Archive for February, 2010

Solar Activity Alters Earth’s Climate

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Photo via flickr by chefranden

Scientists have long suspected that the sun affects climate on Earth, but that connection has proved hard to pin down. Researchers recently demonstrated that the 11-year cycle of solar activity influences weather in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Even then the exact cause remained obscure, since the sun’s brightness varies by just one-tenth of a percent.

An international team led by Gerald Meehl, a climatologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, announced that the sun’s outsize influence results from its combined effects on our atmosphere and oceans. When the sun is at its most intense, ozone in the stratosphere absorbs more ultraviolet energy, making areas near the equator warmer than usual. The added heat changes wind patterns, bringing more rain to the western tropics. At the same time, the extra sunlight causes more evaporation off  the ocean, which adds to downpours in the western tropics. His results should help climatologists predict monsoons in Asia and overall climate in North America and might someday allow them to estimate seasonal rainfall years in advance.

Meanwhile, Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark and his colleagues are exploring a broader climate impact of solar activity. He believes that cosmic rays—energetic subatomic particles from outer space—help seed cloud-forming water droplets in the lower atmosphere. During peak solar activity, eruptions from the sun spew out huge clouds of plasma that shield Earth from those cosmic rays. After examining cloud cover and cosmic ray fluxes, Svensmark concluded that declines in cosmic rays lead to fewer clouds, implying that an active sun could lead to warmer surface temperatures. Following the strongest solar eruptions, he found that the sky lost 7 percent of its cloud water.

via Discover Magazine

Brain ‘Entanglement’ Could Explain Memories

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Photo via flickr by heyjoewhereyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

Subatomic particles do it. Now the observation that groups of brain cells seem to have their own version of quantum entanglement, or “spooky action at a distance”, could help explain how our minds combine experiences from many different senses into one memory.

Previous experiments have shown that the electrical activity of neurons in separate parts of the brain can oscillate simultaneously at the same frequency – a process known as “phase locking.”  The frequency seems to be a signature that marks out neurons working on the same task, allowing them to identify each other.

According to research by Dietmar Pienz and Tara Thiagarajan at the National Institute of Mental Health, unique patterns of electrical signals (“coherence potentials”) are “cloned” or spread to neurons in different areas of the brain.

The purpose of coherence potentials may be to trigger activity in the various parts of the brain that store aspects of the same experience. So a smell or taste, say, might trigger a coherence potential that then activates the same potential in neurons in the visual part of the brain.

via KurzweilAI and New Scientist

Sonic Black Hole Created in Lab

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Photo via flickr by Ghost of Kuji

Researchers at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, announced they had made an earthbound analogue of a black hole. Not to worry: Instead of a superdense object from which no light can escape, their more docile version merely prevents sound waves from getting out.

Constructing a sonic black hole was first proposed by Canadian physicist William Unruh nearly 30 years ago, but the Israeli team was the first to successfully create one. They cooled 100,000 rubidium atoms to a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero and used a laser to create a void in this tiny cloud. As the atoms, attracted to the breach, zipped across it at more than four times the speed of sound, they gave rise to a black hole effect. Under such conditions, no sound wave could travel against the flow of the racing fluid. “It’s like trying to swim upstream in a river whose current is faster than you,” says team member Jeff Steinhauer. The boundary between the subsonic and supersonic flows mimics a black hole’s event horizon, the point of no return.

The discovery could potentially provide a way to test Stephen Hawking’s prediction that a real black hole should slowly evaporate as it emits radiation generated in the quantum turmoil at its event horizon. A sonic black hole ought to act in the same way by releasing phonons, or packets of sound energy. Finding phonons would provide strong evidence that “black holes ain’t so black.”

via Discover Magazine

Auroville: Laboratory of Evolution

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

Photo via Auroville

Auroville is a universal township in the making for a population of up to 50,000 people from around the world.  It is located in south India, mostly in the State of Tamil Nadu (some parts are in the State of Puducherry), a few kilometres inland from the Coromandel Coast, approx 160 kms south of Chennai (previously Madras) and 10 kms north of the town of Puducherry.

