April 8, 2010

Using satellites to find skeletons

Posted: 12:14 PM ET

Sometimes when you're looking for something, and you really want to find it, the best thing you can do is step back from the situation a bit.

That's kind of what happened recently for scientists in South Africa, who announced Thursday that they found a new and important link in the human family tree. The University of the Witwatersrand archeologists didn't find the skeletal remains of a new hominid species, Australopithecus sediba, just by trudging around on foot.

They used satellite images from Google Earth.

[Read CNN's story about the find]

In 2008, when they started their search in Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa, there were 130 known caves, which tend to yield archeological finds.

After the team surveyed the area with high-res satellite images, they discovered 500 caves, "even though the area is one of the most explored in Africa," writes Google's Michael Jones in a blog post. So, in effect, the satellites helped up the odds for a discovery - or at least gave researchers more places to look.

Google put together a cool list of other times satellite imagery has been used to make discoveries. I'll paste some highlights below, and let me know if you've heard of other instances. I'm sure NASA or others have used GPS to advance research, too.

Reef in Australia

A villa in Rome

Lizard in Mozambique

The fact that cows are magnetic (kind of)

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Filed under: Google • Google Earth • science • Scientists

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May 8, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha: a new way to find data online?

Posted: 12:21 PM ET

There's been lots of buzz in the tech community about a site called Wolfram|Alpha, which is set to launch in about a week - likely on May 18, according to a spokesman.

On first glance, Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine: it has a box where you type in a question or query terms. That's about where the similarities end, though, because, unlike Google or Ask, Wolfram|Alpha is kind of like an enormous calculator. It takes your question and crunches out an entirely new answer, even if the answer isn't something that's been posted on the Web before.

Confused? You're not alone. An example should help.

Say you're an investor and you want to see how two companies are faring against each other on the market. You could type in "IBM versus Apple" and Wolfram|Alpha will generate graphs and tables to compare the stocks over time. It also give you the Web-based sources used to generate the data, so you know where the numbers are coming from.

The site also solves equations and shows the steps it took to do so, which will be of interest to high school students and math majors. Not into number crunching? If you live near the coast, you could type in "tides in ____" and find charts of tidal and lunar information. You could also graph that against other cities, which would be cool if you're a surfer.

The site is also interesting for academic queries. Type in "Internet users in Africa" and you'll get the total number of Web users there - 51 million - as well as lists of the number of users by country plus graphs of this information. If you're in the fisheries business, or if you're an environmentalist, you could type in "fish produced in Italy versus France" to get an idea of how that sector is faring. The answer includes specifics, like how much of the fish crop was farmed versus what was captured. Such data could be used to argue policy points or to debate whether or not certain industries are sustainable.

Sound magical? Many people seem to think so. CNET and the New York Times have informative posts about the site and what it means for the way we generate and digest information in the Internet age.

But it's worth noting that all of the above searches were pulled out as examples in a press video released by the site's founder, Stephen Wolfram, who also was the creator of Mathematica. CNN obtained a test version of the site before its official release, and other searches that seem like they would work often didn't when I tried them.

I recently wrote a story about people who travel to dangerous parts of the world, so I searched for "countries with highest crime rates" and got no answer from the site. I tried a few variations and nothing seemed to work. "Country homicide rates" provided me to a link for the definition of a homicide, but that was about it.

CNET, a CNN partner site, experienced similar troubles when it tested Wolfram|Alpha. In a video, CNET says about two-thirds of its test searches didn't turn up useful information.

A writer for says Google is easier to use and Wikipedia is more powerful in the sense that it allows users to improve upon the site:

Think of Google as the Sears Roebuck of search — there are many "specialty" stores yet to be launched to meet different tastes and needs. But I don't think that Wolfram Alpha will be as widely used as Google is because it does not tap into a well-distributed, universal meme or structure as Google did; nor has the brilliant scientist figured out the architecture of participation — an easy to understand method for anyone with the desire and skill to help make Wolfram Alpha a better tool and knowledge base. If I want to help build Wolfram Alpha, I don't know how to begin; I do with Wikipedia.

In a recent blog post, Google also says it has added a public-data search function.

Still, it sounds like people are mostly excited about Wolfram|Alpha - in part because the project's aim is just so lofty. In a press-release video, Wolfram says the site aims to "compute whatever can be computed about the world."

Read more from the site's blog.

