Science Scoops

Current Events

Power Plague

If a tree falls in Switzerland, will Italy go without power? Well, that’s just what happened when a falling tree limb disabled a Swiss power transmission line during a storm last September. That power break caused another Swiss power line to overload, which then knocked out a transmission line in neighboring France, which, in turn, cut the supply of power to Italy. At least, that’s the working model at the moment.

As a result, Italy’s 58 million people were left in the dark for hours. It was the world’s largest power outage since August 14, 2003, when 50 million people were plunged into darkness in Canada and the United States. It also was the worst power outage in Italy since World War II.

Actually, last August and September were extremely "dark" months for many countries. Just a week before the lights went out in Italy, nearly 4 million people in eastern Denmark and southern Sweden went without electricity for more than three hours. And on August 28, power briefly went out in parts of London and southeast England, shutting off traffic lights in the British capital and stranding hundreds of thousands of people on subways and trains.

After the great Italian blackout, local politicians complained that their country is too reliant on imported power. Italy imports up to 17 percent of its energy, compared with a European average of about 2 percent.

. . .Speaking of "Lights Out"

This just in from the news desk in Bhubaneswar, India:

Last September 27, five people were injured and two houses burned when either a meteorite or a large chunk of space debris apparently crashed to Earth in eastern India. One resident in that remote village near the Bay of Bengal said that the falling object lit up the sky, causing a widespread panic. As the burning object passed overhead, a sonic boom — an explosive sound caused by the shock wave preceding an aircraft traveling at or above the speed of sound — rattled windows, sending hundreds of people rushing out of their homes and into the night to see what was happening.

Looking up, they saw a meteor so bright that it lit up the night like daytime for a few seconds. Fragments of the shattered object then pummeled the village, and fires gutted two houses. Five people were rushed to a hospital with injuries. Two other villagers apparently fainted. Jaydev Kar, a scientist at the Pathani Samant Planetarium in Bhubaneswar, called the event "a rare phenomenon in this region."

Bioterror Alert!

Now, don’t get too excited. This alert is to inform you that right now, the job market is wide open for anyone wanting to help combat bioterrorism. And although you obviously have a few years to go before you can grab such an opportunity, you might want to pocket the idea as a career option.

You see, demand for biologists and physicians who can help the government prepare for bioterror threats is expected to rise in the near future. That’s one conclusion from a report recently published by the Partnership for Public Service (PPS), a group that promotes civil service careers. The other conclusion is that while the demand for these jobs is expected to rise, the number of students graduating prepared to enter this field is not.

The PPS based its results on 30 interviews with officials at five major federal agencies that deal with bioterrorism. The five agencies examined were the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Food and Drug Administration, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service, and the Food Safety and Inspection Services.

The report states that in coming years, our federal government will face numerous difficulties in preparing to handle the threat of a biological attack. One problem is that many crucial workers currently in the field will retire soon. For example, the report says that nearly half the physicians and biologists at the CDC will be eligible to retire within the next five years. At the same time, it says, there is no government-wide recruitment plan to fill the coming gaps.

So, in the future, if you find yourself pondering what you want to do with your future, remember this scoop!

The Fall of Amazon Rain Forests

What’s the state of the Amazon’s rain forest in Brazil? Not good. Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) has just released some new satellite imaging data that might make some tree lovers topple over with despair.

The data reveals that forest clearing is, well, clearly on the rise. From August 2000 to August 2001, just over 6,950 square miles (18,000 sq. km) of forest had been cleared. In contrast, from August 2001 to August 2002, almost 9,845 square miles (25,500 sq. km) had been cleared — that’s a 40 percent jump in deforestation!

As reported in a recent issue of New Scientist magazine, the massive leap is the worst acceleration in the loss of the tropical jungle since 1995. It is in sharp contrast to the drive to preserve the world’s largest area of continuous rain forest. The forest harbors diverse forms of life and plays a significant role in the world’s climate.

The loss of forest in the single year preceding August 2002 makes up 5 per cent of the area lost over the past 500 years. In response, the World Wildlife Foundation is launching a large rain forest protection program that aims to designate 12 percent of Brazil’s rain forests as protected land over the next 10 years. But the fact is, unless the Brazilian government takes immediate action to tackle the problem (which it has promised to do), the rate of deforestation will not fall. . .the trees will.

Has "Big Brother" Arrived?

In the 1984 novel Animal Farm, written by British author George Orwell, citizens of a grim city in a terrified country are kept under constant surveillance by a supreme ruler known as "Big Brother." Now it seems that Big Brother is more than a fictitious character in a novel — or a popular television show by the same name.

You see, police in Virginia Beach, VA, are operating video surveillance cameras with face-recognition technology. Although Virginia Beach has had 13 video surveillance cameras monitoring its beachfronts since 1993, three of these cameras are now linked full-time to a face recognition system. The other 10 cameras can also be linked as needed.

The cameras are used for two purposes only: to catch some any of the 1,500 people wanted by the city on outstanding felony warrants, and to find runaway children or missing persons. The database of wanted people is updated every day. The technology works by analyzing faces based on a series of measurements, such as the distance from the tip of the nose to the chin or the space between the eyes, and then comparing them to those in the database.

City officials assure citizens that Big Brother really isn’t interested in non-felons. In fact, all the images picked up by the cameras are immediately deleted from the system if there is no match. According to police, a citizens’ auditing committee has the right to perform unannounced spot checks on police headquarters to make sure the technology is not being misused.

The technology has its critics, who point out that so far, the system has failed to produce a single arrest, though it has generated a few false alarms.

Well, until the system is perfected, citizens can take consolation in the fact that if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear. Right?

And Now for Something Equally En"gross"ing

Leave it to London. In a move to educate children about the "impolite" science of the human body, the London Science Museum created a temporary exhibit, running from May to September 2002, based on the book Grossology by teacher and microbiologist Sylvia Branzei.

Among the many displays were a wall of human skin and giant neon-colored cartoon characters who explained why we vomit, fart, and sneeze. Dan Wolfe, who coordinated the exhibition, says that visitors had a chance to pump soda into the stomach of a huge "burp-man" and see how the liquid inside his stomach becomes agitated. There were also big noses with globs of snot to explore, plus a 10-meter-long tunnel, modeling the digestive system from the mouth to the large intestine. Although many adults were embarrassed by the exhibit, Wolfe says, it nonetheless explained grossities "in a matter-of-fact way" that the children understood.

Bald Birds

Researcher Avigdor Cahaner (Hebrew University, Israel) is breeding featherless chickens. Cahaner says these funny-looking creatures with pink wrinkled skin will be less fatty and will fare better in warm tropical climates (where expensive cooling systems are needed to raise poultry). The new birds are also better for the environment because without a feathery coat no water or machinery is needed to process them.

How do you create a featherless chicken? Simple. Just crossbreed a normal chicken with one already balding because of a naturally occurring "naked neck" gene. The bald birds could be especially popular in poor or developing countries where, without proper ventilation, up to 20 percent of chickens die because of heat exposure.

A featherless chicken also means no plucking, which can leave the bird with blistered legs and wings. Israel’s new bird breed promises to be leaner and more nutritious. But we’ll have to wait about two years before they show their naked skins on the market. Cahaner admits that the birds won’t be popular everywhere, especially in colder climates, unless someone comes up with a a biodegradable sweater for these naked birds. Game? (pun intended!)

IT’s No Longer a Secret

"IT," the mysterious invention that kept the high-tech world waiting for its debut for nearly a year, has now gone public. Also known as "Ginger," but officially known as Segway, "IT" is a two-wheeled, motorized scooter that uses a complex array of gyroscopes and computers to mimic the human body’s sense of balance – so it cannot tip over. What’s more, "IT" costs less than 5 cents a day to operate (transport its owner around town), and causes no harm to the environment.

The inventor of "IT," 50-year-old Dean Kamen, says to think of "IT" as an extension of your body. For instance, to use "IT," the driver simply has to lean forward to move forward, or lean backward to back up. Turning is accomplished by twisting a handle. But don’t plan on any long-distance trips with "IT." The scooter can travel only about 17 miles per hour . . . tops. But "IT" conceivably could replace cars in crowded downtown areas. The U.S. Postal Service already has plans to test the device for its letter carriers.

You can expect to purchase "IT" within a year. The cost? A measly $3,000. A factory near "IT" headquarters in Manchester, NH, will be able to make 40,000 Segways per month. Well, that’s about "IT" . . . for now.

Pop Star in Space?

If things go well, Lance Bass, a member of the pop-music sensation In Sync, will become the first rock and roller to be launched into orbit. Although the final selection process is not over, things are "looking up" for the 23-year-old star, who expects to fly to the International Space Station in October. So far, he’s passed the physical; in May, Bass got a thumbs up from Russian doctors to fly, saying he appears to be physically fit for the mission. Still, Bass has yet to receive official approval from the Russian space agency.

