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Nuclear Lab Leaders Complain of Poor Funding

In a sit-down with the editors of the Washington Post yesterday, the heads of the U.S. government's top nuclear research laboratories said their missions are being compromised by cutbacks in funding.

The directors of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories told the Post (please see Directors Say National Labs Are Underfunded) that budget cuts brought on by squabbling in Washington have reduced their ability to carry out scientific research needed to ensure the reliability of the nation's nuclear arsenal going forward.

According to an account published in the paper today, the Bush administration is already pursuing a costly restructuring of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure but has been unable to gain congressional approval to develop a new generation of warheads under the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program.

A bipartisan congressional group said the executive branch should decide the number of warheads necessary through 2030 before the program can be approved, according to the Post.

The labs leaders said there is a risk of "confidence eroding in the current stockpile" over the next few years if a decision is not made to proceed with the RRW program soon.

Ford starts marketing its nanotech: Why now?

Every now and then someone makes mention of how nanotechnology will impact the automobile, I suppose to keep hope alive that the auto industry will do something interesting in applying nanotechnology. Unfortunately, what they do announce is usually pretty mundane stuff.

Things got a little exciting last year, when the news was tangentially about the car and nanotechnology, but specifically about its fuel. Oxonica went from nano-media darling with its liquid-based catalyst that reduces emissions for diesel fuels, EnviroxTM, to media chump almost over night.

The UK-based company was just about to really become a nanotechnology success story as the Turkish national oil-and-gas companyâ''Petrol Ofisiâ''was about to buy a lot of Envirox. But alas, they backed out after tests indicated that it didnâ''t work as well as had been expected.

Before that news item, nanotech and the car stayed largely out of the press with the possible exception of nearly everyone citing how nanotechnology is going to transform the auto industry. Nanocomposites in polycarbonate automotive glazing doesn't really make for sparkling news copy.

But now Ford Motor Company is getting all the science news services to cover their most recent announcement regarding nanotechnology.

Donâ''t get too excited. There is nothing new here. Itâ''s the same old staple of using nanoparticles in structural materials to reduce weight and nano-enabled paint that improves adhesion and durability.

There is some news here about Ford teaming up with Boeing and Northwestern University to develop their nanotechnology, but the whole media push left me scratching my head asking â''Why? And â''Why now?â''

The other strange thing about it is Ford may be researching uses for nanotechnology, but arenâ''t they eventually going to resource this stuff out to their first- and second-tier suppliers? Ford: â''We need lighter door handlesâ'' Supplier: â''I have just the thing, itâ''s a nanocomposite.â''

My hope is that Ford is setting the groundwork for a really big announcement regarding nanotechnology, like a plan to use nanomaterials for changing radiation directly into electricity.

I know, I know, but I can hope canâ''t I?

President Bush Proposes Lame-Duck Climate Plan

The conventional wisdom about the presidentâ''s climate speech yesterday, April 16, is that it was calculated to head off international efforts to tighten binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions and U.S. legislation to cap and reduce emissions. I see no reason to dispute the usual view. Whatâ''s a little puzzling is why Bush thinks, given his rock-bottom standing in national opinion polls and his short remaining time in office, he still has any real political capital to expend on the climate issue.

Oddly, the presidentâ''s mastery of mathematical calculus seems better than his command of political calculus. The following captures the essense of what he had to say: â''To reach our 2025 goal weâ''ll need to more rapidly slow the growth of power sector greenhouse gas emissions so they peak within 10 to 15 years.â'' That is, rather than belatedly accept the Kyoto goal of reducing U.S. emissions to 7 percent below their 1990 level, or alternatively agree in upcoming climate talks to some less ambitious schedule of greenhouse gas reductions, the United States will only try to reduce the rate at which emissions are increasing. What the president is proposing is that we merely tinker with the first derivative.

