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    Corvina Wine

    Wikimedia Commons

    Italian geneticists are planning to engineer climate-change-tolerant wine grapes.

    Grapes are phenomenally adaptable. We can grow wine grapes in the mountains of Arizona and north of the Great Lakes in Ontario. But what happens when the planet heats up and the formerly lush, perfect wine-growing regions of the world become, well, less so? How will we get drunk during the holidays then?

    A new study from a group of Italian researchers is using genetic research to pinpoint exactly which genes need to be manipulated in order to breed more heat-resistant wine grapes. The team specifically worked with the Corvina grape, used in northern Italy to produce the light red Bardolino and Valpolicella varietals of wine. The study took three years and 11 different vineyards.

    The idea to identify the genes in these grapes that indicated how they'd respond to different weather. Specifically, they were looking for genes that represent what's called phenotypic plasticity, which is essentially the ability of an organism to respond and adjust to changes in its environment. The genome mapping was used to determine which genes can do this ("are plastic") and which can't ("are non-plastic").

    In the future, knowing which genes aid adaptability could allow the plant to adjust itself. This isn't breeding for plants that can stand up to the warmth, it's potentially breeding for plants that can react by themselves to the warmth.

    You can read the full paper, which is published in this month's issue of Genome Biology, here (PDF).

    [via NBC]


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    Wii U Character Swimming Showdown


    What we saw from Nintendo's E3 announcements: updated versions and sequels to classic franchises.

    Audio and video issues plagued Sony and Microsoft's E3 press conferences, but Nintendo opted for a livestream this year instead, with a mostly games-centric announcement. Here's what we saw.

    New Versions Of Old Favorites

    Nintendo's Wii U hasn't been living up to sales expectations, so the company's new pitch for the console seems to be, "Hey guys, remember how much you loved us back in the old days?" There were new versions of plenty of Nintendo pet franchises. New Pokemon games are coming for the 3DS, with stylus-controlled interaction (you can tickle Pikachu's nose, apparently?). The old-school side-scroller Donkey Kong Country is getting an update with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, which... actually looks a lot like every other side-scrolling Donkey Kong game: run to the left and collect bananas (not that that's not fun).

    Continuing in the vein of 3-D, semi-explorable games like Super Mario Galaxy, a new Mario, Super Mario 3D World, is also being planned. The other big Nintendo franchise, Zelda, has a game coming for the handheld 3DS system: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. A new Mario Kart, the popular racing game stocked with Mario characters, was also announced, which makes the eighth (eighth!) installment in the series. A version of the 2003 Zelda game Wind Waker--a super-stylized, cartoonish entry in the adventure series--is also being given a Wii U revision. But Nintendo saved the biggest game announcement for last: versions of the classic, adored Super Smash Bros.--which pits Nintendo characters in a free-for-all brawl--are coming to both the Wii U and 3DS.

    Wii Party U, the cutesy successor to the game-with-friends Wii Party, is also coming, along with the workout game Wii Fit U. Nintendo could really use a mass-market hit like Wii Sports, which helped buoy the original Wii to success. Maybe one of these could be what does it for the Wii U.

    Other Games

    The games coming from third-party game studios seemed a little less interesting, and Nintendo relegated them to a montage midway through its announcement. There are some non-exclusive titles similar to what came with the Wii U at launch: "grown-up" games like the pirate story Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, along with a new, comic-book-inspired version of the Scribblenauts series.

    In fact, almost all of Nintendo's press conference was dedicated to retreads of classics. Maybe the only totally new game that made an appearance was The Wonderful 101, a superhero-versus-aliens title.

    New Features

    New features for Nintendo's systems also only got a fraction of the company's announcement time. New drawing features, for one thing, were announced for the Wii U. Artistic etching and drawing options will let users work on a canvas and share the results with friends. (People have been drawing with Wii U software for a while now, even though that option wasn't something the console was designed for.)

    But that lack of features shows just how safe Nintendo was playing this one: not only was it focused just on games, it was focused specifically on sequels to classic Nintendo games. It remains to be seen if that can help the Wii U.


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    New data suggests logging could release large amounts of previously ignored carbon into the atmosphere.

    Timber harvesting may release significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, according to a new study. This challenges a longstanding belief that using wood for energy is a green alternative to fossil fuels.

