Sunday, 31 January 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

How to Keep Black Bears Wild

Posted: 30 Jan 2010 11:36 AM PST


Pepper spray, rocks or rubber slugs are good tools for scaring bears from park picnic areas. But the best way to get rid of black bears is to not invite them over to begin with.

sciencenewsTrying out various techniques on bears in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California, wildlife managers report some success in using obnoxious maneuvers, such as deploying sling shots and throwing rocks, to keep black bears from seeking people, food and garbage. But the approach was less successful with bears that already had a taste for the forbidden foodstuff, the study published in the January Journal of Wildlife Management shows.

Establishing which techniques and circumstances will thwart food-seeking bears is valuable, but such techniques should be tried only after making trash and food inaccessible, says Rachel Mazur, who led the study while she was a wildlife biologist at the Kings Canyon park. Bear-proof containers should be available and the public needs to be educated on using them, she says.

Thanks to conservation efforts, better management and shifts in hunting activities, the number of black bears has climbed in the last hundred years, says ecologist Jon Beckmann with the Wildlife Conservation Society. So has the number of people, especially in the public lands of the American West. This means more bear-human interactions.

Like parents experimenting with spanking versus time-out, Mazur and her team spent three years methodically trying "aversive conditioning" techniques on black bears. Aversive conditioning associates a negative stimulus with unwanted behavior, in this case coming near humans, human food or human developments. Negative stimulants included chasing, pepper spray and lofting projectiles of different intensity: rocks, slingshots and rubber slugs.

The team tried the conditioning techniques a total of 1,050 times on more than 150 bears. (While being as methodical as possible, concerns about the safety of park visitors dictated using chasing and rock-throwing more than the other methods). Of all the interactions, 729 involved 36 bears identifiable to the researchers as food-conditioned; that is, animals that had already bitten the apple and were after more. The remaining 321 interactions were with bears naïve to delicacies of human food and garbage.

During the study, bears were hazed from campgrounds, roadsides, picnic areas, natural areas and employee housing. Chasing and rubber slugs worked best to scare off wild bears, and bears experiencing these treatments along with pepper spray stayed away the longest. Rubber slugs worked best to get food-conditioned bears out of an area.

Such approaches can be useful to keep a bear away until food or garbage can be put away, or to get a female to stash her cubs in a tree instead of bringing the youngsters to the picnic, says Mazur. But Mazur would rather not have to use these techniques at all. "This isn't what we want," she says. "Our goal is to keep wildlife wild."

Beckmann concurs that aversive conditioning techniques can work, but "these are Band-Aid approaches," he says. "It is much better to stop these conflicts before they occur."

Once a bear has a taste for people food, they can be extremely persistent, says Mazur. Eleven of the 36 food-conditioned bears were involved in 90 percent of the hazing events, the researchers found. Only one of these 11 bears completely stopped entering developed areas; four changed their behavior but still had to be hazed every year. The remaining six were so persistent and potentially dangerous that they were killed or relocated.

One of these six bears was a cub. He didn't learn to love human food from his mother, who was food-conditioned herself but gave it up while raising her kid. But the cub was frequently near park visitors who approached and fed the animal.

"The real issue is food availability," says Beckmann. It is very difficult to get 100 percent enforcement on the human end of this interaction, he notes. It may take only one home where a grill is left outside or garbage left exposed, or one energy bar in a camper's pack, to tempt a bear, he says.

The study should inform wildlife managers, but anyone who comes across a bear should make their presence known and then get out, says Beckmann. "You can say something like, 'Hi bear,' and then back away slowly while maintaining eye contact."

Image: National Parks Service

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Saturday, 30 January 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Chemistry Creates Self-Stirring Liquids

Posted: 29 Jan 2010 02:09 PM PST


In a tail wagging the dog reversal, researchers have found that simple chemical reactions can mix a solution. Usually, chemicals are stirred to enhance a reaction, but a new study finds that the reverse is also true: Simple chemical reactions can trigger fluid flows, reports a paper in the January 29 Physical Review Letters.

sciencenewsThe research has implications for many chemical reactions, including those inside stars or when carbon dioxide stored deep in the earth encounters water, says study coauthor Anne De Wit of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

De Wit and her colleagues wondered what would happen to fluid flows if the reacting liquids were left alone and not stirred. The researchers watched a very simple reaction — the neutralization that occurs between hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, a common chemical base — in the absence of stirring.

The researchers carefully injected the denser sodium hydroxide into a container and then added the hydrochloric acid. The sodium hydroxide stayed on the bottom and the hydrochloric acid sat on top. Where the two reactive chemicals met, the reaction's products — table salt and water — began to form. As the salty solution formed, it crept upward and hit the lower-density acid, creating tendrils that started to mix the solution. But the same didn't happen below the reaction line. This difference in how the reaction product interacted with each of its chemical parents drove the mixing the team observed.

