Why avian flu hasn't become a pandemic, where the sun will be hiding out and whatever happened to Hwang Woo-suk?

No Foothold for Avian Flu

Avian flu may not be transmittable between humans because it can’t take hold on cells in the upper respiratory tract, meaning that coughing or sneezing is unlikely to communicate the virus, researchers said this week. The finding illuminated a central mystery for scientists following the spread of the virus across Europe, Asia and Africa, killing thousands of birds and more than 100 people who worked closely with infected birds. Should the virus mutate to inhabit the upper respiratory tract more effectively, public health officials predict a worldwide pandemic. (Read more about this story here.)

Increasing instances of malaria cases in East Africa are probably due in part to climate change, American researchers say. Temperatures in the area have risen by half a degree Celsius over the last 60 years, leading to a large rise in the disease-bearing mosquito population in the cooler, highland areas.

Computer models show that the change in sea level due to greenhouse gases could be catastrophic over the next few hundred years, with levels rising by at least a meter even before the end of this century. Researchers at the University of Arizona compared current conditions with a prehistoric climate change, when Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets melted and sea levels rose 3 to 4 meters.


Dear Government, Please Give Us Clean Water

At the World Water Forum in Mexico City this week, representatives from 148 countries announced their support for a declaration stating that providing clean water is the responsibility of governments, not private companies. People living in the developing world are becoming increasingly reliant on bottled water, especially in countries without the infrastructure to provide clean tap water for their citizens. Critics of the bottled water industry, which is now worth $100 billion globally, are calling its increased influence a sort of “stealth privatization.”

The UN reported this week that agriculture was creating the biggest drain on fresh water supplies around the world. Farms use two-thirds of the world’s fresh water, an amount which, if unchecked, could prove dangerous to humans living in poverty and lead to wide-spread extinction of plant and animal species. The UN suggests an end to subsidies on pesticides and fertilizers, as well as a decrease in water prices, to solve the disparity.

A UN report says 20 billion dollars per year will be needed to sustain Africa’s water systems over the next two decades. Only 3.8% of African water resources are developed, and 300 million Africans do not have access to safe drinking water. The report also calls for changes in policy to develop infrastructure to sanitize and store water, as rainfall levels drop off due to climate change.


It’s a Blackout!

A total solar eclipse will be visible around the world, from Brazil through northern Africa en route to Mongolia, on March 29th, and tens of thousands of astronomy buffs are concentrating in good viewing areas, like Antalya, Turkey, to watch. In Istanbul, the full eclipse will be visible for four minutes, and meteorologists expect clear skies.

The Mars rover Spirit is crippled due to a dysfunctional front wheel. The solar-powered vehicle has been on Mars’s surface for over two years and has had breakdowns before, but never one involving its motor, which is probably the case here. NASA engineers are hoping the rover will reach a north-facing slope in time to catch the energy benefits of a long, sunny Martian winter.

Despite the recent discovery of water on Enceladus, a distant moon of Saturn, NASA says it will be a long time before they return to the satellite to look for life. Tight budgets and bureaucratic inertia at the space agency mean previously scheduled trips to Mars and Europa will take precedence over returning to the icy, Saturnian moon. Unmanned space missions, which already cost millions of dollars and take years to plan and launch, are decreasing in frequency these days, as NASA pours money and resources into getting its space shuttle program back off the ground.


Where’d That Woodpecker Go?

Reports of the recent resurrection of ivory-billed woodpeckers may have been exaggerated, scientists said this week. The supposedly extinct bird was captured on video in Arkansas two years ago, according to Cornell scientists, but other researchers have analyzed the video and claim that the bird onscreen is probably a common pileated woodpecker. The original identifiers are contesting the new analysis.

A 250-year-old giant tortoise from Kolkata, India, died on Thursday of liver failure, Indian officials said. The tortoise had belonged to 18th century British military official Robert Clive and was named “Addwaitya,” which means “the one and only” in Bengali. While the tortoise’s exact age is not certain, he had lived in the Kolkata zoo for 130 years and was thought to have been at least 100 years old when his final captivity began.

Protestors gathered in Ottawa near the Gulf of St. Lawrence to protest the annual seal hunt, where hundreds of thousands of harp seals are killed for their pelts and blubber. Despite the appeals of celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and Paul McCartney, the hunt routinely results in the deaths of over 300,000 seals. Local hunters and fishermen say the overfishing of the North Atlantic cod populations, which collapsed in the 1990s, left them with little other source of income.

In a letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, over 250 scientists and environmentalists protested a plan to remove the grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park from the list of threatened species. Last November, the government agency proposed “delisting” the bears in the wake of strong population growth numbers over the past decade. Signers of the letter say the population of 500 or 600 grizzlies is too small to maintain genetic diversity and fend off extinction.


Hwang’s Gone

After a month-long period of suspension, disgraced South Korean geneticist Hwang Woo-suk has been fired from Seoul National University. Hwang still faces criminal charges over the scandal, which involved fabricating data in his research on stem cells. Hwang is now automatically barred from working as a government researcher for up to five years.

The 2006 Abel Prize for mathematics has been awarded to Swedish mathematician Lennart Carlson for his work in harmonic analysis, proving Jean Baptiste Fourier‘s theory that periodic natural phenomena—such as waves of sound—could be expressed as sine or cosine waves. The prize consists of approximately $900,000 and is considered to be equivalent to a Nobel, since no mathematics category exists for that award.

Finally, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), the chair of the House Committee on Science, announced he will retire from Congress at the end of the year. The 69-year-old representative has served the maximum allowed three terms as chair of the committee, and is considered one of the scientific community’s strongest supporters in the House. “He’s been indefatigable in arguing and fighting for science,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), who is also on the committee.

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Originally published March 24, 2006

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