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Welcome to Science Saturday, where the Overnight News Digest crew informs and entertains you with this week's news about science, space, and the environment.

This week's featured story comes from

Aurora Photo Gallery August 2010

Summary: Solar activity continues to increase after a two-year solar minimum that ranks among the century's deepest. The return of sunspots and a resurgent solar wind is good news for aurora watchers, who are seeing some of the best displays since ~2006.

More science, space, and environment stories after the jump.

Recent Science Diaries and Stories

Watch this space!

DarkSyde: This week in science

billlaurelMD: News from the Arctic: July summary edition  

Democrats Ramshield: Gore's right![Alarm] The hottest 6 months globally on record produces 100 sq mile broken ice sheet.

frisco: [UPDATED] They laughed at Al Gore - now the "Inconvenient Truth" starts to make its presence felt

Jed Lewison: Meet deepwater drilling's doppelgänger: Corn-based ethanol  


NellaSelim: Hubble Gotchu by Milky J  

NourishingthePlanet: Understanding Consumers’ Responses to Genetic Engineering  


BBC: Remains of St John the Baptist 'found'

Bone fragments of St John the Baptist appear to have been found on Sveti Ivan Island near Bulgaria's southern Black Sea.

He is considered one of the most important figures in Christianity.

Further tests are still to be carried out on the fragments, which were discovered late last month.

The BBC's Malcolm Brabant reports.

MSNBC's Cosmic Log: A Martian bull's-eye ... and more!

Alan Boyle says: Does lightning strike twice in the same place? How about meteors striking Mars? This image, captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, suggests that a cosmic bullet could have hit almost smack-dab in the center of a crater created by an earlier impact. Or it could be the result of just one impact messing around with the Red Planet's layered terrain. Either way, the picture adds to the orbiter's store of weird and wonderful pictures from Mars.

The team behind the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, says the crater's concentric circles were probably created when something went splat into a section of layered hard-and-soft ground. The crater's central pit may be slightly offset because of uneven melting and erosion. The other explanation would be the crater-within-a crater scenario. A cosmic bull's-eye!

That's not the only weirdness turned up by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently. Here's just a smattering of images from the HiRISE team's latest data dump:

Scientific American: When the Sea Saved Humanity, Made Interactive

This Web-only article is a special rich-media presentation of the feature, "When the Sea Saved Humanity," which appears in the August 2010 issue of Scientific American.

In 2012, Astrobotic Technology and Carnegie Mellon University will send a rover to the moon. This robot, Red Rover, will explore the lunar surface and send data, pictures, and video back to earth and generate tweets and facebook updates. It will land in the Sea of Tranquility and travel toward the Apollo 11 landing site. This is an animation of its mission.

Cracked: 14 Inevitable Scientific Breakthroughs the World Will Regret
By CRACKED Readers

The future of technology always finds some unexpected way to be terrifying. Our ancestors probably assumed lifelong protection from the chickenpox would come with a lot less arm stabbing. When envisioning the future of personal transportation, nobody thought we'd be gliding around on something as profoundly goofy as the Segway.

We asked you to show us the unexpected downsides of scientific advances we've been waiting on for years. The winners are below, but first the runners up ...

Discovery News: King Tut's Chariots: Ferraris of Ancient Egypt

Chariots were introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos, the "rulers of foreign countries" who dominated the Nile valley for over a century during the Second Intermediate Period (1664 - 1569 B.C.).


NASA via Planets Align for the Perseid Meteor Shower

You know it's a good night when a beautiful alignment of planets is the second best thing that's going to happen. Thursday, August 12th, is such a night.

The show begins at sundown when Venus, Saturn, Mars and the crescent Moon pop out of the western twilight in tight conjunction. All four heavenly objects will fit within a circle about 10 degrees in diameter, beaming together through the dusky colors of sunset. No telescope is required to enjoy this naked-eye event:

Hat/Tip to palantir for this story.

