Thursday, November 30, 2006

Pluto-bound Spacecraft Spots its Target -

By Tariq Malik
Staff Writer
posted: 29 November 2006
2:15 p.m. ET

A NASA spacecraft hurtling away from Earth has caught the first glimpse of its distant destination: the dwarf planet Pluto.

The New Horizons probe, set to swing by Pluto and its moons in 2015, plucked the small planet from a star-filled image during a checkout period using the spacecraft’s long range camera [image].

“Finding Pluto in this dense star field really was like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

Stern said astronomers took a page from the book of the late skywatcher Clyde Tombaugh—who discovered Pluto in 1930—and switched between different images of the same area, taken days apart, to hunt for the planet.

But where Tombaugh used photographic plates, New Horizons researchers relied on digital images taken of Pluto’s expected location by their probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The small planet was easily identified as it moved against the background of stars.

"We won’t get useful science out of these first detections of Pluto," Stern said. "But during the next several years of approach, we'll use LORRI to study Pluto's brightness variation with our angle to the Sun to build a 'phase curve' we could never get from Earth or Earth orbit.”

That should yield new details of Pluto’s frigid surface well before New Horizons makes its flyby past the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015, he added.

In the meantime, New Horizons researchers are content to know that the probe’s long-distance camera is working well, and eagerly awaiting next year’s Feb. 28slingshot past Jupiter. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is also managing the mission’s more than nine-year flight.

Travelogue to Pluto

Since its Jan.19 launch, New Horizons has snapped photos of the asteroid JF56—during a June 13 pass—as well as the star Messier 7 and the gas giant Jupiter on its way to Pluto.

The Pluto portrait was taken between Sept. 21-24, stored aboard New Horizons and only recently relayed back home to Earth. New Horizons was about 2.6 billion miles (4.2 billion kilometers) from its planetary target at the time of the LORRI image.

"Those of us who calibrated LORRI on the ground and in flight are not surprised to see what it can do, but we are mighty grateful that LORRI has survived launch and its first several months in space without any loss of performance," said LORRI principal investigator Andy Cheng, of the Applied Physics Laboratory, in a statement.

NASA has billed New Horizons’ journey as the U.S. space agency’s fastest mission to date despite its long travel time. Stern and his fellow mission scientists are hoping to send their spacecraft past Pluto to visit at least one other icy object in the distant Kuiper Belt, which stretches beyond the orbit of Neptune. [Click here for a graphic of the probe’s flight path.]

New Horizons is currently speeding through the solar system at about 20.8 kilometers per second with respect to the Sun. That’s about 46,528 miles per hour (74,880 kilometers per hour).

Darfur conflict - Wikipedia

Irregular combatants in North Darfur. The Arabic text on the bumper says "The Sudan Liberation Army" (SLA).

The Darfur conflict is an ongoing armed conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, mainly between the Janjaweed, a militia group recruited from the tribes of the Abbala (camel-herding Arabs), and the non-Baggara people (mostly land-tilling tribes) of the region. The Sudanese government, while publicly denying that it supports the Janjaweed, has provided arms and assistance and has participated in joint attacks with the group, systematically targeting the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit ethnic groups in Darfur. The conflict began in July 2003. Unlike in the Second Sudanese Civil War, which was fought between the primarily Muslim north and Christian and Animist south, in Darfur most of the residents are Muslim, as are the Janjaweed.[1]

Estimated number of deaths in the conflict have ranged from 50,000 (World Health Organization, September 2004) to 450,000 (Dr. Eric Reeves, 28 April 2006). Most NGOs use 400,000, a figure from the Coalition for International Justice that has since been cited by the United Nations. As many as 2.5 million are thought to have been displaced.[2] (See Counting deaths section, below)

The mass media have described the conflict as both "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide." The U.S. Government has described it as genocide, although the United Nations has declined to do so. (See List of declarations of genocide in Darfur)

After fighting worsened in July and August 2006, on August 31, 2006, the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 1706 which called for a new 20,000-troop UN peacekeeping force to supplant or supplement a poorly funded, ill-equipped 7,000-troop African Union Mission in Sudan peacekeeping force. Sudan strongly objected to the resolution and said that it would see the UN forces in the region as foreign invaders. The next day, the Sudanese military launched a major offensive in the region. (See New proposed UN peacekeeping force)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Human Development Iindicators - UNDP

Earlier this month, the UNDP released Human Development estimates for the year 2004.
There are many ways to analyze the data. One way is to look at the "most developed" country (Norway... index=0.965) and then look at the "least developed" one (Niger... index=0.311). Then we may split the development gap in 5 parts. Here is the result with the 20 most populated countries in the world:
All big OECD countries have very high development level, all big East Asian countries already have relatively high development level. Big Sub-saharan African countries are either little or very little developped. South Asia and the Middle East... is in the middle.

