Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Twitter Can Predict the Stock Market

Posted: 19 Oct 2010 10:30 AM PDT

The emotional roller coaster captured on Twitter can predict the ups and downs of the stock market, a new study finds. Measuring how calm the Twitterverse is on a given day can predict the direction of changes to the Dow Jones Industrial Average three days later with an accuracy of 87.6 percent.

"We were pretty astonished that this actually worked," said computational social scientist Johan Bollen of Indiana University-Bloomington. The new results appear in a paper on the arXiv.org preprint server.

Bollen and grad student Huina Mao stumbled on this computational crystal ball almost by accident. Earlier studies had found that blogs can be used to gauge public mood, and that tweets about movies can predict box office sales. An open-source mood-tracking tool called OpenFinder sorts tweets into positive and negative bins based on emotionally charged words.

But Bollen wanted to build a more nuanced emotional barometer. He used a standard psychology tool called the Profile of Mood States, a quick questionnaire that is used frequently in pharmaceutical research or sports medicine.

The original questionnaire asks people to rate how closely their feelings match 72 different adjectives, including "friendly," "peeved," "active," "on edge" and "panicky," and uses the responses to measure mood along six dimensions: calmness, alertness, sureness, vitality, kindness and happiness.

Bollen and colleagues checked a huge Google database to see what other words are commonly used in conjunction with the original 72 adjectives, and added those words to their lexicon. Then the researchers took 9.8 million tweets from 2.7 million tweeters between February and December 2008, selected the tweets that indicated a confession of emotion (tweets that included the words "I feel" or "I'm feeling," for instance), and ran the test on the entire data set.

"We're using Twitter like a psychiatric patient," Bollen said. "This allows us to measure the mood of the public over these six different mood states."

As a sanity check, the researchers looked at the public mood on some easily-predictable days, like Election Day 2008 and Thanksgiving. The results were as expected: Twitter was anxious the day before the election, and much calmer, happier and kinder on Election Day itself, though all returned to normal by Nov. 5. On Thanksgiving, Twitter's "Happy" score spiked.

Then, just to see what would happen, Mao compared the national mood to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. She found that one emotion, calmness, lined up surprisingly well with the rises and falls of the stock market — but three or four days in advance.

"I sank into my chair. That's a pretty big result," Bollen said. "It was one of those 'Eureka!' moments."

But this surprising correlation said nothing about whether Twitter could be used to tell the future. To test that idea, the researchers trained a machine learning algorithm to predict whether the stock market would go up or down, first using only the Dow Jones Industrial Average from the past three days, then including emotional data.

The algorithm did pretty well using stock market data alone, predicting the shape of the stock market with 73.3 percent accuracy. But it did even better when the emotional information was added, reaching up to 86.7 percent accuracy.

"Including this mood information leads to higher accuracy," Bollen said. He stressed that their algorithm is highly simplified, and not the best stock market predictor anyone could come up with. But "we're presuming on the basis of what we found, if you have some kind of super-duper algorithm and you add our time series, its accuracy will go up as well."

The fact that Twitter mood could predict the stock market's movements even in the middle of 2008 is also significant, Bollen added.

"This was probably one of the most difficult periods to predict," he said. "We had a presidential election, we had what looked to be financial Armageddon, we had the start of what has been the deepest and greatest recession since the 1930s… If our algorithm was able to predict Dow Jones Industrial Average in that period, we figured that may establish some kind of lower baseline. It could do a lot better in other periods of time."

But why does it work? "The short answer is, we don't know," Bollen said. It's reasonable to assume that people's moods will have some effect on their investments, he says, but more research is needed to figure out exactly how.

"It's a pretty interesting result," commented computer scientist Sitaram Asur of HP Labs. But even though the correlation is there, Asur is reluctant to believe that the moods captured on Twitter can cause the stock market to change. Not everyone on Twitter plays the stock market, he notes, or even lives in the United States. And he would like to see the algorithm used on tweets from a wider span of time.

"If it is true, if we can actually find this correlation to be consistent, that will be a very important result," he said. "But right now, I would be cautious about saying how important this is."

Bollen agrees that the result has some shortcomings. "We need to expand this," he said. The next step, he said, is to "put some of our money where our mouths are, and try to do this in real time."

Image: flickr/Perpetualtourist2000

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Hagfish Analysis Opens Major Gap in Tree of Life

Posted: 19 Oct 2010 10:05 AM PDT

The origin of all living vertebrates just got more mysterious.

Since the 1970s, many evolutionary biologists have considered an eel-like, deep sea-dwelling creature called the hagfish to be the closest extant relative of a last common ancestor for all backboned creatures.

That made the hagfish a stand-in for a transitional species between invertebrates and higher animals, spanning a leap as dramatic as any in evolutionary history. But a new family tree based on high-powered molecular analysis lumps hagfish together with lampreys, a jawless fish that's primitive, but very much a vertebrate.

