Thursday, April 30, 2009

Time may be an illusion hiding the ultimate theory of reality

Science has a good theory to describe really big stuff (the Theory of Relativity) and there's a good theory to describe the really small stuff (Quantum Theory). The big quest in science is to find a unified theory that combines the two. "One reason it has been so difficult to merge the two is that they are built on incompatible views of time." (New Scientist) But what if time doesn't exist?

Physicists "aren't sure [time] exists at all." It could be an illusion. "Some researchers increasingly suspect that time is not a fundamental feature of nature, but rather an artifact of our perception."

If time is an illusion, "the universe can be described as a network of correlations, rather than as an evolution in time."

That, and we may be able to come up with that elusive unified theory.

Huge 'space tornadoes' spark Aurora Borealis

Giant rotating vortexes ("space tornadoes"), 44,000 miles wide and spinning at millions of miles per hour creating 100,000 amps of electricity (10-times what a lightning bolt creates) appear to be rotating above the Earth's poles, according to data from an array of data gathered from four satellites and a bunch of ground-based telescopes. (Discover Magazine)

It's suspected that these massive space tornadoes cause the northern and southern lights.

As reported earlier at Pound360,
solar winds stretch the Earth's magnetic field (magnetosphere), until it can take no more, then it snaps back into place. It's this violent snap that causes the vortexes to form.

Study of 'hobbits' draws scientists to 'heretical speculation'

Remember the 'hobbits?" Back in 2003, scientists unearthed the remains of tiny hominids (about a third the size of humans) in Indonesia. Dubbed "hobbits", science has struggled to classify them (are they an early human, a separate lineage, an offshoot of humans). In fact, "the more scientists study the specimens and their implications, the more they are drawn to heretical speculation." (NY Times)

These things are strange. Although small, hobbits (homo floresiensis) "had a peculiar gait obviating long-distance running." And despite their small brains, "they made stone tools similar to those produced by other hominids."

Previously, the leading theory to explain the hobbits was a developmental disorder (the "sick hobbit" hypothesis). But some contend there is "no know disease or abnormality in humans" that could account for the hobbits condition.

The problem is that the hobbits seem to appear after homo sapiens swept through the area. So did they "reverse evolve" from humans? Were they victims of "island dwarfing" ("a recognized phenomenon in which larger species diminish in size over time in response to limited resources")?

Human evolution 'recently accelerated by around 100-fold'

Apparently, there's something of a debate over whether or not humans are still evolving. That seems as ridiculous to Pound360 as debating evolution and creationism, but who are we?

Why would anyone suggests humans stopped evolving? "Modern medical practice, antibiotics, better diet and other advances would protect people from the perils and stresses that drive evolutionary change." (
McClatchy)

Sounds to Pound360 like a classic, wandering explanation for something that's hard to see, prove. (We've also read in the past that there's evidence we've evolved faster in the past 5,000 years
than any time in human history.)

Well, there are some anthropologists who suggest "the pressures of modern life may be speeding up the pace of human evolution." The exploding population may play a part, too. "Today, beneficial mutation must be happening far more than ever before, since there are more than 6 billion of us."

Said one anthropologist, "our evolution has recently accelerated by around 100-fold.''

It may be happening so fast, we could soon compare the genes of the old and young to find evolving genes.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Overreacting? WHO declares unprecedented "Phase 5" outbreak

The World Health Organization (WHO) "declared a Phase 5 outbreak" for the first time ever, on fears that a global outbreak of pig flu is imminent. (MSNBC)

Seems a little extreme to Pound360, but we're not world health experts.

It seems that the Mexico outbreak (which was declared just seven days ago), has peaked. After the death toll hit 150 four days after the outbreak declaration, just 10 people have died (during the last two days). And while 2,498 are believed to have gotten sick in Mexico, just 1,311 "suspected swine flu patients" remained hospitalized.

Pound360 wonders how these figures will be absorbed by the overall annual numbers. Look, every year, 250 to 500,000 people die from the flu, so this hardly seems like a serious problem. A pandemic, maybe. But how is that necessarily a big deal?

Well, Egypt thinks it's a big deal. They've slaughtered 300,000 pigs. That despite the fact that "epidemiologists stress it is humans, not pigs, who are spreading the disease."

Historically, we've had much bigger problems. A 1957 flu outbreak killed two million. In 1968, an outbreak killed one million. The 2003 bird flu outbreak killed 257.

Pigs originally got H1N1 flu bug from humans

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, humans originally past the vicious H1N1 flu bug to pigs. (Scientific American) Since then, humans have gotten it back, but "rarely does it make its way from person to person." That's what makes the current outbreak such a concern.

What's also interesting is the new flu "has elements of pig, bird and human flu viruses in it."

Wondering why this bug is hitting young people hardest? "Older people are more likely [than younger people] to have experienced H1N1 viruses in the past."

