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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Neutrinos and multiverses: a new cosmology beckons

You wait decades for discoveries that could revolutionise physics, then three come along at once

"THE universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose," as geneticist J. B. S. Haldane once remarked. In recent decades, physicists have done their best to prove Haldane wrong, by supposing some very queer universes indeed.

Their speculations may seem fantastical, but they are well motivated. Physics poses some formidable questions that we are so far unable to answer. Why is the universe dominated by matter not antimatter? Why does our universe appear to be "fine-tuned" with just the right properties to give rise to galaxies, stars, planets, life and physicists?

The existing edifice of physics, built upon the twin foundations of general relativity and quantum mechanics, is clearly in need of renovation. We have been waiting for years for cracks to appear that might tell us how to go about it. But up to now, nature has remained stubbornly unmoved.

In the past few weeks, however, promising cracks have opened up. In September came stunning news of neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light. Sceptics withheld judgement but now a new analysis has affirmed the initial result (see "More data shows neutrinos still faster than light"). We still await independent verification - doubts have already been cast - but if it holds up the implications are enormous, opening the door to a new and very different picture of the cosmos.

No less tantalising is a report that particles called mesons decay differently from their antimatter counterparts, anti-mesons (see "LHC antimatter anomaly hints at new physics"). If this result stands up, it would go a long way towards explaining why we have more matter than antimatter. More importantly, it would prise open the standard model of particle physics - which cannot explain the result - and point the way to yet more new physics.

The widest crack of all concerns a theory once considered outlandish but now reluctantly accepted as the orthodoxy. Almost everything in modern physics, from standard cosmology and quantum mechanics to string theory, points to the existence of multiple universes - maybe 10500 of them, maybe an infinite number (see "The ultimate guide to the multiverse").

If our universe is just one of many, that solves the "fine-tuning" problem at a stroke: we find ourselves in a universe whose laws are compatible with life because it couldn't be any other way. And that would just be the start of a multiverse-fuelled knowledge revolution.

Conclusive evidence may be close at hand. Theorists predict that our universe might once have collided with others. These collisions could have left dents in the cosmic microwave background, the universe's first light, which the European Space Agency's Planck satellite is mapping with exquisite precision. The results are eagerly awaited, and could trigger a revolution not unlike the ones unleashed by Copernicus's idea that the Earth is not the centre of the solar system and Edwin Hubble's discovery that our galaxy is just one among many in an expanding universe.

These are exciting, possibly epoch-making, times. Our understanding of the universe stands on the brink of being remade once again. The universe may indeed be queerer than we can suppose, but that was never going to stop us from trying.

Paralympian is not alone in regaining ability to walk

Monique van der Vorst greets the handcyclists at the 2011 Rome Marathon (Image: Giagnori Eidon/LatinContent/GettyImages)


A 27-year-old woman has lost her place the London 2012 Paralympic Games in what appear to be the most unusual of circumstances: Monique van der Vorst, formerly paralysed from the waist down, has regained her ability to walk. Perhaps surprisingly, though, neuroscientists say her experience is not unprecedented.


van der Vorst was a handcyclist with national and international titles to her name. She has now traded her handbike for a bicycle - and has just been given one of 11 spots on the Dutch women's professional cycling team, Rabobank, according to IoL News.


When she was 13, van der Vorst lost the use of her right leg after routine ankle surgery damaged her nerves. She took up handcycling, but in 2008, while she was training for the Beijing Olympics, she was hit by a car. Her spinal cord was damaged, leaving her paralysed from the waist down, yet she still entered the Olympics later that year - and won two silver medals.


Last year, she was involved in another accident, this time with a cyclist. The accident left her legs tingling, and after a spell in hospital and some rehabilitation, she was able to walk again.


Although van der Vorst's recovery remain unexplained, that's largely because of the speed of her recovery, according to IoL News. In fact, regaining the use of paralysed limbs is more common than we realise, according to Geoff Raisman, a neurologist at University College London.


"A very considerable body of careful patient data...[collected] over a considerable period of time indicates that over 40 per cent of spinal injured patients initially paralysed will walk again," he told New Scientist.


Even if natural recovery is not possible, new medical technology could help some people with paralysis. For instance, earlier this year researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles used electrical stimulation of the spinal cord to restore function to the legs of a paralysed man.

Polio near-eradicated in India - Pakistan struggling

If the battle to eradicate polio were an action movie, this week would be the part where the good guys have racked up spectacular victories – but look like they may lose anyway.

On the spectacular side, polio may be gone in India. Of the four countries where polio remained entrenched, the giant country was expected to be the last to fall. Yet its most recent case was in January this year, whereas by this time last year, it had had 40 cases.

The intestinal-borne virus hasn't even been found in sewage in India, says Oliver Rosenbauer, spokesman for the polio programme of the World Health Organization, even though the incidence of the disease usually peaks at this time of year.

The victory, says the WHO, is down to repeated, coordinated vaccination drives spearheaded by local officials in affected areas, and the use of a more efficient vaccine that only targets the strains circulating.

Yet as long as polio persists somewhere, India must keep doggedly vaccinating. Experts meeting at the WHO in Geneva this month warned that if eradication fails now, it will be "the most expensive public health failure in history".

In Nigeria, another of the four, cases jumped fourfold this year from last, to 43. "It's worrying," says Rosenbauer, as Nigeria has re-infected three neighbouring, formerly polio-free countries. And the area of north-east Nigeria affected is increasingly hard for vaccination teams to access due to an Islamic militant group called Boko Haram.

Still, outbreaks in polio-free areas can be mopped up quickly. Tajikistan, for example, had 460 cases last year, vaccinated, and had none this year. And unlike 2003, when polio in Nigeria soared after local leaders opposed vaccination, those people are now on-side. Cases are down 95 per cent from 2009, and remain only where local leaders have not taken active responsibility for polio.

They are starting to, says Rosenbauer. "Our analysis shows the extent of local leadership correlates with viral persistence." That was key in Nigeria and India, he says. That, and switching from the old vaccine which contained all three strains of polio virus, to a new single-strain vaccine that induces faster, stronger immunity.

That may crack a third endemic country, Afghanistan, where polio persists in the south near Pakistan. Local violence prevented vaccination and nearly tripled cases this year, to 53. But the new vaccine can be given over one week instead of six, allowing vaccinators and, again, local leaders to negotiate lightning-strike vaccinations during lulls in the hostilities.

The real worry is Pakistan, where polio has spread all over from three strongholds in Karachi, Quetta and the north-west tribal area. Cases stand at 145 people infected so far this year, up from 113 last year. In the first two regions the key again will be local leadership, which may be bolstered with a new national vaccination initiative this year, says Rosenbauer.

Portraits of Delhi's Water Crisis

This area will be submerged if the Renuka Dam is built as planned Over the last few months there have been increasingly loud murmurs of discontent over Delhi's proposed Renuka Dam. Planned for construction 300 kilometres outside the capital in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, the dam will be designed to meet a third of the city's burgeoning water demand and provide 40 megawatts of power to Himachal. But not everyone is firmly behind the £480 million project. With the dam in place, the homes of 750 families in 37 villages, 1,700,000 trees, a diverse range of wildlife and 1630 hectares of agricultural land will all be under water. And the kicker: Delhi doesn't need it.


This contradiction was the subject of Delhi's Might, Renuka's Plight, a photography exhibition held at the Jai Bharat Centre this week. A social investor turned photographer, Neeraj Doshi believes in meeting environmental and social challenges of our times with novel solutions, and hopes photography will help him make his case. "Sometimes pictures can be far more powerful than words", he says.


Tara Devi, a dalit farmer, looks at the land she will lose to the dam


Doshi's pictures sketch life on both sides of the dam. In the green areas of Himachal, a woman cooks dinner over an outdoor stove, as grassy hills "notified for submergence" stretch into the distance behind her. Farmers tend their doomed fields with sober expressions - perhaps looking towards a future as city construction workers. Yet as the images shift to the city, one sees dripping pipelines, disused and sullied water bodies, polluted riverways, and overflowing tanks - portraits of waste.


"People in Delhi need to realize that dams are short-term solutions," explained Doshi. "This is not a problem of supply, but of wastage and poor management."


Close to half of Delhi's public water supply is lost in leaky distribution and non-metered connections. Further supplies (an estimated 15-20 billion litres) could also be captured by improving the city's 900 storage structures. City-based rainwater harvesting, for example, has tremendous potential to improve supply, Doshi argues, pointing to recent efforts in Bangalore, and even at a few sites in Delhi.


In addition to improving efficiency, Doshi is eager to address the issue of inequity as well. "At 200 liters per day, Delhi has the highest per capita usage of water in the country, yet many - particularly in the slum areas - remain without access."


Tales of India's looming water crisis are not new, nor is Renuka the first controversial dam or Delhi the only wasteful city. 2010 estimates suggest demand will exceed supply by 50 percent in just 20 years. Yet Doshi, along with the organizers at the Jai Bharat Centre, believes facts and figures on their own aren't enough to get the point across.


"Pictures are, many times, far more accessible than words," said Dipanwita Das, one of the Jai Bharat founders.


And indeed, while this exhibition is about the Renuka Dam, it also serves, more broadly, to highlight contradictions around resource supply and demand across much of India. Doshi hopes the images will make visitors think about how they are connected to these larger problems.


"This is not about assigning blame," he said. "We are all a part of the problem, but we can all be part of the solution too."


"So many such stories have gone untold in the past," said Doshi, "but with the media and internet revolutions we are seeing today, this is no longer possible. Those without voices can be heard in a way that was never possible before."