MSNBC's Cosmic Log: Get the most out of the meteor show

Alan Boyle writes:This year's Perseid meteor shower is shaping up as a beaut. The big night is next Thursday, but anytime now is a great time for skywatching - not only to see shooting stars, but to see the planets as well.

The Perseids are among the year's best-known meteor showers, especially for mid-northern latitudes. Here's why: The show begins ramping up in late July and hits its peak around Aug. 12-13, when it's usually pleasant to hang around outdoors in the northern hemisphere. Perseid meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, which is high up in the sky at about 3:30 a.m. in northern latitudes - prime time for meteor watching.

But the big attraction comes down to how many shooting stars you can see: During this time of year, Earth plows through the trails of space grit that have been laid down by Comet Swift-Tuttle as it makes its 130-year orbit around the sun. When those particles of grit zip through the upper atmosphere, they heat up and create those bright streaks we all know and love.

Fortunately for meteor-watchers, there's a lot of grit out there.

Florida Today: NASA expects three spacewalks to fix station pump
By James Dean

NASA expects at least two more spacewalks will be needed to replace a failed ammonia coolant systemt pump after challenges during today's first spacewalk.

"We probably will need an additional (spacewalk)," said Courtenay McMillan, the lead flight director for the spacewalks.

MSNBC's Cosmic Log: NASA backs commercial moonshots

Alan Boyle writes:NASA says it'll buy up to $30.1 million worth of data about robotic lander projects - basically doubling the potential impact of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

The space agency said its Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program would pay a minimum of $10,000 for each data contract relating to the design and demonstration of a lunar landing mission. "This includes data associated with hardware design, development and testing; ground operations and integration; launch; trajectory correction maneuvers; lunar braking, burn and landing; and enhanced capabilities," NASA said in today's news release.

Florida Today: Boeing plans commercial space taxis by '15
Four states competing for work sites

The Boeing Co. plans to be ready to fly commercial space taxis from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station by 2015 and soon will decide where the spacecraft will be manufactured and assembled, officials said Thursday.

Designed to launch on United Launch Alliance Atlas or Delta rockets, or perhaps even SpaceX Falcon 9s, the spacecraft also are destined to fly to a commercial space station being developed by Bigelow Aerospace in Nevada.

Four test flights -- including three from the Space Coast -- are targeted to launch in late 2013 and 2014.

Florida is competing with Alabama, Texas and Nevada for various parts of the spacecraft work. The number of jobs is still to be determined. Decisions on where work will be done are expected within three months.

Aviation Week: SpaceX Unveils Heavy-Lift Vehicle Plan
By Guy Norris

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The U.S. government should lead development of a nuclear thermal propulsion system for a future Mars mission and leave new heavy-lift launchers to commercial entities, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) says.

Unveiling conceptual plans for a family of Falcon X and XX future heavy-lift vehicles at last week’s AIAA Joint Propulsion conference here, SpaceX McGregor rocket development facility director Tom Markusic said, "Mars is the ultimate goal of SpaceX."

The company, which until now has focused mostly on development of vehicles to transport cargo and humans to low Earth orbit (LEO), believes its Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launchers could be evolved into a heavy-lift family that will provide the basis for a Mars-capable architecture.


The Economist: Velocisnack
Evidence that ancient mammals were dinosaurs’ prey

IN DAYS gone by, many palaeontologists thought the reason the dinosaurs became extinct was that the big, lumbering reptiles were outcompeted by small, nippy mammals who ate their eggs and generally ran rings around them. This quasi-anthropocentric view, of the inevitable rise of humanity’s ancestors, took a knock when closer examination showed that dinosaurs, too, were often nimble and warm-blooded. Then it was found that the extermination was an accident, caused when an asteroid hit the Earth. Until that moment, the dinosaurs had reigned supreme and mammals were just an afterthought.

Just how supreme is suggested by work carried out by Edward Simpson of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues. Dr Simpson’s analysis indicates that the relationship between dinosaurs and mammals was actually that of a diner to his lunch.

Discovery News: Tiny Frogs Reveal Big Secrets of Plate Tectonics
By Zahra Hirji

Around 55 million years ago, India and China collided. Some time after that -- geologists disagree on exactly when this happened -- the Himalayan-Tibetan plateau rose skyward, creating the rugged landscape that today attracts tourists and mountain climbers from all over the world.

Now a new study has constructed the evolution of various frog species found across eastern Asia, giving geologists a genetic clock by which they can time the upheaval of the region known as "the roof of the world."

In a new article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers led by David Wake of the University of California, Berkley detailed how four different waves of divergence among frog species -- the point when new species are created from a common ancestor -- can be explained by four major tectonic events in the region.


The Economist: What lies beneath
A new expedition to the deep-ocean is revealing previously unknown living treasures

TOWARDS the end of June, a unique joint expedition began in the waters near Indonesia. In an area of remarkable marine diversity known as the "Coral Triangle", two vessels set sail: the American Okeanos Explorer and the Indonesian Baruna Jaya IV. Their destination was not over the horizon, but to explore the depths of the ocean.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says this is the first time that scientists have used a remotely operated vehicle to investigate the cold depths of Indonesia’s Sangihe Talaud region. Their remotely operated vehicle, known as Little Hercules, is working in waters as deep as 3,700 metres (2.3 miles) and as shallow as 250 metres.

By several accounts, the diversity of marine life being discovered is phenomenal. Tim Shank, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the lead scientist on the expedition, says the team are discovering levels of large-animal diversity that rival anything found in similar habitats elsewhere on the planet.

Discovery News: A Grim Future for Tropical Forests
By Zahra Hirji

Tropical forests harbor more than half of the world's species found on land. A new study reveals that continued deforestation and logging, coupled with the effects of global warming, will devastate these precious tropical environments and the plants and animals that live there by the end of the century.

Clear-cutting forested land destroys the environment totally, wiping out the homes and food sources for the animals that lived there. The effects of logging and climate change are more subtle, but still poignant.

Selective logging, for example, "creates a cascade of changes including elevating hunting pressure on fauna, disruption of seed dispersal, and forest desiccation that facilities fire," Gregory Asner of the Carnegie Institution wrote in a article published recently the journal Conservation Letters.


Discovery News: GM Plants Escape Into American Wild
By Jessica Marshall

Genetically modified canola plants have been found growing wild in the U.S., in some cases far from fields of cultivated genetically modified canola.

Results reported today at a meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Pittsburgh, Penn., suggest that the plants are reproducing on their own, making this the first report of an established population of GM organisms in the wild in the U.S., according to the team.

Meredith Schafer of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville had been scouring North Dakota without success for weedy relatives of the canola plant, to test whether they had acquired GM traits through cross-pollination with the GM canola plants widely cultivated throughout the state.

"We were in a local grocery store and saw some yellow flowers growing by the side of the road and we thought, 'There's some of the weeds we were looking for.' Lo and behold, it was canola," she said.

MSNBC's Cosmic Log: Gamers solve protein puzzles

Alan Boyle writes:Researchers have developed a video game that rewards players for solving the scientifically substantial puzzles surrounding protein folding. The game, called Foldit, is the latest twist in the move toward the use of distributed computing and crowd-sourcing to solve huge scientific challenges.

Figuring out how complex molecules are bent and twisted could be key to developing new medicines and even nano-machines. Biochemists have found that the kinks in proteins act like stamped-out keys to unlock (or lock) the doors of cellular functions.

Misfolded proteins have been linked to a host of maladies, ranging from mad-cow disease to Alzheimer's disease and cystic fibrosis. In contrast, proteins that are folded just right could block the pathways used by the HIV virus and other cellular evildoers, or even open up new paths for making biofuels and cleaning up the environment.


MSNBC: Giant ice island breaks off Greenland

An ice island four times the size of Manhattan broke off from one of Greenland's two main glaciers, scientists said Friday, in the biggest such event in the Arctic in nearly 50 years.

The new ice island, which broke off on Thursday, will enter a remote place called the Nares Strait, about 620 miles south of the North Pole between Greenland and Canada.

The ice island has an area of 100 square miles and a thickness up to half the height of the Empire State Building, said Andreas Muenchow, professor of ocean science and engineering at the University of Delaware.

Discovery News: NOAA: Hurricane Season Revving Up
By John D. Cox

As the Atlantic hurricane season approaches its historical peak, U.S. hurricane forecasters are warning that ocean and atmospheric conditions are revving up to an unusually busy and dangerous 2010.

If anything, rapidly developing La Nina conditions -- cooling sea surface temperatures across the tropical Pacific Ocean -- have made the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean even more favorable for hurricane development.

"Everything is favorable for an active season," said Gerry Bell, lead hurricane season scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. Bell predicted in May -- before La Nina developed -- that the this year's season was likely to be one of the most active and dangerous on record. At a news conference Thursday, he held firm to his May forecast.

Agence France Presse via Discovery News: Smog from Fires Chokes Moscow
By Stuart Williams, AFP

A noxious smog from spreading wildfires choked Moscow Friday as Russia moved to protect military and nuclear sites from the relentless march of its worst ever blazes that have already killed 52 people.

The defense ministry ordered the evacuation of missiles from a depot outside Moscow as the authorities warned of the risk of fires reactivating contamination in an area hit by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Moscow residents and tourists, many wearing masks, wheezed as they made their way round the city in the worst smog to hit the capital since Russia's worst heatwave in decades broke out in July.


Discovery News: Satellites Use Ripples in Space to Detect Tsunamis
By Michael Reilly

Tsunamis are born in the violent interaction of two simple ingredients: rock and water. Outer space would seem like the last place to put an instrument designed to detect one of these potentially devastating waves.

But a new study proposes to do just that, using global positioning system (GPS) satellites already in orbit.

According to Lucie Rolland of the Institute of Geophysics of Paris (IPGP) in France and a team of researchers, tsunamis produce "internal gravity waves" in the atmosphere -- waves of energy that ripple up through the sky. High above the Earth in the ionosphere, these waves jostle electrons and charged particles in a distinct pattern that GPS satellites can pick up.

Discovery News: Mixing Magmas Means Volcanic Trouble for Mt. Hood
By Zahra Hirji

The Pacific Northwest had better watch out, because Mount St. Helens is not the only volcano in town with a nasty temper.

Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest mountain, remains a major volcanic threat -- and according to a new study in in the journal Nature Geoscience that looks at the volcano’s unusual eruptive process, when this baby blows, scientists are not going to have a lot of warning.

Adam Kent of Oregon State University looked at mineral grains inside rocks from Mount Hood and discovered a process observed in Japan and in the Caribbean, but not anywhere else in the Cascades.


MIT: MIT researchers demonstrate how much candidate appearances affect election outcomes
Per study, people around the world have similar ideas about what a good politician looks like
written by: Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office

When you vote in an election, your choice is surely not influenced by anything as superficial as a candidate’s looks, right?


New research from MIT political scientists shows that the appearances of politicians do indeed strongly influence voters — and that people around the world have similar ideas about what a good politician looks like. While few political observers would be surprised to learn that good looks earn votes, the MIT researchers have quantified a phenomenon that is more often assumed to be true than rigorously measured.

This article deserves to be read in full.  There are all kinds of useful findings here for politicians and political junkies of all stripes.

The Economist: The rich are different from you and me
They are more selfish

LIFE at the bottom is nasty, brutish and short. For this reason, heartless folk might assume that people in the lower social classes will be more self-interested and less inclined to consider the welfare of others than upper-class individuals, who can afford a certain noblesse oblige. A recent study, however, challenges this idea. Experiments by Paul Piff and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, reported this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest precisely the opposite. It is the poor, not the rich, who are inclined to charity.


