A Waste Of Space

I have come to despise manned space exploration.  It is wasteful and inefficient, and the same money spent could fund unimaginable portfolios of unmanned science missions.  But back in the day, you know, when I was in my younger and middle teens, I was gung-ho for the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo programs -- and for the competing Russian programs, too.

But it was different then, too, because of the attitude of the astronauts and the bureaucrats who funded them.  They recognized that there was danger, that danger was part of the exercise.  They knew that if a few Brits and Portugese and Danes and Italians hadn't previously drowned in the Atlantic, then Columbus would never have made it.  For the last generation or so, though, safety has been paramount.  Safety as public relations, safety as politics.  It has drowned out the science, and it has drowned NASA in billions of dollars of wasted effort.

Challenger_1 We can compare the fates of Apollo I and the Challenger shuttle, which were destroyed on January 27th, 1967, and January 28th, 1986 respectively.  In 1967 we were horrified to lose three brave men to the fire.  But everyone got on with it.  It was a tragedy, but Apollo II kept on rolling because everyone knew it was a dangerous business with some certainty of losses.  In 1986, the loss of the Apollo_1 shuttle scuttled the program for years, with billions more spent for investigations of the investigators of the investigation.

Between 1967 and 1986 we had changed, and our attachment to manned exploration changed too.  Most people still seem to support it -- the non-military parts of the NASA budget could hardly survive without such support -- but with a catch:  they want it to be as safe as sitting at home on the couch.  And thus the wasted billions spent attempting to make manned space flight risk free.  Billions that could have been better spent on missions like the extraordinarily successful Mars rovers.

With this attitude, it is no wonder that today's Challenger anniversary is celebrated on front pages and on TV specials, while yesterday's anniversary of the deaths of Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee went almost unnoticed.

January 27, 2006 in History, Media, Science | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

It Might Be Too Late Now

The neocons and their capitalist string-pullers have for years now claimed that global warming was a myth, or that, if it was happening, it wasn't quite as important as continuing to make a buck.  Now, Siberia and Alaska are beginning to melt at a rapid rate.  Scientists say this is probably "irreversible".  The latest confirmation is from the New Scientist:

THE world's largest frozen peat bog is melting. An area stretching for a million square kilometres across the permafrost of western Siberia is turning into a mass of shallow lakes as the ground melts, according to Russian researchers just back from the region. The sudden melting of a bog the size of France and Germany combined could unleash billions of tonnes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

The news of the dramatic transformation of one of the world's least visited landscapes comes from Sergei Kirpotin, a botanist at Tomsk State University, Russia, and Judith Marquand at the University of Oxford. Kirpotin describes an "ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming". He says that the entire western Siberian sub-Arctic region has begun to melt, and this "has all happened in the last three or four years". What was until recently a featureless expanse of frozen peat is turning into a watery landscape of lakes, some more than a kilometre across. Kirpotin suspects that some unknown critical threshold has been crossed, triggering the melting.

Western Siberia has warmed faster than almost anywhere else on the planet, with an increase in average temperatures of some 3 °C in the last 40 years. The warming is believed to be a combination of man-made climate change, a cyclical change in atmospheric circulation known as the Arctic oscillation, plus feedbacks caused by melting ice, which exposes bare ground and ocean. These absorb more solar heat than white ice and snow. Similar warming has also been taking place in Alaska: earlier this summer Jon Pelletier of the University of Arizona in Tucson reported a major expansion of lakes on the North Slope fringing the Arctic Ocean. 

The findings from western Siberia follow a report two months ago that thousands of lakes in eastern Siberia have disappeared in the last 30 years, also because of climate change (New Scientist, 11 June, p 16). This apparent contradiction arises because the two events represent opposite end of the same process, known as thermokarsk. In this process, rising air temperatures first create "frost-heave", which turns the flat permafrost into a series of hollows and hummocks known as salsas. Then as the permafrost begins to melt, water collects on the surface, forming ponds that are prevented from draining away by the frozen bog beneath. The ponds coalesce into ever larger lakes until, finally, the last permafrost melts and the lakes drain away underground.