The Human Development Indicators have three basic dimensions: Purchasing power per head, life expectancy and education level

Countries with a relatively very high development level:
Japan: 0.949
USA: 0.948
France: 0.942
Germany: 0.932

Countries with a relatively high development level
Mexico: 0.821
Russia: 0.797
Brazil: 0.792
Thailand: 0.784
China: 0.768
Philippines: 0.763
Turkey: 0.757
Iran: 0.746
Indonesia: 0.711
Vietnam: 0.709

Countries with a relatively median development level:
Egypt: 0.702
India: 0.611

Countries with a relatively low development level:
Pakistan: 0.539
Bengladesh: 0.530
Nigeria: 0.448

Country with a relatively very low development level:
Ethiopia: 0.371


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Cheeta's 74th birthday - Gamma / Frederic Neema

Tarzan's chimpanzee star Cheeta with his owner and caretaker, Dan Westfall, receives in Palm Springs, CA, an award on behalf of the International Comedy Film Festival of Peniscola in Spain. This the only cinematographic award that Cheeta has ever received. Cheeta, famed for his appearances in the 1930's and 1940's Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, turned 74 years old today and remains the world's oldest living primate. He lives happily at the C.H.E.E.T.A Primate Foundation in Palm Springs, California, a home for primates who have retired from the movie industry and the show business.
© 2005 Photo Frédéric Neema

Friday, November 24, 2006

Human genome more variable than previously thought - Nature

Published online: 22 November 2006; | doi:10.1038/news061120-9

Surprisingly large segments of DNA found to differ from person to person.

Helen Pearson

How alike are you and me? About 99.5%

Nearly six years after the sequence of the human genome was sketched out, one might assume that researchers had worked out what all that DNA means. But a new investigation has left them wondering just how similar one person's genome is to another's.

Geneticists have generally assumed that your string of DNA 'letters' is 99.9% identical to that of your neighbour's, with differences in the odd individual letter. These differences make each person genetically unique — influencing everything from appearance and personality to susceptibility to disease.

But hold on, say the authors of a new study published in Nature1. They have identified surprisingly large chunks of the genome that can differ dramatically from one person to the next. "Everyone has a unique pattern," says one of the lead authors, Matthew Hurles at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK.

The differences in question - made up of stretches of DNA that span tens to hundreds of thousands of chemical letters — are called 'copy-number variants', or CNVs. Within a given stretch of DNA, one person may carry one copy of a DNA segment, another may have two, three or more. The region might be completely absent from a third person's genome. And sometimes the segments are shuffled up in different ways.

These variable regions received short shrift for many years. When the human genome sequence was pieced together, they were largely glossed over, because researchers were focused on finding one overarching reference sequence — and because the repetitive nature of the segments makes them hard to sequence. "It was swept under the rug," says Michael Wigler who is also mapping CNVs at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York.

All change

The new study, led by Hurles and Stephen Scherer of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, and their colleagues is the most detailed attempt to find how CNVs are scattered across the whole human genome. To do this, they compared genome chunks from 270 people of European, African or Asian ancestry.

Same but different

3,080 million 'letters' of DNA in the human genome

22,205 genes, by one recent estimate

10 million single-letter changes (SNPs) — that's only 0.3% of the genome

1,447 copy-number variants, covering a surprisingly large 12% of the genome

About 99.5% similarity between two random people's DNA

They found nearly 1,500 such regions, taking up some 12% of the human genome. That doesn't mean that your DNA is 12% different from mine (or 88% similar), because any two people's DNA will differ at only a handful of these spots.

According to the team's back-of-the-envelope calculations, one person's DNA is probably 99.5% similar to their neighbour's. Or a bit less. "I've tried to do the calculation and it's very complicated," says Hurles. "It all depends on how you do the accounting."

The answer is also unclear because researchers think that there are many more variable blocks of sequence that are 10,000 or 1,000 letters long and were excluded from the current study. Because of limits with their methods, the new map mainly identified variable chunks larger than 50,000 letters long.

Many of these CNVs are thought to be important in our biology. The team found that 10% of human genes are spanned by these regions, meaning that they might be doubled, deleted or otherwise jumbled in a way that could help to determine whether and when we develop diseases.

CNVs have already been linked with susceptibility to Alzheimer's disease, kidney disease and HIV, among others, and the new map will help researchers to make connections to other conditions. "There's a general expectation that these things are quite influential," Wigler says.

Maps upon maps

The new map adds to a whole library of genetic cartography that already points out other landmarks in the human genome. A lot of attention has focused on mapping the places where single letters vary between individuals (single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs). Other researchers are identifying hard-to-spot regions where a segment can be flipped around so it runs backwards.

But there is plenty more for geneticists to navigate and undoubtedly more maps to come. Some will reveal the smaller regions of variation excluded from Hurle's map. Other projects are attempting to mark every single sequence that does something biologically useful, such as making proteins or packaging up DNA into chromosomes.

The precise degree to which each person's DNA differs from another may not become clear until geneticists devise a way to read through the entire genome of many different people and compare them all in detail, something that is far too expensive and time consuming today but may become possible with the advent of faster, cheaper sequencing machines.

