Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: NASA’s Lost Female Astronauts

Posted: 06 Oct 2009 10:09 AM PDT


Imagine if the first person on the moon had proclaimed, "That's one small step for woman, one giant leap for mankind."

It could have happened. In the late 1950s, the United States government contemplated training women as astronauts, and newly released medical test results show that they were just as cool and tough as the men who went to the moon.

"They were all extraordinary women and outstanding pilots and great candidates for what was proposed," said Donald Kilgore, a doctor who evaluated both male and female space flight candidates at the Lovelace Clinic, a mid-century center of aeromedical research. "They came out better than the men in many categories."

The clinic's founder, Randy Lovelace, developed the health assessments used to select the Mercury 7 team, and thought that women might make competent astronauts. It was a radical idea for the era. Women's liberation had just begun to stir, and only a quarter of U.S. women had jobs.

But Lovelace was practical: Women are lighter than men, requiring less fuel to transport them into space. They're also less prone to heart attacks, and Lovelace considered them better-suited for the claustrophobic isolation of space.

In 1959, Lovelace collaborator Donald Flickinger, an Air Force general and NASA advisor, founded the Women In Space Earliest program in order to test women for their qualifications as astronauts. But the Air Force canned it before testing even started, prompting Lovelace to start the Woman in Space Program.

cobbNineteen women enrolled in WISP, undergoing the same grueling tests administered to the male Mercury astronauts. Thirteen of them —later dubbed the Mercury 13 —passed "with no medical reservations," a higher graduation rate than the first male class. The top four women scored as highly as any of the men.

"They were all motivated to a degree you could not measure. They knew they were ideal candidates, but NASA regulations kept them out of the game," said Kilgore.

The results of the women's tests are described for the first time in an article published in the September Advances in Physiology Education, and show just how capable they. One set of results, from the sensory deprivation tests, are especially striking.

"Based on previous experiments in several hundred subjects, it was thought that 6 hours was the absolute limit of tolerance for this experience before the onset of hallucinations," write Kilgore and his co-authors. "[Jerrie] Cobb, however, spent 9 hours and 40 minutes during the experiment, which was terminated by the staff. Subsequently, two other women (Rhea Hurrle and Wally Funk) were also tested, with each spending over 10 hours in the sensory isolation tank before termination by the staff."

During the test, the women were immersed in a lightless tank of cold water. By contrast, John Glenn's memoir recounts being tested in a dimly-lit room, where he was provided with a pen and paper. Glenn's test lasted just three hours.

The would-be Mercury 13 astronauts would ultimately be held to a different standard than their male counterparts. Some NASA officials speculated that female performance could be impaired by menstruation. Others wanted pilots who had already flown experimental military aircraft — something only men could have done, since women were barred from the Air Force.

In August 1961, WISP was cancelled. It was not until 1995, when Eileen Collins piloted the STS-63 shuttle around the MIR space station, that the Mercury 13 met again. Collins was the first woman to become a space pilot, but not the first woman who deserved to.

"They knew it was a long shot, but they were willing to take it," said Kilgore. "They were very special people."

See Also:

Citation: "A forgotten moment in physiology: the Lovelace Woman in Space Program (1960–1962)." By Kathy L. Ryan, Jack A. Loeppky and Donald E. Kilgore, Jr. Advances in Physiology Education, Vol. 33 No. 3, September 2009.

Image: Jerrie Cobb on a tilt table and beside a Mercury capsule, from Advances in Physiology Education.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.

The Making of a Mind-Blowing Space Photo

Posted: 06 Oct 2009 05:43 AM PDT


One late night in 2007, Rogelio Bernal Andreo and his wife were driving down Highway 1 along California's Lost Coast, when his wife opened the moon roof. What spread out above them looked nothing like the mauve sky near their Sunnyvale home.

"It was like the Milky Way was in front of us," said Andreo, a former early eBay employee, who runs a Spanish-language Internet company. "It looked like it was gonna fall on us."

He pulled out his digital SLR camera and spent two hours trying to capture the vast galaxy. When he got home, he downloaded the photos, and caught the astrophotography bug.

"I started to look at on the internet and see all these pictures, really gorgeous pictures," Andreo said. "I said, 'How do people do this?'"

Two years of intensive study, rigorous practice, and perhaps $10,000 of equipment later, he knows. And he let Wired.com in on his process. Step-by-step, we'll break down how he went from the black-and-white star scene below to the mind-blowing space photo above.

Thanks to cheaper high-quality digital cameras and editing equipment, creating beautiful images of galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters is now within the reach of anyone with a few thousand dollars to spend.

So, we live in a golden age for space photos, but looking at the technicolor images of what appears to the naked eye to be a fairly bland sky, we find ourselves asking: does it really look like that?

As we find in this behind-the-scenes look at the making of a mind-blowing space photo, the answer is yes — but just not to your eyes, which are pretty poor sensors, compared with purpose-built astrophotographic equipment.

But that doesn't mean the photos aren't "real." Most astrophotographers have an ethic: They won't add color or lasso just a part of an image for editing. They can only bring things out of the data, not add them. The photos are often processed in Photoshop, but what they do is the opposite of falsifying the visual reord through. Astrophotographers are using digital editing tools to find the truth in the noisy data that are the heavens.

"The stuff up there is really dim," Andreo said. "The good thing is that the camera records all that and the trick is to bring it out."


The first step in getting a good space photo is picking a spot without light pollution from cities. In northern California, Andreo prefers Lake San Antonio, Henry Coe State Park, and Fremont Peak, depending on how far he wants to drive.

His equipment list is long. He packs a Takahashi telescope, Takahashi mount, tripod, SBIG STL11000M camera, adapters, cables, deep-cycle marine batteries, an Asus eee laptop, food, and coffee of course.

This photo is how the process begins. It's the first of 11 black-and-white exposures that he'll make. The field of view is just the left third — the area around the bright blue stars of Orion's belt — of the completed panorama at the top of the page.

"This is just one shot, a fifteen-minute exposure," Andreo said. "That's how it comes out of the camera. The original size of the picture is like 20 megabytes."

Of course, he shoots in RAW format with no compression to maximize the amount of data the images retain.


Now, the processing begins. Andreo takes his eleven exposures and "stacks" them in Photoshop, one on top of the other. Then, he averages their data to screen out the noise. Each exposure has a set of random noise in some subset of pixels. By combining them, the good pixels outweigh the bad pixels and you end up with a less noisy image.

"The stuff that's really up there is going to stay, but the noise — because it was random — is goingto disappear," he said.

At this stage, he also does background calibration, which tends to brighten the image and make it a little "creamier."


Here, Andreo has started to "push the histogram," as astrophotographers say.

"You push up or down the low levels of the image and the high levels of the image and more data starts to show up," he said. "It's the first thing that most people are going to do. Once you stack your images, then adjust your histogram a little to see how much stuff is really there."

Here, more stars are obviously apparent and the creaminess has gone away with the processing for greater contrast. Next comes the color.


After he shoots an area of the sky with the monochrome, high-resolution filter, he switches to separate red, green, and blue filters. He goes through the same process for each color component as he did for the black-and-white image. He takes multiple exposures, combines them, and does background calibration.

"It's just red green and blue combined and slightly stretched to bring out all the detail," Andreo said. "You start to see more of pretty picture, basically."


Here, Andreo has draped the color data onto the more detailed luminance image.

"I take the RGB that you saw from the previous image, and I put it on top of the luminance," Andreo said, "but I don't want the details, I just want the color information."

Once that's complete, he pushes the histograms some more or perhaps adjusts the levels in the image to bring out the details. Some of the artistry comes out in this stage.

"Because there is a lot of creativity, with the same set of raw data, two different people are going to come up with different things," he said.


The last step was simply to rotate it vertically because he just "liked it more this way." After all, the number of targets for amateur astrophotographers is fairly limited. Framing is a key component of standing out.

"I'm hoping that my final picture will escape mediocrity," he said. "It may not be the best you've ever seen, but at least it's not just one more."

Later, that rotation turned out fortuitously when a friend saw the image and suggested he combine it with photos he'd taken of an adjacent region of the sky.

Working with a program called Register that helps photographersjoin their photos by identifying the common stars in different images, he stitched the images together. It required rotating and cropping his original Orion belt, but when the mosaic was finished, it was absolutely breathtaking. Last month, it was selected by NASA as the agency's Astronomy Picture of the Day for September 18th.

The image certainly traveled a long way from its initial incarnation to the finished product, but is the first image any more real than the last? Does adding dozens of exposures together and "pushing the histogram" add or subtract from the reality of the image?

After stepping through the transformation, we're not convinced either way, but we're sure glad that someone takes pictures of space that look like pieces of the heavens.

Images: Rogelio Bernal Andreo.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

7 Glow-in-the-Dark Mushroom Species Discovered

Posted: 05 Oct 2009 01:15 PM PDT


Seven new glowing mushroom species have been discovered in Belize, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia and Puerto Rico.

Four of the species are completely new to scientists, and three previously known species were discovered to be luminescent. All seven species, as well as the majority of the 64 previously known species of luminescent mushrooms, are from the Mycena family.

"What interests us is that within Mycena, the luminescent species come from 16 different lineages, which suggests that luminescence evolved at a single point and some species later lost the ability to glow," said biologist Dennis Desjardin of San Francisco State University, lead author of the study published Monday in the journal Mycologia.

The new discoveries might help scientists understand when, how and why mushrooms evolved the ability to glow. Desjardin suspects that luminescence might attract nocturnal animals, which would then help the mushrooms spread their spores.

Image above: Mycena silvaelucens (forest light) was collected in the grounds of an Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in Borneo, Malaysia and was found on the bark of a standing tree. The mushrooms are tiny with each cap measuring less than 18 millimeters in diameter. / Brian Perry, University of Hawaii

Nobel Winners Isolate Protein Behind Immortality, Cancer

Posted: 05 Oct 2009 12:51 PM PDT


This year's Nobel Prize in medicine went to a trio of scientists who discovered the enzyme telomerase, which allows cells to divide without any limits, making them effectively immortal.

It may be nature's greatest double-edged sword. Coax cells into producing telomerase, and they will survive indefinitely, but they will also become cancerous.

To safeguard against cancer, adult cells keep track of how many times that they have multiplied, and once they have reached a pre-set limit — often around 80 divisions — they die. Telomerase interferes with this record keeping.

If you can find a drug or gene therapy that interferes with telomerase, it could fight the unchecked growth of cancer cells, said Mark Muller, a cancer researcher who studies telomeres at the University of Central Florida.

"Ninety percent of all cancer cells are telomerase rich," Muller said.

Several companies, including Geron, have started testing drugs that gum up the telomerase enzyme, so that it can't extend the lives of cancer cells.

Telomerase lengthens telomeres, repetitive DNA sequences that sit at the ends of chromosomes. Each segment of a telomere is like a ticket that gives it permission to divide. When cells run out of those credits, they cease dividing.

Geron is developing a modified DNA molecule that gets stuck inside of telomerase, so that it can't build up the ends of telomeres in cancer cells. The company is also working with a vaccine that trains cancer patients' immune systems to attack cells that produce telomerase. In adults, almost all of the cells that produce telomerase are cancerous.

Those cancer treatments took shape almost 20 years after academics made a breakthrough discovery.

In the early 1980's Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak identified telomerase and learned how it works. Some scientists speculated people could live longer by using the enzyme to buy extra time for their aging cells, but that idea remains risky and unproven.

"By itself, lengthening telomeres would probably just increase the rate of tumor formation," said Chris Patil, a researcher at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, California. "Experiments with mice have shown that lengthening telomeres extends lifespan, but only if you introduce multiple other mutations to block cancer."

Considering the risks of telomere-extension therapy, he thinks that scientists have bigger fish to fry.

"In the absence of a comprehensive understanding, it's very dangerous," Muller said. "We have to figure out how to do maintenance on our telomeres."

Muller thinks humans could live for 90 to 210 years once scientists know more about the molecular basis of aging.

"If we could figure out how to do maintenance, we could extend our lives," he said. "But it has to be done very carefully, and we'd have to have a comprehensive understanding of the mechanism. "


Images: 1) Chromosomes in a dividing cell. National Institutes of Health. 2) Wired forecasted telomeric gene extension therapy in the Found section of issue 15-09 by Alex Katz, Erik Pawassar, and Chris Baker.

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Infrared Video: 500,000 Bats Emerge From Cave

Posted: 05 Oct 2009 12:43 PM PDT

Bats use echolocation to see in the dark, but unfortunately human scientists cannot do the same.

That poses a problem for ecologists who want to know, for example, how many Brazilian free-tailed bats live in the Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico. Researchers can't shine a light on them because that disrupts their behavior, but they can't see them without light. The answer? Infrared cameras, of course.

By installing infrared sensors, life scientist Nickolay Hristov of Winston-Salem State University and Thomas Kunz of Boston University were able to study the bat colonies in great detail from less than 50 feet away. They discovered that only something like 4 million bats live in the large colonies, an order of magnitude less [pdf] than previously estimated by visual inspection methods in the 1950s.

Beyond the science, their work also yielded tremendous video, which was posted at The Scientist. Embedded above, the team's infrared camera captured half a million bats emerging from the cave to feed at night.

The next step in this see-in-the-dark science will be taking data with multiple cameras, so that the scientists can triangulate the precise positions of the bats during flight, Hristov said.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Roman Coin Hoards Show More War Means Fewer Babies

Posted: 05 Oct 2009 12:06 PM PDT


Coins buried by anxious Italians in the first century B.C. can be used to track the ups and downs of the Roman population during periods of civil war and violence.

