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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

European Space Agency hopes to clean up space junk

By Melissa Eddy, Associated Press

DARMSTADT, Germany — Wary of the multitude of satellites in earth's orbit, the European Space Agency has begun a program to monitor space debris and set up uniform standards to prevent future collisions far above the planet, an official said Monday.

The $64 million program — dubbed Space Situational Awareness — aims to increase information for scientists on the ground about the estimated 13,000 satellites and other man-made bodies orbiting the planet, ESA space debris expert Jean-Francois Kaufeler told reporters.

The program was launched in January. On Feb. 10, the collision of two satellites generated space junk that could circle Earth and threaten other satellites for the next 10,000 years.

"What the last accident showed us is that we need to do much more. We need to be receiving much more precise data in order to prevent further collisions," Kaufeler said of the collision.

The smashup happened 500 miles (800 kilometers) over Siberia and involved a derelict Russian spacecraft designed for military communications and a working satellite owned by U.S.-based Iridium, which served commercial customers as well as the U.S. Defense Department.

A key element of the program is to increase the amount of information shared worldwide between the various space agencies, including NASA and Russia's Roscosmos, Kaufeler said.

Kaufeler also said that another aspect that must be examined is establishing international standards on how debris is described, tracked and, if needed, moved so as to prevent any collisions.

U.S. and Russian officials traded shots over who should be blamed for the collision that spewed speeding clouds of debris into space, threatening other unmanned spacecraft in nearby orbits.

No one has any idea yet how many pieces of space junk were generated by the collision or how big they might be. But the crash scattered space junk in orbits 300 to 800 miles (500 to 1,300 kilometers) above Earth, according to Maj. Gen. Alexander Yakushin, chief of staff for the Russian military's Space Forces.

Experts in space debris will meet later this week in Vienna at a U.N. seminar to come up with better ways to prevent future crashes, and the 5th European Conference on Space Debris in March at ESA.

"We need more precision in space," said Kaufeler. "The current measurements (of space debris) are not precise enough."

He noted that neither ESA nor NASA were able to predict last week's collision, although his scientists have been warning for two decades that such an accident could happen.

"The problem of space debris is unique," said Kaufeler. "We need to work together, we need to unify our forces if we are going to solve it."

Also this year, the Europeans plan to launch two new telescopes into space to study the far reaches of space. The Planck telescope will map background radiation that fills space, while the Herschel space telescope will give astronomers a view of far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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Alien hunt is too exciting to ignore

by Michael Hanlon

Understanding exactly what life is, how it began and whether it exists beyond our planet may be the greatest challenge of our time (Image: Solent News & Photo Agency/Rex)

Understanding exactly what life is, how it began and whether it exists beyond our planet may be the greatest challenge of our time (Image: Solent News & Photo Agency/Rex)

WHAT is the biggest question in science? The origin of consciousness? How to combine quantum mechanics with general relativity? These are big, but arguably there's a bigger one: is there anyone out there?

Understanding exactly what life is, how it began and whether it exists beyond our planet is, I believe, the greatest challenge of our time. Finding alien life would be the most important discovery in history, and the search for it is more likely than anything else to maintain public support for space research. Given this, you'd think space agencies would be devoting pretty much all their resources to it. Oddly, they are not.

NASA and the European Space Agency both have planned missions to Mars to look for conditions favourable to life, but neither will be equipped to look directly for living organisms, which should be the priority. And even these missions are not getting the funding they deserve. Furthermore, NASA often appears so worried about being seen to be looking for aliens that it seems coy about the whole enterprise.

This is daft. What's needed is a direct, no-holds-barred approach to the search for life. Science needs to shed its ET hang-up. NASA's annual budget is $20 billion, yet it won't spend a significant sum on what should be a flagship mission to Mars to look for existing life. Similarly, it is bizarre that no public funds are available for even a modest search for alien radio transmissions.

It is bizarre that no public funds are available for even a modest search for alien radio transmissions

It is time to refocus public space programmes on answering the biggest question of all. That means funding big, expensive, ambitious exploration projects on Mars, Titan, Europa and any other promising places, and flying telescope arrays to spot extrasolar Earths. Cancel everything else, if necessary.

It sometimes seems that for the past 30 years NASA and other agencies have gone out of their way to make space exploration seem as dull as possible. It should take the opportunity to turn the tables while it still has a budget.

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First gravity map of Moon's far side unveiled

by Rachel Courtland

The Japanese probe Kaguya has created the first map of gravity differences on the far side of the Moon, which always points away from Earth. The gravity signatures of some craters suggests the far side might have been stiffer and cooler than expected (Illustration: Namiki et al/AAAS)

The Japanese probe Kaguya has created the first map of gravity differences on the far side of the Moon, which always points away from Earth. The gravity signatures of some craters suggests the far side might have been stiffer and cooler than expected (Illustration: Namiki et al/AAAS)

The first detailed map of the gravity fields on the Moon's far side shows that craters there are different than those on the near side. The results could reveal more about the Moon as it was billions of years ago, when magma flowed across its surface.

The new gravity map was collected by the Japanese lunar satellite Kaguya, which released two small probes into orbit around the Moon in 2007.

The motions of the three spacecraft, which are sensitive to variations in the Moon's gravity field, were measured by tracking their radio signals.

Crucially, while the main Kaguya spacecraft was on the far side of the Moon and therefore out of direct contact with Earth, one of the small probes relayed its signals to Earth.

The resulting map - the first detailed one completed of the Moon's far side - shows that craters on the far side have a markedly different gravity signature from those on the side that always faces Earth.

'Fabulous data'

That suggests that billions of years ago, there might have been large differences in the temperature or thickness of the Moon's two halves.

"It's fabulous new data," says Walter Kiefer, a planetary geophysicist with the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, who was not part of the study. "We haven't been able to get a good look at the far side until now."

Most of the large craters on the Moon formed more than 3.8 billion years ago. These were partly filled in by magma that flowed on the surface before the Moon cooled and its geological activity died down.

But a number of craters also seem to have been filled in from below. Researchers believe material from the mantle also rose up in craters, since these are sites where impacts had thinned the Moon's crust.

The new Kaguya measurements reveal some craters on the far side that seem to have been filled only with mantle. These craters have higher-than-normal gravity at the centre, surrounded by a thick ring of low gravity that closely matches the original low elevation of the crater.

Opposite conclusions

It is not yet clear what these new crater measurements suggest about the early Moon. In order for these structures to survive, the lunar far side must have been too cool and stiff to allow the mantle at the craters' centres to smooth out much over time, says team leader Noriyuki Namiki, of Japan's Kyushu University. "The surface had to be very rigid to support these structures," Namiki says.

But Keifer says the low gravity rings could argue for the opposite scenario. The structures in the centres of the craters might be narrow because the top layer of the Moon's far side was too thin and warm to be able to hold up anything larger. Comparing the Kaguya observations with models could help settle the question, Kiefer says.

The Moon's two halves also show other striking differences. NASA's Lunar Prospector, which operated in the late 1990s, found that radioactive elements seem to be concentrated on the near side. The far side also shows less evidence of past volcanic activity.

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NASA's 10 Greatest Achievements

by Julia Layton

NASA scientists prepare a rocket for a space launch.
Robert W. Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
NASA scientists prepare a rocket for a space launch. The administration began in 1958 and quickly racked up technological achievements. See more rocket pictures.

When the satellite Sputnik orbited Earth in October 1957, Russia pulled ahead in the space race. The Cold War was on, and the United States scrambled to respond in kind. It had already developed a satellite under another national program, but it became clear that a dedicated space agency was in order. President Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson led the drive. It took one year from Sputnik's launch to get the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) through Congress and into full operation. Not a second was wasted in eliminating Russia's lead: Even before NASA was fully up and running, the United States sent a satellite into orbit. We were officially in the Space Age.

From the start, NASA's goals were lofty. It planned to expand human knowledge of space; lead the world in space-related technological innovation; develop vehicles that can carry both equipment and living organisms into space; and coordinate with international space agencies to achieve the greatest possible scientific advancements. In the last 50 years, NASA has achieved every one of those goals, and it continues to seek answers to some of the biggest mysteries in science as it evolves with a changing world.

