Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bats Being Wiped Out by Mysterious Cause

First it was Birds, then bees, now bat populations are mysteriously crashing. The NY Times reports, “90 percent of the hibernating bats in four caves and mines in New York have died since last winter.” Bat populations in at least 10 other locations, and sites in Vermont and Massachusetts, are also under siege.

Suspects in the case include “virus, bacteria, toxin, environmental hazard, metabolic disorder or fungus,” reports the Times.

In one cave, the bat population plummeted from 15,584 in 2007 to 1,500 this year.

Many of the dead and dying are spotted with a strange, white fungus. Though this may be a symptom caused by another problem. For example, a pesticide recently introduced to fight West Nile virus may be weakening the bats’ immune systems and leaving them susceptible to infection by the so-called White Nose Syndrome.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Population, Climate, Food and an Emerging Nightmare

There are riots in Camaroon. People protesting in Italy. Two people dead in "clashes." At the end of 2007, 37 countries were facing crises. People fighting for freedom? Demonstrating for civil rights? Nope. People are fighting, dying for food, according to a recent MSNBC feature.

"Freak weather is a factor. But so are dramatic changes in the global economy, including higher oil prices, lower food reserves and growing consumer demand in China and India," reports MSBC.

Contributing to problems in China and India are meat and biofuel demand. "Rising demand for meat and dairy in rapidly developing countries such as China and India is sending up the cost of grain, used for cattle feed, as is the demand for raw materials to make biofuels."

This problem isn't new. Pound360
first examined the biofuel-hunger-violence link in January. Around that same time, we looked at how increased demand for meat is sending ripples through the environment, human health and world food supplies.

Around the world, food costs are up 23 percent from 2006 to 2007 according to MSNBC. (The NY Times recently
reported a 37 percent spike last year. Both figures are based on reports from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). In particular, grains are up 42 percent, oils up 52 and dairy is up 80 percent. In the U.S., food prices were up four percent last year, the biggest jump in almost 20 years. Prices are expected to rise another four percent this year.

Mars Covered with (Table) Salt

NASA’s Odyssey rover has discovered the southern hemisphere of Mars is covered in table-variety salt (sodium chloride), reports the BBC. Kind of.

The headline of the BBC piece reads, “Mars is 'covered in table salt.'” Seems like we have an official discovery here, right? Not exactly. Note the quotation marks in the headline. Then, when you get into the piece, it reads, “A Nasa probe has found signs that the southern hemisphere is dusted with chloride mineral, perhaps "table salt."”

Okay, so there are “signs” that “perhaps” there’s “salt.” Why does the BBC even reporting this if they’re so skeptical?


Odyssey's tracks in the Martian dust (Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)


Anyhow, let’s just pretend it’s actually salt for a moment. Real salt. Not “salt” salt. The finding, says one astroscientist (I just made that word up) is a “double-edge sword” in the search for life.

Andrew Knoll of Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences explained to the BBC, "Water is the first sign that an environment might have been habitable, but waters that precipitate table salt on Mars would have been much saltier than any waters known to support microbial populations on Earth."

Global Warming Threatens 'Most Important Food Source'

The affect of global warming on crops is hotly debated. While carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is responsible for capturing the sun's heat and boosting temperatures, CO2 also nourishes plants. So as CO2 goes up, the thinking goes, crop yields should rise, too.

According to
a news report at National Geographic from 2002, "escalating greenhouse gas levels may significantly boost production of fruits and seeds in crops."

But there was a catch then, and there's a catch now.

In the National Geographic report, they explain how crops enriched with higher levels of CO2 have lower levels of nutrients.

More recently, a University of Illinois report shows global warming will diminish yields of rice, "arguably the world's most important food source." This according to
a report at New Scientist.

The UI study looked at 80 research papers on the relationship between CO2 levels and rice yields. What they found is "the stress plants suffer at high temperatures" counteracts any gains brought on by higher CO2 levels.

