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DayVectors

jun 2010 / last mod jan 2016 / greg goebel

* Entries include: JFK assassination, fight over global warming, spring Northwest road trip, other diseases possibly caused by prions, wireless power in theory and practice, Earthscope / USArray geoscience network, obtaining uranium from coal ash and seawater, Moscow Mars mission simulation, the difficulties with corruption, and NASA SOFIA flying observatory.

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[WED 30 JUN 10] NEWS SUMMARY FOR JUNE 2010
[TUE 29 JUN 10] SYMBIOTIC CROPS
[MON 28 JUN 10] SPRING NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (2)
[FRI 25 JUN 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (19)
[THU 24 JUN 10] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 23 JUN 10] A GREATER PRION MENACE?
[TUE 22 JUN 10] WIRELESS POWER?
[MON 21 JUN 10] SPRING NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (1)
[FRI 18 JUN 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (18)
[THU 17 JUN 10] SPACE NEWS
[WED 16 JUN 10] PROBING THE DEEP EARTH
[TUE 15 JUN 10] A MISPLACED RESOURCE
[MON 14 JUN 10] THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (7)
[FRI 11 JUN 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (17)
[THU 10 JUN 10] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 09 JUN 10] TO MARS IN MOSCOW
[TUE 08 JUN 10] IS CORRUPTION INEVITABLE?
[MON 07 JUN 10] THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (6)
[FRI 04 JUN 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (16)
[THU 03 JUN 10] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 02 JUN 10] SOFIA FIRST LIGHT
[TUE 01 JUN 10] ANOTHER MONTH

[WED 30 JUN 10] NEWS SUMMARY FOR JUNE 2010

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2010: The G20 summit took place in Toronto, Canada, this last month, with the leadership committing to cut their government deficits in half by 2013. Barack Obama made an emphatic public address saying the United States was committed to and would achieve that goal.

For deficit hawks, that's welcome news, particularly since the Obama Administration hasn't seemed particularly focused on the monster US budget deficit. To be sure, much of the problem was passed to the current administration by the fiscal irresponsibility of the previous one; however, whatever the roots of the deficit, there is cause to take Obama's promise with a grain of salt. The simple fact is that cutting deficits means raising taxes, and of necessity politicians don't like to do that.

Of course, the usual cry is to cut government spending instead, but the problem there is that cutting government programs is only popular with people when the programs being cut affect somebody else. Witness, for example, the Obama Administration's attempts to rethink America's space program down to size so that its efforts are, finally, in line with the money available to implement them. Even though budget increases have been factored into the replanning exercise, the resistance to fundamental change has been intense. Deficits can be cut of course, Bill Clinton proved it could be done -- but he did so by closing loopholes in the tax law in a fairly severe fashion. The bottom line? To honestly cut deficits means pain, and there's no way around it.

Ironically, however, while the G20 summit concluded with a pledge to attain fiscal responsibility, the Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper ended up being raked over the coals for the lavish and expensive preparations made to support the G20 and associated G8 summit. There was particular hooting over the creation of an artificial lake, when Canada is noted for its large numbers of lakes. It was yet another example of how easy it is to talk about balancing the checkbook, and how hard it is to actually do it. Of course, the summit was also marked by clashes between cops and protesters in the streets of Toronto, with windows smashed and the occasional car torched -- but we've come to expect that sort of excited behavior at summits.

* The unfortunate fact that authoritarian rule is on the rise was discussed here a few months back, with one of the examples involved being the "China model" or "Beijing consensus" -- authoritarianism coupled with economic liberalization, with the result in China being by all appearances rapid growth. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Beijing Consensus Is To Keep Quiet", 8 May 2010), one place the "China model" isn't getting a lot of airplay is the Chinese government.

To be sure, Chinese authors have been quick to praise the "China model", but that enthusiasm hasn't carried over to the political leadership. The issue is that outsiders have less fear of the instability of the Chinese state than does Chinese leadership. China's growth has indeed been breathtaking, but it's also been accompanied by massive environmental pollution, widespread corruption, and a rising economic gap between the city and the countryside. The Chinese are proud of what they have accomplished, but they also lack the sense that their nation is a smoothly-running engine. The nervousness of the leadership is easily seen in their severe reaction to polite dissent.

Of course, insecurity has never been an obstacle to a little grandstanding, but the value in doing so would be slight, because it would provoke the Americans. China sees much more value in getting along with the USA than in goading the Americans into a rivalry that would serve the interests of neither country. Besides, how many really care about any "China model"? China is popular in places like Nigeria and Pakistan -- but that popularity has little to do with the attractiveness of the Chinese sociopolitical order. The attractiveness is in the fact that the Chinese are willing to invest large sums in these countries, and not spend much if any time hassling them about human rights or other internal issues. What's not to like?

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[TUE 29 JUN 10] SYMBIOTIC CROPS

* SYMBIOTIC CROPS: As discussed by an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("More Food From Fungi?" by Michael Tennesen, May 2010), symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi or bacteria are very common in nature. For example, the great majority of land plants have symbiotic relationships with "myccorrhizal" mushrooms and truffles -- discussed here in May -- that provide an extension to plant root systems.

Given the expected expansion of the world's population over the next few decades, crop yields will have to double to prevent widespread starvation, and agronomists are working to see if they can meet the need. Genetic modification (GM) of crop plants has been seen as the answer, but it is becoming clear that crop yields may also be increased just by exploiting microbial symbionts of plants. For example Mary E. Lucero, a researcher for the US Department of Agriculture in Las Cruces, New Mexico, has "transplanted" symbiotic fungi from four-wing saltbrush to gamma grass, the latter being a significant cattle fodder source. The fungi-infused grass grew larger and generated more seed, which Lucero speculates was due to improved nutrient uptake and water usage.

Lucero is also interested in using symbionts to help plants capture nitrogen from the atmosphere, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. She believes her approach has major advantages relative to GM: "It is far easier, more efficient, and less expensive to inoculate a plant with a beneficial fungi than to come up with a genetically modified species."

Rusty Rodriguez, a microbiologist with the US Geological Survey's (USGS) Biological Resources Division in Seattle, Washington, is working on another approach to improving crop plants by improving their resistance to hot weather. He obtained fungi from plants that grew close to hot springs in Yellowstone National Park and inoculated tomato plants with the fungi -- to find that the plants could grow at a temperature of 65 degrees Celsius (148 degrees Fahrenheit). Closer examination showed that the high temperature tolerance also surprisingly required a virus; temperature tolerance from the fungus alone only went to about 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).

Since viruses are inherent parasites, it is a bit unclear exactly how they can have beneficial effects; possibly they suppress microorganisms that reduce temperature tolerance. In any case, Rodriguez has used the combination of fungus and virus to confer heat resistance to rice and wheat, with Rodriguez saying that global warming may demand more heat-tolerant crops. He has also found symbionts that help plants resist salt, drought, and heavy metals, though he notes that the symbionts have to be obtained from environments where the stress is present -- strains of the same organisms obtained from less hostile environments won't do the job. He also notes that once infected, plants will pass the symbionts down to progeny through their seed.

Christopher L. Schardl, a plant pathologist at the University of Kentucky who works on tall fescue grass, warns that exploiting mutualism between symbionts and plants may not be as straightforward as its advocates would like to believe it is, with some microbes producing toxic alkaloids that render plants inedible. Identifying and characterizing microbial plant symbionts is not trivial, since the symbionts are embedded in plant tissue -- Lucero uses a scanning electron microscope and DNA assays to locate candidates. Still, for the time being the advocates believe the approach has plenty to commend it.

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[MON 28 JUN 10] SPRING NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (2)

* SPRING NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (2): I got up early on Friday, 7 May, and left Missoula, Montana, for a few hours' drive to Spokane, Washington. I got into town early and conducted some business during the day -- nothing much to write about -- and then drove to Moses Lake in central Washington to spend the night. I was planning to make a day trip to Seattle on Saturday and Moses Lake was at a convenient distance to allow me to get to Seattle and back in reasonable time.

I left Moses Lake early on Saturday, 8 May, and drove west to Seattle. I found the breezy Columbia river gorge that runs south through central Washington was now accumulating large numbers of wind turbines on its bluffs, a sign of the times. Otherwise the drive was uneventful, though I did get a nice picture of the snow-covered mountains as I went over Snoqualmie Pass, pulling off to the side of the road for a moment to take shots -- the skies were blue and pretty, a good omen since the weather in Seattle tends to be gray and drizzly in the spring.

The skies stayed blue as I went into Seattle. First stop was Boeing Field and the Seattle Museum of Flight at the southern end of town -- I was thinking they had a new exhibit that I was interested in, but I was mistaken. However, in considerable compensation, the new 787 and 747-8 jetliner prototypes were highly visible and I got some good shots -- with one of the 787 prototypes performing a takeoff that I got excellent pictures of. There's a work facility at the south end of the field and I also got shots of a 737-based "Wedgetail" airborne early warning aircraft for Australia by holding my camera above the fence -- security chased me off, but I got my pictures, so what.

787 takeoff

That done, I went north through downtown to visit Woodland Park Zoo, but there was some event in progress and all the parking lots were full. I squirrel-caged around in the narrow and steep side streets through the heavy traffic until I'd had enough and decided to go downtown. I could only think that if any place in the USA demonstrated a need to rethink urban transport technology, Seattle is it. It's got one of the worst traffic problems in the USA -- things just don't work there.

My targets downtown were the waterfront aquarium and the harbor boat tour. The traffic was heavy along the waterfront as well, but though I was worried about finding a place to park, the parking garages had plenty of space and their rates were perfectly reasonable. The Seattle waterfront is a touristy place and it was crowded, but there was something of a festival atmosphere to it.

I wasn't really expecting much from the Seattle Aquarium; I mainly wanted to try out the "aquarium mode" on my Canon Powershot camera and see how it worked -- as it turned out, surprisingly well. It's an OK aquarium, but nothing particularly new to me. What I was really after was the harbor tour, which involved a tour boat doing a one-hour loop around the port.

