Monday, June 30, 2008

What's Killing Australia's Crocs?

Something's wiping out Australia's freshwater crocodiles, reports New Scientist. Some populations have crashed 77 percent. At the moment, the leading culprit are cane toads. No, the toads aren't fighting and defeating the crocs, though Pound360 was hoping that might be the case.

As it turns out, Cane Toads secrete a toxin which may be killing the crocs after they swallow them. Cane toads, now considered an invasive species, were originally introduced in 1935 to control cane beetles (which are not good for sugar cane farming).

For now, there's no smoking gun linking cane toads to dying crocs. "Proving a causal link between cane toads and crocodile deaths is tricky, in part because crocs rapidly digest amphibians, so traces are rarely found," reports New Scientist.

Photo by Kmanoj)

Mars Appears Home to 'Largest Impact in the Solar System'

Researchers believe a 5,200 by 6,500 mile basin on Mars is the site of an ancient impact, possibly "the largest impact yet found in the solar system," reports Reuters.

The gaping crater (does this even count as a crater since it's so huge?) is big enough to fit Asia, Europe and Australia, and probably held an ocean at one time.

The object hitting Mars and leaving this cataclysmic mark would have been between 1,000 and 1,600 miles in diameter. The impact would have annihilated half the planet's crust and "disrupted" what was left. What's more, the planet's magnetic field would have been disrupted.

The Earth's moon is believed to be the leftovers of a
collision between the earth and a mars-sized protoplanet. But there's not as much evidence for this as we have for the Mars collision. That is, unless, we suddenly realize the whole Pacific Ocean is where we got nailed.

In other Earth mega-collision news, Pound360 blogged earlier about how our planet may have rotated much faster before being thumped by whatever it is that (may have) hit us. How much faster? Once every four hours. In fact,
the impact may have reversed…

(Photo courtesy NASA/JPL)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mars Soil Fit to 'Support Life'

Researchers studying data from NASA's Phoenix Mars lander found soil near the North Pole with the "requirements, the nutrients, to support life whether past, present or future," reports the NY Times.

The soil was described as "alkaline, though not strongly alkaline" (good for growing asparagus), and resembled soil you might find in Antarctica.

Tests aboard the Phoenix lander also found water vapor present in the soil.

Scientists still can not say whether or not life existed, or exists on Mars. But your grandkids could be buying sacks of authentic Mars soil to grow vegetables in their back yard.

(Artist concept courtesy NASA)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Bush Backs Maglev Train of the Future

The transportation bill signed this month by President Bush includes $45 million for a Las Vegas to California "maglev" train, according to a report at MSNBC. Levitating magnetically, the maglev moves up to 310 MPH and "doesn't pollute" since it's propelled by a magnetic field. But the magnetic field has to be generated somehow, right? And Pound360 bets there's a plant someplace burning something to make that happen.

While Maglevs would be new to the United States, they aren't exactly the train-of-the-future (globally speaking) since one is in use in China (see photo), though it's a money-loser. The hope is that the draw of Las Vegas will make the route profitable. And if the route is successful, more could be developed taking pressure off gas prices and clogged freeways. But don't bet on it. Ask Seattle, home of the monorail, how successful future forms of public transportation are today, tomorrow and the next day.

By the way, Pittsburgh and the Washington D.C. area are also planning maglevs.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Scientists Developing Self-Healing Airplane Skin

Future aircraft could be lighter, safer and more fuel efficient with a skin that heals itelf, reports LiveScience. In the article, a researcher from the University of Bristol in England described how scientists are developing material with hollow, resin-filled tubes that can repair itself. Simply put, when the material is damaged, the resin is let loose, fills in the weak spots and solidifies.

The idea is for the material to work whether the plane is sitting in a hanger (and it's bumped by a truck) or in mid-flight. The only issue with mid-flight damage is the cold temperature at high altitudes. Sub-zero temps may "complicate" the hardening process.

And the material isn't providing just a temporary fix. According to the researcher, "It could be sitting in an aircraft's structure for quite long periods of time, maybe years."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wind, Solar, now Tornado Power

A Canadian scientist has a plan to draw power from man-made tornadoes, reports LiveScience (via MSNBC). According to Louis Michaud's idea, an open air 200-meter-wide "arena" would serve as the tornado's platform. When the platform is heated and a vortex is created, a tornado reaching "several miles into the sky" would show up. At the sides of the arena, wind turbines would generate electricity.

Pound360 has two questions. One, could these tornadoes knock birds (airplanes?) out of the sky? Two, what if one of the tornadoes escapes!? Imagine one of these things skips out of the arena and bounces through the nearest town. Bad news. And how loud would they be?