"It removes hagfish from representing the intermediate step, and makes the jump from invertebrates to vertebrates all the more formidable," said paleobiologist Philip Donoghue of the University of Bristol. "All of a sudden, you realize that you haven't got the faintest idea to sketch a last common ancestor."

Donoghue's study, co-authored with Dartmouth College biologist Kevin Peterson and published October 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the latest in a series of attempts to arrange hagfish and lampreys in the tree of life.

Prior to the 1970s, researchers extrapolated their trees from comparisons of physical characteristics. On this basis, hagfish resembled lampreys. But when scientists used DNA analysis to revisit those comparisons, they found major genetic differences between the two species. Since hagfish have a skull but no backbone and only a rudimentary nervous system, they were interpreted as resembling an earlier, pre-lamprey evolutionary stage.

The new study goes beyond DNA to the level of microRNA — tiny protein snippets that help turn genes on and off and seem to play a crucial role in allowing basic genetic components to be configured and reconfigured in ever-more-complex ways. As a guide for determining relationships between species, they're more reliable than DNA. And they suggest that hagfish really are close relatives of lampreys, and have only evolved to seem more primitive.

Without hagfish, evolutionary biologists are left with a gap between complex invertebrates like sea squirts and amphioxus, and simple vertebrates like lampreys. Whatever went between them, "we don't even know what sort of sensory organs they had, how they made their living feeding, and so on," said Donoghue. The invertebrates provide little guidance. "Sea squirts are glorified water pistols. They're bags of water that make their living sucking in water through one tube, then squirting it out the other."

On the positive side, the reclusive, elusive hagfish made for a poor model organism, said Donoghue. "In the whole of the 20th century, only three embryos were found," he said. Only three years ago did researchers develop techniques for hatching their eggs. Evolutionary biologists may be better served comparing lampreys to sea squirts and amphioxus, and seeing how their genetic architecture — especially their microRNA — changed.

Such comparisons have already shown the jump from invertebrate to vertebrate was attended by a duplication of every gene in the genome, and an explosion in new types of microRNA. "There are more microRNAs acquired at the origin of vertebrates than at any other time in animal evolutionary history," said Donoghue. "It was just bizarre."

Images: 1) Lamprey attached to the side of an aquarium./Enrique Dans, Flickr. 2) Hagfish./Joe Kunkel, University of Massachusetts. 3) Sea squirts./Wikimedia Commons. 4) Amphioxus./Wikimedia Commons.

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Citation: "microRNAs reveal the interrelationships of hagfish, lampreys, and gnathostomes and the nature of the ancestral vertebrate." By Alysha M. Heimberg, Richard Cowper-Sallari, Marie Sémon, Philip C. J. Donoghue, and Kevin J. Peterson. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 42, October 19, 2010.

Brandon's Twitter stream, reportorial outtakes and citizen-funded White Nose Syndrome story; Wired Science on Twitter.

Metal Chunk Ditched for Silicon Sphere to Measure Kilogram

Posted: 19 Oct 2010 09:44 AM PDT

silicon sphere Avogadro Project

The kilogram may finally get a break from its yo-yo diet. An international team of scientists is closer to redefining the unit of mass based on fundamental constants, instead of a piece of metal in France that loses weight only to put it back on again.

sciencenewsSince 1889, the international standard for the kilogram has been a cylinder of platinum, tucked under a glass jar inside another glass jar, stored in a vault outside Paris. But despite exceedingly stringent storage conditions, the cylinder (and six exact copies of it) gains weight from dust in the atmosphere, even with regular steam baths to remove the crud. Because the kilogram gains about 50 micrograms every century, scientists want to redefine the basic metric unit of mass based on something that's truly constant, just as the meter is defined as the distance light travels in one three-hundred-millionth of a second.

Several large teams have been attempting to define the kilogram in terms of the Avogadro constant, well-known to chemistry students as the number of atoms or molecules in one "mole" (about 6.022 times 1023).

A team of scientists based in Germany measured the constant by counting the atoms in a painstakingly crafted one-kilogram sphere of silicon-28. The researchers chose silicon because its atoms tend to line up in crystal formation, eight atoms to a cube. Engineers ground and polished the spheres for two years to near perfection — if the spheres were enlarged to the size of the Earth, the tallest hill would be 9 feet tall, according to says Arnold Nicolaus, a physicist at the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt in Germany.

In principle, counting the atoms is like estimating how many Coca-Cola cans are in a giant mound of 12-pack cartons, says Nicolaus. Simply measure the mound's volume and calculate how many cartons will fit inside, taking into account how the cartons are spaced. The researchers did that for the silicon sphere by measuring the distance between its atoms using X-ray interferometry.

The researchers found the Avogadro constant to be 6.02214084 times 1023, with an uncertainty of only 30 parts per billion, they write in a paper published online October 12 at arXiv.org. The hunk of metal in Paris, for all its faults, is still a little more reliable than that. Its mass is uncertain to 20 parts per billion.

"We're getting very close. It's a big step," said Edwin Williams, an emeritus physicist at the National Institute for Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.