Siberia's peat bogs formed around 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. Since then they have been generating methane, most of which has been trapped within the permafrost, and sometimes deeper in ice-like structures known as clathrates. Larry Smith of the University of California, Los Angeles, estimates that the west Siberian bog alone contains some 70 billion tonnes of methane, a quarter of all the methane stored on the land surface worldwide. His colleague Karen Frey says if the bogs dry out as they warm, the methane will oxidise and escape into the air as carbon dioxide. But if the bogs remain wet, as is the case in western Siberia today, then the methane will be released straight into the atmosphere. Methane is 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.

In May this year, Katey Walter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks told a meeting in Washington of the Arctic Research Consortium of the US that she had found methane hotspots in eastern Siberia, where the gas was bubbling from thawing permafrost so fast it was preventing the surface from freezing, even in the midst of winter. An international research partnership known as the Global Carbon Project earlier this year identified melting permafrost as a major source of feedbacks that could accelerate climate change by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. "Several hundred billion tonnes of carbon could be released," said the project's chief scientist, Pep Canadell of the CSIRO Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research in Canberra, Australia.

This is scary shit.  I fear that even if Bush and his cronies got religion about global warming today, it would do no good.  We still should take the steps necessary but, in the end, we may be too late.

October 10, 2005 in America Inc, Bush Administration, Capitalism, Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

What About The Labs?

From the useful MemoryBlog comes the question, What happened to the level-3 biological labs in and around the New Orleans area?

As far as I can tell, no one has yet mentioned the biological research labs located in and around NOLA. For example, in nearby Covington, Tulane University runs the Tulane National Primate Research Center, a cluster of Level-3 biological labs containing around 5,000 monkeys, most of which are housed in outdoor cages. According to an article in Tulane University Magazine, "The primary areas of focus today at the Tulane National Primate Research Center are infectious diseases, including biodefense related work, gene therapy, reproductive biology and neuroscience. The Tulane primate center is playing a key role in the federal strategic plan for biodefense research"  ...

According to the Sunshine Project, which digs up grant proposals and other primary documents from the US biowarfare effort, "Tulane scientists are working with anthrax, plague, and other biological weapons agents."

And that's not all:

Louisiana State University’s Medical School has a Level-3 biolab in the Clinical Sciences Research Building located at 533 Bolivar Street. According to grant applications, LSU’s facility was the site of research involving anthrax and genetically-engineered mousepox ...

The State of Louisiana has a Level-3 biolab in New Orleans ...

And let’s not forget the New Orleans Medical Complex, which contains over 40 blocks of hospitals and biomedical research facilities.

Again with the questions:

So with all the known and probable Level-3 biolabs in and around New Orleans, what's happened to the infected animals? Are they free and roaming? Are they dead, with their diseased bodies floating in the flood waters? And what about the cultures and vials of the diseases? Are they still secure? Are they being stolen? Were they washed away, now forming part of the toxic soup that coats the city?

Well?  What's the answer?

September 10, 2005 in Current Affairs, Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Happ Birthday Louise Brown

Luoise_brownLouise Brown is 27 years old today. 

It seems almost weird to mention it these days -- because the event has become routine, natural -- but Louise Brown was global headline news back in 1978 when she became the first "test-tube" baby born.

In my lifetime, I'm guessing that this, organ transplants, and the PIll were among the great advances of medicine.

July 25, 2005 in History, Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

New Monkey Reports Show Critical Bias

There are exciting reports from Tanzania of a monkey species new to science.  The highland mangabey is a medium-sized monkey, about 3 feet (90 cm) tall with a long tail, long brown fur, a black face, hands and feet.   Adults make a distinctive, loud, low-pitched "honk-bark" call. They live in mountainside trees at elevations of up to 8,000 feet (2,400 meters).  Reports say that the highland mangabey is the first new species of monkey identified in 20 years.

"This exciting discovery demonstrates once again how little we know about our closest living relatives, the nonhuman primates," said Russell Mittermeier, chairman of the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN-The World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission.  "A large, striking monkey in a country of considerable wildlife research over the last century has been hidden right under our noses."

