Scientific American Magazine
Cover; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Staff Editor; 1 Page(s)
Table of Contents; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Staff Editor; 3 Page(s)
From the Editor; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by John Rennie; 1 Page(s)
Race is one of the most inflammatory, slippery, maddeningly paradoxical concepts to afflict human consciousness; witness its ugly history. Shamefully, perversions of biology, anthropology and psychology have at various times racially justified colonialism, slavery and disenfranchisement. Medicine's own intersections with concepts of race have tended to be horrible as well: the grotesque Nazi experiments and the notorious Tuskegee studies of syphilis spring to mind.
Looking to change that awful record for the better is the drug BiDil, approved in 2005 to reduce the toll of congestive heart failure specifically among African-Americans. BiDil is not a product of research on the human genome, but researchers in the field of pharmacogenomics are combing our DNA for clues to new therapies--and better ways to match them to appropriate groups of patients. Because investigators will inevitably keep looking for correlations with racial groups, they will keep finding them. Thus, the era of race-based medicine dawns.
Letters; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Staff Editor; 2 Page(s)
In "gassing up with Hydrogen," Sunita Satyapal, John Petrovic and George Thomas write about the difficulties of storing hydrogen in automobiles to create a replacement for today's internal-combustion engines. Given the technical and economic challenges the authors describe, the targets they list for storage quantity and costs for 2010 and 2015 seem optimistic. But even if those targets are met, then what? For automobiles running on hydrogen fuel to replenish their supplies, several thousand fueling stations would have to be built at the cost of billions of dollars. Further, a new delivery infrastructure would have to be created to get hydrogen (or hydrogen precursors) to those stations.
Finally, where is the hydrogen to come from? Today most hydrogen is obtained from natural gas in a process that releases carbon dioxide. Hydrogen can also be made by electrolyzing water, but it takes lots of electrical energy to break hydrogen-oxygen bonds. If that electricity is obtained by burning coal, more carbon dioxide will be produced.
50, 100 and 150 Years Ago; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Daniel C. Schlenoff; 1 Page(s)
ROAD DATA--"Automobile accidents in the U.S. are now the subject of a large-scale investigation as if they were an epidemic--as they are. The Department of the Army, the American Medical Association and other major groups are studying many phases of the matter, from the design of tollbooths to the personality of truck drivers. Among other significant findings are that sedatives and tranquilizing drugs dull a driver's skill, and that the dangerous effects of an evening of drinking may last as long as 18 hours, regardless of coffee therapy."
STRESSING MICE--"The tranquilizing drugs are definitely what is needed for crowded living--at least for mice. Two workers from the Johns Hopkins Medical School cooped up groups of mice in canisters and gave half the groups Miltown [an early antianxiety drug], and the other half nothing. Half an hour later, they injected all the groups with a lethal dose of amphetamine. At the end of the experiment the untranquilized mice were all dead and the tranquilized ones were not even breathing hard."
Updates; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Philip Yam; 1 Page(s)
Quantum cryptography has an uncrackable reputation [see "Best-Kept Secrets"; SciAm, January 2005]. A sender typically transmits a message encoded by polarized photons; anyone listening in would cause errors to appear in the reception, alerting the sender and receiver. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, show in the April 25 Physical Review A that quantum cryptography can be hacked, at least to a limited extent. They found a way to entangle the polarization of transmitted photons with the momentum of an eavesdropper's photon. By measuring the momentum, the eavesdropper could deduce the transmitted polarizations. Quantum users can breathe easy, though: the trick works for only 40 percent of the data and would not be practical, because the setup requires that the eavesdropper use the same photon detector as the receiver.