But the problem now is that not everyone agrees on the true number for the Avogadro constant. American and English projects have tried measuring the constant a different way, by balancing gravity's force on a mass with the electrical forces needed to suspend it in midair, but repeated trials gave inconsistent measures of Avogadro constant. Currently, the Avogadro number is set by a committee that averages the results from different experiments.

The beauty of a constant, however, is that it doesn't matter which number you choose, Williams says. As long as the Avogadro constant stays constant, it will be useful for defining the kilogram.

Image: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation of Australia

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Incoming Cosmic Rays Hit Record High

Posted: 19 Oct 2010 09:11 AM PDT

The Earth was pummeled with record-setting levels of cosmic rays in 2009. Measurements from NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and other spacecraft found that more high-energy particles from galactic space penetrated the inner solar system in the last few years than at any other time since the beginning of the space age.

The spike is almost certainly due to several weird aspects of the most recent solar minimum, and could be the start of a new normal for cosmic ray levels.

"It's sort of like everything's working in the same direction right now, to allow cosmic rays greater access to the inner solar system," said space scientist Richard Mewaldt of Caltech. Mewaldt and colleagues published their findings Oct. 7 in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Cosmic rays, high-energy particles that originate in the galaxy and smack into Earth from all directions at near-light speeds, can pose a danger to spacecraft and astronauts spending long periods of time outside the Earth's protective magnetic field. Most of these particles, especially the less-energetic ones, are deflected by the solar wind, which blows a protective bubble around the solar system called the heliosphere.

This solar system shield fluctuates in effectiveness every 11 years, as the sun goes through its regular cycle from lots of sunspots and solar flares to relatively boring solar weather. When the sun is most active, the solar wind is strongest, and even fewer cosmic rays penetrate the barriers. At solar minimum, more cosmic rays make it through.

"Up until now they had been reaching a constant level each solar minimum," Mewaldt said. "But this one was different. This cycle, they're more intense than they were in the past."

The most recent solar minimum started in 2006 and was expected to end in 2008, but the sun stayed quiet through 2010. Using data from the ACE spacecraft, which has been in orbit around the sun since 1997, and historical data from a series of short-lived spacecraft going back to 1965, Mewaldt and colleagues showed that the cosmic ray levels in 2009 were 20 to 26 percent greater than at any previous solar minimum.

There are three main reasons for the upswing in cosmic rays, Mewaldt said. The solar magnetic field has been weaker than usual, which means the magnetic field that permeates the solar system is weaker too, and less efficient at knocking cosmic rays aside.

The long years of low solar activity also contribute to the high cosmic ray numbers. The sun occasionally lets off enormous bursts of plasma called coronal mass ejections, which can block cosmic rays as they explode out into interplanetary space. But there were fewer of these bursts during the most recent solar minimum, and those that happened were smaller than usual. "That's another thing that let down the barriers and let the cosmic rays come in easier," Mewaldt said.

Finally, the constant stream of charged particles that makes up the solar wind is weaker, making the protective bubble of the heliosphere smaller and more permeable. Incoming cosmic rays have a shorter distance to go to reach the Earth, so wimpier particles that would normally never get here can now make the journey.

Astronomers have already seen the impact of these extra cosmic rays on spacecraft, which have shown a 25 percent increase in certain types of errors that result from cosmic ray strikes, Mewaldt says.

The increased cosmic rays could pose a bigger problem for astronauts heading to Mars or building a base on the moon.

"They'd feel the brunt of this radiation for a longer period," Mewaldt said "It's already a problem, this would just make it worse."

Although cosmic ray levels started going back down in early 2010, Mewaldt thinks the new high could be part of the long-term pattern of the sun. Measurements of radioactive elements embedded in ice cores at the poles show that over the past 500 years, cosmic ray levels were 40 to 80 percent higher than in the early 1970s. That means the sun was quieter in the past than it has been in the last few decades.

"It could well be that we are going to one of these longer-term grand minima," Mewaldt said. "We don't know yet for sure if we're starting into one of those periods, but it certainly looks possible. We'll have to wait a little longer to say."

"I believe that this paper is the first paper that really shows us how the heliosphere works as a big global system," commented NASA astronomer William D. Pesnell. "I think it will become an important paper because of that."

Image: NASA

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How Beer, Oprah and Sergey Brin Can Help Cure Aging

Posted: 19 Oct 2010 04:00 AM PDT

Aubrey de Grey doesn't care if you live forever. He just wants you not to get sick. It's not exactly an easy-to-grok distinction, but that doesn't stop the British gerontologist from trying.

In recent years, de Grey has emerged as the most recognizable, outspoken and controversial cheerleader for regenerative medicine. In 2003, he co-founded the Mprize to encourage research into boosting longevity in mice. In 2006, Technology Review offered $20,000 to anyone who could disprove de Grey's anti-aging proposals (no one won). In 2009, the computer scientist-turned-biologist co-founded the SENS Organization to help fund labs targeting the seven age-related problems identified by de Grey.

