Monday, November 27, 2006

The Tesla Roadster 100

What goes from zero to 60 in 4 sec., tops out at more than 130 m.p.h. and appears to be missing a gas tank? The Tesla Roadster 100. It's pure California: a hot sports car that doubles as a statement against pollution and oil dependence. Its massive lithium-ion-battery array can power it for up to 250 miles of highway travel, and even though it will fatten your electricity bill, the Roadster is still twice as efficient as a Toyota Prius.

The Tesla Roadster produces one-tenth of the pollution and is six times as efficient as the best sports car.

The 20071/2 model has sold out at $110,000 but reservations are being accepted for the 2008 model.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Neanderthal's Fossil Yields Bits Of Elusive DNA

A tiny fossil fragment from a Neanderthal man who lived and died 38,000 years ago has yielded the first snippets ever discovered of the extinct creature's crucial genes -- and they show that the species was strikingly identical to our own human ancestors.

The achievement marks the start of a major effort to learn whether those heavy-browed, thickset, primitive Neanderthals succumbed to overwhelming waves of more gracefully built and sophisticated modern people or whether human and Neanderthal genes merged through generations of interbreeding.

That controversy has long been vigorously debated among researchers, but the scientists who have analyzed the first samples of the man's DNA say they see no clear evidence so far that the two did in fact interbreed.

They hope to complete a true Neanderthal Genome Project -- one similar to the historic, now-completed Human Genome Project -- within two years. Recovering all the genes and seeing where and how they differ from modern humans is vital to understanding the history of human evolution.

"We're clearly at the dawn of the era of Neanderthal genomics," said geneticist Edward Rubin, who led one of two teams of scientists that are reporting on their DNA discoveries this week. "It's like cracking the code of hieroglyphics to learn about the everyday life of the ancient Egyptians."

To find their elusive genetic material, the two teams of scientists teased the first "base pairs" -- the chemical building blocks of DNA -- from the fossilized thighbone of a Neanderthal man who had lived in a cave named Vindija near Vilna in what is now Croatia.

Rubin, director of the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, and his team are publishing their results in the American journal Science on Friday. The other group, headed by Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany, is reporting its findings Thursday in the British journal Nature.

Both Rubin and Paabo, who collaborated on much of the work, also described their results in a joint teleconference with reporters Wednesday.

The Rubin team, including postdoctoral fellow James Noonan and other scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, determined the sequence of more than 65,000 base pairs of DNA from the Neanderthal femur, eliminated all the contaminating genetic material from countless microbes that had invaded the rotted bone, and analyzed the remaining material closely. The group also used bacteria to clone the Neanderthal DNA and increase the yield of useful material for analysis.

Paabo's team, whose co-leader was Richard Green of the Planck Institute, analyzed a million base pairs of DNA from the same fossil, using a new high-speed sequencing technology developed by 454 Life Sciences, a Connecticut biotech firm that Rubin's group also used for part of its work.

The fossil bone both groups shared yielded only a tiny bit of useful material -- no more than 200 milligrams, Paabo said -- less than the weight of a melon seed. But that was enough to tease out the DNA, analyze the base pairs and compare their sequences to chimpanzee and human DNA. Then they created a "molecular clock" based on genetic mutation rates that gave the teams their timetables for the history of the two species.

Deciphering all the Neanderthal genes, Rubin said, "will act as a DNA time machine," revealing their nature, their evolution and their relation to the modern humans who supplanted them.

The Rubin team has already recovered DNA from a 40,000-year-old fossil cave bear that lived at the same time as the Neanderthals, and that discovery, reported last year, encouraged his colleagues to move on to the Neanderthal mission, he said.

Even the meager trove of Neanderthal DNA that the two teams recovered from the single fossil bone shows that the genes of Neanderthals and humans are more than 99.5 percent identical, Rubin said.

According to their DNA analysis, the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and humans lived about 700,000 years ago, and the ancestral populations of humans and Neanderthals diverged and split into distinct species about 370,000 years ago -- well before the evolution of anatomically modern humans and a long, long time before the fossil man whose DNA Rubin and Paabo analyzed.

Paabo's group calculated a somewhat different time for the split between the two groups of people: The separation, he reported, probably occurred on average about 516,000 years ago. But the difference between the two divergent times was well within the "error bars" of their calculations, the two team leaders agreed.

