Saturday, 27 February 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

No Lie! Your Facebook Profile Is the Real You

Posted: 26 Feb 2010 03:41 PM PST


"On the Internet," one dog tells another in a classic New Yorker cartoon, "nobody knows you're a dog."

sciencenewsThe internet is notorious for its digital dens of deception. But on Facebook, what you see tends to be what you get — at least in one study of tailless, two-legged young adults.

College-age users of Facebook in the United States and a similar social networking site in Germany typically present accurate versions of their personalities in online profiles, says psychologist Mitja Back of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. People use online social networking sites to express who they really are rather than idealized versions of themselves, Back and his colleagues conclude in an upcoming Psychological Science.

"Online social networks are so popular and so likely to reveal people's actual personalities because they allow for social interactions that feel real in many ways," Back says.

Back's team administered personality inventories that evaluated 133 U.S. Facebook users and 103 Germans who used a comparable social-networking site. Inventories focused on the extent to which volunteers endorsed ratings of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional instability and openness to new experiences.

The subjects — who ranged in age from 17 to 22 — took the inventory twice, first with instructions to describe their actual personalities and then to portray idealized versions of themselves.

Then, undergraduate research assistants — nine in the United States and 10 in Germany — rated volunteers' personalities after looking at their online profiles. Those ratings matched volunteers' actual personality descriptions better than their idealized ones, especially for extraversion and openness.

Facebook is so true to life, Back claims, that encountering a person there for the first time generally results in a more accurate personality appraisal than meeting face to face, going by the results of previous studies.

Adriana Manago, a psychology graduate student at UCLA, calls the new findings "compelling" but incomplete. College students on Facebook and other online social networks often augment what they regard as their best personal qualities, Manago holds. In her view, these characteristics aren't plumbed by broad personality measures like the ones measured in Back's study. And students' actual personality descriptions may have included enhancements of their real characteristics, thus inflating the correlation between observers' ratings and students' real personalities, Manago notes.

"Online profiles showcase an enhanced reflection of who the user really is," Manago proposes. In a 2008 study, she and her colleagues found that 23 college students sometimes used another online social networking site, MySpace, to enhance their images, say by Photoshopping acne out of a picture or posting a video of themselves driving a sports car at high speeds.

Still, the new findings make sense, remarks psychologist Sandra Calvert of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She emphasizes that social-networking sites have fostered a new type of communication among teens and young adults, in which one person can create personal content that gets broadcast to a multitude of friends.

In a 2009 study of Facebook use among 92 college students, Calvert's team found that young women reported a whopping average of 401 online friends, while young men reported an average of 269.

Image: escapedtowisconsin/Flickr

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Flash-Freezing Technique May Boost Egg Survival Rates

Posted: 26 Feb 2010 03:14 PM PST


A new study has identified the best way to flash freeze living tissue, which could lead to better human egg and stem cell storage.

The technique could dramatically improve the odds that frozen, unfertilized eggs could be thawed out and still be healthy enough to be fertilized. That would reduce how many eggs must be harvested, raising success rates and lowering the number of costly, painful procedures women must endure to get pregnant.

Freezing tissue is so difficult because the water in cells expands as it freezes. "That will mean the cell membrane is ruptured, like the coke you forgot in the freezer that explodes," said bioengineer Utkan Demirci of Harvard Medical School Brigham and Women's Hospital, lead author of the study Feb. 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While oocyte, or egg, freezing is commercially available, the success rate is low, Demirci said.

"With 20 eggs from a female, you pick only two and one of them gets to be fertilized, so it's really important to have the technologies that are going to further the success rate in oocyte preservation," he said.

Preventing frost damage requires surrounding the cells with cryoprotectants, or toxic chemicals like antifreeze, said biomedical engineer Xiaoming He of the University of South Carolina, who was not involved in the study. For sperm cells, which contain very little water, scientists can use smaller amounts of the chemicals. But delicate embryonic stem cells, or large, water-filled cells like eggs require much more protection and are usually damaged during freezing. Using less of the chemicals could help these sensitive cells fare better while frozen in storage.

In previous work, scientists developed a technique to halt ice crystal formation and make the cells glassy instead, a process called vitrification.

"To vitrify a liquid, you have to pull the heat out of a liquid as fast as possible so it doesn't have time to crystallize," Demirci said.

In the technique, droplets of eggs encapsulated in a protectant shoot out into a bath of ultracold liquid nitrogen, at a temperature of -321 F. The relatively hot droplet evaporates nearby nitrogen. The vapor pushes the droplet up, levitating it above the surface for several seconds (see video below). The nitrogen vapor layer also forms a barrier that shields the droplet from the surrounding cold.

Until now, no one had figured out a good way to vitrify cells with low levels of protectants. Hoping to find an answer, Demirci's group analyzed what happened to different sizes of droplets once they were vitrified. After droplets froze and sank back into the nitrogen, they measured the droplets and used a microscope to determine how crystallized they were.

They found smaller droplets were almost completely vitrified, while larger droplets formed damaging ice crystals. That was because the larger droplets had more surface area to prevent heat from escaping, so they froze more slowly, Demirci said. Using smaller droplets of about the width of a human hair prevents the cells from crystallizing, which means they are more likely to survive the process.

The technique raises the chances of eggs making it through the freezing process alive. It can also be automated to freeze millions of cells per second, making it cost-effective, Demirci said.

The team is currently freezing mouse eggs. "Once we can generate some baby mice with this platform, then we are moving forward to use some discarded human eggs," Demirci said.

"It's one of the important breakthroughs in vitrification procedures," said veterinarian and cryobiologist Yuksel Agca of the Unviersity of Missouri-Columbia, who was not involved in the study.

"The downside is that the procedure uses direct injection into the liquid nitrogen," which can sometimes be contaminated. "But there are ways to sterilize liquid nitrogen."

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Image: Human egg/ euthman/Flickr
Video: Droplet levitating on liquid nitrogen/PNAS

Citation: "Vitrification and levitation of a liquid droplet on liquid nitrogen," Young S. Song, Douglas Adler, Feng Xu, Emre Kayaalp, Aida Nureddin, Raymond M. Anchan, Richard L. Maas, Utkan Demirci, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 22 Feb. 2010.

Follow us on Twitter @tiaghose and @wiredscience, and on Facebook.

Blood-Chilling Device Could Save Stroke Victims From Brain Damage

Posted: 26 Feb 2010 10:19 AM PST


SAN ANTONIO — Cool runnings, indeed. A tiny device placed inside a central vein can safely refrigerate blood as it flows through stroke patients, lowering their temperature and raising the possibility that they might gain brain protection from hypothermia without having to be packed in ice.

sciencenewsAlthough the trial didn't find that stroke patients getting their blood cooled fared any better or worse than a comparison group of patients who weren't cooled, the technology proved safe enough to clear the way for testing the device in a much larger group, said Thomas Hemmen, a neurologist at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center who presented the data Feb. 25 at the International Stroke Conference.

The new results also demonstrate that stroke patients can be cooled down to 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit safely while they are receiving a powerful clot-busting drug called tPA, the standard treatment given to patients during the first few hours of a clot-induced stroke.