Seasonal flu may not spring from east Asia

FLU season is due any day in Europe and North America, but it may not spring from east Asia as many thought. Researchers may need to monitor flu evolution over more of the planet to match vaccines to next winter's flu.

In 2008 the first global genetic analysis of flu viruses found that flu's annual rampage through the northern, then southern hemisphere's winter is seeded from China and its neighbours. The virus strains' family trees suggested that flu always circulates locally in east Asia before emerging from this crucible for its global excursions. New work suggests the situation is not so simple.

If east Asia is the source, flu should be most genetically diverse there, says Justin Bahl of Duke-National University of Singapore. His team compared viruses collected between 2003 and 2006, from south-east Asia, including Hong Kong, China, and from Australia, Europe, Japan and New York. "We found much less diversity in east Asia than elsewhere," says Bahl. "That surprised us."

East Asian viruses seemed to have migrated there from all over the world, he says, and new varieties seemed to originate anywhere. "There is always a flu epidemic somewhere, and that seeds the annual temperate-zone flu seasons," says Bahl, but the breeding ground is not confined to east Asia (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1109314108).

The researchers who proposed the east Asian source are not convinced. Colin Russell at the University of Cambridge says the new study covers too little time and too few regions to detect a true pattern. Bahl says they will expand the study.

Flu's origins are important because the annual flu vaccine takes six months to make, so it is based on what virus epidemiologists think will be dominant when the vaccine is needed. Wider sampling may therefore be needed.

Seaweed gel transforms drops into edible beads

It could be the next trend in molecular gastronomy: quickly encapsulating a drop of liquid to create an edible bead. The technique, developed by Nicolas Bremond and colleagues at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris (ESPCI ParisTech), can package any liquid using a seaweed extract.


Bremond came up with the technique while collaborating with a master chef who wanted to put flavours in small compartments. To create liquid-filled beads, drops are coated with a seaweed solution. Then they're dropped into a calcium bath containing detergent, which causes the algae to harden and form a shell. Without detergent, the watery coating would still gel, but it would quickly mix with its liquid contents.


Beyond culinary creations, Bremond is using the method to package cancer cells and study them in a 3D environment. The permeable beads prevent cell contamination, while allowing drugs to flow in.


If you enjoyed this video, see how a laser technique can control the flow of liquids or watch the weird antics of charged drops of water.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Staring into the light amid the winter darkness

It’s freezing, dark, and winter has definitely arrived - but on the terrace of a London gallery, I am basking under the bright white light of 10,000 lux. The dramatic shelter overhead not only protects me from the rain, but the sunlight-mimicking intensity of the light should also give me a little boost this winter.


The installation I’m sitting under is the brainchild of James Yamada, an American artist who created the sculpture, entitled The summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees, to enable visitors to enjoy the health benefits of bright light during the darkest months of the year.


The idea behind the piece is really very simple: curators at the Parasol Unit contemporary art foundation wanted an outdoor sculpture for the winter, and Yamada, having heard how dark it gets during a British winter, wanted to supply a hint of summer to his guests. “I’d heard about how people with seasonal affective disorder use light to help them avoid the depression they can experience during winter,” he says. Incorporating this therapy into his sculpture appealed to his love of art and science.


“I travelled around a few tropical countries and saw these really simple structures that protect you from the sun,” Yamada says. He was drawn to the primitive architecture of the Hopi hut of the American south west. It’s one step from a lean-to, he says, one of the most basic forms of architecture. “I thought I’d marry the two ideas by bringing light inside the shelter. So as well as shielding you it provides you with something too”.


The four white posts holding the sculpture’s corrugated iron roof look like they are made of Styrofoam: a gust of wind and the whole thing should topple over. In fact, Yamada did originally use Styrofoam to carve the four supports but then used it to cast aluminium, which he painted to look like Styrofoam again. “I liked the idea of making a structure that seems very light and fragile, and at the same time is strong,” he says.


Sitting on the cold, thin, metallic bench that is placed in the centre of the shelter, I look up. I’m almost blinded by the intensity of the blue and white strip lights integrated into the iron roof. Yamada spoke to several researchers before creating the project to identify the correct amount of light thought to provide beneficial therapy for SAD. The condition, often referred to as “winter depression” is thought to involve a brain chemical called serotonin. Recent research suggests that people with SAD have overactive serotonin transporters which break down the neurotransmitter in the brain before it has had a chance to act. Light therapy is thought to slow the removal of serotonin so that it can exert its beneficial effect on mood.


Yamada tells me that just ten minutes is all I need to reap the beneficial effects of the light, “but it’s OK if people just want to sit and contemplate or have a physical relationship with the piece rather than a therapeutic one,” he says. The bench I sit on faces an olive tree. Surrounded by darkness, it is indeed quite a calming influence and I imagine could be a nice place to sit and think.


Unfortunately, it’s still freezing outside and my hands are starting to go numb. In fact, the cold metal bench is also starting to make other parts of my body lose feeling. Yamada explains, “The roof gives a little heat but the bench is thin and fragile so it’s really cold.” You’re telling me, I think, as I try to get circulation back into my bottom. “But I like that circular process - you’re giving the shelter your heat as its giving you its heat.”


Although I quite like this concept, I’ve been sitting still for ten minutes and I decide enough is enough. “Yeah, it really sucks the heat out of your ass,” Yamada laughs.


The sculpture does provide welcome light in the dark hours of winter, but if you visit it I would suggest bringing a pair of gloves. And a thick pair of trousers.

Today on New Scientist: 25 November 2011

A pensive portrait of a male gibbon at the Bristol Zoo scooped an award for an amateur photographer


Sony's new handheld console bristles with technology, but can it beat its portable gaming rivals?


The ostensible aim is to devise a successor to the Kyoto protocol, but there's so much more going on


Monique van der Vorst won't be competing in the Paralympic Games because she has regained the use of her legs - a surprisingly common occurrence


Rare ancient stars boasting precious metals may have formed from high-class dust clouds


India has only had a single case this year but risks re-infection from its neighbour


The Last Universal Common Ancestor may have filled the planet's oceans before giving birth to the ancestors of all living things on Earth today


See how a liquid-trapping culinary technique could be used to study cancer cells


Artist James Yamada's new outdoor installation draws inspiration from light boxes used to treat seasonal affective disorder


Barau's petrel is one of a handful of tropical birds that navigates using the full moon as a kind of Bat-Signal to guide them to their love nests


Are we ready for a "pre-social network" with predictive powers that could help stage-manage our lives through our smartphones?


Noble gases are a do-nothing group of elements that barely exist on Earth. But that doesn't mean they're not valuable, says David E. Fisher


Alchemy lives in County Fermanagh, Ms von Zeppelin gets her perfect job, Bank of America gets trillionaire-ready, and more


Watch physics at work in a glass of wine as different types of waves are produced


A reconstruction of the last ice age suggests that the climate is less sensitive to carbon dioxide than we thought, but climatologists are sceptical


Fish bones and fishing hooks found in East Timor push back the record of fishing by 30,000 years


New images link the mysterious high-energy particles to their star-nursery source


Transplanted embryonic neurons repair damaged brain circuits in mice, reversing obesity

Zoologger: 'Werewolf birds' hook up by the full moon

Zoologger is our weekly column highlighting extraordinary animals – and occasionally other organisms – from around the world

Species: Pterodroma baraui

Habitat: Reunion Island in the western Indian Ocean, mating 'neath the pale moonlight

Name an animal that is most active during the full moon, and even those of us untouched by the charms of the Twilight movies might think werewolf.

Our subject today is no mythical beast, however. The Barau's petrel is one of a handful of tropical birds that uses the moon as a kind of alarm clock. During breeding season, the bird travels to mating sites on the aptly named Reunion Island off the shore of Madagascar to meet its mate.

The monogamous birds synchronise their journeys using the full moon as a kind of Bat-Signal to indicate that it's time to mate. "First arrival at the colony is crucial in the mating system of colonial animals like seabirds," writes Patrick Pinet of the University of Réunion, France.

It's not uncommon for birds to take cues from the intensity of sunlight or the length of the day to determine the seasons for migration and mating. Circadian clocks are influenced by melatonin secretions, which reflect the amount and intensity of daylight.

But the Barau's petrel migrates longitudinally – that is, parallel to the equator – so there isn't much difference between the hours of sunrise and sunset in winter and summer.

Still, the slight changes in daylight do affect the petrels. Daily and seasonal changes in melatonin secretion indicate time of day and the time of the year for these birds. But to migrate at the right time to ensure they meet their partners, they need something that varies more reliably.

Pinet and colleagues studied Barau's petrels over two years to see if the animals adjusted their behaviour according to moonlight levels.

During nights with a full moon the birds were significantly more active, spending 80 per cent of their time in flight, instead of resting on the water. Pinet's team also found that arrival dates to the colonies during mating season coincided with the full moon.

Pinet's team was the first to use "bio-loggers" to track the influence of light levels on the behaviour of free-flying birds. These small, lightweight devices were tied to the birds' feet, where they did not interfere with flight. Sensors recorded the amount of time submerged in water and the amount of light taken in, which gave the team a good estimate for the birds' location and activity.

The team speculate that the increase in activity could mean the petrels are foraging for prey that is easier to see and more active itself in the moonlight.

Stop badmouthing sharks that bite people

The phrase "shark attack" is sensationalist and damaging – bites by sharks are often investigatory or defensive

I HAVE seen a shark attack, and it is dramatic. On a recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa, I watched great whites breaching from beneath seals in successful and unsuccessful predations. These are attempts to kill. Shark predations on seals are attacks, because the intent is clear.

