Wednesday, 15 September 2010

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Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Dog Poop Powers Park Lights

Posted: 15 Sep 2010 09:01 AM PDT

By Olivia Solon

Conceptual artist Matthew Mazzotta is using dog faeces to power lampposts in a park in the US city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mazzotta's Project Park Spark, which was funded through MIT and created in partnership with the City of Cambridge, comprises of a special "methane digester" that converts freshly scooped poop into methane.

Dog owners collect their dog waste in a special biodegradable bag and throw it into the digester – an air-tight cylindrical container, where the dog faeces are broken down by anaerobic bacteria. A byproduct from that process is methane which can then be released through a valve and burnt as fuel. In this case it is being used to power an old-fashioned gas-burning lamppost in a park.

The artist is keen to make sure that the energy is used as the community wishes, and so in the next couple of weeks the Park Spark project will be a holding a number of design meetings to gather ideas from the community for how to best use the flame. — suggestions already include a shadow projection box, a popcorn stand and a tea house.

Currently when organic material (including dog waste, food, and plant matter) goes into landfill it releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is approximate 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

When it's burned in the presence of oxygen, it separates into carbon dioxide and water vapour, so businesses can actually earn carbon credits from burning off excess methane. As a result, the digesters are a good way to collect and use the volatile gas as a fuel.

In the future Mazzotta hopes to install permanent underground digesters in parks throughout the US.

Image: Park Spark Project.

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Protecting Tigers’ Final Strongholds

Posted: 14 Sep 2010 03:03 PM PDT

The world's remaining tigers are clustered in just a few dozen small areas that could serve as source populations for a recovery, but only if resources are in place to keep poachers out.

Tigers have been driven to the brink of extinction, primarily by poaching for pelts, body parts and live trade, as well as by habitat loss. It is estimated that fewer than 3,500 tigers remain in the wild, of which about 1,000 are breeding females. They occupy only 6 percent of their historical range.

"A lot of effort has been focused on distributing efforts across a broad range, but we need to make sure that these source sites are absolutely protected from poaching, rather than spreading resources too thin," said Wildlife Conservation Society Asia director Joe Walston, lead author of the study in PLoS Biology September 14.

The researchers identified 42 key tiger habitats through interviews with about 300 people working on tiger conservation on the ground, as well as by analyzing the published material on tiger populations, Walston said.

"If we don't do what's in this paper than we have nothing. But we have to do much more than that," said World Wildlife Fund scientist Eric Dinerstein, who has done work on tigers but was not involved in this study.

"There is no reserve today that is big enough to maintain a genetically viable population of tigers," he said. "We either need whopping big preserves, which is nearly impossible, or we need to manage tigers as a metapopulation — one big population that is linked by dispersal and habitat corridors."

Maintaining continuous habitat corridors of forest is critical for keeping tiger populations interacting, since tigers rarely cross even a one or two mile forest gap, Dinerstein said. He added that the World Bank estimates 500 billion dollars per year will be spent building new infrastructure and roads in the tiger range over the next ten years. If governments wait to protect connecting forest corridors, they'll soon be gone.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has organized a Tiger Summit for November where leaders of all countries with tiger habitat are expected to gather. Both Walston and Dinerstein hope this study will serve as a road map for guiding tiger conservation efforts set forward at the meeting.

The study estimates it it will require an additional $35 million a year to increase monitoring and enforcement efforts at the key habitat areas to enable tiger numbers to double over the next several years.

"Although the scale of the problem is huge, the complexity is not," Walston said. "We're really providing a demonstrably effective way of reversing the decline of the tiger. We're taking lessons from where conservation has been going well and where it has not been going well."

Tiger populations can rebuild quickly since they have litters of up to four or five cubs every year. As long as they are given space, food and continued protection from poaching over the long term, they will have a fast recovery, Dinerstein said.

Images: 1) Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society. 2) Kent Redford. 3) Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society.

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9/11 Memorial Lights Trap Thousands of Birds

Posted: 14 Sep 2010 02:34 PM PDT

On the evening of the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the twin columns of light projected as a memorial over the World Trade Center site became a source of mystery.