The concept of Auroville – an ideal township devoted to an experiment in human unity – came to “the Mother” as early as the 1930s. In the mid 1960s the Sri Aurobindo Society in Pondicherry proposed to Her that such a township should be started. She gave her blessings. The concept was then put before the Govt. of India, who gave their backing and took it to the General Assembly of UNESCO. In 1966 UNESCO passed a unanimous resolution commending it as a project of importance to the future of humanity, thereby giving their full encouragement.

The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity—in diversity. Today Auroville is recognized as the first and only internationally endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness, also concerned with—and practically researching—sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind.

Auroville is considered a “laboratory of evolution.”

Visitors to Auroville are sometimes disappointed to find here no Ashram, no typical tourist attractions or generally welcoming atmosphere. This is firstly because Auroville is an experiment in human unity and secondly because Auroville is not a tourist place, despite being referred to in travel and tourist literature. Guests are requested to give a contribution of Rs 100 per day per adult, reduced to Rs 50 per day for students and teenagers up to the age of 18.

Don’t Mock a Mockingbird!

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Photo via flickr by Photography by J. Campbell

Doug Levey, a biologist at the University of Florida, found that birds can easily pick out a threatening person from a crowd.

According to a paper in the journal PNAS, Levey sent students, aka “intruders”, to perturb nests of mockingbirds. An ‘intrusion’ consisted of standing by an egg-filled nest for 15 seconds, then touching it for an additional 15 seconds. This aggressive loitering, which was repeated over four days, elicited an increasingly intense response. The mockingbirds ignored the approach of other, non-threatening students, but every time the ‘intruder’ student swung by, the birds quickly and sneakily left the nest and eventually dive-bombed the ‘intruder.’ “The first time a male mockingbird drew blood on the back of my neck, I was shocked,” says intruder Monique Hiersoux.

Mockingbirds’ strong awareness of their surroundings makes them well suited for living so close to humans, Levey concludes. We might be walking along on campus and see a mockingbird perched on a branch and think, “Oh, that bird is minding its own business,” he says, “but what we don’t realize is that we are its business.”

via Discover Magazine

KILL THE EGO: Soundwalk

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Photo via Soundwalk

KILL THE EGO began as a song, as an epic 40-minute-long poem composed of 10 years of sound recordings captured in New York by Soundwalk between 1998 and 2008. The fragmented memories of poets and dominatrixes, of pimps and prophets, of visionaries and lost children – the gamut of stories from the street: of the most obscure corners, of underground unrest, intimate and universal biographies of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx – Soundwalk has captured and woven together the sounds, conversations, and songs of urbanity. This soundtrack of New York City has been represented visually onscreen by the artist Rostarr, who used the sound recordings as a launch for an art series documented by directors Jim Helton and Ron Patane. Inspired by the technique used in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece “Le mystère Picasso”, the directors sought to give life to the creative process and gave birth to the aural and visual work that is the film KILL THE EGO.

Orange-feathered Dinosaurs

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Photo via flickr by Aaron Gustafson

Scientists from China and the UK have the latest evidence to prove that feathers evolved in dinosaurs before birds adapted them for flight.

Using electron microscopy technology to analyze membranes in fossilized dinosaurs discovered in October 2009 in northeast China, the scientists were able to determine what color the feathers were—reddish orange.

“This is the first direct evidence of a certain color in a known dinosaur feather,” Patrick Orr, co-author of the study from Bristol University told CNN.

However, this isn’t the first discovery of feathers on dinosaurs. In 2002, palaeontologists from China and the United States wrote in the journal Nature that evidence from a fossil  they found in Northeastern China of a carnivorous dinosaur called a dromesaur, showed perhaps the first evidence that dinosaurs may at some point in their lives may have been covered with true feathers like those we see on modern birds, suggesting dinosaurs may have looked more like odd-shaped, large birds than huge, scaly lizards. Scientists have continued to debate this discovery.

In a 2002 discussion with Sputnik Observatory, theoretical physicist John A. Wheeler (1911 – 2008), put the debate into perspective, suggesting humans should question what faculty do we have but not put to use, as the dinosaurs and their feathers.

It’s fantastic that evolution should have ended up with us. What other kind of creature could it have been? You’ve probably followed these fantastic recent discoveries in China about the dinosaur having feathers to keep them warm, but then they learned how to use the feathers to fly. Do we have something, some faculty, that we haven’t put to use the way the dinosaurs hadn’t put to use these feathers of theirs until later?

