Friday, February 29, 2008

A Leap In Understanding

Almost every four years, an extra day is added to the month of February. What is the justification for February 29th? Put simply, it keeps the modern calendar in tune with celestial cycles.

Although a normal calendar year has 365 days, it actually takes the Earth 365.242 days to fully orbit the sun. This extra 0.242 adds up quickly over the years. Many cultures, since ancient times, have been adding days, weeks, and even months in order to compensate for this.

Older calendars were based on lunar months, which average 29.5 days; a year totaling 354 days. This caused many problems within the social structures. "The calendar in Rome had drifted so much that it was months off, and you might have the harvest holiday as seeds are being planted, things like that," historian David Duncan explained.

Once the true length of a solar year was determined, a calendar reform was to be implemented for the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar, ruler at the time, organized the Julian calendar into a 365-day year with a leap year every four years. Before this reform was initiated, the discrepancy needed to be fixed. So, in 46 B.C., he instituted a single year, known as the Year of Confusion, which was 445 days long!

So now everything was honky dory, right? Wrong...

By adding one day every four years, essentially every year had an extra 0.25 of a day. This is 0.008 days too much! This difference might appear minimal, but after 128 years it adds up to an entire day. By the late 16th century, the Julian calendar had drifted 10 days.

Then astronomers convinced Pope Gregory XIII that due to this drift all the Christian holidays were being celebrated on the wrong days. So, in 1582, the pope introduced the Gregorian calendar, which stated that only one out of every four 'century years' would be considered a leap year. So, 2000 and 2400 are leap years, but 2100, 2200, and 2300 are not.

The Gregorian calendar was adopted by most of the world and is still used today.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Marine Monster Excavated

An enormous prehistoric sea creature, longer than a humpback whale and with teeth the size of bananas, has recently been excavated. It was first discovered in 2006 on the remote Arctic island Spitsbergen, a polar morgue of fossilized sea creatures.

"It's as big or bigger than the largest plesiosaur ever found," said Jørn Hurum, leader of the excavation team. "This absolutely looks like a new species," he added.

This predator measured ~15 meters, and represents one of the largest marine reptiles ever known. Its skull alone is estimated to be 3 meters long. Due to its short neck and large head, Monster is thought to actually belong to the pliosaur family, the top marine predators during the Jurassic period (200-145 million years ago).

The Svalbard archipelago is now the world's source for seeds (see Frozen Seeds entry) and skeletons... quite the contrast.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Breakthrough In Cancer Research?

The human heart is not only a pump, delivering blood and oxygen to the body, but is also the source of many peptide hormones. The results from a recent study by Dr. David Vesely, professor at the University of South Florida, suggest that these hormones can be used to eliminate cancer in mice.

His research began on cardiac hormones by determining their role in treating congestive heart failure. But, after his wife's death from breast cancer in 2002, he decided to place the hormones into cancer cell cultures. Using prostate, breast, ovarian, and colon cancer cells, Vesely found that the hormones kill up to 97% of all the cancers in cell cultures within 24 hours.

With such impressive results, he took the natural step from a petri dish to an animal model: the mouse. He injected some mice with breast cancer cells and others with pancreatic cancer cells, then waited for the tumors to develop. After one month of hormonal treatment, cancer was eliminated from 80% of the mice injected with human pancreatic cancer and 66% of the mice injected with breast cancer.

None of the mice suffered any side effect. None of the mice died of cancer; all died of old age. The mice received no other form of treatment, such as surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. After the mice died, researchers found that the cancer had not spread.

"If the hormones act the same way in humans, cancer could become a chronic condition treatable with these hormones," Vesely said. A private biotechnology company is currently raising funding to commence human trials. Vesely will present his research at a symposium April 9 at the Experimental Biology 2008 conference in San Diego.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Frozen Seeds

The Svalbard Islands, located 1000km north of mainland Norway, are home to the recently officially opened 'doomsday' seed vault, built 130m inside a mountain. This remote location was chosen due to its geological stability, making use of the surrounding permafrost as natural refrigeration to maintain optimal seed storing temperature.

The £5 million vault took 12 months to complete construction. The vault is designed to withstand all natural and human disaster. Eventually it will hold 4.5 million samples from more than 100 countries - an estimated total 2 billion seeds from around the world.

Many countries already have their own collections in national seed banks. If these seeds were lost, lets say due to an earthquake, they would essentially have a backup stash in Svalbard.

"With climate change and other forces threatening the diversity of life that sustains our planet, Norway is proud to be playing a central role in creating a facility capable of protecting what are not just seeds, but the fundamental building blocks of human civilization, " said Norwegian Prime Minister Jen Stoltenberg.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Zero Is The Future

Imagine living in a zero carbon emission + zero waste community. Soon this will be the reality for residents of Masdar, which means "the source" in Arabic. Architectural firm Foster + Partners will be constructing a 6 million square meter sustainable walled city just outside of Abu Dhabi. The project will cost approximately $22 billion.

