Archive for August, 2010

Whiskey Fuels Cars

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

Photo via flickr by

Filling up at the pump in the near future may offer another biofuel alternative—whiskey. Scottish scientists recently announced a biofuel made with by-products from the distillation process of Scottish whiskey.

The Scottish £4bn whiskey industry seemed a ripe resource for developing biobutanol – the next generation of biofuel which gives 30% more output power than ethanol—to the team at Edinburgh Napier University, who have a patent on the product. Martin Tangney, who is leading the research, said that five or 10 percent of the biofuel could be blended with petrol or diesel, and could be used to fuel ordinary cars without any type of special adaptations.

The ‘whiskey’ biofuel uses the two main by-products of the whisky production process – ‘pot ale’, the liquid from the copper stills, and ‘draff’, the spent grains, as the basis for producing the butanol that can then be used as fuel.

With 1,600 million litres of pot ale and 187,000 tonnes of draff produced by the malt whiskey industry annually, there is real potential for biofuel to be available at local stations alongside traditional fuels, one step closer to the EU goal of making biofuels account for 10% of total fuel sales by 2020.

The technology for developing bio-fuel from whisky was inspired from a 100 year old process, created by Chaim Weizmann, a Jewish refugee chemist in Manchester who studied the butanol fermentation initially as part of a programme to produce rubber synthetically.

via redOrbit

Global Plant Growth in Decline

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Photo via flickr by s.alt

Global plant productivity that once was on the rise with warming temperatures and a lengthened growing season is now on the decline because of regional drought according to a new study of NASA satellite data.

Plant productivity measures the rate of the photosynthesis, the process in which green plants use to convert solar energy, carbon dioxide and water to sugar, oxygen and eventually plant tissue.

Compared with a 6 percent increase in plant productivity during the 1980s and 1990s, the decline observed over the last decade is only 1 percent. This shift could impact food security, biofuels and the global carbon cycle.

Researchers Maosheng Zhao and Steven Running of the University of Montana in Missoula discovered the shift based on the analysis of plant productivity data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Terra satellite, combined with other growing season climate data, including temperature, solar radiation and water.

“This is a pretty serious warning that warmer temperatures are not going to endlessly improve plant growth,” Running said.

Researchers want to continue monitoring these trends in the future because plant productivity is linked to shifting levels of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and stresses on plant growth that could challenge food production.

via NASA

Tensegrity: The Architecture of Life

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Photo via flickr by richard winchell

SPTNK’s conversation with biologist Donald Ingber on the topic of tensegrity is now included in Tensegrity Wiki, and featured on the Vimeo channel, Tensegrity.

According to Ingber, head of Ingber Laboratories at the Harvard Medical School Children’s Hospital in Boston, tensegrity, the shape-stabilizing structures made famous by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome that balances compression with tension and yields to forces without breaking, is the guiding force of evolution, the architecture of life. Moreover, Ingber’s research has shown that tensegrity gives cells their shape with each cell having an inner-scaffolding or cytoskeleton, and if you change the shape of the cell, you also change its biochemistry and genetic expression. This discovery is fundamental to the future of medicine as it may cure diseases such as cancer.

For more SPTNK conversations with Don Ingber on tensegrity and mechanbiology, click here.

To learn more about the SPTNK cultural theme of mechanobiology, click here.

Orangutan’s Mimes Understand Other’s Perceptions

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Photo via flickr by guppiecat

Sorting through 20 years of orangutan behavior observed in Indonesia, two researchers have discovered in 18 occasions what they interpret as orangutans acting out a request or other communication in elaborated gestures of pantomime, beyond their demonstrated miming used to communicate. The observations may offer insight into what orangutans understand about the minds of others and also shed light on the ancient gestural roots of human language.

On four of the occasions, one orangutan mimed for another, and 14 instances an orangutan mimed to a human, according to a paper released online the week of August 9 in Biology Letters.

One example of miming a need to a human occurred in a free-living forest facility on Borneo, where orangutans sometimes get dirt scrubbed off their faces by a person with a leaf. According to study coauthor and cognitive ecologist Anne Russon of York University in Toronto, a young male called Cecep plopped down in front of her and handed her a leaf.

