Posts about curiouscat

Changing Life as We Know It

Update: Independent researchers find no evidence for arsenic life in Mono Lake

NASA has made a discovery that changes our understanding of the very makeup of life itself on earth. I think my favorite scientific discipline name is astrobiology. NASA pursues a great deal of this research not just out in space but also looking at earth based life. Their astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

photo of Felisa Wolfe-Simon

Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh, but beautiful (see photo), environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

“The definition of life has just expanded,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it.” This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth.

In science such huge breakthroughs are not just excepted without debate, however, which is wise.

Thriving on Arsenic:

In other words, every experiment Wolfe-Simon performed pointed to the same conclusion: GFAJ-1 can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA. “I really have no idea what another explanation would be,” Wolfe-Simon says.

But Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL, remains skeptical. If you “replace all the phosphates by arsenates,” in the backbone of DNA, he says, “every bond in that chain is going to hydrolyze [react with water and fall apart] with a half-life on the order of minutes, say 10 minutes.” So “if there is an arsenate equivalent of DNA in that bug, it has to be seriously stabilized” by some as-yet-unknown mechanism.

It is sure a great story if it is true though. Other scientists will examine more data and confirm or disprove the claims.

“We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new — building parts of itself out of arsenic,” said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team’s lead scientist. “If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?”
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Letting Children Learn – Hole in the Wall Computers

The hole in the wall experiments are exactly the kind of thing I love to lean about. I wrote about them in 2006, what kids can learn.

Research finding from the Hole in the Wall foundation:

Over the 4 year research phase (2000-2004), HiWEL has extensively studied the impact of Learning Stations on children. Hole-in-the-Wall Learning Stations were installed in diverse settings, the impact of interventions was monitored and data was continually gathered, analyzed and interpreted. Rigorous assessments were conducted to measure academic achievement, behaviour, personality profile, computer literacy and correlations with socio-economic indicators.

The sociometric survey found:

  • Self-organizing groups of children who organize themselves into Leaders (experts), Connectors and Novice groups.
  • Leaders and Connectors identified seem to display an ability to connect with and teach other users.
  • Key leaders on receiving targeted intervention, play a key role in bringing about a “multiplier effect in learning” within the community.
  • Often girls are seen to take on the role of Connector, who initiates younger children and siblings (usually novices with little or no exposure to computers) and connects them to the leaders in the group

I believe traditional education is helpful. I believe people are “wired” to learn. They want to learn. We need to create environments that let them learn. We need to avoid crushing the desire to learn (stop de-motivating people).

If you want to get right to talking about the hole in the wall experiments, skip to the 8 minute mark.

Related: Providing Computer to Remote Students in NepalTeaching Through TinkeringKids Need Adventurous PlayScience Toys You Can Make With Your Kids

Wind Power Capacity Up 170% Worldwide from 2005-2009

graph of global installed wind power capacity from 2005-2009Chart showing global installed wind energy capacity by Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog, Creative Commons Attribution. Data from World Wind Energy Association, for installed Megawatts of global wind power capacity.

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Globally 38,025 MW of capacity were added in 2009, bringing the total to 159,213 MW, a 31% increase. The graph shows the top 10 producers (with the exceptions of Denmark and Portugal) and includes Japan (which is 13th).

Wind power is now generating 2% of global electricity demand, according to the World Wind Energy Association. The countries with the highest shares of wind energy generated electricity: Denmark 20%, Portugal 15%, Spain 14%, Germany 9%. Wind power employed 550,000 people in 2009 and is expected to employ 1,000,000 by 2012.

From 2005 to 2009 the global installed wind power capacity increased 170% from 59,033 megawatts to 159,213 megawatts. The percent of global capacity of the 9 countries in the graph has stayed remarkably consistent: from 81% in 2005 growing slowly to 83% in 2009.

