Monday, 30 November 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Large Hadron Collider Sets New World Record

Posted: 30 Nov 2009 12:08 AM PST


CERN announced early Monday that the Large Hadron Collider has become the world's highest-energy particle accelerator. The LHC pushed protons to 1.18 TeV (trillion electron volts), surpassing the previous record of 0.98 TeV held by Fermilab's Tevatron.

The LHC has had a rough beginning, suffering a mechanical failure just a week after it started up for the first time in September 2008. Now, 10 days after itturned on again,scientists are celebrating with their fingers crossed that the machine is safely on its way to the physics experiments they plan to start next year when the LHC has reached its target energy of 7 TeV.

"We are still coming to terms with just how smoothly the LHC commissioning is going," said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer in a press release Monday. "However, we are continuing to take it step by step, and there is still a lot to do before we start physics in 2010. I'm keeping my champagne on ice until then."

The first beam was injected on November 20, and two beams sped around the 17-mile ringin opposite directionsthree days later. All four of the LHC's detectors recorded data from the collision of those two beams.

The first to announce the record may have been the scientists running the CMS detector through their Twitter feed:

@CMSexperiment: World Record!! Tonight at about 22:00 the LHC accelerated a beam of protons to 1180 GeV - a new record energy!

Next, the intensity of the beams will be increased for about a week, and then collisions to calibrate the machine will be carried out through December.

Image: CERN

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Mini Microbe Portraits From the Micropolitan Museum

Posted: 29 Nov 2009 09:00 PM PST

<< previous image | next image >>

Tired of the portraits, landscapes and abstract art that peppers the walls of most art museums? According to Dutch photographer Wim von Egmond, there's one art subject that has been ignored for centuries and finally deserves its due: microscopic organisms.

As the head of the Institute for the Promotion of the Less than One Millimetre, von Egmond has created the Micropolitan Museum of Microscopic Art Forms, an online gallery of all creatures tiny and tinier. To gather his collection, von Egmond sampled organisms from anywhere he could find water, scooping up critters from urban puddles and country ditches as well as the ocean. From desmids to diatoms, he captured all the stunning features of these normally invisible creatures using a standard light microscope. Here, we've chosen a few of our favorite itty-bitties for your viewing pleasure.

The medusa Obelia
This odd-looking creature is a hydrazoan, a tiny relative of the jellyfish measuring just 1 millimeter wide. Like most jellyfish, the Obelia has two life stages, a free-swimming phase called the medusa stage (above) and a stationary phase called the polyp stage (below). During the medusa stage, the creature feeds from the yellow, star-shaped mouth at the center of its body and reproduces sexually using the four gonads surrounding its mouth. Eggs produced during the medusa phase will develop into larvae and then attach themselves to a surface, eventually turning into the stationary broom-shaped polyps pictured below.


Photos: Wim von Egmond/

Friday, 27 November 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Video: The Chemistry of Thanksgiving

Posted: 26 Nov 2009 10:33 AM PST

If you want to arm yourself with some nice science trivia for tonight's dinner conversation, check out this lecture by Diane Bunce, a professor of chemistry at The Catholic University in Washington, DC. She gets off to a slow start, so you may want to skip the first two minutes.

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Thursday, 26 November 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Industrial Thanksgiving: Science Takes Mom’s Recipes to the Assembly-Line

Posted: 25 Nov 2009 12:22 PM PST

Industrial Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is about eating, and though local, organic food might be what the cool kids are eating, most people are still eating products of the industrial food system.

Whether you're talking turkey, cranberries or potatoes, industrial-scale processes have been developed to drive down food costs, drive up corporate profits and feed America's incredible hunger for novel food items.

But most consumers of these manufactured meals have little or no knowledge of the machines and methods used to freeze turkeys, turn potatoes into fake potatoes, and cranberries into TV-dinner cranberry sauce. It's not always pretty, but food scientists' epic battle to scale up your mom's recipes without making them taste nasty is worth examining, if not giving thanks for.

Turkey is the most iconic component of any Thanksgiving meal. Extensive breeding programs have seriously genetically altered the birds that millions of Americans eat. The birds have more than doubled in size since 1930 to an average of 28 pounds today. Even though we generally eat them whole, and therefore less processed than other meals, food technologists have developed new ways of freezing turkeys to increase their edible life, which according to the USDA is just one or two days for fresh turkeys.

A 1990 patent secured by food processor Swift-Eckrich (now Armour Swift-Eckrich) describes a method for freezing turkeys faster than traditional air-chilling. Salt, water and propolyene glycol — a major and generally nontoxic component of airplane de-icers — are cooled down to less than minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the propylene glycol and salt lower the freezing point of the water, the liquid remains unfrozen. The turkeys are either sprayed with the solution or immersed in it, in a tank like the one below.

Even the largest bird noted in the patent, a 19-pounder, froze within 7 hours, 10 minutes, as compared with the 24 to 48 hours blast-chilling would need.


A turkey freezer.

According to the patent, the "flavor, texture, and quality of the thawed product is excellent," displaying none of the "objectionable medicinal or other flavors and aftertastes" of previous similar processes.

But processed turkeys are just the beginning of our industrialized holiday feast. Cranberries and potatoes have received even-more-transformative treatments by food scientists.

Traditional mashed potatoes are simple to make. You peel potatoes, cook them until they're soft, and mash them. But potatoes don't last that long, and they're heavy and bulky to transport. Food companies wanted a lighter, longer-lasting product.

Enter the potato flake. Growing out of research on potato granules, the flake was a type of dehydrated, heavily processed potato that could be heated with water and fat to make a product closely resembling the hand-mashed variety.

The potato flake process was established by 1967, with variations coming from several companies. Overton Machine Company patented the process depicted below.


As shown in the diagram, there are a few more steps to this process than the one your Mom uses. First, the potatoes are heated for a few minutes at about 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, they're bathed in a caustic lye solution, which is used in manufacturing aluminum and paper, and as a cleaning agent. As you might expect, that softens them up, which makes the peeling step easier. Removed from their skins, they are bathed in a solution that neutralizes the pH.

