Category: Feature

Nanofibers: A New Platform for Protecting Against HIV and Pregnancy?

By Breanna Draxler | December 5, 2012 11:21 am

Nanofibers can physically block sperm, as shown here. The fibers can also release spermicide and other chemicals.

In theory, it shouldn’t be too difficult to protect oneself against HIV and other STIs, as well as pregnancy. Condoms, after all, are very effective. But in practice, it’s not so simple. Many of the people at high risk for HIV, for instance, are women who don’t have much control over whether their partners wear protection. Taking daily medication or applying drug-laden gels also have their downsides—people forget, they find it inconvenient, there’s social stigma. So finding ways to provide protection thats get over these hurdles is an important research goal.

Scientists at the University of Washington think a new delivery platform may be a step in the right direction. They’ve created nanofibers embedded with pre-existing drugs against HIV-1, HIV-2, and sperm. Theoretically, these stretchy microfabrics could be inserted into the vagina directly or on the surface of another device, such as a vaginal ring, and act as both a physical and chemical barrier. The real kicker is the fact that the nanofiber can release the drugs slowly, so the device could protect women against STIs for an extended period of time after insertion.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Using the Tesla Effect, Electric Buses Charge as They Go

By Breanna Draxler | December 4, 2012 10:19 am

induction electric bus

A new electric bus prototype doesn’t just pick up passengers at its bus stops; it also picks up a charge for its battery.

Unlike its public transportation contemporaries, the electric “Aggie bus” at Utah State University has no overhead wires. Nor does it need to be plugged into a power source. Instead, the battery receives a five-kilowatt wireless boost from a charge plate installed at each bus stop. With consistent routes and frequent stops, the bus is able to charge as it goes rather than requiring a big battery on board to stockpile an entire day’s worth of power.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Feature, Technology

Scientist Smackdown: Are Solar Neutrinos Messing With Matter?

By Andrew Moseman | August 26, 2010 10:52 am

SunSDOThe sun is breaking the known rules of physics—so said headlines that made the rounds of the Web this week.

That claim from a release out about a new study by researchers Jere Jenkins and Ephraim Fischbach of Purdue, and Peter Sturrock of Stanford. The work suggests that the rates of radioactive decay in isotopes—thought to be a constant, and used to date archaeological objects—could vary oh-so-slightly, and interaction with neutrinos from the sun could be the cause. Neutrinos are those neutral particles that pass through matter and rarely interact with it; trillions of neutrinos are thought to pass through your body every second.

In the release itself, the researchers say that it’s a wild idea: “‘It doesn’t make sense according to conventional ideas,’ Fischbach said. Jenkins whimsically added, ‘What we’re suggesting is that something that doesn’t really interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed.'”

Could it possibly be true? I consulted with Gregory Sullivan, professor and associate chair of physics at the University of Maryland who formerly did some of his neutrino research at the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan, and with physicist Eric Adelberger of the University of Washington.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Physics & Math

5 Offshore Oil Hotspots Beyond the Gulf That Could Boom–or Go Boom

By Andrew Moseman | May 6, 2010 6:34 pm

OffshoreOilAfter the fallout from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—the dispersal agents, the containment domes, the apologies, the blame game, the court rulings over who should pay, the know-nothing punditry, and all the environmental wreckage—offshore oil drilling will go on. The cold truth is that we need the oil, and under the sea is one place we can still find it—in part because extracting it is sufficiently difficult that companies focused on easier-to-get deposits in the past.

There’s plenty of oil under the Gulf, which became perfectly clear when responders couldn’t stem the flow of the current spill, allowing thousands of barrels to leak into the water every day. But other undersea sites are loaded with oil—and are similarly expensive and risky to exploit. Here are five that might be particularly promising, and prone to trouble.

1. Alaska’s north shore

The Deepwater Horizon accident caused President Obama to put his plans to open more U.S. waters to energy exploration on hold. But the President’s proposal, which could well be resurrected, included allowing bids to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas on Alaska’s northern coast after 2013 if viability studies gave the thumbs-up. Also, in 2009 Obama gave Shell the conditional go-ahead for a project in the Beaufort.

