Archive for June, 2010

Is Natural Gas the Way to a Greener Energy Future?

By Joseph Calamia | June 28, 2010 4:42 pm

burnerWhen it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, any fossil fuel looks bad compared to wind, solar, and even nuclear power sources. But how do fossil fuels stack up against one another? Natural gas is a lot better emissions-wise compared to coal, according to a new report, and may serve as a temporary coal stand-in over the coming decades, until the cost of alternative energy sources comes down.

The MIT Energy Initiative drafted an 83-page report that looked both at the United States’ natural gas supply and the fuel’s possibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past two years, the MIT group discussed natural gas use with industry leaders, environmental groups, and government officials. They presented their findings and recommendations to legislators and senior administration officials in Washington last week.

“Much has been said about natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future, with little underlying analysis to back up this contention.  The analysis in this study provides the confirmation—natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future,” said MITEI Director Ernest J. Moniz in introducing the report. [MIT News]

The report’s main points:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

LHC Sets a New Personal Record: 10,000 Particle Smash-Ups per Second

By Joseph Calamia | June 28, 2010 12:05 pm

lhc-tunnelAs a younger stronger particle smasher, the Large Hadron Collider can turn even baby steps into new records. Over this past weekend, the LHC beat another personal best–colliding its most protons yet at 10,000 particle collisions per second (about double its earlier rate). Physicists believe this is a crucial step on the collider’s hunt for new physics.

In November of 2009, the LHC collided its first protons as it started its quest to find the suspected mass-giving particle known as the Higgs Boson. The collider is still running at half of its designed maximum energy, but after this weekend, the number of particles per bunch traveling in the ring is just what physicists had planned. This is essential, says CERN physicist John Ellis:

“Protons are complicated particles, they’ve got quarks, [and other small particles], and colliding them is like colliding two garbage cans and watching carrots come out…. The more collisions we get, the closer we get to supersymmetry, dark matter, the Higgs boson and other types of new physics.” [BBC]

Here are some basics:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math

Scientist Smackdown: Did King Tut Die of Malaria or Sickle Cell?

By Eliza Strickland | June 28, 2010 11:43 am

King-TutWhat struck down ancient Egypt’s King Tutankhamen at the tender age of 19?

Just this winter, Egyptian researchers seemed to think they had a definitive answer. After years of genetic tests and CT scans, they concluded that royal incest had produced a sickly boy with a bone disorder, and argued that a malaria-bearing parasite finished him off. But now a team of German researchers is arguing that the observations actually point to death from the inherited blood disorder sickle cell disease (SCD).

People with SCD carry a mutation in the gene for haemoglobin which causes their red blood cells to become rigid and sickle-shaped. A single copy of the sickle-cell gene confers increased immunity to malaria, so it tends to be common in areas where the infection is endemic – such as ancient Egypt. People with two copies of the gene suffer severe anaemia and often die young. [New Scientist]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Human Origins

Caltech Scientists: Yes, the World Cup Ball Does Act Weird

By Andrew Moseman | June 28, 2010 10:04 am

jabulaniPlayers complaining about the new ball: It’s one of the traditions that returned like clockwork with this World Cup, along with egregious diving, English misery, and American fans perking up when the team performs and then swearing off soccer for another four years when USA crashes out.

But while equipment discontent typically fades as the tournament enters its final stages, anger toward World Cup 2010’s Jabulani ball won’t subside. So Caltech scientists decided to find out for themselves: They took the ball into their lab’s wind tunnel to see if it’s really so bad.

If you’ve spent any time kicking around a soccer ball, you’ll remember that it isn’t a perfect sphere, but rather is made of geometric panels with grooves in between. But while a traditional ball contains 32 panels, the Jabulani contains only 8, which made the team led by Beverly McKeon suspect there could be something to the complaints about its erratic behavior.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

New Report Says a Fetus Can't Feel Pain Before 24 Weeks

By Joseph Calamia | June 25, 2010 4:05 pm

24weeksIn a development that’s certain to stir passions in the abortion debate, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the UK published a report today on “fetal awareness.” The group states, citing a review of current research, that human fetuses cannot feel pain before 24 weeks.