Over the 4 year period the capacity in the USA increased 284% and in China increased 1,954%. China grew 113% in 2009, the 4th year in a row it more than doubled capacity. In 2007, Europe had for 61% of installed capacity and the USA 18%. At the end of 2009 Europe had 48% of installed capacity, Asia 25% and North America 24%.

Related: Wind Power Provided Over 1% of Global Electricity in 2007USA Wind Power Installed Capacity 1981 to 2005Wind Power has the Potential to Produce 20% of Electricity by 2030

Vaccines Can’t Provide Miraculous Results if We Don’t Take Them

Vaccine preventable diseases used to ravage our health. In the USA, we are lucky to live in a society where those before us have taken vaccines and reduced to very low levels the attack vectors for these diseases. If nearly everyone is vaccinated for polio, even if it crops up with one person, most likely it won’t spread. As more people chose to risk the health of others in the society by failing to vaccinate, an infection can spread rapidly. There are some people who can’t be vaccinated for one reason or another (normally dangerous allergies) and vaccines, while very effective are not 100% effective. So any person that fails to vaccinate their kids endangers society and those who cannot be vaccinated.

Six Top Vaccine Myths

Myth 1: It’s not necessary to vaccinate kids against diseases that have been largely eradicated in the United States.
Reality: Although some diseases like polio and diphtheria aren’t often seen in America (in large part because of the success of the vaccination efforts), they can be quite common in other parts of the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that travelers can unknowingly bring these diseases into the United States, and if we were not protected by vaccinations, these diseases could quickly spread throughout the population. At the same time, the relatively few cases currently in the U.S. could very quickly become tens or hundreds of thousands of cases without the protection we get from vaccines. Brown warns that these diseases haven’t disappeared, “they are merely smoldering under the surface.”

Most parents do follow government recommendations: U.S. national immunization rates are high, ranging from 85 percent to 93 percent, depending on the vaccine, according to the CDC.

See the 2010 Child & Adolescent Immunization Schedules from the CDC and protect your children and society. The suffering caused by preventable diseases like polio and small pox was huge. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that those diseases are not dangerous. They are. We have been protected by all those taking vaccines. If people in the society don’t take vaccines that increases the health risks to the society at large.

Routine smallpox vaccination among the American public stopped in 1972 after the disease was eradicated in the United States. The United States government has enough vaccine to vaccinate every person in the United States in the event of a smallpox emergency (mainly due to concerns about bio-terrorism).

U.S. Adults Dying of Preventable Diseases

Diseases easily preventable by adult vaccines kill more Americans each year than car wrecks, breast cancer, or AIDS.

“We have a chronic disease epidemic in the U.S. It is taxing our families and taxing our economy,” the CDC’s Anne Schuchat, MD, said at the news conference. “We have a need for culture change in America. We worry about things when they are really bad rather than focusing on prevention, which can keep us out of the hospital and keep our families thriving.”

In other parts of the world the danger is not from those who chose not to vaccinate their children but those who are not provided the opportunity to.

Bill Gates’ war on disease, poverty is an uphill battle
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Poor Results on Evolution and Big Bang Questions Omitted From NSF Report

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, “The universe began with a big explosion,” with which only 33% of Americans agreed.

The USA continues to lag far behind the rest of the world in this basic science understanding. Similar to how we lag in other science and mathematical education. Nearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the Sun.

Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who authored the survey 3 decades ago and conducted it for NSF until 2001. “Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs.”

I completely agree. People have the right to their opinions. But those opinions which are related to scientific knowledge (whether it is about evolution, the origin of the universe, cancer, the speed of light, polio vaccinations, multi-factorial designed experiments, magnetic fields, chemical catalysts, the effectiveness of antibiotics against viral infections, electricity, optics, bioaccumulation, etc.) are part of their scientific literacy. You can certainly believe antibiotics are affective against viral infections but that is an indication you are scientifically illiterate on that topic.