Why does he think thatâ''s going to impress anybody? The underlying logic of the Kyoto Protocol is that those countries responsible now for the most emissions and that have the greatest per-capita emissions should start cutting them immediately, and that the countries with fast-growing emissionsâ''China and India, first and foremostâ''should start cutting theirs in the next phase. The diplomatic rationale is exactly analogous to that underlying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires non-nuclear-weapons countries to not acquire atomic bombs now, in exchange from a longer-term commitment from the nuclear weapons states to start getting rid of theirs in the future.

The non-nuclear weapons states have shown a growing impatience with the lackluster pace at which those countries with atomic bombs have been disarming. But it would be a tragedy is they lost patience altogether and all started acquiring nuclear weapons. By the way token, it will be most unfortunate if the American people gives into demagogic reasoning and persists in refusing to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: the inevitable effect will be Chinaâ''s refusing to ever do anything constructive, and the Europeans giving up on ambitious efforts theyâ''re already making.

In his speech, Bush said he sought to reconcile climate policy with continued economic growth, roundly rejecting the Kyoto approach. He took some credit --justly--for working to tighten automotive fuel efficiency standards (over the opposition of some Democratic Party leaders) and for mandating higher efficiency standards for lighting and appliances. Those wishing to dissect the speech in every detail can go to the blog maintained by Andrew Revkin, the lead climate reporter at The New York Times. Revkinâ''s posting includes both his own comments and those from readers.

Astronaut Tosses First Pitch at Yanks/Sox Game from Space

We've become used to the sight of astronauts taking the field at the opening of a baseball game to deliver the ceremonial first pitch. Today, though, the New York Yankees invited an astronaut to throw out the ball from orbit, over 200 miles above their famous stadium.

As if the century-long rivalry between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox needed any more promotion to gin up interest, tonight's game got an out-of-this-world introduction.

Longtime Yankee fan Garrett Reisman, 40, who is serving as a mission specialist aboard the International Space Station (ISS), appeared just prior to the start of the game on the giant DiamondVision screen looming over the outfield of the stadium garbed in a Yanks workout jersey. He then tossed a baseball at a camera held by a crewmate.

It sailed a little high.

Still, it was close enough to the strike zone to merit applause, considering that Reisman was weightless in the zero-gravity environment of the ISS.

For the occasion, the Yankees had provided Reisman with a sample of dirt from the stadium's pitcher's mound to take to the space station when he traveled into orbit on March 11 aboard the Endeavour shuttle.

Reisman grew up in the New York area an avid baseball fan. He makes his terrestrial home in Parsippany, N.J. He joined NASA in 1998, with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, to enroll in an Astronaut Candidate Training class. Since then, he has worked in the agency's robotics and advanced vehicles branches. During this mission, his first in orbit, Reisman has been tasked with putting the newly delivered Dextre robotic manipulator, from the Canadian space program, through its shakeout paces.

"Launching on the space shuttle and living aboard the International Space Station is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Reisman said in an online news release. "But as a lifelong Yankees fan, throwing out the first pitch at a Yankees-Red Sox game is also a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am really honored to have this opportunity in such a historic season in the House that Ruth Built, and I would like to thank the Yankees for being so supportive of our mission up here in space."

This year marks the swan song of the legendary stadium. After the season (or postseason) comes to a close, Yankee Stadium will be shuttered after 85 years, and a newer model of the ballpark, built literally across the street, will take its place going forward, offering more modern amenities to its fans.

According to NASA, Reisman keeps up with the Yankees' progress via news feeds provided by Mission Control in Houston while he's in orbit. He is scheduled to return to Earth in June aboard the Discovery shuttle, after some three months in space.

Update: For the record, the Yankees won the contest 15 to 9.

Color Stanford's Y2E2 building green

IMG_1928.JPG

From the outside, Stanford University's just-opened Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment & Energy building (Y2E2) looks a lot like the other buildings on campus. Its façade is mostly stone, its roof is mostly tile, and its surrounded by long colonnades with graceful arches.