However, to suggest that shark-on-human encounters should be called predations would be wrong. The way sharks encounter seals is fundamentally different from how they treat humans.

I believe the time is right for science to reconsider its use of the phrase "shark attack" on humans. Such language creates a one-dimensional perception of these events and makes protecting threatened shark species more difficult. After all, why care about an animal that wants to eat us?

Historically, the language has been less emotive. Cases of "shark bite" were noted by doctors in 1899 and "shark accident" was an accepted term until the 1930s, even if it was fatal.

This faded when Australian surgeon Victor Coppleson concluded in a 1933 article in the Medical Journal of Australia that "the evidence sharks will attack man is complete". The first New Orleans Shark Symposium in 1958 cemented "attack" language in the scientific community.

The argument for change is compelling. Modern research has shown that bites by sharks are often investigatory or defensive, taking place in cloudy water and out of curiosity.

Human-shark encounters are always called attacks even when there is no contact, artificially amplifying the numbers. What's more, no distinction is made for minor bites from non-threatening species. In Australia, 13 per cent of all "attacks" come from small wobbegong sharks, which bite when stepped on. Under the existing system, the public is unable to tell scratches from fatalities, boats from people or wobbegongs from great whites.

Finally, "attack" terminology creates an inappropriate connection between scientific reasoning and tabloid journalism. If there is no separation between science and sensationalism, then educating the public about true shark behaviour is more difficult.

Changing terminology is not simple. I use the phrase "shark bite incidents" but the transition cannot be unilateral. This norm-setting task is the responsibility of the whole scientific community.

X-ray images help create best Stradivarius rip-offs

When radiologist Steve Sirr from FirstLight Medical Systems in Minnesota ended up with a violin in the emergency room, he couldn't help putting it through an X-ray computed tomography (CT) scan. But it was more than a one-off experiment: the idea led him to team up with two violin makers to create the most accurate replicas to date of a Stradivarius violin.


Using the 3D scanning technology, Sirr and his team were able to determine the precise shape, rib structure, wood density and volume of air inside a Betts Stradivarius violin. In this video, you can fly around a psychedelic 3D model of its body that they produced from the scans.


To create a replica, the virtual model is fed to a bespoke Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine designed by violinmaker Steve Rossow, another member of the team. Based on the images, the device directs a lathe and carves each piece of the violin out of various types of wood. Then the segments are assembled and varnished by hand.


Thanks to the new technique, copies are so realistic that the team has branded each piece to prevent counterfeiting. Previously, replicas were produced by accessing an instrument for a short period of time and using a traced outline of the violin.


The team has just completed their fourth copy of the Stradivarius but it won't be the last. "Nowadays, musicians aren't able to afford their own Stradivarius anymore," says Rossow. "It's important for musicians to have access to these things."


The researchers will be presenting their findings at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) annual meeting this week in Chicago.


If you enjoyed this video, see how hand-hacking is helping budding musicians or check out the discovery of the Oram synthesizer, a pioneering electronic instrument. 

Altered-image ratings tell you just how fake photos are

Airbrushed images of models and celebrities have already been linked with eating disorders and body dissatisfaction. Now such images could come with a warning, thanks to a system for rating degrees of photograph manipulation.

Politicians in countries such as the UK, France and Norway have already called for labels on retouched images, but the publishing industry has so far resisted the change since nearly all photos are tweaked in some way.

"It's a blunt instrument because you don't distinguish between white balancing or cropping the image and reducing the body by size by 20 per cent or airbrushing every wrinkle to oblivion," says Hany Farid, a researcher in digital image forensics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. That is why Farid and his colleague Eric Kee have come up with a system that automatically rates retouching on a scale of 1 to 5, from minor changes to a complete digital makeover – you can see see before and after examples on his website.

Farid calculates this rating based on eight statistics that summarise changes in shape, colour and texture. Four of these describe the movement of pixels in the photo subject's face and body, while the others relate to the amount of blurring, sharpening or colour correction in the image. He then used Amazon's Mechanical Turk service to turn these into a single meaningful rating by asking 390 people to assess pairs of images on a 1 to 5 scale, to map a connection between the eight statistics and the human perception of photo manipulation.

The automated system agreed with the human ratings 80 per cent of the time, disagreeing for images where alteration of a few pixels led to a major perceptual change, such as an image of a man with missing teeth that were restored by the photo retoucher. Farid says that further training on a wider variety of images would help improve the system and it could also be modified to work on any kind of picture, not just ones containing people.

Labels generated by the system could be published alongside modified images, but Farid is also working with Kevin Connor, a former product manager at Adobe, to create a plug-in for Photoshop that would rate images in real-time during the editing process, warning retouchers if they stray too far from reality.

"I think that's certainly got some merit," says British MP, Jo Swinson, who has campaigned against retouched images. "Anything that would encourage people to think twice and not automatically go ahead with a lot of retouching just because it's possible could be helpful." But she warns that simply labelling images may not be helpful if the ratings are too small or if their meaning is unclear.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1110747108

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Monday, 28 November 2011

A Hard Turn: Big-Rig Drivers Focus on Getting Healthy

But once he ballooned to 405 pounds, he knew he had to make a change. So last year, Mr. Williams, 58, did something all too rare for someone in his profession: He embarked on a diet and exercise program.


The six-pack of Coca-Cola he drank each day? Gone. The hamburgers, chips and chocolate he relished? No more. Today, he drinks a protein shake mixed with ice water or soy milk for breakfast, nibbles cantaloupe and red grapes, and makes “sandwiches” with thinly sliced meat and cheese but no bread. He keeps a fold-up bike in his truck and zips around rest areas on his breaks.


His weight is down to 335 pounds, and he’s managed to reduce the amount of blood pressure medication he takes. “I rarely, maybe once a week, even go into a truck stop,” said Mr. Williams, who has been navigating an 18-wheeler for the last 30 years.


Mr. Williams’s predicament is hardly unique. On the road for weeks on end, with the sorts of diets that make nutritionists apoplectic, the nation’s truckers are in pretty bad shape. Now, beset by rising insurance costs and desperate to ensure their drivers pass government health tests, trucking companies and industry groups are working hard to persuade road warriors to change their habits.


It’s a long haul, so to speak. Eighty-six percent of the estimated 3.2 million truck drivers in the United States are overweight or obese, according to a 2007 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association.


“Obesity is a terrible problem in the trucking industry,” said Brett Blowers, director of marketing and development for the Healthy Trucking Association of America, an industry organization in Montgomery, Ala.


A few years ago, Mr. Blowers’s group conducted a blood pressure screening of more than 2,000 drivers at an annual truck show. “We sent 21 directly to the emergency room, and one of them had a heart attack on the way there,” he recalled.


It’s a problem not just for truckers, but for anyone who shares the road with them. In 2010, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers accounted for 13 percent of all fatal occupational injuries, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2007 report from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that 87 percent of crashes involving truckers stemmed to some degree from driver error. Twelve percent of these cases were because the driver was asleep, had a heart attack, was in diabetic shock or had some other health problem.


“Of the accidents that are preventable, I’d say about 10 to 25 percent, if not higher, were from drivers who were tired, had sleep apnea or were not physically fit,” said Chad Hoppenjan, director of transportation safety services at Cottingham and Butler, an insurance broker in Dubuque, Iowa.


The United States Department of Transportation requires drivers to pass a certifying medical exam every two years. Drivers are checked for severe heart conditions, high blood pressure and respiratory maladies, including sleep disorders.


While the statistics are bleak, they’re not especially surprising. Driving is a sedentary activity. Most truckers are paid by the mile, so they tend to squeeze out every last second of the 11 hours they’re allowed on the road in a 24-hour period.


“Some days I’ve driven 600 miles and didn’t even stop,” said Barb Waugh, 58, of Fairfax, S.D., one of an estimated 190,000 female truckers. In a typical week she logs 2,500 to 4,000 miles. ”I feel like a marshmallow because I don’t get to exercise,” said Ms. Waugh, who weighs about 300 pounds.


Routines that keep other Americans healthy — hitting the gym, cooking at home, scheduling a doctor’s appointment — are nearly impossible, since drivers are rarely in one place for more than a day or two. The only exercise for many is pressing the gas pedal; most don’t load and unload cargo.


When they do leave their vehicles, it’s usually at truck stops and fast-food restaurants where nearly every option is greasy or fatty or served up in calorie-rich buffets — which some truckers say stands for “Big Ugly Fat Fellows Eating Together.”


“Everything’s fried, fried, fried — chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, chili, burritos, corn dogs,” said Bill Johnson, 50, of Lubbock, Tex., a 25-year industry veteran.


Jill Garcia, 50, a driver from San Antonio who is obese and has sleep apnea and hypertension, said: “I swear, the truck stops have a candy-a-holic at their corporate offices. You can get two king-size bars for $3. I got four packs of M&M’s for a buck.”


Until recently, few in the transportation industry cared to tackle its health issues. “When you tried to talk to someone to connect the dots, they looked at you like you had three heads,” said Bob Perry, founder of Rolling Strong, which offers health and wellness programs for truckers.


Now transportation carriers, industry organizations and even truck stops are unrolling initiatives to help truckers slim down, shape up and improve their health. Employers are holding health seminars, building on-site gyms, bringing in nutritionists and fitness trainers, and offering financial incentives to employees who stop smoking or lose weight. Some drivers are cooking in their rigs, walking or bike riding around truck stops, blogging about their experiences at sites like truckingsolutionsgroup.org and safetythruwellness.com, and writing books.