The agency has always reflected the changing values of U.S. society, focusing on technological supremacy from its inception in 1958, and adding goals like Earth observation­ in 1985, in the wake of climate-change evidence. It amended its goals to include manufacturing preeminence in 1989, reflecting the ri­se of international players in the industry of space-exploration equipment. But the most sought-after aspiration remains the same: explore every corner of space to expand our knowledge of the universe.

In this article, we'll look at some of NASA's greatest achievements to date. It's hard to choose from among the incredible feats on NASA's résumé, but some of its successes are more monumental than others. This list presents some of those great moments in science, beginning with the launch of the first U.S. spacecraft. Explorer 1 encountered a major discovery before it even reached its orbit.

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Russia Wants to Land on Europa

NASA is expected to announce next week whether its next mission to the outer planets will target Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s Titan, but the Russians apparently have their own game plan.

Europa freckles During a week-long meeting in Moscow that ended today, scientists presented ideas for a free-flying lander and small orbiter to study Europa, a long-favored target of scientists in search of life beyond Earth.

The bulk of the science would be undertaken by a hefty lander which could include some type of drill to penetrate into Europa’s icy crust. Beneath the ice, scientists suspect a large ocean is hiding, with two to three times the amount of all the water on Earth. The thickness of the ice is unknown.

The Russians, however, have an even bigger hurdle to clear: getting funding for the mission.

(Europa's freckled surface, captured by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1998. The spots and pits seen in the moon's northern hemisphere are each about six miles in diameter. The dark spots are called "lenticulae," the Latin term for freckles. Their similar sizes and spacing suggest that Europa's icy shell may be churning away like a lava lamp, with warmer ice moving upward from the bottom of the ice shell while colder ice near the surface sinks downward.)

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AAAS: 'One hundred billion trillion' planets where alien life could flourish

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent in Chicago

View of planet earth - 'One hundred billion trillion' planets where alien life could flourish
Dr Alan Boss, of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC, said there could be as many Earths as there are stars in the universe Photo: REUTERS

Life on Earth used to be thought of as a freak accident that only happened once.

But scientists are now coming to the conclusion that the universe is teeming with living organisms.

The change in thinking has come about because of the new belief there are an abundant number of habitable planets like Earth.

Alan Boss, of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC, said there could be as many Earths as there are stars in the universe - one hundred billion trillion.

Because of this, he believes it is "inevitable" that life must have flourished elsewhere over the billions of years the universe has existed.

"If you have a habitable world and let it evolve for a few billion years then inevitably some sort of life will form on it," said Dr Boss.

"It is sort of running an experiment in your refrigerator - turn it off and something will grow in there.

"It would be impossible to stop life growing on these habitable planets."

He believes his views will be proved by NASA's Kepler outer space-based telescope, which takes off in the next three weeks with a mission to track down Earth-like habitable planets.

Within four years Dr Boss, who was speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, believes it will have found one in our galaxy and that will prove his theories about their abundance.

He then would like researchers to build even bigger telescopes and send out an unmanned spacecraft to take photographs of the distant planet that could be up to 30 light years away. It would, however, take at least 2,000 years to report back.

Dr Boss said: "We already know enough now to say that the universe is probably loaded with terrestrial planets similar to the Earth," he says.

"We should expect that there are going to be many planets which are habitable, so probably some are going to be inhabited as well."

Whether the life we find is intelligent is, however, less than inevitable.

"Intelligent life seems to be fleeting," he said. "In terms of the universe it only exists for a fraction of time."

He said it would be a massive coincidence for us to find intelligent life that exists at the same time as us. It is more likely to be bacteria or microbes.

"It is unlikely that 'we' will exist for a further 100,000 years," he said.

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More Ancient Hot Springs Discovered on Mars?

Written by Nancy Atkinson

Arabia Terra, a possible MSL landing site on Mars.  Credit: NASA/JPL/HiRISE team

In March 2007, the Spirit rover found a patch of bright-colored soil rich in silica. Scientists proposed water must have been involved in creating the region, and not just water, but hot water. Now, data from retrieved from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) suggest the discovery of another ancient hot springs region in Vernal Crater in Arabia Terra, an area in the northern hemisphere of Mars that is densely cratered and heavily eroded. The research team says the striking similarities between these features on Mars and hot springs found on Earth provide evidence of an ancient Martian hot-spring environment. On Earth these environments teem with microbial life.

If life forms have ever been present on Mars, hot spring deposits would be ideal locations to search for physical or chemical evidence of these organisms and could be target areas for future exploratory missions such as the Mars Science Labortory. Arabia Terra is currently on the list of possible landing sites for MSL.

In their research paper "A Case for Ancient Springs in Arabia Terra, Mars," Carlton C. Allen and Dorothy Z. Oehler, from the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate at the NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, propose that new image data from the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on MRO show structures in Vernal Crater that appear to be the product of ancient spring activity. The data suggest that the southern part of Vernal Crater has experienced episodes of water flow from underground to the surface and may be a site where Martian life could have developed.

Vernal Crater is a 55-km diameter crater located at 6°N, 355.5°E, in the southwestern part of Arabia Terra. From orbital images, the crater appears to have layered sediments, and potentially, remnants of activity from water.

THEMIS image A. Credit: Allen and Oehler

THEMIS image A. Credit: Allen and Oehler

One feature that is bright in both daytime and nighttime in THEMIS infrared images is prominent in the southern part of Vernal crater. In this image, marked A, the feature appears dark, as the THEMIS grayscale was inverted to resemble HiRISE images in the visible range. The feature is 3 km wide and is composed of alternating light-toned and dark-toned subunits, which the researchers interpret as cemented, resistant dunes,and water-laid deposits.

The research team compares this and other structures in the region with hot springs regions on Earth, using Google Earth. The similarities of the features on Mars and Earth, the researchers say, provides a strong case that the Vernal Crater structures are relics of ancient Martian springs.

Regional view of outcrops. CTX image P04_002456_1858.  Credit:  Allen and Oehlers

Regional view of aligned outcrops. CTX image P04_002456_1858. Credit: Allen and Oehlers

The team says their results are consistent with the growing body of orbital and rover data that is suggestive of widespread hydrothermal activity and possible spring deposits elsewhere on Mars.

"If clays or chemical precipitates such as evaporates or silica comprise the terraced structures or tonal anomalies, signatures of that life may be preserved in those minerals," write the research team in their paper. "The fact that several other potential spring deposits occur on-trend with Vernal structures suggests that this may have been a significant province of long-lasting spring activity."

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Black hole confirmed in Milky Way

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Core of the Milky Way galaxy, taken with Nasa's Spitzer space telescope
The Milky Way was tracked from an observatory in Chile

There is a giant black hole at the centre of our galaxy, a 16-year study by German astronomers has confirmed.

They tracked the movement of 28 stars circling the centre of the Milky Way, using two telescopes in Chile.

The black hole, said to be 27,000 light years from Earth, is four million times bigger than the Sun, according to the paper in The Astrophysical Journal.

Black holes are objects whose gravity is so great that nothing - including light - can escape them.

According to Dr Robert Massey, of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the results suggest that galaxies form around giant black holes in the way that a pearl forms around grit.

'The black pearl'

Dr Massey said: "Although we think of black holes as somehow threatening, in the sense that if you get too close to one you are in trouble, they may have had a role in helping galaxies to form - not just our own, but all galaxies.

The most spectacular aspect of our 16-year study, is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that super-massive black holes do exist
Professor Reinhard Genzel
Head of the research team

"They had a role in bringing matter together and if you had a high enough density of matter then you have the conditions in which stars could form.

"Thus the first generation of stars and galaxies could have come into existence".

The researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany said the black hole was 27,000 light years, or 158 thousand, million, million miles from the Earth.

"Undoubtedly the most spectacular aspect of our 16-year study, is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that super-massive black holes do really exist," said Professor Reinhard Genzel, head of the research team.

"The stellar orbits in the galactic centre show that the central mass concentration of four million solar masses must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt."

Observations were made using the 3.5m New Technology Telescope and the 8.2m Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. Both are operated by the European Southern Observatory (Eso).

