Monday, June 30, 2008

Web Site Hits Used to Pinpoint Earthquakes

New Scientist Tech reports that the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) has devised a way to use the positions of visitors to its earthquake information website to accurately locate an earthquake within minutes of the event. It turns out, the closer you are to the epicenter, the more likely you are to visit the website for information about the event.

This is a clever use of technology that already exists to provide more information faster. And I have to admit, after I experienced an earthquake recently, the first thing I did was head for the USGS' list of recent earthquakes in the U.S. for more information.

The software that EMSC used to perform the analysis also identified regions that had lost internet access due to the earthquake, by identifying regions within the area affected from which there were very few or no hits. This capability may be useful for assessing the severity of an earthquake and calculating early estimates of damage.

Top 10 Futuristic Materials

Michael Anissimov of the Lifeboat Foundation has posted a special report on the top 10 Futuristic Materials. For the most part, there aren't very many surprises. I was hoping to see information about a bunch of stuff I'm not familiar with, but he covers aerogels, carbon nanotubes, buckyballs, metamaterials, and more.

The only things on Michael's list that I had read only a little about were amorphous metals and metal foams. Those are interesting materilas that definitely warrant further study. Also, since for the most part the items highlighted are actually available now, I'm not sure how "futuristic" they really are, but I get his point that we'll be seeing more of these in the future.

He also highlighted e-textiles, but I'm not sure those should be classified as materials so much as devices woven into clothing. The idea of wearable computers and electronics has been around for a while, but our technology is only now reaching the point where the electronics and power sources are small enough to actually embed in clothing.

Still, reading the report could give you some ideas of how the future is shaping up, and of what materials it will be built.

The Tunguska Incident

A hundred years ago today, in Tunguska, Siberia... something happened. Nobody is quite sure what, exactly, but the leading theory is that an asteroid slammed into the Earth's atmosphere and exploded, causing a blast wave that flattened trees over half a million acres, or 2000 square kilometers.

The asteroid may have been a rocky asteroid roughly 30 meters in diameter with a mass of 560,000 metric tons. Or it may have been smaller, only 20 meters across with a mass around 200,000 tons, since the trees were already weakened by disease and would not have been as hard to knock down. Or it may not have been an asteroid at all, since no asteroid remnants have been found. Some researchers believe it may have been an iceball, a fragment of a comet, that exploded into a fine mist and thus left no trace.

Some people have other ideas, as they always do when there is no evidence. Some people think an explosion of natural gas from deep under ground caused the blast wave. It's also possible—but unlikely—that a micro black hole zipped through the Earth, or that a chunk of antimatter from space impacted the atmosphere. Some people even believe that Nikola Tesla may have been experimenting with a "death ray" that he dismantled after he learned of its destructive power. And finally, some conspiracy theorists believe that the impact was caused by the crash landing of a UFO. Of course none of these ideas has much credence, as there is no evidence to support them. And as we know from Occam's Razor, the simplest explanations tend to be right.

In any event, the Tunguska Incident highlights how much we still don't know about the universe around us, and how exposed we are here on spaceship Earth. If a blast like the Tunguska Incident happened today over a major metropolitan area, thousands or millions of people could be killed, and we'd still be left scratching our heads, wondering what in the heck just happened.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chicago Making Alleyways Greener

This is kind of cool. The city of Chicago is embarking on a process to re-pave its 1900 miles of alleys with a new type of concrete that is better for the environment, according to CNN. This concrete is porous, allowing rainwater to seep through to the soil underneath and, eventually, to an aquifer that feeds into Lake Michigan. Better still, the concrete is created in such a way that it filters the water, cleaning out pollutants as it makes its way back into the environment. Embedded in the concrete are microbes that feed on fertilizers, oil, and other substances.

In addition, the concrete has a higher albedo than normal, reflecting some of the sun's light back instead of absorbing it. That will allow the 3500 acres of paved alleys in Chicago absorb less heat, allowing the city to be somewhat cooler in the summer. And if that's not enough, the pavement of the alleys is made from recycled materials and new lighting in the alleys is designed to direct light downwards to reduce light pollution.

So far the city has completed 40 of the alley makeovers, with 48 more scheduled to be completed this year.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Oliver Smithies Makes a Good Point About Stem Cells

2007 Nobel Prize winner (for medicine) Oliver Smithies is an interesting guy. He has had a lengthy career in which he helped advance our understanding of genetics, and CNN covers some of it in an interview with Smithies.

The part I found most interesting came near the end of the interview, when Smithies talked about stem cells (which is not one of his areas of research, but I'd venture to say he knows more about them than I do):
Smithies describes life as being continuous since it began. Evolution has made it more complex, he explains, but even so, simple structures such as human eggs and sperm are alive. And so are fertilized eggs. So in his view, if they are not needed by couples trying to have children using in vitro fertilization, discarding these eggs kills them. In his view, using them to create embryonic stem cells keeps them alive.

I found that rather an interesting way of looking at the issue. As Smithies says, "I asked the ambassador to suggest to the president of the U.S. that we maybe have got this the wrong way round when we talk about when life begins in this respect. As far as embryonic stems cells are concerned, my position would be and my argument would be: When does life end?"

His point is well-taken, and one that should be considered in the debate about stem cells.

RPI Team Discovers More Efficient Way to Boil Water

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute made one of those great, accidental discoveries that I really love recently. The added an invisible layer of copper nanorods to the bottom of a metal pot and discovered that it took an order of magnitude less energy to boil water in the vessel. The increase in heat transfer efficiency could have applications in a number of areas, including the cooling of computer chips and reduced costs for operating industrial boilers.

Project leader Nikhil A. Koratkar believes that the efficiency gain happens because tiny "nanobubbles" form within the nanoscale cavities amongst the nanotubes and feed into the microscale cavities of the vessel's surface, preventing them from getting flooded with water. This coupling effect promotes robust boiling and stable bubble nucleation, with large numbers of tiny, frequently-occurring bubbles.

Boiling is ultimately a vehicle for heat transfer, in that it moves energy from a heat source to the bottom of a vessel and into the contained liquid, which then boils, and turns into vapor that eventually releases the heat into the atmosphere. This new discovery allows this process to become significantly more efficient, which could translate into considerable efficiency gains and cost savings if incorporated into a wide range of industrial equipment that relies on boiling to create heat or steam.

“If you can boil water using 30 times less energy, that’s 30 times less energy you have to pay for,” Koratkar said.

