Sunday, December 31, 2006

The vaccine to prevent every strain of flu

"British scientists are on the verge of producing a revolutionary flu vaccine that works against all major types of the disease.



Described as the 'holy grail' of flu vaccines, it would protect against all strains of influenza A - the virus behind both bird flu and the nastiest outbreaks of winter flu.

Just a couple of injections could give long-lasting immunity - unlike the current vaccine which has to be given every year.

The brainchild of scientists at Cambridge biotech firm Acambis, working with Belgian researchers, the vaccine will be tested on humans for the first time in the next few months."

Click the title to read the entire article

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Dylan #1 of Billboard's critics





"Bob Dylan's acclaimed new album Modern Times has won another accolade 2006 prize from music industry magazine Billboard's critics.

Almost 50 of the publication's staff and writers were asked to name their favourite album of the past 12 months, and Dylan's 2006 release claimed the number one spot.

The album was Dylan's first number one on The Billboard 200 chart since Desire 30 years ago (1976).



Dylan's Modern Times claimed Rolling Stone's top album of the year honor earlier this week."

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Female Android Debuts in S. Korea

"She can hold a conversation, make eye contact, and express joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness. But is she good with kids?



These school-age tots seem to be making friends with EveR-1, a female android that made her debut this month in South Korea. The robot was built by Baeg Moon-hong, a senior researcher with the Division for Applied Robot Technology at the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology (KITECH) in Ansan, just south of Seoul (see a map of South Korea).

EveR-1 is designed to resemble a Korean female in her early 20s, according to a KITECH press release. Fifteen motors underneath her silicon skin allow her to express a limited range of emotions, and a 400-word vocabulary enables her to hold a simple conversation.

The android weighs 110 pounds (50 kilograms) and would stand 5 feet, 3 inches (160 centimeters) tall—if she could stand. EveR-1 can move her arms and hands, but her lower half is immobile."

See a video here

Company Develops Virtual Meal Technology

"Harvey Bumpus doesn't like to eat alone. But his wife died more than a year ago and his family is scattered across the country. Most nights, he heats up a simple meal of oatmeal or hot dogs and eats alone.

"I don't have much choice," said the 82-year-old retired correctional officer who looks forward to Christmas as one of the few days each year when he gathers with his family.

But when the planes, trains and automobiles that brought everyone together take his family away - he, like millions of other elderly people, will be alone again.

Now, the technology consulting company Accenture is developing a system called "The Virtual Family Dinner" that would allow families to get together - virtually - as often as they'd like.

The concept is simple. An elderly woman in, say, California, makes herself dinner. When she gets ready to sit down and eat, the system detects it and alerts her son in Chicago. The son then goes to his kitchen, where a small camera and microphone capture what he is doing. Speakers and a screen - as big as a television or as small as a picture frame - allow him to hear and see his mother, who has a similar setup.

"We are trying to really bring back the kind of family interactions we used to take for granted," said Dadong Wan, a senior researcher in Accenture Ltd.

Click the title to read the entire article

Friday, December 15, 2006

World's Tallest Man Saves Ailing Dolphins

Long Arms Of 7-Foot-9 Herdsman Remove Plastic From Dolphins' Stomachs

"The long arms of the world's tallest man reached in and saved two dolphins by pulling out plastic from their stomachs, state media and an aquarium official said Thursday.



The dolphins got sick after nibbling on plastic from the edge of their pool at an aquarium in Liaoning province. Attempts to use surgical instruments to remove the plastic failed because the dolphins' stomachs contracted in response to the instruments, the China Daily newspaper reported.

Veterinarians then decided to ask for help from Bao Xishun, a 7-foot-9 herdsman from Inner Mongolia with 41.7-inch arms, state media said. Bao, 54, was confirmed last year by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's tallest living man.

Chen Lujun, the manager of the Royal Jidi Ocean World aquarium, told The Associated Press that the shape of the dolphins' stomachs made it difficult to push an instrument very far in without hurting the animals. People with shorter arms could not reach the plastic, he said.

"When we failed to get the objects out we sought the help of Bao Xishun from Inner Mongolia and he did it successfully yesterday," Chen said. "The two dolphins are in very good condition now."

Photographs showed the jaws of one of the dolphins being held back by towels so Bao could reach inside the animal without being bitten.

"Some very small plastic pieces are still left in the dolphins' stomachs," Zhu Xiaoling, a local doctor, told Xinhua. "However the dolphins will be able to digest these and are expected to recover soon."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tall Mountain Range Found on Titan

"The international Cassini spacecraft spotted a nearly mile-high mountain range shrouded in hazy clouds on Saturn's giant moon Titan, scientists reported Tuesday.

The mountains, which stretch for nearly 100 miles, surprised researchers who re-analyzed the images to double-check that they were real and not shadows of other surface features.

Robert Brown, a Cassini scientist from the University of Arizona, said the mountains reminded him of California's Sierra Nevada range.

"You can call this the Titan Sierra," said Brown, who unveiled the new infrared images at an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

The mountains are the tallest ever seen on Titan and probably formed from the same process that occurs in the Earth's mid-ocean ridge. Scientists speculated that hot material beneath Titan's surface gushed up when tectonic plates pulled apart, creating the mountain range.

Cassini found the summit of the range capped with brilliant white layers that are likely deposits of methane or another organic material.

Cassini flew by Titan on Oct. 25 and snapped images of the mountains. It also found new evidence of sand dunes and a circular feature resembling the remnant of a volcano.

Launched in 1997, Cassini is funded by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies."

China's River Dolphin Declared Extinct

"A rare, nearly blind white dolphin that survived for millions of years is effectively extinct, an international expedition declared Wednesday after ending a fruitless six-week search of its Yangtze River habitat.



Specialists prepare to examine Qi Qi, a Yangtze River dolphin in captivity, in an aquarium in Wuhan, capital city of China's Hubei province, in this June 13, 2002 file photo. An international expedition to search for a rare Chinese river dolphin has ended without a single sighting, and researchers said Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006 that the aquatic mammal is facing imminent extinction.

The baiji would be the first large aquatic mammal driven to extinction since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.

For the baiji, the culprit was a degraded habitat - busy ship traffic, which confounds the sonar the dolphin uses to find food, and overfishing and pollution in the Yangtze waters of eastern China, the expedition said.

"The baiji is functionally extinct. We might have missed one or two animals but it won't survive in the wild," said August Pfluger, a Swiss economist turned naturalist who helped put together the expedition. "We are all incredibly sad.

The baiji dates back 20 million years. Chinese called it the "goddess of the Yangtze." For China, its disappearance symbolizes how unbridled economic growth is changing the country's environment irreparably, some environmentalists say.

"It's a tremendously sad day when any species goes extinct. It becomes more of a public tragedy to lose a large, charismatic species like the river dolphin," said Chris Williams, manager of river basin conservation for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

"The loss of a large animal like a river dolphin is often a harbinger for what's going on in the larger system as whole. It's not only the loss of a beautiful animal but an indication that the way its habitat is being managed, the way we're interacting with the natural environment of the river is deeply flawed ... if a species like this can't survive."

Randall Reeves, chairman of the Swiss-based World Conservation Union's Cetacean Specialist Group, who took part in the Yangtze mission, said expedition participants were surprised at how quickly the dolphins disappeared.

"Some of us didn't want to believe that this would really happen, especially so quickly," he said. "This particular species is the only living representative of a whole family of mammals. This is the end of a whole branch of evolution."

The damage to the baiji's habitat is also affecting the Yangtze finless porpoise, whose numbers have fallen to below 400, the expedition found.

"The situation of the finless porpoise is just like that of the baiji 20 years ago," the group said in a statement citing Wang Ding, a Chinese hydrobiologist and co-leader of the expedition. "Their numbers are declining at an alarming rate. If we do not act soon they will become a second baiji."

Pfluger said China's Agriculture Ministry, which approved the expedition, had hoped the baiji would be another panda, an animal brought back from the brink of extinction in a highly marketable effort that bolstered the country's image.

The expedition was the most professional and meticulous ever launched for the mammal, Pfluger said. The team of 30 scientists and crew from China, the United States and four other countries searched a 1,000-mile heavily trafficked stretch of the Yangtze, where the baiji once thrived.

The expedition's two boats, equipped with high-tech binoculars and underwater microphones, trailed each other an hour apart without radio contact so that a sighting by one vessel would not prejudice the other. When there was fog, he said, the boats waited for the mist to clear to make sure they took every opportunity to spot the mammal.

Around 400 baiji were believed to be living in the Yangtze in the early 1980s, when China was just launching the free-market reforms that have transformed its economy. The last full-fledged search, in 1997, yielded 13 confirmed sightings, and a fisherman claimed to have seen a baiji in 2004.

At least 20 to 25 baiji would now be needed to give the species a chance to survive, said Wang.

For Pfluger, the baiji's demise is a personal defeat. A member of the 1997 expedition, he recalls the excitement of seeing a baiji cavorting in the waters near Dongting Lake.

"It marked me," he said. He went on to set up the baiji.org Foundation to save the dolphin. In recent years, Pfluger said, scientists like the eminent zoologist George Schaller told him to stop his search, saying the baiji's "lost, forget it."

During the latest expedition, an online diary kept by team members traced a dispiriting situation, as day after day they failed to spot a single baiji.