"Cool temperatures have been associated with better outcomes," said Daniel Lackland, an epidemiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. "We're seeing some excitement about an intervention with this device." If further trials support use of this kind of cooling therapy, he said, "that would be a great finding — it's a relatively easy thing to do."

Induced hypothermia is mainly used for cardiac arrest patients who have had their hearts restarted but are comatose and risk delivering a shortage of blood to the brain. Because they are unconscious, those patients can be packed in ice.

But stroke patients are awake during treatment, which makes being packed in ice extremely uncomfortable. In the new study, Hemmen and his colleagues teamed with a company called InnerCool Therapies to test a device only a half-centimeter in diameter that causes less discomfort by chilling the blood as it flows through the vena cava, a huge vein that carries blood into the heart from the upper part of the body.

The study included 58 stroke patients who were an average of 66 years old and had been referred to university hospitals around the United States. All of the patients received tPA, and 28 of them were also randomly chosen to get blood cooling. At a checkup 90 days later, seven controls and five of the hypothermia group were judged as having little or no disability — not a substantial difference.

Hemmen said this recovery rate for both groups is worse than the average seen in stroke patients nationwide, because many of the patients referred to this study by physicians had severe strokes and previous medical problems. Patients undergoing cooling were more likely to develop pneumonia during recovery, but this didn't affect their status on average when assessed 90 days after treatment.

Regulators overseeing the study required a one-hour delay from the point at which tPA was given before cooling could be started, which might have limited the benefits of the treatment, Hemmen said.

These preliminary results might rejuvenate the idea of cooling stroke patients. "I kind of thought that hypothermia for stroke had actually gone by the wayside. I'm really pleased it's come back," said neurologist Cheryl Bushnell of Wake Forest University Health Sciences in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "Overcoming the technological issues of cooling is a major benefit."

The protective effects of cooling are well-documented in incidents of drowned people being revived with little brain damage after falling though the ice on frozen lakes. But the precise biological mechanism responsible for this benefit is poorly understood. Slowing metabolism may limit cell death, Bushnell said.

Hemmen said a randomized trial of 400 first-time stroke patients is being planned that will start cooling and administration of tPA simultaneously.

Image: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

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Friday, 26 February 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

What Is Time? One Physicist Hunts for the Ultimate Theory

Posted: 26 Feb 2010 02:30 AM PST


SAN DIEGO — One way to get noticed as a scientist is to tackle a really difficult problem. Physicist Sean Carroll has become a bit of a rock star in geek circles by attempting to answer an age-old question no scientist has been able to fully explain: What is time?

carroll_mug2Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at CalTechwhere he focuses on theories of cosmology, field theory and gravitation by studying the evolution of the universe. Carroll's latest book "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time" is an attempt to bring his theory of time and the universe to physicists and non-physicists alike.

Hereat the annual meetingof the American Association for the Advancement of Science where he gave a presentation on the arrow of time, scientists stopped him in the hallway to tell him what big fans they were of his work.

Carroll sat down with on Feb. 19 at AAAS to explain his theories and why Marty McFly's adventure could never exist in the real world, where time only goes forward and never back. Can you explain your theory of time in laymen's terms?

Sean Carroll: I'm trying to understand how time works. And that's a huge question that has lots of different aspects to it. A lot of them go back to Einstein and spacetime and how we measure time using clocks. But the particular aspect of time that I'm interested in is the arrow of time: the fact that the past is different from the future. We remember the past but we don't remember the future. There are irreversible processes. There are things that happen, like you turn an egg into an omelet, but you can't turn an omelet into an egg.

And we sort of understand that half way. The arrow of time is based on ideas that go back to Ludwig Boltzmann, an Austrian physicist in the 1870s. He figured out this thing called entropy. Entropy is just a measure of how disorderly things are. And it tends to grow. That's the second law of thermodynamics: Entropy goes up with time, things become more disorderly. So, if you neatly stack papers on your desk, and you walk away, you're not surprised they turn into a mess. You'd be very surprised if a mess turned into neatly stacked papers. That's entropy and the arrow of time. Entropy goes up as it becomes messier.

So, Boltzmann understood that and he explained how entropy is related to the arrow of time. But there's a missing piece to his explanation, which is, why was the entropy ever low to begin with? Why were the papers neatly stacked in the universe? Basically, our observable universe begins around 13.7 billion years ago in a state of exquisite order, exquisitely low entropy. It's like the universe is a wind-up toy that has been sort of puttering along for the last 13.7 billion years and will eventually wind down to nothing. But why was it ever wound up in the first place? Why was it in such a weird low entropy unusual state?

That is what I'm trying to tackle. I'm trying to understand cosmology, why the big bang had the properties it did. And it's interesting to think that connects directly to our kitchens and how we can make eggs, how we can remember one direction of time, why causes precede effects, why we are born young and grow older. It's all because of entropy increasing. It's all because of conditions of the Big Bang. So the Big Bang starts it all. But you theorize that there's something before the Big Bang. Something that makes it happen. What's that?

Carroll: If you find an egg in your refrigerator, you're not surprised. You don't say, "Wow, that's a low entropy configuration. That's unusual," because you know that the egg is not alone in the universe. It came out of a chicken, which is part of a farm, which is part of the biosphere, etc., etc. But with the universe, we don't have that appeal to make. We can't say that the universe is part of something else. But that's exactly what I'm saying. I'm fitting in with a line of thought in modern cosmology that says that the observable universe is not all there is. It's part of a bigger multiverse. The big bang was not the beginning.

And if that's true, it changes the question you're trying to ask. It's not, 'Why did the universe begin with low entropy?' It's, 'Why did part of the universe go through a phase with low entropy?' And that might be easier to answer.

multiverse_2 In this mulitverse theory you have a static universe in the middle. From that, smaller universes pop off and travel in different directions, or arrows of time. So does that mean that the universe at the center has no time?

Carroll: So that's a distinction that is worth drawing. There's different moments in the history of the universe and time tells you which moment you're talking about. And then there's the arrow of time, which give us the feeling of progress, the feeling of flowing or moving through time. So that static universe in the middle has time as a coordinate but there's no arrow of time. There's no future versus past, everything is equal to each other. So it's a time that we don't understand and can't perceive?

Carroll: We can measure it, but you wouldn't feel it. You wouldn't experience it. Because objects like us wouldn't exist in that environment. Because we depend on the arrow of time just for our existence. So then what is time in that universe?

Carroll: Even in empty space, time and space still exist. Physicists have no problem answering the question of "If a tree falls in the woods and no one's there to hear it, does it make a sound?" They say, "Yes! Of course it makes a sound!" Likewise, if time flows without entropy and there's no one there to experience it, is there still time? Yes. There's still time. It's still part of the fundamental laws of nature even in that part of the universe. It's just that events that happen in that empty universe don't have causality, don't have memory, don't have progress, and don't have aging or metabolism or anything like that. It's just random fluctuations. So if this universe in the middle is just sitting and nothing's happening there, then how exactly are these universes with arrows of time popping off of it? Because that seems like a measurable event.

Carroll: Right. That's an excellent point. And the answer is, almostnothing happens there. So the whole point of this idea that I'm trying to develop is that the answer to the question, "Why do we see the universe around us changing?" is that there is no way for the universe to truly be static once and for all. There is no state the universe could be in that would just stay put for ever and ever and ever. If there were, we should settle into that state and sit there forever.

