Energy and environmental issues took center stage in President Barack Obama‘s first speech to a joint session of Congress last night. He asked Congress to send him legislation that would confront global warming by capping carbon dioxide emissions, and emphasized that clean energy technology can help the United States emerge from the recession.
Obama said: “It begins with energy. We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century…. Well I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders—and I know you don’t either. It is time for America to lead again” [The New Republic]. He noted that the stimulus package includes significant investments in alternative energy research and development, as well as money for making buildings more energy efficient and upgrading the electrical grid. He also pledged to double the use of renewable energy and invest $15 billion dollars in the development of new technologies each year – including wind, solar, advanced biofuels, more fuel-efficient automobiles, and “clean coal” [Grist].
The U.S. House of Representatives voted yesterday to ban interstate trade of primates, following last week’s attack of a woman in Connecticut by a chimpanzee who’d been used in commercials and kept as a household pet. The Captive Primate Safety Act would not outlaw owning chimpanzees and other [primates] [MSNBC], but acquiring them would become more difficult. The legislation, which passed 323 to 95, would prohibit interstate sale or purchase of monkeys and apes, which include chimpanzees and orangutans, as well as marmosets and lemurs [Reuters].
The legislation applies only to the sale of primates as pets, and would have no impact on zoos or researchers. There may be as many as 15,000 primate pets in the United States. Only 20 states prohibit keeping them as pets, and there is no federal law against it [The New York Times]. The Humane Society of the United States has said that over the past four years there were more than 40 incidents involving primates escaping and injuring humans [Reuters].
People fighting off winter colds and bouts of the flu typically reach for a glass vitamin C-packed orange juice, but new research suggests that vitamin D may be a better protector. People with low levels of the vitamin, which is often called the sunshine vitamin because sun exposure triggers its production in the body, are more likely to catch colds, the flu, and even pneumonia, a broad new study reports. The effect was magnified in people with asthma or other lung diseases.
Vitamin D deficiency is quite common in the United States — particularly in winter…. “People think that if they have a good, balanced diet that they will get enough vitamin D, and that’s actually not true,” said Dr. Michal Melamed…. “Unless you eat a lot of fish and drink a lot of milk, you can’t get enough vitamin D from diet” [CNN].
The North Korean government announced yesterday that it’s preparing to launch a communications satellite on a North Korean-made rocket, a move that has been widely interpreted as a test firing of its long-range missile. South Korea and the United States say any test-firing, whether a purported satellite launch or a missile test, would be provocative since the technology is dual-use, and would breach UN resolutions [AFP]. Experts say that the long-range Taepodong-2 rocket has a range of about 4,200 miles, which gives it the theoretical capacity to hit Alaska. But in the only previous test of the long-range rocket, in 2006, it exploded 40 seconds after launch.
North Korea has insisted that the launch is a purely scientific endeavor. “The preparations for launching an experimental communications satellite … are now making brisk headway,” North Korea’s KCNA news agency said. “When this satellite launch proves successful, the nation’s space science and technology will make another giant stride forward in building an economic power” [Reuters]. South Korean news sources have reported that the rocket has not yet been moved to the launch pad, but that there is a great deal of activity around the site.
A miniature plasma thruster could one day power satellites, and could potentially increase their maneuverability and prevent them from crashing into each other, researchers say. The shoebox-sized prototype, called the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster, is much smaller than other rockets of its kind and runs on gases that are much less expensive than conventional propellants. As a result, it could slash fuel consumption by 10 times that of conventional systems used for the same applications [Science Daily].
The system doesn’t use a chemical reaction to provide power, as most rockets do, but instead uses electrical power to accelerate a propellant. The thruster uses nitrogen gas, which is pumped through a quartz tube wrapped in a coiled antenna and surrounded by magnets. Radio frequency power, transmitted to the nitrogen from the antenna, turns the gas into plasma, or electrically charged gas. The magnets help produce the plasma, and guide and accelerate it through the system [Wired News].
Deep brain stimulation can now be used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, which causes uncontrollable worries and anxiety in its sufferers. Medtronic‘s Reclaim deep-brain stimulation (DBS) device received approval from the Food and Drug Administration after a study of 26 patients with severe OCD that showed a 40 percent reduction in symptoms after a year of deep brain stimulation therapy. All the patients had tried and failed other therapies [Chicago Tribune].