As far as that went, it was an outstanding success, more than worth the other hassles I had that day. I was unbelievably lucky with the nice weather; nobody expects it to be sunny in Seattle in May, partly cloudy was the best I was hoping for, and I was prepared to give up if was raining. I was also lucky in that it was the weekend of the "maritime festival", which was mostly manifested in a tugboat race. In the old days, tugboats used to race each other out to ships entering harbor to offer their services; tugboat operations are more scheduled these days, with the tugboat race now being performed as a memorial to the old days. Most of the tugboats were civilian types, but there was an Army tugboat -- the US Army does operate tugboats, as a Corps of Engineers function I believe -- and two Canadian military tugboats / rescue vessels.

Seattle tugboat race

It was very colorful watching all the tugboats milling around; a fireboat was among them, showing off by pumping water off around it in great fans. I didn't actually see the race -- the tugboats were lining up as the tour boat moved off. The tour boat arced around on its loop, while I got shot after shot of the downtown Seattle skyline, the Olympic range across the bay, boats moving past, and anything else that caught my eye. There were a lot of Asian tourists on board, Chinese for the most part I thought -- some handed me a camera and asked me to take a picture. I cheerfully obliged.

What I was most interested in for the tour was the port infrastructure, and I wasn't disappointed, piling up shots of container ships, dockside cranes, and drydocks. The US Coast Guard has three icebreakers stationed in Seattle -- POLAR SEA, POLAR STAR, and HEALY -- and I got shots of all three.

However, on arriving back on shore, all I wanted to do was get out of town, the crowds were getting to me. It was a bit of a nightmare getting through downtown to the freeway, not just because of the congestion but because the east-west streets could be really steep. I have a manual transmission and trying to juggle brake and clutch and not roll back into the vehicle behind was really tricky -- the hand brake helped. I suppose it was a skill I could have learned had I lived in Seattle, but I probably would have ruined a clutch in the process. It was a lesson that showed how archaic manual transmissions are; as far as I'm concerned, they're better than the old clunky hydraulic automatic transmissions, but I really think the new digital automatics will beat them hands down, at least once they get to working reliably.

In any case, once I got on the freeway I got out of town with a sense of relief. I had known Seattle was crowded, but I'd forgotten just how troublesome the road network was in itself, at least in the "old town" areas, with narrow streets and stops on steep hills. The harbor tour made the trip very worthwhile, but on leaving I had no reason to go to Seattle again and may well never do so. I drove back to Moses Lake to spend the night. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 25 JUN 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (19)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (19): Oswald seemed to have mellowed on his return to Dallas from Mexico, but it was only temporary. On Wednesday evening, 23 October 1963, he attended a Rightist rally in Dallas where Walker spoke -- Oswald had not forgotten about the general. That weekend he was clearly reverting to form, pushing Marina around and acting surly.

The FBI had not forgotten about Oswald, either. On 25 October, Dallas FBI Agent James Hosty got a tipoff from the CIA -- nothing unusual, the CIA of course helped the FBI with domestic counterintelligence -- about Oswald's visit to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City the month before. Suddenly Oswald became much more interesting. Hosty also got a tipoff from the New Orleans FBI office that Oswald had filled out a change-of-address form to the Paine's house in Irving, which meant that Oswald was likely back in Hosty's jurisdiction. Hosty went to Irving on 29 October and questioned neighbors about the Paines, to learn that a Russian-speaking woman was living with them.

Hosty spent the next few days checking up on the Paines to see if they appeared to be loyal citizens. He judged they were and went out to the Paine's house on Friday, 1 November, to talk to Ruth Paine. She was expecting him since the neighbors had mentioned somebody was asking about her, and she correctly determined that the snoop was an FBI man.

They talked for about a half hour, with Ruth telling Hosty that she didn't know where Lee was living in Dallas, but that he worked at the Texas School Book Depository. Marina, having awakened from a nap, walked in on the conversation and was alarmed to find out the visitor was from the FBI. She told Hosty that she was worried the FBI would get her husband fired again; Hosty told her that the FBI had not got him fired from his jobs. When Oswald came out to Irving that evening, he was unsurprisingly very upset to find the FBI was checking up on him.

* On Monday, 4 November, the White House asked the Dallas office of the Secret Service to select a site where a luncheon could be conducted for President Kennedy's visit to the city, scheduled for 22 November. The Trade Mart seemed like the best choice.

The same day, Agent Hosty got a report on Oswald from Agent Milton Kaack of the New Orleans office, which included a summary of Oswald's FBI interview with Agent Quigley. Hosty saw it was full of lies, which made him even more curious about Oswald. On Tuesday, he went back to the Paine's house and asked Ruth more questions. She described Oswald as a "very illogical person" and reported he had described himself as a Trotskyite Communist. Marina snuck out the back door and wrote down Hosty's license plate number; that information ended up in Oswald's address book, along with his office address and phone number, apparently obtained through Ruth Paine. Conspiracy theorists later claimed the entries showed Oswald had an informant relationship with Hosty.

Oswald wasn't actually told about Hosty's revisit until he came back out to Irving on Friday, 8 November. Oswald was furious. That weekend he wrote a letter on the Paine's typewriter to the Soviet embassy in Washington DC, hopelessly trying once more to get a visa to go to the USSR. Ruth Paine found a discarded rough draft of the letter and was appalled at the number of lies it contained. Oswald mailed it off on Tuesday, 12 November. Only a few weeks later people would come forward, claiming they had seen him at a shooting range that weekend, though the details offered by the different witnesses did not match up. In fact, a lot of people would come forward saying they had seen Oswald around town at various times in November, though their stories never added up, and in fact sometimes the person described hardly suggested Oswald.

That same Tuesday, Oswald left an unsealed and unsigned note at the FBI marked for "Hasty" with a receptionist. The receptionist told Hosty: "Some nut left this for you." It read: "If you have anything you want to learn from me, come talk to me directly. If you don't cease bothering my wife, I will take appropriate action and report this to the proper authorities." Hosty wasn't sure if the note was from Oswald or another person he had been investigating. The note would become more important later. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 24 JUN 10] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: WIRED Online had a note on a concept being pushed by the US Department of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate (DHS-STD) for a new cellphone feature: sensors to detect a chemical attack. Under the "Cell-All" effort, cellphones would be sold with the sensors built in, with users voluntarily enabling them as an exercise in "crowdsourcing". A DHS system would monitor the enabled cellphones, signaling an alarm if a number of cellphones in a given area detected toxins. The turnaround time of the alarm would be about a minute. The DHS-STD is in discussions with a number of cellphone vendors and service providers, and anticipates widespread adoption of the scheme.

* WIRED Online had a report on a tidy high-tech backpack camping stove named the "BioLite", from a company of the same name. It looks like a metal can with three folding legs, a pattern of holes, and a module slapped on the back. In operation, the stove is loaded up with sticks or other kindling to get a fire going, with the heat driving a thermoelectric generator to spin a fan that provides a forced draft through the stove. Wood or other burnables are stuff in to burn efficiently in the hot fire that results, with the draft system driving the combustible fumes from the breakdown of the fuel material into the fire.

BioLite campstove

The BioLite will burn almost anything that will burn, and it will also provide enough excess electricity to charge up, say, a LED lamp or cellphone. In production, it may even have a USB port to charge up other gadgets. The company is asking $80 USD for it at the outset. Just how practical this item is remains unclear, but it certainly gets points for technological sexiness.

* The extensive use of digital gimmicky and software in a modern automobile was discussed here a few months back, which immediately brought up the notion that somebody is likely to try to hack into cars. As discussed by an article from the NEW YORK TIMES ("Computer Systems Called At Risk To Hackers" by John Markoff, 13 May 2010), a recent research paper suggests that risk is significant, with the authors claiming they were able to demonstrate how a car could be hacked to override driver input -- playing tricks such as disabling the brakes, selectively activating brakes, shutting off the engine, and so on.

The paper was written by computer security experts at the University of California in San Diego and Washington State University, under funding from the National Science Foundation. In the paper, they introduced malware through the service hookups into the car's digital systems, and reported being able to perform cyber attacks on a car in motion, targeting multiple car systems simultaneously and then erasing evidence of tampering. They could disable the brakes or automatically activate them, turn off the engine, lock the doors, and honk the horn. In fact, they couldn't find any digitally controlled car system that wasn't vulnerable.

To be sure, personal computers mostly use the MS Windows operating system, with such standardization making them vulnerable to attack; it would be much more difficult to perform a wide-ranging attack on cars since they use distinct software systems, and using service ports to crack into a car would be a generally impractical method of propagating malware. However, standardization in car software is likely to increase along with wireless connectivity, and there is also the possibility of a selective attack on a few makes of cars or even a single car. The authors of the paper do not believe there is any active threat at this time, but suggest that car manufacturers need to be aware of the potential for trouble down the road and design their systems accordingly.

* WIRED Online had a note on a tidy scheme for wireless audio speakers dreamt up by a collaboration between speaker maker Artison and lighting manufacturer OSRAM -- well known in Europe as a Siemens subsidiary, known in the USA by its OSRAM Sylvania arm -- called the "MusicLite". It looks something like an oversized showerhead, with an array of nine LEDs on the bottom providing light comparable to a 65-watt incandescent bulb, and a standard-size lightbulb base on the top. There's a 25-watt speaker inside the module, along with a wireless receiver operating at 2.4 gigahertz. The assembly weighing about 68 grams (1.5 pounds).

MusicLite

In other words, to get sound in every room, just screw in MusicLites. They require a proprietary wireless network, driven by an adapter that's sold along with the system. The adapter comes in three forms: a USB module, a module with an iPod interface, or a stand-alone module hooked up to the audio source over a USB connector. The MusicLite is to go on sale in the fall; price hasn't been announced yet. Sounds like a slick idea, though there is the question of whether the LEDs can be turned off while leaving the speaker on.

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[WED 23 JUN 10] A GREATER PRION MENACE?

