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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Science Update

I Have Nothing Interesting To Say Here

Ancient Swede
So there's a new World's Oldest Tree, which has taken the throne from those uppity Bristlecone Pines in America.

The world's oldest living tree on record is a nearly 10,000 year-old spruce that has been discovered in central Sweden, Umeaa University said on Thursday.

Researchers had discovered a spruce with genetic material dating back 9,550 years in the Fulu mountain in Dalarna, according to Leif Kullmann, a professor of Physical Geography at the university in northwestern Sweden.

That would mean it had taken root in roughly the year 7,542 BC.

"It was a big surprise because we thought until (now) that this kind of spruce grew much later in those regions," he said.
That is oooooooooooooold.

Don't expect intelligent commentary here. I just got up from a nap.

Apparently this tree is way older than they thought they had arrived here, and the article mentions something about them being climate change bellwethers, so I'm guessing what they mean is that the last ice age in Sweden ended earlier than they thought, or something. It's sparse on the details. Ancient history seems to be impacted by this lonely survivor, regardless.

Source: Raw Story

The coldest star ever found has been located. It's only 660 degrees at the surface -- cooler than Venus.
April 11, 2008 -- A dim, lonely, weakling star with the lowest stellar temperature yet recorded has been found just 40 light-years from Earth.

The brown dwarf star is between 15 and 30 times the mass of Jupiter and has a surface temperature of a mild 660 degrees Fahrenheit (350 Celsius) -- about the surface temperature of the planet Mercury at the equator and much cooler than the surface of Venus.

The spectacularly unspectacular object is of special interest because it falls right smack in the middle of the final frontier that divides mega-planets from the puniest stars. Stars in that realm theoretically qualify as an entirely new stellar type -- what's called a Y class dwarf.
The article mentions the possibility of even colder stars, stars perhaps cool enough to have liquid water in their atmospheres.
It's likely, says Burgasser, that as more of these even cooler dwarfs are found, there likely will be some that are a couple of hundred degrees cooler than CFBDS0059. That means any water in there atmospheres will condense into droplets of water vapor, which would make these dwarfs dramatically different than their L and T dwarf brothers.

In brown dwarf atmospheres, water is generally in gaseous state, while in giant planets it condenses into water ice. So an even cooler dwarf would truly be on the verge of being more of a hot, giant Jupiter than a star.
That's amazingly odd. Imagine if there is a star out there somewhere just warm enough to keep water liquid. You could have life as we know it living on a *star*.


Source: Discovery Channel News

So an engineer who suffered through radiation therapy thought he had a better way to do it -- and it seems like he was on to something.
A promising new cancer treatment that may one day replace radiation and chemotherapy is edging closer to human trials.

Kanzius RF therapy attaches microscopic nanoparticles to cancer cells and then "cooks" tumors inside the body with harmless radio waves.

Based on technology developed by Pennsylvania inventor John Kanzius, a retired radio and TV engineer, the treatment has proven 100 percent effective at killing cancer cells while leaving neighboring healthy cells unharmed. It is currently being tested at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“I don’t want to give people false hope,” said Dr. Steve Curley, the professor leading the tests, “but this has the potential to treat a wide variety of cancers.”

Modern cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy have proven remarkably effective at treating many cancers, especially in combination, but are plagued with toxic side effects. These treatments kill healthy cells as well as cancerous ones.

Kanzius RF therapy is noninvasive, and uses nontoxic radio waves combined with gold or carbon nanoparticles, which have a long history of medical use.
Essentially, you take nano-particles of gold, coat them in a chemical that only cancer cells absorb, then inject it. The cancer takes up the chemically coated gold. Then you blast the area of the body with a radio source.. the gold absorbs the radio waves, heats up, and kills whatever cells it's in. But if you had the right chemical, it's only inside cancer. Voila! Perfectly targeted radiation therapy.

Very nice.

Source: Wired

I'd heard about a technique like this to create genetically modified animals but I guess this is the first time someone's thought about using it as a backdoor to cloning without Dolly-esque age symptoms.
The mice were made by inserting skin cells of an adult animal into early embryos produced by in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Some of the resulting offspring were partial clones but some were full clones – just like Dolly.

Unlike the Dolly technique, however, the procedure is so simple and efficient that it has raised fears that it will be seized on by IVF doctors to help infertile couples who are eager to have their own biological children.


The experiments on mice demonstrated that it is now possible in principle to take a human skin cell, reprogramme it back to its embryonic state and then insert it into an early human embryo. The resulting child would share some of the genes of the person who supplied the skin tissue, as well as the genes of the embryo's two parents.

These offspring are chimeras – a genetic mix of two or more individuals – because some of their cells derive from the embryo and some from the skin cell. Technically, such a child would have three biological parents. Human chimeras occur naturally when two embryos fuse in the womb and such people are often normal and healthy. Dr Lanza says there is no reason to believe that a human chimera created by the new technique would be unhealthy.

Furthermore, studies on mice have shown that it is possible to produce fully cloned offspring that are 100 per cent genetically identical to the adult. This was achieved by using a type of defective mouse embryo with four sets of chromosomes instead of the normal two.

This "tetraploid" embryo only developed into the placenta of the foetus and when it was injected with a reprogrammed skin cell, the rest of the foetus developed from this single cell to become a full clone of the adult animal whose skin was used.
I fail to see the horror here. The clone would be genetically identical to their parent, or whoever donated the cells. So... what, exactly? Granted, you'll probably get some creepy Jim Jones/Koresh type making his own little Clone Army, but is that really substantially worse than the current situation, where they just marry a couple dozen 10-14 year old girls?

From a safety perspective I oppose using a technique like this on people until we have all the bugs worked out, of course. But I can't find any ethical reason per se to hate *the clones*. They'll just be additional people. Despite what sci-fi movies might say, they won't be any more soulless or murderous than the rest of us, or at least, their donor-parent.

Source: The Independent

Apparently the new CEO of Virgin Media doesn't understand either the law, or the proper method to do business.
Neil Berkett, the new CEO of Virgin Media (my ISP at home in London, along with BT) has announced that he considers Net Neutrality to be "a load of bollocks" and he's promised to put any website or service that won't pay Virgin a premium to reach its customers into the "Internet bus lane."
Cory Doctorow has started a campaign to switch from Verizon in response. Normally I think he's had a bit too much dandelion tea, but he's right on this issue. I'm just not sure it goes far enough.

See, telecoms are protected from being sued for what they host/serve on the basis of what's known as the Common Carrier provision. Essentially, the Supreme Court decided back in the days of big railroad that you were protected from lawsuits and a lot of regulation as to what you carried, as long as you carried cargo more or less impartially to all who asked and paid. This concept of an undiscerning, very low-barrier to entry transportation entity has been carried over to the telecoms, who can't be sued for, say, a mobster ordering a hit via cell phone, or a hacker using the net to breach a hospital's mainframe, just because they provide the service over which it was done.

Truthfully, until very recently, it was impossible to track that volume of information, so without common carrier it would have been legally impossible to run a telecom.

But here we have the big telcos who want to have it both ways; they want to be legally protected from their customers' actions, and they want to be able to regulate them too. That's just not kosher; you can't have your cake and eat it too. If you're in the business of regulating your customers and what they can access, then you should be liable for their crimes, infringement, what have you. Every mp3 downloaded, every stolen program or game, all of it, your liability.

I think the EFF or ACLU should sue any telco that steps over the line for any and all illegal activity on their network. If we bloody their noses, maybe they'll realize that the old way really is the best.

