Archive for June, 2010

AIR: Biosphere 2

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

b2_night.jpgAs my residency comes to a close I am hustling to ensure I do not leave any stone unturned.  While I know that is not possible I just hope that upon my return home I do not have too many regrets about missed shots/sounds.  I feel I have covered all the bases.  The photographic work should yield a worthy portfolio portraying the natural/technological meld that is B2 and the audio work will have to wait to be seen.  I am optimistic about the results and will be releasing this work on Innova Recordings if the i find it to be suitable.

Last night was a special treat.  I was able to photograph the B2 environment while it was all lit up.  This worries and excites me – as I did not have a cable release I stress I could have been too shaky while making the 10-20 second exposures.  We shall see.

The environment lit the dark desert landscape as though it were a UFO touching down – preparing to unleash its contents of nature onto this new world.  Perhaps one day we will send such a vessel into the stars – ready to spread the wealth that Earth has given us.

We are all connected.

AIR: Biosphere 2

Friday, June 11th, 2010

We are as gods and might as well get good at it” -Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog

Biosphere 2 is a unique build – there is no other like it.  With the ability to be completely sealed, sustain life within for extended periods of time, perform as a laboratory and place for field work, and provide thousands of tourists each year with tremendous mystery and intrigue it stands as a symbol of modern human engineering and perseverance.  While the original plans for B2 did not come to fruition it has found a stable life and been born again as an optimal utility for science and discovery.  The University of Arizona now operates and manages the biosphere – running multiple scientific studies within its one of a kind environment.

The Biosphere 2 marriage between nature and technology is what first attracted me to the location as an artist.  The structure is the ultimate expression of a natural environment while simultaneously being enclosed and controlled by the hand of man.  It is no wonder one of the original biospherians called the enclosed environment “the Garden of Eden atop an aircraft carrier” (Roy Walford).  The energy it takes to moderate the rain, temperature, humidity, waves, air, etc. is enormous.  It is the ultimate conundrum: a natural world only living because of the unnatural energies giving it life.









AIR: Biosphere 2

Monday, June 7th, 2010

b2_rain_forest_01.jpgToday I took my first comprehensive venture into the rain forest with doctoral candidate Ty Taylor.  We measured and plotted plants that are being mapped for a comprehensive survey mapping all of the plants in the rain forest.  The forest is 1/2 acre and has lived inside the B2 environment despite some setbacks.  Due to high heat in the upper regions of the rain forest the canopy fails to flourish into a cover for the lower vegetation.  Heat, along with the lack of wind that makes for very weak limbs (sometimes requiring support so that they can stay up at all) and a limited number of species, makes the rain forest quite different from what we would see in the natural world.  That said, the forest does continue to live – and I would say it is living well enough to continue on for some time in the conditions it is under.

Ty pointed out to me several interesting things about the forest.  We looked at an endangered species of plant that he has discovered called Zamia fischeri (a Cycad) as well as a unique plant called Pyschotria viridis (coffee family), which contains the hallucinogenic—or entheogenic—indole alkaloid DMT.  This plant has no effect on the human body unless you have a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAO inhibitor), which can be found in the vine Banisteriopsis caapi.  Combined in an aqueous extraction, they form the infamous Amazonian hallucinogenic drink called Ayahuasca.  (which is legal in Brazil where the native tribes ingest it for religious purposes).  The Zamia fischeri (endangered species) was not endangered when originally planted in the Biosphere but has become so since its introduction circa 1990.  We looked at a variety of trees and plants on our trek, marking particular wood trees for the study Ty is working on.  (Ginger, Black Pepper [which we chewed on a leaf stem to feel the numbing effects inside of our mouths], Banana [which the biospherians ate plenty of], Bamboo, Money Tree, Allspice, Crescentia cujete and the list could go on and on if not for my inept memory)

We then worked our way to the top of the mountain where what was once a large waterfall (large for the environment) fell down through the upper mountain area of the forest.  Now the fall is a bit smaller but still a beautiful environment to be in.  Still, we climbed and climbed, until reaching the highest peak overlooking the top of the forest.  Up here it is around 115 degrees fahrenheit and when you get up there it is obvious why the canopy can not properly form.  I will be back here early in the morning to photograph.  Anytime after 8am the camera lens will fog.

