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

Monday, 29 September 2008

The silent killer or the matter of proportions

Funnily, this is the second article on Nitrogen I stumble upon. The first was few months ago in NewScientists. Activist are being surprisingly quite on that issue. Do I smell censure, or do I smell money? Who knows...

It looks like in the whole Carbon fuss, we lost a major player in Global Warming-the Nitrogen. Or, should I say, maybe we didn't loose it, maybe we were diverted from it, because it's not like we didn't know the problem with fertilizers. We just paid too many attention in other direction(s), luckily for some people. By "some people" I refer to agriculture lobby that is SO strong in both sides of Atlantic. I often criticise that fact in MyEuropeanDream, so this was in EU, I'm not starting to understand it's not so much different in USA. And that's not very nice...
Anyway, back on Nature-Nitrogen, as we know, is the biggest component of our atmosphere, but this is its passive, inert form. When it is in active form, or reactive, it has various uses in the cycle of living organisms. And in our society, it's been know as the best fertilizer. The problem is that like anything else off the balance, its over-use leads to disasters and kills off the impacted area. That is obviously a problem. Then why there are no regulation for the over-use of fertilisers when they go back into the water and when they concentrate enough, they start killing? It's a known fact, then why nobody is talking about it?
The article:

Beyond Carbon: Scientists Worry About Nitrogen’s Effects

Published: September 1, 2008

TOOLIK FIELD STATION, Alaska — As Anne Giblin was lugging four-foot tubes of Arctic lakebed mud from her inflatable raft to her nearby lab this summer, she said, “Mud is a great storyteller.”

Dr. Giblin, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., is part of the Long Term Ecological Research network at an Arctic science outpost here operated by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Public discussion of complicated climate change is largely reduced to carbon: carbon emissions, carbon footprints, carbon trading. But other chemicals have large roles in the planet’s health, and the one Dr. Giblin is looking for in Arctic mud, one that a growing number of other researchers are also concentrating on, is nitrogen.

In addition to having a role in climate change, nitrogen has a huge, probably more important biological impact through its presence in fertilizer. Peter Vitousek, a Stanford ecologist whose 1994 essay put nitrogen on the environmental map, co-authored a study this summer in the journal Nature that put greater attention on the nitrogen cycle and warned against ignoring it in favor of carbon benefits.

For example, Dr. Vitousek said in an interview, “There’s a great danger in doing something like, oh, overfertilizing a cornfield to boost biofuel consumption, where the carbon benefits are far outweighed by the nitrogen damage.”

Soon after Dr. Vitousek’s report, the journal Geophysical Research Letters branded as a “missing greenhouse gas” nitrogen trifluoride, which is used in production of semiconductors and in liquid-crystal displays found in many electronics. Nitrogen trifluoride, which is not one of the six gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol, the celebrated international global warming accord, is about 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Its estimated worldwide release into the atmosphere this year is equivalent to the total global-warming emissions from Austria.

Dr. Galloway is developing a universal calculator for individual nitrogen footprints. “It’s Goldilocks’s problem,” he said in an interview. “Reactive nitrogen isn’t a waste product. We need it desperately. Just not too much and not too little. It’s just more complicated than carbon.”

Dr. Giblin of Woods Hole spent the summer at the field station here, midway between the Arctic Circle and the Arctic Ocean, researching the nitrogen content of lakebed sediment — not the inert nitrogen that makes up 80 percent of air, the reactive nitrogen that Dr. Galloway referred to. In forms like nitric acid, nitrous oxide, ammonia and nitrate it plays a variety of roles.

Nitrogen is part of all living matter. When plants and animals die, their nitrogen is passed into soil and the nitrogen in the soil, in turn, nourishes plants on land and seeps into bodies of water. Dr. Giblin is pursuing her research because as the Arctic warms, the tundra’s permafrost will thaw, and the soil will release carbon and nitrogen into the atmosphere.

When an ecosystem has too much nitrogen, the first response is that life blossoms. More fish, more plants, more everything. But this quickly becomes a kind of nitrogen cancer. Waters cloud and are overrun with foul-smelling algae blooms that can cause toxic “dead zones.” Scientists call this process eutrophication, but the laymen’s translation is that the water gets mucked up beyond all recognition. A recent such plague bedeviled China when its Yellow Sea was smothered in algae at Qingdao, the planned site of Olympic sailing events this summer. More than mere inconvenience, such problems routinely threaten many coastal areas and riverside communities.

Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, is known as Queen of the Dead Zone. She cruises around the Gulf of Mexico every summer in the research vessel Pelican to look for damage from nitrogen-rich river flows into the gulf. This year, she expects a dead zone that will beat the Massachusetts-size 8,500-square-mile bloom of 2002.

One of the problems, Dr. Rabalais said, is that the Mississippi River involves so many communities that it requires stronger federal guidance, which she said was not a part of the Bush administration’s policies. She continued: “Because you’re not just going up against the agribusiness lobby, but also the livelihood of farmers. It’s not exactly popular in the Midwest.”

Fertilizer use is largely inefficient. With beef, only about 6 percent of nitrogen used in raising cows ends up in their meat; the rest leeches out into air or water supplies. With pork, it is 12 percent; chicken, 25 percent. Milk, eggs and grain have the highest efficiency, about 35 percent, or half of what, in the metric of report cards, is a C-minus.

“Look,” she said, “you just can’t have all these states and all these communities knowingly overfertilizing their land because they want a bumper crop every year. That’s just all kinds of bad. But Des Moines, for example, is willing to filter their drinking water to an extra degree just to be able to flood their water supply with more-than-normal levels of fertilizer.”

Reactive nitrogen competes with greenhouse gases that have greater public awareness.

Environmentalists face the puzzle of how to deal with multiple problems at once. And some worry that after the hard-fought campaign spotlighting carbon, turning to focus on nitrogen could upset that momentum.

The tension can plague even the most informed and articulate campaigners. “One of the many complexities that complicate the task I’ve undertaken is complexity,” said Al Gore. source

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Go green-it can be done!

In today's edition:

  1. California Moves on Bill to Curb Sprawl and Emissions
  2. Green Roofs Offer More Than Color for the Skyline
Obviously, there is a way to go green without being an idiot. And big cities are starting to see the benefit of it. After Beijing-it's not a wonder. Who wants to live in a place without sky?

California Moves on Bill to Curb Sprawl and Emissions

Published: August 28, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — California, known for its far-ranging suburbs and jam-packed traffic, is close to adopting a law intended to slow the increase in emissions of heat-trapping gases by encouraging housing close to job sites, rail lines and bus stops to shorten the time people spend in their cars.

The measure, which the State Assembly passed on Monday and awaits final approval by the Senate, would be the nation’s most comprehensive effort to reduce sprawl. It would loosely tie tens of billions of dollars in state and federal transportation subsidies to cities’ and counties’ compliance with efforts to slow the inexorable increase in driving. The goal is to encourage housing near current development and to reduce commutes to work.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has not said whether he will sign the bill.