What's more, levels of ozone (bad for plants) in the ground are rising as the globe warms. The way that works is, nitrogen oxides from power plants are catalyzing ozone production in "warm and sunny conditions." Thus, warmer temps mean more ozone, which can settle in the soil. As ozone concentration in soil reaches 60 parts per billion, reports New Scientist, crop yields can fall 14 percent.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Organic Material Detected in Atmosphere of Distant Planet

For the first time -- in a star system far, far away -- astronomers detected organic molecules in the atmosphere of planet, reports the NY Times.

It was scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that discovered methane in the atmosphere of a very hot planet, known as “HD 189733b,” somewhere in the constellation Vulpecula. According to the Times, “Under the right conditions, water can combine with organic chemicals like methane to make amino acids, the building blocks of life as we know it.”

Could there be life on HD189733b? (Doesn’t that name sound like the model number of an LCD TV?) Not likely. The planet’s too hot and big (the artist conception of the planet accompanying the Times piece makes it look like a gas giant). But for the first time, we’re sure there’s organic material outside of our solar system. “The big news is that we were able to do this at all,” said one JPL insider.

To detect the methane, scientists studied the spectrum of light around the planet as it crossed between its star and our line of site here on earth (an event know to astronomers as a “transit”). What they found: “Gases in the planet’s atmosphere absorbed the starlight in a band of wavelengths characteristic of methane, causing dips in the combined spectrum of star and planet.”

The Link Between Glaciers and Global Food Supply

Glaciers aren’t just for skiing or post cards, they also feed the rivers we use to irrigate crops. But as the globe gets warmer, these glaciers are getting increasingly smaller.

What’s worse, the problem of melting glaciers is a particular threat in the most populace corner of our planet: Southeast Asia.

According to
a New Scientist report, “The irrigation water vital for the grain crops that feed China and India is at risk of drying up, as global warming melts the glaciers that feed Asia's biggest rivers.” How big is this problem? One expert told New Scientist world food supplies have “never faced such a predictably massive threat.”

While major Southeast Asian rivers like the Ganges and Yangtze rivers get a boost from annual monsoons, glaciers on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau are responsible for 70 percent of these rivers’ flows during the dry season. The Tibet-Qinghai glaciers are scheduled to disappear by 2060.

Framed by the reality of melting glaciers, the following facts are particularly worrisome:
  • China and India produce half the world’s wheat and rice
  • 40 percent of Indian children are already “underweight and undernourished”
  • To reverse this situation, we would need to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2020

‘Earth-Like’ Moon May Have Underground Ocean

There’s something strange happening on the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan. Studying data collected by the Cassini space probe (currently sweeping the Saturn system), mission scientists are finding that landmarks like lakes, canyons and mountains are moving around. This according to a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) press release.

Not just a centimeter here or a millimeter there. Up to 19 miles over the last two years.

According to Cassini mission scientists, “A systematic displacement of surface features would be difficult to explain unless the moon's icy crust was decoupled from its core by an internal ocean.”

Scientists believe an ocean of water and ammonia is sloshing 62 miles beneath Titan’s icy surface. With its dense atmosphere (1.5 times as dense as Earth’s), dunes, methane lakes, mountains, canyons and other familiar features, planetary researchers believe Titan has the most “Earth-like” surface of any planet or moon in the solar system.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Embryonic Star System Reveals Glimpse of our Past

Scientists have been studying new-born binary star system, 2,400 light years away in the constellation Monoceros, and their research is beginning to give us an idea of how our own star system developed. This according to a column at the NY Times this week.

The binary stars (referred to as KH 15D) are surrounded by a vast, cloudy disk of sand-size material. What's fascinating is these particles aren't the remains of destroyed planets or comets. Researchers at Wesleyan University believe these particles came together from "infinitesimal dust particles over the three million years that the star has been in existence." Basically, what we're seeing is a star system being built from scratch.

