Monday, March 16, 2009

Tiny Brain Region Key To Fear Of Rivals And Predators

A piece of the brain's hypothalamus (shown in middle of the above model) is key to animals' fear of territorial rivals and predators, according to a new study. Without it, animals lose all sense of caution. (Credit: iStockphoto/Karen Roach)

Mice lose their fear of territorial rivals when a tiny piece of their brain is neutralized, a new study reports.

The study adds to evidence that primal fear responses do not depend on the amygdala – long a favored region of fear researchers – but on an obscure corner of the primeval brain.

A group of neuroscientists led by Larry Swanson of the University of Southern California studied the brain activity of rats and mice exposed to cats, or to rival rodents defending their territory.

Both experiences activated neurons in the dorsal premammillary nucleus, part of an ancient brain region called the hypothalamus.

Swanson's group then made tiny lesions in the same area. Those rodents behaved far differently.

"These animals are not afraid of a predator," Swanson said. "It's almost like they go up and shake hands with a predator."

Lost fear of cats in rodents with such lesions has been observed before. More important for studies of social interaction, the study replicated the finding for male rats that wandered into another male's territory.

Instead of adopting the usual passive pose, the intruder frequently stood upright and boxed with the resident male, avoided exposing his neck and back, and came back for more even when losing.

"It's amazing that these lesions appear to abolish innate fear responses," said Swanson, who added: "The same basic circuitry is found in primates and people that we find in rats and mice."

The study was slated for online publication the week of March 9 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Swanson predicted that his group's findings would shift some research away from the amygdala, a major target of fear studies for the past 30 years.

"This is a new perspective on what part of the brain controls fear," he said.

He explained that most amygdala studies have focused on a different type of fear, which might more accurately be called caution or risk aversion.

In those studies, animals receive an electric shock to their feet. When placed in the same environment a few days later, they display caution and increased activity of the amygdala.

But the emotion experienced in that case may differ from the response to a physical attack.

"We're not just dealing with one system that controls all fear," Swanson said.

Swanson and collaborators have been studying the role of the hypothalamus in the fear response since 1992.

Because of its role in basic survival functions such as feeding, reproduction and the sleep-wake cycle, the hypothalamus seems a plausible candidate for fear studies.

Yet, said Swanson, "nobody's paid any attention to it."

The PNAS study is the most recent of several by Swanson on fear and the hypothalamus. The few other researchers in the area include Newton Canteras of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, who collaborated with Swanson on the PNAS study, as well as Robert and Caroline Blanchard of the University of Hawaii.

The other authors on the PNAS study were Simone Motta, Marina Goto, Flavia Gouveia and Marcus Baldo, all from the University of Sao Paulo.

The Brazilian government funded the study.

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Fermilab Closer To Discovering Higgs Boson 'God Particle'

The U.S. Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory announced on Friday that physicists have come closer to finding the elusive "God Particle," which could one day explain why particles have mass, the American Free Press reported.

The American research institute had previously claimed it was moving ahead of its European rival in the race to discover one of the biggest prizes in physics, the elusive Higgs Boson particle.

Fermilab reported that its researchers have managed to shrink the territory where they expect the so-called “God Particle” to be found.

British physicist Peter Higgs set out to answer the question that baffled physicists: how do particles acquire mass?

In 1964, he came up with the idea that a background field must exist that would act like treacle, meaning particles passing through it would acquire mass by being dragged through a mediator, which theoreticians dubbed the Higgs Boson.

The Higgs became known as the "God Particle" because it is everywhere but remains frustratingly elusive.

Finding confirmation of the Higgs would answer many questions about the so-called Standard Model, the theory that summarizes our present knowledge of particles
. Scientists throughout the years have narrowed down the ranges of mass that the Higgs is likely to have.

European physicists are also searching for the Higgs, amongst other things, with the Big Bang atom-smasher, the Large Hadron Collider.

However, the LHC suffered a months-long setback after being switched on in September 2008 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) below the Franco-Swiss border.

Researchers at the rival Fermilab have increased efforts to discover the Higgs before the LHC is back on track in September of this year.

Femilab said in a press release that researchers at CERN had already determined that the Higgs must weigh more than 114 GeV/c2. Calculations of quantum effects involving the Higgs Boson require its mass to be less than 185 GeV/c2.

Physicists at CERN were able to carve out a section in the middle of that range using Fermilab's Tevatron collider, establishing that the particle it cannot have a mass in between 160 and 170 GeV/c2.

Two major research groups have analyzed three inverse femtobarns of collision data, the scientific unit that scientists use to count the number of collisions. They say that each experiment expects to receive a total of about 10 inverse femtobarns by the end of 2010.

Fermilab researcher Rob Roser said a particle collision at the Tevatron collider can produce a Higgs boson in many different ways, and the Higgs particle can then decay into various particles.

"Each experiment examines more and more possibilities. Combining all of them, we hope to see a first hint of the Higgs particle."

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Giant sand worms lived in Torbay, scientists claim

geology: giant sand worms lived in Torbay
Dr Kevin Page with fossils containing the burrowings of large sand worms believed to have existed 260 million years ago Photo: Mark Sutherland/SWNS

Proof of the creatures' existence, which lived 260million years ago, has been found in Torbay, Devon.

The worms, which grew up to 3ft long and 6in wide, are thought to have lived underground before dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Experts at the English Riviera Geopark organisation have found large burrow holes that are said to have been made by the creatures as they travelled beneath the surface.

Geologist Dr Kevin Page said the discovery of the underground holes is an unprecedented find in science and represents "life - but not as we know it".

He said: "It really is quite extraordinary. Nothing like this has ever been found before. The underground area is peppered with these burrows.

"There is no supporting evidence to suggest they were made by creatures we know about, so what were are looking at is an entirely new life form.

"It is very, very strange. They were made at the end of the Paleozoic period before dinosaurs came along when the earth teemed with creatures which are now extinct.

"We have found the holes but as yet we haven't found the animals which made them.

"They would have looked like the worms from the film Dune. It is science fiction meeting science fact.

"We know about giant millipedes at the time but this is something quite different. They are unknown to science and a completely new species. It is life, but not as we know it."

The large holes were found across an area of sediment at the bottom of what was a desert wadis (corr) - a valley or dry river bed that only contains water during times of heavy rain.

Dr Page, a lecturer at Plymouth University, said the worms lived underground and only come to the surface to drink and feed.

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What Do Dreams Mean? Whatever Your Bias Says


Suppose last night you had two dreams. In one, God appears and commands you to take a year off and travel the world. In the other, God commands you to take a year off to go work in a leper colony.

Which of those dreams, if either, would you consider meaningful?

Or suppose you had one dream in which your friend defends you against enemies, and another dream in which that same friend goes behind your back and tries to seduce your significant other? Which dream would you take seriously?

Tough questions, but social scientists now have answers — and really, it’s about time. For thousands of years, dreamers have had little more to go on than the two-gate hypothesis proposed in “The Odyssey.” After Penelope dreams of the return of her lost-long husband, she’s skeptical and says that only some dreams matter.