The number of miles driven in California has increased at a rate 50 percent faster than the rate of population growth for the past two decades. Passenger vehicles, which produce about 30 percent of the state’s heat-trapping gases, are the single greatest source of such emissions.

The fragile coalition behind the measure includes some longtime antagonists, in particular homebuilders and leading environmental groups in California. Both called the measure historic.

The bill yokes three regulatory and permit processes. One focuses on regional planning: how land use should be split among industry, agriculture, homes, open space and commercial centers. Another governs where roads and bridges are built. A third sets out housing needs and responsibilities — for instance, how much affordable housing a community must allow.

Under the pending measure, the three regulatory and permit processes must be synchronized to meet new goals, set by the state’s Air Resources Board, to reduce heat-trapping gases.

Seventeen regional planning groups from across the state will submit their land-use, transportation and housing plans to the board. If the board rules that a plan will fall short of its emissions targets, then an alternative blueprint for meeting the goals must be developed.

Once state approval is granted, or an alternative plan submitted, billions of dollars in state and federal transportation subsidies can be awarded. The law would allow the money to be distributed even if an alternative plan fails to pass muster.

State Senator Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said in an interview that he expected the Senate to approve the bill soon.

Environmentalists have long blamed profit-driven land-use planning around the country for creating the expansive, sometimes redundant network of roads that have carved up farmland near urban areas.

They have also praised regional planners in Portland, Ore., for that city’s clustered growth and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities.

The tools Portland planners have used are called urban growth boundaries, efforts to control sprawl by encouraging higher density development within an area and largely prohibiting it outside.

These boundaries have gained little traction in California, where developers have seen them as too restrictive and local governments have been jealous of their own planning powers.

Most environmental groups strongly support the pending bill. Among them is the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major force in the development two years ago of the landmark state law to limit heat-trapping emissions from all sectors of the economy.

But some groups have expressed reservations, objecting to the relaxation of some existing environmental constraints on developers like some requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and to making it harder for citizen groups to sue developers.

Communities that take part in the process will be able to revise their housing plans every eight years instead of five; developers working with a state-approved plan will have to do less extensive environmental reviews of their projects. source

My comment: I'm generally suspicious over plans that include community cooperation, having to attend a community meeting from time to time and they are from only 10 families. Imagine what it is to reach an agreement on larger scale. In any case, the goal is noble and useful-if we do plan our cities in a better way, that will lead to a lot less troubles-like traffic jams and noise. That's a good reason to give up some rights. But I don't like it how the environment inspections will be less often. There's no reason for that!

Green Roofs Offer More Than Color for the Skyline


Published: August 27, 2008

The thousands of recently planted green and purple shrublike sedum lining the roof of Con Edison’s training center in Long Island City look a bit out of place in the shadow of Manhattan’s skyline.

But the tiny absorbent leaves and modest but hardy roots of the sedum — typically found in desert climates — are at the center of a growing effort to reduce greenhouse gases, rainwater runoff and electricity demand in New York.

This month, Gov. David A. Paterson approved tax abatements to developers and building owners who install green roofs, or a layer of vegetation and rock that absorbs rainwater, insulates buildings and extends the lives of roofs. Sedum, which soaks up water quickly and releases it slowly, is an ideal plant for the job.

Europe has had green roofs for decades, and cities like Chicago and Seattle have added many of them in recent years. But there are fewer in New York because of the cost of installing them compared with the benefits, which can be hard to quantify. The new one-year abatements, though, can cut as much as $100,000 a year from a building’s taxes, and are expected to turn what has largely been a hidden luxury into a standard feature of a little-seen part of the city’s landscape.

There are few accurate reckonings of how much of the 944 million square feet of rooftops across New York City — 11.5 percent of the total building area — has gone green, or how much more could be cultivated. But clearly there is plenty of space available. Just in Long Island City, there are 667 acres of empty, flat roofs suitable for vegetation, according to Balmori Associates, an urban design company. That is the equivalent of 80 percent of Central Park.

The best locations for green roofs are buildings with large, flat tops well exposed to the sun. That is why many of the city’s green roofs are in industrial neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens.

Because of high labor and transportation prices in New York, green roofs can cost as much as $30 a square foot to install in the city, up to three times more than in other places. While the environmental benefits of green roofs are real, builders have had a hard time justifying the extra cost when it is unclear how it will affect their bottom line.

Green roofs, for instance, absorb as much as 70 percent of the rain that might otherwise overwhelm the city’s sewage system during heavy downfalls and run directly in the East River, the Hudson River and New York Harbor. By diverting the runoff, the city could prevent millions of gallons of polluted water from reaching waterways.

“Essentially, cities are going to benefit more than any individuals will benefit because it will save with infrastructure costs,” said Diana Balmori of Balmori Associates.

When sunshine hits a blacktop roof, it heats the building beneath it as well as the area nearby. When it hits plants on a roof, in contrast, the plants not only absorb the sunshine, but cool the air when the water in their leaves evaporates.

Temperatures on buildings with green roofs are up to 30 percent lower during the daytime in the summer than they are on those with conventional roofs, which means that tenants on the floors below do not have to run their air-conditioning as much.

And the average life of a typical roof can be doubled when a layer of plants rests on top.

The bottoms of the trays look like egg cartons; they allow a small amount of water to pool beneath the plants. The trays can easily be moved to provide access to the roof if there are leaks that have to be plugged. Con Ed chose sedum not only because it can absorb rainwater quickly, but also because it is not indigenous to New York, making it unlikely to attract potential pests. The plants also require very little maintenance. source

My comment:Ain't that COOL? Literally :) I like the idea, no, I love it! It's ecological, it's economical, it's convenient-what more can you want from an innovation! It will help the city, it will help its citizens, I just wonder how the little guys will survive the winters, if they are a desert species. Maybe they'll have to be put somewhere warm?

Thursday, 25 September 2008

The global event

In this edition:

  1. As Arctic Sea Ice Melts, Experts Expect New Low
  2. Arctic Ice Hints at Warming, Specialists Say
  3. Strongest Storms Grow Stronger Yet, Study Says
  4. Experts Confirm Open Water Circling Arctic
Over-all comment is that we see clearer evidences of Global Warming. Notice how the US Ice Center first denied that the Arctic gets surrounded by water and when they figured they cannot hide it, they finally admitted it. What did they think, they cannot possibly hide something that big? Oh, whatever. Just next time you think about conspiracies, remember how that agency reacted and ask yourself Why!

As Arctic Sea Ice Melts, Experts Expect New Low

Geoff York/World Wildlife Fund, via Reuters

Published: August 27, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Snow and Ice Data Center has reported that sea ice in the Arctic now covers about 2.03 million square miles. The lowest point since satellite measurements began in 1979 was 1.65 million square miles, last September.

With about three weeks left in the Arctic summer, this year could wind up breaking that record, scientists said.

Arctic ice always melts in summer and refreezes in winter. But over the years, more of the ice is lost to the sea with less of it recovered in winter. While ice reflects the sun’s heat, the open ocean absorbs more heat, and the melting accelerates warming in other parts of the world.