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How Cells Handle Broken Chromosomes

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry discovered a novel cellular response towards persistent DNA damage: After being recognized and initially processed by the cellular machinery, the broken chromosome is extensively scanned for homology and the break itself is later tethered to the nuclear envelope.

Thus the researchers uncovered a surprising feature of how DNA strand breaks can be handled. Their unexpected findings have important implications for the understanding of DNA repair mechanisms.

The central molecule for life is DNA, which constitutes the genetic blueprint of our organism. However, this precious molecule is constantly threatened by miscellaneous damage sources. DNA damage is a cause of cancer development, degenerative diseases and aging. The most dangerous and lethal type of DNA-damage is the DNA double strand break (DSB). A single DSB is enough to kill a cell or cause chromosomal aberrations leading to cancer. Therefore, cells have evolved elaborate DNA repair systems that are fundamental for human health.

DSBs can be repaired by error-prone non-homologous end joining, a pathway in which the DSB ends are simply fused together again. The alternative repair pathway, called homologous recombination, is mostly error-free and needs homologous DNA sequences to guide repair. A vast amount of research, by many scientists around the world, has provided us with a detailed picture of how the DNA damage is recognized and finally repaired. However, so far little was known, how homologous sequences are found and how cells react when DNA breaks persist.

Now, scientists around Stefan Jentsch, head of the Department of Molecular Cell Biology, were able to shed light on these questions, as they report in the upcoming issue of Molecular Cell.

The scientists modified a yeast strain in which a DSB can be induced and followed over time. Moreover, they managed to label the DNA-break for microscopic studies. Using high-resolution digital imaging, they observed after a few hours a directed movement of the break to the nuclear envelope. Jentsch and colleagues speculate that this tethering to the nuclear envelope could be a safety measure of cells to prevent erroneous and unwanted recombination events, which can have catastrophic consequences like cancer development or cell death.

Marian Kalocsay and Natalie Hiller, who conducted the study as part of their PhD-thesis research, then set out to unravel the molecular details of how a persistent DSB is recognized, processed and – at last - relocated to the nuclear envelope.

Using a high resolution method – the so called chip-on-chip technique - which allowed to investigate repair factor recruitment to DNA in unprecedented details, the researchers made a surprising observation: In an apparent attempt to find homology and repair the DSB, a protein called Rad51 (or “recombinase”) begins within one hour to accumulate and to spread bi-directionally from the break, covering after a short time the entire chromosome – a much larger area than supposed before. “Intriguingly, Rad51 spreading only occurs on the chromosome where the break resides and does not “jump” to other chromosomes”, says Kalocsay. As to the researchers knowledge, this is the first in vivo description of ongoing chromosome-wide homology search, which is the most mysterious event in DSB repair. Therefore, this finding has important implications for the understanding of DNA repair by homologous recombination.

Furthermore, Kalocsay and Hiller identified a novel important player in the DNA-damage response that is essential for Rad51 activation as well as for the relocation of DSBs to the nuclear envelope: the histone variant H2A.Z. In early stages of DNA repair it is incorporated into DNA near the DSBs and is essential there for the initiation of the following repair mechanisms. Later on, the attachment of the small modifying protein SUMO to H2A.Z plays an important role in the tethering of the break to the nuclear envelope. “Moreover, cells lacking H2A.Z are severely sensitive to DSBs, thus revealing H2A.Z as an important and novel factor in DSB-repair”, explains Hiller.

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A first: String theory predicts an experimental result

A slide from Barbara Jacak's presentation, originally from

A slide from Barbara Jacak's presentation, originally from

One of the biggest criticisms of string theory is that its predictions can’t be tested experimentally–a requirement for any solid scientific idea.

That’s not true anymore.

At a AAAS session on Sunday, physicists said string theory is making important contributions to the study of two extreme forms of matter –one heated to trillions of degrees, the other chilled to near-absolute zero. In both cases the matter became a “perfect liquid” that ripples and flows freely, like water. String theorists analyzed the results by applying what they had learned from pondering how a black hole might behave in five dimensions. Then they went on to calculate just how free-flowing these liquids might be, predictions that the experimenters are using to guide the next stage of their work.

“It’s really a surprising, I would say serendipitous, once-in-a-generation convergence of scientific communities,” says Peter Steinberg, a nuclear physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and one of the organizers of the panel. “None of us saw this coming.” (Full disclosure: Peter invited me to be a discussant for the session, which meant I got to take in all the talks and then ask the panel whatever I wanted. Sweet!)

Not to say that string theory has been proved. Clifford Johnson of the University of Southern California, the string theorist on the panel, was very clear about that. All the arguments about whether nature is composed of unimaginably tiny vibrating strings and multiple dimensions, and whether this will eventually explain the basic workings of the universe, are still unresolved.

“We’re still very far from getting string theory in good enough shape to really understand all those questions,” he said. “But what is really encouraging is when that tool box you’ve been working on to gear up to understand those questions, when you find a way of making that toolbox useful in some other experiments. That tells you that your tool is a robust tool that may be on the right track. So we haven’t proven that reality is all about string theory or however you want to put it, but we certainly have indeed found a place, it seems, where string theory has been a useful guide and has made been making some modest but sharp and testable predictions in the lab.”

The tale begins in 2002, when researchers in John Thomas’s JETLab group at Duke University announced that they had created a super-cooled gas of lithium 6 atoms that behaved like a fluid; see their paper here (subscription required.) They did this, Thomas explained, by trapping about 300 million lithium 6 atoms in a tiny, cigar-shaped bowl of laser light. At this point the atoms look like a little red ball, visible in a photo he flashed on the screen. Then they hit the ball of atoms with a carbon-dioxide laser beam. The atoms started banging into each other and quickly evaporated. This cools them–something we’re all familiar with from getting chilly as our sweat dries–until they reach a temperature of about a billionth of a degree above absolute zero.

At this point the blob of atoms began acting strangely. Laser flash photos showed that it expanded but only in one direction, and in a way characteristic of flowing liquid. In technical terms, they had created the first strongly interacting Fermi gas.

The gas’s super-fluid behavior, Thomas said, is similar to what takes place in superconducting materials, which conduct electrical current with perfect efficiency. Today’s superconductors operate only at relatively cold temperatures, and scientists have been working for decades to create one that operates at room temperature. The behavior of the lithium gas is analogous to that of a superconductor that could operate at temperatures of thousands of degrees, making this work of great interest to condensed-matter physicists.

Flash forward three years to Brookhaven National Laboratory, where physicists had been studying head-on collisions of gold nuclei at RHIC, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. As Steinberg put it, the collision of 400 of these nuclei produces 10,000 particles, primarily quarks and gluons, in a tiny drop of matter that may be the long-sought quark-gluon plasma.

The quark-gluon plasma is an idea that stems from the curious nature of the strong force, which binds quarks together to make protons and neutrons. The strong force is carried by the gluon particle. Unlike most of the forces we’re familiar with, it’s like a rubber band: it becomes stronger when you try to pull the quarks far apart. If you squeeze quarks close enough together, the rubber band part of the force melts away and the quarks and gluons are able to freely interact with each other.

In contrast to Duke’s super-cold lithium blobs, the RHIC plasma was super-hot, as in trillions of degrees, said RHIC collaborator Barbara Jacak of Stony Brook University. The last time the universe was that hot was one microsecond after the big bang, and so physicists are hoping their experiments at RHIC will shed light on the state of the universe at that long-ago instant.

Weirdly, the hot RHIC plasma also flowed like a liquid; the lab’s 2005 announcement of the discovery described it as the most perfect liquid ever observed, with virtually no viscosity–the quality that makes honey flow more slowly than milk.

The fact that the plasma behaved like a liquid surprised scientists, who had expected it to take the form of a gas. While the particles in these fluids are independent, they are also strongly coupled, meaning that each one is tied very tightly to nearby things. As Steinberg puts it, “The system moves in concert. You don’t think of it as particles; you think of it as a stuff.” Johnson describes it as a form of emergent behavior that is akin to the wetness of water. Individual particles in water don’t have any property that could be called wetness. Wetness only arises when very many molecules are present.

