Sunday, December 30, 2007

New efficient bulb sees the light

A new type of super-efficient household light bulb is being developed which could spell the end of regular bulbs.

Experts have found a way to make Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) brighter and use less power than energy efficient light bulbs currently on the market.

The technology, used in gadgets such as mobile phones and computers, had previously not been powerful enough to be used for lighting.

But Glasgow University scientists said they had resolved the problem.

The project, being developed along with the Institute of Photonics at the University of Strathclyde, involves making microscopic holes in the surface of LEDs to increase the level of light they give off.

This is a process known as nano-imprint lithography.

Dr Faiz Rahman, who is leading the project, said: "As yet, LEDs have not been introduced as the standard lighting in homes because the process of making the holes is very time consuming and expensive.

"However, we believe we have found a way of imprinting the holes into billions of LEDs at a far greater speed, but at a much lower cost."

He added: "This means the days of the humble light-bulb could soon be over."

Story from BBC NEWS

Friday, December 28, 2007

PBS Tempo video with Kurt Gimson

This is an interview with my good friend Kurt Gimson, whom I've known for close to 40 years. HIs real claim to fame is that he's always played a mean game of table tennis!

The Queen's Christmas broadcast, 2007

Embedded Video

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Monkeys can do mental math, too

Rhesus macaques perform quick addition almost as well as college kids

"Rhesus macaque monkeys performed nearly as well as college students at quick mental addition, researchers reported Monday, adding to the evidence that non-verbal math skills are not unique to humans.

The study from Duke University follows findings by Japanese researchers earlier this month that young chimpanzees performed better than human adults at a memory game.

Prior studies have found that non-human primates can match numbers of objects, compare numbers and choose the larger number of two sets of objects.

"This is the first study that looked at whether or not they could make explicit decisions that were based on mathematical types of calculations," said Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at Duke whose work appeared in the open-access journal PLoS Biology.

"It shows when you take language away from a human, they end up looking just like monkeys in terms of their performance," Cantlon told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Her study pitted Boxer and Feinstein — two female rhesus macaques named after U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California — against 14 Duke University students.

"We had them do math on the fly," Cantlon said.

The task was to perform mental addition on two sets of dots that were briefly flashed on a computer screen. The teams were asked to pick the correct answer from two choices on a different screen.

The humans were not allowed to count or verbalize as they worked, and they were told to answer as quickly as possible. The monkeys and the humans all typically answered within 1 second.

The college students answered correctly 94 percent of the time, while the monkeys were right 76 percent of the time. Both the monkeys' and the students' performance worsened when the two choice boxes were close in number, following a similar downward-sloping curve.

"If the correct sum was 11 and the box with the incorrect number held 12 dots, both monkeys and the college students took longer to answer and had more errors," Cantlon explained in a Duke news release. "We call this the ratio effect. What's remarkable is that both species suffered from the ratio effect at virtually the same rate."

Cantlon told Reuters that the study was not designed to show up Duke University students. "I think of this more as using non-human primates as a tool for discovering where the sophisticated human mind comes from," she said.

The researchers said the findings shed light on the shared mathematical abilities in humans and non-human primates and shows the importance of language — which allows for counting and more advanced calculations — in the evolution of math in humans.

"I don't think language is the only thing that differentiates humans from non-human primates, but in terms of math tasks, it is probably the big one," she said.

As for the teams, both were paid. Boxer and Feinstein got their favorite reward: a sip of Kool-Aid soft drink. As for the students, they got $10 each — enough for a beer or two."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Caught on Tape: Death Star Galaxy

"The latest act of senseless violence caught on tape is cosmic in scope: A black hole in a "death star galaxy" blasting a neighboring galaxy with a deadly jet of radiation and energy.

A fleet of space and ground telescopes have captured images of this cosmic violence, which people have never witnessed before, according to a new study released Monday by NASA.

"It's like a bully, a black-hole bully punching the nose of a passing galaxy," said astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, who wasn't involved in the research.

But ultimately, this could be a deadly punch.

The telescope images show the bully galaxy shooting a stream of deadly radiation particles into the lower section of the other galaxy, which is about one-tenth its size. Both are about 8.2 billion trillion miles from here, orbiting around each other.

The larger galaxy has a multi-digit name but is called the "death star galaxy" by one of the researchers who discovered the galactic bullying, Daniel Evans of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Tens of millions of stars, including those with orbiting planets, are likely in the path of the deadly jet, said study co-author Martin Hardcastle of the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom.

If Earth were in the way - and it's not - the high-energy particles and radiation of the jet would in a matter of months strip away the planet's protective ozone layer and compress the protective magnetosphere, said Evans. That would then allow the sun and the jet itself to bombard the planet with high-energy particles.

And what would that do life on the planet?

"Decompose it," Tyson said.

"Sterilize it," Evans piped in.

The jet attack is relatively new, in deep space time. Hardcastle estimates it's no more than 1 million years old and can stretch on for another 10 to 100 million years.

"A truly extraordinary act of violence," Evans said. "The jet violently slams into that lower half of the neighboring galaxy after which the jet dramatically twists and bends."

The good news is that eventually an area of hot gas that gets hit and compressed by this mysterious jet - astronomers are still baffled by what's in it and how it works - over millions and billions of years can form stars, Tyson said.

NASA, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in United States and the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom used ground optical and radio telescopes, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope to get an image of the violence on various wavelengths, including invisible ones. The results will be published in The Astrophysical Journal next year.

The two galaxies are only 24,000 light-years apart and are in a slow merging process. The jet has already traveled 1 million light-years. A light-year is about 5.88 trillion miles.

Tyson said there are two main lessons to be learned from what the telescopes have found:

"This is a reminder that you are not alone in the universe. You are not isolated. You are not an island."

And "avoid black holes when you can.""

Arthur C. Clarke Still Hopes to Meet ET

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke listed three wishes on his 90th birthday: for the world to embrace cleaner energy resources, for a lasting peace in his adopted home of Sri Lanka, and for evidence of extraterrestrial beings.

"I have always believed that we are not alone in this universe," he said in a speech to a small gathering of scientists, astronauts and government officials Sunday in Colombo where he lives.

Humans are waiting until extraterrestrial beings "call us or give us a sign," he said. "We have no way of guessing when this might happen. I hope sooner rather than later."

Clarke has written more than 100 sci-fi books, including "2001: A Space Odyssey." His fiction predicted space travel before rockets were even test fired and envisioned computers dominating ordinary lives.

The British-born writer, who was knighted in 1998, moved to Sri Lanka in 1954 and became a resident guest - meaning he can stay permanently without a resident visa - in 1975. Since then, an ethnic conflict has flared and continues to rage between government forces and Tamil Tiger separatists on the tropical island. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

"I dearly wish to see a lasting peace being established in Sri Lanka. Peace just cannot be wished, it requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence," he said.

Clarke, who suffers from post-polio syndrome and is confined to a wheelchair, cut a cake with "Happy Birthday Sir Arthur" written on it, as Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse, visiting astronauts and scientists sang "Happy Birthday."

Russian Alexei Leonov, who took the first walk in space in March 1965 and was a guest at Clarke's birthday tea party Sunday, gave him a medal from the Federation of Cosmonauts of Russia.

"Sometimes I am asked how I would like to be remembered," Clarke said. "I have had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer and space promoter. Of all these I would like to be remembered as a writer."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Why Time Seems to Slow Down in Emergencies

"In The Matrix, the hero Neo could dodge bullets because time moved in slow motion for him during battles. Indeed, in the real world, people in danger often feel as if time slowed down for them.

This warping of time apparently does not result from the brain speeding up from adrenaline when in danger. Instead, this feeling seems to be an illusion, scientists now find.

To see if danger makes people experience time in slow motion, scientists at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston tried scaring volunteers. However, roller coasters and other frightening amusement park rides did not cause enough fear to make time warp.

Instead, the researchers dropped volunteers from great heights. Scientists had volunteers dive backward with no ropes attached, into a special net that helped break their fall. They reached 70 mph during the roughly three-second, 150-foot drop.

"It's the scariest thing I have ever done," said researcher David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine. "I knew it was perfectly safe, and I also knew that it would be the perfect way to make people feel as though an event took much longer than it actually did."

Indeed, volunteers estimated their own fall lasted about a third longer than dives they saw other volunteers take.

To see if this meant people in danger could actually see and perceive more—like a video camera in slow motion can—Eagleman and his colleagues developed a device called a "perceptual chronometer" that was strapped onto volunteers' wrists. This watch-like device flickered numbers on its screen. The scientists could adjust the speed at which numbers appeared until they were too fast to see.

