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US's Current Penchant for Theocracy Does Not Bode Well for Nanotechnology

I suppose it should come as no surprise that in a country where three of the initial 10 Republican candidates for President (Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, for those keeping tabs) announced last Spring at an early Presidential debate that they did not believe in evolution, that most Americans reject the morality of nanotechnology on religious grounds.

Dietram Scheufele, a professor of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin, conducted a poll of 1,015 adult Americans in which only 29.5% of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable.

When this poll is contrasted against the poll conducted by the Project on Emerging Technologies, which indicated just how ignorant Americans are about nanotechnology, it becomes clear that when one doesnâ''t understand something it becomes a source of fear, and what better foundation to rationalize your fears upon than religion.

But the US seems to have really cornered the market on translating fear of the unknown into religious dogma. In the United Kingdom, 54.1%, in Germany, 62.7%, and in France, 72.1% considered nanotechnology to be morally acceptable.

To be honest, even the European results are a bit strange: morality?! Okay, you might have ethical qualms about nanotechnology being used without its environmental, health and safety issues being clearly determined, but moral?

But Scheufele offers an explanation. The moral question seems to stem from nanotechnology being lumped together with biotechnology and stem cell research in that to the respondentsâ'' minds they are all engaged in enhancing human qualities.

I wonder if these same people have any qualms over vaccinations, say like the polio vaccine.

Nanotech IPOs Get Another Blow as Nanodynamics IPO Fails

The imminent future of nanotechnology companies going public in greater numbers, as predicted by the New York Times (login required) and examined on this blog, has gotten off to a bad start as Nanodynamics has abandoned their most recent IPO attempt on the Dubai exchange.

Nanodynamicsâ'' IPO on the Dubai exchange follows the companyâ''s attempted IPO closer to home on the Nasdaq exchange last November. In that failed attempt they were trying to raise $90 million as compared to the $100 million sought in this most recent effort.

In either case, you might imagine that there was some incredulity on the part of investors to hand over that kind of money for a company with 2006 revenues of just $4 million and losing $1.5 million a month.

It would seem that nanotechnology companies contemplating going public should try having some revenues to support the level of public investment being sought. A quarterly burn rate higher than your yearly sales does not exactly inspire confidence, no matter how much you may need the money to change the world.

Anyone who perceives this recent announcement as a death knell for the commercialization of nanotechnology, or that elusive specter â''the nanotechnology industryâ'', should instead see it as a serious shot across the bow of any company that believes money can be raised merely on a promise and not actual revenues.

A strontium clock that loses one second every 200 million years

An atomic clock that is based on thousands of strontium atoms trapped using lasers and loses only 1 second in more than 200 million years has been demonstrated by researchers at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, a collaboration between the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder. It is more precise than the current US time standard, which is based on a "fountain" of cesium atoms and accurate to 1 second in 80 million years.

Super-precise atomic clocks are used to synchronize global telecommunications networks and deep-space communications, as well as military navigation and positioning.

The new clock uses lasers to trap thousands of ultra cold strontium atoms in an optical lattice. The strontium atoms absorb very precise frequencies of optical light. This allows researchers to use them to keep time. (A strontium clock such as the one demonstrated ticks 430 million times each second.) The NIST standard uses microwaves, which have lower frequencies (and hence lower precision).

However, the strontium clock is the not the world's most precise. That honor goes to an experimental design based on a single mercury ion. It is supposedly so accurate that it loses only 1 second in 400 million years.

But strontium-based clocks have some advantages, according to scientists.

"A large ensemble of neutral atoms offers an enhanced clock signal strength that will make them more precise than a single trapped ion based clock," said Jun Ye, who is the leader of the scientific team that developed the new strontium clock.

So what is next?

"We will continue to enhance the clock precison and the clock accuracy," said Ye. "At this point, it's likely that the performance improvement by another factor of 10 will come relatively quickly."

For more information, go to the Jun Ye's research page on strontium clocks: http://jilawww.colorado.edu/yelabs/research/ultracold.html#jumpToClock

A solar system like ours is found

We continue to see that our place in the universe is not special at all. This past week, astronomers announced that they had found a solar system that looks surprisingly like the one we live in -- except that it lies thousands of light years away.

Astronomers report in the latest issue of Science that they have found two planets across the galaxy, around a reddish Sun-like star which lies 5,000 light years away. They saw two planets â'' one about two thirds the mass of Jupiter and one about 90 percent as massive as Saturn â'' orbiting the star in a manner reminiscent of our own solar system. Between the star and these planets may lie Earth-like planets, say the scientists, it's just that our telescopes are not yet powerful enough to see them.

This is a major scientific â'' and philosophical â'' milestone, which continues the revolution started by Copernicus and Kepler and Galileo, in which Earth and then the Sun lost their special place as the center of the universe.