Then, they head to a slicer that cuts them into half-inch chunks. Those are precooked in hot water, cooled, and then cooked again at about 200 degrees. The potato pieces are then doused with some preservatives and pushed through a ricer to make them smaller. Finally, the potato particles are placed on a dryer at a thickness of less than 1/100 of an inch. Voila, potato flakes!

"This invention now provides a process and apparatus for the production of uniform, high-quality dehydrated potato flakes which will reconstitute into a most palatable food which cannot be distinguished from the naturally occurring cooked potatoes," the patent contends, "despite variations in growth techniques, geographical areas or potato varieties and with substantial reduction of required processing materials, equipment, time, and cost."

Of course, if you prefer baked potatoes, another inventor has a product just for you. Miles Willard of Idaho Falls was granted a patent in 1979 for the "Preparation of Fabricated Baked Potato Product."

It's like a traditional baked potato, in that its potato interior is enclosed in potato skin, but that's where the similarities end. For example, the potato skin is, "preferably made by baking peeled potato pieces to impart a baked potato flavor, grinding the baked pieces, and mixing the ground baked-potato pieces with water, starch and cooked potato solids to form a pliable, cohesive baked-potato dough."

This dough is then wrapped around a potato mash created basically through the flake process described above minus the dehydration. Then it's fried. It's not just a baked potato that was heated in a dry oven: It's many potatoes baked and mashed and then reassembled into something that kind of looks and tastes like a baked potato. The point? It cooks in just minutes instead of the hour required for regular potatoes.

Potatoes like that would be convenient in a TV dinner. These prepackaged, microwavable meals present a variety of challenges to the food engineer. How, for example, can cranberry sauce be included with turkey dinners that will be packaged, frozen and heated all together?

"Cranberry sauce is now so widely recognized as an almost indispensable accompaniment of any turkey dinner, that it is sorely missed when omitted from turkey TV dinners," a 1967 Ocean Spray patent noted. "Yet, such cranberry sauces are not often, if ever, included in frozen dinners, primarily because of difficulties encountered by reason of their peculiar processing characteristics."

Cranberry sauce is held together by pectin found in the cranberries themselves, and it must be allowed to set. or it loses its texture on freezing and reheating. But when it's set, the mechanical methods necessary to actually place it next to the turkey in the dish bust up its structural integrity. That leads to the same problem that TV dinner makers encountered when they stuck ungelled cranberry sauce to the meals. The flowing liquid "flows into and colors the other components of the dinner."

This terrible dilemma was temporarily solved by hand-plating (!) jellied cranberry just before the TV dinners were frozen, but that was "too slow to be compatible with the automated high speed of the rest of the production line."

So Ocean Spray developed a solution with just the right mix of ingredients. All it took was mixing and heating 500 pounds of cranberries, 30 pounds of waxy maize starch, 60 gallons of Briz sugar syrup and 30 gallons of water. The corn starch is heated up and added to the cranberries This causes the mixture to gel almost instantly into a solution that won't break down upon freezing and reheating, transforming the relationship between TV dinners and cranberry sauce forever.

"Such cooked cranberry-sauce mix thus need not be held for any gelling period after cooking, but may be rapidly metered hot directly from the cooking kettles onto individual TV dinner plates in the freeze-line of production without danger of losing gelation," the patent triumphantly concludes.

Image: Jon Snyder/

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

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

DIY Botox Seller Busted by Texas Attorney General

Posted: 25 Nov 2009 11:47 AM PST


The Texas attorney general filed charges Monday against Laurie D'Alleva for allegedly selling prescription drugs like Botox from websites she owned, including

Agents descended on her Mansfield, Texas home and carried out boxes, computers, and other possible evidence for the case, according to local news reports.

The lawsuit comes after first reported on D'Alleva's business practices. An Oct. 27 story detailed her website's claims to offer prescription drugs including Renova and Dysport, the botulinum toxin-variant, as well as lip-filling gels.

Videos embedded on the site and posted to YouTube showed D'Alleva injecting Dysport, which the site calls "The Freeze," into her own face. The videos have since been taken down, but downloaded a copy of the video, which is posted here.

D'Alleva faces civil penalties of $25,000 per violation per day for each time she broke the rules for selling prescription drugs under the Texas Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. In a post to the website, she claimed to have more than 2,000 customers.

Allison Lowery, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said her agency referred the case to state attorney general, after completing their own investigation.

According to the lawsuit filed by the Attorney General, an investigator ordered D'Alleva's "newbie kit" on Nov. 9, two weeks after the report. Four days later, it arrived, containing "Restylane, one fifty unit Freeze product containing purified neurotoxin complex, two empty syringes, two syringe needles" and instructions for use.

The attorney general's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A physicians' association has also responded to's report. The International Association of Physicians for Aesthetic Medicine released a set of safety tips for consumers, which warns against injecting yourself with botox

"Recently, there have been several reports regarding DIY "botox-like" injectables, which can be purchased through the internet," the IAPAM safety tips read. "A woman in Texas offered consumers a botox-like product called "Freeze," complete with a "How-To" video, so consumers could administer the botulinum toxin themselves."

See Also:

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

Pacific Northwest Earthquakes Could Strike Closer to Home

Posted: 25 Nov 2009 10:32 AM PST


Major earthquakes occurring along the Cascadia subduction zone off the coast of Washington state could strike closer to the state's urban areas than some models have suggested, a new study notes.

sciencenewsGPS data gathered at dozens of sites throughout western Washington hint that slippage along the interface between the North American and Juan de Fuca tectonic plates could occur as deep as 25 kilometers below the Earth's surface, says Timothy I. Melbourne, a geodesist at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. That depth, in turn, would place the epicenters of quakes triggered along that portion of the subduction zone — some of which could exceed magnitude 9 —more than 60 kilometers inland, he and CWU colleague James Chapman report online and in the November 28 Geophysical Research Letters.

