Category Archives: Society
Buzz Aldrin, the American astronaut who was the second man to walk on the Moon, said Wednesday that the United States must lead the way toward building a permanent settlement on Mars. Speaking at a conference of space experts in the US capital, the 83-year-old said the United States should apply what…
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Former Cambridge Professor Stephen Hawking told students at Caltech this week that, contrary to the feelings of many God enthusiasts, the universe did not require a deity to create, nor does it require one to continue existing. Though his speech was supposed to be free of recording devices, some sly…
A Norwegian startup tries to bring the biggest disruption to the murky shipping industry since email
By Hamish McKenzie On April 19, 2013The shipping industry is a magnificent mix of old-fashioned opacity, possible corruption, and outmoded technology, encompassing everything from unpredictable and volatile pricing for freight forwarding to code-named cartel collusion and, worse, a reliance on fax…
RAY SUAREZ: And we turn now to the subject of drones. Small unmanned aerial devices outfitted with surveillance equipment can be bought by virtually anyone and flown legally throughout the country. As Hari Sreenivasan reports, the tiny aircraft are triggering a large debate over acceptable uses of…
JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: ending extreme poverty around the world by 2030. That’s the ambitious goal announced by World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, as his organization and the International Monetary Fund begin their annual spring meetings with delegates from around the globe. The World Bank…
Reuters has published an article that genuinely fails honest, researched, and trustworthy journalism. It claims (incorrectly) that climate scientists don’t know why the atmosphere isn’t warming as fast as it was. It claims (incorrectly) that there is a gap in the climate science and in climate…
Posted February 27, 2013 – 03:51 by Kate Taylor
An Italian team has developed a new infrared holography technique that allows firefighters to see through flames and find people trapped inside burning buildings.
Current IR cameras are blinded by the intense infrared radiation emitted by flames, which overwhelm the sensitive detectors and limit their use in the field. But by using a specialized lens-free technique, the new system can cope.
“IR cameras cannot ‘see’ objects or humans behind flames because of the need for a zoom lens that concentrates the rays on the sensor to form the image,” says Pietro Ferraro of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) Istituto Nazionale di Ottica in Italy. Eliminating the need for the zoom lens avoids this drawback.
“It became clear to us that we had in our hands a technology that could be exploited by emergency responders and firefighters at a fire scene to see through smoke without being blinded by flames, a limitation of existing technology,” Ferraro says.
“Perhaps most importantly, we demonstrated for the first time that a holographic recording of a live person can be achieved even while the body is moving.”
In the new imaging system, a beam of infrared laser light is widely dispersed throughout a room. Unlike visible light, which cannot penetrate thick smoke and flames, the IR rays pass through largely unhindered. They do, however, reflect off of any objects or people in the room – and the information carried by this reflected light can be recorded by a holographic imager.
It’s then decoded to reveal the objects beyond the smoke and flames, delivering a live, 3D movie of the room and its contents.
“Besides life-saving applications in fire and rescue, the potential to record dynamic scenes of a human body could have a variety of other biomedical uses including studying or monitoring breathing, cardiac beat detection and analysis, or measurement of body deformation due to various stresses during exercise,” says Ferraro.
“We are excited to further develop this technology and realize its application for saving and improving human life.”
Posted February 22, 2013 – 02:12 by Emma Woollacott
It could take as little as a 1.5 degree rise in global temperature to thaw Siberia permanently, potentially releasing catastrophic levels of cartbon dioxide and methane from the soil.
It’s good news for mammoth-hunters, but not for the rest of us, with over 1,000 giga-tonnes of the two gases set for release in the event of a thaw.
“As permafrost covers 24 percent of the land surface of the Northern hemisphere, significant thawing could affect vast areas and release giga-tonnes of carbon,” says Dr Anton Vaks of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences.
“This has huge implications for ecosystems in the region, and for aspects of the human environment. For instance, natural gas facilities in the region, as well as power lines, roads, railways and buildings are all built on permafrost and are vulnerable to thawing. Such a thaw could damage this infrastructure, with obvious economic implications.”
The international team studied stalactites and stalagmites from caves located along the ‘permafrost frontier’, where ground begins to be permanently frozen in a layer tens to hundreds of metres thick.
And analysis from a particularly warm period – Marine Isotopic Stage 11 – that occurred around 400,000 years ago suggest that another 1.5°C of global warming of compared to the present is enough to cause substantial thawing of permafrost a long way north of its present-day limit.
The team used radiometric dating techniques to date the growth of the stalactites and stalagmites. Data from the Ledyanaya Lenskaya Cave near the town of Lensk – the coldest region – shows that the only period when stalactite growth took place occurred about 400,000 years ago, during a period with a global temperature 1.5°C higher than today.
Periods when the world was 0.5-1°C warmer than today did not see any stalactite growth in this northernmost cave, suggesting that around 1.5°C is the ‘tipping point’ at which the coldest permafrost regions begin to thaw.
“Although it wasn’t the main focus of our research our work also suggests that in a world 1.5°C warmer than today, warm enough to melt the coldest permafrost, adjoining regions would see significant changes, with Mongolia’s Gobi Desert becoming much wetter than it is today and, potentially, this extremely arid area coming to resemble the present-day Asian steppes,” says Vaks.
Methane may represent a ticking time bomb for global warming. It’s already been discovered bubbling up from the sea bed in the East Siberian Sea; and, as the most potent greenhouse gas, there’s a vicious circle in action. The more methane is released, the more temperatures are likely to rise, triggering the release of yet more methane.