Anti-H.I.V. Gel Trial Is Canceled in Africa

The news was a major disappointment for AIDS research. It was not clear why the gel did not work in this trial, since it had seemed to work surprisingly well in a previous one.


Finding a vaginal gel that protects women against the virus that causes AIDS but still allows them to get pregnant has long been sought by AIDS researchers, because it can be used secretly by women who fear being refused or even beaten if they ask their sexual partner to use a condom.


The first trial, reported in South Africa in the summer of 2010, found that a vaginal gel containing the drug tenofovir protected 39 percent of the women who used it, and that those who used it most regularly reduced their chances of infection by 54 percent.


It was hoped that the new trial, nicknamed Voice (for Vaginal and Oral Interventions to Control the Epidemic), would confirm that earlier trial, called Caprisa after the clinic in Durban that ran it.


The Voice trial, which began in 2009, enrolled more than 5,000 women in South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. It was divided into three experiments, or arms, comparing three different products against a placebo — the gel, a tenofovir pill or a Truvada pill (tenofovir and a booster drug).


The trial of the tenofovir pill was canceled in September because it, too, did not appear to be working.


But because part of the study is still continuing, all the collected data — meaning, in particular, who was on the gel and who was on the placebo — cannot be “unblinded” yet, so the researchers cannot try to figure out why it did not work.


“Even when we have more information available to us, understanding why our results differed from the Caprisa results may not be clear,” said Sharon L. Hillier, a lead researcher for the Microbicide Trials Network, which is based at the University of Pittsburgh medical school and oversees many trials.


She said was “surprised and disappointed” by the cancellation.


In a statement, she and Dr. Ian McGowan, another researcher for the network, speculated that the problem might have been that too few women used the gel regularly, that the dosing schedule was wrong, or that it somehow caused inflammation that led to easier entry by the virus. But, Dr. Hillier added, it was unlikely that they would be able to assess that until later next year.


Ethics of modern clinical trials require that at various midway points, enough data be revealed to a panel of outside experts so they can assess whether the intervention being tested is safe for the participants and whether it is working.


In this case, 6 percent of women using the tenofovir gel and 6 percent of those using the placebo had become infected by the time the outside panel looked at the data. It was found to be safe but not effective, which ethically requires the cancellation of the trial to keep any more women from becoming infected.


The trial is expected to go on until mid-2012 and the data are to be released in early 2013. Other trials of gels at different formulations and dosing are planned or under way.

Essay: Cancer by Any Other Name Would Not Be as Terrifying

Or did she?


Though it is impossible to say whether the treatment was necessary in this case, one thing is growing increasingly clear to many researchers: The word “cancer” is out of date, and all too often it can be unnecessarily frightening.


“Cancer” is used, these experts say, for far too many conditions that are very different in their prognoses — from “Stage 0 breast cancer,” which may be harmless if left alone, to glioblastomas, brain tumors with a dismal prognosis no matter what treatment is tried.


It is like saying a person has “mental illness” when he or she might have schizophrenia or mild depression or an eating disorder.


Now, some medical experts have recommended getting rid of the word “cancer” altogether for certain conditions that may or may not be potentially fatal.


The idea of cancer as a progressive disease that will kill if the cells are not destroyed dates to the 19th century, said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief scientific and medical officer at the American Cancer Society. A German pathologist, Rudolph Virchow, examined tissue taken at autopsy from people who had died of their cancers, looking at the cells under a light microscope and drawing pictures of what he saw.


Virchow was a spectacular artist, and he ended up being the first to describe a variety of cancers — leukemia, breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer.


Of course, his patients were dead. So when he noted that aberrant-looking cells will kill, it made sense. The deranged cells were cancers, and cancers were fatal.


Now, Dr. Brawley said, the situation is very different. Instead of taking tissue from someone who died, a doctor takes tissue from a living patient, threading a thin needle into a woman’s breast or a man’s prostate, for example. Then a pathologist looks for abnormal cells.


Yet “how it looks under a microscope,” Dr. Brawley said, “does not always predict.” That is especially true for things like Stage 0 breast cancer or similar conditions in other areas of the body — conditions detected by screening and not by symptoms or by feel.


Researchers have come to appreciate this conundrum.


“The definition of cancer has changed,” said Dr. Robert Aronowitz, a professor of history and sociology of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.


Many medical investigators now speak in terms of the probability that a tumor is deadly. And they talk of a newly recognized risk of cancer screening — overdiagnosis. Screening can find what are actually harmless, if abnormal-looking, clusters of cells.


But since it is not known for sure whether they will develop into fatal cancers, doctors tend to treat them with the same methods that they use to treat clearly invasive cancers. Screening is finding “cancers” that did not need to be found. So maybe “cancer” is not always the right word for them.


That happened recently with Stage 0 breast cancer, also known as ductal carcinoma in situ, or D.C.I.S. It is a small accumulation of abnormal-looking cells inside the milk ducts of the breast. There’s no lump, nothing to be felt. In fact, Stage 0 was almost never detected before the advent of mammography screening.


Now, with widespread screening, this particular diagnosis accounts for about 20 percent of all breast cancers. That is, if it actually is cancer. After all, it is confined to a milk duct, has not spread into the rest of the breast, and may never spread if left alone — it might even go away.


It could also break free and enter the breast tissue. But for now, it is hard to know in many cases whether it makes any difference to treat D.C.I.S. right away or to wait to see if it spreads, treating it then.


Two years ago, an expert panel at the National Institutes of Health said the condition should be renamed. Get rid of the loaded word “carcinoma,” the panel said. A carcinoma is invasive; D.C.I.S. has not invaded the breast. If those cells do invade, they are no longer D.C.I.S. Then they are cancer. So call the condition something else, perhaps “high-grade dysplasia.”


The word “cancer” is so powerful it overwhelms any conversation about what Stage 0 breast cancer actually is, said Cynthia Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network. When women contact her group to ask about cancer treatments, “sometimes we’re well into the conversation with them before it comes out that they don’t actually have an invasive cancer.”


The same situation arises with prostate cancer screening.


The pathologist Donald Gleason, who invented Gleason scoring for prostate tumors, wanted to rename a very common tumor — the so-called Gleason 3 + 3 — “adenosis” instead of cancer, Dr. Brawley said. His idea was that by calling a 3 + 3 “cancer,” men and their doctors would feel they had to get rid of it right away.


Despite Dr. Gleason’s wishes, 3 + 3 cells are still called cancer. And despite the panel’s advice about D.C.I.S., that name has not changed either.


Cervical cancer specialists had better luck. In 1988, they changed the name of a sort of Stage 0 of the cervix. It had been called cervical carcinoma in situ. They renamed it cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, Grades 1 to 3, taking away the cancer connotation.


But Dr. Brawley, for one, has not given up on educating doctors and patients about the general inadequacy of the word “cancer.” As he put it, “The movement is not quite dead.”

Findings: A Serving of Gratitude Brings Healthy Dividends

Thanksgiving may be the holiday from hell for nutritionists, and it produces plenty of war stories for psychiatrists dealing with drunken family meltdowns. But it has recently become the favorite feast of psychologists studying the consequences of giving thanks. Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why so many brothers-in-law survive Thanksgiving without serious injury.


But what if you’re not the grateful sort? I sought guidance from the psychologists who have made gratitude a hot research topic. Here’s their advice for getting into the holiday spirit — or at least getting through dinner Thursday:


Start with “gratitude lite.” That’s the term used by Robert A. Emmons, of the University of California, Davis, for the technique used in his pioneering experiments he conducted along with Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. They instructed people to keep a journal listing five things for which they felt grateful, like a friend’s generosity, something they’d learned, a sunset they’d enjoyed.


The gratitude journal was brief — just one sentence for each of the five things — and done only once a week, but after two months there were significant effects. Compared with a control group, the people keeping the gratitude journal were more optimistic and felt happier. They reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out.


Further benefits were observed in a study of polio survivors and other people with neuromuscular problems. The ones who kept a gratitude journal reported feeling happier and more optimistic than those in a control group, and these reports were corroborated by observations from their spouses. These grateful people also fell asleep more quickly at night, slept longer and woke up feeling more refreshed.


“If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep,” Dr. Emmons advises in “Thanks!” his book on gratitude research.


Don’t confuse gratitude with indebtedness. Sure, you may feel obliged to return a favor, but that’s not gratitude, at least not the way psychologists define it. Indebtedness is more of a negative feeling and doesn’t yield the same benefits as gratitude, which inclines you to be nice to anyone, not just a benefactor.


In an experiment at Northeastern University, Monica Bartlett and David DeSteno sabotaged each participant’s computer and arranged for another student to fix it. Afterward, the students who had been helped were likelier to volunteer to help someone else — a complete stranger — with an unrelated task. Gratitude promoted good karma. And if it works with strangers ....


Try it on your family. No matter how dysfunctional your family, gratitude can still work, says Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside.


“Do one small and unobtrusive thoughtful or generous thing for each member of your family on Thanksgiving,” she advises. “Say thank you for every thoughtful or kind gesture. Express your admiration for someone’s skills or talents — wielding that kitchen knife so masterfully, for example. And truly listen, even when your grandfather is boring you again with the same World War II story.”


Don’t counterattack. If you’re bracing for insults on Thursday, consider a recent experiment at the University of Kentucky. After turning in a piece of writing, some students received praise for it while others got a scathing evaluation: “This is one of the worst essays I’ve ever read!”


Then each student played a computer game against the person who’d done the evaluation. The winner of the game could administer a blast of white noise to the loser. Not surprisingly, the insulted essayists retaliated against their critics by subjecting them to especially loud blasts — much louder than the noise administered by the students who’d gotten positive evaluations.


