Does Parenting Change the Development of the Brain?

Research suggests that parenting affects the molecular development of the offspring’s brain, at least in rats.

A decade ago Prof. Meaney noticed that newborn rats whose mothers rarely lick and groom them grow up… well, there is a fancy biochemical description for it, but let’s just say that they grow up a bit of a neurotic mess. Pups of attentive moms grow up less fearful, more curious, mellower.

Prof. Meaney and his team then showed that this wasn’t a case of mellow moms having mellow kids and neglectful moms having maladjusted kids, as the DNA-as-destiny crowd would have it. When the scientists switch around the newborns so that rat pups born to attentive moms are reared by standoffish moms, the pups grow up to be extremely stressed out, nearly jumping out of their skins at the slightest stress. Pups born to standoffish moms but reared by attentive ones grow up to be less fearful, more curious, more laid-back, taking stress in stride.

Rearing, it turns out, affects molecules in the brain that catch hold of stress hormones. Licking and grooming increases the number of these receptors. The more such receptors the brain has in the region called the hippocampus, the fewer stress hormones are released; the fewer the stress hormones coursing through its body, the mellower the rat.

It turns out that all newborn rats have a molecular silencer on their stress-receptor gene. In rats reared by standoffish mothers, the silencer remains attached, the scientists will report in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience. As a result, the brain has few stress-hormone receptors and reacts to stress like a skittish horse hearing a gunshot.

But licking and grooming by an attentive mother literally removes the silencer; the molecule is gone. Those baby rats have lots of stress-hormone receptors in their brains and less stress hormone, and they grow up to be curious, unafraid and able to handle stress.

Mellow or Stressed? Mom’s Care Can Alter DNA of Her Offspring, By Sharon Begley, July 16, 2004, Science Journal, Wall Street Journal

Piping in Sunlight: Let the Sun Shine In

Discover Magazine describes a novel idea for piping in sunlight where dreary fluorescent bulbs have long dominated: Sunlight piped from the roof blends with fluorescent light in the fixture down below, offering a warm glow that looks much more natural than the harshness of conventional fluorescents.

Bringing the sun into the mix not only cuts electricity use for indoor illumination by up to 50 percent, it also addresses a fundamental problem with office buildings—how to get daylight into the interior. Architectural studies show that, at best, light from windows penetrates only about 20 feet inside a structure. The solution came to researcher Jeff Muhs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory 10 years ago during a business trip to Japan. There he found silicone gel fibers that transmitted light far more efficiently than any he had seen before. He realized that a network of those fibers could spread sunshine throughout a building.

The sunlight flows into a building through a network of exceptionally transparent fiber-optic cables.

The idea was simple, but execution was a problem because passing clouds can suddenly dim the sun; on overcast days, of course, there’s no sunlight to tap into at all. Muhs eventually hit on a hybrid fixture that combines an acrylic sunlight-diffusing rod with two fluorescent lamps attached to a dimmer. He then added a sensor that can read the brightness of the room and adjust the fluorescents as needed.

The prototype at Oak Ridge has been running for more than a year. A dish-shaped collector on the roof bounces sunlight to a smaller mirror, which concentrates the rays into a bundle of fiber-optic cables. At noon on a sunny day, the system can illuminate about 500 square feet of floor space for every square yard of dish. “I was skeptical,” says Paul Phillips, vice president of product development at LSI Industries in Cincinnati, which builds the prototype hybrid fixtures. “Then I saw the simplicity of it and the potential for reducing cost.”

The fibers transmit 40 to 45 percent of the incoming sunlight into a ceiling fixture containing two acrylic rods that are etched to scatter the light evenly; the adjacent fluorescent bulbs fill in when sunshine alone is too weak to illuminate the room. Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory hope that piped-in sunlight will put a serious dent in the amount of energy used to light commercial buildings, which accounts for about 10 percent of all electricity consumption in the United States. Photovoltaic cells placed behind the collector’s secondary mirror could augment the savings by converting the sun’s invisible infrared rays into electricity.