“There are two gates,” she explains, “through which these unsubstantial fancies proceed; the one is of horn, and the other ivory. Those that come through the gate of ivory are fatuous, but those from the gate of horn mean something to those that see them.”

Her two-gate hypothesis, later endorsed by Virgil and Ovid, was elegant in theory but not terribly useful in practice. How could you tell which gate your dream came from? One woman’s ivory could be another’s horn.

Today, though, we can start making distinctions, thanks to a series of studies of more than 1,000 people by two psychologists, Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University and Michael Norton of Harvard. (You can report your dreams to these researchers at TierneyLab,

The psychologists began by asking college students in three countries — India, South Korea and the United States — how much significance they attached to dreams. Relatively few students believed in modern theories that dreaming is simply the brain’s response to random impulses, or that it’s a mechanism for sorting and discarding information. Instead, the majority in all three countries believed, along with Freud, that dreams reveal important unconscious emotions.

These instinctive Freudians also considered dreams to be valuable omens, as demonstrated in a study asking them to imagine they were about to take a plane trip. If, on the eve of the flight, they dreamed of the plane’s crashing, they were more likely to cancel the trip than if they saw news of an actual plane crash on their route.

But when the researchers asked people to interpret dreams, some suspiciously convenient correlations turned up. When asked to recall their own dreams, they attached more significance to a negative dream if it was about someone they disliked, and they gave correspondingly more weight to a positive dream if it was about a friend.

A similar bias showed up when people were asked to imagine that they had had various dreams starring a friend or a deity. People rated a dream about a friend protecting them against attackers as being more “meaningful” than a dream about their own romantic partner faithlessly kissing that same friend. People who believed in God were more likely than agnostics to be swayed by divine apparitions.

But even the nonbelievers showed a weakness for certain heavenly dreams, like one in which God commanded them to take a year off to travel the world. Agnostics rated that dream as significantly more meaningful than the dream of God commanding them to spend a year working in a leper colony. (Incidentally, although the preferred term for leprosy is now Hansen’s disease, the deity in the experiment used the old-fashioned term from the Bible.)

Dreamers’ self-serving bias is tactfully defined as a “motivated approach to dream interpretation” by Dr. Morewedge and Dr. Norton in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When asked if this “motivated approach” might also affect dream researchers, Dr. Morewedge pointed to Freud’s tendency to find what he was looking for — sex — in his “Interpretation of Dreams.”

“Freud himself suggested that dreams of flying revealed thoughts of sexual desire,” Dr. Morewedge noted. “Interestingly, in the same text, Freud also suggested that dreams about the absence of the ability to fly — i.e., falling — also indicate succumbing to sexual desire. One might interpret this as evidence that scientists are just as self-serving as laypeople when interpreting their dreams.”

Once you see how flexible dream interpretation can be, you can appreciate why it has always been such a popular tool for decision-making. Relying on your dreams for guidance is like the political ritual of appointing an “independent blue-ribbon panel” to resolve an issue. You can duck any personal responsibility for action while pretending to rely on an impartial process, even though you’ve stacked the panel with your own friends and will ignore any advice that conflicts with your desires. Charity work, no; margaritas, sí.

Even if you don’t believe in your own dreams, the new research suggests that you can learn something from those of others. In the Book of Genesis, when the Pharaoh becomes concerned over his dreams of emaciated cattle and withered ears of corn, it would not be unreasonable for Joseph to conclude that the ruler is worried about the possibility of famine. Joseph would therefore have every motivation to interpret the dream so that the Pharaoh creates a new grain-storage program — and, not incidentally, a new job for Joseph supervising it.

While they doubt that dreams contain hidden insights or prophecies, Dr. Morewedge and Dr. Norton note that dreams can be indicators of people’s emotional state, as evidenced by other researchers’ findings of a correlation between stress and nightmares.

Dreams can also become self-fulfilling prophecies simply because people take them so seriously, Dr. Morewedge and Dr. Norton say. Dreams of spousal infidelity may lead to accusations and acrimony that ultimately lead to real infidelity.

“When friends and loved ones have disturbing dreams,” Dr. Morewedge suggested, “one may need to do more than say, ‘It was just a dream.’ It may also be a good idea not to tell people about their undesirable behavior in your dreams, as they may infer that your dreams reveal your true feelings about them.”

This last caveat applies even when non-Freudians are discussing dreams. Even if you don’t ascribe any deep meaning to dreams, even if you think they’re just random hallucinations that don’t come from gates of ivory or horn or anything else, you should still probably pay attention when, say, your romantic partner tells you about a dream in which you were caught in bed with your partner’s friend.

And you should definitely be concerned if your partner goes on to mention a second dream involving a commandment from God to take a year off and travel the world. If your partner is a highly motivated interpreter of dreams, you may find yourself home alone.

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Star Wars scientists use laser gun to kill mosquitoes in fight against malaria

By Alastair Jamieson

Mosquito: insect-killing lasers could fight spread of malaria
Insect-killing lasers could fight the spread of malaria Photo: AFP

Experts behind the 1980s missile shield idea have helped to develop a laser that locks onto and kills airborne insects.

It is thought the device, dubbed the 'Weapon of Mosquito Destruction' (WMD), could be used against mosquitoes, which kill almost one million people around the world every year by spreading malaria.

The research in Seattle, reported in the Wall Street Journal, has been funded by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates through his charitable foundation.

The WMD laser works by detecting the audio frequency created by the beating of mosquito wings. A computer triggers the laser beam which burns the wings off the mosquito and kills it.

Among those working on the research project are astrophysicists Dr Lowell Wood and Dr Jordin Kare who both worked on the original Star Wars plan to shield America from nuclear attack.

Dr Kare said: "We like to think back then we made some contribution to the ending of the cold war. Now we're just trying to make a dent in a war that's actually gone on a lot longer and claimed a lot more lives."

The laser missile defence system was proposed in the 1980s to knock Soviet missiles from the skies with beams. It was greeted with enthusiasm by President Ronald Reagan but mocked as "Star Wars" by Senator Edward Kennedy and never got off the ground.

The idea of using the same mechanism to kill insects was down to Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive who now runs an innovation firm call Intellectual Ventures. The firm was tasked by Mr Gates with exploring new ways of combating malaria and Dr. Wood suggested using lasers. Work on the WMD began last year.

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8 Brilliant Scientific Screw-ups

the mag
by the mag

By Eric Elfman

Hard work and dedication have their time and place, but the values of failure and ineptitude have gone unappreciated for far too long. They say that patience is a virtue, but the following eight inventions prove that laziness, slovenliness, clumsiness and pure stupidity can be virtues, too.

1. Anesthesia (1844)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Recreational drug use
Lesson Learned: Too much of a good thing can sometimes be, well, a good thing

iStock_000005541300Large-Anesthesia.jpgNitrous oxide was discovered in 1772, but for decades the gas was considered no more than a party toy. People knew that inhaling a little of it would make you laugh (hence the name “laughing gas”), and that inhaling a little more of it would knock you unconscious. But for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to anyone that such a property might be useful in, say, surgical operations.