There's a good chance that the sand-sized particles are literally the building blocks of rocky planets and asteroids. "These grains were about the same size as those found in many meteorites," reports the Times.

Previously at Pound360,
we discussed a similar star system GD 362. While the star in this system is also surrounded by a sprawling disk of matter, it's a star near the end of its life cycle (a white dwarf) and the disk is made up of the pulverized remains of planets (some that may have been Earth-like), asteroids and everything else that made up the system in its prime.

Ethanol to Blame for Surging Food Costs

Food prices are on the rise, corn ethanol mania is a big part of the problem reports MSNBC. Yes, the dollar is crashing on world markets and energy prices are skyrocketing (I just saw 4 dollar gas for the first time with my own eyes today), but feed (read corn, soybean) prices are to blame for as much as 70 percent of the rise in food costs, reports MSNBC.

Ethanol supporters in government (specifically those "from the ethanol-producing states) urge patience. We're in the "early stages" of converting organic material into fuel, notes Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. In the coming years, he explains, it won't be food that's turned into fuel but "corn stalks, switchgrass, woody pulp material, or other things.”

So what's the rush? Why not wait until our conversion technologies have caught up?

Raising particular concern at Pound360 are comments by Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson. He told MSNBC the surge in food prices is a temporary problem that will be solved when farmers start bringing more land into production.

Never mind the fact, Sen. Nelson, that farming all that extra land means sending more fertilizer into the Gulf of Mexico, which will
expand the growing "dead zone" there.

Never mind the fact, Sen. Nelson, that all the farmland in the United States of America, converted to growing fuel crops,
couldn't serve a third of our oil demand.

The Impact of Drugs on History

A review at the NY Times of Daniel Lord Smail's "On Deep History and the Brain" looks at how "self-modifications of our mental states" have guided the path of human history. In other words, it's a "neurohistory" book.

One example from the article: Arabian coffee stimulated "mind, body, conversation and creativity" when it hit shops in Europe. Another example, using slave labor in the Caribbean to grow sugar. This lead to cheap rum, which in turn numbed the working classes.

Basically, there are two types of mood-altering mechanisms. First, there's "teletropic" mechanisms, which are used to affect others. There are two examples in the Times piece. One, a baby crying "arouses its mother's instinct to care." Two, a preacher's sermon "relieves parishioners of stress hormones."

The second mood-altering mechanism, used to alter one's own mental state, is called "autotropic." For example, drinking coffee, taking a shot of whisky and popping anti-depressants would be autropic mood-altering mechanisms. And it's these that Smail's book focus on.

But it's not just drugs (caffeine, alcohol or nicotine) that can alter moods. "Books are also autotropic devices, regulating attention and mood."

A question to consider. While autotropic stimulation is an intentional act. Is it an intentional attempt to move society forward? Smail would argue it's not. And Pound360 agrees. People wouldn't simply drink rum because it made it easier to handle their mundane, difficult factory jobs. There would have to be a more immediate, clear self-benefit, and there is: the pleasure of inebriation.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Malfunction 'Undermines' Cassini's Bold Maneuver

Yesterday Pound360 was thrilled to discuss the Cassini space probe's low-orbit maneuver above Enceladus, one of Saturn's 60 moons. The significance of this maneuver, in fact the Cassini mission in general, revolves around one of the biggest surprises in our recent exploration of the solar system, that Enceladus has the building blocks of life.

In 2005, Cassini mission scientists were surprised to find the building blocks of life on Enceladus: geologic activity, water ice, warmth and some organic matter like carbon dioxide and methane. Many of these features are concentrated at the south pole of the moon where plumes of material are streaming from deep cracks in the moon's icy surface.

To get a better idea of what's going on down there -- and figure out what exactly is in that plume (the info may tell us if there's liquid water beneath the surface) -- Cassini cut through the plume, swooping within 30 miles of the moon's icy surface. But unfortunately there was a bit of a problem.