Even in the expedition's final days, members believed they would find a specimen, trolling a "hotspot" below the industrial city of Wuhan where Baiji were previously sighted, Pfluger said.

"Hope dies last," he said."

On the web: http://www.baiji.org

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Two species cooperate to hunt

By Charles Q. Choi

Researchers say it's the first example of coordinated hunting seen in fish

"The giant moray eel is normally a lone hunter in the dark. Now scientists find these eels may at times hunt in the daytime in the Red Sea, and surprisingly cooperate with another predatory fish, the grouper, which is also normally a solitary predator.

This is the first example of coordinated hunting seen in fish, and the first known instance of cooperative hunting between species seen outside humans, researchers said.

The giant moray eel is as thick as a man's thigh and can grow up to nearly 10 feet long. It normally lurks through crevices in coral reefs at night to corner victims in their holes, meaning the best way to avoid these hunters is to swim into open water. On the other hand, groupers normally hunt in the open water during the day, meaning the best way to avoid them is to hide in coral reefs.

Behavioral ecologist Redouan Bshary from the University of Neuch√Ętel in Switzerland was following groupers to collect information on so-called "cleaner fish" that enter the mouth of predators to eat parasites.

"When I first saw a grouper shaking its head in the face of a moray, I thought two top predators were about to fight each other," Bshary said. "So I was very surprised when they swam off together side by side."

Bshary and his colleagues followed fish around by snorkeling. They found groupers often visited giant morays resting in their crevices and rapidly shook their heads an inch or so from the eels to recruit them in a joint hunt. At times this call took place after a grouper failed in its hunt because prey escaped into a crevice the grouper could not get into but a giant moray might.

If the moray emerged, the grouper guided the eel to a crevice where prey was hiding. Groupers sometimes even performed a headstand and shook its head over a prey hiding place to attract moray eels to the site. At times the moray ate the fish it rooted out, while at other times the grouper did.

Before this, coordinated hunting was only seen in mammals and birds. In addition, until now the only other examples of cooperative hunting between species were seen with humans and dogs or humans and dolphins, Bshary said.

The researchers are uncertain whether this cooperation is an innate or learned behavior, although currently Bshary suspects it is learned because there is considerable variation in levels of it between individuals, especially in morays, "which may reflect personal experience." They plan to study whether this cooperation is local to the area they studied or whether it is widespread in the Red Sea.

"The most important implication is that there are still so many surprises to be discovered in coral reefs," Bshary said.

Bshary and his colleagues reported their findings in the December issue of the journal Public Library of Science Biology."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Experts reconstruct Leonardo fingerprint

Discovery could provide more detail about the artist's life, ethnicity

By Marta Falconi

"ROME - Anthropologists said they have pieced together Leonardo da Vinci's left index fingerprint _ a discovery that could help provide information on such matters as the food the artist ate and whether his mother was of Arabic origin.



The reconstruction of the fingerprint was the result of three years of research and could help attribute disputed paintings or manuscripts, said Luigi Capasso, an anthropologist and director of the Anthropology Research Institute at Chieti University in central Italy.

"It adds the first touch of humanity. We knew how Leonardo saw the world and the future ... but who was he? This biological information is about his being human, not being a genius," Capasso said in a recent telephone interview.

The research was based on a first core of photographs of about 200 fingerprints — most of them partial — taken from about 52 papers handled by Leonardo in his life. Capasso's work, presented in 2005 in a specialized magazine called Anthropologie, published in the Czech Republic, is on display in an exhibition in the town of Chieti through March 30.

The artist often ate while working, and Capasso and other experts said his fingerprints could include traces of saliva, blood or the food he ate the night before. It is information that could help clear up questions about his origins.

Certain distinctive features are more common in the fingerprints of some ethnic populations, experts say.

"The one we found in this finger tip applies to 60 percent of the Arabic population, which suggests the possibility that his mother was of Middle Eastern origin," Capasso said.

Other experts, however, say that determining ethnicity based on fingerprints is vague.

What the science says, "generally speaking, is that if your parent has a lot of arches, you'll probably have a lot of arches," said Simon Cole, associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine.

'The science essentially comes up with breakdowns: x percent of Asians have arches, x have whorls, x have loops. Some races have very low incidences of some patterns and very high incidences of others.'"

Monday, November 27, 2006

Humpbacks have humanlike brain cells

Cetaceans may have evolved infrastructure for intelligence before primates

"Humpback whales have a type of brain cell seen only in humans, the great apes and other cetaceans such as dolphins, researchers reported on Monday.



This might mean such whales are more intelligent than they have been given credit for, and suggests the basis for complex brains either evolved more than once, or has gone unused by most species of animals, the researchers said.

The finding may help explain some of the behaviors seen in whales, such as intricate communication skills, the formation of alliances, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage, the researchers report in The Anatomical Record.

Patrick Hof and Estel Van der Gucht of the Department of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York studied the brains of humpback whales and discovered a type of cell called a spindle neuron in the cortex, in areas comparable to where they are seen in humans and great apes.

Although the function of spindle neurons is not well understood, they may be involved in cognition — learning, remembering and recognizing the world around oneself. Spindle cells may be affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other debilitating brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

Islands in the cortex
The researchers said they found spindle neurons in the same location in toothed whales with the largest brains, which suggests that they may be related to brain size. Toothed whales such as orcas are generally considered more intelligent than baleen whales such as humpbacks and blue whales, which filter water for their food.

The humpbacks also had structures that resembled “islands” in the cerebral cortex, also seen in some other mammals."

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Is this Britain's unluckiest man?

"If you ever think life is being a little tough on you, just be grateful you aren't John Lyne – who could well be Britain's unluckiest man.



'Calamity John' has suffered 16 major accidents in his life, including lightning strikes, a rock-fall in a mine and three car crashes.

He is presently laid up again after falling down a manhole at work.

The 54-year-old industrial cleaner will be out of action for 32 weeks and is not sure he can return to his job.

The accident damaged his back and injured his left leg and both knees – which the grandfather-of-three can add to a lifetime of broken bones.

But none of this has left Mr Lyne bitter – he is just glad to be alive. 'Everyone thinks it is just hilarious,' he said. 'My mates, family and wife Susan just laugh about it.

'I don't think there is any reason or explanation. Things could have been much worse and I could have died but it doesn't worry me too much.'

Mr Lyne's mishaps cover a lifetime and he has even been known to suffer two accidents at once. As a child, he fell off a horse and cart – only to be run over by a delivery van.

When he was a teenager, he broke his arm falling from a tree.

On his way back from hospital, his bus crashed, breaking the same arm in another place. The date, of course, was Friday the 13th.

A philosophical Mr Lyne, of Stainworth, South Yorkshire, said: 'I have had a lot of lucky escapes and people have compared me with a cat with nine lives. It doesn't get me down. It is just how it is.'"

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Experts Say Tomb May Be Under Monolith

"Mexican archaeologists said on Thursday there are indications that the tomb of an Aztec emperor could lie beneath a recently-uncovered carved stone monolith showing a fearsome, blood-drinking god.



Researchers hope to begin removing the stone to explore a pit that lies beneath. A date carved on the stone and its unusual placement suggest it contains the remains of emperor Ahuizotl, the father of Moctezuma, the Aztec ruler defeated by the Spaniards.

Archaeologist Eduardo Matos said it would be the first burial ever found of a leader of the 1427-1521 Aztec empire."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Manatees May Be Smarter Than We Think

"Back in 1902, a scientist examining the smooth, grapefruit-size brain of a manatee remarked that the organ's unwrinkled surface resembled that of the brain of an idiot.

Ever since then, manatees have generally been considered incapable of doing anything more complicated than chewing sea grass.

But Hugh, a manatee in a tank at a Florida marine laboratory, doesn't seem like a dimwit. When a buzzer sounds, the speed bump-shaped mammal slowly flips his 1,300 pounds and aims a whiskered snout toward one of eight loudspeakers lowered into the water. Nosing the correct speaker earns him treats.



Hugh is no manatee prodigy. Such sensory experiments, along with other recent studies, are revealing that sea cows aren't so stupid after all.

Researchers contend that if the plant-eating beasts seem slow-witted, it is because they faced no threats to their survival before the advent of boat propellers.

"They're not under any selection pressure to evolve the rapid-type behavior we've associated with hawks, a predator, or antelopes, a prey. They look like very contented animals that don't have very much to do all day," said Roger Reep, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Fish eavesdrop to avoid becoming dinner

"Fish can eavesdrop on the calls of dolphins to avoid getting eaten, a new study suggests.

"Probably a lot of fish can do this," said lead researcher Luke Remage-Healey, a behavioral neuro-endocrinologist at University of California, Los Angeles.

A bottom-dwelling fish found off the coast of Florida called the gulf toadfish is prime prey for dolphins, which often listen to toadfish calls to find their targets. In fact, 80 percent of bottlenose dolphin diets containing sound-producing fish. But whether the toadfish peels its “ears” toward dolphins has remained a mystery.



Remage-Healey first suspected that gulf toadfish could listen in on hungry dolphins' calls two years ago while recording the mating calls of the male toadfish off the Gulf coast of Florida. The fish were hanging out above their nests.