These asymmetrical patterns, the researchers say, distinguish mixing during a chemical reaction from what happens when two nonreactive liquids meet, which may look more like diffusion or other kinds of mixing.

"These kinds of beautiful patterns can be observed with very well-known reactions," says study coauthor Christophe Almarcha, also of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. "This is quite fascinating for someone who's done this reaction hundreds of times."

The researchers also describe reaction-driven mixing mathematically by creating a model that predicted a pattern that looked like the real thing. The model can be tweaked to predict patterns for other chemical reactions, which would vary widely, Almarcha says.

"Our little model system says 'pay attention,'" De Wit says. "If there are reactions, then new things will happen." For instance, if stored carbon leaches into an aquifer and starts reacting with water, "those reactions will trigger flows, which will enhance the mixture," she says.

Image and Video: C. Almarcha/Université Libre de Bruxelles

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NASA Releases First Free E-Book, on History of X-15 Rocket Plane

Posted: 29 Jan 2010 11:34 AM PST


NASA continues tostay ahead of the government pack when it comes to public outreach. In addition to its many popular Twitter streams, iPhone apps and opportunities for citizens to participate in scientific programs, the agency is jumping into thee-book space.

For space geeks looking for a little e-reading this weekend, NASA recently added an e-book section to its publications list and rolled out the first free title for the Kindle and Sony Reader, a history of the x-15 hypersonic test aircraft.

More titles are on the way. The agency already has plentyof technical papers, presentations, case studiesand other publications on its website that could eventually land in your e-reader.

NASA says it will eventually make titles available for the Nook as well. And Luddites can still order hard copies of the X-15 book, along with a CD or a PDF. No word on whether NASA will put together a version for devices like the iPad that could integrate text, photos and video into the kind ofpublication many are hoping will be the next generation of books.

Image: X-15 aircraft./NASA

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Friday, 29 January 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Cigarettes May Cause Infections

Posted: 29 Jan 2010 01:38 AM PST


The tobacco in cigarettes hosts a bacterial bonanza — literally hundreds of different germs, including those responsible for many human illnesses, a new study finds.

sciencenews"Nearly every paper that you pick up discussing the health effects of cigarettes starts out with something to the effect that smokers and people exposed to secondhand smoke experience high rates of respiratory infections," notes Amy Sapkota of the University of Maryland, College Park. The presumption has been that smoking renders people vulnerable to disease by impairing lung function or immunity. And it may well do both.

"But nobody talks about cigarettes as a source of those infections," she says. Her new data now suggest that's distinctly possible.

If these germs are alive, something she has not yet confirmed, just handling cigarettes or putting an unlit one to the mouth could be enough to cause an infection.

The idea that tobacco might contain viable germs isn't just idle conjecture. Several research teams have isolated bacteria from tobacco that they could grow out in petri dishes. Those earlier investigations tended to hunt for — and, when found, attempted to grow — only one or two species of interest, Sapkota says.

What's novel in her study: She and her colleagues probed for genetic material from any and every bacterium in a cigarette's tobacco. Under sterile conditions, the researchers opened up cigarettes and then performed a series of tests on the leafy bits. For instance, they isolated all of the ribosomal material and then homed in on its long, species-specific stretches known as 16S regions. These genetic segments were then compared to 16S patches characteristic of known bacterial species.

Sapkota's team had 16S probes for close to 800 different bacteria and found matches to many hundreds in the four brands of cigarettes screened: Marlboro Red, Camel, Kool Filter Kings and Lucky Strike Original Red. These cigarettes are "among the most commonly smoked brands in Westernized countries and represent three major tobacco companies," Sapkota notes. All were purchased in Lyon, France, where she was completing her postdoctoral studies.

Among the large number of germs whose DNA laced these cigarettes were: Campylobacter, which can cause food poisoning and Guillain-Barre Syndrome; Clostridium, which causes food poisoning and pneumonias; Corynebacterium, also associated with pneumonias and other diseases; E. coli; Klebsiella, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, all of which are associated not only with pneumonia but also with urinary tract infections; and a number of Staphylococcus species that underlie the most common and serious hospital-associated infections.

Sapkota's team lists many of these — including the most prevalent bacteria in the tobacco they studied — in a paper published early, online in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Some people have criticized the idea of infectious cigarettes, arguing that as tobacco burns, it would kill any germs present. But Sapkota is not so sure that's true. The tobacco farthest from the burning tip might be a balmy temperature, from a bacterial point of view. And here's "a really wild idea," she says: What if the smoke particles traveling through the still-unburned part of a cigarette pick up some germs and then ferry them deeply into the lung, where they're unlikely to be cleared? Wouldn't that be the prescription for disease?

Of course, there's also plenty of chances for a smoker to become exposed prior to lighting up. And, of course, the potential for highest oral exposure would come from chewing tobacco — and nasal exposures from snuff.