And this past April, de Grey's Methuselah Foundation launched a new prize for — get ready — growing and transplanting a viable human organ. To catch up with de Grey, Wired.com crossed the pond to London and joined him for "lunch" (two pints each of London Ale). During a long chat at a pub a few blocks from his mother's house in Chelsea, de Grey explained the differences between scientists and technologists, why Sergey Brin won't give him any money, and how a steady diet of beer guides his thinking.

Wired.com: What's more frustrating: Answering questions about SENS ("Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence") or questions about your beard?

Aubrey de Grey: To be honest, neither are particularly frustrating. So long as I can actually get through to people, I don't care how I do it. Most scientists will get serious media exposure about twice in their entire career. And they'll get that because they've actually done an experiment that was interesting.

Well, I don't even do experiments, right? [laughs] And I'm in the media all the bloody time. I've been out there represented as an immortality merchant since forever. These days, I can afford to not just acquiesce and let journalists use phrases like "immortality," or at least not in the title of the bloody ass thing.

Embarrassing Scientists Into Doing the Right Thing

Wired.com: With LysoSENS, your big insight came from examining soil bacteria. Looking to the natural world to help solve aging in humans is, in a way, almost poetic. Are there any other examples you've found particularly exciting?

de Grey: Oh, totally. Let's take MitoSENS, preventing mitochondrial mutations in a cell nucleus. Where would you look? Obviously you'd look at what genes are encoded in the mitochondria and see if there are any actual species out there that have done better than what mammals have done in moving their mitochondria out of the nucleus.

And there is one! Green algae, Chlamydomonas. Chlamydomonas reinhardtii turns out to be a reasonably standard model organism in a whole bunch of areas of biology. Consequently, its mitochondrial DNA was duly sequenced and figures were published literally 20 years ago in 1990. Only seven of the 13 proteins that we encode in the mitochondrial DNA are encoded in their mitochondrial DNA. You know, that's quite interesting really.

Now, the idea of allotropic expression — putting mitochondrial DNA in the nucleus — had already been suggested, though it hadn't actually at that point been suggested for aging. Also, in 1990, a very high-profile mini-review was written by Harvey Lodish and Eric Lander, two not entirely insignificant cell biologists, saying therapy with allotropic expression was … Bang! Really good.

So you would think that 10 seconds later people would be going out and actually trying to find the nuclear genes encoding the proteins that had been transferred to the nucleus. Because they had to be there. We knew damn well the proteins are very conserved; you can't just throw one away. Well, actually there's one you can, but …

Wired.com: But the point is no one followed up?

de Grey: I started getting interested in this in like 1996. My first paper was published in 1997. I gave my first invited talk relevant to all of this in 1998 in San Diego. By that time, I had discovered that the mitochondrial DNA of Chlamydomonas had been sequenced eight years previously. And I immediately went to look for the sequences, thinking [the genes] would obviously have been identified by that time. And they weren't there, right?

Wired.com: And why is that?

de Grey: Because … how can I say this printably?

Wired.com: You can say it non-printably.

de Grey: Because again, scientists don't necessarily always think like technologists. The people who were actually interested in it and actually knew that Chlamydomonas didn't have very many protein-coding genes in their mitochondria DNA didn't care about doing anything with the information! They just were bloody hypothesis merchants. They just wanted to bloody find things out for the sake of finding things out. Wankers!

So I got up and generally railed at this. And it worked! One person in the audience was mitochondrialist Mike King, a professor at Thomas Jefferson who wanted to know more about my question. Six months later, he rang up a biologist in Mexico and started a collaboration. And after a couple of years, all these things duly were found in sequence, and they duly told us some awfully interesting things. That was my first success in actually embarrassing so-called real scientists into doing the obvious thing.

Wired.com: You seem to take a little bit of pleasure in that.

de Grey: Yes, I certainly take a great deal of pleasure in that. And I'm not exactly embarrassed by my, perhaps, slightly confrontational style. I think there's a place for that in science. But it was a real example of me making a contribution, even though, at that point, I had zero money.

Wired.com: It's been a decade since you established the principles behind SENS. What's been the most striking piece of data to support your hypotheses?

de Grey: That's an incredibly difficult question because the nature of the whole SENS approach is divide and conquer. There are so many different technologies being brought together, so picking one across the whole board would be almost farcical.

However, I want to pick up on one particular word you used, which was to call the whole thing a hypothesis. I don't really like to call my proposal a hypothesis, because you don't call technological proposals hypotheses; you call scientific proposals hypotheses.

I've always found that basic scientists who are interested in testing hypotheses think very differently from technologists who are interested in, you know, changing the world in some way. A large part of the difficulties I've had in getting my colleagues in gerontology to really understand what I'm saying is that they're all scientists and not really technologists. In this case what I'm saying is if we implement SENS properly, comprehensively, then it will actually postpone age-related ill health substantially. And we certainly don't have any data plus or minus on that because, of course, we haven't implemented it yet, right?

