Friday, April 3, 2009

Jenny McCarthy counts for something

by Phil Plait

Jenny Mccarthy and syringe, small

Regular readers know I am no fan of Jenny McCarthy. I have called her a public health risk here before, and I stand by that: her claim that vaccines cause (or contribute to) autism is nothing short of breathtakingly ridiculous.

And I’m not the only one who knows this to be true. Medical doctors Orac and Steve Novella have words about her, as does Skeptic Dad, and the Stop Jenny McCarthy site was created to expose her as the danger she is.

And now the gauntlet is well and truly thrown down: a website has been created called Jenny McCarthy Body Count. Stark and grim, it has one purpose: to show how many preventable illnesses and preventable deaths have occurred due to unvaccinated people since Jenny McCarthy became the de facto face of the antivaccination movement.

The website, created by skeptic Derek Bartholomaus, stops short of saying she is directly responsible for these illnesses and deaths, but her indirect responsibility is arguably relevant. We know that some outbreaks of measles have occurred due to the antivax movement, for example. And there have been deaths — children have died — because they were unvaccinated. McCarthy may have started out as a comedian, but I’m not laughing at her anymore.

Jenny McCarthy Body Count

The statistics for the site are from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality reports, which Bartholomaus has linked for reference. The diseases specifically include measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, Hib, the flu, and diphtheria. In fact, his numbers underestimate the problem, since other vaccine-preventable diseases are not listed in the CDC reports. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of fatalities are from the pediatric flu, a tragedy I have a difficult time grasping.

The Jenny McCarthy Body Count site itself only launched on March 29, but it’s already had thousands of views. Bartholomaus, a self-described "statistics geek", updates it by hand once a week, when the new CDC reports are issued. He also has some basic info on McCarthy’s claims there, but for more background info on McCarthy and her pro-disease stance, go to Stop Jenny McCarthy.

It’s too bad we need something like this site, but McCarthy gets a free pass from the media, even from those that claim to "spar" with her (but really only give her a platform in which she can spew more dangerous nonsense). The Jenny McCarthy Body Count site is a very stark — and sadly, very necessary — reminder that just because people’s beliefs aren’t real, they can still have a very real and very tragic impact.

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Type A Personalities Have the Edge in Procreating

By John Cloud

Throughout most of human history, you didn't get some unless you had some. More precisely: it was wealthy, powerful men who scored the most sexual mates and, therefore, fathered the most offspring. Men with less wealth and low standing, meanwhile, died disproportionately childless. (As for women, they had little choice about sex regardless of status, since men treated them as property.)

Many evolutionary scientists believe that those thousands of years of human behavior are no artifact: modern men still strive for status partly because it is an evolutionary advantage for improving reproductive success. But other researchers have disputed that theory by citing data showing that wealthier, higher-status men do not in fact have more children than their less moneyed, lower-status peers. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)

Now a new study in the Journal of Personality offers another theory: it is not necessarily wealth that facilitates procreation but a more basic and deeply ingrained evolutionary trait — having a Type A personality. The study finds that adolescents who say they always take charge, tell others what to do, anger quickly, get into fights easily, and walk, talk and eat fast end up having more kids than others when they grow up. That's true regardless of the kids' performance in school.

This is terrible news for nerds, since it implies that in the end, even if they go on to invent software or write Lost episodes or produce great books, the bullies and jocks will win in a far more primal way: they spread their genes to more little bullies and jocks. Call it the ultimate victory of Attila the Hun.

The authors of the study, psychologists Markus Jokela and Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen of the University of Helsinki, interviewed 1,313 Finnish men and women who were participating in a long-term study on an separate topic (cardiovascular risk). The participants underwent psychological assessments first when they were young (between the ages 12 to 21) and then again 18 years later. Those young people with more Type A personality traits ended up having significantly more children by age 39. (The math is complicated, but for those readers who are statistically minded: for every standard deviation of increase in Type-A traits, the probability of having kids rose 11% in men and 19% in women.) (See pictures of U.S. presidents and their children.)

The research suggests that leadership qualities like taking charge and being competitive have an evolutionary advantage even if high socioeconomic status no longer does. "Perhaps the idea of having children is most attractive (or least frightening) to individuals who prefer to act as leaders and to influence other people, including their own offspring," the authors write. The theory is that evolution genetically predisposes Type A's to like having kids because thousands of years ago, people with Type A personalities accrued more resources to guarantee their kids' survival.

The paper offers new insight into an evolutionary conundrum posited in 1986 by Daniel Vining Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Vining pointed out that in contemporary societies, rich couples have the same number (and often fewer) kids than poor ones. The article suggested that human reproductive behavior was entirely learned, not inherited.

The most notable challenges to that perspective have been put forth in recent years by sociologist Rosemary Hopcroft of UNC Charlotte and evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, who now teaches at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). In a 2006 article in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Hopcroft showed that after you account for children born to mistresses and second (or third, or fourth...) trophy wives, rich men do have more kids than poor men. And Kanazawa, in a 2003 Sociological Quarterly paper, noted that even if wealthy men don't have more kids within marriage, they have more sex partners total — and more sex with each partner — than poor men.