Sources: Boing Boing

Another plant I want to own someday: the Upas tree.
Antiaris toxicaria (Upas or Ipoh) is an evergreen tree in the family Moraceae, native to southeastern Asia, from India and Sri Lanka east to southern China, the Philippines and Fiji; closely related species also occur in eastern Africa. It produces a highly poisonous latex, known in Java as "Upas", from the Javanese word for "poison".


The name of the upas tree became legendary from the mendacious account (professedly by one Foersch, who was a surgeon at Semarang in 1773) published in the London Magazine, December 1783, and popularized by Erasmus Darwin in Loves of the Plants (The Botanic Garden, pt. ii.). The tree was said to destroy all animal life within a radius of 15 miles or more.
Sadly it's apparently a large tree, so this will have to wait until my compound is complete.

Source: Wikipedia

This story's been going around, it even made it into Atomic Age humor last night.
EUGENE, Ore. -- A 12-foot snake attacked a female employee of a pet store, prompting assistance from police, firefighters and emergency personnel Thursday.

Sergeant Ryan Nelson had never tangled with a snake larger than a garter snake before Thursday.

All that changed, however, when he responded to a 911 call at 3:41 p.m. to find a woman in a Eugene pet store completely wrapped by a 12-foot Burmese python that was slowly constricting around her, police said.

Nelson saw the woman was in grave danger and feared for her life. But as he pulled out his knife in
preparation to save the woman, matters got more difficult.

She pleaded with Nelson not to injure the snake.
Long story short, everybody lives, though the snake loses a few teeth when they had to pry it off. This is very odd behavior for a constrictor -- they generally are very docile sorts, and don't even consider attacking anything too big to consume. The only way they have to attack something is to grapple with it, as seen here, and if that something is too big, it could easily, say, rip them to shreds. The woman could have killed the snake herself, no problem, but didn't want to. Evolutionarily, hyperaggressive constrictor snakes are a bad move. So I sort of wonder what happened to get this poor snake so angry.

Source: Fox 12 Oregon

London Smells
Apparently all of London smells like crap.
LONDON, England (CNN) -- A foul smell permeating London and parts of England over the past two days is due to farmers on the European continent spreading manure in their fields, forecasters and British farmers said Saturday.

The agricultural odor is inescapable in central London and smells vaguely of farmland or even garbage.

Forecasters said a stiff breeze from the east is carrying the smell across the North Sea from Belgium, the Netherlands and even Germany. They said the smell is likely to hang around through the weekend as the easterly wind continues.

"You can't say it's going to smell for two days, but the wind is coming in from the same direction," said Chris Almond, a forecaster with the Met Office, Britain's weather service.

"It's not really until Monday, Tuesday that we'll see a change in the wind direction, with a more marked improvement in air quality."

He said the smell had probably been stagnating in those countries for a few days, resulting in a more pungent aroma once the winds brought it to England.
There's even a monstrously boring political sideline to this story, but I can't bring myself to care, beyond the hilarity that an entire city reeks of cow crap.

Well, it's hilarious because I don't have to live there.


Cold Storage
Another one of those stories about how people can survive long durations without oxygen if you get them really, really cold.
CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) -- A gust of wind blew a 2-year-old in a stroller into Lake Michigan, where the boy remained submerged for at least 15 minutes before being pulled out unconscious but alive.

The child's grandfather, who had been pushing the stroller on the lakeside Friday afternoon, jumped into the harbor to try to save the boy, the Chicago Fire Department said.


The toddler was strapped in the three-wheeled jogging stroller about 10 feet below the surface of the 42-degree water before rescue divers pulled him out.
They should be thankful it was so cold. If the water had been warm and he'd been without O2 for that long he'd be a corpse.

But thanks to the miracles of hypothermia, his brain may well have survived, on ice so to speak, without the lack of oxygen killing all his neurons. That sort of thing happens with these exposure cases sometimes. Hopefully it will here too.

Man strollers are windy death traps though. Mythbusters had the same thing come up in a test of whether trains could blow/suck people on to the tracks. The stroller + dummy combo just went sailing down the rails after the train.