Sea ice also serves as primary habitat for threatened polar bears.

Five climate scientists, four of them specialists on the Arctic, told The Associated Press that it was fair to call what was happening in the Arctic a “tipping point.”

Last year was an unusual year when wind currents and other weather conditions coincided with global warming to worsen sea ice melt, Dr. Serreze said. Scientists wondered if last year was an unusual event or the start of a new and disturbing trend.

This year’s results suggest the latter because the ice had recovered a bit more than usual thanks to a somewhat cooler winter, Dr. Serreze said. Then this month, when the melting rate usually slows, it sped up instead, he said.

The most recent ice retreat primarily reflects melt in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska’s northwest coast, and the East Siberian Sea, off the coast of eastern Russia, according to the center.

The Chukchi Sea is home to one of two populations of Alaska polar bears.

Federal observers flying for a whale survey on Aug. 16 spotted nine polar bears swimming in open ocean in the Chukchi. The bears were 15 to 65 miles off the Alaska shore. Some were swimming north, apparently trying to reach the polar ice edge, which on that day was 400 miles away.

Polar bears are powerful swimmers and have been recorded on swims of 100 miles, but the ordeal can leave them exhausted and susceptible to drowning.

And the melt in sea ice has kicked in another effect, long predicted, called “Arctic amplification,” Dr. Serreze said.

That is when the warming up north is increased in a feedback mechanism and the effects spill southward starting in autumn, Dr. Serreze said. Over the last few years, the bigger melt has meant more warm water that releases more heat into the air during fall cooling, making the atmosphere warmer than normal.

On top of that, researchers are investigating “alarming” reports in the last few days of the release of methane from long-frozen Arctic waters, possibly from the warming of the sea, said Bill Hare, a Greenpeace climate scientist, who was attending a climate conference in Ghana. Giant burps of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, is a long-feared effect of warming in the Arctic that would accelerate warming even more, according to scientists. source

My comment: I can't say I'm surprised, but still it's not pleasant to hear it. I like how the article leaves the implication aside, I'm so so sick of politicising the issue. Not because it shouldn't, but because in USA that means that you leave 50% of the population aside, they get all hostile to you and don't even consider the facts. While facts are clear, there is a Global Warming and there is human reason in it and most importantly, there are things that we can change in order to if not else, to slow it down.

Arctic Ice Hints at Warming, Specialists Say

Published: September 6, 2008

Leading ice specialists in Europe and the United States for the first time have agreed that a ring of navigable waters has opened all around the fringes of the cap of sea ice drifting on the warming Arctic Ocean.

By many expert accounts, this is the first time the Northwest Passage over North America and the Northern Sea Route over Europe and Asia have been open simultaneously in at least half a century, if not longer.

While currents and winds play a role, experts say, the expanding open water in the far north provides the latest evidence that the Arctic Ocean, long a frozen region hostile to all but nuclear submariners and seal hunters, is transforming during the summers into more of an open ocean.

Global warming from the continuing buildup of human-generated greenhouse gases is almost certainly contributing to the ice retreats, many Arctic specialists now agree, although they hold a variety of views on how much of the recent big ice retreats is due to human activity.

Last month, news reports said that satellites showed navigable waters through both fabled Arctic shipping routes.

But those satellite findings were disputed by the United States National Ice Center, run by the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The center said the satellites monitoring the ice were fooled by broad stretches of fresh water pooling atop ice floes, which can resemble open sea lanes.

On Friday, though, citing fresh images using sensors that can more carefully distinguish ice from water, the Ice Center concurred, issuing a statement concluding, “This is the first recorded occurrence of the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route both being open at the same time.”

For years, polar scientists have been predicting that warming is driving the region into a new, more watery state. With further warming, they say, broad open-water expanses will prevail in the summer followed by the formation of ice in the winter. But such ice will generally be too thin to last through the next summer.

In essence, Arctic waters may be behaving more like those around Antarctica, where a broad fringe of sea ice builds each winter and nearly disappears in the summer. Reflecting the complexity of the global climate, the extent of winter sea ice in Antarctica has been expanding of late. source

My comment:

Experts Confirm Open Water Circling Arctic


It appears that the age-old shipping lane along Russia’s Arctic coast, the Northeast Passage, is wide open, as is one route through the Northwest Passage over Canada, according to a map of sea ice on Sept. 2, created by German scientists using NASA satellite data. The inset shows an area that typically is clogged with ice. An American ice-tracking agency had said the route was not open, but on Friday confirmed that the ice had parted and a navigable route existed. (Credit: Institute of Oceanography/ University of Hamburg)

[UPDATE 9/6: The National Ice Center on Friday said that a navigable passage has opened through sea ice along the entire Russian Arctic coast, although the center added that patches of dangerous thick ice still pepper the area. In a statement, the center said: "This is the first recorded occurrence of the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route both being open at the same time." The full statement is below in the comment string. Here's an animation loop of the retreating sea ice.]

There have been some breathless headlines in the last few days about the North Pole’s being an “island” for the first time in 125,000 years. Aside from the fact that 90 degrees north sits in the middle of a 2.5-mile-deep ocean, that’s quite a statement considering two things: first, no one has been routinely monitoring sea ice along both coastlines between then and now, and second, the region was clearly warmer than it is today (in summers) around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago — on both the Siberian and North American sides.

Headlines and shipping lanes aside, it’s becoming clearer that the Arctic Ocean of our history and lore — an ice-locked region hostile to humans (except for seal-hunting Inuit and the crews of nuclear submarines) — is transforming in summers to a place where ships may in a few decades find reliable short cuts between Asian manufacturers and distant markets, where polar bears may be fewer and thinner, where oil and gas rigs may increasingly dot the land and sea. Human-driven global warming is almost certainly playing a growing role in the region, although experts still say there are large natural fluctuations involved as well.

Efforts to propel aggressive action to cut risks from building greenhouse gases face many challenges, and one is surely the “shifting baselines” of human awareness over time. Jeremy Jackson has convincingly asserted that this trait has largely masked the near destruction of ocean fish stocks. Robert Brulle has noted how it has blunted communities’ awareness of degrading environments. source

My comment: Funnily enough, humans we're really great optimists and we find always the bright side in the darkness. Which is cool, of course, but still, I think there is some deviation from the major issue-the Planet is changing and it's doing it NOW! Which leaves us very few way to hand-wave (or shmatkam in bulgarian). Think about it...

Strongest Storms Grow Stronger Yet, Study Says

Published: September 3, 2008

A new study finds that the strongest of hurricanes and typhoons have become even stronger over the last two and a half decades, adding grist to the contentious debate over whether global warming has already made storms more destructive.

“I think we do see a climate signal here,” said James B. Elsner, a professor of geography at Florida State University who is the lead author of the paper, being published in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

The study, which also found that more typical, less powerful tropical storms had not become stronger over the 26-year period studied, is consistent with other researchers’ hurricane models, Dr. Elsner said.