Today's moguls, then, differ only in degree from the prolific breeders of the past, such as Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty, Emperor of Morocco, who produced at least 700 sons (people stopped counting after that) and an untold number of daughters before he died in the early 17th century. One big reason today's powerful men don't have as many kids as they could is a relatively new invention that our reproductive instincts haven't had time to adapt to: contraception. (See pictures of classic stars' families at

The new paper shows that the debate over Vining's theory may be beside the point, since it is not wealth per se but a forceful, take-no-prisoners personality that has the genetic advantage. To be sure, many Type A's turn out to be wealthy, but we all know plenty of Type A's who live average lives (think of your persnickety high-school math teacher, or that Type A mom down the street who slices the carrots for the lunch box just so.

As for nerdy, studious guys, the research suggests they can't expect to be fruitful unless they become more like the bullies who tormented them as boys. That's because, as past studies have shown, the higher your intelligence, the less sex you tend to have — and, therefore, the fewer kids you will have. The last 20 years have been a golden era for dorks as video games and graphic novels and software engineering have become respectable, even mainstream. But in the end, the brutish football players who tormented them in high school will likely win in the merciless world of genetic favor.

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First Ship Sunk in WWII Revealed in Sonar

The wreck of the first U.S. ship sunk during World War II has been revealed in detail for the first time on the seabed off southeastern Australia, researchers said Wednesday.

Images of the merchant vessel City of Rayville, which was sunk in 1940 by a German mine, were taken by state-of-the-art sonar technology and remotely operated vehicles, Deakin University scientists said.

"It was very exciting to see the City of Rayville for the first time," said lead researcher Daniel Ierodiaconou.

The wreck could possibly still contain the remains of the first U.S. sailor to die in the war -- more than a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the conflict, Ierodiaconou said.

The City of Rayville was en route to Melbourne when it struck a mine in a newly-laid German minefield in the Bass Strait on Nov. 8, 1940, going down in 70 meters (230 feet) of water off Cape Otway.

Just 24 hours earlier, the British steamer S.S. Cambridge was sunk after hitting a mine off the nearby Wilsons Promontory in Victoria state.

"The approximate location (of the City of Rayville) has been fairly well known for quite some time," Ierodiaconou said.

But for the first time, the team used sonar technology to develop detailed three-dimensional models of the wreck and collected video using a remotely operated vehicle, he said.

All 38 crew managed to make it into lifeboats and were rescued but one went back to gather his personal belongings and went down with the ship, meaning that his remains could still be in the wreck, Ierodiaconou said.

"The wreck, laying upright on its keel, with a slight list to one side," said Cassandra Philippou, a maritime archaeologist for Heritage Victoria.

"A hatch cover near the stern is missing, consistent with reports that covers were blown off the hatches through the force of the explosion."

The wreck, which is listed as a protected heritage site, was uncovered as part of a wider project to map Victoria's underwater environment.

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MIT Scientists Build Virus-Powered Batteries for Your Next Electric Car

BY Ariel Schwartz

We've heard a lot of creative ideas for powering rechargeable batteries, but this one from MIT takes the cake. Researchers at the university have genetically engineered viruses to build the positively and negatively charged ends of a lithium ion battery. Work on anodes for the virus-powered batteries began three years ago, but MIT scientists have just now figured out a way to engineer cathodes. The research team claims that its virus-powered batteries have as much power and energy capacity as rechargeable batteries currently being considered for plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) like the Tesla Model S and the Chevy Volt.

The team built the battery cathode by genetically engineering viruses to coat themselves with iron phosphate and grab on to carbon nanotubes to make a network of conductive material. Each iron phosphate nanowire is "wired" to conducting carbon nanotube networks. Electrons travel along the networks until they reach the iron phosphate, where they transfer energy.

Lab tests show that the virus-powered batteries can be charged and discharged 100 times without losing capacitance, but researchers working on the project eventually expect the batteries to last much longer.

MIT's scientists say that the viruses are common bacteriophages that are harmless to humans, but we're a bit wary of anything that works in tandem with infectious agents. Still, the batteries are cheap to manufacture, don't require harmful solvents, and contain non-toxic materials. And while the prototype looks like a typical coin cell battery, the technology allows for lightweight, flexible batteries that take the shape of their container. With the likely explosion of PHEVs in the next few years, we'll need all the long-lasting batteries we can get--virus-powered or not.

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The Six Great Stages of Evolution on Earth -Is There a Seventh?

Milan Ćirković of the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade, and one of the world's leading authorities on astrobiology and the evolution of galaxies and baryonic dark matter, has outlined along with philosopher Robert Bradbury the six great mega-trajectories of the biological evolution on Earth:

1. From the origin of life to the ”Last Common Ancestor"
2. Prokaryote diversification
3. Unicellular eukaryote diversification
4. Multicellularity
5. Invasion of the land
6. Appearance of intelligence and technology.

