Blue Marble

How To Win A Nobel

| Sat May 10, 2008 8:40 PM EDT

teaser.png Log enough hours of Foldit and you might play your way into a cooperative Nobel. The new online game is designed to understand how existing proteins fold themselves, as well as to design new ones. The ultimate goal is to tap into that endless supply of human gaming energy to solve really hard problems. You might find yourself part of a cure for HIV or Alzheimer's or malaria. Or one of the many who designs a new protein to break up toxic waste, say, or absorb CO2 from the air.

There are more than 100,000 different proteins in the human body. They form every cell, make up the immune system, and set the speed of chemical reactions. We know many of their genetic sequences but don't know how they fold up into shapes so complex it would take all the computers in the world centuries to calculate them. Yet humans' natural 3-D problem-solving skills, utilized in an addictive gaming scenario, might solve the problems in only years. Or less. At least that's what a bunch of computer scientists, engineers, and biochemists from the University of Washington are hoping.

The game looks like a 21st-century version of Tetris, with multicolored geometric snakes filling the screen. A half-dozen UW graduate and undergraduate students spent more than a year figuring out how to make the game accurate and engaging. They faced challenges commercial game developers don't encounter, including not knowing the best results themselves.

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Let Them Eat Biofuel

| Fri May 9, 2008 11:52 PM EDT

800px-Gas_Prices_Medium_Term.png Gas prices are rising and this could be great news. Even though it seems lousy in the short run. The truth is higher gas prices are already forcing people to drive less, skip trips, rethink vacations, and reject SUVs—part of a whole host of behavioral changes that add up to rare good news for our endangered atmosphere. LiveScience blogger Robert Roy Britt writes that some people are already slowing down on the roads as a means to save gas, as are some airlines. Higher gas prices are also saving human lives. Two thousand fewer people will die road deaths and 600 fewer will die from air pollution. One economist calculates that each $1 rise in gas equals 14 percent less fuel consumption over the long haul.

However, higher gas prices simultaneously feed biofuel fever. Why use oil when you can use corn? But biofuel is also associated with steeply rising food costs. The dilemma is that you and me can drive 1,000 miles or we can feed a person for a year, and people around the world are getting hungrier, writes Stan Cox on AlterNet. Our gas guzzling ways are about to drive the state of Iowa, the epicenter of agriculture, to import corn. How's that for weird? Apparently it's so weird that the politicos are scrambling to plow under last year's crop of legislature as fast as they can, writes Cox:

Now 24 Republican members of Congress, citing high food prices, have come out into the open to urge a retreat from the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which mandates rapid increases in biofuel production... Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has formally requested that the federal government relax biofuel requirements imposed on his state… The Missouri legislature is considering a rollback of its own recently passed law requiring that gasoline must be mixed with a minimum percentage of ethanol.

MoJo Nukes Convo: Jonas Siegel Highlights

| Fri May 9, 2008 5:59 PM EDT

Jonas%20Siegel%20head%20shot.jpgJonas Siegel is editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a media organization that focuses on the intersection of science and security, and has covered nuclear weapons and energy issues for the past five years.

Although Siegel is in awe of nuclear's amazing energy-generating power—"a pound of uranium 235 has more than 2 million times the energy content of a pound of coal," he says—he acknowledges that so far the industry has been hindered by safety issues. The industry must address the risk of nuclear proliferation and waste storage if it's to become a part of our future mix of energy-providers, Siegel says.

Check out some of Siegel's other views, below, as expressed in last week's Blue Marble expert-reader conversation:

"One of the most vexing aspects of the current system is that it allows ... the same uranium enrichment facilities that enrich fuel for power production can also enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. The plants that reprocess spent fuel after it is taken out of a reactor can be used to make additional fuel—or plutonium for nuclear weapons."

Pigs Spared Med School Surgeries

| Thu May 8, 2008 5:24 PM EDT

184100079_51b6915f01_m.jpg NatureNews reports how doctors used to practise surgery on animals before being allowed to work on patients. Nowadays only a handful of US med schools maintain animal labs. The Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio will shut its live-animal lab this month. Next semester, instead of practising on anaesthetized pigs, its med students will use technologies like virtual simulations. It's all part of a general phase-out of animal labs across the US. In 1994 live-animal experiments were on the curriculum in 77 of 125 medical schools. Now as few as eight use them.

Cost is a factor in the change, since it's expensive to maintain animals and veterinary staff. But simulations have also developed impressively in the past decade. The most advanced simulators now have 'haptic feedback,' providing the sensation that the students' instruments are touching real tissue—advances that make the use of live animals gratuitous, according to John Pippin, a cardiologist in Dallas who once used live dogs to study heart attacks but now works for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The group continues its work to convince the 6% of US institutes that still use live animals to change their ways—notably the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. NatureNews reports that Jonathan Lissauer, a doctor recently trained at Johns Hopkins, says that sometimes animal surgeries were used "as just a diversion for people who won't be using those skills at all. I think then you cross the territory from appropriate medical education to something worse than that. There was no medical utility in having pigs die so that people going into psychiatry could play around."

why_animals_matter_medium_rwcz.jpg According to Erin Williams and Margo DeMello in their compelling treatise on how animals suffer in institutional settings, Why Animals Matter: The Case for Animal Protection, the switch from live-animal experiments to simulations was driven in large part because "medical students around the country expressed reservations about killing animals as part of their education, and many refused to participate in dog labs and other classes in which animals were killed…" Could this be a way to identify the compassionate docs from the not so compassionate?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Green Porno: Are You Ready?

| Thu May 8, 2008 1:06 AM EDT

green-porno.jpgThere's green lotion, green clothing lines, and even green sex toys. So why not the natural next step, green porn? The Sundance Channel is now hosting "green porno videos" on its website. But lest you think green porn means watching Laurie David and Al Gore getting hot and heavy whilst discussing the Kyoto Protocol, it's not. And thank goodness for that. Instead, it's Isabella Rossellini dressed up as snails, bees, and praying mantids to show how animals mate. Sometimes ridiculous, sometimes horrifyingly graphic, you just have to see it for yourself. Visit the official "green porno" site here.

MoJo Nukes Convo: Stewart Brand's Take

| Wed May 7, 2008 10:13 PM EDT

brand-headshot.pngStewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, is a futurist with Global Business Network and works half-time as president of The Long Now Foundation. Brand looks toward the future on nuclear power, musing that we'll likely increase nuclear power to become more like France (which gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear) or phase it out in favor of better methods. Of course, Stewart writes, the whole nukes debate "could seem irrelevant in the face of drastic climate events forcing huge-scale geo-engineering."

Below are a few of Brand's choice comments from the MoJo online nukes conversation:
"The problem is not that nuclear is expensive. The problem is that coal is cheap."

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Myanmar's Epic Floods Seen From Space

| Wed May 7, 2008 3:17 PM EDT

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Go ahead, tell the people of Myanmar that global-warming-related superstorms aren't anything to worry about. That 100,000-plus aren't dead and 95% of the buildings in the path of Cyclone Nargis aren't demolished. These images from the European Space Agency's Envisat satellite, taken a year apart, show the extent of the flooding. Envisat's radar cut through the clouds to reveal critical Near Real Time situation on the ground. The image on the left (above) is from a year ago. The image on the right shows flooding (black areas) two days after the cyclone's passage. Accuweather reported Nargis made landfall with sustained winds of 130 mph and gusts of 150-160 mph—ramping up with frightening speed from a Category 1 to a strong Category 3 or minimal Category 4 hurricane at landfall. Not as big as they get, but combined with an 11.5-foot storm surge, about as deadly as they get.

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NASA's color images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on its Terra satellite use a combination of visible and infrared light to highlight floodwaters. Water appears blue or nearly black, vegetation bright green, bare ground tan, and clouds white or light blue. The image on the left is from approximately a month before the cyclone. In the May 5 image on the right, the entire coastal plain is flooded. Fallow agricultural areas have been especially hard hit. Yangôn, with a population of over 4 million, is surrounded by floods. Several large cities, with populations between 100,000–500,000, are also inundated. Muddy runoff colors the Gulf of Martaban turquoise.

MoJo Nukes Convo: Judith Lewis Highlights

| Tue May 6, 2008 1:23 PM EDT

judith-headshot.jpgJudith Lewis, author of our May/June 2008 feature "The Nuclear Option," has been writing about nuclear energy-related issues for some time. While she has some safety concerns about nuclear power, she says that if we are as concerned about carbon in the environment as we say we are, then we cannot afford to ignore the relatively carbon-free electricity nuclear plants provide. At the same time, she says, "while we consider it, we also have to understand that the nuclear industry also has a lot of problems associated with it."

The main problems, as Lewis sees them, are the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power, the industry's faulty monitoring agency, and a geologic waste repository built on top of an active fault line. In the end, Lewis says, "only public participation can force industry and government regulators to do their jobs right."

Here are some of Judith Lewis's key comments from last week's Blue Marble expert-moderated reader conversation:
"On greenhouse gas emissions alone, nuclear energy does very well. While coal-fired electricity generation emits around 900 kg of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, nuclear leaves us with only 16 to 55 kg CO2 per MWh (that's including mining, milling, enrichment, plant construction, waste disposal—the whole deal)...whether the pros outweight the cons really does depend on how urgently worried we are about catastrophic climate change."

"The notion that coal releases more radioactivity than nuclear is a popular one in with the nuclear industry right now, but I'm not sure it's their soundest argument. Many coal plants were built before we knew enough to put buffer zones between them and residential communities, so people live closer to whatever radioactivity they release. We do know that 24,000 people die a year because of pollution from coal-fired power plants...and then there's the carbon."

"I notice that this discussion swings wildly between extremes (Nuclear has no environmental impact! Solar is the only way! Nuclear will save the world!), but I suspect the real answers lie somewhere in the middle."

Our readers also had some words for Judith. Below are a few highlights:
"Judith: Thank you for your response that included the numerical data from nuclear fuel cycle studies. It is nice to see someone who thinks and recognizes that facts and figures matter more than vague generalizations."—Rod Adams

"Coal plants cause ~24,000 deaths annually, in addition to being the largest single source of global warming. Nuclear plants have no measurable impact (~0 deaths) and have a negligible global warming impact. Even the worst possible accident/meltdown event that could occur at a Western reactor would cause far fewer deaths than US coal plants do ANNUALLY."—Jim Hopf

"There is a reason there seems to be little middle ground in these nukes versus renewables debates (of which this one seems fairly typical) which is that there really isn't any. I don't see a "mix" of nukes and renewables as being desirable because of the horrifying killing power of atomic energy, both weapons and reactors. And since I agree with Al Gore that nuke power is not a solution to global warming, I am opposed to any and all of them."—Harvey Wasserman

Read the full conversation here.

Bush's EPA Pollutes Science

| Mon May 5, 2008 6:11 PM EDT

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The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Check out the interactive version.

Science Soviet style! More than half the scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency report political interference in their work over the last five years. This, according to a new investigation by the Union of Concerned Scientists, follows on the heels of prior UCS investigations (Food and Drug Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as climate scientists at seven federal agencies). The earlier examinations also found significant manipulation of federal science by the Bush administration.

"Our investigation found an agency in crisis," said UCS's Francesca Grifo. "Nearly 900 EPA scientists reported political interference in their scientific work. That's 900 too many. Distorting science to accommodate a narrow political agenda threatens our environment, our health, and our democracy itself."

Among the UCS report's top findings on the EPA: • 889 scientists (60 percent) said they had personally experienced at least one instance of political interference in their work over the last five years. • 394 scientists (31 percent) personally experienced frequent or occasional "statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists' findings." • 285 scientists (22 percent) said they frequently or occasionally personally experienced "selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome." • 224 scientists (17 percent) said they had been "directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document." • Of the 969 agency veterans with more than 10 years of EPA experience, 409 scientists (43 percent) said interference has occurred more often in the past five years than in the previous five-year period. Only 43 scientists (4 percent) said interference occurred less often. • Hundreds of scientists reported being unable to openly express concerns about the EPA's work without fear of retaliation; 492 (31 percent) felt they could not speak candidly within the agency and 382 (24 percent) felt they could not do so outside the agency.

Global Warming Killing Caribou

| Thu May 1, 2008 9:31 PM EDT

800px-Caribou.jpg Fewer caribou calves are being born and more are dying as a result of a warming climate. The problem is timing. Peak food availability in West Greenland no longer corresponds to the peak time of caribou births, according to a study by Eric Post of Penn State. Throughout the Arctic winter, when there is no plant growth, caribou dig through snow to find lichens. In spring they switch to grazing on newly growing willows, sedges, and flowering herbs. As the birth season approaches, cued by increasing day length, they migrate to areas where newly-emergent food is plentiful.

But the routine that's worked for millennia is faltering because caribou are unable to keep up with accelerated plant cycles tied to global warming. Now when pregnant females arrive at the calving grounds they find plants that have already reached peak productivity and are declining in nutritional value. The plants initiate growth in response to temperature, not day length (unlike the caribou), and are peaking dramatically earlier in response to rising temperatures. "Spring temperatures at our study site in West Greenland have risen by more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees F) over the past few years," said Post. "As a result, the timing of plant growth has advanced, but calving has not."

The phenomenon is called trophic mismatch and is a predicted consequence of climate change. Trophic mismatches have been documented in birds. The most famous example being the study on Dutch birds and their caterpillar prey highlighted in Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. "Our work is the first documentation of a developing trophic mismatch in a terrestrial mammal as a result of climatic warming," said Post. "And the rapidity with which this mismatch has developed is eye-opening, to say the least."

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.