With oceans expected to continue warming, “one would expect more 4s and 5s,” he said of Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes, those with maximum sustained winds of at least 131 miles per hour.

About 90 tropical cyclone storms form each year around the world. In the Atlantic, the stronger ones, with winds of at least 74 m.p.h., are hurricanes; the equivalents in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are typhoons. Ten named storms have formed in the Atlantic this hurricane season, which continues to the end of November.

Heat from the warming oceans will provide more energy to spin up hurricanes and typhoons, but the changing climate could also heighten conditions like wind shear — winds blowing at different speeds and different directions at different altitudes — that tend to tear a storm apart.

Because of these environmental factors, most storms fall far short of their maximum possible intensity. But Dr. Elsner, along with Thomas H. Jagger, a postdoctoral researcher at Florida State, and James P. Kossin, a research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reasoned that warmer waters increased the possible intensity and that storms that develop in ideal conditions might have become stronger.

Having examined satellite data from 1981 through 2006, a period in which sea surface temperature rose to 83.3 degrees Fahrenheit from 82.8 degrees, they concluded that the highest wind speeds of the strongest storms averaged 156 m.p.h. in 2006, up from 140 m.p.h. hour in 1981. The increases in cyclone intensity were greatest in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Because the data came from one set of satellites, the scientists avoided some of the calibration difficulties that had troubled earlier studies.

“This study offers definitive evidence that there are more of the very strongest hurricanes around the world, even though the total number of storms globally shows hardly any trend,” said Kerry A. Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who suggested in 2005 that global warming had already intensified cyclones.

Christopher W. Landsea, science and operations manager at the National Hurricane Center, who has been skeptical of the connection, said the statistical methodology in the new study was excellent. But Dr. Landsea questioned the underlying data, particularly corrections for data taken from the Indian Ocean before 1997, when there were fewer satellites observing the storms. source

My comment: Well, obviously whatever research you make, they will always someone to question it. But still, my observations that are totally unsystematic show severing of the weather meaning that hot days get hotter, cold-colder, floods-wetter and whatever.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

For you space maniacs

In today's edition

  1. Robot Ship Cleared to Dock With Space Station
  2. NASA Shifts Deadline for New Space Program
  3. For Sale: Moon and Mars
  4. New Sphere in Exploring the Abyss
I can only hope you'll read those really interesting articles, because I do find them quite important. For example-someone is considering selling land on Mars. The funny question is who is going to sell that to you and what gives "him" the credentials to do so. Well, anyway, read for yourselves.

Robot Ship Cleared to Dock With Space Station


Published: April 2, 2008

Managers of the International Space Station on Wednesday cleared Europe’s new Jules Verne cargo ship for its first docking with the orbiting research outpost.

After assessing results of two days of trial maneuvers around the station, including having the two craft close to within 36 feet of one another, the Mission Management Team of international partners in the project gave approval for an attempt on Thursday to link the ships.

The Jules Verne, named for the visionary French author, is the first of a new class of robot station supply ships called Automatic Transfer Vehicles or A.T.V.’s. The robot ship was built by the member nations of the European Space Agency as one of Europe’s major contributions to the international station.

“We have proven that Jules Verne’s systems are safe, reliable and ready to dock to the station,” John Ellwood, the A.T.V. Project Manager for Europe said after getting approval to proceed. “Everyone has worked very hard to get to this point.”

The Jules Verne is scheduled to dock with the station’s Russian-built Zvezda service module on Thursday at 10:41 a.m. Eastern time, and then firmly lock in place about a half-hour later. If for some reason the linkup does not occur as planned, the next attempt will be made on Saturday, Mr. Ellwood said.

The ship is to maneuver and dock itself automatically using Global Positioning System satellite navigation, as well as a new optical guidance system for close approach to the station. A twin laser system is to fire pulses of light at reflectors positioned on the end of Zvezda to determine the craft’s orientation, distance and closing rate to the space station.

While the autonomous operation should be controlled by the spacecraft’s sensors and computers, the rendezvous and docking will be monitored from a control center in Toulouse, France, in cooperation with the Russian space station control center near Moscow and the NASA center in Houston.

Aboard the station, astronautswill be at a control panel where he can send commands to the Jules Verne to make an emergency retreat in case something goes wrong.

Extra precautions are necessary because the robot ship, which weighs 21 tons on Earth, could do substantial damage to the station in a collision or other mishap. Space station managers are mindful of a June 1997 incident when a Progress cargo craft, much smaller than the Jules Verne, slammed into the Russian Mir space station during a docking test, causing serious damage that almost led to abandoning the station.

The Jules Verne, launched on March 9, has been orbiting near the space station, checking out its systems and awaiting last week’s departure of the Space Shuttle Endeavour before conducting a series of approach and avoidance tests with the station last Saturday and Monday.

The cargo craft, which is 32 feet long and 14.6 feet wide at its largest diameter, is equipped with four solar arrays arranged in an X shape spanning 73 feet. It has four large aft engines and a series of smaller thrusters for maneuvering and fine control.

The Jules Verne is the first of at least five robot cargo craft that the Europeans will dispatch to the station. It is carrying 7.5 tons of fuel, oxygen, food, clothing, equipment and other essentials. Because the mission is considered a test flight, station controllers did not include any irreplaceable or one-of-a-kind cargo on this mission, said Michael Suffredini, NASA’s station program manager.

The European vessels can each carry up to 10 tons of cargo, three times the capacity of a Progress, so it will be able to play an increasingly significant role in resupplying the station, particularly after American space shuttles retire at the end of 2010, Mr. Suffredini he said.

The Jules Verne is scheduled to remain docked with the station for at least six months, with astronauts gradually removing its cargo as it is needed, and depositing tons of waste material in the ship that will burn up in the atmosphere with the spacecraft when it departs.

While at the station, Jules Verne will use its engines to raise the station to a higher orbit and maneuver the complex, if needed, to avoid space debris. source

My comment: A very interesting article even if somewhat technical. My interest is understandable, first Progress is hardly the coolest piece of technology, but however, it's the best working for the moment. But every trying to replace it, with something new and reliable is good. Beside the obvious usefulness, we get a good publicity for the International Space Station which seems to have lost public interest for a while.

NASA Shifts Deadline for New Space Program

Published: August 11, 2008

Hopes have faded that NASA can greatly narrow a five-year gap between the last space shuttle flight in 2010 and the debut of the next generation of spacecraft, with an agency official saying Monday that budget realities make the most ambitious date unrealistic.

The first phase of the new program, known as Constellation, includes the Ares I launch vehicle and a capsule, Orion. Although planners have said that the first human flights will take place five years after the shuttle program is shut down, agency officials have said that with more money and some luck, the launching could begin as early as 2013.

Additional money has not appeared, said Jeff Hanley, the program manager for Constellation at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a teleconference with reporters on Monday, and the “unknown unknowns” that crop up in any development effort have made the early date unrealistic. So the agency is pushing back its earliest possible human flights by a year, from 2013 to 2014, but the commitment of 2015 for human flight in Orion has not changed.

