Category Archives: science

Ecuador condemned at the new Tribunal for the Rights of Nature in Paris (Mongabay)

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José Gualinga, a Sarayaku leader, testifies at the Tribunal about his people’s successful efforts to halt seismic testing for oil in their territory. Photo by Karen Hoffmann.

Last weekend, while the official COP21 negotiations were going on north of Paris at a site called Le Bourget, leaders of indigenous nations in North and South America were in Paris calling for justice for what they say are ongoing violations of the rights of the earth itself.

The “rights of nature” were recognized in the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010, designed as an alternative to the COP meetings. The declaration, which gave rise to the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, created “a manifesto for earth justice,” in the words of the president of the current tribunal, Cormac Cullinan, author of Wild Law. The book, published in 2003, lays out a case for granting legal rights to communities and ecosystems.

The first such tribunal was held last year in Quito, Ecuador, and its second session was almost a year later in Lima, Peru.

Among the cases heard by this tribunal, several dealt with oil exploitation in Ecuador — a country that, ironically, was the first to include the rights of nature into its 2008 constitution. One of these cases focused on Yasuní National Park.

Yasuní is a UNESCO World Heritage Preserve and a biodiversity hotspot. Nowhere else are there more documented species of mammals, birds, amphibians and vascular plants. As one presenter noted, in one tree in Yasuní, one can find 94 species of ants; one hectare holds more tree species than the US and Canada together.

But Yasuní also sits above the largest oil reserve in Ecuador – 846 million barrels – presenting a threat to the people and animals living in it. More at Mongabay.com>

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Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico Oil Exploration Makes Strange Bedfellows

US Enviro Groups and Oil Execs Band Together to Promote End of Cold War-Era Hostilities Between Two Nations

BY KAREN HOFFMANN – MARCH 15, 2012

From his hotel in Havana, marine scientist and conservation policy specialist David Guggenheim, aka the “Ocean Doctor,” can see the lights of Scarabeo 9. The recently arrived oil-drilling platform off the Cubancoast began drilling exploratory deepwater wells on the Cuban side of the Florida Straits, about 70 miles from Key West, last month.

The 53,000-ton rig is, literally, under more pressure than Deepwater Horizon. Operated by Spanish company Repsol, it’s what’s known as an “ultra-deepwater” platform, drilling at depths up to 6,000 feet. (Deepwater Horizon’s depth was 5,000 feet.) A Scarabeo 9 spill would damage critical marine ecosystems in the Gulf.  US environmentalists and policymakers are concerned that Cuba doesn’t have the resources, technology, or expertise needed to prevent or respond to such a disaster.

But even the threat of irreparable environmental damage hasn’t been enough to clear away old Cold War resentments and political inertia between the two countries and get them working together to formulate an emergency response plan. Which is why an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, oil executives, and scientists — like Guggenheim — are joining forces to try to, in his words, “fight half a century of an illogical policy with logic.”

More at Earth Island Journal >

Post-Silicon Computing

Could Pittsburgh be the nation’s next “Strontium Valley”? The University of Pittsburgh is the lead institution on a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI) of the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) to bring a new kind of computer out of the lab and into the real world. The goal of the group, led by Jeremy Levy, a professor of physics and astronomy in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, is no less than transforming the way computing is done.

Jeremy Levy

The four-year grant, titled “Scalable Sensing, Storage, and Computation With a Rewritable Oxide Nanoelectronics Platform,” also involves researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University. The program aims to create new high-tech industries and jobs in the United States.

“The search for a new semiconductor device that will provide the United States with a leadership position in the global era of nanoelectronics relies on making discoveries at these kinds of advanced universities,” said Jeff Welser, director of the NRI for SRC.


From Etch-A-Sketch® to Tiny Transistors

Levy and his team have invented a tiny Etch-A-Sketch® that draws infinitesimally small “wires” on a surface, then erases them. The device works by switching an oxide crystal between insulating and conducting states. The interface between these two materials can be switched between an insulating and metallic state using a sharp conducting probe. Electronic circuits can be “written” and “erased” at scales approaching the distance between atoms (two nanometers). The device, less than four nanometers wide, enables photonic interaction with objects as small as single molecules or quantum dots.

This research grant explicitly addresses key scientific and technological challenges that, if overcome, could lead turn the “Etch-A-Sketch®” into something real and useful—from being just a toy in a science lab to a possible replacement for conventional electronics made from silicon devices.

