Europe against GMO crops! Please, sign the Avaaz petition! I already did.
It's us who decide, not Monsanto!!!

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

From ants to collective sentinence

Americans spend a 3.7 billion hours a year in congested traffic. But you will never see ants stuck in gridlock.

Army ants, which Dr. Couzin has spent much time observing in Panama, are particularly good at moving in swarms. If they have to travel over a depression in the ground, they erect bridges so that they can proceed as quickly as possible.

“They build the bridges with their living bodies,” said Dr. Couzin, a mathematical biologist at Princeton University and the University of Oxford. “They build them up if they’re required, and they dissolve if they’re not being used.”

The reason may be that the ants have had a lot more time to adapt to living in big groups. “We haven’t evolved in the societies we currently live in,” Dr. Couzin said.

By studying army ants — as well as birds, fish, locusts and other swarming animals — Dr. Couzin and his colleagues are starting to discover simple rules that allow swarms to work so well. Those rules allow thousands of relatively simple animals to form a collective brain able to make decisions and move like a single organism.

Dr. Couzin has discovered some of those rules in the ways that locusts begin to form their devastating swarms. The insects typically crawl around on their own, but sometimes young locusts come together in huge bands that march across the land, devouring everything in their path.

The scientists found that when the density of locusts rose beyond a threshold, the insects suddenly began to move together. Each locust always tried to align its own movements with any neighbor. When the locusts were widely spaced, however, this rule did not have much effect on them. Only when they had enough neighbors did they spontaneously form huge bands.

Swarms, regardless of the forces that bring them together, have a remarkable ability to act like a collective mind. A swarm navigates as a unit, making decisions about where to go and how to escape predators together.

“There’s a swarm intelligence,” Dr. Couzin said. “You can see how people thought there was some sort of telekinesis involved.”

What makes this collective decision-making all the more puzzling is that each individual can behave only based on its own experience.

Dr. Couzin and his colleagues have built a model of the flow of information through swarms. Each individual has to balance two instincts: to stay with the group and to move in a desired direction. The scientists found that just a few leaders can guide a swarm effectively. They do not even need to send any special signals to the animals around them. They create a bias in the swarm’s movement that steers it in a particular direction.

Dr. Couzin and his colleagues have been finding support for this model in real groups of animals. They have even found support in studies on mediocre swarmers — humans.

As Dr. Couzin’s model predicted, the human swarm made a quick, unconscious decision about which way to go. People tended to follow the largest group of leaders, even if it contained only

The rules of the swarm may also apply to the cells inside our bodies. Dr. Couzin is working with cancer biologists to discover the rules by which cancer cells work together to build tumors or migrate through tissues. Even brain cells may follow the same rules for collective behavior seen in locusts or fish.one additional person.

“How does your brain take this information and come to a collective decision about what you’re seeing?” Dr. Couzin said. The answer, he suspects, may lie in our inner swarm.
(source-NY Times)

My comment: I'm completely overwhelmed by this article. It makes so much sense to me on so much levels, I'm just beginning to comprehend it little by little. I'm gonna post something on it in After The Pink Goat so make sure you check it. It's gonna be big, you can be sure on this! I just want to urge you to read the whole article in NY Times as it's very very interesting and has so much in it, I barely managed to paste some key moments. Just a little comment on it: What really impressed me is that no matter of the motives behind being in a swarm, the swarm acts like a different entity. And that you need very simply mathematical model to describe that behaviour or to simulate it. Isn't it magnificent we can't optimize the traffic with the brute force of complex models but we can with very simple ones? I think it is!

Friday, 23 November 2007

Algae: The Alternative-Energy Dream Fuel

Reading trough EuroAktiv for MyEuropeanDream.blogspot.com I found the current very surprising article. Surprising because I never heard a word on the issue. Which is odd. Anyway, if it's true, then well...GREAT! I wonder who prefers to not put algae on the spotlight...