It's like a ball rolling down the hill, but there's no bottom to the hill. The ball will always be rolling both in the future and in the past. So, that center part is locally static — that little region there where there seems to be nothing happening. But, according to quantum mechanics, things can happen occasionally. Things can fluctuate into existence. There's a probability of change occurring.

So, what I'm thinking of is the universe is kind of like an atomic nucleus. It's not completely stable. It has a half-life. It will decay. If you look at it, it looks perfectly stable, there's nothing happening… there's nothing happening… and then, boom! Suddenly there's an alpha particle coming out of it, except the alpha particle is another universe. So inside those new universes, which move forward with the arrow of time, there are places where the laws of physics are different — anomalies in spacetime. Does the arrow of time still exist there?

Carroll: It could. The weird thing about the arrow of time is that it's not to be found in the underlying laws of physics. It's not there. So it's a feature of the universe we see, but not a feature of the laws of the individual particles. So the arrow of time is built on top of whatever local laws of physics apply. So if the arrow of time is based on our consciousness and our ability to perceive it, then do people like you who understand it more fully experience time differently then the rest of us?

Carroll: Not really. The way it works is that the perception comes first and then the understanding comes later. So the understanding doesn't change the perception, it just helps you put that perception into a wider context. It's a famous quote that's in my book from St. Augustine where he says something along the lines of, "I know what time is until you ask me for a definition about it, and then I can't give it to you." So I think we all perceive the passage of time in very similar ways. But then trying to understand it doesn't change our perceptions. So what happens to the arrow in places like a black hole or at high speeds where our perception of it changes?

Carroll: This goes back to relativity and Einstein. For anyone moving through spacetime, them and the clocks they bring along with them– including their biological clocks like their heart and their mental perceptions– no one ever feels time to be passing more quickly or more slowly. Or, at least, if you have accurate clocks with you, your clock always ticks one second per second. That's true if you're inside a black hole, here on earth, in the middle of nowhere, it doesn't matter. But what Einstein tells us is that path you take through space and time can dramatically affect the time that you feel elapsing.

The arrow of time is about a direction, but it's not about a speed. The important thing is that there's a consistent direction. That everywhere through space and time, this is the past and this is the future. So you would tell Michael J. Fox that it's impossible for him to go back to the past and save his family?

Carroll: The simplest way out of the puzzle of time travel is to say that it can't be done. That's very likely the right answer. However, we don't know for sure. We're not absolutely proving that it can't be done. At the very least you can't go back.

Carroll: Yeah, no. You can easily go to the future, that's not a problem. We're going there right now!

Carroll: Yesterday I went to the future and here I am!

One of things I point out in the book is that if we do imagine that it was possible, hypothetically, to go into the past, all the paradoxes that tend to arise are ultimately traced to the fact that you can't define a consistent arrow of time if you can go into the past. Because what you think of as your future is in the universe's past. So it can't be one in the same everywhere. And that's not incompatible with the laws of physics, but it's very incompatible with our everyday experience, where we can make choices that affect the future, but we cannot make choices that affect the past. So, one part of the multiverse theory is that eventually our own universe will become empty and static. Does that mean we'll eventually pop out another universe of our own?

Carroll: The arrow of time doesn't move forward forever. There's a phase in the history of the universe where you go from low entropy to high entropy. But then once you reach the locally maximum entropy you can get to, there's no more arrow of time. It's just like this room. If you take all the air in this room and put it in the corner, that's low entropy. And then you let it go and it eventually fills the room and then it stops. And then the air's not doing anything. In that time when it's changing, there's an arrow of time, but once you reach equilibrium, then the arrow ceases to exist. And then, in theory, new universes pop off. So there's an infinite number of universes behind us and an infinite number of universes coming ahead of us. Does that mean we can go forward to visit those universes ahead of us?

Carroll: I suspect not, but I don't know. In fact, I have a post-doc at CalTech who's very interested in the possibility of universes bumping into each other. Now, we call them universes. But really, to be honest, they are regions of space with different local conditions. It's not like they're metaphysically distinct from each other. They're just far away. It's possible that you could imagine universes bumping into each other and leaving traces, observable effects. It's also possible that that's not going to happen. That if they're there, there's not going to be any sign of them there. If that's true, the only way this picture makes sense is if you think of the multiverse not as a theory, but as a prediction of a theory.

If you think you understand the rules of gravity and quantum mechanics really, really well, you can say, "According to the rules, universes pop into existence. Even if I can't observe them, that's a prediction of my theory, and I've tested that theory using other methods." We're not even there yet. We don't know how to have a good theory, and we don't know how to test it. But the project that one envisions is coming up with a good theory in quantum gravity, testing it here in our universe, and then taking the predictions seriously for things we don't observe elsewhere.

Images: 1) Artist's rendition of the multiverse./Jason Torchinsky. 2) Diagram of the multiverse./Sean Carroll. 3) Ken Weingart.

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Erin Biba is a Correspondent for Wired Magazine who writes about science, technology, popular culture, and beer made from 45-million-year-old yeast.

Followus on twitter @erinbibaand @wiredscience, and on Facebook.

Fish See Their Enemies’ Faces in Ultraviolet

Posted: 25 Feb 2010 02:18 PM PST


Seen in the right light, yellow reef fish become spotty pains in the tail fin.

sciencenewsMembers of one damselfish species use facial patterns of speckles and swooshes to identify the fish species they regularly attack, researchers report in an upcoming issue of Current Biology. These markings show up only in ultraviolet light, says visual ecologist Ulrike Siebeck of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

In tests, Siebeck and her colleagues found that male Ambon damselfish could tell their own species from another just by seeing the ultraviolet markings. When UV light was blocked by filters, confused males picked fights with the wrong rivals.

The UV freckles could work as a secret, or at least pretty discreet, communications channel, Siebeck proposes. Animals need to send clear signals to important compatriots, such as possible rivals or mates. Yet signals that get too clear can attract the wrong kind of attention from hungry predators. As Siebeck puts it, "How can you be colorful and not colorful at the same time?"

Both Ambon and lemon damselfish can see UV light. But plenty of their major predators, such as wrasses and cod, typically can't, Siebeck says. So she argues that damselfish could use their spots to send a covert message.

This encrypted messaging sounds plausible for another reason, says Innes Cuthill of Bristol University in England. Short UV wavelengths scatter more readily when they hit small particles than do the longer wavelengths that people call visible light. So plankton and other bits floating in seawater make UV markings harder to detect from a distance than visible-light color patterns. "For a predator, even if it can see in the UV, the patterns will be a blur," Cuthill says.

The lens in the human eye blocks UV wavelengths, but plenty of fish, birds and insects carry and can see some kind of UV marking. "It's secret to us," says, visual ecologist Sönke Johnsen of Duke University in Durham, N.C., but "it's not super magical."

Before calling UV freckles private lines of communication Johnsen wants to know more, such as which other species on the damselfishes' reef can see UV. What the damselfish experiments have demonstrated clearly, he says, is that these fish can use UV to distinguish species.

