Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Government: 22% of Corn Goes to Ethanol

According to the US Department of Agriculture, 22 percent of corn is expected to be used for ethanol production driving up food prices 20 percent, reports MSNBC.

Of course, the ethanol industry is crying foul. They estimate ethanol production is only driving up food prices 4 percent. Both farmers and ethanol execs were in Washington this week trying to explain "the biofuel industry is not the culprit behind skyrocketing corn and wheat prices that have set off riots abroad and grocery sticker shock in America." They warn, "We cannot afford to jettison the promise of biofuels due to this manufactured hysteria over a fight between food versus fuel."

And they're right. We can't afford to jettison the promise of biofuels. But we should jettison the promise of converting food (corn, wheat) into fuel.

Pound360 has been
grumbling about this for months. And others, including Republicans in Washington are starting to grumble with us. According to MSNBC, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake "called for a repeal of government incentives designed to boost ethanol production." Not only that, Flake took the first step towards really fixing the problem: he admitted we were simply wrong in the past. He called public policy support for ethanol "a classic case of the law of unintended consequences."

American Obesity is Costing us 487 Billion Dollars

If each American suddenly slimmed down to a healthy weight, the country would be $487 billion richer, reports MSN Money. Among other gains, we could save $5 billion in fuel costs (airlines would be profitable); $10 billion on plus-size clothing; $81 billion from the extra food we need to maintain our massive weight; $141 billion on health care; and $257 billion in lost productivity.

Obesity also costs us in the form of bigger doorways, wider seats and stronger furniture according to the MSN report.

Obesity even damages the environment. The fuel, food and other costs noted above lead to carbon emissions, fertilizing the land and other practices that aren't so good for nature (at least in the quantity and frequency we apply them).

On top of all that, slimmer people tend to be paid more, have better jobs, sleep better and have better sex.

My fellow Americans, let's loose weight, okay? Tons of it.

Why Super-Spicy Food Burns, and Burns… and Burns

The molecule in spicy food responsible for that delightful burning, capsaicin, happens to be a greasy little bugger that digs in and grapples to heat receptors on your tongue. Pound360 heard it the other day on NPR.

A glass of water won't help. Capsaicin actually is greasy, thus fat soluble (as opposed to water soluble). So drink all the water you want, the capsaicin won't budge. Instead, try drinking a beer, wine, a gin/tonic or shot of whisky (depending on how bad your mouth is burning). The alcohol acts as a solvent, prying capsaicin away from battered heat receptors in your mouth.

Analyst: $7 Gas by 2012

The global oil situation is pretty bleak, reports the NY Times. Oil demand is going up, of course, because Americans need bigger SUVs and China, India and the Middle East are sprinting to catch up with us.

As demand goes up, so do prices. That’s normal.

But according to the International Energy Agency chief economist, what's not normal is that, as prices have been rising recently, demand has not been ebbing and oil production has not been going up. That's why prices keep rising and rising.

How high will they go? CIBC World Markets analyst Jeff Rubin told The Times, oil may hit $200 a barrel in 2012 pushing the price-per-gallon of gas to $7 in the US.

Two problems. Supply and demand. Regarding demand, Pound360 believes developing nations are scurrying aboard the oil train to a higher quality of life because it's the fastest, simplest, easiest way to do it. They should expect big brother (the developed nation that's benefited the most from a century of oil) to innovate and come up with a clean, renewable energy source to take us all into the next act. But we (the US) aren't into that. Of course, we expect prices will come down (like they always have), so why innovate? But that's a fading possibility.

According to the NY Times piece, we're simply running out of oil reserves in many places (Alaska, Britain and Norway, for example), while political instability and market wrangling is stalling production in others (Iran, Iraq and Russia, for example).

Brazilian Expedition Discovers 14 New Species

Scientists exploring the Cerrado wilderness in Brazil have identified 14 new species, reports Reuters. Among the surprising finds is a legless lizard. Pound360 wonders if this creature isn't part of the animal group we've been referring to for thousands of years as "snakes." But we're not scientists here.

Other new species include a variation on the horned toad, a dwarf woodpecker and eight previously undiscovered types of fish.

For as well as we people think we know the planet, it's pretty inspiring to know there's more out there. It's also a bit depressing. We're doing such a spectacular job of wiping out pristine wilderness (
to plant biofuel crops, no doubt) and pumping pollutants into the environment, Pound360 wonders what species have been wiped out in recent years without ever being discovered by science.

Who cares? Check out this recent post: "
Species Loss Represents a Dark, Mysterious Debt."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What's Better for Environment? Eating Local or Going Vegetarian?

Carnegie Mellon University research concludes that, when compared to the carbon cost of food transportation, "foods such as beef and dairy make a far deeper impression on a consumer's carbon footprint." This according to a recent New Scientist report.

You may recall yesterday Pound360 discussed an article at the NY Times
on the environmental impact of our global food market. While it's something to be taken seriously, food transportation only accounts for three percent of all the food industry's emissions.

For the record, Pound360 doesn't eat meat. We used to be
subtle about pointing out some of the facts that support our diet. But as evidence has mounted over the years, we've gotten a little cranky.

According to Carnegie Mellon research, eating local every day for a year saves the equivalent of driving 994 miles. However, if you switch from red meat to vegetables just one day per week for a year, you save 1,156 miles worth of carbon emissions.

In 2006, a University of Chicago report found
a vegetarian diet saves 1.6 tons of carbon emissions compared to an omnivore's diet.

The Strange Race for Industrial Spider Silk

German scientists announced a breakthrough in the race to produce synthetic spider silk, reports the BBC. Scientists are interested in coming up with a way to reproduce spider silk since its five-times stronger than steel, elastic and biodegradable.

Not only can super heroes swing through Manhattan on ropes made of spider silk, but imagine belts and t-shirts made out of this stuff. A single belt, or pair of shoe laces would last a family for generations.

Using new techniques, the German team is able to both observe how spiders make silk and "mimic this process." Spiders produce silk by forcing water-soluble proteins through small holes on their backside known as spinnerets. The German scientists produced silk by cultivating spider silk proteins from bacteria and forcing them through "channels etched into glass." These channels mix in salt solution (which condenses the protein) before spitting out a single, strong fiber.

However, we're not done yet. Said one British expert, none of the German team's results "were of a particularly high quality." However, the team's research "adds a piece to the puzzle."
In the past, researchers have used some very bizarre methods to recreate spider silk. For example, a Canadian team implanted a spider gene into goat eggs so the animals would produce spider silk in their milk. Pound360 is not making this up. According to the BBC, "the technique was successful but the company later abandoned the research." The report didn't explain exactly why the research was abandoned.

Pound360 wonders if it had something to do with the occasional monster goat being born. Come on, there had to have been a couple goats with eight legs or ten eyes, right?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

NASA Fights the Long Defeat

Pound360 has a cynical streak. We're a glass-half-empty kind of team. (Don't pity us, it's actually the secret to our happiness.) So when it comes to the future of the US space program, we're pretty glum. Mission to Mars? Congress will slowly cut spending. Don't waste your time. Moon bases? Yeah right.