By Muhs’s estimate, an installed hybrid system would sell for about $4,000 per dish. A small 20,000-square-foot office building would require 40 prototype collectors, or a smaller number of the double-size ones Muhs’s team intends to build. Such a setup could save $10,000 a year in electricity even compared with high-efficiency fluorescent lights. The Antares Group, renewable energy consultants, project that 3.5 million dishes could be in use by 2020, leading to a total savings of more than $1 billion.

Muhs believes retail spaces such as furniture stores are the best places to begin because they are open long hours and rely on inefficient halogen bulbs to bring out the same color and detail that sunlight does. A typical halogen light provides 14 lumens of illumination per watt. An energy-efficient fluorescent light yields 90 lumens per watt. On a sunny day, a hybrid fixture puts out the equivalent of two fluorescents while using no electricity at all. Hybrid lighting in an average-size store in the Southwest could pay for itself in four years, but Muhs expects that psychological factors will really seal the deal.

Companies have reported that skylights and windows enhance worker productivity and sales, and some studies suggest that daylight raises students’ test scores. A 1999 study of 108 stores in a retail chain found that outlets with skylights had 30 to 50 percent higher sales, even though most shoppers interviewed were unaware of the lights. They said the stores felt cleaner, more spacious, and brighter. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are testing to see whether hybrid solar illumination similarly elevates productivity and mood.

The Oak Ridge team will install finalized prototype fixtures in a Tennessee Valley Authority site in Alabama and in a Sacramento utility. Wal-Mart executives have expressed interest in trying out the system as well. Muhs is optimistic that hybrid lighting, like hybrid cars, will catch on as a prestige technology: “I think it could become a trendy thing to demand, ‘I want sunlight inside my office.’ ”

Discover.Com: Let the Sun Shine In

Ocean CO2 may ‘harm marine life’

Nearly 50% of the carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the atmosphere over the last 200 years has been absorbed by the sea, scientists say.

Consequently, atmospheric levels of the potent greenhouse gas are not nearly as high as they might have been.

But the heavy concentration of carbon dioxide in the oceans has changed their chemistry, making it hard for some marine animals to form shells.

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Ocean CO2 may ‘harm marine life’

via Synergic Earth News

New Sources of Energy: Hydrogen from water using the sun’s power

Sooner or later, one of these breakthroughs will help the world reduce its dependence on OPEC.

Solar Hydrogen Energy Corporation (SHEC Labs) reported that they have demonstrated the production of Hydrogen from water using their proprietary Solar Thermal Chemical Process. The Hydrogen production was accomplished at the APS (Arizona Public Service) Solar Test and Research Facility in Tempe, Arizona on June 8th and again June 28th, 2004. Utilizing the hot Arizona sun and a new Solar Concentrator developed by the Lab, the research team was able to extract Hydrogen from water at a temperature of 850 degrees Celsius (1562? Fahrenheit).

This successful test was the second for SHEC-Labs. In Late May of this year the team produced Hydrogen from Natural Gas using a similar technology. SHEC-Labs is planning additional tests in the next few weeks, using a variety of catalysts and temperatures.

Independent engineering companies have verified that SHEC labs’ process can produce hydrogen from water at temperatures significantly lower than 1000 degrees Celsius. Direct thermal water splitting in comparison normally requires temperatures of 2000 degrees Celsius to begin the reaction and 5000 degrees Celsius to optimize the reaction.

Link PhysOrg: SHEC Labs achived breakthrough performance in manufacturing hydrogen from water using the sun’s power

via Green Car Congress

More Solar-Cell Innovation

Summer in the South: As our air-conditioning tries to cool our home in 90 degree heat and high humidity, our electricity bill jumps up as we compete with everyone else for this precious energy. At the same time, the sun hitting our roofs creates temperatures of more than 150 degrees. Why is sunlight not being used for cooling our homes rather than heating our roofs?

Another solar technology with potential. Many of these new developments will be disappointing and some are just hype, but sooner or later one of these innovations will have a huge impact.