    Analyses of carbon emissions often ignore the carbon stored in deep soils, the study authors say. But after reviewing multiple recent research papers about decreases in soil carbon levels, the authors concluded that intensive forest management practices can cause large amounts of underground carbon to flow into the atmosphere.

    "Our paper suggests the carbon in the mineral soil may change more rapidly, and result in increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, as a result of disturbances such as logging," says Andrew Friedland, a professor at Darthmouth College and a co-author of the study. "Our paper suggests that increased reliance on wood may have the unintended effect of increasing the transfer of carbon from the mineral soil to the atmosphere."

    Policymakers should reevaluate calls to boost the use of trees for biofuel, the researchers recommend. Forest biomass currently comprises about 75 percent of global biofuel production.

    The study appears in the journal Global Change Biology-Bioenergy.


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    Medical Cyclotron

    Courtesy ACSI

    A refitted cyclotron could solve the shortage of Tc-99m, an isotope used in medical imaging.

    Researchers at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver and TRIUMF, the Canadian national particle and nuclear physics lab, have successfully produced vital supplies of Technetium-99m, a medical imaging isotope, using a retrofitted cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator already in place in hospitals.

    Using this technology, metropolitan areas could combat the increasing shortage of Tc-99m, an isotope that can be used in medicine to see how the heart and other organs are functioning.

    This isotope has traditionally been created through the fission of weapons-grade uranium, which produces a radionuclide called molybdenum-99. Mo-99, which has a half-life of 66 hours, decays into Tc-99m. It's now produced largely at two nuclear reactors, one at Chalk River in Canada and the other in the Netherlands. Both facilities are in the process of shuttering production, and will close by 2016, leading to a potential shortage in Tc-99m. About 80 percent of diagnostic nuclear imaging procedures require Tc-99m, according to the European Nuclear Society.

    For more than a year, a TRIUMF-led team of Canadian scientists has been working on adapting current cyclotrons, a type of particle accelerator used in hospitals to create other radioisotopes for nuclear imaging and research, to produce Tc-99m. In February 2012, they demonstrated that they could feasibly retrofit existing cyclotrons. On Sunday, they announced that the technology had successfully produced 10 Curies' worth of Tc-99m in a six-hour overnight shift--enough to use in treating 250 patients, a large enough supply to satisfy an urban area the size of Vancouver for the day. Tc-99's half-life is only six hours, making it difficult to store or transport.

    Nature reports that the team from TRIUMF has "done further work on the needed metal target, making it strong enough to not melt under the heat of the beam, but porous enough to dissolve rapidly in solution so the [Tc-99m]  can be extracted for use."

    Eventually, the need for Tc-99m should decrease as the more advanced (and expensive) PET, or Positron Emission Tomography, becomes a more widely-used form of scanning. With the TRIUMF upgrades, the same cyclotrons that are used for PET scans could produce Tc-99m in the meantime.



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  • 06/11/13--11:05: How A Black Hole Sleeps
  • Sleeping Black Hole

    Click here to see this amazing image even larger!


    It ate a bunch of stellar gas and now it needs a nap.

    Think of black holes as bottomless devouring machines? Not so much, it turns out: the black hole at the center of the Sculptor galaxy, about 13 million light years away, is currently taking a wee little napsy.

    We first spied this black hole about a decade ago, when it was happily chomping away on a bunch of excess material in its galaxy. But a new look at the black hole from NASA's Chandra observatory and the NuStar satellite shows that it appears to have gone dormant sometime in the past few years.

    Our understanding of black hole behavior is not very complete. We know that they can be found in the center of many, if not all, large galaxies, feeding off what are called "accretion discs," basically a bunch of material swirling around a center. That material is often the result of star formation--and yet over in the Sculptor galaxy, amid lots and lots of star formation, the black hole appears to be dormant. As material falls into a black hole, it emits X-rays. NuStar is now picking up minimal X-rays from the region, indicating the black hole has gone quiet. NASA isn't really sure what's going on. From the press release:

    "Black hole growth and star formation often go hand-in-hand in distant galaxies," said Daniel Stern, a co-author and NuSTAR project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "It's a bit surprising as to what's going on here, but we've got two powerful complementary X-ray telescopes on the case."