Discovery News: Neanderthal's Cozy Bedroom Unearthed
Even though it isn't wired for broadband, this prehistoric domicile does have beds and even a fireplace.
By Jennifer Viegas

Anthropologists have unearthed the remains of an apparent Neanderthal cave sleeping chamber, complete with a hearth and nearby grass beds that might have once been covered with animal fur.

Neanderthals inhabited the cozy Late Pleistocene room, located within Esquilleu Cave in Cantabria, Spain, anywhere between 53,000 to 39,000 years ago, according to a Journal of Archaeological Science paper concerning the discovery.

Living the ultimate clean and literally green lifestyle, the Neanderthals appear to have constructed new beds out of grass every so often, using the old bedding material to help fuel the hearth.

"It is possible that the Neanderthals renewed the bedding each time they visited the cave," lead author Dan Cabanes told Discovery News.

Agence France Presse via Discovery News: 'Callao Man' Could Redraw Filipino History
A foot bone from a human that lived 67,000 years ago suggests settlers first arrived earlier than once thought.
By Cecil Morella, AFP

Archaeologists have found a foot bone that could prove the Philippines was first settled by humans 67,000 years ago, thousands of years earlier than previously thought, the National Museum said Tuesday.

The bone, found in an extensive cave network, predates the 47,000-year-old Tabon Man that is previously known as the first human to have lived in the country, said Taj Vitales, a researcher with the museum's archaeology section.

"This would make it the oldest human remains ever found in the Philippines," Vitales told AFP.

annetteboardman is taking the week off.


MIT: Physicists use offshoot of string theory to describe puzzling behavior of superconductors
written by: Anne Trafton, MIT News Office

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Physicists are divided on whether string theory is a viable theory of everything, but many agree that it offers a new way to look at physical phenomena that have otherwise proven difficult to describe. In the past decade, physicists have used string theory to build a connection between quantum and gravitational mechanics, known as gauge/gravity duality.

MIT physicists, led by Hong Liu and John McGreevy, have now used that connection to describe a specific physical phenomenon — the behavior of a type of high-temperature superconductor, or a material that conducts electricity with no resistance. The research, published in the Aug. 5 online edition of Science, is one of the first to show that gauge/gravity duality can shed light on a material’s puzzling physical behavior.

So far, the team has described a few aspects of behavior of a type of superconducting materials called cuprates. However, the researchers hope their work could lead to more general theories to describe other materials, and eventually predict their behavior. "That’s the ultimate theoretical goal, and we haven’t really achieved that," says Liu.

The Economist: And they're off
The LHC hits its stride, but America’s Tevatron is still in the running

The LHC leads by a short headBESIDES providing something to bet on (see article), competition has the desirable side-effect of spurring progress. As far as the physics of tiny things is concerned, the race is a two-horse affair between the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) located at CERN in Geneva and the Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) near Chicago. Both are hadron colliders: machines that smash protons into each other, or into their antimatter kin, at a smidgen below the speed of light in order to create shrapnel in the form of other particles. And both have recently produced promising results, presented to the biennial International Conference on High Energy Physics held in Paris on July 22nd-28th.

The LHC’s most publicised goal is to find the Higgs boson, a particle believed to be the magic ingredient that gives other elementary particles their mass. The Higgs is the missing piece in the Standard Model, a 40-year-old mathematical framework that links all the known particles and all of the fundamental forces of nature except for gravity. Before the search can begin in earnest, though, the world’s most complicated machine has to be calibrated and fathomed by the legions of researchers who will operate it.

The simplest way of doing so is to use it to rediscover what is known already—in other words, the Standard Model. Work on that task began in March and, to everyone’s astonishment, has already been completed. All 16 known constituents, from the humble electron to the esoteric top quark, have now turned up.