Lycopene, abundant especially in tomatoes, does not appear to prevent prostate cancer as once hoped (and hyped). Past studies had suggested that a diet rich in the antioxidant could protect against the disease, presumably because lycopene neutralizes free radicals, which are reactive molecules that can damage cells and DNA. In the latest study, a team led by researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the National Cancer Institute followed 28,000 men between the ages of 55 and 74. Lycopene and other antioxidants exerted no preventive effect, the scientists found. In fact, in a surprise, the team saw a positive correlation between one antioxidant, beta-carotene, and an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Look up the results in the May 2007 Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
Protein Pretense; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Alison Snyder; 2 Page(s)
After hundreds of dogs and cats fell ill this past spring, government officials traced the source to melamine, a nitrogen-rich compound found in plastics and fertilizer that, when ingested by the animals, crystallized in their kidneys and caused renal failure. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration later announced that producers may have deliberately added the compound to wheat gluten and rice protein concentrates to inflate the measured amount of protein. The greater the protein level in the concentrates, the higher the market price the products fetch. Regardless of whether its addition was deliberate or accidental, melamine snuck past standard industry protein analysis, suggesting that the century-old test methods should be reevaluated. Several alternatives exist, but the food industry has yet to make a switch.
Traditionally, food protein is measured by a method developed by Danish brewer Johann Kjeldahl in the late 1800s. In this analytical technique, a strong acid digests a sample, breaking down the organic matter and releasing nitrogen, which is then converted to ammonia. The amount of ammonia indicates how much nitrogen was in the original sample and, hence, the amount of protein. This "proved to be a robust, precise method," says Julian McClements, a food scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It is attractive because it can be used for a variety of products and protein types. Another, similar nitrogen-based technique, called the Dumas test, is also popular with industry. It relies on burning the sample to release nitrogen. The Association of Analytical Communities (AOAC) International, a scientific association that sets standards for analytical methods, lists the Kjeldahl and Dumas techniques as the standard methods for measuring protein in food.
Laboratory Letdowns; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by John Dudley Miller; 2 Page(s)
Despite airtight double doors, disposable laboratory clothing, frequent decontamination and other precautions, accidental infections can happen at U.S. biological laboratories. Perhaps worse, though, is that accidents are going unreported. Although the U.S. has not confirmed any cases of sick scientists spreading their lab-derived infections to the public in the past 40 years, the case of the tuberculosis-carrying traveler Andrew Speaker shows that modern jet transportation could quickly spread deadly infections globally. Most important, the culture of nonreporting and lax enforcement of already weak incident-reporting regulations in the U.S. could make such secondary infections more likely. Indeed, some scientists believe they may have already occurred, as they have in other nations in which lab infections of smallpox, SARS, Marburg and H1N1 influenza viruses have spread to the general public.
Research institutions would rather not face the blame and bad publicity associated with accidents, remarks immunologist Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity. Instead many opt to hide their mistakes and hope that federal regulators do not find out.
A Return on Redwoods; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Mark Fischetti; 3 Page(s)
For years, special-interest groups have raised money to buy and rope off wild lands to protect them. But in June a unique partnership announced it had purchased 50,635 acres of northern California redwood forest and would preserve the land by operating it as a nonprofit business. The acquisition was funded entirely by private capital. The lead group, the Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc. (RFFI), in Gualala, Calif., claims the deal creates the first nonprofit working forest in the country and could be a model for safeguarding other natural resources.
"It's always difficult to get the first transaction done," says Don Kemp, executive director of RFFI and architect of the arrangement. "I'm hoping this one will be a catalyst for others."
On the Rebound; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Linda Baker; 1 Page(s)
Economics 101 states that if prices decline, consumption will increase. Now economists are applying this law of demand to policies intended to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming. The result is called the rebound effect, and it takes place when higher consumption undercuts the energy savings produced by a given technology. For example, a household that saves energy and money by installing better insulation may then decide it can afford to raise the thermostat during the winter. "If you invoke a program or policy that lowers the cost, people do more of that thing," remarks Richard Newell, an energy and environmental economist at Duke University.
Although most experts accept the existence of the rebound effect, the debate continues over its magnitude. Two recent studies reveal different quantitative results but also point to a consensus regarding the best way to adjust for the human tendency to use more when costs are less. In the context of climate change, the superior instrument appears to be a tax on carbon emissions.
Attitude Screen; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Christine Soares; 2 Page(s)
A chance to peek into the future--at least one possible future--is always a tempting fantasy. But if it were offered in reality, would you take it? And if you didn't like what you saw, how hard would you try to change it? After almost 20 years spent reading, mapping and analyzing human DNA, researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) believe that personal genetic information is nearly ready for use by consumers in managing their health, so the institute is launching a large-scale study to gauge whether consumers are ready for the information.