The authors suggest a "postbiological" seventh mega-trajectory triggered by the emergence of artificial intelligence "at least equivalent to the biologically-evolved one. (Bradbury is the inventor of the matrioshka brain -a hypothetical megastructure, based on the Dyson sphere, of immense computational capacity).

In a fascinating discovery that counters a common theory that human evolution has slowed to a crawl or even stopped in modern humans, a recent study examining data from an international genomics project describes the past 40,000 years as a time of supercharged evolutionary change, driven by exponential population growth and cultural shifts.

The findings may lead to a very broad rethinking of human evolution, especially in the view that modern culture has essentially relaxed the need for physical genetic changes in humans to improve survival.

A team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist John Hawks estimates that positive selection just in the past 5,000 years alone -dating back to the Stone Age - has occurred at a rate roughly 100 times higher than any other period of human evolution. Many of the new genetic adjustments are occurring around changes in the human diet brought on by the advent of agriculture, and resistance to epidemic diseases that became major killers after the growth of human civilizations.

"In evolutionary terms, cultures that grow slowly are at a disadvantage, but the massive growth of human populations has led to far more genetic mutations," says Hawks. "And every mutation that is advantageous to people has a chance of being selected and driven toward fixation. What we are catching is an exceptional time."

While the correlation between population size and natural selection is nothing new - it was a core premise of Charles Darwin, Hawks says - the ability to bring quantifiable evidence to the table is a new and exciting outgrowth of the Human Genome Project.

In the hunt for recent genetic variation in the genome map the project has cataloged the individual differences in DNA called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). The project has mapped roughly 4 million of the estimated 10 million SNPs in the human genome. Hawks' research focuses on a phenomenon called linkage disequilibrium (LD). These are places on the genome where genetic variations are occurring more often than can be accounted for by chance, usually because these changes are affording some kind of selection advantage.

The researchers identify recent genetic change by finding long blocks of DNA base pairs that are connected. Because human DNA is constantly being reshuffled through recombination, a long, uninterrupted segment of LD is usually evidence of positive selection. Linkage disequilibrium decays quickly as recombination occurs across many generations, so finding these uninterrupted segments is strong evidence of recent adaptation, Hawks says.

Employing this test, the researchers found evidence of recent selection on approximately 1,800 genes, or 7 percent of all human genes.

This finding runs counter to conventional wisdom in many ways, Hawks says. For example, there's a strong record of skeletal changes that clearly show people became physically smaller, and their brains and teeth are also smaller. This is generally seen as a sign of relaxed selection - that size and strength are no longer key to survival.

But other pathways for evolution have opened, Hawks says, and genetic changes are now being driven by major changes in human culture. One good example is lactase, the gene that helps people digest milk. This gene normally declines and stops activity about the time one becomes a teenager, Hawks says. But northern Europeans developed a variation of the gene that allowed them to drink milk their whole lives - a relatively new adaptation that is directly tied to the advance of domestic farming and use of milk as an agricultural product.

The biggest new pathway for selection relates to disease resistance, Hawks says. As people starting living in much larger groups and settling in one place roughly 10,000 years ago, epidemic diseases such as malaria, smallpox and cholera began to dramatically shift mortality patterns in people. Malaria is one of the clearest examples, Hawks says, given that there are now more than two dozen identified genetic adaptations that relate to malaria resistance, including an entirely new blood type known as the Duffy blood type.

Another recently discovered gene, CCR5, originated about 4,000 years ago and now exists in about 10 percent of the European population. It was discovered recently because it makes people resistant to HIV/AIDS. But its original value might have come from obstructing the pathway for smallpox.

"There are many things under selection that are making it harder for pathogens to kill us," Hawks says.

Population growth is making all of this change occur much faster, Hawks says, giving a tribute to Charles Darwin. When Darwin wrote in "Origin of the Species" about challenges in animal breeding, he always emphasized that herd size "is of the highest importance for success" because large populations have more genetic variation, Hawks says.

The parallel to humans is obvious: The human population has grown from a few million people 10,000 years ago to about 200 million people at A.D. 0, to 600 million people in the year 1700, to more than 6.5 billion today. Prior to these times, the population was so small for so long that positive selection occurred at a glacial pace, Hawks says.

"What's really amazing about humans," Hawks continued, "that is not true with most other species, is that for a long time we were just a little ape species in one corner of Africa, and weren't genetically sampling anything like the potential we have now."

The recent changes are especially striking.

"Five thousand years is such a small sliver of time - it's 100 to 200 generations ago. That's how long it's been since some of these genes originated, and today they are in 30 or 40 percent of people because they've had such an advantage. It's like 'invasion of the body snatchers.'

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Newborn chicks can count, at least up to three, study suggests

By Kate Devlin

Chicks hatching. In tests the chicks were shown a set of objects, in this case identical small balls, in groups of either two or three.
Chicks hatchin. In tests the chicks were shown a set of objects, in this case identical small balls, in groups of either two or three.

Scientists found that the baby animals could distinguish between two and three and in tests consistently picked the higher figure.

