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Regional Nuclear War Would Radically Reduce Ozone

Back in the 1980s, when concern about a possible nuclear winter was at its height, the conservative columnist William Rusher jokingly referred to the tendency of catastrophists like the late Carl Sagan to talk "lip smackingly" about the end of the world. Those were the days when concerns sparked by a new U.S.-Soviet arms race were at their height, and scientists were warning that an all-out nuclear war would produce so much soot, the world would be plunged into a multi-year winter making life for the survivors virtually unsustainable. Sagan was among the leading scientists drawing attention to this dire scenario.

Given the satisfaction Rusher took from mocking those who liked to roll up every conceivable disaster into one irresistible package, he'd probably enjoy the report that is being posted today by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, â''Massive Global Ozone Loss Predicted Following Regional Nuclear Conflict.â'' The article postulates that a regional nuclear war involving India and Pakistan would kick so much soot up into the stratosphere, heating of ambient gases would accelerate the chemical reactions that break down ozone as high as 60 kilometers up. The result here on the surface of the earth: a thinning of ozone north and south of 20 degrees latitude--everywhere north of Mexico City, for example, or south of Rio--to levels characteristic of the Antarctic ozone hole that has caused such serious concern in recent decades.

Michael Mills, the atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who is lead author of the PNAS paper, says the ozone thinning would lead to much higher rates of skin cancer and cataracts, and have drastic effects on plant ecology during the five to eight years it persisted.

For those able to contemplate catastrophe scenarios with cool objectivityâ''without smacking their lipsâ''a recent study estimating the chances of nuclear war will be of interest in this context. That risk analysis, described in the current issue of IEEE Spectrum, finds that the odds of nuclear war during the Cold War years might have been as high as 5 in 1000 per year. Similar odds might hold in situations like the India-Pakistan stand-off.

Out of Africa: wisdom of the Great Apes

I sometimes think I was drawn to Africa by a chimpanzee. I met my wife, Chizo Okon, in the Accra Zoo, in Ghana, where she served as the surrogate mother for an orphaned chimpanzee.

I once took a photo of another chimp, this one orphaned by hunters in Cameroon who killed his mother. With the help of an American doctor and an armed soldier from Cameroon's army, we rescued this chimp, which we found staked to a post, sweating in the beating sun.

The chimp was the victim of two old technologies: the rifle and the chain saw. Loggers in the Congo basin need food. The hunters find them bushmeat. Together, a cycle of rationale incentives -- timber fetches money the world over and loggers must eat -- conspire to doom the species of animals that share more DNA with humans than any other.

New technologies are part of the campaign to save Africa's chimpanzees from extinction. At a protected sanctuary deep in the jungles of Cameroon, near the mighty Sanaga River, Dr. Sheri Speede protects some 50 chimpanzees of various ages. Electrified fences keep out wild chimps that might harass her own. Security cameras record human intruders. Advanced medical techniques enable Dr. Speede to provide birth control to the female chimps, so they don't bear babies in captivity. And various technologies -- from boats to cars and even the Exxon oil pipeline that runs near the sanctuary -- help her to reduce the abuses against the chimpanzees who remain in the forests near her.

Honestly, I am not much of an animal person. I've lived my whole in cities, surrounded by modern technologies seemingly designed for my comfort. In an African jungle, I constantly protect myself against malaria. I drink only boiled water. I eat only cooked food or fresh fruit. The idea of handling wild animals is ridiculous.

On the morning of the day we rescued this chimnpanzee, I prodded and cajoled Dr. Speede to drive 100 miles to check out a report we'd received of a baby chimp for sale. We drove for hours, the three of us in a battered truck, navigating bad roads and managing our worsening moods. In the final leg, we were carried across a wide river on a small ferry owned by the timber company. On the other side of the river, we stumbled on an hunters camp. When the soldier drew his gun, the hunters put down their machetes and rifles, and I released the frightened chimp.

He clung to me. Dr. Speede, in recognition of how I pestered her to attempt a raid, named the Great Ape after me. She calls him Zachary.

