Friday, February 08, 2008

Tobacco Set for Another Killer Century

A new World Health Organization report shows smoking will kill a billion people this century if current trends continue unchecked,” reports the Economist.

It’s hard to believe since every day it seems another state or country is passing another public policy to ban smoking someplace (at beaches, bars, restaurants or work places). But it’s in the developing world that smoking is the biggest problem. Almost 30 percent of world smokers live in china. Greater than 10 percent live in India. In contrast, Russia and the United States are home to about 5 percent of world smokers each.

Part of the reason smoking numbers are so high in developing nations is education. “Addiction spreads faster than information,” explained the Economist report. Over at Time.com,
where they reported on the same story, Pound360 learned that just 25 percent of Chinese understand smoking is unhealthy.

What is Peatland? Pretty interesting stuff…

In putting together an earlier post, Pound360 investigated a word that we’ve never seen before, “peatland.” And before you get all arrogant on us, A) we never claimed to be intellectuals, or any more than slightly-below-average-smart and B) the Microsoft Word spell-checker doesn’t no what peatland is either, so there.

Anyhow, Pound360
learned at Wikipedia that peatland is pretty interesting terrain.

How it forms
Peatland is created when plant matter and other organic stuff like dead bugs and animals, “is inhibited from decaying fully by acidic and anaerobic conditions.” Our guess (it’s not fully explained at Wikipedia) is that certain bacteria can’t flourish in peatlands, so organic matter doesn’t get broken down as quickly and efficiently as is does elsewhere.

Where it forms
You can find peatland in the higher latitudes where it’s damp and cool, places like Russia, Scotland, Finland, New Zeland, Canada and United States like Minnesota and Michigan. In most of these places, peat bogs originally formed as glaciers retreated at the close of the last ice age, about 9,000 years ago. About 60 percent of global wetlands, or 3 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by peatland.

Interesting side note, “under the right conditions, peat is the earliest stage in the formation of coal.”

When it burns
Peat is a super carbon-rich material that grows dense and deep, and burns long, slow and hard (super smoulders). According to Wikipedia, once ignited, a peat fire can burn undetected for “months, years and even centuries.” For example, in Indonesia, 1997, there was a particularly intense peat fire outbreak. To this day, over ten years later, “more than 100 peat fires in Kalimantan and East Sumatra continue to burn.”

Peat in the ancient world
Vikings figured out that peat bogs were a source of iron ore, which they used to make swords and armor. Further back, Bronze and Iron Age people figured “nature gods and spirits” lived in peat bogs. So naturally, they would sacrifice people there, and leave the corpses. Due to the “tanning properties of the acidic water” in peat bogs, to this day, we’re still finding the “almost perfectly preserved”
corpses of the sacrificed.

Another Day, Another Argument Against Biofuels

Two new studies out today show (popular forms of) biofuels are “actually increasing greenhouse gas emissions rather than reducing them,” reports the LA Times.

The studies, published in the Journal science, demonstrate how clearing land for growing biofuel crops and cultivating the crops releases more carbon than biofuels save from the atmosphere.

Biofuels are supposed to be a green alternative to fossil fuels because, in theory, the amount of C02 (a greenhouse gas) plants take from the atmosphere to grow should be equal to the CO2 released when you burn those plants as fuel. That may be true, but what about he carbon released when you create fertilizers used to cultivate biofuel crops? What about the carbon released by farm machinery used to cultivate the crop? How about the biofuel refinery itself?

Here’s another question nobody seemed to be thinking about: What about the carbon released when you clear land to plant biofuel crops? According to the Times report, “The biggest source of emission, by far, comes from land-use changes associated with biofuels.”

To demonstrate, consider this. In order to “achieve a net reduction in emissions,” a cornfield would have to be farmed for 167 years in the US. And it gets worse depending on the crop you’re growing or the type of land you’re clearing. For example, in Brazil it would take 319 years to benefit from clearing rainforest to plant soybeans. And clearing “
peatland” in Indonesia will take 423 years to start paying off. (Learn more about peatland in this Pound360 post... it's pretty cool.)