The briefing occurred the same day that a NASA advisory panel released an annual report that sharply questioned the Constellation effort.

Echoing the findings of others who have looked at the program, the report suggested that “the rationale for the program may not be sufficiently understood or accepted within the organization.” The report also questioned NASA’s approach to safety with the new Orion vehicle.

Historically, the panel said, safety systems are included in the designs from the start. But weight problems in the early development of the Orion capsule led program managers to start with a clean slate approach in which a safety system had to “earn its way” into the design. source

My comment: As you very well know, I do think USA is starting to fail as a technology leader. Thus that article doesn't surprise me. It would be nice to have an alternative to shuttles, and even more, a SAFE alternative, since space will get more and more important to out world. However, NASA obviously cannot do it. Which is in interesting contrast with the first article. Whether EU is better in space than USA? I doubt. But we're seriously working on the issue.

For Sale: Moon and Mars

Would you like to buy some real estate on Mars or the Moon?

No, this would not be the equivalent of buying the Brooklyn Bridge, at least according to a review of legal precedents and treaties published in the Journal of Air Law and Commerce (.pdf). The authors, Alan Wasser and Douglas Jobe of the Space Settlement Institute, conclude that the international Outer Space Treaty prohibits nations from claiming sovereignty over the Moon or Mars, it does not preclude private land claims, and they point to legal precedents establishing the necessary condition for anyone making a land claim: living there.

Now, this might seem like a mere academic exercise for lawyers, given the current shortage of people ready to settle down on the Moon or Mars. But Mr. Wasser and Mr. Jobes argue that a formal recognition of the right to claim Alaska-sized chunks of land is the fastest and most practical way to promote extraterrestrial colonies.

For now, they say, real-estate sales are about the only potentially profitable economic activity on the Moon — certainly more practical than trying to make money by mining its minerals. They note that many have already paid $19.95 per acre for “deeds” to lunar land even those these are novelty items that have no binding legal authority.

Presumably, Mr. Wasser and Mr. Jobes write, people would be willing to pay more to speculate in land legally owned by a company established by a small group of settlers who had staked a claim to 384 million acrees — an area the size of Alaska. If the land went for $100 per acre, that would amount to nearly $40 billion.

“Those billions of dollars of potential profits could be a powerful incentive to develop space settlements,” the authors conclude. To reassure investors in those settlements, the authors write, the United States should pass a law recognizing the property rights of future settlers.

Such a law would not violate the Outer Space Treaty, they say, because the United States would not be claiming sovereignty over the land nor the right to confer title, but instead merely recognizing the validity of private land claims (in the same that the way the U.S. recognizes the validity of land claims in foreign countries). Moreover, they argue, this law would not violate the Outer Space Treaty’s requirement that extraterrestrial bodies be settled for “the benefit of all,” because citizens of all countries would be able to stake these claims. source

My comment: I don't quite understand who will get that money. I mean if I want a piece of Mars, to whom should I pay? Because I don't see a reason why I should pay for this to USA or even to my own country since they don't really own it! I think for a start, every settler should have a certain amount of land and should pay ONLY for transport and other services (that would be a lot anyway, since you don't just go and live on another planet, you need SO many supplies). And maybe even when the planet gets popular, it should be free for every settler family, one piece for everyone. When the whole thing gets bought off, then settlers should sell for whatever price they see appropriate-a money that they deserve since they made the land habitable and created its economy. What do you think?

New Sphere in Exploring the Abyss

Published: August 25, 2008

CUDAHY, Wis. — The deep is legendary for inky darkness. William Beebe, the first person to eye the abyss, called it perpetual night.

The darkness is matched by the intense pressure. Four miles down, it amounts to nearly five tons per square inch. That is too much even for Alvin, the most famous of the world’s tiny submersibles, which can take a pilot and two scientists down to a maximum depth of 2.8 miles.

But a new submersible is being built here, and even the process of construction seems a rebuke to the darkness. The work lighted up a cavernous factory with fireworks on a recent visit. Hot reds and oranges burst into showers of spark and flame as blistering metal began to yield to the demands of the submersible’s design.

The new vehicle is to replace Alvin, which was the first submersible to illuminate the rusting hulk of the Titanic and the first to carry scientists down to discover the bizarre ecosystems of tube worms and other strange creatures that thrive in icy darkness.

The United States used to have several submersibles — tiny submarines that dive extraordinarily deep. Alvin is the only one left, and after more than four decades of probing the sea’s depths it is to be retired. Its replacement, costing some $50 million, is to go deeper, move faster, stay down longer, cut the dark better, carry more scientific gear and maybe — just maybe — open a new era of exploration.

Its architects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod describe it as “the most capable deep-sea research vehicle in the world.”

Alvin can transport a pilot and two scientists down 2.8 miles, providing access to 62 percent of the dark seabed. The new vehicle is expected to descend more than four miles, opening 99 percent of the ocean floor to inquiry. But the greater depth means that the vehicle’s personnel sphere and its many other systems will face added tons of crushing pressure.

“Technologically, it’s quite challenging,” Robert S. Detrick Jr., a senior scientist and vice president for marine facilities and operations at Woods Hole, said of forging the new personnel sphere.

To better resist the sea’s pressure, the wall of the new personnel sphere is to be nearly three inches thick, up from Alvin’s two inches. Deep explorers always use spheres to make crew compartments because that geometry best resists the crushing force.

“We have confidence it can be done,” Dr. Detrick said in January of the sphere’s forging. “But we don’t have a lot of margin for error. If the first forging is bad, it would be quite expensive to redo it.”

The objective of the metalworking company was to transform two giant disks of titanium — stronger and lighter than steel, and perfect for withstanding the vast pressures of the deep — into twin hemispheres. If forged successfully, the cuplike hemispheres would be welded together to form the beginnings of the personnel sphere, initiating the vehicle’s birth.

The overall process of forging, welding, machining, heat treating, cutting view ports, annealing, finishing and testing the new personnel sphere is to be done at several companies around the country and is expected to take about two years. The completed crew cabin, seven feet across, will be a foot wider than Alvin’s.

Oceanographers say the new sphere will help open the sea’s depths. Its volume is 18 percent larger than Alvin’s, allowing twice as much room inside for racks of scientific equipment and a bit more space for passengers.

Alvin has three thick windows through which the pilot and scientists can peer out at the undersea world. The new vehicle will have five, increasing the field of view and the chance for discovery and careful observation.

Scientists would have two windows that look forward. By contrast, Alvin’s scientific viewports look off to the side, with only the pilot getting the central view.

“Forward is cool,” she said, calling it rich in drama, lights and action.

For instance, Dr. Van Dover said the forward view could best reveal a towering hot spring surrounded by exotic forms of life.

“In Alvin, a scientist can’t see that,” she said. “Also, you want to see where your samples are being taken and how they’re being taken. You want to be able to direct the pilot.”

Dr. Detrick of Woods Hole called forging the new personnel sphere one of three big technical hurdles. The others, he said, are making the vehicle’s foam and its banks of batteries. The foam must be hard enough to resist crushing pressure yet buoyant enough to counteract the vehicle’s great weight. And the batteries must be unusually sturdy and powerful.