Seafloor spreading is shoving the eastern edge of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, which runs from northern California to southern British Columbia, eastward beneath the North American plate. Long-term observations indicate that the plates are converging at an average rate of between 3 and 4 centimeters each year, says Melbourne. "With GPS, you can see plate tectonics happening on a week-to-week basis," he notes.

At shallow depths, where Earth's crust is relatively cool, the tectonic interface is locked, and seismic stress builds up there until it is released during a quake. But deep beneath western Washington, at depths between 25 and 45 kilometers, the two tectonic plates slide past each other for a few days each 18 months or so. These slippage episodes are sometimes described as "silent earthquakes" (SN: 4/27/02, p. 260) but actually do register on seismometers, says Melbourne. "They're like a magnitude-1 quake but they go on for a couple of weeks," he notes. The total energy release in each slippage episode, if let loose all at once, would equal that in a quake with a magnitude between 6.3 and 6.7.

NOAA Ocean Explorer: Submarine Ring of Fire 2002: Explorer RidgeThe long-term GPS data provide information about where slippage is occurring and how the plates are deforming. For instance, while average plate convergence rates offshore are greater than 3 centimeters per year, those along the coast are about 2.5 cm/yr. Convergence inland, near Seattle, only adds up to about 0.5 cm/yr, says Melbourne. These trends, when combined with previous seismic data, hint that stress is accumulating along the tectonic interface at depths less than 25 kilometers, where the tectonic interface is locked.

GPS data are a more direct way of telling where tectonic slippage is occurring and where it isn't, says John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. "That data from both GPS and seismic instruments are pointing in the same direction is comforting," he adds.

A major quake rupturing the 300-kilometer length of the Cascadia subduction zone that runs along the Washington coast would measure magnitude 8.9, Melbourne and Chapman estimate. If the entire 1,100-kilometer subduction zone slipped at once, the quake would be a magnitude-9.2 whopper rivaling the tsunami-spawning quake that slammed Indonesia in December 2004 (SN: 1/8/05, p. 19). Field studies suggest that quakes of such magnitude happen along the Cascadia subduction zone once every 550 years, on average. The last one struck the region in January of 1700 (SN: 11/29/97, p. 348).

Quake hazard analyses for the region, based partially on seismic data, already account for possible tectonic slippage at depths of 25 kilometers, says Garry Rogers, an earthquake scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada in Sidney, British Columbia. Nevertheless, he notes, the new findings provide "more precise measurements than we've had before…. This study confirms a lot of what we've known about."

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The Gruesome Power of Raptor Talons

Posted: 25 Nov 2009 09:52 AM PST


The most thorough study to date of raptor talons reveals their feet to be extraordinarily specialized hunting tools, perfectly suited to their gruesomely amazing killing strategies.

"Despite the ubiquity of raptors in terrestrial ecosystems, many aspects of their predatory behavior remain poorly understood," wrote ornithologists in a paper published Wednesday in PLoS ONE. "Surprisingly little is known about the morphology of raptor talons and how they are employed during feeding behavior."

To get a better understanding, the researchers took detailed measurements of the talons from 24 bird of prey species, and linked them to literature on raptor hunting and 170 videos of attacks.

They describe how accipitrids, which include hawks and eagles, have two giant talons on their first and second toes. These give them a secure grip on struggling game that they like to eat alive, "so long as it does not protest too vigorously. In this prolonged and bloody scenario, prey eventually succumb to massive blood loss or organ failure, incurred during dismemberment."

Meanwhile, the talons of owls, which don't usually land a killing blow as they strike, are relatively short but strong, and one toe actually swivels backwards. That lets owls crush wounded quarry between two pairs of opposable talons. The animal is then swallowed whole.

Falcons are so skilled at disabling prey with a mid-air, high-speed strike that their talons are smaller than those of other raptors. They just don't need them as much. Once they've landed, falcons "will quickly pluck the neck area and attempt to kill prey swiftly by breaking the neck with a bite attack."

Osprey have large, curved talons, almost like fishhooks — which is appropriate because they specialize in catching fish, swooping down and hitting them just below the water's surface.

In addition to expanding understanding of these much-loved birds, the findings could help researchers understand the birds' dinosaur ancestors. The researchers are now studying how dinosaur claws reflected their hunting and feeding habits.

Image: (A) goshawk (B) red-tailed hawk (C) peregrine falcon (D) great grey owl (E) osprey./PLoS ONE

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Citation: "Predatory Functional Morphology in Raptors: Interdigital Variation in Talon Size Is Related to Prey Restraint and Immobilisation Technique." By Denver W. Fowler, Elizabeth A. Freedman, John B. Scannella. PLoS ONE, November 25, 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.

3-D Renderings Bring Ancient Hominids to Life

Posted: 25 Nov 2009 09:29 AM PST


For decades, paleoartists have told the story of human evolution through sculpture and drawing. Now their tools have evolved, too.

Computers allow a level of detail and control that isn't possible with other media. Their creations can come closer than ever to bringing our ancestors to life.

"What's driven my work has always been, 'I want to see that thing alive. I want to see that world," said paleoartist Viktor Deak, who provided the reconstructions used in the Becoming Human documentaries, which aired in November on PBS. "Computer graphics is developing to the point where, in movies like "Benjamin Button," you don't know what parts are not digital."

Deak still begins his reconstructions in traditional fashion, sculpting bodies from clay. Like other paleoartists, he doesn't know what his fossil interpretation will look like when complete, but comes to an understanding of anatomic nuances, of tissue and muscle thickness and how it might have linked to ancient bone, while working with his hands in three dimensions.

Once he's done, he converts the work to digital format. For a 78-foot-long mural now traveling with Lucy's Legacy, a touring exhibition featuring the famous 3.2 million year old fossils, he photographed his sculptures and imported them to Photoshop. There he added hundreds of layers of texture and light, tweaking them for maximum combinatorial realism.