Another issue to consider is how the platform is heated. Michaud suggests exhaust from a power plant, but there's got to be a greener way. Solar thermal perhaps?

Researchers Identify Brain's Adventure Zone

Neuroscientists have located a region of the brain, the ventral striatum, that shows increased activity "when subjects chose unusual objects in controlled tests," reports Reuters. Stimulation of this region was followed by a reward: the release of dopamine. This suggests an evolutionary advantage to being adventurous. "It makes sense to try new options as they may prove advantageous in the long run."

But beware. The daring may also be susceptible to marketing hype, gambling and drug addiction.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Rainforest Would Take 4,000 Years to Grow Back

Even if we stopped wiping out rainforest around the world today, it would take thousands of years for it to grow back to the same level we're capable of wiping out in a matter of hours. This according to a report at New Scientist.

We at Pound360 are depressed.

In Brazil, where once a rainforest stretched for 1.2 million square kilometers along the Atlantic coast, just 100,000 square kilometers remains. If mankind backed off, here's how it would grow back. After 65 years, fruit trees (seeds dispersed by animals) would return. The predators that eat animals that eat fruit would also return. So would sun-loving trees. After 180 years, the shade-loving plants would make their way back in. But we're still not done. The native species unique to the rainforest would take almost 4,000 years to make their way back.

Of course, we think this assumes humans to not intervene, which might speed things along. Either way, Pound360 now sees rainforests as more precious than we did a few minutes ago.

Image: Rainforest near Manaus, Brazil courtesy Phil P Harris)

Earth's Molten Core Anything But Stable

Deep beneath your feet (a few thousand kilometers), the molten part of the Earth's core (there's a solid part in the middle) is moving "surprisingly quickly," reports ScienceDaily. This according to scientists studying info from the Orsted magnetometer, a satellite that measures changes in the Earth's magnetic field (which is affected by currents at the core).

Unfortunately, there's no deeper insight here. For example, that a shift in our magnetic poles could change overnight due to a sudden shift in the molten core's flow. However, Pound360 was fascinated to be reminded the Earth isn't just a giant stone.

Let's check out the image bellow (courtesy of Wikipedia contributor Drake).

In addition to the solid metal core (6) and liquid molten core (5), there's a lower (4) and upper (5) mantle. While the mantel is technically rock, according to Wikipedia, the lower section is under so much pressure that "it can flow on very long timescales." Ultimately, this flow is what brings us plate tectonics.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Overfishing Has Put Marine Life on 'Junk Food' Diet

Pound360 wonders if our grandchildren will ask, "Where did the saying 'plenty of fish in the sea' come from?" They'll ask since fish in the ocean are destined to be as rare as Big Foot in a forest (or will those be around in a few decades?).

Studying the impact of overfishing and climate change on fish populations, researchers are finding that, as fish stocks are depleted, the surviving species must subsist on a "junk food" diet
reports New Scientist. What this means is that, as humans pull out the good stuff, carnivorous fish (like tuna) and birds must find lunch further down the food chain where the menu is more bite-size and lean. While a diet like that might be good for people, it's not for fish.

At the moment, there's plenty of small, low-fat fish like sprat for big fish and birds to feast on. But still, "marine animals eating [this] junk food diet are losing weight." And that's because, "quality of prey is just as important as quantity of prey," one expert told New Scientist.

(Photo courtesy NOAA)

Wait, The Ozone Hole is a Good Thing?

That hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica may be keeping the globe cool according to a couple of recent reports. This according to a recent report at Scientific American.

For decades, chemicals led by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were gouging a hole in the ozone layer above the South Pole. Ozone is important since it blocks some ultraviolet radiation.

Then in 1996 an international ban on CFCs has helped shrink the hole. But if it's sealed, computer models show wind patterns that keep Antarctica cool (the "westerlies") could be altered, and the icy continent could melt more rapidly than it already is.

Scientists also theorize the ozone layer could trap greenhouse gasses and accelerate warming at the South Pole.

Does this mean the hole in the ozone is a good thing? Pound360 thinks higher UV radiation levels are a pretty steep price to pay for a cooler planet.

Mars Lander Uncovers Mysterious Substance

NASA's Phoenix lander has uncovered white stuff under a thin layer of dust on Mars' north pole. But scientists aren't sure what it is, reports CNN. It could be ice. It could be salt. It could be something else (Pound360 is hoping this is the hull of a crashed alien spacecraft, or maybe a ship from Earth's future that slipped into a time warp as it was trying to escape space invaders).