If successful, the new batteries will allow the vehicle to stay on the bottom for up to eight hours, compared with six for Alvin. Improvements in the vehicle’s propulsion system, including more powerful thrusters, will let it move faster. And the vehicle’s new lights and cameras will better pierce the darkness.

Still, like its predecessor, the new vehicle, over all, is to be no larger than a small truck.

Dr. Van Dover said one of the big payoffs would be the submersible’s ability to dive deep.

The new vehicle is also seen as building national pride and international goodwill, because foreign scientists at times join the dives.

Just when the replacement Alvin will join the world’s small fleet of submersibles has become uncertain.

Like many federal projects, it faces cost overruns and financing troubles. When first proposed in 2004, the anticipated bill ran to $21.6 million. But delays set in and the price of materials, planning and contracting ran higher than expected. Officials say titanium alone has seen a fivefold price increase.

The National Science Foundation, the federal agency that sponsors the project, has too many competing needs to meet the new estimated cost of about $50 million. So officials at Woods Hole came up with a phased approach that promises to lower the immediate expense.

How soon? The original schedule of 2004 foresaw the replacement vehicle as ready in 2008. Early this year, amid growing uncertainty, the keepers of the schedule put the date at 2010. Now, the soonest the upgraded Alvin might hit the water is estimated to be 2011. And the full replacement, according to Woods Hole officials, might not materialize until 2015. source

My comment: Ok, appart from the nationalism that is being spreading from the article (especially in its original form) I can't but admire the magnitude of the project. Just imagine what the little guy can do for deep sea archeology and our over all knowledge of the abyss. It's so COOL! Maybe we can finally find Atlantis. Not that this discovery could pass trough the religious fanatics in USA, but maybe it will find its way to us. However, you can very well see that the lack of funding is a major problem. I hope someone give them the money, because this is a good project. Even if I don't quite appreciate the populist way the article is been written.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

CERN and the light

Yep, no matter do you like it or not, LHC is coming. Now, don't feel doomed. Everything is going to be all right.

Date Set for Operation of Large Hadron Collider

Published: August 7, 2008

Officials at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, outside Geneva, announced Thursday that their new particle accelerator, the world’s largest, would begin operation on Sept. 10. On that date, the physicists and engineers will make the first attempt to circulate a beam of protons around a 17-mile-long super-cooled underground racetrack known as the Large Hadron Collider.

The collider, 14 years and $8 billion in the making, has been built to smash together protons that have been accelerated to energies of 7 trillion electron volts, and examine the remains for clues to the origin of mass and new forces and particles in the universe.

But the collisions will not happen immediately. The first step on the journey to new physics will happen this weekend, when engineers test their method of injecting high-energy protons, which are produced in a separate accelerator, the Super Proton Synchrotron, into the collider by sending a batch through one part of the racetrack.

In September, the first protons to circle the entire ring will have a relatively modest energy of 450 billion electron volts. Once the physicists and engineers have learned to drive their new machine and had a few collisions at that energy, they will ramp up the energy as fast as they can to 5 trillion electron volts — unexplored territory.

“Our main objective is to get to 5 TeV,” Lyn Evans, project director at CERN, said in an e-mail message. “How long it will take, I don’t know, but with the quality of the instrumentation, software, and above all the people we have, I am optimistic.”

Once they get up to speed later this fall, the collider will run for a month or two of “pilot physics.”

CERN shuts down for the winter to save money on its electric bill. While it sleeps, engineers will “train” the superconducting magnets that steer the energetic particles around their track to handle the high currents needed to produce fields strong enough to bend the paths of 7-trillion-electron-volt protons. When the collider awakens again in the spring it will be at full strength, and physicists will be face to face with their dreams. source

My comment: Lol, nice! And don't even get me started! We're waiting this for sooooo long. I can't wait to see what will happen and when. It's so exiting.

Surpassing Nature, Scientists Bend Light Backward

Published: August 11, 2008

Using tiny wires and fishnet structures, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found new ways to bend light backward, something that never occurs in nature.

This technology could lead to microscopes able to peer more deeply and clearly into living cells. And the same kind of structures might one day be adapted to bend light in other unnatural ways, creating a Harry Potter-like invisibility cloak. But scientists are still far from designing and manufacturing such a cloak.

The work involves materials that have a property known as negative refraction, which means that they essentially bend light backward. Once thought to be pure fantasies, these substances, called metamaterials, have been constructed in recent years, and scientists have shown they can bend long-wavelength microwaves.

Negative refractive materials can in principle lead to fantastical illusions; someone looking down at a fish in a pool of negative refractive liquid would see the fish swimming in the air above.

Two separate advances are described in two scientific papers being published this week, one demonstrating negative refraction at infrared and visible wavelengths. The second article will be published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. Both papers come out of the research laboratory of Xiang Zhang, a professor at the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Berkeley.

When a ray of light crosses the boundary from air to water, glass or other transparent material, it bends, and the degree of bending is determined by a property known as the index of refraction. Transparent materials like glass, water and diamonds all have an index of 1 or higher for visible light, meaning that when the light enters, its path bends toward an imaginary line perpendicular to the surface.

With the engineered metamaterials, scientists can create refractive indices less than 1 or even negative. Light entering a material with a negative index of refraction would take a sharp turn, almost as if it had bounced off the imaginary perpendicular line.

In the Nature paper, the Berkeley researchers created a fishnet structure with 21 layers, alternating between a metal and magnesium fluoride, resulting in a metamaterial with a negative index of refraction for infrared light. The researchers said by making the fishnet structure even smaller, they should be able to do the same with visible light.

In the Science paper, a different group of scientists in Dr. Zhang’s laboratory used a different approach, building an array of minuscule upright wires, which changed the electric fields of passing light waves. That structure was able to bend visible red light.

Dr. Zhang said both approaches had advantages and disadvantages. “There are many roads to Rome,” he said. “At this point, honestly speaking, we don’t know which road will be the best.”

One application of negative index materials could be a “superlens.” Light is usually thought of as having undulating waves. But much closer up, light is a much more jumbled mess, with the waves mixed in with more complicated “evanescent waves.”

The evanescent waves quickly dissipate as they travel, and thus are usually not seen. A negative refraction lens actually amplifies the evanescent waves, preserving detail lost in conventional optics, and the hope is to eventually build an optical microscope that could make out tiny biological structures like individual viruses. source

My comment: And that is stuningly cool. Just imagine what could be done with those materials. I won't go into usual emotional statements, since it's far from being done, but can't help but notice how the word cloak keep on appearing. Seriously, why having a cloak is so important? Yeah, yeah, military, but still, for me, it's more or less useless, since at the moment they do it, there will be a way to detect it. Nothing to win here. But there are so many other opportunities with those material... Just think what you could do that as an entertainment.