When we returned before nightfall to the sanctuary, I held the chimpanzee in my arms, showing him off to Dr. Speede's astonished co-workers. Proud of myself, I stood in awe of this animal's intelligence and grace -- until the moment he urinated all over me.

*

As I write these words, I sit in the comfortable Mermaid Inn of Menlo Park, California. I am not far from my current assignment -- helping a merry band of Finns, Swedes and Pakistanis, experienced journalists all, gain an introduction to both Silicon Valley and how American journalism cover innovation. The third day of our journey together is coming to an end, and I listen on my Ipod to the late Momo Wandel -- an extraordinary Francophone singer from West Africa -- groan out the first song from the Last King of Scotland soundtrack. When I think of the technological innovations spawned by Silicon Valley -- the very computer I write with, my new Iphone, even the magical badge that permits me to open the door to our office -- I am awed by the power of ingenious people to steadily improve ordinary life.

Yet the chimp pictured in my arms, so well protected by Dr. Speede, is a reminder of the fragility of our technological systems. How easily can human tools upset the mysterious balance of our world.

I hope the innovators of tommorrow can somehow restore that balance, if not for me, an old man, than at least for the generations that come after me. Can the youth of today somehow break out of the peculiar trap, whereby our tools enhance and diminish our humanity at the very same time?

Here Comes Everybody's Umbrellas

According to a friend of mine at Penguin Press, thereâ''s seven paragraphs missing from Clay Shirkyâ''s new book, Here Comes Everybody.. She feels responsible and asked that I post it for her, to protect her anonymity and thus her job.

The missing material, about a page and a halfâ''s worth of text, belong on p.21, after the first full paragraph, but it could also go at the very beginning of chapter 3 or on page 104 right after the section head. (This seems to be how the text got dropped, in the course of it being moved around from one galley proof to the next.) Here then, with an apology from a nameless publishing employee, is the missing text:

Stand under the shelter for the crosstown bus at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, on Manhattanâ''s crowded upper east side, and youâ''ll notice people streaming out of the bus and flocking to the subway station, which, since it is an express stop, is invariably busy.

Despite the large number of people, the flow of people from bus to subway entrance, and thence down the stairs, through the turnstiles, and onto the platform proceeds without incident.

This is a standard feature of a city serviceâ''it accommodates large numbers of people with relative ease. (Indeed, this is almost a defining characteristic of an urban service, and the collection of, and synergies between, such services is the hallmark of a functioning urban environment.) To be sure, there are often profferers of free newspapers, and the occasional medicant, to navigate around, but these are fixtures that New Yorkers have long learned to accommodate.

Now stand there on a rainy day (this is why we have positioned ourselves under the shelter, instead of beside it) and youâ''ll notice three interesting things. First, thereâ''s a hitch in the flow of people. Second, the hitch is exactly at the threshold of the subway entrance. Third, the hitch is coincident with a pause, as people lower and fold up their umbrellas. And fourth, the people behind them get annoyed, because theyâ''re still out in the rain, and in one more step, they would be in from it.

This behavior, which we can call The Umbrella Effect, can be found at almost every major crosstown street that intersects an avenue under which a subway runs. Comparable behavior can even be found in other parts of New York, and even other cities, even though they donâ''t have the regularity and accountability of Manhattanâ''s midtown grid. There are two things to notice about The Umbrella Effect. Umbrellas impede the free flow of movement. By itself, thatâ''s not so surprising. What is surprising is that even though umbrellas are handheld devices, their principle social effect is upon locomotion. (Their principle personal effect is of course to keep people dry, but weâ''re primarily interested in umbrellas as social devices.)

The Umbrella Effect is particularly noticable in the afternoon. This is because umbrella users have typically shopped at the drugstore, or other store, during the day, and so have more bundles and packages with them. These bundles and packages donâ''t impede the flow from bus to subway during nonrainy days, but on rainy ones they do, because folding an umbrella requires one and a half hands, and so the pause is all the more noticable as it is longer in duration.

