their data has also shown that the hottest decade of the 20th century was not the 1990s but the 1930s.

Ice is not disappearing

Arctic website Crysophere Today reported that Arctic ice volume was 500,000 sq km greater than this time last year. Additionally, Antarctic sea-ice this year reached its highest level since satellite records began in 1979. Polar bear numbers are also at record levels.

Himalayan glaciers

A report by the UN Environment Program this year claimed that the cause of melting glaciers in the Himalayas was not global warming but the local warming effect of a vast "atmospheric brown cloud" over that region, made up of soot particles from Asia's dramatically increased burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

Temperatures are still dropping

Nasa satellite readings on global temperatures from the University of Alabama show that August was the fourth month this year when temperatures fell below their 30-year average, ie since satellite records began. November 2008 in the USA was only the 39th warmest since records began 113 years ago.

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