But there was an exception to this trend among a subgroup of the students: the ones who had been instructed to write essays about things for which they were grateful. After that exercise in counting their blessings, they weren’t bothered by the nasty criticism — or at least they didn’t feel compelled to amp up the noise against their critics.


“Gratitude is more than just feeling good,” says Nathan DeWall, who led the study at Kentucky. “It helps people become less aggressive by enhancing their empathy. “It’s an equal-opportunity emotion. Anyone can experience it and benefit from it, even the most crotchety uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”


Share the feeling. Why does gratitude do so much good? “More than other emotion, gratitude is the emotion of friendship,” Dr. McCullough says. “It is part of a psychological system that causes people to raise their estimates of how much value they hold in the eyes of another person. Gratitude is what happens when someone does something that causes you to realize that you matter more to that person than you thought you did.”


Try a gratitude visit. This exercise, recommended by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, begins with writing a 300-word letter to someone who changed your life for the better. Be specific about what the person did and how it affected you. Deliver it in person, preferably without telling the person in advance what the visit is about. When you get there, read the whole thing slowly to your benefactor. “You will be happier and less depressed one month from now,” Dr. Seligman guarantees in his book “Flourish.”


Contemplate a higher power. Religious individuals don’t necessarily act with more gratitude in a specific situation, but thinking about religion can cause people to feel and act more gratefully, as demonstrated in experiments by Jo-Ann Tsang and colleagues at Baylor University. Other research shows that praying can increase gratitude.


Go for deep gratitude. Once you’ve learned to count your blessings, Dr. Emmons says, you can think bigger.


“As a culture, we have lost a deep sense of gratefulness about the freedoms we enjoy, a lack of gratitude toward those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom, a lack of gratitude for all the material advantages we have,” he says. “The focus of Thanksgiving should be a reflection of how our lives have been made so much more comfortable by the sacrifices of those who have come before us.”


And if that seems too daunting, you can least tell yourself —


Hey, it could always be worse. When your relatives force you to look at photos on their phones, be thankful they no longer have access to a slide projector. When your aunt expounds on politics, rejoice inwardly that she does not hold elected office. Instead of focusing on the dry, tasteless turkey on your plate, be grateful the six-hour roasting process killed any toxic bacteria.


Is that too much of a stretch? When all else fails, remember the Monty Python mantra of the Black Plague victim: “I’m not dead.” It’s all a matter of perspective.

In Body’s Shield Against Cancer, a Culprit in Aging May Lurk

But on Nov. 2, in what could be a landmark experiment in the study of aging, researchers at the Mayo Clinic reported that if you purge the body of its senescent cells, the tissues remain youthful and vigorous.


The experiment was just in mice, and it cleared the cells with a genetic technique that cannot be applied to people. Like all critical experiments, it needs to be repeated in other labs before it can be accepted with confidence.


But the startling result is plausible because it ties together an emerging body of knowledge about senescent cells. And it raises the possibility that attacks on the cells might postpone the diseases of aging and let people live out more of their life span in good health.


Senescent cells were discovered 50 years ago in a classic experiment by the biologist Leonard Hayflick. He found that human cells cultured in glassware do not multiply indefinitely, as was then assumed, but can divide only 50 or so times before lapsing into senescence.


But the finding was not followed up for many years; researchers assumed that it was something that occurred only in the laboratory, or that even if cells did become senescent in the body, there were too few to make a difference.


Only in the last few years have researchers come to realize that senescent cells do occur naturally and that they play central roles in both cancer and aging.


Simple organisms live short lives and do not need cell division. More complex animals live longer because their tissues are renewable. In humans, the cells lining the gut are renewed every five days. Red blood cells last 120 days. Even bone cells slowly turn over, with the result that the entire skeleton is renewed every 10 years or so.


But the price for renewable tissues is cancer: If cells are capable of division, any damage to their control systems can lead to unconstrained growth. The body has therefore evolved two major systems to curb the risk of cancer — cell senescence and cell death.


Both systems are set in motion by illicit cell divisions, like those caused by a virus; by damage to DNA; or by activation of tumor-causing genes. Senescence can also be caused when cells run out of telomeres, the caps at the end of the chromosomes that get shorter at each cell division. This route to senescence, discovered in the 1990s, underlies the process observed by Dr. Hayflick.


Cells thrown into senescence do not divide again but hang about in tissues until they are cleared by the immune system. In cell death, a cell is forced to set off a built-in suicide mechanism.


Researchers do not yet understand why there are two systems, or how the body chooses whether to assign a damaged cell to senescence or to death. But a benefit of senescence is that suspect cells can continue to perform vital functions, said Daniel Peeper, an expert on senescence at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Moles, for instance, are collections of senescent cells that continue to produce melanin and defend the skin from ultraviolet rays.


Senescent cells thus seem to be a benign byproduct of the body’s defense against cancer. But researchers have developed growing suspicions of a less benign aspect: the cells’ culpability in aging.


Senescent cells accumulate throughout life, probably because the immune system sweeps them away less efficiently as a person ages. Larger and flatter than normal cells, they are especially common in tissues showing signs of aging, like arthritic knees or the plaque in the arteries.


And despite being termed senescent, the cells are very active: They convert themselves into factories that churn out 100 different kinds of growth factors, along with cytokines, the inflammatory agents that stimulate the immune system. The evolutionary reason for this activity may be to provoke the immune system to attack patches of premalignant and malignant cells.


But the process turns out to have some untoward side effects.

Life Out There: Aboard Mars Curiosity Rover, Tools to Plumb a Methane Mystery

Of that, planetary scientists are certain, which leaves them puzzling over what could be producing methane gas detected in the thin Martian air. Methane molecules are easily blown apart by ultraviolet light from the Sun, so any methane around must have been released recently.


Could the gas be burbling from something alive? Cows, after all, burp methane on Earth. Other creatures, including a class of micro-organisms that live without oxygen, also produce methane.


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration could get some answers soon. On the launching pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida is a spacecraft, the Mars Science Laboratory, that is scheduled to lift off on Saturday and reach Mars next August. It will deliver an S.U.V.-size rover named Curiosity that carries an instrument that can detect methane in the air, and if it does, it will unleash new excitement about the prospect of life on Mars.


“Based on evidence, what we do have is, unequivocally, the conditions for the emergence of life were present on Mars — period, end of story,” said Michael J. Mumma, a senior scientist for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who led one of three teams that have made still-controversial claims of detecting methane in Mars’s atmosphere. “So life certainly could have arisen there.”


Because Mars is smaller than Earth, it cooled faster, and it probably would have been hospitable for life earlier. That raises the intriguing possibility that pieces of Mars containing microbes were blasted into space by asteroid impacts and later landed on Earth, seeding life here.


In other words: we could all be descendants of Martians.


The possibility of Martians has long fueled the imagination of Earthlings, from the Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels to the canals Percival Lowell deluded himself into seeing through his telescope to “War of the Worlds.”


Other times, the pendulum swung back the other way. Mariner 4, the first space probe to whiz past Mars, in 1965, sent back pictures not of verdant forests, but of barren rocks. And NASA’s two Viking landers in 1976, equipped with sophisticated life chemistry experiments, analyzed the soil and found it devoid of the organic building blocks of life.


Mars, it appeared in 1976, was really most sincerely dead.


“Things looked so grim for exobiology on Mars,” said Christopher F. Chyba, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. “We made this tremendous investment in two Viking landers. There was a backlash of the people who felt the biology was oversold and premature.”


NASA subsequently played down the notion of life on Mars and instead set out on a methodical campaign to explore the past geology and climate of Mars. Although Mars today looks dry and cold — dead — geological markings like gullies, dry lake beds and colossal canyons point to a liquid past. “Follow the water” became the mantra. NASA’s last two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, found convincing evidence of environments that were habitable in the distant past. Curiosity will go further, looking for carbon-based molecules, including methane, that are the building blocks of life.


Recent orbital images show that water might still occasionally flow on the surface of Mars. New knowledge about life on Earth and how it can thrive in seemingly hostile environments, like the dark, boiling waters near ocean-bottom volcanic vents, also made scientists less dismissive of the notion that life persists on Mars. In 1996, a team of NASA scientists announced that they had found fossilized microbes in a Martian meteorite that had landed in Antarctica. Those claims remain at least as controversial as the methane findings.


But short of photographing a cow or some other life form ambling among the rocks, Curiosity is not going to discover life. As with every NASA probe since the Viking landers, Curiosity is not carrying experiments designed to tell whether the building blocks of life ever came together to form life. If there are microbial Martians thriving in the soil, Curiosity will not see them.


“I don’t think we’ve put down enough groundwork,” said Michael A. Meyer, NASA’s lead scientist for Mars.


That is frustrating in particular for Gilbert V. Levin, who believes that his experiment on the Vikings 35 years ago, designed to detect life, did indeed detect life.


Drops of a nutrient solution containing radioactive carbon-14 were added to Martian soil, and a stream of radioactive carbon dioxide was detected rising out of the soil. That is what would be expected from micro-organisms eating the food.


To rule out the possibility that a nonbiological chemical process was generating the carbon dioxide, other samples were heated to 320 degrees Fahrenheit to sterilize them. No radioactive carbon dioxide was seen rising from those when the nutrient drops were added, fitting with the hypothesis that the heat had killed the Martian microbes. If a nonbiological process were at play, the radioactive carbon dioxide should have been seen after the sterilization as well.


But other Viking experiments had failed to measure any organic molecules, so Dr. Levin’s results — even though they matched exactly what would be expected for life — were like announcing the discovery of a brick house in the absence of bricks. The consensus was that the claim was mistaken.