But NASA is pushing like Frodo up the slopes of Mt. Doom. And we really admire that. For an agency Presidential hopeful Barak Obama sneered is "no longer associated with inspiration," they're pretty much kicking ass.

(By the way, whether Barak Obama has any clue what NASA is up to or not (we're afraid he does not),
the agency's Cassini mission is something that even us cynical, half-empties here at Pound360 find deeply inspiring. More Cassini inspiration here.)

Back to the moon.

According to Discover Magazine, "Despite funding concerns, NASA prepares to build a base on the moon, explore it with robots, and maybe even cover it with antennas." NASA teams are testing space suits, heat shields and test driving a new generation of lunar rovers. They're even launching a satellite this Fall, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, intended to scout locations for a moon walk in 2020.

For an inspiring look at NASA's plans to push man deeper into space than ever before,
check out this terrific clip from 60 Minutes...

Globalized Food Market Saves Cash, Costs Pollution

Consumers around the world are used to having all kinds of food, at any time of the year for cheap. This is not natural. That does not mean it's bad. But that does mean it's probably not free.

Actually, regarding your pocket book, so far it pretty much is. "Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed," reports the NY Times in a recent article, "
Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World."

About three percent of food industry carbon emissions come from transportation, reports the Times. The food industry transports food to keep produce bins stocked year-round and to take advantage of cheap labor. For example, the UK (and other countries for sure) import grapes from South Africa and squash from Italy in the winter. The UK also goes to places like Morocco and Egypt for tomatoes and salad greens instead of Spain since labor costs are lower.

These examples seem pretty reasonable. But there are others that are pretty bizarre. For example, cod from the coasts of Norway is shipped to China for filleting, then shipped back to Norway grocers for sale. In the fight against pollution and global warming, shouldn't we be cutting as many of these corners as possible?

One solution that wouldn't make much sense is rearranging the "longstanding trade agreements" mentioned earlier. Chances are, governments will never agree to a single, simple, across-the-board solution. They'll fight. They'll pound their chests. They'll simply get up and walk away from the table. Thus, you'll end up with what the NY Times refers to as "an uneven patchwork of fuel taxes" leaving "countries that kept the exemption a huge trade advantage."

Another solution that could (probably not) work is taking the decision to consumers. That's the idea behind a soon-to-be-launched "green" food labeling system at Tesco, the UK's largest grocery chain. The new labels will indicate how far food has traveled to make it to the store and how much carbon was emitted to create it.

Interestingly enough, not all supermarket items that are shipped long distances are worse for the environment than local stuff. For example, tropical flowers. The carbon footprint is smaller if you ship them from the tropics instead of growing them in "energy-hungry" greenhouses.

But that shouldn't make a consumer feel much better. Maybe tropical flowers outside of the tropics are simply a bad idea. When it comes to pollution, smaller isn't better when it's compared to zero.

Friday, April 25, 2008

New Conclusions from Impossible 2005 Dino Find

In 2005, paleontologist Mary Schweitzer discovered the impossible: the soft tissue of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Three years ago, the NY Times reported the tissue was so in tact that it included "blood vessels and possibly cells." At the time, experts found the blood vessels were "virtually indistinguishable" from those of modern ostriches.

Now, molecular analysis of the tissue shows a "very high probability" that the T Rex " is more similar to birds than to alligators or other reptiles." The analysis, by a Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School team, reinforces our understanding of evolution, which was previously based on studying bone and other physical structures.

The research team using an "improved argon-argon dating method" also confirmed that wooly mammoths are "clearly a close relative of elephants." It seems like a no-brainer. But dinosaurs were supposed to be more like iguanas than pelicans, right? Researchers used DNA recovered from the preserved hair of a mastodon that died 50,000 years ago.

Another interesting find: the team's research pushes back the extinction of dinosaurs about 450,000 years (from 65.5 to 65.95 million years). Their analysis has about a 40,000 year margin of error.

Astronauts Survive 'Pretty Dramatic' Reentry

Coming back from the international space station, the crew aboard a Soyuz space capsule experienced the reentry ride of their lives. And they're lucky to be alive. Said one Russian official, "the situation was on a razor's edge," reports CNN.

First, the capsule came in too steep, too fast, leading to nearly double the normal G-force. A force of five is the norm, but the needle aboard Soyuz pushed past eight. Also, the capsule was facing the wrong direction (who was driving this thing?), so the hatch instead of the heat shields were facing downward.

Making the situation worse, and perhaps contributing to the whole mess, the descent module failed to separate from the propulsion module as planned,
according to a NY Times report.

As the capsule fell through to earth, it got hot enough the communication antenna burned up and astronauts inside detected smoke.

When the Soyuz capsule finally touched down, it was about 260 miles away from the official landing zone and about 20 minutes late. The astronauts also had trouble reaching mission control since the capsule's communication systems were damaged. To reach the base, astronauts relied on a backup satellite phone.

There to greet the astronauts when they landed were local farmers that happened to be "burning grass" in the area.

So, basically, the astronauts crashed to earth in a fireball where they were rescued by a bunch of farmers before calling for help on a cell phone. It's the future of space travel, ladies and gentlemen! Star Trek it ain't.

As it turns out, this is the second troubled reentry for a Soyuz capsule in a row, and the third in five years.

Of particular concern here is the fact that the Space Shuttle will be retiring in a 2010. Thus, the Soyuz will be the only way home for people visiting the international space station until the United States' Orion spacecraft debuts in 2015 as part of Project Constellation (
that is unless Barak Obama is elected president).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

China Facing Coal Crisis (This is Good)

Unfortunately, nobody innovates until there's a crisis. People would sooner die a slow death to save a buck than invest upfront in new technologies for the long haul. For example, China is suffocating itself (and the world) with its reliance on coal instead of driving innovation in a clean, renewable energy source.

Pound360 is run by a bunch of Americans. Is this a case of the teapot calling the kettle black? Of course. But we're just as disappointed that leadership in the US isn't driving a Manhattan project to fast-track the era of clean, renewable energy.

Back to China. According to
a New Scientist article, up to two new coal-fired power plants go online each week in China (the country gets 70 percent of its electricity from coal). This has helped charge the "breakneck" economic growth rate the country has enjoyed the past two decades (about 10 percent per year).

But the system is showing signs of weaknesses. The supply and ability of the transportation infrastructure (namely rail) to deliver coal to all of the nation's power plants is being strained. (Regarding supply, China only started importing coal last year, previously it relied on its own mines.) As of now, "the country has just 12 days of coal reserves at most power stations." The situation may lead to "brownouts and power shortages" in the near future.

This is terrific. Hopefully, stung by a power shortage, China will lead the way in ushering the era of green energy.

Cities Begin Shutting Off Intersection Cameras

We at Pound360 feel those cameras at intersections meant to catch people running red lights are pure evil. Nobody on staff has ever been caught by one of these cameras (we don’t think), but the idea of being monitored like this is disturbing.

Pound360 loves technological advancement. But this is one we loathe.

So you can imagine our delight when we stumbled upon
a recent MSNC article reporting, "municipalities across the country are reconsidering red light cameras, which often work too well." Charlotte, NC shut off all their intersection cams recently. Dallas, TX shut down about a quarter of theirs.