Breakthroughs in nanotech are making it possible to churn out cheap, flexible solar cells by the meter. Soon your cell phone may be powered by the sun.

On the test benches of Konarka Technologies in Lowell, MA, a new kind of solar cell is being put through its paces. Strips of flexible plastic all but indistinguishable from photographic film bask under high-intensity lights. These strips, about 10 centimeters long and five centimeters wide, are converting the light into electricity. Wire a few of them together, and they generate enough power to run a small fan.

In their initial applications—such as powering cell phones and laptops, as Konarka envisions—printed solar cells won’t need to produce that much power or run for decades at a time. But scaling them up from personal electronics to rooftops is a whole other story.

Unlike the crystalline silicon in conventional solar panels, the polymers and dyes employed in printable solar cells are exquisitely sensitive to oxygen. Protecting these materials from blowing sand, intense sunlight, extreme temperature shifts, and the myriad other forms of abuse that nature heaps on solar panels will require hermetic seals. But Brian Gregg, a solar expert at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, predicts that materials scientists will soon develop workable seals that will protect the delicate devices over the long term. “There’s no reason to believe that we can’t make [printed] solar cells that will last for 30 years,” says Gregg.

Indeed, the recent advances in printable solar cells—and the growing possibilities presented by nanotechnology—leave many experts more optimistic than ever that the technology is nearly ready to tackle one of the world’s most troubling problems: how to create a ready and renewable supply of energy. Nanotech pioneer Richard Smalley, for one, is convinced that a solar-powered grid is not just possible but also inevitable—and indispensable. Nanotech could help solve the energy problem, Smalley contends, by providing new tools and materials that make widespread use of solar cells economically viable. But he believes it will take billions of dollars in funding and the focused efforts of the world’s top chemists and physicists to make that happen. So for the past two years, he has been crisscrossing the United States, evangelizing for nothing short of a modern-day Manhattan Project to use nanotech to deliver a sustainable energy system.

That’s the long-term vision. In the meantime, the Konarkas and Siemenses of the world are taking some critical first steps toward changing how we think about harvesting energy from the sun, and how we use electricity in our lives. It may not yet be the Manhattan Project urged by Smalley, but it’s a fast-growing effort that could quickly reach critical mass.

Link Solar-Cell Rollout

via Emergic.Org

Is Technology Failing Us?

Some excerpts from a magazine article by Chris Turner on a new direction for technology:

The degradation of the environment is the biggest problem of our age, but the high-tech industry’s primary focus remains on creating gee-whiz gizmos and applications – not green technologies. If as much time, energy and resources were devoted to green tech as they were to wireless devices and’s we could rescue a dying planet. And then we could truly call this a revolution

…Here’s what’s being missed: a cluster of problems that I’ll place under the rough heading “environmental degradation.” I’d hate to imply that any one aspect of the process by which we are making our planet unfit for human life is more troubling than any other, but the one in particular — the one that should really be keeping our engineers and genius inventors up at night, working on solutions — is global warming.

…Can I take it for granted that I don’t need to tell you why the degradation of the environment is the biggest problem of our age? That it is the threat to our livelihood — the World War, the Great Depression, the would-be Nuclear Winter — against which we need to mobilize the full power of our resources? I would like to think I can take this for granted.

…I’d like simply to assume that you know that it — this degradation, this destruction, this systemic poisoning — supersedes the current or near-future state of any national economy. That it is an unfolding calamity far greater than a wave of new tensions in Sino-American relations or another round of violence in the Middle East. That it is not an “issue” the way, say, the balance of powers between federal and provincial governments is an “issue.” That it is a cluster of events — events resulting from human activity on this planet — that are demonstrably, measurably happening. That it is not, therefore, an ideological construct. That while it might be possible to assemble an argument or voice an opinion about clean air and water, and fertile soil, and a habitable climate, that these opinions are not right or wrong so much as utterly irrelevant. That, for example, the sun’s ultraviolet light, when it reaches the earth without being filtered through a layer of ozone, is capable of producing malignant melanoma in the skin tissue of any person, totally regardless of that person’s opinion about the relative importance of “environmental issues.” Can I take all of this for granted?

