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June 30, 2007

It'a All in the Comeback

Just in time for the Fourth of July, the bald eagle is back:

The American bald eagle marked a four-decade fight for survival Thursday as the government declared the bird - a national symbol - no longer requires the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.

"Today I am proud to announce the eagle has returned," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proclaimed at a ceremony near the Jefferson Memorial.

The Interior Department made the recovery official by removing the eagle from the list of threatened species under the species protection law. The bird had been reclassified from endangered to threatened in 1995.

Today there are nearly 10,000 bald eagles in the contiguous 48 states, compared to a documented 417 in 1963 when the bird was on the verge of extinction everywhere except in Alaska and Canada where it has continued to thrive.

Aside from the symbolic aspects of a thriving national symbol, this is good news in and of itself -- the resurgence of this species bodes well for North American biodiversity overall.

Although the US is routinely disrespected in the international arena for our non-compliance with Kyoto, we are, in point of fact, the birthplace of the environmental movement. 100 years ago, Teddy Roosevelt took the unprecedented step of designating more than 150 national forests -- some 230 million acres of protected land. He also vastly expanded the amount of land devoted to national parks, a project begun much earlier by Andrew Jackson and furthered along by Abraham Lincoln.

Conservation is an extremely important component in the environmental movement, and I'm pleased that the US has been a leading -- if not radical -- player in introducing the idea of conservation to the world. But another important component -- possibly more important -- is recovery.

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When I was a kid, we were told in school that bison and bald eagles were on their way out -- that we would live to see that last of their kind. A few years ago, my brother and I got fishing passes via lottery to some very lovely lakes in an area that used to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal -- once widely described as the most toxic patch of ground on earth. The Arsenal land became a protected wildlife refuge in part because it was discovered that it was nesting grounds for a thriving population of bald eagles. A herd of bison was recently introduced there as well. Speaking of bison, I should also point out that -- dire predictions aside -- I can get in my car and drive 20 minutes to Buffalo Overlook, which provides nice view into a valley where one of Colorado's many herds of these magnificent animals live.

Conservation and prevention are a big part of the environmental story; recovery is the other. We're bringing endangered species back. We're seeing to it that our rivers no longer catch fire. When the time comes for real solutions to global warming and elevated CO2 levels in the atmosphere -- not just political posturing -- I believe the US will be at the forefront of implementing them. Here's one idea for how to deal with that actual warming. Here are several thoughts on what we might do about CO2 levels (here, too.) And, of course, that's assuming that something needs to be done. Sometimes a certain amount of recovery is built in.

June 29, 2007

New Private Space Station Launched

Bigelow Aerospace has now successfully launched their second inflatable satellite, a prototype for an evenatual private space station:

A privately-built space station prototype successfully launched into orbit Thursday from a Russian missile base, kicking off the second test flight for the U.S. firm Bigelow Aerospace.

Genesis 2, an inflatable module laden with cameras, personal items and a Space Bingo game, rocketed spaceward atop a Dnepr booster from a silo at Yasny Launch Base, an active Russian strategic missile base in the country's Orenburg region. Liftoff occurred at 11:02 a.m. EDT (1502 GMT) though it was near evening at the Russian launch site.

"It was beautiful," Bigelow Aerospace corporate counsel Mike Gold, who attended the launch, told SPACE.com immediately after the Dnepr blastoff. "Genesis 1 is about to have company."

Over on The Speculist, I was just this morning writing about how I don't want to take the first private trip to the moon offered. I think subsequent lunar vacation packages will be safer, more economical, and (most importantly) will include more fun stuff to do on the moon. One of the changes that will help bring this about is a robust and competitive market for private space development. Bigelow is helping to make that happen.

June 28, 2007

Hope it Ends Better than the Book

Daniel Keyes; classic science fiction story (and later novel) Flowers for Algernon tells of a mentally disabled man who is suddenly made a great genius via a surgical procedure. Before the procedure is performed on him, it is proved on a mouse -- named Algernon.

And now we have this:

In a case of life imitating art, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) reported today that they had successfully reversed mental retardation in mice... Now M.I.T. scientists report in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences USA that they ameliorated brain damage in mice caused by a genetic disorder known as fragile X syndrome by blocking an enzyme involved in cellular development.

Fragile X affects one in 4,000 boys and one in 6,000 girls. It is caused by a mutation in the fragile x mental retardation 1 gene (FMR1)—located on the X sex chromosome— that results in the loss of the fragile x mental retardation protein (FMRP). The resulting illness is characterized by hyperactivity, attention deficit, repetitive behavior, anxiety and cognitive difficulties ranging from learning disability to mental retardation.

When studying the formation of dendrites for a 2004 paper, Mansuo Hayashi, a research affiliate in M.I.T.'s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, discovered that these structures could be strengthened and altered to transmit information more efficiently by inhibiting nerve cell production of the enzyme called p21-activated kinase (PAK). PAK regulates actin, another protein, which shapes parts of the cell (including the dendrites). When PAK is inhibited, more actin is manufactured and the dendrites are able to properly mature.

What made Keyes' story a tragedy is the eventual reversal of the condition of both the man and the mouse subected to intelligence-enhacing procedure. While it's not clear what applicability this current research will have for human beings -- although it is bound to have some -- there wouldn't appear to be much risk that gene therapy will suddenly reverse itself.

So we'll stay tuned.

