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FINDINGS: Corporate Backing for Research? Get Over It
By JOHN TIERNEY, The New York Times, January 26, 2010

I find myself in the unfamiliar position of defending Al Gore and his fellow Nobel laureate, Rajendra K. Pachauri.

When they won the prize in 2007, they were hailed for their selfless efforts to protect the planet from the ravages of greedy fossil fuel industries. Since then, though, their selflessness has been questioned. Journalists started by looking at the money going to companies and nonprofit groups associated with Mr. Gore, and now they have turned their attention to Dr. Pauchauri, the chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The I.P.C.C., which is supposed to be the gold standard of peer-reviewed climate science, in 2007 warned of a “very high” likelihood that global warming would cause the Himalayan glaciers to disappear by 2035. When the Indian government subsequently published a paper concluding there was no solid evidence of Himalayan glaciers shrinking because of global warming, Dr. Pachauri initially dismissed it as “voodoo science” beneath the I.P.C.C.’s standards.

But then it came out that the I.P.C.C.’s projection was based not on the latest peer-reviewed evidence, but on speculative comments made a decade ago in a magazine interview by Syed Hasnain, a glaciologist who now works in an Indian research group led by Dr. Pachauri.

Last week, the I.P.C.C apologized for the mistake, which was embarrassing enough for Dr. Pachauri. But he also had to contend with accusations of conflict of interest. The Telegraph of London reported that he had a “worldwide portfolio of business interests,” which included relationships with carbon-trading companies and his research group, the Energy and Resources Institute.

Dr. Pachauri responded with a defense of his ethics, saying that he had not profited personally and that he had directed all revenues to his nonprofit institute. He denounced his critics’ tactics: “You can’t attack the science, so attack the chair of the I.P.C.C.”

I can’t defend that entire sentiment, because you obviously can attack some of the science in the I.P.C.C. report, not to mention other dire warnings in Dr. Pachauri’s speeches.

But I do agree with his basic insight: Conflict-of-interest accusations have become the simplest strategy for avoiding a substantive debate. The growing obsession with following the money too often leads to nothing but cheap ad hominem attacks.

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A New Way to Look for Diseases’ Genetic Roots
By NICHOLAS WADE, January 26, 2010

The hunt for the genetic roots of common diseases has hit a blank wall.

The genetic variants found so far account in most cases for a small fraction of the genetic risk of the major killers. So where is the missing heritability and why has it not showed up?

A Duke geneticist now suggests that the standard method of gene hunting had a theoretical flaw and should proceed on a different basis. The purpose of the $3 billion project to decode the human genome, completed in 2003, was to discover the genetic roots of common diseases like diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s. The diseases are called complex, meaning that several mutated genes are probably implicated in each.

A principal theory has long been that these variant genes have become common in the population because the diseases strike late in life, after a person has had children. Bad genes would not be eliminated by natural selection at that age, as they would if the diseases struck before the child-bearing years.

So to find disease genes, the thinking went, do not decode the entire genome of every patient — just look at the few sites where genetic variations are common, defined as being present in at least 1 percent of the population.

These sites of common variation are called SNPs (pronounced “snips”), and biotech companies have developed ingenious devices to recognize up to 500,000 SNPs at a time. The SNP chips made possible genomewide association studies in which the genomes of many patients are compared with those of healthy people to see which SNPs are correlated with the disease.

The SNP chips worked well, the studies were well designed, though enormously expensive, and some 2,000 disease-associated SNPs have been identified by university consortiums in the United States and Europe.

But this mountainous labor produced something of a mouse.

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The Ozone Hole Is Mending. Now for the ‘But.’
By SINDYA N. BHANOO, The New York Times, January 26, 2010

That the hole in Earth’s ozone layer is slowly mending is considered a big victory for environmental policy makers. But in a new report, scientists say there is a downside: its repair may contribute to global warming.

It turns out that the hole led to the formation of moist, brighter-than-usual clouds that shielded the Antarctic region from the warming induced by greenhouse gas emissions over the last two decades, scientists write in Wednesday’s issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

“The recovery of the hole will reverse that,” said Ken Carslaw, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Leeds and a co-author of the paper. “Essentially, it will accelerate warming in certain parts of the Southern Hemisphere.”

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GLOBAL UPDATE: Parasites: ‘Tropical’ Diseases Are Common in Arctic Dwellers, a Survey Finds
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr., The New York Times, January 26, 2010

The kind of worm and protozoan infections that are often called neglected “tropical” diseases are also common among aboriginal peoples living in the Arctic, according to a recent survey.