That was the old way. For Becoming Human, he worked with ZBrush, a 3-D modeling program that lets him work with the sculpture in even greater detail. "The nuances of the skin, the way light scatters underneath it, they figured all that out," he said of the program's naturalism. "There's no limitation on what you can do, as long as your machine can handle it." He poses his sculptures in desired position, then renders it with different materials and lighting. The renderings are then sent to Photoshop, layered and tweaked for maximum realism.

"They look realer to me," said Deak. "For a couple seconds, people might say, 'What's that a photo of? Where'd you get that picture? There's that moment of belief when they're not looking at it as a painting or sculpture, but as a living thing."

"He does wonderful stuff," said Rick Potts, curator of anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Potts described the digital transition as something that many artists have greeted reluctantly if at all, but is necessary.

"I'm excited about it, because it means you're not just dealing with static appearance," he said. "One of the great challenges of science communication is taking dead, dusty things we find in the ground, and helping people understand that these were part of a living world. Our ancestors were living and dying, just as we do. Bringing things to life in the digital world can really help."


The ultimate form of resurrection is as animation, which was done in Becoming Human by mapping Deak's models onto the motion recordings of suited human actors. But no human can ever move quite like a creature with a different skeleton, and relying on other people to realize his ideas of how ancient hominids moved adds an extra layer of separation.

"Learning animation is my goal right now. That would cross out any ambiguity between the science and the final depiction of it. Once I get the software down, then I can do the whole thing and create the vision of human evolution I have banging around in my brain," said Deak.

Of course, whatever the tool, the task is still poised at what Potts called "the edge of science and art." Even for scientists, fossils are heavily interpreted — Lucy, the most complete ancient hominid skeleton, is only 40 percent complete — and Deak immerses himself in the field's literature, taking in every new find and revision.

"I'm an anthropologist who happens to do art. I don't write that well and would get bored doing 30-page papers on mandible synthesis," said Deak. "In my mind I have a tree of skulls that I'm always repositioning and thinking about. As much thinking and analysis as possible goes into each work. I've taken it upon myself to be a voice for these fossils."


Images: 1) A finished Homo ergaster, from Becoming Human. 2) Detail from the mural for Lucy's Legacy. 3) Early- and late-stage renderings of Homo heidelbergensis. 4) Viktor Deak in his studio.
See Also:

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.

3-D Solar Tsunami Video Shows the Extreme Waves Are Real

Posted: 25 Nov 2009 07:00 AM PST


A60,000-mile-high wave of super-hot plasma blazing across the sun's surface at 560,000 mph? Yep.

"Now we know. Solar tsunamis are real," said John Gurman of the Solar Physics Lab at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in a press release Tuesday.

NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory has confirmed that the crazy circular bursts on the surface of the sun, rising higher than the Earth is wide, aren't just optical illusions.

STEREO consists of two spacecraft pointing at the sun, one ahead of Earth in its orbit and one behind, that acquire stereoscopic images of the sun to give a sort of three-dimensional view, similar to the way our two eyes do.

Though these solar tsunamis, technically known as fast-mode magnetohydrodynamical waves,were firstseen by the SOHO mission more than a decade ago, the single spacecraft couldn't determine if the wave was real or the shadow of a coronal mass ejection. But in February the STEREO twins were perfectly poisedtocatch the eruption of a sunspot that spawned a wave, seen in themovie above.

"It was definitely a wave,"George Mason University scientistSpiros Patsourakos, lead author of a paper on the solar tsunamisin Augustin The Astrophysical Research Journal Letters, said in a press release. "Not a wave of water," he adds, "but a giant wave of hot plasma and magnetism."

solar_tsunami_orangeThe spacecraft have alsospotted waves crashing into other solar structures.

"We've seen the waves reflected by coronal holes. And there is a wonderful movie (at right) of a solar prominence oscillating after it gets hit by a wave (near the top of the image)," co-author Angelos Vourdilas of the Naval Research Labin Washington, D.C., said in a press release. "We call it a dancing prominence."

Watching the waves interact with other things can reveal new information about the sun's atmosphere, and help forecast when a coronal mass ejection or radiation storm will impact Earth.

Movies: NASA

NASA press release

Citation: "'Extreme Ultraviolet Waves' are Waves: First Quadrature Observations of an Extreme Ultraviolet Wave from STEREO." by Spiros Patsourakos and Angelos Vourlidas, Astrophysical Research Journal Letters, vol. 700, August 1, 2009.

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Reborn Coma Man’s Words May Be Bogus

Posted: 24 Nov 2009 02:31 PM PST


The statements of a Belgian man believed to be in a coma for 23 years, but recently discovered to be conscious, are poignant, but experts say they may not be his words at all.

Rom Houben's account of his ordeal, repeated in scores of news stories since appearing Saturday in Der Spiegel, appears to be delivered with assistance from an aide who helps guide his finger to letters on a flat computer keyboard. Called "facilitated communication," that technique has been widely discredited, and is not considered scientifically valid.

"If facilitated communication is part of this, and it appears to be, then I don't trust it," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "I'm not saying the whole thing is a hoax, but somebody ought to be checking this in greater detail. Any time facilitated communication of any sort is involved, red flags fly."

Facilitated communication came to prominence in the late 1970s after an Australian teacher reportedly used it to communicate with 12 children rendered speechless by cerebral palsy and other disorders. Over the next two decades, it gained some adherents in patient and medical communities, but failed to produce consistent results in controlled, scientific settings.

Researchers said that facilitators were unconsciously or consciously guiding patients' hands. Multiple professional organizations, including the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the American Academy of Pediatrics, say that facilitated communication is not credible.