Finally, in 1844, a dentist in Hartford, Conn., named Horace Wells came upon the idea after witnessing a nitrous mishap at a party. High on the gas, a friend of Wells fell and suffered a deep gash in his leg, but he didn’t feel a thing. In fact, he didn’t know he’d been seriously injured until someone pointed out the blood pooling at his feet.

To test his theory, Wells arranged an experiment with himself as the guinea pig. He knocked himself out by inhaling a large does of nitrous oxide, and then had a dentist extract a rotten tooth from his mouth. When Wells came to, his tooth had been pulled painlessly.

To share his discovery with the scientific world, he arranged to perform a similar demonstration with a willing patient in the amphitheatre of the Massachusetts General Hospital. But things didn’t exactly go as planned. Not yet knowing enough about the time it took for the gas to kick in, Wells pulled out the man’s tooth a little prematurely, and the patient screamed in pain. Wells was disgraced and soon left the profession. Later, after being jailed while high on chloroform, he committed suicide. It wasn’t until 1864 that the American Dental Association formally recognized him for his discovery.

2. Iodine (1811)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Industrial accident
Lesson Learned: Seaweed is worth its weight in salt

In the early 19th century, Bernard Courtois was the toast of Paris. He had a factory that produced saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which was a key ingredient in ammunition, and thus a hot commodity in Napoleon’s France. On top of that, Courtois had figured out how to fatten his profits and get his saltpeter potassium for next to nothing. He simply took it straight from the seaweed that washed up daily on the shores. All he had to do was collect it, burn it, and extract the potassium from the ashes.

One day, while his workers were cleaning the tanks used for extracting potassium, they accidentally used a stronger acid than usual. Before they could say “sacre bleu!,” mysterious clouds billowed from the tank. When the smoke cleared, Courtois noticed dark crystals on all the surfaces that had come into contact with the fumes. When he had them analyzed, they turned out to be a previously unknown element, which he named iodine, after the Greek word for “violet.” Iodine, plentiful in saltwater, is concentrated in seaweed. It was soon discovered that goiters, enlargements of the thyroid gland, were caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. So, in addition to its other uses, iodine is now routinely added to table salt.

3. Penicillin (1928)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Living like a pig
Lesson Learned: It helps to gripe to your friends about your job

Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming had a, shall we say, relaxed attitude toward a clean working environment. His desk was often littered with small glass dishes—a fact that is fairly alarming considering that they were filled with bacteria cultures scraped from boils, abscesses and infections. Fleming allowed the cultures to sit around for weeks, hoping something interesting would turn up, or perhaps that someone else would clear them away.

Finally one day, Fleming decided to clean the bacteria-filled dishes and dumped them into a tub of disinfectant. His discovery was about to be washed away when a friend happened to drop by the lab to chat with the scientist. During their discussion, Fleming griped good-naturedly about all the work he had to do and dramatized the point by grabbing the top dish in the tub, which was (fortunately) still above the surface of the water and cleaning agent. As he did, Fleming suddenly noticed a dab of fungus on one side of the dish, which had killed the bacteria nearby. The fungus turned out to be a rare strain of penicillium that had drifted onto the dish from an open window.

Fleming began testing the fungus and found that it killed deadly bacteria, yet was harmless to human tissue. However, Fleming was unable to produce it in any significant quantity and didn’t believe it would be effective in treating disease. Consequently, he downplayed its potential in a paper he presented to the scientific community. Penicillin might have ended there as little more than a medical footnote, but luckily, a decade later, another team of scientists followed up on Fleming’s lead. Using more sophisticated techniques, they were able to successfully produce one of the most life-saving drugs in modern medicine.

4. The Telephone (1876)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Poor foreign language skills
Lesson Learned: A little German is better than none

telephone.jpgIn the 1870s, engineers were working to find a way to send multiple messages over one telegraph wire at the same time. Intrigued by the challenge, Alexander Graham Bell began experimenting with possible solutions. After reading a book by Hermann Von Helmholtz, Bell got the idea to send sounds simultaneously over a wire instead. But as it turns out, Bell’s German was a little rusty, and the author had mentioned nothing about the transmission of sound via wire. Too late for Bell though; the inspiration was there, and he had already set out to do it.

The task proved much more difficult than Bell had imagined. He and his mechanic, Thomas Watson, struggled to build a device that could transmit sound. They finally succeeded, however, and came up with the telephone.

5. Photography (1835)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Not doing the dishes
Lesson Learned: Put off today what you can do tomorrow

Between 1829 and 1835, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was close to becoming the first person to develop a practical process for producing photographs. But he wasn’t home yet.

Daguerre had figured out how to expose an image onto highly polished plates covered with silver iodide, a substance known to be sensitive to light. However, the images he was producing on these polished plates were barely visible, and he didn’t know how to make them darker.

After producing yet another disappointing image one day, Daguerre tossed the silverized plate in his chemical cabinet, intending to clean it off later. But when he went back a few days later, the image had darkened to the point where it was perfectly visible. Daguerre realized that one of the chemicals in the cabinet had somehow reacted with the silver iodide, but he had no way of know which one it was … and there were a whole lot of chemicals in that cabinet.

For weeks, Daguerre took one chemical out of the cabinet every day and put it in a newly exposed plate. But every day, he found a less-than-satisfactory image. Finally, as he was testing the very last chemical, he got the idea to put the plate in the now-empty cabinet, as he had done the first time. Sure enough, the image on the plate darkened. Daguerre carefully examined the shelves of the cabinet and found what he was looking for. Weeks earlier, a thermometer in the cabinet had broken, and Daguerre (being the slob that he was) didn’t clean up the mess very well, leaving a few drops of mercury on the shelf. Turns out, it was the mercury vapor interacting with the silver iodide that produced the darker image. Daguerre incorporated mercury vapor into his process, and the Daguerreotype photograph was born.

6. Mauve Dye (1856)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Delusions of grandeur
Lesson Learned: Real men wear mauve

In 1856, an 18-year-old British chemistry student named William Perkin attempted to develop a synthetic version of quinine, the drug commonly used to treat malaria. It was a noble cause, but the problem was, he had no idea what he was doing.

Perkin started by mixing aniline (a colorless, oily liquid derived from coal-tar, a waste product of the steel industry) with propylene gas and potassium dichromate. It’s a wonder he didn’t blow himself to bits, but the result was just a disappointing black mass stuck to the bottom of his flask. As Perkin started to wash out the container, he noticed that the black substance turned the water purple, and after playing with it some more, he discovered that the purple liquid could be used to dye cloth.

With financial backing from his wealthy father, Perkin began a dye-making business, and his synthetic mauve colorant soon became popular. Up until the time of Perkin’s discovery, natural purple dye had to be extracted from Mediterranean mollusks, making it extremely expensive. Perkin’s cheap coloring not only jumpstarted the synthetic dye industry (and gave birth to the colors used in J.Crew catalogs), it also sparked the growth of the entire field of organic chemistry.