Skeletal maintenance consumes 40 pct of body's energy

Your bones are constantly breaking. Really. "Bone microcracks," an expert told the NY Times. “That’s how stresses are relieved.” At any given time, "bone remodeling" is happening in response to the microcracks at "hundreds of locations a day." All that work is expensive calorically. "Maintaining skeletal integrity consumes maybe 40 percent of our average caloric budget."

Not only is your skeleton responsible for structuring your body and locomotion, it's also a "ready source of calcium for an array of biochemical tasks," and bone marrow is where your body produces blood cells.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Global warming holds back crop yields

"A study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has confirmed a rule of thumb among crop ecologists: for every rise of one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above the norm, wheat, rice and corn yields fall by 10 percent." (Scientific American)

This could be part of the reason farmers are struggling to improve crop yields. "Between 1950 and 1990 the world’s farmers increased the grain yield per acre by more than 2 percent a year, exceeding the growth of population. But since then, the annual growth in yield has slowed to slightly more than 1 percent."

This is a problem considering there are 6.7 billion people on Earth right now, and
there will be 9 billion by 2040. How are we going to feed all these people? Genetically modified crops? Sorry, "no genetically modified crops have led to dramatically higher yields."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Grain production falls short of demand nine years in a row

We can't seem to grow enough food. For nine years in a row, global grain production has fallen short of demand. (Scientific American) This is part of what Pound360 referred to last year as an "emerging nightmare" where population, climate and the food supply intersect.

Part of the problem is biofuel demand. One quarter of the US grain crop goes to biofuel (enough grain to feed 125 million Americans or 500 million Indians for a year). "The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year."

Water is a problem, too. China hit peak wheat production in 1997. It's declined 8 percent since then "as water tables have fallen and irrigation wells have gone dry." Rice yield is down 4 percent, too. "The world's most populous nation may soon be importing massive quantities of grain."

In India, "Millions of irrigation wells have dropped water tables… 175 million Indians consume grain produced with water from irrigation wells that will soon be exhausted."

The Scientific American article also blames diminishing soil quality.
More on that here.

Oh, global warming ain't helping either. For every rise of 1.8 degrees, grain yields fall 10 percent.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

FDA 'at risk of failing' leaving nation 'at risk of grievous harm'

Have you heard? The Food and Drug Administration "is at risk of failing to carry out its mandate, leaving our citizens at risk of grievous harm." Says who? The FDA's own Science Board. (MSNBC) One problem is that there is nobody in charge. Congress still has yet to confirm Obama's nominee to head the FDA, Margaret Hamburg.

Another problem, "America’s food safety laws have not been updated since they were written during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration." Staffing is an issue, too. The FDA is so understaffed, it can only inspect one percent of imported food (the volume of imported food has jumped ten-fold over the last ten years).

You'd think we would be working on this after that insane outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter made 500 people sick and killed 10. Has the nation already completely forgotten about that?

Largest object in universe, a 'Lyman-Alpha blob', discovered

This is a mind-bending story. Scientists have discovered the largest "Lyman-Alpha blob" (a giant, glowing gas cloud) floating 12.9 billion light years away. (Space.com) Yes, that means this thing existed 12.9 billion years ago, when the universe was 800 million years old. And it's huge. The blob, named "Himiko" ("after an ancient Japanese queen with an equally murky past), is 55,000 light years across, or the size of 40 billion suns.

What is it? Scientists don't know. It could be a galaxy on the verge of forming, or it could be the ionized gas halo of a super-massive black hole.

UN: 28 pct of fish stocks depleted

According to the UN, 28 percent of the world's fish stocks are depleted. (NBC Nightly News) Population growth and greed are part of the problem, but so is technology, says correspondent Anne Thompson. "Sonar and GPS systems help the fishermen zero in on their catch"...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Forests may become our enemy in fight against global warming

"We normally think of forests as putting the brakes on global warming… but over the next few decades, damage induced by climate change could cause forests to release huge quantities of carbon and create a situation in which they do more to accelerate warming than to slow it down," said Professor Risto Seppala, of the Finnish Forest Research Institute. (BBC)

Seppala spoke on behalf of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations which released a gloomy report on the world's forests to handle climate change.

How could the forests turn against us? First, you need to understand how forests help. It's simple. They pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. (
More on that concept here.) But as the globe heats up, prolonged droughts lead to wildfires (which releases a forest's CO2 back into the atmosphere) and totally unintended nightmares like the dreaded pine beetle infestation that's killing North American trees at a shocking rate (dead trees have a hard time absorbing CO2).

We (human beings) want forests on our side, okay? Let alone the one against global warming. The thought of squaring off against nature in any arena is a pretty terrifying one to Pound360. What's more, once this thing starts spiraling, we're really in trouble.

"This could create a dangerous feedback loop… in which damage to forests from climate change would increase global carbon emissions that then exacerbate global warming."