Illuminated in the beams were thousands of small white objects, sparkling and spiraling, unlike anything seen on other nights. Some viewers wondered if they were scraps of paper or plastic caught in updrafts from the spotlights' heat. From beneath, it was at times like gazing into a snowstorm. It was hard not to think of souls.

Those unidentified objects have now been identified as birds, pulled from their migratory path and bedazzled by the light in a perfect, poignant storm of avian disorientation.

"It's only happened once before. It's a confluence of circumstances that come together to cause this," said John Rowden, citizen science director at the Audubon Society's New York City chapter. "Some of it has to do with meteorological conditions, and some with the phase of the moon."

New York City sits in the middle of a major migration corridor, used for millennia by birds flying south for the winter. During autumn nights, thousands of birds pass directly above the megalopolis, a passage generally unnoticed by its human inhabitants.

During the previous week, weather was bad for migration. Tropical storm systems moved north up the U.S. East Coast, pushing against birds headed south. To conserve energy, migratory birds prefer tailwinds, and are willing to wait for good weather.

"Birds were coming down from the north and piling up, waiting to push southwards," said Rowden.

To navigate, birds rely on a variety of internal compass mechanisms, which are calibrated to Earth's geomagnetic fields by sunlight, starlight and moonlight. On Sept. 11, the new moon was just two nights old, a thumbnail sliver. In such conditions, birds rely on starlight, but parts of the lower Manhattan sky were overcast.

The buildings resembled stars. Outshining them all was the Tribute in Light above Ground Zero.

Rowden estimates that 10,000 birds entered the beams, becoming confused and circling until the Municipal Art Society, working with New York City Audubon, shut the lights for 20 minutes, allowing the birds to leave. That happened five times over the course of the night.

The spotlights were not directly dangerous to the birds. Instead, risk comes from wasted time and energy needed for later.

"Birds do fly for extended periods of time. It's not that they can't do it. But they're doing it to get south of here. If they spend all their time in that small area, they won't get to good foraging habitat, and it will compromise them for later parts of their migration," Rowden said. "But I feel that we did allow them to get out."

Volunteers from New York Audubon identified American Redstarts and Yellow Warblers. Wood Thrushes, Bicknell's Thrushes, Baltimore Orioles and various species of Tanager may also have been trapped. Recordings of flight calls inside the light columns are now being analyzed at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

According to Rowden, the only previous comparable event was in 2004. Last year, barely a dozen birds were trapped by the lights. The problem, however, is not unique to the 9/11 memorial, but posed by tall, brightly lit buildings in most major cities.

To limit the toll, New York Audubon organized the Lights Out New York program, for which many prominent commercial structures — including the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center — turn off or mask their lights during the migration season.

Just before 5 a.m. on Sept. 12, the lights were turned off and on for the final time, said Rowden. In the next hour, birds gathered again.

"As soon as they could get any visual horizon, they could use that as a cue and navigate their way out," he said. With dawn the birds departed.

Images: 1) The Tribute in Light around 9pm on September 11./Brandon Keim. 2. Birds in the lights./Flickr, Kai Schreiber. 3) Video from lower Manhattan on September 11; footage of birds begins at 0:35./Daniel Turkewitz.

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Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on an ecological tipping point project.

Here Comes Jupiter: Gas Giant Makes Closest Approach

Posted: 14 Sep 2010 02:11 PM PDT

Jupiter is cozying up to Earth this month. At its closest approach, the giant planet will swing closer and shine brighter than at any time between 1963 and 2022.

You can already see Jupiter twinkling low in the east after twilight, and higher in the southeast as the evening wears on. But it will be brightest in the second half of September. The gas giant's closest approach will be at a distance of 368 million miles on Monday, September 20. Its previous swing-by in August 2009 was 2 percent farther, and the next approach in October 2011 will be a little less than 1 percent more distant.

Jupiter is also brighter than usual by about 4 percent because one of its brown cloud belts is hidden.

Uranus will be visible in the same part of the sky until September 24, though you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it. The full moon will appear right above Jupiter on September 22, which is coincidentally the fall equinox.