Originally, city leaders took the pious stance that intersection cams would "simultaneously save lives and generate millions of dollars in extra fines." As it turns out, the life saving part was just cover. They were really interested in the revenue. You see, at intersections where cameras are installed, motorists are extremely careful. So while violations go down (the life saving part), so does revenue. That's great, right? Keep the lights, yes? No. Since "local governments collect fewer fines," they can't "justify the cost of running them." What about the life saving stuff? How can you put a value on a life!

As it turns out, according to a federal study, the drop in injuries (not even fatalities) at intersections where cameras are installed is "small but measurable." But that's offset a bit by "an increase in some kinds of collisions" (specifically, rear-end crashes by terrified motorists slamming on their breaks to avoid a snapshot).



'The world's last great source of carbon-based fuel'?

We're getting pretty desperate on this planet for stuff we can burn to create energy. The latest pursuit? "Flammable ice," which "could be the world's last great source of carbon-based fuel" This according to a report at New Scientist.

Beneath some permafrost and stretches of ocean floor lie frozen methane hydrates. If we can find an efficient way to mine this stuff, we may have a new fuel source on our hands. Japan, which has long searched for a homespun energy source is leading research in this field.

But caution is urged. "Disturbing the hydrates" could lead to a chain reaction causing seaborne natural disasters like tsunamis. Scotland is thought to have been hit by a tsunami 8000 years ago after a "sudden release" of gas from beneath the sea floor.

Species Loss Represents a Dark, Mysterious Debt

What does species loss cost us? In other words, who cares if another bug or frog is wiped out? The short answer: we have no idea. Until we've had a chance to fully study creatures and their unique adaptations, we'll never know whether or not they hold answers to some of the medical problems facing human beings. This according to a report at the BBC.

In one example, an Australian frog that "raised their young in the females' stomachs" was wiped out in the early eighties. If we had spared the species, we may have learned how the youngsters avoided being digested. Perhaps, such an understanding "could have lead to new ways of preventing and treating stomach ulcers in humans."

Another example, bears. By studying how they maintain bone density during periods of hibernation, we may find new ways to fight osteoporosis.

Isn't it alarming that this is news? Why does this need to be explained to people in a newspaper?

One expert told the BBC, "Societies depend on nature for treating diseases; health systems over human history have their foundation on animal and planet products that are used for treatment."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Wow: US Life Expectancy Drops in Some Regions

Anyone left disputing the US is not crashing from its post as the world's superpower, take note. Life expectancies are falling. Not in a country fraught with civil war, food shortages or an exotic disease, but right here in the United States. According to Reuters, life expectancy is "declining in many poor counties, especially among women."

Could we now have the first generation in this country that will not live longer than its parents? If that's not a true sign that the American Era in world history has come to a close, Pound360 doesn't know what is.

According to one expert, "Life expectancy decline is something that has traditionally been considered a sign that the health and social systems have failed."

Overall, US life expectancy is up to 78 years from 76 in 1995 and 70 in 1955. However, the US ranks 42nd in global life expectancy.

In US populations where life expectancy is declining, the usual suspects are to blame: smoking, obesity and cancer. But some particularly troubling factors are mentioned in the Reuters piece: homicide and AIDS.

Early Earth May Have Rotated MUCH Faster

Before the mega-collision that scientist believe created the moon, Earth may have rotated on its axis once every four hours. (New Scientist)

Imagine that. Two hours of daylight. Two hours of stars. Pretty amazing. How different would life on Earth be? Would there be life at all? Could intelligent life have developed with short, frequent sleep patterns? Would sleeping have anything to do with night and day?

According to New Scientist, an object the size of Mars collided with the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago. The impact would have delivered enough force to significantly slow the Earth's early rotation, perhaps reversing it. The collision also would have created a cloud of debris that eventually formed the moon.

Unexplained Bee Disappearances Spread to UK

Here in the United States, (very few of us) have been following the inexplicable crash in bee population. One estimate puts bee losses at 30 percent, according to the BBC. If the same loss affected the human race, billions would be dead. Who cares if every bee in the world is wiped out? Bees play a critical role in plant pollination. As much as a third of the food you eat comes courtesy of the activity of bees. Unfortunately, according to the BBC, "there is still no answer" to what's wiping out the bees. For now, it's a condition dubbed "colony collapse disorder."

Now the problem has spread to the UK. According to
another BBC report, "wild bee populations around the UK are experiencing 'catastrophic declines.'" They call the problem "Mary Celeste Syndrome" over there (after the legendary ghost ship, of course… Pound360 likes that name better than the US version).

Suspected in Mary Celeste Syndrome are declining wildflower population and varroa mites. When varroa mites invade a bee colony, they lead to birth defects and nerve disorders.

Mystery Lights Return to Sky over Phoenix

On the NBC Nightly News yesterday, they reported UFOs over Phoenix. The broadcast version of the story was not available, but Pound360 found this.

This isn't the first time their was a mass-sighting of mysterious lights over Phoenix. In 1997,
thousands watched a triangular formation coast across the state.

After investigating the latest incident, Pound360 learned they lights were probably part of a backyard science experiment of some kind.
According to the Arizona Republic, a witness saw their neighbor "launch several helium balloons with flares attached to them" from their porch.

The Village Voice seemed to
have this all figured out from the start. According to the NY paper, "UFOs are big business" for media companies since reporting on them brings high ratings. Pound360 hopes that works for this blog.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

America’s Misguided Cancer Crusade

It seems like each week the evening news is reporting a new link between some common product and cancer. For example, the pesticides on that apple you just ate, the cosmetics your mom uses or the cell phone you place next to your head every hour. That’s not to mention power lines, asbestos and other unnatural environmental dangers. Sure, these things can cause cancer, but a recent column at Slate explains America’s focus on this “worry candy” is distracting us from more notorious mass-murderers: natural carcinogens.

From Slate: “Somewhat insidiously, we're starting to believe that cancer mostly is prevented by informing individuals to change their consumption habits—not by proactive, broad-based public-health measures like widespread vaccination or agricultural reform.”

(By the way, Pound360
is as big a sucker for the worry candy as everybody else.)

Some of the most brutal killers are diseases that leave us vulnerable to cancer like human pilloma virus (HPV, which opens the door to cervical cancer), hepatitis B (can lead to liver cancer) and Helicobacter pylori (a major cause of stomach cancers). To prevent deaths, we should be vaccinating ourselves (in the case of HPV and hepatitis B) or working on developing a vaccine (for Helicobacter pylori).

Aflotoxin exposure is also a killer. This stuff comes from the mold that grows on peanuts, grains and milk when they’re stored for distribution. According to Slate, five billion people are at risk for aflotoxin exposure, but “regular food testing, could save thousands upon thousands of lives.”

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Rush to Biofuels May Cause ‘Environmental Disaster’

It’s not that biofuels by themselves are a horrible idea, it’s the way people are going about them that’s pushing us towards an “environmental disaster.”

(
The same can be said of eating meat, by the way.)