Sapkota, an environmental health scientist, plans to follow up her preliminary data to see which types of tobacco are most likely to host viable germs, and whether those bacteria are transported into the body, either during smoking or by the insertion of unburned tobacco products (including chewing tobacco) into the mouth.

Several thousand potentially toxic chemicals have been isolated from cigarettes. Sapkota says that it's not hard to imagine that the number of germs hosted by tobacco products could rival that of the carcinogens and other poisons residing in or produced by burning tobacco.

How so, when she's only found genetic material indicting hundreds of germs? Owing to the bacterial probes available when Sapkota began her tobacco work, she was only able to screen for 700-odd species. But newer probes on the market can now screen for the bacterial 16S genetic material of 5,000 or more germs. And if she used such huge batteries of probes now, she said she fully expects she could turn up at least 1,000 hitchhiking bacterial species in tobacco products.

Image: Flickr/alphadesigner

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Come to’s Biometric Super Bowl Party

Posted: 28 Jan 2010 03:11 PM PST


You've seen your fair share of sad Super Bowl parties: the guacamole, the cheap beer, the bored significant others. Well, forget all that!

Wired Sciencehas a distinctly different, nerdier kind of Super Bowl party planned.

We want you to come to the Wiredoffice in San Francisco's SoMA neighborhood to drink good beer, eat pizza — and have your biometric responses to the game and commercials measured.

We've partnered with research firm Innerscope, founded by social neuroscientist Carl Marci of Massachusetts General Hospital and Brian Levine, formerly of the MIT Media Lab. They'll strap up our readers with their technology.

During the game, you'll have your heart rate, skin moisture, movement and breathing measured by a belt-like device. That data will be aggregated to create an evaluation of what readers thought about the commercials during the game. We'll also be slicing and dicing the data to look for interesting correlations and patterns.

Normally, Innerscope measures the physiological responses of focus groups to advertisements and different kinds of media to see how and why a commercial is working. But they'll be working on and for you all during Super Bowl Sunday.

And beyond your role as guinea pigs, you'll also get to meet Beer Robot and hang out with some Wired staffers who would love to watch the Super Bowl at work with you.

Now, this is a real study and we want the best results possible, so if you want to come to the party, fill out thisquestionnaire designed by Innerscope (Google Documents form). If you qualify for the study, we'll contact you with more details. Unfortunately, space is limited. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us.

Image: Jon Snyder/ (Note: The pictured vest is an earlier version of Innerscope's vest. The new ones are even slicker).

See Also: Jan. 28, 2001: Hey, Don't Tampa With My Privacy

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

Bill Gates Funds Research Into Climate Hacking

Posted: 28 Jan 2010 01:21 PM PST


Bill Gates has sunk at least $4.5 million of his personal wealth into geoengineering research.

While it's a small chunk of Gates' vast personal fortune, it's a sign that the founder of Microsoftthinks we shouldat leastbe lookinginto the controversial practice of intentionally altering the Earth's climate on a global scale.

"[Gates] views geoengineering as a way to buy time, but it's not a solution to the problem" of climate change, Gates' spokesperson John Pinette toldScience Insider. "Bill views this as an important avenue for research — among many others, including new forms of clean energy."

The money will be directed by two high-level scientists at the forefront of geoengineering research: climate scientist Ken Caldeira, of Stanford's Carnegie Department of Global Ecology, and physicist David Keith of the University of Calgary. They will decide which technologies should receive the cash in order to alter the stratosphere to reflect solar energy, filter carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and brighten ocean clouds.

Gates' funding is in line with his recent essay on climate policy in which he called for radical innovations inelectricity generation and transportation.

"If the goal is to get the transportation and electrical sectors down to zero emissions you clearly need innovation that leads to entirely new approaches to generating power," Gates wrote. "While it is all well and good to insulate houses and turn off lights, to really solve this problem we need to spend more time on accelerating innovation."

But he did not sound the triumphant, can-do note heard from manyadvocates ofgreen technology. Gates is worried that the world's citizens, companies and governments are not focused on the right solutions.

"The world is distracted from what counts on this issue in a big way," he wrote.

Many researchers have described geoengineering as a "backstop" if the world's attempts to cut its carbon dioxide emissions fail, though some climate activists have warned that there is a moral hazard in assuming that geoengineering could bail us out of the worst implications of the derangement of the atmosphere.

"My biggest problem with the backstop argument is that it encourages people to think there's a do-over if we screw up our response to climate chaosM, when in fact, we don't have any proven response or remedy," wrote Worldchanging co-founder Alex Steffen on his website 2007.

In a related development Keith,one of the scientists directingGates' money,co-authored a Nature editorial this week calling for an international fund for "solar-radiation management" in addition to traditional carbon emissions cuts.

"Solar-radiation management may be the only human response that can fend off rapid and high-consequence climate change impacts," Keith said in a press release Wednesday. "The risks of not doing research outweigh the risks of doing it."