7. Nylon (1934)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Workplace procrastination
Lesson Learned: When the cat’s away, the mice should play

In 1934, researchers at DuPont were charged with developing synthetic silk. But after months of hard work, they still hadn’t found what they were looking for, and the head of the project, Wallace Hume Carothers, was considering calling it quits. The closest they had come was creating a liquid polymer that seemed chemically similar to silk, but in its liquid form wasn’t very useful. Deterred, the researchers began testing other, seemingly more promising substances called polyesters.

One day, a young (and apparently bored) scientist in the group noticed that if he gathered a small glob of polyester on a glass stirring rod, he could use it to pull thin strands of the material from the beaker. And for some reason (prolonged exposure to polyester fumes, perhaps?) he found this hilarious. So on a day when boss-man Carothers was out of the lab, the young researcher and his co-workers started horsing around and decided to have a competition to see who could draw the longest threads from the beaker. As they raced down the hallway with the stirring rods, it dawned on them: By stretching the substance into strands, they were actually re-orienting the molecules and making the liquid material solid.

Ultimately, they determined that the polyesters they were playing with couldn’t be used in textiles, like DuPont wanted, so they turned to their previously unsuccessful silk-like polymer. Unlike the polyester, it could be drawn into solid strands that were strong enough to be woven. This was the first completely synthetic fiber, and they named the material Nylon.

8. Vulcanized Rubber (1844)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Obsession combined with butterfingers
Lesson Learned: A little clumsiness can go a long way

In the early 19th century, natural rubber was relatively useless. It melted in hot weather and became brittle in the cold. Plenty of people had tried to “cure” rubber so it would be impervious to temperature changes, but no one had succeeded … that is, until Charles Goodyear stepped in (or so he claims). According to his own version of the tale, the struggling businessman became obsessed with solving the riddle of rubber, and began mixing rubber with sulfur over a stove. One day, he accidentally spilled some of the mixture onto the hot surface, and when it charred like a piece of leather instead of melting, he knew he was onto something.

The truth, according to well-documented sources, is somewhat different. Apparently, Goodyear learned the secret of combining rubber and sulfur from another early experimenter. And it was one of his partners who accidentally dropped a piece of fabric impregnated with the rubber and sulfur mixture onto a hot stove. But it was Goodyear who recognized the significance of what happened, and he spent months trying to find the perfect combination of rubber, sulfur and high heat. (Goodyear also took credit for coining the term “vulcanization” for the process, but the word was actually first used by an English competitor.) Goodyear received a patent for the process in 1844, but spent the rest of his life defending his right to the discovery. Consequently, he never grew rich and, in fact, wound up in debtors prison more than once. Ironically, rubber became a hugely profitable industry years later, with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. at the forefront.

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Is That Your Final Answer? Study Suggests Method For Improving Individual Decisions

Herd mentality. Angry mob. Mass hysteria. As these phrases suggest, we are not always confident that a large group of people will come up with the smartest decisions. So it may be surprising to learn that numerous studies have shown that a crowd of people usually gives more accurate responses to questions compared to a mere individual.

Averaging the responses provided from a group increases accuracy by canceling out a number of errors made across the board (such as over- and under-estimating the answer).

What happens when we are on our own? What if there is no one else around to consult with before making a judgment - how can we be confident that we are giving a good answer? Psychologists Stefan M. Herzog and Ralph Hertwig from the University of Basel wanted to know if individuals could come up with better answers using a technique they designed and called "dialectical bootstrapping."

Dialectical bootstrapping is a method by which an individual mind averages its' own conflicting opinions, thus simulating the "wisdom of the crowd." In other words, dialectical bootstrapping enables different opinions to be created and combined in the same mind. For example, in this study, participants were asked to identify dates of various historical events. After they gave their initial answer, the participants were asked to think of reasons why the answer may be wrong and were then asked to come up with an alternative second (dialectical) answer.

The results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reveal that the average of the participants' first answer with the second answer was much closer to the correct answer, compared to the original answers on their own. In addition, the dialectical bootstrapping method (that is, thinking about why your own answer might be incorrect and then averaging across estimates) resulted in more accurate answers compared to simply making a second guess without considering why the first answer may be wrong.

These findings suggest that dialectical bootstrapping may be an effective strategy in helping us come up with better answers to many types of problems. The researchers note that while it may be frustrating going back and forth between two different answers, "as dialectical bootstrapping illustrates, being of two minds can also work to one's advantage." They conclude, "Once taught about the tool, people could make use of it to boost accuracy of their estimates across a wide range of domains."

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Slamming UK antiscience

I’ve written about one of my heroes, Ben Goldacre, before: he writes the Bad Science column for the UK newspaper The Guardian, and is a tireless fighter against medical nonsense like vitamins curing AIDS, homeopathy, and chiropractic.

He’s in some hot water right now. As I mentioned in February, a "journalist" named Jeni Barnett, who went on the radio and basically spewed dangerous antivax nonsense for an hour. Ben posted the entire audio clip, and predictably the radio station asked him to take it down. In America, given copyright restrictions, that would be understandable, but in the UK the laws are different, and the legality of this is questionable.

What I don’t understand is the radio station’s steadfast defense for themselves in their right to air fearmongering conspiracy theories which spend a lot of air time telling parents it’s better to put their kids at serious risk of fatal diseases than to get a simple vaccination, and to air someone saying demonstrably incorrect things while doing it. Where does personal or company pride end when it puts little children at risk?

Ben created an excellent short video news segment which is now on YouTube. I strongly urge everyone to watch it and spread the word.

People like Jeni Barnett have a right to speech, but speech, even free, comes with a price when it advocates parents putting their kids at risk. This story needs to be heard.

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'Supermodel' satellite set to fly

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News


Neil Wallace reveals the inner workings of Goce's ion engine

Europe is set to launch one of its most challenging space missions to date.

The Goce satellite will map minute variations in the pull of gravity experienced across the planet.

Scientists will use its data to improve their understanding of how the oceans move, and to frame a universal system to measure height anywhere on Earth.

The super-sleek spacecraft will go into orbit on a modified intercontinental ballistic missile from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in north-west Russia.

GOCE (Esa)
This is the most beautiful satellite that has ever been built
Reiner Rummel, Technical University of Munich
Lift-off for the Rockot vehicle is timed for 1421 GMT on Monday.

Most satellites launched into space are ugly boxes. The European Space Agency's (Esa) Goce satellite is very different.

"This is the most beautiful satellite that has ever been built - and for good reason," enthused one of the scientists who conceived the mission, Reiner Rummel, from the Technical University of Munich, Germany.

Goce's striking good-looks are a requirement of the extremely testing environment in which it will have to operate.

The arrow shape and fins are necessary to keep the spacecraft stable as it flies through the wisps of air still present at an altitude just under 270km.