* A GREATER PRION MENACE? As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Could They All Be Prion Diseases?" by Greg Miller, 4 December 2009), it is now well-known that the ghastly degenerative brain diseases known as "spongiform encephalopathies" -- which got their name from their ability to turn a brain into something like a blood-soaked sponge, the best-known of the lot being "mad cow disease" -- were caused by misfolded proteins named "prions", the matter having been discussed here in 2008.

This was a staggering surprise because the disease is contagious, caused by eating contaminated brain tissue, which had originally led researchers to assume that it was carried by a virus or bacteria. As it turned out, eating the misshapen proteins could somehow cause the proteins of a victim to become misshapen as well. Now that the scientific community has got used to the concept of prions, some researchers are wondering if prions aren't also the culprits in a number of other neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. There is no evidence that these two diseases are contagious the way spongiform encephalopathies are, but there are similarities.

The idea isn't new, having been suggested decades ago by the late Daniel Carleton Gadjusek, one of of the winners of the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for groundbreaking work on spongiform encephalopathies, showing that a New Guinea tribe named the Fore, who ate the brains of deceased relatives as a funeral ritual, tended to acquire a spongiform encephalopathy named "kuru" from the dead. Back in the 1960s, Gadjusek injected extracts from the brains of Alzheimer's patients into chimps and monkeys, but the experiment went nowhere, as did later efforts along such lines. Now modern research is beginning to hint that Gadjusek may have been onto something. One scientist says: "The reason it's catching on is because it makes a lot of sense."

* While Gadjusek correctly determined that the Fore contracted spongiform encephalopathy from their unusual funeral customs, he didn't know the mechanism of how it happened. It was Stanley Prusiner of the University of California at San Francisco who came up with the concept of prions. He was loudly denounced as a crackpot, but he was vindicated and won the Nobel Prize in 1997.

One of the peculiarities of prion diseases is that they have extremely long latencies, usually measured in decades. That was why Gadjusek's injections of brain extracts from Alzheimer's victims into chimps were futile: even if the extracts had been contagious, it would have taken far too long to find out. However, in 2000 Larry Walker and his colleagues at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, published a study that revived Gadjusek's idea. While mice normally never come down with Alzheimer's disease, mice were genetically altered to become susceptible to it. Walker's team injected extracts from the brains of Alzheimer's patients into one hemisphere of the brains of such transgenic mice, to discover that within a few months that hemisphere had developed widespread plaques of beta-amyloid peptide -- a marker of Alzheimer's disease.

Somehow the brain extracts were proving contagious, the prime suspect being the beta-amyloid peptide. In 2006, Walker, working with a group of German researchers, published a paper that showed extracts from Alzheimer's victims in which the beta-amyloid peptide had been destroyed were not contagious; a later paper from the same team showed that extracts that had been sterilized to remove pathogens but retained beta-amyloid peptide remained contagious. The next step is to build synthetic beta-amyloid peptide and inject it as a pure solution, with all other contaminants screened out. If it proves contagious, that would strongly confirm beta-amyloid peptide is acting like a prion. Other researchers have been finding similar hints of prionlike behavior in various proteins associated with neurodegenerative disorders:

That's not the end of the list either, with one researcher stating: "We're getting a lot of hints from a lot of diseases. Together, it adds up to an emerging picture that deserves some pretty close attention."

* Still, for the time being there's no strong evidence that proteins other than prions actually spread a disease, and few honestly believe that Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are truly contagious diseases. Prions are unusual among proteins in that they are, as one researcher puts it, "indestructible", impervious to normal procedures of sterilization. Proteins are typically fragile and won't survive transmission from one host to another intact -- though it is possible that diseases like Alzheimer's might be promoted by incautious use of surgical instruments.

However, the fact that misfolded proteins might be a primary mechanism for diseases like Alzheimer's opens the door to possible treatments. For example, if misfolded tau spreading from cell to cell promote Alzheimer's, it might be possible to produce antibodies that would target tau proteins outside of cells, neutralizing them and preventing them from spreading. Another approach is to develop small molecules that interact with the suspect proteins and prevent them from misfolding.

Research is being conducted into both schemes. Trials of an experimental drug designed to prevent misfoldings have shown considerable promise in helping patients with a rare but fatal disease known as "transthyretin amyloid polyneuropathy", which starts out deadening peripheral nerves and eventually spreads to the autonomic nervous system, undermining the digestive processes of patients and eventually leading to death by starvation. Use of the experimental drug led to weight gain by patients. There's still much more to be learned about prions and their lookalikes, but considerable progress has been made from the days, not so long ago, when nobody had the least idea that anything like prions existed.

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[TUE 22 JUN 10] WIRELESS POWER?

* WIRELESS POWER? While there's considerable interest in wireless power transmission these days, as reported by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM ("A Critical Look At Wireless Power"), the idea has been around for a long time, and it's traditionally had its difficulties.

In the year 1900, the famous Serbian-born inventor Nicola Tesla began work on the construction of a tower at Wardenclyffe on Long Island that he stated was for wireless communications experiments. However, Tesla had a hidden agenda in building the tower: wireless transmission of electric power, possibly for powering autos or airships. Tesla was part genius, part crank, and the idea was just a bit too far "out there"; he never completed the tower and it was torn down in 1917. The octagonal footing remains, covered by trees.

In 2006 another Serbian immigrant to the US, physicist Marin Soljacic of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and his colleagues described a scheme for transmitting electricity for a distance through the air, following it up with a paper in 2007 that showed how they had lit up a 60-watt lightbulb over a free-space range of two meters, using coils at each end of the "connection".

Conceptually, the MIT scheme was not so different from that of a transformer, in which power is transferred between two electrically-isolated coils via a coupled alternating electromagnetic field. The coils in a transformer are wound next to each other; in principle, they could be separated and still work -- but the power losses mount as the separation increases. Soljacic's group used resonance principles to maintain the power flow, with the frequency of operation matching the resonant frequencies of the coils -- incidentally, Tesla's concept worked along the same lines, Tesla being very big on resonant phenomena. Even at that, the efficiency of transmission for the MIT experiment was only about 15%. Transformers, in contrast, have minimal losses.

Still, Soljacic and his colleagues were so enthused about the concept that they set up a company named "Witricity" to develop a wireless charging scheme for cellphones, laptops, and other portable gear. This and other experiments caught the attention of giant semiconductor maker Intel, leading to a company project named the "Wireless Resonant Energy Link". While the MIT group used coils with a corkscrew configuration in their experiments -- reasoning that the capacitance of the configuration would help set its resonant frequency without the use of separate capacitors, which were judged lossy -- Intel went with a flat coil configuration, which was much easier to fit into a laptop.

Another issue affecting the configuration are the potential health effects of radio frequency (RF) energy. The MIT experiment operated at 10 megahertz (MHz) and generated an appreciable amount of power; there's no doubt it would cause heating in a person exposed to the RF field, and that field intensity is over recommended safety limits. Some believe that it will never be practical to transmit power over distances larger than the transmitter coil diameter. Witricity and Intel are talking about transmitting power over several meters, but by most figurings that leads to low efficiencies, and high field strengths regulators will not like.

* Wireless power over very short range does seem to have potential. It has been used for two decades in industrial applications where the need to eliminate power connections outweighs the expense and inefficiency of a wireless power connection. Technology developed at the University of Auckland in New Zealand is employed in Japanese semiconductor plants in Japan, powering moving platforms in "clean rooms" to transport parts. Brushed electrical contacts between the platforms and the tracks were ruled out because they generated dust that could ruin chips. Along roughly similar lines, electric buses in Genoa, Italy, are recharged by parking them over flat coils built into a road surface. The technology, also based on University of Auckland tech, was built by Conductix-Wampfler of Germany; it can drive 60 kilowatts of power, recharging the bus in ten minutes.

The "Wireless Power Consortium (WPC)", an industry group set up by consumer electronics companies, is working on wireless recharging for handheld devices, with the goal being development of a wireless charging spec that could work with any compliant device from any manufacturer -- a concept discussed here last year. It is already possible to obtain a wireless charger for some Dell laptops and Palm smartphones. The idea isn't really to provide power at a distance, instead being focused on a "connector-free" recharger scheme, with the cellphone is placed on a pad to recharge.

wireless recharger

More ambitious advocates of wireless power see electric cars at least partly powered by inductive transmission systems built into a roadway -- the distance is only a few tens of centimeters and the efficiencies are good. Bombardier Transportation in Berlin is working on the "Primove" system, in which a streetcar is powered by an inductive system built into a roadway -- it's less cluttered and easier to maintain than overhead power lines. Could this be one of the big futures of transport? That's hard to say, but it certainly is an interesting option.

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[MON 21 JUN 10] SPRING NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (1)

* SPRING NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP (1): I took the first of my twice-yearly road trips from Loveland CO to Spokane WA for 2010 in early May. It wasn't really a long-range tour, just a family business trip, but it had its moments -- if not all of them pleasant.

I left Loveland early on the morning of Thursday, 6 May. It was a cool morning but the skies were clear until I passed north into Wyoming, when I started getting hit with flurries of snow. It's unusual but not unheard of to get snow in the region that late in the year; the snow wasn't any big nuisance for a while, amounting to occasional patches of light precipitation. However, matters took a change for the worse when I hit Buffalo in northern Wyoming. At that location, Interstate 25 and Interstate 90 form a junction; when I reached it, the wind had come up and was blowing snow across the roadway. I hit a slick and drifted forward, in the meantime being blinded by the snow blasting across my path. It was nerve-wracking but not too hazardous, since the roadway was straight and my Toyota Yaris has front wheel drive -- if it hits a slick patch it just keeps going forward, with no tendency to spin around. I had to think of cars like the old Volkswagen Beetle with its rear-engine / rear-wheel drive and how suicidal that thing was under bad road conditions.