Scherer and his team have already lined up the only two complete human genome sequences produced by the publicly funded Human Genome Project and the private company Celera. They identified both single-letter changes and small and large regions of variation and report their results in Nature Genetics2.

Visit our newsblog to read and post comments about this story.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Why Planets Will Never Be Defined -

This article has a point. The "planet" debate seemed laughauble to outsiders. There is at least 2 problems with the new definition.
1. It was obviously written to fit our own solar system i.e. keeping the number of planets as low as possible. When studying other solar systems, the definition becomes meaningless.
2. There is no coherence between the new planet definition and the definitions of stars and asteroids. No matter how and no matter what they are orbiting, stars or asteroids remain defined that way. Their definition is based on their geology. The orbit-based definition of planets are not coherent.

However, I disagree with the conclusion of the article. We can't communicate without a proper definition for the words we use. If someone talks about a planet, some would think about Ceres, some would think about the Earth, some would think about Jupiter. We do need an acceptable definition.


By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
posted: 21 November 2006
06:07 am ET

Before the dust even settled after the Great Pluto War at the International Astronomical Union (IAU)'s General Assembly in Prague, one thing became clear: There will never be an accepted scientific definition for the term "planet."

Rather than crafting an acceptable definition, the IAU alienated members, put the group's authority in jeopardy and fueled schisms among astronomers on theoretical grounds and even nationality.

And the whole affair was scientifically pointless, many astronomers say.

The controversial planet-definition resolution, passed Aug. 24 in a vote of just 424 IAU members, will not stand as worded. Some 300 astronomers have pledged not to use it, and many others say it must be redone to eliminate contradictions. It will be reworked, at the least, and possibly overturned at the 2009 IAU General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Meanwhile, the debate—which the IAU limited to defining round things in our solar system—was a neighborhood nomenclature brawl amid a universal war of words. Any terminology that might be relevant to our little solar system will be laughably inadequate if applied across the galaxy.

Shortly after the Prague vote, I posed a series of questions about the new definition's merits and shortcomings to several astronomers, among them Geoff Marcy at the University of California, Berkeley. Marcy and his colleagues have found more planets beyond our solar system than any other team.

"Your questions imply that a definition of the word 'planet' is useful scientifically. That is a view not shared by many professional planetary scientists," Marcy replied. "The astrophysics of planetary bodies is so rich and complex that defining 'planet' has never been an issue under discussion among professionals. So, some of your questions read to me like the old phrase 'When did you stop beating your wife?' The taxonomy of asteroids, comets, moons, planets and brown dwarfs is far too limited to capture the diversity of their origins and internal constitutions."

Diverse indeed. During 2006, the tally of known extrasolar planets surpassed 200, and the range of sizes and setups illustrates why a universal definition is impossible in light of the fact that scientists are sharply divided on what to call Pluto.

Arguing since 1990

The debate over what constitutes a planet flared up after the 1990 discovery of the first round objects orbiting another star. The three so-called pulsar planets are about the same size as Earth. They are often forgotten in discussions about exoplanets. Some astronomers don't see them as planets at all, because they orbit a fast-spinning, dead star that cannot support life.

Other worlds several times the mass of Jupiter float freely in space; they have no host star. Are they planets? Other oddities abound.

"It is a little-known fact that nearly 25 percent of the known extrasolar planets are in binary- or multiple-star systems," said Stephen Kortenkamp , a research associate at the University of Maryland. "That further complicates the notion of creating a universal definition of planet."

One day during what Kortenkamp calls the Great Pluto War, he browsed his dictionary. "I see lots of words that have multiple definitions, depending on the context in which they are used," he told me back then. "I don't see why the word 'planet' can't be treated the same way."

Kortenkamp figures "planet" means one thing in our solar system and something else around other stars, and also has varying meanings for geologists or planet-hunters or the public. "The IAU would have been better off with this approach rather than trying to dictate a single definition for what is really a cultural term that means different things to different groups of people," he said.

The known setups are a tiny sample of what's out there. There are perhaps 250 billion planets in our galaxy, says Gregory Laughlin, an exoplanet hunter and planetary system theorist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Eventually, astronomers could find two Earth-size objects orbiting each other around a center of gravity in the space between them, Laughlin said. Other worlds might be accompanied by planet-size "Trojans" that move with them in a horseshoe-shaped pattern. The present IAU definition, requiring a planet to clear out the path of its orbit, is not set up to handle such offbeat configurations.

It's also possible two planet-mass objects could be found orbiting each other with no star involved.

Complicating the idea of planet-hood are the very massive objects that have been the easiest to find with current technology. There are dozens of them, each several times the heft of Jupiter, and many bump up against the mass range of brown dwarfs to create yet another fuzzy area of definition.