A recent discovery, however, offers a possible explanation for how Dr. Levin could be right after all. In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix lander found chemicals known as perchlorates in the Martian soil. Viking’s organic molecule detector heated the soil to release organics. But heating organic molecules in the presence of perchlorates destroys them, so even if they were there, Viking’s experiment may have missed them.


Dr. Levin said a more sophisticated version of his experiment, weighing a couple of pounds and costing a few million dollars, could definitively validate or disprove the Viking results.


“But they won’t fly it,” Dr. Levin said. “Changing a paradigm is a tough thing. We’ve run this experiment thousands of times on Earth. It’s never given a false positive. It’s never given a false negative.”


The two lander missions that are to follow Curiosity — collaborations between NASA and the European Space Agency — do not have a version of Dr. Levin’s experiment planned. Christopher E. Carr, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is intrigued by the possibility that life on Earth could have started on Mars, has proposed an even more ambitious experiment: send a DNA sequencer to Mars. That, too, has yet to find a mission to fly on.


Definitive answers may have to wait until a mission that brings Mars rocks back for study.


But that may be a very long wait. The Obama administration, mindful of tight federal budgets, has yet to give the green light on the lander missions, scheduled for 2016 and 2018, and is considering canceling them. Curiosity may be the last spacecraft landing on Mars for many years.


“That would derail the whole search for life, either extinct or extant, on Mars,” Dr. Mumma said. “That would be a disaster.”

Sunday, 27 November 2011

U.N.AIDS Says New Worldwide Infections Have Hit a Plateau

Almost seven million people are receiving treatment — more than half of them thanks to American taxpayers — and that number has been steadily rising. But it is still not close to catching up to the new infection rate: Last year, 1.35 million got on treatment for the first time, meaning 200 people were newly infected for each 100 newly treated.


That is an improvement over two years ago, when 250 were infected for each 100 treated.


And, in a development that augurs badly for the future, donor funds dropped about 10 percent last year as the worldwide economic crisis made some countries cut their donations.


Whether the world’s generosity is producing a triumph or a failure depends on what yardstick is used. The seven million receiving treatment represent about half the people sick enough to need immediate treatment under World Health Organization guidelines. But the figure falls far short of reaching the ambitious new “test and treat” goal adopted last year by U.N.AIDS and endorsed this month by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in her speech calling for an “AIDS-free generation.” To reach that, all 34 million infected people in the world would have to be found — a Sisyphean task in itself — and then put on antiretroviral drugs immediately so they would stop passing the virus on.


(Moreover, they would all need to be on newer drugs like tenofovir, while at present many are still getting the old, cheap ones with harsh side effects.)


U.N.AIDS officials tried to put an optimistic spin on the report.


Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, the agency’s chief of strategy, said AIDS had seen a “game-changing year in science,” noting especially a study showing that people on drugs lowered by 96 percent their chances of passing on the infection. And he highlighted areas where progress had been made.


Almost half the world’s pregnant women with H.I.V. get at least one drug to help prevent passing the virus to their children.


Eleven poor or middle-income countries now treat more than 80 percent of their infected citizens. That is about as well as the United States does, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assumes that 20 percent of infected Americans do not know they are infected. The 11 countries are: Botswana, Cambodia, Chile, Comoros, Croatia, Cuba, Guyana, Namibia, Nicaragua, Rwanda and Slovakia.


Also, in 22 countries new infections have declined. Epidemiologists credit several factors: Fear of death stems some reckless behavior; safe-sex education is slowly growing; and the surging number of people on AIDS drugs, especially in southern Africa, means more people with lower viral loads who are thus less likely to infect others.


Despite improvement in Africa, new infections remain stuck at 2.7 million a year worldwide because Asia and Eastern Europe are doing so badly. Those epidemics are driven by drug addicts, who are notoriously hard to reach, and also by groups like gay men and prostitutes who in conservative societies lack the political clout that would let them demand drugs and who fear police crackdowns and therefore have furtive, rapid sex — a high-risk behavior.


Studies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia show that many drug users avoid clinics even when they need medical care for fear they will be turned in to the police.


The report drew a contrast between Dhaka, where the Bangladeshi government introduced measures like clean-needle swaps, and St. Petersburg, where the Russian government would not. Infections among drug users dropped 25 percent in Dhaka and doubled in St. Petersburg. Despite its conservative Islamic government, Iran has done particularly well at stopping infections among its addicts by creating a network of 600 clinics that offer clean needles and methadone-type therapy.


The report is unusually blunt for a United Nations agency in that it directly compares countries with one another. Cambodia, for example, has lowered infections far faster than its richer neighbor Vietnam because it targeted its sex tourism industry while Vietnam has shied away from helping the drug users and gay men who drive its epidemic.


Brazil and Russia both have economies of similar size and both spend about $700 million a year on AIDS, but Brazil does far better because it concentrates on high-risk groups like gay prostitutes. Russia made “largely a political decision” not to help its drug injectors, Dr. Schwartländer said. “That’s not cost-efficient.”


Countries where homosexuals face jail or execution will never address their epidemics, he said, because gay men will stay hidden.


Many countries doing poorly have large populations, so even though their infection rates are lower than Africa’s, they have large epidemics. In Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Ukraine, for example, less than 20 percent of those needing treatment are getting it. In Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Russia, less than 40 percent are.


Up to half the children infected at birth, the report said, get infected because their mothers avoid testing for fear that the nurses or their neighbors will sneer at them. The report endorsed H.I.V. home-testing kits, which use a cheek swab or a finger prick, cost pennies and give results in minutes.


Global AIDS leaders, including Michel Sidibé, the executive director of U.N.AIDS, are urging countries to rely less on donors. He regularly praises South Africa, which pays 80 percent of its own costs.


The medical charity Doctors Without Borders has noticed several countries making plans to start people on drugs earlier in their illnesses; they include Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Uganda, South Africa and Zambia.


“They’re signaling they want to move faster,” said Sharonann Lynch, the charity’s AIDS policy adviser. “But none of them can do it without outside support, except for maybe South Africa.”

Quiet Push for Agroforestry in U.S.

Beneath the trees are layers of crops: shrubs like buffalo berries and raspberries, edible flowers like day lilies, vines like grapes and hops, and medicinal plants, including yarrow and arnica.


Turkeys and chickens wander the two-acre plot, gobbling hackberries and bird cherries that have fallen from trees planted in their pen, and leaving manure to nourish the plants.


For the Floras, the garden is more than a source of food for personal use and sale. Ms. Flora, an environmental consultant and former supervisor for the United States Forest Service, is hoping it serves as a demonstration project to spur the growth of agroforestry — the science of incorporating trees into traditional agriculture.


The extensive tree canopy and the use of native plants, she says, make the garden more resilient in the face of a changing climate, needing less water, no chemical fertilizers and few, if any, pesticides. “It’s far more sustainable” than conventional agriculture, she said.


The idea is to harness the ecological services that trees provide. “Agroforestry is not converting farms to forest,” said Andy Mason, director of the Forest Service’s National Agroforestry Center. “It’s the right tree in the right place for the right reason.”


The Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency, began an initiative this year to encourage agroforestry.


Depending on the species, trees make all sorts of contributions to agriculture, experts say. Trees in a shelter belt reduce wind and water erosion. Some trees serve as fertilizers — they take in nitrogen from the atmosphere, or pump it from deep underground and, when they drop their leaves, make it available upon decomposition.


Trees planted along streams can take up and scrub out polluted farm runoff. They increase species diversity by providing habitat, and some of those species are friendly to farmers — bees and butterflies that help pollinate crops, for example. (One study showed that 66 species of birds benefit from windbreaks on farms.) Trees can keep a field cooler and more moist.


Some research also shows that cattle farmers can improve their income by introducing trees, both by selling timber and by cooling cows in the shade.


And trees in general help the environment by absorbing greenhouse gases and by cleaning up polluted water — countering some of the effects of large-scale agriculture.


“The biggest problem with food production is environmental degradation,” said Gene Garrett, an emeritus professor of forestry and former director of the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri.


Properly placed belts of trees and other vegetation along streams can filter out 95 percent of the soil sediment that washes off farm fields, studies show, and up to 80 percent of phosphate and nitrogen that runs off.


While the idea of farming with trees is being reborn in the United States, it is not new. It got its start here in the Dust Bowl era, when trees were planted in shelter belts to stop severe wind erosion, Mr. Mason said. And around the world, agroforestry goes back centuries. “Many generations have been on the land,” said Jill M. Belsky, a professor of rural and environmental sociology at the University of Montana who has studied forest farms. “They have deep ecological knowledge and many cycles of these seasons.


“For example, they taste the soil and say, ‘We need a few more chickens in here’ ” for fertilizer.


Elsewhere, “working” trees are being used to replenish eroded or desert landscapes. A program in Niger has greened millions of acres in the last 20 years.


There are several approaches to agroforestry. Grazing livestock under a canopy of trees is called silvo-pasture, for instance. In alley cropping, an ancient technique that is becoming more common in the United States, rows of commercially valuable hardwood trees like oak are alternated with rows of corn, wheat or grasses for biofuel.


Agroforestry operations are also helping raise specialty crops. Nicola MacPherson raises timber in the Ozarks, and grows shiitake and oyster mushrooms on the waste branches; she is also establishing a truffle orchard. Then there are forest gardens like the one the Floras are creating.


Agroforestry is not just as simple as sticking trees in the ground — it can be a sophisticated form of management. “The key to a lot of systems is how they manage shade and light,” Dr. Belsky said. In one common system — teak trees over vegetable crops — as the over-story closes, limiting light, “the types of crops below change.”