The researchers, from the University of Trento, in Italy, claim that the knowledge seems partly innate as the chicks were just three or four days old and had had no coaching.

The counting ability of the animals was "impressive", they said.

In tests the chicks were shown a set of objects, in this case identical small balls, in groups of either two or three.

In one of the experiments the chicks choose consistently to walk towards a group of three balls rather than a group of two.

When the ball were hidden behind a screen, but one of the balls could be seen being passed from the larger group to the smaller one, the chicks were still able to identify which group now contained three objects.

"The results of the experiments showed that, in the absence of any specific training, chicks spontaneously discriminated between two and three, in both cases preferring the larger set," according to the study.

"Chicks behaviour (also) seemed to indicate an ability to perform additions," it added.

The researchers also note that previous studies have suggested that human infants lose their ability to recognise the size of groups if their parts number above three.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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Aircraft could be brought down by DIY 'E-bombs'

by Paul Marks
Electromagnetic pulse weapons capable of frying the electronics in civil airliners can be built using information and components available on the net (Image: Photolibrary / Getty)

Electromagnetic pulse weapons capable of frying the electronics in civil airliners can be built using information and components available on the net (Image: Photolibrary / Getty)

ELECTROMAGNETIC pulse weapons capable of frying the electronics in civil airliners can be built using information and components available on the net, warn counterterrorism analysts.

All it would take to bring a plane down would be a single but highly energetic microwave radio pulse blasted from a device inside a plane, or on the ground and trained at an aircraft coming in to land.

Yael Shahar, director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, and her colleagues have analysed electromagnetic weapons in development or used by military forces worldwide, and have discovered that there is low-cost equipment available online that can act in similar ways. "These will become more of a threat as the electromagnetic weapons technology matures," she says.

For instance, the US and Russian military have developed electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warheads that create a radio-frequency shockwave. The radio pulse creates an electric field of many hundreds of thousands of volts per metre, which induces currents that burn out nearby electrical systems, such as microchips and car electronics.

Speculation persists that such "e-bombs" have been used in the Persian Gulf, and in Kosovo and Afghanistan - but this remains unconfirmed. But much of what the military is doing can be duplicated by others, Shahar says. "Once it is known that aircraft are vulnerable to particular types of disruption, it isn't too much of a leap to build a device that can produce that sort of disruption. And much of this could be built from off-the-shelf components or dual-use technologies."

It isn't much of a leap to build a device that can produce that sort of disruption in aircraft

For example, government labs use high-energy EMP devices to test what would happen to critical electronic systems if a nuclear weapon detonated, generating a vast electromagnetic pulse, says Robert Iannini, founder of Information Unlimited in Amherst, New Hampshire, which sells EMP test systems.

EMPs can be created in a number of ways. A machine called a Marx generator can quickly dump an extremely high charge stored in a bank of capacitors into an antenna, which then releases a highly energetic radio pulse. Devices like this are often used to test power lines for their resistance to lightning strikes. An alternative, known as a flux compression device, uses a small explosive to push an armature through a current-carrying coil that is generating a magnetic field. This compresses the magnetic field, again producing a devastating EMP.

Iannini says his company only sells such devices to legitimate buyers. "The only people that buy these things are qualified researchers at labs like Sandia. They never find their way into the labs of pseudo or amateur scientists," he says. "If we get any unknown overseas purchaser we immediately alert the office of export enforcement at the US Department of Commerce."

But Shahar told delegates at the annual Directed Energy Weapons conference in London last month that security at some labs can be lax, while basic EMP generators can be built from descriptions available online, using components found in devices such as digital cameras. "These are technologically unchallenging to build and most of the information necessary is available," she says.

The increasing use of carbon-fibre reinforced composite in aircraft fuselages is also making them more vulnerable, she says, because composites provide poor shielding against electromagnetic radiation compared with metal. "What is needed is extensive shielding of electronic components and the vast amount of cables running down the length of the aircraft," she says.

Jerome Bruel, an electrical systems expert at the European Aviation Safety Agency in Cologne, Germany, agrees that newer all-composite planes like the Airbus A350 will probably need some means of protecting their cabling from all radio energy sources, including TV transmitters. "They may need a metal mesh surrounding them to absorb interference," he says.

Douglas Beason, a director at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, says it may be straightforward to build a do-it-yourself EMP weapon, but more difficult to make one that can be stowed in an aircraft. "A lot of work would need to go into dramatically decreasing the weight, shrinking the power supply and antenna," he says.

Nevertheless, governments are taking the threat seriously. A spokesperson at the UK Department of Transport said the government is well aware of this security issue and has close links with agencies "able to provide a balanced picture in regards to EMP weapons, and their potential to compromise civilian aircraft".

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Why mothers in a cold climate are more likely to have boys

By David Derbyshire

Women living in cooler climates are more likely to give birth to boys than those in the tropics, a study has shown.

Researchers claim to have found a link between the climate and latitude of a country and the proportion of boys born there.

On average, for every 100 newborn girls born in the world, there are 105 boys.