Far more credible, however, is emerging research on patients thought to be in vegetative states, but revealed by brain-scanning technology to be at least minimally conscious, and even aware of what is happening around them. These two strains of research have collided in the figure of Houben. In 2006, a full 23 years after a horrific car accident left him paralyzed and apparently unconscious, tests run by the University of Liege's Coma Science Group showed that Houben's brain was active, and almost normal. He wasn't a vegetable, but aware, and trapped silently in the prison of his ruined body.

Houben has since proven able to answer yes-or-no questions with slight movements of his foot. It's a tremendous accomplishment, and raises the chilling possibility that, as estimated by Coma Science Group leader Steven Laureys in a Monday New York Times story, as many as four in 10 people considered utterly comatose may be misdiagnosed. But the legitimacy of interviews given by Houben and his facilitator to Der Spiegel, and shown on video by the BBC, may not be as certain.

"I believe that he is sentient. They've shown that with MRI scans," said James Randi, a prominent skeptic who during the 1990s investigated the use of facilitated communication for autistic children. But in the video, "You see this woman who's not only holding his hand, but what she's doing is directing his fingers and looking directly at the keyboard. She's pressing down on the keyboard, pressing messages for him. He has nothing to do with it."

According to Randi, facilitated communication could only be considered credible if the facilitator didn't look at the keyboard or screen while supporting Houben's hand, and helped him type messages in response to questions she had not heard, thus ensuring that Houben's responses are entirely his own.

The James Randi Educational Foundation has offered a million-dollar prize to a valid demonstration of facilitated communication, and Randi invited Houben to participate. "Our prize is still there," he said.

In the Der Spiegel interview, Houben and his facilitator recounted his ordeal. "I would scream, but no sound would come out," they wrote. "I became the witness to my own suffering, as doctors and nurses tried to speak to me and eventually gave up." Of the correct diagnosis, they wrote, "I will never forget the day they finally discovered what was wrong — it was my second birth."

According to Caplan, Houben's apparent lucidity after spending more than two decades in complete isolation — circumstances known to be psychologically and cognitively damaging — is hard to believe.

"You're going to lie for 23 years in a hospital bed with almost no stimuli, and then sound completely coherent and cogent?" he said. "Something is wrong with that picture. The messages are almost poetic. It sounds too lucid, like someone prepared these things to say. I'm not saying it's all a fraud, but I want to hear a lot more."

Whatever the final verdict on Houben's facilitated communication, however, it does not alter the fact of his misdiagnosis. Laureys could not be reached for comment, but said in an Agence France Presse story that "every patient should be tested at least 10 times before they are categorically defined as 'vegetative.'"

Image: Yves Logghe/AP

See Also:

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.

Video: Saturn’s Spectacular Aurora in Action

Posted: 24 Nov 2009 12:07 PM PST

How can you not love Cassini? The latest treat NASA's spacecraft has provided us is the first ever movie of Saturn's incredible aruroras.

The high-resolution video was assembled from 472 still images, spaced over 81 hours in October, that show the phenomenon in three dimensions. The lights can be seen as a rippling, vertical sheet up to 750 miles high above Saturn's northern hemisphere.

"The auroras have put on a dazzling show, shape-shifting rapidly and exposing curtains that we suspected were there, but hadn't seen on Saturn before," Cal Tech scientist Andrew Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini imaging team that processed the new video, said in a press release. "Seeing these things on another planet helps us understand them a little better when we see them on Earth."

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has returned many truly amazing images of Titan, Saturn and Enceladus, but the aurora video is one of the more spectacular views yet seen of another planet.

Each image has a 2 to 3 minute exposure time, and together they reveal that Saturn's auroras are rapidly changing, as on Earth. But because of Saturn's lighter, primarily hydrogen atmosphere, the lights reach much higher than in Earth's heavier oxygen and nitrogen atmosphere.

Though Cassini has spied the alien auroras in ultraviolet and infrared light before, this time the phenomenon was captured in the visible spectrum. The imaging team added false color to the black and white images to highlight the aurora. Scientists are still trying to figure out what color the lights really are.

Video: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Op-Ed: Tornado Scientist Risks Life for Ph.D.

Posted: 23 Nov 2009 05:00 PM PST


On June 17, 2009, we were out intercepting tornadoes just west of Aurora, Nebraska, as part of my doctoral research. We thought we were looking at weak tornadoes that day, but as it turned out, a freakishly intense storm almost cost us our lives even as it gave me the data I needed to complete my dissertation.

From the Fields is a periodic Wired Science op-ed series presenting leading scientists' reflections on their work, society and culture.

reed_timmer_240Reed Timmer is working on his Ph.D. in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. He's a co-star of the Discovery Channel television show "Storm Chasers," which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. eastern. Follow him on Twitter @TornadoVideos.

Thanks to a TV deal with the Discovery Channel, based on my recordings at, we had been developing an armored vehicle designed to drive into tornadoes. The Dominator, as we semi-jokingly call it, is a modded 2008 Chevy Tahoe with bullet-proof Lexan windows, steel armor and a roll cage (in case things really get ugly inside a tornado).

The aerodynamic outer shell can drop to the ground via a hydraulic system, and is lined at the base with a rubber sheath to prevent wind from getting underneath and rolling the vehicle. On the roof, we installed a vertically oriented radar to measure the updraft winds inside the parent tornado and suction vortices contained within, and an anemometer to measure the horizontal rotational winds. We also mounted an HD camcorder on the roof inside a bulletproof glass bubble.

We were feeling pretty safe in the Dominator, but we knew the vehicle likely couldn't handle wind speeds stronger than around 150 mph, so we'd visually assess the tornado's strength before intercepting. Our worst-case scenario was driving into an initially weak tornado, which then intensifies rapidly with us inside the circulation. At high enough wind speeds, the storm could roll or loft the Dominator like a massive steel/Lexan kite.

And that's almost what happened that day.

We'd been out intercepting some tornadoes spawned by an incredible supercell out on the plains. Most of them had weak ground circulations, so we weren't too worried about them. Late that day, we approached a tornado that looked like the ones we'd been seeing, and positioned the Dominator just to the east of the funnel on a state highway.

