• Ants In Your Pants

Seems like ants are everywhere, right? They are! Ants and termites, along with thier close relatives bees and wasps, make up fully 3/4s of the total insect biomass. In fact, ants and termites make up about ⅓ of the Amazon’s dry land biomass.

Ever wonder what an ant’s nest looks like? Here’s one after it was filled with plaster, and then scientists picked away all the surrounding dirt.

Reasearchers investigated another much larger, but by no means special, nest and found that the structure was over 26 feet deep and horizontally covered over five hundred square feet. To build it, the colony moved 40 tons of dirt—billions of ant loads, each one weighing about four times as much as the worker ant that carried it. In human terms, the dirt was carried over 1/2 mile to the surface.

Other reasons why ants are such a successful species:

Ants are resistant to hard radiation. While plants died around them, ants exposed to intense cesium irradiation suffered no apparent harm nor change in behavior.

Some species are even able to live underwater for up to two weeks or longer.

Indonesian ants have domesticated mealy bugs and feed on sugar and vitamin rich honey dew excreted by the mealy bugs. The ants are nomadic, periodically moving their mealy bug herds to new plants for fresh grazing.

When a colony is disturbed, scout ants spread out looking for a new site. The site is selected by a form of democracy. Individual ants vote by leaving pheromone trails to preferred sites. At the end of voting, the site with the strongest pheromone trail is used.

Grass cutter ants use relay teams to transport food. Each team covers a set distance and hands it over to the next team.

Wood ants harvest tree resin to use as an antibiotic and fungicide.

Grass cutter ants cultivate underground fungus gardens. They build gravity ventilation systems to maintain desired temperature, humidity and CO2 levels.

• Why Science Matters

Briane Green writes:

A couple of years ago I received a letter from an American soldier in Iraq. The letter began by saying that, as we've all become painfully aware, serving on the front lines is physically exhausting and emotionally debilitating. But the reason for his writing was to tell me that in that hostile and lonely environment, a book I'd written had become a kind of lifeline. As the book is about science — one that traces physicists' search for nature's deepest laws — the soldier's letter might strike you as, well, odd.

But it's not. Rather, it speaks to the powerful role science can play in giving life context and meaning. At the same time, the soldier's letter emphasized something I've increasingly come to believe: our educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.

Allow me a moment to explain.

When we consider the ubiquity of cellphones, iPods, personal computers and the Internet, it's easy to see how science (and the technology to which it leads) is woven into the fabric of our day-to-day activities. When we benefit from CT scanners, M.R.I. devices, pacemakers and arterial stents, we can immediately appreciate how science affects the quality of our lives. When we assess the state of the world, and identify looming challenges like climate change, global pandemics, security threats and diminishing resources, we don't hesitate in turning to science to gauge the problems and find solutions.

And when we look at the wealth of opportunities hovering on the horizon — stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, space technology — we realize how crucial it is to cultivate a general public that can engage with scientific issues; there's simply no other way that as a society we will be prepared to make informed decisions on a range of issues that will shape the future.

These are the standard — and enormously important — reasons many would give in explaining why science matters.

But here's the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that's precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

As a practicing scientist, I know this from my own work and study. But I also know that you don't have to be a scientist for science to be transformative. I've seen children's eyes light up as I've told them about black holes and the Big Bang. I've spoken with high school dropouts who've stumbled on popular science books about the human genome project, and then returned to school with newfound purpose. And in that letter from Iraq, the soldier told me how learning about relativity and quantum physics in the dusty and dangerous environs of greater Baghdad kept him going because it revealed a deeper reality of which we're all a part.

It's striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.

If science isn't your strong suit — and for many it's not — this side of science is something you may have rarely if ever experienced. I've spoken with so many people over the years whose encounters with science in school left them thinking of it as cold, distant and intimidating. They happily use the innovations that science makes possible, but feel that the science itself is just not relevant to their lives. What a shame.

Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension.

It's one thing to go outside on a crisp, clear night and marvel at a sky full of stars. It's another to marvel not only at the spectacle but to recognize that those stars are the result of exceedingly ordered conditions 13.7 billion years ago at the moment of the Big Bang. It's another still to understand how those stars act as nuclear furnaces that supply the universe with carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, the raw material of life as we know it.

And it's yet another level of experience to realize that those stars account for less than 4 percent of what's out there — the rest being of an unknown composition, so-called dark matter and energy, which researchers are now vigorously trying to divine.

As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work — we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And it's a profound loss.

A great many studies have focused on this problem, identifying important opportunities for improving science education. Recommendations have ranged from increasing the level of training for science teachers to curriculum reforms.

But most of these studies (and their suggestions) avoid an overarching systemic issue: in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science's underlying technical details.

In fact, many students I've spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that's science?”