But are these liquids really perfect? Enter the string theorists, who are quite at home in multiple dimensions and bring a whole new vantage point to the question.

“The goal is try to understand what are essentially new phases of matter that are showing up at these laboratories,” Johnson said. “It’s exciting. It’s novel. It’s not often we create new phases of matter in the world,” phases that are thought to naturally exist only just after the big bang or in the cores of compact stars.

The string theory analysis starts not from the viewpoint of quarks and gluons, but from quantum black holes–a theoretical form of black hole that is very tiny and, unlike its massive star-gobbling cousin, has never been observed in nature.

Suppose, Johnson said, you had a quantum black hole in a five-dimensional universe, in which there are four dimensions of space and one of time. If you were to build a box around that black hole, the holographic principle states that you could understand all of its internal physics from a perch on this surrounding wall. The holographic principle is so called because it’s akin to creating a 3-D image on a two-dimensional sheet. String theory along with the holographic principle provides a view of quantum gravity that allows you to look inside the black hole and understand its internal physics.

It turns out that “this physics that lives on these walls really resembles the physics we’re seeing in the experiments. That’s the exciting thing,” Johnson said. String theory provides a kind of dictionary that translates between our four-dimensional world, where the experiments take place, and the five-dimensional world in which theorists envision the quantum black hole.

As for the black hole and the extra dimensions, Johnson said he’s agnostic as to whether they exist or not. He thinks of them as a tool, one that allowed string theorists to calculate the ratio of viscosity to the fluid’s entropy, a measure of its disorder. String theory predicts that this ratio is naturally very low for the two experimental “perfect liquids.” The experimenters are now closing in on that value, which will reveal just how perfect the liquids are.

“Why does it work so well? What are the prospects for more success? These are things we are still trying to understand,” Johnson said. “This is also a very powerful test of the tools that come from string theory. We’ve been working in isolation for a long time, not knowing whether these tools necessarily are anything to do with experimental physics.”

This collaboration between string theorists and experimentalists in two fields of physics came about by happenstance. Perhaps, the panelists said, there are ways to foster other such discussions and collaborations, which don’t naturally occur in the world of science, where specialists tend to huddle only with others of their own kind.

Update: I’d like to thank Clifford Johnson and William Zacj, my fellow discussant and co-organizer of the session, for thoughtful feedback and additional explanations that led to most of the tweaks above. As Ben Franklin would say: Blog in haste, tweak at leisure! Tweaks underlined.

Update: Clifford blogs about the session here in a 24-style account that covers the whole day. For the session bit, scroll down to 8 a.m. And here’s coverage from Margaret Harris of

Glennda Chui

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Loneliness Affects How The Brain Operates

Social isolation affects how people behave as well as how their brains operate, a study at the University of Chicago shows.

The research, presented February 15 at a symposium, "Social Emotion and the Brain," at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is the first to use fMRI scans to study the connections between perceived social isolation (or loneliness) and activity in the brain. Combining fMRI scans with data relevant to social behavior is part of an emerging field examining brain mechanisms—an approach to psychology being pioneered at the University of Chicago.

Researchers found that the ventral striatum—a region of the brain associated with rewards—is much more activated in non-lonely people than in the lonely when they view pictures of people in pleasant settings. In contrast, the temporoparietal junction—a region associated with taking the perspective of another person—is much less activated among lonely than in the non-lonely when viewing pictures of people in unpleasant settings.

"Given their feelings of social isolation, lonely individuals may be left to find relative comfort in nonsocial rewards," said John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Professor in Psychology at the University. He spoke at the briefing along with Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University.

The ventral striatum, which is critical to learning, is a key portion of the brain and is activated through primary rewards such as food and secondary rewards such as money. Social rewards and feelings of love also may activate the region.

Cacioppo, one of the nation's leading scholars on loneliness, has shown that loneliness undermines health and can be as detrimental as smoking. About one in five Americans experience loneliness, he said. Decety is one of the nation's leading researchers to use fMRI scans to explore empathy.

They were among five co-authors of a paper, "In the Eye of the Beholder: Individual Differences in Perceived Social Isolation Predict Regional Brain Activation to Social Stimuli," published in the current issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

In the study, 23 female undergraduates were tested to determine their level of loneliness. While in an fMRI scanner, the subjects were shown unpleasant pictures and human conflict as well as pleasant things such as money and happy people.

The subjects who rated as lonely were least likely to have strong activity in their ventral striata when shown pictures of people enjoying themselves.

Although loneliness may be influence brain activity, the research also suggests that activity in the ventral striatum may prompt feelings of loneliness, Decety said. "The study raises the intriguing possibility that loneliness may result from reduced reward-related activity in the ventral striatum in response to social rewards."

In addition to differing responses in the ventral striatum, the subjects also recorded differing responses in parts of the brain that indicated loneliness played a role in how their brain operates.

Joining Decety and Cacioppo in writing the Journal of Cognitive Science paper were Catherine Norris, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Dartmouth College; George Monteleone, a graduate student at the University of Chicago; and Howard Nusbaum, Chair of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

Decety and Cacioppo discussed the new field of brain mechanism in a paper in the current issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. The new field extends the work of Charles Darwin, who "regarded the brain as a product of evolution and the science of psychology as concerned with these foundations," they wrote.

By studying brain mechanisms, researchers hope to gain new insights by examining mental activities surrounding consciousness, perception and thought through an understanding of how columns of neurons stacked next to each other form elementary circuits to function as a unit, they wrote.

New visualization tools such as three-dimensional imaging will help scholars develop a new way of studying psychology, they said.

"Psychological science in the 21st century can, and should, become not only the science of overt behavior, and not only the science of the mind, but also the science of the brain," they concluded.

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Storing solar energy by turning over a new leaf

By Jonathan M. Gitlin

Storing solar energy by turning over a new leaf

One of the most exciting talks at AAAS dealt with a breakthrough that might finally give the much-vaunted hydrogen economy a chance. Daniel Nocera, Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry at MIT gave a plenary lecture on a novel catalyst developed in his laboratory, one that takes inspiration from the photosynthetic pathways within plant cells to split water into H2 and O2, allowing the H2 to be used as fuel.

Meeting the world's future energy demand is going to need the sun, according to Nocera, and that's only going to happen if we can store that energy for use when it's not shining. This makes sense; plants evolved to make use of high-energy chemical bonds, and the oil, gas, and coal we currently use is just stored sunshine (via plants), albeit concentrated. Hydrogen is the only viable answer compared to batteries, capacitors, or mechanical storage schemes such as pumped water or compressed air once you look at energy density, he explained, and the work from his lab might help make that possible.

It's no understatement to say that the future of fuels is a hot topic. Dealing with climate change means moving away from burning coal, oil, and gas, but currently these represent the bulk of our energy supplies, and it can be hard to see what could take up their slack. Energy projections for 2050 suggest the planet will need between 28-35 terawatts (TW) a year, up from around 13TW in 2000. Nuclear will certainly be a component (more on that from us later) but 8 TW of nuclear power means 8000 new powerplants, or 1 new plant every 1.4 days. Even the most hardcore proponents of the atom don't think that's likely to happen.

Biomass, whether it be switchgrass, miscanthus, or bioengineered algae, has a theoretical maximum limit at around 7TW. Physics dictates the limit of wind power, and damming every river and stream would yield less than single TW. So you can see why everyone is pinning their hopes on that great fusion reactor in the sky.

As John Timmer reported on Friday, Nocera isn't the only one advocating solar energy as the future, but he offers a solution to the problems raised in that article: energy storage.

Nocera's tack is to copy photosynthesis to convert light energy to chemical energy, but to stop at H2 instead of trying to make sugars, lignins, and so on. Compressed H2 at 300 bar contains about 143 MJ/kg, many orders of magnitude more than the most advanced batteries or capacitors, and since you can get H2 out of water, and combusting it just gives you that water back again, it makes a lot of sense in a post-carbon world.

Other groups have spent a lot of time and money working on artificial photosynthesis, but their efforts have been misdirected, he claims. Artificial oxygen evolving complexes (OECs) tend to be highly unstable, so labs concentrate on making them last longer with exotic and costly materials. This not only pushes up the financial costs, it also makes it harder to push electrons into them, lowering efficiency.