Outbreaks of trichinosis, a larval-worm disease commonly associated with eating undercooked pork and carnivorous wild game, also occur among people who eat infected polar bear and walrus meat, and the Arctic harbors a unique species of the worm that can survive subzero temperatures. Mild infestations cause nausea and stomach pain; severe ones can kill.

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Researchers have been using Dungeons & Dragons dice to learn how to pack tetrahedrons. The record density recently hit 85.63 percent.

Packing Tetrahedrons, and Closing in on a Perfect Fit
By KENNETH CHANG, The New York Times, January 5, 2010

More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle was wrong.

Now, in the past year, a flurry of academic activity is suddenly zooming in on an answer to a problem akin to wondering how many people can fit into a Volkswagen Beetle or a phone booth. Except here mathematicians have been thinking not about the packing of people, but of geometric solids known as tetrahedrons.

“It’s pretty remarkable how many papers have been written on this in the past year,” said Henry Cohn, a mathematician at Microsoft Research New England.

A tetrahedron is a simple construct — four sides, each a triangle. For the packing problem, researchers are looking at so-called regular tetrahedrons, where each side is an identical equilateral triangle. Players of Dungeons & Dragons recognize the triangular pyramid shape as that of some dice used in the game.

Aristotle mistakenly thought that identical regular tetrahedrons packed together perfectly, as identical cubes do, leaving no gaps in between and filling 100 percent of the available space. They do not, and 1,800 years passed before someone pointed out that he was wrong. Even after that, the packing of tetrahedrons garnered little interest. More centuries passed.

A similar conundrum for how to best pack identical spheres has a more storied history. There, the answer was obvious. They should be stacked like oranges at a supermarket (with a packing density of 74 percent), and that is what Johannes Kepler conjectured in 1611. But proving the obvious took almost four centuries until Thomas C. Hales, a mathematician at the University of Pittsburgh, succeeded in 1998 with the help of a computer.

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OBSERVATORY: Much-Maligned Mother of Many Beloved Wines
By HENRY FOUNTAIN, The New York Times, January 5, 2010

About a decade ago, researchers had some startling news for wine lovers. Some of their beloved grape varieties, including chardonnay and gamay noir, were the offspring of a third-rate parent, gouais blanc. In fact, the research showed that at least a dozen varieties were a result of crosses, a long time ago, between pinot noir and gouais blanc, which had such a bad reputation that its cultivation was at times outlawed.

The news just got a bit more startling. Looking at the DNA in chloroplasts in the 12 varieties, Harriet V. Hunt and Matthew C. Lawes of the University of Cambridge in England and colleagues set out to determine which was the paternal parent (supplying the pollen) and which was the maternal one (supplying the egg cells). Gouais blanc, they write in Biology Letters, was the mother of nine of the varieties: aligoté, auxerrois, franc noir, melon, bachet, sacy and romorantin, in addition to chardonnay and gamay noir.

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Several lizard species that are dark have developed white skin in the White Sands of New Mexico.

OBSERVATORY: White Lizards Evolve in New Mexico Dunes
By HENRY FOUNTAIN, The New York Times, January 5, 2010

The White Sands of New Mexico are a good place to study evolution in progress. One reason is that the terrain, gypsum dunes white as a sheet of paper, is so different from the surrounding area. Another is that the dunes formed only about 6,000 years ago.

“From an evolutionary perspective, that’s really the blink of an eye,” said Erica Bree Rosenblum, a professor at the University of Idaho who has been studying evolution at White Sands for much of the past decade. Her focus has been on three lizard species that elsewhere are dark skinned but in White Sands have each evolved a white-skinned variety that makes them hard to find. “It’s really obvious what’s happened,” Dr. Rosenblum said. “Everybody got white so that they could better escape from their predators.” It’s a great example of convergent evolution, of species independently acquiring the same traits.

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Q & A: Temperature and Exercise
By C. CLAIBORNE RAY, The New York Times, January 5, 2010

Q. Does a person tend to burn more fat exercising outdoors in colder weather or in hotter weather? I am leaning to the colder weather side, since the body has to work harder to keep the body temperature near normal.

A. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the combination of exercise and cold exposure does not act synergistically to enhance metabolism of fats,” according to a study published in 1991 in the journal Sports Medicine.