What NASA calls "an unexplained software hiccup" disabled Cassini's particle-sensing instruments as it passed through the Enceladus plume,
reports Reuters.

The malfunction left Cassini mission control baffled and frustrated. "Expressing disappointment," one mission leader told Reuters, "We had tested that software very carefully. We don't know why it didn't work properly."

Let me guess, you went with a PC instead of a Mac?

Cassini's flyby wasn't a total loss. Other instruments onboard the craft, including the ion and neutral mass spectrometer were functioning. Also, there will be other flybys. According to the Cassini mission calendar, the probe will return to Enceladus in August and October this year.

In the meantime, Cassini is moving on to explore Saturn's rings and another moon, Titan.

If Globe is Warming, why the Harsh Winter?

According to the US National Climactic Data Center, "the average temperature of the global land surface in January 2008 was below the 20th century mean (-0.02°F/-0.01°C) for the first time since 1982," reports the Telegraph. The record cold has led to record snow falls, the return of arctic sea ice and a heyday for global warming skeptics.

So is the party over for Al Gore and the overwhelming majority of scientists who agree the planet is getting hotter, due in part to human activity?

Not exactly.

In
a NY Times piece on this subject, one scientist shrugged, "The current downturn is not very unusual." The Earth has had other extremely cold winters over the past 20 years, for example in 1988, 1991 and 1998. But a "long-term warming trend" persists.

According to the Times, one cold winter just ain't enough to debunk global warming. "The cool spell in no way undermines the enormous body of evidence pointing to a warming world," according to a consensus among scientists, gathered by the Times.

So what's going on?

In
a recent feature at the Christian Science Monitor, they blame a couple of natural phenomena for the recent, brutal winter. First, a La Niña event in the Pacific which causes warm water to concentrate in the western tropics, while colder-than-usual water settles in the east.

Ottawa recently had more than 20 inches of snow in one day
(Photo courtesy of Pound360 Canadian correspondent, The Grizzly)

But La Niña can't be the only factor since, compared to previous La Niña winters, "this winter failed to follow that script," reports the Monitor. Usually, La Niña leaves the US Southwest and Southeast dry. However, this winter, another weather anomaly, the "Madden-Julian Oscillation" is also in play.

The Madden-Julian, from what I gather at the Monitor and
Wikipedia's entry on the subject, is a moisture-packed event that persistently circles the globe every couple of months. It appears the Madden-Julian remains a mystery in many ways, but explains the unusual La Niña this year.

Combined, the Madden-Julian and La Niña seem to better explain this year's extreme winter better than a sudden end to global warming.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Space Probe Makes Daring Maneuver in Search of Life

NASA's Cassini space probe has just engaged in a dramatic maneuver over one of Saturn's most fascinating moons, Enceladus. Zipping just 30 miles above the surface at 32,000 miles per hour, Cassini passed through a plume of debris shooting from fissure's in the moon's south pole.

(Artist Rendering Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Why take such a risk? Enceladus happens to have some of the building blocks of life, as Cassini mission scientists were amazed to discover.

Back in 2005, Pound360 stumbled upon a spectacular podcast of a presentation by Cassini mission scientist Carolyn Porco (
get the podcast here at IT Conversations). In the speech, she described how Cassini discovered geologic activity, water ice, warmth and organic material on Enceladus. One of the most intriguing discoveries was that the southern pole was warm and scattered with organic material.

With the near-moon flyby which occurred yesterday, scientists hope to examine particles in the atmosphere around the south pole where cracks in the moon's icy surface are shooting steam and dust into space. They already know that 90 percent of the south pole's plume is water vapor,
according to a Time report. Now, the idea is to identify the other 10 percent. Organic compounds like carbon dioxide and methane are already known to be present in the area. Could there be "larger carbon compounds" in the unknown 10 percent?

At a minimum (and that would be a very successful minimum), scientists want to get a handle on Enceladus' makeup. Evidence from Cassini's flyby may indicate whether or not liquid water exists beneath the Enceladus' icy surface.