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Filed under: computers • Internet • Scientists • search engines

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May 4, 2009

Future iPhone app may identify trees from photos

Posted: 03:16 PM ET

Nature lovers are known for stopping to take way too many pictures. I once got got completely lost in a rain forest, for example, when my group crossed a river while I was snapping pics of flowers.

But, if technology has anything to do with it, such trigger-happy photography could result in a boon of scientific information that will help researchers study climate change and biodiversity loss.

Scientists and computer gurus at the Smithsonian, the University and Maryland and Columbia University are developing an iPhone app that would automatically identify plant species from photos of leaves. The app then would shoot that data up to the Internet, where scientists could access it and use it for research.

If it works and catches on, researchers soon could have a robust, global database of plant information. Perhaps that sounds likes a yawner, but think about how much that would help us understand what's happening to the natural world, which is undergoing substantial change. (E.O. Wilson has said we're headed into the "age of loneliness" because so many species are going to die off.)

The app also would encourage everyone to learn more about the natural world, the researchers say.

"The first thing you need to know about any spec is what is its name," said John Kress, a botanist with the Smithsonian. "Once you know its name, it opens up a whole world of information about that organism."

Kress and others plan to start the app with plants from Central Park, and then the northeast U.S. Eventually, as cell phone technology continues to spread, he hopes the technology will spread to the tropics, where the biology is diverse, but where relatively little is known about plant life.

Check out today for more on citizen science efforts around the world.

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Filed under: citizen science • environment • iPhone • Scientists • technology

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April 21, 2009

Green tech ideas for Earth Day

Posted: 11:26 AM ET

Earth Day is tomorrow, and several news sites have ideas about how you can use technology to save energy and help the environment. Here's a sample:

SAVE ENERGY: CNET has a good overview of how technology can gobble up energy, and another story on power-saving green technologies to watch. When it come to computer energy savings, screen savers don't cut it, one story says:

Screen saver software does not save energy. It's much better to turn off your monitor when you take a break. CO2 Saver, a free program for Windows XP and Vista, can help you manage your PC's sleep behavior.

DIY: On the DIY (do it yourself) side of things, NPR has a first-person story about a man who made a solar backpack that charges his iPod while he walks around Manhattan.

SMART GRID: Here's a Chicago Tribune blog about GE's "plug" on Monday of Miami's new smart grid, which an exec says is the largest project of its kind. Smart grids use automated meters to save energy. The technology is a government priority in the U.S. and in Europe these days.

ONLINE NEWS: The New York Times quotes experts who say ditching newspapers for online information may be the sustainable thing to do. The paper notes that Marriott hotels no longer will leave papers on their guests' doorsteps.

FINANCIAL CRUNCH: PC World reports on a survey that says investors are turning away from green technology because of the economic recession. But some still would like to see green tech be a priority, the site says.

AT SCHOOL: If you're a student or a parent, has some ideas about greening your school. Among them: talk to administrators about switching to lower-energy LED "Exit" signs. One old-school "Exit" sign costs about $24 per year to operate, according to the EPA.

BICYCLE: Finally, it's worth noting that low-tech solutions can be green, too. The New York Times magazine recently interviewed the nation's energy secretary, Steven Chu (pictured above), who indicates he feels guilty that security officials won't let him ride his bike to work anymore. An excerpt:

Is it true you don’t drive a car?
My wife does, but I no longer own a car. Let me just say that in most of my jobs, I mostly rode my bicycle.

And now?
My security detail didn’t want me to be riding my bicycle or even taking the Metro. I have a security detail that drives me.

How do you feel about adding carbon emissions to the air?
I don’t feel good about it.

What technology helps you be green? Tell us about it in the comments. You also can share your views on local environmental issues on

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Filed under: computers • Earth Day • Energy • environment • Scientists • solar energy • technology

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March 12, 2009

Whale sedated at sea - a scientific first

Posted: 11:33 AM ET

Two drops of whale tranquilizer is enough to kill a person.

But last week, scientists used rifle-like guns and foot-long needles to shoot two cups’ worth of the stuff into an endangered whale off the coast of Georgia.

Scientists on Friday use poles and knives to try to untangle a whale off the coast of Georgia from fishing line.

And, for the first time, it worked.

Never before Friday had a wild whale been successfully tranquilized and freed from an entanglement that threatened its life, researchers told CNN. (See video of the dangerous encounter.) The whale - a rare, school-bus-sized whale named Bridle - was freed from hundreds of feet of fishing line that threatened the whale's life, scientists said.