According to a couple of “controversial” studies,
reports Discover Magazine, wiping out pristine wilderness to plant fuel crops causes a carbon debt that will take us decades to pay off. It’s the latest in a string of studies examining the link between land use and global warming. (From the Discover piece: “About 20 percent of total current carbon emissions comes from land-use change.”)

Basically, plants store carbon. They’re made up of it. They keep it out of the atmosphere. In fact, “Plants and soils contain almost three times as much carbon as the atmosphere.” This is good (it may be
part of the reason Earth didn’t end up a virtual Hell like Venus). But when you destroy millions of acres of plants, you send the carbon into the atmosphere. This is bad.

While biofuels, in theory are good for the environment (the fields of fuel stock should zero out tailpipe emissions, for example), the initial conversion of land causes a carbon debt that will take 93 to 167 years to repay (depending on the study you trust).

The big problem with our approach to biofuel is we’re thinking backwards instead of looking at new stuff, challenging ourselves to innovate. Corn? Please. That’s so PC. We need a Mac. One candidate is algae. According to the Discover article, “Algae may be the most promising biofuel… some species are made of up to 50% of their body weight in oil which can be extracted and processed to create biodiesel.”
More on algae here.

Testing Jet Engines with Dead Geese

For jet engines to get the FAA’s seal of approval, they must past numerous, stringent safety tests and standards. But the most bizarre is one where they shoot (at 205 miles per hour) four dead geese (via a 50-foot steel tube) into an engine running at full tilt. The “bird strike” test, reported by Discover Magazine, is necessary since collisions with birds cause more than a billion dollars in damage to planes each year.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Oceans ‘Sick’ With Trash

An Ocean Conservancy report is raising awareness of how polluted our oceans are with trash, according to a story at ScienceDaily. And the numbers are pretty shameful. Volunteers combing beaches around the world have picked up an estimated 116 million pounds of debris from 211,460 miles of shoreline over the past 20 years. Trash in and around the worlds oceans kill over a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually. Animals can die when entangled in or ingesting trash.

Pound360 feels
guilty enough creating trash in the first place. The very least we can do is put it in a trash can or, ideally, recycle it. So to us, it’s utterly confusing, simply amazing that people just toss trash in the streets, or worse, into the oceans where it’s more difficult to recover.

According to the ScienceDaily write up, it can take decades for tin cans to decompose in the ocean, centuries for plastic bottles to go away and hundreds-of-thousands of years for glass to break down.

Life Returns to Nuked Seabed

Ecologists diving on Bikini Atoll’s coral reefs were surprised to find a thriving ecosystem 50 years after the infamous nuclear tests that annihilated them, reports New Scientist. Expecting to mind a moonscape, ecologists were fascinated to find coral growing like trees in a 2-kilometer wide submarine crater created by one of the nuclear tests.

Radiation levels in the underwater are pretty low, but when scientists pointed their Geiger counters at coconuts on the shore, the detectors “went berserk.” Coconuts concentrate nutrients, minerals, and apparently radioactive material from the soil.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Stellar Discovery Breaks Rules, Inspires New Class

Astronomers have stumbled upon a brown dwarf star (15-30 times the size of Jupiter) with a surface temperature of just 660 degrees Fahrenheit, reports Discovery News. That’s about the same temperature as Mercury’s surface, less than Venus (867 degrees) and way less than the surface of our Sun (11,000 degrees)

The newly discovered brown dwarf (dubbed CFBDS0059) is so cool it doesn’t even glow. In fact, without special equipment (infrared sensors) you can’t even see it, not even with a telescope. The cool dwarf is so unusual, it’s forced astronomers to create an entirely new stellar class, “Y class dwarf.”

Why Y? The other two classes of dwarf are L and T. Perhaps it’s a Y-class dwarf as in, Y isn’t this a planet? According to Discover News, the Y-Class wonder falls “right smack in the middle of the final frontier that divides mega-planets from the puniest stars.”

The Discover piece doesn’t explain exactly why the new dwarf isn’t a planet. But Pound360 guesses there must be nuclear fusion at the core instead of a ball of rock (which is at the center of gas giants like Jupiter).

Pound360 first came across
this story at Slashdot.

Government Study Shows Disastrous Shake Imminent

New scientists recommends Southern Californians prepare for higher home insurance in the wake of a new US Geological Survey (USGS) study showing a better than even chance the area will be rocked by at least a 6.7 magnitude quake by 2037. The chances of a catastrophic 7.5-or-greater is 46 percent. For San Francisco, there’s a 63 percent chance a 6.7-or-harder earthquake will strike in the next 20 years.

The first-of-its-kind, three-year study is being called “the most comprehensive earthquake forecast ever for the state of California” by the USGS.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Scientists Discover 8,000-Year-Old Trees

High in the mountains of Sweden, scientists stumbled upon a grove of 8,000-year-old Norway spruces, reports Reuters. What are Norway spruces doing in Sweden? We don’t know. The bigger question, how does something live for 8,000 years?

It’s not unheard of trees to live thousands of years. California’s legendary Methuselah tree is almost 5,000-years-old. And researchers have found trees in Sweden that have been growing for 5,500 years.

The ancient Swedish spruces probably survived as 3-foot-tall shrubs for most of the last 8,000 years. Then, as temperatures rose in recent decades, they sprung up. Coverage of the story at Reuters didn’t say how tall the trees are now.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Mars May Have Rings in Its Future

NASA’s exploration of the Martian system continues to intrigue Pound360 with a new set of hi-res pictures. The latest set of snapshots are not of Mars, but one of its moons, Phobos. Yes, Mars has moons. Two of them (Phobos and Deimos), both “thought to be captured asteroids,” says the BBC in a write up on the Phobos photos.

Here, meet Phobos:

(Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL)

Cratered. Grooved. One ugly SOB. Phobos has taken quite a beating, you can tell. But it may end up as the foundation for a beautiful set of rings in another 50 million years or so.

As it turns out, Phobos is locked in a descending orbit. Every 100 years, explains the BBC, Phobos’ orbit sinks about 6 feet. This means “it will either crash into Mars or break up into a ring.” Either way, Earth observers (whether they be our robot offspring or advanced cockroach astronomers) are in for quite a show.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

President Obama Would Cut NASA Spending

Presidential candidate Barak Obama’s intends to slash spending for space exploration in order to support his education reform package reports the Space Review (via Slashdot). This does not help Obama’s chances of earning a Pound360 endorsement.

In fact, this really irritates us.

Obama’s plan is to pull funds from Project Constellation, the program aimed at “maintaining American presence in low Earth orbit, returning to the Moon for purposes of establishing an outpost, and laying the foundation to explore Mars,”
according to Wikipedia.

Pound360 gets that education is important. But do you have to pull money from NASA? How about shaking a couch or two at the Pentagon and collecting the change? In the US we spend around $440 billion on defense each year. NASA by contrast has a meager annual budget of $17 billion.

Part of Obama’s problem with space spending is that “NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration.” Okay, so the way you fire it up is draining the bank account? This is terribly confusing coming from a man that said, “I grew up on Star Trek… I believe in the final frontier.”