What can be done? "Large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions," of course. Write your congress man or woman. And recycle, please.

Somewhere in this picture may be the next Earth

NASA's recently launched Kepler probe recently sent back an image of the field where it will search for Earth-sized planets in the habitable, "Goldilocks" zone around distant suns. (Wired)

Kepler will stare at the below image for the next three years, waiting for stars do dim (possibly indicating a planet is crossing between it and us).

Don't care about Kepler? Consider this. The question, "are there other worlds like ours" has "come down to us from 100 generations,"
said Kepler project Manager James Fanson. With Kepler, "we get to answer it.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

'Choice' and 'change' blindness shows people don't know what they want

Research aggregated by New Scientist recently shows people suffer from "choice" and "change" blindness. "Choice blindness" is when people defend decisions they didn't make. For example, if you hold up two paintings, a Rothko and a Picasso, and the subject picks the Rothko as their favorite, and then you put the Picasso up and say, "why did you pick this as your favorite?" Most people would gush for hours about why the Picasso is so much better than the Rothko (which they originally selected).

According to the New Scientist column, choice blindness leads to "self-feedback ('I chose this, I publicly said so, therefore I must like it')", which they suspect "lies behind the formation of many everyday preferences."

Many every day preferences? That's not good. Shouldn't choice be based on present reality, not previous statements or decisions?

In "change blindness," people don't notice big changes in their environment. For example, in one real experiment, "X asks Y for directions; while Y is struggling to help, X is switched for Z and Y fails to notice."

The findings "show little information we use in daily life, and undercuts the idea we know what is going on around us."

Again, that's not good. Does this immediately disqualify all eyewitness testimony ever given in the history of the courts?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

'Megadrought' coming to Africa, should world be preparing?

In the 70s and 80s, a major drought killed 100,000 in Africa. But that could just be a preview for a much longer, more tragic event. According to recent research on sediments from Ghanaian lake, "historical 'megadroughts' were longer-lasting and even more devoid of precipitation, the researchers found." (BBC) Yes, "the droughts are going to happen again," and, of course, "man-made climate change may make the situation worse."

The continent of Africa needs to start preparing now, investing in desalination technology and building a system to move water from the coasts inland.

What do you think the chances are of that? People like to wait until they're in the middle of a problem to solve it. But isn't an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure? Since the Africa probably can't afford to prepare for "megadroughts", and the rest of the world isn't going to stand by when one hits and let the continent die, maybe the rest of the world should start investing in this now.

Breakthrough in mystery bee disappearances

For a while now, experts have been watching nervously as bees have mysteriously disappeared around the world (bee populations have crashed up to 30 percent in the UK). Who cares about bees? They're a fundamental part of the food chain, hot shot. You wipe out bees, one-third of our food is in jeopardy.

So you can imagine how important it is to get this figured out. Well, a team in Spain has isolated a parasite (Nosema ceranae, "Microsporidia") common to collapsed bee colonies. (
Science Daily) Not only that, they managed to treat infected bees "with complete success." Wow.

No, Pound30 ain't popping the champagne yet. With a problem this size, there are probably a lot of contributing factors. But it's a relief to see some progress here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

'A glimpse of the ultimate theory that underpins our universe.'

As far as we know, gravity works the same on all objects. In other words, in the vacuum of space, "there is no 'up' or 'down', and there is no direction in which light, people or planets can travel more easily." But what if there is? What if it's so subtle that we've never had instruments sensitive enough to detect it? A pair of scientists (physicist Alan Kostelecky and grad student Jay Tasson) are trying to figure this out in an attempt to "work out what makes the universe tick." (New Scientist)

If gravity does act differently on different objects, that may explain why the theory of relativity (which explains how big stuff works) and quantum theory (which explains super small stuff) don't synch up. Maybe we have gravity wrong. And if that's proven, says Kostelecky, "we might just catch a glimpse of the ultimate theory that underpins our universe."

Odds of asteroid tsunami 'just plummeted' with new study

A co-worker of Pound360's recently asked if asteroids striking an ocean would cause killer tsunamis. Pound360 thought so. But we seem to be mistaken.

A study by the University of Oslo suggests waves created by a 200-meter asteroid strike in the deep ocean "start breaking immediately." Initially, the waves would be "hundreds of meters high," but the sheer size of the waves would cause them to collapse quickly.

But not that quick. It would take 600 miles for the waves to shrink to less than 30 feet. So basically, "you don't want to be close to one of these things," said one expert. Another thing to consider is the splash. A 200-meter asteroid would toss billions of tons of water into the atmosphere, "which would descend at up to 300 meters per second within about 12 miles of the imact site."