If the biosphere were to be a success (more of a complete, natural rain forest than it can become in its current environment) there would need to be some changes introduced to the system.  The heat in the canopy is first and foremost – followed by the introduction of animal life (there were animals in the 3 years that B2 did the original missions), winds to make the trees stronger, and a more diverse number of plants.  I would also add that 1/2 acre is a small plot for such a vital component to the stability of a biosphere.  The fact that only %4 of the Earth is covered with rain forest is not reason to repeat the small portion in a man made living environment if we were to take such a structure into the cosmos.

b2_laboratory.jpgOne of the positive attributes of this forest is that it is a scientifically unique situation.  No other forest in the world has a working laboratory available just a few hundred feet away.  This allows for timely and valuable testing in days that would otherwise take week.  The b2 laboratory is equipped for any research project that is taken on.  In the laboratory we tested the output of VOCs from particular plants as well as their level of photosynthesis.  It is absolutely impossible to be as comprehensive in the field when you are in a Brazilian rain forest.

The rain forest in B2 is modeled after that of Puerto Rico and Venezuela  (Amazon Basin).  In the beginning there were about 320 plant species and 2,800 plants total – which could grow to a maximum of 90ft. – the height of the rain forest roof.  The biospherians, who were eating bananas, eventually found that the galagos, or “bush baby” monkeys were becoming protective of the fruit.  When one would walk into the forest these small galagos would begin throwing anything they could grab down at the intruder.  While the thought behind the galagos was that they may provide a variety of companionship to the biospherians, it proved to be quite the opposite.  There were 4 galagos introduced and 6 by the end of the first 2 years.  It was the idea of William S. Burroughs to include the galagos on the species list.

The rain forest will be one of my stops both for the sound and photographic portfolios I am working on.  There are an abundant number of ambient sounds that can be used to accompany the Rain Forest biome sound work I will be doing.  Both synthetic and organic sounds are with you as you move along the winding path that has been created through the forest.  Photographically there is a similar interaction that happens between the structure of B2 itself and the vegetation growing in the forest.  I look forward to working in this biome.

Ty Taylor leaves in a little over a week to continue his studies in Brazil’s Rain Forest.  He is working with the main researcher of the project, Kolby Jardine.

AIR: Biosphere 2

Monday, June 7th, 2010


Prior to breaking ground for the 3.15 acre construct we know today as Biosphere 2 the SBV team had to solve certain logistical problems that  stood in the way of their success with the project.  In order to test factors such as proper oxygen production as well as more complex hurdles as mentioned with the lungs (preventing the sealed structure from exploding or imploding as a result of heating and cooling / expanding and contracting air) the team had to build a test module.  The module would be filled with plants in order to produce oxygen, cleaning out CO2 from the air, and would need to be sealed tight for the experiment to be useful.

The first attempt of the Test Module ran into a huge leakage problem resulting from the seal between the glass and struts.  Initially the caulk was working – after time, however, the realization that the termites inside the biosphere were eating the caulk that was used.  This proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for the team.  The Test Module #1 structure was moved a few hundred feet to the East and production began on Test Module #2.  By moving Test Module #1 they were able to continue working with the same lung that was constructed for these test modules.

Test Module #2, this time sealed with a silicon seal, proved to be a more suitable device to perform valid “practice” missions with.  On this occasion the Test Module was used to see how human inhabitants could tolerate being sealed in a biosphere.  It was designed with a room that was adequate size for one person to live – the rest overflowed with an abundance of plant life.  These plants all had their purpose, particularly to create oxygen for anyone inside to breathe, food for them to eat and the capability to filter waste created by whoever was inside.

It was sealed tight and leaking nil.  The first subject was ready to enter, and that would be John Allen.  In 1988 he entered the biosphere with confidence – despite a substantial belief that the environment would not be safe enough and result in an infection of some kind from toxins and microbial bacteria not detected.  72 hours after entering John came back out, reportedly smiling and energetic.  The first test was a tremendous success.

Shortly following there was another occupent, Abigail Alling.  Abigail was to go in for 5 days – which she did, but not before the Test Module succumbed to an untimely power outage.  This occurred just as she entered and disrupted the press activities of the event.  It was the first problem, and resulted in the understanding of the need for an energy center to properly run the Biosphere 2 environment (with backup generators).  Abigail successfully stayed her 5 day mission.