Part of the reason Phoenix is exploring the north pole is to find out whether or not microbial live could have developed in the region. And scientists theorize there is a layer of ice beneath the dust that could hold the answer. So it wouldn't be a huge surprise is we're looking at ice (below). If it's salt, this would be evidence of water in the region.

(Image courtesy NASA)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Species Watch: Sharks Collapsing, Turtles Fighting Back

There's mixed news on the species conservation front. In the Mediterranean, evidence shows shark populations are being decimated while a rare turtle returns to Texas after a 70 year hiatus.

The populations of five shark species (including hammerheads, pictured) have been slashed by 96 percent over the past two centuries,
reports the NY Times. This is especially hard since sharks take a while to reach sexual maturity and they only have one offspring at a time. Overfishing seems to be the culprit.

Across the globe, along the Gulf Coast in Texas, the leatherbacks are back. For the first time since the 1930s, biologists have found evidence of leatherback turtles crawling ashore and laying eggs. Leatherbacks can grow up to six feed long and weigh a ton.

(Photo by Suneko)

Pound360 Supports Offshore Drilling If…

Gas prices are a problem. Don't believe it? According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 77 percent of Americans say gas prices are causing "financial hardship." That's a record number and it's up 14 points in just the last month. Also, the Department of Energy says gas consumption is down 1.3 percent compared to the same time last year and miles-driven is down for the first time since 1979.

In response, President Bush is asking congress to cut the ban on offshore drilling
reports ABC. And, surprisingly, Republican presidential nominee, John McCain supports the idea (that's significant since he backed the ban in 2000 when he ran against Bush for the presidency).

And you know what, Pound360 supports the idea, too. Kind of. Bush and McCain are thinking of this as a short-term solution to high gas prices. And that's cute. But desperately short-sighted. Think bigger, guys. Think like pound360. Read on.

Look, we hate the idea of offshore drilling. But given a couple of caveats, this miserable solution could provide a fantastic answer to our energy woes.

The fact is, we're running out of oil as demand is soaring. Not surprisingly then, experts including
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller and CIBC World Markets economist Jeffrey Rubin, predict oil will reach between $200 and $250 in the next five years. That means gasoline will pass $7 per gallon and "food prices double," reports Bloomberg. That's a crisis. (Note that, above, Pound360 described our current situation as a problem.)

So what do we do? Pound360 says ditch oil and let's find a renewable energy source to run our vehicles and feed our electricity grids. How do we pay for it? That's the hard part, but offshore drilling could be the ticket.

Yes, offshore drilling ruins the scenery, puts beaches at risk for pollution, harms wildlife and so on. But again, times are desperate. Why not allow the drilling, and then sell the gas at a premium? Then take that premium and put it in a fund to fuel the search for a green transportation and electricity solution?

What idiots going to pay MORE for gas in this day and age? Pound360 staffers for starters. Especially when we know the premium is funding a way out of this mess. And totally especially if we get a free sticker we can put on our car saying "We're the idiots buying super-expensive gas to save the planet."

Not only should we sell the new offshore gas at a premium, but take all the taxes normally paid on that gas (at the pump) and throw that into the fund. Also, add a stiff tax to the oil as it's pulled out of the ground, refined and so on.

You ask why any oil company would do that. Good question. But perhaps the question should be, what oil company wouldn't want to be the one awarded the honor of (here's the tagline for this project) "drilling for a green solution?" These guys are raking in record profits (Exxon just set an annual profit record of 40.61 billion in 2007, or $1,300 per second,
reported CNN), I think they can afford to loose a few billion on this project.

France Pledges $20 mil. To Protect Madagascar Biodiversity

In what's being referred to a "debt-for-nature swap", France contributed $20 million to protect Madagascar's unique biodiversity. This according to a report at ScienceDaily.

Madagascar is in the midst of raising $50 million to triple its protected lands. But that's difficult in a country where 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

The isolated island-nation is home to a very unique ecosystem. Ninety-eight percent of the countries mammals, 92 percent of the reptiles and 80 percent of the plants can not be found anyplace else on Earth.

The French money comes at a critical time. A recent report,
also at ScienceDaily, shows global warming is forcing reptiles to migrate to higher elevations. If the trend continues, some of these species will begin dying off around mid-century.

Image of baobab trees, which only grown in Madagascar, by Bernard Gagnon)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Have They Figured Out What the Appendix is For Yet?

In short: no. But they are getting closer, reports the NY Times.

Here's what we (are pretty sure we) know it's not. It's not a leftover of some organ that served our ancestors since other mammals don't have much of an appendix (if any) to speak of.