The team’s discovery could also revolutionize the process of cooling computer chips. As the physical size of chips has shrunk significantly over the past two decades, it has become increasingly critical to develop ways to cool hot spots and transfer lingering heat away from the chip. This challenge has grown more prevalent in recent years, and threatens to bottleneck the semiconductor industry’s ability to develop smaller and more powerful chips.

X Prize Foundation Extends Reach

Alan Boyle over at Cosmic Log reports that the X Prize Foundation is extending its reach to Europe through a partnership with British Telecom. Over the next three years, BT will provide the X Prize Foundation with $7 million to cover operating expenses, and will also share its scientific and technological expertise as new prize initiatives are rolled out.

Boyle spoke with Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X Prize Foundation, who wants to expand the X Prizes to become more global initiatives, instead of focusing mostly on the U.S. Diamandis also wants to launch two or three new prizes every year in one of five primary areas: exploration, life sciencies, energy and the environment, education, and global development. Diamandis expects to unveil one or two more prizes by the end of this year.

Phoenix Finds Surprisingly Friendly Soil

By now you've probably heard the big news from Mars. Phoenix has learned that the Martian soil is considerably more friendly to Earth plants than most scientists thought—somewhere around seawater or baking soda in alkalinity (alkalinity is a measure of how basic, as opposed to acidic, a substance is). The soil was also found to contain essential minerals such as magnesium, sodium, potassium, and chloride. It is unknown yet whether other chemicals such as nitrogen or sulfates are present, but tests will be conducted soon.

The funny thing is, everywhere I read about it they seem to use a different vegetable as an example of what might be able to grow in Martian soil: asparagus, green beens, turnips, etc. More acidic plants, like berries or tomatoes, would not grow in soil with similar composition to the soil found on Mars so far.

The presence of these elements and the lower-than-expected alkalinity are good news, but that doesn't necessarily mean that when we land a colony or research station on Mars the astronauts will be able to grow food. After all, soil composition for different regions of Earth can be radically different. One would expect the same on Mars.

Further analysis of the Martian soil should provide more information and could possibly give us some more surprises like this.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Researchers Develop Tool for Potentially Diagnosing Alzheimer's

Right now it is very difficult for doctors to know for sure if a patient has Alzheimer's disease. Plenty of other neurodegenerative diseases can cause dementia, so doctors are generally guessing when they diagnose patients. In fact, the only way to be sure is to cut the brain of the patient open after death and look for the amyloid beta plaques that are associated with the disease.

That may all be about to change.According to a study being conducted at the VA Medical Center in Massachusetts, a band of harmless lasers placed around a patient's head may be able to differentiate healthy brain tissue from tissue covered with amyloid beta plaques.

If the study confirms the results, it will be a huge boost in diagnosis of this terrible disease, and could allow doctors to get a jump on treatment, as well as prevent misdiagnoses that lead to treatments for the wrong illnesses. But while this technique could be used to spot the plaques in the brain, not all of the plaques cause Alzheimer's disease, so the device will still not have 100 percent accuracy. Still, anything is better than just guessing.

RotaTeq Very Effective Against Rotavirus

The Los Angeles Times reports that RotaTeq vaccine for rotavirus has been very successful. The most recent onset of the rotavirus season was delayed by three months and reduced in severity by about half thanks to the virus, according to the CDC.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of vomiting and diarrhea in children in the U.S. and globally. In the U.S., it leads to more than 400,000 visits to doctors' offices, 272,000 emergency room trips, up to 70,000 hospitalizations, and 20 to 60 deaths. Globally, more than 500,000 children die from rotavirus each year.

Rotateq, on the other hand, can prevent rotavirus infections in 74 percent of cases. It also eliminates 98 percent of severe infections and 96 percent of hospitalizations. For these reasons, the CDC recommends that infants receive their first vaccination at 12 weeks and two more by 32 weeks of age. RotaTeq is made by Merck.

CNN Article About Volunteering for Clinical Trials

I wrote a post last year about volunteering to be a test subject for clinical research trials. Now CNN has an article on their website called Do you want to be a guinea pig (I think they left out the "Hey Buddy" part at the beginning), highlighting the increasing need for test subjects in clinical trials.

There are positives and negatives to participating in clinical trials. The biggest positives, in my mind, are that you generally get your medications and doctor's office visit paid for as part of the trial, and that you are helping to advance our knowledge of science and our ability to treat various medical conditions. Oh, and sometimes they actually give you money, too.

There are risks and drawbacks as well. For starters, if it's a blinded study (and they usually are), you don't know whether you're actually getting the test medication or a placebo. My local clinic sent me an offer to participate in a study of cholesterol medication, but it would have required that I stop taking the cholesterol medication I'm currently on, and only having a 50/50 chance of getting the study medication. That would have meant a 50 percent chance of not taking any cholesterol medication at all. Thanks, but no thanks. I'm more than willing to participate in the studies that are looking for "healthy volunteers" because those studies—usually earlier in the process—are designed to help figure out what tolerable, safe levels of the medication are. Basically, they're designed to compare any symptoms patients may get while taking various dosages of the medication to symptoms people who are taking the placebo get.

The CNN report has some tips you should ask before volunteering for any trials, so it's a good resource to take a look at if you've considered volunteering for any trials, maybe as a way to make a little extra cash in these tight times.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shape-Shifting Building to Be Built in Dubai

Architects in Dubai have unveiled plans to build a revolutionary (<- that's a pun) building, the 80-story, 420-meter Dynamic Tower, a building where each floor is capable of rotating independently, powered by wind turbines between the floors. Additional rotating buildings may also be built in Moscow, New York, and elsewhere following the Dynamic Tower.

The building will be built using a series of pre-fabricated units, allowing the building to be constructed more quickly, safely, and efficiently. Building designer David Fisher says 600 people at an assembly site can build the pre-fab modules and as few as 80 technicians at the construction site can assemble the building. Fisher projects that the building will be completed by 2010.

CNN has the full story, with artistic renderings of the building changing shape.

Congress Rewards Oil Companies at the Expense of Alternative Energy

Melissa Lafsky of Discover Magazine's Reality Base blog has posted an interesting article about how Congressional Republicans have blocked all attempts to eliminate $18 billion in tax breaks for oil companies (at a time of record profits and high oil prices), while at the same time preventing all attempts to increase tax breaks for alternative energy providers. In fact, the Senate voted to extend alternative energy tax breaks, but only for one year.

And when alternative energy supporters tried to provide funding for alternative energy tax credits by closing a tax loophole for hedge-fund managers, Senate Republicans blocked that attempt as well.