"Then, they all stopped calling," Remage-Healey recalled. "My field assistant noticed dolphins foraging right over the toadfish site, and we heard we were recording dolphin sounds instead."

The researchers captured toadfish and placed each in its own cage and rested the cages on the seabed in the breeding patch. From underwater speakers, they played recordings of snapping shrimp sounds or dolphin sounds — both high-frequency "whistles" that dolphins use to communicate with each other, and low-frequency "pops" likely used to locate a quarry. The shrimp sounds mimicked a common background noise in the bay.

Results showed that the toadfish ignored the snapping shrimp sounds and dolphin whistles and continued on with their mating calls. But when the fish heard dolphin pops or combinations of pops and whistles, they drastically reduced their calling rates.

Prior research revealed that toadfish hear low-frequency sounds best, consistent with the drastic response to the recordings of low-frequency pops.

As confirmation, measurements of toadfish blood taken immediately after the dolphin sounds were played revealed that levels of the stress hormone cortisol shot up after they heard pops.

Remage-Healey, Douglas Nowacek of Florida State University and Andrew Bass of Cornell University in New York report their findings in the Nov. 15 issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology."

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Elephant in the Mirror

"For those who study the development of intelligence in the animal kingdom, self-awareness is an important measurement. An animal that is aware of itself has a high level of cognitive ability.

Awareness can be tested by studying whether the animal recognizes itself in a mirror. Many animals fail this exercise miserably, paying scant attention to the reflected image. Only humans, apes and, more recently, dolphins, have been shown to recognize that the image in the mirror is of themselves.

Now another animal has joined the club. In The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report that an Asian elephant has passed the mirror self-recognition test.

“We thought that elephants were the next important candidate,” said Diana Reiss of the Wildlife Conservation Society, an author of the study with Joshua M. Plotnik and Frans B. M. de Waal of Emory University. With their large, complex brains, empathetic and altruistic behavior and elaborate social organization, Dr. Reiss said, elephants “seemed like cognitive cousins to apes and dolphins.”

The researchers tested Happy, Maxine and Patty, three females at the Bronx Zoo, where the conservation society is based. They put an eight-foot-square mirror on a wall of the animals’ play area (out of view of zoo visitors) and recorded what happened with video cameras, including one embedded in the mirror.

The elephants exhibited behavior typical of other self-aware animals. They checked out the mirror, in some cases using their trunks to explore what was behind it, and used it to examine parts of their bodies.

Of the three, Happy then passed the critical test, in which a visible mark was painted on one side of her face. She could only tell the mark was there by looking in the mirror, and she used the mirror to touch the mark with her trunk.

Dr. Reiss said it was not unusual that only one of the three elephants passed this test; with other self-aware species, large numbers of individuals don’t pass the test either.

But the result with Happy, she said, is a “beautiful case of cognitive convergence” with other self-aware animals. “We knew elephants were intelligent, but now we can talk about their intelligence in a more specific way.”

Friday, October 27, 2006

Oldest bee fossil creates new buzz

"The discovery of the oldest bee fossil supports the theory that bees evolved from wasps, scientists reported Wednesday.

The 100 million-year-old fossil was found in a mine in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar (Burma) and preserved in amber. Amber, which begins as tree sap, often traps insects and plant structures before they fossilize.



"This is the oldest known bee we've ever been able to identify, and it shares some of the features of wasps," said lead author George Poinar, a researcher from Oregon State University. "But overall it's more bee than wasp, and gives us a pretty good idea of when these two types of insects were separating on their evolutionary paths."

The quarter-inch fossil shares traits of the carnivorous wasp such as narrow hind legs while exhibiting branched hairs on its leg, a characteristic of the modern bee that allows pollen collection.

Around the same time the bee was trapped, plants that rely on mechanisms other than the wind to spread their seeds, started expanding and diversifying. Prior to that, the world was mostly green with conifer trees that depended on the wind for pollination."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Complete Darwin works put online

"The complete evolutionary works of Charles Darwin have gone online, including the stolen notebook he carried in his pocket around the Galapagos Islands.

Tens of thousands of pages of text and pictures and audio files have been made available, including some previously unpublished manuscripts and diaries of the great British scientist.

Among the unique collection is the notebook used during the Beagle voyage which would later forge his scientific arguments. It was stolen in the 1980s, but Darwin’s great-great-grandson hopes the publication online, thanks to a transcription from a microfilm copy made two decades earlier, will persuade whoever has it to return it."

Click on the title to read more of the article, or go here to the Darwin website.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Honey Remedy Could Save Limbs

When Jennifer Eddy first saw an ulcer on the left foot of her patient, an elderly diabetic man, it was pink and quarter-sized. Fourteen months later, drug-resistant bacteria had made it an unrecognizable black mess.

Doctors tried everything they knew -- and failed. After five hospitalizations, four surgeries and regimens of antibiotics, the man had lost two toes. Doctors wanted to remove his entire foot.

"He preferred death to amputation, and everybody agreed he was going to die if he didn't get an amputation," said Eddy, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

With standard techniques exhausted, Eddy turned to a treatment used by ancient Sumerian physicians, touted in the Talmud and praised by Hippocrates: honey. Eddy dressed the wounds in honey-soaked gauze. In just two weeks, her patient's ulcers started to heal. Pink flesh replaced black. A year later, he could walk again.

"I've used honey in a dozen cases since then," said Eddy. "I've yet to have one that didn't improve."

Eddy is one of many doctors to recently rediscover honey as medicine. Abandoned with the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s and subsequently disregarded as folk quackery, a growing set of clinical literature and dozens of glowing anecdotes now recommend it.

Most tantalizingly, honey seems capable of combating the growing scourge of drug-resistant wound infections, especially methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the infamous flesh-eating strain. These have become alarmingly more common in recent years, with MRSA alone responsible for half of all skin infections treated in U.S. emergency rooms. So-called superbugs cause thousands of deaths and disfigurements every year, and public health officials are alarmed."

Click on the title to read more

Friday, October 06, 2006

Mars orbiter images thrill NASA scientists

NASA’s newest Mars orbiter has spied the plucky rover Opportunity perched at the rim of the Red Planet’s massive Victoria Crater as both vehicles explore the fourth planet from the Sun.



Appearing almost as a shiny boulder, Opportunity’s lumpy outline and its camera-mast shadow can easily be seen in a high-resolution image of Victoria Crater taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and released by the space agency on Friday.



“It is so good to see that rover again,” said Steve Squyres, the lead Mars Exploration Rover scientist from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, during a press briefing. “I’ve got to say that image with that little rover 200 million miles away, parked at the top of that cliff, that’s just one of the most evocative images I’ve ever seen in the planetary program…it’s just beautiful.

At half a mile wide (0.8 kilometers) and 200 feet (60 meters) deep, Victoria Crater is large enough to fit up to five football stadiums inside and is the biggest Martian crater to be visited by NASA’s red planet rovers, mission managers said.

“It’s probably the biggest crater we’re ever going to get to with Opportunity, or in fact with Spirit,” NASA’s Mars exploration program director Doug McQuistion said during the briefing. “The bottom line is it gives us a window on the past of the planet, and that’s incredibly important to understanding why it is the way it is and understanding relationships to potentially other rocky planets in the Solar System.”

Opportunity has spent 21 Earth months exploring the Meridiani Planum region of Mars, eventually working its way from its initial Eagle Crater landing site to Victoria. The rover’s robotic twin Spirit rolled across its own Gusev Crater landing site, scaled one of the region’s Columbia Hills and clambered down the other side. Together, the two rovers have produced some 160,000 images of the red planet.

“I think the whole Mars Exploration Rover program is an example of NASA at its best,” NASA chief Michael Griffin said during the briefing today at the agency’s Washington D.C. headquarters.”

Click the title to read more

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Experts try to save life of gravely injured baby bottlenose dolphin

"The news from Indian River Lagoon was too familiar: another dolphin gravely injured because of human action.

But marine scientist Steve McCulloch immediately saw this rescue was unique. The baby bottlenose dolphin lost her tail, but perhaps her life could be saved.



McCulloch, director of dolphin and whale research at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, decided to channel his anger into a solution.

The solution for the dolphin — dubbed Winter — may be a prosthetic tail.  If the logistics can be worked out, Winter's prosthesis would be the first for a dolphin who lost its tail and the key joint that allows it to move in powerful up-and-down strokes.

"There's never been a dolphin like her," said Dana Zucker, chief operating officer of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is now Winter's home. A dolphin in Japan has a prosthesis, the first in the world, to replace a missing part of its tail.

Winter was a frail, dehydrated 3-month-old when she came to the animal rescue center in December. A fisherman found her tangled in the buoy line of a crab trap in Indian River Lagoon near Cape Canaveral. The line tightened around her tail as she tried to swim away, strangling the blood supply to her tail flukes. "It looked like paper," Zucker said of Winter's tail. "Bit by bit over the weeks it just fell off." Winter was left with a rounded stump.

A team of more than 150 volunteers and veterinarians spent months nursing Winter back to health. Zucker and her family cuddled with Winter and fed her a special mix of infant formula and pureed fish in the aquarium's rescue pool. Winter learned how to swim without her tail, amazing her handlers with a combination of moves that resemble an alligator's undulations and a shark's side-to-side tail swipes. She uses her flippers, normally employed for steering and braking, to get moving. Winter can't keep up with wild dolphins that can swim up to 25 mph with strokes of their tail flukes. She will be a permanent resident at the aquarium, even if she gets a prosthetic tail.