The DNA material in the tiny sample of fossil bone came mostly from the Neanderthal's Y chromosome, a sure indication that their creature was a male, they said.

Despite both teams' insistence that they see no clear evidence of interbreeding in the Neanderthal or human DNA, one noted anthropologist who was not part of the work disagreed.

Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan called the two reports "the most exciting advance in understanding the Neanderthal world." But he pointed to one suggestion in the Paabo report that said "gene flow may have occurred predominantly from modern human males into Neanderthals."

In a burst of enthusiasm, Wolpoff said, "There is no other explanation for this kind of gene flow, and it's unequivocal evidence for interbreeding."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Something Light: Idiots of 2006

Number One Idiot of 2006

I am a medical student currently doing a rotation in toxicology at the poison control center. Today, this woman called in very upset because she caught her little daughter eating ants. I quickly reassured her that the ants are not harmful and there would be no need to bring her daughter into the hospital. She calmed down and at the end of the conversation happened to mention that she gave her daughter some ant poison to eat in order to kill the ants. I told her that she better bring her daughter into the emergency room right away. Here's your sign, lady. Wear it with pride.


Number Two Idiot of 2006

Early this year, some Boeing employees on the airfield decided to steal a life raft from one of the 747s. They were successful in getting it out of the plane and home. Shortly after they took it for a float on the river, they noticed a Coast Guard helicopter coming towards them. It turned out that the chopper was homing in on the emergency locator beacon that activated when the raft was inflated. They are no longer employed at Boeing. Here's your sign, guys. Don't get it wet; the paint might run.


Number Three Idiot of 2006

A man, wanting to rob a downtown Bank of America, walked into the Branch and wrote "this. Put all your muny in this bag." While standing in line, waiting to give his note to the teller, he began to worry that someone had seen him write the note and might call the police before he reached the teller's window. So he left the Bank of America and crossed the street to the Wells Fargo Bank. After waiting a few minutes in line, he handed his note to the Wells Fargo teller. She read it and, surmising from his spelling errors that he wasn't the brightest light in the harbor, told him that she could not accept his stickup note because it was written on a Bank of America deposit slip and that he would either have to fill out a Wells Fargo deposit slip or go back to Bank of America. Looking somewhat defeated, the man said, "OK" and left.He was arrested a few minutes later, as he was waiting in line back at Bank of America. Don't bother with this guy's sign. He probably couldn't read it anyway.


Number Four Idiot of 2006

A motorist was unknowingly caught in an automated speed trap that; measured his speed using radar and photographed his car. He later received in the mail a ticket for $40 and a photo of his car. Instead of payment, he sent the police department a photograph of $40. Several days later, he received a letter from the police that contained another picture, this time of handcuffs. He immediately mailed in his $40. Wise guy........ but you still get a sign!


Number Five Idiot of 2006

A guy walked into a little corner store with a shotgun and demanded all of the cash from the cash drawer. After the cashier put the cash in a bag, the robber saw a bottle of Scotch that he wanted behind the counter on the shelf. He told the cashier to put it in the bag as well, but the cashier refused and said, "Because I don't believe you are over 21." The robber said he was, but the clerk still refused to give it to him because she didn't believe him. At this point, the robber took his driver's license out of his wallet and gave it to the clerk. The clerk looked it over and agreed that the man was in fact over 21 and she put the Scotch in the bag. The robber then ran from the store with his loot. The cashier promptly called the police and gave the name and address of the robber that he got off the license. They arrested the robber two hours later. This guy definitely needs a sign.


Idiot Number Six of 2006

A pair of Michigan robbers entered a record shop nervously waving revolvers. The first one shouted, "Nobody move!" When his partner moved, the startled first bandit shot him. This guy doesn't even deserve a sign.


Idiot Number Seven of 2006

Arkansas: Seems this guy wanted some beer pretty badly. He decided that he'd just throw a cinder block through a liquor store window, grab some booze, and run. So he lifted the cinder block and heaved it over his head at the window. The cinder block bounced back knocking him unconscious. It seems the liquor store window was made of Plexi-Glass. The whole event was caught on videotape. Yep, Here's your sign. (Please note that all of the above people are allowed to vote.)