Friday, 19 September 2008

The wisdom of life

While we're talking about Global Warming as an unknown mystery, Nature works in her way. Here is a painful example. I have been stung by a jellyfish-it's not nice, trust me. I can't imagine what is to be in a swarm of them.
So, while we destroy they habitat, they will be a danger to us. Just like a revenge, though, totally unconscious one. Nature doesn't reason or hate, it obeys laws. If the parameters at one place are no good for life, the thing that lived there change, no matter what. Questions?

Stinging Tentacles Offer Hint of Oceans’ Decline


Published: August 3, 2008

Correction Appended

BARCELONA, Spain — Blue patrol boats crisscross the swimming areas of beaches here with their huge nets skimming the water’s surface. The yellow flags that urge caution and the red flags that prohibit swimming because of risky currents are sometimes topped now with blue ones warning of a new danger: swarms of jellyfish.

In a period of hours during a day a couple of weeks ago, 300 people on Barcelona’s bustling beaches were treated for stings, and 11 were taken to hospitals.

From Spain to New York, to Australia, Japan and Hawaii, jellyfish are becoming more numerous and more widespread, and they are showing up in places where they have rarely been seen before, scientists say. The faceless marauders are stinging children blithely bathing on summer vacations, forcing beaches to close and clogging fishing nets.

But while jellyfish invasions are a nuisance to tourists and a hardship to fishermen, for scientists they are a source of more profound alarm, a signal of the declining health of the world’s oceans.

“These jellyfish near shore are a message the sea is sending us saying, ‘Look how badly you are treating me,’ ” said Dr. Josep-María Gili, a leading jellyfish expert, who has studied them at the Institute of Marine Sciences of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona for more than 20 years.

The explosion of jellyfish populations, scientists say, reflects a combination of severe overfishing of natural predators, like tuna, sharks and swordfish; rising sea temperatures caused in part by global warming; and pollution that has depleted oxygen levels in coastal shallows.

These problems are pronounced in the Mediterranean, a sea bounded by more than a dozen countries that rely on it for business and pleasure. Left unchecked in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, these problems could make the swarms of jellyfish menacing coastlines a grim vision of seas to come.

Jellyfish, relatives of the sea anemone and coral that for the most part are relatively harmless, in fact are the cockroaches of the open waters, the ultimate maritime survivors who thrive in damaged environments, and that is what they are doing.

Within the past year, there have been beach closings because of jellyfish swarms on the Côte d’Azur in France, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and at Waikiki in the United States.

In Australia, more than 30,000 people were treated for stings last year, double the number in 2005. The rare but deadly Irukandji jellyfish is expanding its range in Australia’s warming waters, marine scientists say.

While no good global database exists on jellyfish populations, the increasing reports from around the world have convinced scientists that the trend is real, serious and climate-related, although they caution that jellyfish populations in any one place undergo year-to-year variation.

“Human-caused stresses, including global warming and overfishing, are encouraging jellyfish surpluses in many tourist destinations and productive fisheries,” according to the National Science Foundation, which is issuing a report on the phenomenon this fall and lists as problem areas Australia, the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, the Black Sea, Namibia, Britain, the Mediterranean, the Sea of Japan and the Yangtze estuary.

In Barcelona, one of Spain’s most vibrant tourist destinations, city officials and the Catalan Water Agency have started fighting back, trying desperately to ensure that it is safe for swimmers to go back in the water.

Officials in Santander and the Basque country were concerned about frequent sightings this year on the Atlantic coast of the Portuguese man-of-war, a sometimes lethal warm-water species not previously seen regularly in those regions.

Farther south, a fishing boat from the Murcia region called to report an off-shore swarm of Pelagia noctiluca — an iridescent purplish jellyfish that issues a nasty sting — more than a mile long. A chef, presumably trying to find some advantage in the declining oceans, wanted to know if the local species were safe to eat if cooked. Much is unknown about the jellyfish, and Dr. Gili was unsure.

In previous decades there were jellyfish problems for only a couple of days every few years; now the threat of jellyfish is a daily headache for local officials and is featured on the evening news. “In the past few years the dynamic has changed completely — the temperature is a little warmer,” Dr. Gili said.

Though the stuff of horror B- movies, jellyfish are hardly aggressors. They float haplessly with the currents. They discharge their venom automatically when they bump into something warm — a human body, for example — from poison-containing stingers on mantles, arms or long, threadlike tendrils, which can grow to be yards long.

Some, like the Portuguese man-of-war or the giant box jellyfish, can be deadly on contact. Pelagia noctiluca, common in the Mediterranean, delivers a painful sting producing a wound that lasts weeks, months or years, depending on the person and the amount of contact.

In the Mediterranean, overfishing of both large and small fish has left jellyfish with little competition for plankton, their food, and fewer predators. Unlike in Asia, where some jellyfish are eaten by people, here they have no economic or epicurean value.

The warmer seas and drier climate caused by global warming work to the jellyfish’s advantage, since nearly all jellyfish breed better and faster in warmer waters, according to Dr. Jennifer Purcell, a jellyfish expert at the Shannon Point Marine Center of Western Washington University.

Global warming has also reduced rainfall in temperate zones, researchers say, allowing the jellyfish to better approach the beaches. Rain runoff from land would normally slightly decrease the salinity of coastal waters, “creating a natural barrier that keeps the jellies from the coast,” Dr. Gili said.

Then there is pollution, which reduces oxygen levels and visibility in coastal waters. While other fish die in or avoid waters with low oxygen levels, many jellyfish can thrive in them. And while most fish have to see to catch their food, jellyfish, which filter food passively from the water, can dine in total darkness, according to Dr. Purcell’s research.

Residents in Barcelona have forged a prickly coexistence with their new neighbors.source

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

News on genetics and evolution

Today:

  1. Gene Variation May Raise Risk of H.I.V., Study Finds
  2. Counting monkeys tick off yet another 'human' ability
  3. Frozen embryos give bouncier babies

Gene Variation May Raise Risk of H.I.V., Study Finds

Published: July 17, 2008

A genetic variation that once protected people in sub-Saharan Africa from a now extinct form of malaria may have left them somewhat more vulnerable to infection by H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. The gene could account for 11 percent of the H.I.V. infections in Africa, explaining why the disease is more common there than expected, researchers based in Texas and London say. The researchers said their finding had no immediate public health consequences. But if confirmed, it would offer an important insight into the biology of the virus.

The genetic variation has been studied in United States Air Force personnel, whose H.I.V. infections have been followed for 25 years. African-Americans who carried the variation were 50 percent more likely to acquire H.I.V. than African-Americans who did not, although their disease progressed more slowly, say researchers led by Sunil K. Ahuja, director of the Veterans Administration H.I.V./AIDS Center, San Antonio, and Matthew J. Dolan of the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md. Their results were reported Wednesday in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.

David B. Goldstein, geneticist who studies H.I.V. at Duke University, said that the new result “would be pretty exciting if it holds up” and that many other researchers would now test it. “If the results are confirmed, it would mean that selection for resistance to malaria has created a vulnerability to infection with HIV-1,” he said, referring to the principal form of the virus.