In the tank, she swims and plays with another dolphin, rolling and diving and surfacing to demand belly rubs and fish from her caretakers.

Uncharted territory

Zucker has formed a team to discuss the prospects of designing a tail for Winter. It has been consulting with a diving gear manufacturer, a tire company and the Navy, which has experience attaching items to dolphins for military research. It's uncharted territory. Fuji, an elderly dolphin who lives at an aquarium in Okinawa, Japan, had part of his tail remaining on which to attach a prosthesis. Winter doesn't. Both her tail flukes and peduncle, a wrist-like joint that allows a dolphin's tail to move up and down, were lost to necrosis. It is not clear how the prosthetic tail would be attached to her stump, but it would need to be tough.

"The dolphin's tail fin is the most powerful swimming mechanism Mother Nature ever designed," McCulloch said.  "When you see how much pressure they put on their flukes, the prosthesis is going to take a marvel of modern engineering." Veterinarians are unsure if a prosthesis will be beneficial or harmful in the long term. Swimming without a tail may ultimately wear on Winter's spine. She would need at least three tails as she grows. She is now about 4 feet long and weighs 110 pounds. When she is full grown at age 15, Winter will be twice as long and four times as heavy.

The cost of the prosthetic tail is unknown. "All I know is Fuji's tail cost $100,000 — and that was in 2004," McCulloch said. That's equal to the entire monthly operating budget of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Zucker said. The small animal hospital relies mostly on volunteer workers; its roof leaks in heavy rains.

"We're a mom and pop shop," Zucker said. "It's a labor of love." She expects the design cost of the tail will be underwritten by the company that creates it. It's the cost of the long-term care of Winter — and the other injured animals in her care — that worry her.

Winter is a living reminder for humans to be careful about what they leave in the water. "The kids get it right away. It's the adults, more creatures of habit, who take more persuasion," McCulloch said. "You can't outlaw fishing line, but you can educate a fisherman not to use careless techniques such as tossing out line."

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Ancient Pet Cemeteries Found in Peru

Ancient Pet Cemeteries Found in Peru:
Even in ancient Peru, it seems dogs were a man's best friend. Peruvian investigators have discovered a pre-Columbian culture of dog lovers who built pet cemeteries and buried their pets with warm blankets and even treats for the afterlife.

"They are dogs that were thanked and recognized for their social and familial contribution," anthropologist Sonia Guillen said. "These dogs were not sacrificed."

Since 1993, researchers have unearthed 82 dog tombs in pet cemetery plots, laid alongside human mummy tombs of the Chiribaya people in the fertile Osmore River valley, 540 miles southeast of Lima. The Chiribaya were farmers who lived from A.D. 900 to 1350 before the rise of Peru's Inca Empire.

"We have found that in all the cemeteries, always, in between the human tombs there are others dedicated to the dogs, full-grown and puppies," said Guillen, who specializes in the study of mummies. "They have their own grave and in some cases they are buried with blankets and food."

Monday, September 18, 2006

Unknown Writing System Uncovered On Ancient Olmec Tablet

"Science magazine this week details the discovery of a stone block in Veracruz, Mexico, that contains a previously unknown system of writing; believed by archeologists to be the earliest in the Americas.

The slab - named the Cascajal block - dates to the early first millennium BCE and has features that indicate it comes from the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica. One of the archaeologists behind the discovery, Brown University's Stephen D. Houston, said that the block and its ancient script "link the Olmec civilization to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system, and reveal a new complexity to this civilization."



"It's a tantalizing discovery. I think it could be the beginning of a new era of focus on Olmec civilization," explained Houston. "It's telling us that these records probably exist and that many remain to be found. If we can decode their content, these earliest voices of Mesoamerican civilization will speak to us today."

Construction workers discovered the Cascajal block in a pile of debris in the community of Lomas de Tacamichapa in the late 1990s. Surrounding the piece were ceramic shards, clay figurine fragments, and broken artifacts of ground stone, which have helped the team date the block and its text to the San Lorenzo phase, ending about 900 BCE; approximately 400 years before writing was thought to have first appeared in the Western hemisphere.

The block weighs about 26 pounds and measures 36 cm x 21 cm x 13 cm. The text itself consists of 62 signs, some of which are repeated up to four times. There is no doubt that the piece is a written work, say the archaeologists. "As products of a writing system, the sequences would, by definition, reflect patterns of language, with the probable presence of syntax and language-dependent word order," they explain.

Interestingly, the surface containing the text appears to be concave and the team believes the block has been carved repeatedly and erased - an unprecedented discovery according to Houston, who added that several paired sequences of signs could even indicate poetic couplets."

Source: Brown University

Pics courtesy Science

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bob Dylan has a poetic license to echo lyrics

Bob Dylan has a poetic license to echo lyrics | Chicago Tribune:
Bob Dylan has a poetic license to echo lyrics


Published September 17, 2006

We're living in an age of word crimes, and Bob Dylan is the latest alleged felon.

With his new best-selling album, "Modern Times," Dylan stands accused of the enduring crime of word theft. His alleged victim is one Henry Timrod, a Southern Civil War poet who died in 1867.

When I read about Dylan in The New York Times last week (please note I'm attributing my source), I wasn't persuaded to convict him of plagiarism based on the primary example in the story.

From Dylan's lyrics: "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours."

From a Timrod poem: "A round of precious hours/ Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked/ And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers."

If rhyming "flowers" and "hours" were proof of plagiarism, we'd have to round up every 4th-grade poet in America.

As for "frailer than flowers," it's a sweet alliteration but I wouldn't be surprised if it also has spontaneously leaked out of the pens of a few moody college sophomores.

Nevertheless, several other examples added up to a persuasive case that Timrod's ghost had crooned next to Dylan as he composed.

Timrod: "How then, O weary one! Explain/The sources of that hidden pain?"

Dylan: "Can't explain/The sources of this hidden pain."

I hear an echo, but I don't hear a crime.

Stories of plagiarism are often mystery stories. Did the accused plagiarize or didn't he? If he didn't, how did that similarity happen?

Did he read something and unconsciously summon it up when writing? If so, does that qualify as crime or merely as an understandable WUI--writing under the influence of someone else?

All words are mysteries. It's amazing that with a limited number of symbols and sounds you and I can give shape to thoughts, can make them visible and possible to hear, can trade the contents of our minds. How amazing that if I learn the word "Gracias" I can communicate with a person who doesn't understand "Thanks."

It's precisely because words are so mysterious, so mystical, that I'm not amazed when it turns out that two people have expressed uncannily similar thoughts in uncannily similar ways.

By their nature, words are uncanny.

Sometimes what seem like word crimes are just coincidences. Two writers reach into the zeitgeist and, from our common pool of feelings, ideas and phrases, pluck the same ones.

An example. Recently when Barack Obama was touring Africa, feted like a king, I thought of writing a column about a phenomenon with a name I'd invented: Obamania.

I had the foresight to google my clever new word first. Sure enough, there it was out there in the ether, used by other people who probably believed that they, too, were originals.

Wittingly or not, we all express ourselves under the influence of others. Sometimes the influence is so diffused in the culture that similarities of expression can be chalked up to coincidence. Sometimes that influence is so distinct and pervasive that its presence should be labeled theft.

But sometimes it's somewhere in between. Beyond coincidence, short of crime. An artist takes scraps of other people's expression and makes something entirely new, something that, mysteriously, is more beautiful and compelling than the odds and ends it came from. Songwriters have more license in that regard than journalists.

And, of course, words are also commodities--for sale in books, newspapers, CDs. It's that fact, I think, more than artistic purity, that animates our recent crusades against word crimes. Word sellers don't want to be ripped off. Buyers don't want used goods.

But our modern fixation on words as commodities, as property, as instruments of crime doesn't do justice to their messiness and their mysteries.

It's only honorable to acknowledge your influences, to the extent that you recognize them. Bob Dylan could have saved himself some trouble by mentioning Henry Timrod in his liner notes. The fact that he didn't doesn't make him criminal.

In case no one else has ever said this: Even the most original people aren't entirely original.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Giant, ultralight planet baffles scientists:

WASHINGTON - Scientists have discovered an unusually large and light planet orbiting a star that could force them to re-examine theories about how planets are formed.

The planet, dubbed HAT-P-1, is roughly one-third larger than Jupiter but weighs only half as much, astronomers with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said Thursday.

The planet is about one-quarter the density of water, Harvard-Smithsonian fellow Gaspar Bakos in a statement. “It’s lighter than a giant ball of cork,” he said.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Scientists find Neanderthals’ last refuge - LiveScience - MSNBC.com:
Neanderthals might have held out in isolated refuges for thousands of years longer than previously thought, scientists reported Wednesday.

Researchers say the species survived at what seems to have been their last refuge in Gibraltar for far longer after the arrival of modern humans than once believed — suggesting that the ancestors of modern human may not have driven the Neanderthals to extinction after all. Instead, they speculate that the Neanderthals fell victim to a cooling of the climate that deteriorated their environment too rapidly for them to adapt.