Still, it wasn't safe to be on the road, and only a few minutes farther north, they'd dropped the barriers and shut down the freeway -- the first time I'd ever seen that done while making the Spokane trip since 1990. I ended up sitting around with a gang of other stranded folk in the Buffalo McDonald's. I got my laptop PC and tried to use the wi-fi in the McDonald's to get online and get some status on the road closure, but after comparing notes with other folks there trying the same trick, we determined the wi-fi link was broken.

I finally had a brainstorm: why not take the back highways up into Montana instead of waiting for the freeway to open again? It wasn't like the snow was falling very hard, it was just the wind whipping it around in the open areas that made it troublesome, and up in the hills that wouldn't be such a problem. To be sure, it was roundabout, there was no saying the freeway wouldn't open up shortly after I left, and no saying the back highways wouldn't end up being closed either. I decided to do it, though I knew perfectly well that my experience with gambles demonstrated that I usually lose. Still, if I stayed at the McDonald's I had no idea if I'd make my night stop in Missoula, while if I took the back highways I was sure to get there before too late. Besides, I'd never taken that route; it might be interesting to see what was there.

I had some minor difficulties going through Buffalo -- distracted, driving a bit too fast, a cop pulled me over. We had an almost excruciatingly polite conversation and he let me off with a warning. That done, I ended up weaving through the hills of the Bighorn National Forest going west; it was a bit dodgy in places but nothing fearsome, and I finally got over the hills to start working my way north through various small towns. I had actually been over the road between the towns of Worland and Greybull once before, on the way to Yellowstone National Park -- I was thinking some of the places looked familiar and gradually realized they were.

At Greybull I definitely ran into something interesting -- I glimpsed an old military "warbird" at a local airport and checked it out. It turned out to be a 1940s-era Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer, a navalized version of the famous B-24 Liberator, and I got some good shots of it. The airport was a funny place, littered with aircraft, but in batches -- there was only one Privateer, but numbers of old Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar cargolifters in Royal Canadian Air Force colors, and rows of old Lockheed P2V Neptune ocean-patrol aircraft.

Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer

Later, after I got back home, some poking around on the web showed the aircraft had been obtained by Hawkins & Powers, an outfit that focused on refurbishing old aircraft for use as "fire bombers", carrying water / retardant for deal with wildfires. The Neptune is widely used in this role. It appears the aircraft at Greybull had been snapped up as either spares hulks or candidates for refurbishing to fire bomber configuration.

Incidentally, I had seen a Privateer fire bomber in the air before, during the summer of 2002 when Colorado was plagued by wildfires. The particular aircraft I saw lost a wing during a drop during the fire season, with all hands lost, and the Privateers were grounded; there's only so long old aircraft can keep flying. That ill-fated Privateer was operated by Hawkins & Powers, with the company also losing a Lockheed C-130 Hercules tanker that summer, which forced the company into bankruptcy. There was a big auction of Hawkins & Powers aircraft in 2006, with the best of the lot snapped up by collectors; I do not know the status of the remaining aircraft I saw at Greybull, and they may all end up being scrapped.

On traveling up through northern Wyoming into southern Montana I passed through a set of very small towns. The only interesting thing I saw was a lime plant, don't recall exactly where; I finally got onto I-90 and headed west as normal, the weather being cool but pleasant. It was a routine drive from then on, I got into Missoula about two hours late. That gave me six hours of rack time -- normally I need eight hours on a regular basis to stay functional, but I can take six every now and then and not notice any difference. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 18 JUN 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (18)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (18): On Monday, 7 October 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald left the Paine's home in Irving, Texas, to take the bus to Dallas and look for work. Ruth Paine was happy to let Marina stay in the house until Lee could get a job and an apartment. He moved into a boarding house in Dallas and hunted for a job all week, with no luck. On Saturday, as Oswald was leaving the boardinghouse to go visit Marina, the owner, Mary Bledsoe, told him to clear out -- she didn't want him around any more. Oswald figured the FBI was harassing him again, but Bledsoe simply couldn't stand him.

At the Paine's house, he seemed unusually pleasant and stable. Oswald felt that one of his problems in getting a job was that he didn't know how to drive and couldn't reach places of employment out of reach of the bus lines. Ruth Paine gave him some driving lessons that weekend. On Monday, 14 October, Ruth drove him to Dallas so he could look for work. Later that day, Ruth was talking to some neighbors about Oswald's search for work. One, Linnie Mae Randall, said that her brother, Wesley Buell Frazier, had got a job downtown at the Texas School Book Depository (TSBD), a privately-operated distribution center for textbooks, and that the TSBD might be after more help. Ruth called the depository and they said they might be able to use Oswald on a temporary basis, that part of the year being a busy season for the the TSBD.

In the meantime, Oswald had found another boardinghouse where could stay, and this time the proprietor didn't have any problems with him. Not surprisingly, Oswald gave an assumed name, "O.H. Lee", possibly because he didn't want the FBI to know where he was -- or maybe just because he was just so used to lying. After he settled in, that evening he called Marina; at the end of the conversation, Ruth got on the phone and told him about the job at the depository.

On Tuesday, 15 October, Oswald went to the depository, where he talked to a manager named Roy Truly. Truly found Oswald quiet and polite and gave him the job, which involved working as a clerk to fill book orders. Oswald started work the next morning. He liked the work, kept to himself, and for once didn't antagonize people; Truly found him a good worker, and he was pretty much left alone. Wesley Buell Frazier was living at his sister's house in Irving at the time, and on learning that Oswald visited his wife there on weekends, offered to give him a lift if he needed it.

That Friday, 18 October, Frazier drove Oswald to the Paine's house, where a surprise birthday party was waiting for him. He was 24 years old. He was very touched by the gesture. The rest of the weekend was quiet until Sunday evening, when Marina went into labor. Ruth Paine drove Marina to Parkland Hospital while Oswald baby-sat the household's kids. Before midnight Marina gave birth to another girl; the couple had been hoping for a boy.

Oswald went into work with Frazier on Monday, 21 October. Ruth Paine was upset about the fact that he didn't want to see his wife, but he was worried that if the hospital knew he had a job, he would forced to pay the bills and he didn't have the money to do it. Ruth replied that she'd told the hospital he had a job, but that it was minimum wage, and so the maternity care was still free. That evening he visited Marina, and they named the little girl Audrey Marina Rachel Oswald -- Marina was a fan of actress Audrey Hepburn, and Rachel was the name of a niece. The girl would eventually be known as Rachel. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 17 JUN 10] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for May included:

-- 14 MAY 10 / SHUTTLE ATLANTIS -- The NASA space shuttle Atlantis was launched from Kennedy Space Center on "STS-132", the 34th shuttle docking with the International Space Station (ISS). It was the 132nd shuttle mission, as well as the 32nd and final flight of Atlantis. There were six crew, including:

The shuttle crew joined the ISS "Expedition 23" crew of Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi, and Tim Creamer -- brought up to the ISS by a Soyuz capsule in December 2009 -- plus Aleksandr Skvortsov, Mikhail Korniyenko, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson -- brought up to the ISS by a Soyuz capsule in April 2010. Atlantis carried the Russian Rassvet (Dawn) "Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM-1)" for the ISS Zarya module, and an Integrated Cargo Carrier with supplies and parts for the ISS.

The MRM-1 had a mass of 8,055 kilograms (17,760 pounds) and was intended to provide additional pressurized volume for research and storage. It also provided clearance between the forward Russian docking port and a US storage module that was to be flown up later. The MRM-1 was packed with various gear for the trip up, including an experiment airlock and European robot arm kit. Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center on 26 May 2010, after 11 days 18 hours 28 minutes in orbit.

IKAROS solar sail

-- 20 MAY 10 / AKATSUKI, IKAROS -- An H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima to send the Japanese JAXA "Akatsuki" orbiter probe to Venus, accompanied by the JAXA "IKAROS" solar-sail test spacecraft.

Akatsuki was also known as "Planet-C" or "Venus Climate Orbiter". The probe had a launch mass of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) and was expected to arrive in Venus orbit in early December 2010 for a two-year observing mission using its five imaging instruments, including two shortwave-infrared cameras, a longwave-infrared camera, an ultraviolet camera, and a wide-angle camera for spotting airglow lightning events. Radio science experiments were also to be performed by observing variations in the probe's radio signals back to Earth as it flew behind the planet.

IKAROS stood for "Interplanetary Kitecraft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun". IKAROS had a launch mass of 300 kilograms (660 pounds) and deployed a square solar sail measuring 20 meters (66 feet) on the diagonal. After deployment, the spacecraft ejected a small camera pod to inspect the sail. IKAROS was placed on the same trajectory as Akatsuki, though it would not go into Venus orbit. It was the first successful deployment of a solar sail spacecraft.

The launch also included four student-built small spacecraft:

-- 21 MAY 10 / ASTRA 3B, COMSAT BW2 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou to put the "Astra 3B" and "COMSATBw 2" geostationary comsats into orbit. Astra 3B was owned by SES Astra of Luxembourg. It was built by EADS Astrium, had a launch mass of about 5,470 kilograms (12,060 pounds), a payload of 60 Ku-band / 4 Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. The comsat was placed in the geostationary slot at 23.5 degrees East longitude to provide home and broadband internet communications for European customers.

COMSATBw 2 was a German military communications satellite, a sister to the COMSATBw 1, launched in October 2009. COMSATBw 2 was built by Thales Alenia Space under the direction of EADS Astrium, had a launch mass of about 2,495 kilograms (5,500 pounds), carried UHF / SHF communications transponders, and featured a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 13.2 degrees East longitude to provide communications support for German forces in Europe and Africa.

-- 27 MAY 10 / GPS 2F-1 -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the "GPS 2F-1" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the first "Block 2F" GPS spacecraft, providing an additional "integrity of service" signal to support GPS-based civil air traffic control. The Delta 4 was in the "Medium+ (4,2)" configuration, with two solid rocket boosters.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: On 26 May 2010, a US Air Force B-52H bomber released the first "X-51A Waverider" hypersonic research vehicle from 15,250 meters (50,000 feet) over the Pacific Ocean, with the X-51A's solid rocket booster accelerating it to Mach 4.8. The booster then fell off, with the test vehicle igniting its supersonic-combustion ramjet -- "scramjet" -- engine. The engine ran for 200 seconds, with the X-51A reaching Mach 5 (about 6,400 KPH / 4,000 MPH) and an altitude of 21,350 meters (70,000 feet); at engine cutoff, the vehicle was commanded to self-destruct.

