Archive for October, 2009

For a Real Blast, Strap a Nuclear Reactor to a Spaceship

By Eliza Strickland | October 30, 2009 5:26 pm

humans-on-marsThe Russian space agency has proposed a powerful new way to get a spacecraft to Mars or beyond: just put a big ole nuclear reactor on board.

The head of the agency, Anatoly Perminov, just proposed this new class of nuclear-powered spaceships for manned missions to explore our solar system. “The project is aimed at implementing large-scale space exploration programs, including a manned mission to Mars, interplanetary travel, the creation and operation of planetary outposts” [AP], Perminov wrote in an online statement. He suggested that preliminary designs could be completed by 2012, and said it would then take about nine years and $600 million to build the spacecraft. Some experts call these numbers utterly unrealistic, but Russian President Dmitry Medvedev insists that the government is very serious about the project.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Bankrupt Spam King Is Ordered to Pay Facebook $711 Million

By Aline Reynolds | October 30, 2009 3:27 pm

facebook-webThe self-proclaimed spam king of the Internet, Sam “Spamford” Wallace, was ordered to pay Facebook $711 million in civil damages for slinging spam on the social networking site. Wallace allegedly accessed Facebook accounts without obtaining permission, and used them to make bogus wall posts and spam the account holders’ friends. Those actions run afoul of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which sets guidelines for commercial e-mails, which are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) [PC World]. The judge also referred Wallace to the U.S. Attorney’s Office with a request that he be prosecuted for criminal contempt, which means he could actually face jail time if convicted.

If you’ve ever received an unsolicited email (and who hasn’t), chances are good that it came from Wallace’s company, Cyber Promotions, which was once the largest source of spam. So not surprisingly, this isn’t the first time Spamford has run afoul of the law. In May, 2008, MySpace won a $230 million judgment against Wallace for sending junk messages. Wallace was also fined $4 million by the Federal Trade Commission in 2006 for his excessive pop-up ads [CNN]. Officials at Facebook said they don’t expect to see much of the $711 million, seeing as how Wallace is bankrupt and may soon have to send out his spam as hand written letters from behind bars.

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Image: flickr / benstein


Ripped From the Journals: The Biggest Discoveries of the Week

By Eliza Strickland | October 30, 2009 3:13 pm

nature-nanoNature Nanotechnology, October
The carbon nanotubes that hold such technological promise may be more dangerous to human health than we realized, according to a new study. Lab mice that inhaled nanotubes were found to have the tubes in the outer linings of their lungs–that’s the same place where inhaled asbestos fibers settle and cause the slow-growing cancer known as mesothelioma. The researchers stress that they didn’t find any evidence of cancer in the mice that inhaled nanotubes during the 14-week study, but suggest that longer studies should examine the question further.

Journal of the American Medical Association, October 28
The new generation of antipsychotic drugs may be of enormous benefit to patients’ mental health, but they may take a toll of their bodily health. A study of children and adolescents taking the drugs for the first time found that the young patients added 8 to 15 percent to their weight in less than 12 weeks, leading researchers to caution that the pills may put patients at risk of diabetes and heart disease. The study focused on young patients in order to examine the drugs’ effects on people who had never tried them before, but researchers believe they have the same metabolic effects on adults.

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MORE ABOUT: Journal Roundup

America's Electronic Waste Is Polluting the Globe

By Eliza Strickland | October 30, 2009 10:48 am

e-wasteIt seems that every day brings a new electronic gadget to the market, whether it’s a smart phone, an electronic reader, a laptop the size and weight of a magazine, or a television the size of a wall. But each advance adds to the world’s electronic waste, which is the fastest-growing component of solid waste. Much of the electronic refuse ends up in developing countries, where workers strip down the gadgets to get at the copper and other valuable metals inside, often exposing themselves to toxins in the process. Now, scientists are calling for federal regulations in the United States to stem the tide.

Although the U.S. is one the world’s largest producers of electronic waste (e-waste), it is hardly a leader in addressing this problem, given that the country has “no legally enforceable federal policies requiring comprehensive recycling of e-waste or elimination of hazardous substances from electronic products,” the researchers say [Scientific American]. Instead, e-waste policies are left to the states, not all of which have laws on the books. In the article, published in Science, the authors note that the United States has not ratified the Basel Convention, which regulates the movement of hazardous wastes across international borders and has the support of 169 of the 192 United Nations member countries [Scientific American].

Electronics can contain a host of dangerous materials, from heavy metals to toxic chemicals. Toxic e-waste shows up in forms as varied as high lead levels in the blood of children in Guiya, China, where millions of tonnes of e-waste are illegally dumped, and as fire-retardant chemicals in the eggs of California’s peregrine falcons [CBC News].

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Image: Basel Action Network. E-waste in a Nigerian dump.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Scientists Say Ban Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Trade–and Sushi Chefs Shudder

By Aline Reynolds | October 30, 2009 10:07 am

bluefin-tunaAtlantic bluefin tuna populations have declined so drastically that trade in the fish should be completely outlawed, says a new report. The population of the Atlantic tuna, a sushi staple, is now about 15 percent of the original stock size, says International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas’ (ICCAT). The report has delighted conservation groups, who have criticized ICCAT’s regulation policies. The report was triggered by Monaco’s recent proposal to ban international trade in the Atlantic bluefin under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – a proposal that has gathered support from several other European countries [BBC News].