The city, shown above, will be car free, with a maximum distance of 200m to the nearest transport link and amenities. There will also be an electrical rapid transport system, but the shaded walkways and narrow streets should make a pleasurable environment to go for a stroll within the extreme climate of Abu Dhabi. Solar power will be the main source of energy. In addition, the surrounding land will contain wind, photovoltaic farms, research fields and plantations, so that the city will be self-sustaining.

The project began in 2006, with 2016 as the projected date of completion. After the first phase is constructed in 2009, Masdar will be habitable. It will be home to 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses.

But they are not alone!

The Chinese have also unveiled a plan for an eco-city of their own: Dongtan. Based on similar environmentally friendly principles, by 2040, this city will be one-third the size of Manhattan, capable of holding a total population of 500,000.

This is quickly becoming something like a new age space-race... Hopefully more nations will join in.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rats See Birds

Currently 102 of 328 recognized seabird species are considered threatened or endangered, with predation by invasive species ranking among the top reasons. A new study published in February's edition of the journal Conservation Biology suggest that rat invasions likely pose the single largest threat to this population of unassuming birds.

Since most seabirds breed on islands, many have evolved in the absence of any land-based predators, and have no adaptation to avoid predation by rats. The birds have a hard time switching their breeding locations to different islands to escape danger, since many are genetically programmed to return to their birthplace for breeding.

The global analysis indicates that non-native rats have been observed preying on ~25% of all seabird species. Smaller species and those that nest in rock crevices or burrows, such as storm-petrels, auklets, murrelets, and shearwaters, are especially at risk. The hungry rats attack bird nesting colonies, eating eggs, chicks, and sometimes even adult birds.

Experts say that 3 rat species native to Asia and Europe are now established on about 90% of the world's major islands and island chains. This has been achieved by traveling with humans as ship stowaways, and in many cases the original invasions occurred hundreds of years ago.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Who Ever Said "Life Is Short"?

The Vilcabamba Valley, near Loja in southern Ecuador, is famous for its high level of biodiversity. Located 500 km south of the equator and ~1500 m above sea level, the mild climate is somewhat of an undying Spring. Temperature limbos between 18 and 28 C all year long, and with the help of incredibly fertile soil over 3000 plant varieties can thrive. The valley is also home to a rich variety of wildlife, including armadillos, ocelots, spectacled bears, jaguars, and over 500 species of birds.

In the scientific world, the valley is known for its large number of native residents who live well past the age of 100. In the United States, only 1 in approximately 1,800,000 people live to reach such an age. The prevalence in Vilcabamba is more impressive: 1 in 60.

Health experts attribute this long life to 1) naturally flowing mineral water, 2) fertile mountain soil allowing for a healthy organic diet, 3) peaceful life-style, and 4) exercise from walking in the mountains. Due to inherited genetic information, recent generations surely show a propensity to this longevity.

When the Spanish pillaged through the ancient Incan society, it was a money making venture. The amount of gold acquired is unimaginable. Sadly, times haven't changed. 56 riverfront and hillside home sites in Vilcabamba are being offered in an exclusive new development, Hacienda San Joaquin. The country estates are being sold for as much as $239,000. Hopefully buyers don't expect that longevity comes included.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Out Of The Gray Area?

After a 13-month restoration program, an estimated 1500 gray wolves now roam Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. As a result, the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves have officially been removed from the Endangered Species List.

To the general public, this is great news. Ranchers don't feel the same way.

The three states plan on allowing hunters to target the animals as early as this fall. Certain environmental groups, such as Earthjustice, intend to sue over the delisting, claiming that it's too soon to cease federal protection. "The enduring hostility to wolves still exists," said attorney Doug Honnold, who is assembling the lawsuit. "We're going to have hundreds of wolves killed under state management. It's a sad day for our wolves."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Something You Wouldn't Want To Step On...

A group of scientists from University College London and Stony Brook University, New York, have made a recent discovery in Madagascar. They have managed to unearth a fossil of what has been dubbed 'the frog from Hell'. This 70 million year-old fossil frog, once thought to be unique to South America, now suggests that Madagascar, India, and South America may have been linked during the time of dinosaurs.

The frog is similar to now living Horned Toads (ceratophryines) as it has a squat body, huge head and wide mouth. Not including legs, its body length was up to 40 cm, totaling to a weight of around 10 pounds, making it roughly twice the size of its largest living relatives.

Professor Susan Evans of the UCL Department of Cell & Developmental Biology says: "This frog, a relative of today's Horned toads, would have been the size of a slightly squashed beach-ball, with short legs and a big mouth. If it shared the aggressive temperament and 'sit-and-wait' ambush tactics of living Horned toads, it would have been a formidable predator on small animals. Its diet would most likely have consisted of insects and small vertebrates like lizards, but it's not impossible that Beelzebufo might even have munched on hatchling or juvenile dinosaurs."