Bass says it has been a life-long dream to fly into orbit. If he does, he will beat out Cosmonaut German Titov for the title of the youngest person in space. Titov was 25 years old when he blasted off in 1961. If given the stamp of approval, Bass will be the third person to pay his way into space aboard a Russian craft. Millionaire Dennis Tito became the first space tourist last year, followed in April by South African Internet magnate Mark Shuttleworth. Both were widely reported to have paid $20 million, enough to cover the entire cost of a manned space launch.

What will Bass do in space? He said he would probably follow the example of Shuttleworth, who used his time in space to perform research on AIDS. Bass said his focus might be "education, physics studies, that kind of thing."
Shocking News

The world was shocked when news arrived that the Russian submarine Kursk had sunk with all its crew on August 12th, 2000. Now, scientists who listen for earthquakes under the sea have discovered some more shocking news: Their instruments had recorded the shock waves of some fantastic events on that fateful day – and the events had nothing to do with earthquakes. Keith D. Koper and Terry C. Wallace (University of Arizona) and Steven R. Taylor and Hans E. Hartse (Los Alamos National Laboratory) believe that their data show seismic signatures unique to underwater explosions. The signatures imply that the Kursk did not sink because of a collision or other impact, but rather from internal explosions!

As reported in a recent issue of Science News, the scientists’ instruments recorded two explosions, corresponding in time and place to the Kursk disaster. The first explosion was 250 times smaller than the second one, which occurred 135 seconds later. The first explosion occurred with the Kursk near the surface and had an energy equivalent to that of an explosion of a modern torpedo. The second explosion released enough energy to equal five tons of TNT – that blast was recorded up to 5,000 kilometers away.

The scientists conclude that the first recorded event was from a torpedo on the sub that misfired or exploded prematurely, causing the submarine to absorb a large fraction of the energy released. The second recorded event is consistent with the explosion of four to eight ship-to-ship missiles, which the Kursk carried, or one cruise missile tipped with conventional high explosive warheads, which it also carried. The second signal also correlates to the Kursk hitting the sea floor, which probably triggered the final explosion.

Space-Age Polymer Sprays on Strength
by Dora Lee

Fiber-Reinforced Polymer (FRP for short) might not be liquid steel but it’s just as strong and a lot easier to use. Just spray it on! Traditionally, bridge repair means long hours spent wrapping broken or weak parts with steel jackets. Meanwhile, traffic is held up for hours or even days. But FRP could change all that.

FRP is a mixture of cloth fibers and a special polymer developed by a Canadian scientist. The material sprays on wet, and then hardens to make structures up to two times as strong as steel, and three times more earthquake-resistant. It doesn’t sound like much, but FRP could change the future of engineering.

Where does this super-strength come from? A lot of it, says inventor Nemy Banthia of the University of British Columbia, is in the technique. Because the fibers and polymers making up the spray are under pressure when sprayed out of the can, they stick better to the surface they hit. And where they hit a surface is just as important: The individual fibers land on a surface in random directions, providing equal strength in all directions. Of course, it helps that the fibers themselves are made of materials that are seven times stronger than steel!

Right now, FRP is being tested on a 23-foot (7-meter) bridge in Duncan, a town in British Columbia, Canada. Special sensors embedded in the bridge tell Dr. Banthia how the sprayed surface reacts to stress, loads, and earthquake tremors. The results are so promising that plans are already underway to test the spray on longer bridges in Japan, Singapore, and the United States.

Dr. Banthia envisions spraying new bridges, buildings, and other structures with FRP. Offshore oil-drilling platforms could be sprayed to prevent corrosive seawater from eating away at them. Waste-containing steel drums could be protected from leaking their toxic contents into the soil or groundwater, and brand new bridges and buildings could be strengthened against earthquakes. So, while FRP won’t ever take the place of iron and steel, it’s sure to play a strong "supportive" role in the future of our cities.

Young Astronomer Award

Who’s the hottest young "star" in the national astronomical scene? According to the Astronomical League, the world’s largest federation of amateur astronomers, it’s Albert King Lin, a former senior at St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, New York. Lin is this year’s recipient of the National Young Astronomer’s Award. The League bestows this honor annually on a U. S. high school student for outstanding astronomical achievement.

Lin spent most of his junior year and the following summer working on his project, looking for new pulsars (rapidly pulsating stars believed to be created during a supernova explosion). After searching 120 star fields imaged by the Earth-orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory, Lin uncovered four possible new fast-pulsing objects. Lin’s first place prize included a 10-inch LX-200 GPS telescope donated by Meade Instruments Corporation, a complementary membership to the International Dark-Sky Association, and a lifetime pass to the McDonald Observatory courtesy the University of Texas.