Beyond being just plain cool, this device could be the basis of an entirely new kind of transistor.

More at Pitt Chronicle >

How the Milky Way Got Its Spiral

The signature spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy were likely formed by an epic collision between the Milky Way and the Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy, according to a University of Pittsburgh researcher and his collaborators whose findings were published last week in the prestigious British journal Nature.

The results of supercomputer simulations by Christopher W. Purcell, postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, and colleagues were reported in a paper titled “The Sagittarius Impact as an Architect of Spirality and Outer Rings in the Milky Way.”

This paper is the first to identify Sagittarius as the architect of spiral structure in our Milky Way: “It presents a new and somewhat unexpected way of thinking about why the galaxy we live in looks the way it does,” says Purcell. “Cosmologically speaking, it demonstrates the idea that relatively small impacts like this can have a dramatic impact on the structure of galaxies throughout the universe,” he adds.

This idea had been assumed theoretically, but never demonstrated.

More at Pitt Chronicle >

Working to Build Better Antipsychotic Drug by Treating Schizophrenia’s Cause

The classic symptoms of schizophrenia—paranoia, hallucinations, the inability to function socially—can be managed with antipsychotic drugs. But exactly how these drugs work has long been a mystery.

Now, researchers at Pitt have discovered that antipsychotic drugs work akin to a Rube Goldberg machine—that is, they suppress something that in turn suppresses the bad effects of schizophrenia, but not the exact cause itself. In a paper published in the Aug. 24 Journal of Neuroscience, they say that pinpointing what’s actually causing the problem could lead to better avenues of schizophrenia treatment that more directly and efficiently target the disease.

“In the past five years or so, we’ve really started to understand what may be going wrong with the schizophrenic brain,” says Anthony Grace, Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience and professor of psychology in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences and professor of psychiatry in the Pitt School of Medicine, who is senior author of the paper.

Schizophrenia is made up of three different types of symptoms. Positive symptoms, which are added onto a “normal” personality, include hallucinations and delusions, such as hearing voices, thinking people are after you, or thinking you’re being targeted by aliens. Those are the classic symptoms of schizophrenia and the ones antipsychotic medications work on best. Grace says these are the symptoms most likely related to a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

The other two categories of symptoms are negative (what’s missing from the normal personality—the ability to interact socially or hold down a job; some emotional flattening) and cognitive (the ability to think linearly or concentrate on one thing at a time). These two really aren’t addressed well by antipsychotic drugs. “Blocking the dopamine system seems to fix classic hallucinations and delusions a whole lot better than it fixes the other problems,” says Grace.

Grace has been studying the role dopamine plays in the schizophrenic brain since 1978. It’s long been known that after several weeks of treatment with antipsychotic drugs, dopamine-producing neurons are inactivated. “It would suggest to us that in schizophrenia there is not too much dopamine, but rather the dopamine system is too responsive,” says Grace.

Therefore, by inactivating the neurons, this overresponsivity should be able to be treated. “If there were just too much dopamine in the brain, one would expect the biggest treatment effect would be at the beginning and then it would diminish,” Grace says.

More at Pitt Chronicle

Pitt Team Regrows Blood Vessels With a Potent Molecule

Ever since the Nobel Prize for nerve growth factor was awarded more than 30 years ago, researchers have been searching for ways to use growth factor clinically.

University of Pittsburgh Professor Yadong Wang has developed a minimally invasive method of delivering growth factor to regrow blood vessels. His research, which could be used to treat heart disease, the most common cause of death in the Western world, was published in the Aug. 1 issue of the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. …

When the researchers injected their growth factor compound under the skin of mice, they saw something amazing: New blood vessels grew, and large ones, not just tiny capillaries. “We had structures that resembled arterioles—small arteries that lead to a network of capillaries,” says Wang.

Moreover, the structures stuck around. At least a month later, after only one injection of the growth factor complex, the new blood vessels were still there.

More at Pitt Chronicle

 

Mexico: Struggling science, entrenched inequality, threatened human rights defenders

First week at my new job as a reporter in Mexico City, here are some stories:

ROBOTS! Not really taking over the world.

Brit economist: “The idea that growth will eradicate poverty without strong policies is a lie.”

Amnesty International on Thursday held a press conference to denounce threats against human rights defenders in Guerrero and called on the government to provide protection to indigenous leaders who have received death threats.

 

As a cafe owner said today: “Mexico may be like a Buñuel movie, surreal, but it’s my home.”

P.S. My god, the tacos are amazing.