Possibly the most spectacular collision imaginable

An all-star cast of telescopes (Hubble, Keck and Chandra) teamed up to turn in a composite image of four galaxy clusters colliding. (Press Association) This is huge. First of all, the whole mess (called MACSJ0717) is 13 million light years across (that means it takes a beam of light 13 million years to move across this whole thing… light moves at 300,000 meters per second). Second of all, four galaxy clusters, not just galaxies are colliding here. How big is that?

The Milky Way (the galaxy you live in) has 100 billion stars, and it's part of a cluster (called the Local Group) that includes 30 galaxies (note, we're probably the biggest of all the galaxies in the Local Group). So MACSJ0717 is probably a collision involving trillions of stars, planets, asteroids and tons of other stuff. Pretty amazing.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

This is a big deal. EPA says CO2 'may endanger public health or welfare'.

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally acknowledged that "greenhouse gases may endanger human health and well-being." (BBC) No, the EPA doesn't come right out and say greenhouse gas is a serious threat to human life. Actually, they're very careful to kind of say it without saying it.

Check this out.
The EPA says greenhouse gases "are at unprecedented levels as a result of human emissions" and are "likely the causes of the increase in average temperatures and other changes in our climate."

Then, they say "scientific analysis also confirms that climate change impacts human health in several ways." And none of them are good impacts. The list includes "higher concentrations of ground-level ozone", "more frequent and intense heat waves and wildfires", "harm to water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems" and unfortunately, so much more.

So what? Why does it matter if the EPA says this stuff?

Broadly speaking, the EPA's findings give them leverage to sidestep the snarl of congressional politics to "develop and implement regulations to limit greenhouse gas pollution in major new sources to jumpstart the transition to a clean-energy economy." (
Climate Progress)

No joke. Nuclear fusion may now be a 'holy cow game-changer'

Harnessing nuclear fusion (the process that makes the sun burn) as a super-efficient energy source here on Earth has always been a to-good-to-be-true joke, "it's the energy source of the future and always will be." But people ain't laughing as hard these days.

At the National Ignition Facility (killer name!), they've managed to come up with a fusion process "which can deliver 50 times more energy than any previous fusion laser system." (
NY Times) This has the potential to be a "holy cow game-changer."

And the timing, during an economic downturn, is probably no coincidence. "Tough times can spur people to look for unconventional solutions to society's challenges." (
MSNBC) What a terrific story would that be? To have the world's greatest energy source come out of the world's greatest economic melt down?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Extinction watch: Tuna, Larks and Butterflies

The World Wildlife Fund predicts bluefin tuna will disappear from the Mediterranean by 2012 thanks to severe overfishing. (EcoWorldly) Pound360 isn't sure if Mediterranan Blue Fin is a seperate species, but in Africa, the Sidamo lark is actually facing extinction. The bird may be wiped out in "the next few years" if "urgent short-term measures" aren't taken. (BBC) The Sidamo lark extinction may be the first bird extinction on the continent of Africa.

Also, according to
a Univeristy of Florida study, the western hemisphere's largest butterfly, the Homerus swallowtail, "needs help to avoid extinction."

Who cares?
Species loss represents a dark, mysterious debt. When you kill off a species, we never know what benefits it may have provided, say, modern medicine or technology. It's like closing a bank account before checking to see how much money is in it. Kinda' stupid, huh?

'Homosexuality is rampant in the animal kingdom'

Recently, a Polish politician was "furious" that an elephant purchased for a Polish city zoo is gay. (Reuters) No need to be "furious," man, this is how nature works. Indeed, "homosexuality is rampant in the animal kingdom." (Popular Science) So whether you like it or not, it's perfectly natural. Get it? (Hey, not everyone does.)

According to the Popular Science article, homosexuality is present in populations of big horn sheep, giraffes, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, gray wales, manatees, macaques, bonobos (one of our closest primate relatives) and so on. As
Pound360 blogged a couple years ago, "homosexuality has been observed in more than 1,500 species."

Crust of Neutron stars may be incredibly strong

A star with a crust? In theory they're out there. Neutron stars, which are left after massive stars explode, may have a curst that's 10 billion times the strength of steel. (New Scientist) With a crust that strong, scientists believe the surface of these stars can support a "mountain" 10 centimeters tall. If so, Neutron stars may produce gravitational waves that we can detect with ground-based sensors on Earth.

What do you do with this knowledge? Pound360 isn't sure. But here's one society-changing prediction. Coming to a video game near you: "Neutron Shields" for spacecraft, "Neutron Armor" for super heroes and "Neutron Plating" for assault vehicles. Is there a stronger substance in the universe? Pound360 will keep our collective ear to the ground.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Attenborough calls for population control

According to Sir David Attenborough, Earth is under pressure from a "frightening" explosion of population. (Daily Mail) The answer? He's "warned British couples to limit the number of children they have." Sounds nuts, but the man's dead serious. "I've seen wildlife under mounting pressure and it's not just from human economy or technology but behind every threat is the frightening explosion in human numbers."