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Nature, on the other hand, uses a simple inorganic redox core that self-assembles from water. It's unstable, so plants repair and replace their OECs every 30 minutes or so, and that's what Nocera's artificial OEC does too. Instead of Mn and Ca, it uses Co and Pi, works in sea water, dirty water, or a glass of water, and repairs itself spontaneously!

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When coupled with more widespread solar panels and more efficient fuel cells, Nocera believes that this CoPi catalyst would provide a household's daily fuel needs from 8 liters of water. I hope he's right.

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Love Bugs

By Abigail Tucker

This Valentine’s Day, thank the stars not just for your sweetie but also for the creepy-crawlies that help furnish the holiday’s staples. Those dozen roses are luscious and red in order to attract pollinating insects, says Tom Turpin, an entomologist at Purdue University. Cacao trees -- whose seeds ultimately wind up in a gazillion heart-shaped boxes -- also rely on insects for reproduction, and your beloved’s silky negligee is courtesy of the silkworm. Reproduction looms large in the short and frantic lives of these tiny creatures, and the insect mating scene may sound familiar to some humans. There’s fierce competition (queen bees are sometimes pursued by buzzing “comets” of suitors), blatant cuckoldry (female water bugs will glue their eggs to the wings of males who are not their mates) and all-consuming passion (females of many species eat their mates). And inevitably, there are males behaving badly: A recent study of fruit flies exposed to alcohol, for instance, showed that inebriated males attempt to mate with most anything that moves and eventually wind up chasing each other in a circle.

Whole tomes have been devoted to the mysteries of bug love – see James Wangberg’s Six-Legged Sex: The Erotic Lives of Insects, for starters – but here are ten peculiar, kinky, and sometimes downright romantic examples:

10) Knock Three Times
The male tarantula is most polite, tapping his legs gently at the entrance of a female’s burrow to lure her out. It isn’t quite throwing pebbles at her window, but close enough…

9) Forget Godiva
Male hang flies, which hang on the undersides of leaves to copulate, entice females with a captured prey insect. “The term is a ‘nuptial gift,’” says Zack Lemann, visitor programs manager at the Audubon Insectarium. “Females need to assess the fitness of the male, and seeing he’s good at catching prey is one way to do that.” And males like to know they won’t get eaten in the act.

8) Harmonizzzzzzing
The same species of mosquito that transmits diseases like yellow fever can also carry a tune, and individual skeeters adjust their buzz frequencies to perform sophisticated duets with their mates.

7) Like a Moth to a Perfume?
The male giant silk moth is drawn irresistibly to the female’s pheromones and can pick up a single molecule of her scent more than a mile downwind.

6) Flashers
Lighthouses of love, male fireflies drift around flashing patterns to females below, who flash responses of their own. Alas, one female firefly fly, known as the “femme fatale” of the insect world, mimics the patterns of other species and draws the males down to her. “They are expecting a mate but she turns them into a meal,” Turpin says.

5) Try A Little Tenderness
Some forms of springtails caress each other with their antennae before mating. John Lubbock, the 19th century entomologist, described their “attentive” courtship: “It is very amusing to see these little creatures coquetting together…moving backwards and forwards like two playful lambs.” At one point in the courtship, the female pretends to flee; the males charges after her. “Then she turns coyly around…then for a bit they stand face to face….and seem to be all in all to one another.”

4) Wings of Love
Colonies of red imported fire ants produce “winged reproductives,” flying ants that don’t forage or care for larvae and pupae but exist only to breed. “They’re kind of a lot like teenagers,” writes Bart Drees, a professor of entomology at Texas A&M University. “They just hang around the colony for weeks or months, consume a lot of food and wait until it’s ‘party time:’ the first sunny day after a rainy period. When they leave the nest, they fly high up into the air and mate.” But reality soon sets in: the male dies not long after the midair tryst.

3) Atmosphere Is Everything
Dung beetles get frisky exactly where you’d expect them to – in heaps of manure. Sometimes pairs also work together to roll a “brood ball” of dung and soil that serves as a nursery for their young.

2) Termighty Love
King and queen termites are the only ones in a colony that reproduce, but, as Rebeccah Waterworth, an entomology graduate student at the University of California Riverside, says, “the pair is monogamous and mates for life.” Some queens can live for a decade, so they even have a shot at a tenth anniversary. Tradition calls for tin or aluminum gifts, but perhaps they’d prefer wood?

1) Love Bites
Female spiders, which tend to be bigger than males, are notorious for snacking on their partners, which is why male black widows sometimes wrap up their mates up in silk beforehand. (Occasionally, Lemann says, a strapping female will “bust out of the silk and grab her mate and eat him” anyway.) But in the Australian black widow’s mating ritual, “post-copulatory suicide” is routine. The male “does a sort of somersault into her fangs,” Lemann says; his body nourishes her as she makes their eggs. Sweet.

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Most Bizarre Experiments Of All Time

20] Heartbeat At Death

mostbizzareexperimentsheartatdeathOn October 31, 1938, John Deering took a last drag on his cigarette, sat down in a chair, and allowed a prison guard to place a black hood over his head and pin a target to his chest. Next the guard attached electronic sensors to Deering’s wrists.

Deering had volunteered to participate in an experiment, the first of its kind, to have his heartbeat recorded as he was shot through the chest by a firing squad. The prison physician, Dr. Stephen Besley, figured that since Deering was being executed anyway, science might as well benefit from the event. Perhaps some valuable information about the effect of fear on the heart could be learned.

The electrocardiogram immediately disclosed that, despite Deering’s calm exterior, his heart was beating like a jackhammer at 120 beats per minute. The sheriff gave the order to fire, and Deering’s heartbeat raced up to 180 beats per minute. Then four bullets ripped into his chest, knocking him back in his chair. One bullet bore directly into the right side of his heart. For four seconds his heart spasmed. A moment later it spasmed again. Then the rhythm gradually declined until, 15.4 seconds after the first shot, Deering’s heart stopped.

The next day Dr. Besley offered the press a eulogy of sorts for Deering: “He put on a good front. The electrocardiograph film shows his bold demeanor hid the actual emotions pounding within him. He was scared to death.”

19] Shock the Puppy

When Stanley Milgram published the results of his obedience experiment in 1963, it sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Other researchers found it hard to believe that people could be so easily manipulated, and they searched for any mistakes Milgram might have made. Charles Sheridan and Richard King theorized that perhaps Milgram’s subjects had merely played along with the experiment because they realized the victim was faking his cries of pain. To test this possibility, Sheridan and King decided to repeat Milgram’s experiment, introducing one significant difference. Instead of using an actor, they would use an actual victim who would really get shocked. Obviously they couldn’t use a human for this purpose, so they used the next best thing — a cute, fluffy puppy.

Sheridan and King told their subjects — volunteers from an undergraduate psychology course — that the puppy was being trained to distinguish between a flickering and a steady light. It had to stand either to the right or the left depending on the cue from the light. If the animal failed to stand in the correct place, the subjects had to press a switch to shock it. As in the Milgram experiment, the shock level increased 15 volts for every wrong answer. But unlike the Milgram experiment, the puppy really was getting zapped.

As the voltage increased, the puppy first barked, then jumped up and down, and finally started howling with pain. The volunteers were horrified. They paced back and forth, hyperventilated, and gestured with their hands to show the puppy where to stand. Many openly wept. Yet the majority of them, twenty out of twenty-six, kept pushing the shock button right up to the maximum voltage.

Intriguingly, the six students who refused to go on were all men. All thirteen women who participated in the experiment obeyed right up until the end.

18] Would You Go To Bed With Me Tonight?

If you were a man walking across the campus of Florida State University in 1978, an attractive young woman might have approached you and said these exact words: “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?”

If you were that man, you probably would have thought that you had just gotten incredibly lucky. But not really. You were actually an unwitting subject in an experiment designed by the psychologist Russell Clark.