Eliminating tax breaks for alternative energy at this stage would be devastating to the fledgling market and hurt consumers and businesses who are trying to do the right thing by investing in alternative energy. Also, the American Wind Energy Association predicts that up to 116,000 jobs would be lost in the wind power industry alone if the alternative energy tax credits expire.

Powerful Laser For Fusion Research Nearing Completion

Discover Magazine has an article about the world's largest laser, currently nearing completion at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California. The laser, which has already shown the ability to fire four megajoules of infrared energy for up to 20 nanoseconds, is intended for fusion research.

The goal is to fire the powerful laser into both ends of a tiny gold capsule filled with two frozen hydrogen isotopes. The blast will create a plasma around the target in the center of the capsule, hopefully hot enough to cause the two hydrogen isotopes to fuse.

The researchers are currently testing the optics and expect to complete construction of the laser by March of next year. By 2010, they expect to reach a point where the fusion energy produced by the machine is greater than the energy used by the lasers, creating a net-positive energy fusion reaction.

DeSimone Wins Lemelson-MIT Prize

Dr Joseph M. DeSimone of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been awarded this year's Lemelson-MIT Prize for his pioneering inventions and his ability to turn ideas into products. The $500,000 prize will be awarded at MIT's second annual EurekaFest.

DeSimone, only 44 years old, has had many breakthrough achievements. He developed a process for making plastics in a more environmentally-friendly way by using supercritical CO2 instead of perfluorooctanoic acid to produce fluuropolymers, a plastic with a number of applications including non-stick cookware, data communications, semiconductors, and automotive products. The technology, which eliminates a chemcial that can linger in the bloodstream and the environment, has been licensed by DuPont.

DeSimone also teamed with Duke University cardiologist Richard Stack to create a new type of drug-coated heart stent—one that is made from a biodegradable plastic, instead of a metal tube permanently embedded in the body. Metal stents can have negative effects in the long-term, whereas DeSimone's bioabsorbable stents allow the body to heal more naturally. The technology is currently in clinical trials.

In addition, DeSimone and his team at the NSF's Science and Technology Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes have developed a process to use technology currently used in creating microchips to fabricate nanocarriers for medicines. the Particle Replication in Non-wetting Templates (PRINT) technology can be used to manufacture highly-customizable nanobiomaterials that can be controlled for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Simone has formed a private venture, Liquidia Technologies, to commercialize this technology.

Congratulations to Dr. Simone on all of his accomplishments, and good luck to him in his future endeavours!

Colon Cancer Vaccine May Be Possible

A protein found in the intestines may lead the way to a vaccine that can treat colon cancers, and perhaps other tumors, too, according to researchers at Thomas Jefferson University. The protein, called Guanylyl cyclase C protein, or GCC protein, is normally only expressed in the intestinal lining and in colorectal cancer cells when they are spreading.

The researchers injected mice with colorectal cancer cells, some before immunization with GCC and some after. Unvaccinated animals had an average of 30 new tumors in the lungs and liver. Vaccinated animals had an average of three—not total immunity, but a considerably lower rate. The vaccinated mice also lived longer.

These results will need to be duplicated before human trials can begin, but this could be good news for the 1.2 million patients a year diagnosed with colon cancer globally.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Breakthrough in Understanding Alzheimer's Disease

People who suffer from Alzheimer's disease are found to have plaques made up of a substance called Beta Amyloid in their brains. Some scientists have believed that Beta Amyloid is the cause of Alzheimer's, but because Beta Amyloid is also sometimes found in the brains of patients who don't have the disease, other scientists have believed that Beta Amyloid is part of the body's response to Alzheimer's.

According to a CNN report, researchers have now discovered that one specific form of Beta Amyloid, when injected into the brains of mice, caused Alzheimer's-like symptoms, but other forms did not. That could explain why some people with Beta Amyloid in their brains do not have Alzheimer's—they have one of the other two versions of the plaques.

The work will need to be duplicated, but this discovery could be just the breakthrough that was needed to help provide better understanding of Alzheimer's and eventually—hopefully—lead to better treatments and possibly a cure.

PopSci Environmental Reports

Popular Science has several environmental features that were posted late yesterday, including Five Ways You're Killing the Planet, 10 Audacious Ideas to Save the Planet, and Five Looming Eco-Disasters.

As for their Five Ways You're Killing the planet, it is true that the five things they identify are bad for the environment, but the reality is that these five things are each a relatively small part of the bad we're doing to our environment. Driving SUVs and burning coal for our electricity are far worse, overall, than the fact that you live in a suburb and leave your computer on (although turning your computer off when you're not using it is not only better for the environment, it's better for your finances in terms of your electric bill). Plus, I don't do most of the things they highlight... I haven't flown anywhere in about three and a half years, I turn my computer off every night, and I live in the city, not the suburbs. Plus, I recycle my electronics and plastic.

On their Ten Audacious Ideas to Save the Planet... well, let's just say that "audacious" doesn't begin to cut it. Solar power satellites? Maybe in about two hundred years. There are so many drawbacks, such as the massive cost to put them in orbit, that launching them isn't justified. Plus, while the article highlights the dangers of one of the satellites accidentally missing its rectennas on the ground, what happens when some militaristic nation decides to intentionally turn the microwave beams on enemy targets?

The idea of bioengineering all of our crops to be more "hairy" in order to reflect more infrared light is just pretty unrealistic and would again take many, many decades to become viable. Plus, nobody know whether the bioengineering changes could lead to greater problems in the long run. Trapping liquid CO2 in giant plastic bags on the bottom of the ocean? Okay... what happens when the bags leak, and we end up with acidic oceans that kill off a lot of the plant life that is currently absorbing CO2 from our atmosphere? Harnessing a tornado for energy? An interesting idea—and definitely audacious—but I'd rather the first several attempts were built well away from my home (or any other populated area).

Some of the ideas, though, I thought were pretty interesting, if not so audacious. Capturing sewer gas to power buses? Okay. Collecting pig urine to make plastic? Eew, but okay, call Mike Rowe and let's get started. I especially like the idea of capturing the heat given off by pedestrians' bodies to heat nearby buildings and the idea of making beer using a more energy efficient steam process. As long as my dunkel still tastes the same, if it can be more environmentally friendly, I'm all for it.

And the Five Looming Eco-Disasters includes one that is a favorite pet peeve of mine: biofuels. Corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel will never, ever make even a small dent in our petroleum needs here in the U.S., and between creating them and using them, they give off more emissions than gasoline. Rain forests are being cut down for farmland to grow crops for biofuels, because they've driven the crop prices so high that there's too much money in farming now (especially in the U.S. where we subsidize everything farmers do so heavily that our food prices are going crazy).