Wired.com: True.

de Grey: However, to come back to your question [laughs], there's been masses. In fact, the single best metric, the single best piece of evidence giving an impression of how fast things are moving and have been moving, is what happened with my book: The hardback came out in 2007. When they published a paperback edition a year later, we were given the chance to update the text. They didn't want us to do too much because, you know, it's work. But it was impossible not to do too much. So we ended up simply writing an entire new chapter, an afterword. That was how much there was. It took a whole regular-sized chapter just to cover one year of development across all of the various SENS components.

Wired.com: I'm glad you brought up the differences between scientists and technologists. At age 30, you switched fields from artificial intelligence to biology. It's been said people who switch fields at relatively late stages in their careers tend to do particularly inventive work. Why is that, and what from your previous scholarship did you bring to gerontology?

de Grey: First of all, research is a very transferable skill. If you've learned how to work on really hard problems, you can apply that to a different domain very easily. But the biggest handicap in research is an ability to think outside the box. The handicap is being encumbered by all the conventional wisdom in a given field.

I came in having made — albeit unpublished but nevertheless very significant — inroads in software verification. So I had a suitably high opinion of my own abilities to research. Second, I was aware of this general trend in science of new people coming in, so I felt confident I had a good chance of making a contribution. Third, from the beginning my goal was not to become an experimentalist with a lab, but a generalist surveying the literature and coming up with syntheses from disparate areas.

Through my wife, who taught me biology, I was very much aware that "theoreticians" or generalists are almost non-existent in biology. Unlike physics, where you've got whole departments of theoreticians trying to bring ideas together from disparate areas, and pacing up and down and talking to themselves and not doing experiments … in biology, that's virtually unknown.

And to the extent it is known, it's given very little respect, because it's awfully easy to do incredibly bad theoretical biology just by going out and identifying some interesting problem and reading maybe 10 percent of the relevant literature and coming out with some gloriously economical hypothesis and rushing into print without actually bothering to read the other 90 percent. This happens a hell of a lot.

But the thing is, a small coterie of theoreticians in biology who do take care have a rather high hit rate. If you look at winners of the Nobel Prize in biology, you'll find a fair smattering of people who don't know how to work a pipette.

Wired.com: The results from research into mouse longevity won't necessarily be directly applicable to human biology. Nevertheless, you've made it clear such work is vital for getting someone like Oprah to help champion the anti-aging cause. When do you foresee yourself getting that kind of exposure?

de Grey: Someone like Oprah is not really too keen to get too close in bed with people who don't have mainstream credentials and authority. But it's really changing fast. A month or two ago, one of my colleagues, Tony Atala, who runs an enormous group working in tissue engineering at Wake Forest, was on Oprah. He's on my research advisory board and is associated with my journal and so on. Even though his work is not mainly focused on aging, the show was basically about aging. He was very, very gung-ho about the potential for regenerative medicine to postpone aging in the relatively foreseeable future.

Wired.com: And mice are the key.

de Grey: I do think it's going to start with mice. What's going to happen is the curmudgeons — the card-carrying gerontologists who think it's very dangerous to be over-optimistic — will eventually recognize the data available to us from mice is so solid we can go out publicly and say, "It's only a matter of time." That's going to take a panel of interventions in mice that's so comprehensive we actually add two whole years to the lifespan of mice that are already in middle age before we start.

That may be overcautious. We may be able to get gerontologists on board with a more modest result than that. However, at that point, game over. My job will be done. I can retire. Because that will be the point when Oprah will be all over it and the following day it will become impossible to get elected unless you have a manifesto commitment to have a war on aging.

And there will be abundant people who are better than me at all the things I have to do at the moment, and I will no longer be necessary. And I shall fade away into glorious obscurity and you won't be able to find me, even if you offer me a beer.

Wired.com: Well, you'll be in a pub probably.

de Grey: Yes, but I won't be in a pub with a journalist. [laughs]

E. O. Wilson, Harrison Ford Ask You to Give a Damn About Biodiversity

Posted: 18 Oct 2010 12:00 PM PDT

E. O. Wilson and Harrison Ford

With 40 years of work in the biological sciences, two Pulitzer prizes and the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in ecology to his name, E. O. Wilson is perhaps the world's most honored naturalist. But he's not above asking for help from celebrities in his quest to bring balance to the planet and restore its biodiversity.

Harrison Ford, the prolific actor and film producer who has actively served on the board of directors at Conservation International for nearly 20 years, recently answered Wilson's call to fund $10,000 awards each year to writers who produce seminal works about science for the public. They are aiming to reward works comparable to Rachel Carlson's Silent Spring and James D. Watson's The Double Helix.

Following their announcement of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing on Oct. 15, 2010, the dynamic conservation duo spoke to Wired.com in Palo Alto, California, about their mission "to get people to give a damn" about biodiversity.

Wired.com: Why a science-writing award?

Harrison Ford: Because of the belief that an uneducated public is a dangerous public.

E. O. Wilson: That's a critical idea.

Ford: This proceeds from my longtime involvement with issues of the environment and conservation, and also the quality of the public dialog which we now enjoy, or don't enjoy. I have the belief that something should be done about that.