X-51A Waverider

The X-51A program is being managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with Boeing as the prime contractor and Pratt & Whitney-Rocketdyne providing the scramjet engine. The goal of the first flight was actually to burn for 300 seconds and reach over Mach 6, but what was attained was still well more than any scramjet had achieved in flight tests going back to the 1960s. Scramjets are an extreme technical challenge, starting and maintaining combustion in a supersonic airflow being compared to "lighting a match in a hurricane and keeping it lit". The X-51A's engine was ignited with ethylene, to then run JP-7 jet fuel for the remainder of its burn; the JP-7 was circulated around the engine to provide cooling and also to "crack" the fuel into a more combustible form.

Three more X-51As are in the pipeline, though the program is being temporarily held up by funding shortfalls. The primary motivation for the program is quick-reaction strike; there's also talk of space launch vehicle applications and even, not all that believably, commercial transport applications.

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[WED 16 JUN 10] PROBING THE DEEP EARTH

* PROBING THE DEEP EARTH: Geophysicists spend a good part of their time probing deep into the Earth, but given the indirect means that they have for doing so, it's not surprising that the interior of the Earth is almost as unknown as a distant planet. As reported by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Scoping Out Unseen Forces Shaping North America" by Richard A. Kerr, 25 September 2009), they now have a powerful new tool for learning much more, in the form of a network of seismometers carpeting the "Lower 48" US states. The information revealed so far has been breathtaking, with one geophysicist saying it was like "we just wandered into a dark room and someone turned on the lights."

The network is the product of the US National Science Foundation's (NSF) $25 million USD a year EarthScope program, now early in its second five-year run. EarthScope has three components: the first is a drilling mission through the San Andreas fault, the second is an effort to measure the strains on the continental plate, while the third is the national seismometer effort -- known as the "USArray".

EarthScope station

The USArray, funded to the tune of $13.6 million USD a year, tracks earthquake waves propagating deep under the North American continent. It has three components:

The Transportable Array is a particular innovation, combining broad coverage with portability and good instrument density. It started out in 2004, sited on the West Coast, and has been creeping eastward since then. Right now it stretches from the Mexican to the Canadian border along the Rockies. Each month, about 18 of the seismometers on the west side of the array, having collected a few years' data, are yanked out of their two-meter (6.6 foot) deep concrete vaults and placed on the east side of the array. Ultimately, it will have covered the entire lower 48 from coast to coast.

Since 2004, all of USArray has produced about 14.3 terabytes of raw data, about as much as the worldwide "Global Seismometer Network" has since 1998. The more data collected and the tighter the spacing of the seismometers, the better the image obtained of the Earth underneath. The most heavily used seismic imaging technique, known as "seismic tomography", works like a computerized tomography (CT) scan of the human body. In a CT scan, different body parts absorb X-rays to a different degree, with a set of X-ray probes reconstructed by software to give a three-dimensional image of the subject's interior. Similarly, the propagation of earthquake waves varies according to conditions -- slower in colder rock, faster in hotter rock for example -- and the variations in speed observed by the seismometer network can be crunched by a computer to yield a map of the interior.

* The USArray is already starting to yield tantalizing clues. Geophysicists have had a long-standing debate over "mantle plumes", or columns of hot rock rising up from the deep mantle like smoke from a stack, resulting in volcanically-active "hot spots" on the surface, like Hawaii, Iceland, or Yellowstone Park. Other geophysicists were not so convinced, saying the plumes got nowhere near the surface and that the hot spots were the result of tectonic plate interactions.

The debate over mantle plumes went quiet for a time due to lack of data to resolve the issue, but USArray has revived it. Plume advocates have suggested a list of 30 plumes; the plume supposedly underlying Yellowstone Park was one of the most heavily debated, but now advocates say the data suggests there is a plume there -- but though plumes were envisioned as vertical columns when they were initially conceived in the 1970s, the plume appears to be slanted, mushrooming out near the top. Contrarians are not so convinced, claiming the data is too ambiguous to make out such a clear pattern.

That argument might give the impression that USArray is just raising old arguments to new levels, but all concede that the project is clarifying many mysteries about the formation of mountains and other geological structures in the US West, while creating entirely new mysteries to consider. Still, the data tends to be a "Rorschach test" for the time being, with different factions reading what they like into it. One geophysicist says the problem is simple: "It's such an unwieldy mass of data. Playing with it is a different game than we're used to." Better data analysis should help resolve the ambiguities. In the meantime, USArray, having mapped out the Earth underneath the US West, continues its slow march east.

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[TUE 15 JUN 10] A MISPLACED RESOURCE

* A MISPLACED RESOURCE: One of the interesting factoids often cited by advocates of nuclear power is that coal-burning powerplants produce more radioactive waste than nuclear power plants do. While the relative amounts produced by each source may be argued, it is still true that ash produced by a coal-burning powerplant concentrates radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium. It has been said that pollution is sometimes no more than a misplaced resource, and as discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Rising From The Ashes", 10 April 2010), there is increasing interest in mining the coal ash for nuclear fuel. Spartan Resources of Toronto, Canada, has signed a deal with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), which runs China's nuclear power plants, to recover uranium from coal ash at a site near Lincang, in Yunnan province.

Uranium is usually extracted from ore containing at least 1,000 parts per million (PPM) of the element. The Lincang coal ash contains much less, only about 300 PPM -- but in the case of the ash, there's no need to actually mine raw mineral for production, which helps cut costs. Spartan says it can extract uranium from the ash more cheaply than it can be obtained from the ground. The Sparton extraction process involves:

The Chinese motivation in obtaining uranium from coal ash is less from of economics than from the desire for energy security. They want to obtain uranium from every possible source; the Chinese are also trying to extract uranium from gold and copper mine tailings, as well as phosphoric acid produced by the manufacture of fertilizer.

* There is interest elsewhere in extracting uranium from sea water. The concentration of uranium in seawater is only about three parts per billion, mostly in the form of uranyl tricarbonate, but the element can be extracted by ion exchange. Japan's Atomic Energy Agency and India's Bhabha Atomic Research Center have developed processes to do the job, for example taking strips of ion-exchange plastic, braiding them with polystyrene to physically reinforce them, placing them in wire frames, and sinking the frames into an ocean current. After a month or two, the frames are retrieved, with the plastic soaked in acid to remove the uranyl carbonate and the resulting solution treated to precipitate yellow cake.

At present, seawater extraction is ten times more costly than conventional mining, but countries may feel that is a price worth paying for energy security. Nations interested in covertly obtaining uranium for weapons production might feel it cheap at the price.

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[MON 14 JUN 10] THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (7)

* THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (7): As something of a postscript to this series, THE ECONOMIST ran an article ("A Place In The Sun", 17 April 2010) reporting on the results of an investigation into the supposed wrongdoings of the East Anglia CRU. The investigation, which began in March 2010, was headed by Ron Oxburgh, who has been head of the Earth sciences department at Cambridge, chief science adviser to the UK Ministry of Defense, and briefly chairman of Shell. Lord Oxburgh's panel was not tasked with determining if the CRU's data was actually correct -- in effect, passing judgement on the validity of global warming research, which would have been a monstrous job -- but to determine if there was evidence of scientific misconduct.

The panel looked over eleven CRU publications from the past two decades, inspected a pile of other relevant documents, and had lengthy conversations with the researchers. The unanimous conclusion was that the CRU people were "dedicated if slightly disorganized researchers ill-prepared for public attention."

That might seem like a fairly light rap on the knuckles, but the panel did take issue with the fact that the CRU made little use of professional statisticians, even though the job was "basically all statistics", according to one member of the panel, statistician David Hand of Imperial College, London and president of the Royal Statistical Society. The panel's report suggested that the CRU's output would have been more robust if more professional statistical methods had been applied, though the report also concluded that the results wouldn't have been materially different.

Bloggers and other climate critics have, as mentioned, made much of the weaknesses of methods used by climate researchers to crunch their data; Hand, a specialist in scientific and financial fraud, has read much of this sort of criticism. Hand does praise Stephen McIntyre's analysis of the problems with the "hockey stick" plot, and the report reflects McIntyre's concerns over the "hockey stick", with comments such as "inappropriate statistical tools" and "misleading results".

Hand actually isn't that concerned with the hockey stick plot as such, however, being more interested in studies that show how sensitive the data being compiled is to analysis on the basis of different assumptions. That's what the critics are trying to do, though the report didn't praise their way of going about it, describing it as "a rather selective and uncharitable approach." Hand, who seems to be sincerely interested in getting answers instead of grinding an axe one way or another, says he wants to "bang heads" among the two sides and tell them: "Sit down together and work out what's going on."

The report concluded that the CRU was generally careful in providing appropriate qualifications for their data, but some of those who used the data, such as the IPCC, occasionally oversimplified it, playing down possible errors. The report also noted that the CRU should have archived data and documented procedures better, but admitted such a conclusion was easier to draw in hindsight. Lord Oxburgh, with feet in both academia and industry, says that in industry, where companies own the data, the record-keeping would have been more disciplined, but that industrial research wouldn't have been of the same level of talent and relevance. Lord Oxburgh hinted that his own academic work might not have stood up to the kind of obsessive wire-brushing applied to the CRU: "I'm very grateful that the isotopic composition of helium has not become a key matter of public interest."

The IPCC has also been the target of recent reviews, though there was never any specific basis for accusations of much more than sloppiness -- a criticism that the chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, has acknowledged, with Pachauri admitting the committee needs to tighten up standards and procedures. Critics have accused IPCC members of conflicts of interest, but the reality is that any climate or environmental scientist of sufficient stature to serve on the committee is guaranteed to have a network of links among academia, business, and politics that could be construed as suspicious by those with an agenda for doing so.