Whatâ''s particularly important about The Umbrella Effect is that people get annoyed not at the unfoldable umbrella, which usability guru Don Norman, in his book The Parapsychology of Everyday Devices, calls â''a perfect storm of cheap, disfunctional design,â'' nor do they get annoyed at subway entrances that are too narrow and lack canopies or other precipatory amenities, or at the urban architects who fail to include canopies in their drafts, or the politicians who donâ''t fund canopies. No, users get mad at their fellow bus passengers. Indeed, and this is the true Umbrella Effect: People get annoyed by the same behaviors that they themselves will exhibit just moments later. This has been true of people for thousands of years, across all cultures and all ages, but it was only after buses, subways, and cheap umbrellas all existed in the same time and place as ubiquitious social networks that it was noticable enough to be given its own name.

NPR Learns the "Nano Radio" is not about the Radio

In an interview on National Public Radio, Professor John Rogers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign does a yeomanâ''s job in trying to get his interviewer away from the idea that his work with nanotubes is about the â''nano radioâ'' that made headlines at the beginning of the year and instead gently nudges him to the idea that the nanotube-based transistor used for the creation of the so-called â''nano radioâ'' is in fact a demonstration of the potential of CNTs in electronics.

Rogers manages to hit the interviewer's â''Jargon Alertâ'' when he indicates one of the most attractive qualities of CNTs in electronics are their â''charged-carrier mobilityâ'' (which is explained to the interviewer as: How fast they can switch on and off).

Indeed, it has long been understood that CNTs outperform silicon by a factor of 10 in this area.

But what has also long been the problem is growing the nanotubes into some kind of ordered array rather than a â''ratâ''s nestâ''. According to Rogers, his team has managed to grow the tubes in a configuration in a way that they can be handed off to engineers. In other words, moved it into the hands of people who can make a commercial product.

Rogersâ'' team discovered somewhat serendipitously that by growing the CNTs on a quartz substrate they aligned themselves. Rogers concedes in the interview that more work has to be done. In the next two years, they will be trying to increase the density of the tubes on the substrate and decrease the level of electronic heterogeneity of the tubes.

But what is particularly fascinating about the interview is Rogers laying out a roadmap for nanotube applications in electronics.

According to Rogers, because RF analog device depend so highly on high switching speeds that the high intrinsic mobility of the CNTs can have a dramatic impact. Also, RF analog electronics for communication devices donâ''t involve extremely high levels of integration as measured by the number of devices per circuit. You can make a commercially competitive circuit that has 100 transistors, whereas with digital logic you need 100 million transistors to make something that is competitive.

So, thereâ''s the plan for CNTs in electronics: first RF analog communication devices, then digital logic.

New Autonomous Spacecraft Docks at Space Station

The European Space Agency's new unmanned cargo vehicle successfully docked at the International Space Station today. Called the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the 17 metric ton spacecraft made contact with the orbiting space platform at 14:45 GMT on an experimental mission to prove its technical prowess and deliver much-needed supplies. It also marked the entrance of the European nations into the ISS flight club.

According to an announcement from ESA, the automated approach began 39 kilometers behind the ISS and lasted 4 hours, in which the closing of the two was halted repeatedly to check bearings. ESA said the Jules Verne autonomously computed its own position through relative GPS and, at close range, used videometers pointed at laser retro-reflectors on the ISS to determine its distance and orientation relative to its target.

At docking, the ATV was traveling at 7 centimeters per second relative to the velocity of the ISS, within a positional tolerance of less than 10 cm to an aft coupling on the Russian space agency's Zvezda module. The mating vehicles were orbiting Earth at 28000 km/h some 340 km above the Eastern Mediterranean at the time.

Computers onboard the Jules Verne controlled the entire procedure, while specialists at the French Space agency's ATV Control Centre in Toulouse, France, observed. The new spacecraft had been programmed to withdraw to a previous position of safety in the event that a malfunction occurred during the approach. Today, no fail-safe measures were needed, as the ATV performed its maneuvers flawlessly.