I don't think it's a surprise to anyone that the facts of science are often unpalatably presented to the general public and, because of my acquaintanceship with Dr. Wilson and having read a few of his books, I have seen what quality communication can do to make science important on a humanistic level.

Wilson: The continuity here is storytelling. Scientists are storytellers. They just don't know how to tell a story [laughter].

The way they make discoveries and the way they piece them together, particularly when they add the evolutionary part — how it came to be, the impact of the phenomenon on the body or on the ecosystems — is fundamentally historic. The challenge very few scientists choose to undertake is how the story touches not just on the public's desire to have a story told to them. It also touches on the archetypes.

Hollywood, for example, has mastered them. These are the mythic archetypes. I don't how Harrison feels about this, he might even disagree, but you know, the scenes that electrify us in a really good movie include ones like the clash between good and evil. The champion who appears and, against all odds, repels the invader. The discovery of new worlds. And the death and rebirth of worlds.

These are grand themes that, in small detail or in grand epics, are what draw our attention. And scientists can tell those kinds of stories if they know how and they try. And this is one of those challenges I think we as scientists need to beat.

Wired.com: So you see this as the best way to incentivize good science writing?

Wilson: Yep.

Ford: What we're about is storytelling and the alliance of storytelling and emotion. And that's the humanism that I'm referring to. The real language of film — and the evocative language of any discipline — has an emotional component. And I think that's part of what Ed is referring to as "grand themes."

But it takes a degree of perception that's not always available to be a scientist and write emotionally and evocatively about science. That's the idea of the prize. We're not talking about textbooks so much as we are popular writing that will reach the general public. The public that should be responsible for how the world is working or not working.

Wired.com: I know you've named an ant species after Ford, Dr. Wilson. What's the history there?

Wilson: I was once on the board of directors of Conservation International, a major global conservation organization, and Harrison is a really major player. He has been for many years. I was there just five or so years and, well, that's how we met.

And of course I've seen almost every film Harrison Ford ever made. But beyond that, and it was certainly the confluence of both being in the conservation business.

Ford: That's his long way of saying he met me in the street, and I was his for the price of a drink [laughter].

Wired.com: I take it that's a figurative statement?

Ford: More or less. Take it any way you wish.

No, really, one of the things I've always struggled with is the quality of language and our communications. I find very often that [conservationists] speak in a kind of jargon, and we don't communicate as well as we should.

The quality of Ed's work was an important relationship for me. I wondered why we couldn't aspire to a higher standard of communication, and one of the things I've always pushed very hard for at [Conservation International] is to develop clarity and the emotional language, which conveys what we're trying to do.

Wilson: Well, Harrison has to deal with a lot of science on the board which, to be effective, has to be science-driven. Oh, I don't know: "What species are important, how they could be saved, how an ecosystem functions …"

All of these things are the bread and butter of conservation.

Wired.com: Mr. Ford, as an actor and film producer I imagine you are very busy. But you also have the conservation work. How does that work?

Wilson: Maybe by avoiding too many interviews [laughter]?

Ford: Both areas are very demanding. I wish I were better at keeping up, but I tend to cram when I need to. If I'm working on a movie, it tends to absorb me 100 percent. I need help to just get my laundry done.

When I'm doing conservation work, when I'm meeting with the board, I try to bring that same effort. But I often find myself struggling to keep up with the information.

Wired.com: Do you ever find people are surprised by your involvement with conservation science?

Ford: I've never found myself aware of anyone's idea of what I should or shouldn't be doing. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me. If they are surprised, it's not uncommon for people from other disciplines to have more than one professional interest.

Wired.com: How do the words science and conservation fit together in your mind?

Wilson: Science is the foundation of the conservation movement, and we've seen that develop to major proportions since its origins in the 1980s. There's now a whole cadre of scientists who have training in various subjects: wildlife physiology and population biology, ecosystems studies and biodiversity studies, and so on.

They all move to address particular problems that are conservation-related. That is, the choosing of which ecosystems to focus energy and resources on, around the world.

This is the so-called hot-spot technique or methodology, which helps judge which species are in the greatest danger and which ones need remedial action right away to keep them off the brink of extinction. All of this makes up a very large landscape of problems, each one of which has relevant scientific methods and information that feed into it. So, science and conservation are very intimate.

Ford: I'd like to add that decision makers depend on the presentation of evidence that you bring to them, to persuade them to take action. And that evidence is all scientific in nature. The quality of your science determines your capacity to effect change. So without that scientific underpinning there is no valid conservation.

Wired.com: On that note: Which world problem worries you the most?

Wilson: Harrison and I know how we'd like to see the world change, but to make a change in the right direction, the problem — and it's a big problem — is this: Setting aside much larger reserves than we have now, and setting them up so they're sustainable with the people in and around them taken care of properly, in terms of economic aid and assistance, and helping them develop sustainable agriculture.

Ford: The struggle is the preservation of biodiversity. That is, intact biological organizations that continue to generate and sustain complicated interrelationships between species. That's the very fabric of life on Earth. That needs to be sustained, encouraged in every possible way.