Other looming eco-disasters include the massive new Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant being built in India and the Japanese plan to start harvesting methane hydrate from the ocean floor. But both of those projects, at least, have some merit. Tata Mundra has 13 percent fewer emmissions than normal coal-fired plants, and if the Japanese plan turns out to be able to safely harvest methane hydrates it could provide a new, cleaner energy source and possibly reduce the risk of a major catastrophy.

The report also highlights a Russian plan to create a floating nuclear reactor to visit energy-starved Arctic communities. Apparently Popular Science is unaware that we've had ocean-bound nuclear reactors producing energy for decades in the form of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, and we've had a tremendous safety record with them (in fact, if those vessels used diesel fuel, the cost to the environment would be extremely high).

So all in all, some interesting information in these environmental reports from Popular Science, but I think some more thought (and science) could have gone into the reporting.

Offshore Wind Farm to Be Built Off Delaware Beach

Some people don't like wind turbines and don't want them in their backyards or neighborhoods. I can't figure out why, as I think they look pretty cool. I see them, and I see the high-tech, clean-energy future.

To get around the people who don't want them in their neighborhoods, Delmarva Power and Bluewater Wind have contracted to build a field of 150 wind turbines anchored to the seafloor about a dozen miles from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Delmarva will use less than half of the projected generating capacity of the park, but that amount will provide the power company with 16 percent of its electricity needs.

The project, which will cost approximately $1.6 billion, will include turbines on poles designed to withstand hurricane force winds. The turbines will be centered 250 feet above the waterline and will have three 150-foot blades.

Monday, June 23, 2008

McCain Proposes $300 Million Prize for Better Auto Batteries

UPDATE: Alan Boyle has more information.

John McCain wants the government to offer a $300 million prize to whoever can develop an automotive battery that far surpasses existing technology. His goals for the battery include delivering power for 30 percent of the current cost with better size, capacity, cost, and power. Doing so, he says, will help propel plug-in hybrid or fully-electric autos.

For a price of $1 for each man, woman, and child in the U.S., this project could propel us toward an economy in which petroleum-based fuels are a thing of the past. Prize-based competitions such as this (and the X Prize) generally produce gains far outstripping their costs, because a large number of competitors vie for the prizes, but only one wins. And in the case of the Ansari X Prize, the winning team at Scaled Composites spent approximately $30 million on R&D before winning the $10 million prize. And that doesn't include what other teams spent. And that $10 million helped launch the sub-orbital tourism flight industry.

In addition to getting better auto batteries for consumers, the prize money will allow the winning company to make presumably massive amounts of money either selling their new batteries the world over or licensing the technology to other battery companies. Either way, that money will provide industrial growth within the U.S. and create American jobs and American wealth. Jobs will be lost in the oil industry, sure, but the U.S. economy will be better off, and so will the environment.

LHC Won't Destroy the World

Good news! It seems that, when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is turned on, it won't actually destroy the Earth. Of course, physicists were already sure of this, but now a new safety review conducted by CERN's governing council has confirmed the fact.

The main argument for why the high-energy reactions won't destroy the Earth is that they haven't so far. Since the Earth gets bombarded with highly-energetic cosmic rays all the time, they point out, the types of interactions that will happen within the controlled confines of the LHC have already happened 1031 times since the universe began. And none of those reactions destroyed the Earth. So since we're still here, these types of reactions aren't going to destroy the Earth. Pretty good logic from where I'm sitting, but it probably won't stop the conspiracy-theorists and doomsday prophets from continuing to predict the end of the world, and it almost definitely won't stop the lawsuit that is attempting to prevent CERN from activating the LHC.

At last, I can relax and stop worrying about the world ending. Until the next over-hyped doomsday scenario, at least.

Top Ten Near-Term Developments to Improve Access to Space

Brian Wang over at Next Big Future recently had a post highlighting what he felt were the top ten near-term developments that could be made to vastly improve our capabilities for space travel. Check it out.

Some of his items are really interesting, but are these really the ten things that could have the most impact? Some, like SpaceX's lower-cost rocket launches (#3) and Bigelow's inflatable space stations (#4) I am one hundred percent in agreement with. But highlighting SpaceshipThree (which hasn't even been announced yet, and is purely speculative) was a bit premature. Personally, I don't think sub-orbital flight will ever be much of an inducement to provide advances to orbital flight, although it could lead to development of new technologies that may help out in the long run.

Also, lunar concrete would be a good thing, but I don't consider that "near-term." We're still, unfortunately, decades away from doing anything practical on the moon.

But that's just my take. What about you?

What Do Your Congressional Reps Think About Science Issues?

The Short Sharp Science blog at New Scientist highlights the work of Scientists and Engineers for America to determine the scientific policies of Congressional contenders. Where do your Senators and Congressional rep stand on the issues?

If they don't have information for your representatives, there's still a way for you to find out. The Scientists and Engineers for America website has a list of seven questions you can ask your representatives, and then provide the answers back to the SEforA website.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Kyoto Prizes Awarded

The Kyoto Prizes for achievement in the arts and sciences were awarded today. The winners are:
  • Advanced Technology - Richard Karp, UC Berkeley, for work measuring how difficult certain computational problems are to solve
  • Arts & Philosophy - Charles Taylor, McGill University (Professor Emeritus), for developing a social philosphy that allows individuals from diverse backgrounds to keep their identities and still live together peacefully
  • Basic Sciences - Anthony Pawson, University of Tornoto, for research that improved understanding of how cells communicate

The awards are presented by the Inamori Foundation. Each recipient will receive a diploma, a gold medal, and a 50 million Yen (approx. $460,000) cash prize at a ceremony in Kyoto on November 10. The awards began in 1985 to honor people deemed to have made significant contributions to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual betterment of mankind.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Body's Own Immune System Used to Wipe Out Cancer

New research reported today in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals that researchers have succeeded in using a patient's own immune system to destroy late-stage malignant tumor cells. The researchers, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, say that this is the first time that immunotherapy has worked on its own, without assistance from drugs or chemotherapy.

The researchers used CD4+ infection-fighting blood T-cells from a patient and cloned them in vitro. Once they had about five billion of the cloned cells, the infused them back into the patient. Two months later, the patient's PET and CT scans revealed that the patient was tumor free. Two years later, he remained free of cancer.