Image: 1) NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute 2) Time exposure of Jupiter among the stars. The red streaks are from the photographer walking away with a red flashlight pointed at the ground.Babak A. Tafreshi

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After the Blast: Iceland’s Smoldering Volcanoes

Posted: 14 Sep 2010 12:40 PM PDT

<< Previous | Next >>

Editor's Note: Science journalist Alexandra Witze recently traveled to Iceland to check up on the volcanoes. She came back with amazing photos, including the ones in this gallery, and a great story. A brief excerpt follows, and you can read the whole account at Science News.


Iceland is an ideal place to see icy volcanoes and for scientists to figure out how such volcanoes work. The country has some two dozen active volcanoes, of which Eyjafjallajökull is relatively puny.

The island is so volcanically active because it is the above-water manifestation of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the chain of mountains that runs down the center of the Atlantic like an underwater backbone. Here Earth's crust pulls apart, and upwelling magma cools and forms new crust that spreads away from the ridge in the great recycling process known as plate tectonics.

Iceland is geology in action. A one-hour flight from Reykjavik skims over steaming geothermal areas, the great crustal rift and some of the country's most famous volcanoes.


Looking towards the summit of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that caused the disruptions to European air travel when it erupted in April.

<< Previous | Next >>

Read the accompanying feature article at Science News.

Images: Alexandra Witze/Science News

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Star Finds Fountain of Youth by Eating Companion

Posted: 14 Sep 2010 11:10 AM PDT

A sun-like star has kept up a youthful appearance by devouring its smaller neighbors. A new X-ray image of the star BP Piscium reveals the shredded corpse of a companion star or giant planet that the star recently consumed.

"It appears that BP Psc represents a star-eat-star universe, or maybe a star-eat-planet one," said astronomer Joel Kastner of the Rochester Institute of Technology in a press release.

BP Psc has been an enigma since Kastner and astronomer Ben Zuckerman of the University of California, Los Angeles, first looked at it 15 years ago. Optical images from the Lick Observatory showed that the star, which lies about 1,000 light-years from Earth, has a pair of jets several light-years long shooting away from its poles. BP Psc is also surrounded by a dusty, gaseous disk. Both these features are characteristic of young stars.

But BP Psc is also a loner, while most young stars live in clusters. Other details — like the star's radius, surface gravity and composition — point to a much older star.

New observations from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory clinch the debate. If BP Psc were as young as it seems, it would be spewing X-rays in the hundreds or thousands per day. Instead, the star emits a few X-rays at a time.

"We stared at BP Psc for one day with Chandra and only detected about 18 X-rays," Kastner said. "We could almost name them."

This X-ray production rate is similar to another class of old, rapidly rotating stars with temperatures close to BP Psc's.

"These giant stars' companions have fallen inside and spun them up," Kastner said. "But we've never actually caught one in the act. I think BP Psc is an example of such an interaction."

In a paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters, Kastner and colleagues propose that BP Psc is a billion years old and just entering its red-giant phase, in which aging stars run out of fuel and swell to engulf any planets or binary stars that are unfortunate enough to be nearby. Our sun may eventually swallow the Earth as it becomes a red giant in a few billion years.

"BP Psc shows us that stars like our sun may live quietly for billions of years," said co-author David Rodriguez from UCLA in a press release. "But when they go, they just might take a star or planet or two with them."

Despite all this destruction, a second round of planets may rise from the dust. Observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope show possible evidence for a giant planet in the disk surrounding BP Psc.

Cosmic cannibals crop up in every corner of the universe. Here at Wired Science, we've seen galaxies ripping apart and devouring their smaller galactic neighbors, as well as pulsars whose speedy spinning is fueled by dead companions.

"It just shows it's not always friendly out there," Kastner said.

Image: Left panel is a composite X-ray–and–optical image of BP Psc. Right panel is an artist's illustration of what the region around this stellar cannibal may look like. X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIT/J.Kastner et al. Optical: UCO/Lick/STScI/M.Perrin et al. Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.

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Meet the New Wired Science All-Star Bloggers

Posted: 14 Sep 2010 09:49 AM PDT

At Wired Science we are always looking for new ways to deliver you more science and more awesome. Starting today, we are bringing on a group of hand-picked, superstar science bloggers to help us do just that.