Siebeck made that discovery thanks to the scrappiness of territorial Ambon males. She first tested 28 of them to see whether they would fight a member of their own species or a lemon damselfish if she presented both. Most made more attacks on their own kind, though six, for unknown reasons, preferred to attack the other species.

Once she knew their fighting preferences, Siebeck changed the experiment by placing some of the potential rivals in UV-filtering plastic tubes to hide their freckles. The males who saw these fish attacked randomly, apparently because they could not detect the UV patterns.

Siebeck says these damselfish may have "the most intricate UV patterns found so far on animals." To see whether the fish can resolve such elaborate patterns, Siebeck trained fish to nudge a card marked with a UV spot pattern based on a real fish face. When she offered a choice of cards based on both species, trained fish mostly nudged the pattern they had learned to recognize.

Image: The images on the right show the invisible-to-humans UV designs for the two species of damselfish on the left. Credit: U. Siebeck et al./Current Biology 2010

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Wired’s Biometric Super Bowl Ad Winner Is a Geeky Surprise

Posted: 25 Feb 2010 01:34 PM PST

The results are in from the Wired Biometric Super Bowl Party, and 25 of our readers' autonomic nervous systems have selected their top 10 advertisements.

The Google ad that had everyone talking after the game got the attention of ourparty goersas well, but the real winner was a surprise. It turns out our readers are even geekier than we thought.

The study, conducted byBoston-based research firm Innerscope, was held at Wired HQ in San Francisco with participants from across the state and as far away as Sweden. These guinea pigs had their skin conductance, heart rate and movements measured to see how they responded physiologically to the motley assortment of Super Bowl ads.

The company's algorithms translate those measurements into a single metric they call "engagement." While the researchers are obviously looking for spikes in people's excitement — heart rate increases, etc — the best ads also generate consistent body movements and attention to the ad. (Read more about the science in "How Your Biometrics Can Make Super Bowl Ads Better.")


What's fun about this technology is that you can see people's reactions in real time, which you couldn't with traditional advertising scoring techniques. The downside is it takes some time to crunch the data, which is why you're reading this now instead of the day after the game. But as the old aphorism goes, slow and data-rich wins the race.

In the videos below, engagement is charted on the graphs, so you can see it moving up and down as the ads roll. On the Innerscope scale, getting up near 90 is impressive. The peak moment they measured was (of course) Tracy Porter's fourth-quarter interception of Peyton Manning and the long return for a touchdown that followed. It hit over 122 on the engagement scale.

"It may be the highest-ever score for Innerscope and there are some obvious reasons why that might be," said Carl Marci, a social psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Innerscope co-founder.

One funny quirk about this year's Super Bowl ads: none of them beat the two NBC promotional spots for The Late Show With David Letterman and How I Met Your Mother. If we included them on the commercial list, they would have ranked one and two. Go figure. Maybe all that Conan O'Brien/Jay Leno controversy was good for the late-night talk-show-host business.

In a surprise, the Electronic Arts ad for the upcoming game Dante's Inferno topped the list. If you needed more evidence that Wired readers are geeky, take the fact that they liked an ad for a videogame better than any of the beer commercials.

There aren't a lot of noticeable peaks and valleys for this ad, unlike some of the others. People most just stayed tuned in and watched the whole thing.

"Like a movie trailer, the ad is the product," Marci explained.

But why this ad and why this game, which at least to this writer, seem kind of mediocre?

"With the Dante's Inferno ad, people probably weren't thinking 'This is going to be the greatest game of all time,' but it would have been very hard for them to ignore," said Innerscope senior scientist, Caleb Siefert. "Definitely people in that audience are going to have an opinion of the game."

Coming in at number five, we see Google's first Super Bowl ad. When it came on, a hush fell over the room as people watched to see how their search engine would make a commercial.

"We didn't rate Google as the number one ad, but when you look at the trace, it's absolutely amazing," Siefert said.

Throughout the commercial, we stay at one time scale quickly progressing through a cute love story between some American dude and a Parisian lady. Then, right at the end, the ad's time scale speeds up and soon the searcher is looking for information on how to assemble a crib.

"What I loved about the Google ad, it was one of the best stories told," Marci said. "It's so tight and hangs together so well and then reminds you of the product that delivered this story so effectively."

Then, Google's "branding moment" hits as the words "Search on" come on the screen. People loved it.

"I'm blown away by the slope of the line in the branding moment, how sharply it goes up," Siefert said.

And finally, we get to the ad in which a Doritos samurai with Doritos nunchuks attacks some unsuspecting faux hipsters who are for some reason eating Doritos in the gym. What you see in the numbers here is a classic joke that works. It starts off kind of fun, lulls you for a minute as the action plays out, and then bam — the punchline.

Image: Jon Snyder/ Videos: Innerscope.

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

Biodiversity Explained by Ignoring the Forest for the Trees

Posted: 25 Feb 2010 11:29 AM PST


A painstaking, multidecade study of 33,000 individual trees may finally have uncovered the roots of biodiversity.

That biodiversity'sorigin needs uncoveringis surprising because the word seems to be everywhere. But scientists still don't quite understand why one place has more species than another, or fewer.

The traditional explanation — every organism has its niche, competing not with other species but its own — sounds nice, but has holes. According to the tree study, that's because ecologists haven't looked for the right niches.

"We take this very complex, high-dimensional thing called the environment, and average out all the variation that organisms really require," said Jim Clark, a Duke University biologist and author of the study, published Feb. 25 in Science. "Biodiversity is very much a niche response, but it's just not evident at the species level."

The central tenet of biodiversity science is that animals compete against their own kind, not against other species.Computer models of inter-species competition soon collapse, with rich diversity inevitably replaced by a few dominant species.

In the real world, that's not what happens. Species seem to be sharing. So ecologists have developed a theory of niches: Every species has a particular specialty, a set of conditions for which it's best suited. Some plants do well in shade, others in rocky soil, and so on.

This is true. However, it still doesn't seem to explain biodiversity. Some ecosystems that are very poor in resources, and consequently don't seem to have many niches, can still have a high species diversity.

"When you have thousands of species, it's difficult to come up with ways to partition a limited set of resources or conditions," said John Silander, a University of Connecticut ecologist who studies South Africa's Cape Floristic region, a rocky scrubland with as much biodiversity as the Amazon rainforest. "People looking at niche differences always seem to come up short."

Clark may have found the answer. He has spent the last 18 years studying trees in the southeastern United States and has assembled 22,000 detailed individual accounts, spanning 11 forests and three regions. For each tree, Clark has recorded its precise, on-the-ground (and in-the-ground and above-the-ground) exposure to moisture and nutrients and light, its response, and its proximity to other plants.

Ecologists usually aggregate this information, turning it into average. By going tree-by-tree, Clark found that there are, in fact, enough niches to go around. They're filled when competition in a species drives individuals to fill them. Biodiversity — or, from another perspective, configurations of organisms that don't need to compete against each other — is the result of this fierce race for resources.

The niches could only be seen at a fine-grained level, not in the coarse analyses typically used by ecologists. "We take environmental variation and project it down to a very small set of indices. Light becomes average light per year. Moisture becomes average moisture per year. It's not just light and water and nitrogen —it's variations of each of those things, in different dimensions," said Clark.