Other new dinosaur findings:

During the October 2009 dig, scientists also found 20 fossilized pterodactyls dating back more than 160 million years.

In early January 2010, another group of scientists found the oldest fossilized footprints made by a four-legged creature. The discovery of the footprints in a former quarry in the Holy Cross Mountains in southeastern Poland are thought to be 395 million years old—18 million years older than the earliest tetrapod (a vertebrate with limbs rather than fins) body fossils. The footprints are also 10 million years older than the earliest known elpistostegids—creatures which displayed some animal characteristics but retained fins.
via CNN and BBC News

NASA: Living With A Star

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Photo via flickr by Madmoiselle Lavender

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41 on a first-of-a-kind mission to reveal the sun’s inner workings in unprecedented detail.

The most technologically advanced of NASA’s heliophysics spacecraft, SDO will take images of the sun every 0.75 seconds and daily send back about 1.5 terabytes of data to Earth—the equivalent of streaming 380 full-length movies.

The sun’s dynamic processes affect everyone and everything on Earth. SDO will explore activity on the sun that can disable satellites, cause power grid failures, and disrupt GPS communications. SDO also will provide a better understanding of the role the sun plays in Earth’s atmospheric chemistry and climate.

SDO is the crown jewel in a fleet of NASA missions to study our sun. The mission is the cornerstone of a NASA science program called Living With A Star.

“SDO is going to make a huge step forward in our understanding of the sun and its effects on life and society,” said Richard R. Fisher, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

via NASA

Cognitive Curiosity is the Brain’s Fix

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Photo via flickr by h.koppdelaney

Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix.

The “click” of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California. He presents his theory in an invited article in an issue of American Scientist.

“While you’re trying to understand a difficult theorem, it’s not fun,” said Biederman, professor of neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “But once you get it, you just feel fabulous.”

The brain’s craving for a fix motivates humans to maximize the rate at which they absorb knowledge. Biederman hypothesized that knowledge addiction has strong evolutionary value because mate selection correlates closely with perceived intelligence. Only more pressing material needs, such as hunger, can suspend the quest for knowledge, he added.

The same mechanism is involved in the aesthetic experience, Biederman said, providing a neurological explanation for the pleasure we derive from art. “This account may provide a plausible and very simple mechanism for aesthetic and perceptual and cognitive curiosity.”

Biederman’s theory was inspired by a widely ignored 25-year-old finding that mu-opioid receptors—binding sites for natural opiates—increase in density along the ventral visual pathway, a part of the brain involved in image recognition and processing. The receptors are tightly packed in the areas of the pathway linked to comprehension and interpretation of images, but sparse in areas where visual stimuli first hit the cortex.

Biederman’s theory holds that the greater the neural activity in the areas rich in opioid receptors, the greater the pleasure. In a series of functional magnetic resonance imaging trials with human volunteers exposed to a wide variety of images, Biederman’s research group found that strongly preferred images prompted the greatest fMRI activity in more complex areas of the ventral visual pathway.

via ScienceDaily

Commission of Presidential Debates

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Photo via flickr by Barack Obama

The mission of the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (the “CPD”) is to ensure, for the benefit of the American electorate, that general election debates are held every four years between the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners. Its primary purpose is to sponsor and produce debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) corporation, sponsored all the presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

To meet its ongoing goal of educating voters, the CPD is engaged in various activities beyond producing and sponsoring the presidential debates. Its staff prepares educational materials and conducts research to improve the quality of debates.

Further, the CPD provides technical assistance to emerging democracies and others interested in establishing debate traditions in their countries. In recent years, the staff worked with groups from Brazil, Ecuador, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Namibia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan and the Ukraine, among others. Finally, the CPD coordinates post-debate symposia and research after many of its presidential forums (1996 Post-Debate Symposium, 1992 Post-Debate Research, 1988 Post-Debate Symposium).

Co-Chariman: Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr; Michael D. McCurry; Honorary Co-Chairmen: Jimmy Carter, William Clinton.

Board of Directors:  Howard Buffett; John C. Danforth; Antonia Hernandez; Caroline Kennedy; Newton N. Minow; Dorthothy Ridings; Alan K. Simpson; H, Patirck Swygert.

Executive Director: Janet H. Brown.