The final biospherian, Linda Leigh, went in several weeks later to stay for 21 day.  This was the longest any human being had remained enclosed in a self supporting biological system that was enclosed in this manner.  (Remember, the Earth is enclosed in the same way – it is just not man made like these Test Modules and B2 — we are actually all biospherians when you think about it)

test_module_21.jpgThese tests clearly were not long enough to soundly prove that Biosphere 2 was going to be a success, but it did accomplish the goal.  Human life could stay enclosed in such a structure for extended periods of time.  The Test Module was 1/40 the size of what B2 would be – anything could happen with such a large size difference.

Today the Test Modules are still on the campus of Biosphere 2.  You can inspect them closely and get a sense of what it must have been like for these first biospherians to be inside.  The structures are not large by any means – and isolation as well as claustrophobic feelings were to be expected.

In the photo of Test Module 2 (left) you can see the white structure in the foreground that is the top of the containment for the lung.   Just as the B2 lung would later have this lung had a safety pane of glass in case of air expansion that the lung could not handled.  If this were to occur the safety pain would give way and allow for the excess air to release.  This would break the seal of the environment – but was a small price to pay when the alternative would be an explosion of the 250 million dollar construction.

AIR: Biosphere 2

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

vvc_lungs1.jpgThe first week of my residency has been filled predominantly with research about both the historic and contemporary uses of Biosphere 2.  With a comprehensive understanding of my subject matter in mind I have taken about 8 tours through the B2 environment in the 5 days I have been here.  By weeks end I will have completed tours with all 12 of the guides on staff.  Each time I step through the doorway from the kitchen area into the upper savannah that overlooks the ocean  I am in for a different experience that yields new information and background on the facility without fail.  Each tour guide has their own unique way of telling the deep, rich story behind B2, and after 8 tours to date I am not the least bit tentative about going on 4 more tours.  Rather, I am excited to hear what the guides I have yet to meet will offer me.  (B2 Guides: Lynn Brooks, Marsha Colbert, Judy Freeman, Claudio Gilardini, Bob Hastings, Zak Kelly, Victor Lim, Bob Sherman, Nancy Thrail, Norm Trezek, Steve Wigard, and Bill Young).

In addition to my tours I have also read Jane Poynter‘s book “The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2“.  This read was a great addition to what I have been learning in the tours.  Jane provides a first hand account of what was going on inside the B2 environment during that first mission not only from an empirical/scientific vantage but also one of anthropological/psychological value.  She tells stories and gives detail of the interpersonal relationships of the 8 biospherians that are rarely mentioned on the tours given now.  Jane was one of the 4 female inhabitants of the first B2 mission and a member of the 4 that would be considered the “outsiders” once the 8 individuals drew lines in the sand between one another.

My research has not only been the interior operations of B2 but also the history of the land it rests upon, the solar energy panels that have recently been installed, the test modules used to iron out problems before the official biosphere was built, the lineage that has past through the land (starting with Mr. Lackner M.D. in the 1920s and followed by: Lady Margaret of Suffolk in the 1950s, Motorola Company in the 1970s, Space Biospheres Venture in the 1980, Columbia University in the 1990s and now the University of Arizona since 2007.)

I have had exquisite pleasure roaming around this 34.5 acre campus that is Biosphere 2.  My evening ventures as the sun sets upon the desert take me through test modules, research facilities, living quarters, quarantine rooms, greenhouses, solar panel installs, homesteads of Lady Margaret and Mr. Lackner, cafes, and conference rooms, all of which have been abandoned since they were once used by Motorola, SBV and Columbia University.  Walking through the analytical laboratory filled me with a strange sensation; as though I were stepping through the empty footsteps of a once bustling scientific endeavor that resulted in B2.  I could visualize the biospherians and accompanying scientists preparing and testing samples, choosing the species that they would put into B2 (3,000), and deciding the proper balance of the soils that would go into each biome (30, 000 lbs.) among many other vital components that made B2 possible.