The new Wired Science Blogs network will complement our news stories with more insight, opinion and geeky science details brought to you by people who are extremely knowledgeable and deeply embedded in their fields of interest, which range from infectious diseases to physics.

In recent years, independent science communicators have been building their own online enterprises, writing about the science that gets them excited, and sharing it with the world. We've been following them, and our all-star team of favorites are sure to impress you.

We hope Wired will give these bloggers the platform and attention they deserve and help bring quality science blogging to the forefront of science discussion across the web. In recent weeks, several science blogging networks have sprung up, including PLoS blogs, LabSpaces and Science 3.0, and we plan to be an active and collaborative member of the broader science blogging community. And we've brought on expert community manager Arikia Millikan to help with that effort.

Meet Our Bloggers

Brian Switek has been blogging about natural science for four years. His blog Laelaps, named after one of the first dinosaurs discovered in North America, started as a a small spot on the web to geek out about weird fossils and quirks of nature. Since then, he has written about science for newspapers, magazines and recently finished his first book, Written in Stone, due out Nov. 1.

Switek describes his blog as "a place to share weird and wonderful stories which are hard to find a place for among more traditional science media outlets, but deserve to be told nonetheless." He won us over with posts on animals like bear-dogs and fossil sharks. He's also written a story for Wired Science about the weaponry of dinosaurs.

Rhett Allain is a physics professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and started blogging as a way to show his students examples of potential lab projects. And then he couldn't stop. As he puts it, "When I am not blogging or teaching, I like to blog." He sees ideas for his blog Dot Physics everywhere and caught our attention with posts that describe the physics behind everyday things like basketball shots, car commercials and DIY lightning detectors.

Allain has worked in experimental high-energy physics and has a Ph.D. in physics education research. With his blogging he aims to inspire people to see the cool stuff in physics and discuss educational issues, which he sums up as, "grades are pretty much dumb and don't help the learning process."

Maryn McKenna started blogging in 2007 to field-test ideas for her second book, about the international epidemic of antibiotic resistance. Today, her blog Superbug covers news and new research about diseases in humans and animals, treatments and the lack of them, and the unintended consequences of decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time. She is especially interested in the cultural conditions that prompt infectious diseases to emerge, return or get worse.

Currently McKenna writes for national magazines, but for most of her career she was a newspaper reporter, including 10 years as the only U.S. journalist assigned to full-time coverage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a job that involved talking her way into last-minute deployments heading toward exotic outbreaks, provided the material for her first book and earned her the nickname "Scary Disease Girl."

Brian Romans is a research geologist whose latest work is focused on deep-sea geology. He began blogging four years ago, while working toward his Ph.D. at Stanford University, as a way to release pent up dissertation-writing stress and share what he thought was interesting in geoscience.

Since then, his blog Clastic Detritus has grown into a fantastic collection of posts on exciting Earth science research, both new and classic, as well as photos and stories from his many geology field trips around the world. His series showing incredible images from new seafloor mapping technology is a favorite among his loyal readers, and we know you'll love it too. (Brian does all this in his free time and keeps his blogging separate from his day job.)

David Dobbs is an award-winning science writer who came to love blogging because of the freedom it gives him to work through ideas about neuroscience, genetics and life, and expand bits that in former times he would have left forever on the cutting room floor. His blog Neuron Culture has become invaluable to him as a way to stay connected to a larger community of writers, and to readers.

Dobbs has written three books and is at work on his fourth. He also writes for national magazines and websites. But, he says "the sort of conversation that blogging creates is an inestimable gift to a gregarious writer."

Jonah Lehrer brought his blog The Frontal Cortex to Wired Science in July. He's already won many of our readers over with his insights about the brain and human behavior including a look at the neuroscience of Inception and a post on why alcohol is good for you. Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and award-winning author of books on neuroscience, including his latest, How We Decide.

Daniel MacArthur will be joining the team in the coming weeks with his blog Genetic Future. Currently he's is in the early stages of rearing his own genetic future, and has taken a blogging hiatus to welcome his first born into the world. MacArthur is an Australian researcher whose work revolves around making use of large data-sets of human DNA sequences to learn about the genetic and evolutionary basis of human disease. When he returns, we know you'll be intrigued with his personal take on what recent studies in genomics mean for those of us interested in our own DNA.