Mother and baby

Cold climates may lead to mothers giving birth to more boys than girls, suggests research

But because boys are more fragile than girls - and so more likely to die in childhood from disease, accidents and malnutrition - by the time children reach maturity there are as many girls as boys.

Dr Kristen Navara, of the University of Georgia, in the U.S., looked at birth statistics from 202 countries between 1997 and 2006.

She looked at the ratio of baby boys to baby girls in relation to its capital's latitude, its average temperature and its variation in day lengths.

In tropical countries, 48.9 per cent of newborn babies were girls. But in cooler countries, this was 48.7 per cent.

Writing in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, Dr Navara said: 'This pattern remained strong despite enormous continental variation in lifestyle and socioeconomic status, suggesting that latitudinal variables may act as an overarching cue on which sex ratio variation in humans is based.'

One theory is that because boys are more vulnerable, they may be more at risk of dying from the cold in northern countries, so the ratio is skewed to compensate.

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Texas Officially Makes The Universe Ageless

By Graeme McMillan

How old is the universe? Scientists agree that the answer is somewhere around 14 billion years (give or take a few million)... unless you happen to be a student in the state of Texas.

The Texas Board of Education voted on Friday to remove the universe's age from the state's educational standards, used as source material for the state's school textbooks. According to Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, this decision is a backdoor entrance for creationists and fans of intelligent design:

The goal here was to make science more tentative and vague so that teachers have room to tell students, 'This is only one explanation and the scientists are not even sure about it themselves' – which is, of course, utter nonsense.

The decision was only one of many made on Friday, and sadly, only one of many that suggested an anti-science agenda (Other decisions included specific language requiring scientific explanations on evolution to be "evaluated" by students and teachers, ominously enough). Chair of the Board Don McLeroy testified to the reason why that may be the case at the meeting:

I disagree with these experts. Someone has got to stand up to experts.

That's right! Standing up to experts and facts is exactly what the chair of an educational board's job is supposed to be! Well, at least there's always the internet to fill in gaps in these kids' education...

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The Top 25 Least Wasteful U.S. Cities

BY Ariel Schwartz

Do you spend your days traipsing around San Francisco? Then congratulations, you live in America's least wasteful city according to a study conducted by Nalgene. The water bottle company questioned 3,750 people in America's 25 largest cities about their transportation use, waste, sustainability efforts, shopping habits, and reuse of items. Nalgene weighted the results to give preference to behaviors with an immediate and significant impact like driving less, recycling more, and reducing trash. The survey's index is based on a scoring system with a potential individual high score of 1930 and a low individual score of 193.

San Franciscans topped Nalgene's list thanks to widespread habits of recycling, turning off the water while brushing teeth, and only using cars for short trips. 86% of San Franciscans also reported that they live an "extremely" or "somewhat" eco-friendly lifestyle, though the definition of an eco-friendly lifestyle is not made clear in the study.

Atlanta came in at the other end of the spectrum, with residents ranking the worst at recycling, throwing out less than two bags of trash a week, using reusable containers, participating in sustainability programs, using energy-efficient lightbulbs, and borrowing books from the library.

Nalgene, of course, had its own motivation for conducting the study. The company recently came under fire for using Bisphenol A (BPA), an estrogen-like chemical, in its water bottles. Nalgene did eventually pull BPA-filled water bottles from the shelves, but the wastefulness study could be the company's attempt to get back in the good graces of eco-minded consumers.

The full list of America's least wasteful cities is below.

Rank City Weighted Score
1 San Francisco, CA 1025.45
2 New York City, NY 1004.01
3 Portland, OR 1001.66
4 Seattle, WA 985.03
5 Los Angeles, CA 960.46
6 Denver, CO 943.77
7 Minneapolis, MN 943.17
8 Washington, D.C. 941.81
9 Boston, MA 941.29
10 Philadelphia, PA 932.59
11 Chicago, IL 931.03
12 Baltimore, MD 927.26
13 Detroit, MI 911.59
14 Pittsburgh, PA 909.42
15 Orlando, FL 901.71
16 Cleveland, OH 900.77
17 Sacramento, CA 899.78
18 Miami, FL 898.49
19 Tampa, FL 896.01
20 Phoenix, AZ 887.48
21 St. Louis, MO 883.38
22 Houston, TX 879.16
23 Indianapolis, IN 872.75
24 Dallas, TX 860.60
25 Atlanta, GA 857.51

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11 Extinct Animals That Have Been Photographed Alive

Extremely Rare Dolphins Found by the Thousands

PepsiCo tests "green" vending machines

By Martinne Geller

NEW YORK (Reuters) - PepsiCo Inc is testing greener vending machines, a move that helps the soft drink maker reduce its environmental footprint and gives businesses a little relief on their electric bills.

The test involving 30 machines in the Washington, D.C., area has just begun. Pepsi hopes to begin rolling them out worldwide over the next several years, said Robert Lewis, vice president of packaging and equipment development.

The new machines use 5.08 kilowatt-hours of energy per day, down about 15 percent from a nationwide average of 6 kilowatt-hours used by current machines. Current machines already use 44 percent less energy on average than the machines used six years ago.