That’s big news in the whale world, said Jamison Smith, large whale disentanglement coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It means that researchers have a new tool to help whales in dangerous circumstances.

Previously, when scientists tried to sedate whales, nothing noticeable happened.

The scientists cautiously upped the dosage until they were successful. The fear of using too much tranquilizer on a whale is great, because it could cause a whale to stop swimming and drown, he said.

Bridle is a North Atlantic right whale, which is one of the most endangered large whales on earth. Only about 400 of the school-bus-sized creatures remain, and scientists are worried by the fact that they’ve seen more of the rare whales entangled in fishing lines and gear this year than ever before.

Some of the right whales are giving birth through the end of the month off the Atlantic coasts of Georgia and Florida. Record numbers of whales are being born - which is a great thing, since scientists say each one gives the species a slightly better chance for survival.

But five whales have been found entangled in fishing line in the last six weeks, Smith said. He called that news "alarming," and said it's unclear what's causing the increase.

The lines wrap around their bodies and cause cuts and infections that often prove fatal.

Bridle, the whale that was sedated, was named because it had a rope strung through its mouth, like a bridled horse, said Katie Jackson, a marine mammal biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. (Read more about how Jackson and others free the whales.)

Friday was the fifth time scientists had tried to free Bridle. In other attempts, he didn’t respond to sedation and dove deep into the ocean and turned sharply to avoid tiny boats filled with rescuers, Jackson said.

Smith said the whale’s injuries are extensive. So, despite the fact that the whale was freed from hundreds of feet of rope, his chances for survival are still uncertain.

Jackson said Bridle’s recovery partly will depend on the whale’s will to survive.

“He’s a little bit emaciated and has been having to deal with this entanglement for months now - at least. So he’s not doing well overall,” she said. “He still may not be able to survive this ordeal. It’s just going to depend on him really - and his ability to bounce back from it.”

To learn more, check out these right-whale resources online:

- Watch video of scientists trying to disentangle Bridle

- See a CNN report on efforts to save these 'ugly' whales, which are slow swimmers and have funny warts on their heads

- Listen to a scientist tell the stories of individual right whales - from Stumpy to Van Halen

- And flip through a catalog of right whale sightings to learn more about their stories.

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Filed under: Animals • environment • Oceans • Scientists • whales

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November 11, 2008

Evolution Revolution: "We haven't scratched the surface"

Posted: 01:29 PM ET

Galapagos tortoises and finches may be the first creatures that come to mind when we think of evolution. But as intriguing as Charles Darwin’s discoveries were, he didn’t write the only book on evolution. In fact, a lot of books on the subject haven’t even been written yet.

New understanding of evolutionary concepts could help humans understand contemporary problems, from renewable energy to health care. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Scientists have only discovered and named about ten percent of the plant and animal species on earth.

“There’s a huge amount to learn, we have not scratched the surface,” said Professor David Lynn, chair of the chemistry department at Emory University.

Lynn was among organizers of an Emory workshop, “Evolution Revolution: Science Changing Life.” It was aimed at high school teachers trying to rev up their students’ interest in how evolution is changing our world now.

The gathering is getting a head start on celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday next year. It’s also the 150th anniversary of “On the Origin of the Species,” Darwin’s pioneering research on one of the most important concepts in science.

Darwin described natural selection, the concept that individuals who are better adapted to their current environment have an advantage over those not so well adapted. "Survival of the fittest" is sometimes used to describe natural selection. But it's not always the biggest and toughest who win in the long run. Evolutionary fitness sometimes involves cooperation with other organisms and the ability to reproduce and pass those genes on. Researchers in scores of different fields are constantly updating this elegant idea.

“Technology moves very quickly, and even scientists have a hard time keeping up,” said Lynn, professor of biomolecular chemistry. That’s why the evolution workshop reached out to the community, and to people in the arts as well as science.

Understanding evolution today could help with contemporary challenges, from harnessing new biofuels to understanding communicable diseases to developing new strategies for health care.

(And before you ask, yes, the Emory scientists did discuss with teachers how to answer questions about creationism and “intelligent design.” But no, that wasn’t the focus of their meetings. )

Mostly, said Lynn, “Teachers were interested in the best way to teach this marvelous discovery, with questions like, ‘How do I explain this concept to my tenth graders in a digestible, artistic way?’”
Hundreds of people, from students to tweedy professors to plenty of locals packed Emory’s Glenn Memorial Auditorium to hear Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson’s address on “Darwin and the Future of Biology.”