June 27, 2007

The Unlikeliest of Places

If you were to ask me where I think lies humanity's greatest hope for conquering AIDS, it probably wouldn't occur to me to guess the home of a desperately poor Kenyan prostitute: a woman who turns dozens of tricks each week (earning a quarter each time) as her only means of feeding her children. Nope, I wouldn't guess there.

But maybe I'd be wrong:

[I]n a way, Munyiva is a fortunate woman -- extraordinarily fortunate to be free of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Since the disease emerged in Nairobi in the early 1980s, the sexually transmitted virus has infected 90% of the city's lower-class prostitutes; but somehow Munyiva, 42, has avoided the scourge during her 13 years in that grim line of work. "Perhaps God knows that if he takes me away, my children would suffer," she says.

Munyiva is one of 25 prostitutes in Nairobi who are currently being studied to see if the source of their apparent immunity to HIV can be identified.

A small number of people in other high-risk groups, including some homosexuals and spouses of infected hemophiliacs, have shown resistance to infection. But the Nairobi prostitutes, so frequently exposed to the virus for so many years, provide the strongest evidence yet that people can have a natural immunity to AIDS. If the cause of that protection can be identified, it could spur efforts to develop a vaccine.

I certainly hope that, even if this research provides no immediately fruitful results, these 25 women are remunerated for their participation in such a way that helps to improve their condition. But it's hard to think about them without remembering all the other desperately poor women who face similar circumstances -- and who aren't immune to HIV.

Makes me wish there was something I could do about it. But then, there's plenty we can all do.

June 26, 2007

Robots Looking for Life

Going where we can't, robots are being deployed in the quest to learn more about life in the arctic ice:

The Gakkel Ridge, encased under the frozen Arctic Ocean, is steep and rocky, and scientists suspect its remote location hosts an array of undiscovered life.

Researchers hope newly developed robots will give them their first look at the mysterious ridge between Greenland and Siberia.

Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod plan to begin a 40-day expedition of the ridge on July 1. They plan to use the robots to navigate and map terrain and sample life found near a series of underwater hot springs.

The leader of the expedition says that this is "almost like going to Australia for the first time." Like Australia, the arctic hot-springs environment is isolated from the rest of the world, and promises to yield up some new creatures unlike anything discovered before.

Here's hoping the robots hold out under the severe conditions. They look pretty sturdy.

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More on recent biological discoveries here.

June 25, 2007

The Littlest Genius

mathilda.jpgI'm going to say cutest, too. Meet Georgia Brown, at age 2, the youngest member ever of Mensa. She has an IQ of 152, which they're saying puts her in the ballpark of Stephen Hawking. This little girl was dressing herself at 14 months and now enjoys "explaining difficult words to her friends."

Unfortunately for Mensa, I believe we're rapidly heading toward the day when little Georgia Brown will not be the exception. The exceptionally gifted of today give us something to aim for as we begin to seriously discuss augmenting human mental (and other) capacities. Whether we do it pharmacologically, through genetic manipulation, or with electronic implants -- or a combination of the three -- we're on our way to a world of much smarter people.

I hope that I, too, might one day be as smart as Stephen Hawking...or Georgia Brown.

June 24, 2007

The Table-Top Laser

The Ultra Short Pulse (USP) laser, a technology that once required a room-full of equipment to implement, has been shrunk to a desktop model:

Barry Schuler, the former CEO of AOL, has a laser he says can do it all. It can cut metal, heal burns and kill cancer tumors -- all without damaging heat.

All you need is one of his ultrashort pulse, or USP, lasers, he said. To change the function, just change the software. He's so confident in the technology that he's built his latest business venture, Raydiance, around it.

"Bits and blades are all going to be replaced by light," says Schuler, who ran AOL after the Time-Warner merger. In 10 years, he said, the technology will lead to a "smart" power tool that won't need sharpening and won't cause injuries.

The technology can't do any of these things yet. All Raydiance has is a small black box -- but that's no small feat. The technology once filled a large room at Darpa until Raydiance scientists made it into a compact, tabletop unit. Schuler said he hopes it will replace just about any cutting device you can think of, from a big metal saw to a precise surgical blade.

Scientists have long known that USP lasers could do cool things, literally, by cutting without generating heat. But the lasers' complexity and large size made the technology impractical. Now that it's a little bigger than a breadbox, researchers want to use them to kill cancer tumors, identify friend or foe during combat, and even remove tattoos. The company has distributed about a dozen Raydiance units to researchers around the country, and hopes to have 30 in the field by the end of 2007.

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I'm thinking that a technology like this might provide a real boost for desktop fabrication systems as well.

Via Slashdot.

June 22, 2007

The Never-Ending Light Bulb

The headline might be a slight exaggeration. But only slight:

Ceravision has just announced that they have developed a lightbulb that is 50% efficient (more than twice the efficiency of CFLs) and will last...um...forever?

No, that can't be right, but a very very long time anyhow. They say they expect their new lamp to outlast whatever device they put it in, so apparently your lamp will break before the bulb does.

So can the never-ending lamp be far behind? So how, exactly, does this thing work?

The device doesn't use any fascinating new technology, which is really good news as it can be built from parts already in mass production. It's a new sort of metal halide lamp (a tube of gas inside a lump of a metal oxide.) When the lamp is put in the presence of a microwave emitter (just like the one in your kitchen, but much smaller) a concentrated electric field forms in the tube of gas which promptly turns into plasma. More than 50% of the energy is emitted as light, which is 2x more than ordinary metal halide lamps, and four times more than ordinary fluorescents.

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Cool!