Lead study author Cassian Yee says that the process has only been tried on a single patient so far. Another trial involving between 10 and 20 patients will begin soon and, if that test and subsequent trials are successful, this therapy could become a viable treatment option within five years.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lifestyle Changes Can Alter Gene Expression

A recent pilot study conducted at UCSF examined the effects of dramatic lifestyle change on gene expression within the prostate, New Scientist reports. The lifestyle changes included healthy eating, moderate exercise, stress management, and psychotherapy. For the study, biopsies were taken before a lifestyle change, and again three months later.

Many genes, including several involved in tumor formation, were less active following the lifestyle changes, while others—including some genes involved in fighting diseases—were more active. The results suggest the mechanism that allows healthier lifestyle choices to help slow the progression and reduce the risk of cancer.

This pilot study will almost certainly lead to newer, larger studies that will determine over longer periods of time whether these changes are actually effective in slowing or preventing cancer, but the results are promising and they open the door to a new wave of research.

Carbon Nanotubes May Help Bone Growth

Eric Berger, who writes the SciGuy blog for the Houston Chronicle writes about a study conducted at Rice University that used carbon nanotubes to help support bone growth in rabbit test subjects.

Two groups of rabbits were studied. One group received scaffolds made of 100% polypropylene fumarate, or PPF, which had performed well for bone growth scaffolding in previous studies. The second group received scaffolds made of 99.5% PPF and 0.5% single-walled carbon nanotubes.

The group that received that scaffolds that included the nanotubes showed substantially better bone growth at 12 weeks than the rabbits that received PPF-only scaffolds. Also, the composite scaffolds contained about two-thirds as much bone as the native bone tissues nearby, whereas the PPF contained only about one-fifth as much.

Researchers aren't sure why the carbon nanotubes had such a strong impact yet, and no research has been done in humans. But once this research advances further, we may find new ways to help heal bone fractures faster and more effectively.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Drinking Coffee May Cut Risk of Heart Disease

Good news for coffee drinkers (as I sit here drinking my white chocolate caramel cappuchino). It turns out that drinking coffee can reduce your risk of heart disease.

In one of the largest, most comprehensive studies ever done (129,000 men and women over two decades) on coffee consumption, it was found that people who consumed several cups of coffee every day were less likely to die of heart disease than people who did not drink coffee. According to the results, women who drank four-to-five cups of coffee per day were 34% less likely to die of heart disease and 26% less likely to die from any cause, while men who drank more than five cups per day were 44% less likely to die from heart disease and 35% less likely to die overall.

The researchers theorize that anti-inflammatory compounds found in coffee may be responsible for the health benefits seen in this and other studies. Unfortunately, other studies conducted in the past show different results, so it's hard to know which is right, since scientists don't yet understand what is going on at the biochemical level.

These results, while promising, have yet to be confirmed, so you shouldn't take this as confirmation that you should be sucking down coffee after coffee all day long.

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a Gamer?

"But wait," you say. "Your other posts in the 'Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a...' series have been about contributing to scientific research. And now you want us to just play games?"

Not just play games, I say. But by playing foldit, you can both entertain yourself and contribute to scientific research, specifically in the realm of protein folding.

Those fine folks at David Baker's laboratory at the University of Washington (the same people who brought you the BOINC-based Rosetta@Home project for protein-folding simulation have created foldit to take advantage of the fact that there are some things that humans are just inherently better at (like image analysis and recognition) than computers are.

It turns out that because computers are not very good a visual processing, the Rosetta@Home software sometimes returns incorrect results. But humans—even with no training in biology at all—can do a better job of identifying things visually than modern computers can. In fact, many of the best players have no training in science at all.

The game is free to download and takes about 20 minutes to learn.

I love this kind of creative approach to solving one of the great problems in science today. Proteins are responsible for almost everything that happens in our bodies, but we understand so little about them. And now, thanks to people like me and you—who don't have to know anything about them can help the scientists advance our overall understanding and possibly find new ways to cure diseases.

Researchers Discover Compound That Prods Stem Cells to Form Nerve Cells

Sometimes advances in science and technology are the result of happy accidents. Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center were attempting to discover small molecules that could prod stem cells to turn into heart cells, and in the process stumbled upon a new compound—called isoxazole-9, or Isx-9—that prods stem cells to turn into nerve cells. When exposed to Isx-9, nerve stem cells from rodent hippocampi clustered together and formed spiky appendages called neurites, which typically happens when nerve cells are growin in culture. The Isx-9 exposure also prevented the stem cells from developing into other tpes of cells, and was more potent than any other neurogenic substances ever researched at stimulating nerve cell development.

More work needs to be done with Isx-9, and much additional knowledge still remains to be gained. For example, scientists know that when mature nerve cells send chemical signals—called neurotransmitters—to stem cells, the stem cells begin to mature into nerve cells, but they do not know what biochemical pathways or genes are involved. Dr. Jenny Hsieh, who led the study, said, "The big gap in our knowledge is how to control these stem cells."

California Issues Cease-and-Desist Notices to Genetic Testing Companies

The state of California's Department of Public Health issued cease-and-desist letters to thirteen companies last week that market genetic testing directly to consumers, according to an Associated Press report. Among the companies issued the letters was 23andMe, co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Apparently, customers have complained about the tests' accuracy and cost (which are posted, so they shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone). The companies have two weeks to prove that their labs are certified by Federal and California state regulators and must show that the tests they are selling (in California, at least) have been ordered by a doctor. Apparently in California, you don't get to know anything about your own genetics unless a doctor gives permission.

While I agree that the FDA should step up enforcement to ensure the accuracy of the tests (it would suck to get info that you're going to die of some degenerative disease, live your life like you're about to die, and then discover later that you don't have anything wrong with you... but you've already blown your retirement account), I don't think the state or the Federal government can regulate people's right to know things about themselves. I hope that at least one of the thirteen companies receiving notices in California (and nearly two dozen in New York similary notified in April) steps up and sues for the rights of the consumers.

Targeting Viruses With Laser Precision

According to a Discover magazine report, a physicist at Arizone State University, Kong-Thon Tsen, has developed a way to use lasers tuned to a specific frequency of light to kill viruses. It turns out that the outer shells of viruses are rigid and have certain frequencies that can set up an unstable feedback in the harmonic oscillations of the virus' shells, destroying them.

In test tubes, Tsen's group has used this technology to destroy the outer shell—or capsid—of HIV samples. And because the capsids of viruses are different, disrupting the HIV capsids should not have any side effects within the body.

None of this research has been tested in vivo yet, but within the next couple of years Tsen's group plans to test the technology on HIV in monkeys by zapping blood outside the body. Basically, the process will use dialysis machines to cycle the blood out, destroy the viruses without affecting the blood cells, and cycle the clean blood back into the body.