"The approach he's taken is marvelous. Nobody has looked at biodiversity in this fashion," said Silander, who was not involved in the study. "He has the data needed to address the different hypotheses."

Silander said the approach will likely be extended beyond the world of trees. Understanding the essential dynamics of biodiversity could improve ecosystem management, in applications from conservation to farming.

"It's hard to find a place on Earth that doesn't have some level of management going on," said Silander. "We have to understand how species interact."

"Ecologists spent a lot of time in the 20th century trying to find ways to reduce the complexity of natural systems so that we could understand them," said Miles Silman, a Wake Forest University ecologist who was not involved in the study. "Clark has shown that the complexity that we were trying to reduce is very likely essential to understanding" biodiversity.

Image: Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr

See Also:

Citation: "Individuals and the Variation Needed for High Species Diversity in Forest Trees." By James S. Clark. Science, Vol. 327 No. 5969, February 26, 2010.

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

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Deep-Sea Bacteria Form Avatar-Style Electrochemical Networks

Posted: 24 Feb 2010 10:29 PM PST


According to findingsthat could have beenpulled from a deep-sea sequel to Avatar, bacteria appear to conduct electrical currents across the ocean floor, driving linked chemical reactions at relatively vast distances.

Noticed only when reseachers happened to test sediment leftovers from another experiment, the phenomenon may add a new mechanism to Earth's biogeochemistry.

"The cycling of elements and life at the bottom of the sea, and in soil, and anywhere else you're short of oxygen — this could help us understand those processes," said microbiologist Lars Peter Nielsen of Denmark's Aarhus University, co-author of the study, publishedFeb. 24in Nature.

The original focus of Nielsen's team wasn't seafloor conductivity, but an especially interesting species of sulfur bacteria found on the floor of Aarhus Bay. To help quantify their chemical activity, the researchers kept a few beakers of seawater and sulfur bacteria-free sediment for comparison.

After those experiments ended, the beakers were almost forgotten. Then, a few weeks later, the researchers noticed strange patterns of activity. Changing oxygen levels in water above the top sediment layer were almost immediately followed by chemical fluctuations several layers down. The distance was so great, and the response time so quick, that usual methods of chemical transport — molecular diffusion, or a slow drift from high to low concentration — couldn't explain it.

At first, the researchers were stumped. Then they realized the process made sense if bacteria in the top and bottom layers were linked. Anything that affected oxygen-processing bacteria up top would also affect the sulfide-eating microbes below. It would explain the apparent connection; and an electrical linkage would explain the speed. It would also boggle the mind.

"Such hypotheses would at one time have been considered heretical," wrote Kenneth Nealson, a University of Southern California microbiologist, in an accompanying commentary in Nature. A half-inch gap "doesn't seem like much of a distance. But to a bacterium it amounts to 10,000 body lengths, equivalent to about 20 kilometers (12 miles) in human terms."

In recent years, however,scientists have found species of microbes with outer membranes covered by electron-transporting enzymes, or studded with conductive, micrometer-scale filaments. These are used in driving experimental microbial fuel cells, and are known to be found in the Aarhus Bay mud. Those sediments also contain trace amounts of pyrite, an electrically conductive mineral.

The top sediment layer also had a low concentration of hydrogen ions, something that could only be explained through an electrochemical reaction, with electrons conducted from a distance, said Nielsen.

Nealson called the findings "astonishing," and said they "may be relevant to energy transfer and electron flow through many different environments." They could eventually applied to bacteria-based schemes for bioremediation, carbon sequestration and energy production.

Asked if he'd seen the blockbuster movie Avatar, with its storyline involving electrochemically linked forests that stored the inhabitants' souls in a planet-spanning biological computer, Nielsen said, "One of my colleagues saw this, and immediately sent me a message: 'You've discovered the secret of Avatar! Go see it!' The similarities are quite striking."

He continued, "I don't think there is much spirit in the networks we've seen here. It might be only about energy. But there are connections."

Image: At left, Nielsen measures current in the sediment sample; at right, a close-up view of the sediment. Credit: Nils Risgaard-Petersen

See Also:

Citations: "Electric currents couple spatially separated biogeochemical processes in marine sediment." By Lars Peter Nielsen, Nils Risgaard-Petersen, Henrik Fossing, Peter Bondo Christensen & Mikio Sayam. Nature, Vol. 463, No. 7284, February 25, 2010.

"Sediment reactions defy dogma." By Kenneth H. Nealson. Nature, Vol. 463, No. 7284, February 25, 2010.

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

Much-Touted Bloom Fuel Cell Still Too Spendy

Posted: 24 Feb 2010 03:51 PM PST

Fuel Cell Fervor

A Silicon Valley startup that's taken more than $400 million in venture funding finally unveiled its product today in a star-studded extravaganza.

In an event held at eBay's headquarters in San Jose, California, Bloom Energy called on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Google co-founder Larry Page, and retired general Colin Powell to push their solid-oxide fuel-cell box, which converts natural gas or other fuels into electricity. The company says its "energy servers" produce 60 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than a coal-fired power plant, and cost less than electricity produced on the grid.

"This is like the Google IPO," said John Doerr, an investor in both Google and Bloom Energy with the legendary venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

"This technology is fundamentally going to change the world," echoed Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California) during a promotional video shown at the press conference.

But is it really going to? Independent experts aren't so sure.

The analyst firm Lux Research posted a note to its blog today noting that Bloom had confirmed their 100-kilowatt boxes are priced between $700,000 and $800,000 without subsidies of any kind.

In fact, a long-term R&D collaboration between the Department of Energy and multiple solid-oxide fuel-cell manufacturers, the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance, estimates that fuel cells will need to cost $700 per kilowatt of peak capacity to compete unsubsidized with the grid. Bloom's product costs 10 times that.

"The cost is about an order of magnitude higher than it needs to be, to be truly competitive," said Michael Tucker, a fuel cell scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

When you do the math, the Bloom box's electricity costs substantially more per kilowatt hour than the grid.

"Without incentives, we calculate electricity would cost $0.13/kWh to $0.14/kWh, with about $0.09/kWh from system cost and about $0.05/kWh coming from fuel cost," Lux wrote. "Note that this is high compared to average retail U.S. electricity costs of roughly $0.11/kWh."

Right now, a 30 percent Federal government tax credit and a $2,500-per-kilowatt California subsidy for fuel cells substantially lowers the price of the machine for Bloom's customers. The company claims that with those incentives the life-cycle cost of electricity over 10 years could be as low as $0.08/kWh.

And over the next few years, it's probable that, like many technologies, the unit cost of Bloom's fuel cells will decrease as the scale of production increases, but it's unclear how cheap the Bloom boxes can get.

Tucker, for his part, does not think ceramic-based solid-oxide fuel cells can become competitive with the grid. That's why he's working on a stainless steel version that would be coated with a thin film of ceramic material.

Tucker said that from what he's heard, Bloom's product is similar to fuel cells from UTC, Kyocera and other companies.

"From an outsider's perspective, it sounds like their technology is relatively straightforward and similar to other technologies out there in this arena, but maybe their business approach is relatively unique," Tucker concluded.

This is business after all, and if marketing counts, Bloom Energy certainly has a leg up on its industrial competitors like Siemens.