Wilson is known as the “father of biodiversity” (as well as the guy who is so passionate about ants he wrote a 700+ page book about their behavior that earned him the Pulitzer prize for literature).

Wilson provided a glimpse into Darwin’s life, including his five- year journey on H.M.S. Beagle, from 1831-1836.

“He was a 21 year old, newly escaped from Cambridge University, on a five year journey with no TV, no radio, no newspapers,” said Wilson.

The world, Wilson said, was Charles Darwin’s to possess. And perhaps, during his six weeks in the Galapagos Islands, came his “aha” moment. The captain pointed out that the turtles, and the finches, were different from island to island. Which got Darwin thinking, “Maybe they’re changing?”

By 1838 Darwin had conceived of evolution by natural selection. In 1871 he published “The Descent of Man,” applying the theory directly to human beings. But members of Victorian society were limited in their embrace of scientific theory. Most folks were okay with plants and other animals evolving. But, said Wilson, “They were scandalized by apes as OUR ancestors.”

But the reason Darwin’s work holds up today, said Wilson, was because he was the epitome of a disciplined scientist.

“This man was irritatingly accurate. He was very careful.”

By Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Animals • Birds • Politics • Religion • Scientists • teachers

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September 9, 2008

The world will not end this week

Posted: 03:21 PM ET
The Large Hadron Collider control room, near Geneva, Switzerland

The Large Hadron Collider control room, near Geneva, Switzerland

Scientists are about to fire up the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle accelerator. The 17-mile long circular tunnel runs through Switzerland, and a bit of France. The object of the game (the $8 billion game, by the way) is to smash protons into each other, replicating the conditions an instant after the Big Bang.

The practical applications for this? None.
The prize? Possibly answering a key question about everything. The search for the Higgs boson, a particle that's not yet discovered, but theorized. Physicists believe that the Higgs - sometimes called the "God Particle" - is what creates mass.

Sadly, there's been a mild media frenzy (including CNN, which published an AP story on the topic last June) focused not on the potential for discovery, but on concerns that there's a theoretical chance that smashing these two proton streams together at nearly the speed of light will create tiny black holes that will unite, swallow up the Large Hadron Collider, then swallow up Switzerland, France, Earth, and the rest of the solar system.

As I understand it, there's a universe of difference between the massive black holes of space that swallow up matter, and the tiny ones that would be generated in the LHC, each with a lifespan of a tiny fraction of a nanosecond.

That hasn't stopped a wave of online protests, and a lawsuit in US court to stop the project (the US Department of Energy is a participant in the collider experiment).

Okay, it should be clear by now that particle physics is not my strong suit. Botany isn't either, and Walter Wagner, the guy who filed the lawsuit, is a card-carrying botanist. He also filed a similar suit against the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which has been operating at Brookhaven National Labs since 2000, with no apparent impact to Life As We Know It.

I'd love to hear your take on all this. If you share Mr. Wagner's concerns, please get your comments in by 3:30AM ET Wednesday. If not, take your time. I'm pretty sure the world will still be here tomorrow, when testing begins, or through the next month as the tests complete and they try out the Real Thing. If I'm wrong, I'll buy every one of you a nice lunch. But I'm pretty sure we'll go back to destroying the world the slow, methodical, hard way, and not in a flash while you're sleeping tonight.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech, and Weather

Filed under: Large Hadron Collider • Physics • science • Scientists

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August 25, 2008

A whale of a rule for shippers

Posted: 04:23 PM ET

U.S. government scientists are one step closer to publishing a rule aimed at protecting the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale from ship strikes.

A North Atlantic right whale spotted at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Scituate, MA. Source: NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) filed its final environmental impact statement Monday, seeking public comment on its proposal to slow down commercial ships along parts of the East Coast where slow-moving right whales are found.

This is one of the most endangered of mammal species; only about 300 of the animals remain.

NOAA is proposing a 10-knot speed limit in right whale feeding grounds in and around Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and inside the "calving grounds" off Jacksonville, Florida.

The slowdown also applies to a 20-mile "bubble" near mid-Atlantic ports where and when the whales are migrating. The original proposal by NOAA scientists more than a year ago called for a 30-mile caution area around ports.

The shipping industry has been adamantly opposed to this rule. The World Shipping Council, representing more than two-dozen companies, told the government that such a speed limit would botch tightly controlled container ship schedules, make it more difficult for big ships to maneuver, and cost money.

