Archive for January, 2010

With $4.5M of Pocket Change, Bill Gates Funds Geoengineering Research

By Smriti Rao | January 29, 2010 3:42 pm

Earth atmosphereIf climate-watchers found no solutions in December’s failed Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, then they might be heartened by the fact that billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates thinks there needs to be a greater focus on researching technologies that can slow global warming.

ScienceInsider reports that the Microsoft founder had provided at least $4.5 million of his own money to be distributed over 3 years for the study of methods that could alter the stratosphere to reflect solar energy, techniques to filter carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, and brighten ocean clouds [ScienceInsider]. These and other geoengineering techniques have been hotly debated in the scientific world, with some critics arguing that tinkering with Earth’s natural systems could do more harm than good.

Methods that divert some incoming solar energy, like spraying reflective aerosols into the stratosphere or making clouds more reflective, have been deemed potentially effective but also risky; the abrupt halt of a large-scale project would result in sudden, extreme warming. On the other hand, techniques that reduce the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere are considered less risky, but they’re currently too expensive to implement widely.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Scientist Smackdown: French Strike Back Against British G-Spot Study

By Andrew Moseman | January 29, 2010 11:55 am

GAs if soccer, wars of incredible length, and the relative worth of wine vs. beer didn’t account for enough disagreements between Britain and France, add another spat to the pile: whether or not the G-spot really exists.

A few weeks ago, a team of scientists from King’s College London joined the ongoing scientific fray by publishing a new study on the much-debated female erogenous zone. It was the biggest to date, involving 1,800 women – all of whom were pairs of identical or non-identical twins. If the G-spot did exist, it said, then genetically identical twins would have been expected to both report having one. However, no such pattern emerged [The Telegraph]. As a result of the study, coauthor Tim Spector said, the study “shows fairly conclusively that the idea of a G-spot is subjective.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

National Ignition Facility Warm-Up Successful. Next Step: Fusion Tests?

By Andrew Moseman | January 29, 2010 10:45 am

nif-target-chamberThe hunt for fusion energy is one that has been plagued by false starts and overly-optimistic announcements. This week, however, researchers at the National Ignition Facility in California announced a major new step: firing all of its 192 lasers together for the first time, and channeling the beam into an area no bigger than a pencil eraser.

That tiny target is called the hohlraum. It’s a gold-plated cylinder intended to contain the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, which would fuse together during a potential fusion reaction. In this test, documented in the journal Science this week, the 192 lasers heated up the hohlraum to “only” about 6 million degrees Fahrenheit. But, team member Jeffrey Atherton says, the NIF is working its way up to the really powerful reactions. “The point is that we were doing it at a scale that’s about 20 times larger than has been done, with a laser power that accordingly is about 20 times higher than has been done, with a precision and efficiency that hasn’t been done before,” he said [MSNBC].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology

NASA Jet Studies Haiti's Fault Lines for Signs of Further Trouble

By Smriti Rao | January 28, 2010 5:57 pm

tp-nasa-radar-jetNASA is sending a radar-equipped jet to conduct flights over Haiti and the Dominican Republic to capture 3-D images that could help predict future earthquakes. An estimated 170,000 people were killed in the 7.0 earthquake that battered Haiti on January 12. Unfortunately, experts predict more quakes as the country is situated in a seismically volatile zone.

A Gulfstream III jet is now on its way to map Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola. The Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar, or UAVSAR, was originally on its way to Central America to study volcanoes, forests, and Mayan ruins, but on its way south it will now also study Hispaniola’s fault lines.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Space, Technology

A Biotech Magic Trick: Skin Cells Transformed Directly Into Brain Cells

By Andrew Moseman | January 28, 2010 5:11 pm

neuronsMiceCells just keep surprising us. Researchers have now found that, with a little genetic tweaking, they can transform skin cells into brain cells without having to first reprogram them to act like multipurpose stem cells. This finding, the first of its kind, is in this week’s edition of the journal Nature.

The researchers did their study on mice. They induced the change by inserting only three genes into cultured skin cells. Once those three genes activated, the skin cells converted into fully functioning nerve cells that even formed synapse connections with the other converted nerve cells [Popular Science]. That change took less than a week, a surprisingly rapid rate. Said team member Marius Wernig: “These are fully functional neurons. They can do all the principal things that neurons in the brain do” [AFP].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Engineered E. Coli Bacteria Produces Road-Ready Diesel

By Smriti Rao | January 28, 2010 2:50 pm

e-coli-bacteriaMost of us associate the bacteria E. coli with nasty stomach ailments. But a new study published in Nature magazine suggests E. coli can not just turn stomachs, but could potentially turn the wheels of your car, since a genetically engineered strain of the bacteria has produced clean, road-ready biodiesel.

