Tech Talk iconTech Talk

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.

Wanted: Engineers

In March, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a non-profit medical research organization in Maryland, launched a national competition to select up to 70 early career scientists for a pretty enviable prizeâ''if you win, you get a six-year appointment that includes full salary and research support (HHMI is putting over $300 million into the program) while you retain your affiliation with your home institution.

HHMI is seeking the usual suspectsâ''scientists specializing in all areas of basic biological and biomedical research and areas of chemistry. But whatâ''s new here is that theyâ''re also actively courting physicists, computer scientists and engineers.

They're looking for researchers who have been running their own labs for two to six years, and now want to establish independent research programs.

The condensed criteria are as follows (the long version is here in PDF format).

You have:

* a doctoral degree.

* a tenured or tenure-track position as assistant professor or higher; if at an institution that doesnâ''t do tenure track, an equivalent appointment.

* at least 2 but no more than 6 years of experience. That means your first faculty position as assistant professor started no earlier than June 1, 2002 and no later than Sept. 1, 2006.

* only one other early career award


The actual application deadline is June 10, 2008, BUT to be considered, you must indicate your intention to submit an application by April 30, 2008. HHMI expects to make its selections by February 2009. (And if youâ''re not quite at the point of being able to make this move, don't worryâ''HHMI is planning a second competition in 2011 to select 70 more scientists.)

Detailed information about the competitionâ''including the list of eligible institutions and access to the secure application site are at the HHMI web site.

PSA: This is not an April Fool's joke. It would be a really lame one.

Bush to Science: "Let's Be Friends"

In today's issue of Science Online, David Grimm reports that U.S. President George W. Bush has undergone a "dramatic shift in his attitude toward science."

"Critics have accused my Administration of ignoring scientific advice and even of twisting science to suit its own political agenda," Bush said at a speech today at the National Center for Biochemical Medicine here. "Today, I say to those in the scientific community: 'Let's be friends.' "

The news only got better from there. The president offered a $10 billion boost to the National Institutes of Health, earmarked funds for a "second war on cancer," and vowed to relax his stem cell policy. Grimm reports that the reconciliation led California representative Henry Waxman, a longtime Bush critic, to declare, "Now I can finally retire."

Read the full article at Science Online.

Arthur C. Clarke, the Space Elevator, and Nanotechnology

With the recent passing of the acclaimed science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke (the last interview before his death can be found here), I thought I would take a look at what was happening in the field of the Space Elevator, which Clarke helped inspire.

About five years ago, the space elevator was one of those applications for nanotechnology that people trotted out with a wink to say, â''It could even make this possible.â''

In one of the more recent reviews of what is happening with the Space Elevatorâ''s development, Nanowerk ran a piece back in August based on a Wall Street Journal article, and it appears that the idea has not been abandoned.

According to Brad Edwards, a former Los Alamos National Lab physicist, who is quoted in the piece and has become one of the lead theorists of the space elevator, a working elevator could be built.

Edwards suggests that a 31,000-mile-long ribbon would be anchored to an oil-rig off the west coast of Mexico and launched into space in a rocket that would carry two spools of the ribbon and anchor it at an orbit of 22,000 miles.

However, just recently the New Scientist has run an article based on new research from the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Republic that suggests that 31,000-mile-long ribbon may be more susceptible to environmental forces than previously anticipated.

In the animation below provided in the New Scientist article, you get a sense that you may need a bigger weight at the end of the tether to keep it from wobbling.

Energy Department Awards Grants to Solar America Cities

The head of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said on Friday that the federal government has awarded $2.4 million to 12 cities that are leaders in using solar energy.

At the New Frontiers in Energy Summit 2008 in Denver, DOE Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced grants of $200 000 to the dozen selected cities that best exemplified a commitment and comprehensive approach to the deployment of solar technologies and the development of sustainable solar infrastructures, in order to make electricity from solar photovoltaics cost-competitive with conventional electricity by 2015.

These so-called Solar America Cities will also receive funds from private resources that should boost the overall benefits of the program to some $12 million this year, the DOE said in a press release on Friday.

"These Solar America Cities aim to jumpstart integration of solar power and encourage other cities across the nation to follow suit," Bodman stated. "The innovative programs already underway in each city will help us raise the bar of whatâ''s possible and will help cities and towns across America harness the tremendous potential of the sun."