 

But this building, the first of four to go up in what will be Stanford's new engineering quad, is different. It is as environmentally friendly as its designers at Boora Architects and Hargreaves Associates could make it; a level that the university calls LEED-platinum equivalent. Stanford did not seek official LEED platinum certification like some Bay Area builders; some building requirements, like the separate ventilation systems for the basement laboratories, arenâ''t accounted for in the LEED system, and certification would have added a costly paperwork burden that, says Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Richard Luthy, would have come out of the budget for solar cells, for example. While the building is too new for operating data to be available, Luthy expects about a 60 percent energy savings and about a 90 percent savings in potable water use.

 

I toured the 11,000 square meter building last week. I've toured a lot of green buildings, and Iâ''m always impressed with how features that are good for the environmentâ''like natural lightingâ''also create a space that feels good to the people working inside of it.

 

The Y2E2 building struck me by its level of detail. It's not just the four atria letting in natural light, the automatic louvers and windows bringing in cool air at night to chill the mostly carpet-less concrete floor for daytime cooling, or the grey-water system used for the toilets that gives this building its tiny environmental footprint. Itâ''s all the little things: like making the shelving and tables out of bamboo and recycled press-board; the fly ash, a byproduct of coal burning, that replaced cement in the concrete; the angled landscaping that sends rainwater into channels where it is collected and used for irrigation.

 

Take a look for yourself.

 

Nanofood companies reduce risk by staying mute

In a recent opinion piece over at Nanowerk, itâ''s argued that the food industry has pulled so far back from discussing their use of nanotechnology that they are allowing anti-nanotech activists to frame the debate over the safety of nanotechnology in food.

The subtitle of the piece â''how the industry is blowing itâ'' manages to frame the issue in such a way that it seems there is something to lose by food companies not discussing the specifics of their material science labs beyond what they report to the Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate the safety of a new food additive.

There may well be, but the food companies could lose out equally by actually engaging in the debate.

The fallacy in the argument of the editorial seems to me the idea that â''safety-consciousâ'' and â''mature, grown-upsâ'' want to hear both sides of the argument and then come to an informed opinion. Itâ''s hard to believe that argument about any subject, but especially so regarding food, which is such a personal matter regarding what we decide to put into our bodies.

The editorialâ''s premise leads to a machine-gun series of questions:

â'¢ Why not come out guns blazing and educate the public about the exciting opportunities for nanotechnologies in the food sector?

â'¢ Why not demonstrate that the risk aspects of the technology are being thoroughly investigated?

â'¢ Why invite the cliché of 'bad corporate citizens' â'' companies that keep information from the public and hide the risky aspects of what they are doing?

The answer seems to me that the publicâ''s opinion is rarely, if ever, determined by reasoned consideration of all the data. It depends more on personal biases and appearances rather than facts.

I imagine that the food companies have the position that to engage in a debate will indicate that there is some controversy to argue over. To ignore the issue will result in the public ignoring it as well.

Currently there is no shortage of second-guessing on what the public wants or how it will react to nanotechnology and there is even NSF-funded research to codify personal biases when it comes to nanotechnology.

Itâ''s a difficult game to play anticipating the vagaries of the consuming public, and I imagine the food companies want to avoid what my mother would have described as being â''too smart by half.â''

By thinking that you can reason your way into people understanding the science and then making a rational decision, you just opened the door to people drawing their own conclusions based on their own flimsy-based notions. All they needed in order to draw these misguided judgments was news that there was some controversy out there that big bad companies were trying cover up with science.

There will always be people who happily eat Twinkies without a second thought of whatâ''s in them or how theyâ''re made, and there will always be those who will keep a strict organic vegan diet and the twain shall never meet.

For those Twinkie eaters out there, who spend less time agonizing over the ingredients in their food than their vegan brethren, there is the anticipation that the Food and Drug Administration is keeping an eye on the ingredients for them. Until the FDA report otherwise, food companies will likely continue using nanotechnology without engaging in a potentially lose-lose debate over its safety.