“I played dumb,” she remembers. “He waited a respectable few seconds, then — all the while looking me in the eye — he took back the leaf, rubbed it on his own forehead….” Again he handed it to her. “Then I did as I was told,” she says, and wiped away the dirt.

Orangutan-to-human pantomimes may be the easiest to observe, Russon says, but these occasions may also present special challenges to communication, and possibly to patience. “The orangutans get a look on their faces like ‘Are you stupid?’” she says.

In another occasion caught on video (see below), Russon says a young female orangutan called Siti swiftly punched though one of a coconut’s three eyelike depressions and broke off a leaf stem to fish out the sweet innards. When Siti had exhausted what she could reach through that opening, she took her coconut to one of the men at the rehabilitation forest who did whack open coconuts with his big parang knife, but he handed the nut back to Siti.

She “briefly and weakly poked into the coconut opening” and then handed it back to the human. When the man again did nothing, Siti took her leaf stem and made chopping-style slashes against the coconut, in what looked to Russon like mimicry of a person using a parang.

One of the themes in 13 of Russon’s examples is the mimer’s elaboration of a breakdown in communications. This “suggests they understand something about what their partner didn’t understand,” she says.

Studying mime offers a way to look at long-standing issues of nonhuman species’ theories of mind. Pantomime gestures also present a way to look at the deep evolutionary origins of human language, Russon says. Recent thinking has raised the possibility that language sprouted from gestural communication.

via Science News

A young orangutan pantomimes for help with a coconut from Science News on Vimeo.

Video credit: Courtesy of A. Russon

Are Our Emotions Designed to Manipulate Others?

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Photo via flickr by corresponding shapes

A controversial new theory states that our emotions may have evolved as tools to manipulate others into cooperating with us.

Certain emotions have traditionally been viewed by psychologists as short-term reactions to an immediate benefit or cost. For example, gratitude has been seen as a signal of pleasure when someone does you a favor and anger as a way to signal your displeasure when another person does you harm. However, John Tooby, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues think that our anger or gratitude reflect our judgement of how much the other person is sacrificing enough for us— and whether they will continue to do so in future. In other words, anger has as much to do with cooperation as with conflict, and emotions are used to coerce others into cooperating in the long term.

For example, an unpublished study by Tooby’s colleague Julian Lim found that 296 student volunteers were more willing to cooperate with an unseen partner when that partner had forgone a profit to give them money. This gratitude was absent when the partner gave them the same amount of money not as a favor but to avoid paying a penalty.

This suggests that anger and gratitude—and perhaps other emotions, too—may be tools for turning up a partner’s mental cooperation control dial says Tooby’s colleague Aaron Sell. You get angry not when someone hurts you, but when their actions betray a setting of their cooperation dial that is lower than you expect, and your anger is both a threat to turn down your own dial and an inducement to them to turn theirs up. You show gratitude not when someone benefits you, but when their dial is set higher than you expect, and this signals that you plan to turn yours up in response.

Drawing from evidence presented at the meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society in Eugene, Oregon, and some still unpublished, Tooby suggests that the cooperation control dial, or ‘welfare trade-off ratio,’ is a real part of our mental make-up.

via New Scientist

Vaccine for Stress

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Photo via flickr by -RobW-

Academics say they are close to developing the first vaccine for stress. After 30 years of research into cures for stress, Dr Robert Sapolsky, professor of neuroscience at Stanford University in California, believes it is possible to alter brain chemistry to create a state of ‘focused calm’.

Professor Sapolsky claims he is on the path to a genetically engineered formula that would remove the need for relaxation therapies or prescription drugs.

Chronic stress, as opposed to everyday worries, is linked to illnesses ranging from diabetes to heart attacks. Professor Sapolsky, who first observed the damage caused by stress on animals in Kenya, has been studying hormones called glucocorticoids, which are part of the body’s immune system and help fight cancer and inflammation.

All mammals produce these hormones, which help them deal with a threat  -  often by running away.

But Professor Sapolsky has observed that, while a zebra will turn off the stress chemicals after escaping from a lion, modern man not only produces too many glucocorticoids in response to everyday alarms but cannot turn them off afterwards.

He says the hormone becomes toxic both biologically, by destroying brain cells and weakening the immune system, and socially, when people continue to snap at their friends or family hours after the original cause of tension has vanished.