This initial phase of research and exploration has been a thrilling introduction to the activities that have and are happening here.  The scientific discoveries that I have made in as little as 5 days will no doubt have an impact on my work both now and in the future.  I will soon begin my work here in depth.  After Tuesday I will have completed my 11th tour, with one remaining on Friday, and will feel appropriately versed on my subject matter.

My plans for the sound piece will be to scrutinize each biome with a fine toothed comb.  I want to convey the essence of this great technological accomplishment and simultaneous natural environment.  The sound work will then be split into different tracks, something like this:

1. Introduction
2. Savannah
3. Marsh
4. Fog Desert
5. Ocean
6. Technosphere
7. South Lung [Variable Volume Chamber]
8. Rain Forest

I plan to use an abundance of samples taken from inside and around Biosphere 2 and infuse ambient/generative sounds to add a mystical feeling that echoes the great awe that this amazing accomplishment strikes those who visit.

Along with the work on this sound portfolio I will be continually making photographs of the environment.  I have also discovered a collection of 2000 ml. flasks which house a variety of biospheres collected in the early 1980s.  This valuable collection made by Elizabeth Kearns [Univ. of Hawaii] inspires me to not only photograph the collection as documentary work for a series called ‘biospherics‘ but also to create my own biospheres in similar flasks.

AIR: Biosphere 2

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

For the month of June I am the artist in residence at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, AZ.  My time here will be spent working not only on some ongoing projects (ie: Digital Bodies, Formatting Gaia, and Cryonics), but also developing portfolios specific to Biosphere 2.  My proposal for the residency included three portfolios created with three different media.  I plan to create a photographic portfolio that emphasizes the relationship between synthetic and organic entities that is a distinct characteristic of Biosphere 2, a sound project that does much of the same and what I am calling a new media piece; a virtual reconstruction of the B2 campus inside a virtual environment hosted by the likes of Second Life of OpenSim.

That was the plan, anyway.  Since my arrival I have realized that one photographic portfolio was obviously going to be hard to limit myself to.  There is much to see here – and as a result there is much to talk about through my work.  I have also realized the residency could yield some installation work, but I’ll leave that for when the time comes.  What I am trying to say is that I am open to new ideas and projects as they come to me.  As I explore and learn more details about the rich history, scientific value and future uses of Biosphere 2 and builds like it I find that inspiration comes faster than I can keep up with it.  With that said, this experience is proving to be a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Biosphere 2 Brief History

In order to understand the B2 clearly it is important to familiarize yourself with the concept of ‘biosphere’ (bio meaning life, sphere meaning circle).  This term, first coined by geologist Eduard Suess in 1885, was later elaborated upon by Russian mineralogist and geochemist Vladamir Vernadsky.  One day in the early to mid 1920s Vernadsky was walking along the beach by his home.  On his walk he enclosed some water, sand, and other oceanic material one would find along the shoreline in a bottle he happened to have with him.  Upon arriving home he placed this bottle on a shelf and subsequently forgot about it for 6 months.  When he stumbled upon the bottle again after all those months he was alarmed to discover that life was still occurring inside this sealed environment.  He published his book The Biosphere in 1926.

Decades later Claire Folsome was teaching and researching Vernadsky’s studies at the University of Hawaii.  Inspired by his reasearch was John Allen, the man who would later go on to develop IE (Institute of Ecotechnics), October Gallery, R.V. Heraclitus,  Synergia Ranch, and The Caravan of Dreams among other locations around the world that were used as training, learning, and spiritual grounds for the many who were involved with a group that Allen was known for leading.  The biospheric sciences that Allen practiced and thought about based on Folsome’s research were the beginning of what would become Biosphere 2.

After copious research and training by the many individuals involved with the project they went to the Arizonan Sonora Desert in 1984 to begin designing and constructing the 3.14 acre hermetically sealed structure.  By 1987, after years of planning, the Space Biospheres Venture (SBF) broke ground on what would become the world’s largest sealed environment as well as a test structure for one day colonizing Mars and other bodies in Space.  Ed Bass, in contact with the group who worked together at Synergia Ranch, the Heraclitus and at IE just happened to have received the inheritance of his family’s oil billions and became  the man privately financing the project.  While the original estimates of 30 million given by Allen was interpreted by Bass as likely to be closer to 90 million, he did not expect the final cost of 200-250 million at the time.