In physics, just to give a sense of the raw material that's available to be leveraged, the most revolutionary of advances have happened in the last 100 years — special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics — a symphony of discoveries that changed our conception of reality. More recently, the last 10 years have witnessed an upheaval in our understanding of the universe's composition, yielding a wholly new prediction for what the cosmos will be like in the far future.

These are paradigm-shaking developments. But rare is the high school class, and rarer still is the middle school class, in which these breakthroughs are introduced. It's much the same story in classes for biology, chemistry and mathematics.

At the root of this pedagogical approach is a firm belief in the vertical nature of science: you must master A before moving on to B. When A happened a few hundred years ago, it's a long climb to the modern era. Certainly, when it comes to teaching the technicalities — solving this equation, balancing that reaction, grasping the discrete parts of the cell — the verticality of science is unassailable.

But science is so much more than its technical details. And with careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of those details; in fact, those insights and discoveries are precisely the ones that can drive a young student to want to learn the details. We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that's been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.

It's the birthright of every child, it's a necessity for every adult, to look out on the world, as the soldier in Iraq did, and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us.

[First published as an OpEd piece by The New York Times, June 1, 2008]

• Flying Carpets Burn Oil

Original post 2/11/07 (see update below)

Luxurious flying palaces based on Boeing airliners are enjoyed by private and business customers in the Middle East and around the world.

Over 100 of the 737-based Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) aircraft have been sold since 1999, with prices starting around $45 million—and that's before you spend another $15 million for minor add-ons such as seats.

But, oh, those seats. Lots of knee room is available when money is no object as shown is the proposed 787 cabin arrangement. Part of the cabin, that is.

747VIPs are available for $272-282 million (plus interior), but they're all sold out until 2012. The next 787VIP isn't available until 2016, if you want one. Order now! Operators are standing by!

Either way, you'll never have to endure a red-eye flight sandwiched in the middle, with a toddler screaming behind you and kicking the back of your seat. You can snooze your way across the Atlantic in peace, or join the Six Mile High club in style.

So far wealthy individuals have purchased all the 787 VIPs. Government heads of state make up three quarters of the BBJ customer base. The other quarter is split between corporate operators and charter companies.

Update 5/21/08

The May 19, 2008 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology reports continued hot demand for VVIP business jets now including the new Boeing 747-8 and Airbus A380.

Where's the the most activity? Why Middle East, of course (and Russia, India, Brazil and China). Last November Airbus announced the first A380 sale to a Saudi prince, and two letters of intent from the United Arab Emirates. Boeing says it has orders for eight 787s and four 747-8s.

In fact, completion centers are scrambling to build hangar space, and have been forced to turn away piddly narrow body aircraft work even as they try to figure out where to put the 20-25 BBJ/ACJs they alrady agreed to receive in the next four years.

Here's a A380 dining room concept from Lufthansa Technik. Can't tell from the image if it's upstairs or downstairs. But then it might be just the informal cafe, not the formal dining room.


• Time to Take Stock. Oops, too late.

• The US share of the world’s leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing capacity dropped from 36% to 11% in the past 7 years.

• Chemical companies closed 70 facilities in the United States in 2004 and were in the process of closing 40 more the following year. Of the 120 new plants costing over $1 billion each that were under construction at that time, 50 were in China and one was in the United States.

• The US Big Three automakers announced the closing of 26 plants in the United States over the next several years, while Japan-based companies are opening four new plants in the United States between 2006 and 2008.

• There are now 12 energy companies in the world whose reserves exceed those of the largest US energy firm, ExxonMobil.

• IBM recently sold its once-promising PC business to a Chinese company.

• In Business Week’s ranking of the world’s information-technology companies, only one of the top 10 is based in the United States.

• In spite of America’s growing demand for energy, no new petroleum refineries have been built and no new nuclear power plants have been ordered in the past 30 years. (France now derives 78% of its electric power from nuclear sources; Lithuania, 72%; Belgium, 54%; Armenia, 42%; Japan, 30%; and the United States, 19%.)

• Nearly 60% of the patents filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office in the field of information technology now originate in Asia.

• Once-mighty Ford and General Motors both have junk-bond ratings, and each has laid off over one-third of its dwindling North American workforce in the past 5 years alone.

• Last year Toyota brought to an end the notion of the US Big Three automakers when it sold more vehicles in the United States than Chrysler.

• This year, rapidly expanding Toyota ended General Motors’s 75-year reign as the world’s largest auto manufacturer.

• Only one of the 25 largest initial public offerings last year took place on American exchanges.

• China is on track to build 108 new airports between 2005 and 2010, including the world’s largest. The United States, in spite of stifling congestion, has built only one major airport in the last third of a century.

• Low-wage firms, such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, created 44% of the new jobs in America during one recent period—a period during which high-wage firms produced only 29% of the new jobs.

• Americans are now “saving” a net negative 0.4% of their disposable income.

• In 2000, the number of foreign students studying physical sciences and engineering in US graduate schools surpassed, for the first time, the number of US students.

• The Los Angeles Times reports that in the past 16 years two high-rise buildings were constructed in Los Angeles as the city executed its accelerated urban-renewal plan. In the past 10 years, 5,000 were built in Shanghai.

• Some foreign universities are now conducting their engineering and business classes in English to promote recruitment of faculty and students and simplify access to technical information. In contrast, the working language in the back halls of many US engineering schools is Chinese.

• The United States is falling relative to its economic competitors in broadband Internet access. As recently as 2000 it was in first place; now it ranks 16th in the fraction of citizens having broadband connections and 61st in the use of mobile telephony per capita. South Korea has nearly twice the broadband penetration (subscribers per capita) of the United States.

• Toyota now has over 5 times the market capitalization of General Motors and Ford combined.

• The United States ranks 17th among nations in high-school graduation rate and 14th in college graduation rate.

• Foreigners finance about two-thirds of US domestic investment, compared with about one-fifteenth a decade ago.

• China has supplanted the United States as the world’s number 1 high-technology exporter.

• During the past 30 years, 40% of new petroleum production came from industrialized nations. It is estimated that during the next 40 years, 90% will come from developing nations.

• Well over half the world’s foreign-exchange resources are held by emerging market countries: the poorer nations are now financing the richer nations.

• The German firm that a decade ago purchased one of America’s Big Three automobile makers, Chrysler, for $36 billion decided after 9 years that it didn’t want the company after all and in effect paid nearly $700 million to get someone else to take it away (along with its pension liability).

• Of the new R&D sites planned for construction in the next 3 years by the 177 companies queried in one recent survey, 77% are to be built in China or India, often using US corporate financing.

From Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth? by Norman Augustine

• Taking It Slow

Did you ever wonder if rocks could think and talk? If you watch them very, very closely for a long time they don't seem to move. But maybe you just didn't watch long enough?

• Evolution isn't the only thing Creationists are wrong about

The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has been recording data for 5 years on heat in the form of microwaves created by the Big Bang. What it's found, to an amazing degree of precision, is that the Universe is 13.73 billion years, plus or minus 120 million years. Not 6000 as some Creationists claim based on exactly no data.

The temperatures WMAP is measuring ranges from 2.7248 to 2.7252 degrees Kelvin. That tiny difference shown by the colors above is only 0.0002 degrees Celsius.

WMAP was also able to determine the kinds of energy and matter that make up the Universe that 72.1% dark energy, 23.3% dark matter, and 4.62% regular stuff.

Everything you see around you, all the massive stars, are the galaxies are less than 5% of what is. And every atom in your body was created in a star.

There's Tar In Them Thar Hills

Is the 21st century's equivalent of the '49s Gold Rush in our future, say in 2049? Think Tom Corbet and Gabby Hays, tanker rockets and space-suited roughnecks.

The Cassini spacecraft and scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., reported in the Jan. 29 issue of the Geophysical Research Letters that Saturn's orange moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth. The hydrocarbons rain from the sky, collecting in vast deposits that form lakes and dunes.

At a not so balmy minus 179 degrees Celsius (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), Titan is a far cry from Earth. Instead of water, liquid hydrocarbons in the form of methane and ethane fill lakes and seas on Saturn's moon.

Several hundred bodies of water methane have been observed, and dark dunes that run along the equator contain a volume of organics several hundred times greater than Earth's coal reserves.

And don't forget we're a carbon-based life form, so it's not out of the question to think that a life form based on liquid methane instead of liquid water might have evolved.

Could make a great space opera, daring astronauts fighting vicious methane-monsters to bring back life-giving hydrocarbons. Assuming we can figure out how to prevent their by-products from making global warming worse, of course.

Blah, blah, blah . . . WACKO!

So you start reading what looks like a typical scientific journal article—lotsa names, unusual terms, not very clear what it's all about and then BAM, right between the eyes. Try it.

Evolution of Mid–IR Excess Around Sun–like Stars:
Constraints on Models of Terrestrial Planet Formation
M.R. Meyer, J.M. Carpenter, E.E. Mamajek, L.A. Hillenbrand, D. Hollenbach, A.
Moro–Martin, J.S. Kim, M.D. Silverstone, J. Najita, D.C. Hines, I. Pascucci, J.R.
Stauffer, J. Bouwman, & D.E. Backman
We report observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) regarding the frequency of 24 μm excess emission toward sun-like stars. Our unbiased sample is comprised of 309 stars with masses 0.7-2.2 M⊙ and ages from <3>3 Gyr that lack excess emission at wavelengths 8 μm. We identify 30 stars that exhibit clear evidence of excess emission from the observed 24/8μm flux ratio. The implied 24 μm excesses of these candidate debris disk systems range from 13 % (the minimum detectable) to more than 100% compared to the expected photospheric emission. The frequency of systems with evidence for dust debris emitting at 24 μm ranges from 8.5–19 % at ages greater than 300 Myr to greater than 4 % for older stars. The results suggest that many, perhaps most, sun-like stars might form terrestrial planets.