There’s just one problem, the Coastal Response Research Center says: We’re not ready. While the increasing ice melt in the Arctic might open up more area to the possibility of drilling, a spill would be disastrous. Responding to a major spill is a logistical nightmare even somewhere with the proper infrastructure, as the BP oil spill has shown. But the north shore of Alaska is remote, and the weather is bad. Slicks would be difficult to see in the winter, with the sun barely, or never, coming over the horizon. And while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has provided those handy 72-hour forecasts for the oil spreading in the Gulf, they’re still working on how to model the spread of oil in icy water.

2. The Gulf of Guinea

Nigeria and Cameroon are among the countries that bound the Gulf of Guinea, located at the big bend in Africa’s west coast. It’s one of the most promising regions in the world for offshore oil deposits. The United States already imports a sizable chunk of its oil from the region, and an International Monetary Fund working paper (pdf) in 2005 said that the U.S. could look to up its investment in the region as a way to lessen reliance on turbulent Middle Eastern countries.

And then, there were pirates. A slew of attacks in the last two years targeted oil supply vessels, fishing boats, and other ships. Even in 2008 the Center for Investigative Journalism reported that attacks on oil installations slowed Nigerian production from 2.5 to 1.5 million barrels per day.

3. The Sea of Okhotsk

The treacherous, icy continental shelf on the north of Russia extends thousands and miles and could be laden with energy reserves, but right now the Russians have their eyes on the eastern part of their huge country, specifically the Sea of Okhotsk. Presently Russia is pushing the United Nations to expand its territorial claim further over the sea’s shelf so it can begin trying to the tap the perhaps billions of tons of oil, and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, in the sea.

Truly, though, Okhotsk is an unpleasant and dangerous place to work. To sum it up:

The Sea of Okhotsk is subject to dangerous storm winds, severe waves, icing of vessels, intense snowfalls and poor visibility. The average annual extreme low ranges between -32°C and -35°C. Ice sheets up to 1.5m thick move at speeds of 1-2 knots.

During the ice-free period, wave heights range between 1-3m, but can reach as high as 19m during 100-year storm conditions. Strong north-east and south-east winds cause a great amount of sea agitation in autumn and winter [Offshore Technology].

4. Deepwater Angola

Angola is the new kid on the block. In 2007 it joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). It has knocked off Nigeria as West Africa’s number one oil producer. In March it beat out Saudi Arabia to become China’s number one oil supplier. And the United States’ Energy Information Administration reports that Angola is trying to grow even faster, to as high at 3 million barrels a day by 2015. If not for OPEC production limits, it might be able to grow even faster.

BP, ExxonMobil, and other huge oil companies produce oil here. One of BP’s deepwater operations here, the Greater Plutonio, lies in water as deep as 5,000 feet—roughly the same depth at the Deepwater Horizon leaks.

And Angola is, in a word, dangerous. Part of the reason so much of the nation’s oil infrastructure is offshore is to get away from the land, where civil war raged from 1975 to 2002. While the politics may have stabilized somewhat, a University of Texas assessment points out (pdf) another problem of Angolan production: it’s a long way from China, the U.S., or Europe, meaning longer tanker trips.

5. Brazil’s Santos Basin

The good news: The Tupi oil field, out to sea south of Rio de Janeiro, could hold enough oil to up Brazil’s oil reserves by 50 percent. The bad news: Tupi is stuck below a layer of salt that in some places is up to 6,500 feet thick.

Brazilian oil giant Petrobras wants to start exploring the region as soon as this year. But no one knows for sure what they’re getting into. The salt layer supposedly acts like a sludge, and explorers have traditionally tried to avoid going through such formations. The energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie estimated it would take upward of $100 billion to fully explore, and Offshore Techonlogy says the region could be 10 times pricier to explore than the other deposits off the Brazilian coast that Petrobras currently explores.

Outside the Gulf Coast region, Brazil is the world’s most promising ultra-deepwater producer, with new discoveries in the past five years in the so-called Santos basin that experts think will make the South American giant a powerhouse in the oil business [Kansas City Star].