The year-long Multiplex Initiative will ultimately involve thousands of subjects, who will be offered a personal genetic report card based on screening for gene variations associated with increased risk for major diseases. The investigators are interested in how many take up the offer, why, and how participants respond to their results. The researchers also hope to gain insights into the best ways for health professionals to communicate information about genetic risk.
Dimensional Shortcuts; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Mark Alpert; 1 Page(s)
The neutrino is the oddball of particle physics. It has no charge and rarely interacts with other particles, but it comes in three flavors--electron, muon and tau--and madly oscillates from one flavor to the next as it travels along. For the past five years, researchers at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., have been firing beams of muon neutrinos at the MiniBooNE detector, a huge spherical tank filled with 800 tons of mineral oil, to see how many of the particles changed in flight to electron neutrinos. The first results, announced in April, mostly vindicated the Standard Model--the conventional theory of particle physics--but an unexplained anomaly in the data leaves open a more exotic possibility. Some scientists speculate that the cause of the anomaly is a new kind of neutrino that can take shortcuts through the extra dimensions predicted by string theory.
The impetus behind MiniBooNE was to follow up a previous experiment, conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1990s, which had shown evidence for a fourth type of neutrino. Called the sterile neutrino, this putative particle would be even more elusive than the three ordinary flavors because it would not be subject to the weak nuclear force as the other particles are but would interact only through gravity. Because the existence of sterile neutrinos would challenge the Standard Model, researchers were eager to run a similar experiment to confirm or refute the findings. The results from MiniBooNE, however, were a mixed bag. For neutrinos with energies ranging from 475 million to three billion electron volts, the number of flavor oscillations nicely matched the Standard Model predictions, but at lower energies investigators found a significant excess of electron neutrinos.
Playing It by Ear; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Tim Hornyak; 1 Page(s)
Prince Shotoku was a seventh-century politician attributed with authorship of Japan's first constitution. Famed as a nation builder, he is said to have been able to listen to many people simultaneously, hearing the petitions of up to 10 supplicants at once and then handing down judgments or advice.
Inspired by the legendary prince, Japanese researchers have spent five years developing a humanoid robot system that can understand and respond to simultaneous speakers. They posit a restaurant scenario in which the robot is a waiter. When three people stand before the robot and simultaneously order pork cutlet meals or French dinners, the robot understands at about 70 percent comprehension, responding by repeating each order and giving the total price. This process takes less than two seconds and, crucially, requires no prior voice training.
News Scan Briefs; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Charles Q. Choi, JR Minkel, Nikhil Swaminathan; 2 Page(s)
Adults may resist scientific facts because of childhood experiences. Yale University psychologists note that before children can even speak, they develop common-sense assumptions about the physical world that can persist into adulthood and clash with scientific discoveries. For instance, because objects fall down if not held up, kids may have trouble accepting the world is round, reasoning that things on the other side should naturally fall off. Intuitive notions concerning psychology also lead children to see everything as designed for some reason--for example, a cloud's purpose might be to rain--which can lead to opposition to evolution. In reporting their work in the May 18 Science, the researchers also note that when both adults and kids obtain knowledge from others, they judge claims based on how much they trust the source of an assertion. It suggests that science will meet exaggerated resistance in societies where alternative views are championed by trustworthy authorities, such as political or religious figures.
A long-standing mystery of photosynthesis is how the process converts sunlight with nearly 100 percent efficiency to chemical energy. The key may be quantum coherence, the same phenomenon that makes lasers and superconductors work. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, investigated purple bacteria, where an ensemble of pigments and proteins absorbs light and channels its energy into chemicals. Components of this complex oscillate after they get excited with light, and these excitations are kept synchronized by specific vibrations of the protein connecting these components, like well-timed pushes on a swing to keep it in motion. This coherence makes the ensemble act together as a "supermolecule" of sorts, rapidly settling on the most efficient energy pathway. The research, in the June 8 Science, could improve designs for solar cells and other synthetic light-harvesting devices.