The Economist: Correspondent's diary: Act three, scene one
Aug 5th 2010, 19:54 by G.C. | STANFORD

THERE are, F. Scott Fitzgerald once suggested, no second acts in American life. Not true in Stanford, though. Here, there has been not only a second act, but a third, for a piece of kit that many would have taken off to the knackers’ yard years ago.

The Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre, SLAC, is almost 50 years old. It was the site of Nobel-prize-winning work in the 1970s. In those days the Linac was to particle physics what the Large Hadron Collider is today – the edge that most precisely cut reality into its component parts. Using it, Burton Richter co-discovered (with Sam Ting, of the Brookhaven laboratory on the other side of the country) the first particle containing a charm quark, and Martin Lewis Perl discovered the tau lepton, a sort of heavy electron. Together, these findings of new fundamental particles unleashed a revolution that led to the modern Standard Model of reality, which explains – at least in a hand-waving way – all of the fundamental particles and forces except gravity.

When the caravan moved on to more powerful machines, the Linac might have been abandoned. Instead, it was refitted as a B-meson factory. B mesons are particles that contain yet another fundamental particle, the bottom quark. Theory suggested that B mesons and their antiparticles should decay in different ways, a necessary part of the explanation for why the universe is made of matter, and antimatter is rare. That, too, was confirmed, and the machine became redundant yet again.

But there is life in the old girl yet.


MIT: Shape-shifting robots
Self-folding sheets of a plastic-like material could lead to robots that can assume any conceivable 3-D structure
written by: Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — By combining origami and electrical engineering, researchers at MIT and Harvard are working to develop the ultimate reconfigurable robot — one that can turn into absolutely anything. The researchers have developed algorithms that, given a three-dimensional shape, can determine how to reproduce it by folding a sheet of semi-rigid material with a distinctive pattern of flexible creases. To test out their theories, they built a prototype that can automatically assume the shape of either an origami boat or a paper airplane when it receives different electrical signals. The researchers reported their results in the July 13 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As director of the Distributed Robotics Laboratory at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Professor Daniela Rus researches systems of robots that can work together to tackle complicated tasks. One of the big research areas in distributed robotics is what’s called "programmable matter," the idea that small, uniform robots could snap together like intelligent Legos to create larger, more versatile robots.

The U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a Programmable Matter project that funds a good deal of research in the field and specifies "particles ... which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects." But that approach turns out to have drawbacks, Rus says. "Most people are looking at separate modules, and they’re really worried about how these separate modules aggregate themselves and find other modules to connect with to create the shape that they’re supposed to create," Rus says. But, she adds, "actively gathering modules to build up a shape bottom-up, from scratch, is just really hard given the current state of the art in our hardware."

MIT: Silicon can be made to melt in reverse
written by: David L. Chandler, MIT News Office

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Like an ice cube on a warm day, most materials melt — that is, change from a solid to a liquid state — as they get warmer. But a few oddball materials do the reverse: They melt as they get cooler. Now a team of researchers at MIT has found that silicon, the most widely used material for computer chips and solar cells, can exhibit this strange property of "retrograde melting" when it contains high concentrations of certain metals dissolved in it.

The material, a compound of silicon, copper, nickel and iron, "melts" (actually turning from a solid to a slush-like mix of solid and liquid material) as it cools below 900 degrees Celsius, whereas silicon ordinarily melts at 1414 degrees C. The much lower temperatures make it possible to observe the behavior of the material during melting, based on specialized X-ray fluorescence microprobe technology using a synchrotron — a type of particle accelerator — as a source.

The material and its properties are described in a paper just published online in the journal Advanced Materials. Team leader Tonio Buonassisi, the SMA Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Manufacturing, is the senior author, and the lead authors are Steve Hudelson MS ’09, and postdoctoral fellow Bonna Newman PhD ’08.

The Economist: Fluid defences
Body armour can be made lighter and stronger using special liquids

A SUIT of armour that is lightweight and flexible, yet capable of absorbing the impact of a bullet, is an idea that seems to come from the future—a bit like the liquid skin of the cyborg in "The Terminator". However, for a number of years researchers have been investigating materials that might be able to provide such protection. Now BAE Systems, a British defence contractor, seems close to turning such "liquid armour" into reality.