Brazil’s National Petroleum Agency is getting in on the act, too. Last week it made an oil discovery in the Santos Basin—but at a depth of nearly 18,000 feet.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Feature

E.O. Wilson's New Novel Finds Life Lessons in an Anthill

By Smriti Rao | April 9, 2010 5:03 pm

OB-HY428_anthil_DV_20100325Many children have a “bug period”–a time of life when bugs and creepy crawlies are a source of endless fascination and learning. Naturalist Edward O. Wilson jokes that unlike other kids, he never grew out of his bug period.

Luckily for this biologist, his lifelong passion for ants has yielded a career rich in accomplishment and accolades. He is not just the world’s preeminent expert on the social behavior of ants, but also the recipient of the National Medal of Science and two Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction. Now, at the age of 80, Wilson has taken a stab at fiction. His first novel, Anthill, combines two of his greatest loves–his childhood home, Alabama, and the ants that have been his lifelong friends.

Described as an “six-legged Iliad,” Wilson’s Anthill draws parallels between human and ant societies. Though there are no ant symphony orchestras, secret police, or schools of philosophy, both ants and men conduct wars, divide into specialized castes of workers, build cities, maintain infant nurseries and cemeteries, take slaves, practice agriculture, and indulge in occasional cannibalism, though ant societies are more energetic, altruistic, and efficient than human ones [The New York Review of Books].

The book’s first and third sections deal with the adventures of an Alabama boy named Raphael Semmes Cody, called Raff. The boy grows up poking around the lush pine savanna of the Nokobee Tract; he’s drawn to its natural wonders, and uses the forest to escape from his parents’ toxic marriage. In this pristine woodland he literally leaves no stone unturned as he discovers the forest’s rich flora and fauna. Raff grows up and heads to Harvard to study law, returning later in life to protect the Nokobee from feckless developers. But fans of Wilson’s science will be most interested in the book’s middle section, where the author inserts a mini-novella describing the trials and tribulations of the ants living in the endangered forest.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Feature, Living World

A Novel That Laughs Along with Climate Change: Ian McEwan's Solar

By Andrew Moseman | April 1, 2010 9:41 am

Solar“It’s a catastrophe. Relax!”

Those are the words of Michael Beard, the Nobel laureate physicist long past his prime who is the anti-hero of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar, out this week in the United States. McEwan, no stranger to writing scientist characters or scientific themes, dives this time headlong into climate change. McEwan says he was nervous attempting to write fiction about a subject that has the potential to be, well, dull. But Solar is a laugh-out-loud read thanks to its ridiculous protagonist and willingness to make light of the apocalyptic seriousness of the conversation.

At the book’s outset, in the year 2000, Beard isn’t particularly convinced about climate change. He’s coasting on his reputation as a Nobelist, making money giving repetitive lectures and sitting on various boards, when suddenly he finds himself in charge of a shiny new British government research center out to build the next new thing in alternative energy. In the second part of “Solar,” Beard has become a believer in global warming, working on a way to get non-carbon power from artificial photosynthesis—a new application of a never-quite-explained theory that he came up with in his 20s. Unfortunately, he didn’t discover the application himself. He stole it from his dead assistant [Wall Street Journal], the marvelously enthusiastic (or at least enthusiastic until an unfortunate encounter with a coffee table) Tom Aldous.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Feature

Vaccinating School Kids Can Protect the Whole "Herd" of Community Members

By Smriti Rao | March 11, 2010 5:16 pm

hypodermic-needle-vaccineAn extensive study conducted on school children in Western Canada has proved that immunizing kids and adolescents goes a long way towards protecting the entire community from communicable diseases like the flu, thanks to a phenomenon known as “herd immunity.”

The findings come at a time when vaccine phobia is one of our largest public health concerns, with many parents worrying that immunizing kids can lead to adverse side affects. A recent survey revealed that one in four U.S. parents think that vaccines might cause autism, probably due in part to a 1998 paper published in the journal The Lancet that wrongly linked autism to vaccines–that paper has since been refuted, and fully retracted by the journal.