U.S. Mutual Funds Starting to Address Climate Risk

Mutual funds, having long resisted shareholder resolutions demanding they focus more on financial risks arising from climate change, are starting to have second thoughts. That is the central conclusion of a report released today by Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmentalists that encourages big financial players to factor environmental sustainability into their strategic decision making. Among other things, Ceres directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk, with 60 institutional investors whose collective assets total $5 trillion.

The Ceres mutual funds report, covering the years 1004-2007, finds that in that period firms were somewhat less likely to oppose shareholder resolutions on climate or more likely to abstain in proxy fights about climate risks. Such financial risks, says Ceres president Mindy S. Lubber, can include penalties caused by regulatory changes (e.g. carbon caps or taxes), the costs of Katrina-type disasters, law suits against emitters, and â''reputational damageâ'' (being seen as a bad actor rather than a good guy).

In previous reports and actions, Ceres initially focused on utilities and energy firms with big carbon footprints, encouraging investors to demand formulation of long-term strategies that would reduce footprints and exposure to financial risk. Then it took on the automobile industry, and takes satisfaction from Fordâ''s move last year to assess its own contributions to the climate problem. Increasingly, Ceres sees climate risk as an economy-wide issue.

In its most recent report on mutual funds, Ceres says that most firms still are resisting shareholder action, with some standout exceptions such as Goldman Sachs, which has supported some resolutions outright and also has steered its investments in directions that minimize exposure to climate risks. â''Schwab, MassMutual and Janus also registered relatively high suppoirt for climate resolutions compared to other mutual fund firms,â'' the report says.

Lubber, speaking in a media teleconference this morning, asserted that investors should be â''scrubbing their portfoliosâ'' for climate risk the same way theyâ''ve had to scrub their sub-prime mortgages.

Transnational Green Energy Lab Established at MIT

Europeâ''s leading solar energy research, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, and MIT are jointly establishing a Center for Sustainable Energy Systems at the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The center will emphasize use of novel materials and techniques to bring down the costs of solar systems, and advanced construction technology to reduce the energy consumption of new and retrofitted buildings.

Itâ''s a measure of the importance attached to sustainable energy systems that the German foreign minister showed up in Cambridge to witness, with MITâ''s president and the Massachusetts energy secretary, the signing of the centerâ''s memo of understanding. Besides getting an initial $5 million in funding from MIT, the center is receiving $1 million from Britainâ''s National Gridâ''the organization created when the UK deregulated and â''unbundledâ'' its electricity system, and which now has acquired energy companies outside the UK. (It was a surprise to this blogger when he learned his natural gas in Brooklyn was being supplied by Englandâ''s electricity system operator.)

The Fraunhofer solar institute in Freiburg is one of 56 German institutes of the Fraunhofer Society, a national organization partly funded by the federal government, and partly by contract research done for public and private sector customers. The society is a close analogue of the Max Planck Society, a network of institutes dedicated to basic research, many of them very prestigious. Fraunhofer concentrates exclusively on applied research and, increasingly, has global connections.

Though itâ''s unusual for Fraunhofer to jointly sponsor research centers outside Germany, itâ''s not unprecedented in the United States. The first such center was set up a dozen years ago, and there are now five in allâ''two in Michigan, one connected with Boston University, one Maryland, and one in Delaware.

In all, Fraunhofer supports about 12,700 researchers, 160 of them in the United States.

Putting flowers on the grave of Ampex Corp.

sign01.jpgOn March 30, Ampex Corp. filed for Chapter 11. The company, once THE place for audio and video innovation, has been withering away for a long time, surviving in recent years on specialized archival data storage systems and licensing video technology developed in its heyday.

Last week, San Jose Mercury News columnist Mike Cassidy declared Friday Ampex Appreciation Day. He reported that Ampexâ''s headcount is down to 101 from a peak of 12,000. â''Watching Ampex,â'' he wrote, â''is like watching some beloved relative stagger and wheeze and shuffle around the house.â''

Mike, I have to say, I donâ''t think the company is going to recover. But I, too, have fond feelings for this venerable corporation. I spend a lot of time interviewing technologyâ''s pioneers, and Iâ''m never surprised to hear when someoneâ''s roots go back to Ampex.

