Science & Technology


Mistletoe: The vampire of the forest

mistletoe kiss
© Fox Photos/Getty
When it's not the holiday posterplant, mistletoe spends its days sucking the life out of trees worldwide.

Mistletoe is basically a vampire - but one of those an anti-hero type vampires. Yes, I was surprised to learn that the same forest shrub that we love to smooch under every December is a parasite that spends its days sucking the "lifeforce" from trees round the globe. Out of roughly 1,400 species of mistletoe, most are hemiparasites, meaning they depend on host trees for minerals and water but still harvest energy from the sun in their leaves. Many view the plants as a pest, but that's starting to change.

"Even though they can be really hard on a tree, they can also be really important to wildlife," says David Shaw, a forest health specialist at Oregon State University. While stealing hard-earned resources from trees, the bushy brooms that mistletoe creates provide food and shelter to birds, bugs, and a few mammals. Recent research suggests this mix of thieving and generosity - they could be essential to the health and prosperity of an ecosystem.

Scientists successfully create artificial sperm and eggs from skin cells

Early-stage sex cells research in Cambridge has potential to help people with fertility problems

Scientists have made primitive forms of artificial sperm and eggs in a medical feat that could transform the understanding of age-related diseases and fertility problems.

Researchers in Cambridge made the early-stage sex cells by culturing human embryonic stem cells under carefully-controlled conditions for a week.

They followed the success by showing that the same procedure can convert adult skin tissue into precursors for sperm and eggs, raising the prospect of making sex cells that are genetically matched to patients.

The cells should have the potential to grow into mature sperm and eggs, though this has never been done in the lab before. The next step for the researchers will be to inject the cells into mouse ovaries or testes to see if they fully develop in the animals.

British law prohibits fertility clinics in the UK from using artificial sperm and eggs to treat infertile couples. But if the law was revised, skin cells could potentially be taken from patients and turned into genetically identical sperm or eggs for use in IVF therapies.

Skin cells from a woman could only be used to make eggs because they lack the Y chromosome. Those from a male might theoretically be turned into eggs as well as sperm, but Azim Surani, who led the work at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, said that on the basis of current knowledge, that was unlikely.

Comment: Many of our scientific advances are focusing on increasing our lifespan and ability to procreate. But what affect does this have on the environment around us, where nature helps to control and stabilize the delicate ecosystems?


Dodwell's surprising study of the obliquity of the ecliptic

Earth’s Axial Tilt
© Wikipedia
Earth’s Axial Tilt, or Obliquity.
This Atlantipedia report (reproduced below) from 2010 concerns research by English-born George Dodwell, who held the post of Government Astronomer for South Australia for 43 years (1909 - 1952) until his retirement. He came across a study by a Professor Drayson who cited ancient astronomical observations and put forward a revision to standard Earth precession theory which Dodwell found 'untenable', but he became interested in the data.

Dodwell: 'it seemed to me worthwhile to trace out more clearly just how much, and why, the ancient and mediaeval observations of the obliquity of the ecliptic, on which Professor Drayson based his conclusions, differed from Newcomb's internationally accepted formula for the secular, or age-long, variation of the obliquity.

These observations went back to values given by Strabo, Proclus, Ptolemy, and Pappus in the early centuries of the Christian era. They indicated a consistent and increasing divergence in past ages from the values calculated by means of Newcomb's formula.' [bold added]

Graphene could harvest energy from thin air

Editor's note: Tomorrow Transformed explores innovative approaches and opportunities available in business and society through technology.

Bold claims for new battery technology have been around since the invention of the lead-acid battery more than 150 years ago.

But researchers at Manchester University in the UK say their latest discovery involving the new wonder material graphene could be the most revolutionary advance in battery technology yet.

According to a study published in the journal Nature, graphene membranes could be used to sieve hydrogen gas from the atmosphere -- a development that could pave the way for electric generators powered by air.

"It looks extremely simple and equally promising," said Dr Sheng Hu, a post-doctoral researcher in the project. "Because graphene can be produced these days in square metre sheets, we hope that it will find its way to commercial fuel cells sooner rather than later."

Comment: Although graphene is being touted with all these technological wonders, it is not so clear what the side effects of graphene oxide (when graphene is exposed to air) is to the environment and people.

Miracle material graphene can pose danger to the environment

Gold Bar

Argonne system captures toxic airborne mercury

mercury capture system
© Habegger et. al.
The mercury capture system significantly reduces the amount of vaporized mercury produced by gold shops. Pictured here: the approximate cost for the entire system is approximately $500 and uses materials already available in remote locations.
In any given year, workers in artisanal and small-scale gold mining shops in remote locales like Brazil and Peru release an estimated 700 tons of airborne mercury from their rooftops.

Collectively, these shops purify nearly 20 percent of the world's gold supply before it is shaped and sold in stores. Through a generations-old process, small-scale miners use hand tools and chemicals to extract gold from the ground. Miners use mercury as an easy way to extract gold pieces during the sifting process, which separates out dirt and other materials. The resulting gold and mercury mixture is then brought to shops that separate this harmful chemical from the gold.

Gold is separated out by burning off mercury with high-temperature torches that release vaporized mercury into the air. Eventually, these vapors fall back to the ground and contaminate food and water.

To decrease these emissions and the accumulation of mercury in the environment from artisanal and small-scale gold mining shops, the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), designed a prototype mercury capture system (MCS). The MCS channels the vaporized mercury droplets into a converted steel drum that condenses the mercury and captures nearly 80 percent of the aerosol particles.

Comment: Mercury is highly toxic and it is responsible for a number of health issues. It can cause hypertension, auto-immunity, hearing loss, depression, create peripheral neuropathy, and is also a major undiagnosed cause of chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia among other health problems.

Mercury toxicity: The great mimicker

Chelation Detox Eliminates Mercury and Heavy Metals and Leads to Better Health


Information, intelligent design, and 'paper trades'

Particle tracks in an accelerator - possibly a way to visualize the pathways extending from a single point.
I've been reading God's Undertaker, by John C. Lennox, a book arguing for "intelligent causation" - the idea that the universe and life are too irreducibly complex to have arisen by chance. Lennox, a professor of mathematics at Oxford who has debated Richard Dawkins, makes a powerful case that information lies at the heart of life, and that this information (epitomized by, but not restricted to, the instructions encoded in DNA) cannot be explained by natural processes.

If this is true (and I strongly suspect that it is), it naturally raises the question of how this "intelligent causation" could actually be brought about. The notion of God as a chemist, reaching down with his mighty hand to splice the correct amino acids into the desired proteins, is hardly intellectually satisfying.

One approach that occurs to me is suggested by the idea of pure information underlying the physical world, a notion that we've played with before. We could imagine this informational matrix as something akin to a giant information processing system - a vast database, with the numbers constantly being crunched by algorithms. By analogy, think of the whole shebang as a computer run by a program; the numbers are processed in the background, between screen refreshes; changes in the informational content would be reflected in each new refresh, just as changes dictated by a computer program are seen in new combinations of pixels on the screen.

Comment: The picture sketched by Prescott is one of natural teleology, promoted by atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, and more recently by theist philosopher William Dembski in his book Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information. Curiously, while Prescott primarily discusses psi phenomena extensively on his blog, he doesn't mention it here, even though it provides the best answer to the question he asks of how, exactly, such an 'informing' of matter might occur in nature. In other words, a vast intelligence must have a non-physical way of acting on matter (to create the necessary mutations, for example), and the only known way in which that occurs is psychokinesis. Dembski hints at this line of thought in his book, and David Ray Griffin argues for it explicitly in his philosophical books.


Seals may use 'natural GPS'

© Wikimedia Commons/changehali
Weddell seals underwater
While hunting, Weddell seals have biological adaptations that allow them to dive deep, as much as of hundreds of meters, but also an uncanny ability to find the breathing holes they need on the surface of the ice. Now, researchers supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) believe they have figured out they do it: by using the Earth's magnetic field as a natural GPS.

"This animal, we think, may be highly evolved with an ability to navigate using magnetic sense in order to find ice holes some distance apart and get back to them safely," explained Randall Davis of the Department of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University.

If the hypothesis turns out to be true, it would represent the first evidence of such a trait in a marine mammal.

Highlights of the research have been captured on video in underwater images and in interviews by myself and Ralph Maestas, of the "Antarctic Sun" newspaper, which is published by the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). (NSF manages the USAP, which coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent.)

Comment: See also:

Animal Magnetism: How the magnetic field influences animal navigation

Seal found 20 miles inland near St Helens, UK


About time: FAA launches safety campaign for drone hobbyists

hobby drone
Alarmed by increasing encounters between small drones and manned aircraft, drone industry officials said Monday they are teaming up with the government and model aircraft hobbyists to launch a safety campaign.

The campaign includes a website - - which advises both recreational and commercial drone operators of FAA regulations and how to fly their unmanned aircraft safely. The campaign was announced by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Small UAV Coalition, both industry trade groups, and the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents model aircraft hobbyists, in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The two industry trade groups also said they plan to distribute safety pamphlets at industry events, and are working with drone manufacturers to see that safety information is enclosed inside the package of new drones.

Retailers say small drones, which are indistinguishable from today's more sophisticated model aircraft, are flying off the shelves this Christmas.

Comment: This safety campaign is better late than never, but the huge numbers of small drones in the hands of inexperienced hobbyists is a disaster in the making.

Drones pose serious threat to commercial air traffic! Close encounters with passenger aircraft increasing and FAA unable to handle problem


Artificial light from iPad screens could be spoiling our sleep patterns

Artificial Light
© The Independent, UK
Using iPads at night might suppress the release of the hormone melatonin.
Reading books on an iPad and similar e-readers in the evening may disturb sleep patterns because of the type of light the device emits, scientists said.

The researchers found evidence to suggest that using iPads at night might suppress the release of the hormone melatonin which is involved in inducing sleepiness, resulting in the shifting of the normal circadian rhythm governing the body's 24-hour biological clock.

The study of 12 adults for two weeks involved comparing reading from an iPad or a printed book before bedtime. The melatonin levels of each volunteer were monitored and their sleep patterns and morning alertness were also monitored.

The participants took nearly 10 minutes longer to fall asleep and had a significantly lower amount of dream sleep after reading from a light-emitting e-reader than they did after reading from a printed book, according to the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

"Our most surprising finding was that individuals using the e-reader would be more tired and take longer to become alert the next morning. This has real consequences for daytime functioning, and these effects might be worse in the real world as opposed to the controlled environment we used," said Anne-Marie Chang of Penn State University.

Spying for everyone: Civilian drones take off this Christmas

© AFP Photo/Bertrand Langlois
Andrew Steele, 15, chose a drone as a Christmas present. And he's not alone. Thousands of drone fans - young and old - turned out at a recent show in Los Angeles.

While historically people have thought of drones as military aircraft or flying devices used by businesses, the growth of drones as recreational vehicles has exploded.

And the range of devices on offer - many of which could end up giftwrapped under the Christmas tree next week - is as varied as the demand for them.

"I really like how it stays static, how it stays at the same place when you move it," said the teenager, whose parents had to fork out $1,200 for his present.

The success of the quadricopter has enabled the Chinese manufacturer who makes them to multiply the number of people it employs by 100 in eight years.

Comment: It's bad enough that the government is using drones to spy on US citizens, and now our neighbors have the opportunity as well. If that is not worrying enough, operators lose control of the devices, they often crash, and other drones are able to attain heights that pose serious risks to passenger aircraft.

Bats, butterflies, roaches, mosquitoes, and birds: The coming micro-drone revolution