This orbit is much lower than for most Earth observation missions but will be essential if Goce is to sense the very subtle gravity anomalies that exist across the planet.

"Our current knowledge of the Earth's gravity is incomplete," explained Danilo Muzi, Esa's Goce programme manager.

"Gravity is the force we experience daily; it keeps our feet on the ground. But there is this general misconception that it is constant everywhere on the globe, which is not true. If we go to the North Pole we will weigh more than if we are at the equator."

Goce data will be used to construct an idealised surface called a geoid

This extraordinary phenomenon is explained in part by the shape of the planet. It is not a perfect sphere - it is flatter at the poles, fatter at the equator. Its interior layers are also not composed of uniform shells of homogenous rock - some regions are thicker or denser.

This leads to an irregular distribution of mass; and as everything that has mass is pulled by gravity, its tug becomes irregular, too.

The variations, though, are minuscule - almost imperceptible.

Meeting the measurement challenge in itself resulted in two years' delay for the Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (Goce). Engineers have had to work through immense technical difficulties.

At the heart of the spacecraft is a device known as a gradiometer.

"This is a very complex instrument," said Andrea Allasio, who led the production of the satellite at Thales Alenia Space in Italy. "It is, for sure, the most sophisticated gradiometer which has ever been prepared for a satellite."

It consists of three pairs of "proof masses", or accelerometers. They are aligned at 90 degrees, across each axis. The entire set-up is mounted inside an ultra-stable casing.

Plesetsk Cosmodrome (BBC)

As Goce bumps through the Earth's gravity field, the accelerometers will sense the fantastically small disturbances.

"We have one comparison that we often make," explained Rune Floberghagen, Esa's Goce mission manager.

"Imagine a snowflake, which has a fraction of a gram, slowly falling down on to the deck of a supertanker. The acceleration that the supertanker experiences from that snowflake is comparable to the sensitivity of our instrument," he told BBC News.

There is however a potential showstopper: the low altitude Goce must fly to get the detail it seeks in the gravity signal. The constant buffeting the satellite receives from the residual air still present in the thermosphere would ordinarily drown out the data.

So Goce employs an ion engine to maintain a steady path - a sort of cruise control. The engine is throttled up and down, producing exquisite levels of thrust by accelerating charged atoms of xenon through nozzles at the rear of the spacecraft.

"We are an enabling technology on this mission; it couldn't happen without us," said Neil Wallace from Qinetiq, the UK technology firm which supplied the engine. "But then this mission has many such technologies."

GOCE (Esa)
1. The 1,100kg Goce is built from rigid materials and carries fixed solar wings. The gravity data must be clear of spacecraft 'noise'
2. Solar cells produce 1,300W and cover the Sun-facing side of Goce; the near side (as shown) radiates heat to keep it cool
3. The 5m-by-1m frame incorporates fins to stabilise the spacecraft as it flies through the residual air in the thermosphere
4. Goce's accelerometers measure accelerations that are as small as 1 part in 10,000,000,000,000 of the gravity experienced on Earth
5. The UK-built engine ejects xenon ions at velocities exceeding 40,000m/s; Goce's mission will end when the 40kg fuel tank empties
6. S Band antenna: Data downloads to the Kiruna (Sweden) ground station. Processing, archiving is done at Esa's centre in Frascati, Italy
7. GPS antennas: Precise positioning of Goce is required, but GPS data in itself can also provide some gravity field information

Goce's quest is to produce a snapshot of the Earth's gravity field at an unprecedented resolution. The data will inform a multitude of science disciplines:

understanding how the mass of ocean waters circulate, moving heat around the planet, will assist climate prediction

a better knowledge of the way mass is distributed inside the Earth will be useful to those who study geo-hazards such as volcanoes and earthquakes

and because gravity defines what is meant by "up", "down" and "level", the new data can underpin a truly universal system to compare heights the world over

Goce is the first of Esa's Earth Explorers, a series of spacecraft that will provide quick answers to key environmental questions.

Six missions have so far been approved; a seventh is in discussion. All will use cutting-edge space technology to acquire their data.

Cryosat-2 (EADS Astrium)
Cryosat has been re-built and will launch later this year

The Goce mission has experienced a series of frustrating delays. It was sent to Plesetsk in August last year and should have orbited in September, but the satellite was then held on the ground because of niggling concerns about the readiness of its launcher system.

The ghost that haunts this mission is the Cryosat satellite. The Esa spacecraft built to map the world's ice fields was supposed to be first Earth Explorer but it was destroyed on launch in 2005 when its Rockot failed and ditched in the Arctic Ocean.

"From the information we have seen from Eurockot (operator) and Khrunichev (manufacturer), we have seen they have done extensive testing," said Danilo Muzi.

"On the basis of all the testing that has been done, and the fact that these tests were successful, then the confidence in the good status of the launcher has been restored," he told BBC News.

Goce will be put into a sun-synchronous orbit, meaning the spacecraft will be kept in daylight for a sustained period of time. The Breeze-KM upper-stage booster will release Goce at an altitude of about 285km.

The satellite will then gradually fall to its operational altitude of 263km, where its ion engine will maintain a steady orbit for the science campaign.

Two major data-gathering periods are planned, each lasting about six months. The first should start in early September after all the in-orbit testing is complete.

The mission will probably be extended if sufficient xenon is left, although some propellant will be needed to take the spacecraft safely out of the sky in a controlled burn-up over ocean waters.

1. Goce senses tiny variations in the pull of gravity over Earth
2. The data is used to construct an idealised surface, or geoid
3. It traces gravity of equal 'potential'; balls won't roll on its 'slopes'
4. It is the shape the oceans would take without winds and currents
5. So, comparing sea level and geoid data reveals ocean behaviour
6. Gravity changes can betray magma movements under volcanoes
7. A precise geoid underpins a universal height system for the world
8. Gravity data can also reveal how much mass is lost by ice sheets

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Call to Arms: The International Space Station Needs Lasers

By Jesus Diaz

OK, let's cut the crap here, NASA: After today's near-evacuation, it's clear that you need weapons on the International Space Station. And don't forget to put web controls so we all can play.

Seriously now: This is seriously fraked up. The ISS is almost as big as a Corellian corvette and it's up there defenseless, floating peacefully, sitting like a dinosaur-sized duck, waiting for one of the 18,000 pieces of tracked space debris to crack it open and take it down in a fiery ball of junk.

Sure, they have a escape spaceship for astronauts. In case things go bad—like they almost did today—they can jump in there and fly away before the worst happens. However, after all the money and effort put in the only human post in space, do we want to send everything to hell for a piece of orbiting crap? Wouldn't it be better to install defense mechanisms against space debris—or, ah, hmmm, alien ships!—to preserve the ISS?

Technically, there are already weapon systems that may be altered to perform this task, but this is not an easy task. We know it is not as easy as firing a laser and taking down the incoming chunk of metal with a Star Wars explosion.