Proto-Austronesian “genealogical tree.” (Credit: Image courtesy of University of California – Berkeley)
Feb. 11, 2013 — Ancient languages hold a treasure trove of information about the culture, politics and commerce of millennia past. Yet, reconstructing them to reveal clues into human history can require decades of painstaking work. Now, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have created an automated “time machine,” of sorts, that will greatly accelerate and improve the process of reconstructing hundreds of ancestral languages.
In a compelling example of how “big data” and machine learning are beginning to make a significant impact on all facets of knowledge, researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of British Columbia have created a computer program that can rapidly reconstruct “proto-languages” — the linguistic ancestors from which all modern languages have evolved. These earliest-known languages include Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Afroasiatic and, in this case, Proto-Austronesian, which gave rise to languages spoken in Southeast Asia, parts of continental Asia, Australasia and the Pacific.
“What excites me about this system is that it takes so many of the great ideas that linguists have had about historical reconstruction, and it automates them at a new scale: more data, more words, more languages, but less time,” said Dan Klein, an associate professor of computer science at UC Berkeley and co-author of the paper published online Feb. 11 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research team’s computational model uses probabilistic reasoning — which explores logic and statistics to predict an outcome — to reconstruct more than 600 Proto-Austronesian languages from an existing database of more than 140,000 words, replicating with 85 percent accuracy what linguists had done manually. While manual reconstruction is a meticulous process that can take years, this system can perform a large-scale reconstruction in a matter of days or even hours, researchers said.
Not only will this program speed up the ability of linguists to rebuild the world’s proto-languages on a large scale, boosting our understanding of ancient civilizations based on their vocabularies, but it can also provide clues to how languages might change years from now.
“Our statistical model can be used to answer scientific questions about languages over time, not only to make inferences about the past, but also to extrapolate how language might change in the future,” said Tom Griffiths, associate professor of psychology, director of UC Berkeley’s Computational Cognitive Science Lab and another co-author of the paper.
The discovery advances UC Berkeley’s mission to make sense of big data and to use new technology to document and maintain endangered languages as critical resources for preserving cultures and knowledge. For example, researchers plan to use the same computational model to reconstruct indigenous North American proto-languages.
Humans’ earliest written records date back less than 6,000 years, long after the advent of many proto-languages. While archeologists can catch direct glimpses of ancient languages in written form, linguists typically use what is known as the “comparative method” to probe the past. This method establishes relationships between languages, identifying sounds that change with regularity over time to determine whether they share a common mother language.
“To understand how language changes — which sounds are more likely to change and what they will become — requires reconstructing and analyzing massive amounts of ancestral word forms, which is where automatic reconstructions play an important role,” said Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, an assistant professor of statistics at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study, which he started while a graduate student at UC Berkeley.
The UC Berkeley computational model is based on the established linguistic theory that words evolve along the branches of a family tree — much like a genealogical tree — reflecting linguistic relationships that evolve over time, with the roots and nodes representing proto-languages and the leaves representing modern languages.
Using an algorithm known as the Markov chain Monte Carlo sampler, the program sorted through sets of cognates, words in different languages that share a common sound, history and origin, to calculate the odds of which set is derived from which proto-language. At each step, it stored a hypothesized reconstruction for each cognate and each ancestral language.
“Because the sound changes and reconstructions are closely linked, our system uses them to repeatedly improve each other,” Klein said. “It first fixes its predicted sound changes and deduces better reconstructions of the ancient forms. It then fixes the reconstructions and re-analyzes the sound changes. These steps are repeated, and both predictions gradually improve as the underlying structure emerges over time.”
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Posted February 13, 2013 – 03:10 by Kate Taylor
The Middle East has lost fresh water reserves equivalent to the entire Dead Sea over the last ten years, data from NASA satellites shows.
A team using NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites found that, between 2003 and 2010, parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 144 cubic kilometers of its total stored fresh water.
That’s almost as much as in the Dead Sea, with the loss caused mainly by the pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.
“GRACE data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India,” says Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine.
“The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought. Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.”
Famiglietti describes GRACE as ‘like having a giant scale in the sky’. Within a given region, rising or falling water reserves alter Earth’s mass, influencing how strong the local gravitational attraction is. By periodically measuring gravity regionally, GRACE reveals how much each region’s water storage changes over time.
“GRACE really is the only way we can estimate groundwater storage changes from space right now,” Famiglietti said.
The team calculated that about one-fifth of the water losses resulted from soil drying up and snowpack shrinking, partly because of a drought in 2007. Loss of surface water from lakes and reservoirs accounted for about another fifth of the losses. However, the majority of the water lost – around 90 cubic kilometers- was due to a loss of groundwater.
“That’s enough water to meet the needs of tens of millions to more than a hundred million people in the region each year, depending on regional water use standards and availability,” said Famiglietti.
After the 2007 drought, the Iraqi government drilled about 1,000 wells – and private landowners a lot more.
“The Middle East just does not have that much water to begin with, and it’s a part of the world that will be experiencing less rainfall with climate change,” said Famiglietti. “Those dry areas are getting dryer. The Middle East and the world’s other arid regions need to manage available water resources as best they can.”
Study co-author Matt Rodell of Goddard adds that it’s worth remembering that groundwater is being extracted unsustainably in parts of the United States, as well.
“Groundwater is like your savings account,” he says. “It’s okay to draw it down when you need it, but if it’s not replenished, eventually it will be gone.”