The genetic variation, called a SNP, or snip, involves a change in one unit of DNA. This particular snip has a far-reaching consequence. It prevents red blood cells from inserting a certain protein on their surface. The protein is called a receptor because it receives signals from a hormone known as CCL5, which is part of the immune system’s regulatory system.

The receptor is also used by a malarial parasite called Plasmodium vivax to gain entry to the red blood cells it feeds on. About 10,000 years ago, people in Africa who possessed the SNP variation gained a powerful survival advantage from not being vulnerable to the ancestor of Plasmodium vivax. The SNP eventually swept through the population and the vivax parasite died out in Africa, to be replaced by its current successor, Plasmodium falciparum.

More than 90 percent of people in Africa now lack the receptor on their red blood cells, as do about 60 percent of African-Americans.

The possibility that the receptor has a bearing on H.I.V. infection first occurred to Robin Weiss, a biologist at University College, London, after he noticed that the virus seemed to be hitchhiking on red blood cells. Dr. Weiss, who wrote the new report with Dr. Ahuja and Dr. Dolan, showed in laboratory tests that H.I.V. latches onto the receptor in place of its intended guest, the CCL5 hormone.

The Texas-London research team is not certain how lack of the receptor promotes H.I.V. infection, but Dr. Ahuja said the red blood cells acted like a sponge for CCL5. Because CCL5 is known to obstruct multiplication of the virus, having lots of the hormone in the bloodstream may prevent infection. Conversely, people whose blood cannot soak up the hormone could be more vulnerable.

Dr. Weiss said the red blood cell receptor was similar to another receptor, CCR5, which occurs on the surface of the white blood cells that are H.I.V.’s major target. A small percentage of Europeans have a mutation that prevents the CCR5 receptor from being displayed on the surface of white blood cells, and they are protected against H.I.V.

It is somewhat puzzling that the absence of the two receptors has the opposite effect — vulnerability to H.I.V. when the red cell receptor is missing, protection from it when the white cell receptor is withdrawn. The researchers offer an explanation that they concede is far from straightforward.

Dr. Carl Dieffenbach, director of the AIDS division of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the new finding, if confirmed, would be intriguing because it pointed to the many ways in which pathogens have shaped the body’s receptors.

Although H.I.V. is too recent an infection to have left an evolutionary mark on the genome, human ancestors would have been exposed to malarial parasites and to S.I.V., which infects monkeys, and the genome still bears the marks of these challenges to survival. Better knowledge of these adaptations will help understand the biology of H.I.V. infection, he said. source

My comment: I have no idea if I didn't post this already since it's very very familiar to me. Probably I did. Sorry for those of you that find it annoying. Anyway, let's comment it from the point of view of evolution. Frequent argument against evolution is that we never saw it in action. Well, what better proof of its action. And the irony of life-how one thing that once made us strong, now makes us weak. As for HIV itself, I hope this research leads to a vaccination one day, since HIV is very unpleasant thing. Although I'm not sure if I would vaccinate me or my kids. When protection is as easy as using a condom always. I mean, you have to use it to keep syphilis away, anyway. Not to mention unwanted babies. So, why bothering torturing our immune system with one more vaccine. Though, on the evolutionary scale, I'm not sure if a vaccine trains a body response into our DNA or it just do it on the short scale. Because if it is on the long scale, it's not so bad, after all.

Counting monkeys tick off yet another 'human' ability

  • 11:03 01 July 2008
  • Ewen Callaway

At this rate a monkey might prove the Riemann hypothesis. Rhesus macaques have been shown to possess yet another numerical talent once thought unique to humans – they can simultaneously count audible beeps and dots on a computer screen.

Their ability to comprehend numbers not as just discrete images or sounds, but as abstract representations that can be combined suggests that such maths skills aren't unique to humans, says Kerry Jordan, a psychologist at Utah State University, Logan, US, who led the new study.

This sort of evidence "shows that [animals] have these precursors to math very early on in the evolutionary line and early on in development," she says.

Jordan and colleague Elizabeth Brannon, of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, US, trained two eight-year-old female macaques to equate beeps to dots on a computer screen. So if a monkey heard seven beeps, it knew to tap a square on the screen displaying seven dots.

Next, the researchers tested the monkeys’ training in adding dots and beeps together.

The animals were presented dots of different sizes flash onto a screen. At the same time they heard a series of short tones.

To determine if the monkeys could combine the two, Jordan and Brannon showed the animals a screen with two numerical choices, represented as dots – one the correct sum, one incorrect.

Both monkeys did better than 50:50 – one added the sights and sounds correctly 72% of the time, the other 66% of the time.

Both monkeys tended to make mistakes when the right and wrong answers were numerically similar. For instance, if the choices were one and eight, the animals rarely got it wrong. But they found it harder to choose between, say, five and six.

People make the same kind of errors when making snap numerical judgements, such counting the number of people in a crowd, says Jordan, which is further evidence that our abstract maths skills aren't unique.

The monkey's ability to add numbers seen and heard together makes sense in the wild, says Jordan.

Irene Pepperberg, a psychologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who trained a parrot named Alex to add small sums, says the paper confirms observations in the wild.

Flycatchers, for instance, seem to communicate their mood to other birds using a numerical combination of song and wing motions. The more wing flicks and songs, the more likely it is to attack another bird, she says.

Journal reference: Cognition, DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.05.006 source

My comment:Animals learn abstract math! Because it is abstract for them to count beeps and dots. Again, an argument for evolution. I mean, given time and patience, you can practically teach a monkey to work with computer. At least, if you think carefully, that's what a computer is for. You tap things into it, it taps things into your brain via the eyes/ears. Isn't it great to live in such an intelligent universe?

Frozen embryos give bouncier babies

  • 09 July 2008

FROZEN embryos do better than fresh. That's the surprising conclusion of a study of children conceived by IVF which set out to address concerns that freezing might harm embryos.

Anja Pinborg of Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark studied more than 1200 children born in the country between 1995 and 2006 as a result of IVF using frozen embryos and compared them with almost 18,000 children born after conventional IVF using fresh embryos.

The frozen embryos produced babies of roughly normal birth weight, while those from conventional IVF were on average about 200 grams lighter, Pinborg told the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology meeting in Barcelona, Spain, on 8 July.

Freezing an embryo shortly after fertilisation is unlikely to improve its viability, though. An alternative explanation, Pinborg argues, is that embryos able to survive the freezing and thawing process are likely to be healthier. "There's selection," she suggests.

What's more, women who have eggs frozen for later use tend to be younger and in better physical shape. And unlike women given conventional IVF, they will not be trying to establish a pregnancy immediately after being given hormone treatment to harvest their eggs - which it is thought could impair the process of implantation.

Pinborg's team also found that babies from frozen embryos were no more likely to suffer birth defects or neurological problems than conventional IVF babies.

From issue 2664 of New Scientist magazine, 09 July 2008, page 19 source
My comment: No comment, really. I just found it interesting and also, it's another argument for natural selection. Obviously it works in so many levels.