In recent tests at the company’s Advanced Technology Centre, in Bristol, liquid armour has been used to construct a material that is thinner than normal body armour and yet is able to stop a low-velocity bullet. Work is now under way to see if it can also stop more powerful bullets. If these tests are successful, liquid armour could furnish soldiers with protective clothing that is more comfortable and less cumbersome than existing body armour, and provides them with greater protection.

Liquid armour relies on the properties of materials called shear-thickening fluids.


Discovery News: Is Solar Power Worth It?
By Cristen Conger

Sunlight is free, but harnessing that radiant heat energy and converting it into usable solar power costs a pretty penny.

Materials handling and manufacturing, production efficiency and installation all drive up the price of photovoltaic solar array systems, those sun-catching panels installed on roofs. Once in place, the amount of sunlight and array performance will determine how much of a return on investment solar power systems generate.

But while the up-front expenses starting around $5,000 for at-home installation are a big, expensive pill for some people to swallow, the long-term benefits of photovoltaic solar power systems are worthwhile.

Discovery News: Churning Butter into Biodiesel
By Teresa Shipley

In what the butter-loving among us might call a scandalous waste, scientists have figured out a way to turn this creamy milk product into biodiesel fuel.

Although butter failed final quality tests for a totally perfect biodiesel fuel, the scientists say that it's possible to mix their purified butter with other vegetable or animal fats to make a workable fuel.


Around the world, interest in finding alternative fuel sources has skyrocketed, spurred by the recent Gulf oil spill disaster.

But is butter really a viable alternative?

Discovery News: Gasoline from thin air?
By Eric Bland

An enzyme found in the roots of soybeans could be the key to cars that run on air.

Vanadium nitrogenase, an enzyme that normally produces ammonia from nitrogen gas, can also convert carbon monoxide (CO), a common industrial byproduct, into propane, the blue-flamed gas found on stoves across America.

While scientists caution the research is still at an early stage, they say that this study could eventually lead to new, environmentally friendly ways to produce fuel -- and eventually gasoline -- from thin air.

Science, Space, Environment, and Energy Policy

MSNBC's Cosmic Log: Senate approves its spaceflight plan

Alan Boyle writes: The U.S. Senate quietly and efficiently put its stamp of approval on a compromise vision for future spaceflight that would keep the space shuttle program going for another year, fund efforts to put astronauts on private-sector spaceships and start work on a big new rocket for trips beyond Earth orbit.

Two big questions are still up in the air: Will the House go along with the Senate's plan? And is $19 billion a year enough for NASA to do what Congress wants it to do?

The Senate version of the authorization bill would let NASA fly an additional shuttle mission beyond the two currently left on the launch schedule, in order to help close the gap between the shuttle fleet's retirement and the deployment of whatever type of spaceship comes afterward. The extra mission, which would have to be cleared by a safety review, would likely send the shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station in mid-2011.

Florida Today: Commerce Secretary Locke pledges support for space shuttle workers
Official meets with space workers facing layoffs

CAPE CANAVERAL — U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on Wednesday acknowledged "very difficult, trying times" at Kennedy Space Center, but told employees facing layoffs that federal support would help the Space Coast make the transition from the shuttle to new economic opportunities.

Over lunch, Locke met with a dozen employees from three shuttle contractors who are expecting to lose their jobs by Oct. 1, part of a large wave of layoffs projected to total about 8,000 after the shuttle fleet retires next year.

"More than anything, they want certainty," Locke told reporters after a tour of science labs at the space center. "They want decisions made so they can plan their lives accordingly."

It will be up to Congress and the White House to provide that certainty. Debate over NASA's post-shuttle direction and budget continues.

Florida Today: Final homes for space shuttles Atlantis, Endeavour still up in air

WASHINGTON - The wait continues to find out where NASA's space shuttle orbiters will spend their retirement.