Not quite true.  The reports themselves say that local hunters were well aware of the monkeys and had described them to the scientists prior to their "discovery" by science.  They had, in fact, "been hidden" under the noses only of the scientists. The implication that what natives know is of little importance has a long and troubling history.  In a small way, the highland mangabey story is just another example of Columbus "discovering" America even though tens of millions of people were already living there.

We denigrate and ignore (consciously or otherwise) the knowledge of "primitive" peoples at our peril.

May 19, 2005 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Colour Prejudice

Researchers have issued a fascinating report on the perception of colour around the world. They conducted online interviews with 13,000 adults in 17 countries. It is written for branding professionals, but some results are just too interesting to be hidden in that industry's closet.

For example, I was amazed to find that in every one of the 17 countries, blue was the favourite colour of most people. I was less surprised to find that twice as many women than men choose purple as their favourite colour. 95% of Canadians associate Canada with "red", while 95% of Brazilians connect Brazil with "green."

The headline-grabbing find was that 20% of the world think of the colour black when they think of the United States.

"France in particular takes a “noir” view, with 34 percent of French respondents seeing the U.S. as black. The French are not alone as 31 percent of Swedes, 29 percent of Brazilians, 27 percent of Russians and 24 percent of Germans all take a dim view of America. This is in strong contrast to American respondents’ vision of themselves - only 4 percent associate their country with black."
Just as interesting to me as the finding, though, is the stated assumption of the researchers that "black" is considered a negative expression ("take a dim view").

October 21, 2004 in Branding / Marketing, Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

What's Normal Again?

Carl Zimmer's scientific blog, The Loom, is always an excellent source for up-to-date biology news and theories. After a recent break, he is back with an intriguing piece on the state of current genetic studies on human DNA, specifically the search for the "original" Adam and Eve from whom we derive our stuff.

I was aware of the African Eve hypothesis that indicated all of our mitochondrial-DNA derives from a single female who lived in Africa about 200,000 years. But I was not aware of a similar search for the history of the male Y-chromosome. Research in that field suggests that the "Adam" of the Y all men currently carry lived about 60,000 years ago. Of course the story is a little more complicated than that, and Zimmer does a wonderful job of making clear the current work.

One intriguing aspect of this research is that monogamy seems an unlikely possibility for "normal" humans throughout most of our history. Polygyny, in which two or more women have children with a single man, seems more likely.

"Scientists have proposed that humans have a history of polygyny before (our sperm, for example, looks like the sperm of polygynous apes and monkeys, for example). But with these new DNA results, the Arizona researchers have made a powerful case that polygyny has been common for tens of thousands of years across the Old World. It's possible that polygyny was an open institution for much of that time, or that secret trysts made it a reality that few would acknowledge. What's much less possible is that monogamy has been the status quo for 50,000 years." [emphasis added]
Add this to the fact that there is now a mass of research on homosexuality in non-human animals, and one can easily understand why many of us treat Bush and Ashcroft's assertions that only monogamous relationships between one man and one woman are "normal" with the contempt that all bigoted remarks deserve.

August 24, 2004 in Same-sex relationships, Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

More Interference with Science

Just recently, I noted that the Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft regime seemed to be increasing its already infamous politicization of science. Now, they have tried to cripple the major annual conference on HIV/AIDS and the fight against this plague. According to this report in the Guardian, the effects are severe:

"Joep Lange, president of the Sweden-based International Aids Society, which organises the conference, said it had been forced to retract papers that had been accepted for conference sessions after the US scientist authors had been refused permission to come. Many meetings, some to train developing world researchers, have had to be cancelled.
The reason, of course, is ideology. The Bush regime is pushing its anti-science approach to AIDS prevention, and punishing scientists and researchers -- generally the leaders in their field -- who disagree with this policy. The editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama), Catherine DeAngelis said
"that Marc Bulterys, the co-author of a Jama paper who worked for the government's Atlanta-based Centres for Disease Control (CDC), had not been allowed to accept an invitation to fly to Bangkok to talk about it. "It stymies the ability of scientists to discuss and learn from each other," said Dr DeAngelis. "It is wrong." She pointed out that the trip would have been paid for by the American Medical Association, not the US government. "It is an incredible example of political pettiness. It is anti-intellectual and it is interfering with scientists and the scientific process and means American government-employed scientists are not allowed to be here to share their knowledge," she said."
Ideology over practical advances -- this is the Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft way!