It's threatened by climate change. It's threatened by unsustainable development. It's threatened by greed and destruction. It's threatened by ignorance. All of our efforts are to try, at base, to preserve this reservoir for the future. The ability of nature to sustain itself. The ability of nature to serve humanity through our capacity to further understand the interconnections and how things work in nature.

The mission is to get people to give a damn. At the highest level, to get our political leadership to make the effort that's required to safeguard nature. The United States government needs to sign a convention on biodiversity. We need to better compel our public leadership and tell them that we will not stand for them failing to address the issues and continually put it off, and put it off, and put it off.

It's a critical necessity that they create meaningful climate legislation, that they engage with the international community and mitigate at least some of the threats to the environment. The U.S. needs to step into a leadership position as we should, befitting our power and our capacity and our scientific understanding, and get these things done.

Wired.com: What can the average person do to help?

Ford: Well I come from Chicago, so vote early and vote often.

Wilson: Let's hear it from our political leaders. Where do they stand on these issues? We haven't had a serious environmental debate, and scarcely … a mention of conservation of biodiversity around the world, ever. But the presidents, hey just never get there. That's what Harrison means when he says they keep putting it off. And we can't afford to keep putting it off.

Image: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

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Ancient Grains Show Paleolithic Diet Was More Than Meat

Posted: 18 Oct 2010 12:00 PM PDT

Humanity's Stone Age ancestors, long thought to have practiced a prehistoric version of the Atkins diet, may have eaten a balanced diet after all. Wear patterns and starch grains found on 30,000-year-old stones from Russia, Italy and the Czech Republic suggest plant-based food processing was widespread far earlier than believed.

As food is invariably social, there are social implications for this finding as well. It's not just plants that appear to be under-appreciated in a modern understanding of prehistory.

"The importance of plant collection and processing is definitely related to the very significant role that women performed during Paleolithic," said Anna Revedin, and archaeologist at the Italian Institute of Prehistory.

Revedin and her colleagues' findings are published in the October 18 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and describe their microscopic analysis of stones used as primitive mortars and pestles.

Grains on the stones come from starch-laden cattails and ferns plants that had been ground into flour. According to the researchers, these would be rich sources of carbohydrates and energy for Stone Age people, whose diet is thought to have consisted of meat and more meat, with an occasional snack of berries or fruits.

(Critically, the flour would need to be cooked before its nutrient value could be realized — seemingly sticking a fork, as it were, into the notion that modern Paleolithic diets ought to be raw.)

The flour, likely suitable for making flatbread or cakes, didn't just give Stone Age people some dinnertime variety. Because it could be stored in dried form, flour would have given them greater independence from environmental and seasonal circumstance.

Freed from immediate pressures, people could do other things — such as, eventually, leaving the Stone Age behind. And underlying it all, if ethnographic research on remaining Stone Age tribes is a reliable guide, would be the work of women, gathering and processing plants while men went hunting.

"The paradigm of 'Man the hunter!'" dies hard, but "our research demonstrates how women's work was definitely crucial for nomadic Paleolithic groups," said Revedin.

Image: The 30,000 year-old mortar and pestle, and close-ups of microscopic wear patterns./PNAS.

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Citation: "Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing." By Anna Revedin, Biancamaria Aranguren, Roberto Becattini, Laura Longo, Emanuele Marconi, Marta Mariotti Lippi, Natalia Skakun, Andrey Sinitsyn, Elena Spiridonova, and Jirí Svobodai. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 42, October 19, 2010.

Brandon's Twitter stream, reportorial outtakes and citizen-funded White Nose Syndrome story; Wired Science on Twitter.

Reader Photos: Ghostly Green Comet Approaches Earth

Posted: 18 Oct 2010 11:00 AM PDT

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At the beginning of October, we asked if any of you had captured images of the spooky green comet Hartley 2. Here are some of your photos, but we want more!

The comet is still headed for Earth, and on Oct. 20 will come within 11 million miles -- one of the closest comet approaches in centuries. The comet's ghostly glow should be visible with good binoculars or even the naked eye under dark skies. If you catch any great photos, add them to this flickr stream.

Above: Amateur astronomer Ed Sunder got up at 4:15 a.m. local time Oct. 2 to capture the comet from Flintstone, Georgia.

Image: flickr/FlintsoneStargazer

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Bat Disease Threatens to Close America’s Caves

Posted: 18 Oct 2010 03:30 AM PDT

A nightmare bat-killing disease could have an unexpected victim: America's access to its caves.

To slow the spread of a fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome, government agencies are systematically closing caves to the public.

Confronted with a disease that's killed at least 1 million bats since 2006 and threatens some bat species with extinction, it's an understandable and possibly necessary tactic. But it does come with a price: disconnecting Americans from a vital part of their natural heritage.