Does all of this mean biofuels are doomed? Not necessarily. If biotech can improve crop yields enough, and other technologies can make farming, refining and other processes more green (for example, solar-powered tractors and geothermal-powered refineries), then sure, biofuels might work.

But realistically, we’re probably a hundred years from that level of sophistication being the standard. Not only that, but as the LA Times reports, “the powerful agricultural lobby has put its weight behind food-based biofuels.”

Another option: use different stuff (other than corn or soy beans) for biofuel. For example, “municipal trash, crop waste and prairie grasses.” I like the idea of using waste as fuel, but don’t forget
Pound360’s preferred biofuel candidate, algae.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Mercury, A Planet Full of Surprises

A planet’s core isn’t supposed to take up three-quarters of a planet’s diameter, but Mercury’s does. Mercury’s core isn’t supposed to be molten, either, but it appears to be. A planet isn’t supposed to shrink, but Mercury does. Mercury shouldn’t have a magnetic field, but it does. Mercury isn’t even supposed to have an atmosphere, but it does. And a planet with surface temperatures soaring into the 800s (F) isn’t supposed to have ice, but some evidence suggests Mercury does.

These are a few of the mysteries confronting planetary scientists as NASA’s Messenger probe explores Mercury over the next few years,
reports Space.com. Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system (now that Pluto’s out of the picture), the densest (thanks to that massive core) and the closest to the sun.

In January, Messenger made its first flyby,
returning an astonishing set of images. But according to the messenger mission homepage, the probe is just getting started. Another flyby is scheduled for October 2008 and September 2009 before it settles into orbit during 2011.

According to the Space.com article, scientists already have theories about some of Mercury’s mysteries. For example, Mercury’s atmosphere, which is constantly drifting away (due to the small planet’s weak gravity), may be replenished by solar winds, seep from within the planet, or arrive on the backs of asteroids and comets.


Future Paint Kills Germs, Cheese Kills Intestinal Worms

Product manufacturers are hard at work on a couple of strange, perfectly practical new products.

First, an engineering breakthrough now allows manufacturers to efficiently add nanoparticles to paint that can kill germs, in particular serial killers like E. coli and Staphylococcus. This according to
a report at CNET News.com.

Not only would the paint keep itself clean of harmful bacteria, it’s an environmentally-friendly, vegetable oil-based alternative to the regular stuff.

Another product innovation comes courtesy of Kraft. The food giant is partnering up with “safe pesticides” company TyraTech to develop a line of “food that is not only tasty, but kills intestinal worms,”
reports the NY Times. The product line is aimed at areas where intestinal worms are a big problem, places where sanitation is inadequate, like rural parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

According to the Times report, intestinal worms affect millions of children worldwide. Symptoms include fatigue, anemia and bloody discharge.

The active ingredient in worm-fighting foods will be a mix of plant oils that disrupt the nervous systems of worms (because they have nerve receptors for the oil molecules), but not people (which don’t have the right receptors).

There are skeptics. One expert points out that the irritating oils may simply drive intestinal worms to other organs in the body.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Wormholes “Disguised as Black Holes?”

This is more sci-fi than science at the moment, but an imaginative Russian physicist suggests wormholes to other parts of the galaxy, and possibly parallel universes, may be disguised as black holes. (This story originally came to me via a Slashdot post.)

According to the theory, wormholes might be propped open by something called “phantom matter,” which has negative energy and negative mass. Such a substance would have a repulsive effect (needed to prop open a wormhole), but also deflect light.

If you were to look at such a portal, you’d see a bright ring hanging in space. Since the light would bend around it, no matter what angle you look at the ring, it would seem as though you were seeing directly through it. This is the same principle,
you may recall, that scientists believe makes it possible to cloak objects.