July 12, 2004 in Bush Administration, Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Score One For the Materialists

Why are some people happy to settle down and make their lives comfortable with one partner, while others feel the need to play the field? Forget all that romantic nonsense they sell you in greetings cards, the cause is more likely a question of random genetics: do you have a particular gene or don't you?

That, at least, is one interpretation of the results of a fascinating study by scientist Miranda Lim and colleagues at the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. The researchers

jan_heart"focused their research on prairie voles, one of the few mammal species that are monogamous and form lifelong pair bonds. They chose prairie voles as their study species because there is a closely related species that, although very similar genetically, exhibits very different social behavior. While the male prairie vole is monogamous, the male meadow vole is polygamous. And by changing just one gene in the meadow vole, the biologists reversed its polygamy: They turned the "love rat" into a cuddly, loving little rodent. The gene is for the vasopressin 1a receptor in the brain, and is denoted V1aR. These receptors pick up hormones that are released after sex, and prairie voles have more of these receptors in a particular region of their brains than do meadow voles."
I'm guessing the drug companies are already gearing up research labs to develop a "commitment pill" that can eventually be force-fed straying spouses.

July 10, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Managed Science

One of the worst things that can happen to a neo-conservative is to have scientists speak their own minds. They know that when scientists are allowed to publish and discuss their research without restraint, the neo-conservative's ideologically-based misguided nonsense is shown to be a sham and false and just plain wrong. This is true about evolution, AIDS, stem cell research, homosexuality, global warming, and a host of other important scientific topics.

True to its deep conservative roots, the Bush regime has become infamous for its attempts to subvert science for its own ends. The latest example of this behaviour is the new restrictive regulation that potentially politicizes the process by which the World Health Organization can contact US researchers.

"A top official from the Health and Human Services Department in April asked the WHO to begin routing requests for participation in its meetings to the department's secretary for review, rather than directly invite individual scientists, as has long been the case. Officials at the WHO, based in Geneva, Switzerland, have refused to implement the request thusfar, saying it could compromise the independence of international scientific deliberations. Denis G. Aitken, WHO assistant director-general, said Friday that he had been negotiating with Washington in an effort to reach a compromise."
This is so profoundly wrong that even the HHS Department's senior advisors are adamantly opposed to this novel idea.
"I do not feel this is an appropriate or constructive thing to do," said Dr. D.A. Henderson, an epidemiologist who ran the Bush administration's Office of Public Health Preparedness and now acts as an official advisor to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. "In the scientific world, we have a generally open process. We deal with science as science. I am unaware of such clearance ever having been required before."
Several leading scientists also said the new policy would undermine scientific deliberations.
"This is really tampering with a process that has worked very well," said Linda Rosenstock, the dean of the UCLA School of Public Health who directed the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health under President Clinton. "To have this micromanaged at the HHS departmental level raises the specter that political considerations rather than scientific considerations will determine who is allowed to go" to the world's most important scientific meetings.

Rosenstock said that some WHO divisions — including the one reviewing cancer threats — have become targets of industry groups. "There is real concern that science could be trumped by politics and vested interests."

And there lies the rub.
"The request is the latest instance in which the Bush administration has been accused of allowing politics to intrude into once-sacrosanct areas of scientific deliberation. It has been criticized for replacing highly regarded scientists with industry and political allies on advisory panels. A biologist who was at odds with the administration's position on stem-cell research was dismissed from a presidential advisory commission. This year, 60 prominent scientists accused the administration of "misrepresenting and suppressing scientific knowledge for political purposes."
All in all, it is hard to disagree with the Board of Scientific America who, in May this year, editorialized that "this White House disdains research that inconveniences it.” It is vital therefore that this regime not be allowed to interfere with global health issues through the ideologically-motivated selection of politically correct advisers to WHO.

June 26, 2004 in Bush Administration, Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack