Volume 13, Number 12 – 6/30/10

Volume 13, Number 12 – 6/30/10


  • Northwestern University’s Gregory Ryskin proposes that the oceans periodically produce massive eruptions of explosive methane gas… enough to cause global catastrophes (such as wiping out dinosaurs all over the earth).
  • San Francisco has become the first city in the US to require mobile phone retailers to post radiation levels next to the handsets they sell.
  • What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? Check out a report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way.
  • Peak oil postponed again according to the International Energy Agency.

by John L. Petersen


Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday – (New York Times – June 11, 2010)
Proponents of the Singularity foresee a time in the near future when human beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past. Of course, some people will opt for inadequacy, while others will have inadequacy thrust upon them because the keys to the next phase of evolution may be beyond the grasp of most people. Some of the Singularity’s adherents portray a future where humans break off into two species: the Haves, who have superior intelligence and can live for hundreds of years, and the Have-Nots, who are hampered by their antiquated, corporeal forms and beliefs (and perhaps by a lack of the funds necessary to pay for near-immortality). Andrew Orlowski, a British journalist who has written extensively on techno-utopianism says, “It is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship.”


Schrödinger’s Kit: Tools That Are in Two Places at Once – (New Scientist – June 23, 2010)
Quantum theory is our most successful theory of physics. There is not one shred of experimental evidence that doesn’t fit with its predictions. The question is, how hard can we push it? Experiments have never had the sensitivity to pinpoint a weak spot in quantum mechanics. But thanks to a breakthrough earlier this year, that might be about to change. A new swathe of experiments is coming onto the scene that should be up to the job. Welcome to the dawn of the quantum machines.

Element 114 on the Brink of Recognition – (New Scientist – June 24, 2010)
The periodic table is set to get bigger, now that three labs have independently made atoms of element 114. There’s still one big uncertainty though – should it be classified as a metal or as a noble gas? In 1999, researchers at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, claimed to have made atoms of element 114, but no confirmation was available. Now teams at two other laboratories say they have produced it.


Plastic Antibodies Shown to Fight Off Antigens in the Body Just Like the Real Thing – (Pop Sci – June 9, 2010)
A team of researchers from UC Irvine and the University of Shizuoka in Japan has created plastic antibodies that successfully function in the bloodstream of living animals to identify and fight a variety of antigens. Using plastic nanoparticles that had previously shown the ability to mimic natural antibodies, the team used a process known as molecular imprinting to stamp the shape of the antigen melittin, the primary toxin in bee venom, onto the antibody. By imprinting tiny antigen-shaped craters into the individual particles, the plastic antibodies were then finely tuned to attach themselves to those antigens in the blood. The team then dosed laboratory mice with lethal doses of melittin followed by an injection of the artificial antibodies. Those mice that received the antibodies showed a far higher survival rate.

Stem Cell Therapy Damage Seen in Kidney Disease Case – (BBC News – June 17, 2010)
It has been shown that it is possible to reprogram adult stem cells, taken from bone marrow, to become a range of specific cell types – including kidney cells – and animal studies have indicated that injecting stem cells directly into organs, including the kidney, is safe. However, a new complication has been seen in a patient with kidney disease who received stem cell therapy. Stem cells were injected into the kidney, but the patient suffered tissue damage and died from an infection. The patient developed tissue damage at the injection sites. Experts said there was a gap between research and treatment.

Now Scientists Read Your Mind Better Than You Can – (Reuters – June 22, 2010)
Brain scans may be able to predict what you will do better than you can yourself, and might offer a powerful tool for advertisers or health officials seeking to motivate consumers, researchers said on Tuesday. They found a way to interpret “real time” brain images to show whether people who viewed messages about using sunscreen would actually use sunscreen during the following week. The scans were more accurate than the volunteers were, Emily Falk and colleagues at UCLA reported. People were right about themselves just half the time; based on brain scans, the researchers predicted 75% of behavior correctly.

