Now that humanity has beaten back and nearly eliminated the once-widespread threat of polio, Bill Gates wants to finish it off for good. To some observers, though, it’s just not worth the money.
The multi-billionaire recently issued his annual letter (pdf) through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, outlining its goals. Gates has been a big donor to world health programs and fighting polio in particular, and his letter calls for eradicating polio once and for all.
There would be many benefits to eradicating the disease entirely, Gates argues — not just medical and financial, but moral. “Success will energize the field of global health by showing that investments in health lead to amazing victories,” he wrote. “The eradication effort illustrates so well how a major advance in the human condition requires resolve and courageous leadership. To win these big important fights, partnerships, money, science, politics and delivery in developing countries have to come together on a global scale.” [Los Angeles Times]
Medical science, supported by billions of philanthropic dollars, has already cut down the specter of polio around the world to a shadow of what it once was. The World Health Organization estimates that there were 1,500 cases of polio around the globe in 2010, down from 350,000 in 1988. To wipe out the last remnants of wild poliovirus, Gates proposes vaccinating youths under five in countries like Afghanistan and India where pockets of polio remain.
We mentioned on Monday that Bill Gates was giving $300,000 to a geoengineering scheme that would shoot seawater skyward to seed clouds. But the billionaire doesn’t just wanted to save the planet and stop the AIDS crisis—he would also like to improve your sex life.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded 78 promising but offbeat projects this week, one of those gifts being $100,000 to James Tsuruta and Paul Dayton of the University of North Carolina to pursue their idea of using ultrasound as a temporary and reversible male contraceptive.
Ultrasound produces a mild heating that appears to disable sperm cells and deplete the supply of stem cells that are required to replenish sperm reserves in the testes. Post-treatment images of the rat testes showed the tubules inside the testes completely lacking in sperm with almost no immature stem cells [The Times].
Bill Gates is getting serious about geoengineering. Back in January, after the failure of governments at the Copenhagen Climate Change summit to do anything serious, the billionaire former head of Microsoft announced he’s give nearly $5 million of his fortune to fund research into geoengineering projects. Recently he announced his first concrete foray into the field: giving $300,000 to project that would spray seawater into the sky, seeding clouds that would hopefully block some of the sun’s UV rays.
The machines, developed by a San Francisco-based research group called Silver Lining, turn seawater into tiny particles that can be shot up over 3,000 feet in the air. The particles increase the density of clouds by increasing the amount of nuclei contained within. Silver Lining’s floating machines can suck up ten tons of water per second. If all goes well, Silver Lining plans to test the process with 10 ships spread throughout 3800 square miles of ocean [Inhabitat].
Most of the major geoengineering ideas that have been proposed—launching a reflective shield into space, artificial trees to pull carbon dioxide out of the air—are extremely expensive and difficult.
However, a study last year calculated that a fleet of 1,900 ships costing £5 billion (about $7.5 billion) could arrest the rise in temperature by criss-crossing the oceans and spraying seawater from tall funnels to whiten clouds and increase their reflectivity [The Times].
Henry Edward Roberts didn’t set out to kick-start the computer revolution. He was just trying to get out of debt.
Roberts, who died yesterday at 68, was an Air Force man in his younger days and a medical doctor in his later ones, but it was the middle part of his life that changed the world. In the mid-1970s, Roberts started a company call Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), and in 1975 introduced the Altair 8800—one of the first computers available and affordable for home hobbyists.
When Popular Electronics magazine featured him and the computer on its cover, it caught the attention of two young computer-philes, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Gates and Allen quickly reached out to Roberts, looking to create software for the Altair. Landing a meeting, the pair headed to Albuquerque, N.M., where Roberts’ company was located. The two went on to set up Microsoft, which had its first offices in Albuquerque [CNET].
Let’s give Bill Gates some credit: Retiring from Microsoft with all the free time and money in the world, Gates could have launched any number of Montgomery Burns-ian schemes for world domination. Instead, the multi-billionaire went the philanthropist route, becoming one of DISCOVER’s 10 most influential people in science through the health work his foundation funds. But a tinkerer is never done tinkering: In the last year Gates has patented an anti-hurricane device, given a few million dollars to fund geoengineering research, and then this week went public with his newest project: small-scale nuclear power.
A Gates-backed start-up company called TerraPower in talks with Toshiba to develop traveling-wave reactors (TWRs), which are designed to use depleted uranium as fuel and thought to hold the promise of running up to 100 years without refueling [FoxNews.com]. TWRs, which scientists have been playing with on and off for decades, need enriched uranium to get going, but are advantageous because they can use normal or even depleted uranium once the fission reaction is underway (and depleted uranium is something the United States has in great quantity). The technique requires bombarding uranium with a neutron to convert it to an unstable form of the element, which decays into neptunium and then fissile plutonium.
Toshiba’s already been working on mini reactors that run for about 30-40 years, and they believe that about 80% of the technology used in those can be used in the traveling-wave reactors [DVICE]. One of the challenges, though, is that if you’re that efficient at burning fuel, you need materials that can withstand that many years of constant radiation. TerraPower has completed the conceptual designs for both small units that produce electricity in the hundreds of megawatts, and a gigawatt-sized reactors that could power a city. But that’s the drawing board. In other words, this is very early days. And as with any new energy technology, expectations that energy supplies will be transformed in the near future should … take a rest [Financial Times].
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Image: Archive of the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland
If 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.
Five patent applications for technology that aims to control the weather bear the signature of a man who knows how to think big: Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The applications made public by the U.S. Patent Office last week describe floating devices that could reduce the strength of hurricanes by drawing warm water from the ocean‘s surface and channeling it down to the depths through a long tube. A second tube would reverse the process and bring deep, cold water up to the surface.
The applications were filed by an entity called Searete, which is part of the company Intellectual Ventures that was founded by former Microsoft executives as an “invention business;” Bill Gates is an investor in the company. Gates is listed as one of the inventors on each hurricane-quelling patent application, along with scientists like the geoengineering expert Ken Caldeira. One of the patent applications describes how part or all of the cost of building and maintaining the hurricane-killer ships could be raised by selling insurance to coastal residents whose risk would be reduced by using the new system [New Orleans Times-Picayune].