See a video here

If the brain sped up when in danger, the researchers theorized numbers on the perceptual chronometers would appear slow enough to read while volunteers fell. Instead, the scientists found that volunteers could not read the numbers at faster-than-normal speeds.

"We discovered that people are not like Neo in The Matrix, dodging bullets in slow-mo," Eagleman said.

Memory trick

Instead, such time warping seems to be a trick played by one's memory. When a person is scared, a brain area called the amygdala becomes more active, laying down an extra set of memories that go along with those normally taken care of by other parts of the brain.

"In this way, frightening events are associated with richer and denser memories," Eagleman explained. "And the more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took."

Eagleman added this illusion "is related to the phenomenon that time seems to speed up as you grow older. When you're a child, you lay down rich memories for all your experiences; when you're older, you've seen it all before and lay down fewer memories. Therefore, when a child looks back at the end of a summer, it seems to have lasted forever; adults think it zoomed by."

This work could help better understand disorders linked with timing, such as schizophrenia. Still, in the end, "it's really about understanding the virtual reality machinery that we're trapped in," Eagleman told LiveScience. "Our brain constructs this reality for us that, if we look closely, we can find all these strange illusions in. The fact that we're now seeing this with how we perceive time is new.""

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Chimps Beat Humans on Memory Tasks

Young Chimps' Photographic Memory Better than Adult Humans

"In a memory competition of man versus chimp, Japanese researchers found that chimpanzees performed better than humans.

"No one could imagine that chimpanzees -- young chimpanzees at the age of 5 -- have a better performance in a memory task than humans," Kyoto University researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa said in a statement.

In the first test, the chimps successfully counted sequentially from one to nine in return for a peanut or other tasty reward.

In the second test, researchers flashed just some of the nine numerals, then blocked them. The chimps remembered, with mixed success, where each numeral was -- in the right order, even though some were missing.

Though far from perfect, the results surprised the Japanese researchers, who reported their results in the journal Current Biology.

See a video here and here

One chimp, Ayumu, distinguished himself from the other chimps in mental ability. He was included in a second round of tests, which included him and 9 college students.

Five numbers were flashed on a screen for 7/10 of a second, before they became white squares. The participants were required to touch the squares in their correct numerical sequence. When the numbers were shown, Ayumu and the college students succeeded in guessing the correct sequence about 80 percent of the time."

The Hobbit

A BBC documentary about Homo floresiensis...the Hobbit.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Thursday, November 29, 2007

New Findings Underscore an Earth-Venus Kinship

From the NY Times:

"Other than the hellish heat, a crushing carbon dioxide atmosphere and corrosive clouds of sulfuric acid, Venus is a lot like Earth, scientists said yesterday.

In a news conference at the Paris headquarters of the European Space Agency, the scientists, working on the agency’s Venus Express mission, played up the Venus-as-Earth’s-twin angle in presenting their newest findings, including signs of lightning, surprising swings of temperature and additional evidence that Venus could have once had oceans the size of Earth’s.

“They’re really twins which are just separated at birth,” said Dmitri Titov, the mission’s science coordinator. “The key question is why those twins are so different.”

Understanding the dynamics and history of Venus’s turbulent atmosphere could lead to a better understanding of the role that heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide play in shaping the climate of planets including Earth.

Eight scientific articles describing the observations of Venus Express, the first spacecraft to visit the planet in more than a decade, appear in today’s issue of the journal Nature.

Venus is about the same size and mass as Earth, and of roughly the same composition. And before the space age, planetary scientists imagined an Earth-like environment, perhaps even tropical jungles, obscured by Venus’s perpetual cloud cover. But in 1958, when astronomers measured intense microwaves emanating from the planet, they first got a hint that it was not as lush as they had imagined.

Subsequent visits by spacecraft confirmed that the surface temperatures exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt tin and lead. Although Venus is closer to the Sun than is Earth, the clouds reflect much of the sunlight, and the high temperatures largely result from the heat-trapping effects of an atmosphere that is almost pure carbon dioxide and about 100 times as dense as Earth’s.

Scientists imagine that Venus formed with much liquid water, just like Earth, but that because it is closer to the Sun, with sunlight twice as intense as on Earth, the water began to evaporate. Water vapor, also a greenhouse gas, trapped heat.

“That heats up the surface and leads to more evaporation,” said David Grinspoon of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “It’s a powerful feedback.”

The evaporation accelerated until all the liquid water had turned into a thick atmosphere of water vapor. As the water molecules floated in the air, scientists hypothesize, ultraviolet rays from the Sun broke them apart into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Chemical reactions with minerals in the rocks transformed the oxygen into carbon dioxide. The hydrogen, the lightest of atoms, escaped into outer space.

Measurements from Venus Express, which arrived at the planet last year, support that hypothesis, looking at amounts of hydrogen remaining in the atmosphere compared with concentrations of deuterium, a heavier version of hydrogen. The heavier deuterium would escape more slowly into space, and Venus Express detected a deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio 150 times as high as on Earth, a finding that agreed with earlier measurements. What was surprising, though, was that the deuterium concentration turned out to be 2.5 times as high in the upper atmosphere as near the ground.

“We haven’t completely figured out what it means yet,” Dr. Grinspoon said. “Once we crack this mystery, this will be an important clue to this overall question of the history of water.”

In other measurements, Venus Express detected the bursts of radio waves known as “whistlers,” which, at least on Earth, are generated by lightning, and also found large temperature swings, up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, between the daytime and nighttime sides of Venus.

The much thicker atmosphere would have been expected to minimize the temperature differences, said Andrew P. Ingersoll, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology who wrote a commentary in Nature to accompany the scientific papers.

Dr. Ingersoll said he remained skeptical of lightning despite earlier observations by space probes and Earth telescopes. The clouds of Venus are much different from those that produce thunderstorms on Earth. “They’re more like smog in L.A.,” he said. “It’s really just a haze of sulfuric acid. That kind of cloud, at least on Earth, doesn’t produce electrical charge. And thus it’s a little puzzling to have lightning.”

Friday, November 16, 2007

Led by Robots, Roaches Abandon Instincts

"Many a mother has said, with a sigh, “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?”

The answer, for cockroaches at least, may well be yes. Researchers using robotic roaches were able to persuade real cockroaches to do things that their instincts told them were not the best idea.

This experiment in bug peer pressure combined entomology, robotics and the study of ways that complex and even intelligent patterns can arise from simple behavior. Animal behavior research shows that swarms working together can prosper where individuals might fail, and robotics researchers have been experimenting with simple robots that, together, act a little like a swarm.

“We decided to join the two approaches,” said José Halloy, a biology researcher at the Free University of Brussels and lead author of a paper describing the research in today’s issue of the journal Science.

Dr. Halloy and his colleagues worked with roaches because their societies are simple, egalitarian and democratic, with none of the social stratification seen in some other insect societies — no queen bees, no worker ants. “Cockroaches are not like that,” Dr. Halloy said. “They live all together.”

They also have weak eyes, which allowed the researchers to create a robotic roach that resembles a miniature golf cart more than an insect. In the roach world, however, looking right is not as important as smelling right, and the scientists doused the machines with eau de cockroach sex hormones.

They set up a cockroach arena one yard in diameter. Two six-inch-wide plastic discs were suspended over it, providing the dark shelters that cockroaches prefer to congregate in. But one disc was darker and a more likely cockroach hangout.

When 16 cockroaches were placed in the arena, they naturally gravitated toward the darker disc, following what the researchers believe is an internal calculation of the amount of light and the number of other roaches, finding comfort in company.

Dr. Halloy then replaced four of the cockroaches with four robots equipped with sensors to measure light and the proximity of other robots. When the robots emulated the real roaches, the group continued to seek the dark and crowded place.

When the four robotic roaches were reprogrammed to prefer the lighter disc, however, the real roaches followed them about 60 percent of the time, in essence deferring their own judgment as the preference grew more popular. (The other 40 percent of the time, the robotic roaches succumbed to peer pressure and headed for the darkest place.)

“It’s a cascade of imitation, so a small effect can become quite large,” said Stephen Pratt, a professor of life sciences at Arizona State University. “This one is a real step forward. They’ve developed these theories about what kinds of individual behavior rules would have to follow to generate a collective intelligence. I thought it was very gratifying they could get the roaches to do what they normally would not do.”

The scientists plan to extend their research to higher animals. The next creation: a robotic chicken, which will look a little like a ball on tank treads with loudspeakers. Newly hatched chicks, which bond to the first thing they see, will do so with the robot as if it were their mother. The researchers say they hope to explore the chicks’ behavior with the false mother as leader.