The study, done at the Hyperbaric Environmental Adaptation Program of the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., found that some of the bodily processes involved in fat metabolism were actually slowed down by the effects of relatively cold temperatures on human tissue.

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A satellite image of the East Siberian Sea from 1999-2008. This image has been degraded to hide the satellite’s true capabilities.

C.I.A. Is Sharing Data With Climate Scientists
By William J. Broad, The New York Times, January 5, 2010

The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests.

The collaboration restarts an effort the Bush administration shut down and has the strong backing of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In the last year, as part of the effort, the collaborators have scrutinized images of Arctic sea ice from reconnaissance satellites in an effort to distinguish things like summer melts from climate trends, and they have had images of the ice pack declassified to speed the scientific analysis.

The trove of images is “really useful,” said Norbert Untersteiner, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in polar ice and is a member of the team of spies and scientists behind the effort.

Scientists, Dr. Untersteiner said, “have no way to send out 500 people” across the top of the world to match the intelligence gains, adding that the new understandings might one day result in ice forecasts.

“That will be very important economically and logistically,” Dr. Untersteiner said, arguing that Arctic thaws will open new fisheries and sea lanes for shipping and spur the hunt for undersea oil and gas worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

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For Alien Life-Seekers, New Reason to Hope
By NATALIE ANGIER, The New York Times, June 24, 2008

To some theorists, an announcement last week virtually guarantees the existence of other Earthlike worlds. )

Homecoming of Odysseus May Have Been in Eclipse
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD, The New York Times, June 24, 2008

Two scientists have concluded that the homecoming of Odysseus possibly coincided with a solar eclipse in 1178 B.C. )

Vital Signs: Safety: Deaths Soar After Repeal of Helmet Law
By NICHOLAS BAKALAR, The New York Times, June 24, 2008

In 2003, Pennsylvania legislators repealed a law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Researchers who studied deaths and injuries over the next two years say that decision had lethal, and expensive, consequences. )

Drug-Resistant High Blood Pressure on the Rise
By BRENDA GOODMAN, The New York Times, June 24, 2008

High blood pressure, the most commonly diagnosed condition in the United States, is becoming increasingly resistant to drugs that lower it, according to a panel of experts assembled by the American Heart Association. )

Tropical Diseases Add to Burden Among the Poor in the U.S.
By DONALD G. McNEIL JR, The New York Times, June 24, 2008

Ailments of poverty, including some tropical diseases, are a burden in several regions of the United States, a new analysis finds. )

Home Depot Offers Recycling for Compact Fluorescent Bulbs
By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM, The New York Times, June 24, 2008

Home Depot’s move will create the nation’s most widespread recycling program for the energy-saving bulbs, which have to be properly disposed of since they contain small amounts of mercury.The New York Times )
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This is exactly the sort of thing that made me wary of Obama. I've read in various sources about how ethanol is not an environmentally sustainable or socially equitable solution to climate change - and yet, it seems to be Obama's entire environmental platform :(

Obama Camp Closely Linked With Ethanol
By LARRY ROHTER, The New York Times, June 23, 2008

When VeraSun Energy inaugurated a new ethanol processing plant last summer in Charles City, Iowa, some of that industry’s most prominent boosters showed up. Leaders of the National Corn Growers Association and the Renewable Fuels Association, for instance, came to help cut the ribbon — and so did Senator Barack Obama.

Then running far behind Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in name recognition and in the polls, Mr. Obama was in the midst of a campaign swing through the state where he would eventually register his first caucus victory. And as befits a senator from Illinois, the country’s second largest corn-producing state, he delivered a ringing endorsement of ethanol as an alternative fuel.

Mr. Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views. And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates.
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Six Degrees, but no PhD

Not being a scientist is a help rather than a hindrance when it comes to communicating - with the necessary passion - the findings of scientific research

'That vast majority of those who dismiss the reality of global warming are simply ignorant' ... Mark Lynas. Photograph: John McConico/AP

"So, are you a scientist then?" It's a very frequent question whenever someone finds out that I write about global warming. No, I reply, though the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change once referred to me - entirely incorrectly - as Dr Lynas. But that's as close as I'm ever going to get. I'm a journalist - or worse - a campaigner. So how can I be trusted to convey meaningful information about a subject as complex and controversial as climate change?

Rather than being a setback, however, I would claim that my lack of academic qualifications as a scientist is actually precisely what does qualify me to try and communicate effectively to the general public about this issue. After all, I'm one of the latter rather than the former.


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