As you would expect, some of the comments on the Daily Mail article were pretty harsh. Since Attenborough has kids, one person said, "[Attenborough's comments] reminds one of Al Gore who jets around trailing a King Kong-size ' carbon footprint' all the while decrying other people's emissions."

Hm. When Attenborough had his children, how many people were on planet Earth? Population may not have been a problem then, but it may be a serious problem now. (Pound360 needs to do more research before having a true opinion on this.) If so, if population is a problem now, what then? Does the present generation still deserve to have as many kids as they want because the previous generation did? Is that fair to future generations that may be doomed to a planet desperately short of wildlife and other natural resources?

Look, people, just because you didn't create a problem, if you're the only one that can fix it, you better suck it up and, you know, fix it.

Banana fuel may slow deforestation

A new plan suggests briquettes formed from the skin, leaves and stems of bananas could replace firewood in developing nations. (Daily Mail) In Africa, deforestation is a big problem, and this elegant waste-to-product solution could help.

This may work as a temporary solution, but in general, the developing world needs to take it easy on burning stuff. Soot from wood-burning cookstoves is a major contributor to global warming, and a serious health hazard. (
NY Times) The burning has propelled "black carbon" (soot) to the number two spot on the list of global warming culprits. And "doctors have long railed against black carbon for its devastating health effects in poor countries."

So while Pound360 likes the idea of converting waste to fuel, let's also concentrate on replacing those open-fire cookstoves all together.

Sucks. Looks like we're living through a mass-extinction, folks.

If CO2 levels double, and temps increase as expected, 25 percent of the world's plant and vertebrate animal species could be extinct by 2050 according to a University of Toronto study. (National Geographic) Sorry, this study isn't unprecedented. In 2004, a University of Leeds (UK) study projected global warming would wipe out a million species by 2050. (also National Geographic) And more recently, a World Wild Life Fund report determined man was responsible for a 35 percent crash in biodiversity, the "biggest mass extinction since dinosaurs."

Pretty lame.

To the global warming skeptics -- those who think it's a hoax or that man has nothing to do with this -- do you really think it's a mere coincidence that we happen to be living in the midst of a mass extinction? These are pretty rare.
There have been six mass extinctions over the past 488 million years. So there's a one-in-eighty-million chance that we just happen to be living through one. The last one, that wiped out the dinosaurs, was 65 million years ago.

According to a 1998 survey by the American Museum of Natural History, "nearly 70 percent of biologist view the present era as part of a mass extinction event, possibly the fastest ever." (
Wikipedia)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Here's why we can't afford to be wrong on global warming

Actually there are a lot of reasons we can't afford to be wrong on global warming. And a lot of simple reasons we ought to address it (for example, excessive CO2 and other greenhouse gasses can't actually be making us healthier). But if we do nothing, we risk the responsibility of triggering one of the greatest mass extinctions of the Earth's history.

Sound a little dramatic? Well, according to University of Washington Professor of Astrobiology, Peter Ward, (
speaking on NPR's Science Friday) "One of the things that's really scaring us to death is, we look at past mass-extinctions and everyone says [asteroid] 'impact'… and NASA and the public believe this is the major threat, and yet we've now found that four of the past five mass extinctions were caused by microbes." So what? "Turns out that global warming is the scariest thing that can happen to a planet because the bad microbes come back."

"I think we're really on the cusp of planetary disaster that's unprecedented for the last 60 million years," says Ward.
Sorry to be such a downer. But we're kind of already there. Last year,
the London Times reported, "man is responsible for the greatest extinction of wildlife since the demise of the dinosaurs."

Check this stuff out, too…
  • Most major mass-extinctions on Earth have occurred
when "the Earth got sick" (not when a meteor strikes)
  • Peter Ward wrote a book exploring evidence of a fascinating twist in the story of dinosaur evolution
  • 'First all-female species' discovered?

    Researchers believe a species of tropical ant (Mycocepurus smithii) is exclusively female. (Daily Mail) In the ant world, males are pretty useless. "In most ant species, males have little or no role in the daily activities." But without sexual reproduction, "the young are less genetically diverse," and "over time, this lack of variety could cause major problems, making it harder for the ants to adapt to threats such as disease."

    But is this really the "first all-female species" (as the Daily Mail headline says)? Pound360 is confused. In the last paragraph of the article, it says "although rare, all-female species are not unheard of in the insect world, with some types of wasp and moth also doing without any male input."

    Amazing: Tree found growing in man's lung

    This headline represents exactly what it says, "Shocked Shocked Russian surgeons open up man who thought he had a tumour... to find a FIR TREE inside his lung." (Daily Mail) The doctors believe the man inhaled a seed, which somehow took root and sprouted in the man's lung. "I thought I was hallucinating," said one of the sugeons. "I was sure I was seeing things."