There's a lot of things to be taken into account. First, you will need to detect the threat and fire from a very long distance, so the resulting effect doesn't cause any harm to the ISS itself. Then, the method to take down the object will change depending on its nature. Is it a big satellite or just a big chunk of metal from a previous collision? Does the incoming object have explosive elements inside? If the object is too big and can't be obliterated in a single shot, perhaps it would be better to have some kind of rocket that may approach the object and change its orbit by exploding near it? Perhaps some kind of emergency tug that can attach to the object and take it down?

We don't know. Whatever NASA and its international partner can come up with, they need to do it as soon as possible. Things are getting complicated up there, and this doesn't conflict with the international protocols against the militarization of space—which, in any case, are being constantly violated by the US, Russia, and China.

This will be a defense mechanism against space threats, and that's exactly what the ISS needs. It is just too valuable to be left there with no protection. NASA, it's time to get some pew pew action going on up there.

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Hay fever brings grief to Japanese snow monkeys

Japanese Snow Monkey with Baby

(Tom Brakefield/Corbis)

Industrial-strength Japanese hay fever is so sever that the country's snow monkeys have started to display symptoms

In Japan it is a rite of spring as familiar as the flowering of the cherry blossoms and the melting of the snow on Mount Fuji – every year in March millions of Japanese are reduced to sneezing, weeping helplessness by powerful hay fever that sweeps across the country in an invisible cloud.

Now the problem has become so serious that it is afflicting some of the country’s most famous non-human inhabitants – the Japanese snow monkeys, the world’s most northerly apes.

Naturalists across the country have noticed that the symptoms that so inconvenience humans in the pollen season – running eyes, sniffing and paroxysms of uncontrollable sneezing – are afflicting troops of the Japanese macaque.

“More monkeys seem to be suffering than in previous years,” says Toshikazu Nobuhara, head of the Awaji Island Monkey centre, a wild monkey reserve in western Japan. “When they suffer badly, they have difficulty eating. We can’t do anything but watch over them.”

Cast from your mind images of delicate sniffling on freshly mown lawns – Japanese hay fever is industrial in its scale and ferocity.

Pharmaceutical companies reckon that one in four – that is 32 million – Japanese are affected by it, and that it costs the economy £1.42 billion a year in lost productivity. Japanese MPs even founded a parliamentary group dedicated to the problem – the Hakushon Giin Renmei, which translates as the Atishoo! MPs' League.

The problem is caused by one of the most beautiful and magnificent of Japanese trees, the cryptomeria or Japanese cedar. In the boom years of Japan's post-war growth, millions were planted for use in construction, until it became cheaper to import foreign timber. Every year pollen billows invisibly from the unharvested trees and is borne across the country on the spring breezes.

Traffic pollution seems to make the situation worse in cities – and dry summers are said to have increased the pollen yield. More and more people – and now apes – are affected every year and the prescription drugs available are unreliable, working for some people and not for others.

“The first time we spotted a monkey suffering from the pollen allergy was around 1988,” Mr Nobuhara’s wife told The Times last night. “First we spotted one monkey suffering, and then three more, then three more. At first, only adult monkeys, but now the young one get it too.” As she spoke over the telephone, stentorian monkey sneezes were audible in the background.

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Salmon-Eating Wolves Are One of a Kind

Nobody listens to the real climate change experts

By Christopher Booker

A snowman
Cold comfort: If the present trend continues, the world will be 1.1C cooler in 2100 Photo: Getty

Considering how the fear of global warming is inspiring the world's politicians to put forward the most costly and economically damaging package of measures ever imposed on mankind, it is obviously important that we can trust the basis on which all this is being proposed. Last week two international conferences addressed this issue and the contrast between them could not have been starker.

The first in Copenhagen, billed as "an emergency summit on climate change" and attracting acres of worldwide media coverage, was explicitly designed to stoke up the fear of global warming to an unprecedented pitch. As one of the organisers put it, "this is not a regular scientific conference: this is a deliberate attempt to influence policy".

What worries them are all the signs that when the world's politicians converge on Copenhagen in December to discuss a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, under the guidance of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there will be so much disagreement that they may not get the much more drastic measures to cut carbon emissions that the alarmists are calling for.

Thus the name of the game last week, as we see from a sample of quotations, was to win headlines by claiming that everything is far worse than previously supposed. Sea level rises by 2100 could be "much greater than the 59cm predicted by the last IPCC report". Global warming could kill off 85 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, "much more than previously predicted". The ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica are melting "much faster than predicted". The number of people dying from heat could be "twice as many as previously predicted".

None of the government-funded scientists making these claims were particularly distinguished, but they succeeded in their object, as the media cheerfully recycled all this wild scaremongering without bothering to check the scientific facts.

What a striking contrast this was to the second conference, which I attended with 700 others in New York, organised by the Heartland Institute under the title Global Warming: Was It Ever Really A Crisis?. In Britain this received no coverage at all, apart from a sneering mention by the Guardian, although it was addressed by dozens of expert scientists, not a few of world rank, who for professional standing put those in Copenhagen in the shade.

Led off with stirring speeches from the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the acting head of the European Union, and Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT, perhaps the most distinguished climatologist in the world, the message of this gathering was that the scare over global warming has been deliberately stoked up for political reasons and has long since parted company with proper scientific evidence.

Nothing has more acutely demonstrated this than the reliance of the IPCC on computer models to predict what is going to happen to global temperatures over the next 100 years. On these predictions, that temperatures are likely to rise by up to 5.3C, all their other predictions and recommendations depend, yet nearly 10 years into the 21st century it is already painfully clear that the computer forecasts are going hopelessly astray. Far from rising with CO2, as the models are programmed to predict they should, the satellite-measured temperature curve has flattened out and then dropped. If the present trend were to continue, the world in 2100 would not in fact be hotter but 1.1C cooler than the 1979-1998 average.

Yet it is on this fundamental inability of the computer models to predict what has already happened that all else hangs. For two days in New York we heard distinguished experts, such as Professor Syun-Ichi Akasofu, former director of the International Arctic Research Center, Dr Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Professor Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute, authoritatively (and often wittily) tear apart one piece of the scare orthodoxy after another.

Sea levels are not shooting up but only continuing their modest 3mm a year rise over the past 200 years. The vast Antarctic ice-sheet is not melting, except in one tiny corner, the Antarctic Peninsula. Tropical hurricane activity, far from increasing, is at its lowest level for 30 years. The best correlation for temperature fluctuations is not CO2 but the magnetic activity of the sun. (For an admirable summary of proceedings by the Australian paleoclimatologist Professor Bob Carter, Google "Heartland" and "Quadrant").

Yet the terrifying thing, as President Klaus observed in his magisterial opening address, is that there is no dialogue on these issues. When recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he found the minds of his fellow world leaders firmly shut to anything but the fantasies of the scaremongers. As I said in my own modest contribution to the conference, there seems little doubt that global warming is leading the world towards an unprecedented catastrophe. But it is not the Technicolor apocalypse promised by the likes of Al Gore. The real disaster hanging over us lies in all those astronomically costly measures proposed by politicians, to meet a crisis which in reality never existed.