"While the rest of where they lived was getting colder, down here at the southernmost tip of Europe there were still little pockets of Mediterranean climate, so the world of the Neanderthals there didn't change that much," researcher Clive Finlayson, an evolutionary biologist at the Gibraltar Museum, told LiveScience.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Humans strange, Neanderthals normal

"Neanderthals are often thought of as the stray branch in the human family tree, but research now suggests the modern human is likely the odd man out.

"What people tend to do is draw a line from our ancestors straight to ourselves, and any group that doesn't seem to fit on that line is divergent, distinct, unusual, strange," researcher Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, told LiveScience. "But in terms of evolution of our family tree, the genus Homo, we're the outliers and the Neanderthals are more toward the core."

Humans are not at the inevitable end of a sequence, Trinkaus said. "It just happens that we happen to be alive today and Neanderthals are not."

Trinkaus spent decades examining fossil skeletons and over time realized that maybe researchers looked at Neanderthals the wrong way. Over the last two years, he systematically combed through fossils, comparing Neanderthal and modern human skull, jaw, tooth, arm, leg traits with those of the earliest members of the genus Homo in terms of their shape.

"I wanted to see to what extent Neanderthals are derived, that is distinct, from the ancestral form. I also wanted to see the extent to which modern humans are derived relative to the ancestral form," Trinkaus said.

Trinkaus focused on skeletal features that seemed most strongly linked to genetics, as opposed to any traits that might get influenced by lifestyle, environment or wear and tear.

When compared with our common ancestors, Trinkaus discovered modern humans have roughly twice as many uniquely distinct traits as Neanderthals. In other words, Neanderthals are more like the other members of our family tree than modern humans are.

"In the broader sweep of human evolution, the more unusual group is not Neanderthals, whom we tend to look at as strange, weird and unusual, but it's us, modern humans," Trinkaus said.

Modern humans, for example, are the only members of our family tree who lack brow ridges, Trinkaus said. "We are the only ones who have seriously shortened faces. We are the only ones with very reduced internal nasal cavities. We also have a number of detailed features of the limb skeleton that are unique."

Trinkaus published his findings in the August 2006 issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Dylan's New Album Hits No. 1 on Charts

Bob Dylan is back at the top of the charts - for the first time in 30 years. His new album, "Modern Times," reached No. 1 on the album sales chart, selling 192,000 units in its first week of release, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures released Wednesday.



The critically acclaimed disc is Dylan's first No. 1 album since 1976's "Desire.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

In praise of things old and inconvenient

"Someone left a beautiful blue box on the front porch of our church recently. A note on the top said 'For Gordon.' I opened the box and inside was an elegant, blue fountain pen with gold bands.

The pen was left by an Episcopal priest named Cristopher (yes, that's the correct spelling) whom I met in a coffee shop several weeks ago. We had one of those 'You're a minister? Me too! Isn't preaching wonderful except when it's awful?' conversations that ministers often have. The next time I saw him there, I noticed he was writing with a fountain pen. And since he is left-handed, there was ink smeared all over his hand.

Writing with a fountain pen is a choice. And to do so as a left hander, meaning you will always be dragging your left hand through wet ink, indicates a serious commitment. It's like me using my grandfather's pocket watch, which loses about 6 minutes a day. It's not practical, nor does it make sense in an age when cheap quartz watches lose less than a second a month.

And yet I enjoy winding my grandfather's watch, setting the time and carrying the timepiece in the little pocket made for pocket watches that is still included—amazingly—in every pair of jeans I buy.

As it turns out, Cristopher writes with fountain pens because he loves them. He loves the feel of the ink flowing through the nib and onto the paper. He loves that they are old fashioned. They remind him of a day when people wrote to each other on paper and with distinctive handwriting styles.

I write mostly on the computer. If I have to write by hand, I use little felt-tip pens that I buy in boxes of 12. But by the end of our conversation, my new friend had talked me into entering his dreamy world of quills, parchments, ink blotters and romance. I imagined opening a letter from my beloved that has taken a month to arrive. The thick paper of the envelope pops open, breaking the wax seal. The letter unfolds with the rustle of paper on paper. I recognize the handwriting of my love and my heart breaks a little.

I found myself thinking about buying a fountain pen. But I didn't buy one. After Cristopher left the coffee shop, I went back to writing on my computer, and within a day or so, the magic was gone.

Then the pen showed up on the porch of my church, and now I'm back into a fountain pen frame of mind. You can't believe the dark line of glistening ink this pen lays down. It moves across paper like a wet fingertip on ice. It's seductive and a little intoxicating and it makes me want to write. I've fallen in love with it, and now my wife wants one too.

But really, what is a fountain pen going to do for me? It's a hassle to use, and because it's expensive, I have to be careful lest I lose it. So why do I carry it with me now and use it every day?

Perhaps because there is something intangible in the pen and the paper and in the feel of these things. It is an awesome thought to know that someone will read your words and hold your thoughts in her mind. Something about the fountain pen settles me and brings me down into a writing kind of place.

Things like fountain pens, old tools and pocket watches transcend the reality of their inefficiency (at least these days) and ascend to a higher plane of existence. They bring to mind bygone eras. They have a rich quality that is worth the trouble, certainly worth a little ink on your fingers from time to time. These old, well-made items of quality feel good in our hands. They feel solid. They leave stains on our fingers and marks on our souls. It is good to use them."

Tabling Tennis - New York Times

"AS the United States Open continues this week, all eyes are on Andre Agassi, who at the ripe old age of 36 has announced that this will be his last hurrah in competitive tennis.

But what about that other tennis game? You know, the one that’s played on a table and, according to the International Olympic Committee, happens to be the world’s largest participation sport.



In the United States we call the sport Ping-Pong, and we relegate it to the attics and basements of our nation. But what most of us don’t know is that there are hundreds of millions of casual players and 40 million competitive table tennis players worldwide. That means more people played in a table tennis tournament last year than live in the state of California. For a game that started as a distraction for monks in 11th century France — using a hairball and homemade leather mitts — that’s a lot of pong.

So why doesn’t America care? Why don’t we root for international table tennis living legends like Werner Schlager of Austria and Timo Boll of Germany with the same enthusiasm we reserve for, say, Maria Sharapova? O.K., bad example, but you know what I mean.
The answer is simple. Table tennis is the most un-American of American sports.

For one, table tennis knows no age or shape. We fancy our athletes as the lightning-fast, preternaturally strong crest of human evolution. Table tennis is about hand quickness. It is about how fast you can shuffle your feet from one end of the table to the other. Size and date of birth don’t matter in table tennis. At the last United States Nationals I watched a large, middle-aged man rally with a little girl in an official match. And sorry to tell you this, Andre, but the reigning men’s United States champion is 38 years old. Of course, the problem is that, in America, you can’t put a 38-year-old’s face on a billboard or a cereal box.

Table tennis is also nonviolent. There are no neck-breaking collisions, no chance of a human bursting into flames. The only sports-induced widows in table tennis are those who lose their spouses to the table tennis hall each week. The biggest smash-ups are between a 40-millimeter celluloid ball flying 70 miles per hour and a pad of compressed sponge and rubber. No, if table tennis had play-by-play announcers they would not make metaphors relating table tennis to any battlefield or warlike activity. Table tennis is more Zen than blood sport, and we know how Americans love to see blood.

In addition, there are no drugs — at least as far as we know — in table tennis. Any American sport worth the price of admission has a drug issue. Unfortunately for its popularity, according to the tournament director of North American Table Tennis, the sport is squeaky clean.

Table tennis also can keep you fit and active your entire life. We Americans prefer sports like football and baseball that we quit the day we graduate from high school. What most people don’t realize is that table tennis, if played the right way, makes you sweat — a lot. Ron Joseph, a professional body builder, uses table tennis as his primary means of conditioning.

Table tennis can even help keep your brain fit. In his book “Making a Good Brain Great,” Daniel G. Amen argues that playing table tennis can increase brain activity.

And then there’s the issue of money. There are no million-dollar prizes. There are only a few commercially endorsed players in America, and they don’t get much more than a pair of shorts and a few paddles every year. What sane-headed American parents would steer their children to a sport that can’t make them rich?

Over the next month at halls across America, there will be serious table tennis tournaments. There won’t be camera crews, and there’s almost no chance that an athlete will purposely break his paddle over his knee as Dmitry Tursunov once did to his racket during a tennis match. Should the average basement player show up to play, expecting to dominate the game, he will be beaten, and probably badly.

But Americans should consider turning off their televisions and resisting the temptation to watch the millionaire athletes who will be dancing across the courts of Flushing over the next several days. They should actually do the sweating themselves and help make table tennis accepted in the one country in which it is ignored.

Jesse Scaccia co-produced a documentary about an American table tennis player."

Read about my own adventure here.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Writer finds improvement with fountain pen

Amy L. Wink has taught writing and literature at several universities. During a recent persoanl computer crash, she rediscovered the joys...and power...of putting pen to paper. Excerpts are below. Click on the title to read her entire article.