    Pound360 is pretty confused. There's got to be a more rational explanation here. There's got to be more to this story. Trees don't grow in people's lungs. Then again, click on that link above, there's pretty compelling X-rays and a (gnarly, disturbing) picture of the actual tree embedded in tissue.

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    What's more profound, finding alien life or not finding it?

    This is a pretty tough question. What's more incredible? Finding life on another planet or not finding it anywhere else in the universe? On a (totally killer) recent episode of Science Friday, where they discussed the search for alien life, Ariel Anbar (a professor at the NASA Astrobiology Institute) said, "whether you find it or not… is equally compelling… you could even make the case that if you don't find it, that's a more profound discovery."

    How could that be more profound? Imagine the pressure that puts on Earth.

    According to Arizona State University cosmologist Paul Davies, if we don't find life out there, "that would place an awesome responsibility on us… it would be our cosmic duty to keep the flame of intelligence and culture alive… it would be a total tragedy if, through mismanagement of our planet and our own species, we annihilated the one little corner of the universe where the flame of reason is alight."

    But that would probably never happen. The Universe is a big place. How could we ever rule out that there is life somewhere out there? And if we scour every moon, asteroid and planet, turn every alien rock and swim every alien sea, what if we're looking for the wrong thing? What if life exists in a form we can't detect or simply don't understand?

    Religion v. Science, the latest round(s)

    In a recent test, "researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery." (MSNBC) Strangely enough, "patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications."

    The study was supported by the Templeton Foundation, which gives an annual award (The Templeton Prize) for "exceptional contribution" towards "affirming life's spiritual dimension." This year's winner is French quantum physicist Bernard d'Espagnet who believes "quantum physics shows us that reality is ultimately 'veiled' from us." (
    BBC) Behind the veil? A hidden reality that is "in some sense, divine."

    The BBC presents views from five other scientists on religion, including "the believer", quantum physicist John Polkinghorne, who feels "the ordered universe science reveals is only what you'd expect if it was made by an orderly God."

    On the other hand, "the atheist", Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg argues, "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."

    Time-lapse video from the Space Station

    Is Pound360 the only one that has trouble calling the International Space Station (ISS) a "space station?" The Death Star. Now there's a space station. The ISS is no more a space station than, say, a hang glider is an airplane. But alas, here's some cool time-lapse video (via Science Friday) by astronaut Don Pettit…

    Tuesday, April 14, 2009

    Sun continues to be mysteriously calm

    Over the last 12 months, the sun has been unusually calm. The solar wind is down, sunspots are practically non-existent and there's not much happening up there as far as solar flares and eruptions. And now, "just when you think it has hit bottom, it goes even lower." (NASA)

    2008 ended as the slowest year for sunspot activity -- 266 days (73 percent) without a spot) since 1913. And so far, 2009 has been worse -- 78 days (87 percent) without a spot up until March 31st.

    Who cares? There are some good and bad reasons effects of low solar activity. On the plus side, there are fewer geomagnetic storms interfering with communications. Also,
    the atmosphere is a bit thinner due to solar inactivity, this means less atmospheric drag on satellites, which means they last longer.

    On the negative side, a thinner atmosphere means more space junk (which
    we've heard quite a bit about this year), less (beautiful, awe-inspiring) Aurora Borealis and more cosmic rays (solar wind usually repels a lot of these, which can be hazardous for astronauts).

    Energy from blimps, how is this practical?

    Wind energy from blimps? According to plans/technology by Canadian startup Magenn PowerJust, all you need to do is float a zeppelin at 1,000 feet with a turbine attached to the guide wire (around 300 feet), and it sends electricity back to the surface. (CNN Money). Sounds friendly and harmless enough, right?

    No.

    First of all, the blimp only provides enough energy for five homes. So how many thousands of these things would be needed to make a dent on a city's electric bill. What kind of headaches is that going to cause for commercial, news and emergency air traffic? And what about those of us who actually like looking at the sky?

    Large asteroid 'under close watch'

    A 250-foot asteroid named Apophis is set to pas within 20,000 miles of the Earth in 2029. (MSNBC) That's a pretty big rock (the asteroid suspected in the legendary Tunguska event was just 100 feet across) and very close (the asteroid that grabbed headlines earlier this year was 50,000 miles out… the moon is 230,000 miles away).

    Apophis probably won't wipe out any species (the rock that scientists believe contributed to the downfall of the dinosaurs was probably 6.2 miles across). NASA is tracking 6,000 near-Earth objects. Apophis is one of 1,000 "potentially hazardous bodies." There are 773 larger than one kilometer in diameter.

    Monday, April 13, 2009

    'Green Crude' (algae biofuel) companies increase five-fold

    The number of companies working to invent a profitable system for extracting "green crude" from algae is up to 60 this year, up from 10 in 2004. (CNN) The leader in the filed is Sapphire Energy, which engineered algae in 2007 "whose oil is molecularly similar to light, sweet crude."