We dropped the armored shell to the ground with the hydraulics to brace for what we thought would be a relatively weak impact. As the tornado drifted toward us, I reached out the driver's side window to lift up and latch the bullet-proof glass. The window was stuck though, and instead of panicking and struggling with it, I just rolled up the regular glass window and fired up the instruments to record data. I thought the tornado would remain relatively weak.

As soon as the tornado hit us, my ears popped from the low pressure, and we were engulfed by the dusty debris cloud. I looked around and noticed the dust was moving faster and faster, and the sound of the strengthening wind became deafening like a jet engine or massive waterfall. At that moment, I knew we might be in trouble as this tornado was intensifying rapidly with us inside!

Ever since I got my driver's license 12 years ago, I've devoted my life to seeing as many tornadoes as possible. Being within a few hundred yards of their violent winds is a feeling that's hard to describe. They're beautiful and powerful. As a poor meteorology student at the University of Oklahoma, the only equipment I could afford was a video camera and a beater car held together by duct tape. Juggling school and storm chasing, I would drive over 30,000 miles a year from Mexico to Canada to get as close as possible to this most powerful atmospheric force on the planet. I've captured over 150 tornadoes on camera since 1998.

For the last several years, I've been working on my Ph.D. in meteorology at OU, combining my passion for the science with my obsession for getting extremely close to tornadoes. In May 2007, we documented a strong, photogenic tornado in northwest Oklahoma from close range in HD video, and noticed the incredible mini-tornadoes rotating around the parent funnel pictured below.

University of Oklahoma meteorologist Brian Fiedler contacted me and said the helical structure and distinct "kink" in these mini-tornadoes, also called suction vortices, closely resembled what he had simulated with his high-resolution computer model, and he had never seen them so clearly photographed in real life.

Fielder said the winds inside these suction vortices theoretically could be two to four times that of the parent tornado with astronomical horizontal and vertical speeds, but they had never been directly measured. He said that a crucial piece of data for tornado science was to determine the true ratio of horizontal and vertical wind speeds between these mini suction vortices and the main tornado. This quickly became an obsession of mine and the ultimate goal of my research career.


Back in the center of the tornado, the wind dropped to an eerie calm for a few seconds that seemed like eternity. Then, a mini suction vortex developed right in front of the vehicle and rotated around to the left before surging in our direction. I yelled to Chris Chittick in the passenger seat and radar operator Mik Wimbrow in the backseat to hang on, and right before the suction vortex slammed the vehicle I looked away from the window just as it came crashing into my face. The driver's side window also shattered, hitting Chris in the left side of the face. A 100 mph wind was blowing through the inside of the Dominator!

A second later the suction vortex and the backside of the tornado moved off to the east, we were in the clear. Chris and I both had blood streaming down the side of our faces. Thankfully, it was only from a few cuts from the shattered glass.

The horizontal wind speed and direction data recorded inside this tornado was very interesting, as seen in the plot below, with a minimum wind speed of 8 mph measured inside the "eye" of the tornado before quickly accelerating to near 140 mph a few seconds later as the suction vortex hit the vehicle. The wind speeds inside the parent tornado were relatively weak (averaging around 70-80 mph) but were substantially stronger inside the mini suction vortex that slammed into the Dominator.


While this situation was clearly very dangerous, the data recorded inside this tornado is a huge step toward accomplishing our research goal of measuring the winds contained in these suction vortices. Needless to say, we have some substantial improvements planned for the Dominator during the off season to prevent similar mishaps.

I've been in some intense storms — like the time we got covered in mud by an F5 tornado in Oklahoma, or the time our windshield was blown out by softball-sized hail in Texas, or the time we watched a tornado rip trees out of the ground a mere 100 yards away from us. However, none of those helped me finish my Ph.D. It might be risky, but documenting tornadoes at extreme close range is just what I love to do.

Images: Reed Timmer. Video: Discovery Channel/Reed Timmer.

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Courtroom First: Brain Scan Used in Murder Sentencing

Posted: 23 Nov 2009 04:42 PM PST


A defendant's fMRI brain scan has been used in court for what is believed to be the first time.

Brain scan evidence that the defense claimed shows the defendant's brain was psychopathic was allowed into the sentencing portion of a murder trial in Chicago, Science reported Monday. Brian Dugan, who had been convicted of the rape and murder of a 10-year old, was sentenced to death, despite the fMRI scans.

"I don't know of any other cases where fMRI was used in that context," Stanford professor Hank Greely told Science.

While the possibility of using fMRI data in a variety of contexts, particularly lie detection, has bounced around the margins of the legal system for years, there are almost no documented cases of its actual use. In the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court allowed brain scans to be entered as evidence to show that adolescent brains work differently than adult brains.

That's a far cry, though, from using fMRI to establish the truth of testimony or that specific structures within an individual defendant's brain are legally relevant.

It's difficult to tell whether the Dugan case will be a watershed moment in the use of brain scan evidence in court, or if the evidence impacted the decision in this case.

"The penalty phase of a capital case … is a special situation where the law bends over backwards to allow the convicted man to introduce just about any mitigating evidence," Greely noted.

Earlier this year, reported on another attempt to use fMRI evidence in which Greely's MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project was involved. In that case, fMRI evidence was entered into a juvenile sexual abuse case in San Diego, but was withdrawn without being admitted.

The debate over whether or not to use fMRI evidence has several dimensions. The first is whether reliable evidence can be obtained. On that score, fMRI appears to perform well. In a very small number of studies, researchers have identified lying in study subjects with accuracy ranging from 76 percent to over 90 percent (pdf). The real doubts begin to surface about whether the data will be good outside the laboratory in real settings.