The Reclaim device is implanted under the skin of the chest and then connected to four electrodes in the brain. The electrodes deliver steady pulses of electricity that block abnormal brain signals [AP]; the device is controlled by a battery-run component outside the body. Hooman Azmi, a neurosurgeon at Hackensack University Medical Center, said, “This is essentially like a pacemaker for the brain” [WebMD Health News].
Antarctic researchers have succeeded in mapping a mountain range that is as tall and impressive as the Alps and yet invisible to the naked eye, since the entire range is hidden beneath miles of ice. The international expedition (which 80beats covered when it set off in October) used radar, gravity sensors, and other instruments mounted on airplanes to chart the contours of the mighty Gamburtsev mountains, but say the results mostly revealed new mysteries. For example, researchers expected to see a plateau formation, indicating that the peaks had been worn down over millennia. Instead, says researcher Robin Bell: “They are incredibly rough mountains — they look like alligators’ teeth” [Nature News].
“The surprising thing was that not only is this mountain range the size of the Alps, but it looks quite similar to the (European) Alps, with high peaks and valleys,” said Fausto Ferraccioli, a geophysicist at the British Antarctic Survey…. He told Reuters that the mountains would probably have been ground down almost flat if the ice sheet had formed slowly. But the presence of jagged peaks might mean the ice formed quickly, burying a landscape under up to 4 km (2.5 miles) of ice [Reuters]. Researchers say that understanding the behavior of polar ice sheets is crucial to scientists trying to predict the impacts of global warming.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and whether that beholding eye belongs to a man or a woman may determine how beauty is processed and understood in the brain, according to a small, preliminary study. Researchers asked 10 men and 10 women to decide which paintings and photographs they found beautiful, while brain scans revealed which parts of their brains were active while they examined each image. The results suggested that while both sexes use parts of the brain associated with spacial awareness to process beauty, men use an area associated with big-picture thinking, while women also use a region linked to local details.
All the volunteers showed increased activity in the parietal lobe when gazing at a landscape or urban scene that they found beautiful, but men used only the right lobe, while women used the lobes on both the left and right sides of the brain. The researchers suggest that this is because women are contextualising the information and thinking more about the details of what they are seeing, assessing the position of objects according broad categories, such as “above” or “below”, or “left” or “right”. The men, they say, are focussing on the overall image using a more precise form of mental mapping [BBC News]. Study coauthor Camilo Cela-Conde hypothesizes that these differences may be linked to the different roles played by men and women throughout our evolution.
The launch of the first satellite dedicated to studying carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has failed, NASA is reporting. Says NASA spokesman Steve Cole: “The mission is lost…. At this point no one is exactly sure what the cause is” [Bloomberg].
The $278 million satellite, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, blasted off last night from California’s Vanderberg Air Force Base at 1:51 a.m. local time aboard a Taurus XL rocket. “Several minutes into the flight of the Taurus rocket carrying NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory spacecraft, launch managers declared a contingency after the payload fairing failed to separate,” the space agency said in a statement [Reuters]. The fairing is a clamshell-like structure that shelters the payload as the rocket screams upward through the atmosphere.
Researchers have engineered antibodies that could potentially lead to a cure-all for multiple strains of influenza, including the dangerous H5N1 strain of bird flu, according to a study published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. Mice that were infected with bird flu and three days later were injected with the treatment exhibited no symptoms of illness. Whereas existing flu vaccines are able to target only one strain of virus at a time and need to be redeveloped every year, the new research suggests that a single treatment may work against many strains.
For the study, the scientists scoured a library of 27 billion human antibodies to influenza, eventually finding an antibody which inactivated bird flu in cell cultures and when injected into mice. The group then decided to see how the antibody fared against an entirely different subtype of flu—the influenza that killed millions across the globe in World War I. “To our amazement, the antibodies inactivated the 1918 pandemic,” [study author Wayne] Marasco said. Subsequent studies showed the virus could disarm multiple strains of flu [The Scientist]. The treatment is made from a laboratory-produced version of human immune system defenses called monoclonal antibodies. It targets a different part of the flu virus than the body’s naturally produced antibodies [Bloomberg].