    Oil from algae? Obviously, it provides a national security benefit, but how is it good for the environment? As the algae grow, it pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

    No, that's not a perfect solution. But says Sapphire Energy CEO Jason Pyle, "I can't wait 20 years to build a new infrastructure for liquid fuel… We want to use the pipelines, refineries and gas stations we have now and get our fuel into cars, trucks and airplanes."

    Makes sense to Pound360. We need a stepping stone. The United States (and world in general) lacks the political will and vision for something more dramatic.

    But don't expect to pump green crude from your local gas station anytime soon. Obstacles are plenty. For example, separating the oil from water in algae tanks. "Right now it takes a lot of energy to do that, which defeats the purpose."

    Gamma Ray burst may have caused mass extinction, are we due for another?

    When massive stars collapse, they can release a stream of high-energy radiation called gamma rays, which are not good for living things. A gamma ray burst can vaporize the (critical) ozone layer, spark acid rain and initiate a period of global cooling. (National Geographic) The chances of a star collapsing and showering the Earth are actually more significant than you might think.

    According to a new study, the Earth gets nailed by a fatal stream of gamma rays every one billion years. The study predicts a gamma ray burst caused the Ordovician period mass extinction which killed 70 percent of marine life.

    No this news isn't keeping Pound360 up at night. One-in-a-billion (or whatever) chances don't get to us. But it's more than we expected for gamma ray burst.

    Sorry, Pound360 not a fan of flying cars

    As much as Pound360 loves cutting edge, killer new technologies that can transform society, we think flying cars are a bad idea. They're going to be loud. Probably not fuel efficient. And dangerous. Is it just us or has 2009 already been a particularly deadly year for commercial aviation? There was the Buffalo, NY crash in February killing 49, then the Montana crash in March killing 14. And while no one died, there was the famous crash on the Hudson in January.

    What we're saying is that, if the tightly regulated commercial air travel industry has a major incident once a month, what happens when the general public starts commuting to work in flying vehicles? Last year, 37,000 people died in traffic accidents in the United States. And you want to trust us in flying vehicles? Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

    Alas, startup Terrafugia already has 40 orders for their flying car which officially hits the market in 2010 at $194,000. (
    CNN Money / Fortune)

    Sunday, April 12, 2009

    Thousands of 'critically endangered' apes discovered

    There are only 50 - 60 thousand orangutans believed to exist these days (90 percent in Indonesia, the rest in Malaysia), but researchers recently stumbled upon a new population of 2,000 along the eastern edge of Borneo island (that's in Indonesia). (AP / Newsvine)

    Orangutans have had a hard time getting along in Indonesia and Malaysia as their native habitat is cleared out to make way for palm oil plantations ("to meet growing demands for 'clean-burning' fuels in the U.S. and Europe," of course).

    The area where the new population was discovered is protected by "steep topography, poor soil and general inaccessibility." These apes aren't big fans of people, either. One of the orangutans "angrily threw branches as [researchers] tried to take photos."

    'Pure reason is actually a disease'

    Jonah Lehrer, author of "The Decisive Moment", appeared on a recent episode of The Guardian's Science Weekly podcast and provided some interesting insight into how your mind makes decisions.

    Should you trust your gut? During the first Gulf War, British sailor Michael Riley saw a couple of blips on his radar that terrified him. Almost immediately, he fired his counter-measures (Sea Dart rockets). But there was a good chance those blips he reacted to could have been either Iraqi Silkworm missiles (that would sink a battleship) or United States A-6 fighter planes. He had to wait a few hours to find out if he made the right decision or not.

    As it turns out, he made the right decision.

    Due to subtle discrepancies in the behavior of those blips (they appeared three minutes apart), Riley's subconscious mind correctly interpreted a threat and triggered the fear response that terrified him.

    Think about this for a minute. The subconscious, instinctual mind was using emotion to communicate with the conscious, rational side.

    But that doesn't mean you should always trust your gut. Unfortunately, the instinctual side of your mind is "full of hard-wired flaws," says Lehrer. For example, "loss aversion," which "makes people irrationally sensitive to losses." And this manifests in people's stock portfolios (including, very sadly, those of us at Pound360).

    "When people decide which stocks to buy or sell, they're more likely to sell stocks that have gone up in value," said Lehrer, "unfortunately that means you end up with a stock portfolio composed entirely of losing stocks."

    So what should you do? When do you know to trust your instincts? Unfortunately, there is no easier answer, but you certainly should be paying attention.

    Consider people that lose their emotions through brain injury. "They become pathologically indecisive," explains Lehrer, "they spend the entire day trying to figure out where to eat lunch. So in this sense, pure reason isn't something to aspire to, pure reason is actually a disease."