(Artist Rendering Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Researchers Describe 'Underground Stonehenge'

Most of us know Stonehenge, but Silbury Hill is its lesser known cousin. Situated about 80 miles west of London, the Hill is "a 4,400-year-old, 130-foot-high mound of chalk and dirt," describes Discover Magazine. Like Stonehenge, its origins and purpose are largely a mystery, but new research is uncovering some potential new answers.

Following a series of excavations and radar snapshots, researchers have found there are no human bones, but plenty of "sarsen" stones. This is the same type of stone buried at Stonehenge.

What's up with sarsen stones? According to the Discvoer article, "Because the area is made mainly of chalk, prehistoric people would have seen no apparent natural origin for the stones. Archaeologists think the locals endowed these rocks with a spiritual importance."

Possible Reason for Appendix Uncovered

One of the many mysteries of the human body is the appendix. We've know about it for centuries, of course. But we've never figured out why this "little wiggly worm" is attached near the beginning of our intestines.

According to
a new post at DiscoverMagazine.com, it seems we're closer to establishing what the appendix is for. And it ties in to some of the most fascinating health news Pound360 has been following for he last couple of years: the connection between bacteria and good health.

"The shape of the appendix is perfectly suited as a sanctuary for bacteria: Its narrow opening prevents an influx of the intestinal contents, and it’s situated inaccessibly outside the main flow of the fecal stream," reports Discover Magazine.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Earth Set to Plunge Into Sun in 7.59 Bil. Years

The Earth's fate is tied to the middle-aged star we're circling called the Sun. So what happens when the Sun moves into retirement? Basically, it will expand and suck the Earth to a fiery death, according to a report at the NY Times.

Here's how it works. As the sun gets older, it's slowly getting bigger, brighter. Since the Earth was born 4.5 billion years ago, the sun has gotten 40 percent brighter. In another billion years, it will be 10 percent brighter. At that point, the oceans are going to start boiling off and Earth's going to be a pretty miserable place for anyone stuck here.

Another 4.5 billion years after the oceans are gone, the sun will have burned through it's hydrogen core and start burning through reserves in the outer layers. That's when things get pretty interesting. As it burns through the outer layers, the sun will start to lose mass (get lighter) while simultaneously getting bigger. This process will transform our sun into a "red giant." How giant? About 256 times as big as it is now.

As the sun grows, it will swallow the planets Mercury and Venus, leaving Earth as the inner most planet in the solar system. But eventually, the close Earth-Sun interaction will cause the planet to slow to a point where it can no longer sustain its orbit. That's when the death spiral begins.

In The Times' piece, they also get into ways the Earth can be saved. For example, by harnessing the gravity of passing asteroids or comets to pull the Earth away from a growing Sun.

But after a billion years, Pound360 fully expect humans will have figured out a way to travel the stars. So we ought to just start over on a new planet elsewhere. If we haven't developed the technology to do this because of war, greed and every other short-sighted pursuit that's slowed space exploration, then human beings will deserve what they get.

Another thing this article got us to thinking about is this. Pound360 recalls reading a theory that sends the Earth in a different direction as the Sun goes red giant. As the sun expands and its mass reduces, its gravitational pull will also weaken. Given that, there's a chance the Sun could lose its grip on Earth, and our planet could spiral off into deep space.

What if that's happened to other planets in the galaxy? What if that's happened to other planets that had once been inhabited by thriving civilizations? If so, Pound360 wonders if future space explorers will study the frozen remains of ancient civilizations on planets wandering interstellar space. A fascinating thought.

(Photo Courtesy NASA)



Japan Tests Prius of the Sea

A prototype ship harnessing wave power is set for a test voyage from Japan to Hawaii, reports the NY Times. The "Suntory Mermaid II", developed by Tokai University has a large "wave devouring" mechanism beneath the front of the boat designed to "pull… rather than push it." It's a fascinating innovation that needs to be seen to understood.