The group’s reasoning, as described in a press release, is based on these points:

-The fetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks because the connections in the fetal brain are not fully formed
-The fetus, while in the chemical environment of the womb, is in a state of induced sleep and is unconscious
-Because the 24 week-old fetus has no awareness nor can it feel pain, the use of analgesia is of no benefit
-More research is needed into the short and long-term effects of the use of fetal analgesia post-24 weeks [Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists]

This is certainly not the first debate over whether a fetus can feel pain. Fetal surgeries have led doctors to ask this question, as they determined whether anesthesia was appropriate and at what stage in development. As summarized in a 2008 New York Times Magazine article, researchers have looked at fetal flinch responses, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones. But any metric has remained controversial. Take stress hormones, for example. Do you say that any fetus that can release these hormones feels pain? Or do you wait until it develops the nervous system to register those hormones? Or do you say that an undeveloped nervous system makes the fetus more susceptible to pain, since it hasn’t developed the system to suppress it?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

How to Build a Working Rat Lung in a Lab

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2010 1:32 pm

rat-lungStep 1: Take a rat lung. Step 2: Strip away all of its living cells, leaving only a fibrous “scaffold” of connective tissue. Step 3: Bathe the scaffold in lung cells taken from newborn rats, and put the whole thing in a bioreactor to let the cells multiply and spread. Step 4: A few days later, when the reconstructed lung is again filled with blood vessels and alveoli, transplant the organ into a living rat. Step 5: Watch in awe as the lung begins to function.

That’s the short version of the experiment Yale University researchers just published in Science. The study was a result of a change in direction for lead researcher Laura Niklason:

Niklason spent several years trying to create a synthetic lung scaffold, but in the end concluded it was too difficult. “I decided I couldn’t do it, and probably nobody else could either,” she said. [National Geographic]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

The Human Genome at 10: What It Did—and Didn't—Deliver

By Joseph Calamia | June 25, 2010 12:32 pm

DNAHappy Birthday, human genome. On June 26, 2000 a group of scientists at the White House announced that they had a working draft of our genetic blueprints. They hadn’t sequenced all our genes; the Human Genome Project and its private-sector competitor Celera Genomics still had some gaps to fill in. Still, scientists believed this data might hold clues to the causes of certain diseases and could lead to new treatments.

Even before the project’s start, some scientists were skeptical: Was mapping our genome a waste of money and time? Even among public hoopla and presidential speeches, scientists cautioned that applying the results would take time. Now, ten years later, many are asking: What have we learned? Here we round up some opinions about the impact of the project.

The Bad?

Some see fewer medical treatments than advertised. Instead of simple relationships between common variants and specific diseases, sequencing uncovered sheer complexity. Researchers now think that intricate relationships between rare variants may cause many diseases.

The difficulties were made clear in articles by Nicholas Wade and Andrew Pollack in The Times this month. One recent study found that some 100 genetic variants that had been statistically linked to heart disease had no value in predicting who would get the disease among 19,000 women who had been followed for 12 years. The old-fashioned method of taking a family history was a better guide. Meanwhile, the drug industry has yet to find the cornucopia of new drugs once predicted and is bogged down in a surfeit of information about potential targets for their medicines. [The New York Times]

As genetic sequencing goes, what once took years and millions of dollars can now take months and thousands. Still, some worry that the drive to sequence more, faster has led to techniques that make reading results increasingly hard.

The advances in speed … have come at a cost. Only short stretches of DNA can be sequenced at a time, so the pieces have to be joined together by looking for overlaps between them. While early instruments sequenced pieces up to 900 base pairs long, most high-speed machines produce “reads” of less than 100 base pairs. That means the overlaps are much shorter, making it far harder to join the pieces together, so assemblers use existing genomes as a guide — which can lead to mistakes. [New Scientist]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Is Louisiana's Oil-Blocking Sand Berm Project Doomed?