"As my initial panic subsided, I saw what I could do alone, independent of my favorite technology. I printed my edition manuscript and pulled out pencils. I found the notebooks I’d kept several years ago and reviewed what I had written by hand using the old technology I reserve for writing in my journals: my Waterman fountain pen. It came as a shock to find that I had forgotten how effective writing this way could be. Used to the exciting tools on the computer — the thesaurus, the word count — I’d forgotten that I had written the entire preface of the edition in long-hand well before transferring the draft to my computer. It’s not that I never used my pen or the notebooks I cached. I have, in fact, delighted in the sensual pleasures of the flowing ink and the lovely Japanese paper that fills the notebooks. That paper does provide, as the cover proclaims “most advanced quality” and “gives best writing features.” I love the way the ink works with this paper but I usually reserve that pleasure for my journal writing, preferring the illusion of speed in my other work. “Work” proceeds more effectively on the computer, or so I told myself.

In my break from computer assistance, I discovered a new truth: writing by hand can make my thinking go faster. This was a jolt to my fixed ideas indeed. As I developed my working life, my writing process, and my consciousness around my adored computer, I had ignored several strategies that worked as well or better to enhance my work. Though forced as I was to adapt because of my loss, the change in my own perceptions of my writing process were dramatic and refreshing. Instead of stagnating, I transformed my thinking. Instead of falling into inertia, I pursued my work, developing new energies as I did so. I discovered I could write 500 words in one hour.

Perhaps my computer had become more of a task-master than I imagined. Unlike the singular relationship pen has to paper, my computer holds all my tasks, so when I open the desktop’s folders, my attention remains divided among the projects I must sort through before starting on the one I choose. Putting pen to paper isolates the task at hand to the plain work of putting words on paper. Plain like Jane Eyre, without adornment, straightforward. My computer had become Blanche Ingram, right down to her alabaster skin."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Excite News - Dinky Pluto Loses Its Status As Planet

"Pluto, beloved by some as a cosmic underdog but scorned by astronomers who considered it too dinky and distant, was unceremoniously stripped of its status as a planet Thursday.

The International Astronomical Union, dramatically reversing course just a week after floating the idea of reaffirming Pluto's planethood and adding three new planets to Earth's neighborhood, downgraded the ninth rock from the sun in historic new galactic guidelines.

The shift will have the world's teachers scrambling to alter lesson plans just as schools open for the fall term.


Pluto, it's major moon Charon just below and to the right, and the recently discovered third and fourth moons

'It will all take some explanation, but it is really just a reclassification and I can't see that it will cause any problems,' said Neil Crumpton, who teaches science at a high school north of London. 'Science is an evolving subject and always will be.'

Powerful new telescopes, experts said, are changing the way they size up the mysteries of the solar system and beyond. But the scientists at the conference showed a soft side, waving plush toys of the Walt Disney character Pluto the dog - and insisting that Pluto's spirit will live on in the exciting discoveries yet to come.

"The word 'planet' and the idea of planets can be emotional because they're something we learn as children," said Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who helped hammer out the new definition.

"This is really all about science, which is all about getting new facts," he said. "Science has marched on. ... Many more Plutos wait to be discovered."

Pluto, a planet since 1930, got the boot because it didn't meet the new rules, which say a planet not only must orbit the sun and be large enough to assume a nearly round shape, but must "clear the neighborhood around its orbit." That disqualifies Pluto, whose oblong orbit overlaps Neptune's, downsizing the solar system to eight planets from the traditional nine.

Astronomers have labored without a universal definition of a planet since well before the time of Copernicus, who proved that the Earth revolves around the sun, and the experts gathered in Prague burst into applause when the guidelines were passed.

Predictably, Pluto's demotion provoked plenty of wistful nostalgia.

"It's disappointing in a way, and confusing," said Patricia Tombaugh, the 93-year-old widow of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.

"I don't know just how you handle it. It kind of sounds like I just lost my job," she said from Las Cruces, N.M. "But I understand science is not something that just sits there. It goes on. Clyde finally said before he died, 'It's there. Whatever it is. It is there.'"

The decision by the IAU, the official arbiter of heavenly objects, restricts membership in the elite cosmic club to the eight classical planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Pluto and objects like it will be known as "dwarf planets," which raised some thorny questions about semantics: If a raincoat is still a coat, and a cell phone is still a phone, why isn't a dwarf planet still a planet?

NASA said Pluto's downgrade would not affect its $700 million New Horizons spacecraft mission, which this year began a 9 1/2-year journey to the oddball object to unearth more of its secrets.

But mission head Alan Stern said he was "embarrassed" by Pluto's undoing and predicted that Thursday's vote would not end the debate. Although 2,500 astronomers from 75 nations attended the conference, only about 300 showed up to vote.

"It's a sloppy definition. It's bad science," he said. "It ain't over."

Under the new rules, two of the three objects that came tantalizingly close to planethood will join Pluto as dwarfs: the asteroid Ceres, which was a planet in the 1800s before it got demoted, and 2003 UB313, an icy object slightly larger than Pluto whose discoverer, Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, has nicknamed "Xena." The third object, Pluto's largest moon, Charon, isn't in line for any special designation.

Brown, whose Xena find rekindled calls for Pluto's demise because it showed it isn't nearly as unique as it once seemed, waxed philosophical.

"Eight is enough," he said, jokingly adding: "I may go down in history as the guy who killed Pluto."

Demoting the icy orb named for the Roman god of the underworld isn't personal - it's just business - said Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium and host of the PBS show "Star Gazer."

"It's like an amicable divorce," he said. "The legal status has changed but the person really hasn't. It's just single again.""

Monday, August 21, 2006

Hobbit or not? Species debate flares up - LiveScience - MSNBC.com

"Skeletal remains said to be that of a new 'hobbit' species in 2004 do not represent a new species, as then claimed, but some of the ancestors of modern human pygmies who live on the island today, according to an international scientific team.

The remains were found in a cave on the island of Flores, Indonesia. The researchers say those remains show signs of microcephaly, a condition in which the head and brain are much smaller than average for the person's age and gender.


The skull specimen attributed to a newly designated species known as Homo floresiensis is at left. Researchers created computer images of the skull with the left side mirrored at the midline (center) and the right side mirrored at the midline (right) in an effort to show that there were growth abnormalities.


'Our work documents the real dimensions of human variation here,' says Dr. Robert B. Eckhardt, professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology at Penn State.

The skeleton, dubbed LB1, "looks different if researchers think in terms of European characteristics because it samples a population that is not European, but Australomelanesian, and further because it is a developmentally abnormal individual, being microcephalic," Eckhardt said.

The new analysis, done by several researchers, argues that claims of a new species — "Homo floresiensis," commonly called hobbits — are incorrect.

The results were published Monday in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Those proposing a separate species had claimed that early human ancestors, Homo erectus, traveled to the island about 840,000 years ago and evolved into Homo floresiensis, based on the discovery of stone tools on the island. This claim assumed that there was no subsequent human migration to the island until after Homo floresiensis died out about 15,000 years ago.

In the newly published paper, the researchers contend that this is false, because pygmy elephants arrived on the island at least two separate times, and during periods of low sea levels Flores was isolated from other islands by only a few miles. Repeated influxes by later humans were not only possible, but likely, they argue.

For LB1'S cranium, face, dentition, skeleton, they find that many of the key features previously said to be diagnostic of a new species still are present in the Rampasasa pygmies on the island today, along with evidence for growth abnormalities.

"To establish a new species, paleoanthropologists are required to document a unique complex of normal traits not found in any other species," Eckhardt said in a statement. "But this was not done. The normal traits of LB1 were not unique, and its unusually small braincase was not normal."

Excite News - Astronomers Offer Proof of 'Dark Matter'

"Astronomers say they have found the best evidence to date for 'dark matter,' that mysterious invisible substance that is believed to account for the bulk of the universe's mass.

Using a host of telescopes, researchers focused on the collision between two galactic clusters. They found that most of the gravitational pull from the aftermath of the encounter comes from a relatively empty looking patch of sky, a strong suggestion that there is something more there than meets the eye.

'This provides the first direct proof that dark matter must exist,' said Doug Clowe, a research astronomer at the University of Arizona.

Clowe and his colleagues used NASA's Chandra X-ray observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and several ground-based observatories to examine the 'bullet cluster,' a clump of galaxies that formed over the last 100 million years from the violent collision of two smaller galactic clusters. The object gets its name from a bullet-shaped cloud of superhot gas on one of its sides.

Most of the visible mass in the bullet cluster is concentrated in that cloud and another near it. But using a technique known as gravitational lensing, Clowe and his colleagues show that the force of gravity is actually stronger in a part of the cluster that appears to be emptier.

They will publish their results in a future issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"This is really exciting," said University of Chicago physicist Sean Carroll, adding that the observations demonstrate the existence of dark matter "beyond a reasonable doubt." Carroll was not involved in the research.

Astronomers have used dark matter for 70 years to explain various observations about the universe's behavior. They have shown that rotating spiral galaxies would fly apart if it were not for the gravitational pull of undetectable matter in addition to their stars. Other observations show that the expansion of the universe is being held back by a force greater than the gravitational pull of visible matter alone.

Though dark matter clearly provides the best explanation for such observations, Clowe said, "astronomers have long been in the slightly embarrassing position" of having to appeal to some mysterious, unobservable material in order to make things fit together.

Some physicists have even proposed that it isn't the amount and type of matter in the universe that needs to be adjusted, it's the law of gravity itself. They have suggested alternative theories that boost the strength of gravity on galactic and intergalactic scales in order to do away with the need for dark matter.