In addition to absorbing wave power, the craft is also fitted with solar panels. And in case of emergency, there's an outboard motor and sail.

According to patent records, people have been trying to develop wave-powered boats since 1895. Other (unique) environmentally-friendly ships have been powered by pedals and solar panels (yes, I get that sail and oar-powered boats are environmentally friendly, too). The record distance traveled by a pedal-powered craft is 5,362 miles. And a solar powered boat crossed the Pacific once in 148 days.

If this wave-powered boat thing takes off, maybe it can be deployed in shipping vessels to reduce the environmental impact of hauling goods around the world.

Ethanol Production to Broaden Gulf 'Dead Zone'

If the US Senate has its way, and the nation hits a goal of 36 billion gallons of annual (corn-based) ethanol production by 2022, the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone" created by crop fertilizer will grow up to 20 percent (an area equivalent in size to New Jersey).

This according to a Univeristy of British Columbia study
reported by ScienceDaily.

Here's how it works. Fertilizer running off of crop land sends a tremendous amount of nitrogen and phosphorous into Midwest waterways, which drain into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi river. These chemicals cause massive algae blooms in the Gulf. Eventually, the alga dies and that's when the problems begin. As the dead stuff decomposes, it sucks all of the oxygen out of the water. And that creates the fearsome dead zone.

Pound360 wonders whether or not this study,
and others -- or the recent actions of other governments to curb biofuel expansion -- will change the Senate's mind.

Unfortunately, it's not likely. We figure that, once an issue like this hits the agenda in Washington, it's no longer a logical, science-based discussion, it's a political one.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The 'Tainted' Water Cover Up

This drugs-in-the-drinking water story is huge. I recall CNN had it listed as its top story yesterday morning (which is very, very unusual for a health or science story). "Prescription drugs found in drinking water across U.S.," read the headline. Also, look up "drugs drinking water" at Google News, and the first block of hits is 850 deep. The second is 306.

The story has struck such a chord that Capitol Hill has been stirred into action. The AP (which originally broke the story)
reports today the Senate is organizing hearings around the matter.

In case you've been living under a rock, "a vast array of pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones -- have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans," according to CNN.

At first glance, Pound360 shrugged, "who cares?" There are no toxic substances, only toxic amounts, right?

We're still pretty much indifferent to the story, but a feature at MSNBC suggests even "scant amounts" of pharmaceuticals diluted in water can slow some cell growth (in lab tests) by up to a third. In other tests, tainted water sped up growth of cancer cells.

Of course a lab test is, well, a lab test. So it's tough to say what effect drugs in tap water will have on actual people. But now that the cat's officially out of the bag on this, we're sure a whole string of tests, reports and public shock will ensue.

Actually, Pound360 recalls hearing this same story reported last year. But try and track it down, we did. You'll notice it's impossible to cut through the latest coverage.

However,
coverage of the latest scare at MSNBC suggests this story is nothing new. In fact, it seems, public utilities have been covering up the fact that there are drugs in our drinking water for a while out of "concerns about national security, fears of panic, a feeling that the public will not understand -- even confidentiality agreements."

Let's see. "Fears of panic?" Of course. "A feeling that the public will not understand?" Yes, unless it's described on Entertainment Tonight by the latest American Idol. But what's this business about confidentiality agreements and national security?

As far as confidentiality, it seems that's the only way to get some public utilities to open their doors to testing. According to MSNBC, "Utilities generally only allow scientists to test their water if they ensure confidentiality." Makes sense, in a very dark, sleazy way.

Regarding national security, there are no answers; dark, sleazy or otherwise. Take the case of Emporia, Kansas water treatment plant supervisor Ron Rhodes. This is pretty depressing. When asked about drugs in the water coming into or out of his plant, he declined to answer and, of course, blamed Bin Laden. "Well, it’s because of 9/11. We want everybody to guess." When asked what one had to do with the other, he responded, "We’re not putting out more information than we have to put out… how about that?”