    The image above shows a composite of lots of images of the galaxy, with the color indicating what's going on. If there was an active black hole, feeding on material, it'd be colored blue--yet there's much more red and orange, which indicate low-to-medium-energy X-rays.

    Read more about this sleepy black hole over at NASA.


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    Officer Jodie White Demonstrates the Body Camera

    Melton Times

    It's no Google Glass, but it still does the trick.

    The best way to record a crime? Attach a camera to the police officer responding to it. Following a successful trial last summer, police in Melton, Britain, are adding chest-mounted body cameras to their standard gear.

    Britain has more CCTVs than any other European country. Yet how effective CCTV is at reducing crime remains murky at best; a study in San Francisco found that CCTV didn't make crime go down, it just made criminal activity move an average of 30 feet away from the cameras. Algorithmic data processing will make CCTVs work better, but as fixed cameras, they're still pretty limited, hiding up there in the rafters of the convenience store, waiting for crime to happen.

    Body cameras, instead, record video right from a responding officer's chest--a better vantage point for recognizing faces. The cameras also have night vision. Officers activate their cameras before arriving at the scene of an incident, which saves battery life and ensures unimportant information isn't recorded. But it also gives the officers all the power: If a cop engages in brutality or other questionable behavior, he can just switch the camera off.

    Here's a video demonstration:


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    Eat 'Em Up

    Mansour Ourasanah and KitchenAid via Inhabitat

    In case the only thing keeping you from adopting a sustainable bug diet was a lack of attractive appliances.

    The U.N. recently suggested (not for the first time) that we put a bit more crunchy insect protein into our diets. Eating bugs could provide a sustainable source of snackage--they produce less greenhouse gas than cattle, those four-legged methane-factories, and don't require as much farmland as animals. In fact, you can raise insects right in your kitchen!

    That's the goal of Lepsis, a prototype countertop grasshopper breeder from designer Mansour Ourasanah in collaboration with KitchenAid.

    "As a symbol of change, the product is a constant remember of the importance of food, its infinite diversity and our contribution in the survival of the planet and the fate future generations," Ourasanah writes in his design summary.

    Lepsis comes with four different units--one each for breeding, growing, harvesting and killing your next delicious grasshopper burger. So far, it's just in the prototype phase, and there aren't a whole lot of specifics on how exactly the different units work--like whether it will kill your dinner swarm for you--but it's a cool concept.

    "Even though growing and eating insects is pretty repulsive to many people in the developed world, an attractive product like the Lepsis could help people to warm to the idea," Inhabitat writes. America: where our eating habits can be entirely swayed by pretty new kitchen accessories.



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    Angry Lego

    Bartneck et al.

    A new study suggests the friendly building block sets are featuring more aggressive characters.

    When it comes to criticizing the violent ways our kids play, Legos don't usually get a lot of flack. But according to a recent study led by Christopher Bartneck of New Zealand's University of Canterbury Human Interface Technology Laboratory, Legos are becoming more conflict-oriented, and the human figures featured in Lego sets are getting angrier.

    The study found that Lego figures most frequently feature happy or angry expressions, but since their introduction in 1975, the proportion has been tilting in favor of the angry.

    "Our cluster analysis shows that toy design has become a more complex design space in which the imaginary world of play does not only consist of a simple division of good versus evil," the researchers write, "but a world in which heroes are scared and villains can have superior smile [sic]."

    Through the Amazon Mechanical Turk marketplace, 264 study subjects in the U.S. viewed photographs of 628 different heads that appeared on the 3655 Lego Minifigures released between 1975 and 2010, and evaluated how intense their facial expressions were on scales for anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, and surprise. (They were paid one cent for every evaluation.) The face was then categorized by the expression people rated it as most often.

    Starting in 1989, Lego began introducing more variety into their figures' facial expressions. While overall, the Minifigures' expressions featured happiness most often, the characters are increasingly moving toward angrier expressions, and the authors write "it is our impression that the themes have been increasingly based on conflict."

    People were more likely to categorize a face as angry if there was a body attached to it, rather than just an image of a floating Lego head, but overall the study found the presence of bodies did not make the facial expressions significantly more distinct, nor did the skin color of the figure.