He and his co-authors, Edward Parson at the University of Michigan and Granger Morgan at Carnegie Mellon University, propose a budget for solar-radiation management (aka geoengineering), beginning with $10 million a year now and growing to $1 billion annually by the end of 2020. The organization that manages the funds would also develop the governance structures to provide transparent risk analysis and manage feedback from the world's countries.

Image: flickr/batmoo

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

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Quantum Computer Simulates Hydrogen Molecule Just Right

Posted: 28 Jan 2010 12:45 AM PST


Almost three decades ago, Richard Feynman — known popularly as much for his bongo drumming and pranks as for his brilliant insights into physics — told an electrified audience at MIT how to build a computer so powerful that its simulations "will do exactly the same as nature."

sciencenewsNot approximately, as digital computers tend to do when facing complex physical problems that must be addressed via mathematical shortcuts — such as forecasting orbits of many moons whose gravities constantly readjust their trajectories. Computer models of climate and other processes come close to nature but hardly imitate it. Feynman meant exactly, as in down to the last jot.

Now, finally, groups at Harvard and the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, have designed and built a computer that hews closely to these specs. It is a quantum computer, as Feynman forecast. And it is the first quantum computer to simulate and calculate the behavior of a molecular, quantum system.

Much has been written about how such computers would be paragons of calculating power should anybody learn to build one that is much more than a toy. And this latest one is at the toy stage, too. But it is just the thing for solving some of the most vexing problems in science, the ones that Feynman had in mind when he said "nature" — those problems involving quantum mechanics itself, the system of physical laws governing the atomic scale. Inherent to quantum mechanics are seeming paradoxes that blur the distinctions between particles and waves, portray all events as matters of probability rather than deterministic destiny, and under which a given particle can exist in a state of ambiguity that makes it potentially two or more things, or in two or more places, at once.

Reporting online January 10 in Nature Chemistry, the Harvard group, led by chemist Alán Aspuru-Guzik, developed the conceptual algorithm and schematic that defined the computer's architecture. Aspuru-Guzik has been working on such things for years but didn't have the hardware to test his ideas. At the University of Queensland, physicist Andrew G. White and his team, who have been working on such sophisticated gadgets, said they thought they could make one to the Harvard specs and, after some collaboration, did so. In principle the computer could have been rather small, "about the size of a fingernail," White says. But his group spread its components across a square meter of lab space to make it easier to adjust and program.

Within its filters and polarizers and beam splitters, just two photons at a time traveled simultaneously, their particle-like yet wavelike natures playing peek-a-boo in clouds of probability just as quantum mechanics says they should.

Quantum computing's power stems from the curiosity that a qubit — a bit of quantum information — is not limited to holding a single discrete binary number, 1 or 0, as is the bit of standard computing. Qubits exist in a limbo of uncertainty, simultaneously 1 and 0. Until the computation is done and a detector measures the value, that very ambiguity allows greater speed and flexibility as a quantum computer searches multiple permutations at once for a final result.

Plus, not only do the photons have this mix of quantum identities, a state formally called superposition, they are also entangled. Entanglement is another feature of quantum mechanics in which the properties of two or more superposed particles are correlated with one another. It is the superposition of superpositions, in which the state of one is connected to the state of the other despite the particles' separation in distance. Entanglement further increases the ability of a quantum computer to explore simultaneously all possible solutions to a complex problem.

But with just two photons as its qubits, the new quantum computer could not tackle quantum behavior involving more than two objects. So, the researchers asked it to calculate the energy levels of the hydrogen molecule, the simplest one known. Other methods have long revealed the answer, providing a check on the accuracy of doing it with qubits. Corresponding to the two wavelike photons rattling fuzzily along in the computer, the hydrogen molecule has two wavelike electrons chemically binding its two nuclei — each a single proton.

Led by first author to the paper Benjamin Lanyon, who is now at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, the Queensland team programmed the equations that govern how electrons behave near protons into the machine by tweaking the arrangement of filters, wavelength shifters and other optical components in the computer. Each such piece of optical hardware corresponded to the logic gates that add, subtract, integrate and otherwise manipulate binary data in a standard computer. The researchers then entered initial "data" corresponding to the distance between the molecule's nuclei — a driver of what energies the electrons might be able to take on when the molecule is excited by an outside influence.

The photons are each given a precise angle of polarization — the orientation of the electric and magnetic components of their fields —and for one of the photons the angle was chosen to correspond to that datum. On the first run of a calculation, the second photon then shared this datum via its entanglement with the first and, going at the speed of light, emerged from the machine with the first digit of the answer. In an iteration process, that digit was then used as data for another run, producing the second digit — a process followed for 20 rounds.

By following — some would say simulating — the same weird physics as do the electrons of atomic bonds themselves, the computer's photons got the permitted energy correct to within six parts per million.