How about Emporia, Kansas find a new water treatment plant supervisor?

Another Mystery on Planet Mercury

As NASA's MESSENGER probe begins its survey of Mercury, the questions are piling up faster than answers. The latest mysteries surround photos of craters in Mercury's Caloris Basin, described by Space.com as "a thousand-mile-wide depression formed billions of years ago when Mercury was struck by a comet or asteroid."

First, the craters are surrounded by dark halos. Second, one of the craters is lined with a shining substance.

The halos may be anything from sub-surface material (darker than surface matter) kicked out by an impact, to molten rock splattered after a particularly hot asteroid crash.

As far as the shining substance, scientists are puzzled. It couldn't be ice. The surface temperature at the time of MESSENGER's flyby was 400 degrees.

A break in the case may come when scientists process spectrographs taken of the mysterious craters. Then again, there's always October 2008 and September 2009 when additional flybys are scheduled.

Are the Kids All Right?

A couple of studies featured at MSNBC today show a couple of disturbing trends among kids.

First, according to a University of Minnesota study, one-in-six kids are already drinking (alcohol) by sixth grade,
reports MSNBC. The study was conduced with about 4,000 Chicago sixth graders.

Also
from MSNBC, a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study finds one-in-four girls has a sexually transmitted disease. Of particular concern is that just half of the study participants admitted having sex. So if a girl is sexually active, she has almost a fifty-fifty chance of ending up with an STD.

When broken down by race, researchers found about half of black teens had an STD, while 20 percent of white and Mexican-American teens were infected.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Rainforests Needed for 25 Percent of Drugs

During an argument about environmental protection, a friend of mine asked, "Who cares? Why spend resources protecting things like reefs, rainforests and rivers?" Well, here you go, friend. CNN reports this week that, "25 percent of western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients."

But that's not even the kicker. Check this out. "Less than 1 percent of rainforest trees and plants have been tested for their medicinal properties." Imagine the possibilities. Is this sinking in? If 25 percent of our drugs come from the 1 percent of rainforest plants that we've studied, think for a minute what potential miracles remain.

That's why you protect the environment. We don't know enough about it yet. We're basically walking out of the theater here before the first act is through.

Cannibalism Suspected in Neanderthal Mystery

According to one expert, quoted in a news piece at Australia’s ABC, "the story of Neanderthal extinction is one of the most intriguing in all of human evolution." So what happened? Competition with homo sapiens? Climate change? A plague?

A combination of factors probably wiped out the Neanderthals. But a new theory puts cannibalism at the top.

The news is based on the simple connection of two, distant dots. One, in 1999 researchers found evidence in a French cave that Neanderthals were likely cannibals. Dot two, research on a tribe in Papua New Guinea shows ritual cannibalism is causing a decimating disease that acts a lot like mad cow. The disease, known as "kuru" is part of a family of diseases (including mad cow) called "transmissible spongiform encephalopathy" (TSE).

TSEs are nasty, nasty diseases. They turn the brain into Swiss cheese. "TSEs cause brain tissue to take on an almost sponge-like appearance, caused by the formation of small holes during the development of the disease."

As it turns out, a TSE spread by cannibalism could have whittled Neanderthal populations down to a "non-viable level" in about 250 years.

Sea Level to Plummet Over the Eons

In the short run, over the next century, global warming stoked by the flames of industry will force sea levels to rise two feet, according to a recent UN report.

But in the long run, sea levels will almost certainly plummet. A lot. According to
recent research reported by Australia's ABC, sea levels will crash 393 feet over the next 80 million years. That's about .0005 inches per century.

If sea levels suddenly dropped 393 feet, Siberia would again be connected to Alaska, and the UK would be connected to Europe. According to predictions, the Atlantic will broaden, but the Pacific will shrink.