"That was the equivalent of burning five 100-watt bulbs constantly," Lewis said, referring to the 2003-era machines. "We're currently down to about two 100-watt bulbs. They're not using a lot of energy as it is."

The new machines also emit about 12 percent less greenhouse gas, in part by keeping the drinks cool with carbon dioxide instead of the usual hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which scientists say contribute to global warming.

The green machines, which have won the praise of Greenpeace, are the latest step PepsiCo is taking to promote its more environmentally friendly ways. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co have come under fire for issues such as using too much plastic, and have made changes such as making lighter bottles and conserving more water.


The new machines are more expensive than current equipment, Lewis said, but declined to say by how much.

PepsiCo, whose brands include Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Sierra Mist and Aquafina, currently has about 4 million to 5 million vending machines and coolers around the world.

Vending machines are typically owned and serviced by the company's bottlers, which share their revenue with the offices, schools and stores that house them. Therefore, those customers will not incur any charges for the new machines, yet will benefit from lower energy bills, Lewis said.

PepsiCo worked with Greenpeace Solutions, an arm of the large environmental organization, to develop the program.

Greenpeace Solutions Director Amy Larkin said PepsiCo was leading the way to improve a technology that people use every day but rarely think about.

"They're transforming the industry in a way that is going to be more climate-friendly to a great degree, so what can I do but applaud that," Larkin said.

While Pepsi's greener vending machines are the first in the United States, Unilever Plc's Ben & Jerry's ice-cream brand introduced coolers that use carbon dioxide, she noted.

Coca-Cola has introduced HFC-free vending machines in Britain, and used them at official venues at last year's Beijing Olympics.

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Gas station owners rebel against pollution rules

Gas station protest
Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times
San Bernardino gas station operator James Hosmanek balks at having to comply with a California requirement to install costly nozzles and hoses to capture fumes.

By Margot Roosevelt

James Hosmanek, an ex-Marine, has operated his San Bernardino Chevron station for 21 years, patiently installing equipment to control gasoline emissions, even as the region's air grew smoggier.

Now he says he can't, and won't, obey the latest mandate: a state order to buy sophisticated nozzles and hoses to capture more of the vapors that cause respiratory disease and cancer. "It may be necessary to protect public health," he says. "But it's unaffordable."

Today is the deadline for California's 11,000 gasoline stations to comply with the nation's most stringent controls on the fumes that seep from refueling cars. And Hosmanek is among the estimated one of five station owners who have joined an open rebellion against air pollution authorities.

Last week, spurred by a high-decibel campaign by gasoline trade associations, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called on the Legislature to delay enforcement by a year.

"Improving California's air is of the utmost importance," he wrote legislators. But "enforcement flexibility is an absolute necessity to ensure against the job and financial losses that could come from stations being shut down or fined for non-compliance."

If the Legislature agrees, it would be the second time in the last two months that business interests have succeeded in rolling back a major pollution regulation. In February, a measure was added to the state's budget package allowing construction firms to delay retrofitting diesel bulldozers and other equipment.

Ten public health and environmental groups have vowed to fight the vapor rule rollback.

"We are extremely disappointed with the governor's action," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen of the American Lung Assn. "California must not bend to pressure from a small group of gasoline station owners who are using the current economic situation as an excuse."

A campaign against the measure in recent weeks was laced with misleading information, according to officials with the California Air Resources Board. One alert mailed by the Responsible Clean Air Coalition, a group led by a former John McCain campaign staffer, Tom Kise, charged that, "On April 1st, more than 6,000 gas stations statewide are going to shut their doors because of zealous Sacramento bureaucrats."

But in a letter to legislative leaders Friday, local air pollution districts charged with enforcing the rule said, "Air districts do not intend to shut down any stations on April 1." Station owners have known about the deadline for four years, the letter said.

Owners who have applied for permits and made arrangements to install equipment will not be cited, the letter said. Some fines will be levied, but, "only the most recalcitrant operators who absolutely refuse to comply could be subject to significant penalties."

That reassurance does not comfort Hosmanek. Battered by competition from cheaper chains such as Thrifty and Arco, the 51-year-old businessman said he was refused credit by banks and equipment lenders. Refitting his eight nozzles and hoses would cost more than $60,000, he said. "Even if I could get the funding, I couldn't make the payments."

With fewer customers, Hosmanek has laid off eight of his 18 employees. Down the road, he said, a Shell station began installing the equipment Friday.

"I asked the guy how he did it, and he said he put it all on credit cards," Hosmanek said. "That's financial suicide."

Single-station owners like Hosmanek aren't the only ones hurting. David Berri, an Irvine businessman whose family owns 22 stations in Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles counties, said he put a 25% deposit on vapor equipment last year. But his bank has since canceled his credit line. His family has put seven stations up for sale, but so far, there are no buyers.

"The economy snuck up on us," he said. "If I complied, I'm at the point this could bankrupt me, and I have a family to take care of."