After early setbacks, the Stanford team has adapted a herpes virus to carry engineered ‘neuroprotective’ genes deep into the brain to neutralise the rogue hormones before they can cause damage. The virus is now shown to work on rats.

He warned that human trials are years away, but added: “We have proved that it’s possible. We can reduce the neural damage caused by stress.”

Last week, a Stanford University colleague, who called the potential vaccine ‘the Sapolsky shot’, said: “In humans this engineered virus would short-circuit the neural feedback caused by stress, that lingering feeling of tension after a crisis has passed. It would leave you fresher and ready to deal with another threat, so you can maintain your drive, but with more focused calm rather than bad temper and digestion.”

“This could change society.” Professor Sapolsky’s preparatory work was published last October by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

via Daily Mail

OUT THERE IDEAS: Black Holes Are Holograms

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

Photo via flickr by austinevan

Those exploding black holes (at least in theory — none has ever been observed) lit up a new strangeness of nature. Black holes, in effect, are holograms — like the 3-D images you see on bank cards. All the information about what has been lost inside them is encoded on their surfaces. Physicists have been wondering ever since how this “holographic principle” — that we are all maybe just shadows on a distant wall — applies to the universe and where it came from.

via New York Times

Karl Pribram, neuroscientist and pioneering theorist of the holonomic brain model that extended physicist David Bohm’s theory that without our ‘lenses,’ the universe would appear a hologram, discusses how our processing makes correlations to make a ‘space-time image’ in our holographic universe:

If you didn’t have telescopes what would you see? You would see a hologram. So not only the lenses of the eye, but all the lenses that we use to look microscopically, telescopically, we would see nothing but holograms. Because light bounces all over the place. Like coming in here, you diffused it even more by giving several sources, and that all has to be gathered and focused to make a space-time image. In acoustics, this is very well-known because if you build a concert hall and it has to sound just right, and people come in with their hair and clothes and so on, it’s a dead sounding concert hall. Because everything is refracted and absorbed and this and that. So you’ve got to have reflectors and so on and so forth, so you’ve got to build your hall to be much more reflective. That doesn’t mean that objects don’t exist, that stars don’t exist, you know, you can’t take it to the holographic universe being every and all, a total explanation, anymore than you can take brain function as being a total explanation. It’s one of the processing steps that we have, that we use, and a very powerful one. That’s why you don’t want to lose it. Its power is in making correlations. We’re so good at making correlations.

More on Holograms from Sputnik Observatory:

Karl Pribram, “Channels Everywhere”

Colin Andrews, “Holographic 3D Info”

Eat Less Protein, Live Longer?

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Photo via flickr by abolotnov

A new “dietary restriction” (not just calorie restriction) theory about how diet affects aging suggests that the drop in calories is not solely responsible for lifespan extension — in some species at least, perhaps it is also the accompanying drop in dietary protein.

Protein restriction is much less difficult to maintain than calorie restriction and may be more powerful in reducing insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in humans (a promoter of aging), says Luigi Fontana, a professor of medicine at Washington University and head of the Division of Nutrition and Aging at the Italian National Institute of Health. Earlier findings from School of Medicine researchers had suggested that eating less protein may help protect against certain cancers that are not directly associated with obesity.

Fontana draws his conclusions from his studies of people who are practicing calorie restriction (“CRONies” —short for Caloric Restriction with Optimal Nutrition). Fontana and colleagues previously have found that people on the very low-calorie diet have low blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, blood pressure scores equivalent to those of much younger individuals, a lower risk of developing diabetes and reduced body fat. These markers indicate less secondary aging.

Vegans and vegetarians have another advantage: proteins in meat and other animal products have high levels of methionine; studies show that cutting methionine lengthens life to a similar degree as calorie restriction.

via Kurzweil AI

Northern Lights Tonight

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Photo via NASA

Look to the skies tonight and early morning August 4th for the Northern Lights (or aurorae). The Sun’s surface has erupted and blasted tons of plasma (ionized atoms) into interplanetary space. That plasma is headed our way, and when it arrives, it could create a spectacular light show.

Aurorae normally are visible only at high latitudes. However, during a geomagnetic storm aurorae can light up the sky at lower latitudes. Sky watchers in the northern U.S. and other countries should look toward the north on the evening of August 3rd/4th for rippling “curtains” of green and red light.