We know you're going to enjoy our new bloggers, and we hope you'll join in what promises to be a very interesting discussion about all aspects of science.

Image: Map of the internet./OPTE project.

Space Makes Polymers Hard

Posted: 14 Sep 2010 04:00 AM PDT

Space radiation might finally be good for something. The high-energy particles that degrade spacecraft and threaten astronauts' health could actually help make a new material useful for inflatable space habitats.

"Under space conditions, radiation is usually considered a damaging factor," said materials physicist Alexey Kondyurin of the University of Sydney in Australia. "But in our case, space radiation plays a positive role."

Kondyurin and colleagues developed a glue-like material that's goopy on the ground but hardens in space, and sent it 25 miles into the stratosphere tethered to a NASA balloon. Their results are published in a report online.

Ultimately, materials like Kondyurin's may be used to build inflatable structures in space. Lifting bulky buildings into orbit or transporting them whole to the moon or Mars is difficult and expensive. But materials that can blow up and self-harden (or "cure" in the language of materials scientists) could let future astronauts pack their houses on their backs.

"You don't have to take it up there in the shape that you eventually want," said University of Sydney physicist Marcela Bilek, a co-author of the new study. "You can take something in a packaged form, all folded up, and then inflate it in space and have it cure into a mechanically solid structure."

Other groups have tested this idea with materials that harden in response to ultraviolet light. ILC Dover, a company that has built inflatable space habitat prototypes for NASA, has developed similar materials and promoted their use in solar sails, satellite antennae and sun shields for space telescopes. In a project called BIG BLUE (Baseline Inflatable-wing Glider, Balloon-Launched Unmanned Experiment), University of Kentucky undergraduates built inflatable wings for a potential Mars plane and showed that they could harden at elevations of 89,000 feet.

But the University of Sydney group was the first to investigate the effects of the electrons, ions, X-rays and gamma-rays that constantly bombard — and usually damage — structures in space.

Kondyurin and his colleagues developed several prototype materials similar to epoxy and irradiated them in ion chambers and space plasma chambers in the lab. The materials were mostly made of carbon chains that slide across each other easily, producing a soft, gel-like material. But when smacked with highly energetic particles, the chains linked up to form a more rigid structure.

To see if the same thing happened in space, the team sent 20 samples to hitch a ride on a NASA-operated balloon that carried a gamma-ray telescope called TIGRE into the stratosphere over Australia. The launch was delayed for a month due to floods, but when the skies finally cleared on April 16, 2010, the balloon took off from Alice Springs, Australia.

The team was lucky to get flight time at all, Kondyurin said. A second balloon crashed and took out a car before smacking into the ground. The third flight was canceled.

The strips of material spent three days in the stratosphere, experiencing temperature swings between -105 and 90.5 degrees Fahrenheit and pressures barely above a vacuum level.

The researchers let the material remain in its goopy phase until after it landed, and hardened it in the lab to compare it to a control material. They found that the goop that had flown in the stratosphere had more connections between its carbon chains than the Earth-bound goop.

"You get higher levels of cross-linking than what you'd get by curing on Earth," Bilek said. "Once it comes in contact with irradiation from ions, electrons, light in space, it cures much faster."

Different destinations, like Mars, the moon or the space station, would call for different materials, Kondyurin added. The next steps for this research "depends on space policy," he said.

"This technology is cool and it's interesting," said David Cadogan, the director of research and technology at ILC Dover. But because materials that harden only in space are impossible to test on the ground, he doesn't think the commercial spaceflight community will go for it.

"The community is very risk averse," he said. "If they can't put their hands on exactly what's going to be deployed in space here on the ground, they get really nervous about using it."

A more realistic solution for inflatable habitats, he says, are buildings that don't need to harden at all. "Habitats just want to be a balloon," he said. "Once you inflate it, there's no need to have any resin on those systems to hold it together. They're just locked in place by good design techniques."

Images: 1) Stratocat 2) The view from the stratosphere. Alexey Kondyurin and Irina Kondyurina

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