Tsunami 2004

Tectonic activities create beautiful landforms that can be captured by cameras (like many of the images found in The Frontier Channel’s planetary science entries) but on a planet teeming with life forms such activity can be devastating.

During the morning of December 26, 2004 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Northern Sumatra, part of the country of Indonesia. The earthquake itself caused great damage and death in Indonesia, but it was the resulting tsunamis that spread the devastation to at least 11 countries as far away as eastern Africa. The earthquake is the largest to hit the planet Earth in 40 years and one of the largest known since earthquake records have been kept.

The epicenter of the earthquake was located under the Indian Ocean on an active tectonic zone where one plate of the Earth’s crust is subducting into the mantle under another plate. The two plates have been building up energy at their contact surface deep underground and some of that energy was released as the plates slipped catastrophically. When the energy wave spread up through the ocean, it caused a wave surge, a tsunami, that traveled rapidly across the ocean before making landfall.

There is currently no infrastructure in place in the region to warn inhabitants of incoming tsunamis. Many victims could have been saved with as little as 15 minutes warning. Such events are a reminder that much remains to be learned about tectonic activities on the Earth and how to lessen their impact on life and property.

All the major media outlets are providing continuing coverage of the earthquake and tsunamis’ aftermath. Coverage is also coming from local bloggers, people in the affected areas providing Internet weblog “you-are-there” images and updates of the event. The recent emergence of “citizen journalism” through online personal journals (blogs) has never been more evident.

Huygens Heads to Titan

On December 24, 2004 the Huygens probe separated from the Cassini spacecraft and began a three week journey to Titan, when it will parachute through the moon’s thick atmosphere and snap images on its way to the surface. Cassini recently imaged the probe as a bright spot of light against a background of stars.

Scientists hope Huygens can shed some light on the alien landscape of Titan, perhaps revealing whether or not the surface is solid, liquid, or slushy. Images of the surface returned over the past few months by Cassini have only added to the mystery. The surface appears to be relatively flat and young, suggesting current tectonic activity.

On January 14, 2005 and the days following, Frontier Channel will provide coverage of Huygens landing on Titan with the latest images and information from NASA and ESA

Heart Disease Vaccination in Development

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in the U.S., making up over half of the 2,443,387 deaths that occurred in 2002. Could the top two killers of Americans eventually be eradicated (along with many of the other leading causes of death)? There may be reason to be hopeful.

Medical researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden have reported evidence that mice can be vaccinated against the build up of plaque in their arteries. Human trials of the vaccination could begin in two years, perhaps leading to a treatment for children that would vaccinate them from heart disease later in life. Such a treatment could theoretically have a lesser but still important effect in adults as well.

Meanwhile, the number of specific cancers targeted by new drugs has been rapidly increasing over the past couple years. Some of these drugs have shown incredible results early in human trials. Also, new treatments using technologies such as gene therapy and stem cell injection are showing great promise over a wide range of diseases.

Life expectancy is now at a record high and death rates are at a record low, due in large part to incredible advances in medicine. Human life expectancy may or may not be affected by the cures for various diseases, but it appears quality of life will be. For a daily dose of the latest research and breakthroughs with a life extension bent, check out the Betterhumans webzine.

Statistics Source:

Kochanek, Kenneth D., Murphy, Sherry L., Anderson, Robert N., and Scott, Chester. Division of Vital Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Deaths: Final Data for 2002.” National Vital Statistics Reports 53.5 (12 Oct. 2004) ‹http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/ nvsr53/nvsr53_05acc.pdf›.

Opportunity Looks Back and Heads South

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is heading south after spending the better part of its mission inside “Endurance Crater” on Meridiani Planum. Within the crater, Opportunity observed bedrock and discovered strong evidence for past surface water over an extended period of geologic time (and perhaps more than once in Martian history.) The rover also looked up out of the crater and spotted clouds, a rare sight in images from the surface of Mars.

The scientific data obtained was analyzed in depth over the past few months and the results were recently published in a special issue of Science Magazine. The top background image is of the clouds, the bottom background image is of “Burn’s Cliff” within the crater, and the foreground image is from Opportunity’s look back after climbing out of the crater.

Both Opportunity and its sibling rover Spirit have survived long after their initial 3-month mission, nearing a year at work on the Red Planet. Because of this success, the mission team is planning riskier trips across more rugged terrain. Opportunity will next travel south across Meridiani Planum to a more rugged region.

