Archive for May, 2011

Skewed sex ration curbs courtship

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 25, 2011   View Article

When a woman walks into a male-crowded bar she’s unlikely to be showered with courtly attention — that is if findings about mating in the animal kingdom translate to the human realm.

“She might just be watching them fight it out and then have one particularly possessive one making sure others aren’t getting access to her,” Laura Weir, a postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, told me today.

In other words, as the dudes duke it out with each other, one little weasel will sneak over and trap her in a corner and try to keep her all to himself?

“Exactly,” she said, although she stressed her reluctance to take the analogy too far. The data, she noted, is compiled from the mating behaviors of the birds and bees … and alligators, fish, frogs, lizards and lobsters, too.

Disaster-proof homes that don’t suck

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 24, 2011   View Article

Earthquakes don’t kill people, poorly built buildings do. The problem is that most disaster-proof, inexpensive housing technologies don’t fit the cultural preferences of the communities that need them, according to a non-profit that’s promoting a fix.

“This is something that we can control and we can change if we know how to do it correctly,” Elizabeth Hausler, the CEO and founder of Build Change, which has led post-disaster reconstruction efforts in China, Haiti, and Indonesia, told me last week.

Implementation of simple engineering principles using locally-available materials and labor can lead to culturally-acceptable housing that can survive the violent shaking of earthquakes and hurricane-force winds.

Inca Empire built on corn … and poop

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 23, 2011   View Article

The seeds of the Inca Empire were planted about 2,700 years ago when a warm spell combined with piles of llama excrement allowed maize agriculture to take root high up in the South American Andes, according to a new study.

“They were constructing fields and weeding them. And probably trading took off, made possible by llama caravans transporting goods, such as maize, coca leaves, salt and a ceremonial product called cinnabar,” Alex Chepstow-Lusty of the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima told me Sunday in an email.

The finding is inferred by a record of pollen and mites in a core of mud taken from a small lake located at about 11,000 feet up in the Andes surrounded by agricultural terraces and next to an ancient trading route that connected tropical forest and mountain communities.

How lightning shoots for the stars

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 20, 2011   View Article

On rare occasions, jets of lightning escape from the tops of thunderclouds and shoot up into the atmosphere where they pose a threat to weather balloons and other scientific instruments. New research explains how it happens.

“In some instances there is enough energy and electric charge available for that lightning to just keep propagating up and up and up and it keeps going to about 50 miles high,” Steven Cummer, a lightning expert at Duke University, told me today.

The jets come to a halt at 50 miles high because they run into the ionosphere, the electrically conducting part of the atmosphere, which “sort of shorts it out and prevents it from getting any farther,” he added.

Software can point to climate tech

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 19, 2011   View Article

A team of U.S. researchers has developed a model to identify technologies that are on the fast track to constant improvement. When applied to energy, it could help investors and policymakers sort out which ones will help us avoid catastrophic climate change.

“That is certainly an inspiration for this kind of work,” Jessika Trancik, an assistant professor of engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me on Wednesday.

International climate negotiators have set a goal of limiting climate warming to 2 degrees Celsius, which will require keeping a lid on concentrations of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to between 450 and 550 parts per million.

“If you look at the international goals that have been set limiting greenhouse gas emissions, you can see that we really need to move quickly,” Trancik said.

Humans wired for grammar at birth

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 13, 2011   View Article

“Blueberry!” I tell my 15-month-old son as I hand him one, hoping that he makes the connection between the piece of fruit and its name as I daydream about the glorious day when he says, “Please, Dad, can I have another blueberry?”

For now, he points at the bowl full of tasty morsels and babbles something incomprehensible. His pediatrician, family and friends all assure me that he’s on the right track. Before I know it, he’ll be rattling off the request for another blueberry and much, much more.

Robot walks 40.5 miles non-stop

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 12, 2011   View Article

A four-legged bipedal robot named Ranger, about as tall as a human adult truncated at the hips, has walked 40.5 miles on a single battery charge without stopping or any human hand-holding, smashing a world record, researchers reported this week.

The robot was built and programmed at Cornell University. It started walking around an indoor track on May 1 just after 2:00 p.m. ET and came to an abrupt stop May 2 at 9 p.m., after 30 hours, 49 minutes and 2 seconds. In that time, Ranger made 307.75 laps around the .13 mile track at an ambling pace of 1.3 mph.

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