    The paper estimates that on average, there are 75 Lego bricks for every person on Earth. "We cannot help but wonder how the move from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces impacts how children play," the researchers write. "The children that grow up with LEGO today will remember not only smileys, but also anger and fear in the Minifigures' faces."

    Check out the whole PDF paper for the intense scientific discussion of Lego theory you've always wanted.

    [BPS Research Digest]


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    Wash your hands with soap, for Pete's sake

    Seymour Nydorf via Wikimedia Commons

    And 23 percent don't even use soap. That's messed up, people.

    "Many people do not wash their hands when the behavior in which they engage would warrant it," begins a recent study from Michigan State University, and I'm sorry to say it only gets grosser from there. Researchers sneakily observed 3,749 people in public restrooms and found that nearly all of them-95 percent-didn't wash their hands long enough to kill germs.

    Even scarier, 15 percent of men and 7 percent of women did not wash their hands at all. When they did bother to turn on a faucet, half of men and 22 percent of women neglected to use soap! (Or, as the researchers describe it: They "attempted to wash their hands," but failed.)

    The CDC says you need to wash your hands-with soap!-for at least 20 seconds in order to kill disease-causing germs. Alas, the people in this study only washed their hands for an average of 6 seconds.

    "Imagine you're a business owner and people come to your establishment and get foodborne illness through the fecal-oral route-because people didn't wash their hands-and then your reputation is on the line," says Carl Borchgrevink, a professor at MSU and the study's lead investigator. "You could lose your business." Or, imagine you're a person of any occupation, and the people around you have poop on their hands-because they don't wash their hands.

    This extensive study founds lots of other interesting tidbits about hand-washing habits. Here are a few:

    • People were more likely to wash their hands in the morning
    • People were less likely to wash their hands if the sink was dirty
    • People were more likely to wash their hands if there was sign to remind them

    Other hand-washing research has found that college students are disgusting, people will wash their hands if they're being watched, and antibacterial soap isn't much better than the regular kind.

    The study appears in the Journal of Environmental Health.


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    Solar Power Pole with Spin Cells

    Graham Murdoch

    Reinventing the array could usher in a new age for solar.

    The solar market has been on fire. In the U.S., it's grown by 600 percent over the past five years, culminating in 3,313 installed megawatts in 2012. This past March, seven solar projects added the only new utility power of any kind to the U.S. grid. But solar energy isn't quite cost-competitive yet. Bridging the final gap requires breakthroughs that increase efficiency while cutting costs.

    The Dramatic Reimagining

    Conical Solar Panels

    Even for photovoltaic (PV) panels, there's such a thing as too much sun-when cells overheat, they become less efficient. V3Solar solved that problem with Spin Cell, a conical array that floats on magnets. An outer cone made of specialized lenses concentrates bands of sunlight on an inner cone covered with PV cells. The cells capture light energy but spin away before thermal energy can transfer. This constant cooling means V3Solar can use cheaper, less heat-tolerant material than other light-concentrating systems.

    The Why Not? Plan

    Drape the Planet with Solar Fabric

    Would embedding solar cells in every bolt of fabric make a dent in our fossil-fuel consumption? It's worth a shot. Greg Nielson, a Sandia National Laboratories researcher­-and 2012 PopSci "Brilliant 10" honoree-has developed solar glitter that could turn nearly any surface into a power source. Clusters of the dust-size cells (as small as 250 microns across) could be incorporated into standard PV panels, doubling their efficiency, or into the material for bags and clothing.

    Solar couture is also a future goal of the New York City firm Pvilion, which produces power-generating fabric for larger-scale commercial applications. Its flexible panels can be as efficient as rigid ones but far easier to manipulate into structures like canopies for electric-vehicle-charging stations. Pvilion engineers are currently designing a covered footbridge in Florida and curtains for a building in New York City-in both cases, the fabric will power lighting for the entire structure-and a 124,000-watt solar facade membrane for a new U.S. embassy in London.

    The Back-To-Nature Solution

    Arrays That Mimic Plants

    Concentrated solar farms typically use heavy-duty steel drives and motors to direct sunlight from rows of giant mirrors (called heliostats) onto a central tower. San Francisco-based Sunfolding devised a way to get the job done far more cheaply. Inspired by plants, which use tiny shifts in internal pressure to crane toward the sun, engineers designed Sunfolding's heliostats to use compressed air to pivot into position. Made from plastic, the miniature drive system can be mass-produced at one fifth the cost of conventional models.