"They are certainly going to raise visibility for the industry," Tucker said. "They are something of a PR leader in the market. If they can … ride that wave into an early market-share position, that could be huge. They will be getting experience with real-world customers."

Indeed, they are: The firm's beta testers include Walmart, Coca-Cola, Google and eBay.

Image: AP/Paul Sakuma

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

New High-Res Images of Luminous Star-Forming Region

Posted: 24 Feb 2010 03:02 PM PST


Stars shine amidst a luminous, cotton-candy nebula in this new image of NGC 346, the largest star-forming region in our neighboring galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud.

The star cluster, located about 210,000 light-years away and measuring around 200 light years across, is home to a group of brilliant stars.

Many of the stars in the nebula are just a few million years old. These young suns were born when gusting winds from a massive star compressed a huge amount of matter, which then collapsed under its own gravity. The collapse created extremely dense hot spots that fueled the birth of new stars.

Light, wind and heat have whipped up gases in and around the cluster to form the pink-and-blue wispy cloud. Stars burning inside the nebula have made the surrounding gas hot enough to glow.

The new image was taken by the Wide Field Imager instrument on the 7.2-foot telescope at the at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. The image was captured using blue, violet and red filters, in addition to a narrow-band filter tuned to see the light emitted by hydrogen in gas clouds.

Image: ESO

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Brainy Crows Finally Stumped by Intelligence Test

Posted: 24 Feb 2010 02:33 PM PST


Maybe they're not as smart as we thought: The New Caledonian crow, having passed so many other tests of animal cognition, has finally flunked an exam.

New Caledonian crows are valedictorians among corvids, a family of birds that includes ravens, jays and magpies. They've wowed scientists with their cognitive powers, even using wire as a food-fetching tool.

On one classic cognition test — retrieving a piece of food tied to a string — corvids perform so well that some researchers thought they didn't just learn through rote trial and error, but envisioned problems in their head.

crowtest1In a study published Feb. 22 in Public Library of Science ONE, researchers added a twist: They ran the string through a hole in a plywood platform. Crows could only see the food when directly above the hole. When they pulled back on the string, they'd lose sight of it. If they really did have a mental image of the task, it wouldn't be a problem.

Twelve crows took the test: four who'd practiced on the old food-on-a-string setup, four who'd never seen it, and four who'd never seen it but could watch their reflection in a mirror.

Crows from the first group succeeded, but only after many attempts. Only one of the second group passed, also with difficulty. Two crows from the third group passed. It wasn't the ace performance usually seen in crows.

"These results are not consistent with the hypothesis that the crows built a mental scenario," wrote the researchers. "Our results raise the possibility that spontaneous string pulling in New Caledonian crows may not be based on insight but on operant conditioning mediated by a perceptual-motor feedback cycle."

In other words, the crows relied on a simple trial-and-error approach. But the researchers did acknowledge that their sample size was limited, and that depth perception could be skewed in a confusing way by the experimental setup.

If nothing else, the crows did far better than finches. And even if they're not good with spatial relationships, they're certainly fast learners.

Images: 1) New Caledonian Crows on the old experimental setup at left, and on the new apparatus at right. Credit: University of Auckland. 2) Schematic of the new test design. Credit: University of Auckland.

See Also:

Citation: "An Investigation into the Cognition Behind Spontaneous String Pulling in New Caledonian Crows." By Alex H. Taylor, Felipe S. Medina, Jennifer C. Holzhaider, Lindsay J. Hearne, Gavin R. Hunt, Russell D. Gray. Public Library of Science ONE, Vol. 5 No. 2, February 22, 2009.

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

Chinese Scientists Say Losing Google Would Hurt Research

Posted: 24 Feb 2010 11:05 AM PST


Google and China may not be fighting over science, but their feud could have unintended negative consequences for researchers in the country.

A Nature News survey of Chinese scientists found that 84 percent of them thought losing access to Google would "somewhat or significantly" hurt their work process. Like their American counterparts, Chinese researchers use Google and Google Scholar to find papers and related information.

"Research without Google would be like life without electricity," one Chinese scientist told Nature.

In January, Google announced it would stop following censorship rules required by the Chinese government after its servers came under attack. It remains to be seen whether the Mountain View company will be thrown out of the country for that stance.

When Google's initial announcement broke, media blogger Robin Sloan of Snarkmarket pondered the possibility of the splitting of the famously world-circling internet.

"Is the Chinese internet going to be largely parallel? The othernet?" Sloan asked.

If events do continue in that direction, truly global enterprises like science could suffer as information becomes harder — even if only moderately — to exchange.

Image: AP Photo/Vincent Thian. A Chinese Google user presents flowers to the Google China headquarters in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010.

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

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

New Images of Enceladus Show More Plumes and Heat

Posted: 23 Feb 2010 05:06 PM PST


The Cassini spacecraft's November flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus has revealed new features including at least 20 more icy plumes spewing from the moon's southern pole.

New infrared data gives scientists the highest resolution temperature map of one particular warm fissure called a "tiger stripe." The moon's four tiger stripes arefractures that spew a mix of ice particles, water vapor and organic compounds into space. They are a key clue for scientists trying to figure out if small moon harbors a liquid water ocean under its frosty surface. Now, scientists know that their temperatures can exceed 180 Kelvin (minus 135 degrees Fahrenheit).

"The fractures are chilly by Earth standards, but they're a cozy oasis compared to the numbing 50 Kelvin (-370 Fahrenheit) of their surroundings," said John Spencer, a composite infrared spectrometer team member based at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

"The huge amount of heat pouring out of the tiger stripe fractures may be enough to melt the ice underground," Spencer said."Results like this make Enceladus one of the most exciting places we've found in the solar system."

Enceladus is obviously too distant for the sun heat the moon to temperatures that could keep water in its freely flowing phase. Instead, the planet'swarmth appears to result from "tidal heating." Saturn's gravitational force deforms the satellite as it rotates. The back-and-forth pull heats up the satellite like a human repeatedly bending a spoon.

The new detailed temperature map of the tiger stripe, "Baghdad Sulcus," shows that the temperature varies along the length of the fracture. The warm spots are confined to an area just half a mile across. For those hoping to find simple extraterrestrial life within our solar system, those might be the most interesting canyons outside planet Earth.


More images of this remarkable celestial object below.


The area that was examined in detail in the image aboveis highlighted here.


Enceladus is just 310 miles in diameter, but may have the most easily accessible liquid ocean beyond Earth.


This close-up 3-D view of the Baghdad Sulcus shows 10 miles of the fracture in dramatic relief.

Images: 1) NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. 2) NASA/JPL/GSFC/SWRI/SSI. 3-5) NASA/JPL/SSI

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

Sperm Whales Use Team Work to Hunt Prey

Posted: 23 Feb 2010 03:09 PM PST


PORTLAND — Sperm whales sometimes collaborate when they forage the depths, new tracking data suggest, with some individuals herding prey into dense schools while others lunge into the fray and feed.

sciencenewsScientists have long known that sperm whales, like many other toothed whales, form long-lasting social groups that typically consist of females and their young. While some researchers have suggested that the females in such groups collaboratively raise their young, the new data are the first to hint that the whales may engage in tag-team hunting. Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute in Newport reported February 22 at the American Geophysical Union's Ocean Sciences meeting.