"I love taking Boy Scouts into caves, showing them what's underground. Most say, 'I'm going to go play videogames.' But a few say, 'I want more of this. I want to be a scientist.' Where does that interest come from in the next generation, if we close the caves?" said Peter Youngbaer, White Nose Syndrome liaison for the National Speleological Society.

White Nose Syndrome, named for distinctive growths of Geomyces destructans fungus on the noses of afflicted bats, has spread to caves in 14 eastern states, along with Ontario and Quebec, since being identified in upstate New York just four years ago.

At least six cave-dwelling bat species are vulnerable to the fungus. It eats through their wings and wakes them from winter hibernation, depleting fat reserves needed to survive until spring. Some researchers say that 1 million bats is a small fraction of the actual toll, which occurs underground and out of sight.

Where the carnage has been measured, it's immense. At Vermont's Aeolus Cave, once home to 300,000 bats, barely one-tenth are left. It took two years for scavengers to carry away the carcasses. That scenario is repeating itself up and down the eastern United Sates, and could well happen across the country.

To prevent Geomyces spores from being carried between caves on visitors' shoes and clothing, the United States Forest Service has closed all its caves — with bats, and without — in the eastern and southern United States, along with the Rocky Mountains and much of the Great Plains. Its other regions may follow suit. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also declared caves in national wildlife refuges to be off-limits.

The Bureau of Land Management, which controls much of the nonforested public land in the western states, has taken a case-by-case approach, closing only those caves and abandoned mines that appear to be prime G. destructans habitat. However, a federal White Nose Syndrome management plan now being drafted could ultimately make blanket closings a nationwide reality.

"It will hopefully gain us more time to allow for research to come up with some kind of treatment, with something that we can do," said Jeremy Coleman, White-Nose Syndrome coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "We don't have a lot of time. To gain just one or two years may ultimately be nothing, or it could be the critical element that allows us to preserve species that are going extinct."

The organized caving community has bristled at the restrictions, insisting that they follow thorough decontamination protocols and present far less of a disease-spreading risk than the bats themselves.

The initial outbreak was likely caused caused by a tourist who carried G. destructans from Europe, where bats seem resistant to the disease. After that, however, few infections have been linked to human transmission. Had public caves been closed, the course of the epidemic may not have been different.

"It would be a shame for cavers and those responsible for managing and studying caves to lose touch with caves and their environments because of simplistic and ineffective management strategies," said National Speleological Society president Cheryl Jones.

Cavers say the benefits of excluding people are far outweighed by losses. They're usually avid conservationists, and often partner with state wildlife agencies, helping them gather data and monitor caves.

With the help of Spot.us and Wired, I'm writing a citizen-funded feature on White Nose Syndrome.

Spot.us is a micropayment-based service that enables people to directly support journalism they care about. And for a limited time, you can raise money for my story — and dozens of others — just by taking a poll. (Go to the pitch, and click on "Free Credits.") It's as simple as that.

To learn more, visit Spot.us and read my pitch. If you have any questions, just ask.

Thank you!

—Brandon Keim

In many cases, "cavers have found evidence of White Nose Syndrome, and been the sentinels" for wildlife managers, said Northern Kentucky University microbiologist Hazel Barton, an avid spelunker who studies the ecology of G. destructans. "A lot of the funding that paid for the original White Nose Syndrome research came from the caving community."

"The partnerships with cavers are critical. I agree 100 percent," said Coleman. But "our efforts are designed to try to prevent spread in a short-term window."

For now, this debate has involved access to caves on public lands, leaving privately owned caves exempt. But that may change. In Wisconsin, where White Nose Syndrome has not yet appeared, wildlife managers want to get a jump on the disease by declaring G. destructans an invasive species, and declaring four species of bats threatened.

Those designations would give wildlife agencies access to new sources of funds. They would also "give police power to the agencies to go onto private land to prevent damage to these newly named threatened species," said Youngbaer. "We fear that private landowners will be fearful of allowing even inadvertent access to caves, and thus move to seal caves shut. They'll be causing more damage to the bats that they're ostensibly trying to protect."

In New York, the Ground Zero of White Nose Syndrome, state biologist Carl Herzog said that threatened or endangered listings are deserved. "There is no reason to think that Wisconsin, Michigan or Minnesota will fare better than New York. It's probably just a matter of time," he said.

But as both public and private caves are shut, said Youngbaer, people lose access to a world of extraordinary geological formations and biological adaptations. "What knowledge do we lose, the beauty of these caves notwithstanding? We have the potential to lose touch with all this," he said.

"We just need time to figure this out," said Vermont state biologist Scott Darling. "There will be a time when the caves and mines are open again. But we can't take that risk at a time when we're seeing the largest decline of mammalian species in a very long time on Earth."

Images: 1 & 4) Mammoth Cave, Kentucky./Peter Rivera, Flickr. 2) Little brown bats with White Nose Syndrome./Al Hicks, New York Department of Environmental Conservation. 3) Cathedral Caverns, Alabama./Fang Guo, Flickr. Sidebar: Little brown bat./M.A. Tuttle, Bat Conservation International.

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Brandon's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter.