Science & Technology

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

Cloud Lightning

Birds may detect approaching storm from 900km away by infrasound waves

© Alamy
The golden-winged warblers may have picked up infrasound from tornadoes, which travels through the ground.
A group of songbirds may have avoided a devastating storm by fleeing their US breeding grounds after detecting telltale infrasound waves.

Researchers noticed the behaviour after analysing trackers attached to the birds to study their migration patterns. They believe it is the first documented case of birds making detours to avoid destructive weather systems on the basis of infrasound.

The golden-winged warblers had just returned from South America to their breeding grounds in the mountains of Tennessee in 2013 when a massive storm was edging closer. Although the birds had just completed a migration of more than 2,500km, they still had the energy to evade the danger.

The storm, which spawned more than 80 tornadoes across the US and killed 35 people, was 900km away when the birds, apparently acting independently of one another, fled south, with one bird embarking on a 1,500km flight to Cuba before making the return trip once the storm had passed.

Crows join humans, apes and monkeys in exhibiting advanced rational thinking

© Lomonosov Moscow University.
Study finds crows spontaneously solve higher-order relational-matching tasks.
Crows have long been heralded for their high intelligence -- they can remember faces, use tools and communicate in sophisticated ways.

But a newly published study finds crows also have the brain power to solve higher-order, relational-matching tasks, and they can do so spontaneously. That means crows join humans, apes and monkeys in exhibiting advanced relational thinking, according to the research.

Russian researcher Anna Smirnova studies a crow making the correct selection during a relational matching trial.

"What the crows have done is a phenomenal feat," says Ed Wasserman, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa and corresponding author of the study. "That's the marvel of the results. It's been done before with apes and monkeys, but now we're dealing with a bird; but not just any bird, a bird with a brain as special to birds as the brain of an apes is special to mammals."

Comet Finlay in bright outburst, visible in small telescopes

Comet Finlay
© J. Cerny, M. Masek, K. Honkova, J. Jurysek, J. Ebr, P. Kubanek, M. Prouza, M. Jelinek
Comet Finlay on December 16th shows a bright coma and short tail. Its sudden rise to 9th magnitude was confirmed on December 18th by Australian comet observer Paul Camilleri. The moderately condensed object is about 3 arc minutes in diameter.
Short-period comet 15P/Finlay, which had been plunking along at a dim magnitude +11, has suddenly brightened in the past couple days to +8.7, bright enough to see in 10×50 or larger binoculars. Czech comet observer Jakub Cerny and his team photographed the comet on December 16th and discovered the sudden surge. Wonderful news!

While comets generally brighten as they approach the Sun and fade as they depart, any one of them can undergo a sudden outburst in brightness. You can find Finlay right now low in the southwestern sky at nightfall near the planet Mars. While outbursts are common, astronomers still aren't certain what causes them. It's thought that sub-surface ices, warmed by the comet's approach to the Sun, expand until the pressure becomes so great they shatter the ice above, sending large fragments flying and exposing fresh new ice. Sunlight gets to work vaporizing both the newly exposed vents and aerial shrapnel. Large quantities of dust trapped in the ice are released and glow brightly in the Sun's light, causing the comet to quickly brighten.

Some comets flare up dramatically. Take 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann. Normally a dim bulb at 17th magnitude, once or twice a year it flares to magnitude 12 and occasionally 10!

Think you're all European or African? Most are mixed

© ThinkStock
Many Americans who identify as European actually carry African ancestry just as many Americans who identify as African carry European ancestry, finds an extensive new genetic analysis.

DNA tells no lies, so the findings, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, reveal just what a melting pot of different racial and ethnic groups exists in the United States.

"Our study not only reveals the historical underpinnings of regional differences in genetic ancestry, but also sheds light on the complex relationships between genetic ancestry and self-identified race and ethnicity," study author Katarzyna Bryc of 23andMe and Harvard Medical School said in a press release.

Bryc and her team studied DNA sequence variations called "single-nucleotide polymorphisms" in the genomes of more than 160,000 African Americans, Latinos and European Americans. Study participants provided saliva samples, where the DNA sequence variations were found.

The researchers found that more than 6 million Americans who self-identify as European likely carry African ancestry. As many as 5 million self-described European Americans might have at least 1 percent Native American ancestry, according to the study.