Despite costs, the B2 environment was designed, built, tested, and sealed.  On September 26, 1991 the 8 biospherians walked through the hatch and sealed it behind them.  They were to remain sealed inside for two years and twenty minutes.

B2 Facts

The total size, including both lungs, is 3.15 acres above ground.  The Techno-sphere housing the machinery support systems for air, water and electricity covers an additional 2 acres underground.

The space-frame construction is made up of close to 6,500 strong panes of glass (250 lbs. each) supported by a white, protectively coated steel skeleton comprised of roughly 77,000 struts.

The Biosphere sits upon a base of 20 inches of concrete with a 500 ton 1/8″ steel plate in the middle.  This base, along with the silicon seal on the glass panes, created a closed system with only 8% air leak per year (less than space shuttles of its time).

The ocean contains roughly 750, 000 gallons of water (the ocean can hold 1 million gallons).   When in development the first 100,000 gallons were brought in by milk trucks from San Diego.  Once the initial 100,000 was added another 700,000 or so gallons of fresh water were added over time.  They used a chemical called Instant Ocean to maintain proper saline balance.

The “lungs” (built by William “Freddy” Dempster) of the Biosphere (Variable Volumetric Air Chambers) were added to prevent catastrophe as a result of the heating and cooling of air as the sun would rise and set over the 6, 500 panes of glass.  When the sun would rise in the morning and the air heated and expanded it would travel through a tunnel and into the lung.  There a 16 ton steel plate suspended by a 4 ton neoprene roof that would allow for the plate to rise and fall as air commanded it.  When the air was hot and began to expand it would fill the lung.  When the air cooled the 20 ton pressure would push the air from the lung back into the B2 environment.  This critical component of the design prevented the sealed environment from exploding and imploding as air temperature changed.

Part-Human, Part-Machine Transistor Devised

Friday, June 4th, 2010


An artist’s representation of a new transistor
that's contained within a cell-like membrane. In the core of the device
is a silicon nanowire (grey), covered with a lipid bilayer (blue).

Man and machine can now be linked more intimately than ever, according to a new article in the journal ACS Nano Letters. Scientists have embedded a nano-sized transistor inside a cell-like membrane and powered it using the cell’s own fuel.

The research could lead to new types of man-machine interactions where embedded devices could relay information about the inner workings of disease-related proteins inside the cell membrane, and eventually lead to new ways to read, and even influence, brain or nerve cells.

“This device is as close to the seamless marriage of biological and electronic structures as anything else that people did before,” said Aleksandr Noy, a scientist at the University of California, Merced who is a co-author on the recent ACS Nano Letters. “We can take proteins, real biological machines, and make them part of a working microelectronic circuit.”

To create the implanted circuit, the UC scientists began with a simple transistor, an electronic device that is the heart of nearly every cell phone and computer on the planet. Instead of using silicon, the most common material used in transistors, the scientists used a next generation material known as a carbon nanotube, a tiny straw-shaped material made from a single curved layer of carbon atoms arranged like the panels of a soccer ball.

The scientists then coated the carbon nanotube transistor with a lipid bilayer, basically a double wall of oil molecules that cells use to separate their insides from their environment. The scientists didn’t use an actual cell membrane, however.

To this basic cellular structure the UC scientists added an ion pump, a biological device that pumps charged atoms of calcium, potassium, and other elements into and out of the cell. Then they added a solution of adenosine tri-phosphate, or ATP, which fuels the ion pump.

The ion pump changes the electrical charge inside the cell, which then changes the electrical charge going through the transistor, which the scientists could measure and monitor.

In their initial device the biological pump powered the artificial transistor. Future devices could work just the opposite, where an outside electrical current could power the pump and alter how quickly ions are pumped into or out of a cell. That could have dramatic effects.

For instance, instead of using drugs to block the release or uptake of various drugs or neurotransmitters, scientists could change the electricity regulating the ion pump, which would then change the amount of the drug or molecule inside, or outside, the cell.

Other groups have tried to mix man and machine before, said Itamar Willner, a scientist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but none have achieved this level of intimacy.

“Previous students used enzymes that were not incorporated into membranes in the transistors,” said Willner. “In this case, an enzyme that usually works in the membrane was linked to carbon nanotubes.”