The current research did not test whether the robots could lead the cockroaches to something they really disliked, like broad daylight or insecticide. The results also apply only to cockroaches, Dr. Halloy said. “We are not interested in people,” he said."

My question is...why did the programmed roaches follow the real roaches 40 percent of the time????

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wow! Japan’s moon probe updates Earthrise

"A Japanese moon probe has replicated the famous Apollo-era "Earthrise" photograph with modern high-definition imaging.

The Kaguya spacecraft, also called Selene, has been orbiting 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the moon since Oct. 18.

The new Earthrise image shows our blue world floating in the blackness of space. Released on Tuesday, it is a still shot taken from video made by the craft's high-definition television camera.


A second image, taken from a different location in the lunar orbit, has been dubbed "Earthset." A related series of still images shows our planet setting beyond the lunar horizon.

In the Earthset image, Earth appears upside-down; visible are Australia and Asia. A region near the moon's south pole is seen in the foreground."


Dylan videos

The uninvited guest: Chinese sub pops up in middle of U.S. Navy exercise, leaving military chiefs red-faced

From the U.K.'s Daily Mail...

"When the U.S. Navy deploys a battle fleet on exercises, it takes the security of its aircraft carriers very seriously indeed.

At least a dozen warships provide a physical guard while the technical wizardry of the world's only military superpower offers an invisible shield to detect and deter any intruders.

That is the theory. Or, rather, was the theory.

A Chinese Song class submarine, like the one that surfaced by the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk

American military chiefs have been left dumbstruck by an undetected Chinese submarine popping up at the heart of a recent Pacific exercise and close to the vast U.S.S. Kitty Hawk - a 1,000ft supercarrier with 4,500 personnel on board.

By the time it surfaced the 160ft Song Class diesel-electric attack submarine is understood to have sailed within viable range for launching torpedoes or missiles at the carrier.

According to senior Nato officials the incident caused consternation in the U.S. Navy.

The Americans had no idea China's fast-growing submarine fleet had reached such a level of sophistication, or that it posed such a threat.

One Nato figure said the effect was "as big a shock as the Russians launching Sputnik" - a reference to the Soviet Union's first orbiting satellite in 1957 which marked the start of the space age.

The incident, which took place in the ocean between southern Japan and Taiwan, is a major embarrassment for the Pentagon.

The Kitty Hawk carries 4,500 personnel

The lone Chinese vessel slipped past at least a dozen other American warships which were supposed to protect the carrier from hostile aircraft or submarines.

And the rest of the costly defensive screen, which usually includes at least two U.S. submarines, was also apparently unable to detect it.

According to the Nato source, the encounter has forced a serious re-think of American and Nato naval strategy as commanders reconsider the level of threat from potentially hostile Chinese submarines.

It also led to tense diplomatic exchanges, with shaken American diplomats demanding to know why the submarine was "shadowing" the U.S. fleet while Beijing pleaded ignorance and dismissed the affair as coincidence.

Analysts believe Beijing was sending a message to America and the West demonstrating its rapidly-growing military capability to threaten foreign powers which try to interfere in its "backyard".

The People's Liberation Army Navy's submarine fleet includes at least two nuclear-missile launching vessels.

Its 13 Song Class submarines are extremely quiet and difficult to detect when running on electric motors.

Commodore Stephen Saunders, editor of Jane's Fighting Ships, and a former Royal Navy anti-submarine specialist, said the U.S. had paid relatively little attention to this form of warfare since the end of the Cold War.

He said: "It was certainly a wake-up call for the Americans.

"It would tie in with what we see the Chinese trying to do, which appears to be to deter the Americans from interfering or operating in their backyard, particularly in relation to Taiwan."

In January China carried a successful missile test, shooting down a satellite in orbit for the first time."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Holiday cards and the lost art of letter writing

"I’ve always been a writer. Not just out here in public, where everyone and anyone can read me, but privately, in the comfort of my home, at my desk, or curled up on my my sofa, lap tray, pens, paper and postage stamps in place. I am a letter writer. A compulsive letter writer.

It’s a compulsion that manifests itself in the months leading up to Christmas, months when I haul out my once finely honed Palmer penmanship - once done with Parker fountain pen, inkwell and blotters - taught in grueling detail by the nuns at the French Catholic school of my childhood. Honed further still by my mother, whose penchant for cards, notes, letters and postcards were unrivaled in our neighborhood. I get it from her. And her mother and father before her."

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Chimpanzee Who Knew Sign Language Dies

"Washoe, a female chimpanzee believed to be the first non-human to acquire human language, has died of natural causes at the research institute where she was kept.

Washoe, who first learned a bit of American Sign Language in a research project in Nevada, had been living on Central Washington University's Ellensburg campus since 1980. She had a vocabulary of about 250 words.

She died Tuesday night, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, co-founders of The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on the campus. She was born in Africa about 1965.

She was taken to the veterinary hospital at Washington State University on Wednesday for a necropsy. Her memorial will be Nov. 12.

"Washoe was an emissary, bringing us a message of respect for nature," Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold, assistant director of the nonprofit institute, said Wednesday.

The Fouts went to Central Washington from Oklahoma in 1980 to create a home for Washoe and other chimps.

"The entire CWU community and the Ellensburg community are feeling the loss of our friend, Washoe, one of our daughters," said CWU President Jerilyn S. McIntyre.

Washoe also taught sign language to three younger chimps who remain at the institute, Central Washington spokeswoman Becky Watson said. They are Tatu, 31, Loulis, 29, and Dar, 31.

Washoe was the only chimpanzee at the institute born in Africa and was the matriarch of the chimpanzee family. She was named for Washoe County, Nev., where she lived with Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno, from 1966 to 1970.

Primate researcher Jane Goodall, in Roger Fouts' book "Next of Kin," noted the importance of the work with Washoe.

"Roger, through his ongoing conversations with Washoe and her extended family, has opened a window into the cognitive workings of a chimpanzee's mind that adds new dimension to our understanding," Goodall was quoted as saying.

In 1967, the Gardners established Project Washoe to teach the chimp ASL. Previous attempts to teach chimpanzees to imitate vocal languages had failed. Roger Fouts was a graduate student of the Gardners.

For Washoe to be considered "reliable" on a sign, it had to be seen by three different observers in three separate instances. Then it had to be seen 15 days in a row to be added to her sign list.

But there was controversy over whether the chimp was really using ASL. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has contended the notion that Washoe was the first non-human to acquire a human language was without scientific support."

Friends of Washoe

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Dylan does Cadillac

Longer version, for his radio program

About to be Mugged? Turn into a Coke Machine

"It's easy to just write up some Japanese inventions as nonsense, but let's face it, even the most outlandish innovations coming out of the land of the rising sun will probably be common place on our side of the Pacific in a decade or so. It's with that in mind that I present Aya Tsukioka's urban camouflage.

Street crime, while still not as prevalent as it is here, is a growing crime in Japan. In the States, we've adopted various method for combating threats to our personal safety, like increased police presence, public cameras, and arming the public, all of which have been met with varying degrees of success.

Tsukioka, an "experimental clothing designer," has taken a decidedly more Looney Tunes-esque approach with her latest line. The New York Times took a trip to Tokyo to visit the designer, who lifted up a flap on her bright red skirt, transforming herself into a walking soda vending machine.

Tsukioka has produced a line of similarly-themed accessories, including a purse that looks like a manhole cover and a bag that turns into a Japanese fire hydrant. "These ideas might strike foreigners as far-fetched," she told The Times, "but in Japan, they can become reality."

For $800, you can bring the reality of a wearable vending machine home."

Friday, October 26, 2007

Shatner's Kirk Not Aboard for New 'Trek'

"The original Capt. Kirk is disheartened he won't get to boldly go anywhere with his old pal Spock in the new "Star Trek" movie. While Leonard Nimoy is reprising his role as the pointy-eared Vulcan in next year's science-fiction flick, William Shatner is not on board as Kirk.

"I couldn't believe it. I'm not in the movie at all. Leonard, God bless his heart, is in, but not me," Shatner, 76, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "I thought, what a decision to make, since it obviously is a decision not to make use of the popularity I have to ensure the movie has good box office. It didn't seem to be a wise business decision."

Director J.J. Abrams announced last summer that Nimoy would reprise the role he originated opposite Shatner in the 1960s television show and played again in six big-screen adventures.

Abrams said Shatner probably would have a part in the film, which is due in theaters in December 2008. But while Shatner said he had a couple of meetings with Abrams, nothing came of it.

Abrams'"Trek" film, whose plot is being kept under wraps by distributor Paramount, recounts an early adventure for the crew of the starship Enterprise, with Chris Pines as the young Kirk and Zachary Quinto as the young Spock.