Clark had persuaded the students of his social psychology class to help him find out which gender, in a real-life situation, would be more receptive to a sexual offer from a stranger. The only way to find out, he figured, was to actually get out there and see what would happen. So young men and women from his class fanned out across campus and began propositioning strangers.

The results weren’t very surprising. Seventy-five percent of guys were happy to oblige an attractive female stranger (and those who said no typically offered an excuse such as, “I’m married”). But not a single woman accepted the identical offer of an attractive male. In fact, most of them demanded the guy leave her alone.

At first the psychological community dismissed Clark’s experiment as a trivial stunt, but gradually his experiment gained first acceptance, and then praise for how dramatically it revealed the differing sexual attitudes of men and women. Today it’s considered a classic. But why men and women display such different attitudes remains as hotly debated as ever.

17] Stimuli Eliciting Sexual Behavior in Turkeys

turkeyheadMale turkeys aren’t fussy. Give them a lifelike model of a female turkey and they’ll happily try to mate with it as eagerly as they would with the real thing.

This observation intrigued Martin Schein and Edgar Hale of the University of Pennsylvania, and made them curious about what might be the minimal stimulus required to excite a turkey. They embarked on a series of experiments to find out. This involved removing parts from the turkey model one by one, until the male turkey eventually lost interest.

Tail, feet, and wings were all removed, but still the clueless bird waddled up to the model, let out an amorous gobble, and tried to do his thing. Finally, the researchers were left with a head on a stick. And surprisingly, the male turkey still showed great interest. In fact, it preferred a head on a stick over a headless body.

Schein and Hale subsequently investigated how minimal they could make the head itself before it failed to elicit a response. They discovered that freshly severed female heads impaled on sticks worked best, but if the male turkey had nothing else it would settle for a plain balsa wood head. Turkeys evidently adhere to the philosophy that if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with.

Curious about the mating habits of other poultry, Schein and Hale performed similar tests on White Leghorn Cocks. For those curious, they published their results in an article that boasts one of the most evocative titles in all of science: “Effects of morphological variations of chicken models on sexual responses of cocks.”

16] Seeing Through Cat’s Eyes

cateyesIn 1999 researchers led by Dr. Yang Dan, an assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Berkeley, anesthetized a cat with sodium pentothal, chemically paralyzed it with Norcuron, and secured it tightly in a surgical frame. They then glued metal posts to the whites of its eyes, and forced it to look a screen that showed scene after scene of swaying trees and turtleneck-wearing men.

This was not a form of Clockword-Orange-style aversion therapy for cats. Instead, it was a remarkable attempt to tap into another creature’s brain and see directly through its eyes. The researchers had inserted fiber electrodes into the vision-processing center of the cat’s brain. The electrodes measured the electrical activity of the brain cells and transmitted this information to a nearby computer which decoded the information and transformed it into a visual image. As the cat watched the images of the trees and the turtleneck-wearing guy, the same images emerged (slightly blurrier) on the computer screen across the room.

The commercial potential of the technology is mind-boggling. Forget helmet-cam at the superbowl; get ready for eye-cam. Or how about this — never carry a camera again. Take pictures by blinking your eyes. It would work great unless you had a few too many drinks on vacation.

15] The Electrification of Human Corpses

ureIn 1780 the Italian anatomy professor Luigi Galvani discovered that a spark of electricity could cause the limbs of a dead frog to twitch. Soon men of science throughout Europe were repeating his experiment, but it didn’t take them long to bore of frogs and turn their attention to more interesting animals. What would happen, they wondered, if you electrified a human corpse?

Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, embarked on a tour of Europe in which he offered audiences the chance to see this stomach-turning spectacle. His most celebrated demonstration occurred on January 17, 1803 when he applied the poles of a 120-volt battery to the body of the executed murderer George Forster.

When Aldini placed wires on the mouth and ear, the jaw muscles quivered and the murderer’s features twisted in a rictus of pain. The left eye opened as if to gaze upon his torturer. For the grand finale Aldini hooked one wire to the ear and plunged the other up the rectum. Forster’s corpse broke into a hideous dance. The London Times wrote, “It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”

Other researchers tried electrifying bodies, with the specific hope of restoring them to life, but with no success. Early nineteenth-century experiments of this kind are considered to have been one of Mary Shelley’s main sources of inspiration when she wrote her novel Frankenstein in 1816.

14] My Fingernails Taste Terribly Bitter

In the summer of 1942 Professor Lawrence Leshan stood in the darkness of a cabin in an upstate New York camp where a row of young boys lay sleeping. He spoke aloud, repeating a single phrase over and over, “My fingernails taste terribly bitter. My fingernails taste terribly bitter.”

Nowadays that kind of behavior could get one locked away, but Leshan wasn’t mad. He was conducting a sleep-learning experiment. All the boys had been diagnosed as chronic nail-biters, and Leshan wanted to find out if nocturnal exposure to a negative suggestion about nail biting would cure them of their bad habit.

Leshan initially used a phonograph to play the message. It faithfully repeated the phrase 300 times a night as the boys lay sleeping. But five weeks into the experiment, the phonograph broke. Leshan improvised by standing in the darkness and speaking the message himself.

At the end of the summer, Leshan examined the boys’ nails and concluded that 40% of them had kicked the habit. The sleep-learning effect seemed to be real. However, other researchers later disputed this conclusion. In a 1956 experiment at Santa Monica College, William Emmons and Charles Simon used an electroencephalograph to make sure subjects were fully asleep before playing a message. Under these conditions, the sleep-learning effect disappeared.

13] The Ape and the Child

guadonaldHistory contains numerous accounts of children raised by animals. The children in such cases often continue to act more animal than human, even when returned to human society. The psychologist Winthrop Kellogg wondered what would happen if the situation were reversed. What if an animal were raised by humans — as a human. Would it eventually act like a human?

To answer this question, in 1931 Kellogg brought a seven-month-old female chimpanzee named Gua into his home. He and his wife then proceeded to raise her as if she were human, treating her exactly the same as they treated their ten-month-old son Donald.

Donald and Gua played together. They were fed together. And the Kelloggs subjected them both to regular tests to track their development. One such test was the suspended cookie test, in which the Kelloggs timed how long it took their children to reach a cookie suspended by a string in the middle of the room.

Gua regularly performed better on such tests than Donald, but in terms of language acquisition she was a disappointment. Despite the Kelloggs’s repeated efforts, the ability to speak eluded her. Disturbingly, it also seemed to be eluding Donald. Nine months into the experiment, his language skills weren’t much better than Gua’s. When he one day indicated he was hungry by imitating Gua’s “food bark,” the Kelloggs decided the experiment had gone far enough. Donald evidently needed some playmates of his own species. So on March 28, 1932 they shipped Gua back to the primate center. She was never heard from again.

12] The Remote-Controlled Bull

delgadoYale researcher Jose Delgado stood in the hot sun of a bullring in Cordova, Spain. With him in the ring was a large, angry bull. The animal noticed him and began to charge. It gathered speed. Delgado appeared defenseless, but when the bull was mere feet away, Delgado pressed a button on a remote control unit in his hand, sending a signal to a chip implanted in the bull’s brain. Abruptly, the animal stopped in its tracks. It huffed and puffed a few times, and then walked docilely away.

Delgado’s experience in the ring was an experimental demonstration of the ability of his “stimoceiver” to manipulate behavior. The stimoceiver was a computer chip, operated by a remote-control unit, that could be used to electrically stimulate different regions of an animal’s brain. Such stimulation could produce a wide variety of effects, including the involuntary movement of limbs, the eliciting of emotions such as love or rage, or the inhibition of appetite. It could also be used, as Delgado showed, to stop a charging bull.

Delgado’s experiment sounds so much like science fiction, that many people are surprised to learn it occurred back in 1963. During the 1970s and 80s, research into electrical stimulation of the brain (ESB) languished, stigmatized by the perception that it represented an effort to control people’s minds and thoughts. But more recently, ESB research has once again been flourishing, with reports of researchers creating remote-controlled rats, pigeons, and even sharks.