…There is a high-profile but somewhat superficial reason to posit the idea that green tech (for desperate want of a better catch-all term) could become the elusive Next Big Thing in the high-tech world. That reason is this: Both Bill Gates and Paul Allen have invested heavily in renewable-energy companies. Also, like the various communications technologies before them, green technologies have the potential to create an enormous re-ordering of the business world. “I believe fuel cell vehicles will finally end the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine” — that’s how one starry-eyed evangelist phrased it.

…And because, most of all, these are the things we actually can’t live without. Peer-to-peer technology, the wireless web, Super Bowl commercials starring sock puppets-the relative merits of all of these are open to discussion. Here’s something that isn’t: the absolute, bottom-line necessity of clean air, potable water, fertile soil, climactic conditions favourable to human survival. It’s not debatable, not something to be put off till we all have more time, not a luxury or a lifestyle choice. Surely you understand that. This is the revolution we need.


via Will Pate

Global Warming: Is Nuclear Power Green?

My concerns are nuclear waste disposal and the potential for terrorism. I think we need to de-centralize our sources of energy rather than concentrate them in a few huge power plants.

James Lovelock, an independent scientist and the creator of the Gaia hypothesis of the Earth as a self-regulating organism, says that civilisation is in imminent danger and nuclear power is the only green solution because we have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources.

What makes global warming so serious and so urgent is that the great Earth system, Gaia, is trapped in a vicious circle of positive feedback. Extra heat from any source, whether from greenhouse gases, the disappearance of Arctic ice or the Amazon forest, is amplified, and its effects are more than additive. It is almost as if we had lit a fire to keep warm, and failed to notice, as we piled on fuel, that the fire was out of control and the furniture had ignited. When that happens, little time is left to put out the fire before it consumes the house. Global warming, like a fire, is accelerating and almost no time is left to act.

So what should we do? We can just continue to enjoy a warmer 21st century while it lasts, and make cosmetic attempts, such as the Kyoto Treaty, to hide the political embarrassment of global warming, and this is what I fear will happen in much of the world. When, in the 18th century, only one billion people lived on Earth, their impact was small enough for it not to matter what energy source they used.

But with six billion, and growing, few options remain; we can not continue drawing energy from fossil fuels and there is no chance that the renewables, wind, tide and water power can provide enough energy and in time. If we had 50 years or more we might make these our main sources. But we do not have 50 years; the Earth is already so disabled by the insidious poison of greenhouse gases that even if we stop all fossil fuel burning immediately, the consequences of what we have already done will last for 1,000 years. Every year that we continue burning carbon makes it worse for our descendants and for civilisation.

Worse still, if we burn crops grown for fuel this could hasten our decline. Agriculture already uses too much of the land needed by the Earth to regulate its climate and chemistry. A car consumes 10 to 30 times as much carbon as its driver; imagine the extra farmland required to feed the appetite of cars.

By all means, let us use the small input from renewables sensibly, but only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy. True, burning natural gas instead of coal or oil releases only half as much carbon dioxide, but unburnt gas is 25 times as potent a greenhouse agent as is carbon dioxide. Even a small leakage would neutralise the advantage of gas.

The prospects are grim, and even if we act successfully in amelioration, there will still be hard times, as in war, that will stretch our grandchildren to the limit. We are tough and it would take more than the climate catastrophe to eliminate all breeding pairs of humans; what is at risk is civilisation. As individual animals we are not so special, and in some ways are like a planetary disease, but through civilisation we redeem ourselves and become a precious asset for the Earth; not least because through our eyes the Earth has seen herself in all her glory.

There is a chance we may be saved by an unexpected event such as a series of volcanic eruptions severe enough to block out sunlight and so cool the Earth. But only losers would bet their lives on such poor odds. Whatever doubts there are about future climates, there are no doubts that greenhouse gases and temperatures both are rising.