SciAm Perspectives: Worse Than Gasoline; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by the Editors; 1 Page(s)
Lawmakers of both parties are proposing amendments to the so-called energy independence bill that would massively subsidize the coal industry to produce liquid coal as a replacement for foreign oil. (The admirable original bill is designed to increase fuel efficiency in cars and light trucks, encourage production of biofuels, and provide funds to develop technology that will capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.)
Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, opposed big subsidies for coal-based fuels until mid-June, when he moved to offer up to $10 billion in loans for coal-to-liquid plants. At the same time, Senator Barack Obama, from coal-rich Illinois, abruptly shifted his support for subsidizing coal-derived fuel production to concentrate on another bill he had been sponsoring that would cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce carbon content in transport fuel.
Sustainable Developments: Making Development Less Risky; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Jeffrey D. Sachs; 2 Page(s)
Life at the bottom of the world's income distribution is massively risky. Poor households lack basic buffers--savings accounts, health insurance, water tanks, diversified income sources, and so on--against drought, pests, disease and other hazards. Even modest shocks, such as a temporary dry spell or a routine infection, can be devastating.
These risks have knock-on effects. To take one prime example, the expected economic return on the use of fertilizer is very high in Africa, yet impoverished farmers cannot obtain it on credit because of the potential for a catastrophic loss in the event of a crop failure. Their households cannot bear the risk of a loan, and so they remain destitute. Managing risk is therefore important not only for smoothing out the well-being of these farmers over the years but also for enabling their escape from extreme poverty.
Skeptic: Bad Apples and Bad Barrels; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Michael Shermer; 3 Page(s)
The photographs of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib shocked most Americans. But social psychologist Philip Zimbardo had seen it all 30 years before in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University, where he randomly assigned college students to be "guards" or "prisoners" in a mock prison environment. The experiment was to last two weeks but was terminated after just six days, when these intelligent and moral young men were transformed into cruel and sadistic guards or emotionally shattered prisoners.
As he watched the parade of politicians proclaim that Abu Ghraib was the result of a few bad apples, Zimbardo penned a response he calls the Lucifer Effect (also the title of his new book from Random House), namely, the transformation of character that leads ordinarily good people to do extraordinarily evil things. "Social psychologists like myself have been trying to correct the belief that evil is located only in the disposition of the individual and that the problem is in the few bad apples," he says. But, I rejoin, there are bad apples, no? Yes, of course, Zimbardo concedes, but most of the evil in the world is not committed by them: "Before we blame individuals, the charitable thing to do is to first find out what situations they were in that might have provoked this evil behavior. Why not assume that these are good apples in a bad barrel, rather than bad apples in a good barrel?"
Forum: Have Brain, Must Travel; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Jim Bell; 2 Page(s)
These are incredibly exciting times for space exploration. NASA currently operates more than 50 robotic spacecraft that are studying Earth and reaching throughout the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond. Another 40 unmanned NASA missions are in development, and space agencies in Europe, Russia, Japan, India and China are running or building their own robotic craft. With such an armada at our disposal, delivering a stream of scientific data from so many distant ports, you might think that researchers like me who are involved in robotic space exploration would dismiss astronaut missions as costly and unnecessary. To the contrary: many of us embrace human exploration as a worthy goal in its own right and as a critically important part of space science in the 21st century.
Although astronaut missions are much more expensive and risky than robotic craft, they are absolutely critical to the success of our exploration program. Why? Because space exploration is an adventure--a human adventure--that has historically enjoyed broad public support precisely because of the pride we take from it. President John F. Kennedy committed the U.S. to sending astronauts to the moon to make a statement about the power of democracy and freedom, not to do science. As a by-product, some outstanding lunar science was done, leading ultimately to an understanding of the moon's origin. What is more, the Apollo moon program trained and inspired an entire generation of researchers and engineers, who made the breakthroughs that paved the way for robotic missions, as well as much of the technology that we take for granted today.