"It's always possible that there's some modification of gravity going on as well," Carroll said. "No matter what you do you're going to have dark matter."

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Scientist says dolphins are dim-wits

The dim-wit here isn't the dolphins. Apparently this 'scientist' has never read *any* of the voluminous research conducted on dolphin intelligence. See my post here.

"Dolphins may have big brains but a South African-based scientist says lab rats and even goldfish can outwit them.



Paul Manger of Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand says the super-sized brains of dolphins, whales and porpoises are a function of being warm-blooded in a cold water environment and not a sign of intelligence.

'We equate our big brain with intelligence. Over the years we have looked at these kinds of things and said the dolphins must be intelligent,' he said.

"The real flaw in this logic is that it suggests all brains are built the same ... When you look at the structure of the dolphin brain you see it is not built for complex information processing," he told Reuters in an interview.

A neuroethologist who looks at brain evolution, Manger's views are sure to cause a stir among a public which has long associated dolphins with intelligence, emotion and other human-like qualities.

They are widely regarded as one of the smartest mammals. But Manger, whose peer-reviewed research on the subject has been published in "Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society", says the reality is different.

Brains, he says, are made of neurons and glia. The latter create the environment for the neurons to work properly and producing heat is one of glia's functions.

"Dolphins have a super-abundance of glia and very few neurons ... The dolphin's brain is not made for information processing it is designed to counter the thermal challenges of being a mammal in water," Manger said.

Fish out of water

Manger said observed behavior supports his iconoclastic take on dolphins as dim-wits.

"You put an animal in a box, even a lab rat or gerbil, and the first thing it wants to do is climb out of it. If you don't put a lid on top of the bowl a goldfish it will eventually jump out to enlarge the environment it is living in," he said.

"But a dolphin will never do that. In the marine parks the dividers to keep the dolphins apart are only a foot or two above the water between the different pools," he said.

Why not? Because, Manger says, the thought would simply not cross their unsophisticated minds.

They jump through hoops at marine parks only because they have been conditioned to for a food reward -- which may suggest the brain of a single-minded predator rather than a reasoned thinker.

"Dolphins can actually chain up to 16 stimulus response events, but this is indicative of good trainers and not intelligent animals. Stimulus-response conditioning is thought to be a low level of intelligent behavior," Manger said.

Manger also points to the tuna industry, which under consumer pressure has gone to great lengths to prevent dolphins from being caught and killed by accident in nets. "If they were really intelligent they would just jump over the net because it doesn't come out of the water," he said."

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Tale of the TV Tapes: Apollo 11 Mission Archive Mystery Unspools

"Back in July 1969, the first moonwalks by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are frozen forever moments in the history books. But it turns out that millions of riveted spectators back on Earth were on the receiving end of substantially degraded television showing the epic event.



The highest-quality television signal from Apollo 11’s touchdown zone in the moon's Sea of Tranquility—from an antenna mounted atop the Eagle lunar lander—was recorded on telemetry tapes at three tracking stations on Earth: Goldstone in California and Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes in Australia.

Scads of the tapes were produced—and now a search is on to locate them. And if recovered and given a 21st century digital makeover, they could yield a far sharper view of that momentous day, compared to what was broadcast around the globe.

But Apollo 11 is a memory rewind—now over 37 years old. Nobody is quite sure just how much longer the original slow-scan tapes will last … that is, if they haven’t already been erased.

Handled and archived

“I would simply like to clarify that the tapes are not lost as such, which implies they were badly handled, misplaced and are now gone forever. That is not the case,” explained John Sarkissian, operations scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s (CSIRO) Parkes Radio Observatory in Parkes, Australia.


Sarkissian said the tapes were appropriately handled and archived in the mid 1970’s after the hectic activity of the Apollo lunar landing era was over. “We are confident that they are stored at [NASA’s] Goddard Space Flight Center [in Greenbelt, Maryland] … we just don’t know where precisely,” he told SPACE.com. It is important to note, Sarkissian added, that there is no inference of wrong-doing, incompetence or negligence on the part of NASA or its employees.


“The archiving of the tapes was simply a lower priority during the Apollo era. It should be remembered, that at the time, NASA was totally focused on meeting its goal of putting a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No sooner had they done that, than they had to repeat it again a few months later, and then do it again, repeating it for a total of seven lunar landing missions … including Apollo 13,” Sarkissian pointed out.


Making it tough to track down the whereabouts of the data, many of those involved in the archiving of the tapes have since moved on, retired or passed away, “taking their corporate memory of where the tapes are with them,” Sarkissian said.


It is important not to exaggerate the quality of the images being sought, Sarkissian added. “The SSTV was not like modern high definition TV and nor was it even equal in quality to the normal broadcast TV we are accustomed to viewing,” he said.


Still, the SSTV was better than the scan-converted images that were broadcast at the time—which is the only version currently available, Sarkissian concluded."

Saturday, August 12, 2006

IBM PC turns 25 - Aug 12, 2006

It's hard to believe that so much time has passed...but equally hard to remember when we didn't rely on our ubiquitous PCs (Apple's included, of course!). My first 'personal computer' was a Sinclair ZX-81, subsequently marketed by Timex which was also from 1981 as I recall. You hooked the keyboard/computer up to your TV as a monitor, and used a cassette tape recorder to input games and programs. I purchased the 32K RAM expansion module as well!



My first real job was as a computer programmer, on the IBM 360 and 370 mainframe machines, when we used punchcards for input and humongous printouts and 'core dumps' to see where we went wrong. Having *any* kind of a monitor -- even a TV set -- was a treat!



"The May-December marriage of a young company called Microsoft and business powerhouse IBM would change the landscape of offices and homes across the globe.

August 12 is the 25th anniversary of the IBM personal computer launch, a pairing of MS and DOS, Microsoft and the disk operating system.



'MS-DOS moved computer access from a community measured in thousands to one measured in millions,' said Benn Konsynski, professor of business administration at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.

'It was a key transition from the hobbyist and 'geek' environment to business applications,' he said.

Several popular home computers existed before the 1981 IBM PC launch. But the regimented business world considered Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack's Tandy products 'toys.'
The IBM stamp of approval on a personal computer changed that mentality for good.
'Almost overnight, with IBM introducing the PC, it became OK to use it for real business applications,' said Tycho Howle, CEO of nuBridges in Atlanta, a provider of business-to-business services.

Howle remembers with fondness his first desktop PC.

'In 1981 I had an IBM PC, two-floppy system,' Howle said.

'To give young people these days a comparison: It would take 10 of those floppy disks to be able to hold the music that is on one MP3 song,' he said.

A floppy disk is a thin, plastic disk that was coated with a magnetic substance used to store data. Earliest disks were 8 inches wide, more efficient disks shrunk to 5 1/4 inches, then 3 1/2 inches. Unlike a CDs or DVDs of today, the disks were floppy, or flexible.

IBM, the 800 pound gorilla of the business world at the time, flooded trade papers and television with promises that this new device would provide "smoother scheduling, better planning, and greater productivity."

Click the title to read more

Sunday, August 06, 2006

After 10 Years, Few Believe Life on Mars

"It was a science fiction fantasy come true: Ten years ago this summer, NASA announced the discovery of life on Mars.

At a Washington, D.C., news conference, scientists showed magnified pictures of a four-pound Martian meteorite riddled with wormy blobs that looked like bacterial colonies. The researchers explained how they had pried numerous clues from the rock, all strongly supporting their contention that microscopic creatures once occupied its nooks and crannies.
It was arguably the space agency's most imagination-gripping moment since Apollo. Space buffs and NASA officials said that it just might be the scientific discovery of the century.
'If the results are verified,' the late Carl Sagan pronounced, 'it is a turning point in human history.'



Ten years later, the results have not been verified. Skeptics have found non-biological explanations for every piece of evidence that was presented on Aug. 6, 1996. And though they still vigorously defend their claim, the NASA scientists who advanced it now stand alone in their belief.

"We certainly have not convinced the community, and that's been a little bit disappointing," said David McKay, a NASA biochemist and leader of the team that started the scientific episode.

But even though the majority of his colleagues don't buy his "life on Mars" theory - McKay's own brother, also a NASA scientist, is one of his most prominent critics - many say they respect him and greatly appreciate his efforts.

The announcement and the technical paper that followed it practically created exobiology, the scientific field that investigates the potential for life on other planets.

"Without that paper I wouldn't be working in this field," said Martin Fisk, a marine geologist who studies how bacteria survive under the sea floor, partly because their harsh environment may resemble that of extraterrestrial life.

Debating the claim has helped researchers develop standards that will eventually prove useful for evaluating the presence of life in other Martian meteorites or a sample from the red planet. It has given the scientific community ideas about exactly where on the planet they would most like to scoop up a sample, should they ever get to retrieve one.

And it is undeniable that McKay and his colleagues have drawn attention to what is - whether it contains evidence of life or not - a very interesting rock.

The rock in question was discovered in Antarctica, where rocks that fall from the heavens are easy to spot on the icy glacial plains. Its name, ALH84001, indicates that it was the first meteorite found during the 1984 research season in the Allan Hills, an especially meteorite-rich area in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains.

At first ALH84001 was misclassified, so it wasn't until 1993 that researchers even realized the rock came from Mars. That was interesting enough, because at the time fewer than a dozen Martian meteorites were known to science.