Rats Breathe with First Functional, Lab Grown Lungs – (Impact Lab – June 25, 2010)
A team at Yale constructed the tiny lungs for rats using a relatively new process called “decellularization.”. The researchers then removed rats’ left lungs and stitched in lab-grown replacements which inflated, though not fully. Tests showed that they were taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide at 95% of normal efficiency. The researchers allowed the animals to breathe with the lungs for up to 2 hours before euthanizing them because of blood clots. We may be two decades away from growing functional, replacement lungs for humans, but this experiment was an incredible proof-of-concept. We are another step closer to off-the-shelf body parts.


Study Identifies Proteins that Modulate Life Span in Worms – (Phys Org – June 16, 2010)
Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have identified a new group of proteins involved in determining the life span of laboratory roundworms. Blocking the expression of one member of the group can extend the worm’s life span by up to 30 percent. Because the proteins work in the worms’ reproductive systems, the research represents yet another intriguing link between longevity and fertility.

Fin to Limb Evolution Clue Found – (BBC News – June 24, 2010)
Marie-Andree Akimenko, from the University of Ottawa in Canada, and her colleagues have identified two new genes that code for proteins that are important in the structure of fins. The loss of these genes could have been an “important step” in the evolutionary transformation of fins into limbs. These proteins are found in fish larvae and they eventually develop into the bony fin rays of mature fish. This suggested that the “ancient family of genes persisted in [bony fish] and was lost when they evolved” into four-footed animals, Dr Akimenko said.

Mega Disasters – Methane Explosion – (You Tube – May 11, 2010)
This video clip explores the controversial paper published by Northwestern University’s Gregory Ryskin. His thesis: the oceans periodically produce massive eruptions of explosive methane gas… enough to cause global catastrophe on a regular basis!


The Microbe Factor and Its Role in Our Climate Future – (Yale – June 1, 2010)
Microbes have been absorbing and releasing greenhouse gases ever since they first evolved in the ocean more than 3.5 billion years ago and spread on land about 2 billion years ago. In the process they’ve influenced the Earth’s climate. But the influence doesn’t just flow one way. As the climate changes, it can change the planet’s microbial menagerie. Scientists are only just starting to figure out some of the rules that govern this feedback. However, they recognize that as we raise the planet’s temperature, we will alter the planet’s microbes. And as we change the world’s microbes, we will also change their impact on the climate.

Cape Lobster Industry Faces Crisis – (Cape Cod Times – June 13, 2010)
Water temperatures that are killing off far more lobsters than make it into a cooking pot. Lobstermen south of Cape Cod have seen their catches nosedive for the past decade, from more than 20 million pounds in 1997 to less than 5 million last year. In the past, overfishing, water pollution, pesticides and an outbreak of shell disease were blamed for the failure of the fishery. But tough fishing regulations have done nothing to reverse the trend, and some scientists now believe water temperature may be the primary obstacle to recovery.

Bribes on Whaling – (The Times – June 14, 2010)
An investigation has exposed Japan for bribing small nations with cash and prostitutes to gain their support for the mass slaughter of whales. The undercover investigation found officials from six countries were willing to consider selling their votes on the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The revelations come as Japan seeks to break the 24-year moratorium on commercial whaling. The governments of St Kitts and Nevis, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Grenada, Republic of Guinea and Ivory Coast all entered negotiations to sell their votes in return for aid. The top fisheries official for Guinea said Japan usually gave his minister a “minimum” of $1,000 a day spending money in cash during IWC and other fisheries meetings.


San Francisco Passes Cell Phone Radiation Law – (BBC News – June 23, 2010)
San Francisco has become the first city in the US to require mobile phone retailers to post radiation levels next to the handsets they sell. “This is not about discouraging people from using their cell phones,” said Tony Winnicker, spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has said he will sign the legislation into law. “This is a modest commonsense measure to provide greater transparency and information to consumers.” A similar right-to-know measure failed in the California senate earlier this month following heavy lobbying by the mobile phone industry.

