President Bush pushes science, autism linked to analytical parents and UB313 dwarfs Pluto.

State of Science in the Union

In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Bush focused on advancing US science and technology as a means to keeping the country competitive and independent. He announced the Advanced Energy Initiative, a 22% increase in federal alternative energy research to go toward powering homes and offices through coal, solar, wind and nuclear energy. The initiative also calls for powering cars by producing ethanol with alternative methods. Bush also announced the American Competitiveness Initiative, which he said will stimulate production in science and technology by providing grants and tax credits to researchers. He pledged to train more high school math and science teachers to improve education in those subjects. The president also called for a prohibition of what he called “the most egregious abuses of medical research,” including human cloning and the buying and selling of human embryos. (See related article)

President Bush announced that alternative energy is close at hand, stating that competitive new fuels could be available within the next six years. Speaking in Nashville the day after his State of the Union address, Bush said he hopes the advances in technology will eliminate US dependence on Middle Eastern oil within his lifetime.

James Hansen, the lead climate scientist at NASA, accused the White House of trying to silence him after he gave a lecture calling for the immediate curbing of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. He says that the public relations staff at the space agency has been asked to review all his speaking engagements and publishable materials by the Bush administration. NASA public affairs representatives deny   Hansen’s claims.

Why Are We Silencing Hansen?

Greenhouse gases may have more severe consequences than previously thought, and there is only a small chance that they can be maintained below dangerous levels, says a new report issued by the UK government. The European Union has already set a goal of allowing global temperatures to rise no more than 2° C, but UK officials believe a warming of even that magnitude could cause the Greenland ice sheet to melt. That melting would cause a seven meter rise in sea levels over the next 1,000 years.

Global sea levels could rise by 30 cm this century, say Australian researchers, and the rate of rise has been accelerating. In the first study to confirm acceleration using historical data, researchers showed that the average sea level rise per year is 1.44 mm since 1870, 1.7 mm over the entire span of the 20th century and 1.75 mm just since 1950. This rate of acceleration suggests a 28 to 34 cm rise over the 21st century, which will result in the flooding of many low-lying areas.

Australia’s coral reefs are undergoing another round of damaging coral bleaching. The process involves the expulsion of the symbiotic microscopic plants that color and feed the reefs by the stressed host. Scientists fear that unusually warm water temperatures may lead to damage comparable to that of the worst-ever recorded season in 2001—2002. The reefs are not only a huge tourist draw in the area, but are also essential to marine life.

Ornithologists discovered 11 spoon-billed sandpipers in Bangladesh. The endangered bird, whose population is estimated at between 300 and 350 pairs worldwide, is named for its bill, which resembles a wooden spoon. The scientists’ discovery of the birds, which are typically found in coastal mudflats, elevated hopes for the species’ survival.

Representatives from every country in which an Asian elephant population dwells gathered in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lampur to discuss how to protect the endangered species. Only 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, and their habitats are continually being destroyed, forcing them to move to more human-populated areas. The number one cause of Asian elephant death is being poisoned or shot by farmers.

When Ice Attacks

Residents along the Alaskan shore of the Arctic Ocean were met with an ivus, as it’s known amongst locals—a sort of frozen tsunami. Large blocks of ice crashed ashore on Tuesday after being blown inland by strong winds. Reports of blocks the size of cars were the largest mass of the chilling intruder seen in the area in 30 years.

Scientists have discovered a substantial deposit of frozen methane gas 15 miles off the coast of southern California at the apex of a mud volcano buried under the ocean. With major deposits around the world, the ice-like methane hydrates, which are created in high pressure and low temperature underwater environments, have attracted interest as a potential source of fuel, but the means to mine the material has not yet been developed.

Two large new lakes were found this week beneath 4 km of ice in eastern Antarctica. The lakes—one of which is half the size of Rhode island and 1 km deep—are among the largest of the 145 sub-glacial lakes found in Antarctica. The lakes, which may be home to exotic, undiscovered life-forms, stay liquid because of geothermal heat from below and the pressure of the ice sheet from above. 

Math + Science = Autism

Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge argued this week that the child of two mathematicians or two engineers is more likely to suffer from autism than the child of a less analytical couple. The genes that give someone the qualities of a good scientist—such as attention to detail, drive to figure out how things work—may also contribute to traits such as disinterest in other people, a symptom of autism. While many people argue that the increase in the number of diagnoses is due to greater awareness of the disorder, Baron-Cohen blames the increase on the fact that there are now more occasions for male and female analytical-types to meet and mate due to more job opportunities for women in science and more international conferences.

Prosecutors in South Korea searched the home of shamed cloning researcher Hwang Woo-suk for the second time on Thursday. In addition to raiding Hwang’s house, they have also searched the homes of eight of his colleagues. On the same day, an interim report from a presidential advisory committee said that Hwang had underreported the number of eggs donated by women that he used in his research. Earlier in the week, authorities questioned the scientist about the possible misuse of $40 million in public funding for his stem cell research.

Hoping to come up with a vaccine against a pandemic bird flu, scientists at the Center for Disease Control have developed a technique for creating vaccines using genetic modification. The researchers created the vaccine by implanting a gene taken from the H5N1 strain of bird flu into a cold virus, and then harvested the virus in cell cultures rather than hen eggs, as is normally done. The work is an early step toward rapidly and reliably developing vaccines against emerging strains of bird flu that may be able to spread human to human.

Last Friday, the Food and Drug Administration announced a proposal that would require food and cosmetic manufacturers to list on their labels if their products contain the red colorings carmine and cochineal extract. The dyes, which are typically made from the dried and ground female bodies of the cactus-sucking insect called the Dactylopius coccus costa, are used in all sorts of products from ice cream to Campari to yogurt and have been known to cause severe allergic reactions in some people.

Pluto Still the Runt

Astronomers from the University of Bonn and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy measured the diameter of UB313—the Kuiper-belt object discovered last year that may soon be considered the “tenth planet”. They estimate that UB313 is 3,000 km in diameter—700 km larger than Pluto. Because the two objects are so similar, it is hard to justify considering only one of them a planet. It is unknown whether the International Astronomical Union will grant UB313 planet status or if Pluto will officially lose it’s place in the solar system. (See related article)

Engineers finally cut the power to most of the systems on the Stardust capsule that parachuted to Earth last month in order to perform maintenance on the vessel and preserve fuel for the future, in case the craft is needed again. Researchers have been working on the particles brought back by the capsules, which are believed to have come from the fringes of our solar system and date back about 4.5 billion years. Samples will be shipped to 150 researchers around the world to assist in analyzing the dust

Finally, on an uninhabited Alaskan island, the Augustine volcano has been erupting since Jan. 28, at times sending a plume of steam and ash five miles into the air and pouring down its slope. Scientists believe this constant release of gas and ash may be reducing the pressure inside the volcano and prevent a larger eruption. Thus far, the major effect of the eruptions has been the diversion of airplanes in the area, since the ash can get caught in the planes’ engines and cause damage.

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Originally published February 3, 2006


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