“It’s the first major Earth-directed eruption in quite some time” said astronomer Leon Golub of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

via redOrbit

Global Moodscape

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Photo via We Feel Fine

Our daily ventures in texting, emailing, blogging, tweeting and simply clicking has become an immense datascape of human activity, migration, interests, and lately, emotional wellness.

Several projects currently aim to track our sentiments on a global and local scale:

The Planetary Mood Ring: Billed as a ‘gigantic feelings aggregator’ works by submissions, called ‘moodies’, is sorted out by geo-spatial location and show moods of entire countries, cities or towns, highways, your own neighborhood, office or household. People are encouraged to  enrich the whole Planetary Mood Ring by attaching words, videos and photos to their moodies, revealing the cause of their current mood. The project aims to provide a massive emotional pulse check on the planet that runs continually in the form of a colored collective ‘blip,’ represented as a color wheel inspired by the mood rings of the 1970s. For example. blue and violet would signify people being in cooler, calmer and more satisfied states whilst ambers and reds would represent a civilization in a deep state of angst.

We Feel FIne: Launched in 2005 by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, We Feel Fine is an exploration of human emotion on a global scale, in the form of a website, a book and collective artwork authored by everyone. We Feel Fine harvests human feelings from a large number of weblogs. Every few minutes, the system searches the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling”. When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the “feeling” expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). Because blogs are structured in largely standard ways, the age, gender, and geographical location of the author can often be extracted and saved along with the sentence, as can the local weather conditions at the time the sentence was written. All of this information is saved.

The result is a database of several million human feelings, increasing by 15,000 – 20,000 new feelings per day. Using a series of playful interfaces, the feelings can be searched and sorted across a number of demographic slices, offering responses to specific questions like: do Europeans feel sad more often than Americans? What do people feel right now in Baghdad? Which are the happiest cities in the world? The saddest? And so on.The community is encouraged to help visualize these sentiments via the gallery.

D-Tower: D-Tower is an art piece, commissioned by the city of Doetinchem in the Netherlands, that maps the emotions of the inhabitants of Doetinchem. A collaboration with NOX, a Rotterdam architecture firm and Serafijn, a Rotterdam artist, the project utilizes a physical structure (tower) to convey the daily moods of 50 selected people from the small town, who answer different questions on the website daily. From this data, the tower illuminates to show the feeling of the day, in the form of blue for happiness, red for love, green for hate and yellow for fear.

Lars Spuybroek, architect, NOX, explains his public project of turning a tower into an emotional symbol of a small town in the Netherlands:

First, I guess, I would have to explain what a D-Tower is. That’s another collaboration I did with an artist also from Rotterdam. His name is Serafijn. He is doing a lot of art in the community, either with video or interactive, and we collaborated. We were asked to do a tower, whatever it was, but it needed to be a tower because the Mayor thought it should be a tower. And we suggested a website and they liked that idea a lot, and they said, “Yeah, you can do a website, but you also have to do a tower.” [laughs] So then at a certain moment it became a tower, a website, and a questionnaire. And the questionnaire was on four emotions: love, hate, happiness and fear. And, basically, what we do is each year 50 people are selected. There’s a small town in the East of the Netherlands, on the German border that has 50,000 inhabitants. And of these 50,000, each year 50 get the password. And these 50 people are from all the neighborhoods in the city. So it’s well represented. And each of these 50 they can access the website but we cannot because it’s a certain part of the website that’s only for them with the password. And each four days they get a new set of questions about their emotional lives.

And the website has these four landscapes. So we can see, on the website, we can see how love is doing, how hate is doing – how these four emotions are doing according to the peaks and valleys of the responses on this graph. Now what happens is that each evening when the sun sort of sets the computer can check which emotion is doing the best that day. So when love is #1 the tower becomes red. Because there is this tower in this city. With happiness, it’s blue. With hate, it’s green. And with fear, it’s yellow. So there is this object in the city, there’s this object in the city, and people come from work, it’s a very prominent place in the city. And they can actually, when they drive home and it’s getting dark, they can see if it’s green for hate or blue for happiness. That is very intense. Because the moment they see that object as having one color they know it is representing the whole city.

So this idea of qualia immediately is coloring the whole city. This is directly connected to emotions. More like a symbolism. More like a symbol.