Greater fury has fallen on Lord Oxburgh, with the report of his committee being denounced in the skeptic blogosphere as "superficial", "biased", a "rush job", "scam", "whitewash" -- with Lord Oxburgh being personally attacked for his links to wind energy and other "green" companies. Since he was no doubt familiar with the tone of the global-warming debate from the outset, it's unlikely any of that was a surprise. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 11 JUN 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (17)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (17): The conspiracy theories that have grown up around Oswald's visit to Mexico City have grown in the retelling to become what could could only be described as "bewildering". Along with the issues raised over the CIA's observations there, a number of witnesses later came forward, telling tales about their own supposed interactions with Oswald and contributing to the chaos:

This is another characteristic of the JFK assassination story: multiple and sometimes wildly conflicting tales told by witnesses whose testimony was unreliable, unverifiable, or both. Some of the witnesses had obvious incentives to lie: of course if the Cuban embassy had any involvement in the assassination of JFK, nobody would have admitted anything. However, the end result of the mishmosh of stories is that if one story was actually true, the trail was so muddied by all the others as to be undetectable. Who was lying? Who was telling the truth? Without corroborating evidence, who could truthfully claim they knew? [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 10 JUN 10] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: A note from DISCOVERY CHANNEL online described how researchers at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, have been able to extract DNA from the shells of several extinct birds -- most significantly the extinct giant moa birds of New Zealand and the even bigger elephant birds of Madagascar. The discovery raises the possibility of actually reviving these extinct species.

Moa bird

Previous attempts to extract DNA from elephant bird bones have failed, but eggshells have some features that make them better targets for such probes. Eggshells decompose very slowly and are not a good substrate bacterial hitchhikers, meaning DNA has a better chance to survive. However, the researchers warn that the scheme doesn't have a good chance of working on dinosaur egg: the oldest DNA sample they've recovered from eggshells so far is a relatively young 19,000 years old. They believe that eggshells obtained from frozen Antarctica may be able to push that limit back considerably, but do not believe it will be particularly practical to push it back 65 million years or more into the age of the dinosaurs.

* Parasites have a certain fascination that can be a bit of embarrassment, there being some intrigue in sometimes surprising ways they get things done even though they remain repellent. As a case in point, an old 2008 entry back-linked on WIRED Online discussed the nematode roundworm parasite Mymeconema neotropicum, which infects the giant ant Cephalotes atratus.

The ant lives in the tree canopies. When infected by the nematode, the ant's abdomen swells up with nematode eggs and turns bright red -- making it look like a berry. Birds then eat the ant by mistake, to spread nematode eggs in their droppings. Apparently the insect parts don't digest very well, and they end up being scavenged out of the droppings by ants.

Incidentally, the C. atratus ant actually has some gliding capability. It doesn't have flight surfaces as such, but it can aerodynamically control its body so that when it falls off tree, it can direct its fall towards the trunk. If it falls to the ground, it will likely never find its way back to its colony and will die -- and it will die very quickly if the forest floor is covered with water.

* There has been a long list of ingenious if not always very credible concepts for using "geoengineering" to halt global warming if matters become dire enough. AAAS SCIENCENOW Online reports on the latest such scheme, being promoted by physicist Russell Seitz of Harvard University: tiny bubbles, lots of them.

Bubbles in seawater are known to increase the reflectivity of the surface, if not by very much, a fraction of a percent. Simulations show that very tiny bubbles, about 2 micrometers in diameter, could double the reflectivity of water, having a clear impact on climate if the bubbles were widely deployed. Of course, the infrastructure for generating and maintaining the bubbles is a challenge, but Seitz says that it might be doable with about a thousand bubble generator stations, each powered by a wind turbine -- which as geoengineering schemes go is not so challenging. The big factor in the practicality of the idea is how long the bubbles persist and how rapidly they have to be replenished, and Seitz admits the idea needs a lot more study to see if it's really in the realm of possibility.

* In other environmental news, although the government of China is not consistently noted for its commitment to a greener world, the Chinese have established significant environmental successes. As reported by DISCOVERY CHANNEL Online, with deserts widening their grip on the country, in 2000 the government established a massive reforestation program. In the past ten years, the program has added 30,000 square kilometers (11,600 square miles) of forest. This contrasts with the trendline over the rest of the world, where the amount of forest decreased -- if at a lower rate than for the 1990s.

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[WED 09 JUN 10] TO MARS IN MOSCOW

* TO MARS IN MOSCOW: At the beginning of June 2010, six "spacefarers" entered a facility at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, Russia, to start a simulation of a voyage to Mars -- the plan for which was mentioned briefly here in 2007. The "Mars500" exercise, organized by the institute and the European Space Agency, will last 520 days, with the crew sealed inside a simulator structure with a volume of 550 cubic meters (720 cubic yards). Their communications with the outside world will be limited, with a time lag of up to 20 minutes, making email the most appropriate tool. They will be monitored continuously by cameras, breathe recycled air, and take showers once every ten days while maintaining a strict eight-hour-a-day work schedule. They will live off and have to carefully ration a fixed supply of consumables.

Mars500 simulator

The six simulator cosmonauts include commander Alexey Sitev, Sukhrob Kamolov, and Aleksandr Smoleevskiy of Russia; Romain Charles of France; Diego Urbina, an Italian of Colombian extraction; and Wang Yue of China. The simulator consists of a set of "cans" laid on their side:

The modules were built with wood paneling to give them a more homelike feel. There have been two earlier studies, one lasting 14 days and the other 105 days; Mars500 is of course much more ambitious. The experiment is primarily behavioral in focus, with researchers observing the crew to track stress, hormone levels, sleep, and effects of dietary supplements.

Research on submarine and Antarctic station crews suggests that tensions start to rise after six to eight months, with boredom setting in, conflicts increasing, and the threat of the crew dividing into antagonistic social cliques. Dealing with such difficulties requires clearly defined leadership, explicit divisions of labor and responsibilities, and very strict routines. The crew of the Moscow simulation will not have the tension of being in a dangerously hostile environment as they would be on a real trip to Mars, but on the other side of that coin they won't have the same level of motivation as would a crew on a real mission.

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[TUE 08 JUN 10] IS CORRUPTION INEVITABLE?

* IS CORRUPTION INEVITABLE? An essay run here in 2007 discussed the pervasive international culture of bribery and corruption. A business editorial in THE ECONOMIST ("The Corruption Eruption", 1 May 2010) took another look at the topic, suggesting that while corruption is unlikely to ever be eradicated, there's little good reason for the sensible to accept it as a useful business practice.

Corruption is indeed still around, and in a big way. German industrial giants Siemens and Daimler have been recently hit with huge fines for corruption scandals, and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently investigating 150 companies, with oil and drug firms at the top of the list. Of course everybody agrees that payoffs and kickbacks are reprehensible, but many business officials feel that they are only too often a reality that has to be dealt with, like it or not. In many places, so the thinking goes, it's just the way things are done -- the "when in Rome" argument. Besides, it can help smooth out troublesome bureaucracy -- the "efficient grease" argument.

However, is acceptance of corruption really a sign of a pragmatic realism? Or is it just being a short-sighted chump? Philip Nichols, of the Wharton School of Business, thinks the evidence tilts toward "chump". Nichols points out that plenty of Western firms, including Reebok and Google, have worked in emerging markets without getting their hands dirty. Swedish furniture giant IKEA has been very tough in fighting corruption in Russia, threatening to halt expansion in the country, firing managers who pay bribes, and buying generators to frustrate officials holding up electric grid connections.

Nichols argues that it is also a stereotype to think of some countries as inherently corrupt. Yes, some countries are on the average much more corrupt than others, but all countries have laws against it and all countries have plenty of people who are fighting it. By accepting corruption, multinational companies are in effect siding with the Black Hats and becoming a willing accessory in the corruption of that country.

2007 global corruption map

Besides, as a paper published by the World Bank suggests, corruption isn't really a very "efficient" grease, since it gives corrupt officials an incentive to create obstacles and haggle over payoffs. Worse, once payoffs begin, the officials realize they're onto a good thing, and the next thing they want is another payoff. Nichols adds there's also the psychological cost of corruption, saying that corrupt business people often compare their under-the-table actions to having a sexual affair: once started, they are trapped in a world of secrecy and guilt.

In contrast, staying on the straight-arrow path can have benefits. Oil firm Texaco, now part of Chevron, had such a reputation for incorruptibility that African border guards simply waved Texaco jeeps through instead of halting them for a shakedown. Besides, these days the likelihood of getting caught is much greater than it was just a few years ago. The internet has handed much more power to whistle-blowers; non-governmental organizations keep a close watch on big companies; and every year Transparency International publishes a "Corruption Perceptions Index", a "Bribe Payers Index", and a "Global Corruption Barometer"

Once caught, the corrupt are now more likely to suffer. The Obama Administration has dusted off an old piece of post-Watergate legislation, the "Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)", and is making energetic use of it. The DOJ, as mentioned, is currently performing 150 investigations, compared to just eight in 2001. The penalties are tougher, too, with recent legislation making senior managers personally liable for corruption on their watch, backed up with threats of jail terms and huge fines.

The Americans aren't alone, either. Thirty-eight countries have signed up to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development's 1997 anti-corruption convention, leading to a spate of cross-border prosecutions. In February, UK aerospace giant BAE Systems was fined $400 million USD as a result of a joint US-UK investigation. Britain now has implemented a tough "Bribery Act" that provides an even bigger stick against corrupt practices. On 1 April, Daimler was fined $185 million USD as the result of a joint US-German investigation covering Daimler activities in 22 countries.

Companies seem to be lagging the learning curve in handling the rising surge of government action against corruption. A recent Transparency International survey of 500 prominent countries showed that the average company only scored a 17 on a list of 50 anti-corruption practices -- Belgium was by far the worst European country. Companies cannot address corruption with edicts and exhortations: they need to implement specific practices and set up enforcement organizations.