It was only in 1995 that the first planet beyond the Solar System was observed. Since then, astronomers have found about 260. Most of these were found by an indirect method, inferring a planet's existence from the gravitational wobble it introduced into the orbit of the parent star.

Last November, NASA astronomers said they had seen a planetary system with five planets surrounding a nearby star, 55 Cancri, in the constellation of Cancer. But the solar system just found -- which goes by the unwieldy name, OGLE-2006-BLG-109 -- is the most analogous to our own.

More details, including how the planetary system was discovered, can be found at:

http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~microfun/ob06109/

Mars may have been too salty for life as we know it

Our neighboring planet, long a favorite of those who believe in extraterrestrials, may have been too salty for life as we know it, according to latest evidence gathered on Mars by one of the NASA rovers, Opportunity.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science currently underway in Boston, Harvard professor Andrew Knoll, who is a member of the NASA rover scientific team, said the high concentration of minerals on any Martian water would have made it very salty. Previous research had shown that Martian water would have been quite acidic as well.

"There are limits to the way microorganisms can adapt to tolerate acidity and salinity,' Knoll said.

On Earth, there are no environments that have a combination of such high acidity and salinity and which harbor life, he pointed out.

For images and information about NASA's Mars rovers,

Spirit and Opportunity, go to

http://www.nasa.gov/rovers

Science Debate 2008 - it's not too late

The Union of Concerned Scientists has organized a call for a U.S. â''science debate.â''

UCS is working with all three National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and scores of universities nationwide to hold Science Debate 2008â''an initiative to hold a presidential science policy debate in April in Philadelphia before the Pennsylvania primary.

There couldnâ''t be a better place. Philadelphia was the home of one of the first electrical engineersâ''Ben Franklin. It was the birthplace of many of the oldest computers ever built.

And there couldnâ''t be a better time. Some of the biggest political questions facing the United States either are scientific issues themselves, or cannot be settled without good science.

Global warming, stem-cell and other medical research, space exploration, wireless communications, food and water safety, the digital divideâ''thereâ''s no shortage of things to ask the candidates about.

Legislation introduced last year would shield the U.S. Surgeon General from political interference. Where do the candidates stand?

Which candidates would restore the Office of Technology Assessment?

Should the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy report directly to the president?

Would the candidates increase or decrease funding at the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health? And what would their priorities be? What about science education in public schools?

The UCS has a petition calling for the science debate here.

Sadly, a moderator would have to ask about some of the most basic matters of science factâ''for example, â''Do you believe in evolution?â''

When that question was asked in an early Republican presidential debateâ''one of the few times a scientific issue has been raised so farâ''three of the ten candidates then running said they did not. Thankfully, the moment has (of course) been preserved on YouTube.

One of those candidates, Mike Huckabee, is still in the race, so if the Science Debate should come off, I know what Iâ''d like the first question to be.

Yet another nail in HD DVD's coffin

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The early January announcement by Warner Bros. that the company would no longer be releasing high definition movies in HD DVD, just Blu-Ray, essentially signed HD DVDâ''s death certificate. Now the nails are being placed in the coffin, in spite of Toshibaâ''s mid-January announcement that it would be stepping up its HD DVD marketing campaign.

Todayâ''s nailâ''an announcement that Wal-Mart and Samâ''s Clubâ''s will be dropping all HD DVD players and titles from their shelves. This followâ''s Netflixâ'' Monday announcement that it is phasing out HD-DVD titles. The one million owners of HD DVD players (in North America alone) soon wonâ''t be able to get anything new to watch.

Joining the ranks of the folks about to be â''betamaxedâ'' is tempting, however. HD DVD prices canâ''t be beat, you can easily find a player for just over $100, while Blu-Ray players cost $350 and up.

But donâ''t do it unless you collect orphaned formats. Instead, sit tight and play the prediction game. Hubdub is taking votes on the question, â''Will the HD DVD standard officially be canceled by October 2008.â'' Iâ''m betting yes. You can vote here.

Technology Thinkers Identify Grand Challenges for Engineering

grand_challenges_for_engineering_2.png

If you're considering a career in science and engineering and are looking for promising research challenges to tackle -- challenges that could lead to Nobel Prize-worthy discoveries, we could say -- you should take a look at the list below.

The list of 14 tech challenges -- with accompanying explanations, essays, videos, and discussion forums -- is part of the study Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century, prepared by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and released today at the AAAS meeting in Boston.