State officials say they have little choice when it comes to imposing pollution rules. Federal law requires states to clean their air. The rule, they note, would prevent 10 tons a day of vapor emissions.

"That's a big deal in a state where nearly three-quarters of our residents breathe air that still fails to meet federal health standards for ozone," said the air board's Tom Cackette.

Board officials also note that letting laggard station owners off the hook would be unfair to the three-quarters of stations that have ordered equipment. Fewer than 5% of pumps, many of them in carwashes, convenience stores or car dealers, have indicated that they would voluntarily shut down, officials said.

In the Legislature, Assemblyman Martin Garrick (R-Solana Beach) and Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) are leading the charge to delay enforcement. On Monday, Cox called for the resignation of state Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary D. Nichols for being "recalcitrant" in refusing Schwarzenegger's request for a delay.

But a compromise may be in the works. A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Ira Ruskin (D-Redwood City) would provide $8 million in grants to stations for the equipment.

That could help owners like Hosmanek, who shows no sign of backing down.

"I'm not going to shut down," he said, despite facing what he contends could be thousands of dollars in fines. "I'm going to stand up and fight."

Original here

Earth population 'exceeds limits'

By Steven Duke

Crowded commuter trains (AP)
Current world population - 6.8bn
Net growth per day - 218,030
Forecast made for 2040 - 9bn
Source: US Census Bureau

There are already too many people living on Planet Earth, according to one of most influential science advisors in the US government.

Nina Fedoroff told the BBC One Planet programme that humans had exceeded the Earth's "limits of sustainability".

Dr Fedoroff has been the science and technology advisor to the US secretary of state since 2007, initially working with Condoleezza Rice.

Under the new Obama administration, she now advises Hillary Clinton.

"We need to continue to decrease the growth rate of the global population; the planet can't support many more people," Dr Fedoroff said, stressing the need for humans to become much better at managing "wild lands", and in particular water supplies.

Pressed on whether she thought the world population was simply too high, Dr Fedoroff replied: "There are probably already too many people on the planet."

GM Foods 'needed'

A National Medal of Science laureate (America's highest science award), the professor of molecular biology believes part of that better land management must include the use of genetically modified foods.

"We have six-and-a-half-billion people on the planet, going rapidly towards seven.

"We're going to need a lot of inventiveness about how we use water and grow crops," she told the BBC.

"We accept exactly the same technology (as GM food) in medicine, and yet in producing food we want to go back to the 19th Century."

Dr Fedoroff, who wrote a book about GM Foods in 2004, believes critics of genetically modified maize, corn and rice are living in bygone times.

"We wouldn't think of going to our doctor and saying 'Treat me the way doctors treated people in the 19th Century', and yet that's what we're demanding in food production."

In a wide ranging interview, Dr Fedoroff was asked if the US accepted its responsibility to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the gas thought to be driving human-induced climate change. "Yes, and going forward, we just have to be more realistic about our contribution and decrease it - and I think you'll see that happening."

And asked if America would sign up to legally binding targets on carbon emissions - something the world's biggest economy has been reluctant to do in the past - the professor was equally clear. "I think we'll have to do that eventually - and the sooner the better."

The full interview with Dr Nina Federoff can be heard on this week's edition of the new One Planet programme on the BBC World Service

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Burmese Pythons Squeeze South Florida

New Close-up Shows Binary Stars in Orion's Heart

Astronomers have caught their sharpest look of a double star system deep in the heart of the Orion nebula.

The result is an ultra-clear glimpse of Theta 1 Orionis C, a mismatched pair of stars locked in orbit around one another about 1,350 light-years from Earth.

Once thought to be a single star, Theta 1 Orionis C is the brightest and most dominant stellar system inside the dense star-forming region of Orion's beautiful Trapezium Cluster. Infrared views of the system ultimately showed its dual nature, which shines through with renewed clarity in the new image.

Researchers used the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI), which combines data from multiple telescopes into one image, to make the new observation.

The Chile-based observatory yielded a photograph with a resolution of about 2 milliarcseconds. That's about the equivalent of how a car on the moon would look to a human staring at it from the surface of the Earth, or the view from a hypothetical space telescope with a 426-foot (130-meter) main mirror. For comparison, the main mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope is about 7.8 feet (2.4 meters) wide.

"Our observations demonstrate the fascinating new imaging capabilities of the VLTI," said study co-investigator Gerd Weigelt of the Max-Planck-Institute for Radio Astronomy. "This infrared interferometry technique will certainly lead to many fundamental new discoveries."

In addition to the new image of Theta 1 Orionis C, Weigelt and colleague Stefan Kraus found that the stars orbit each other once every 11 years. The smaller of the pair is about nine times as massive as the sun, while its larger partner weighs in at whopping 38 solar masses.

Solar wind from the paired stars shapes the disks of protoplanetary dust of other nearby stars, researchers said. The new images and data will help astronomers better understand how massive stars form within the Orion nebula, they added.

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Deep Solar Minimum

The sunspot cycle is behaving a little like the stock market. Just when you think it has hit bottom, it goes even lower.