There still remains the widespread perception that corruption is a reality, that anti-corruption sentiments are all very nice -- but they're just a "kiddy grade" fantasy when it comes to the grubby real world. The response is that Siemens officials obviously didn't judge the $1.6 billion USD in fines they had to pay to the US and German governments as "kiddy grade", and certainly no corporate official is going to think a stiff prison term is "kiddy grade" either. Corruption fighters are fond of the slogan "doing well by doing good" -- it may have an annoyingly sanctimonious tone to it, but there's still truth in it.

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[MON 07 JUN 10] THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (6)

* THE FIGHT OVER GLOBAL WARMING (6): Climate models yield a wide range of possible outcomes, from warming by only about 1 degree Celsius over the 21st century to 6 degrees Celsius. Critics assert the low figure is the most realistic, consistent with normal fluctuations of climate, which are truly responsible for the recent warming, not human CO2 emissions. The models, the critics say, are exaggerating the sensitivities. That assumes that the climatologists have only erred in one direction, resulting in a skew that emphasizes AGW. The critics make that assumption, being quick to claim a bias among the research community -- when they don't call it an outright fraud and conspiracy, the fact that the clear majority of the climate research community pushes the AGW case being seen as evidence of a sinister plot.

Anyone interested in simply knowing the facts about the climate debate has good reason to feel confused. On one side, the advocates insist that global warming is guaranteed to happen, on basis of data with clear uncertainties and models even they admit are inexact -- and which give a wide range of results, not all of them particularly alarming. The data and the models do seem to tilt towards the direction of warming, but proclaiming disastrous climate change an absolute certainty seems hard to justify on the basis of the argument offered.

To be sure, if we are confronted with a possibility of disaster, it does make sense to take precautions -- but we are always confronted with an open-ended list of potential threats, leaving us with the issue of determining which ones are real and deserve to be allocated scarce resources, instead of squandering those resources on ones that aren't real. Taking precautions implies an "opportunity cost" that has to be considered. Every generation has its prophets of doom, and in hindsight their track record is imperfect, often skewed towards the exaggerated; we learn to take such declarations with a grain of salt.

Certainly few have ever accused environmentalists of understatement -- and, for whatever the merits of the case for AGW, few could credibly deny that the issue has been loudly hyped, often coming across less as a scientific issue than as a fashion statement. The solutions being proposed tend to involve far-reaching programs by government bureaucracies, not a reassuring notion in itself; less reassuring because the solutions, like emissions trading, can come across as dubious, prone to being easily "gamed" by the unscrupulous.

* On the other side, the critics simply snipe at bits and pieces of the case for AGW and then proclaim there's nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, not all of their sniping seems particularly well-informed:

The critics have also played up the winter of 2009:2010 as proof that global warming isn't happening, but that argument doesn't go over well everywhere, since the winter wasn't uniformly harsh. In the US, the East Coast was hit hard, but overall it was a mild winter on the West Coast. In addition, heavy snowfalls do not necessarily imply colder temperatures, they imply more precipitation, and more precipitation is exactly what would be expected under global warming. Of course, advocates have played this sort of game as well, pointing to recent flooding in the US as evidence of global warming. It isn't persuasive either way -- as even Anthony Watts has admitted, weather is not climate -- and playing up cold snaps or a hot dry spell ends up being little but theatrics.

The biggest problem with the critics is that their criticisms haven't really provided an alternative to the broad picture the advocates have put together. Instead, they give the impression that they are simply scrambling around to make sure no stone is left unthrown at the advocates, making the critics' loud accusations of "bias" more than just a bit rich. Once again, the efforts of the critics to play up the uncertainties make their own certainties hard to justify. We live in an era of unprecedented human population and industrialization; on what basis, what experience, can the critics credibly proclaim that human activities will have no serious impact on the planet? There's certainly no basis for accusing the climate science community of a sinister conspiracy.

* The issue, unfortunately, has become politically polarized. That being the case, the furor has to be accepted as the inescapable way things are going be, rendering complaint futile, but the emotional tone of the debate undermines its credibility.

dynamics of Earth & sky

Still, even given a certain cynicism over the matter, there's a clear case for more and better climate observation and modeling, to which even the critics have little choice but to agree -- if they don't, they demonstrate they're all talk, and claiming that the research is certain to be biased against them would be an effective concession that the professional scientific community isn't buying the skeptic line. Even if global warming wasn't an issue, an improved understanding of global climate would be worth the money. In addition, the case for a more sustainable future is hard to argue with -- though the specifics can certainly be debated -- and to the extent that promoting renewable energy overlaps with working towards a carbon-neutral society, it's all for the good.

We can certainly hope that global warming is just a passing fashion. Richard Lindzen has made a bet that twenty years from now, climate will be cool again and global warming will take its place on the trashheap of discredited scientific fads. He should be gratefully paid what he's owed if he's right, but for the present, there remains the uncomfortable awareness of the difference between honest confidence in being right -- and simply denying the possibility of being wrong. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 04 JUN 10] THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (16)

* THE KILLING OF JFK -- LEE HARVEY OSWALD (16): Whether Lee Harvey Oswald actually visited Dallas on 25 September is likely to forever remain an unresolved mystery, but there is no real doubt that Oswald was in Mexico City by Friday, 27 September 1963. Witnesses at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City later clearly identified Oswald, who came there at noon on Friday, identified himself under his real name, and pitched them on letting him go to Cuba. The embassy staff was sympathetic but they couldn't give him an immediate visa, simply having him fill out paperwork to get the process started. Oswald was not happy when he was told it might take several weeks to process the paperwork. He was told that it would help if he got a Soviet visa.

The Soviet embassy was two blocks away, so he walked over and laid his pitch on the Soviet embassy staff as well. They didn't know what to make of him, so they put him off to the next day, and wired Moscow. Yuriy Nosenko claimed it ended up on his desk; he talked to his department chief, who said: "Oh, this nut! Go back and have the First Department cable the embassy that we're not interested, but have them give him a diplomatic brushoff."

Oswald came back on Saturday, 28 September, and they brushed him off. He was extremely upset -- at one point, growing so agitated that he told embassy staff that he worried for his own safety, and showed them his revolver. The staffers were clearly alarmed by this display and asked him to give the weapon to them, to be returned when he left.

He went back to the Cuban embassy, where he continued his unbalanced performance, but the staff blew him off as well, saying they couldn't give him a Cuban visa without a Soviet visa. He finally left, muttering to himself. Later, after Oswald became notorious, the Cuban government publicly announced that he had applied for a visa and had been refused. Clearly, the Cubans did not want to give any impression that they had anything to do with Oswald.

One of the Soviet officials that Oswald spoke to about obtaining a visa named Valeriy Kostikov would lead to intense suspicions later. Kostikov was actually a KGB officer; some sources claim that Kostikov was actually in charge of "dirty tricks" such as sabotage and, significantly, assassinations; but others simply say he was involved in intelligence gathering. Suspicious? Possibly, but the Soviet embassy had three consular officers and they were all KGB men, meaning Oswald would have ended up talking to one or another of them -- and given that the KGB was fundamentally a "dirty tricks" operation in the first place, the suspicion would remain in any case.

As far as the evidence goes, there's no reason to think the conversation between Oswald and Kostikov discussed anything except Oswald's request to get a Soviet visa. Certainly, if the KGB had been working with Oswald on a plot to kill JFK, the last thing they would have wanted is for him to come to the Soviet embassy, since they could assume, if they didn't know for a fact, it was under surveillance.

* Oswald spent the next few days bumming around Mexico City. He left on Wednesday, 2 October, and came back north into the USA in the dark hours of the next morning. There was a minor hassle with border guards who told him that his 15-day visa had expired, but Oswald showed the guards the entry stamp for 26 September and they relented. He got into Dallas on the midafternoon of Thursday, 3 October. He didn't call Marina that day, spending the night at the YMCA.

The following day he looked for a job and then called Marina at the Paine's house. She was glad he wasn't in Havana, and in fact after he hitchhiked over to the Paine's house to see her, he seemed unusually affectionate. She was also happy to see he'd got over his infatuation with Fidel Castro. Oswald judged from his treatment at the Cuban embassy that Cuba was the same as the USSR, a bad implementation of a good idea. To Marina, this seemed a step in the direction of sanity -- but as it turned out, it wasn't enough of one.

* Oswald's trip to Mexico figures large in the tales of conspiracy theorists. The CIA had a presence in Mexico City, with the agency monitoring comings and goings from the Soviet and Cuban embassies. After Oswald's visit, the CIA sent a memo concerning him to the FBI, State Department, and US Navy asking about a "Lee Henry Oswald". Not only did they get the name wrong, they also gave an entirely bogus description of Oswald.

The CIA claimed it had not obtained pictures or other evidence from Oswald's visit, which the conspiracy theorists find suspicious -- the CIA did get a picture of someone going into the embassy that they pegged as Oswald, though it later turned out to be a mixup, the picture showing someone with no strong resemblance to him. It appears the confusion over the photos was due to the fact that the automated cameras the agency used to monitor the embassies were unreliable and often not in good working condition.

Conspiracy theorists have suggested, playing the "switcheroo" card again, that all the discrepancies in the information provided by the CIA concerning Oswald's visit to Mexico City indicates that a double visited the two embassies. However, the whole story is hard to fit into a sensible narrative. Why send out the memo with all the mangled details? Why use a "double" who didn't really resemble Oswald? It gives far more of an impression of fumbling than it does of a devious plot.