    Beyond Batteries

    In order to deliver steady power, renewable energy systems require storage-a place to temporarily offload electrons. Facilities for compressed-air energy storage last much longer than grid-scale batteries. They use power produced during off-peak hours to compress air into underground caverns and then release it through a turbine to generate electricity when demand is high. LightSail Energy made that process mobile and modular by designing air-storage tanks that fit inside shipping containers. Plus, the company uses water to capture waste heat and boost efficiency.


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    East Williamsburg flooding

    Martha Harbison

    The New York City mayor's new $20 billion storm preparation plan is based on some scary data about how the city will look by the 2050s.

    Earlier today, New York City's Mayor Bloomberg rolled out a wide-reaching, $20 billion plan to fortify the city against the future effects of climate change, which--according to the latest data from the New York City Panel on Climate Change he convened in 2008--could be even worse than we thought.

    "We have to look ahead - and anticipate any and all future threats, not only from hurricanes - but also from droughts, heavy downpours like we had last week, and heat waves, which may be longer, and more intense, in the years to come," Bloomberg said according to his prepared remarks.

    After Hurricane Sandy, the New York City Panel on Climate Change updated its 2009 report on how climate change would impact the city. The June 2013 report informed his new plan for storm preparation infrastructure to be readied over his last 200 days in office and beyond. Today, among other things, he called for greater flood barriers, both natural and manmade, as well as a stronger grid system.

    "As bad as Sandy was, future storms could be even worse," he said. "In fact, because of rising temperatures and sea levels, even a storm that's not as large as Sandy could - down the road - be even more destructive."

    The new climate change report estimates that sea levels could rise by 2.5 feet by the 2050s--twice the rate projected in the first report in 2009. Bloomberg officials estimated that 800,000 NYC residents will live in within the borders of the 100-year floodplain--up to a quarter of the city's landed area--by that time, according to The New York Times. That's double the number of people estimated by the latest FEMA maps.

    The plan to prevent future Sandy-level destruction calls for a restoration of wetlands and natural dune systems to combat coastal flooding, the construction of surge barriers to stop overflow from rivers and creeks, and bulkheads and levees, and even building elevated communities.

    The mayor called for building an elevated community on the Lower East Side, called "Seaport City," that would be above the flood level."In more heavily developed parts of our City that saw flooding, we're also recommending a combination of permanent elements and flexible flood protection systems that can be temporarily fortified before a storm rolls in, and then put back in storage for the next time," he said. Based on the design of Battery Park City, a planned community created to withstand flooding, he called for building an elevated community on the Lower East Side, called "Seaport City," that would be above the flood level.

    In response to grid failures that left much of the city without power, he outlined goals for a more resilient electrical system, including establishing a Planning and Resiliency Office in the city's IT office. This has become increasingly important as large blackouts have become common during extreme weather events in the U.S., with more than 100 mass outages a year, as we noted back in our February issue.

    He also threw down the gauntlet for telecommunication companies, saying: "Here, the City has some leverage: we have franchise and other agreements that let telecom companies use our streets for wiring. Well, if they want to continue using our streets, they have to make resiliency a priority." According to the plan, the city will develop restoration and repair standards for power and telecommunications providers, and work with utility companies to strengthen the grid (in some as-yet-unspecified way).

    Theoretically, these strategies should make the city more flexible, and thus more resilient to the weather extremes climate change may bring. However, the plan hasn't been fully funded yet: The $20 billion will come from a combination of existing city funds and expected federal disaster relief, according to the mayor's office, but $4.5 billion still has to be located. Plus, as Bloomberg himself noted, since his plan will require more time than he has left in office, it'll also be up to his successor to implement the plan in the long run.

    The long-term timeline for many aspects of the plan has yet to be worked out, though the implementation section sets certain goals (such as the establishment of a resiliency office) to be met during 2013. The Bloomberg administration hopes to pass legislation requiring the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability to issue an updated resiliency plan every four years starting in 2017.