The researchers looked at 309 sun-like stars, grouped them by age, and then used the Spitzer infrared space telescope to look for dust around them. The dust glows in the infrared spectrum from the heat of the local star, and the temperature of the glow is proportional to the distance from the star.

About 10% of the stars in the Milky Way are like our Sun. If just 10% of them have rocky planets, as this study indicates, there may be a billion planets like Earth orbiting stars in our galaxy alone! Lower mass stars can form planetary systems too, of course, and there are a whole lot more of them then stars like ours. So there may be several billion terrestrial planets in the galaxy and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe.

Read the rest of the paper at http://arxiv.org/pdf/0712.1057

Water on Mars

Mars is a cold desert planet with no liquid water on its surface, but discoveries announced in 2000 by Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) using cameras aboard Mars Global Surveyor and discoveries by Mars Odyssey Orbiter researchers in 2002 showed the presence of water ice just below ground level. In 2005, while re-imaging certain areas MSSS discovered this recent flow:

This 2005 reconstructed image from the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft shows vertical cliffs nearly 2 kilometers high bordering a volcanic caldera near the north pole of Mars. Also visible are reddish areas of rock and sand, white areas of ice, and dark areas that are probably volcanic ash. No, the greenish tinge isn't shrubbery.

The MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding) radar on the Mars Express spacecraft studied the structure of the layered deposits of this region to a depth of 3.7 km. In March of this year JPL reported in Science magazine that the data indicated a giant underground dome about 1000 km in diameter composed of water ice and a little (10%) dust.

The total volume of ice in the region is calculated to be about 1.6 million cubic kilometers. Melted, that much ice would cover the entire planet with water 11 meters (36 feet) deep, according to JPL, ignoring topography. But Michael Malin and Ken Edgett at MSSS estimate the volume of the 7 km deep, 5000 km long Valles Marineris canyon alone at about 3 million cubic kilometers.

Still, if you use both the JPL and Malin-Edgett figures, the water would only fill the canyon half full—except for the fact that much of the huge chasm's volume is well above what would be 'mean sea level'. And Olympus Mons would be an island continent displacing a lot of the water. So maybe the JPL 11 meter estimate is close even if it does ignore topography?

Probably not. James Head at Brown University published a report in 1999 that included an image showing it would take water almost 1500 m deep to flood more than the northern basin.

I played around with a Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) flat projection map in Photoshop, cooked up some greenhouse warming, filled in the lowlands with melted ice water, grew some plants, created some clouds, wrapped it around a sphere and produced this pure fantasy. Looks a lot like home.

A couple of weeks ago ESA announced that the Mars Express orbiter found an amazing surface feature in Deuteronilus Mensae, also up north. From every indication it's a glacier.

Signs of old glaciers have been found on Mars, but this one may be only thousands of years old and it seems to still have ice on the characteristic ridges, so it may be active even today.

The interesting question, of course, is where is the water ice coming from? Maybe from underground, maybe from snow? The Phoenix lander due to arrive in May 0f 2008 will use a robotic arm to dig through the protective top soil layer to the water ice below and ultimately, to bring both soil and water ice to the lander platform for sophisticated scientific analysis that may answer the question.

UPDATE: Yup It's Ice!

And that may take us closer to answering the ultimate question if there's water on Mars is there life too? There always is here on Earth, whether the water is frozen solid at the poles or boiling hot in volcanic vents.

The next few years of exploration on Mars may be the most exciting yet.

New Year's Irresolution

New Year's Day is the one when, briefly, millions of people delude themselves into thinking that firm resolutions will bring happiness.

The secular priests of self-improvement chant that you should set up some distant destination — weight loss or career progression — and trudge doggedly towards it.

But every lifestyle guru makes one basic mistake. They confuse integrity, which matters, with inflexibility, which doesn’t.

So why not abandon the narrow path to disappointment and opt instead for some new year’s irresolution?

Make 2008 the year you choose to change your mind. Evaluate you closely held beliefs and prejudices and see if they really are based on reality.

Edge.com asked the the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions of our day if they changed their mind, and why

Tackling subjects as diverse as human evolution, the laws of physics and sexual politics, scientists and philosophers, including Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Richard Wrangham, all confessed to a change of heart.

Their answers are here.

A great (and lengthy) read, and a great way to start the new year.

Health, love, prosperity and peace.