Bodman said the 12 new Solar America Cities are: Denver, Houston, Knoxville (Tenn.), Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Orlando, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Antonio (Tex.), San Jose (Calif.), Santa Rosa (Calif.), and Seattle.

The DOE said it will also provide hands-on assistance from technical experts to help cities integrate solar technologies into energy planning, zoning and facilities; streamline local regulations and practices that affect solar adoption by residents and businesses; present solar financing options; and promote solar technology among residents and local businesses through outreach, curriculum development, and incentive programs.

The 2008 Solar America Cities join 13 others from last year, which received $5.4 million from the DOE initiative. Those metropolises consisted of Ann Arbor (Mich.), Austin (Tex.), Berkeley (Calif.), Boston, Madison (Wis.), New Orleans, New York City, Pittsburgh, Portland (Ore.), Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, and Tucson (Az.).

All 25 are expected to adopt a variety of approaches to build up their solar infrastructures and deploy cutting-edge technologies that include solar water heating, photovoltaics, and large-scale solar thermal technology, according to the DOE.

[Editor's Note: Please see our feature "Solar-Cell Squabble", in the current issue, for an update on low-cost organic photovoltaic technology.]

Out of Africa: a backlash against spending on malaria research

Ten years ago I made a visit to the London School of Tropical Diseases. The British research institute, one of the world's best in its field, had just received it first grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. The aim: jump-start the then-moribund project to find a vaccine for malaria. One of the Holy Grails in preventive medicine, a vaccine for malaria was by the late 1990s considered impossible, and only pursued -- fitfully at that -- by a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Gates money, which began as a trickle, became a flood over the past ten years. Today, malaria research is booming and one big pharma company, GlaxoSmithKline, even has a malaria vaccine -- aimed at children and promoted as 50% effective -- ready for field trials. By any narrow measure, the Gates intervention into malaria -- accompanied by many varied programs to treat the disease and to prevent its spread through non-pharma means -- is a smashing success (Disclosure note: I have consulted for the Gates foundation on various African issues, though never on malaria or health generally).

Yet the very revival of malaria research has spawned some curious objections, which I might categorize as a variant of the old "rising expectations" problem. Critics say that the Gates money devoted to malaria is so large that the foundation dominates the field, making an independent assessment of funded work impossible. Others grouse that GSK's vaccine, which hasn't worked in half of the children tested so far, isn't effective enough to justify the costs associated with mass vaccination campaigns in poor African countries. More attractive, in the minds of these pragmatists, are programs like the one in Zambia that emphasize traditional prevention, such as bed-nets and early-detection and treatment of the illness.

The wrangling over malaria is of course ironic. For decades people have complained that Western scientists ignored African problems, from health-care to information technology to energy. At least in one area, malaria, scientists in the U.S. and Europe are now completely absorbed in engineering a solution to one of black Africa's greatest scourges. What could be the problem?

As Nature magazine wrote recently, "For years the global malaria effort has been asking for more resources. Now the field needs to figure out a systematic strategy for spending the money effectively." Yet using money effectively is of course a no-brainer, to invoke a term that Bill Gates himself did much to popularize in his heyday at Microsoft. To urge malaria researchers to use money wisely would seem to be giving voice to a concern beyond debate.

So why the venomous arguments? Critics say that a malaria vaccine isn't enough -- and even might distract attention from the broader need for African countries to monitor diseases more thoroughly. Nature, for instance, insists that Africans need new networks of laboratories, better disease monitoring, and regional -- not just individual country -- approaches to disease-fighting. Nature calls such steps "essential," and without which "the billion-dollar malaria effort is flying blind."

The conclusion from one of the most influential science organs in the world seems too harsh to me. African societies are indeed deeply flawed, but they can only start from where they are -- not from some ideal place that they might never reach. In injecting new technologies into sub-Saharan Africa, we must worry about presenting them as panaceas. A malaria vaccine is surely not. But it is a step forward. And in the debate over how to fight malaria in Africa more effectively, this simple fact should not be forgotten.