ESA said the Jules Verne will now become part of the space station for the next four months. The crew of Expedition 16 aboard the ISS will now focus on unloading the weightless 3.4 metric tons of supplies (including equipment, goods, water, fuel, and oxygen) from the ATV, according to a statement on NASA's ISS site.

The director of NASA said he applauded today's achievement.

"I am incredibly proud of and pleased for our European partners with this demonstration of a successful automated docking of the ATV cargo vehicle with the ISS," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said today in a press release.

"Only Russia has previously achieved a successful automated docking in space," he noted. "This accomplishment showcases yet again the progress which has been made by the international partnership in bringing this incredible program to fruition. Together with the arrival of the Columbus Module at the ISS earlier this year, the success of the ATV marks the arrival of Europe as a full-fledged space power."

"The ATV is so much more than a simple delivery truck, it is an intelligent and versatile spaceship which has just demonstrated its extraordinary skills," said Daniel Sacotte, ESA's Director for Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration. "It is the largest and most complex spacecraft ever developed in Europe and the second in size of all the vehicle's visiting the station, after NASA's space shuttle. With Columbus and the ATV, we have entered the major league of the ISS."

As part of its mission, the Jules Verne will fire its rockets later this month in a propulsion procedure designed to boost the orbital altitude of the space station, which decays slowly over time due to thermospheric drag. Subsequently, it will be filled with station waste. Then it will be de-orbited for destruction on reentry over the Pacific in August.

The Jules Verne is the first of as many as seven ATVs to be built by ESA for space station flights.

Within its cargo bay, it carries a nineteenth-century illustrated copy of the French science-fiction writer's novel From the Earth to the Moon.

[Editor's Note: Please see our prior entry "Endeavour Returns Safely; Jules Verne Approaches Space Station" for more on the Jules Verne ATV.]

Solar energy or growing trees: which is really better for the environment?

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What a dilemma for environmentalists: trees, or solar energy? Both are good for the environment. Both are beloved by the environmental community. Both fight global warming.

But sometimes, you just canâ''t have both. Thatâ''s what happened in Sunnyvale, Calif. From 1997 to 1999, Richard Treanor and Carolyn Bissett planted eight redwood trees at the edge of their property. In 2001, neighbor Mark Vargas, installed a 10 kw solar system on his roof and trellis, to power his home and charge his electric car.

The solar system worked just fine. And the trees grew, as trees, especially redwoods, tend to do. And the trees started to cast shade on Vargasâ''s solar panels.

Vargas asked the neighbors to trim the trees back from as much as 12 meters to 4.5 meters. Treanor and Bissett (who drive a Prius) said no. In December, after several years of mediation and, one has to assume, decidedly chilly neighborly relations, solar prevailed; a Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge found Treanor and Bissett in violation of the 1978 Solar Shade Control Act that prevents people from planting trees or shrubs that shade an existing solar system on a neighboring property. Last week, the wood chips flew and at least one of the trees got trimmed back; Treanor and Bissett took pictures and hope the so-called â''poodle cutâ'' will be dramatic enough to satisfy the judge.

In response, California State Sen. Joe Simitian introduced a bill protecting trees planted before solar panels were installed, even if the trees grow and later shade the panels. Sort of a first-come, first-serve solution.

But nowhere in the heavy media coverage of this neighborhood squabble have I read any analysis of the real question. That is, which option is better for the environment, letting the trees grow, or letting the sun hit the solar panels unobstructed.

I took this question to H Scott Matthews, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University: considering global warming, is the carbon dioxide absorbed by the growing trees more or less than the greenhouse gases that would be created in generating replacement energy? And, while air conditioning isnâ''t a big concern in California, in many places you would also have to consider the impact of shade on air conditioning use, that is, does losing the trees mean the homeowner has to crank up his air conditioning in the summer?