"When you build a model based on people in the laboratory, it may or may not be that applicable to someone who has practiced their lie over and over, or someone who has been accused of something," Elizabeth Phelps, a neuroscientist at New York University told in March. "I don't think that we have any standard of evidence that this data is going to be reliable in the way that the courts should be admitting."

Even if the data isn't perfect, some law theorists say it might be on par with traditional lie-detection carried out by human beings, if not better.

"It's not clear whether or not a somewhat reliable but foolproof fMRI machine is any worse than having a jury look at a witness," Brooklyn Law School's Edward Cheng said. "It's always important to think about what the baseline is. If you want the status quo, fine, but in this case, the status quo might not be all that good."

Others like Greely argue that until studies are conducted under realistic settings, the technology should stay out of the courtroom.

One thing seems clear: If brain scan data has even a remote change of helping a defendant's case, defense lawyers will keep to try to enter the evidence into court.

Via Greg Miller, Science

Image: flickr/foreverdigital

See Also:

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

Adults Fooled by Visual Illusion, But Not Kids

Posted: 23 Nov 2009 02:06 PM PST


Sometimes seeing means deceiving before believing, depending on your age. Children and adults size up objects differently, giving youngsters protection against a visual illusion that bedevils their elders, a new study suggests.

sciencenewsThis unusual triumph of kids over grown-ups suggests that the brain's capacity to consider the context of visual scenes, and not just focus on parts of scenes, develops slowly, say psychologist Martin Doherty of the University of Stirling in Scotland and his colleagues. Even at age 10, children lack adults' attunement to visual context, Doherty's team concludes in a paper published online November 12 in Developmental Science.

As a result, visual context can be experimentally manipulated to distort adults' perception of objects' sizes. But Doherty's group finds that children, especially those younger than 7, show little evidence of altered size perception on a task called the Ebbinghaus illusion.

"When visual context is misleading, adults literally see the world less accurately than they did as children," Doherty says.

This pattern holds for Scottish children and adults in the new study as well as for Japanese children and adults who participated in other investigations conducted by Doherty's team.

Some researchers argue that East Asians focus broadly on the context of what they see while Westerners focus narrowly on central figures. Doherty says the new findings instead indicate that adults in both Scotland and Japan can't help but track visual context, although this tendency was stronger in the Japanese adults.

Other investigators have noted that children with autism don't succumb to visual size illusions, consistent with the idea that autism involves an excessive focus on details. But visual context largely eludes all young children, not just those with autism, Doherty asserts.

Even if the new findings hold up, it's still possible that further research will show that children with autism develop a susceptibility to size illusions more slowly than those without it, remarks psychologist Danielle Ropar of the University of Nottingham in England.

Psychologist Carl Granrud of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley calls the new study convincing but "somewhat surprising." Children exhibit sensitivity to visual context on some other visual tasks, he says, such as one in which two equal-sized horizontal lines are perceived as differing in length when flanked by diagonal lines.

Earlier research has yielded conflicting evidence that children fall prey to the Ebbinghaus illusion, partly because of weaknesses in study designs, Doherty says.

His team studied 151 children, ages 4 to 10, recruited from a Scottish primary school and nursery school. Another 24 volunteers, ages 18 to 25, were college students.

Participants viewed a series of images containing pairs of orange circles in which one circle was 2 percent to 18 percent larger than the other. An experimenter asked participants to point to the circle that "looked bigger."

Control images showed only two orange circles. In other images, each orange circle was surrounded by gray circles intended either to hinder or aid accurate size perception.

Misleading images showed the smaller orange circle surrounded by even smaller gray circles to boost its apparent size. Large gray circles surrounding the larger orange circle were intended to shrink its apparent size.

In helpful images, large gray circles surrounded the smaller orange circle to make it appear smaller than it actually was. Small circles surrounded the larger orange circle to magnify its apparent size.

Four-year-olds correctly identified the larger circle in 79 percent of control images. That figure rose with age, reaching 95 percent in adults.

For 4- to 6-year-olds, accuracy of size perception for misleading images remained at about what it was for control images. Misleading images increasingly elicited errors from older children and tricked adults most of the time. Adults made almost no errors on helpful images. Kids from age 7 to 10 erred on a minority of helpful images, while 4- to 6-year-olds performed no better than chance.

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Building a Better Alien-Calling Code

Posted: 23 Nov 2009 11:18 AM PST


Alien-seeking researchers have designed a new, simple code for sending messages into space. To a reasonably clever alien with math skills and a bit of astronomical training, the messages should be easy to decipher.

As of now, Earthlings spend much more time searching for alien radio messages than broadcasting news of ourselves. We know how to do it, but relatively little attention has been paid to "ensuring that a transmitted message will be understandable to an alien listener," wrote California Institute of Technology geoscientist Michael Busch and Rachel Reddick, a Stanford University physicist, in a study filed online Friday on arXiv.


According to Busch and Reddick, neither the Arecibo message, beamed at star cluster M13 in 1974, nor the Cosmic Calls sent in 1999 and 2003 were tested for decipherability. So the pair devised their own alien-friendly messaging system: Busch invented the code, and Reddick role-played the part of an alien trying to decode it.

Like the earlier codes, Busch's used radio to send a string of ones and zeroes. But whereas those messages were meant to be translated into pictures, Busch's code is supposed to be turned into mathematical equations.

Reddick received the code, minus a chunk at its beginning and fragments throughout its body, as if she'd tuned in late to a signal slightly distorted by its passage through space. Knowing nothing about the code, and using nothing but a pencil, paper and a computer's search-and-replace function, she decoded its start: descriptions of gravity and atomic mass ratios, which are "dimensionless numbers that should be universally recognized." Once Reddick worked those out, the rest of the message — descriptions of atoms, chemical formulas for the elements required for life on Earth, and descriptions of our solar system — came quickly.

The code does presume that alien listeners have "at least an equivalent knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and physics," wrote Busch and Reddick. But even five undergraduate students needed only an hour to figure out a few of Busch's mathematical and grammatical basics, so it can't be that hard.