I live in a semi-rural area. We recently had a new neighbor call the local township administrative office to request the removal of the Deer Crossing sign on our road. The reason: "Too many deer are being hit by cars out here! I don't think this is a good place for them to be crossing anymore." From Kingman , KS .

IDIOTS IN FOOD SERVICE: My daughter went to a local Taco Bell and ordered a taco. She asked the person behind the counter for "minimal lettuce." He said he was sorry, but they only had iceberg. He was a Chef? Yep...From Kansas City !

IDIOT SIGHTING: I was at the airport, checking in at the gate when an airport employee asked, "Has anyone put anything in your baggage without your knowledge? To which I replied, "If it was without my knowledge, how would I know?" He smiled knowingly and nodded, "That's why we ask." Happened in Birmingham , Ala.

IDIOT SIGHTING: The stoplight on the corner buzzes when its safe to cross the street. I was crossing with an intellectually challenged coworker of mine. She asked if I knew what the buzzer was for. I explained that it signals blind people when the light is red. Appalled, she responded, "What on earth are blind people doing driving?!" She was a probation officer in Wichita , KS.

IDIOT SIGHTING: At a good-bye luncheon for an old and dear coworker. She was leaving the company due to" downsizing." Our manager commented cheerfully, "This is fun. We should do this more often." Not another word was spoken. We all just looked at each other with that deer-in-the-headlights stare. This was a bunch at Texas Instruments.

IDIOT SIGHTING: I work with an individual who plugged her power strip back into itself and for the sake of her own life, couldn't understand why her system would not turn on. A deputy with the Dallas County Sheriffs office no less.

IDIOT SIGHTING: When my husband and I arrived at an automobile dealership to pick up our car, we were told the keys had been locked in it. We went to the service department and found a mechanic working feverishly to unlock the drivers side door. As I watched from the passenger side, I instinctively tried the door handle and discovered that it was unlocked. "Hey," I announced to the technician, "its open!" His reply, "I know - I already got that side." This was at the CHEVY dealership in Canton , Mississippi !

STAY ALERT! They walk among us!!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Amazing Hubble

From the New York Times:

The space agency's finest scientific instrument escaped a death sentence on Tuesday when Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator, approved a shuttle mission to service and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.

It was a brave call, since repairing the Hubble will put the shuttle at greater risk than a typical mission to the International Space Station. It was also a welcome sign that NASA is willing to go the extra orbital mile to support superb science, even while it squanders large sums on completing the space station to perform research that can't begin to compare with the Hubble's in importance.

For a decade and a half, the Hubble has made discoveries that have helped revolutionize our understanding of the universe. Its typical role is to pick up a hint from ground- based telescopes and then use its unparalleled vantage point above the atmosphere to probe deeply into some puzzling phenomenon.

The Hubble has peered farther into space and farther back in time than any other instrument. It has discovered more than 500 proto-galaxies that emitted light when the universe was in its formative stages, confirmed the jaw-dropping discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and helped establish the rate of expansion and the age of the universe.

A panel of distinguished astronomers judged that the Hubble "has arguably had a greater impact on astronomy than any instrument since the original astronomical telescope of Galileo."

What made all of this possible was NASA's willingness to refurbish the Hubble every few years to replace depleted batteries and gyroscopes and install new equipment. Many experts believe that when the Hubble gets two state-of-the-art instruments on the next servicing mission in 2008 it will be more capable than ever, ready to peer farther back into a time when galaxies were forming and the universe was emerging from darkness into light.

The threat to the Hubble's future came unexpectedly from NASA itself in early 2004. In a decision that can only be described as myopic, Sean O'Keefe, the administrator at the time, unexpectedly canceled the next servicing mission, ostensibly because of safety concerns after the Columbia disaster.

But the underlying reason was almost certainly that a Hubble mission would be a diversion from the administration's priorities to complete the space station and then send astronauts back to the moon and eventually Mars. Only intervention by the U.S. Congress and the National Academy of Sciences kept the death sentence at bay.

Now Griffin has concluded that the mission can be conducted safely, especially since NASA has developed new inspection and orbital repair techniques, and that the mission will not interfere with other space priorities. A Hubble mission may be marginally more risky than a flight to the space station, but that risk is surely worth taking for the scientific payoff.