The research has not been published, and more work needs to be done. In all, FDA approval is probably more than a decade away. But this technology, if proven, could be used to destroy just about any blood-borne virus.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Discovery Lands Safely

Discovery landed safely in Florida shortly before noon eastern time this morning, capping a smooth, successful mission to the International Space Station. During the mission, the shuttle crew delivered a large piece of the Japanese Kibo laboratory, the largest, most sophisticated laboratory ever placed in orbit. In addition—and much to the relief of the space station crew—Discovery delivered a new pump for the Russian toilet which had failed shortly before the shuttle's launch.

The next shuttle launch will not be until October, and it will be the only remaining shuttle mission not going to the International Space Station. That mission will be used for repairs and upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Researchers Produce Quantum-Entangled Images

Researchers at the NIST and University of Maryland have conducted an experiment into quantum entanglement using a new simple, versatile, and efficient method of producing quantum images. The researchers separated a single image into two light beams that were entangled by emissions from rubidium gas, the second image rotated 180° and at a slightly different color.

The researchers then experimented with alterations and fluctuations to the properties—such as phase and intensity—of one beam and noted similar changes in the other beam, allowing the team to predict changes in pixels of one image by observing the other image.

This could be a step on the road to production of a working ansible.

Update on Emc2's WB-7 Polywell Fusion Experiment

Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log has an update on Emc2 Fusion's WB-7 Polywell fusion experiment. Emc2's Richard Nebel reveals progress made and says that WB-7 is up and running and producing data.

As to whether Polywell fusion will ever produce enough energy to justify its (relatively low) cost, it remains to be seen. But the good news is that the U.S. Navy has provided funding to push this work forward and continue the legacy of the late Dr. Robert Bussard. With any luck, WB-8 will be a more powerful reactor—possibly in the 100 MW range—that will prove that Polywell fusion is not only viable, but vastly more efficient than the ITER boondoggle.

Object Floats Away From Discovery

Early this morning, as space shuttle Discovery was in preparations for returning to Earth, members of the crew noticed an object floating away from the shuttle into space. Most likely, the object broke free from the shuttle during maneuvers to position the orbiter for re-entry. Commander Mark E. Kelly also noticed what he called a "bump" sticking out from the side of the shuttle's tail rudder.

NASA is reviewing photos and video of both anomalies before allowing the shuttle to land, and the crew may re-deploy the robotic arm so that the camera mounted on the arm can get a better look to verify that Discovery is safe for landing.

At this point, it seems likely to me that landing will be delayed by at least a day in order to ensure the safety of the astronauts and the shuttle. In a worst case scenario, the crew will return to the International Space Station and dock while awaiting pickup by the emergency backup shuttle, which has been a part of every mission since the return-to-flight after the Columbia accident.

Falling Up

Does antimatter fall up? It turns out, we don't know. Our scientists have too little experience with the stuff, as it tends not to last very long once we produce it. But a series of new experiments being planned at Fermilab and CERN could provide some insights.

The experiments involve testing the effect of gravity on antimatter by producing beams of antihydrogen and measuring how gravity affects the beam. The experiments are highly challenging, as the detectors that we would use to identify the position of the antihydrogen beam are made of normal matter, which tends to react rather violently with antimatter.

Most scientists seem to think that the antimatter beams will behave exactly the same as normal matter beams of the same mass and electrical charge would. But they're hopeful of seeing something that they don't expect. After all, results that do not conform to expectations are where newer, more advanced scientific theories come from.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Be a Part of Science History

Interested in being a part of science history? Mathematician and researcher Marcus du Sautoy has created a group of symmetries as part of a quest to discover the nature of symmetry in mathematics. What is this group of symmetries called? That's where you come in.

du Sautoy and New Scientist magazine are offering one lucky New Scientist reader the chance to name the group of symmetries. Name it after yourself. Name it after your dog. Whatever you want, if you're the winner. More details are here, but note that that page has a broken link to the actual contest entry page, so use this link instead.

New, More Efficient Water Purification Device

Famed inventor Dean Kamen has created an efficient, inexpensive water purification system that could help a billion people worldwide who don't have access to clean water. The system is more efficient than other water purification systems because it recycles waste heat used in the distillation process.

At $2000 per unit, the systems can provide enough clean water for about a hundred people. While that's impressive, it's unlikely that people in the poorest parts of the world—where these systems would be most needed—can afford to spend two grand for every thousand people in the area. Maybe some philanthropic organization like the Gates Foundation will come along and help out, but until then Kamen's invention is just something for him to get clean water in his lab.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Small, Simple Nano-Motor Designed

NewScientistTech has an article today about a design advance in nanotech that could pave the way for additional future advances. The design involves a carbon nanotube 10 nanometers long and 1 nm wide, suspended between two other nanotubes with larger diameters. The central tube forms a rotating join that spins when a current is passed through the system.

The design—designed in computer simulations by Colin Lambert and others at Lancaster University—represents one of the simplest, smallest motors ever designed, and could be used for applications ranging from computing to nano-pumps used for molecular assembly.

As yet, the design has only existed in computer simulations, but Adrian Bachtold of the Catalan Institute for Nanotechnology plans to construct the turbines for testing.

Foods That Keep You Healthy

Dr. Maoshing Ni of Yahoo! Health has written an article called 5 Healthiest Anti-Aging Snacks, which highlights foods that can help keep you healthy and fit. The gist seems to be that fruits, vegetables, and nuts are good for you, which of course we all already knew.

But Dr. Mao goes into details about why certain foods are good for you and how they benefit your body. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go get some fruit...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Introducing the Tau Zero Foundation

Thanks to Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams I stumbled this morning onto the website of the Tau Zero Foundation. The TZF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to making incremental advancements in science, technology, and education with the eventual goal of interstellar flight and colonization.

A bold goal, to be sure. Tau Zero is led by Mark Millis of the NASA Glenn Research Center (although the foundation itself is not associated with NASA in any way). Millis is best known as the coordinator of the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program for NASA between 1996 and 2002. I followed BPP closely during its existence and was disappointed when NASA was forced to terminate the program. I read all of the papers that came out of the original studies (although I didn't understand everything that was in them). If Tau Zero is going to pursue and encourage the same type of work—and it appears that they will—I will be following their work very closely, as well.