These concerns sparked an internal debate within the Bush administration and delayed the rule. A final rule should have come out of the Office of Management and Budget over a year ago.

Right now, experts say commercial ships kill about two North Atlantic right whales every year. Even that number could mean the end of the species, according to both NOAA scientists and conservation groups.

- Alex Walker, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Animals • environment • science • Scientists

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July 17, 2008

Grandma’s Got a New Pair of Shoes

Posted: 09:57 AM ET

Well they’re not moon shoes, but a new device called the iShoe developed by an MIT graduate student may have your grandmother channeling her inner astronaut.

Lieberman demonstrates how sensors on the iShoe insole can diagnose balance problems.

That’s because Erez Lieberman and researchers at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology are designing new sensory insoles that may soon help doctors diagnose balance problems in senior citizens before major falls occur.

It’s based on a technology astronauts now use every time they return to earth, and one that Lieberman himself helped develop while an intern at NASA.

“The problem NASA faces is that the altered-gravity environment of spaceflight messes with the astronaut’s sense of balance,” says Lieberman, “[This technology] is currently being used to evaluate astronaut balance after return from zero-G.”

Lieberman and the iShoe team are now testing a new version of the technology; one that can help the elderly by analyzing pressure distribution on their feet.

“If we flag the existence of the problem early, a doctor or physical therapist can come in and make a better determination of the causes,” says Lieberman, “We can detect all kinds of effects. If a patient closes their eyes, our insole will know.”

With more than 250,000 Americans breaking their hips each year during major falls and 1-in-4 dying within a year of their injury, the device would be a welcome help to doctors, patients, and their families. In fact, it was his grandmother’s death after a fall that first inspired Lieberman to apply the NASA technology to senior citizens.

In the future, Lieberman hopes that iShoe will be equipped with technology that would help correct a patient’s balance issue as it occurs. It could even sound an alert when a fall occurs.

“Eventually we hope to provide subtle auditory and vibrational cues which will help the person adjust their balance. These cues will help them stand up straight and walk around confidently,” Lieberman says.

The iShoe team expects their product to be on the market with in two years.

- Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Medicine • NASA • Scientists

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July 2, 2008

Smell this book! and other summer reading

Posted: 10:04 AM ET

Summer ReadingOkay, class, here are a few more summer-reading books you might want to check out.
Please bear with me; I'm a middle manager in a TV network - this is my best opportunity to prove to a large number of people that I can actually read. Sorry I didn't include any links here - it's probably inappropriate for us to favor one bookselling site over another. But if you're interested, you can figure it out........

We all have a nose, and know how to use it. The study of how we go about that, however, is not too sophisticated. What the Nose Knows, by Avery Gilbert is a great book on an overlooked topic. Want to know how smell works? Where it played a big role in pop culture or history? How industries and marketers have co-opted and synthesized smells for their own purposes? How 'bout the chemical structure of those less pleasant smells we all encounter, or emit? Well, you should get a whiff of this book, then. Gilbert combines a scientist's sense of wonder, a scent-making professional's sensibility, and a slightly Beavis + Butt-Head -like fascination with aroma.

Charlatan, by Pope Brock: Dr. John R. Brinkley was seen as a savior of marriages and an author of modern medical marvels. For a fee, he helped countless men roar during the 1920's - by installing a booster set of goat testicles in them. Many thought it restored virility, despite a total lack of evidence. Many didn't survive the operation. Brock writes with a flair, describing the mood of heartland America back then, and recounting the work of Brinkley's nemesis, master fraudbuster Morris Fishbein. It's a great parable for how gullible we can be, told with a sense of irony that's probably essential when your subject matter is swindling people through the use of goat testicles.

The Dumbest Generation Mark Bauerlein is an Emory University English professor and former researcher at the National Endowment for the Arts. He makes the case that video games, text messaging, cellphones, and all the trappings of 21st Century communication have turned our children into shallow morons with tiny attention spans. But Bauerlein falls well short of making a complete sale on this. He deftly uses stats and studies to track the inability of young folks to identify, for example, the three branches of government. He also does a good job of tracking how analytical skills have fallen by the wayside, since we have so many electronic devices to do our thinking for us. What's missing are the benefits - both real and potential - of the wealth of information we have here in the Information Age: How it's used, and how it could be leveraged better. Bauerlein points out the popularity of games that seem to have no moral compass whatsoever, like Grand Theft Auto, without acknowledging that many other games help with everything from motor skills to organizational skills.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: books • Gaming • Internet • science • Scientists • video games

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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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