Brown dwarfs are big balls of gas that can be up to 70 times as massive as Jupiter but not massive enough to carry out the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen that powers real stars. Generally, the lower cutoff is thought to be at 13 times the mass of Jupiter, a level that triggers the fusion of deuterium, which gives brown dwarfs a warm glow that Jupiter can't muster. Thing is, astronomers don't know how gas-giant planets are born nor what conditions create a planetary mass object versus a brown dwarf.

In many astronomers' minds, formation scenarios must play a role in any useful planet definition. The current IAU definition does not even address formation.

'Major rifts'

The Great Pluto War alienated many of the roughly 10,000 professional astronomers around the world who did not have a chance to cast a vote. It also created "two major rifts" among astronomers, said David Morrison, an astronomer at NASA's Ames Research Center who was among the few who did vote.

"Most important was a rift between astronomers who study physical properties of objects and those who study orbits (dynamics)," Morrison told me. "The dynamicists dominated at the IAU, and many of them would not accept any definition that was based solely on physical properties such as size."

"The second division was along national lines," Morrison explained. "Some astronomers seemed irritated by perceived American domination of the process. Some felt, with considerable justification in my opinion, that some Americans astronomers defended Pluto as a planet in large part because an American had discovered it. As in so many other international contexts, there can be reaction against perceived American arrogance."

In an interview with published in September, IAU president Catherine Cesarsky said there is no reason to question the governing body's authority. But when asked if that authority had been weakened, she also said: "It is too early to tell."

In the broadest terms, a planet could be thought of as anything from an 800-kilometer-wide (500-mile-wide) round rock orbiting a dead star to a colossal gas ball floating alone in space. No accepted definition will be possible unless the IAU democratizes the decision-making process by allowing all members to vote.

Even then, defining and categorizing all these different worlds is seen as impossible by some astronomers. Many think it is simply irrelevant, or, as Geoff Marcy puts it: "Categorizing them does not magically add insight."

This article appeared in the Winter issue of Ad Astra magazine.

Full Coverage: The Debate and the IAU Vote

Most recent stories at top

Blogs as the Controversy Unfolded

Defining Moments: The Saga's History

Thursday, November 16, 2006

NASA Studies Manned Asteroid Mission -

NASA Studies Manned Asteroid Mission
By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
posted: 16 November 2006
06:32 am ET

NASA is appraising a human mission to a near-Earth asteroid—gauging the scientific merit of the endeavor while testing out spacecraft gear, as well as mastering techniques that could prove useful if a space rock ever took aim for our planet.

Space agency teams are looking into use of Constellation hardware for a human Near-Earth Object (NEO) mission—an effort underway at NASA’s Ames Research. Another study is delving into use of Constellation components to support an automated Mars sample return mission. That study is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The Constellation Program encompasses NASA’s initial efforts to extend the human presence throughout the solar system.

Major pieces of the Constellation Program—such as the Orion crew vehicle—are meant to support transport of humans and cargo to the Moon and to the International Space Station, while future efforts would sustain missions to Mars and beyond.

Astronauts, engineers and scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas have been looking into the capabilities of the Orion vehicle for a mission to a near-Earth asteroid.

Significant assets

“A human mission to a near Earth asteroid would be scientifically worthwhile,” said Chris McKay, deputy scientist in the Constellation science office at the NASA Johnson Space Center. “It could be part of an overall program of understanding these objects. Also, it would be useful, instrumentally, in terms of understanding the threat they pose to the Earth.”

Stationed at NASA’s Ames Research Center located in California’s Silicon Valley, McKay told that work is underway to evaluate the science enabled by sending crews to asteroids, and to judge how best to assure safe and efficient exploration.

Asteroids are relics from early solar system formation, McKay pointed out. “Then there’s the whole, what I call the ‘Bruce Willis factor’…the star in the movie Armageddon…and the ability to send significant assets to an asteroid.”

“There’s a lot of public resonance with this notion that NASA ought to be doing something about killer asteroids…to be able to send serious equipment to an asteroid,” McKay observed. “The public wants us to have mastered the problem of dealing with asteroids. So being able to have astronauts go out there and sort of poke one with a stick would be scientifically valuable as well as demonstrate human capabilities,” he said.

McKay emphasized that it’s premature to send off a piloted mission to an asteroid to do countermeasure activities. “There could be testing of various approaches. But we don’t know enough about asteroids right now to know the best strategy for mitigation,” he said.

Forward looking reasons

“It’s a terrific mission if we can do it…and if it programmatically makes sense,” said Former Apollo astronaut, Russell Schweickart, Chairman of the B612 Foundation, a group with the goal of significantly altering the orbit of an asteroid, in a controlled manner, by 2015.

Schweickart said that there are a number of “forward looking reasons” to put asteroids on NASA’s lofty Moon, Mars and beyond agenda.

The value of asteroids for on-the-spot resources, for one, was noted by Schweickart. Secondly, validating command and control skills in piloting up to an asteroid would be beneficial, he said.