The Hills Have Spirit

Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is climbing into the Columbia Hills and up the slope of “Husband Hill”. Spirit has also discovered possible evidence for water in the region during the distant past, though the water was likely not as extensive as it was on Meridiani Planum. The Columbia Hills and surrounding terrain all sit within Gusev Crater.

If you have a pair of red/cyan glasses you will enjoy the 3-D anaglyph on the left. You can obtain a free pair of these glasses (just pay for shipping) with a written request to the address provided on the Mars Unearthed website (where many more anaglyphs are available for your enjoyment.)

Titan’s Dynamic Atmosphere

One of the highlights of the recent Cassini flyby of Titan was a detailed analysis of the moon’s atmosphere. New images reveal a complex atmosphere filled with distinct haze layers, each layer possibly composed of a different hydrocarbon.

During a previous flyby, Cassini snapped images of cloud formations near Titan’s south pole. Clouds over mid-latitude regions were captured in new images and suggest a complex weather system. Scientists hope to learn more about the composition of these clouds, their source, and the overall global weather pattern on Titan during the Cassini mission.

Sony Releases OLED Display PDA

Sony recently released a new Clie PDA in Japan with a 3.8-inch OLED display. OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) displays require less energy, do not require a backlight, are cheaper to produce, and can provide more vivid colors and deeper blacks at a wider viewing angle than competing technologies.

Sony does not immediately plan to release the new PDA to the rest of the world. Eventually, however, flexible OLED screens with high resolution may become the de facto display component in upcoming media playback devices, including the much-wished-for eBook reader described in my “Future Wants” column. Major announcements regarding the use of OLED technology in upcoming consumer electronics are expected at next month’s Consumer Electronics Show 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The first OLED screens for desktop computers and laptops are expected in 2007.

More information about OLED technology can be found at the “Just Emaginit” blog, information pages on the Kodak website, and by typing “OLED” into any search engine.

Dione and Saturn

Cassini recently flew by the Saturnian moons Titan and Dione and sent back some beautiful images. In the background image Dione is seen against the background of Saturn. What a remarkable vista if one could stand on the tiny moon and see Saturn filling up the entire sky.

White streaks across the surface of Dione seen in images from past space probes were thought to be ice deposits. The latest images surprised scientists by revealing that the streaks are actually tall cliffs and fracturing caused by tectonic activity.

Eppur Si Muove – Life Expectancy

CORRECTION posted Sunday, December 19, 2004: Dr. Aubrey de Grey, mentioned below, is not in fact a gerontologist. He is a computer scientist and research associate in the Department of Genetics with an interest in biogerontology. He and his ideas about life extension were recently profiled in a recent Popular Science article. The article also clears up any misunderstandings about his background.

Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a gerontologist at the University of Cambridge, has optimistically stated in a new essay that “I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already.” In his own essay, Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago dismisses the idea as more rhetoric from the “cult of immortality.” He lists similar promises throughout history that never led to greatly extended life.

Dr. Olshansky is missing a very important point. Dr. de Grey’s optimistic statement is based on science. Failed promises from the past have been based on religion or pseudoscience.

Galileo might have responded to life extension critics with “Eppure si muove” – yet still it moves. Led by hand washing and antibiotics, human life expectancy has doubled from 40 to 80 years since the end of the 19th century. Some experts believe that life expectancy will be capped at 120 years. However, this figure has been continuously pushed back by ongoing research into aging.

Interestingly, Dr. Olshansky hedges his bets at the end of his essay by stating “If we happen to live longer as a result [of improvements to “physical health and mental functioning”], then we should consider that a bonus.” Dr. de Grey writes about living to 1000 or longer while performing research to that end. His results will determine whether or not he is too optimistic. Criticism from those who dismiss life extension out of hand will not.

AMN107: Leukemia Wonder Drug

A compound called AMN107 has been found to cause remission in 86 percent of patients with chronic myeloid leukemia who do not respond to the other wonder drug Gleevec (in use since 2001). The human trial is only in Phase I (compound safety in humans) but the results have been so incredible that scientists have had difficulty keeping quiet about it.

AMN107 is only one example of many new and powerful treatments for various diseases. As a result of treating or curing diseases, we are faced with life extension. Some critics argue that curing diseases does not extend life, but how long would patients in this trial have lived without AMN107? Their lifespan has in fact been extended!