Another deeply disturbing issue with Obama is his
support of ethanol. Pound360 has regularly discussed how getting fuel from food is a bad idea. It’s bad for pocket books (rising food prices, for example), bad for the environment (more fertilizer for our waterways, for example) and it simply won’t do much to curb demand for gasoline (if you used all the farmland in the United States to supply crops for ethanol, which is completely absurd, it would only serve around 30 percent of total gasoline demand).

‘Curious’ Cloud Formations May Signal Looming Catastrophe

This is pretty bizarre, but a pair of Chinese scientists are investigating whether or not “distinctive cloud formations above an active fault in Iran” are linked to magnitude 6+ earthquakes that have killed hundreds in the region, reports New Scientist.

Two months prior to earthquakes in 2005 and 2006, an odd gap appeared in the clouds above an Iranian fault line. The 2005 quake, a magnitude 6.4 killed 600 people. Chinese scientists speculate the cloud gap may have been caused by hot gasses seeping from the fault before a quake. The temperature along the fault was elevated before the quake as well.

If a link is found, we may be able to predict certain types of quakes along certain types of faults (at a minimum). But the predictions would probably never be completely accurate.

Pound360 wonders what you’re supposed to tell a population if predictions show a quake is imminent. Imagine the anxiety that would spread. Would the freeways, airports jam with people fleeing? What if the quake never comes and general anxiety lingers for months?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

White Bread Better than Whole Wheat?

Yes. According to an article at the London Times. White bread is better for you than wheat when it comes to minerals and calcium absorbtion.

Here's why. Since World War II, the flour used to make white bread has been fortified with calcium, iron, vitamin B1 and nicacin. This combination means "white bread triumphs" over whole wheat in the mineral category.

Also, fiber blocks your body's absorption of calcium. So you absorb more calcium from a slice of white bread than wheat.

Sure, whole wheat bread has more fiber (and we at Pound360 think it tastes better), but grab a stalk of celery if you're worried about it.

The Times piece, "Five 'bad' foods that can be good for you," also had positive things to say about red meat (it has the same amount of fat per serving as chicken), ice cream (it's a
low-GI food that controls appetite, and a low-cal alternative to super-rich deserts like cheese cake) and butter (one of the few natural foods with vitamin D).

Frog Devolves, Loses Lungs

What a wonderful world we live in. You can decaf or regular coffee, white or wheat bread, and now you can get frogs with or without lungs, according to a report at Reuters.

Apparently, a "rare and primitive" frog, deep in the Borneo jungle, has "evolved backwards" and traded in its lungs for oxygen-absorbing skin. We at Pound360 aren't sure what to make of this incredible development. While it seems cool that this creature has come up with an -- er, relatively -- alternative way of breathing. It's a step back right? Ah, we get in now. Retro. Okay, that's cool. So where do we sign up to be retro-biologists?

Creatures originally developed lungs millions of years ago when they crawled out of the oceans and started living on the land. But the Bornean frog isn't the first land-creature to get rid of its lungs. Some salamanders have also done this, thought it's "exceedingly rare," one expert told Reuters.

Innovation Converts Rainfall into Energy

French scientists are at work on panels that convert the mechanical energy from rainfall into electricity, reports National Geographic in this video feature (via Seed's Daily Zeitgeist). A write-up on the story is also available at Physorg.com.

With an innovation like this, made cheap and easy to manufacture, societies may have clean, renewable energy rain or shine.

How does this work? When a raindrop falls on a panel manufactured to convert mechanical into electric energy (generally known as piezoelectric material), tiny vibrations are created. Those vibrations generate an electrical charge that can be captured, explains Physorg.com.

A while back, Pound360 recalls a story about walkways that could capture energy from pedestrians. So it seems that almost anything can be tapped to generate energy. Again, the key is to make the technology cheap and easy to manufacture.

Astronomers Discover Amazingly Young Planet

UK scientists announced the discovery of a planet in the constellation Taurus that may be as young as 1,600-years-old. That's young. Super-young. The next oldest planet known to science is 10 million years old.

They’re actually calling it a "proto-planet," perhaps because it's still embedded in the cloud of matter from which it originally formed. But this is one big baby: 14-times the size of Jupiter.

The planet is taking shape in what appears to be a busy corner of the galaxy. One theory is that a star passed near the system and "kick-started" the planet's growth. Since the other star is already, well, passed, it must have been moving pretty fast.

Scientists Examine Fossilized "Snake With Two Legs"

If it has legs, is it really a snake? Whatever it is, researchers are examining the peculiar find, locked in a slab of Lebanese limestone, reports the BBC. Their investigation may help settle the debate over how snakes evolved.

As it turns out, snakes have only been around for 150 million years, evolving from lizards. Does anyone else agree this is a little odd? Isn't evolution supposed to give things like wings and horns, not take away things like legs? I suppose we used to have tails.

Anyhow, on one side of the debate are those that believe snakes evolved from marine reptiles. On the other, those that believe burrowing lizards "adapted to their subterranean existence" by getting rid of legs.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

(Another) Conservation Program Falls to Pieces Under Market Pressure

A government program that paid farmers not to farm land is falling to pieces, reports the NY Times. Since it's inception with the 1985 Farm Bill, the conservation program preserved acreage equal to the state of New York. But just last fall, farmers gave up "as many acres as are in Rhode Island and Delaware combined."

Why would the government pay farmers not to farm? To keep food prices up, of course. Historically, we've had too much land on our hands. So by tightening the supply of land, the idea was to tighten the supply of food, and thus keep prices at a level where farmers could earn a decent living.

As a side benefit, to the delight of environmentalists and hunters (the program has boosted the nation's duck population by 2 million), pristine prairieland was preserved. In some areas, erosion was stopped dead in its tracks. The government didn't just preserve any land, it saved "the acres most at risk environmentally."

Again, acreage equal to the state of New York was saved. But now, as global food prices skyrocket, and the demand for biofuel mounts, it's suddenly more profitable to farm the land than what the government's paying ($51 per acre).

But don't curse the farmers. I'd probably do the same thing. It's not like the land is being tilled in exchange for yachts and mansions. Well, maybe not at the farm level. According to the NY Times, "a broad coalition of baking, poultry, snack food, ethanol and livestock groups" are pressuring farmers to withdraw from the conservation program.

Pound360 is simply not okay with that. Why should "snack food" interests have a say in whether or not wilderness gets wiped out?

We understand that this land belongs to farmers. We get how crazy it is to pay farmers not to farm. We realize how cold blooded it would be to simply seize the land.

But when are we going to draw the line?

Why can't we decide right now that the last acre of land we develop will not be the last acre of wilderness? Why not protect another acre of land someplace for every acre of land that farmers pull from the 1985 Farm Bill conservation program?

Quite frankly, Pound360 is bored with hearing stories about more wilderness being wiped out.

We're ready to start seeing stories about the surprising benefits of preserved land, 50 years "after we drew the line." We're ready to start reading stories about how, since we drew the line, amazing technological advancements have given us the ability to pull more from the land we've already developed. We're so ready to read stories about how, since we drew the line, incredible new conservation programs have shown we can live better on less. And we're also ready to read how one of these technological breakthroughs or programs led to a cure for the common cold, a phone that never needs to be charged or an iPod that holds a billion songs.

Green Fight: Planes vs. Trains and the Surprise Heavyweight

For the past couple of years, air travel has been cast as the lead villain in the climate change drama that's unfolded. But according to a piece at the NY Times today, jet manufacturers are starting to turn that around.

But not entirely because they're interested in saving the planet. It's mostly a money issue. "Jet fuel is now the largest expense for most airlines, and for American carriers each penny increase in price per gallon costs nearly $200 million a year."

To lower the impact of fuel prices on airlines, the Times' piece notes three key innovations. First, jet engines are being designed to consume less fuel and weight less. Second, lighter, sturdier composites are replacing the aluminum that makes up most of a plane. And finally, hydraulic systems are being switched out for more efficient electric motors.

These innovations should take to the air in 2013. In the meantime, should you feel guilty every time you step on a plane? Not necessarily.

According to charts
available at the Sightline institute (a sustainability think tank in Seattle), cars still pollute more than planes. That's based on a calculation of CO2 pounds-per-passenger-mile. On the chart, trains are the most efficient, per passenger mile. But what if the train's not full?

On
the latest Guardian Science Weekly podcast, environmental journalist Fred Pearce wonders how green trains are, since every time he's on one, it's not full. In fact, in a blog posting of his from last summer, he looks at this issue and notes one UK rail operator, National Express, typically only runs half-full. He runs a couple calculations in the piece and finds one trip through the English countryside probably cost as much in emissions as a plane trip to Hong Kong.

In researching this issue, I happened across
a surprising fact at the Guardian. The carbon emissions of planes and trains are dwarfed by another form of non-automobile transportation: boats. Global shipping cranks 200 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. That's about five percent of the total global output. Air transport only accounts for 2 percent. What's worse, as global trade increases, pollution from shipping may increase as much as 75 percent (reaching a total of 350 million tons by 2020, reports BP Marine).

Another fact to consider.
According to the Little Green Data Book (a joint Development Economics Data Group and Environment Department of the World Bank project), transportation is a distant second (3,386 metric tons) to the leading cause of CO2 emissions: electricity and heat (6,243 metric tons). So if you really want to reduce your carbon footprint, turn down your thermostat and shut down your electronics (like TVs, stereos and computers) instead of putting them on standby (this is responsible for millions of tons of CO2 each year).

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

King for a Day: Local Comet Briefly Overshadows Sun

Pound360 recently stumbled upon a piece at Space.com that reported on an "incredible" development in the solar system last fall. For a brief time, about 24 hours, Comet Holmes had "grown larger than the Sun."

For some reason, Holmes "erupted" and its coma (extended atmosphere) of dust and other particles expanded to a diameter greater than that of our Sun's. While the comet's core is a "tiny" 2.2 miles in diameter, its coma reached 870,000 miles after the mystery eruption.

Due to the eruption, humble Holmes was suddenly, "one of the brighter objects in the night sky."

What may have caused the eruption? Space.com didn't speculate. We at Pound360 wonder if it didn't collide with something (not likely) or if this particular comet is made up of an unusual, unstable mix of materials (you don't hear of Hale-Bop or Halley's comet erupting, do you?). Also, what if a comet were to expand like this while passing close to the Earth?

Apparently, this isn't the first time Holmes surprised astronomers. According to Space.com, "it underwent a similar explosive brightening in 1892."

A ground-based telescope snapped the image at left. Hubble snagged the one on the right.
(Image courtesy NASA)

MIT Students Explore Taboo Pyramid Theory

How were the pyramids of Egypt built? The leading theory is that laborers cut 2.5-ton blocks of limestone, dragged them across the desert, and carefully piled one-on-top-of-the-other until they reached the top.

But what if the Egyptians used concrete to form the blocks in place? It's certainly easier to imagine than the whole cutting-and-dragging-across-the-desert thing. But it's a deeply controversial idea. According to
an MIT press release (originally found by Pound360 at The Anomalist), the idea is so outside the norm that, "you can't get research funding, and it's difficult to get a paper through peer review," said professor Linn Hobbs.

Professor Hobbs is leading a group of MIT students studying the concrete theory (more as an exercise than to revolutionize our understanding of the pyramids). As it turns out, concrete has been around for ages. For example, the Romans used it to build some of the structures we still see today, like the Pantheon.

The "cast-block theory" was first proposed by Joseph Davidovits, a French materials chemist in the 1930s.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Warming Globe May Increase Volcanic Activity

Every day it seems scientists are uncovering a surprising new consequence of global warming. Today it's volcanic activity according to a report at New Scientist.

It seems like a long-shot, but as ice caps melt and sea levels rise, pressure on the Earth's crust is going to be shifting around. As the stress is relieved in some areas, increased in others, volcanic activity may appear in new places and the frequency of activity in regular spots may increase. For example, in some arctic regions, the period between eruptions may shrink from 58 to 30 years.

According to one expert, "We are going to see a massive increase in volcanic activity globally… if we look back at previous warm periods, that is what happened."


Hawaii's Pu'u 'O'o Erupts in 1983 (Photograph by J.D. Griggs, courtesy USGS)

Seattle to Charge For Paper & Plastic Bags in 2009

Starting in 2009, Seattle is doing the only thing (Pound 360 believes) will make people conserve shopping bags: make them pay. This according to a feature at the NY Times. Sorry, I think the recent green trend -- all these Priuses you see popping up on the roads, for example -- is a fad. Didn't the exact same thing happen in the Seventies?

It's hip to conserve in 2008. But it won't be in 2010. And that's a problem because conservation is crucial to what Pound360 believes is the essential duty of each generation: to leave the Earth in better shape than it was when they got there.

But that's a tall order. Humans (including the staff here at Pound360… probably more so than average… you should see how fast a box of doughnuts disappears around here) are selfish. Indeed, self-interested primates are the ones, over millions of years of evolution, that were more likely to survive. It's not fair. But the chimp that shared its food with a neighbor was probably more likely to die in times of shortage than the one that horded its food and devoured it in private.

Again, it's not fair. I don't like it. But that's the hand we're dealt.

So how do you get people to conserve, to leave the world in better shape, when by nature, humans are selfish? One way is to hit them where it really stings: the pocket book. In that spirit, Seattle will charge shoppers a $.20 fee for each paper or plastic bag they take at a store in 2009.

That may not add up to much over the course of a year. What, 50 bucks or so per person? (Pound360 wants grocery stores to charge $5 per bag) But it's a start.

The City of Seattle estimates $10 million in new revenue from the program. One million of that will go to handing out reusable bags to every household.

Seattle's not the first city to force conservation of shopping bags with government action. San Francisco, for example, has banned plastic grocery bags.
So has Annapolis, Maryland. But they don't enforce conservation of paper bags, which Seattle found can be "worse" for the environment (when you figure the costs of producing, shipping them), according to the Times.

Discover more:
Find out how much oil we use to make plastic shopping bags each year. (It's measured in the hundreds-of-millions of gallons).

Earth, Venus Once 'The Same'

It appears the key is water. Venus may have turned out to be almost exactly the same as Earth, if only it had managed to hold on to its early oceans. According to a recent Science Daily article (found by Pound360 via Slashdot), "the Earth’s twin once had significant volume of water covering the surface but it appears that these oceans were lost in a very short geological timescale."