I have long critized space-themed organizations whose only function seems to be to tell other people what to do ("advocacy"). I feel that if you want something done, you should do it, not advocate for someone else to do it. And Tau Zero seems to be focused on doing things. The foundation's plan is to start with educational and informative projects, including one or more books and possibly videos. TZF will also organize researchers to work together and share information. Eventually, once the foundation has the funds, they will sponsor research and possibly open an institute where researchers can collaborate and share ideas in person.

Check back here and, better yet, read Paul's blog, to get updates on this fascinating organization. I wish them the best and, when I can afford it, I'll be supporting them.

Vitamin D Deficiency Linked to Heart Attack Risk

In recent weeks, more and more information has surfaced about the benefits of vitamin D. I posted previously about vitamin D deficiency's link to breast cancer risk. In today's Los Angeles Times there is an article that reports on a new study that men who lack vitamin D have more than double the normal risk of a heart attack.

While these are preliminary studies, evidence for the advantages of vitamin D is growing. It seems likely that dietary recommendations—currently advocating 400 IU per day—will be increased in the near future. But be careful in taking supplements: vitamin D is fat-soluble, and can accumulate to toxic levels within the body.

The easiest—and healthiest—way to increase your vitamin D is to get outside in the sun for some exercise, like walking, jogging, or riding a bicycle. Precursors of vitamin D3 exist within the body normally and are converted when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Not only will you benefit from the extra vitamin D, but the exercise will help make you healthier in general.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Petaflop Supercomputer Unveiled

The New York Times reports that a major supercomputing milestone has finally been hit: the first petaflop-capable computer has been unveiled by IBM and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Capable of 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second, the supercomputer—called Roadrunner—will be used to solve classified military problems, mostly relating to assessing nuclear weapons.

Before that, though, Roadrunner will be used for scientific simulations, including global climate modeling. The system includes 12,960 computer chips that are an improved version of the chip designed for the PlayStation 3. The remaining processors—103,680 of them—in Roadrunner are AMD Opteron chips. Overall Roadrunner is twice as powerful as the previous record-holder (also made by IBM) and uses some three megawatts of power, or about as much as a large suburban shopping center.

What does this mean for me and you? Nothing right now. But keep in mind that the supercomputers of yesteryear were about as powerful as the laptops of today. So maybe soon, you too will be able to simulate the first fractional seconds of a nuclear blast.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Incurable Disease Cured With Stem Cells

The Los Angeles Times reports that a two-year-old Minnesota boy, Nate Liao, was apparently cured of a previously incurable genetic disease through the application of stem cells from umbilical cord blood and bone marrow. The disease, epidermolysis bullosa, causes children to lack a protein called collagen type VII, which is important for skin and the gastrointestinal system.

Seven months after the stem cell treatment, Nate's body produces collagen type VII as it should. His skin has improved and he no longer has to eat pureed food. He can wear normal clothes and play with other children.

The technique—developed by Dr. Angela M. Christiano of Columbia University Medical Center—has since been used to treat Nate's older brother Jacob and will soon be used to treat a nine-month-old girl in Folsom, California.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Fight Against Global Warming Will Be Expensive

Fighting global warming is going to be expensive. I think we all knew that, but now a new study from the International Energy Association illustrates just exactly how expensive.

In order to reduce green house gases in the atmosphere fifty percent by 2050, the world needs to invest some $45 trillion, build 1400 nuclear power plants, and vastly expand wind power initiatives. The report outlines two scenarios: one that reduces greenhouse gases to the same levels as 2005 and one that reduces them to half that level. The results also assume an average 3.3% global economic growth rate through 2050.

The second scenario, trying to reach half the levels of 2005, would require that 35 coal-fired and 20 gas-fired power plants be fitted with carbon capture and storage technology every year between 2010 and 2050. In addition, to keep up with increasing demand, the world would have to construct 32 new nuclear power plants and 17,000 new wind turbines every year during the same period. We'd also have to find a way to reduce the carbon intensity—the amount of carbon needed to produce a unit of energy—of our transportation sectors.

Failure to act, the IEA says, will result in doubling of energy demand and a 130% increase in CO2 emissions by 2050.

Sucking Out Clots Improved Angioplasty Results

Researchers at University Medical Centre Groningen in the Netherlands have conducted a study that shows that thrombus aspiration—sucking clots out of arteries—just before angioplasty can reduce the mortality rate following heart attacks, according to the Los Angeles Times. About 5.6% of patients who received thrombus aspiration either died or suffered a second heart attack in the first year, compared with 9.9% of patients who only received angioplasty.

Expectations are that the procedure will be most useful for patients with larger clots or later angioplasties. These types of results are good news for people like me, with a family history of heart problems. I'm almost certain to have a heart attack at some point in time and anything that improves my chances of survival is good news. Then again, it should be pointed out that the company that sponsored the study is the company that makes the equipment used for the thrombus aspiration. So, as usual, I'd like to see some neutral follow-up studies conducted to demonstrate the same results.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

PlanetQuest Update

I received an e-mail today from Dr. Laurence Doyle of PlanetQuest, the BOINC-based search for extra-solar planets. I had e-mailed Dr. Doyle asking for a status update, and this is what he replied:
We have been stalled with fund raising -- but I have written a business plan and that is being circulated through possible donors. As far as the (more predictable) science is concerned, we have half of the detection algorithms running on BOINC and we have a star catalogue of about 2 million observations reduced to light curves. We are also including some re-processed HST images (7-day search for extrasolar planets) and some other public domain data to include -- i.e., to be searched for eclipsing binary planets. Finally, I have been added (via a successful proposal) to the NASA Kepler mission and hope to share some of that data with PlanetQuesters, so that we can all participate in this mission to detect the first "Earths."

It sounds like PlanetQuest is going to have a lot of data for us to crunch in the search for extra-solar planets once they get some funding. So if any of you have any pull with anyone who can help fund, or if you want to put forth some money yourself—as I have done—they are a qualified 501(c)(3) non-profit and they accept donations.

MIT Offers Hope

Nuclear fusion power. Rapid spread of robots. Technology for longer, healthier lives. Better energy storage systems. Harnessing plant-based photosynthesis for solar energy. Cars that drive themselves. Computers embedded in your clothing.

No, this isn't a list of topics from science-fiction novels. It's a subset of a list that researchers at MIT think will help usher in a new era of prosperity.

The MIT News Office asked a collection of MIT faculty and researchers for their thoughts on the potentially life-altering technologies that are on the near horizon. C|Net has more, including photos.

Given that this information comes from MIT, I'm a little surprised there weren't more suggestions about nanotechnology or artificial intelligence.