The cast includes Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Simon Pegg as engineer Scott, John Cho as helmsman Sulu, Zoe Saldana as communications officer Uhura and Anton Yelchin as navigator Chekov, roles respectively originated by DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig.

Past "Trek" films presented an obstacle to the revival of Shatner's Kirk, who died at the end of 1994's "Star Trek: Generations."

But in science fiction, you can never truly say die. Spock was killed off in 1982's "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" then resurrected in 1984's "Star Trek: The Search for Spock," with Nimoy's Vulcan living on to co-star in three more films, two episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and now Abrams' new movie.

"I've got a lot to do," said Shatner, whose current work includes the TV show "Boston Legal," narration for the Christmas spoof "Stalking Santa" due on DVD on Nov. 6, and the prequel "Star Trek: Academy - Collision Course," a novel chronicling Kirk and Spock's first meeting.

Shatner says of "Star Trek": "Having been in on the creation of it, I was hoping to be in on the re-creation.""

Saturday, October 20, 2007

What's it like to dive through space at 700mph?

"From where pilot Joseph Kittinger was standing at the limit of the earth's atmosphere, there was only the deep black of space above him merging into a vivid blue below.

Beneath his feet, the curvature of the Earth and the sands of New Mexico were clearly visible. The Sun burnt brightly, far more brilliantly than it appeared from the ground.

Looking up through the glass visor on his spacesuit, Kittinger could see only the huge, fragile, gossamer-thin silver balloon towering 200ft over his tiny gondola.

This helium-filled balloon, Excelsior, had taken him to the edge of space, bathed in solar ultraviolet radiation and in temperatures of -70C.

The air pressure was lower than that on the surface of Mars - essentially a vacuum.

At that height, there was no wind, no sound ... nothing.

And then Kittinger took a last look at the tiny gondola and did something unthinkable: he jumped.

From an altitude of 102,800ft, or 20 miles (more than three times the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner or the height of Mount Everest), Kittinger plunged into the void, attaining speeds of more than 700mph as he hurtled towards the earth.

Despite breaking a seal on his spacesuit, he survived, landing gently by parachute 13 minutes and 45 seconds later.

That extraordinary jump on August 16, 1960, broke the record for the highest parachute jump which stands to this day, a daredevil achievement that makes the antics of today's bungee-istes and base-jumpers look like nursery games.

But it may not be a record which stands for much longer.

In New Scientist magazine this week, a bizarre project has been revealed which, if it comes to fruition, will not only see Kittinger's extraordinary and little-known record smashed, but will open up near-space to a new breed of extreme sportsmen and women - people keen to get the ultimate kick by jumping not from 20, but from 30 or even 60 miles above the Earth.

Led by a consortium of extreme sports enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, the project envisages a small unmanned rocket delivering a human cargo to the edge of the earth's atmosphere - a living cargo which will then leap into the void equipped with nothing but a spacesuit and a parachute.

It sounds like dangerous lunacy, but there is method in this madness.

One of the driving forces behind the project is Jonathan Clark, a military parachutist and NASA medic whose wife Laurel was killed in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003.

For him, the project is less about creating a new extreme sport (although these ultimate high-dives will be open to anyone with the training and wallet necessary) than advancing the cause of astronaut safety.

For despite the Shuttle disasters, the belief persists that space travel is inherently safe, routine, little more dangerous than going aloft in an airliner.

It is not. Space travel remains an extraordinarily risky venture, nearly four decades after Yuri Gagarin's first flight.

So far, some 460 people have left the Earth's atmosphere, and of those, 22 have been killed either during the flight or in tests - a five per cent fatality rate, far higher than just about any other military or aviation pursuit.

In fact, being an astronaut is statistically about as dangerous as serving on the front line in the heat of battle. And this is something that Clark wishes to change. Developing the ultimate skydive will be, he says, 'a means of providing options for folks in these risky environments'.

The idea is that by developing space-diving as an extreme sport (funded by wealthy thrill-seekers who will pay perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars to strap themselves to a giant firework and jump off it), a whole new technology will be developed - the space lifeboat.

This could involve a pod with parachutes, or just parachutes for individual astronauts.

Currently, the options available to an astronaut stranded in space aboard a defunct craft are limited.

It is possible in theory to be rescued by another spacecraft, and a lander-craft can dock with the International Space Station, but should problems arise rapidly on ascent, descent or in orbit, there is currently no way of bailing out.

Space entrepreneur Rick Tumlinson has started a company, Space Diver, with Jonathan Clark, to develop this ultimate fairground ride - one of a handful of enterprises in the space tourism business.

Unlike their competitors (including Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic), who will provide passengers with secure, warm and airtight transport for the ride up and down, Space Diver customers will be strapped to the outside of a rocket.

As the rocket reaches maximum altitude it will slow to a halt, before falling back to Earth. At this point its single passenger will jump off - perhaps assisted by a spring - and begin an extraordinary journey back to terra firma.

Thanks to Joseph Kittinger, we have a good idea of what he - or she - can expect.

As he climbed to the gondola step-off platform, Kittinger caught his hand on a piece of metal, breaking the pressure seal and allowing all the air to leak out.

Fortunately, only his hand was exposed to the vacuum of space (a rubber ring around his wrist prevented the rest of his suit from depressurising) but the effect was dramatic - and painful.

Blood pooled in his hand and it swelled to twice its normal size. He chose not to radio ground control, fearing they would order him to abort, and leapt anyway.

At first, apart from the sight of his balloon disappearing rapidly into the sky above him, there was no sense at all that he was moving. At 100,000ft the air is so thin it cannot be felt, or heard, and at this height the ground is coming closer only imperceptibly.

And because of the near-vacuum, there was no air resistance to slow Kittinger down; in a few seconds he reached an estimated speed of 714mph.

After a few minutes, however, the air around the plummeting astronaut thickened significantly, slowing him down dramatically.

It is at this point that the greatest danger occurs; in the 1950s, a secret U.S. project involved firing human-sized dummies into the upper atmosphere and letting them fall.

When they hit the thicker air, they began spinning at speeds of 200 revolutions per minute - easily enough to induce unconsciousness or even death.

Kittinger was able to avoid this fate by using a small stabiliser-chute; Space Diver hopes to use stabilising fins or simply find a way to use the natural body-shape of the space-diver to minimise turbulence.

One possibility is they will be instructed to adopt a head-first, streamlined posture, much like a high diver plunging into a pool.

Hopefully, the end result will be that experienced by Kittinger - a safe and soft landing. After four minutes and 36 seconds he opened his main chute at an altitude of 17,500ft and drifted gently down to the New Mexico desert.

Kittinger was remarkably sanguine about his achievement, and his hand, which he feared may have been permanently damaged, returned to normal after just a few hours.

The next space dive could take place as early as 2009, although the history of private space exploration suggests we can safely add a few years to this date.

Who will be first? Almost certainly Jonathan Clark himself, an experienced parachutist. 'I'm willing to put myself at that risk,' he says.

Just don't let the health and safety brigade hear about this."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hiroshima scientists create transparent frogs

"A research team led by professor Masayuki Sumida at Hiroshima University’s Institute for Amphibian Biology has created a type of transparent frog whose internal organs are visible through its skin. The researchers say the see-through frogs can help in the study of diseases and in the development of medical treatments by allowing laboratory scientists to check the status of internal organs and blood vessels while the frogs are alive and without having to dissect them.

According to Sumida, the transparent frog is the result of breeding two specimens of Japanese brown frog (Rana japonica) that had a genetic mutation giving them pale skin. By selectively breeding their offspring, the researchers were able to create a frog that remains transparent for its entire life cycle. Most of the world’s known transparent creatures live underwater, and transparent four-legged animals are extremely rare.

The researchers also say that by fusing the genes of fluorescent proteins to the frog’s genes, they can create frogs that glow. Glowing frogs can help scientists study specific “problem” genes by providing a real-time visual indication (i.e. the frogs glow) when those genes become active.

Professor Sumida says, “Transparent frogs will prove useful as laboratory animals because they make it easier and cheaper to observe the development and progress of cancer, the growth and aging of internal organs, and the effects of chemicals on organs.”

The results of the research will be announced at a meeting of the Zoological Society of Japan on September 22."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Scientists say 'hobbit' was not modern human

"U.S. scientists, wringing their hands over the identity of the famed "hobbit" fossil, have found a new clue in the wrist.

A Homo Erectus skull, left, a cast taken from a skull that is said to be that of a new species in the evolution of man named 'Homo Floresiensis', center, and the cast of a modern Homo Sapiens skull

Since the discovery of the bones in Indonesia in 2003, researchers have wrangled over whether the find was an ancient human ancestor or simply a modern human suffering from a genetic disorder.