No, water isn't slowly evaporating into space; the ocean is getting deeper as the planet matures and mid-ocean ridges are replaced by deep-ocean plains. So far, ocean levels have dropped 557 feet since the Cretaceous period, about 80 million years ago.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Another ‘Death Star’, This One Aimed at Earth

It seems like anything in space that shoots a massive beam of deadly radiation counts as a “death star” in the press. I guess it makes sense. In December, you may recall, there was a galaxy spewing nasty gamma and X-rays at its neighbor galaxy. Space.com called it a “death star galaxy.”

Now,
over at CosmosMagazine.com, there’s a new “death star,” and this time it’s pointed at us. Actually, it’s not a death star yet, but it’s a binary system where one of the stars is on the verge of going super nova. When that happens, there’s a chance that, due to the way the system is oriented, it could shower the earth in a beam of gamma rays.

So what? Gamma rays are bad. You get enough of them pummeling the earth and it could strip away the ozone layer. Still, you wonder, who cares? Well, the ozone layer filters about 97 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (
according to Wikipedia). This is important because high doses of UV radiation can damage DNA. That’s bad.

Experts believe a gamma ray burst pounding the earth 443 million years ago “wiped out 60 percent of life and cooled the planet,” according to Cosmos.

Before you start stocking up on sunscreen, or buying up sunscreen stocks, experts figure it will be a few hundred thousand years before the unstable binary star system aimed at us explodes.

The system, known as WR 104 is 8,000 light years from earth in the constellation Sagittarius.

Pound360 originally picked up this story
via Slashdot.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Great ‘Airborne” Scam

Okay, I’ll admit I bought it. Probably $100 worth of Airborne brand vitamin and herbal supplements to fend off colds over the past couple of years. But as it turns out, I was the victim of “clever” and “deceptive” marketing according to a report at CNNMoney (by way of Yahoo Firnance).

According to the report, the makers of Airborne are pledging $23.3 million to settle a false advertising suit.

“"There's no credible evidence that what's in Airborne can prevent colds or protect you from a germy environment," said one expert.

Airborne isn’t going out of business anytime soon. Although settling for millions, the company denies “any wrongdoing or illegal conduct.”

Here’s where I got fooled. Airborne was positioned on store shelves next to cold remedies like Zycam, Sudafed and other stuff I figured there was some science behind. Now I don’t know what to believe. But I’ll tell you what, unless the manager at my local grocery store has already done it, I’m going to ask them to move the Airborne to the powdered beverage section.

The Great Aromatherapy Scam

Today at Newsweek.com they ask, “Does Aromatherapy Work?” No. And I don’t get why anyone believes it does (probably for the same reason people pick lottery tickets based on ribbons in fortune cookies).

According to
the Newsweek report, an Ohio State University report, “lemon and lavender oil had no physiological effect on study subjects, despite lemon's reputation as a stimulant and lavender's as a sleep aid.” Researchers did everything from taping cotton balls soaked in so-called “essential” oils under study participant’s noses to having them put their feet in cold water. But they found none of the oils “affected pain responses, heart rate or blood pressure.”

If you’re in the aromatherapy industry, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. Most of your customers are probably reading up on the latest Britney Spears news, for one. So they will probably never be aware of the Ohio State research. Second, forget what science tells people about what’s actually happening, people are more concerned with how they feel. One study participant told Newsweek they would continue to buy aromatherapy products. "I know when I smell something like lavender I feel more relaxed," she said.

In the end, I suppose, that’s all that really counts.

Bottled Water: The Raw Numbers

Over at DiscoverMagazine.com, there’s a quick piece on bottled water’s environmental impact. According to the post, 25 percent of bottled water comes from a tap (instead of a mountain spring, a glacier or whatever). But tap water only accounts for 14 percent of fresh water use, and of that, just .5 percent is drank. The real problem with bottled water is the bottle part. Every day… yes, each day… we throw 76,000,000 plastic bottles away.

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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.