By Andrew Moseman | June 25, 2010 11:14 am

ChandeleurBuild a wall of sand: That was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s answer to protecting the state’s delicate marshlands when it became clear that BP wasn’t going to stop its gushing oil leak anytime soon. But now the federal government has put the kibosh on Louisiana’s construction, saying that the project to save one ecologically sensitive area will ruin another.

Scientists raised several objections to the state’s first proposal last month to build a long line of sand berms on 10 May. One key concern was that taking sand from in front of the Chandeleur Islands would make them more vulnerable to erosion. The state agreed to change its approach by taking sand from a site further away and then pumping it through pipes to build the berms [ScienceNOW].

However, that didn’t happen. Louisiana officials said they couldn’t get the pipes built in time, and asked the feds to let them dredge near Chandeleur at least until the other site was ready. OK, the Interior Department said—you’ve got a week. That week has lapsed, but Louisiana is still requesting more time to dredge near Chandeleur, promising to return the sand once the berm project has done its job.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Want Someone to Take a Decision Seriously? Hand Them Something Heavy

By Andrew Moseman | June 25, 2010 9:28 am

fingerprintTouch comes first. It’s the first way that people interact with the world, MIT’s Josh Ackerman says, and touch can change the way you feel about the world or engage with it.

Ackerman and colleagues published a study in Science this week further uncovering the ways that what we touch influences what we think. In a series of experiments, his team demonstrated numerous examples of the tactile altering the mental, like people negotiating more stubbornly when sitting in hard, uncomfortable chairs, or taking decisions more seriously when holding a weighty object like a clipboard.

The idea, then, is that due to the strong connection between our senses and our thoughts, touching a surface can trigger feelings related to the metaphorical value we assign to it. Or, more simply, the feeling of weight makes us feel like a decision is more “weighty,” a harsh surface like sandpaper leads to harsh feelings toward other people, and the touch of smoothness makes us feel like things are going to smooth over.

“The tactile sensation is extremely important early in development. The idea that other associations would be built on that makes intuitive sense,” said Franklin & Marshall College psychologist Michael Anderson, who was not involved in the study. “Brain regions that may initially have been dedicated to one particular task, turn out to contribute to multiple tasks” [Wired.com].

For more on this, check out Ed Yong’s in-depth post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Related Content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Heavy, Rough, and Hard: How Things We Touch Affect Our Judgment And Decisions
80beats: In a Sensory Hack, What You Touch Affects What You See
80beats: Fingerprints Are Tuned to Amplify Vibrations and Send Info to the Brain
80beats: Warm Hands Give People a Friendly, Generous Outlook
80beats: Hand Washing After a Decision Scrubs Away Those Lingering Doubts

Image: Science/AAAS

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: brain, decisions, senses, touch

Stem Cell Treatment Lets Those With Scorched Corneas See Again

By Joseph Calamia | June 24, 2010 4:25 pm

stem-cell-corneasWhen a person’s cornea is burned it’s not necessarily the splashed chemicals or hot liquids that causes blindness, but the eye’s recovery. Scar tissue, formed from cells in the white part of the eye, can cover the cornea in a cloudy haze. But researchers have found that cells drawn from another part of the body can correct the problem.

A paper published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine brings news of a regenerative stem cell treatment that has had striking success: It restored sight to 82 of 117 eyes with burnt corneas, and worked partially on 14 others. The treatment also seems to have a long-lasting impact; in one patient, the beneficial effect has lasted for ten years and counting.

The treatment offers hope to those who received little benefit from existing therapies–such as artificial cornea replacements, which can also be overpowered and clouded by white-colored cells, or stem cell or cornea transplants from cadavers, which patients can reject.

“[The patients] were incredibly happy. Some said it was a miracle,” said one of the study leaders, Graziella Pellegrini of the University of Modena’s Center for Regenerative Medicine in Italy. “It was not a miracle. It was simply a technique.” [AP]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
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