A perspective on New York that is like a look back in time

On my first visit to New York 45 years ago I was stunned by its scale and modernity. Not having been there since, it was a shock to see how tatty and dated the city now seems. When I went up the Empire State Building (now 80 years old) with my son Nick, we were struck by how small the city looks, and how soon it gives way to countryside and sea.

I recalled Scott Fitzgerald’s essay My Lost City, describing how he returned two years after the Wall Street Crash to see the “last and most magnificent of towers” rising “from the ruins”. Going up it, he “discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s Box. Full of vaunting pride, the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected. That the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed, but that it had limits. From the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of blue and green that was limitless”. New York “was a city after all and not a universe”. “The whole shining edifice he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground”. As Nick, who works in India, observed, “New York is a museum to the 20th century”. But it was still a pleasure to visit.

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Grand Quest to Rid Island of Rats


The attack force arrived at the remote Aleutian Island stealthily, ready to subdue the unsuspecting enemy, who vastly outnumbered them. It took a week's travel just to get there, with boats and helicopters hopscotching 1,400 miles of coastline, stopping every few hundred miles -- including once, harrowingly, at the base of an ash-spewing volcano.

Photo: Scientists carrying out the ambitious program on Rat Island hope to return the volcanic outcropping in the Aleutian chain to its original splendor as a seabird paradise.
A biologist surveys birds on rugged Adak, or Rat Island, during 2007 pre-eradication studies. Last fall by a group of scientists and technicians carried off one of the most ambitious rat-eradication efforts in the world.
(Island Conservation/AP Photo)

At the final target, they dropped their ordnance -- poison from the air. They also set traps by hand on the ground, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible to avoid detection. With the assault complete, they retreated to the safety of the mainland -- uncertain for years whether the effort would be successful in eradicating the foe.

The "invasion" was conducted last fall by a group of scientists and technicians hoping to carry off one of the most ambitious rat-eradication efforts in the world. Appropriately enough, the target of their efforts was a volcanic outcropping in the Aleutian chain called Rat Island.

Centuries ago, Rat Island was believed to be a virtual paradise for seabirds -- a spongy redoubt for tufted puffins, whiskered auklets, and storm petrels. But then came the rats, which turned the fecund habitat into a near-dead zone. Now scientists are trying to return the uninhabited island to its original splendor – an experiment that environments believe could be a model for restoration but some critics say is a waste of money.

"Rats don't belong there, and if it makes sense to try to undo a wrong, we will," says Vernon Byrd, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who's part of the eradication effort.

Rats vs. the World

In one sense, Rat Island's narrative is one that has played out around the world. Rats have invaded 90 percent of the globe's islands, threatening animals that evolved in the absence of vicious land hunters. Rats are specifically blamed for 40 to 60 percent of the recorded island extinctions of birds and reptiles -- including the long-departed dodo.

Rat Island was the first site in Alaska to be invaded. Around 1780, a Japanese sailing ship wrecked off the coast, sending the muscular Norway rats swarming ashore. What started out as a few survivors mushroomed over the decades into a Ghengis Khan horde, which systematically wiped out nesting seabirds and their young. The island, once called "Hawadax" (entry) by native Alaskans, was renamed Rat Island.

Since then, a motley mix of ancient ships and modern vessels has introduced rat colonies to about two dozen Alaska communities and islands. Among the worst-hit sites is the Aleutian city of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, one of the world's top fishing and cargo ports.

Rats are particularly devastating in the treeless Aleutians. While the diverse marine life that takes refuge there has adapted to the rugged weather and conditions, it lacks any natural defenses against land predators. At Kiska, an island where rats tagged along successive World War II military invasions by Japanese and American soldiers, biologists fear that an auklet colony that numbers in the millions will be wiped out.

Ultimately, Rat Island was selected as the best candidate for Alaska's first and North America's fifth island rat-eradication project. At 11 square miles, Rat Island is small enough to be manageable but big enough to be biologically significant. As far as scientists can piece together, it was once, like the other islands in the Aleutian chain, among the world's best seabird theaters -- a place where murrelets and song sparrows thrived in sea grasses, glaucous-winged gulls dove into the surf, and winged denizens burrowed in the thick-rooted island vegetation.

It is also far enough removed from major cargo routes that experts think it unlikely to be invaded by ship-borne rats again. It is part of the sprawling Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, where the mandate is to protect the natural environment.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teamed up with the Nature Conservancy and other experts to launch the Rat Island project, few people objected. Misgivings were limited to worries about the unintended consequences of dropping rodenticide from the air. Federal authorities were able to make the case that this was the least harmful way of eliminating what has turned out to be a dangerous pest.

"Rats don't have a lot of friends," says Mr. Byrd. "In most cases, I think folks see the value of restoration of native species."

Not everyone was convinced. Time magazine in December listed a $150,000 congressional appropriation for the Rat Island project as one of the 10 "most outrageous earmarks" of 2008. Actually, the full cost is about $2.5 million, with most funds coming from private sources such as the Nature Conservancy and from fines paid by shippers for past oil spills.

Late fall was chosen as the best time to apply rat poison because any other animals in the vicinity would likely have migrated south. Though biologists will return this spring and next fall to monitor the situation, it will take longer than that to know whether the eradication worked. Even if the rats are all gone, years must pass before the habitat can return to a condition supporting large numbers of birds. "It may take several decades to build populations back up to thousands," says Byrd.

Rat eradications have been successful on more than 300 islands worldwide, giving Bryd and his colleagues cause for hope. But Rat Island is particularly challenging because of its remoteness and weather. No other such project has been conducted so deep into snow country.

The Mission

Byrd knows the area well. After an upbringing in North Carolina and an education as a biologist, he came to the western Alaska in 1968 on assignment with the Navy. He was posted at the once-bustling Navy station on the Aleutian island of Adak. The day he was discharged from the service, in 1971, he went to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service, serving at the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula. Now nearing retirement, Byrd has spent much of his career trying to help the environment by targeting "invasive" species – bird-preying foxes, vegetation-tromping reindeer and cattle, and the most persistent villain, rats.

The Rat Island project is only a small part of a broad anti-rat program that is embraced by federal, state, and local governments as well as environmental and native groups. Sweeping Alaska regulations enacted in 2007 make it illegal to own rats or harbor them, even unknowingly. Violations are criminal offenses that carry fines of up to $200,000, plus possible jail time.

Some communities have managed to keep rats at bay. Anchorage, where the rodents have long been outlawed by local ordinance, is home to the Northern Hemisphere's biggest rat-free port. Still, the rat menace always looms. "Really, it's a game of Russian roulette," says Joe Meehan, a rat expert at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "One just might have the luck to figure out how to fend for itself and find food and shelter and fend off predators."

The state regulations require all Alaska ports to have detailed rat-control programs similar to oil-spill contingency plans mandated after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

"Ecologically, a rat spill is much worse than an oil spill," Byrd says. Until the recent successes at newly rat-free islands elsewhere in the world, "We assumed if rats got into an ecosystem, it was trashed forever."