Ray Dolby, founder of Dolby Labs and noise reduction pioneer, started his career at Ampex as a high school student running a movie projector for a meeting, he went on to work on the video recorder project there. Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn, whose company Atari essentially started todayâ''s videogame industry, and other videogame pioneers also started their engineering careers at Ampex.

I visited the Ampex building once, back in 1988 when I was working on an article on invention of the VCR. At that point, Ampexâ''s past was already more interesting than its present. It was a thrill to be where so many technologies started. Besides video recording, Ampex was responsible for the first tape-delay radio broadcast, the first multitrack tape recorders, the data recorders on U.S. space missions from 1958 forward, video recording, helical scan recording (used in video cassette recorders), slow-motion instant replay, the first commercial video paint system, and the ADO, that enabled television stations to whiz video around on the screen.

The campus I visited disappeared, for the most part, sold in 1996 and replaced with now-empty modern buildings that were once Excite-At-Home and came to represent dot-com boom excess; theyâ''ll soon be converted to a medical clinic. The Ampex sign, however, remains as a part of Silicon Valley history.

Do you remember Ampex? Tell us your Ampex stories in the comments below.

Photo by Keith Graham

John A. Wheeler, Giant of Physics (1911-2008)

The physicist who coined the term black hole to describe the densest phenomenon in the cosmos has passed away at age 96. John Archibald Wheeler worked with some of the most important figures in the history of science and eventually became, himself, one of the towering giants of 20th-century physics.

According to an online account from the Associated Press earlier today, Wheeler succumbed to pneumonia Sunday at his home in Hightstown, N.J., not far from Princeton University, where he served as a professor of physics from 1938 to 1976, alongside some of the world's most renowned theoreticians.

Wheeler received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1933 for his research into the properties of helium. In 1937, after a year of study in Denmark under the tutelage of Niels Bohr, he formulated the scattering-matrix, which relates the initial state and the final state for an interaction of particles. Also called the S-matrix, Wheeler's formula became a fundamental tool in the field of quantum physics.

His understanding of the basic forces at work at the subatomic level led Wheeler to join a growing cadre of advanced physicists in the late 1930s who believed that a sufficiently large fission event could produce a chain reaction capable of great destruction. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Bohr relocated to the United States and joined Wheeler to work on a model of nuclear fission.

When hostilities escalated into World War II, Wheeler suspended his academic career to participate in the American atomic bomb endeavor, the Manhattan Project, offering key insights into the physics involved. Afterwards, he volunteered to work on the next-generation nuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb in the late 1940s.

With his government research finished, Wheeler returned to Princeton, where he collaborated with Albert Einstein in the waning years of his life on a unified field theory of the physical forces of nature. Continuing in this elusive pursuit after Einstein's death, Wheeler described a theoretical curiosity he called a "wormhole" that should exist in nature if the principles of relativity were correct. This same research led him to posit, in 1967, that extremely large masses throughout the universe could collapse under the force of their own gravity to form what he termed a "black hole."

Further pursuit of the role of gravity in a Grand Unified Theory of physics led to his collaboration with Bryce DeWitt on the Wheeler-DeWitt equation, which he later described as the "wave function of the Universe."

Later in life, Wheeler became a champion of a form of cosmological anthropism, which states that humans should take into account the constraints that human existence as observers impose on the sort of universe that can be observed. His version of this line of thinking is known as the Participatory Anthropic Principle.

Recently, he stated: "We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what's happening in the distant past why should we need more?"

Throughout his career at Princeton and later the University of Texas, where he served out his last years in academia before retirement, Wheeler was known for the enthusiasm he exhibited for education. Even after he had achieved fame, he continued to teach freshman physics, telling protégés such as Richard Feynman, that young minds were the most important to inspire.

He inspired many.

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