"Every time you add an electron or other object to a quantum problem, the complexity of the problem doubles," says James Whitfield, a graduate student at Harvard and second author on the paper. "The great thing," he added, "is that every time you add a qubit to the computer, its power doubles too." In formal language, the power of a quantum computer scales exponentially with its size (as in number of qubits) in exact step with the size of quantum problems. In fact, says his professor, Aspuru-Guzik, a computer of "only" 150 qubits or so would have more computing power than all the supercomputers in the world today, combined.

Whitfield is near completion of his studies to be a theoretical chemist. A goal is, eventually, to be able to calculate the energy levels and reaction levels of complex molecules with scores or even hundreds of electrons binding them together. Even in problems with just four or five electrons, the challenge of computation by standard means has grown so exponentially fast that standard computers cannot handle it.

The work is "great, a proof of principle, more evidence that this stuff is not pie in the sky or cannot be built," says a University of California, Berkeley chemistry professor, Bergitta Whaley. "It is the first time that a quantum computer has been used to calculate a molecular energy level." And while most of the publicity for quantum computers has marveled at the potential power to break immense numbers into their factors — a key to breaking secret codes and thus a possibility with national security implication — "this has major implications for practical uses with very broad application," Whaley says. These uses might include the ability, without trial and error, to design complex chemical systems and advanced materials with properties never before seen.

Scaling it up to five, 10 or hundreds of qubits will not be easy. In the end, photons as qubits are unlikely because of the difficulty of entangling and monitoring so many of them. Electrons, simulated atoms called quantum dots, ionized atoms or other such particles may eventually form the blurry hearts of quantum computers. How long from now? "I'd say less than 50 years, but more than 10," says White.

In a striking bit of symmetry to go with using a quantum computer to solve a quantum problem, the latest work resonates with Feynman's original idea in another way. At that talk at MIT — published in 1982 in the International Journal of Physics — Feynman not only suggested the basis for such a computer, he also drew a little picture of one. It included two little blocks of the semi-transparent mineral calcite to control and measure the photons' polarizations. Looking at the diagram of the device built recently by the Queensland team reveals, sure enough, two "calcite beam displacers." Whatever shade of Richard Feynman flickers still in the entanglements of the universe, and were it made to collapse into something corporeal, perhaps it would be smiling.

Image: Benjamin Lanyon

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Evolution Shrank Some Primates’ Brains

Posted: 27 Jan 2010 04:00 PM PST


Primate brains have not always gotten bigger as they evolved, according to new research. The findings challenge the controversial argument that Homo floresiensis, also known as the hobbit, had a tiny, chimp-sized brain because of disease.

"It was assumed that brain sizes generally get bigger through primate evolution," said Nick Mundy, a Cambridge University evolutionary geneticist and lead author of the study.While that may be true for most primates, "we find very strong evidence in several lineages that brain sizes actually have gotten smaller."

mouse_lemur_in_anjajavy1The brains of marmosets, mouse lemurs and mangabeys have shrunk significantly. The brain of the mouse lemur, a teacup-sized, nocturnal primate found in Madagascar, is 27 percentsmaller than that ofthe common ancestor of all lemurs, Mundy said.

The paper,which appearsJan. 27in Biomed Central, analyzed brain size and body mass from 37current and 23 extinct primate species and used three different models to reconstruct how the brain evolved.

Though its not clear why smaller brains would be advantageous to some species, the brain's voracious energy consumption may haveplayed a role, Mundy speculated. If food was scarce, it may have been better to sacrifice intelligenceto use less energy.

The findings are more fodder for the debate about the mysteriousH. floresiensis, a 3-foot-tall hominiddiscovered in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. Some have argued these "hobbits" were a distinct species, while others say they were simply stunted, sickly Homo sapiens.

Inthe second lineof reasoning, the hominids may have suffered from cretinism, a pituitary gland disease that leads to stunted growth and small brains. Part of this camp's argument was thatthe hobbits' miniscule brain was too small to make evolutionary sense, Mundy said.

"We've just applied the reduction in brain size that we see across the rest of the primate phylogeny to the case of the Flores man," he said. "Under reasonable assumptions, it does look plausible that this brain-size massive reduction could have occurred."

Some scientistsargue that there's no need to rely on either evolutionary brain shrinkage or pathology to account for the short stature of the hobbits.

"Arguments for H. flo being somehow pathological (one syndrome or another) have been totally refuted," Peter Brown wrote in an e-mail. Brown, a paleoanthropologist at the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia, first discovered the hobbit skeletons.

What's more, evidence suggests the diminutive island dwellers left Africa around 1.8 million years ago, and "probably arrived on Flores already small-brained and small-bodied," he wrote. In addition, their skeletal and dental features most resemble the tiny-brainedAustralopithecus or Homo habilis. So, the brain ofH. floresiensis could have started out small and stayed that way, rather than shrinking through evolution.