Now, a study of the bones in the creature's left wrist lends weight to the human ancestor theory, according to a report in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

The wrist bones of the 3-foot-tall (0.91 meter) creature, technically known as Homo floresiensis, are basically indistinguishable from an African ape or early hominin-like wrist and nothing at all like that seen in modern humans and Neanderthals, according to the research team led by Matthew W. Tocheri of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

That indicates that it is an early hominin and not a modern human with a physical disorder, they contend.

"It seals the deal," Tocheri said in a telephone interview.

The specimen he studied lived on the Indonesian island of Flores about 18,000 years ago, a time when early modern humans populated Australia and other nearby areas.

Scientists had thought humans had the planet to ourselves since Neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago, and the discovery of Hobbits indicates another evolutionary cousin who coexisted longer, Tocheri said.

It is not known whether humans and Hobbits coexisted on that island, he said, but it is clear we shared the planet for some time.

"Basically, the wrist evidence tells us that modern humans and Neanderthals share an evolutionary grandparent that the hobbits do not, but all three share an evolutionary great-grandparent. If you think of modern humans and Neanderthals as being first cousins, then the hobbit is more like a second cousin to both," Tocheri said.

When the bones were first discovered some scientists declared them the remains of a new, dwarf species of human ancestors. Because of its tiny stature it was quickly dubbed the "Hobbit," from the creature in the books by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Dean Falk of Florida State University said the new report helps confirm that conclusion.

"This is exciting and should help settle things," she said. "The authors are to be congratulated, not only for describing important new details about 'Hobbit,' but for shedding light on the evolution of the wrist and how it might have related to tool production."

But others have questioned whether it was really a new species. Robert D. Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago and co-authors challenged the original classification, arguing that it appears to be a modern human suffering from microencephaly, a genetic disorder that results in small brain size and other defects.

There are things that can go wrong in the development of the wrist, Tocheri said, but they do not result in a complete change of design from modern human to chimpanzee or gorilla wrist.

Nonetheless, Martin said he is standing by his position.

"My take is that the brain size of (that specimen) is simply too small. That problem remains unanswered," he said in a telephone interview.

"People ask me whether this new evidence changes anything, well it doesn't," he said. "I think the evidence they've presented is fine, it's the interpretation that is problematic.""

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

World’s Languages Dying Off Rapidly

"Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and are likely to disappear in this century. In fact, they are now falling out of use at a rate of about one every two weeks."

Read the entire article in the NY Times here.

Surprise strategy: Bees smother enemies

"Cyprian honeybees don't smother their enemies with kindness — they just smother them to death, research shows.

This novel strategy has never been seen before in insects, "and probably in all animal species," apidologist Gerard Arnold at the National Center of Scientific Research in France said.

Cyprian honeybees (Apis mellifera cypria) do possess stingers to defend themselves. However, their archenemy, the Oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis), is protected from such attacks by their hard body armor. The predatory hornets tend to attack bee colonies en masse in the middle of the autumn, explained researcher Alexandros Papachristoforou of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

Previous studies revealed Asian honeybees can kill hornets by completely engulfing them, making the predators die from the heat inside the ball of bees — a strategy dubbed "thermo-balling."

However, Oriental hornets are theoretically resistant to thermo-balling, adapted as they are to the hot and dry climate of Cyprus. Although the heat inside a thermo-ball can reach 111 degrees F (44 degrees C), the heat-resistant Oriental hornet only keels over at temperatures of 122 degrees F (50 degrees C) or more.

Now scientists find Cyprian honeybees can kill hornets by suffocating them, a strategy the researchers have dubbed "asphyxia-balling."

"The domestic bee has never ceased surprising us," Arnold said. "Under stressful conditions, honeybees can develop remarkable mechanisms in order to survive."

The scientists collected live insects from Cyprus and took them back in their hand luggage for study in their labs. "Knowing that the hornets could somehow destroy the cage that you have trapped them" was "a very funny and uncomfortable situation," Papachristoforou recalled.

Hornets normally breathe via small openings in their sides called spiracles. These are covered by structures known as tergites.

In their experiments, the researchers saw that bees mob the guts of hornets, covering the spiracles. To see if the bees killed the hornets using smothering, the scientists held open the tergites of some hornets with tiny plastic blocks. They found bees took twice as long to kill such modified hornets—roughly two hours instead of one.

"To kill the high-temperature-tolerant hornet, Cyprian honeybees have developed an alternate strategy to thermo-balling and stinging," Papachristoforou said. "They appear to have identified the hornets' 'Achilles heel' by asphyxiating the predator."

Papachristoforou, Arnold and their colleagues will detail their findings in the Sept. 18 issue of the journal Current Biology."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?

For those of you who read the story of the passing of Alex the research parrot in an earlier post, here's a more detailed article from the NY Times, along with a video of Alex.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Planet Of No Apes? Experts Warn It's Close

"Great apes have rich emotional lives and share strong family bonds. They laugh when they are tickled, cry when they grieve. They can make and use tools. They think about their past and plan for their future.

But many won't have a future to plan for, conservationists say.

The Western Gorilla - the most common gorilla in the world - is now "critically endangered," just one step away from global extinction, according to the 2007 Red List of Threatened Species released Wednesday by the World Conservation Union.

The Ebola virus is depleting populations to a point where it might become impossible for them to recover. Commercial hunting, civil unrest and habitat loss due to logging and forest clearance for palm oil plantations are compounding the problem, said the Swiss-based group, known by its acronym, IUCN.

"Great apes are our closest living relatives and very special creatures," Russ Mittermeier, head of IUCN's Primate Specialist Group, told The Associated Press. "We could fit all the remaining great apes in the world into two or three large football stadiums. There just aren't very many left.""

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Gifted research parrot Alex found dead

"Alex, a parrot who could count to six, identify colors and even express frustration with repetitive scientific trials, has died after 30 years of helping researchers better understand the avian brain.

The cause of Alex's death was unknown. The African Grey parrot's average life span is 50 years, Brandeis University scientist Irene Pepperberg said. She said Alex was discovered dead in his cage Friday but she waited to release the news until this week so grieving researchers could get over the shock and talk about it.

"It's devastating to lose an individual you've worked with pretty much every day for 30 years," Pepperberg told The Boston Globe. "Someone was working with him eight to 12 hours every day of his life."

Alex's advanced language and recognition skills revolutionized the understanding of the avian brain. After Pepperberg bought Alex from an animal shop in 1973, the parrot learned enough English to identify 50 different objects, seven colors, and five shapes. He could count up to six, including zero, was able to express desires, including his frustration with the repetitive research.

He also occasionally instructed two other parrots at the lab to "talk better" if they mumbled, though it wasn't clear if he was simply mimicking researchers.

Pepperberg said Alex hadn't reached his full cognitive potential and was demonstrating the ability to take distinct sounds from words he knew and combine them to form new words. Just last month, he pronounced the word "seven" for the first time.

Pepperberg said the last time she saw Alex was Thursday. They went through their goodnight routine, in which she told him it was time to go in the cage and said: "You be good, I love you. I'll see you tomorrow."

Alex responded, "You'll be in tomorrow.""

Blue Danube

Last week I was invited to attend the Steinway premiere of their 'Black Tie' tuxedo line at Steinway Hall in Manhattan, across from Carnegie Hall.

This was the couple (Anderson and Roe) that performed for us. I especially appreciated this particular piece (which they closed with), as it's what I *tried* to perform at my grandparent's 50th wedding anniversary many years ago! Who knew I needed a second pair of hands?

If interested, you can learn more about them here.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

What will happen when machines outthink us?

"At the center of a black hole there lies a point called a singularity where the laws of physics no longer make sense.

In a similar way, according to futurists gathered Saturday for a weekend conference, information technology is hurtling toward a point where machines will become smarter than their makers. If that happens, it will alter what it means to be human in ways almost impossible to conceive, they say.

"The Singularity Summit: AI and the Future of Humanity" brought together hundreds of Silicon Valley techies and scientists to imagine a future of self-programming computers and brain implants that would allow humans to think at speeds nearing today's microprocessors.

Artificial intelligence researchers at the summit warned that now is the time to develop ethical guidelines for ensuring these advances help rather than harm.

"We and our world won't be us anymore," Rodney Brooks, a robotics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the audience. When it comes to computers, he said, "who is us and who is them is going to become a different sort of question."

Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Palo Alto-based Singularity Institute, which organized the summit, focuses his research on the development of so-called "friendly artificial intelligence." His greatest fear, he said, is that a brilliant inventor creates a self-improving but amoral artificial intelligence that turns hostile.