The bacteria can work on any type of biomass, including wood chip, switchgrass, and the plant parts that are left behind after a harvest–all contain cellulose, a structural material that comprises much of a plant’s mass. Study coauthor Jay Keasling and his colleagues report engineering E. coli bacteria to synthesize and excrete the enzyme hemicellulase, which breaks down cellulose into sugars. The bacteria can then convert those sugars into a variety of chemicals–diesel fuel among them. The final products are excreted by the bacteria and then float to the top of the fermentation vat before being siphoned off [Technology Review].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology

New Analysis Reveals Color of Dinosaur Feathers for the First Time

By Andrew Moseman | January 28, 2010 10:54 am

dinoColorAs much as paleontologists have sorted out about the dinosaurs, one of the main aspects of their appearance—what color they were—has remained mysterious. But in a new Nature study, a team of British and Chinese scientists report that they found a way to unlock the color patters of one of the earliest feathery dinosaurs—it had a red mohawk, they say, with a red and white striped tail.

The dino in question is called Sinosauropteryx, which lived about 125 million years ago. Looking at fossils found in China, the team led by Mike Benton found what they think are the remains of feathers. And they found something inside the feathers that matches modern birds: melanosomes. These structures provide the melanin pigment in bird feathers (and human hair), and what color they are depends on the shape. “A ginger-haired person would have more spherical melanosomes, and a black-haired or grey-haired person would have more of the sausage-shaped structures,” said Professor Benton [BBC News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
MORE ABOUT: birds, dinosaurs, fossils

No Shoes, No Problem? Barefoot Runners Put Far Less Stress on Their Feet

By Andrew Moseman | January 27, 2010 6:02 pm

running shoesPerhaps the original design is still the best. In this week’s Nature, Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman and his team reported on the impact force of people who are used to running barefoot versus those of us who wear spongy sneakers to protect the bottoms of our feet. Those who ran barefoot (the way humans evolved to run) moved differently, and with far less stress on their feet than the shoe-wearing masses.

The researchers first traveled to Kenya to watch endurance runners who grew up running sans shoes. The study—the first to test lifelong barefoot runners and not simply people trying it out—found that the barefoot runners landed on the front or middle of their feet. By contrast, runners in shoes typically land on their heels. Lieberman says: “This creates an impact; it’s like someone hitting your heel with a hammer with up to three times your body weight” [BBC News]. In follow-up tests in the United States, the team noted that barefoot runners put, on average, only a third of the initial impact force on their feet than their shod counterparts did.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Apple's "iPad" Tablet: It's Here, It's Cool, and It's Slightly Cheaper Than Expected

By Smriti Rao | January 27, 2010 5:39 pm

It has been one of the world’s worst kept secrets, but that hasn’t make the waiting any easier. Now, after years of whispers, rumors, speculation, and leaks, people can finally gawk at Apple’s latest offering–a new device the company refers to as the iPad. The thin and elegant tablet device was officially unveiled today by Apple CEO Steve Jobs in San Fransisco. The iPad “is so much more intimate than a laptop, and it’s so much more capable than a smartphone with its gorgeous screen,” Mr. Jobs crowed. “It’s phenomenal to hold the Internet in your hands” [The New York Times].

So what exactly is this tablet? The iPad, it seems, looks and acts a lot like a giant iPhone or iPod Touch. You can get your apps, play your games, store your pictures, watch your videos, and browse the Internet–but on a bigger screen and in higher definition. One addition to the tablet is that now you can read books online with Apple’s new iBooks.

At the launch, Jobs described the iPad as featuring a 9.7-inch, full capacitive multi-touch IPS display that weighs 1.5 pounds and measures just half an inch. “Thinner and lighter than any netbook,” according to Jobs [PCMag]. There’s also an on-screen keyboard for you to jab at. The tablet’s starting price is $499 for a 16 gigabyte device and goes up to $699 for the 64 GB version. If you throw in an extra $130, you’ll get 3G capability. Apple linked up with AT&T for its two 3G data plans: You can choose between paying $14.99 a month for 250 megabytes (which you could burn through pretty quickly by downloading multimedia) or $29.99 for unlimited data. In both cases, you don’t need a contract. All models feature built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, an accelerometer, speaker, and microphone. It is expected to start shipping in March.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Study: Algae Biofuel Production Guzzles Water & Energy

By Smriti Rao | January 27, 2010 3:42 pm

algaeWhen algae is discussed as an alternative source of biofuel, it’s often in tones of breathless excitement; many green tech boosters believe that the slimy goo can be turned into fuel superior to that made from corn, canola, or switch grass.

You don’t need vast tracts of land to cultivate algae for biofuel, the thinking goes, all you need is the right strain of algae, water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. Even Exxon and Dow Chemical recently joined the biofuel brigade, and are now investing millions in algae operations.

But a new study suggests that while algae might produce good fuel, the environmental costs involved in the production would be heavy. A life-cycle assessment published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology argues that algae production consumes more water and energy than other biofuel sources like corn, canola, and switch grass, and also has higher greenhouse gas emissions. While the study’s results are sobering, they’re also being met with harsh criticism from alage-based biofuel companies and their trade group, the Algal Biomass Association.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology
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