Algae: The Alternative-Energy Dream Fuel

Algae are set to eclipse all other biofuel feedstocks as the cheapest, easiest, and most environmentally friendly means of producing liquid fuel for cars, homes and power generators, according to a report by market analyst Kiplinger.

Algae require only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to grow. They can quadruple in biomass in just one day. And, what's more, they suck up harmful pollutants such as nitrogen from waste water and carbon dioxide from power plants as they grow.

Some strains of algae contain over 50% oil and an average acre of algae grown today for food and pharmaceutical industries can yield around 19,000 litres of biodiesel, compared to just 265 litres for one acre of soya beans or 1,600 litres of ethanol for an acre of corn.

"Your bang for your buck is just bigger because you can really do this on a much smaller amount of land and yet yield much, much higher biomass," Michael Atkins, CEO of Ocean Technology & Environmental Consulting (OTEC) told Kiplinger.

However, the difficult part is creating an optimal environment for algae to grow, states the report. Indeed, open ponds can easily be infiltrated and contaminated by other species and parameters essential to growth, such as temperature, light and salinity levels, cannot really be controlled.

Large-scale photobioreactors – enclosed systems that produce algae in layer upon layer of tubes or shallow ponds – can offer a solution to these problems, and, although they still come with a high price tag – from €3.5 million to €7 million – Kiplinger analysts consider that "super efficient production and higher oil yields help offset the costs".

They conclude that further research will also help reduce costs so that the large-scale commercial production of algae fuel could be just five years away. (source)

Links: Algae: The Alternative-Energy Dream FuelPdf
Better Than Corn? Algae Set to Beat Out Other Biofuel Feedstocks
Ain't that COOL!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Saudi King Tries to Grow Modern Ideas in Desert

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 25 — On a marshy peninsula 50 miles from this Red Sea port, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is staking $12.5 billion on a gargantuan bid to catch up with the West in science and technology.

Between an oil refinery and the sea, the monarch is building from scratch a graduate research institution that will have one of the 10 largest endowments in the world, worth more than $10 billion.

Its planners say men and women will study side by side in an enclave walled off from the rest of Saudi society, the country’s notorious religious police will be barred and all religious and ethnic groups will be welcome in a push for academic freedom and international collaboration sure to test the kingdom’s cultural and religious limits.

This undertaking is directly at odds with the kingdom’s religious establishment, which severely limits women’s rights and rejects coeducation and robust liberal inquiry as unthinkable.

For the new institution, the king has cut his own education ministry out the loop, hiring the state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco to build the campus, create its curriculum and attract foreigners.

Supporters of what is to be called the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust, wonder whether the king is simply building another gated island to be dominated by foreigners, like the compounds for oil industry workers that have existed here for decades, or creating an institution that will have a real impact on Saudi society and the rest of the Arab world.

“There are two Saudi Arabias,” said Jamal Khashoggi, the editor of Al Watan, a newspaper. “The question is which Saudi Arabia will take over.”

The king has broken taboos, declaring that the Arabs have fallen critically behind much of the modern world in intellectual achievement and that his country depends too much on oil and not enough on creating wealth through innovation.

“There is a deep knowledge gap separating the Arab and Islamic nations from the process and progress of contemporary global civilization,” said Abdallah S. Jumah, the chief executive of Saudi Aramco. “We are no longer keeping pace with the advances of our era.”

Traditional Saudi practice is on display at the biggest public universities, where the Islamic authorities vet the curriculum, medical researchers tread carefully around controversial subjects like evolution, and female and male students enter classrooms through separate doors and follow lectures while separated by partitions.

Old-fashioned values even seeped into the carefully staged groundbreaking ceremony on Sunday for King Abdullah’s new university, at which organizers distributed an issue of the magazine The Economist with a special advertisement for the university wrapped around the cover. State censors had physically torn from each copy an article about Saudi legal reform titled “Law of God Versus Law of Man,” leaving a jagged edge.