Furthermore, a human venture to a space rock may well accelerate precursor robotic surveys of asteroids, Schweickart observed. “Early unmanned visits to’s the same pattern as we did with the Moon and we’re doing right now with Mars. It’s all pretty logical,” he told

Public awareness regarding asteroids, via a human exploration initiative, would be helpful, Schweickart said. It’s an opportunity for the public to be educated in reality, not in terms of Hollywood’s version of asteroid-busting as seen in the movie, Armageddon.

Quick dash

Clearly, it will be first-things-first in testing the new Constellation architecture. And that means going to low-Earth orbital missions to wring out the systems and procedures. These are likely to be followed in rather quick succession by lunar orbital and landing missions.

“But a very natural, early extension of the exploration capabilities of this new vehicle architecture would be a ‘quick dash’ near-Earth asteroid rendezvous mission,” said Dan Durda, a senior research scientist in the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

“That kind of early demonstration mission might last no more than 60 or 90 days,” Durda said, “and take the crew no farther than a few lunar distances away from Earth.”

Durda said he could imagine that such a flight might be made before the first lunar landing even—perhaps after a lunar orbital mission or two—in order to try out spacecraft systems on an even longer-duration flight.

Primo science and samples

What would a space crew do once they’ve arrived at an asteroid?

There’s clearly engineering and program benefits, but also factoring in scientific investigations, the humans-to-an-asteroid idea becomes even more compelling, Durda suggested.

Still, as NASA’s NEAR-Shoemaker and Japan’s Hayabusa robotic efforts verified, good asteroid science can be done minus humans on the scene.

“But look at how having astronauts actually there on the Moon improved both the quantity and quality of the science return from Apollo,” Durda responded. “People have the judgment and creativity to select the best places to explore,” he said, and coupled with the dexterity offered by on-site, no-delay use of telerobotics in early missions, can gather primo science and samples.

Access to space resources

In general, a human mission to an asteroid offers an opportunity to take lunar-capable hardware and extend its reach to deep-space much sooner than would development of a full-up Mars-capable spacecraft, advised former astronaut, Tom Jones, a veteran of four shuttle flights.

Expeditionary treks to the asteroids enable NASA to grapple with many of the deep-space challenges in operations, communications, and life support without committing to a multi-year Mars mission profile, Jones told

“And we should gain immediate scientific returns, potential access to space resources like water, and familiarity with complex operations around objects that present a potential hazard to Earth,” Jones added.

Can the infrastructure coming out of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle work be utilized for asteroid journeys?

The Crew Exploration Vehicle could be the nucleus of an asteroid mission, Jones said, furnishing some of the propulsion, communication, and habitation space needed, as well as the obvious reentry capability.

“By using the low Earth orbit-rendezvous approach planned for lunar missions, a spacecraft using other Constellation or International Space Station components might be able to perform a multi-month mission to a near-Earth object in a favorable orbit,” Jones said.

Deep-space thoughts

A human mission to an asteroid could be viewed somewhat as a gap-filler.

“After a lunar visit, we face a long interval in Earth-Moon space while we build up experience and technology for a Mars mission,” Jones suggested. An asteroid mission “could take us immediately into deep-space, sustaining program momentum, adding public excitement, and reducing the risk of a later Mars mission,” he said.

“Near-Earth object exploration is especially important if the Moon turns out to be bereft of extractable resources,” Jones pointed out. “Astronauts could collect a rich array of samples from the most scientifically interesting sites on the near-Earth object—dating back to the earliest days of the solar system—set up a pilot resource extraction experiment, demonstrate technology necessary for a future near-Earth object deflection mission, and look back at Earth from millions of miles away. The view would be breathtaking,” he said.

A human journey to an asteroid stretches our deep-space legs, Jones said, “and challenges ourselves operationally even after we return to the Moon.”

The key to sustaining a long and spirited exploration program “is to keep new results coming in and our imaginations looking out…way out beyond the Moon,” Jones concluded.

Neandertal DNA Partially Mapped, Studies Show - National Geographics

Interesting results: This article reports that Neandertals would have had a DNA 99.5% similar to modern humans.
We already knew that there was a 99% similarity between any chimp and human DNA.
The figure is 99.9% for any unrelated humans.
The figure is 99.95% for brothers and sisters...

source: DK's Science e-encyclopedia


Kimberly Johnson

November 15, 2006

Modern humans' closest relatives, the Neandertals, broke off from the family tree about 500,000 years ago, according to one of two new studies that analyzed DNA from the extinct species Homo neandertalis.

Nuclear DNA from a 38,000-year-old Neandertal (often spelled Neanderthal) fossil leg bone from Croatia was sequenced and compared to DNA from modern humans and chimpanzees.

Cave and fossil photos

The findings, published today in the journal Nature, also suggest that the entire Neandertal population was derived from a relatively small ancestral group of 3,000 individuals.

The second study, released simultaneously by the journal Science, analyzed DNA from the same ancient Croatian bone, revealing for the first time that modern humans and Neandertals share 99.5 percent of their genetic makeup.

But their analysis didn't find evidence that modern human and Neandertal DNA mixed, seeming to counter recent conclusions that Neandertals interbred with humans to the point of total absorption, leading to their extinction.

Overall, the dual projects signal the dawn of Neandertal genomics, says Edward Rubin, director of the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and co-author of the Science study.

"In many ways it will change some aspects of anthropology," Rubin said. "We're never going to bring [Neandertals] back to life, but we will be able to compare [the species' genetics] to the human genome."

Neandertal Library

The Nature study team used an advanced new machine to perform high-throughput nuclear DNA sequencing.

Using this method, the team, led by Richard Green of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, was able to isolate about one million DNA base pairs, creating the beginnings of a Neandertal genome "library."

Base pairs are the "letters" of the genetic alphabet that are combined in DNA as genes to code for everything from hair color to body shape (get an overview of human genetics).

"Neanderthals are the hominid group most closely related to currently living humans, so a Neanderthal nuclear genome sequence would be an invaluable resource for annotating the human genome," the Nature study authors wrote.

Using a different type of DNA analysis, the Science team has revealed that there are about three million base pair distinctions between modern humans and Neandertals, study co-author Rubin says. The genetic differences between humans and Neandertals is "a drop in the bucket" compared to the estimated 30 million to 50 million base pair differences between humans and chimpanzees, he said.

Learning to Read

Based on the latest findings, scientists say they are on their way to fully sequencing the Neandertal genome, possibly as soon as two years from now.

Some experts in the field, however, remain skeptical.

Putting together a complete Neandertal genetic library could take decades, according to archaeologist John Shea, who teaches at the State University of New York in Stony Brook.

And "accumulating a library is a first step," said Shea, who was not involved in the research released today.

"We need to know how to read the books, i.e., to know what differences in particular genes mean for growth and behavior."

But scientists are a long way from having a sufficient number of samples to conclusively test ancestry, he says.

DNA breaks down during fossilization, which also complicates analysis. What's more, Neandertal bones are typically soft and easily contaminated by fixatives or excessive handling once they are excavated.

"There are vastly more contaminated specimens" than pure ones, Shea said. "If you find that a Neandertal fossil has modern human DNA, is it mixed lineage or contamination?"

Anthropologist Erik Trinkaus, who was involved with last month's interbreeding study, says that today's DNA reports are consistent with findings based on non-DNA fossil analysis.

"All of this only says that the DNA analysis is probably close to correct, if not new in its conclusions," said the scientist, who is based at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

"In other words, their work so far is solely a test of whether they can do it, what we call a pilot study." Going further may be a challenge.

"They have one individual and are unlikely to get very many more, given the poor organic preservation of most Pleistocene [1.8 million years ago to 11,500 years ago] fossil humans," Trinkaus said.

"Since evolution consists of changing patterns of variation, they cannot address evolutionary questions."

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Looking Saturn in the Eye - NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Hurricane-like vortex at Saturn's south pole

November 9, 2006
Full-Res: PIA08332

+ View Movie

Cassini stares deep into the swirling hurricane-like vortex at Saturn's south pole, where the vertical structure of the clouds is highlighted by shadows. Such a storm, with a well-developed eye ringed by towering clouds, is a phenomenon never before seen on another planet.

This 14-frame movie shows a swirling cloud mass centered on the south pole, around which winds blow at 550 kilometers (350 miles) per hour. The frames have been aligned to make the planet appear stationary, while the sun appears to revolve about the pole in a counterclockwise direction. The clouds inside the dark, inner circle are lower than the surrounding clouds, which cast a shadow that follows the sun.

At the beginning of the movie, the sun illuminates directly from the top, and by the end it illuminates from the left. The width of the shadow and the height of the sun above the local horizon yield a crude estimate of the height of the surrounding clouds relative to the clouds in the center. The shadow-casting clouds tower 30 to 75 kilometers (20 to 45 miles) above those in the center. This is two to five times greater than the tallest terrestrial thunderstorms and two to five times the height of clouds surrounding the eye of a terrestrial hurricane. Such a height difference arises because Saturn's hydrogen-helium atmosphere is less dense at comparable pressures than Earth's atmosphere, and is therefore more distended in the vertical dimension.

The south polar storm, which displays two spiral arms of clouds extending from the central ring and spans the dark area inside a thick, brighter ring of clouds, is approximately 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) across, which is considerably larger than a terrestrial hurricane.

Eye-wall clouds are a distinguishing feature of hurricanes on Earth. They form where moist air flows inward across the ocean's surface, rising vertically and releasing a load of precipitation around an interior circular region of descending air, which is the eye itself.

Though it is uncertain whether moist convection is driving this storm, as is the case with Earthly hurricanes, the dark 'eye' at the pole, the eye-wall clouds and the spiral arms together indicate a hurricane-like system. The distinctive eye-wall clouds especially have not been seen on any planet beyond Earth. Even Jupiter's Great Red Spot, much larger than Saturn's polar storm, has no eye, no eye-wall, and is relatively calm at the center.

This giant Saturnian storm is apparently different from hurricanes on Earth because it is locked to the pole, does not drift around like terrestrial hurricanes and because it does not form over liquid water oceans.

The images were acquired over a period of three hours on Oct. 11, 2006, when Cassini was approximately 340,000 kilometers (210,000 miles) from Saturn. Image scale is about 17 kilometers (11 miles) per pixel. The images were taken with the wide-angle camera using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of infrared light centered at 752 nanometers. All frames have been contrast enhanced using digital image processing techniques. The unprocessed images show an oblique view toward the pole, and have been reprojected to show the planet from a perspective directly over the south pole.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at .

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Friday, November 10, 2006

Europeans Revel in US Republican Defeat - Deutsche Welle,2144,2230691,00.html

Transatlantic Relations | 08.11.2006

The European reaction to Democrat wins in midterm US elections was overwhelmingly positive. Observers said they hoped the US and Europe could start healing widening trans-Atlantic rifts.

Political observers in Europe said they were hoping that a decisive advance by Democrats in the US election could usher in a new era in trans-Atlantic cooperation.

Many of those who saw US President George W. Bush get a bloody nose in these elections expect US lawmakers to take a good hard look at US policy in Iraq, first and foremost.

"Europeans would expect some change in policy and possibly also personnel," said Antonio Missiroli, Chief Political Analyst of the European Policy Centre in Brussels. "It is not to be ruled out that … (US Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld might go. And I suppose most Europeans might welcome a new face and a turning of the page on Iraq and the wider Middle East."

'End of a nightmare'

The Bush administration was widely seen to have alienated Europe and much of the rest of the world by its "with us or against us" approach to Iraq, alleged human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay prison, and its stance on ecological issues – particularly its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Poster showing US figure drinking oil through a straw Anti-US sentiment is openly, and frequently, expressed in Europe

Now, it seems Bush's bill has come due, and Europeans are openly happy about it.

"There is less White House in America now and a little less America in the world," Dominique Moisi, special councillor at the French Institute of International Relations, told Reuters news service.

"The demise of (Bush's) America is good news for all those who love America," he added.

The Socialist Group in the European Parliament, the second-largest bloc following the conservative grouping, hailed the election result, saying Bush had been "seriously weakened."

"We are relieved that we now see the beginning of the end of a six-year nightmare for the world," said Martin Schulz, the president of the 201-strong Socialist Group.

Slow change is likely

Many analysts did not expect Democrats to change things too quickly in Iraq, however.

George Bush and Tony Blair walking Britain's Tony Blair was one of few European leaders to stand behind Bush

"The Democrats will make life unpleasant for Bush, but they are not going to get much in his way because they don't want to be tarred by defeat in Iraq," Francois Heisbourg, a special councillor at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris told Reuters.

Trade talks may sour

Observers also worried that trade negotiations currently underway between the US and the European Union could take a hit, post-election.

"The democratic Congress would probably be marginally more protectionist than the current one and this would not bode well for the current negotiations in the WTO framework, considering in particular that the 'fast track' mandate for the Bush administration for striking a deal expires in July 2007," the European Policy Center's Missiroli said.

Bush's "fast track" negotiating power allows him to authorize trade deals.

Even Britain is glad

But such policy concerns did not dampen broad satisfaction in many European capitals, amid continued growing unhappiness over U.S. leadership.

Even people in Washington's closest European ally, Britain, appeared glad to see Bush lose his majority in Congress.

"He's not the leader he was. He doesn't seem to be making the decisions, there seems to be no sense to what he is doing anymore," John Hayward, a logistics manager in London, told Reuters.

DW Staff (jen)

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Corruption Perception Index - Transparency International

Here is an international comparison of corruption levels. I only selected the countries with the biggest economies + the least corrupt country and the most corrupt one.

As a whole, there are no suprises: poor coutries tend to be the most corrupt.
However, we can also notice the high level of corruption in Italy (a rich country).
The Indians are not that corrupt... given that they are much poorer than the Mexicans, the Russians or the Iranians.

After comparing this index with the 2005' one, I noticed that corruption got worse in Thailand, in the USA and in France.


Finland ----------> 1 (least corrupt country in the world)
Australia --------> 9th least corrupt country...
United Kingdom -> 11
Canada ----------> 14
Germany --------> 16
Japan ------------> 17
France -----------> 18
USA -------------> 20
Spain ------------> 23
Taiwan ----------> 34
South Korea -----> 42
Italy ------------> 45
Turkey ---------> 60
Thailand --------> 63
Brazil ------------> 70
China ------------> 70
India ------------> 70
Mexico ----------> 70
Iran ------------->105
Russia ----------->121
Indonesia -------->130
Haiti ------------->163 (most corrupt country in the world)

Studies Highlight Top Sources of Pollution - Live Scince

By Abigail W. Leonard
Special to LiveScience
posted: 05 November 2006
09:54 am ET

From melting ice caps to acid rain, most environmental damage is caused by a very short list of consumer products.

A new study finds that 70 to 80% of all environmental degradation comes from three major categories of goods: transportation, food and home energy use.

The finding is based on eleven studies in a special edition of the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology, which looked at the environmental impact of major product groups. The studies varied in design and methodology, but their lists of culprits were similar.

The top three biggest polluters, according to the study:

The idea of looking at products rather than risks reflects a new approach to environmental policy that seems to be gaining traction in Europe and may be on the horizon here.

"Rather than just regulating risks like pollution from a smokestack for example, people are asking whether we could get better leverage by also using products as a basis for environmental policies," said the journal's editor-in-chief, Reid Lifset.

This approach takes into account the entire lifecycle of a product, looking at its manufacture, use and disposal. It considers, for example, how a car is produced and from which materials, how much it pollutes during its lifetime, and, when it has finally guzzled its last tank of gas, how it is disposed.

Proponents of product-based policy say it allows consumers to make choices based on the environmental impact of a given product, and envision a labeling system that would denote the "green-ness" of goods.

Some experts question whether such measures could ever really take off, though. Thomas Kinneman, an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University who was not involved in the studies, said labeling is only effective if consumers are willing to pay the extra money that more environmentally friendly products cost. It's doubtful, he said, that product-based assessments will translate to legislative measures, at least in the next year, unless they are backed by financial incentives, such as imposing a tax for the disposal of environmentally damaging household items.

Whatever policy results, the report provides new insight into the environmental consequences of consumer habits. "The research findings reported in the special issue are important because they help pinpoint the most problematic types of consumption, which include activities that are now commonplace in our lives such as air transport," said Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. "That should lead to clearer priorities and better decisions."

Friday, November 03, 2006

Sayonara, sushi... - Nature

Published online: 2 November 2006
; | doi:10.1038/news061030-10

Time could be running out for seafood.

Heidi Ledford

Salmon, like all seafood: predicted to collapse by 2048.

What's your favourite seafood dish? Seared scallops? Salmon sashimi? Grilled shrimp?

Enjoy it while you can, because by 2048 it could all be gone. A recent survey of global fisheries data says that seafood stocks around the world will collapse within 50 years — if we don't change the way we treat the world's oceans1.

"That's the end of the line," says Boris Worm, a marine conservation biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and lead author on the study. "Whatever your favourite seafood is, you will most likely not be able to eat it anymore."

Worm and his colleagues reached this conclusion by analysing more than 50 years worth of data from the Sea Around Us Project — a database containing almost 500 million records of catch rates from fisheries around the world and based at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The international team of researchers used this data to model the ocean's bounty over time.

Their calculations showed a precipitous drop in coastal biodiversity over the past 200 years, along with a concomitant decline in water quality and a surge in harmful algal blooms, coastal flooding and fish kills. Analysis of data from large marine ecosystems indicated that 29% of the seafood stocks available in 1950 had already collapsed as of 2003, and the remainder would follow by 2048.

Fortunately Worm's analyses also showed that current conservation efforts have succeeded in reversing fishery decline in some regions. Worm hopes that conservation plans and fishing management will prevent us from ever reaching the point of total collapse. "I'm optimistically convinced that we will not hit 100% at 2048 because we will turn things around before that," he says.

Saving seafood

To prevent the collapse of the seafood industry, Worm says, fishing should focus on stocks such as herring and mackerel, which are less sensitive to heavy fishing. Habitat restoration, pollution reduction and a slowdown in climate change will also be key factors in reversing current trends, he adds.

Efforts like these can restore biodiversity to marine ecosystems, which will make them more productive and so more resistant to disturbing factors such as storms and fishing.

Whatever your favourite seafood is, you will most likely not be able to eat it anymore.

Boris Worm,
Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia
In addition, a recent report from George Sugihara of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, suggests that preserving the larger, older fish within a population would make it more resistant to collapse2.

Point of collapse

Steve Murawski, chief scientist at the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service, agrees that seafood supply needs to be actively protected. But, he says, Worm's models rely on a definition of 'collapse' - the point at which a fishery's yield dips below 10% of its historic maximum - that may not truly reflect fishery conditions.

"That's not a good metric of what a healthy stock would be," says Murawski. "In many cases that high catch occurred because you were dramatically overfishing the stock." Evaluating stocks relative to an overfishing event sets the bar artificially high, Murawski argues, leading researchers to conclude that a fishery has collapsed even if it is being stably maintained.

Worm concedes Murawski's point, but points out that catch data is the only global data available. Meanwhile, he adds, the trend in his data is clear even if a precise date for worldwide seafood collapse may vary.

"It's like a lemon," says Worm. "We have to press harder and harder to get juice out of it. At some point we just can't force more out — we're going to start running out of species."

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