More Grisly Details in Mystery Illness Case

New details are available this week from the NY Times on a mystery illness discussed at Pound360 last month. You may recall that, folks working at slaughter houses were coming down with a mysterious neurological disorder. According to the Times, the disorder leaves victims with a “highly unusual set of symptoms,” including “fatigue, pain, weakness, numbness and tingling in the legs and feet.”

Specifically affected are workers at the “head table,” where pig heads are hacked into pieces (at a rate of 1,100 heads per hour).

At the head table, a procedure described as “blowing brains” is suspect in the case. This process involves “high pressure blasts of compressed air” used to force a “slurry” of brain matter from severed pig heads, reports the Times. The process is pretty messy. “I always had brains on my arms,” said one air hose operator.

But it’s probably not brains on the skin that are causing the mysterious disorder. Instead, aerosolized brain matter, inhaled or possibly absorbed through the eyes, seeps into the blood stream. At that point, the body’s immune system goes into overdrive attacking some the brain matter, or something in it, possibly a pathogen of some kind.

The problem is, pig anatomy is a lot like people anatomy. So there may be similarities between our biochemical structures (specifically in our nerve tissue) as well. If that’s the case, when particles from the pig’s nervous system reach a victim’s blood stream, their body’s immune system response may wreak havoc on it’s own immune system.

According to one expert quoted by the Times, “that’s the beauty and the beast of the immune system… It’s so efficient at keeping foreign objects away, but anytime there’s a close match it turns against us, too.”

No Easy Battles in War to Keep Mental Edge

None of us want to die a senile old man or woman detached from memories of the glory days and surrounded by strangers that call themselves your spouse, children or grandchildren. So among other things, Americans are spending millions on “brain exercise” computer programs, reports the NY Times.

But do these things actually work? Given how fast we’re increasing spending on these products, you’d think so. In 2005 we spent about $2 million dollars on brain exercise programs. This year, analysts expect the market to reach $80 million. But you might as well be taking your money to a casino. The problem, according to the Times, is that these brain exercise products are more “inspired by science” than actually “proven.”

In general, brain exercises (like Sudoku, learning a new language, a slick software program, etc.) only provide mental advantages “specific to the trained task.” Unfortunately, this kind of stuff falls short when it comes to “general mental fitness.”

What really works? Hard, painful, regular exercise, reports the Times. Exercise helps maintain something called “executive function” in the mind. Such functions include memory, focus, processing speed, response speed and so on. Exercise also reduces the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Scientists don’t know exactly why exercise works, but here are some of the leading ideas:
  • “Slows the age-related shrinkage of the frontal cortex”
  • May increase capillaries in the brain
  • Improves cardio health which lowers risk for mind-damaging strokes and heart attacks
  • Releases “growth factors… proteins that increase the number of connections between neurons”

Monday, February 04, 2008

Mega-Drought Linked to Hand of Man (and Woman)

I know you probably already forgot the water crisis from last summer. What with Britney spears certifiably going nuts, Paris Hilton going lesbian, and Aruba reopening the Halloway case, it’s perfectly understandable how you may have forgotten that, back in October, the head of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division feared Atlanta was “likely to run out of water in three months.”

Here in Southern California, where Pound360 is based, a recent series of abnormal winter rainstorms brought record rains. But we haven’t forgotten that last year was the
driest year since record keeping started.

Across the state border, Lake Mead, which provides drinking water for 30 million people, dropped to its lowest level in 40 years, according to
a New Scientist article we came across today. In the column, we learn that a new study finds at least 60 percent of the West’s water woes are the fault of “man-made warming.”

The study, released by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography shows climate models can account for 40 percent of reduced river flows. The rest, ladies and gentleman, is the fault of you, me and everyone else.

And since you, me and everyone else don’t like to do things like buy low-flow toilets, ease off on watering our lawns and dial back the frequency of car washes, scientists are looking to “federal and state legislation,” to save us from ourselves.

Then again, maybe we just need to wait until we’re down to three months worth of water. Over in Georgia,
citizens are crying out for conservation and limits on development.

About Me

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.