Despite the obstacles, the king intends to make the university a showcase for modernization. The festive groundbreaking and accompanying symposium about the future of the modern university were devised partly as a recruiting tool for international academics.

“Getting the faculty will be the biggest challenge,” said Ahmed F. Ghoniem, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is consulting for the new university. “That will make it or break it.”

The king is lavishing the institution not only with money, but also with his full political endorsement, intended to stave off internal challenges from conservatives and to win over foreign scholars who doubt that academic freedom can thrive here.

The new project is giving hope to Saudi scholars who until the king’s push to reform education in the last few years have endured stagnant research budgets and continue to face extensive government red tape.

Even in the most advanced genetics labs at King Abdulaziz, the women wear full face coverings, and female students can meet with male advisers only in carefully controlled public “free zones” like the library. Scientists there tread carefully when they do research in genetics, stem cells or evolution, for fear of offending Islamic social mores.

Upon completion, the energy-efficient campus will house 20,000 faculty and staff members, students and their families. Social rules will be more relaxed, as they are in the compounds where foreign oil workers live; women will be allowed to drive, for example. But the kingdom’s laws will still apply: Israelis, barred by law from visiting Saudi Arabia, will not be able to collaborate with the university. And one staple of campus life worldwide will be missing: alcohol.

Suhair el-Quraпазена

shi, dean of the private all-female Dar Al Hekma College, often attacked as “bad” and “liberal,” said a vigorous example of free-thinking at the university would embolden the many Saudis who back the king’s quest to reform long-stagnant higher education.

source
My comment: That's awesome! Really! Let's hope that will be the beginning of the progress among the Arabs. It's high time to see the fruits of a society that took so different direction than ours. I'm eager to see it. And if the scientists are safe there, I'd go.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Largest extrasolar planetary system discovered

A fifth planet has been discovered around a nearby star, making it the largest planetary system known outside our own. The planet appears to be a gas giant like Saturn, but scientists say any large moons it may have could potentially host life, since the planet lies in the "habitable" zone around its star, where liquid water can exist.

The planet was discovered around a star called 55 Cancri that is about 41 light years away from Earth and is slightly cooler and dimmer than our own Sun.

The 55 Cancri system was already known to include four other planets, including three giant planets that orbit the star closer than Mercury orbits the Sun. The fourth is four times as massive as Jupiter and orbits at about Jupiter's distance from the Sun.

All of those planets were discovered by the way their gravity tugs on the parent star, a technique called the radial-velocity method.

Now,astronomers have used the same method to discover a fifth planet that lies between the hot, close-in planets and the frigid distant one. The discovery was made by researchers led by Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University in California and Geoff Marcy of the University of California in Berkeley, both in the US.

The new planet, called 55 Cancri f, orbits the star at a distance of 117 million kilometres, about 8% farther than Venus is from our Sun, putting it in the right zone for liquid water to exist. Watch an animation of an imaginary journey from our solar system to 55 Cancri, with a tour of the five-planet system that ends at the newly discovered planet in the star's habitable zone.

My comment: Yay, yay and yay again! I can't stop connecting it with Peter Hamilton's Common Wealth- all those planets where humans can evolve and create a world for their own. And it's not that far! Only 41 light years! With some gravitational acceleration, we could reach it in a life-time or two! Isn't it worth living for? Seeing a totally new, Earth-like planet! What if there's life. What if they are expecting us :) Not probable, but very possible! I can't stop myself dreaming about a moment like this!

(source-New Scientist)

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Robots, robots and robots...ok, and little brain stuff

Ok, few steps closer to the AI. Check out the progress in robotics. And on the bottom, you can find an amazing progress in stem research. My personal nightmare being the breaking neck now finally can find a cure. Which is amazing. The door to true progress in our health is opening!


Sensitive robot knows when it has punched you

Sami Haddadin's robot regularly hits him in the face.The blows are no accident. Haddadin is part of a research team at the German Aerospace Centre Space Agency (DLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen aiming to transform industrial robots from insensitive drones into smart machines that can work alongside humans. He is testing the first industrial robot capable of sensing when it hits someone.