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    Global Landscapes

    Fathom Information Design

    The importance of global landscapes

    Worldwide renewable energy production reached 66.83 quadrillion BTUs in 2010. The countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development-which keeps detailed records for its 34 members [see map]-produced 16.50 quadrillion BTUs that year. Which technology works in which country is often a matter of topography.


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    What's a better mix than science and booze? In this episode of our new video series, Popular Science Art Director Todd Detwiler shows you how to make a flaming Dr Pepper. Plus, the weird science of phlogiston-a 17th-century theory about why things burn.


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    Linear Gullies on Mars

    NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

    "I dream of snowboarding down a Martian sand dune on a block of dry ice," says Serina Diniega, the lead researcher.

    On the sides of some hills and mountains on Mars, there are curious features that have become known as "linear gullies." These are long troughs or grooves, up to a mile long, that end abruptly.

    On Earth, it's not particularly odd to have a groove in a hillside, but if you do find one, you'll typically find a pile of rubble at the bottom of the groove. Debris crashes down the hill, forming the groove, and then accumulates at the botom. But there are no such debris piles on Mars--the linear gullies just sort of...stop. How is that possible?

    By comparing images of these linear gullies during different seasons, scientists at NASA figured out that they must be formed during early Martian springtime. (It's a lovely time of year on Mars.) And, tellingly, the gullies form only on hills which have their tops covered in frozen carbon dioxide during the harsh Martian winter.

    So the scientists theorized that the gullies were formed by frozen chunks of carbon dioxide--also called dry ice--breaking off of the top of the hill and rolling down, causing the gullies as they slide down the hill. But dry ice doesn't accumulate; after a quick slide, the scientists imagined, it'd sublimate, leaving no trace behind. But how do you test a theory on a planet on which no human has ever set foot?

    The team headed to the supermarket to buy chunks of dry ice. By heaving them down sand dunes, the team was able to recreate almost perfectly the Martian linear gullies. What's happening is a Leidenfrost effect, in which the dry ice sort of skates or glides on a layer of its own vapor, pushing the Martian dust aside as it does. It's similar to what happens when you toss some water droplets on a super-hot pan.

    Hypothesis: likely. At least for some of the gullies.

    [NASA via Universe Today]


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    An MQ-9 Reaper, precision bombs and air-to-ground missiles at the ready


    There are about 1,100 compelling reasons why the NSA leaker shouldn't fear death from above.

    Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor turned National Security Agency leaker, is hiding out in Hong Kong. Former congressman Ron Paul fears that the United States will try to kill Snowden with a drone missile. He couldn't be more wrong.

    Drones are slow, somewhat clumsy planes, and the armed ones aren't stealthy. It could not be done secretly; the Chinese military, already watching the Pacific for any sign of hostile movement, would see the drone on radar from miles away. Then, without hesitation, the People's Liberation Army Air Force would scramble some of its 1,100 fighter planes. In the meantime, Chinese anti-air missiles based in a valley north of Hong Kong would lock onto the target, and attempt to destroy the drone. The drone would then be shot down by either plane or missile, probably over water, and the U.S. would find itself on the brink of war with China.

    None of this should be surprising. Drones are not designed to fight aircraft. When the U.S. deploys drones, it's either because the American Air Force already controls the skies, or because the host country has agreed not to shoot down drones. American drones frequently strike targets in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA).

    Pakistan, with hundreds of fighter aircraft and an air defense system, could choose to shoot down the drones but actively doesn't. There are complicated reasons behind this-U.S. aid money, military support, internal politics, and a general ambivalence towards FATA all contribute, but the truth remains: If Pakistan wanted to stop drone strikes by shooting down U.S. drones, it could. China, which doesn't have the same incentives or long, tenuous working relationship with the U.S., would make a different choice if the U.S. tried to conduct a drone strike on sovereign Chinese territory.

    Accidentally killing innocent civilians, so long a criticism of the American targeted killing program, would become a terrifying certainty in Hong Kong. FATA suffers more drone strikes than anywhere except Afghanistan, and has a rough population density of 300 people per square mile. Hong Kong, by contrast, has 17,000 people per square mile. It's unlikely a drone, flying above Hong Kong at 30,000 feet, could even locate Snowden in a population that dense.

    If a drone could find Snowden, it's reasonable to assume that that hundreds of innocent people would be killed or injured in the missile attack, which almost certainly constitutes an act of war between the U.S. and China.