The challenges:

* Make solar energy economical

* Provide energy from fusion

* Develop carbon sequestration methods

* Manage the nitrogen cycle

* Provide access to clean water

* Restore and improve urban infrastructure

* Advance health informatics

* Engineer better medicines

* Reverse-engineer the brain

* Prevent nuclear terror

* Secure cyberspace

* Enhance virtual reality

* Advance personalized learning

* Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

To identify the challenges, NAE convened an international group of leading technological thinkers that includes William Perry (Stanford professor and former U.S. Secretary of Defense), Danny Hillis (co-founder of Applied Minds), Dean Kamen (inventor and founder of DEKA Research), Robert Langer (MIT bioengineer), Larry Page (Google co-founder), Craig Venter (geneticist), Raymond Kurzweil (inventor and AI author), and Mario Molina (Nobel laureate and UCSD professor).

grand_challenges_for_engineering.png

The group, established in 2006, developed the list of challenges with input received through its website from prominent engineers and scientists and the general public. The choices fall into four themes: sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability, and joy of living.

"We chose engineering challenges that we feel can, through creativity and commitment, be realistically met, most of them early in this century," William Perry, the committee chair, said in a press release. "Some can be, and should be, achieved as soon as possible."

The NAE group decided not to rank the challenges but rather ask the public to do that. You can vote on which one you think is the most important at the project web site: www.engineeringchallenges.org.

Climate: The difference between scientific bodies

Sometimes, virtually the same group of scientists can say slightly different things, when they feel less politically constrained. Or at least they can say them more concisely. Thatâ''s the case with the American Geophysical Union and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Our space correspondent Barry E. DiGregorio reported this on 25 January.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU), the worldâ''s largest scientific society of Earth and space scientists made the official statement that: â''The Earthâ''s climate is now out of balance and is warmingâ'' and is best explained by â''the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th centuryâ''. Unlike the report made in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a scientific intergovernmental body set up by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and by the United Nations Environment Program) the new AGU statement calls for the world community to take individual action [http://blogs.spectrum.ieee.org/tech_talk/2007/09/buying_carbon_reductions_to_of.html] in an effort to stave off the human impact on global climate change.

Special guest speaker at the meeting, Michael J. Prather, Professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, California who was also a lead author of several chapters of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said, â''The IPCC has a different role to play than the AGU. The IPCC adjudicates the science, reviews it, and ascertain the pros and cons, and then state what they think is happening or what the uncertainties are but are responding to the request of the international government (UN). The encapsulated summary/statement made by the AGU is made by group of scientists saying here is what is happening, listing the dangers, and then suggests that we should all be doing something, The IPCC report didnâ''t do thatâ''.

â''If you dig at the individual details of the AGU statement I donâ''t think there is anything new there in terms of scientific content, although there is a bit of an update. What is new is pulling it all together in one page,â'' says Prather. â''As an example we took the IPCCâ''s workshop summary and wrote it in the first paragraph of the statement. We are trying to get a message across to what really are the big issues and it shows that global warming is no longer disputed by most scientists.â'' The second paragraph of the AGU statement describes what the dangers are we and what is necessary to avoid them. The third paragraph is a call for action and says combating human impacts on climate change is a diversified and shared responsibility amongst both AGU members and others members of society. â''We are actually calling on individuals to use their ability and their own perception and make their choice so everyone can contribute in their own way to the best of their ability, Prather explained.

For the AGU, which is a very broad body of scientists, Prather and his colleagues who drafted the statement had to convince space scientists, geologists and oceanographers about a call to action on the human influence on climate. â''I think that this was an honest statement of the current facts as we know them and best statement we can make. You are not going to get 100 percent agreement from every AGU member but from the AGU leadership in general, nobody voted against it on the council.â''

The AGU boasts a membership of 50 000 researchers in 137 countries and every four years releases a new public statement reflecting their position on global climate change.

Online AGU statement:

http://www.agu.org/sci_soc/policy/positions/climate_change2008.shtml

New Environmental Line Item Added to US Nanotechnology Budget

The US National Nanotechnology Initiative has just released its 2009 budget projections, and a new line item, or as its termed in the summary, â''Program Component Areaâ'', that addresses Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) has been added.

Last yearâ''s 2008 budget summary provided only a Program Component Area entitled â''Societal Dimensionsâ''.

But in the breakdown of the new 2009 budget, the EHS program has been retroactively plugged in for 2007 and 2008, representing $48.3 and $58.6 million, respectively for each year. But this year the EHS program has received an increase over 30% from last year to the tune $76.4 million.

These figures compare somewhat favorably to European Commission spending on health issues related to nanoparticles, which amounted to â'¬28 million between 1998 to 2006. Itâ''s not exactly clear how much the EC will dedicate to EHS studies for nanotechnology under the new FP7 Programme, but a rundown of the research projects into nanosafety within Europe can be found here.

The US NNI while being one of the most, if not the most, transparent government nanotechnology funding organizations in the world has come under criticism for its perceived failure to adequately address the nanotechnology hazard question.

Despite this increased funding for EHS research, the criticism will likely not go away as long as there is a vested interested in some NGOs to keep the pressure on to ensure their own necessity to the process as this blog has noted before.

If the NNI really wants to silence the critics, they might allocate some of their budget to hiring these critics as part-time consultants because they have certainly already handled the funding aspect.

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