The conclusions aren't particularly new. But the European Space Agency's Venus Express orbiter has been slowly helping to bolster them. And this week, experts are presenting some of the Venus Express' latest findings on how the second rock from the sun ended up so different than Earth.

Venus, Earth, Mars (Photo courtesy ESA)
Without the oceans, plate tectonics never developed. Without the oceans, there was no chance for life. Without the oceans and life to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere, the surface of Venus is a punishing 450 degrees. The temperature by itself, "slowed or stopped geological as well as biological evolution."

Also from Science Daily, the Venus Express recently confirmed Venus has "
earth-like lightning." And starting this spring, the search for active volcanoes on Venus is kicking into "high gear."

Presently, we know there's sulfur dioxide in Venus' atmosphere, a telltale sign of volcanic activity. However, the question is, does the gas indicate recent eruptions or eruptions millions of years ago? "On Earth, sulfur compounds do not stay in the atmosphere for long," explains Science Daily. But due to Venus' brutal environment, it's possible "sulfur dioxide remains in the atmosphere because it takes such a long time to react with the surface rocks."

Climate Crisis: Is Diesel the Answer?

With the arrival of Volkswagen's 50-mile-per-gallon, diesel-powered Jetta TDi next year, people are sure to wonder why all cars aren't running on diesel. That's how Europe does it. That's how big-rig truckers do it. Why not everyone?

A recent
Green Lantern column at Slate looks at this question, and comes up with a mixed review.

First, let's look at the difference between gas and diesel. Diesel is less refined than gas, and it takes more crude oil to make a gallon of diesel. This mean's diesel's energy density is higher (more MPG), but it also cranks out more greenhouse gas when burned. The tradeoff: 40 percent more miles per gallon for 15 percent more greenhouse gas. In the end, "diesel cars usually emit less of these gases per mile driven."

Traditionally, diesel exhaust has been packed with "nasty particulates," but advances in diesel refining techniques and engine technology have pretty significantly reduced these. However, the new refinement processes require more crude oil to make a gallon of diesel, and the complex new engines "require more energy and materials to manufacture."

Also, despite the advances, diesel emissions remain dirtier than gasoline's. And according to a 2002 Stanford study, "even if all diesels were designed to meet California's emissions standards, diesel cars could still warm the globe more than petrol cars over the next half-century." Of course, that's because
not all greenhouse gasses are created equal.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Super-Charged 'Tsunami' Explodes Across the Sun

When you look up at the Sun -- rather, when you think of the Sun shining steadily above you -- you may go a lifetime without realizing how tremendously violent an object it is. But don't worry, NASA is there to observe the universe for us, and report back on how truly amazing a place it is out there.

Among the many NASA probes currently exploring the solar system, a pair of near-Earth satellites known collectively as the Solar TErestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO for short) are studying the Sun. Why two satellites? So they can watch the Sun in 3D of course.

Artist conception of the STEREO probes (Photo Courtesy NASA)


Launched on the shoulders of a Delta II rocket in October of 2006, STEREO is half-way through its two year mission, which has yielded some of the most spectacular images and video of the Sun to date.

Recently, NASA released video of "solar tsunami" that tore through the Suns atmosphere last year. For the story, and some very grainy, but very fascinating video,
check out the BBC's coverage.

A solar tsunami is created by cataclysmic disturbances on the surface of the Sun like coronal mass ejections and solar flares. In the wake of these events, "a pressure pulse" tears through the hot gas of the Sun's atmosphere.

These pulses, or solar tsunamis, are fast, super-charged explosions. In the 2007 event, the pulse moved across the face of the Sun in 35 minutes. That's pretty swift considering the Sun's diameter is about
100-times the diameter of Earth's, or 870,000 miles. That means the 2007 solar tsunami captured on video by STEREO was moving at a brisk 1.7 million miles per hour.

As if the speed of these pulses weren’t amazing enough, consider this. "The energy released in these explosions is phenomenal; about two billion times the annual world energy consumption," one expert told the BBC

Solar tsunamis move the same way sound does on Earth, by pressure waves in the air (gas). But since these waves are enhanced by the Sun's powerful magnetic fields, they're called magneto-acoustic waves (by very smart people that are more impressed by numbers and facts than catchy terms like "solar tsunami").

Magneto-acoustic waves on the sun, solar tsunamis, or whatever you want to call them were first detected by NASA's
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) about ten years ago.

The Sad, Inevitable Ignorance of Future Alien Civilizations

There was a time when we believed the entire universe was the Milky Way galaxy. And in time, for future inhabitants of our galaxy, this will really be the case.

Of course, that depends on your definition of "real." If by "real" you mean a fact that can be scientifically proven, then yes, the Milky Way (or some form of it) will be all its future civilizations will know of.

Sound incredible? It certainly is. And this intractable devolution of intelligent life's understanding of the universe is at the heart of a recent Scientific American article, "
The End of Cosmology?" by Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer.

Given how close we exist to the origin of the (known) universe, Krauss and Scherrer argue that, "we may be living in the only epoch in the history of the universe when scientists can achieve an accurate understanding of the true nature of the universe."

The reason is the increasing speed with which galaxies (being shoved by dark energy) are moving away from each other. If this continues, which there's no reason to believe it wont, each galaxy will be so far apart in 100 billion years that they will not be able to detect each other.

This is not good since observation of an expanding universe was the foundation of the big bang theory. This expansion was also the basis for our detection of dark energy. But without other galaxies to observe, how will future civilizations know there was a big bang or know there's dark energy?

Who cares about dark energy? Well, it makes up 70 percent of the universe's energy. So it's pretty important. If not at the moment, it will mean something in the future. Consider this. For interstellar or intergalactic travelers, light years from the nearest star, they may rely on dark energy to power their engines. Without such knowledge, future civilizations may be limited to their own solar systems (kind of like we are, which is a real bummer).

Back to the future. Without an understanding of the big bang, how the universe (we know) began, future civilizations will have no (accurate) way of explaining the balance or origin of elements in the universe (like helium), explain Krauss and Scherrer.

Furthermore, civilizations in 100 billion years won't be able to explain the abundance of protons and neutrons, or the "cosmic microwave background." In fact, they may come up with wrong explanations and conclusions about these things; inaccuracies that should stunt their scientific development.

One wrong conclusion they'll probably make is how the universe ends. According to Krauss and Scherrer, "observers of the future are likely to predict that the universe ultimately ends with a localized big crunch, rather than eternal expansion." Indeed, their galaxy will end that way, but the universe (at that time, the dissipating remains of the galaxies we now know) will keep expanding away from each other. Eventually, Pound360 wonders, will the universe be little more than a hundred (or so) billion black holes pushing away from each other, faster and faster?

That's one possibility, but regular Pound360 readers may recall an "
incredibly strange" post where we examined how galaxies may eventually be moving apart so quickly that new universes could be born in their wakes. Yes, that sounds completely crazy. No, it's not as crazy as it sounds. Read the aforementioned post after you finish this one.