T-minus 22 years?
The first use of the term "singularity" to describe this kind of fundamental technological transformation is credited to Vernor Vinge, a California mathematician and science-fiction author.

High-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil raised the profile of the singularity concept in his 2005 book "The Singularity is Near," in which he argues that the exponential pace of technological progress makes the emergence of smarter-than-human intelligence the future's only logical outcome.

Kurzweil, director of the Singularity Institute, is so confident in his predictions of the singularity that he has even set a date: 2029.

Most "singularists" feel they have strong evidence to support their claims, citing the dramatic advances in computing technology that have already occurred over the last 50 years.

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore accurately predicted that the number of transistors on a chip should double about every two years. By comparison, singularists point out, the entire evolution of modern humans from primates has resulted in only a threefold increase in brain capacity.

With advances in biotechnology and information technology, they say, there's no scientific reason that human thinking couldn't be pushed to speeds up to a million times faster.

Is the ‘nerdocalypse’ near?
Some critics have mocked singularists for their obsession with "techno-salvation" and "techno-holocaust" _ or what some wags have called the coming "nerdocalypse." Their predictions are grounded as much in science fiction as science, the detractors claim, and may never come to pass.

But advocates argue it would be irresponsible to ignore the possibility of dire outcomes.

"Technology is heading here. It will predictably get to the point of making artificial intelligence," Yudkowsky said. "The mere fact that you cannot predict exactly when it will happen down to the day is no excuse for closing your eyes and refusing to think about it.""

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

"Researchers at IBM will have two papers published in the journal Science this week detailing how it may be possible to use individual atoms, or groups of atoms, to store data or act as a transistor.

The work revolves around harnessing magnetic anisotropy, a property of atoms. Something is anisotrophic if it has different values when it faces in different directions. If a substance is anisotrophic and the orientation of the substance can be controlled, then the orientation--the theory goes--of the atom can come to represent the 1s and 0s of digital computing.

Potentially, atomic-level storage or switching could result in incredibly tiny computers. With atomic storage, you could fit a 1,000 trillion bits of information in an iPod, according to IBM estimates.

In the first paper, titled "Large Magnetic Anisotropy of a Single Atomic Spin Embedded in a Surface Molecular Network," researchers described how they arranged individual iron atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope on a specially prepared copper surface. With the atoms in place, the researchers were then able to measure the strength and orientation of the anisotrophy of the individual atoms.

The second paper, meanwhile, describes the performance of a switch created from two hydrogen atoms inside an organic molecule called naphthalocyanine. Researchers have made single-atom switches before, but the molecules had a tendency to change shapes. This problem has not, so far, surfaced in the IBM molecular switch. (Interestingly, IBM discovered the properties of naphthalocyanine by accident. It was studying the molecule in a separate project, on vibration.)"

Friday, August 24, 2007

Scientists simulate out-of-body experiences

"New virtual-reality experiments show the brain can be tricked into believing it's outside the body, lending credence to the strange claims of some patients and shedding light on how the brain might generate its "self-image."

“We have decades of intense research on visual perception, but not very much yet on body perception," said Henrik Ehrsson of University College London.

"But that may change, now [that] virtual reality offers a way to manipulate full-body perception more systematically and probe out-of-body experiences,” said Olaf Blanke, a Swiss Federal Institute of Technology neuroscientist.

The researchers worked on separate studies, which are detailed Thursday in the online edition of the journal Science.

Researchers equipped subjects with virtual-reality goggles that showed images from a stereoscopic video camera setup — two cameras spaced like a pair of eyes. When placed behind the person wearing the goggles, the cameras acted as a "virtual self" that looked at the subject's back.

As subjects watched themselves from behind, an experimenter prodded their chests with one hand while prodding the air just below the cameras at the same time. Because subjects could see the experimenter's hand but not the spot it was poking, researchers said subjects felt as if they were being poked in the chest — outside their bodies.

“This was a bizarre, fascinating experience for the participants," Ehrsson said. "It felt absolutely real for them and was not scary. Many of them giggled and said ‘Wow, this is so weird.’”

Where's my body?
But the researchers didn't stop there. They also performed the experiment with cameras behind a wigged mannequin to test the brain's limits of self-perception.

When they saw a bodily shape, they still felt it was them," said Bigna Lenggenhager, a psychologist also with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. She explained that touching both the fake body and the real body at the same time tricked many of the subjects.

"They felt a touch was there but couldn't pinpoint it," Lenggenhager said, noting that some felt as if the mannequin was their own body.

Going even further to test the effect, researchers removed subjects' goggles and asked them to move to where they believed they were standing during the experiment. Almost every time, she said, they overshot and walked back to their virtual self's location — and not where their real or simulated body was situated.

"They didn't localize themselves where their real body was," Lenggenhager told "Where the camera was is where they believed they were."

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sonic Boom!

A Sonic Boom
Credit: Ensign John Gay, USS Constellation, US Navy

Explanation: Is this what a sonic boom looks like? When an airplane travels at a speed faster than sound, density waves of sound emitted by the plane cannot precede the plane, and so accumulate in a cone behind the plane. When this shock wave passes, a listener hears all at once the sound emitted over a longer period: a sonic boom. As a plane accelerates to just break the sound barrier, however, an unusual cloud might form. The origin of this cloud is still debated. A leading theory is that a drop in air pressure at the plane described by the Prandtl-Glauert Singularity occurs so that moist air condenses there to form water droplets. Above, an F/A-18 Hornet was photographed just as it broke the sound barrier. Large meteors and the space shuttle frequently produce audible sonic booms before they are slowed below sound speed by the Earth's atmosphere.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Apes play charades to communicate

"When humans play charades, the game's ban on talk often reduces players to wild gestures in a frustratingly minimalist form of communication. Still, skillful players get the point across eventually.

Apes can't talk at all, of course. But now scientists have found that orangutans rely on the same kinds of strategies seen in charades when they try and get their point across.

The finding hints at how the earliest forms of language might have developed among humanity's ancestors.

Ape the humans
Charades involves using only body language to act out a word or phrase that others must guess. When playing charades, people often repeat and hone gestures that have already worked and abandon ones that did not. This strategy not only improves a player's chances of picking effective gestures, but also gives hints to partners on how well or poorly they are doing.

To see how capable orangutans are of communicating with people via gestures, psychologists Erica Cartmill and Richard Byrne at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland presented six adult female orangutans in zoos a chance to essentially play charades.

The apes were shown one tempting food item, such as bananas or whole-grain bread, and one not-so-tempting food item, such as celery or leeks. The food could only be reached by signaling for human help, such as by pointing with fingers, blowing a "raspberry" or spitting through the bars.

At times, the researchers purposefully misunderstood the orangutans' requests. Sometimes they provided only half of the delicious treat, while other times they handed over the unsavory alternative instead.

When people pretended not to comprehend what the apes' aims were, the creatures relied on the same basic strategy people follow in playing charades.

"The orangutans made a clear distinction between total misunderstanding, when they tended to give up on the signals they'd used already and use new, but equivalent, ones to get the idea across, and partial misunderstanding, when they tended to repeat the signals that had already partially worked, keeping at it with vigor," Cartmill said. "The response showed that the orangutan had intended a particular result, anticipated getting it and kept trying until it got the result."

Byrne noted that "looking at the tapes of the animal's responses, you can easily work out whether the orangutan thinks it has been fully, partially or not understood."

"In effect, they are passing information back to the audience about how well they are doing in understanding them — hence our 'charades' analogy," Byrne added. He and Cartmill detailed their findings Aug. 2 in the journal Current Biology.

Eager to play
Cartmill noted that the term "experiment" has gained an undeserved association with invasive or artificial studies." "The individuals I tested treated the experiment as a sort of game and eagerly approached me as I set up the equipment, hoping to succeed in winning the banana this time," she said.

Primate psychologist Anne Russon at York University in Toronto said these findings add weight "to the view that great apes—probably all of them [including orangutans]—can communicate intentionally and can do so well beyond basic levels."

Russon noted orangutans play a very important role in understanding the evolution of advanced communication because they are the "oldest" of the great apes, having diverged as a distinct species far earlier than any of the African great apes—12 to 15 million years ago versus 4 to 8 million years ago.

These findings "therefore make it very likely that the mental abilities which support this sophisticated intentional communication evolved when the earliest great apes evolved, some 12 to 15 million years ago," Russon said. "That is, they place the origins of intentional communication well prior to human evolution."

Royal Aztec crypt wows archaeologists

Finding could be first tomb of ruler from this civilization ever discovered

"Mexican archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar have detected underground chambers they believe contain the remains of Emperor Ahuizotl, who ruled the Aztecs when Columbus landed in the New World. It would be the first tomb of an Aztec ruler ever found.