Here in Montana, the Floras say they hope that their garden will evolve as conditions change. The climate of the northern Rockies, though, is a world away from tropical forest farms, and the Floras are pioneers.


They have had their share of learning experiences. Bees left their hives and never came back; the Floras had to pollinate their fruit trees by hand, with paintbrushes. One October, trees were killed by a snowstorm and bitter cold. And there are rodents.


“Gophers do a lot of damage,” Ms. Flora said. “They eat tree roots, carrots and potatoes.” Her Yorkshire terrier, Rocky, has been the best remedy so far.


The soil is nutrient-poor, but a forest garden turns marginal soil into much more fertile ground. As the needles and leaves fall and animal waste collects, nutrients increase over time.


One major hurdle to widespread adoption of agroforestry, though, might be conventional thinking about trees.


“Families spent generations removing trees to practice agriculture, and we’re up against that,” said Dr. Garrett, the emeritus professor here. “We have to stress that if you don’t put them in the way, you can use working trees to benefit agriculture.”

Rare Krypton 81 Isotope Helps Track Water in Ancient Nubian Aquifer

The aquifer is one of the world’s oldest. But its workings — how it flows and how quickly surface water replenishes it — have been hard to understand, in part because the tools available to study it have provided, at best, a blurry image.


Now, to solve some of the puzzles, physicists at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois have turned to one of the rarest particles on earth: an elusive radioactive isotope usually ricocheting around in the atmosphere at hundreds of miles an hour.


Their first success was in distilling these elusive isotopes, krypton 81, from the water in the huge Nubian Aquifer, part of which lies two miles below the oases of western Egypt where temples honor Alexander the Great. Their second was in holding these isotopes still and measuring how much they had decayed since they last saw sunlight.


Knowing how long water has been underground helps researchers understand how fast aquifers are recharged by surface water and how fast they move, leading to more accurate geological models. Groundwater is becoming an increasingly crucial component of the world’s available fresh water, and the findings could significantly increase understanding of how it behaves.


Pradeep Aggarwal, who runs the isotope hydrology section of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s water resources program, said that success in tracking older bodies of water had long been elusive. Carbon 14 dating, so useful in archaeology, reaches back just 50,000 years or so.


It is now clear that the Nubian Aquifer has been a million years in the making.


“For decades we have been looking at different means of fingerprinting water,” Dr. Aggarwal said. “We used a bunch of different isotopes — stable isotopes — to trace where the rain comes from. We also used the radioisotopes to figure how quickly groundwater moves.”


For years, scientists had relied on carbon 14 dating indicating the aquifer was just 40,000 years old. They knew that krypton 81, an isotope present in the open air but not underground, would be a better marker for the forensic work of tracking underground water’s movement. When water loses contact with air, the radioactive clock starts; the isotope decays by a factor of two every 230,000 years, and the decay is measurable as far back as two million years.


But the krypton 81 isotopes were devilishly difficult to isolate and even more difficult to catch.


Zheng-Tian Lu, a physicist at the Argonne laboratory, and his colleagues have spent 14 years mastering and extending techniques to slow down atoms, the same laser-based techniques that were pioneered by the current energy secretary, Steven Chu, in the 1980s, and for which he won a Nobel prize.


When Dr. Lu realized the potential benefit of isolating krypton 81 isotopes, “I got hooked on the problem,” he said. “I tried to use the trapping method I’d already learned to try and solve the radio-krypton dating problem.


“We are combining the ability to control and manipulate atoms to select krypton 81 out of a million kinds of krypton isotopes,” he added. There is one krypton atom in every million molecules of water; one in a trillion of these krypton atoms is the krypton 81 isotope.


The key, he said, is using lasers to pinpoint the frequency at which atoms oscillate — a loose equivalent of trying to determine the exact pitch of a musical note. Detecting the infinitesimal differences in isotopes’ resonance is hard, but when done, lasers can be tuned to pick up each isotope’s frequency. When krypton 81 atoms go through a laser attuned to them, they glow brightly and slow down, giving scientists an easier target to isolate.


The process begins when water is extracted from the aquifer without any contact with air. Krypton is bled from the water into a vacuum system. Once identified and slowed, the krypton 81 isotopes are trapped by six laser beams focusing on them from the four cardinal points of the compass and from above and below. Then their decay can be measured.


“From this aging information, you are looking at how the water flowed in the long past,” Dr. Lu said. “But it does have implications about how to manage waters today.” He added, “To manage a water resource you need to build a realistic hydrology model.”

New Trove of Stolen E-Mails From Climate Scientists Is Released

The new e-mails appeared remarkably similar to the ones released two years ago just ahead of a similar conference in Copenhagen. They involved the same scientists and many of the same issues, and some of them carried a similar tone: catty remarks by the scientists, often about papers written by others in the field.


Climate scientists said the release was likely intended to torpedo any potential progress in the Durban negotiations, though not much progress had been expected anyway given that countries have been reluctant to commit to binding emissions limits.


The University of East Anglia, the British institution at the middle of the previous hacking episode, confirmed that at least some of the newly released e-mails were authentic. The cache released in 2009 appeared to have come from a file someone obtained by hacking into the university’s computers, a crime for which no charges have been filed or suspects named. The new batch of more than 5,000 e-mails is evidently a fresh selection from the same set of records.


A string of investigations following the 2009 release all came to the conclusion that scientists had not manipulated data to support their findings, though some of the reports did criticize them on minor points, such as failing to share their data or to respond properly to freedom of information requests.


Myron Ebell, a climate-change skeptic who works for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, called the new e-mails “strong evidence that a small group of scientists centered around East Anglia were engaged in a conspiracy to provide a scientifically misleading assessment of the case for catastrophic global warming.” Senator James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who is the most prominent climate-change contrarian in Congress, cited the e-mails in a statement attacking the Obama administration’s attempts to limit greenhouse gases.


But Michael E. Mann, a Pennsylvania State University scientist who wrote or received some of the e-mails, said they showed the opposite of any conspiracy, demonstrating instead that climate science is a vigorous enterprise where scientists were free to argue over conclusions. “Scientists rely on the ability to have frank, sometimes even contentious discussions with each other,” Dr. Mann said in an interview Tuesday. “Science requires that.”


In one of the e-mails, Raymond S. Bradley, director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, criticized a paper that Dr. Mann wrote with the climate scientist Phil Jones, which used tree rings and similar markers to find that today’s climatic warming had no precedent in recent natural history. Dr. Bradley, who has often collaborated with Dr. Mann, wrote that the 2003 paper “was truly pathetic and should never have been published.”


Dr. Bradley confirmed in an interview that the e-mail was his, but said his comment had no bearing on whether global warming was really happening. “I did not like that paper at all, and I stand by that, and I am sure that I told Mike that” at the time, he said. But he added that a disagreement over a single paper had little to do with the overall validity of climate science. “There is no doubt we have a big problem with human-induced warming,” Dr. Bradley said. “Mike’s paper has no bearing on the fundamental physics of the problem that we are facing.”


Some of the other e-mails involved comments about problems with the computer programs used to forecast future climate, known as climate models. For instance, a cryptic e-mail apparently sent by Dr. Jones, a researcher at East Anglia, said, “Basic problem is that all models are wrong — not got enough middle and low level clouds.”


Gavin A. Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA, said he found such exchanges unremarkable. He noted that difficulties in modeling were widely acknowledged and disclosed in the literature. Indeed, such problems are often discussed at scientific meetings in front of hundreds of people.


Of the new release of e-mails, Dr. Schmidt said, “It smacks of desperation.”


Dr. Mann said he hoped the fresh release, apparently first posted to a computer server in Russia, would provide new clues for the British police as they seek to catch the hacker or hackers.


“Who are the criminals?” he asked. “Who is funding this effort, not just to steal these materials but to promote them?”

Lynn Margulis, Trailblazing Theorist on Evolution, Dies at 73

She died five days after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke, said Dorion Sagan, a son she had with her first husband, the cosmologist Carl Sagan.


Dr. Margulis had the title of distinguished university professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, since 1988. She drew upon earlier, ridiculed ideas when she first promulgated her theory, in the late 1960s, that cells with nuclei, which are known as eukaryotes and include all the cells in the human body, evolved as a result of symbiotic relationships among bacteria.


The hypothesis was a direct challenge to the prevailing neo-Darwinist belief that the primary evolutionary mechanism was random mutation.


Rather, Dr. Margulis argued that a more important mechanism was symbiosis; that is, evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing. The theory undermined significant precepts of the study of evolution, underscoring the idea that evolution began at the level of micro-organisms long before it would be visible at the level of species.


“She talked a lot about the importance of micro-organisms,” said her daughter, Jennifer Margulis. “She called herself a spokesperson for the microcosm.”


The manuscript in which Dr. Margulis first presented her findings was rejected by 15 journals before being published in 1967 by the Journal of Theoretical Biology. An expanded version, with additional evidence to support the theory — which was known as the serial endosymbiotic theory — became her first book, “Origin of Eukaryotic Cells.”


A revised version, “Symbiosis in Cell Evolution,” followed in 1981, and though it challenged the presumptions of many prominent scientists, it has since become accepted evolutionary doctrine.


“Evolutionists have been preoccupied with the history of animal life in the last 500 million years,” Dr. Margulis wrote in 1995. “But we now know that life itself evolved much earlier than that. The fossil record begins nearly 4,000 million years ago! Until the 1960s, scientists ignored fossil evidence for the evolution of life, because it was uninterpretable.


“I work in evolutionary biology, but with cells and micro-organisms. Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, George Williams, Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould all come out of the zoological tradition, which suggests to me that, in the words of our colleague Simon Robson, they deal with a data set some three billion years out of date.”


Lynn Petra Alexander was born on March 5, 1938, in Chicago, where she grew up in a tough neighborhood on the South Side. Her father was a lawyer and a businessman. Precocious, she graduated at 18 from the University of Chicago, where she met Dr. Sagan as they passed each other on a stairway.


She earned a master’s degree in genetics and zoology from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley. Before joining the faculty at Massachusetts, she taught for 22 years at Boston University.


Dr. Margulis was also known, somewhat controversially, as a collaborator with and supporter of James E. Lovelock, whose Gaia theory states that Earth itself — its atmosphere, the geology and the organisms that inhabit it — is a self-regulating system, maintaining the conditions that allow its perpetuation. In other words, it is something of a living organism in and of itself.


Dr. Margulis’s marriage to Dr. Sagan ended in divorce, as did a marriage to Thomas N. Margulis, a chemist. Dr. Sagan died in 1996.


In addition to her daughter and her son Dorion, a science writer with whom she sometimes collaborated, she is survived by two other sons, Jeremy Sagan and Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma; three sisters, Joan Glashow, Sharon Kleitman and Diane Alexander; three half-brothers, Robert, Michael and Mark Alexander; a half-sister, Sara Alexander; and nine grandchildren.


“More than 99.99 percent of the species that have ever existed have become extinct,” Dr. Margulis and Dorion Sagan wrote in “Microcosmos,” a 1986 book that traced, in readable language, the history of evolution over four billion years, “but the planetary patina, with its army of cells, has continued for more than three billion years. And the basis of the patina, past, present and future, is the microcosm — trillions of communicating, evolving microbes.”

Nine-Spotted Ladybug, Long-Absent New York State Insect, Is Back

It is not just any bug, but the native nine-spotted ladybug. And its reappearance is something of a relief, because it is the official New York State insect, even though the last recorded sighting of it in New York was 29 years ago.


Its absence had not gone completely unnoticed. There was a moment in 2006 when the State Assembly, realizing that the state insect had left the state, tried to replace it with a different species of ladybug, an attempt that fortunately fell victim to legislative inaction.


And now — after all these years — the state insect has been found. Like so many other New Yorkers, it was seen summering in Amagansett.


Peter Priolo, a volunteer participant in an effort called the Lost Ladybug Project, found the ladybug on July 30 in a patch of sunflowers during a group search he had organized.


“I didn’t realize it was a nine-spotted when I found it,” Mr. Priolo said. He was on his way to do an end-of-the-day ladybug tally, so, he said, “I put it in my jar and hurried back to meet with everybody.”


John Losey, the Cornell University entomologist who runs the project, said in an interview this week that not only was Mr. Priolo’s find a confirmed nine-spotted ladybug, but that it was also not a loner. Two weeks after the first find, Dr. Losey said, he collected enough ladybugs at the site to establish a colony that is now thriving and reproducing in his lab in Ithaca.


If the ladybugs are making a comeback, it is only beginning. The Lost Ladybug Project started surveys in 2000. As of 2006, only five nine-spotted ladybugs had been found in North America in the previous 10 years, none of them in the East. Then one lone ladybug was found in Arlington, Va. None had been found in the East since, and only 90 have been reported in North America.


It is the native species that is in trouble. Others, like Asian ladybugs, which were imported for pest control, are thriving in New York State and elsewhere, and can often be found gathering in or on houses in the fall. These Asian bugs and a species from Europe could be a reason for the decline of some native species, though Dr. Losey said the loss of farmland could be another reason.


After scientists at Cornell confirmed Mr. Priolo’s find, they went to the Amagansett farm in mid-August to lead a search that turned up about 20 more of the bugs. An area between rows of carrots and beans turned out to be a hot spot.


“We found a lot of them on cosmos and zinnias,” Dr. Losey said.


The farm is part of the 10,000-acre Peconic Land Trust in Amagansett, and it is organic. For ladybugs, Dr. Losey said, “you couldn’t design a better place.”


Dr. Losey wants to find out if it makes sense to reintroduce this strain of the ladybug in other areas. And he expects volunteers to be back out in the field when ladybug season starts again in the spring.


Now, he said, “we need to find out more places where it’s thriving.”

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Hydrofracking Debate Spurs Huge Spending by Industry

Companies that drill for natural gas have spent more than $3.2 million lobbying state government since the beginning of last year, according to a review of public records. The broader natural gas industry has been giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign accounts of lawmakers and the governor. And national energy companies are advertising heavily in an effort to convince the public that the extraction method, commonly known as hydrofracking, is safe and economically beneficial.


Environmental groups, with far less money at their disposal, are mounting a more homespun campaign as they warn that hydrofracking — a process in which water mixed with sand and chemicals is injected deep into the ground to break up rock formations and release natural gas — could taint the water supply and cause untold environmental ruin.


One environmental group held a Halloween contest in which participants were asked to design costumes for drill rigs. And, claiming Mr. Cuomo is rushing the approval process for drilling by collecting public comments for 90 days, environmentalists delivered 180 water-powered clocks to the governor’s Capitol office, representing the number of days they are asking him to allow for people to weigh in.


The activity on both sides of the debate is intensifying as New York conducts four public hearings across the state, beginning Nov. 16 in Dansville, a rural community in the Finger Lakes region, and winding up next week in TriBeCa.


Interest in the issue is so widespread that Joseph Martens, the state environmental conservation commissioner, said people have taken to stopping him on the street in the Albany suburb where he lives.


“It’s very, very intense; there’s no question about it,” Mr. Martens said in a recent interview. “And it’s part of a national debate.”


Mr. Cuomo, whose first effort to field questions online from residents was swamped by the hydrofracking issue, is pleading for both sides to be patient.


“I know that the temperature is high,” he said recently. “We have a process. Let’s get the facts. Let the science and the facts make the determination, not emotion and not politics.”


The lobbying push in New York follows similar efforts by the energy industry to influence lawmakers and regulators in Washington and in other parts of the country that are rich in shale formations. Several other states, including Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio, have also seen millions of dollars in spending in recent years by drilling companies on lobbying, campaign contributions or both.


Much is at stake as the Cuomo administration seeks to develop hydrofracking regulations: proponents say the industry could create jobs and spending in some of the most economically struggling parts of the state, especially its Southern Tier, while environmentalists warn of risks to water quality and damage to roads. And industry estimates suggest that allowing hydrofracking in New York State could generate billions in revenue for energy companies.


“What we are seeing is the concerted application of really a substantial amount of money to try to move public policy into a pro-fracking stance,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, which has raised concerns about the environmental impact of hydrofracking. “It is a tremendous amount of pressure on our state government.”


The debate over hydrofracking has offered a new test for Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who has declared job creation to be his top priority — but who has also cast himself as a champion of the environment.


Protesters upset with his handling of the issue have been a fixture at the governor’s appearances this year, trailing Mr. Cuomo at the State Fair and staking out an underground convention hall where he had invited former President Bill Clinton to give a speech to business leaders about economic development.


Desperately seeking to attract the attention of lawmakers and regulators, environmentalists are flooding the mailboxes of state officials and editorial page editors, picketing the Capitol and staging theatrical stunts.


“This is something that, because of the scale of drilling that’s being looked at, has really captured the public’s attention,” said Robert Moore, the executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “You have people who don’t normally identify themselves as environmentalists who suddenly have real concerns about this.”

Coffee delivers jolt deep in the brain

Most caffeine addicts would tell you that coffee sharpens the mind. It turns out that in rodents, a single dose of caffeine does indeed strengthen brain cell connections in an underappreciated part of the brain, scientists report online November 20 in Nature Neuroscience.


A clearer idea of caffeine’s effect on the brain could allow scientists to take advantage of its stimulating effects and perhaps even alleviate some symptoms of brain disorders. “Caffeine is something people are very interested in,” says neuroscientist Susan Masino of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., who was not involved in the study.


So far, most of caffeine’s effects have been illuminated by studies using doses much higher than an average person’s morning cup of joe, says study coauthor Serena Dudek of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C.


Dudek and her team looked at the effects of smaller hits of caffeine on a small part of the hippocampus. In humans, this seahorse-shaped structure is buried deep in the brain behind the ears. After feeding rats the equivalent of two human cups of coffee (two milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight), the team measured the strength of nerve cells’ electrical messages in slices of brain tissue. Nerve cells in this particular nook — a brain region called CA2 — got a major jolt from caffeine, showing a bigger burst of electrical activity when researchers stimulated the cells. Nerve cells in a neighboring part of the hippocampus didn’t show this sensitivity.


And the higher the caffeine dose, the stronger the effect. A caffeine dose 10 times higher — a dose reached by only die-hard caffeine consumers — caused an even bigger response in nerve cells in the CA2 region.


The team found similar effects when they applying caffeine directly to CA2 nerve cells in a dish, a result that rules out effects from post-caffeine changes in blood flow. After five minutes of caffeine exposure, the synapses stayed amped up for three hours.


 “We don’t know what it looks like in humans, but in rodents, we think this is the area most sensitive to caffeine,” Dudek says.


These strengthened synapses in the hippocampus may have a role in learning and memory, which makes sense because one of the main jobs of the hippocampus is to form spatial memories. (After navigating London’s labyrinthine roads for years, for instance, cab drivers have larger hippocampi than normal folks.)


Though the results are the first to establish CA2 as a caffeine hot spot, it’s too early to say how the research will apply to people, says psychologist Harris Lieberman of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass. “It’s hard to jump from these kinds of studies to direct application to humans.”

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