Power from Thin Air – (Economist – June 10, 2010)
Wireless technology: It is already possible to send electricity without wires. Can devices be powered using ambient radiation from existing broadcasts? In 1898 Tesla proposed a “world system” of giant towers that would form both a global wireless communications network and a means of delivering electricity over large areas without wires. But Tesla’s backers, including the financier J.P. Morgan, pulled out. They worried that the delivery of electricity through the air could not be metered, and there would be nothing to stop people from helping themselves. However, both Tesla and his backers may vindicated, as researchers find ways to pull power out of the air without paying for it-a technique known as “energy scavenging” or “energy harvesting”.


Disaster in the Amazon – (New York Times – June 4, 2010)
BP’s calamitous behavior in the Gulf of Mexico is the big oil story of the moment. But for many years, indigenous people from a formerly pristine region of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador have been trying to get relief from an American company, Texaco (which later merged with Chevron), for what has been described as the largest oil-related environmental catastrophe ever.

Peak Oil Postponed Again – (Telegraph – June 24, 2010)
So there is plenty of oil and gas after all. Prices will bumble along gently until well into the next decade. We are becoming more efficient in our use of energy, with 3pc extra savings annually. That is a faster pace than the rising real cost of fuel. Mankind will not run out of fuel for a very long time. That at least is the story today from the International Energy Agency. Their medium-term outlook for fossil fuel markets is a dazzling contrast with last year’s warnings that a combination of break-neck industrialization in China and lack of investment in new oil fields (thanks to the credit freeze) would exhaust global spare capacity by 2013.

What Do You Do with Non-Biodegradable Plastics? – (Al Fin Energy – May 16, 2010)
Northeastern University student researchers have come up with an apparatus to convert plastic waste into clean energy without releasing harmful emissions. Self-sustainability is the key to the double-tank combustor design. Plastic waste is first processed in an upper tank through pyrolysis, which converts solid plastic into gas. Next, the gas flows to a lower tank, where it is burned with oxidants to generate heat and steam. The heat sustains the combustor while the steam can be used to generate electric power.

Lithium Market Could Bloom as Tide Goes Out on Oil – (Phys Org – June 23, 2010)
Lithium-based batteries are used in everything from mobile phones and laptops, to iPods and iPads, as well as military and medical hardware. They have even made their way into the human body, powering pacemakers. But the main reason companies are betting on lithium is the projected explosion in the number of electric and hybrid electric vehicles. All will need batteries. Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, and potentially new batteries such as lithium-air, are seen as the best option by many manufacturers over other battery types as they are lightweight and efficient, and can hold more power.

World’s Most Advanced Electric Motorcycle – (Pop Sci – June 9, 2010)
The MotoCzysz E1pc is a race bike built by a tiny Oregonian company focused on pushing the limits of electric performance to the absolute max. It packs 10 times the battery capacity of a Toyota Prius and 2.5 times the torque of a Ducati 1198 into a package that looks like something out of a 24th-century Thunderdome. 10 individual lithium polymer cells that each weigh 19.5 Lbs and were hand-assembled by a company that typically builds batteries for NASA. The level of integration here hints at the kind of work that’s gone into the rest of the bike. There are no wires connecting the batteries to the bike or any exposed terminals. Instead, posts on the batteries lock into receivers on the bike’s frame, at once making the electrical connection and supporting the batteries’ weight. The proprietary internal arrangement allows the batteries to be swapped out in just a couple of seconds. This is one screaming machine.

Canada, US, Each Has 100 Years of Gas Reserves – (Al Fin Energy – may 15, 2010)
The Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas estimates there are between 700 trillion and 1,300 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas reserves in conventional and unconventional plays such as shale, tight sands and coal-bed methane. The United States possesses a total resource base of 1,836 trillion cubic feet.


Nanotubes Give Batteries a Jolt – (Technology Review – June 21, 2010)
A lithium-ion battery with a positive electrode made of carbon nanotubes delivers 10 times more power than a conventional battery and can store five times more energy than a conventional ultracapacitor. The nanotube battery technology, developed by researchers at MIT and licensed to an undisclosed battery company, could lead to batteries that improve heavy-duty hybrid vehicles and allow faster recharging for electronic gadgets, including smartphones.