The new enzyme-transistor link could help eventually monitor and even treat diseases and conditions, said Willner.

Some of the most obvious medical conditions the embedded transistor could help study, or alleviate, are toxins and poisons. Many of these chemicals puncture cell membranes and cause the cell’s inner fluid, or cytoplasm, to leak out, essentially bleeding the cell to death. Other toxins create ion imbalances inside the cells, which can cause paralysis and other conditions.

If the cells could be encouraged to pump the necessary ions into or out of the cell that could help treat a specific condition. Though any actual treatment based on this technology is still years away, said Willner.

“We don’t want to just sense things, we also want to treat them,” said Willner. Clinical applications may still be years away, but the new research is the most intimate link between life and machines that has yet been created.

Source | Discovery News

Eat less, live longer?

Friday, June 4th, 2010

IN GREEK mythology, the tale of the Trojan prince Tithonus is a tragic one. His lover, the goddess Eos, asks Zeus to grant him eternal life, but forgets to specify eternal youth. Time passes, and while the goddess of dawn stays young and beautiful, Tithonus degenerates into bedridden senility. Eventually Eos shuts him in a chamber of her celestial palace, where his feeble voice can be heard begging for death.

Dreams of eternal youth feature in many cultures throughout history, but it was only in the 20th century that research into longevity really began. Much about ageing is still mysterious – we don’t even know the underlying reasons why we journey into old age. There are many lines of enquiry into how to live longer, though, with one of the most intriguing being calorie restriction: in effect, going on a lifelong diet.

Calorie restriction dramatically extends not only the lifespan of laboratory animals, but also their “healthspan” – how long they live free of disease. On the assumption that it has the same effect in people, some individuals have already adopted a restricted diet. The latest evidence suggests that while calorie restriction is indeed beneficial for humans, when it comes to lifespan extension, it may not be the whole story.

The good news is that we might be able to delay ageing without cutting our food intake. “There’s a definite possibility that if you balance the diet correctly, a longer lifespan can be achieved without full food restriction,” says Matthew Piper, a researcher into ageing at University College London.

Interest in calorie restriction began in 1935, when scientists made the surprising discovery that rats on a reduced-calorie diet lived longer, provided they were supplemented with sufficient vitamins and minerals. The idea sounds counter-intuitive; after all, a state of starvation is not usually conducive to health. But there seems to be a window of benefit. While lifespan is reduced if calories are cut too drastically, it can be extended by cutting them moderately (see graph).

Calorie restriction has since been shown to extend the lives of other organisms including yeast, nematode worms, fruit flies and mice. Mice, for example, live up to 50 per cent longer if their calorie intake is cut by 30 to 50 per cent. What’s more, mammals are protected from a number of age-associated maladies such as cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

It is unclear why eating less should make animals live longer. While a restricted diet triggers numerous changes at the molecular and genetic levels, only some of these are common across all the species tested. However, there does seem to be a general principle that a dearth of nutrients causes organisms to divert resources away from growth and reproduction and towards basic survival functions. From an evolutionary perspective, these adaptations could help an organism survive famine.

Longevity pioneers

The million-dollar question is whether calorie restriction has a similar effect in people. Humans are longer-lived and clearly harder to study than flies or mice, but recently two sources of evidence have hinted that it does.

The first comes from a 20-year study of rhesus macaques, a species obviously closer to humans than worms and mice. When the macaques were about 10 years old, equivalent to young adulthood in humans, half the group were placed on a diet in which they received 30 per cent fewer calories than the others. While none has yet beaten the record for the longest-lived macaque in captivity (about 40 years), the latest results, reported last year, look promising. About 80 per cent of the calorie-restricted monkeys were still alive when the study was published, beating the control group’s survival rate of 50 per cent. And the dieting animals were one-third less likely to have died from an age-related disease (Science, vol 325, p 201).

The second strand of evidence comes from studying people who are practising calorie restriction. The first enthusiasts banded together through an email forum in the early 1990s. The group has since evolved into the Calorie Restriction Society International, which now has over 3000 members who refer to themselves as “CRONies”, short for Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition.