Images: 1) Pygmy marmoset. jwm_angrymonkey/flickr
2) Mouse lemur. Wikimedia Commons

Citation: "Reconstructing the ups and downs of primate brain evolution: Implications foradaptive hypotheses and Homo floresiensis," Stephen H Montgomery,Isabella Capellini ,Robert A Barton,Nicholas I Mundy, BMC Biology, 27 January 2010.

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New Animations Take You Flying Over Mars

Posted: 27 Jan 2010 10:49 AM PST

A space-loving animator has created stunning flyovers of Mars from data captured by NASA's HiRISE imager, which is mounted on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite.

HiRISE creates detailed digital-elevation models. Crunch that data, add perspective and some cinematic effects, and you have the movies that Doug Ellison, founder of, posted to YouTube this morning.

The video at the top shows the Mojave Crater. The one below takes you flying through Athabasca Valles. Ellison said that both animations are rendered accurately from the data with no exaggerated scaling.

Via Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today

Videos: Doug Ellison.

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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.

NASA Sends Airborne Radar to Map Haiti Faults in 3-D

Posted: 27 Jan 2010 10:31 AM PST


NASA is sending a radar-equippedjet to Haiti to make 3-D maps of the deformation caused by the magnitude 7 earthquake on Jan. 21 and multiple aftershocks that continue to occur.

The Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar, or UAVSAR, was already scheduled to head to South America aboard a modified Gulfstream III to study volcanoes, forests and Mayan ruins. NASA added the island of Hisapaniola to the itinerary to help study faults in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

"UAVSAR will allow us to image deformations of Earth's surface and other changes associated with post-Haiti earthquake geologic processes, such as aftershocks, earthquakes that might be triggered by the main earthquake farther down the fault line, and the potential for landslides," JPL's Paul Lundgren, the principal investigator for the Hispaniola overflights, said in a press release Wednesday.

"Because of Hispaniola's complex tectonic setting, there is an interest in determining if the earthquake in Haiti might trigger other earthquakes at some unknown point in the future," Lundgren said, "either along adjacent sections of the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault that was responsible for the main earthquake, or on other faults in northern Hispaniola, such as the Septentrional fault."

uavsarThe UAVSAR, whichleft NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., on Jan. 25, will flyover Hispaniola multiple times this week and again inearlyFebruary.

Since November 2009, the radar has been mapping the San Andreas and other major faults in California. The 3-D data will help scientists better understand the state's seismic risk.

UAVSAR works by sending microwaves to the ground from a pod under the aircraft flying at about 41,000 feet and recording the return signal. The differences in the times it takes waves to return from points on the ground to the plane gives information about the topography. By hitting the same target from different angles as the plane flighs overhead, a 3-D image can be made. Very precise details about ground motion can be calculated by flying over the same area later, giving scientists information about strain buildup on a fault.

The Hispaniola data will be made public in a few weeks. The Dominican Republic flyovers could help scientists understand future earthquakes on the Septrional fault.

Images: 1) NASA's UAVSAR airborne radar will create 3-D maps of earthquake faults over wide swaths of Haiti (red shaded area) and the Dominican Republic (yellow shaded area)./NASA. 2) Dave Bullock/

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Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Penguins, Peaks and Penny-Farthings: Nat Geo Covers 1959-2000

Posted: 27 Jan 2010 02:01 AM PST

<< previous image | next image >>

National Geographic magazine is known for its high-quality journalism, preservation of historical moments and access to some of the most remote places on Earth.

But what it is best known for is its images. In particular, the iconic yellow-bordered cover shots that opened our eyes to new corners of the world. It's the amazing stuff you'd never see if National Geographic didn't show it to you.

The National Geographic Society celebrates its 122nd anniversary on Jan. 27. The first issue of the magazine was published 10 months later in 1888. Though the early issues had rather drab academic looking covers, by 1959 they were consistently adorned with eye-cathing art and photos.

Here we've collected some of our favorite covers from 1959 to 2000, including a penguin with a high-tech backpack, a self portrait by Koko the gorilla and a shark attack.

Image: National Geographic

Best Display of Mars From Earth in 6 Years on Wednesday

Posted: 26 Jan 2010 03:14 PM PST


On Jan. 27, Mars will be closer to Earth than any other time between 2008 and 2014. A mere 60 million miles away, the red planet will be a great target for backyard telescopes, and will appear bright to the naked eye as well.

Every 26 months, the two planets' orbits bring them closer together, sometimes closer than others. In 2003, Mars came within 35 million miles of Earth, a 60,000-year record.

Observers with a telescope will be able to seechangesoverthe north pole of Mars as the carbon dioxide ice capis nearing summer and evaporating into gas that affects the polar clouds. (If any of our reader-astronomers catch a nice image, send it our way!)