    Hong Kong is probably an unsafe place for Snowden because of other reasons, but death by American drone strike isn't something he has to worry about there.


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    Open Star Cluster NGC 3766


    Scientists' current understanding of stars says these stars shouldn't vary in brightness, but they do.

    Astronomers have discovered a new type of pulsing star. There are 36 of the new type, located in a cluster about 7,000 light-years away from Earth.

    Based on their brightness and temperature, they aren't expected to pulse, but they do. Their brightness varies just 0.1 percent in intensity at regular times, in cycles ranging from two hours to 20 hours. Their discoverers, four astronomers from the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, will now work to learn more about these stars' strange behavior, team member Sophie Saesen said.

    In general, astronomers classify stars by their temperature and intrinsic brightness. Each star can get an alphanumeric class this way. The Earth's sun, for example, is a G2V. One way to visualize all these stars is to plot them out on a graph, called a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, with temperature on one axis and intrinsic brightness on another. When you do that, it turns out that four regions on the graph--four combinations of temperatures and brightness--tend to have a lot of pulsating stars. Saesen and her team's findings suggest another combination of temperature and brightness where there are pulsating stars.

    Saesen and her colleagues made their observations using the Leonhard Euler Telescope in Chile over seven years. Getting observations over such a long period of time helped them with their discovery, the team's leader, Nami Mowlavi, said in a statement. The Leonhard Euler Telescope's smaller size probably helped in its own way, too, Mowlavi said. Other telescopes housed in the La Silla Observatory in Chile are larger and more popular, so Mowlavi's team got more time on the Euler scope than they might have on other instruments.

    All of the new pulsing stars appear in star cluster NGC 3766, which includes 3,000 stars estimated to be 20 million years old. The Swiss astronomers hope others will look for more of the same type of the star in other young, open star clusters, they wrote in a paper published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    The new star type doesn't yet have a name, nor are astronomers sure why it pulses. Pulsing in other star types has to do with the properties of their interiors. All of the new pulsing stars spin very quickly, which should affect their internal properties, but the discovering team hasn't yet been able to calculate exactly how that works, Mowlavi said.



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    President Obama Not Briefing Rep. Susan Collins on PRISM

    Wikimedia Commons

    Next time, members of Congress should make sure to ask for a briefing about a program they have no reason to believe even exists.

    "Every member of Congress has been briefed on this program," said President Obama last week in his response to the revelation of PRISM, the massive government surveillance program. This was scary! All of Congress--435 voting House members, 6 non-voting House members, and 100 senators--knew about this? How can we trust anyone?

    But NPR investigated this by actually talking to members of Congress, including Representatives Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, and Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, to find out when they were briefed, what the briefings entail, and how that whole situation works. Turns out Obama was being deliberately vague in his choice of words. In a previous unrelated interview, one representative told Fox News that congressmen "could have gotten a briefing whenever they wanted to"--but, asks Rep. Susan Collins of Maine to NPR, "how can you ask when you don't know the program exists?"

    The way these briefings work looks almost designed to keep people in the dark; members of the intelligence sub-committees in Congress are briefed, and the Obama administration claims there were a few general briefings for all of Congress, but Rep. Rockefeller claims these were confusing and unhelpful--that he would "come back knowing nothing."

    And if, for example, the members of Congress want more information or clarification, they'd have to specifically ask for an individual briefing. Assuming the member of Congress somehow guesses that they should ask about a program like PRISM, according to NPR, they're brought into a secure room, not allowed to take notes or record the briefing, and given a brief, dense, jargon-filled presentation before being ushered out.

    You can't talk about what you just learned with someone who might be an expert on it, because 1) you might not remember all the details and 2) you're just not allowed to do that, because the information is classified.

    The Obama administration appears to have taken enough precautions to be able to claim that they aren't hiding this information, while really making every effort to hide this information. And this doesn't really excuse all of Congress; certainly there were at least a few members, particularly those on the intelligence sub-committees, who were briefed and understood what was going on and remained silent. But that's not true of everyone.

    Read more over at NPR.


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    Emiland's Redesign

    Introducing PRISM.

    Slide 11

    Our government wins in espionage, but not in PowerPoint. Luckily for the NSA, there's the Internet.