In 2007 and 2008, Mate and his colleagues tagged sperm whales in the Gulf of California with a new type of data-gathering sensor. These hockey-puck-size instruments included a Global Positioning System receiver, which gathered data when the creatures were at the ocean's surface, and other sensors that recorded water depth. In essence, Mate said, the instruments are flight data recorders for whales.

After taking data once every two seconds for as long as 28 days the instruments broke free and floated to the ocean surface, where they could be recovered by the researchers.

One of the whale groups the team studied consisted of between 10 and 15 individuals, three of which were tagged with recorders. Data showed that during some deep dives, whales zigzagged back and forth or suddenly surged forward, probably when they foraged on the Humboldt squid prevalent in the area. Sometimes the three tagged whales, presumably accompanied by others in the group, dove to great depths at the same time.

"We expected their dives to be similar, but often one of the three whales went deeper than the other two," Mate said. This behavior is similar to that of sea lions and dolphins, which sometimes collaboratively prey upon fish by herding them into tight groups known as "bait balls."

Mate and his colleagues speculate that the whale that dove deepest during each coordinated excursion helped prevent squid from escaping downward.

Sperm whales engaging in such behavior apparently share deep-diving patrol duty, Mate said, probably because the forays — which sometimes extend to depths of 1,500 meters — are physiologically stressful.

The new findings suggest but don't prove collaborative foraging among sperm whales, comments Kelly Benoit-Bird, a biological oceanographer at Oregon State's main campus in Corvallis. For one thing, she notes, the team's data reveal the behavior of the whales but not their prey, and it's not clear that squid respond to groups of predators by forming concentrated "bait balls" the same way that fish sometimes do.

Mate and his colleagues are now working to address that issue. Developing a technique to observe squid at depth is a somewhat difficult task, he notes, because unlike fish squid don't have air-filled bladders that show up well on sonar images.

Meanwhile, the new data recorders deployed by Mate and his colleagues can also be used for other behavioral research in whales. For instance, Mate suggests, the instruments could reveal how whales respond to various sources of aquatic noise such as sonar or the often intense pressure pulses generated during submarine seismic surveys used in research or oil and gas exploration.

Image: A sperm whale calf only hours old, swims next to its mother and a pod of sperm whales./ AP Photo/Guam Variety News, Chris Bangs.

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Virulent Bird-Human Flu Hybrid Made in Lab

Posted: 23 Feb 2010 01:38 PM PST


Engineered hybrids of bird and human flu strains have proven virulent in mice, raising the disturbing possibility that a natural recombination could be deadly to humans.

For years, researchers have worried that H5N1 avian influenza would mix with human flu viruses, evolving into a form that keeps its current lethality but is far more contagious. That hasn't happened — but the latest findings, publishedFeb. 22in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show how easily it might.

"Fortunately, the H5N1 viruses still lack the ability to transmit efficiently among humans." However, this obstacle may be overcome by mixing with flu strains common in people, wrote researchers led by University of Wisconsin virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka. "The next pandemic then will be inevitable."

Current strains of H5N1 have infected 478 people since 2003, and killed 286 of them. It's difficult to transmit in humans, requiring close contact with an infected person or animal. In birds, however, H5N1 is far more contagious, and his killed tens of millions of fowl. Cases have been concentrated in Africa and Eurasia, but as the swine flu pandemic demonstrated, any flu contagious to humans will likely go global, fast.

Influenza viruses swap genes easily, with co-infections turning animals into mobile petri dishes. In 2008, hoping to learn more about how H5N1 might evolve, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention combined it with a common human flu strain. The hybrids proved less virulent than the original bird flu strain. Researchers wondered whether more contagious bird flu would necessarily alwaysbe less deadly in humans.

The PNAS findings suggest this may not be so.The researchers engineeredall 254 possible variants of hybridization between a deadly bird flu strain found in Borneo, and a human flu virus from Tokyo. They identified three strains that, at least in mice,were both contagious and deadly.

A flu virus that kills mice won't necessarily kill humans, but the results are suggestive. All three killer hybrid strains possessed a protein taken from the human strain. Called PB2,the proteinappeared to help the virus survive in the mice's upper respiratory tract. As of now, bird flu stays in the lower respiratory tract, where it's less likely to be casually transmitted.

The findings come as the World Health Organization meets to decide whether the swine flu pandemic has abated. Though the pandemic has not proved as lethal as originally feared, it exposed how unprepared the world is for new influenza strains.

In May, Hong Kong University virologist Yi Guan, best known for finding the animal origin of SARS, was asked by Science Insider about the possibility of H5N1 and swine flu mixing.

"If that happens, I will retire immediately and lock myself" in a sealed laboratory, said Guan.

Photo: A person feeds northern pintail ducks and whooper swans in Northern Honshu, Japan; in spring 2008, highly pathogenic H5N1 was found there in both bird species./USGS

See Also:

Citation: "Reassortment between avian H5N1 and human H3N2 influenza viruses creates hybrid viruses with substantial virulence." By Chengjun Li, Masato Hatta, Chairul A. Nidom, Yukiko Muramoto, Shinji Watanabe, Gabriele Neumann, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 8, February 23, 2010.

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

DOE Ponies Up $10 Billion in Financing for Solar, Nuclear Plants

Posted: 23 Feb 2010 11:41 AM PST


The Department of Energy has provided almost $10 billion in loan guarantees for two nuclear and three solar power plants in just the past week.

The moves mark a new DOE strategy to finance the large-scale deployment of low-carbon technologies in the United States.

The Oakland-based company BrightSource will conditionally receive $1.4 billion in loans for a solar complex in the Mojave Desert, while a consortium led by the Southern Company will get a whopping $8.33 billion to build two new nuclear reactors in the city of Burke, Georgia.

The dual moves would have been almost unthinkablefor allthe administrations since Reagan took office in 1981. Traditionally, promoting nuclear power has been seen as a right-wing issue, while the left has preferred solar.

"What I hope this announcement underscores is both our commitment to meeting the energy challenge– and our willingness to look at this challenge not as a partisan issue, but as a matter far more important than politics," Barack Obama said in a release Feb. 16 announcing the nuclear power plant funding.

Loan guarantees are one of a series of indirect financial incentives that could accelerate the introduction of new energy technology. The 2005 Energy Act gave the DOE authorization to make such moves. By making the loan guarantees, the government ensures the projects will get money through the Federal Financing Bank at a below-market rate.

Some policy wonks argue that providing loans to private companies to build innovative new plants is essential for commercializing technologies that are trying to make the jump from small demonstration plant to full-scale facility.

It's a risky step, so such subsidies may be necessary to deploy new types of plants. Most of our electrical infrastructure depends on technologies developed before 1970. Seventy percent of electricity in the United States is generated by burning fossil fuels to create heat which can be converted into electricity. The fundamentals haven't changed for a century.

The Obama Administration has made it clear that technologies with substantially lower carbon-intensity are a major priority. Both nuclear and renewable technologies fit the bill, although both types of power have their detractors. BrightSource has encountered opposition from environmentalists concerned with the impact the solar plant may have on the desert tortoise. Organized opposition to nuclear power generally focuses on the plants' radioactive waste issues or fears of catastrophic plant failure or terrorist attack.

