Archive for June, 2006

Tropical Stonehenge may have been found – Yahoo! News

June 28, 2006

Tropical Stonehenge may have been found – Yahoo! News: SAO PAULO, Brazil – A grouping of granite blocks along a grassy Amazon hilltop may be the vestiges of a centuries-old astronomical observatory — a find archaeologists say indicates early rainforest inhabitants were more sophisticated than previously believed.

The 127 blocks, some as high as 9 feet tall, are spaced at regular intervals around the hill, like a crown 100 feet in diameter.

On the shortest day of the year — Dec. 21 — the shadow of one of the blocks, which is set at an angle, disappears.

“It is this block’s alignment with the winter solstice that leads us to believe the site was once an astronomical observatory,” said Mariana Petry Cabral, an archaeologist at the Amapa State Scientific and Technical Research Institute. “We may be also looking at the remnants of a sophisticated culture.”

Cool! An excuse to travel to Brazil! This story reminds me of the Nan Madol ruins that James Rollins used in his thriller Deep Fathom. More info to get you started:

ScienceDaily: Underwater Microscope Finds Biological Treasures In The Subtropical Ocean

June 27, 2006

ScienceDaily: Underwater Microscope Finds Biological Treasures In The Subtropical Ocean: “Underwater Microscope Finds Biological Treasures In The Subtropical Ocean

Scientists towing an underwater digital microscope across the Atlantic have found possible missing links to the global nitrogen cycle, which in turn is linked to ocean productivity.

In a recent report in the journal Science, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) found abundant colonies of Trichodesmium. The multi-celled, filamentous organism is thought to play a significant role in the input of nitrogen to the upper layers of the tropical and subtropical ocean, nearly half of the Earth’s surface.

Lead author Cabell Davis, a senior scientist in the WHOI Biology Department, and co-author Dennis McGillicuddy, an associate scientist in the WHOI Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department, suggest that nitrogen fixation rates for Trichodesmium may be 2.7 to 5 times higher than previously estimated from traditional sampling.”

So, these guys are out trolling the oceans with a digital microscope. Pretty sweet deal. I’d have my science thriller main character do that, but then it would be too Clive Cussler. Maybe he could troll the skies in a high performance glider or airship. Hmmmm. Then I could finally get a glider license and write it off. Excuse me a moment…

Microsoft sees future in robots – Yahoo! News

June 21, 2006

Microsoft sees future in robots – Yahoo! News: “Microsoft Robotics Studio”

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Software giant Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT – news) sees the future and it is robots.

The Seattle-based company on Tuesday previewed a set of new software tools that aims to give developers a simpler way to design robots and to create and test programs that operate a wide range of machines — from toys to floor sweepers to those used in factory production lines.

“We believe this is a key part of the future of computing,” said Microsoft Robotics Group general manager Tandy Trower, who called robots the next evolution of the personal computer.

While the fragmented robotics market is now in its infancy, Trower said forecasts call for the industry to grow into a multibillion-dollar market in the next five to 10 years.

The group’s first product, called Microsoft Robotics Studio, is designed for hobbyists, students or commercial developers, who have had to reinvent the wheel each time they use different hardware to build a robot.

“It’s all about making it easy for everyone from beginners to advanced developers,” Trower said.

Trower said the new software is meant to bootstrap the robotics industry much in the way that Microsoft’s operating system helped get the personal computer industry going.

Microsoft is offering a free technical preview for download at the company’s Web site. It has not set a release date or price for the final version of the product.

That’s how it starts. You give kids the power to program robots, and then the next thing you know, they (the robots) have taken over the world. Curse you Microsoft!

Wine researchers using biotechnology – Yahoo! News

June 15, 2006

Wine researchers using biotechnology – Yahoo! News

By MARCUS KABEL, Associated Press Writer

MOUNTAIN GROVE, Mo. – Every season, wine makers fight the same battles to protect their grapevines they have been fighting for thousands of years.

From ancient Mesopotamia to today’s vineyards, the eternal enemies include fungus and bugs, extreme heat and unseasonable cold.

Now, Missouri State University researchers hope to apply genetic technology to make cultivated wine grapes as hardy as their wild cousins.

At the newly created Center for Grapevine Biotechnology, researchers are working to identify and transplant individual genes that make native grapes resistant to funguses that plague the European and hybrid vines most wine is made from.

Unlike the traditional crossbreeding of plants, genetic modification holds the potential for transferring specific traits without changing others, like the distinctive flavor of a pinot noir or chardonnay grape. It would also be much faster than the years it takes to grow hybrids.

I really hope the CGB makes it into a novel someday. That’s the sort of name that I’d make up. And regarding teh science, just remember people, we’ve been genetically modifying plants for ages. Ditto for animals. That’s what crossbreeding is all about.

These guys want to do it in a more controlled fashion. They don’t seem to be adding in genes from other species or anything whacky. I’d drink their wine.

Hawking says humans must go into space – Yahoo! News

June 13, 2006

Hawking says humans must go into space – Yahoo! News

By SYLVIA HUI, Associated Press Writer

HONG KONG – The survival of the human race depends on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe because there’s an increasing risk that a disaster will destroy the Earth, world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking said Tuesday.

The British astrophysicist told a news conference in Hong Kong that humans could have a permanent base on the moon in 20 years and a colony on Mars in the next 40 years.

“We won’t find anywhere as nice as Earth unless we go to another star system,” added Hawking, who arrived to a rock star’s welcome Monday. Tickets for his lecture planned for Wednesday were sold out.

He added that if humans can avoid killing themselves in the next 100 years, they should have space settlements that can continue without support from Earth.

Probably not going to get much arguement on that claim. Also, this means that we can officially set near-term SF on Mars or the moon. That will make a nice change of pace.

Nature: Lab Safety

June 9, 2006

Nature: Lab Safety (podcast transcript)

“Derek Thorne: OK then, as so finally this week I gather that the Nature news team has been looking into the risk associated with working in a chemistry lab. Nature 441, 560–561 (1 June 2006)

Jo Marchant: Yes, that’s right. There was a very serious accident related to chemistry a few months ago at the National Institution of Higher Learning in Chemistry which is in Mulhouse in France. It actually killed a 41-year-old photochemist. And in general that kind of reminded everyone, I think, what the dangers of research can be. So we just wanted to have a look and see, is chemistry really that dangerous? Is it more risky than other fields and what are the main risks in chemistry?

Derek Thorne: And so what have you found there?

Jo Marchant: The main thing we found is that things have certainly changed a lot in the last 20 years. We spoke to a lot of safety officers and a lot of chemists who all said that compared to up to the 1960s, where you had some quite startling practices, mouth pipetting is one, washing hands with benzene, which is now known to be a carcinogen, is another. After a lot of occupational health legislation that came in in the 1970s, things are much safer. But still we were told that there are particular areas where chemistry labs could be doing a lot better. Labs are much too crowded. And waste disposal was the other big issue, most chemistry labs have open bottles where solvents are dumped and it’s virtually impossible to say what could happen in those mixtures. When we spoke to the industry it sounds as though the accident rate in academia is much, much higher than in industry. In academia it’s more people working alone late at night and being slightly macho even about safety glasses or following particular rules and regulations.”

I heard this on the Nature podcast (good stuff to hear in there). They are totally correct. I’ve been in academic, government, and industry labs. Academics are the absolute worst about safety. Government labs are a little better, and industry are the best. I guess that if you are just getting paid to do your work, you are less likely to take risks. Also it is easier to be fired for doing it wrong in industry. Academics don’t usually have any regulatory group checking in on them to make sure they are safe, so other than personal risk aversion, there is nothing to encourage or enforce safety.