From the ground, Mars will look like an orange star almost as bright as Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The view will actually be best on Friday, Jan. 29, when Mars will rise alongside the first fullmoon of the year, directly opposite the sun.

For help locating Mars, view NASA's full sky maps for Jan. 27, 28 and 29.

Image: NASA

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Google Teams With NOAA to Make Better Ocean Visualizations

Posted: 26 Jan 2010 01:09 PM PST


Data from the depths could get a lot less murky soon, thanks to a new partnership announced by Google and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA will provide data from its various ocean-science programs and Google will build tools to visualize that information, the two organizationsannounced Tuesday. The deal extends a collaboration that began when Google built NOAA's underwater topography into Google Earth. The two entities have continued to work together on other projects,such asincorporating satellite measurements on coral-reef bleaching.

The partnership will include porting more ocean depth, climate and other scientific data into Google Earth as well as providing online access to zoning and regulatory information near the coasts. NOAA outreach programs like Science on a Sphere and the Okeanos Explorer ship will also get some kind of Google makeover.

While the first Google oceans-data release generated a lot of excitement, its implementationbrought a mixed response from specialists.

Image: The ocean near Okinawa (upper left)/Google Earth.

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Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

NASA Gives Up on Spirit Rescue, Preps Rover to Hibernate

Posted: 26 Jan 2010 11:56 AM PST


The NASA Spirit rover, which has been wandering Mars for the past six years, appears to be permanently stuck in the strange patch of Martian soil she's been lodged in for the past several months.

With winter approaching, Spirit's handlers have decided to put the rover into a hibernation mode intended to protect her electronics from temperatures that could drop close to the design limit of negative 67 degrees Fahrenheit.

"The Rover will be like a polar bear hibernating and it could be for many months, on the order of 6 months that the Rover will be in this state," said John Callas, the Rover project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during a media teleconference. "This is not like the Phoenix mission. This rover is electrically active, but it has insufficient power to be awake each day."

Spirit's electronics were designed to withstand temperatures of negative 40 Fahrenheit while operating and negative 67 when hibernating. NASA scientists predict that the temperature will drop below negative 40, necessitating taking moves to protect the rover.

"The estimate is that the rover, even though it is getting cold, will stay within its design limits, but those were tested for a brand new rover fresh out of the box and this one has been on the surface for six years," Callas said. "These will be temperatures that are colder than anything we've seen on the surface of Mars."

After the winter, Spirit will be contacted and wake back up to continue her life not as the rover of yore but as a stationary scientific platform.

Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity, tried to put a happy face on the this new phase of the mission.

"That imperative to drive is relaxed," Squyres said. "That enables us to focus on new classes of science that you can only do from a science platform that isn't moving around a lot."

In particular, he said that the team would focus on tracking Spirit's radio signal very precisely, which could allow them to determine whether the Martian core is solid or liquid through a telltale wobble in the planet's rotation.

"The way that Mars wobbles depends on its internal structure," said Squyres. "When you go through the math, if Mars has a solid core of iron, it will wobble in a certain well defined way. But if that core is liquid, it will wobble in an every so slightly different way. And by tracking the signal, we can distinguish between the two."

The Mars scientists are also excited about the area in which they've become stuck.

"The area has the highest concentration of sulfates we've seen anywhere on the planet," Callas said. "We were driving around on a crust of this stuff that was strong enough to support the rover and then we broke through it. We're very fortunate that this new landing site… turned out to be a good one."

The sulfates may have been formed by steam vents in the distant Martian past, Squyres said, and subsequently transported by water processes.

Despite the science that can be done at the site, the probable end of Spirit's career as a mobile unit seemed discouraging to JPL rover driver, Ashley Stroupe. A week and a half ago, the rover team changed their approach to getting the rover unstuck and experienced much greater success.

"We had a tremendous amount of hope," Stroupe said.

In the end, though, they ran out of time. Now, their main task is positioning the rover to capture the greatest amount of solar energy possible: the rover is currently tilted south, away from the sun in the northern sky. If they can reduce the tilt, Spirit may be able to periodically communicate with Earth throughout the winter. If they can't, it will be a long, silent winter for the robot.

Image: NASA/JPL. Spirit's self-portrait.

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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.

Strange Places on Mars: What Do You Want to See Next?

Posted: 25 Jan 2010 05:00 PM PST

<< previous image | next image >>

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured more than 13,000 images of the red planet's surface. And now, the space agency wants your input on what images to acquire next.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera is currently the most powerful camera on any NASA spacecraft. The images it has collected are truly amazing. They highlight how similar the Martian landscape is to Earth in some ways, as well as how otherworldly other parts of Mars can seem.

We've collected just a few of theoddest and most beautiful shots. If they inspire you to want to pick the next strange location for HiRISE to focus on, NASA has created a website where you can scan the planet's surface and make suggestions.

The image above shows a dune field on the floor of a crater made by an asteroid impact.

