Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Waiting for Cures

| Tue Jan. 2, 2007 8:37 PM EST

Good news for the new year. New Scientist reports that a deal struck in a London pub a few years is leading to new hope for 200 million people worldwide suffering from the fatal liver disease, hepatitis C. The researchers' aim was to bypass big pharma's patents on interferon treatments, since their $13,000-a-year drugs were affordable to only 1 in 6 sufferers. Best of all, the new interferon drug , which will be available to the poor, actually cures hep-C.

The British Medical Journal publishes a paper out of the Mayo Clinic on mining historical documents for clues to potential new drugs. The authors cite a 400-year old report by Georg Everhard Rumphius, an employee of the Dutch East Indies Company, who described the anti-diarrheal properties of extracts from the fruit kernels of atun trees. Turns out to be an antibiotic new to science, old news to the Ambon islanders of Indonesia.

Delayed gratification was nothing new to Rumphius, say the authors:

It is amazing that Rumphius's work was ever published. In 1670 he went blind, and four years later his wife and daughter were killed in an earthquake. Thirteen years later, in 1687, a fire levelled the capital of Ambon's European quarter, and his manuscripts and the botanical illustrations that he had drawn himself were burnt. Yet Rumphius took this opportunity to begin the herbal again; he dictated a new and revised text in Dutch to scribes, and he commissioned draftsmen to do the illustrations.

Finally, in 1692, the first half of the Ambonese Herbal was finished, and the governor general at the time ordered the manuscript and the illustrations to be copied. This order was fortunate, as the original herbal text was destroyed on the way to Holland when the transport ship was sunk by a hostile French naval squadron. Again, upon notification of the disaster Rumphius did not surrender to despair. Rather, he took the opportunity to augment and correct the first half of his text while he completed the six volumes of the second half. Rumphius added new material (to make volume seven) only a few months before his death at the age of 74.

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Scary Science & the Solstice

| Thu Dec. 21, 2006 9:30 PM EST

The BBC reports on a British government study looking ahead to the next 50 years:

"Robots could one day demand the same citizen's rights as humans… If granted, countries would be obliged to provide social benefits including housing and even "robo-healthcare."

I suppose British robots might get somewhere with that. American ones would be SOL.

NewScientist reports it's so warm bears aren't hibernating in Spain this winter. Though a Japanese man apparently pulled off the torpid feat for three rip-van-winkle weeks.

If you're in the southern hemisphere, in, say, Madagascar, this solstice and planning a balmy night under the stars without a tent, reconsider. Imagine, moths that breach your eyelids and drink your tears while you sleep. Well, birds' tears at any rate. The moths are apparently after salt not liquid. Nevertheless, it looks unnerving, the moths and their harpoonlike proboscises:

If that's too creepy, check out the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute's online aurora borealis forecast, and plan your trip north accordingly. After all, how many more years do you want to pass without seeing this wonder?

Happy Solstice.

Science At Its Best & Worst

| Tue Dec. 19, 2006 1:05 AM EST

A team of neuroscientists and engineers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, get paid to launch undergraduates on a scent trail in an open field, blindfolded, ears blocked, on their knees, following a track of chocolate essential oil. The results show that we can apparently sniff out the world better than previously believed, at least in pursuit of chocolate.

"Our sense of smell is less keen partly because we put less demand on it," says lead author Jess Porter. "But if people practice sniffing smells, they can get really good at it."

So we're more like dogs and rats than we know. But are they enough like us to make using them in medical research worthwhile? Check out this comparative analysis published at BMJ.com, a free open access online research journal. Researchers in Britain and Argentina conclude that at least half the animal studies they've examined are so flawed as to produce no data clinically relevant to human beings.

For a dose of science at its best, check out this new electric car design project inaugurated by a former BMW employee in Germany. Using the same cooperative open source movement that brought us the software Linux and the browser Firefox, Markus Merz, is asking anyone with a good idea to join the design team design for Oscar, named after the Open Source Car Project. Merz is hoping to attract designers and engineers to contribute ideas free of the restraints of secrecy, patents, or ownership. As reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

"The most effective tool you can have to get anything done is passion and creativity and that needs to be unleashed, and then it's much more powerful than money," says Lukas Neckerman, head of automotive business development at a financial services company in Munich.

Earth Hour

| Fri Dec. 15, 2006 8:12 PM EST

At 7:30pm on March 31, 2007, the lights of Sydney will go dark for one hour. It's the brain child of Sarah Bishop, 22, who wants Australians to think about global warming, and to look at the stars:

I am 22 years old. These statistics [about climate change] represent my future.

Can we get that going elsewhere on the same night, same time? Think of it as casting a ballot in the first global election.

Swim Away Shamu

| Thu Dec. 14, 2006 6:39 PM EST

Sick of traffic, bumper-to-bumper at 30 miles an hour, sucking exhaust and abuse? Yearn for the freedom of open spaces and no speed limit? Then take a cyberbreak with NOAA's website on the long-distance wanderings of blue sharks, mako sharks, sharks, sea lions, elephant seals, blue whales, sea turtles, and albatrosses, and more.

Then if you feel inspired to ensure those finloose beings continue to do what we would like to do but have surrendered in exchange for the questionable benefits of an acronym-driven reality of LCD TVs, SUVs, and DVDs, check out this URL, and the very cool way the South Africans are providing realtime education on what you can eat from a sustainably fished ocean. If you're not lucky enough to live there, you can contemplate navigating the catch of the day safely. Or catch a safe list on Seafood Watch.

Wonder what is really entailed in taking the bluewater wanderers out of the wild for display in marine parks, so that you can stare at them in an unreal world, where cheap tricks are bought with dead sardines? Ever wonder why some killer whales try to kill their trainers? Then check out this video from the long-distance travellers at BlueVoice who've seen the ugly underside of the capture business.

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