ICCAT has a history of setting quotas higher for the fish than scientists say is safe, while CITES seems to take a more proactive approach.Atlantic bluefin tuna are mainly caught from countries around the Mediterranean Sea, but most of the meat is consumed in Asia, particularly Japan. Japan has previously argued that commercial fish species should be controlled by bodies like ICCAT rather than CITES [BBC News]. In Japan, the fish are so highly prized that a single giant tuna can sell for more than $100,000 at the wholesale fish market. ICCAT will meet in 10 days to discuss the report.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons


A Gamma Ray Race Through the Fabric of Space-Time Proves Einstein Right

By Eliza Strickland | October 29, 2009 4:48 pm

gamma-ray-burstNew results are in from the Fermi Space Telescope, which settled into orbit in the summer of 2008, and the findings seem to prove Albert Einstein right once again. Man, that guy was good.

The telescope detected and studied a gamma ray burst, one of the massively bright and powerful explosions that occurs when stars go supernova in distant galaxies. Astronomers were interested in the gamma rays of differing energies and wavelengths that were generated by the explosion, and that raced each other across the universe. After a journey of 7.3 billion light-years, they all arrived within nine-tenths of a second of one another in a detector on NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, at 8:22 p.m., Eastern time, on May 9 [The New York Times].

The researchers were wondering if certain gamma rays with both high energies and short wavelengths would arrive last, at the back of the pack. That would suggest that they had violated one of the principles set out in Einstein‘s theory of relativity: that the speed of light is always constant. If researchers could detect a significant lag in some gamma rays, it would also give fresh hope to those ambitious researchers searching for a theory of everything.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Physics & Math

Patients Waiting for Lung Transplants May Soon Breathe a Sigh of Relief

By Eliza Strickland | October 29, 2009 2:54 pm

lung-transplantEmphysema and cystic fibrosis patients who need new lungs are faced with a life-threatening problem: more than 80 percent of donated lungs can’t be used—they’re inflamed and barely functional [Scientific American]. Transplanted lungs also fail at a much higher rate than other transplanted organs, as they’re more likely to be rejected by the recipient’s body. But a new procedure that makes use of gene therapy may soon double or triple the supply of undamaged donated lungs, and may also improve their function once transplanted.

In both pre- and post-transplant lungs, the problem is inflammation caused by insufficient amounts of an immune molecule called IL-10. Donated lungs are immediately chilled on ice, which destroys any IL-10 that may remain in the lungs, allowing substantial damage to occur before the organ can be implanted. And a lack of the molecule after transplantation increases the likelihood that inflammation will damage the organ and induce rejection [Los Angeles Times].

To get around these problems, the researchers first built a domed chamber where pig lungs were kept at body temperature with a steady flow of oxygen and nutrients moving through them. That arrangement alone prevented substantial damage to the lungs. Next, in the gene therapy stage, the researchers used a harmless virus to bring a gene that produces IL-10 into the lung cells.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine

Happy 40th Birthday, Internet! (Um, Again.)

By Eliza Strickland | October 29, 2009 1:00 pm

ARPANETYes, in early September we sent the Internet our birthday best wishes, noting that it had been 40 years since computer scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles connected two computers via a 15-foot cable, allowing for the transmission of data between them. But it wasn’t until October 29, 1969 that the first message passed between two different computer nodes, one at UCLA and the other at Stanford University. The message that researcher Leonard Kleinrock intended to send to Stanford was “login” but Kleinrock was only able to type “lo” before the system crashed. On his second attempt, the message went through successfully [ABC News]. With that, a net was born.

The system dubbed ARPANET, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, would lead directly to the Internet that we know, love, despise, and rely on utterly today. To date, over 1 billion people are online, and last year, Google announced that it had detected over 1 trillion pages [PC World].

Vinton Cerf, an Internet pioneer and the current Chief Internet Evangelist at Google says the online world will continue to evolve in ways we can barely imagine, but which serve humanity’s basic drive to communicate. “Don’t let anyone tell you that information is power…. It’s information-sharing that’s power” [LiveScience], he says.

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DISCOVER: The Emoticon Turns 25

Image: NIH. ARPANET began with only four nodes, located at the University of California-Los Angeles, Stanford University, the University of California-Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah.

MORE ABOUT: computers, internet

The Birds' Sixth Sense: How They See Magnetic Fields

By Eliza Strickland | October 29, 2009 10:32 am

robinSome migratory birds that have to navigate across continents have an extremely useful tool at their disposal–an internal compass that points unerringly towards magnetic north. Researchers already knew that some birds possess these biological compasses, but their mechanism has been unclear. “This is basically the sixth sense of biology, but no one knows how it works…. The magnetic sense is by far the least understood sense in the natural world,” [Science News], says study coauthor Henrik Mouritsen.

Now, researchers have determined that light-sensing cells in the eye convey the crucial message to a special visual center of a robin’s brain, called cluster N. Special proteins called cryptochromes in the birds’ eyes may mediate this light-dependent magnetic sensing, Mouritsen says. Light hitting the proteins produces a pair of free radicals, highly reactive molecules with unpaired electrons. These electrons have a property called spin which may be sensitive to Earth’s magnetic field. Signals from the free radicals may then move to nerve cells in cluster N, ultimately telling the birds where north is [Science News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain

Lunar Lava Tube Could House a Future Moon Base

By Brett Israel | October 29, 2009 7:00 am

moon-lava-tubeSpace agencies can’t resist the dream of setting up a moon base for their astronauts, even though killjoy experts have recently questioned the usefulness of such a plan. Despite those naysayers, NASA has already ramped up efforts to map the lunar surface and even crashed an empty rocket into the surface to search for accessible water. Now, a Japanese space probe has found a big hole on the moon’s surface that scientists hope could house a lunar base some day.

Japan’s Kaguya spacecraft recently captured pictures of the curious dark hole, which may open onto a large underground lava tube [National Geographic News]. If the hole does in fact lead to a lava tube, it would provide perfect shelter from the moon’s harsh environment.

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