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Batteries now included

The missing piece of the electric-car jigsaw has just turned up


IF YOU want to buy an electric car, you can. Tesla Motors, a firm based in San Carlos, California, will sell you a nifty open-top sports job for $109,000. Not cheap, admittedly, but cheap to run. Plugged in overnight, it can be refuelled for the equivalent of 25 cents a litre of petrol. The catch is, “plugged in overnight”. Tesla’s vehicles use standard lithium-ion battery cells. As any owner of a mobile phone or laptop computer knows, these take time to charge. If you use 6,831 of them, as a Tesla sports car does, that time does tend to drag on. Which is fine if you are not planning a long trip the following day, for a full charge will take you about 350km (220 miles). But it might cramp the style of anyone planning to bomb down from, say, Paris to Cannes, and who would therefore need to refuel on the way.

Gerbrand Ceder and Byoungwoo Kang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hope to change this, and thus help make the electric car a work-a-day consumer item, rather than a high-end boy’s toy. In this week’s Nature they have published the technical details of a new battery material that will, if all goes well, take the waiting out of wanting, at least when it comes to recharging.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of storing electrical energy in a chemical system. One is a standard battery, in which the whole material of the electrodes acts as a storage medium. That allows lots of energy to be squirrelled away, but makes it relatively hard to get at—and so it can be released or put back in only slowly. The other way is called a supercapacitor. This stores energy only at the surface of the electrode. It is quick to charge and discharge, but cannot hold much energy. The great prize in the battery world has thus been a material that can both store a lot and discharge rapidly, and it is this that Dr Ceder and Mr Kang think they have come up with.


Lithium-ion batteries, as their name suggests, work by the movement of lithium ions (which carry a positive electric charge) along with electrons (which carry a negative charge). Electrons are small and mobile but lithium ions are much larger and slower. In a standard lithium-ion battery one electrode is made from a material such as lithium iron phosphate and the other from graphite. The ions pass from the graphite to the phosphate through an intervening electrolyte while the electrons make the journey via an external circuit that allows them to do useful work. When the battery is recharged, they go in the opposite direction. (See videographic on how a lithium-ion battery works.)

It is the speed with which the ions can enter and leave the electrodes that governs how fast a battery can be charged and discharged. Graphite has an open structure and is easily penetrated. However, in the case of lithium iron phosphate and other, similar, materials, the crystal structure allows entrance and egress in only one direction. That creates a traffic jam that slows the movement of ions down.

What Dr Ceder and Mr Kang have done is create electrodes that are made of two different materials, one of which is good at storing ions while the other is good at conducting them. The two substances themselves are arranged in tiny spheres less than 50 billionths of a metre across. The core of each sphere is a crystal of lithium iron phosphate. This acts as a standard battery material. The surface, however, is made of a glassy (ie, non-crystalline) form of lithium phosphate. This lithium-phosphate glass is good at conducting lithium ions, though it cannot actually store many. It thus acts as a supercapacitor. The result is that any ion arriving at a sphere is quickly conducted around the surface by the supercapacitor phase until it finds its way to the right place to enter the battery phase in the core—or, if the battery in question is being charged, the other way round.

The really clever bit, though, is how the spheres are made. They crystallise from a melt that does not have enough iron in it to become pure lithium iron phosphate, so eventually no more of that material can form as the melt cools down. From then on the growing sphere is just lithium phosphate and, by manipulating the conditions, the researchers were able to make the coating glassy rather than crystalline.

The result is a material that, when tested in experimental batteries, was able to charge and discharge in a few seconds. In the future, therefore, that weekend in the south of France need not be interrupted by running out of juice.

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The Watercone: A Simple, Effective Solar Still

by Derek Markham

In many parts of the world, lack of access to clean, potable water is a major issue. Water may be found nearby, but only in a brackish or polluted state. Areas close to the ocean may see miles of water, but not a drop to drink. UNICEF estimates that every day 5000 children die as a result of diarrhea caused by drinking unsafe water. The Watercone could change all of that.

Image watercone


The Watercone, invented by Stephan Augustin, is a conical solar still made from recyclable polycarbonate, with a screw cap spout on the top and a collecting trough in the base which catches the condensation for use as drinking water. The design is ingenious. It’s simple, cheap, and effective. The units even nest together to reduce the transportation costs.

Image watercone


The Watercone concept is easily understood by almost anybody within seconds, and there’s no need for technical jargon or complex directions. There are no parts to replace or maintain, and the cone and base are made from Bayer Makrolon, an ultra-tough and recyclable UV resistant polycarbonate. The base is made from recycled polycarbonate.

Image watercone


Simply place the cone over a pan of salty water (or any damp ground, even floating on a pool of water), leave it in the sun to evaporate, you flip it over at the end of the day, take off the cap and drink or store the water.

Image watercone


The Watercone site claims that one cone can produce one liter of water per-day (on average). The life expectancy is 3 to 5 years, and even when the polycarbonate gets cloudy and reduces the effectiveness of the distiller, the cone can still be used to collect rainwater.

VegaWatt: Powering Restaurants WIth Deep Fried Fuel

by Alexandra Kain

vegawatt, restaurant cogeneration, sustainable design, alternative energy, biofuel, fry oil cogeneration plant, veggie oil power, fry power

While there’s still some guilt to be had when indulging in a deep-fried take-out, if the restaurant is equipped with a VegaWatt oil converter you can claim you’re only doing it to help the environment. A VegaWatt machine turns used vegetable oil into clean heat and energy for restaurants, eliminating the dirty and costly mess of oil disposal while producing 10-25% of the electricity needed to run a small restaurant.

vegawatt, restaurant cogeneration, sustainable design, alternative energy, biofuel, fry oil cogeneration plant, veggie oil power, fry power

Designed for locations with 3-5 deep fryers, VegaWatt is the size of a standard fridge and hooks up easily on-site. But don’t call it biodiesel! The Vegawatt produces fuel free of chemicals or fossil fuels, unlike standard biodiesel. The machine puts used fryer oil through a 4-stage filtering process, converting it into a free and clean form of energy. Manufactered by the Owl Power Company in Massachusetts, VegaWatt is part of the EPA’s Combined Heat and Power Partnership (CHP).

CPH - or Cogeneration - involves one source fulfilling two functions (heat and energy generation), and it’s one of many suggestions from the EPA to reduce greenhouse gas emissons. Besides the obvious benefits of reduced oil waste and improved energy efficiency, an average 70 gallon/per week restaurant can save around $800 per month on energy bills. Owning a Vegawatt system also rewards credits towards LEED certification and makes restaurants eligible for income tax credits.

+ VegaWatt

vegawatt, restaurant cogeneration, sustainable design, alternative energy, biofuel, fry oil cogeneration plant, veggie oil power, fry power

vegawatt, restaurant cogeneration, sustainable design, alternative energy, biofuel, fry oil cogeneration plant, veggie oil power, fry powerOriginal here