In times of instability in the ancient world, people stashed their cash and if they got killed or displaced, they didn't come back for their Geld. Thus, large numbers of coin hoards are a good quantitative indicator of population decline, two researchers argue in in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Monday.

And it turns out that during the periods we know to have been violent — the Second Punic War, the Social War and various civil wars — hoarding behavior soars, providing a statistical peek into the life of your average Italian 2,000 years ago.

"During that period, we have a good literary record. Caesar died because he was killed by assassins," said Peter Turchin, a population ecologist at the University of Connecticut. "We don't know what happened to common people. [Coin hoards] tell us what happened to common people."

The new work could help settle a long-standing historical debate about the Roman population. Census figures from the end of the second century B.C. show a population of adult males of around 400,000. Then, the record goes blank, and census figures from around a hundred years later show a population of 4 to 5 million. Some of the population explosion is explained by the extension of Roman citizenship to various groups, but far from all of it. From this evidence, a group of historiansknown asthe "high-count" hypothesizers have argued there was excellent population growth during that period.

Another group of historians had an alternate explanation for the appearance of population growth. They figured that the later census takers had started to count women and children, rather than just adult males, as part of the official population stats.

Without more information about the ancient world, it was difficult to settle the argument one way or another. Turchin, though, knew from previous work that warfare and instability don't tend to deliver robust population growth in societies.

"Population growth and instability are negatively correlated," Turchin said.

He teamed up with Walter Scheidel, a Stanford classicist and historian, to create a model of population growth and decline based on coin-hoard data gathered over the years. Their model's predictions match well with the early census data. The population projections they derive make the "high-count" hypothesis "highly implausible," they argue.

That has important implications for Roman history, but not too much history will actually be rewritten. It was the high-counters who were hoping to revise the Italian population up from what earlier historians had assumed.

Image: A hoard of Roman coins from the Bristol Museum.
flickr/Synwell Liberation Front.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Termite Altruism Might Have Roots in War

Posted: 05 Oct 2009 12:00 PM PDT

termitesAltruism might have evolved for fairly selfish reasons, at least in insects.

When a warring termite colony loses its king and queen — the only members capable of reproduction —then its survivors merge with the victor colony, treating genetically unrelated former enemies as if they were siblings.

In the short term, this makes no sense. But in the long term, because replacement royalty is recruited from among worker bugs, it's the losers'best shot at eventually reproducing.

"You could go off and start your own colony, but that's risky," said Philip Johns, a Bard College evolutionary biologist. "This way, there's a good chance a king or queen may die, and then you have a chance at taking over."

The drama of termite succession, described Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the latest addition to a long, rich history of research into insect altruism, which has fascinated and perplexed scientists since Darwin.

At its most extreme, insect altruism takes the form of eusociality, in which entire insect castes are unable to reproduce, and devote their lives to caring for other colony members. This is what makes giant insect colonies possible. But through a framework of classic evolutionary genetics, it doesn't compute. Organisms are supposed to be driven to reproduce their genes.

The conundrum was solved for a while by Bill Hamilton, an evolutionary biologist who showed that eusociality could be explained by the relatedness of colony members. In some insect species, workers share more genes with their siblings than with their own hypothetical offspring.

But Hamilton's position has become controversial, partly because of termites species who aren't so closely related to their siblings, but practice eusociality nonetheless. The cooperation described in the PNAS paper is especially striking: The species weren't related to one another at all, yet came together like family.

When the researchers studied the newly joined colonies 18 months later, however, the merging made sense. They found individuals from both original colonies, as well as new, hybrid members. Kings and queens could be chosen from among the newcomers, and termite royalty is frequently replaced: In termite battles, they're always the first targets.

The species used in the study, Zootermopsis nevadensis, is especially primitive, with colonies comprising a few dozen members. It's believed to resemble the first termite species to evolve eusociality.

Later on, when colonies expanded from a few dozen members to millions, and entire sterile castes there no longer had any meaningful chance of being picked to reproduce, it didn't matter.

"There's a point of no return," Johns speculated. "The colonies have huge advantages over non-eusocial colonies." They out-competed one another.

Johnson was hesitant to extrapolate from the findings to the origin of human altruism, but said that other researchers have suggested human altruism evolved in a crucible of similar group-level competition.

"They posit what early human societies were like: small populations, high rates of encountering others. And when they did meet, there was a fight," Johnson said.

Image: Cornell University

See Also:

Citation: Nonrelatives inherit colony resources in a primitive termite." By Philip M. Johns, Kenneth J. Howard, Nancy L. Breisch, Anahi Rivera and Barbara L. Thorne. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106, No. 39, October 5, 2009.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.