The leading theory is that it's a backup drive for helpful bacteria. As the Times article suggests, in case the bacteria in your gut is wiped out, say, by a diarrheal infection, the good bacteria in your system could be repopulated by the appendix.

Pound360 has been fascinated by the many (potential) benefits that bacteria in your intestines can bring.

Pound360 also
blogged on similar efforts to explain the mystery of the appendix earlier this year.

First Image of Exploding Star Captured

Scientists have been studying supernova, the remnants of exploded stars for decades, but for the first time, they've captured images of a star exploding. In a NASA press release, one scientist put the achievement in perspective, "This newly born supernova is going to be the Rosetta stone of supernova studies for years to come."

According to
Reuters coverage of the event, the red supergiant that exploded (named SN 2008D) was 500-times the size of our own sun and located one billion light years away.

The image at right (courtesy NASA) shows the X-ray burst when SN 2008 exploded (top) and a broad shot of the galaxy where the explosion occurred (bottom). In the top image, that speck in the circle labeled SN 2007uy is where a supernova across the galaxy is.

When a star explodes, the shockwave spreads at 20 million miles per hour, shines "one billion times brighter than the sun," and spreads heavy metals like nickel, gold and iron: the stuff planets like Earth are made of. So studying supernova gives us some insight into how planets are eventually created.

Connection Found Between Road Rage, Bumper Stickers

This is pretty funny. A University of Colorado study finds people who "personalized their cars" are more prone (16 percent, in fact) to road rage reports Discover Magazine.

Personalization items or, "territory markers" as the researchers referred to them (territory markers!), include bumper stickers, seat covers, special paint jobs, etc. according to
a Slashdot snippet on the subject.

Of course, the more territorial markers you see, the more territorial (crazy) a person is, and the more likely they are to run you off the road for forgetting to use your turn signal, flip you off for talking on your cell phone and so on.

But it's not what's on the stickers that count. Whether they're stickers for world peace or gun control, it's the quantity of stickers that's connected to road rage. Also, territorial markers were a better indicator of one's likelihood for aggressive driving than other factors such as how expensive their car was (or was not).

Photo by Aine D)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Discovery Suggests Earth-like Planets 'Very Common'

Forty-two light years away, circling a star slightly smaller than our own, European researchers have found three "super-Earths," reports Reuters. The planets are 4.2, 6.7 and 9.4-times the size of earth, and they're moving a lot faster than we are. Their solar orbits range from four to 20 days.

Fast orbits seem to be common out there. About a third of all solar systems with stars like our own have Earth or Neptune-like planets with orbits shorter than 50 days.

The recent discoveries have raised some interesting questions. "Does every single star harbor planets and, if yes, how many?" asked one scientist. And if we found three earth-like planets around one star, how common could planets like ours be? Researchers say their findings "suggest that Earth-like planets may be very common."

The number of exoplanets we've discovered stands at 270.

China 'Cements' Lead in CO2 Emissions

For years, reports have shown China is beating the United States in total CO2 output, but the findings have been controversial. However, a recent study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency shows Chinese CO2 emissions lead on the United States jumped from seven percent to 14 percent. "Now there is little doubt," reported the NY Times.

What's a dozen-or-so percentage points in the broader scheme of things? The increase in Chinese CO2 last year accounted for 75 percent of the total global increase. So it's pretty significant.

The bad news is that there's no end in site. According to the Times report, China's strongest growth is in industries where CO2 pollution is worst: cement, aluminum and plate glass. And as the country grows, demand for these materials, especially cement, will skyrocket.

Speaking of growth, China only emits 5.1 tons of CO2 per person, compared to 19.4 tons in the United States. If China wants its citizens to have the same lifestyle as Americans, they're simply going to have to spend money on clean energy and the greening of their dirtiest industries.

The good news is that, in 2007, Chinese CO2 emissions only grew eight percent compared to 11 percent growth the previous two years. Could it have something to do with cleaning up their act for the Olympics? Let's hope it's more than that.

The below satellite image (taken in Oct, 2002) shows pollution stretching from Beijing (near the top) to the Yellow River (see sediment plume, lower right).

Photo courtesy US Government)

Oil Reserves May Be Significantly Underestimated

As you might expect them to, oil companies give conservative estimates on how much oil is available in their oil fields. They do this of course so they can beat expectations. The problem is, people take these estimates as gospel, and that's part of the reason oil prices have been spiraling upwards and pulling prices at the pump up with them, reports New Scientist.

According to industry estimates, we're down to about 1200 billion barrels of oil. But one expert, the former chief executive of the UK Royal Society of Chemistry (and oil industry advisor), believes there may be twice the amount that estimates suggest.

This is a good and a bad thing. It's a good thing because gas prices could come down if we come up with a better way to measure reserves. But it's a bad thing because if there's twice as much oil, that means there's twice as much CO2 for us to pump into the atmosphere.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Genetic Material Found in Meteorite

Researchers studying a meteorite that crashed in Australia forty years ago have identified "an important component of early genetic material," according to an Imperial College, London press release (via Slashdot). Specifically, the scientists found uracil and xanthine molecules, "precursors to the molecules that make up DNA and RNA." In case you forgot your high school biology (everyone at Pound360 has… thank you very much Nintendo), these molecules are two of the half-dozen-or-so "nucleobases" that make up your DNA, RNA.

Could the material have ended up on the meteorite after it hit the ground? Sure. But according to the press release, "the nucleobases contain a heavy form of carbon which could only have been formed in space."

If nucleobase molecules are common on meteors, Earth's early oceans may have been seeded with the building blocks of life from deep space.

Why Do We Sleep? Science Struggles for an Answer

Sleep is risky. Imagine you're a wild animal. When you're asleep, you're particularly vulnerable to attack. What's more, you could be out doing something more productive like searching for food or a mate. So why hasn't evolution selected out sleepers? There are plenty of ideas, but in short, we just don't know.

Recently 60 Minutes spent half their broadcast
looking at the mystery of sleep. First, sleep is just as essential as food for survival. In tests, rats die just as quickly from sleep deprivation as they do from starvation. Sleep is also connected to staying in shape, building memory, maintaining chemical balance in our bodies and keeping emotions in check. Despite this, the average night of sleep for Americans has fallen from 8 hours to 6.7 since 1960.

Part 1 (13:01)

Part 2 (12:36)

Cyborg Domination Plot Takes Shape

The British military recently launched the final component of its global satellite communications network. The ominous name of this project? Skynet. Not impressed? Not quivering with fear? We at Pound360 are. We at Pound360 remember the Terminator movies where a defense system called "Skynet" turned on humankind and set off to destroy it with nuclear weapons and walking, killing computers called Terminators.

Still not terrified? According to the BBC, the British system makes it so "computers can talk directly to computers." Not only that, Skynet can control attack aircraft, zoom in with its cold digital eyes on any street corner in the world and its super secure. Skynet is reinforced "to withstand any interference - attempts to disable or take control of the satellites - and any efforts to eavesdrop on their sensitive communications."

Scared yet? Skynet allows computers to talk to each other so they can eventually conspire against us. Not only that, when they're ready, the united computers can hunt us down with assault planes, there's nowhere we can hide and we couldn't hack into the satellite to stop it if we wanted to.

[Cue Terminator theme music.]

go read more about Skynet at Wikipedia.

Friday, June 13, 2008

How Living Cells are Like Tiny Cities

Forgot how the cells in your body work? Don't you care? We at Pound360 really, really care. We're each made up of trillions of these things, so understanding how these things work is important to us.

Courtesy of Scientific American, here's an easy way to understand how they work. Basically, a cell is a tiny city:
  • Mitochondria are the power plants
  • Lysosomes are the trash dumps
  • The nucleus is the local government
  • DNA represents the legal charter
Why is a publication as sophisticated as Scientific American wasting their time with a 7th grade science lesson? (The better question is why are the science dropouts at Pound360 reading SciAM?) Of course, it's part of a much more advanced story about how Harvard Medical Researchers are on the verge of recreating what could be the first protocell that may have appeared in Earth's (or some other planet's) primeval ocean.

Unlike modern cells, protocells would have been "like a purse that carried instructions," reports SciAm, "consisting of just a membrane with genetic information inside."

Astronomer: The Sun is Strangely 'Dead'

The sun has been remarkably boring, according to a recent ScienceDaily report. Strangely, there's been little in the way of sunspots, solar flares or solar eruptions up there. And no one seems to know why. Could the sun be gearing up for a big show that could cause serious satellite disruptions? Or could we be on the verge of an ice age?

You may recall last month that Pound360
blogged about a German climate report predicting a cool period over the next ten years. Could the climate be linked to the sun cycle?

Scientists know the sun behaves in 11 year cycles, with peak activity occurring in the middle. The recent cycle ends about now. So it could just be the typical cycle. However, past astronomers have observed up to 50 years without any sunspots (between 1650 and 1700). As it turns out, a little ice age spanned that period.

So far, the sun has gone about two years without a sun spot. According to ScienceDaily, that's "longer than usual." Said one Japanese astronomer speaking at a solar conference about the sun, "it continues to be dead… that's a small concern."

(Photo courtesy NASA)

Palm Oil: 'Worse than Crude'

Indonesia is in a race towards disaster. They're wiping out precious rainforest (and peatland) to make palm oil. It's happening so fast, a Greenpeace rep told NPR, Indonesia is experiencing "the fastest and the worst deforestation rate in the history of humankind."

Of course, biofuel demand is part of the problem,
as Pound360 blogged a few months back.

The destruction of rainforests in Indonesia is so severe, it ranks the country third (behind number two China and the champion United States) as the world's biggest producers of greenhouse gas. The problem is also threatening endangered species like orangutans and Sumatran white tigers.

Check out the NPR site to stream the clip, "
Worse Than Crude: The Case Against Palm Oil."

Go here to learn more about how today's biofuel mania will choke us (or bake us) to death tomorrow.

Photo: Marco Schmidt)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Science Debunks Popular Napoleon Murder Theory

Legend holds Napoleon was poisoned while in exile by a lethal dose of arsenic. Supporters of the tale pointed to evidence in his hair samples. But recent analysis of Napoleon's hair from four stages in his life show the arsenic level in his body was no higher at the time of death than any other period, reports the NY Times.

As it turns out, Napoleon carried 100-times the amount of arsenic in his body as modern people do. That's probably because the geniuses back then figured arsenic was "a general tonic," "a popular cure-all." Brilliant. The poison was also added to paints, tapestries, medicine and food preservatives.

Arsenic can stimulate metabolism, and it's not so deadly if small doses are ingested regularly. But if you plan on using arsenic to shed a few pounds (do not do this), beware arsenic poisoning can lead to "violent stomach pains," vomiting blood, burning pain in the urinary organs as well as "red and sparkling" eyes (of course!), reads
the Wikipedia entry on arsenic poisoning.

How did Napoleon die? Stomach cancer, most likely, according to Wikipedia.

Researchers Describe 'Chaotic' Saturn System

Most of Saturn's rings are perfectly smooth, orderly and predictable. But one, the NY Times refers to in a short post on the rings as "the family freak," and that's Saturn's F-ring.

Unlike cousins A-E and G, F occasionally breaks out into "spiraling braided streams," plumes and channels.

But it's not all F's fault. It's being instigated by the moon Prometheus and other, smaller moonlets in the Saturn system. Occasionally these bodies will come close enough that their gravity drives F nuts. And sometimes, one of the moonlets crashes straight through the poor ring.

Who cares? Pound360 is fascinated by the imagery, thank you very much. But if you must have something more profound, experts point out Saturn's F ring is the most active, "chaotic system" available for observation in the solar system. So understanding this may shed light on how it all formed.

Below are some pictures Pound360
dug out of the Cassini-Huygens mission home page showing "either solid moons or just loose clumps of particles" impacting the F ring.

(Photo courtesy NASA)

After Ice Age, Ice Bergs Floated Off South Carolina Coast

Following the last ice age, as the great North American ice sheets disintegrated, "a flotilla of icebergs" drifted into the Atlantic and reached as far south as the South Carolina coast, reports New Scientist.

Scientists are able to trace the paths of ancient icebergs by examining "gouges" where they ran into shallow sea beds. The South Carolina gouges are just 10 to 100 meters wide, but about 10 kilometers long.

So what? Come on. How could it not be cool to see a giant ice berg (or imagine ice bergs) looming off the coast?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gasoline from Algae More than a Gimmick?

Regular readers of Pound360 know we're big fans of using algae to create energy. Recently we discussed how hydrogen can be captured from massive algae vats to power cities (if they can get the cost of the process low enough, of course).

But a San Diego company, Sapphire Energy, is working on crude oil made from algae,
reports New Scientist. Yes, they claim, this stuff can "go right into today's oil pipeline" and be refined into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, anything you want!

Sounds too good to be true. Well, we're sure they can do it, but what kind of scale can we expect? Will it be enough to make a dent in the
20 million barrels we Americans consume each day?

According to the New Scientist write up, the company expects to hit a 10,000 barrel-per-day production clip by 2013. And it doesn't mention anything about cost. Does it cost $10 to make a gallon of algae gas? Well, if prices keep rising the way they have been lately, it might make sense.

Nations Take New Look at Beaming Power from Space

The idea: Set up a massive satellite orbiting geosynchronously, 22,000 above the surface of the earth, to gather solar energy and beam it back to Earth. It's not a joke. Researchers in India and Japan are fast at work on making this happen, reports CNN. The US looked at this decades ago, but of course abandoned the idea. It would take serious vision to make this work (for example, someone would have had to understand we're only running out of fossil fuel and oil would be over $120 per barrel in the near future), something procrastinating, short-sighted politicians (which is almost every one of them) don't have.

Although the price tag for orbital solar power (we just made up that term) is in the high hundreds of billions (for the satellite, the launches of materials into space and the station back on earth to collect the energy), there's serious potential here. There's more solar energy in one kilometer of space than all of the known oil reserves on Earth. So here's where the vision comes in. One expert told CNN, "The country that takes the lead on space solar power will be the energy-exporting country for the entire planet for the next few hundred years."

Here's a thought. Imagine if, in the future, all electrical devices were capable of absorbing power from high-orbit energy satellites, just like we use satellites for cell phones today. Imagine the possibilities.

Already experts suggest energy satellites could power military operations in the field and beam juice to natural disaster areas.

Fighting Back (Literally, like with Death Rays) Against Killer Storms

It's been a brutal year in Tornado Alley. So far there have been about 1,200 twisters (compared to an average 1,254), 110 deaths from 30 killer tornados and at least 22 tornadoes have topped the Fujita Scale (used to measure tornado intensity) as level 5s. All this according to a report at LiveScience.

What can we do? One suggestion is to move. Almost half of deaths have occurred in mobile homes. But that's not the American way. We're not used to yielding to mother nature. So how about we fight?

According to
a report at Discover Magazine, there are a few weather-controlling options on the table. For tornadoes, you could beam them with microwaves. As a result, water in the funnel clouds would heat up, the convective forces would be disrupted and no more tornado. Researchers are also at work on devices that could redirect lightning bolts better than conventional lightning rods and ultraviolet lasers to create rainfall.

(Photo courtesy NOAA)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

'Virtual Water' Calculation Forces Re-Think of Conservation

Sorry people, water conservation is not as simple as turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth. If that's your idea of saving the planet, you're taking on a charging bull with a sling-shot.

You may save a couple gallons by shutting off the faucet when you brush, and you should. But did you know tossing a banana in the trash will cost you 27 gallons of water? An apple is 19. Dumping a cup of coffee down the drain will run the environment 37 gallons. These figures represent the water it takes to create a product, or "virtual water," according to
a piece at Discover Magazine.

Understanding the cost in virtual water of products seems the best way to confront the emerging global water crisis (about 5 million people die each year due to dirty water or water shortage).

By 2030, the world needs to increase the water supply by 14 to 17 percent to meet demand. Something you can do is make sure you're using all the food you buy and the coffee you make. At a national level, countries can import water-intensive products from regions that are more water-rich. For example, "Jordan saves 60 to 90 percent of its domestic water supply by importing water-intensive products," reports Discover.

Interesting statistics: Americans use an average 656 thousand virtual gallons of water per year while the global average is 328 thousand. Also, it takes five-to-ten times more water to make a pound of meat than the same amount of wheat.

One of the worst offenders as far as virtual water: leather shoes. It takes about 4,400 gallons of water to make a pair.

Evidence for Multiverse May be in 'Background'

Since 2001, NASA's WMAP satellite has been relaying data to us earthlings on the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation; the leftovers, basically, from the Big Bang. Now, Caltech scientists studying the CMB think it might be telling us we exist in one of many universes, reports the BBC.

I'll acknowledge up front that the BBC article is short, real short, on details, but basically they're saying "small fluctuations" in the CMB point to time before the Big Bang, or a universe that we spun out of. (By the way, the image in this blog post is
a shot of the CMB from WMAP.) These same fluctuations are the "seeds" from which galaxies grow.

According to the theory, a universe can spring up spontaneously and rather innocuously. In fact, according to one expert familiar with the work, "a universe could form inside this room and we’d never know."

Pound360 suspects the reason why these fluctuations point to a multiverse are so complex our puny minds couldn't handle it, so we'll watch this space for someone to release this theory in the form of a pop-up book.

For Pound360's favorite, and most understandable, post on multiverses,
check this out.

(Photo Courtesy NASA)

Scientist Have Developed Paper Stronger than Cast Iron

Research teams in Sweden and Japan have come up with material that resembles paper, but has the strength of cast iron, reports the NY Times. The super-paper was developed using nanofibrils and appropriately dubbed nanopaper.

The stuff probably won't turn up in a school kid's notebook. The idea is to use nanopaper as a construction material, perhaps to reinforce thin walls. Pound360 wonders if you couldn't armor-plate a vehicle, or person with this stuff.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Andes May Have Sprung Up in 'A Blink of An Eye'

A geologic "blink of an eye," to be specific, reports New Scientist. Mountain ranges, one would guess, grow over hundreds of millions of years, but according to a theory by University of Rochester scientists, it's possible the Andes grew 1.5 miles in just 4 million years, "a geological blink of an eye."

The growth spurt may have been caused by a "controversial geological theory" known as delamination. According to the theory, it's possible thick lower layers of a tectonic plate can drop off. When this occurs, the thin plate becomes unstable and crumples like the hood of a car in a crash.

Sick Co-Worker? They're Probably Not Contagious

You've probably heard before that you can't get sick once a cold has already started. And that's partly true according to a recent Quirks & Quarks podcast.

Typically you're most contagious before cold symptoms (coughing, sniffling and sneezing) begin, when your body is flush with viruses, but the body's immune responses have not yet kicked in. Once the body starts fighting a cold, that's when symptoms appear. And the symptoms can linger for days and days after the virus is completely wiped out. It's your body's way of being sure it cleans up the whole mess.

So, basically, your body is slow to respond to illness and it's late to stop responding. So most likely, if a co-worker is coughing and sneezing, they're not really contagious.

Discover Mag Featurs '3 Amazing Science projects'

A recent piece at Discover Magazine looks at some "amazing" research projects happening right now around the world.

First, researchers at Raytheon Sarcos in Salt Lake City are working on a hydraulically-powered exo-skeleton. No, it's not like an Iron Man suit (though the Discover piece mentions that), it's more like
the suit Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character used to fight the queen in Aliens. Of course, the US Military is backing development of the suit. And though it may help in loading bombs onto fighter aircraft, it won't be of much use in the slums of Sadr City since the suit requires a power cable to be plugged into the wall. Do they even have power in Baghdad now?

Next, scientists are building a telescope out of a one-kilometer block of ice about a mile beneath the surface of the South Pole. Almost sounds like something out of a movie doesn't it? The cube, fitted with sensors, may pick up neutrinos from deep space as they interact with ice molecules. By tracking these interactions, researchers "should identify the locations of violent cosmic events—and perhaps locate exotic new objects that are invisible to ordinary telescopes."

Finally, 150 miles of the coast of Norway, the Sleipner complex (named after
Odin's magical eight-legged horse in Norse mythology, see pic in this posting) is successfully storing CO2 deep below the ocean floor in a "porous sandstone formation capped by impervious rock." Sound expensive to Pound360, but it's cost effective enough to beat Norway's taxes on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

'Tiniest Extrasolar Planet' Isn't, But It's Still Pretty Cool

So the BBC is running the headline, "Tiniest extrasolar planet found." Then the lead reads, "smallest extrasolar planet yet orbiting a normal star." And then in the article we learn, "a smaller planet than this one has been found orbiting a pulsar." I get how the BBC is trying as hard as the next website to earn clicks, but come on. They could be making some science fans look like idiots in front of their slightly smarter science friends at the water cooler.

Anyhow, the latest "tiniest" planet is about 3.3-times the size of Earth and (probably) orbits a brown dwarf (it may be a very low-mass red dwarf). Brown dwarfs are pretty much the weakest stars out there (they're just one step above a gas-giant like Jupiter), so there's little chance this new planet supports life, liquid water or the pursuit of happiness. However, scientists speculate the atmosphere could be thick enough to harness the planet's internal heat and cause a greenhouse effect (think Venus) capable of keeping temps in the "Houston, we have an ocean" range.

The new planet is called "MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb," and was discovered at the Mount John Observatory in New Zealand.

Bacteria Found Alive in 120,000-year-old Ice Core

Scientists studying an ice core drilled from two miles inside a Greenland glacier found living bacteria, reports ScienceDaily. They estimate the ice is 120,000 years old. Not only is it astonishing to find something could survive for that long in such a "low-temperature, high-pressure, reduced-oxygen, and nutrient-poor habitat," but the finding could help us understand how life exists in the deep reaches of space.

While the Greenland find (credited to a team of Penn State scientists) is pretty cool, scientists have previously managed to resuscitate bacteria that's been dormant for millions of hears. Last year,
Pound360 blogged about how scientists have managed to bring bacteria back to life after being frozen for 250 million years.

A couple other interesting facts from the ScienceDaily piece: Microbes make up about a third of all biomass on earth, but less than 8,000 of the estimated 3,000,000 species have been identified.

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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.