We have stayed in ignorance for many reasons; important among them is the denial of climate change in the US where governments have failed to give their climate scientists the support they needed. The Green lobbies, which should have given priority to global warming, seem more concerned about threats to people than with threats to the Earth, not noticing that we are part of the Earth and wholly dependent upon its well being. It may take a disaster worse than last summer’s European deaths to wake us up.

Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen. If we fail to concentrate our minds on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as did more than 20,000 unfortunates from overheating in Europe last summer.

I find it sad and ironic that the UK, which leads the world in the quality of its Earth and climate scientists, rejects their warnings and advice, and prefers to listen to the Greens. But I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.

Even if they were right about its dangers, and they are not, its worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of intolerable and lethal heat waves and sea levels rising to drown every coastal city of the world. We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear – the one safe, available, energy source – now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.

Link Argument

New Sources of Energy: Solar crystals double output

Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory have tapped the efficiencies of nanotechnology to increase solar cells’ potential energy production by as much as 37 percent.

Solar cells generate electricity by absorbing photons and directing the resulting energy to move an electron from the low-energy valence band in a material to a higher-energy conduction band where it is free to flow.

Researchers working to squeeze more energy from sunlight are generally aiming for solar cells that can absorb and use a higher percentage of the wavelengths of light in the sun’s spectrum. Today’s commercial solar cells can use anywhere from 10 percent to 35 percent.

The Los Alamos researchers have found that it is possible to increase a cell’s energy production by making each photon move two electrons. “Carrier-multiplication-enhanced solar cells can, in principle, produce twice as large a current as conventional solar cells,” said Victor Klimov, a team leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The method could increase what has been thought of as the maximum power conversion of solar cells by as much as 37 percent, depending on the materials used, resulting in a solar cell with a potential efficiency of over 60 percent. The method could also be used to increase the efficiency of other optical components, including amplifiers, lasers, switches and light absorbers, according to Klimov.

Solar crystals get 2-for-1
May 19/26, 2004
By Kimberly Patch, Technology Research News

Link Solar crystals get 2-for-1 TRN 051904

New Sources of Energy: Solar Roofing System

Marley Roofing is a major UK manufacturer of many kinds of roofing products. They have introduced a solar tile system. “The Marley SolarTile™ was designed to integrate with the Marley Modern interlocking tile and is easily installed by fixing to standard batterns. .. Each tile has a PV laminate comprising of 10 BP Solar Saturn cells generating an output of 23Wp. Over the year a suitably orientated installation of 100 Marley Solar Tiles will generate enough electricity for a typical 3 bedroom household (excluding central heating and water heating).

Marley SolarTiles™ are easy to install, use standard battening and are completely modular to meet the requirements of any roofing application. The Solar Tile has just two parts, a Top and a Base. The tile top fits onto the base and contains the photovoltaic elements which generate electricity. The tile base fits onto the roof and provides the electrical connectors to the house wiring.” This would allow the substitution of new PV cells as they are developed.

via Ken Novak’s Weblog

Scientists Challenge Government’s Scientific Integrity in Policymaking

Is this just business as usual for our government or is it an egregious violation of public trust?

From the Union of Concerned Scientists:

The United States has an impressive history of investing in the capabilities and respecting the independence of scientists. This legacy has brought us sustained economic progress, science-based public health policy, and unequaled scientific leadership within the global community. However, actions by the Bush administration threaten to undermine this legacy, and as a result, policy decisions are being made that have serious consequences for our health, safety, and environment.

Across a broad range of issues—from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons—the administration is distorting and censoring scientific findings that contradict its policies; manipulating the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions; and undermining the independence of science advisory panels by subjecting panel nominees to political litmus tests that have little or no bearing on their expertise; nominating non-experts or underqualified individuals from outside the scientific mainstream or with industry ties; as well as disbanding science advisory committees altogether.

These activities are of grave concern to members of the scientific community as well as to those who rely on government information to inform policy decisions. But they should also concern the American public, which places its trust in the government as an honest broker of scientific information and one that will protect our health and safety.

Reports: Scientific Integrity in Policymaking
Executive Summary (PDF)
Full Report (PDF)