Anti Gravity: Floral Derangement; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Steve Mirsky; 1 Page(s)
The late Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said that every species designation represents a theory about that organism--the species assignment is more than a mere naming; it is a classification of the organism within the context of all the other creeping, crawling, clinging and cavorting life on earth. As such, the discovery of a charismatic new species of animal or plant often piques the interest of both the scientific community and the lay public. Finding an entirely new genus is even more exciting. So it is somewhat shocking that a peer-reviewed publication announcing the discovery of a previously uncharacterized family of plants--an even higher taxonomic level than genus--has gone virtually unnoticed.
The shock intensifies when one considers the incredible ubiquity and great economic importance of this plant family, species of which are probably adorning your home, softening the ambience of your dentist's waiting room or being plodded on by the rambling behemoths of your local football team.
Race in a Bottle; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Jonathan Kahn; 6 Page(s)
Two years ago, on June 23, 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first "ethnic" drug. Called BiDil (pronounced "bye-dill"), it was intended to treat congestive heart failure--the progressive weakening of the heart muscle to the point where it can no longer pump blood efficiently--in African-Americans only. The approval was widely declared to be a significant step toward a new era of personalized medicine, an era in which pharmaceuticals would be specifically designed to work with an individual's particular genetic makeup. Known as pharmacogenomics, this approach to drug development promises to reduce the cost and increase the safety and efficacy of new therapies. BiDil was also hailed as a means to improve the health of African-Americans, a community woefully underserved by the U.S. medical establishment. Organizations such as the Association of Black Cardiologists and the Congressional Black Caucus strongly supported the drug's approval.
A close inspection of BiDil's history, however, shows that the drug is ethnic in name only. First, BiDil is not a new medicine--it is merely a combination into a single pill of two generic drugs, hydralazine and isosorbide dinitrate, both of which have been used for more than a decade to treat heart failure in people of all races. Second, BiDil is not a pharmacogenomic drug. Although studies have shown that the hydralazine/isosorbide dinitrate (H/I) combination can delay hospitalization and death for patients suffering from heart failure, the underlying mechanism for the drug's efficacy is not fully understood and has not been directly connected to any specific genes. Third, and most important, no firm evidence exists that BiDil actually works better or differently in African-Americans than in anyone else. The FDA's approval of BiDil was based primarily on a clinical trial that enrolled only self-identified African-Americans and did not compare their health outcomes with those of other ethnic or racial groups.
Predicting Wildfires; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Patricia Andrews, Mark Finney and Mark Fischetti; 8 Page(s)
The number of catastrophic wildfires in the U.S. has been steadily rising. The nation has spent more than $1 billion annually to suppress such fires in eight of the past 10 years. In 2005 a record 8.7 million acres burned, only to be succeeded by 9.9 million acres in 2006. And this year is off to a furious start.
To a great extent, the increase in fires stems from a buildup of excess fuel, particularly deadwood and underbrush. Forests harbor more fuel than ever in large part because for decades, land management agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, have followed a policy of trying to quickly put out every fire that starts. Fires, however, can clear out debris, preventing material from accumulating across wide areas and feeding extremely large, intense fires that become impossible to fight. Even in the absence of such a policy, firefighters find themselves compelled to combat many blazes because people continue to build homes further into wildlands, and those structures require protection. Exacerbating the problem, spring snowmelts have been occurring earlier, extending the number of weeks every year when forests are exposed and dangerously dry.
Windows on the Mind; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik; 8 Page(s)
As you read this, your eyes are rapidly flicking from left to right in small hops, bringing each word sequentially into focus. When you stare at a person's face, your eyes will similarly dart here and there, resting momentarily on one eye, the other eye, nose, mouth and other features. With a little introspection, you can detect this frequent flexing of your eye muscles as you scan a page, face or scene.
But these large voluntary eye movements, called saccades, turn out to be just a small part of the daily workout your eye muscles get. Your eyes never stop moving, even when they are apparently settled, say, on a person's nose or a sailboat bobbing on the horizon. When the eyes fixate on something, as they do for 80 percent of your waking hours, they still jump and jiggle imperceptibly in ways that turn out to be essential for seeing. If you could somehow halt these miniature motions while fixing your gaze, a static scene would simply fade from view.