Energy Secretary Steve Chu recognized that the Democratic administration's support for the new nuclear plants was particularly controversial and responded on his Facebook page with his rationale for supporting a form of energy that has not been popular on the American political left.

"The sun isn't always shining, and the wind isn't always blowing. Without technological breakthroughs in efficient, large-scale energy storage, it will be difficult to rely on intermittent renewables for much more than 20 to 30 percent of our electricity," Chu wrote in a post entitled Why We Need More Nuclear Power.

"To overcome this problem, we are pursuing breakthrough approaches to grid-scale energy storage as well as stimulating the widespread adoption of known technologies such as pumped hydro energy storage," he wrote. "But nuclear power can provide large amounts of carbon-free power that is always available."

The two new nuclear plants would be the first reactors built in the United States in almost 30 years. In the intervening decades, the performance record of nuclear power plants has improved a lot. In the late '70s, the average plant was out of operation four out of every 10 days. Now, the plants are online 90 percent of the time.

Nuclear advocates celebrated the new guarantees as a sign the long-awaited "nuclear renaissance" might begin under Obama. His new budget proposes more than $54 billion in funding for nuclear loan guarantees.

Wall Street banks have been loathe to invest in nuclear power plants since the industry's grisly collapse in the '70s and '80swhen about 100 projects were abandoned during construction. Plant designers say they've eliminated many of the problems that plagued the first nuclear era, but the perceived high risk involved in plant construction makes borrowing the money to build new reactors expensive or impossible. Government financing doesn't eliminate the risk of construction issues; it shifts the burden onto taxpayers if anything goes wrong.

A 2006 paper in Environmental Science and Technology authored by Dan Kammen, an energy specialist at UC Berkeley, and two colleagues, looked at the costs of almost all the reactors built in the United States. Many plants were actually completed within a reasonable time frame, but there was a troubling clump of very overbudget projects. Kammen argued that new plants may be subject to cost "surprises."

But until new plants get built, optimistic or pessimistic speculations about their costs and build times will remain just that.

Luz Redux
BrightSource is the descendant of the most successful solar thermal company of all time. Luz International built 354 megawatts of solar thermal plants in the Mojave Desert in the late 1980s. They continue to generate power today for Southern California Edison. At the time they were built, they represented more than 90 percent of the solar electricity capacity in the world. Luz itself went bankrupt in 1992 because of a combination of low fossil fuel prices and a quiver-full of regulatory changes that hurt the company's bottom line. Still, the company's achievements were impressive: It brought the cost of the power from its plants down from 24 cents per kilowatt hour to 8 cents per kilowatt hour, nearly competitive with fossil fuels.

After years working on other projects, Luz's founder, Arnold Goldman, got together a new company earlier this decade, which was eventually christened BrightSource. Goldman is the chairman of the board and his very first engineering hire, Israel Kroizer, is the company's Chief Operating Officer.

The company's technology in this go-round is not exactly the same as it was. Luz employed parabolic trough technology in which curved mirrors focus the sun's rays on a special liquid-filled tube running their length. That liquid is run to a heat exchanger which turns water into steam and drives a traditional generator. Eight of Luz's nine plants could also run on natural gas, which allowed the plant's operators to generate electricity under any weather conditions.

The DOE's other big loan guarantee, for the solar company BrightSource, had long been expected by the outfit's management. With the guarantees in hand, the company wants to begin construction on the first of three plants near Ivanpah, California later this year, with commercial operation beginning in 2012. First, they have to finish the extensive environmental permitting process and secure hundreds of millions of dollars in private financing. If all goes as planned, the project's lead contractor, Bechtel will complete all three plants by the end of 2013. They'll have a peak capacity of about 400 megawatts.

BrightSource is using a "power tower" design for its new plants. A field of mirrors surround a tower with a water-filled boiler sitting on top of it. The mirrors focus the sun's rays onto the boiler, which heats up the water and transforms it into steam. That steam can be used to impart mechanical energy to a generator and create electricity. The company's demonstration tower has been producing steam in Israel's Negev Desert has been operating for the past year.

Taken together, the DOE announcements signal a return of solar and nuclear energy to the prominence they once enjoyed in the 1970s. Back then, Alvin Weinberg, who headed Oak Ridge National Laboratory, wrote a paper about the nation's post-fossil energy future asking the question, "Can the sun replace uranium?"

From the recent funding announcements, theDOE still doesn't know the answer to that question, but the push to find out is finally taking shape.

Photo: theta444/Flickr

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

Math Shows Some Crime Hot Spots Can Be Cooled, Others Only Relocated

Posted: 23 Feb 2010 10:13 AM PST


SAN DIEGO — Not all crime hot spots are created equal, a new mathematical model suggests. For some areas repeatedly hit hard with crime, police intervention can shut down lawlessness and keep it down. But for others, police involvement just shifts the trouble around.

sciencenews"If you see a hot area of crime, you want to know: If you send the police in, will that displace the crime or get rid of the crime altogether?" said Andrea Bertozzi, a mathematician at UCLA who presented the new model Feb. 20 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "We were able to predict the ability to suppress or otherwise displace hot spots." The results will also appear Feb. 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study "makes a major contribution to the theory of hot spots of crime," comments John Eck, a criminologist at the University of Cincinnati.

Working with anthropologists, criminologists and the Los Angeles Police Department, Bertozzi built a mathematical representation of how areas with frequent, repeated crimes form within a city and change over time.

The team modeled a city as a two-dimensional grid populated with burglars and houses to rob. The researchers used previous studies to add a mathematical description of how attractive a region is to a burglar. Data has shown, for example, that the house next door to a house with a broken window is more likely to be robbed.

Bertozzi and colleagues ran simulations that led to the formation of crime hot spots and then simulated police intervention. Two sharply distinct outcomes emerged. Certain kinds of hot spots just moved around in response to police efforts to quash them. "It's impossible," Bertozzi said. "You hit one and it pops up somewhere else."

But for others, suppressing the hot spot once erased it forever.

The difference comes from how the hot spot forms in the first place. The model shows that a high-risk zone forms around every break-in. If the boundaries of risk zones overlap, then a persistent hot spot forms. "The diffusion of risk basically binds together local crimes, which then will seed more crimes," Bertozzi said.

But suppressible hot spots can form from one large crime spike, in which a single event draws in more criminals. A good example of this might be the formation of a drug market, said UCLA anthropologist Jeffrey Brantingham, a co-author of the paper.

"You wouldn't suspect this was the case from just mapping the hot spots," Brantingham said. "Empirically they look very much the same." The math was able to show that there may be two different types of hot spots when the data alone could not, he said.

"This is something that would be important for us in real life," Bertozzi said, "to be able to go and tell the police, in this situation you're going to be able to get rid of the crimes, and in this other situation you're only going to displace them."

Though the researchers compared the model's predictions of where and when burglaries would happen with real data from a region of the San Fernando Valley, Eck says he would want to test the model's police intervention predictions. Still, he says, it makes "a really elegant start."

Image: invisible city photography/Flickr

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