The only hope for future civilizations to avoid being "doomed to remain forever ignorant of the big bang" is to probe ancient archives, suggest Krauss and Scherrer. They're talking seriously ancient archives. Billions-of-years-old archives. And billions-of-times lucky ones. They would need to "survive billions of years of wars, supernovae, black holes and countless other perils."

Maybe future civilizations will stumble across one of the
frozen planets Pound360 predicted may wander interstellar space, those where ancient civilizations once stood. Perhaps they will explore an ancient archive, preserved for billions of years under thick black ice, and then decipher the long-lost civilization's storage technology and interpret their language.

Another fascinating possibility raised by Krauss and Scherrer is this. While future civilizations may live in a reality that makes it impossible to understand the nature of the universe, we may very well be in the same position. Krauss and Scherrer wonder, "What have we already lost?" If, for example, we exist in a "universe" born in the wake of expanding galaxies (as described earlier). We'd have no way of scientifically proving it. Thus, what we are able to explain as the beginning of the universe, isn't really the beginning of the universe at all.

When Did Humans First Walk the Americas?

How long have human beings walked North America? Previously, evidence discovered in Clovis, New Mexico put the first humans in the region about 13,300 to 12,000 years ago. But new evidence found in an Oregon cave helps push the official arrival of human beings in North America to 14,000 years ago, reports the NY Times.

The evidence, fossilized human feces (otherwise known as "coprolite"), contain DNA which connect the (latest) "first Americans" to American Indians.

Little else has been discovered in the Oregon cave, suggesting it was a waypoint, not a permanent residence (unless looters have already raided the site and sold the artifacts on eBay).

Another recent find at Monte Verde, Chile suggest humans roamed "deep into South America" 14,600 years ago. If they were there 14,600 years ago, they must have been as far north as Oregon well before that.

Pound360 wonders how long it took humans to make it from Alaska to Panama, Panama to Chile? One thing we're sure of, it was probably one of the greatest journeys in history, full of unfathomable struggle, surprises (both pleasant and terrifying), sacrifice and joy.

'Fake' Superfoods Exposed

You've seen the "superfood" label on fruits, vegetables and fruit-vegetable hybrids (like Odwalla smoothies) at the store. But some superfoods aren't so super, reports Ask Men.

The fake not-so-super foods are soy and whetgrass juice. Soy can steal a man's sex drive, interfere with your body's ability to digest protein and make it difficult for you to absorb some minerals. Ask Men concludes soy is "neck in neck with Saran Wrap for nutritional content." That's a little harsh. But we've been
keeping a skeptical eye on soy for some time here at Pound360.

The other supposed faker, wheatgrass juice, is no more nutritious than "an equivalent amount of broccoli," says Ask Men. But what if Broccoli is a superfood, as
Dole swears and the Daily Mail suggested a couple years back?

Depends on the source you trust. I don't entirely trust Dole (
they've got broccoli to sell). And it's hard for me to take the Daily Mail list too seriously since they list baked beans as a superfood. But I take it seriously enough to conclude Ask Men is probably stretching a bit on the wheatgrass slam.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Climate Maverick Roped: Sun Not Disrupting Climate

Danish scientist Henrik Svensmark pissed off a lot of people last year when he dropped his theory on global warming. The chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, called Svensmark's work “extremely naive and irresponsible."

Svensmark's basic idea: the sun, not humans are causing the globe to warm.

Of course, global warming skeptics had a field day. In fact,
according to the BBC, "Dr. Svensmark's idea formed a centrepiece of the controversial documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle."

But what Svensmark is saying is not exactly what you're probably thinking. He's not saying the sun is getting warmer or bigger. Or that the earth is drifting closer to the sun. Svensmark believes changes in the sun's activity indirectly affect global temperatures by moderating the intensity of cosmic rays entering our atmosphere. And that's where things get bizarre.

Based on Svensmark's research, cosmic rays can boost cloud formation. When cloud formation increases, more sun is reflected into space. Thus, an increase in cosmic rays entering our atmosphere would cool the earth, a decrease would warm it.

It sounds far fetched. But it's part of what Svensmark described as the emerging field of "cosmoclimatology" in
a 2007 interview with Discover Magazine. Cosmoclimatogy looks at the connection between "processes in space and what is happening here on Earth."

But cosmic rays can't simply waltz into our atmosphere at will. Our sun's radiation can disrupt cosmic rays. So when the sun's activity is high and powerful solar winds are radiated, cosmic rays have a hard time getting into our atmosphere. And according to Svensmark, of course, that would mean less clouds and a warmer Earth.

Before we go further, let's figure out what a cosmic ray is. Cosmic rays are flurries of super-charged particles generated by exploding stars (supernovas). When they enter Earth's atmosphere, they boost the level of ionization (electrical charge).

In Svensmark's research, he's found higher levels of ionization make cloud formation easier. In one experiment, Svensmark manipulated the ionization in an 8-cubic-meter chamber with the same mix of gasses as in our atmosphere. As ionization levels increased, he found small aerosols, the building blocks of clouds, were formed.

Again, this all sounds pretty far fetched. But Svensmark set off on his research after reading a 1991 paper that showed a "remarkable correlation" between solar activity and global temperatures. But he admitted in the Discover interview that "correlations are, of course, something that could be quite dubious, and they could go away if you get better data."

Well it appears as though "better data" is getting out.

In response to Svensmark's ideas, Lancaster University researchers set off in search of data supporting a link between solar activity and climate. Despite their efforts, no link was found.
According to the BBC, "the UK team explain that they used three different ways to search for a correlation, and found virtually none."

Another research team, from the UK's Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory, found that solar activity has actually been decreasing over the past 20 years. Thus, the globe should have been cooling, which it's not.

Neither team denies the sun, or cosmic rays, have an affect on climate. What their research shows is that the connection is too weak to make much of a difference. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) actually agrees that the sun has an affect on climate, despite calling Svensmark naïve and irresponsible. But over the past 30 years, "the contribution of humankind's greenhouse gas emissions has outweighed that of solar variability by a factor of about 13 to one."

Aztecs: Natural Born Mathematicians

If you ask the average person what they know about the Aztecs, they'll probably respond to your question with a question of their own, "Like, sacrafices? Where they pull beating hearts out of people's chests?"

Sure. Brutality was a part of the ancient world. But the Aztecs were accomplished in other areas like
architecture, agriculture, engineering and astronomy. Now, it appears as though mathematics can be added to the list.

According to
a report at Reuters, "the ancient Aztecs maintained an arithmetic system that was far more complex than previously understood."

The Aztec system included more "numbers" than we have, according to
an article at Scientific American. Instead of whole numbers, which we're used to, they had numerical concepts researchers call "monads" representing fractions. Said one researcher, "We don't like to call them fractions, though, because they were considered as unitary entities like inches, seconds or minutes."

These "extra units" are represented with hieroglyphics resembling arrows, hearts, hands, bones and arms. Researchers suggest these symbols had a role in what the numbers represent. For example, the arrow would be the distance from the shoulder to the hand, "like an archer with a taut bow." The heart might represent the distance from the middle of the chest to the hand.

Pound360 Archive

About Me

My photo
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.