For now, it seems unlikely that the code will actually be sent into space. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence runs on a shoestring budget, and doesn't directly receive national funding. But if it's this cheap and easy to talk to aliens, perhaps humanity should try more often.


Images: 1) Flickr/armigeress
2) A piece of the Cosmic Call mesage./NASA
3) A snippet of Busch's test code./

Citation: "Testing SETI Message Designs." By Michael W. Busch, Rachel M. Reddick. arXiv, Nov. 20, 2009.

See Also:

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.

Internet Intercedes to Make Solar Cheaper

Posted: 23 Nov 2009 11:00 AM PST


While researchers have struggled for half a century to push down the cost of solar photovoltaic modules, an innovative web service is creating communities of customers who pay less for solar panels through collective bargaining with installers.

One Block Off the Grid collects groups of would-be solar purchasers in cities with good solar access and brokers a deal between them and a local installer. It's internet-based environmental organizing, and it appears to be working.

In a campaign running in San Diego, their customers will pay just $5.29 per watt of power capacity. Even after paying for an inverter to convert the DC power the panels generate into the AC power appliances use, the total One Block Off the Grid price is substantially lower than the San Diego County average. According to California Energy Commission statistics, the average total cost of a solar photovoltaic system is almost $8 per watt.

Now, they are launching a new tool that will provide instantaneous solar price estimates, the first online tool to do so. The new interface went live Sunday.

"The power of the internet has not been harnessed by the solar industry," said Brad Burton, who heads up products and strategy at 1BOG. "The components of viral growth and immediate person-to-person contact haven't been explored at all."

The Bay Area company Sungevity provides cost information via an online form, but they are ultimately parsed by a human being, so the quotes are not real-time. Sungevity's solar price estimator does allow for a lot more system customization, while One Block Off the Grid's setup is clearly designed for accessibility. Nonetheless, some questions in 1BOG's tool require some knowledge about your house, such as the material out of which your roof is made.

The ease of either system, though, is impressive relative to earlier methods of getting solar panels. Usually, getting a quote required that a contractor come to your house. Not only was that a hassle for homeowners, but it cost the solar installers money, too. Many people asked about solar but few ended up installing it. One Block Off the Grid participants are different, said Scott Gordon, whose company Helio Power worked with the company on the San Diego project.

"The leads from One Block Off the Grid are probably twice as good," Gordon said. "They have twice the close rate from the sales perspective of the leads you get from anywhere else."

1BOG's Burton claimed some of their installers are closing 25 percent of the leads that emanate from their company.

"We do eliminate a lot of their marketing costs and cost of acquisition and the other thing that we're able to do is verify the quality of the deal as an independent objective third party," he said.

The arrangement, all facilitated by the internet, helps squeeze some of the soft and difficult-to-quantify costs that help make distributed solar power more expensive than centralized fossil fuel-based electricity.

There are two big components to the cost of installing solar panels on a house. The one technologists talk about is the solar module itself, the hardware. Researchers can push that cost down by increasing the efficiency of the cells or using less or cheaper materials. Early solar cells were something like $200 a watt, not including installation costs. Now, the average solar module costs $4.34 per watt, according to SolarBuzz, a tracking service.

But all the other stuff that goes into putting that module at your house costs money, too. Solar people call this the "balance-of-system" cost and that's where One Block Off the Grid is making an impact. By creating volume for solar installers and doing some of the sales and marketing work, they can get those installers to offer lower prices to their customers. The net result is cheaper solar power, even if the technology doesn't shift at all.

"These costs do vary so it's hard to say how real the cost savings might be, but their story is credible," said Chris Marnay, who researches distributed energy systems at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in an e-mail to

Still, there's a ways to go. Analysts estimate that to be as cheap as electricity coming out of the socket and produced by fossil fuels, the total installed cost of a photovoltaic system would have to be $3.50 per watt.

To get there, the solar industry will have to change. Much like home building before the 1950s, solar installations are put in one by one. The personalized service might be nice, but it's a costly way of doing business.

After the war, major home building companies, like the iconic Levitt and Sons, rose to prominence. They standardized parts, equipment, procedures and marketing. It led to a lot of homes that looked the same, but were cheaper than anything that had been available before. Larger solar companies doing many, many installations would presumably benefit from similar economies of scale and push the total cost down.

Marnay said solar installing has been a cottage industry with many installers doing small amounts of business, but he expected that to change as solar installations grow.

Still, One Block Off the Grid isn't big enough yet to change the economics for a whole region or state. It has only facilitated about 500 solar installations since they were founded in summer of 2008, though the company plans to "really, really scale up our operation," Gordon said.

And that could be wise, too, because unlike most internet startups, One Block Off the Grid is already profitable.

Image: waynenf/Flickr

See Also:

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

Cute New Chameleon Discovered While Being Eaten by Snake

Posted: 23 Nov 2009 10:42 AM PST


A new species of chameleon, measuring just 6 inches from snout to tail, has been discovered in east Tanzania's mountains.

Differentiated from other species by the pattern of scales on its head and the flat shape of its nose appendage, it was first spotted while being eaten by a tree snake. The snake dropped the reptile, and it was collected by scientists.

"I found it by chance doing conservation surveys looking at monkeys and threats to trees," said Andy Marshall, an ecologist at the University of York. "While doing this work, I often see things that might be quite interesting, and this one turned out to be a new species."

head-scalationWhile some newly described species take their names from celebrities like James Brown, Marshall and his co-author Michele Menegon, gave the creature a more serious name, Kinyongia magomberae, after the forest where it was discovered.

The Magombera forest near the Udzungwa Mountains National Park in Tanzania is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. Marshall and the team there have discovered a multitude of new species from frogs and a shrew to mollusks and millipedes.

But the forest isn't currently protected, and Marshall described it as "under threat" from further destructive development.

The description of the new species was published today in the African Journal of Herpetology.

Images: Andy Marshall.

See Also:

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