    After news broke of PRISM, the government's secret surveillance program, everyone recoiled in horror: first, at the confirmation of our worst fears that our government spies on us, and then at the utterly childish slideshow presentation the NSA used to explain the program to employees. Government officials might have some of the most sophisticated espionage technology around, but when it comes to design, they apparently haven't advanced beyond PowerPoint 2000. Case in point:

    Luckily, a few designers have taken to the internet to offer a corrective. Take a look at these redesigns of the NSA's slideshow--simple, clear, and visually appealing:

    And some examples of another designer's attempt:

    Good work, designers! If only they could redesign the government, too.


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    Pioneer, Utah's Online Library

    A new bee semen bank may help breed colony-collapse-disorder-resistant bees.

    Here's a new idea for protecting the declining honeybee population in the U.S. One team of scientists is importing European honeybee semen for fun and storage.

    The team, based at Washington State University, has imported bee semen from subspecies that live in Italy, Georgia and the eastern Alps. The Washington team hopes to use the European sperm to fertilize American queen bees, producing offspring that may be more resilient to colony collapse disorder, the mysterious syndrome in which workers abandon a colony, dooming it to die.

    European beekeepers have also suffered from colony collapse disorder, so it's not that European bees are more resistant to the problem. An injection of European sperm will diversify the American bee gene pool, however, which may lead to healthier American insects.

    Beekeepers began reporting colony collapses in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since then, an average of 33 percent of human-managed hives in the U.S. have died every year. If hives continue to die at this rate, pollinating would be come much more expensive, driving up food costs in the U.S., the U.S.D.A. says. Crops from almonds to berries to broccoli to onions all depend on bee pollination.

    In addition to breeding colony collapse-resistant bees, the Washington researchers hope to breed new bees with other traits American farmers from different regions want. Italian honeybees, for example, are quick to reproduce, a boon for American farmers in warmer areas who want bees to pollinate early-blooming crops. Farmers in cooler states, on the other hand, want bees that wait longer to reproduce, past when they might be threatened by a late frost.

    And what they can't use now, the researchers will freeze for later in a bee sperm bank.

    The sperm bank brings unique genetic diversity to America's bees. Since 1922, when scientists discovered a parasite was likely causing large bee die-offs in England, the U.S. has restricted the import of live bees from overseas. For decades, the bans protected U.S. bees from the 1922 parasite, but they made the U.S. bee gene pool small.

    To expand their ability to breed healthier bees, the Washington team members got a special permit from the U.S.D.A. in 2008 to import the semen they want. The semen is screened for viruses before it comes into the U.S.

    That means, of course, that the task of collecting bee semen falls upon the U.S. team's colleagues overseas. (I would totally do it, but there's this whole ban thing… so I guess you're going to have to, sorry about that.) To do the deed, researchers press gently on a mature drone's abdomen, which pushes semen out. The researchers then touch the tip of a tiny tube to the semen, which flows up the tube by capillary action.

    The Washington State team receives semen as a liquid, in which form it will last 10 to 14 days. The team has developed a way to freeze the semen using liquid nitrogen, however, saving the sperm for decades of experiments to come.

    [Washington State University]


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    The human eye, now slightly less mysterious

    Petr Novák via Wikimedia Commons

    Time to rewrite the textbooks!

    The newest addition to human anatomy is just 15 microns thick, but its discovery will make eye surgery safer and simpler. Harminder Dua, a professor at the University of Nottingham, recently found a new layer in the human cornea, and he's calling it (can you guess?) Dua's layer.

    Dua's layer sits at the back of the cornea, which previously had only five known layers. Dua and his colleagues discovered the new body part by injecting air into the corneas of eyes that had been donated for research and using an electron microscope to scan each separated layer.

    The researchers now believe that a tear in Dua's layer is the cause of corneal hydrops, a disorder that leads to fluid buildup in the cornea. According to Dua, knowledge of the new layer could dramatically improve outcomes for patients undergoing corneal grafts and transplants.

    "This is a major discovery that will mean that ophthalmology textbooks will literally need to be re-written," Dua says. "From a clinical perspective, there are many diseases that affect the back of the cornea which clinicians across the world are already beginning to relate to the presence, absence or tear in this layer."

    The study appears in the journal Ophthalmology.


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