The Physical Science behind Climate Change; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by William Collins, Robert Colman, James Haywood, Martin R. Manning and Philip Mote; 10 Page(s)
For a scientist studying climate change, "eureka" moments are unusually rare. Instead progress is generally made by a painstaking piecing together of evidence from every new temperature measurement, satellite sounding or climate-model experiment. Data get checked and rechecked, ideas tested over and over again. Do the observations fit the predicted changes? Could there be some alternative explanation? Good climate scientists, like all good scientists, want to ensure that the highest standards of proof apply to everything they discover.
And the evidence of change has mounted as climate records have grown longer, as our understanding of the climate system has improved and as climate models have become ever more reliable. Over the past 20 years, evidence that humans are affecting the climate has accumulated inexorably, and with it has come ever greater certainty across the scientific community in the reality of recent climate change and the potential for much greater change in the future. This increased certainty is starkly reflected in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the fourth in a series of assessments of the state of knowledge on the topic, written and reviewed by hundreds of scientists worldwide.
The Shark's Electric Sense; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by R. Douglas Fields; 8 Page(s)
A menacing fin pierced the surface and sliced toward us. A great blue shark--three meters in length--homed in on the scent of blood like a torpedo. As my wife, Melanie, and I watched several large sharks circle our seven-meter Boston Whaler, a silver-blue snout suddenly thrust through a square cutout in the boat deck. "Look out!" Melanie shouted. We both recoiled instinctively, but we were in no real danger. The shark flashed a jagged smile of ivory saw teeth and then slipped back into the sea.
We had drawn the sharks by ladling blood into the ocean, but we were not interested in their well-known attraction to blood. Rather we were investigating the hunters' mysterious "sixth sense." Laboratory research had demonstrated that sharks can sense extremely weak electric fields--such as those animal cells produce when in contact with seawater. But how they use that unique sense had yet to be proved. We were on that boat to find out.
Future Farming: A Return to Roots?; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Jerry D. Glover, Cindy M. Cox and John P. Reganold; 8 Page(s)
For many of us in affluent regions, our bathroom scales indicate that we get more than enough to eat, which may lead some to believe that it is easy, perhaps too easy, for farmers to grow our food. On the contrary, modern agriculture requires vast areas of land, along with regular infusions of water, energy and chemicals. Noting these resource demands, the 2005 United Nations-sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment suggested that agriculture may be the "largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity."
Today most of humanity's food comes directly or indirectly (as animal feed) from cereal grains, legumes and oilseed crops. These staples are appealing to producers and consumers because they are easy to transport and store, relatively imperishable, and fairly high in protein and calories. As a result, such crops occupy about 80 percent of global agricultural land. But they are all annual plants, meaning that they must be grown anew from seeds every year, typically using resource-intensive cultivation methods. More troubling, the environmental degradation caused by agriculture will likely worsen as the hungry human population grows to eight billion or 10 billion in the coming decades.
Data Center in a Box; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by M. Mitchell Waldrop; 4 Page(s)
The next steel shipping container you see being hauled by a truck or train might not stow the usual mass of lumber, textiles or foodstuffs. It might hold 10 tons of finely interlaced computer servers, ready to be deposited in a parking lot to serve 10,000 employees at a corporate headquarters--or 10,000 people on the Internet. Sun Microsystems has just started delivering these data-centers-to-go, taking the concept of portable computing to a whole new level.
True, the Project Blackbox system is portable only in the industrial sense that it is integrated into a standard 20-foot shipping container. But once delivered to a site, it is almost as self-contained as any laptop. All the system requires is a power cable and an Internet connection--plus a water supply and an external chiller for cooling. As many as 250 servers inside provide up to seven terabytes of active memory and more than two petabytes of disk storage. Perhaps most critically, says Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's chief technology officer in Menlo Park, Calif., Project Blackbox will deliver that functionality in about one-tenth the time and at one-hundredth the cost of building a traditional computer room of equal prowess.
Insights: The Gedanken Experimenter; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by JR Minkel; 2 Page(s)
Physicist Anton Zeilinger may not understand quantum mechanics, but he has not let that stand in his path. Besides paving the way for ultrapowerful computers and unbreakable codes that run on quantum effects, the 62-year-old Austrian has a gift for pushing the limits of quantum strangeness in striking ways. Recently he observed the delicate quantum link of entanglement in light flickered between two of the Canary Islands, 144 kilometers apart. He dreams of bouncing entangled light off of satellites in orbit.