Click on any image in this gallery for a higher-resolution version.

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Video: Model Dinosaur Tests Four-Winged Flight

Posted: 25 Jan 2010 03:49 PM PST

A hand-built model of an early flying dinosaur may explain exactly how the four wings of Microraptor gui helped it glide down from trees.

Basing their work on a cast of a very well-preserved fossil, University of Kansas scientists created a model airplane-like mock dinosaur made out of plywood, balsa, and carbon fiber. Then, they attached one of three sets of test wings of different configurations to the body with rubber bands. The wings even featured real bird feathers whittled into probable shapes.

"We went back and forth. We thought, maybe we'll do 3-D graphics and it'll look really cool. But it's more accurate to do the modeling directly from the specimen," said Dave Burnham, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas and co-author of a new paper on the work in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Microraptor gui was a small dinosaur species that lived about 120 million years ago. About two dozen specimens have been recovered from near Liaoning, China. The Kansas team was lent one well-preserved fossil, from which they began their reconstruction efforts.

With the model in hand, they were able to test how the animals might have glided, by attaching them to a catapult that imparted a consistent amount of thrust to send them flying through the air. By measuring the distances that the different wing configurations allowed the model dinosaurs to fly, they were able to determine which wing type would have been most efficient.

The biomechanical reconstruction of flying creatures not seen today is a difficult business. Burnham and his collaborator, University of Kansas paleontologist David Alexander, argue that the birds probably glided with their legs splayed out — not unlike a flying squirrel.


Others argue for a different wing configuration in which both sets of wings are parallel to each other, what they call a "biplane" configuration. Sankar Chatterjee, a paleontologist at Texas Tech, and R. Jack Templin, an independent scholar, say that instead of splaying out like a squirrel, the animal would have tucked its legs under itself.

"It seems likely that Microraptor invented the biplane 125 million years before the Wright 1903 Flyer," they argued in a 2007 PNAS paper.

The new tests may not have unequivocally settled the disagreement, but Burnham said the wing configuration suggested by the other group was not properly balanced and required too much weight in the head of the animal.

"The real animal would have had to have had a solid lead skull," Burnham said.

Video: David Burnham. You can watch the team's progression from simpler foam models that were hand-launched to more complex model-airplane–like varieties.

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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.

Solar Eclipse Images Show Dazzling Corona Detail

Posted: 25 Jan 2010 02:46 PM PST


The annular solar eclipse that was visible earlier this month in parts of Africa, the Indian Ocean and Asia yielded some beautiful photographs of the moon obscuring the light from the sun.

But none of them provided the kind of exquisite detail that a team of astronomers watching from the Marshall Islands captured during last summer's total solar eclipse. By combining 31 images of the eclipse shot with a Canon EOS 5D, the composite shows the incredible structure of the sun's corona stretching out from occluded central disc. The moon's surface details are also clearly visible.

The next total solar eclipse will occur on July 11 and will be visible only from the South Pacific. So, read our how-to guide on solar eclipse tourism and start saving those frequent flyer miles.


Via @DrStuClark

Images: Copyright 2009 Miloslav Druckmüller, Peter Aniol, Vojtech Rušin, Ľubomír Klocok, Karel Martišek, Martin Dietzel. Higher-resolution versions are available here.

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A Year of Global Shipping Routes Mapped by GPS

Posted: 25 Jan 2010 01:04 PM PST


Scientists have come up with the first comprehensive map of global shipping routes based on actual itineraries. The team pieced together a year's worth of travel itineraries from 16,693 cargo ships using data from LLoyd's Register Fairplay and the Automatic Identification System, which tracks vessels using a VHF receiver and GPS.

A few hot spots logged the majority of journeys. The busiest port was the Panama Canal, followed by the Suez Canal and Shanghai.

"There is a strong similarity of statistical properties between shipping and aviation networks," lead author Bernd Blasius, a mathematical modeler at Carl von Ossietzky University, wrote in an e-mail. "But different ship types (e.g., container ships vs. bulk carriers or oil tankers) are characterized by different movement patterns."

The study will be published in a forthcoming Journal of the Royal Society: Interface.

Factoring in both the volume of ships and the number of other ports each is connected to, these are the top ports in the world:

1 Panama Canal
2 Suez Canal
3 Shanghai
4 Singapore
5 Antwerp
6 Piraeus
7 Terneuzen
8 Plaquemines
9 Houston
10 Ijmuiden
11 Santos
12 Tianjin
13 New York and New Jersey
14 Europoort
15 Hamburg
16 Le Havre
17 St Petersburg
18 Bremerhaven
19 Las Palmas
20 Barcelona

Image: Bernd Blasius

Citation: "The complex network of global cargo ship movements" Pablo Kaluza, Andrea Kölzsch, Michael T. Gastner and Bernd Blasius, J. Royal Society: Interface

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