Treat Depression by Growing New Brain Cells

The Booster Shots blog at the Los Angeles Times reports that a company called BrainCells, Inc., has begun phase two testing of a compound to treat depression and anxiety. Nothing new so far, but BrainCells plans to treat these diseases by promoting neurogenesis—the growth of new neurons—in the brain.

Company co-founder Fred Gage rocked the scientific world about ten years ago with a paper showing that adult brain cells could regenerate over time. While those findings are fully accepted these days, some researchers are skeptical that neurogenesis will work as a treatment for depression. Whether it works for depression or not, this is a valuable area of research that could be use to treat a number of brain and nervous-system conditions.

Alcohol Lowers Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Randall Parker at Future Pundit reports that a study conducted in Scandinavia reveals that people who consume alcohol have a lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, the more you drink, the less your risk for RA. Those in the top quartile of alcohol consumption, for example, had as much as a 50% lower risk of developing the autoimmune disease than those who drank the least.

And from earlier reports, we know that rheumatoid arthritis greatly increases the risk of heart disease. So now I have an excuse for going out on $2 pint-night... I'm doing it for my health!

Perimiter Institute Gets $50M Donation

Mike Lazaridis, founder and co-chairman of Research in Motion (the maker of the Blackberry devices) announced last night that he is giving an additional $50 million to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, bringing his total contribution to $150 million. The Perimeter Institute is dedicated to addressing foundational issues in current theoretical physics research by concentrating on cross-discipline research areas such as:
  • Cosmology
  • Particle Physics
  • Quantum Foundations
  • Quantum Gravity
  • Quantum Information Theory
  • Superstring Theory

In their short existence (since 1999) the Perimeter Institute and its staff have won a number of awards for their research. Lazaridis' contributions will only help the Institute in its goal of a better understanding of the rules of the universe around us.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Environmentally-Friendly Explosives

From C|Net's comes a report that German scientists are developing more-environmentally-friendly bombs. Yep, you read that right... green bombs.

The idea is that by creating explosives that are nitrogen-based (instead of traditional carbon-based explosives), the scientists can create explosives that are more stable (i.e., less prone to explode from mis-handling) as well as not giving off toxic gases. Now people who are being blown up can be safe in the knowledge that their surroundings are not going to be polluted by toxic gases after their dead.

And, it turns out, the new explosives may actually be more powerful than the same volume of conventional explosives.

Synthetic Yeast Creates Malaria Drug

According to New Scientist, researchers in California are scaling up for industrial production a process to produce a synthetic strain of yeast engineered to produce a compound called artemisinin, which is used to treat malaria. The current process used to produce the medicine is expensive, but this new process has been optimized such that—within two to three years—they could produce enough of the drug to meet the needs of the entire world.

Attempts to use living organisms to produce medicines have been underway for several years now. If the artemisinin process being commercialized (by Sanofi-Aventis) is successful, it would be the first major production of medication using a synthetic organism.

A Car That Runs on Water?

CNN has video of a car designed to run mostly on water. According to the video, the engine uses a small amount of gasoline to power a process to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The engine then burns the hydrogen for power. And according to the designer, Anthony Brown of Jacksonville, his car gets 100 miles per ounce of water.

Don't get too excited, though. I'd like to see this independently verified and tested before I run out and convert my car. Plus, he says he gets 100 miles per ounce of water, but he doesn't say how much gasoline the car uses in that process.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Damon on Tesla

Apparently, Matt Damon is a fan of the Tesla Roadster.

Matt says this prototype isn’t launching so well of the line but tells me, “The 30-60 acceleration is like nothing else.” Like I said he’s digging the car.

Biofuels: Voices of the Experts

CNN has interviewed a series of experts for their opinions on the viability and future of biofuels. Amongst the experts are economist Keith Wiebe of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.; Dr. Richard Pike, chief of the Royal Society of Chemistry; and environmentalist Deepak Rughani of Biofuelwatch.

The main takeways seem to be that:

  A - Some biofuels will work well and others will not
  B - "Bio" does not necessarily mean "clean"
  B - Creating fuel from growing things takes a lot of land.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tumor Suppressor Genes Affect Aging

On Friday the Mayo Clinic announced that its researchers had shown that—in mice, at least—a pair of tumor suppression genes had a significant impact on aging. Their findings were published in the online issue of Nature Cell Biology.

The researchers discovered that when the tumor suppression gene p16 was over-expressed, tissues in their mice models started aging rapidly. But when the p19 gene was overexpressed, it counteracted the effects of p16, retarding aging.

Whether these results will have any implications for humans is yet to be determined.

Hybrid Technologies Plans X-Prize Entrant

C|Net's reports that Hybrid Technologies is preparing to submit a green sports car for the Automotive X Prize. The version submitted for the Automotive X Prize will be a gas-battery hybrid that will get an equivalent 220 miles per gallon. An all-electric plug-in hybrid version will also be available, and will be expected to get 150 to 180 mpg.

The company expects to have a drivable prototype by September, and has ambitious plans for a wide-range of vehicles that run on batteries, not just cars.

Small, Rocky Worlds

Paul Gilster over at Centauri Dreams has written a post about the prevalance of small, rocky worlds in our galaxy. He reports on 45 new planet reports revealed at the International Astronomical Union's meeting in Boston which have yet to be confirmed, one of which includes a planet projected to have roughly four times the mass of Earth. If confirmed, that would be the smallest exo-planet found yet.

Even if not confirmed with exactly those specifications, these findings provide more information about the universe around us. The planets were found using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla 3.6m telescope.

And if you read the post at Paul's site, you should also pay attention to the comments. Several of them are highly insightful.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

LA Times Interviews Maarten Schmidt

The Los Angeles Times has an interview with Kavli Prize winner Maarten Schmidt about the research for which he won the prize, his current research, his background, and his beliefs. It's really very interesting. One example is below.

What's the biggest mystery left in astronomy?

The expansion of the universe. You would expect that because of the gravity between galaxies, that it goes slower and slower. . . . It now turns out that rather than decelerating, it is accelerating. There is a repulsive force at work. This thing is 10 to the 120th power smaller than Einstein would have wanted. We just don't know what it is. It's called dark energy.

Discovery On Its Way

Space shuttle Discovery successfully launched on-time yesterday on its way to the International Space Station. The astronauts are already ahead of schedule and are proceeding with a scan of the orbiter's heat-shield, even though they do not have the laser-tipped probe that they have been using on the last several missions (their cargo was too much this time and they had to leave some things out).

Discovery is scheduled to dock with the ISS tomorrow at 1:52pm EDT. Once docked with the station, they will perform a more detailed analysis of the heat shield using a boom arm stored on the space station.