The delayed schedule for the final two space shuttle flights "also caused a delay in announcing the disposition of the space shuttle orbiters," said NASA spokesman Michael Curie. "NASA has not established a date for announcing where the space shuttle orbiters will go once they are retired."

NASA plans to send the orbiter Discovery to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. But dozens of communities nationwide -- led by Kennedy and Johnson space centers -- are competing to display Atlantis and Endeavour.

The competition also has become political as Congress debates NASA policy.

Science Education and Science Writing and Reporting

The Economist: The Difference Engine: Rewiring the brain
by N.V.

IT’S a question that’s bothered cultural critics for decades: while we know more than ever, are we getting dumber as a result of the increasing amount of technology at our disposal? Reading historical debates, and hearing of the attention paid to them by a thoughtful populace, certainly makes one wonder. Speaking in the 1820s of the mechanical Difference Engine he had devised for computing polynomial functions, Charles Babbage, the father of the programmable computer and our web-log’s namesake, told the House of Commons:

On two occasions I have been asked [by Members of Parliament], "Pray, Mr Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

Incisive eloquence—in Latin and Greek as well as their mother tongue—was common fare among Georgians and Victorians lucky enough to have had at least a dozen years of schooling. One wonders how the founders of Facebook, Twitter or YouTube might respond to similarly banal queries tossed at them during congressional testimony.

The current debate about intelligence, sparked by Nicholas Carr’s recent and eminently readable "The Shallows", asks what is the internet doing to our brains? Like Susan Jacoby’s "The Age of American Unreason" and Adam Winer’s "How Dumb Are You?" earlier in the decade, Mr Carr taps into the sense of despair among American intellectuals about the country’s poor educational showing when compared with other countries.

Science is Cool

The Economist: And the winner is...
Offering a cash prize to encourage innovation is all the rage. Sometimes it works rather well

A CURIOUS cabal gathered recently in a converted warehouse in San Francisco for a private conference. Among them were some of the world’s leading experts in fields ranging from astrophysics and nanotechnology to health and energy. Also attending were entrepreneurs and captains of industry, including Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, and Ratan Tata, the head of India’s Tata Group. They were brought together to dream up more challenges for the X Prize Foundation, a charitable group which rewards innovation with cash. On July 29th a new challenge was announced: a $1.4m prize for anyone who can come up with a faster way to clean oil spills from the ocean.

The foundation began with the Ansari X Prize: $10m to the first private-sector group able to fly a reusable spacecraft 100km (62 miles) into space twice within two weeks. It was won in 2004 by a team led by Burt Rutan, a pioneering aerospace engineer, and Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft. Other prizes have followed, including the $10m Progressive Automotive X Prize, for green cars that are capable of achieving at least 100mpg, or its equivalent. Peter Diamandis, the entrepreneur who runs the foundation, says he has become convinced that "focused and talented teams in pursuit of a prize and acclaim can change the world."

This might sound like hyperbole, but other charities, including the Gates Foundation, have been sufficiently impressed to start offering their own prizes. An industry is now growing up around them, with some firms using InnoCentive, an online middleman, to offer prizes to eager problem-solvers. Now governments are becoming keen too. As a result, there is a surge in incentive prizes...

DotPhysics on ScienceBlogs: How fast is the Beacon of Gondor?
By Rhett Allain

The Lord of the Rings trilogy came on TV again recently. My wife and I can't help but to watch this even though we have it on DVD. Anyway, I was thinking about the part where Gondor sends a signal to Rohan asking them for military aid. Since this was before the invention of email, they had to do it with a signal fire.


How fast does this signal travel? There are three angles to this question. Symbolically, what is this speed? What is my estimate of the speed from the video clip? What would be the speed if someone really set this up - you never know, you might need to do this in the event of a zombie attack.

Originally posted to Neon Vincent's Massage Parlour on Sat Aug 07, 2010 at 09:15 PM PDT.

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