Archive for the ‘ Technology ’ Category

Reaching for immortality

From msnbc:

The quest for immortality goes back to Adam and Eve, but now some smart people are getting serious about actually bringing it within their grasp. And they’re getting more attention as well.

Let’s take Aubrey de Grey, for example: The British gerontologist has been beating the drum for anti-aging therapies for years. He plays a prominent role in a recently published book on the immortality quest titled “Long for this World,” a new documentary called “To Age or Not to Age” and a just-published commentary on the science of aging.

In this week’s issue of Science Translational Medicine, de Grey and nine other co-authors urge the United States and other nations to set up a Project Apollo-scale initiative to avert the coming “global aging crisis.” The experts’ prescription includes a campaign to raise the general public’s awareness about lifestyle changes that can lead to longer and healthier lives; a lab-based effort to develop anti-aging medicines; and a push for new techniques to repair, restore or replace the cellular and molecular damage done by age.

“There is this misunderstanding that aging is something that just happens to you, like the weather, and cannot be influenced,” another co-author, Jan Vijg of Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said in a news release. “The big surprise of the last decades is that, in many different animals, we can increase healthy life span in various ways.”

When it comes to translating anti-aging research into real life, however, the experts face at least three types of challenges: First, the basic lifestyle advice is pretty pedestrian: Eat wisely and exercise moderately. Some folks might wonder what the big deal is all about. “To enjoy the fantastic voyage, stay with the tried and true,” Jonathan Weiner writes in “Long for this World.”

Genetic factors also affect longevity, of course, as pointed out by a recent study (which has come under question, by the way). But it’s hard to tease out exactly how those factors interact with each other and with the lifestyle factors. There’s no magic bullet … yet.

The second challenge has to do with anti-aging therapies, which could offer a magic bullet someday. Some substances do seem to extend longevity, and caloric restriction has been found to be a life-extender as well … for worms and mice. But it’s not yet clear how these strategies will work for humans. It could well turn out that what works for mice would make humans sicker, or make life so unpleasant that it’s not worth living that much longer.

The third challenge involves the same issue that Adam and Eve faced: Reaching too hungrily for the fruit on the tree of life might make you seem presumptuous. In his reviewof “To Age or Not to Age,” New York Times film critic Stephen Holden complains that the movie “beats the drums so enthusiastically for a pharmaceutical fountain of youth that you have the uncomfortable sensation of being harangued by snake-oil salesmen.”

Like de Grey and his colleagues, futurist/inventorRay Kurzweil has been facing these challenges for years – not as an anti-aging researcher per se, but as a smart guy who has made his name by predicting trends in information technology that bring benefits on an exponential curve rather than a linear progression. He has applied the “law of accelerating returns” to the rise of artificial intelligence, predicting that A.I. will match human intelligence by 2029 and lead to a technological singularity by 2045 – beyond which predictions can’t be made.

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War in the fifth domain

From The Economist:

Are the mouse and keyboard the new weapons of conflict?

AT THE height of the cold war, in June 1982, an American early-warning satellite detected a large blast in Siberia. A missile being fired? A nuclear test? It was, it seems, an explosion on a Soviet gas pipeline. The cause was a malfunction in the computer-control system that Soviet spies had stolen from a firm in Canada. They did not know that the CIA had tampered with the software so that it would “go haywire, after a decent interval, to reset pump speeds and valve settings to produce pressures far beyond those acceptable to pipeline joints and welds,” according to the memoirs of Thomas Reed, a former air force secretary. The result, he said, “was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.”

This was one of the earliest demonstrations of the power of a “logic bomb”. Three decades later, with more and more vital computer systems linked up to the internet, could enemies use logic bombs to, say, turn off the electricity from the other side of the world? Could terrorists or hackers cause financial chaos by tampering with Wall Street’s computerised trading systems? And given that computer chips and software are produced globally, could a foreign power infect high-tech military equipment with computer bugs? “It scares me to death,” says one senior military source. “The destructive potential is so great.”

After land, sea, air and space, warfare has entered the fifth domain: cyberspace. President Barack Obama has declared America’s digital infrastructure to be a “strategic national asset” and appointed Howard Schmidt, the former head of security at Microsoft, as his cyber-security tsar. In May the Pentagon set up its new Cyber Command (Cybercom) headed by General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency (NSA). His mandate is to conduct “full-spectrum” operations—to defend American military networks and attack other countries’ systems. Precisely how, and by what rules, is secret.

