Archive for May, 2010

Russians Control the Weather

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Photo via flickr by ms4jah

The Russian government has used rain prevention methods since Soviet times, seeding clouds for major celebrations three times a year—Victory Day, City Day and, more recently, Russia Day.

Alexander Akimenkov has seeded clouds over Moscow on important state holidays for many years. He says the Russians use two different methods to try to drive the rain away.

“Either there’s a special machine that spits out silver iodide, dry ice or cement into the clouds, or a hatch opens and a guy with a shovel seeds the clouds manually,” he explains.

“As soon as the chemicals touch the cloud, a hole appears. It becomes bigger and bigger, and it either rains right there and then or, if the clouds aren’t very dense, they disperse without any precipitation.”

There are also private companies that for some $6,000 per hour say they can guarantee sunshine on your wedding day—or for any other private party. Many ecologists agree that these techniques, also used in many other countries for irrigation purposes, do not pose much of a threat to the environment or people’s health, as the period of active influence on the clouds is very short.

But when Moscow’s mayor Yuri Luzhkov suggested the technique could shift the winter snow outside the capital—and therefore save more than $10m in snow-clearing costs—many felt the city authorities were going a bit too far. Even if the idea might appeal to Moscow drivers, tired of constant traffic jams—especially bad in snowy conditions—it has stirred concerns among local ecologists.

“Millions of tonnes of snow diverted from Moscow will create chaos in the areas where it is forced to fall and might even lead to the collapse of bridges and roofs,” said Alexei Yablokov, one of Russia’s leading environmentalists, who was ecological adviser to former President Boris Yeltsin. “Besides, a lack of snow in Moscow would cause many problems in the capital itself,” he said.

“Why do we need snow in Moscow? Snow on the ground helps the roots of trees to survive during severe frosts. If there’s no snow, lots of vegetation—trees, bushes—will die. Snow also cleans the atmosphere very effectively. If there’s nothing to clean the Moscow atmosphere, many people will die—there will be tens or even hundreds of additional deaths,” explains Mr Yablokov.

The idea didn’t come to the Moscow mayor from nowhere, it is based on facts. “In the early 1980s, back in the Soviet period, there was a special service to limit snowfall over Moscow. It stopped working during perestroika [Gorbachev's reforms], when money became scarce. Some eight to 10 planes had to find clouds with the most precipitation and spray them with crystallizing chemicals. Not all water vapor in the atmosphere turns to precipitation, and for the snow to fall, water vapor should concentrate on ice crystals first. So we were making snow fall before it reached Moscow and this work reduced the amount of snow in the capital by 20, 30 and sometimes 40%.”

Regardless of the Moscow authorities’ final decision on snow cloud seeding, Russia remains one of the few nations where weather control is more than using anti-hail cannons and battling droughts.

So if you want to visit Moscow and don’t fancy rain, go there on one of the three precipitation-free holidays.

And if you want to ensure your wedding day is dry—it might just be possible to make it happen.

via BBC

The Evolution of Evo-Devo Biology

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Developmental biology (‘devo’) and evolutionary studies (‘evo’), once seen as distinct, yet complementary disciplines, have recently merged into an exciting and fruitful relationship. The official union occurred in 1999 when evolutionary developmental biology, or “evo-devo,” was granted its own division in the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB).

It was natural for evolutionary biologists and developmental biologists to find common ground. Evolutionary biologists seek to understand how organisms evolve and change their shape and form. The roots of these changes are found in the developmental mechanisms that control body shape and form. Developmental biologists try to understand how alterations in gene expression and function lead to changes in body shape and pattern. So although SICB only recently validated evo-devo as an independent research area, evo-devo really started over a decade ago when biologists began using an individual organism’s developmental gene expression patterns to explain how groups of organisms evolved.