Though better known to the world at large for such headline-grabbing experiments, Zeilinger, who is based at the University of Vienna, has gone to comparable lengths to test the underlying assumptions of quantum mechanics itself. His results have left little hiding space from the conclusion that quantum reality is utterly, inescapably odd--so much so that 40 years after first encountering it as a student, Zeilinger still gropes for what makes it tick. "I made what I think was the right conclusion right away," he says, "that nobody really understands it."
Working Knowledge: Blu-ray vs. HD DVD; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Mark Fischetti; 2 Page(s)
DVDs create sharper images than videotapes and have steadily displaced the older medium. Yet movie studios are trying to spawn a newer market by producing even higher definition video.
Disk makers have released two competing high-definition formats: Blu-ray and HD DVD. The technical press is comparing the battle with the late-1970s match between VHS and Betamax videotape standards. But the current contest may play out differently: some manufacturers are making machines that can play both formats, and Warner Brothers has announced that it will soon release movies recorded in both schemes on a two-sided disk.
Reviews; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Michelle Press; 1 Page(s)
The head of a new cosmology think tank--provocatively named Beyond--at Arizona State University, physicist Paul Davies says he wants to look into "the origin of the universe, life, consciousness and the emergence of humanity." In this, his 27th book, Davies examines the perplexing fact that many basic features of the physical universe seem tailor-made to produce life. He embraces the so-called anthropic principle: the idea that the universe's suitability for intelligent life is not an accident but a logical development. In accessible, relatively jargon-free language, he summarizes the current state of knowledge in cosmology and provides an introduction to particle physics. He then asks the question: Does the design of the universe imply the existence of an intelligent designer? Davies comes down on the side of some sort of undefined "life principle" in the cosmos, but he says that this "is something I feel more in my heart than in my head."
In one of his notebooks, Charles Darwin wrote: "Origin of man proved.--Metaphysic must flourish.--He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke." Robert M. Seyfarth and Dorothy L. Cheney--pioneers in the study of primate psychology--take up the challenge. Baboons live in groups of up to 100, which include a few males and eight or nine matrilineal families of females. Daily life encompasses intrigues that range from alliances of three individuals up to battles that involve three or four extended families. Paste on top of this a complicated mix of personal relationships--from short-term bonds for mating to longterm friendships that lead to cooperative child rearing--and the result "is a kind of Jane Austen melodrama," in which each individual must predict the behavior of others and take care to form the most advantageous relationships. Any way you look at it, the authors say, most of the problems facing baboons can be expressed in two words: other baboons. The authors aim to understand the intelligence that underlies this social organization: How do baboons conceive of the world and their place in it? Do they understand kinship relations? How do they infer the motives of others?
Ask the Experts; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Ross J. Salawitch, Ramona Turner; 1 Page(s)
The abundance of atmospheric ozone (O3) is relative-levels that are dangerously high in the atmosphere's lowest layer, the troposphere, would be dangerously low in the stratosphere, one layer above. As such, ground-level ozone is not plentiful enough to fill the so-called ozone hole. In addition, ozone is regulated primarily by local chemical processes, and a temperature barrier at the troposphere-stratosphere border prevents a large-scale mixing of ozone across atmospheric levels.
Stratospheric ozone provides a shield from harmful ultraviolet solar radiation. Conversely, elevated levels of tropospheric ozone can lead to human health problems and damage to crops and forests.
Fact or Fiction?; August 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Ciara Curtin; 1 Page(s)
During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in zero gravity. They therefore spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars developing a ballpoint pen that could put ink to paper without needing gravitational force to pull on the fluid. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed cosmonauts grease pencils. Did NASA really waste that much money?
Originally American astronauts, like the Soviets, wrote with pencils, according to NASA historians. Indeed, in 1965 NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing in Houston at $128.89 apiece: $4,382.50 in total. When these sums became public and caused an outcry, NASA scrambled to find a cheaper alternative.