2006 NSF chapter that included the results
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Scientific Illiteracy Leaves Many at Risk in Making Health Care Judgements

Scientific literacy is important for many reasons and that importance has increased greatly over the last century. Medical research is often difficult to interpret. Often various studies seem to contradict each other. Often the conclusions that are drawn are far too broad (especially as the research conclusions are passed on and people hear of them overly simplified ways).

Many health care options are not obviously all good, or all bad, but instead a mix of benefits and risks, both of which include interactions with the individuals makeup. So we often see contradictory (and seemingly contradictory) advice. Without a level of scientific literacy it is very difficult for people to know how to react to medical advice.

We have numerous posts on the scientific inquiry process showing that acquiring scientific knowledge is complex and can be quite confusing in many instances. While understanding things are often less clear cut than they are presented it is still true that most often strategies for healthy living have far better practices that will provide far better results than alternatives.

The scientific illiteracy that has some think because their are risks no matter what is done that means there is no evidence some alternatives are far superior is very dangerous. As you can see in action now with those that risk their and others lives and health by doing things like not vaccinating their children, or driving when drunk, or driving when talking on a cell phone.

Without a scientifically literate society even completely obvious measures like not using antibiotics on viral infections are ignored.

Related: Long Term ADHD Drug Benefits QuestionedHow Prozac Sent Science Inquiry Off TrackLifestyle Drugs and RiskCorrelation is Not Causation: “Fat is Catching” Theory Exposed
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Historical Engineering: Hanging Flume

Hanging flumephoto of hanging flume overlook in Colorado, by John Hunter, Creative Commons Attribution.

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While driving from Dinosaur National Monument to Mesa Verde National Park last year I passed the sight above with the remnants of a hanging flume. The Montrose Placer Mining Company built a 13 mile canal and flume to deliver water from the San Miguel River for gold mining operations. The last 5 miles of the flume clung to the wall of the canyon itself, running along the cliff face in the photo above (see more photos).

Constructed between 1888 and 1891, the 4 foot deep 5 foot 4 inch wide hanging flume carried 23,640,000 gallons of water in a 24 hour period. The mining operations used water and sluice boxes to separate the gold from lighter materials (dirt and gravel).

The technology was not yet available to pump the water directly from the river at the necessary volume and pressure to wash the gold from the gravel, therefore they constructed the flume to transport the water.

Related: Mount Saint Helens Photosphotos of Manhattan (Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building…)C&O Towpath – Monocacy Aqueduct to Calico Rocks
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Rat Brain Cells, in a Dish, Flying a Plane

Adaptive Flight Control With Living Neuronal Networks on Microelectrode Arrays (open access paper) by Thomas B. DeMarse and Karl P. Dockendorf Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Florida

investigating the ability of living neurons to act as a set of neuronal weights which were used to control the flight of a simulated aircraft. These weights were manipulated via high frequency stimulation inputs to produce a system in which a living neuronal network would “learn” to control an aircraft for straight and level flight.

A system was created in which a network of living rat cortical neurons were slowly adapted to control an aircraft’s flight trajectory. This was accomplished by using high frequency stimulation pulses delivered to two independent channels, one for pitch, and one for roll. This relatively simple system was able to control the pitch and roll of a simulated aircraft.

When Dr. Thomas DeMarse first puts the neurons in the dish, they look like little more than grains of sand sprinkled in water. However, individual neurons soon begin to extend microscopic lines toward each other, making connections that represent neural processes. “You see one extend a process, pull it back, extend it out — and it may do that a couple of times, just sampling who’s next to it, until over time the connectivity starts to establish itself,” he said. “(The brain is) getting its network to the point where it’s a live computation device.”

To control the simulated aircraft, the neurons first receive information from the computer about flight conditions: whether the plane is flying straight and level or is tilted to the left or to the right. The neurons then analyze the data and respond by sending signals to the plane’s controls. Those signals alter the flight path and new information is sent to the neurons, creating a feedback system.