Metal, Heal Thyself – (Economist – June 10, 2010)
Researchers have devised an ingenious way for the damaged surfaces of metals to repair themselves when they come to harm. The surfaces of many metal objects are coated with other metals for protection. Iron, for instance, is frequently galvanised with zinc. The basic idea of the new technology is to infiltrate this coating with tiny, fluid-filled capsules. When the metal coating is punctured or scratched, the capsules in the damaged area burst and ooze restorative liquids, in the form of compounds called trivalent chromates. These react with nearby metal atoms and form tough, protective films a few molecules thick to ameliorate the damage. The idea has been around for a while; the challenge was making it work.


Did Twitter Cost McChrystal His Command? – (Wired – June 24, 2010)
That’s the argument John Timpane makes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: that our hypermetabolic, Twitter-fueled media culture allowed the remarks from General McChrystal ‘s crew to spread so far and so fast, Obama had almost no choice but to relieve him. Think of it as information blitzkrieg. Fast, overwhelming, decisive: It’s a case study in how tightly connected 21st-century media can whip a story into a full-on tsunami, with startling consequences for individual careers and national policy. How fast? McChrystal was already replaced by the time the Rolling Stone article that started it all hit newsstands.


U.S. Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan – (New York Times – June 13, 2010)
The U. S. has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself. The previously unknown deposits – including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium – are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe. An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

EPA Reverses Controversial ‘Human Guinea Pig’ Rule – (Wired – June 22, 2010)
Under proposed changes to federal research ethics standards, the Environmental Protection Agency will no longer accept studies that use people as guinea pigs in chemical tests. In 2006, under chemical-industry pressure, and over arguments that the studies were scientifically and ethically bankrupt, the EPA declared such data acceptable. On June 16, the EPA reversed its decision. Almost every standard code of medical ethics forbids human tests of drugs or chemicals that may cause harm, but can provide no direct benefit. The chemical industry, however, has long argued that the EPA should accept data from tests in which healthy volunteers are paid for exposing themselves to pesticides and other known toxins. Critics say the resulting science is worthless, with companies running tests on small, non-representative groups of people, such as healthy young men, in order to create a false impression of safety.


The End of Men – (The Atlantic – July/August, 2010)
Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? Here is a report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way- and its vast cultural consequences.

World Could Be Plunged into Crisis in 2014 – (Daily Mail – June 17, 2010)
A ‘Doomsday’ moment will take place in 2014 – and will determine whether the 21st century is full of violence and poverty or will be peaceful and prosperous, according to a Cambridge University professor. In the last 500 years there has been a cataclysmic ‘Great Event’ of international significance at the start of each century, he claims. Professor Nicholas Boyle has pinpointed the global financial crisis as the trigger for the next ‘Great Event’. And he claims the U.S., with its waning economic influence but unrivalled military power, holds the key to determining the course and character of the next 90 years.


European Union Parliamentarian Calls For End to UFO Secrecy – (UFO Blogger – June 4, 2010)
Following UFO disclosure by the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Uruguay, Russia, and New Zealand governments which are planning to publish their own x-files in public domain in next few weeks, and the CIA disclosure document revealing that DIA Remote Viewers ‘saw’ Extraterrestrial on Saturn moon Titan, now the Italian EU MP Mario Borghezio has tabled a written statement in which he calls on member of states to disclosure the documents relating to UFOs. (Editor’s note: The article includes links to all of the documents referred to above.)

NASA Astronauts on Extraterrestrial Life – (Daily Galaxy 14, 2010)
“We have contact with alien cultures.” – Dr. Brian O’leary an American scientist and a former NASA astronaut and the deputy team leader for NASA’s Mariner 10 Venus-Mercury television science team. “In my official status, I cannot comment on ET contact. However, personally, I can assure you, we are not alone! – Charles J. Camarda, an engineer and U.S. astronaut who flew his first mission into space onboard the NASA Space Shuttle mission STS-114. (Editor’s note: The sentences above constitute the entire text of the article. Without a context for either of the statements, they remain tantalizing comments – but only that.)