To highlight this emerging field, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Editorial Board has sponsored a special feature on Evolutionary Developmental Biology. This evo-devo special feature contains eight Perspective articles and a review that examine evo-devo’s progress to date, as well as 15 research articles that add new information and focus on the most recent evo-devo biology trends. The majority of the research articles were submitted directly to the PNAS office through the Track II system, and were evaluated by an Editorial Board member. After the initial screening, papers were assigned to an Academy Member-editor who oversaw a process where research manuscripts were rigorously peer-reviewed by experts in the field.

via PNAS

Biologist Donald Ingber explains how tensegrity helps to understand the origins of life in a 2007 conversation with Sputnik Observatory:

There’s beautiful work from 1917. D’Arcy Thompson had a book where he had a picture of one fish or one face of one ethnic group on a grid. Then they deformed the grid. They pull it this way, they pull it this way, they stretch it that way, and you get all the different species from that form. It’s not saying they we’re physically deformed in that way, but it’s basically saying that physical alterations of the structure are how you get different forms. They could be from internal forces, the cells pulling differently in this area than that, or it could be in a different physical environment, adapting. And the reason that I thought tensegrity really helps to understand origin of life is that each time you go through a systems jump where you put many elements together, whether they’re molecules or cells or tissues, you now have something that when the environment changes, for example it gets very cold or if it gets very salty and you change the structure, most things might break and you lose them but tensegrity is resilient so it can change when it freezes and then come right back again. Those would be selected. Without genes there would be natural selection, environmental selection by physicality, by stability. I think that’s something that’s interesting because most people who work on evolution only think about DNA and RNA and selection by genetic selection. Basically, we’ve had geodesic forms in the inorganic world for millions of years before we had life. We see it in cells, we see it in subcellular components, we see it in our bodies. So that means that the same rules must have been driving evolution in the inorganic world before life and DNA came about.

Michael Hensel, architect, discusses the notion of ‘morpho-ecology’ and how we need to understand the process of formation:

The title Morpho-Ecology brings, in principle, two or three notions or concepts together. On the one hand, morphology or morphogenesis; on the other hand, ecology. This is basically saying that in the morphological part we’re looking at the material constituent, and in the ecological part we’re looking at how this is embedded in a given environment. The term “morphology” was originally coined by Goethe in his studies on botanics, and he basically stated that when we look at nature we cannot concern ourselves merely with gestalt, with shape. Because everything that acquires a shape immediately, in the next moment, changes it’s shape. And he was arguing through the growth of a plant that any time you try to describe a shape it’s only a snapshot in time, because the next day it’s bigger and distributed in a different way. So material is redistributed all the time. It’s a constant process of formation. So what he states is that, up to that point, maybe plant shape studies were merely focused on drawing these snapshots. And he said we need to understand something other than that – we need to understand the process of formation. What is driving plants to grow into a particular shape and into a next shape and next shape? He basically says once something has acquired a shape, it immediately transforms into another. So morphology in that sense, or morphogenesis, the way form comes into being, is a dynamic process. And this dynamic process can only be understood in relation to the environment with which the organism that develops is in contact.

So what we call “morpho-ecology” is probably unnecessary for a biologist, because a biologist would always understand that every organism unfolds and becomes a kind of individual material expression in permanent exchange with the environment. But architects don’t. First of all, because we build our buildings for long time spans. And we don’t think of a building as something that in and of itself will change unless it’s mechanically done. An example would be, for instance, the Schroder House by Rietveld where you have panels that you move around and you change the interior configuration of the house or, for instance, the facade for the Institute for the Arab World by Jean Nouvel which has camera-like apertures that close and open in relation to the sunlight. But this is, again, all mechanically enhanced. So the question is really how can we begin to think of buildings not just as temporary storages of material but also as something that is somehow, in someway, in exchange with the environment and that might also be affected by the environment, while in turn affecting the environment.

Will the Mystery of Dark Matter be Unlocked in 2012?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Photo via flickr by NASACoLab

There’s another reason to watch what happens in 2012: Neutrino mass will be measured by The Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment in Germany, in the quest for the missing link to understanding dark matter, the undetectable matter (so far) that makes up about 25 per cent of the matter in our universe.
There are many theories of what dark matter consists of. We do know that around twenty to twenty-five per cent of all matter is dark, while less than one per cent emits light. The current paradigm is that of ‘cold’ dark matter: heavy particles that were already collecting together before the primordial plasma turned into hydrogen and helium. These would then move towards the collections of dark matter, which explains the current structures of galaxies and clusters. However, despite many attempts, the particle in question has never been identified.