Britain, too, has set up a cyber-security policy outfit, and an “operations centre” based in GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA. China talks of “winning informationised wars by the mid-21st century”. Many other countries are organising for cyberwar, among them Russia, Israel and North Korea. Iran boasts of having the world’s second-largest cyber-army.

What will cyberwar look like? In a new book Richard Clarke, a former White House staffer in charge of counter-terrorism and cyber-security, envisages a catastrophic breakdown within 15 minutes. Computer bugs bring down military e-mail systems; oil refineries and pipelines explode; air-traffic-control systems collapse; freight and metro trains derail; financial data are scrambled; the electrical grid goes down in the eastern United States; orbiting satellites spin out of control. Society soon breaks down as food becomes scarce and money runs out. Worst of all, the identity of the attacker may remain a mystery.

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ISS Crew Captures Beautiful Image of Green Aurora Over the Indian Ocean

Ian O’Neil in Discovery News:

June 21, 2010 -- This spectacular photograph shows a snaking aurora over the Southern Hemisphere as the International Space Station (ISS) orbits overhead. It occurred during a geomagnetic storm, likely caused by a coronal mass ejection (CME) slamming into our planet's magnetosphere.

The ISS was passing over the Southern Indian Ocean at an altitude of 350 kilometers (or 220 miles) meaning this is the “aurora australis” — aurorae that occur near the South Pole. The aurora borealis occurs near the North Pole. The space station astronaut was pointing the camera toward Antarctica at the time.

Aurorae occur when energetic particles from the sun — carried by the solar wind or a solar ejection — flood into the Earth’s magnetic field. The particles (mainly protons) are then funneled into the polar regions, where the magnetic field lines feed into the Earth’s surface. As the particles fall toward the surface they hit atmospheric gasses. When they collide, light is emitted, producing aurorae.

In this case, the aurora is dominated with green light. This means the atmospheric oxygen is glowing under the onslaught of solar particles. The light show is most likely located between 100-300 kilometers (60-190 miles) up, inside the Earth’s ionosphere.

Image: Photograph from the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment (NASA)

The People’s Capsule

How a clunky old Soviet rocket outlasted the space shuttle.

When Michael Barratt, a NASA flight surgeon, arrived at the Russian cosmonaut training facility at Star City in 1993, the space program that once lofted Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin into orbit was at its lowest ebb since the U.S. moon landing. The storefronts in the enclave nestled in the boreal forest 20 miles outside Moscow were mostly closed, their shelves empty of food. The soldiers guarding the compound, Barratt recalls, were for a time receiving their paychecks in the form of surplus canned salmon. “A lot of our Russian co-workers hadn’t been paid in months,” he recalls.

It seemed an ignominious end for what had once been the most advanced space agency in the world. But if Russia lost the space race during the Cold War, today the country is about to take the lead, however temporarily, in the space marathon. When the last U.S. space shuttle touches down in Florida this year, it will leave behind in orbit the International Space Station, an 11-year, almost-completed construction project that the United States — which has paid $48.5 billion of the expected $100 billion tab so far — and other countries hope to keep using for at least another decade. But how to get there? U.S. President Barack Obama wants to pour $6 billion over the next five years into commercial transportation to and from orbit, bankrolling companies he claims will be “competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.” But whether they can pull it off remains an open question, and in any case their rockets are years away from being astronaut-ready. The Chinese have launched a few manned test flights, and India hopes to do so by 2016, but for now both are strictly minor league.

That leaves just one option: an unglamorous rocket and capsule called the Soyuz — “Union” — that the Russians have been using to blast cosmonauts into space for nearly half a century. Starting next year, U.S. astronauts trying to reach the space station will have to book a flight to Star City first.

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The bringer of fire, hiding in the rings

From Bad Astronomy:

The ever-amazing Cassini spacecraft sent back this pretty nifty shot of Saturn’s icy moon Rhea playing peekaboo in the rings.

Beautiful, isn’t it? You can see that Rhea was on the other side of the rings from Cassini when this image was taken, and that the spacecraft was almost, but not quite, in the plane of the rings, too.

But there’s more to this shot… Take a closer look. What’s that, hiding in a gap in the rings, apparently hovering over Rhea’s terminator (the line dividing day and night)?

Surprise! It’s Prometheus, a tiny potato orbiting the planet much closer in. It’s far smaller than Rhea, only about 120 km (75 miles) long versus Rhea’s 1530 km (950 miles) diameter. Rhea is Saturn’s second largest moon — only Titan is bigger — and one of the ten biggest moons in the entire solar system. Prometheus, on the other hand, is so small it wasn’t even discovered until the Voyager 1 probe spotted it in 1980.