11] Monkey-Head Transplant

monkeyheadWhen Vladimir Demikhov unveiled his two-headed dogs in 1954, it inspired a strange kind of surgical arms race (or rather, head race) between the two superpowers. Eager to prove that its surgeons were actually the best in the world, the American government began funding the work of Robert White, who then embarked on a series of experimental surgeries, performed at his brain research center in Cleveland, Ohio, resulting in the world’s first successful monkey-head transplant.

The head transplant occurred on March 14, 1970. It took White and his assistants hours to perform the carefully choreographed operation, separating a monkey’s head from its body and reattaching it to a new body. When the monkey woke and found that its body had been switched for a new one, it angrily tracked White with its eyes and snapped at him with its teeth. The monkey survived a day and a half before succumbing to complications from the surgery. As bad as it was for the monkey, it could have been worse. White noted that, from a surgical point of view, it would have been easier to put the monkey’s head on backwards.

White thought he should have been treated like a hero, but instead the public was appalled by what he had done. Nevertheless, White soldiered on, campaigning to raise support for a human head transplant. He toured with Craig Vetovitz, a near-quadriplegic, who volunteered to be the first to undergo the procedure. The public is still a long way from accepting the idea of human head transplants, but if White has his way, one day it will happen.

10] Beneficial Brainwashing

psychicdriving1Dr. Ewen Cameron believed he had come up with a cure for schizophrenia. His theory was that the brain could be reprogrammed to think in healthy ways by forcibly imposing new thought patterns on it. His method was to make patients wear headphones and listen to audio messages looped over and over, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. He called this method “psychic driving,” because the messages were being driven into the psyche. The press hailed it as “beneficial brainwashing.”

During the 1950s and early 1960s, hundreds of Cameron’s patients at Montreal’s Allan Memorial Clinic became his unwitting test subjects — whether or not they actually had schizophrenia. Some patients checked in complaining of problems as minor as menopause-related anxiety, only to find themselves sedated with barbiturates, strapped into a bed, and forced to listen for days on end to messages such as “People like you and need you. You have confidence in yourself.”

One time, to test the technique, Cameron placed patients into a drugged sleep and made them listen to the message, “When you see a piece of paper, you want to pick it up.” Later he drove them to a local gymnasium. There, lying in the middle of the gym floor, was a single piece of paper. He happily reported that many of them spontaneously walked over to pick it up.

When the CIA learned of what Cameron was doing, it became interested and started surreptitiously channeling him money. But eventually the agency concluded that Cameron’s technique was a failure and cut his funding, prompting Cameron himself to admit that his experiments had been “a ten year trip down the wrong road.” In the late 1970s a group of Cameron’s former patients filed suit against the CIA for its support of his work and reached an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount of money.

9] The Vomit-Drinking Doctor

How far would you go to prove a theory? Stubbins Ffirth, a doctor-in-training living in Philadelphia during the early nineteenth century, went further than most. Way further.

Having observed that yellow fever ran riot during the summer, but disappeared during the winter, Ffirth concluded that it was not a contagious disease. Instead, he theorized it was caused by an excess of stimulants such as heat, food, and noise.

To prove his theory, Ffirth set out to demonstrate that no matter how much he exposed himself to yellow fever, he wouldn’t catch it. He started by making small incisions on his arms and pouring “fresh black vomit” obtained from a yellow-fever patient into the cuts. He didn’t get sick.

Next he dribbled some vomit in his eyes. He fried some up on a skillet and inhaled the fumes. He fashioned some into a pill and swallowed it. Finally he took to drinking entire glasses of pure, undiluted black vomit. And still he didn’t get sick.

Ffirth rounded out his experiment by liberally smearing himself with other yellow-fever tainted fluids: blood, saliva, perspiration, and urine. Healthy as ever, he declared his theory proven. Unfortunately, he was wrong. Yellow fever is very contagious, but it requires direct transmission into the blood stream, usually by a mosquito, to cause infection. But considering all Ffirth did to infect himself, it is a bit of a miracle he remained alive.

8] Facial expressions while decapitating a rat

landis1In 1924 Carney Landis, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Minnesota, designed an experiment to study whether emotions evoke characteristic facial expressions. For instance, is there one expression everyone uses to convey shock, and another commonly used to display disgust?

Most of Landis’s subjects were fellow graduate students. He brought them into his lab and painted lines on their faces so that he could more easily see the movement of their muscles. He then exposed them to a variety of stimuli designed to provoke a strong psychological reaction. As they reacted, he snapped pictures of their faces. He made them smell ammonia, look at pornographic pictures, and reach their hand into a bucket containing slimy frogs. But the climax of the experiment arrived when he carried out a live white rat on a tray and asked them to decapitate it.

Most people initially resisted his request, but eventually two-thirds did as he ordered. Landis noted that most of them performed the task quite clumsily: “The effort and attempt to hurry usually resulted in a rather awkward and prolonged job of decapitation.” For the one-third that refused, Landis eventually picked up the knife and decapitated the rat for them.

Landis’s experiment presented a stunning display of the willingness of people to obey the demands of experimenters, no matter how bizarre those demands might be. It anticipated the results of Milgram’s obedience experiment by almost forty years. However, Landis never realized that the compliance of his subjects was far more interesting than their facial expressions. Landis remained single-mindedly focused on his initial research topic, even though he never was able to match up emotions and expressions. It turns out that people use a wide variety of expressions to convey the same emotion — even an emotion such as disgust at having to decapitate a rat.

7] The Stanford Prison Experiment

prisonexperiment1Philip Zimbardo was curious about why prisons are such violent places. Is it because of the character of their inhabitants, or is it due to the corrosive effect of the power structure of the prisons themselves?

To find out, Zimbardo created a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology department. He recruited clean-cut young men as volunteers — none had criminal records and all rated “normal” on psychological tests — and he randomly assigned half of them to play the role of prisoners and the other half to play guards. His plan was that he would step back for two weeks and observe how these model citizens interacted with each other in their new roles.

What happened next has become the stuff of legend.

Social conditions in the mock prison deteriorated with stunning rapidity. On the first night the prisoners staged a revolt, and the guards, feeling threatened by the insubordination of the prisoners, cracked down hard. They began devising creative ways to discipline the prisoners, using methods such as random strip-searches, curtailed bathroom privileges, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, and the withholding of food.

Under this pressure, prisoners began to crack. The first one left after only thirty-six hours, screaming that he felt like he was “burning up inside.” Within six days, four more prisoners had followed his lead, one of whom had broken out in a full-body stress-related rash. It was clear that for everyone involved the new roles had quickly become more than just a game.

Even Zimbardo himself felt seduced by the corrosive psychology of the situation. He began entertaining paranoid fears that his prisoners were planning a break-out, and he tried to contact the real police for help. Luckily, at this point Zimbardo realized things had gone too far. Only six days had passed, but already the happy college kids who had begun the experiment had transformed into sullen prisoners and sadistic guards.

Zimbardo called a meeting the next morning and told everyone they could go home. The remaining prisoners were relieved, but tellingly, the guards were upset. They had been quite enjoying their new-found power and had no desire to give it up.

6] Human-Ape Hybrid

For decades dark rumors circulated alleging that the Soviets had conducted experiments to try to create a human-ape hybrid by breeding chimpanzees and humans, but it wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of Russian archives that the rumors were confirmed.

Dr. Il’ya Ivanov was a world-renowned expert on veterinary reproductive biology, but he wanted to do more in life than breed fatter cows. So in 1927 he traveled to Africa to pursue his vision of interbreeding man and ape.

Thankfully his efforts weren’t successful. To a great degree this was due to the native staff of the West Guinea research facility where he worked, from whom he constantly had to conceal the true purpose of his experiments. If they had found out what he was really doing, he wrote in his diary, “this could have led to very unpleasant consequences.” The necessity of carrying out his work in secrecy made it almost impossible to do anything, although he did record two unsuccessful attempts to artificially inseminate female chimpanzees with human sperm.

Frustrated, Ivanov eventually returned to the Soviet Union. He brought an orangutan named Tarzan back with him, hoping to continue his research in a more accepting environment. Back home he advertised for female volunteers willing to carry Tarzan’s child, and remarkably he got a few takers. But then Tarzan died and Ivanov himself was sent off to a prison camp for a couple of years. This ended his research. There are vague rumors suggesting that other Soviet scientists continued Ivanov’s work, but nothing definite has been proven.