In a recent report, physicist Theo M. Nieuwenhuizen suggests that neutrinos could be the missing link. Neutrinos are uncharged particles, such as those created during the nuclear fusion processes in the sun. Their role in ‘cold’ dark matter is considered to be negligible, partly because the neutrino mass has never been determined. Nieuwenhuizen now concludes that this is indeed light, but not super-light: 1.5 electron volts or three millionths of the electron mass. He obtained this information by studying data from a cluster of galaxies, where there is a great deal of dark matter present, as well as a large amount of hot gas. Nieuwenhuizen formulated a new theory for this purpose, based on Newton’s laws and quantum mechanics, but also virial equilibrium (a state in which all speeds are approximately the same). He then used this theory to determine the mass of the dark matter particle and even the temperature of the gas. The dark matter forms a quantum structure in the centre of the cluster that is a couple of light years in diameter: the largest known.

Up until a few years ago, it was believed that neutrinos were left-handed (like a top that spins to the left), and that anti-neutrinos were only right-handed. This theory leads to 9.5 percent dark matter; much more than is anticipated from neutrinos, but less than the estimated twenty to twenty-five per cent. It is possible to explain twice as much dark matter if right-handed neutrinos and left-handed antineutrinos are also normally present. However, this assumption requires changes to be made to the standard model of elementary particles. The lepton number (an indication of the number of subatomic, elementary particles) is therefore violated. This means that it must be possible for two neutrons to disappear simultaneously without the release of neutrinos. This therefore leads to nineteen per cent ‘hot’ dark matter and also the need for a new explanation for structure formation in the early universe. A definite answer on the theory will be obtained in 2012, when neutrino mass will be measured by The Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment in Germany.

via Insciences Org

In a conversation recorded in 2007, artist Hiro Yamagata questioned what else the neutrino may carry:

We base everything we think, capture thought in 3D. There is something we call zone, area, territory, or another world or this other world we talk about so many things explain, but we don’t know. For example neutrino, the most weakest power from the edge of the cosmos. They go through Earth to the edge of the cosmos. They journey, travel. The neutrino is the most weakest power and their frequency travel. But the neutrino particles we know people capture now the neutrino. Might neutrino carry something else with each particle, for example? We don’t know. We call the focus of neutrino here. Now we capture the neutrino, but not only neutrino. There’s a neutrino carry something else together, stick on, or time-wise, field-wise, we don’t know where the neutrino come, how it comes through your body. We don’t know. Just basic we capture it now, the neutrino now, but we don’t know. 2.7% we know about light. 99% we don’t know what’s going on the light or all the knowledge of the light. How they put on the 2.7%, even that number we don’t know. So there are so many where light come from: original light, meta particle, or proton between the electron; one of the particle of the electron, they are hitting the light and releasing like gravity, they come to light. All light like that.

Deciphering the Movement of Pedestrians in a Crowd

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

How do pedestrians move in the street? How do they interact? Researchers from the Centre de recherches sur la cognition animale (Université Toulouse 3 / CNRS), in partnership with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, have carried out a series of studies to improve understanding of the group behavior of pedestrians in urban environments. Published in PloS ONE, their results establish realistic models of crowd dynamics to improve pedestrian traffic management.

The mechanisms that govern crowd motion remain largely unknown. However, this knowledge is essential for the management of pedestrian flows (walking comfort, traffic fluidity, etc.) in urban areas. The lack of information is due in part to the difficulty of studying these phenomena experimentally and of building quantitative models able to account reliably for them.

For simplicity’s sake, most current models of crowd dynamics consider that pedestrians move independently of one another, trying to reach their destination while avoiding collisions. Using video recordings made in urban areas, Guy Theraulaz’s team from the Centre de recherche sur la cognition animale (Université Toulouse 3 / CNRS), in partnership with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, has shown that depending on the situation, 50 to 70% of pedestrians do not walk alone but in small groups, most commonly composed of two to four members.

The study of the spatial organization of pedestrians within these groups reveals that when they have enough room, group members choose to walk side by side. Conversely, when crowd density increases the group no longer has enough room to walk abreast: the pedestrians in the middle move back slightly and those at the sides move towards each other, forming a concave structure. A group of three pedestrians adopts a “V”-like pattern. In groups of four, a “U”-like formation is observed. These configurations facilitate communication between group members, but they considerably reduce their walking speed. A concave configuration makes the group’s forward motion difficult and forces individuals moving in the opposite direction to perform avoidance maneuvers. At the scale of a crowd, this significantly modifies the spatial and temporal characteristics of pedestrian flows. Numerical simulations based on these observations demonstrate that the presence of pedestrian groups reduces overall traffic efficiency by about 17% compared to a situation in which pedestrians walk in isolation.