"Accidents happen," he says. "We have to accept that when people start to work more closely with robots they will sometimes hit people."

Combining human and robot skills could help a range of industries unable to benefit from existing robots, says Ken Young.
(source)

Giggling robot becomes one of the kids

Computers might not be clever enough to trick adults into thinking they are intelligent yet, but a new study shows that a giggling robot is sophisticated enough to get toddlers to treat it as a peer.

An experiment led by Javier Movellan at the University of California San Diego, US, is the first long-term study of interaction between toddlers and robots.

The researchers stationed a 2-foot-tall robot called QRIO (pronounced "curio"), and developed by Sony, in a classroom of a dozen toddlers aged between 18 months and two years.

QRIO stayed in the middle of the room using its sensors to avoid bumping the kids or the walls. It was initially programmed to giggle when the kids touched its head, to occasionally sit down, and to lie down when its batteries died. A human operator could also make the robot turn its gaze towards a child or wave as they went away.

In fact, the kids warmed to the robot over several weeks, eventually interacting with QRIO in much the same way they did with other toddlers. (source)

Stem cell shots restore lost memory

Stem cell injections might restore memory lost through strokes, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases - at least that's what experiments in mice suggest.

In previous studies transplanted neural stem cells survived and integrated into brain circuitry, says Mathew Blurton-Jones, a member of the team carrying out the experiments at the University of California at Irvine. "We've now gone one stage further in showing that once integrated, these new neurons are able to reverse cognitive deficits associated with neurodegeneration or neuronal loss," he says.

(source)

China special: The backbone of spinal research

WHEN Yang Gui-rong was taken to the Chengdu Army Kunming General Hospital more than a year ago, after an accident diving into a pool, he could move only his mouth and eyes and was struggling to breathe. Surgeons transplanted fetal cells into the injured spinal cord in Yang's broken neck. With intensive rehabilitation, he slowly regained feeling and movement in his arms. "Now his progress is visible almost on a daily basis." (source)




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Thursday, 1 November 2007

NASA’s Hidden Air Safety Survey

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which has a mandate to enhance the safety of air travel, has been suppressing huge quantities of data that apparently show the risks for civilian aircraft are much higher than commonly estimated. The agency’s lame excuses for refusing to release the information must make any traveler wonder how bad the implications might be.

Several years ago, NASA began interviewing airline and general aviation pilots about how often they saw risky incidents, like near collisions, or stressful last- second changes in landing instructions. Some 24,000 interviews were conducted over a four-year period before the program, and plans to interview air traffic controllers, flight attendants and mechanics, were scrapped.

When The Associated Press sought the data under the Freedom of Information Act, the request was rejected by a high NASA official. He said releasing the data “could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers and general aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey.”

One person familiar with the results told The A.P. that that pilots reported at least twice as many bird strikes, near midair collisions and runway incursions as other government monitoring systems show. Another person involved in the survey told us that the rates were higher than government regulators had been recording.

NASA now says the study was designed to develop a survey methodology, not to assess air carrier safety.

source

My comment: Oh,my! I knew it! It's...eh. Now, I know every profession has its risks and that it often happens to avoid an incident and this is perfectly all right. What bothers me is that NASA withhold such information and that no one makes the effort to ensure safer flights. I don't fly often, but when I do, I feel terrible. I can't stop myself thinking what if. Because I'm aware how many details there are in a plane and how little safe mechanisms to prevent the worst. Should NASA protect the interest of air-travel companies or ours? And anyway, can't we come up with other way to move on our planet. Ok, we have to fly, cuz it's fastest but...I'm not sure that the technology level in planes is enough for the amount of their use. Or, ok, to say it clearly.....planes should be the safest way of travel. The 100% death rate in a crash is no good. I can deal with the possibility of a crash. I can't deal with the 100% death rate. I want to know that even in the worst case, I still have a chance to survive. Just a chance!