Matthews did a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation for me. In Northern California, an average household consumes 7 MWh of electricity per year; from the grid, that could represent 3 tons of carbon dioxide. Letâ''s say a solar installation only reduces a householdâ''s consumption of electricity by half, thatâ''s 1.5 tons. Matthews couldnâ''t find numbers on redwood trees (which grow like weeds), but figures Douglas Firs are in the ballpark. An acre of Douglas Firs sequesters about 5 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Douglas Firs are planted at a density of about 400 per acre, so, if Iâ''m doing the math right, Treanor and Bissettâ''s eight trees soak up about 0.1 ton of carbon dioxide a year. So, says Matthews, solar panels win; and, he says, â''Iâ''m not a fan of solar PV technology.â'' (He didnâ''t factor in air conditioning; the difference was big enough to make that it particularly relevant.)

Matthews also pointed out that the trees cut down in Sunnyvale means the carbon sequestered there will be released through decomposition or burning. â''Better build some more solar panels fast!â''

This issue is not likely to go away. This month northern California 4-H club members are madly planting redwood trees to do their part to counteract global warming. Meanwhile, the state of California has earmarked $3.2 billion to subsidize homeowners looking to install solar cells, with a goal of putting solar on a million rooftops.

Photo: Joseph Tringali/iStockphoto

Nano Projector that fits in your pocket

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Israeli-based Explay has developed the worldâ''s smallest image projector that can be carried in your pocket as you dash off to give your next presentation.

While I am sure this is very exciting for those who donâ''t like to depend on the A/V team at their next conference, or like to make their friends and family endure large images of the photos taken on their mobile phone camera, itâ''s not clear that there is any nanotechnology in the phone, other than the name â''Nano Projectorâ''.

Information on the technology of the projector can be found here, and while a hybrid laser diode and LED light source have been employed in a patented configuration, there is no mention about the LED being enabled by nanoparticles or any other nanotechnology.

But it is quite small and can generate an image about 20 times larger than the projector itself.

NASA Begins Intense Study of Arctic Environment

The U.S. space agency yesterday announced a comprehensive program to study the atmosphere of the Arctic. Called the Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS), the campaign will start this week by sending a squadron of research aircraft into the skies near Fairbanks, Alaska, to measure the conditions of the air above the polar circle.

Notwithstanding the date they chose to make the announcement, the ARCTAS effort promises to be a serious attempt to monitor changes in the region brought on by air pollution. They even used the words climate warming to describe the dramatic effects taking place in this pristine part of the planet, notably the rapid melting of sections of the ice cap that have been so much in the news lately. Clearly, this is no April Fools' stunt.

From its airborne laboratories, NASA researchers will patrol part of the Arctic for the next three weeks to record levels of aerosols, greenhouse gases, and solar radiation in order to compare these to previous surface-based measurements of the past. The announcement stated that the agency is particularly interested in how the condition known as "arctic haze" arises. This haze forms in the region in spring, caused likely by atmospheric interaction between sunlight and chemicals during the winter from drifting pollutants from lower latitudes.

"It's important that we go to the Arctic to understand the atmospheric contribution to warming in a place that's rapidly changing," noted Jim Crawford, the manager of the Tropospheric Chemistry Program at NASA. "We are in a position to provide the most complete characterization to date for a region that is seldom observed but critical to understanding climate change."

The NASA statement added that the new airborne findings will be combined with ongoing studies being undertaken by a number of satellites in orbit above the North Pole, such as the U.S.'s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO).

"NASA has invested a lot of resources in satellites that can be of value for diagnosing effects of climate change,â'' said Daniel Jacob, an ARCTAS project scientist at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. "Satellites orbit over poles with good coverage and good opportunity, but you really need to have aircraft observations supporting those to make good interpretations of what satellites are telling you."

This month's atmospheric study will be followed by a similar effort this summer to be based in Cold Lake in Alberta, Canada, where flights will focus on measurements of emissions from forest fires. The agency said it believes understanding the impact from naturally occurring phenomena such as ground fires is just as important to investigating low-atmosphere conditions as manmade ones when it comes to predicting the future of the Arctic's climate.