This study shows that it is important to take into account the highly heterogeneous composition of crowds and the presence of pedestrian groups who privilege their social activities to the detriment of their walking efficiency. This new knowledge will help improve the reliability of pedestrian traffic predictions in urban environments.

via CNRS

Wash Your Hands, Wash Away Your Doubts

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Photo via flickr by Wonderlane

A new study shows that hand-washing does more than remove the guilt of past misdeeds—it also “wipes the slate clean,” removing doubts about recent choices.

According to University of Michigan psychologist Spike W. S. Lee, “It’s not just that washing your hands contributes to moral cleanliness as well as physical cleanliness, as seen in earlier research. Our studies show that washing also reduces the influence of past behaviors and decisions that have no moral implications whatsoever.”

For the study, Lee, a doctoral candidate in social psychology and his colleague Norbert Schwarz, who is affiliated with the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the Ross School of Business in addition to the Department of Psychology, asked undergraduate students to browse through 30 CD covers as part of an alleged consumer survey. Participants picked 10 CDs they would like to own, ranking them by preference. Later, the experimenter offered them a choice between their 5th and 6th ranked CDs as a token of appreciation. Following that choice, participants completed an ostensibly unrelated product survey — of liquid soap. Half merely examined the bottle before answering while the others tested the soap by washing their hands. After completing a filler task, participants were asked to rank the 10 CDs again.

“People who merely examined the soap bottle dealt with their doubts about their decision by changing how they saw the CDs: As in hundreds of earlier studies, once they had made a choice, they saw the chosen CD as much more attractive than before and the rejected CD as much less attractive. But hand-washing eliminated this classic effect. Once participants had washed their hands, they no longer needed to justify their choice when they ranked the CDs the second time around,” Schwarz said.

The researchers replicated the findings in a study using a different task — taste expectations of jars of fruit jams and ostensibly unrelated surveys of antiseptic wipes. “Participants who merely examined an antiseptic wipe after choosing a jar of fruit jam expected the taste of the chosen jam to far exceed the taste of the rejected one. This difference was eliminated when participants tested the antiseptic wipe by cleaning their hands,” said Lee.

According to the authors, the results show that as much as washing can cleanse us from traces of past immoral behavior, it can also cleanse us from traces of past decisions, reducing the need to justify them.

This “clean slate” effect may be relevant to many choices in life. Does washing away the urge to justify one’s choice of one car over another, or even one partner over another, result in less rosy evaluations of them in the long run? If so, does this increase buyer’s remorse because buyers are less likely to convince themselves that they made the best choice possible?

via University of Michigan News Service

The Living Room Candidate

Monday, May 10th, 2010

The online exhibition, The Living Room Candidate, at The Museum of the Moving Image, presents more than 300 presidential campaign commercials from 1952 – 2008. According to the site, it was Madison Avenue advertising executive Rosser Reeves who convinced Dwight Eisenhower that short ads played during such popular TV programs as “I Love Lucy,” would reach more voters than any other form of advertising.

“In a media-saturated environment in which news, opinions, and entertainment surround us all day on our television sets, computers, and cell phones, the television commercial remains the one area where presidential candidates have complete control over their images.”

To check the Curator’s Picks from culturally historic strategies, messages and slogans, visit Living Room Candidate.

Vibrations Help Self-Power Nano World

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Photo via flickr by jcdoll

The challenge in the nano world is how to provide power to nanoscale sensors, which need power to operate, for example, implantable medical devices and serve as tiny sensors and detectors. Zhong Lin Wang, a materials scientist at Georgia Tech, thinks he can bring power to the nano world with minuscule generators that take advantage of piezoelectricity, in which crystalline materials under mechanical stress produce an electrical potential.  If he succeeds, biological and chemical nano sensors will be able to power themselves.

While the piezoelectric effect has been known of for more than a century, in 2005, Wang was the first to demonstrate it at the nanoscale by bending zinc oxide nanowires with the probe of an atomic-force microscope. As the wires flex and return to their original shape, the potential produced by the zinc and oxide ions drives an electrical current. The current that Wang coaxed from the wires in his initial experiments was tiny; the electrical potential peaked at a few millivolts. But Wang rightly suspected that with enough engineering, he could design a practical nanoscale power source by harnessing the tiny vibrations all around us – sound waves, the wind, even the turbulence of blood flow over an implanted device. These subtle movements would bend nanowires, generating electricity.