5] The Isolated Head of a Dog

doghead_web1What could be more horrific than creating a two-headed dog? What about keeping the severed head of a dog alive apart from its body!

Ever since the carnage of the French Revolution, when the guillotine sent thousands of severed heads tumbling into baskets, scientists had wondered whether it would be possible to keep a head alive apart from its body, but it wasn’t until the late 1920s that someone managed to pull off this feat.

Soviet physician Sergei Brukhonenko developed a primitive heart-lung machine he called an “autojector,” and with this device he succeeded in keeping the severed head of a dog alive. He displayed one of his living dog heads in 1928 before an international audience of scientists at the Third Congress of Physiologists of the USSR. To prove that the head lying on the table really was alive, he showed that it reacted to stimuli. Brukhonenko banged a hammer on the table, and the head flinched. He shone light in its eyes, and the eyes blinked. He even fed the head a piece of cheese, which promptly popped out the esophageal tube on the other end.

Brukhonenko’s severed dog head became the talk of Europe and inspired the playwright George Bernard Shaw to muse, “I am even tempted to have my own head cut off so that I can continue to dictate plays and books without being bothered by illness, without having to dress and undress, without having to eat, without having anything else to do other than to produce masterpieces of dramatic art and literature.”

4] The Initiation of Heterosexual Behavior in a Homosexual Male

heath_web1In 1954 James Olds and Peter Milner of McGill University discovered that the septal region is the feel-good center of the brain. Electrical stimulation of it produces sensations of intense pleasure and sexual arousal. They demonstrated their discovery by inserting wires into a rat’s brain and then showing that when the rat figured out it could self-stimulate itself by pressing a lever, it would maniacally bang on that lever up to two-thousand times an hour. (The image at the very top of this page, third from the right, shows one of Olds and Milner’s rats banging on its lever.)

In 1970, Robert Heath of Tulane University dreamed up a far more novel application of Olds and Milner’s discovery. Heath decided to test whether repeated stimulation of the septal region could transform a homosexual man into a heterosexual.

Heath referred to his homosexual subject as patient B-19. He inserted Teflon-insulated electrodes into the septal region of B-19’s brain and then gave B-19 carefully controlled amounts of stimulation in experimental sessions. Soon the young man was reporting increased stirrings of sexual motivation. Heath then rigged up a device to allow B-19 to self-stimulate himself. It was like letting a chocoholic loose in a candy shop. B-19 quickly became obsessed with the pleasure button. In one three-hour session he pressed it 1500 times until, as Heath noted, “he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation and had to be disconnected.”

By this stage of the experiment B-19’s libido was so jacked up that Heath decided to proceed with the final stage in which B-19 would be introduced to a sexually-willing female partner. With permission from the state attorney general, Heath arranged for a twenty-one-year-old female prostitute to visit the lab, and he placed her in a room with B-19. For an hour B-19 did nothing, but then the prostitute took the initiative and a successful sexual encounter between the two occurred. Heath considered this a positive result.

Little is known of B-19’s later fate. Heath reported that the young man drifted back into a life of homosexual prostitution, but that he also had an affair with a married woman. Heath optimistically decided that this showed the treatment was at least partially successful. However, Heath never did try to convert any more homosexuals.

3] Demikhov’s Two-Headed Dogs

demikhov_web1In 1954 Vladimir Demikhov shocked the world by unveiling a surgically created monstrosity: A two-headed dog. He created the creature in a lab on the outskirts of Moscow by grafting the head, shoulders, and front legs of a puppy onto the neck of a mature German shepherd.

Demikhov paraded the dog before reporters from around the world. Journalists gasped as both heads simultaneously lapped at bowls of milk, and then cringed as the milk from the puppy’s head dribbled out the unconnected stump of its esophageal tube. The Soviet Union proudly boasted that the dog was proof of their nation’s medical preeminence.

Over the course of the next fifteen years, Demikhov created a total of twenty of his two-headed dogs. None of them lived very long, as they inevitably succumbed to problems of tissue rejection. The record was a month.

Demikhov explained that the dogs were part of a continuing series of experiments in surgical techniques, with his ultimate goal being to learn how to perform a human heart and lung transplant. Another surgeon beat him to this goal — Dr. Christian Baarnard in 1967 — but Demikhov is widely credited with paving the way for it.

2] Obedience

milgram_web1Imagine that you’ve volunteered for an experiment, but when you show up at the lab you discover the researcher wants you to murder an innocent person. You protest, but the researcher firmly states, “The experiment requires that you do it.” Would you acquiesce and kill the person?

When asked what they would do in such a situation, almost everyone replies that of course they would refuse to commit murder. But Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment, conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s, revealed that this optimistic belief is wrong. If the request is presented in the right way, almost all of us quite obediently become killers.

Milgram told subjects they were participating in an experiment to determine the effect of punishment on learning. One volunteer (who was, in reality, an actor in cahoots with Milgram) would attempt to memorize a series of word pairs. The other volunteer (the real subject) would read out the word pairs and give the learner an electric shock every time he got an answer wrong. The shocks would increase in intensity by fifteen volts with each wrong answer.

The experiment began. The learner started getting some wrong answers, and pretty soon the shocks had reached 120 volts. At this point the learner started crying out, “Hey, this really hurts.” At 150 volts the learner screamed in pain and demanded to be let out. Confused, the volunteers turned around and asked the researcher what they should do. He always calmly replied, “The experiment requires that you continue.”

Milgram had no interest in the effect of punishment on learning. What he really wanted to see was how long people would keep pressing the shock button before they refused to participate any further. Would they remain obedient to the authority of the researcher up to the point of killing someone?

To Milgram’s surprise, even though volunteers could plainly hear the agonized cries of the learner echoing through the walls of the lab from the neighboring room, two-thirds of them continued to press the shock button all the way up to the end of scale, 450 volts, by which time the learner had fallen into an eerie silence, apparently dead. Milgram’s subjects sweated and shook, and some laughed hysterically, but they kept pressing the button. Even more disturbingly, when volunteers could neither see nor hear feedback from the learner, compliance with the order to give ever greater shocks was almost 100%.

Milgram later commented, “I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.”

1] Elephants on Acid

tusko21What happens if you give an elephant LSD? On Friday August 3, 1962, a group of Oklahoma City researchers decided to find out.

Warren Thomas, Director of the City Zoo, fired a cartridge-syringe containing 297 milligrams of LSD into Tusko the Elephant’s rump. With Thomas were two scientific colleagues from the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, Louis Jolyon West and Chester M. Pierce.

297 milligrams is a lot of LSD — about 3000 times the level of a typical human dose. In fact, it remains the largest dose of LSD ever given to a living creature. The researchers figured that, if they were going to give an elephant LSD, they better not give him too little.

Thomas, West, and Pierce later explained that the experiment was designed to find out if LSD would induce musth in an elephant — musth being a kind of temporary madness male elephants sometimes experience during which they become highly aggressive and secrete a sticky fluid from their temporal glands. But one suspects a small element of ghoulish curiosity might also have been involved.

Whatever the reason for the experiment, it almost immediately went awry. Tusko reacted to the shot as if a bee had stung him. He trumpeted around his pen for a few minutes, and then keeled over on his side. Horrified, the researchers tried to revive him, but about an hour later he was dead. The three scientists sheepishly concluded that, “It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD.”

In the years that followed controversy lingered over whether it was the LSD that killed Tusko, or the drugs used to revive him. So twenty years later, Ronald Siegel of UCLA decided to settle the debate by giving two elephants a dose similar to what Tusko received. Reportedly he had to sign an agreement promising to replace the animals in the event of their deaths.

Instead of injecting the elephants with LSD, Siegel mixed the drug into their water, and when it was administered in this way, the elephants not only survived but didn’t seem too upset at all. They acted sluggish, rocked back and forth, and made some strange vocalizations such as chirping and squeaking, but within a few hours they were back to normal. However, Siegel noted that the dosage Tusko received may have exceeded some threshold of toxicity, so he couldn’t rule out that LSD was the cause of his death. The controversy continues.

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