Tag lets trackers follow travels of great white shark

pr290t.jpgWhen the Monterey Bay Aquarium released its latest great white shark into the wild in February, researchers attached an electronic tracking tag, hoping to add to their current limited understanding of shark behavior. A few weeks ago, the tracking tag sent back the answer to one mysteryâ''where do sharks go for Spring Break? The answer, recorded on March 21st: Cabo San Lucas, joining hordes of other vacationers from northern California.

This is the third young shark that was accidentally caught by fisherman, transferred to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and kept on exhibit for months, until it got too big for the tank or started munching on its tankmates. Since the first shark release in 2004, tagging technology has gotten a lot more sophisticated. That first shark carried a tag that recorded time and location, water temperature, and depth, popped loose in 30 days, and sent the data to a satellite. The second carried a similar self-releasing tag, but that one recorded data for three months.

This latest shark is towing a five-month pop-up archival tag scheduled to release on July 2, along with a second tag called a SPOT, for Smart Position Transmitting Tag. The SPOT Tag sends data like speed and water temperature to a satellite whenever the sharkâ''s dorsal fin breaks the surface of the water; position is calculated from the Doppler shift in the transmission signal. When the shark dives, a salt-water switch turns off the transmitter to save power.

Thanks to this second tag, researchers are able to follow the sharkâ''s movements in near-real time; in the previous releases, they had to wait until the tag released at the end of its programmed recording period and floated up to the surface of the ocean. For up-to-date information on the sharkâ''s journey, see the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) web site and follow the link to â''juvenile white sharkâ''.

Both the pop-up tag and the SPOT tag come from Wildlife Computers, the Redmond, Wash., firm founded by Roger Hill, profiled in IEEE Spectrumâ''s February 2008 special report on Dream Jobs.

Engineering the Fruit Fly Rave

Janelia Farmâ''the Howard Hughes Medical Instituteâ''s Bell Labs for neurobiologyâ''needs engineers.

Their mission is to reverse engineer the human brain. They're starting with the fruit fly brain, which they say is less complex than the human brain, but still similar enough to be meaningful. Their funding for this endeavor, from HHMI, is $599 million a year.

The building opened its doors in late 2006 and frankly, it's amazing. Its three brand-new, glittery glass-and-metal stories are built into the side of a hill. Glass and blond wood â''podsâ'' give every scientist a view of distant Sugarloaf mountain and the rolling Virginia hills. Even the labs have glass walls facing the postmodern winding hallways, which in turn also have glass walls facing the exterior. That makes the whole building transparent. One of the researchers told me that during a thunderstorm you can watch the lighting branch over the entire sky.

The cafeteria, which turns into a bar at night, is open for lunch between 11:30 am and 1:00 pm, and they close up shop right at the witching hour. The point of this is to encourage cross-pollination among the different kinds of scientists at Janeliaâ''the place is crawling with neurobiologists, chemists, computer scientists, physicists, and behavioral biologists, all of whom are there to play their part in reverse engineering the brain. Gerry Rubin, Janeliaâ''s director, told me he wanted to remove all possible obstacles from collaboration. At one of the eight-seater round tables, I heard a young Portuguese physicist rhapsodizing about her dream of biologically remote-controlling a fruit fly by turning on and off specific neurons. Next to her, another scientist on sabbatical from Columbia University discussed the finer points of microscopy. The lunch room was as loud as a high school cafeteria.

I spent some time with Janelia Fellow Michael Reiser, who is studying how fruit flies negotiate complex visual surroundings in order to fly without crashing into things. He does this by tethering the insects into whatâ''s essentially a fruit fly raveâ''an arena with flashing wall-to-ceiling LEDsâ''and figures out which areas of their tiny brains start tripping out.

Note: Reiser does not actually play hypnotic dance techno for his fruitflies. That was just me, losing my mind.

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