The find could provide an extraordinary window into Aztec civilization at its apogee. Ahuizotl (ah-WEE-zoh-tuhl), an empire-builder who extended the Aztecs’ reach as far as Guatemala, was the last emperor to complete his rule before the Spanish Conquest.

Accounts written by Spanish priests suggest the area was used by the Aztecs to cremate and bury their rulers. But no tomb of an Aztec ruler has ever been found, in part because the Spanish conquerors built their own city atop the Aztec’s ceremonial center, leaving behind colonial structures too historically valuable to remove for excavations.

One of those colonial buildings was so damaged in a 1985 earthquake that it had to be torn down, eventually giving experts their first chance to examine the site off Mexico City’s Zocalo plaza, between the Metropolitan Cathedral and the ruins of the Templo Mayor pyramid.

Archaeologists told The Associated Press that they have located what appears to be a six-foot-by-six-foot entryway into the tomb about 15 feet below ground. The passage is filled with water, rocks and mud, forcing workers to dig delicately while suspended from slings. Pumps work to keep the water level down.

“We are doing it very, very slowly ... because the responsibility is very great and we want to register everything,” said Leonardo Lopez Lujan, the lead government archaeologist on the project. “It’s a totally new situation for us, and we don’t know exactly what it will be like down there.”

As early as this fall, they hope to enter the inner chambers — a damp, low-ceilinged space — and discover the ashes of Ahuizotl, who was likely cremated on a funeral pyre in 1502.
By that time, Columbus had already landed in the New World. But the Aztecs’ first contact with Europeans came 17 years later, in 1519, when Hernan Cortes and his band of conquistadors marched into the Mexico Valley and took hostage Ahuizotl’s successor, his nephew Montezuma.

Ahuizotl’s son Cuauhtemoc (kwow-TAY-mock) took over from Montezuma and led the last resistance to the Spaniards in the battle for Mexico City in 1521. He was later taken prisoner and killed. Like Montezuma, his burial place is unknown.

Because no Aztec royal tomb has ever been found, the archaeologists are literally digging into the unknown. Radar indicates the tomb has up to four chambers, and scientists think they will find a constellation of elaborate offerings to the gods on the floor.

“He must have been buried with solemn ceremony and rich offerings, like vases, ornaments ... and certainly some objects he personally used,” said Luis Alberto Martos, director of archaeological studies at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

The tomb’s curse — water — may also be its blessing. Lopez Lujan said the constant temperature of the pH-neutral water in the flooded chambers, together with the lack of oxygen, discourages decomposition of materials like wood and bone that have been found at other digs around the pyramid, which was all but destroyed in the Conquest.

“This would be quite an important find for Aztec archaeology,” said Michael Smith, an archaeologist at Arizona State University who is not connected to the dig. “It would be tremendously important because it would be direct information about kingship, burial and the empire that is difficult to come by otherwise.”

All signs found so far point to Ahuizotl. The site lies directly below a huge, recently discovered stone monolith carved with a representation of Tlaltecuhtli (tlahl-tay-KOO-tlee), the Aztec god of the earth.

Depicted as a woman with huge claws and a stream of blood flowing into her mouth as she squats to give birth, Tlaltecuhtli was believed to devour the dead and then give them new life.

The god was so fearsome that Aztecs normally buried her depictions face down in the earth. However, this one is face-up.

In the claw of her right foot, the god holds a rabbit and 10 dots, indicating the date “10 Rabbit” — 1502, the year of Ahuizotl’s death.

“Our hypothesis is precisely that this is probably the tomb of Ahuizotl,” Lopez Lujan said."

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Friday, July 20, 2007

Swedish Woman Gets Superfast Internet

"She is a latecomer to the information superhighway, but 75-year-old Sigbritt Lothberg is now cruising the Internet with a dizzying speed. Lothberg's 40 gigabits-per-second fiber-optic connection in Karlstad is believed to be the fastest residential uplink in the world, Karlstad city officials said.

In less than 2 seconds, Lothberg can download a full-length movie on her home computer - many thousand times faster than most residential connections, said Hafsteinn Jonsson, head of the Karlstad city network unit.

Jonsson and Lothberg's son, Peter, worked together to install the connection.

The speed is reached using a new modulation technique that allows the sending of data between two routers placed up to 1,240 miles apart, without any transponders in between, Jonsson said.

"We wanted to show that that there are no limitations to Internet speed," he said.

Peter Lothberg, who is a networking expert, said he wanted to demonstrate the new technology while providing a computer link for his mother.

"She's a brand-new Internet user," Lothberg said by phone from California, where he lives. "She didn't even have a computer before."

His mother isn't exactly making the most of her high-speed connection. She only uses it to read Web-based newspapers."

Monday, July 16, 2007

Humans walk upright to conserve energy

"Why did humans evolve to walk upright? Perhaps because it's just plain easier. Make that "energetically less costly," in science-speak, and you have the conclusion of researchers who are proposing a likely reason for our modern gait.

Bipedalism - walking on two feet - is one of the defining characteristics of being human, and scientists have debated for years how it came about. In the latest attempt to find an explanation, researchers trained five chimpanzees to walk on a treadmill while wearing masks that allowed measurement of their oxygen consumption.

The chimps were measured both while walking upright and while moving on their legs and knuckles. That measurement of the energy needed to move around was compared with similar tests on humans and the results are published in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It turns out that humans walking on two legs use only one-quarter of the energy that chimpanzees use while knuckle-walking on four limbs. And the chimps, on average, use as much energy using two legs as they did when they used all four limbs.

However, there was variability among chimpanzees in how much energy they used, and this difference corresponded to their different gaits and anatomy.

One of the chimps used less energy on two legs, one used about the same and the others used more, said David Raichlen, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona.

"What we were surprised at was the variation," he said in a telephone interview. "That was pretty exciting, because when you talk about how evolution works, variation is the bottom line, without variation there is no evolution."

If an individual can save energy moving around and hunting and spend more of it on reproduction, "that's how you end up getting new species," he said.

Walking on two legs freed our arms, opening the door to manipulating the world, Raichlen said. "We think about the evolution of bipedalism as one of first events that led hominids down the path to being human."

Theirs is the latest of several explanations for walking upright. Among the others have been the need to used the arms in food gathering, the need to use the upper limbs to bring food to a mate and offspring and raising the body higher to dissipate heat in the breeze.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the L. S. B. Leakey Foundation."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Baby Panther Adopted by Dog

Man's best friend helped save this tiny cat

"A 15-day-old female panther named Milica has been adopted by a Rhodesian
Ridgeback after her mother refused to feed her and tried to kill her in
the Belgrade zoo.

"The mother panther has killed all her cubs since 1999," zookeeper Dragan Jovanovic said.

"We believe she has been traumatized by the sound of NATO bombs" during
airstrikes in the Serbian capital intended to stop former President
Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists in
1999, he said.

Now Milica fights with several newborn puppies
over milk from her adopted mother. She also appears to enjoy every bit
of attention she gets from her new family.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Did Ancient Volcano Alter Human History?

"An ancient volcanic super-eruption, one of the largest known in Earth's
history, may not have devastated the world and humanity as much as once

The eruption at what is now Lake Toba in the Indonesia island of
Sumatra roughly 75,000 years ago was the largest in the last 2 million
years. This gigantic blast released at least 7.7 trillion tons or 670 cubic miles of magma, equivalent in mass to more than 19 million Empire State Buildings.

Vast plumes of ash stretched from the South China Sea to the Arabian
Sea and likely blotted out the sun and drastically cooled the Earth for
years—a "volcanic winter." Scientists have suggested the environmental
catastrophe that might have resulted could have influenced the course
of human history, with people today evolving from the few thousand survivors of that disaster.

Newly unearthed prehistoric artifacts now suggest the blast might not
have been "as catastrophic as before thought," said Cambridge
University archaeologist Michael Petraglia.

Indirect clues

Petraglia and his colleagues investigated deposits of ash from Toba more than eight feet thick near the southern Indian village of Jwalapuram. They found hundreds of
stone blades and other tools just below and above this ash layer—effectively immediately before and after the eruption—that are fairly similar to each other. With the artifacts, they also found pieces of red ochre, a mineral used for body art and cave drawings, as well as for helping to stick tools together.

The artifacts appeared similar to some from modern humans dating to
around the same time period in Africa. These findings suggest humans
continued to live in the area after the blast.

"We would have had very mobile populations of hunter-gatherers here, able to cope with all sorts of disasters," Petraglia told LiveScience. "If we were talking about settled people with agriculture, the Toba super-eruption would have been a cataclysm."