But ALH84001 also turned out to be much more ancient than the other known Martian meteorites. At 4.5 billion years old, it dates from a period of Martian history when liquid water - a requirement for the presence of life - probably existed at the now barren planet's surface.

It made sense to ask: Could there be fossils of ancient Martian microbes, or maybe traces of them, preserved in the cracks and pore spaces of ALH84001?

The NASA scientists proffered four reasons to support their view that the answer to that question is "Yes."

First, chemical analysis showed that the meteorite contained a variety of organic molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs can be produced by biological processes, and that's what McKay and his colleagues argued. But they are also commonly found in asteroids, comets and meteorites, not to mention the Antarctic ice where ALH84001 is estimated to have lain for 13,000 years. For that reason, skeptics immediately dismissed the importance of PAHs in the Martian meteorite.

A second line of evidence - that the elongated blobs in the electron microscope images could be fossils of ancient Martian bacteria - was also rejected pretty quickly by most scientists.



The problem was, those blobs were much smaller than any bacteria that have ever been observed on Earth. A National Research Council panel concluded in 1998 that the blobs were 100 to 1,000 times too small to be free-living organisms because they couldn't have held all the proteins, DNA and other molecules necessary for even the simplest metabolic processes.

You could argue that perhaps Martian life evolved a more compact biochemistry, or that the blobs shriveled as they fossilized. At one point McKay and the other NASA scientists suggested the blobs might be pieces of larger organisms.

"That was only mentioned once or twice and never brought up again," said Allan Treiman, a geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

The two other lines of evidence survived longer. Both revolved around minerals sprinkled through the meteorite that could have been produced by microbes.

The first mineral, carbonate, is typically formed on earth by the remains of living organisms that make shells and other skeletal parts out of minerals they extract from seawater. Some of those organisms can be quite tiny. So finding carbonate in ALH84001 could indicate the presence of ancient microbes in the rock.

The story is similar for magnetite, the other mineral of interest in ALH84001. Some bacteria produce extraordinarily small and pure magnetite crystals, then align the magnetic grains to make a microscopic compass needle that helps them navigate.

The bacteria don't use their internal compasses to find north; they use them to tell up from down. Earth's spherical shape means that a compass needle in either hemisphere points at least somewhat downward, so the magnetite grains help the microbes sense where they are with respect to the planet's surface.

Some of the most evolutionarily ancient bacteria on Earth produce magnetite, McKay and his colleagues pointed out. Perhaps ancient Martian microbes did as well; at least some of the magnetite grains in ALH84001 share the shape, small size and remarkable purity of those produced by bacteria on Earth.

Of all the lines of evidence presented by the NASA scientists, it was the magnetite grains that proved most provocative. They were embedded in the carbonate along with other iron-containing minerals in such an unusual arrangement that something out of the ordinary must have put them there - could it have been alive?

"The shape of the magnetite grains is still rather distinctive," McKay said. "If it were found on Earth it would be a very strong biosignature."

For years McKay and his detractors argued about how distinctive the magnetite grains in ALH84001 are, and whether a non-biological process could have produced them. Certainly nobody had ever produced similar magnetite grains in the laboratory.

Then somebody did. In 2001 a second team of NASA scientists, including McKay's brother Gordon and a consultant to the space agency named D.C. Golden, managed to cook up a batch of magnetite grains very similar to the ones in ALH84001. Golden and Gordon McKay were also able to incorporate the magnetite grains into balls of carbonate like the ones David McKay and his colleagues described in 1996.

"He got a little testy about the results we were getting," said Gordon McKay, whose office is down the hall from his brother's. "What we have shown is that it is possible to form these things inorganically."

What's more, their laboratory method simulated conditions ALH84001 is known to have experienced during its time on Mars.

Yet David McKay insists his brother's team has not accurately described the synthetic crystals' shape, and that they aren't sufficiently similar to the ones found in ALH84001. He also suggests that the purity of the magnetite crystals stems not from the lab process itself, but from using unrealistically pure raw materials as a starting point.

Most of the scientific community doesn't buy those arguments.

"Personally I don't understand why (Gordon McKay's and) Golden's work hasn't just been the final word on it," said Treiman, the Lunar and Planetary Institute geologist.

Now David McKay has added another meteorite to the mix. At a March scientific meeting he presented microscopic images of the Nakhla meteorite, another Martian specimen. The pictures resemble pits that terrestrial bacteria create as they literally eat the volcanic rock of the sea floor.

"When I first saw it I was really struck by the similarity," said marine geologist Fisk, who is a professor at Oregon State University.

So far the scientific community hasn't shown much interest in David McKay's analysis of the Nakhla meteorite, partly because it dates from a more recent period of Martian history when the planet was just as frigid and inhospitable to life as it is today. In fact all of the 30-some Martian meteorites now known to science, with the exception of ALH84001, are probably too young to have contained living organisms.

But new Martian meteorites turn up almost every year. Eventually, another 4.5 billion-year-old piece of the red planet is going to be discovered.

"Sooner or later we're going to get another old rock," said Massachusetts Institute of Technology geophysicist Benjamin Weiss.

And when that happens, the talk about life on Mars will begin anew."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

VANITY FAIR : 9/11 Live: The NORAD Tapes

"How did the U.S. Air Force respond on 9/11? Could it have shot down United 93, as conspiracy theorists claim? Obtaining 30 hours of never-before-released tapes from the control room of NORAD's Northeast headquarters, the author reconstructs the chaotic military history of that day—and the Pentagon's apparent attempt to cover it up."



Click on the title link to go to the article and hear some of the actual phone calls and transmissions.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Fischer's dispute with Swiss bank

01.08.2006 Without giving a reason the Union Bank of Switzerland, one of the world's largest, has transferred the assets of the legendary chess world champion Bobby Fischer to a bank account in Iceland, where Fischer now resides. The sum of three million Swiss Francs (US $2.4 m or €1.9 m) was transferred without Fischer's permission and against his will.

Nobody knows why.



Bobby Fischer goes public on UBS
Criticises the bank for using discriminatory measures


In an lengthy interview with Morgunbladid, Reykjavik, last Saturday July 29th, chess legend and world champion Bobby Fischer revealed that he has been in a long and difficult dispute with the Union Bank of Switzerland, one of the world’s major banks, since he received in April 2005, soon after his arrival to Iceland from a detention in Japan, a notification that the UBS intended to terminate his account, which he had held with the bank for over 13 years since 1992.

The UBS asked Mr. Fischer for his banking details in Iceland in order to transfer all his assets and deposits with the bank, around three million dollars, notifying him at the same time about its unilateral decision to terminate all business relationship with him, without stating any reason or clarification for the action. Then, against Mr. Fischer's repeated protests, the UBS, after some extension of the deadline, went ahead in August 2005 and transferred all his funds to the Landsbanki in Reykjavik. The UBS even liquidated some of Fischer's gold coins, from his match with Boris Spassky in Sveti Stefan in 1992, and other investments, without his prior approval at a time when the rate for gold was very unfavorable.

According to Morgunbladid Mr. Fischer was not willing to receive his financial funds from the UBS in this way, he reserved his rights to take appropriate actions and asked Landsbanki to return the remittance immediately to the account of the UBS where the funds have been floating while this dispute continues."

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Scientists Say Erie Mirage Could Be Real

"Scientists say it's a mirage, but others swear that when the weather is right, Clevelanders can see across Lake Erie and spot Canadian trees and buildings 50 miles away.
Eyewitness accounts have long been part of the city's history.

'The whole sweep of the Canadian shore stood out as if less than three miles away,' a story in The Plain Dealer proclaimed in 1906. 'The distant points across the lake stood out for nearly an hour and then faded away.'

'I can see how this could be possible,' said Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the Physics Department at Case Western Reserve University.

Krauss and Joe Prahl, chairman of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at Case, said mirages can occur during an atmospheric inversion, in which a layer of cold air blankets the lake, topped by layers of increasingly warm air. When this happens, it can cause the light that filters through these layers from across the lake to bend, forming a lens that can create the illusion of distant objects.

The scientists said the air has to be extremely calm for the mirage to appear. If the wind blows, it distorts or dissolves the image.

Prahl and Krauss said such a mirage is rare. But Tom Schmidlin, a meteorologist in the Geography Department at Kent State University, said it's hardly unheard-of.

"It's not terribly unusual. Sailors are always exposed to this kind of thing," he said.

Prahl, who regularly sails his 30-foot sloop Seabird from Cleveland to Canada, has never seen it.

But Bob Boughner, a reporter for the Chatham Daily News in Ontario, said he's seen Cleveland from across Lake Erie twice, the first time four summers ago while driving along a road near the lake. He saw it again two summer ago while driving along the same road.

All of a sudden, there was Cleveland, just off the Canadian shore, as if it were just across a river, he said.

"I happened to look across the lake and, geez, I couldn't believe the sight," he said. "I could see the cars and the stoplights. I could even make out the different colors of the vehicles. It lasted a good two or three minutes."

Boughner said he remembers his aunt Melba Bates, who lived all her life on Lake Erie and recently died in her late 90s, talking about being able to see Cleveland, but he didn't believe her.

"I thought she was making up stories," he said. "But sure enough, I could see the same damned thing. When it shows up, it looks like you can touch it."