Now, scientists have more evidence that vaccines provide a public health benefit. Researchers studying youngsters in 49 remote Hutterite farming colonies in Canada found that giving flu shots to almost 80 percent of a community’s children created a herd immunity that helped protect unvaccinated older people from illness. As children often transfer viruses to each other first and then pass them along to grown-ups, the study provided solid proof that the best way to contain epidemics like the recent H1N1 outbreak is to first vaccinate all the kids. By immunizing the most germ-friendly part of the herd first, you indirectly protect the rest of the community, scientists say.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine

Obama's NASA Plan Draws Furious Fire; The Prez Promises to Defend His Vision

By Andrew Moseman | March 10, 2010 4:10 pm

SpaceShuttleTakeoffYou can’t cancel an enormous federal program without hitting pushback, and President Obama is hitting plenty of it over his proposal to end NASA’s Constellation program. In January his budget proposal put forth no funding for Constellation, the space shuttle successor program that included the Ares rockets, Orion crew capsule, and plans to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020. Instead, NASA would become more reliant on private companies to ferry its astronauts to the space station, and would explore new ideas for visiting Mars or nearby asteroids. But the proposal has already ruffled lots of feathers, prompting the President to say he will hold a conference to further outline his plan.

First, many high-profile space experts balked at the proposal. Former astronaut Tom Jones said Obama was surrendering human spaceflight, and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last men to walk on the moon, was equally displeased. “It’s bad for the country,” Schmitt said. “This administration really does not believe in American exceptionalism” [Washington Post]. Dissent wasn’t universal; DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait, for one, praised the possibilities for commercial space-faring.

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Microsoft Rejoins the Smart Phone Revolution With the Windows 7 Phone

By Smriti Rao | February 16, 2010 6:25 pm

MS-phoneAfter being bypassed and outclassed by other companies in the mobile-technology space, Microsoft has announced plans to chuck its old Windows Mobile operating system and start afresh with the Windows 7 Phone Series. Judging by company’s big reveal at the Mobile World Congress–and the ensuing buzz in the blogosphere–the rebooted Microsoft phone may already be a surprisingly strong contender.

After the successful launch of Windows 7 operating system last year, Microsoft announced on Monday that the company will soon be launching its Windows 7 Phone Series. No date was mentioned at the Barcelona announcement yesterday, but some expect the phones to be out in late 2010–just in time to be a holiday offering. The Windows Phone 7 launch caps a year of product launches met with critical praise. There was the launch of Microsoft’s impressive new search engine (Bing), a popular new operating system suite of cloud-based products (Office Web Apps), and a revitalized Web presence ( [PCWorld].

At the phone’s launch at Mobile World Congress 2010, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said the operating system will integrate deeply not just with current social networking sites likes Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn but will also bring Xbox LIVE games and the Zune music and video experience to the mobile phone. With this phone, the world’s largest software manufacturer hopes to make a serious dent in a consumer market already populated with Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s Blackberry, and phones using Google’s Android operating software.

A few bloggers who got their hands on the Windows 7 Phone Series report breathlessly that the display is like nothing they have seen before. The interface, they say, is clean and simple with no busy backgrounds, no drop-shadows, shaded icons, or faux 3-D. The whole look is strangely reminiscent of a terminal display (maybe Microsoft is recalling its DOS roots here) — almost Tron-like in its primary color simplicity[Engadget].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Technology

How Henrietta Lacks's Cells Became Immortal and Changed Medical Science

By Smriti Rao | February 8, 2010 6:24 pm

The-Immortal-Life-of-Henrie You may have learned of the line of cells known as the HeLa strain in a biology class, where a teacher explained the “virtually immortal” nature of these rapidly multiplying cells, and how they played a defining role in science. Over the last six decades, the prolific HeLa cells have been used to develop the first polio vaccines, test chemotherapy drugs, and develop techniques for in vitro fertilization. With their amazing capacity to multiply, the cells are an endless bounty to scientists. HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers [The New York Times].

But for all that research, little was known about the origin of the cells or about the unwitting donor who supplied them–Henrietta Lacks (The “He” in HeLa stands for Henrietta and “La,” for Lacks). Lacks was a 30-year old black tobacco worker who died of cervical cancer nearly 60 years ago. She died in a public ward for “coloreds” at the then-segregated Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore.

In a new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot explores Henrietta Lacks’s impoverished background and raises troubling ethical questions. She notes that Lacks’s cells are still used to this day, but the family never received a penny and was largely unaware of the fate of the cells. Over the course of 10 years, Skloot worked with Lacks’s daughter Deborah to uncover the real story behind the HeLa cells.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine, Technology

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