The consul at the Cuban embassy said later that the person who had made a nuisance of himself there didn't resemble pictures of Oswald, but two other employees of the embassy said the pictures matched their visitor's appearance. In addition, in 1978, the Cuban government gave the paperwork filled out by Oswald at the embassy to the US government, and the HSCA confirmed the handwriting as Oswald's. The paperwork also included photos provided by the visitor and they were certainly of Oswald, throwing cold water on the story of the imperfect "double" -- it would have made absolutely no sense for an impersonator to hand over photos that didn't look like him. In the 1990s, admittedly long after the fact, three staff of the Soviet embassy stated their unbalanced visitor was clearly Oswald. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 03 JUN 10] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: There was a buzz going around the tech blogosphere on an interesting gimmick cooked up by American industrial designer Olivia Blechschmidt: the "STER UV", a stirring stick with a strong ultraviolet lamp at the tip to sterilize drinking water. The idea seems immediately appealing: it's not that technically challenging, and it's not only more convenient than boiling water, it's far more energy efficient. Blechschmidt says it's not in production at this time, nor is it intended for developing world use -- but it certainly sounds promising.

STER UV

* WIRED Online reports that a team of researchers at Sucheon National University in South Korea and Rice University in Houston, Texas, have developed a RFID tag that can be directly printed on boxes and packages using inks based on carbon nanotubes and polymers, with circuits implemented using a three-layer process. The ultimate goal is to develop an RFID tag capable of storing 96 bits of information -- more than enough to identify any product -- at a cost of less than a penny. In contrast, a silicon RFID tag costs about fifty cents. The researchers envision a day when checking out of a store simply involves walking up to a checkout, getting the bill with all the goods interrogated on the spot without any handling, paying up, and then strolling out the door.

* Wind turbines tend to have problems with very high winds that can potentially tear them apart, and so turbines have control systems that will "feather" the rotor blades when they're being overloaded, decreasing the force of the wind on the blades and keeping the rotation rate manageable. Winds can be unpredictably variable, however, and without advance warning of a change in the winds, reacting to such variations can be tricky.

THE ECONOMIST reports that a team of researchers at the Risoe DTU National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy in Denmark is working on a wind sensor system that will provide "early warning" to a wind turbine's control system. The system is built around a "lidar", a laser radar. A lidar works just like a radio-wave radar, sending out a pulse and measuring the time a reflection takes to get back to measure distance, or over time changes in distance and direction. The advantage of lidar over radar, at least in this case, is that light has a much shorter wavelength than radio waves and so can be reflected by dust or water droplets in the air, allowing wind speeds and directions to be tracked.

After some investigation, the Danish researchers finally figured out that the most effective place for the sensor was in the rotor hub, but it was also the hardest place to mount it. They came up with a fiber-optic scheme to simplify installation. The new sensor system will not only extend the life of the wind turbine, it also provides about 5% greater efficiency -- which for a four megawatt turbine means tens of thousands of dollars worth of additional electricity produced a year, allowing the sensor system to pay for itself.

* On a related note, the military has issues with wind turbines because they tend to give radars fits, operating as prominent radar reflectors that tend to throw "clutter" back into radar signals. According to AVIATION WEEK, Lockheed Martin has modified their AN/TPS-77 surveillance radar for the UK to allow it to subtract out wind-turbine clutter, opening the way for the installation of sets of offshore wind turbines.

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[WED 02 JUN 10] SOFIA FIRST LIGHT

* SOFIA FIRST LIGHT: From the point of view of astronomers, space technology has been a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it has allowed astronomers to see the Universe at wavelengths blocked by the Earth's atmosphere, including most of the infrared spectrum. On the minus side, building and orbiting satellites is extremely expensive, and the bigger the satellite, the more expensive it is. The expense of satellites has led to a search for cheaper alternatives.

There's actually no absolute need to put a telescope into space to access the infrared spectrum. A telescope can be carried by a balloon or a high-flying jet to altitudes above 13.7 kilometers (45,000 feet), where it is above 99% of the Earth's infrared-absorbing water vapor. This has been done using balloon missions as well as various aircraft, the best known being the "Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO)", which was a converted Lockheed C-141A Starlifter four-jet transport aircraft carrying a 91 centimeter (36 inch) reflecting infrared telescope. The KAO went into operation in 1974 and was basically worked to death, being retired in 1995.

By that time, astronomers were already lobbying for a much more capable successor. In 1997, the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR in its German acronym) began formal work on the "Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)", a 2.5 meter (98 inch) infrared telescope mounted in a Boeing 747SP jetliner. In that year, a contract was awarded to the "Universities Space Research Association (USRA)", prime contractor for the construction and operation of SOFIA. The American members of the team were responsible for the aircraft, and the Germans were responsible for the infrared telescope.

The Boeing 747 was a logical choice for a KAO successor, since the 747 is a big aircraft that can carry oversized payloads. Both the 68.6 meter (225 foot) long 747-200 and the "stubby" 56.4 meter (185 foot) long 747SP were considered, but the 747SP was much cheaper and proved to be entirely adequate for the task.

The 747SP obtained by USRA had entered service in 1978 with Pan American airlines, flying with the dignified name of "Clipper Lindbergh". It was bought up by United Airlines in 1986, and had accumulated 40,000 hours of service before being purchased from United for its new career as a flying observatory. The aircraft was inspected and proved to be in excellent condition, with no major structural repair needed -- though engine, auxiliary power unit, and landing gear overhauls were performed. Raytheon Systems performed the updates to turn the aircraft into a flying observatory, installing control systems for the telescope, a "flying classroom", and the telescope mounting section near the tail.

The infrared telescope was built with a "honeycomb" mirror to reduce weight. The mirror blank cast by Schott Glaswerke of Mainz, Germany. The mirror was made of "Zerodur", a low-expansion glass often used for large telescope mirrors, and was originally three meters wide before cutting and grinding. The telescope mount is stabilized; the telescope can be pointed at elevations from 20 to 60 degrees, has a design pointing accuracy better than a second of arc, and a tracking accuracy of better than a half second of arc.

A configuration was also considered with the telescope forward of the wing, but that would have demanded a pressurized tunnel between the forward and rear fuselage through the telescope bay, adding considerably to cost. The telescope peers through an open section in the fuselage with dimensions of 5.5 x 4.1 meters (18 x 13.5 feet) that extends for a quarter of the aircraft's circumference. Despite the presence of this "gaping hole" in the aircraft, no modifications of the aircraft's flight surfaces such as auxiliary tailfins were necessary -- though ballast had to be loaded into the aircraft's nose to maintain trim given the heavy weight of the telescope assembly, about 18,180 kilograms (40,000 pounds), in the rear of the aircraft. Even with the ballast, however, the overall aircraft load is easily within the capacity of the 747SP.

SOFIA

Nine different instruments are to be built for use with the SOFIA telescope. The initial instrument to make use of the telescope was the "Faint Object Infrared Camera For The SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST)" developed by Cornell University, which was designed to perform observations in the 5:40 micron range. It was followed by the "German Receiver For Astronomy At Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT)", developed by the Max Planck Institute in Germany, operating in up to three bands within the 60:200 micron range. The observatory also carries a "water vapor monitor" used to calibrate "seeing" conditions for the telescope.

After several years of painful delays and complications, SOFIA's initial test flights began in 2009, with first observations performed in mid-2010. The observatory is expected to fly three times a week for 44 weeks out of the year, and is expected to last 20 years. Each flight will last about eight hours, will carry 15 to 20 people, and will cost about $100,000 to $150,000 USD. The primary operating base will be NASA Dryden in southern California, but the aircraft can redeploy all over the world to target specific celestial events.

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[TUE 01 JUN 10] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: I was poking around on the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite on YouTube and ran across related videos of the Sun obtained by one of the twin NASA Stereo spacecraft, in which dots would appear and disappear on a regular basis. According to a slightly annoyed note by a NASA project scientist, the dots were artifacts of compression of the video feed from the Stereo spacecraft that were passed along due to a failure in the NASA Deep Space Network communications system.

through the Sungate

Ah, but were they really? According to the fringe blogosphere, the dots were actually planet-sized UFOs that were using the Sun as an interstellar gate, and of course NASA was engaged in a cover-up. As described by "famous physicist" Nassim Haramein, the Sun contains a black hole at its core and aliens were using it as a "stargate" to get from star system to star system. I mean, like duh, why else would the objects be appearing and disappearing?

Huh? Efforts to track down Nassim Haramein online seem to show that he is Swiss-born, living in Hawaii, and with no formal education in science or any association with the mainstream science community. That hasn't prevented him from creating a "unified field theory" -- with the grand name of "Holofractographic Universe" -- and acquiring a following, at least among the UFO and New Age fringe; citations of Haramein in the online science world are all but nonexistent. Haramein likes to post videos to YouTube and sell DVDs of his lectures. He has a blog, which seems to be largely promotional and sales oriented.

I have to judge Haramein as "harmless". He seems to be perfectly content to preach his message to the fringe community and not make a nuisance of himself by posting to science forums or the like. To the extent I have a problem with him, it's not because he's a scientific zero -- if he's a science geek, then I'm Einstein -- nor even that he tells sci-fi stories as if they were fact. No, it's that they're such lame sci-fi stories. The likes of Haramein suggest a new genre definition: "pseudoscience pseudofiction". It has a certain inverted logic behind it: if you've got a sci-fi story that's so bad it's unpublishable, then claim it's real and sell it to the fringe.

Of course that implies the authors honestly believe it themselves, because otherwise keeping a straight face would be impossible. Obviously, they're serving a market, and so who can complain? But the giggle factor remains.

* I did an update on the STARS, GALAXIES, & THE UNIVERSE document for the website this month, tidying it up a fair amount and in particular significantly upgrading the illustrations -- I didn't add many new ones, but I replaced the old images with nice NASA / ESO photographs. It looks vastly better.

I also resurrected the INTRODUCTION TO EVOLUTION document after getting frustrated with it, pulling it from the website, and then going through a comprehensive rewrite -- seriously cleaning it up and tripling the number of illustrations. Glad to be done with it, evo science was getting to be a bore, there's more interesting things to write about. Alas, experience tells me that, no matter how well I think I've put together these documents, it's unwise to think that they'll attract any interest. In fact, sometimes I suspect that the more comprehensive and detailed I make them -- the more they turn people off.

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