    'Moon' looks like a cool movie, but already short on facts

    Check out the trailer for this summer's "Moon" starring the typically awesome Sam Rockewell…



    Looks like a good ride. But Pound360 is worried about how much homework the filmmakers devoted to this film. The
    Bad Astronomy blog found the "Moon" poster online and noticed the tagline, "950,000 miles from home, the hardest thing to face… is yourself." The problem with that? The moon is only 240,000 from Earth.

    Wednesday, April 08, 2009

    Legendary pink dolphin discovered off Louisiana coast

    This is real. A pink dolphin, code name "pinky," has been spotted by researchers off the coast of Louisiana. This is rare (about one in one hundred million). Since 1992, there have only been 14 documented sightings. "Why does pinky look like a child's inflatable toy? An extraordinary genetic mutation…"

    Tuesday, April 07, 2009

    2.7 bil. year old algae makes a comeback

    Warmer waters are sparking a comeback of "fire weed", a species of blue-green algae scientists believe "emerged from the primordial ooze that begat all live" 2.7 billion years ago. This stuff grows fast. A bloom can cover the size of a football field in an hour…

    Nine herpes-infected monkeys escape research facility

    A crazed pack of snow monkeys infected with Herpes B broke out of a research facility in Oregon. Cops fired rubber bullets to bring one monkey in. "The monkey screamed awful," said one witness, "it was a horrible sound…"

    Scientist predicted Italy quake, was silenced by government

    Italian seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani predicted a major tremor near L'aquila weeks before the earthquake that killed at least 150 this week. (Reuters) He based his prediction by monitoring a pattern of seismic activity and tracking atmospheric concentrations of radon gas. Giuliani was so convinced disaster was imminent he drove through the streets in a van with loudspeakers urging residents to evacuate.

    How did the government respond? By branding him a madman, of course. L'Aquila's mayor reported him to police for "spreading alarm", and he was later forced to remove his findings from the internet.

    Forced to remove his findings from the internet! And it gets better (much worse, really). The government scoffed, "the tremors being felt are… typical… absolutely normal."

    (Image of Giuliani from the
    Daily Mail)

    Monday, April 06, 2009

    Arctic sea ice reaches a grim milestone

    It's been a brutal winter this year. Super cold. Lots of snow. But save the champagne, global warming ain't over yet. A new government report finds "ice cover this winter was the fifth smallest on record" and "the thinnest ever"… "the science is telling us that we are actually in a much worse situation…"

    Recession's "silver lining": Fewer highway deaths

    Highway fatalities reached their lowest level since 1961 thanks to "the recession and $4 per gallon gas." (Reuters) Basically, "people drove less to save more."

    Pound360 blogged last October about how statistics how
    death rates drop during recessions, and we've been trying to tell people this, but no one believed us. "People are stressed out so they have heart attacks," some said. "People are unemployed so they drive more and there's going to be more wrecks." Well, the numbers are out. There's less wrecks.

    Typically, Pound360 hates it when we're right. But not on this one.

    (Image via Flickr by
    snorri7)

    Thursday, April 02, 2009

    Healthy young star mysteriously turns up dead

    There's a fair amount of mystery surrounding the death of a star in galaxy NGC 266. (MSNBC) First, it was too big to explode. At 50-times the size of our own sun, it should have collapsed inward when it became unstable and formed a black hole (from what we understand, stars greater than 20 solar masses should become black holes). Second, why did it become unstable? It seemed too young to explode (its outer-shell was still rich in hydrogen and its core had not converted to a mass of iron ash).

    One far-fetched possibility, the star was part of a binary system, it ate its sister star, and bam, there's a supernova where there shouldn't be one. Then again, maybe the current theory of stellar evolution is wrong and it needs to be rewritten.

    Wednesday, April 01, 2009

    Economist's take: 'The trouble with hydrogen'

    The deck is stacked against hydrogen cars. The more Pound360 reads about using hydrogen to fuel our vehicles, the less sense it makes. At this point, it seems like our pursuit of hydrogen cars is an embarrassing fiasco on the level with corn-based ethanol. Here are some hydrogen car obstacles from an Economist article


    • Public funding: At the low end, public investment of $10 billion is needed to get just 2 million hydrogen cars on the road by 2025. Other studies show it will take $55 billion.
    • Filling stations: Classic chicken-and-egg problem here. Who will build these before there's a market to make them profitable? Shell currently has six hydrogen stations globally. BP shut theirs down in 2007 to focus on biofuels.
    • CO2 emissions: Yes, the only emission from a hydrogen-powered car is water. But when extracting hydrogen from natural sources, CO2 would be created.
    • Low energy density: One expert called hydrogen "just about the worst possible vehicle fuel." Alternatives like methanol are more energy rich and easier to store, transport.
    (Pound360 originally came across the Economist article at
    The Vine.)
    (Image of the Cadillac Provoq, a GM hydrogen car, by
    alan_D via Flickr)

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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.