Wang embedded zinc oxide nanowires in a layer of polymer; the resulting sheets put out 50 millivolts when flexed. This is a major step forward in powering tiny sensors.

And Wang hopes that these generators could eventually be woven into fabric; the rustling of a shirt could generate enough power to charge the batteries of devices like iPods. For now, the nanogenerator’s output is too low for that. “We need to get to 200 millivolts or more,” says Wang. He’ll get there by layering the wires, he says, though it might take five to ten more years of careful engineering.

Meanwhile, Wang has demonstrated the first components for a new class of nanoscale sensors. Nanopiezotronics, as he calls this technology, exploit the fact that zinc oxide nanowires not only exhibit the piezoelectric effect but are semiconductors. The first property lets them act as mechanical sensors, because they produce an electrical response to mechanical stress. The second means that they can be used to make the basic components of integrated circuits, including transistors and diodes. Unlike traditional electronic components, nanopiezotronics don’t need an external source of electricity. They generate their own when exposed to the same kinds of mechanical stresses that power nanogenerators.

Freeing nanoelectronics from outside power sources opens up all sorts of possibilities. A nano piezotronic hearing aid integrated with a nanogenerator might use an array of nanowires, each tuned to vibrate at a different frequency over a large range of sounds. The nanowires would convert sounds into electrical signals and process them so that they could be conveyed directly to neurons in the brain. Not only would such implanted neural prosthetics be more compact and more sensitive than traditional hearing aids, but they wouldn’t need to be removed so their batteries could be changed. Nanopiezotronic sensors might also be used to detect mechanical stresses in an airplane engine; just a few nanowire components could monitor stress, process the information, and then communicate the relevant data to an airplane’s computer. Whether in the body or in the air, nano devices would at last be set loose in the world all around us.

via Technology Review

Is Our Universe Living in a Wormhole?

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Photo via flickr by BloomsEyeView

Could our universe be located within a wormhole, which itself is part of a black hole that lies within a much larger universe?

Indiana University theoretical physicist Nikodem Poplawski suggests such a scenario in his published paper in Physics Letters B, where he theorizes that our universe is born from inside a wormhole (also called an Einstein-Rosen Bridge.)

Poplawski made use of the Euclidean-based coordinate system called ‘isotropic coordinates’ to describe the gravitational field of a black hole and to model the radial geodesic motion of a massive particle into a black hole.

In studying the radial motion through the event horizon (a black hole’s boundary) of two different types of black holes—Schwarzschild and Einstein-Rosen, both of which are mathematically legitimate solutions of general relativity— Poplawski admits that only experiment or observation can reveal the motion of a particle falling into an actual black hole. But he also notes that since observers can only see the outside of the black hole, the interior cannot be observed unless an observer enters or resides within.

“This condition would be satisfied if our universe were the interior of a black hole existing in a bigger universe,” he said. “Because Einstein’s general theory of relativity does not choose a time orientation, if a black hole can form from the gravitational collapse of matter through an event horizon in the future then the reverse process is also possible. Such a process would describe an exploding white hole: matter emerging from an event horizon in the past, like the expanding universe.”

A white hole is connected to a black hole by an Einstein-Rosen bridge (wormhole) and is hypothetically the time reversal of a black hole. Poplawski’s paper suggests that all astrophysical black holes, not just Schwarzschild and Einstein-Rosen black holes, may have Einstein-Rosen bridges, each with a new universe inside that formed simultaneously with the black hole.

“From that it follows that our universe could have itself formed from inside a black hole existing inside another universe,” he said.

By continuing to study the gravitational collapse of a sphere of dust in isotropic coordinates, and by applying the current research to other types of black holes, views where the universe is born from the interior of an Einstein-Rosen black hole could avoid problems seen by scientists with the Big Bang theory and the black hole information loss problem which claims all information about matter is lost as it goes over the event horizon (in turn defying the laws of quantum physics).

This model in isotropic coordinates of the universe as a black hole could explain the origin of cosmic inflation, Poplawski theorizes.

via Indiana University News