Activists Slam California ZEV Revisions

Howls of protest greeted the California Air Resources Board decision this week to reorient its zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate to promote plug-in hybrids over fully battery-electric vehicles. Activists came to Sacramento in force (and in EVs -- see video below) to decry what EV booster group Plug In America called a "shameful weakening of the ZEV Program.â''

The ZEV directive requires car manufacturers to market ultraclean and emissions-free vehicles (or buy credits earned by others making such vehicles). The California Air Resources Board decision yesterday reduces the quantity of emissions-free battery or fuel cell vehicles mandated for the 2012-2014 period from 25,000 to as few as 5,357, responding to automaker concern over the cost and reliability of EV batteries and fuel cells.

CARB says this reduction is offset by new rules recognizing the transitional value of plug-in hybrids. The agency claims that the ZEV rules will require automakers to produce up to 58,000 plug-in hybrids over the 2012-2014 period, thereby mainstreaming electric vehicle components and charging infrastructure that will hasten the day when the pure EVs go mainstream.

However, Plug In America claims the new rules will actually lead to 18,000 less plug-in hybrids over 2012-2014. It's difficult to say who is right because the ZEV rules are devilishly complex, and automakers are not currently required to disclose how many credits they have banked (a transparency gap the new rules would fix).

Plug In America charges that California legislators should take back responsibility for driving electrification of the automobile, but ironically one of their proposals seems to affirm the very battery qualms underlying CARBâ''s revisions. Specifically, Plug In America proposes that legislators free manufacturers from providing the 15-year, 150,000-mile warranty CARB requires for hybrid batteries. That hardly seems like a recipe for driving mass confidence in the electric car.

Lessons from Northstar's botched study of a brain implant

northstarbrain_white.jpg I spoke with John Bowers, the chief executive of Northstar Neuroscience, about the electric brain stimulation trial Northstar will launch this year for the treatment of depression. This small medical device company hopes to soon market its brain implant, which sends pulses of electricity from a device inserted in the neck to an electrode that sits on the outside of the brain, just underneath the skull.

Up to one-third of patients fail to respond to conventional antidepressant drugs, and a number of medical device companies are exploring the use of brain stimulators--both implanted and external--to help correct problematic electrical activity inside mood-controlling regions of the brain. But Northstar started off 2008 on the wrong foot: a study of the same device used in stroke rehabilitation showed it wasnâ''t any better than intensive physical therapy.

Ever a fan of neural prostheses, I asked Bowers what we could learn from the stroke trial to improve the one for depression. Here's what he had to say.

1. Include more patients. â''Youâ''ll probably see us do a much larger number of implants than we did with stroke,â'' Bowers says. Itâ''s not uncommon for a number of severely depressed patients to equally fail to respond to antidepressant drugs but to each exhibit different sets of symptoms and behaviors, meaning that depression doesnâ''t follow along one simple pathway in the brain.

2. Pay extra attention in choosing the comparison group. The durations of these clinical trials are usually several months, often a year--far too long for patients to go without any treatment. So whatâ''s the best therapy for the group that doesnâ''t receive electric stimulation? The choice is always difficult.

3. Make sure the chosen patients are really, truly resistant to antidepressants before getting into the heart of the study, by building in an 8-week pre-trial period, during which patients will receive other treatment. If they improve, the subjects should be excluded. Once the subject pool has been refined, the chances of observing a placebo effect are much slimmer. â''These patients will have already failed 9 or 10 therapies, so their hope in a new one is already low,â'' Bowers reasons.

4. Donâ''t take the stroke trial too seriously: â''Weâ''ve always said that the stroke trial couldnâ''t be a predictor for the others, even before it started,â'' he says. â''The basic hardware is similar, but the treatment algorithm and stimulation parameters are different.â''

I have my own reservations about the upcoming study, but Iâ''m not a medical device company, so I donâ''t really know. [[CORRECTION APPENDED]] Northstar believes the outcomes of the depression trial will be positive enough to enable them to apply for FDA approval for the device. But you may wonder how they configured the device, given that they were, presumably, equally confident in the stroke trial. The settings of the depression treatment algorithmâ''stimulation frequency, duration, target location, and so onâ''were refined in the lab and tested on 11 patients in a preliminary human study.

But is data from 11 people really enough to work out all the kinks? To be sure, a solid body of research supports the company's choice of the brain region to stimulate, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. But to me, basing a companyâ''sâ''and a therapyâ''sâ''success on results from 11 people seems like quite a gamble.

CORRECTION: A Northstar rep tells me that the depression study will not culminate in FDA approval and is a more preliminary study of the technique's feasibility.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More