The research was detailed in the July 6 issue of the journal Science.

More evidence needed

Not everyone thinks the new evidence is convincing. Anthropological archaeologist Stanley Ambrose at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who proposed that the Toba catastrophe influenced human evolution, found the published data inadequate.

"The only way to prove their assertions is to find human skeletons below the ash that look like Africans," Ambrose said.

Petraglia said they had "thousands more artifacts than we presented in the paper" to support the new claim, but did agree that fossils would be definitive proof. "We don't have human fossils, we don't have Neanderthal fossils, we don't have any fossils. We'd love to find fossils," Petraglia said.

An exciting but controversial aspect of their findings is that modern humans got out of Africa far earlier than was thought. "For the last 150 years, archaeologists
have concentrated on when modern humans got out of Africa into Europe, but our findings suggest they might have gotten to India 30,000 years before they got to Europe," Petraglia said.

"There's a lot of really remarkable archaeology that can be done in India that we're excited about exploring," he said."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Team makes Tunguska crater claim

"Scientists have identified a possible crater left by the biggest space impact in modern times - the Tunguska event.

The blast leveled more than 2,000 sq km of forest near the Tunguska River in Siberia on 30 June 1908.

A comet or asteroid is thought to have exploded in the Earth's atmosphere with a force equal to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Now, a University of Bologna team says a lake near the epicentre of the blast may be occupying a crater hollowed out by a chunk of rock that hit the ground.

Lake Cheko - though shallow - fits the proportions of a small, bowl-shaped impact crater, say the Italy-based scientists.

Their investigation of the lake bottom's geology reveals a funnel-like shape not seen in neighbouring lakes.

In addition, a geophysics survey of the lake bed has turned up an unusual feature about 10m down which could either be compacted lake sediments or a buried fragment of space rock.

Other features suggest a recent origin for the lake.

Shocking rocks

Luca Gasparini, Giuseppe Longo and colleagues from Bologna argue that the lake feature, about 8km north-north-west of the airburst epicentre, may have been gouged out by remnant material that made it to the ground.

"We have no positive proof this is an impact crater, but we were able to exclude some other hypotheses, and this led us to our conclusion," Professor Longo, the research team leader, told BBC News.

The object that hurtled through the atmosphere on the morning of 30 June, 1908, is thought to have detonated some 5-10km above the ground with an energy equivalent to about 20 million tonnes of TNT. The explosion was so bright it even lit up the sky in London, UK.

Small fragments of the body should have survived the airburst and made it Earth. But, mysteriously, no crater - or even the slightest trace of the impactor - has ever been positively identified.

The impact cratering community does not accept structures as craters unless there is evidence of high temperatures and high pressures.
Gareth Collins, Imperial College London

"In my opinion, they certainly haven't provided any conclusive evidence it's an impact structure," commented Dr Gareth Collins, a Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) research fellow at Imperial College London, UK.

He added: "The impact cratering community does not accept structures as craters unless there is evidence of high temperatures and high pressures. That requires evidence of rocks that have been melted or rocks that have been ground up by the impact."

Tree observation

Dr Collins pointed out that the Cheko feature was "anomalously" shallow and lacked the round shape of most craters - being more elliptical in its form. Elliptical craters only occur if the impactor's angle of entry is less than about 10 degrees.

"We know from modelling of the Tunguska event that the angle of entry must have been steeper than that," Dr Collins told BBC News.

A key feature of other impact craters is conspicuously missing from Lake Cheko - a "flap" around the crater rim of upside-down material tossed a short distance from the crater by the impact.

Dr Collins added that if pieces of the space rock had survived the airburst, they would have been too small and travelling too slowly to have generated a crater the size of Lake Cheko.

An impact would also have felled trees all around the crater, said the London geologist, yet there appeared to be trees older than 100 years still standing around Lake Cheko today.

Dr Benny Peiser, from Liverpool John Moores University, was also cautious about the findings, adding: "There has been an inflationary increase in the number of claims that allege discovery of impact events or impact craters."

Drill project

The Italian researchers argue that some of the lake's anomalous features could be explained if a space rock was travelling at a low speed and had a "soft" impact into the swampy Siberian taiga.

The crater could have become subsequently enlarged by the expulsion of water and gas from the ground.

The Bologna team says this could also account for the limited damage to the surrounding area and the absence of a rim of upturned ejecta.

"If formed during the impact, [the rim] would have been rapidly obliterated by collapse and gravity-failures during the subsequent degassing phase," the authors write in the journal Terra Nova.

Intriguingly, Lake Cheko does not appear on any maps before 1929, though the researchers admit the region was poorly charted before this time.

The University of Bologna team plans to mount another expedition to the Tunguska region in summer 2008.

The researchers aim to drill up to 10m below the lake bed to the anomaly picked up in the geophysics survey and determine whether it really is a piece of extraterrestrial rock.

Computer models carried out by other teams suggest that centimetre-sized fragments of the body could be found hundreds of kilometres away from Tunguska.

As the impactor plunged through the atmosphere, it pushed air out of its way, leaving a near-vacuum in its wake.

As it broke up, fragments would have expanded back up the vacuum and rained out over a much larger area."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Research shows chimps can be selfless

"Chimpanzees have shown they can help strangers at personal cost without apparent expectation of personal gain, a level of selfless behavior often claimed as unique to humans.

These new findings could shed light on the evolution of such altruism, researchers said.

Scientists think altruism evolved to help either kin or those willing and able of returning the favor — to help either one's genetic heritage or oneself. Humans, on the other hand, occasionally help strangers without apparent benefit for themselves, sometimes at great cost.

To investigate when chimpanzees might aid either humans or each other, researchers studied 36 chimps at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda that were born in the wild. In experiments, each chimp watched a person they had never seen before unsuccessfully reach for a wooden stick that was within reach of the ape. The person had struggled over the stick beforehand, suggesting it was valued.

Scientists found the chimpanzees often handed the stick over, even when the apes had to climb eight feet out of their way to get the stick and regardless of whether or not any reward was given. A similar result with 36 human infants just 18 months old yielded comparable results.

"Chimpanzees and such young infants both show that some level of altruism may be innate and not just a factor of education," said developmental and comparative psychologist Felix Warneken at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology at Leipzig, Germany. "People say we become altruistic because our parents teach us so, but that young children are originally selfish. This suggests maybe culture is not the only source of altruism."

Further testing

Still, humans at the sanctuary provide the chimpanzees food and shelter, so helping people out could simply be in their best interests. Experiments were then needed to see how willing the apes were to help out unrelated chimps.

The researchers set up closed rooms that each held a piece of banana or watermelon. The only way for a chimp to get in was if an unrelated spectator ape released a chain to open the room. Warneken and his colleagues found the spectators often altruistically helped the other chimps get the fruit, even if they got no reward themselves, findings detailed June 25 in the journal PLoS Biology.

These findings suggest the roots of human altruism go deeper than previously thought, reaching back as far as the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.

"There is a biological predisposition to altruistic tendencies that we share with our common ancestor, and culture cultivates rather than implants the roots of altruism in the human psyche from primordial forms to more mature ones," Warneken told LiveScience.

Primal differences

Primatologist Frans de Waal at Emory University in Atlanta noted he recorded hundreds of cases of altruism among chimpanzees, "but skeptics like to downplay the evidence by saying it is not based on controlled experiments." These new experiments "thus confirm what observers of chimpanzees had said all along."

Still, altruism is rarely seen in chimps in the wild, and past research from the Max Planck Institute and others actually suggested that chimpanzees were not capable of human-like altruism. For instance, when chimps had the option of pulling a bar to feed either just themselves or themselves and another at no cost, UCLA primatologist Joan Silk and her colleagues had found the apes were no more likely to choose either option.

"In that experiment, maybe they were so occupied for retrieving food for themselves that they had no attention to spare for others," Warneken said. "So one difference between humans and chimps might be the ability to read the intentions of others and discriminate whether help is needed or not. You might have to make it very obvious that there's a problem the other faces."

Also, if chimps feel there is little chance they can get food for themselves, "maybe altruistic tendencies collapse," Warneken added. "For humans and chimps, selfish and altruistic motives are in competition with each other, and it could be that with chimps, selfish motives have to be pushed far off to the side to make room for altruism. So what distinguishes humans and chimps is not whether or not chimps have altruism but how fragile altruism might be."

Silk noted future experiments could test "how much the chimps are really willing to give up for such altruism." She added the experiments Warneken and his colleagues performed could be conducted with her own chimps, to see whether the absence of altruism they saw before "was based off the task we had them perform, or perhaps the individuals themselves."