“Initially when we hook up this brain to a flight simulator, it doesn’t know how to control the aircraft,” DeMarse said. “So you hook it up and the aircraft simply drifts randomly. And as the data come in, it slowly modifies the (neural) network so over time, the network gradually learns to fly the aircraft.”

Although the brain currently is able to control the pitch and roll of the simulated aircraft in weather conditions ranging from blue skies to stormy, hurricane-force winds, the underlying goal is a more fundamental understanding of how neurons interact as a network, DeMarse said.

Related: Neural & Hybrid Computing Laboratory @ University of Florida – UF Scientist: “Brain” In A Dish Acts As Autopilot, Living ComputerRoachbot: Cockroach Controlled RobotNew Neurons in Old Brainsposts on brain researchViruses and What is LifeGreat Self Portrait of Astronaut Engineer

Waste from Gut Bacteria Helps Host Control Weight

A single molecule in the intestinal wall, activated by the waste products from gut bacteria, plays a large role in controlling whether the host animals are lean or fatty, a research team, including scientists from UT Southwestern Medical Center, has found in a mouse study.

When activated, the molecule slows the movement of food through the intestine, allowing the animal to absorb more nutrients and thus gain weight. Without this signal, the animals weigh less.

The study shows that the host can use bacterial byproducts not only as a source of nutrients, but also as chemical signals to regulate body functions. It also points the way to a potential method of controlling weight, the researchers said.

“It’s quite possible that blocking this receptor molecule in the intestine might fight a certain kind of obesity by blocking absorption of energy from the gut,” said Dr. Masashi Yanagisawa, professor of molecular genetics at UT Southwestern and a senior co-author of the study, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, open access: Effects of the gut microbiota on host adiposity are modulated by the short-chain fatty-acid binding G protein-coupled receptor, Gpr41.

Humans, like other animals, have a large and varied population of beneficial bacteria that live in the intestines. The bacteria break up large molecules that the host cannot digest. The host in turn absorbs many of the resulting small molecules for energy and nutrients.

In the Big Fat Lie I mentioned some related ideas:

It also makes perfect sense that our bodies evolved to store energy for worse times (and some of us have bodies better at doing that). Now we are in a new environment where (at least for many people alive today) finding enough calories is not going to be a problem so it would be nice if we could tell our bodies to get less efficient at storing fat

This research seems to be looking for a similar way to attack the obesity epidemic: reduce the efficiency of our bodies converting potential energy in the food we eat to energy we use or store. If we can make that part of the solution that will be nice. So far the reduction in our activity and increase in food intake have not been getting good results. And efforts to increase (from our current low levels) activity and reduce food intake have not been very effective.
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Science Postercasts

I wrote about SciVee, over a year ago, saying I thought they could become a valuable resource. It has been taking longer to really get going than I thought it would but this new feature, Postercasts, is great. I am glad to see SciVee living up to my high expectation. Keep up the great work SciVee. The experience can still use improvement but this is a great start.

They have provided a tutorial on: How to Synchronize my Poster to my Video. I hope some of our readers try this out.

via: Interactive Virtual Posters

Related: Engineering TVScience WebcastsMagnetic Movie

Wind Power Provided Over 1% of Global Electricity in 2007

graph of global installed wind power capacity

Data from World Wind Energy Association, for installed Mega Watts of global wind power capacity in 2007. 19,696 MW of capacity were added in 2007, bringing the total to 93,849 MW. Europe accounts for 61% of installed capacity, Germany accounts for 24% and the USA 18%.

The graph shows the top 10 producers (with the exceptions of Denmark and Portugal) and includes Japan (which is 13th).

Related: USA Wind Power Installed Capacity 1981 to 2005Wind Power has the Potential to Produce 20% of Electricity by 2030Top 12 Manufacturing Countries in 2007Sails for Modern Cargo ShipsMIT’s Energy ‘Manhattan Project’

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