2008 was a bear. There were no sunspots observed on 266 of the year's 366 days (73%). To find a year with more blank suns, you have to go all the way back to 1913, which had 311 spotless days: plot. Prompted by these numbers, some observers suggested that the solar cycle had hit bottom in 2008.

Maybe not. Sunspot counts for 2009 have dropped even lower. As of March 31st, there were no sunspots on 78 of the year's 90 days (87%).

It adds up to one inescapable conclusion: "We're experiencing a very deep solar minimum," says solar physicist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center.

"This is the quietest sun we've seen in almost a century," agrees sunspot expert David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

see caption

Above: The sunspot cycle from 1995 to the present. The jagged curve traces actual sunspot counts. Smooth curves are fits to the data and one forecaster's predictions of future activity. Credit: David Hathaway, NASA/MSFC. [more]

Quiet suns come along every 11 years or so. It's a natural part of the sunspot cycle, discovered by German astronomer Heinrich Schwabe in the mid-1800s. Sunspots are planet-sized islands of magnetism on the surface of the sun; they are sources of solar flares, coronal mass ejections and intense UV radiation. Plotting sunspot counts, Schwabe saw that peaks of solar activity were always followed by valleys of relative calm—a clockwork pattern that has held true for more than 200 years: plot.

The current solar minimum is part of that pattern. In fact, it's right on time. "We're due for a bit of quiet—and here it is," says Pesnell.

But is it supposed to be this quiet? In 2008, the sun set the following records:

A 50-year low in solar wind pressure: Measurements by the Ulysses spacecraft reveal a 20% drop in solar wind pressure since the mid-1990s—the lowest point since such measurements began in the 1960s. The solar wind helps keep galactic cosmic rays out of the inner solar system. With the solar wind flagging, more cosmic rays are permitted to enter, resulting in increased health hazards for astronauts. Weaker solar wind also means fewer geomagnetic storms and auroras on Earth.

A 12-year low in solar "irradiance": Careful measurements by several NASA spacecraft show that the sun's brightness has dropped by 0.02% at visible wavelengths and 6% at extreme UV wavelengths since the solar minimum of 1996. The changes so far are not enough to reverse the course of global warming, but there are some other significant side-effects: Earth's upper atmosphere is heated less by the sun and it is therefore less "puffed up." Satellites in low Earth orbit experience less atmospheric drag, extending their operational lifetimes. Unfortunately, space junk also remains longer in Earth orbit, increasing hazards to spacecraft and satellites.

see caption

Above: Space-age measurements of the total solar irradiance (brightness summed across all wavelengths). This plot, which comes from researcher C. Fröhlich, was shown by Dean Pesnell at the Fall 2008 AGU meeting during a lecture entitled "What is Solar Minimum and Why Should We Care?"

A 55-year low in solar radio emissions: After World War II, astronomers began keeping records of the sun's brightness at radio wavelengths. Records of 10.7 cm flux extend back all the way to the early 1950s. Radio telescopes are now recording the dimmest "radio sun" since 1955: plot. Some researchers believe that the lessening of radio emissions is an indication of weakness in the sun's global magnetic field. No one is certain, however, because the source of these long-monitored radio emissions is not fully understood.

All these lows have sparked a debate about whether the ongoing minimum is "weird", "extreme" or just an overdue "market correction" following a string of unusually intense solar maxima.

"Since the Space Age began in the 1950s, solar activity has been generally high," notes Hathaway. "Five of the ten most intense solar cycles on record have occurred in the last 50 years. We're just not used to this kind of deep calm."

Deep calm was fairly common a hundred years ago. The solar minima of 1901 and 1913, for instance, were even longer than the one we're experiencing now. To match those minima in terms of depth and longevity, the current minimum will have to last at least another year.

see captionIn a way, the calm is exciting, says Pesnell. "For the first time in history, we're getting to see what a deep solar minimum is really like." A fleet of spacecraft including the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the twin STEREO probes, the five THEMIS probes, Hinode, ACE, Wind, TRACE, AIM, TIMED, Geotail and others are studying the sun and its effects on Earth 24/7 using technology that didn't exist 100 years ago. Their measurements of solar wind, cosmic rays, irradiance and magnetic fields show that solar minimum is much more interesting and profound than anyone expected.

Above: An artist's concept of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Bristling with advanced sensors, "SDO" is slated to launch later this year--perfect timing to study the ongoing solar minimum. [more]

Modern technology cannot, however, predict what comes next. Competing models by dozens of top solar physicists disagree, sometimes sharply, on when this solar minimum will end and how big the next solar maximum will be. Pesnell has surveyed the scientific literature and prepared a "piano plot" showing the range of predictions. The great uncertainty stems from one simple fact: No one fully understands the underlying physics of the sunspot cycle.

Pesnell believes sunspot counts will pick up again soon, "possibly by the end of the year," to be followed by a solar maximum of below-average intensity in 2012 or 2013.

But like other forecasters, he knows he could be wrong. Bull or bear? Stay tuned for updates.