science

Nitrous oxide

New Scientist reports on human activity's impact on another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide:

As a greenhouse gas, N2O is 296 times as powerful as carbon dioxide and accounts for 6 per cent of the greenhouse effect. To better understand the N2O output from forests, Klaus Butterbach-Bahl of the Karlsruhe Research Centre in Germany and team members Per Ambus and Sophie Zechmeister-Boltenstern studied N2O emissions from 11 European forests...

They found that nitrifying soil bacteria thrive on high nitrogen levels, producing mainly nitrates, which are turned into N2O by denitrifying bacteria. As human activity adds more nitrogen to the biosphere, the production of N2O by the bacteria looks set to grow.

Biggest thing in the universe

Try to wrap your head around this:

An enormous amoeba-like structure 200 million light-years wide and made up of galaxies and large bubbles of gas is the largest known object in the universe, scientists say.

The galaxies and gas bubbles, called Lyman alpha blobs, are aligned along three curvy filaments that formed about 2 billion years after the universe exploded into existence after the theoretical Big Bang...

Some of the gas bubbles are up to 400,000 light years across, nearly twice the diameter of our neighboring Andromeda Galaxy. Scientists think they formed when massive stars born early in the history of the universe exploded as supernovas and blew out their surrounding gases. Another theory is that the bubbles are giant gas cocoons that will one day give birth to new galaxies.

Language, animals, and music

A few interesting bits regarding language that came before my eyes recently:

First a new study reveals that the "Putty-nosed monkey" (Cercopithecus nictitans) monkeys can combine simple primitive calls into more meaningful sequences. The evolution of grammar?

Second, studies of prairie dogs show that they have "the most sophisticated communication system that anyone has shown in animals", including a capability to create new terms for things they've never seen before.

Finally, this article discusses the theories of Steven Mithen, professor of early prehistory at the University of Reading, that early hominids ancestors had a musical culture that strongly influenced the development of language.

Contemplating nuclear power

Discussion over at Slashdot about nuclear power, touched off by this piece in the Washington Post. (See also this response the Daily Kos: "Patrick Moore is a paid consultant for the mining, logging, biotech and energy industries, and putting him out as "ex-Greenpeace" is a lot like calling Scooter Libby an "ex-Hill staffer.")

Some excerpts from my posts on the topic:


Is fission less dangerous to the environment than coal? Perhaps. If it were a choice between only between building more coal plants and building fission ones, it's possible that fission might win out. (Though I think it would have to depend of the specifics of the technologies and implementations involved.)

But that's the wrong question.

At best, fission is still a stop-gap: supplies of fissionables are limited, on the order of a century or two at most, perhaps much less. So is it not more reasonable to divert resources to solving the problem right - with fusion reseach, renewables (i.e., using that big fusion reactor in the sky, including ideas like orbital photovoltaics) and better energy efficiency - than to build fission reactors and [push] the problem onto our great-grandchildren? (Or rather, for us non-breeders, our friends' great-grandchildren?)

[The Moore editorial] mentions the Iran situation only to gloss over it, but there are massive security concerns with fission technology.

Also [the Moore editorial] is inaccurate in talking about nuclear waste; the problem is not the U and Pu in spent fuel, which can be processed and reused, but thorium, radium, radon, and radioactive lead isotopes.

Is some of the opposition to fission irrational? Yes. But so is some of its support, based on an almost romantic notion of "man harnassing the mighty power of the atom!"

Happy Yuri's Night!

April 12th is the 45th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's space flight. In 1961 he made a single orbit in a flight lasting 108 minutes, becoming the first human being in space.

I'm celebrating with a beer at a bar in Fell's Point, but all over the world more organized celebrations are taking place. (Even on Antarctica!)

Looking up at the full moon in the clear spring sky, I think of how at liftoff, Yuri shouted, "Poyekhali!" - "Let's go!" Here's hoping we, as a species, do.

Anti-supplement spin, but glucosamine and chondroitin better than Celebrex for arthritis pain

Even more interesting than the results of this study on glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis pain is the spin on the reporting. Here are the numbers:

Sixty percent who took the dummy medication had reduced pain compared with 64 percent who took glucosamine, 65 percent who took chondroitin and 67 percent who took the combo pills...

The drug Celebrex did reduce pain - 70 percent reported improvement - affirming the study's validity...

Of the 354 people with moderate to severe pain, 79 percent who took both supplements reported relief compared with 54 percent who took the dummy pills and 69 percent who took Celebrex.

A different sort of "puppy power"...

Reuters reports on a test project to turn dog feces into fuel.

It could be fed into a "digester" to obtain methane. The article states that dogs and cats in the United States produce about 10 million tons of waste a year...might as well use it for something productive.

I was quite impressed with San Francisco's aggressive recycling plan when I visited last year - in addition to bottles, cans, and paper they even have curbside collection for compostable kitchen scraps.

Brain care news

A few interesting bits about the brain that I've seen the past few weeks...

First, contrary to long-held popular belief, adult brain cells do keep growing. So you can teach an old brain new tricks. Furthermore, it seems that a marijuana-like drug can accelerate neurogenesis, and may have anti-anxiety and anti-depressive effects. (Despite what the SSRI-pushers claim, the anti-depressant effects of drugs like Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil apparently have more to do with neurogenesis than with correcting some "chemical imbalance".)

Secondly, new brain cells follow the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This should be very interesting to people who practice craniosacral therapy.

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