NASA Warns Solar Flares from Huge Space Storm Will Cause Devastation – (Telegraph – June 14, 2010)
Senior space agency scientists believe the Earth will be hit with unprecedented levels of magnetic energy from solar flares after the Sun wakes “from a deep slumber” sometime around 2013. Scientists believe it could damage everything from emergency services’ systems, hospital equipment, banking systems and air traffic control devices, through to “everyday” items such as home computers, iPods and Sat Navs. “We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Dr Richard Fisher, the director of Nasa’s Heliophysics division.

Invisible Extraterrestrials? World-Leading Physicist Says “They Could Exist in Forms We Can’t Conceive” – (Daily Galaxy – June 20, 2010)
The intriguing remark was made by Lord Martin Rees, a leading cosmologist and astrophysicist who is the president of Britain’s Royal Society and astronomer to the Queen of England. Rees, who last month hosted the National Science Academy’s first conference on the possibility of alien life, said he believes the existence of extra terrestrial life may be beyond human understanding. “They could be staring us in the face and we just don’t recognize them. The problem is that we’re looking for something very much like us, assuming that they at least have something like the same mathematics and technology. I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive. Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there as aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains.”


The World We Eat In is Changing – (Agriculture News – June 13, 2010)
In Mauritania in West Africa, rice prices doubled over the first three months of the year, according to the World Food Program. Over the same period, the price of corn rose 59% in Zimbabwe and 57% in neighboring Mozambique. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a box of fish that cost $10 a year ago is now $25. The price of a 25-kilogram bag of rice has doubled to $30. In China, food costs rose 5.9% in April over a year ago. India’s food prices were up 17% in April over a year earlier. Going into the year 2010 a billion people in our world were already going hungry and well on their way to pandemic malnutrition and starvation.


The Time We Have Is Growing Short – (NY Review of Books – May 25, 2010)
Article by Paul Volker on the current systemic problems. “One basic flaw running through much of the recent financial innovation is that thinking embedded in mathematics and physics could be directly adapted to markets. A search for repetitive patterns of behavior and computations of normal distribution curves are a big part of the physical sciences. However, financial markets are not driven by changes in natural forces but by human phenomena, with all their implications for herd behavior, for wide swings in emotion, and for political intervention and uncertainties.”

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH – articles off the beaten track which may – or may not – have predictive value.

Why Investors Can’t Think for Themselves – (Wall St. Journal – June 19, 2010)
Sometimes the most interesting answers to financial questions come from scientific labs. A study recently published in the journal Current Biology (here) found that the value you place on something is likely to go up when other people tell you it is worth more than you thought, and down when others say it is worth less. More strikingly, if your evaluation agrees with what others tell you, then a part of your brain that specializes in processing rewards kicks into high gear. In other words, investors often go along with the crowd because-at the most basic biological level-conformity feels good. Moving in herds doesn’t just give investors a sense of “safety in numbers.” It also gives them pleasure.


Most Dangerous Object in the Office – (Wired – May 24, 2010)
Beware of geeks bearing fire. Fire footbag is the hot new craze. And don’t miss the embedded video clip (shot in a men’s room, no doubt for reasons of non-combustability).

Cattelan’s ‘Middle Finger’ to be Displayed at Milan Exchange – (Bloomberg – June 17, 2010)
The Italians have a sense of humor – not to mention a great sense of marketing genius. The City of Milan is likely to approve the one week display of Maurizio Cattelan’s controversial sculpture of the middle-finger gesture in front of the Italian Stock Exchange, Mayor Letizia Moratti said. The Carrara marble sculpture, called “Against Ideology,” will be part of an exhibition of the artist’s works at the Palazzo Reale Museum in September. “Milan’s fashion week needs events to draw attention. Art and Cattelan’s works are part of this,” said the mayor.


“Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”
~ Ray Bradbury

A special thanks to: Bernard Calil, Kevin Clark, Kevin Foley, Ursula Freer, Diane Petersen, Bobbie Rohn, SchwartzReport, Stu Rose, Nova Spivak, Steve Ujvarosy and all of you who have sent us interesting links in the past. If you see something we should know about, do send it along – thanks.


Edited by John L. Petersen

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Volume 13, Number 11 – 6/15/10

Volume 13, Number 13 – 7/15/10