Needless to say, this lifestyle is not for everyone. Some people report struggling with hunger pangs, and the society warns on its website that side effects can include feeling cold, poor wound-healing and temporary infertility. But many CRONies insist that hunger is not a big problem and that they actually feel happier and healthier on their frugal diet (see “A day in the life of a CRONie”).

CRONies typically cut calories by 10 to 30 per cent of the recommended intake, and most hover around the lower limit of “normal” body mass index, at 18.5 kilograms per height-in-metres squared. To ensure they get all the nutrients they need without busting their calorie quota, their diet is mainly vegetable-based and must be carefully planned, often with the help of a computer program. “People think calorie restriction involves tiny portions, but these people are eating huge amounts of low-calorie, nutrient-dense food,” says Luigi Fontana, a professor of medicine at Washington University in St Louis and head of the Division of Nutrition and Aging at the Italian National Institute of Health, who has studied CRONies for the past eight years.

As with the macaques, it is too soon to tell if calorie restriction extends lifespan. The oldest people in Fontana’s studies are only in their 70s – the average life expectancy for Americans. But there is evidence suggesting that it extends healthspan. In 2007, Fontana showed that CRONies have optimal metabolic profiles, and low blood pressure and cholesterol levels (Experimental Gerontology, vol 42, p 709). “They have hearts that are 15 years younger than those of typical Americans their age,” he says.

So far, so good. But Fontana has found a notable difference in the way people and animals respond to calorie restriction, and it is not great news. It involves a hormone made by the liver called insulin-like growth factor 1.

IGF-1 has emerged as an important promoter of ageing. IGF-1 levels are lower than normal in worms, flies and mice on a restricted diet, and this is thought to be at least partly responsible for their longer lifespan. When it comes to people, however, CRONies have the same IGF-1 levels as the rest of us.

The explanation for this anomaly may lie in a new theory about how diet affects ageing. This says that it may not only be the drop in calories that is responsible for lifespan extension – in some species at least, perhaps it is also the accompanying drop in dietary protein.

One piece of evidence for this idea comes from studies in fruit flies and rodents. If these animals are fed special diets with less amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – they can eat as many calories as they want and still live longer. “These results clearly show that you don’t need to restrict calories as a whole to get lifespan extension,” says Piper, an author of the study on flies (Nature, vol 462, p 1061).

Further support for this idea comes from studying the molecular pathways inside cells that affect lifespan. A molecule called TOR has been found to set off a chain of reactions that boost cell growth at the expense of longevity. Blocking TOR increases lifespan in all organisms studied to date, including yeast and mice (Aging Cell, vol 9, p 105). Crucially, the most potent activators of TOR are amino acids.

Where does the protein theory leave the CRONies? Fontana noticed that the people in his study group were eating high levels of protein, about 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. This is more than the US government-recommended intake of 0.8 g/kg/day, and higher than that in a typical American’s diet, about 1.2 g/kg/day.

Accelerated ageing

So Fontana asked six CRONies to cut their protein intake to 0.95 g/kg/day while maintaining their usual calorie intake. After only three weeks on the low-protein diet, the CRONies showed a 25 per cent drop in their levels of IGF-1 (Aging Cell, vol 7, p 681). “Even if the CRONies are restricting their calories severely, if they’re eating a high-protein diet, they’re probably negating some of the most important beneficial effects,” says Fontana.

If the new theory is right, then the whole concept of calorie restriction needs to be rethought. The very term would be misleading; Fontana and others have started referring to dietary restriction instead. As news of the study has spread, some CRONies have already reduced their protein intake.

The protein theory is bad news for people on low-carbohydrate weight-loss plans like the Atkins diet. “I’d be wary of diets that put a heavy emphasis on protein,” says Piper. “It’s hard to see how that could be healthy.” Fontana goes one step further, saying that high-protein diets could risk accelerated ageing and cancer.

It’s good news, however, for people already on low-protein diets, like vegans, who avoid eating meat, eggs and dairy products. In 2007, Fontana showed that vegans have lower levels of IGF-1 than meat-eaters (Rejuvenation Research, vol 10, p 225).

There may be another reason for vegans to celebrate. Studies on flies and rodents suggest that cutting intake of one particular amino acid, called methionine, lengthens life to a similar degree as calorie restriction. Proteins in meat and other animal products have high levels of methionine, so a vegan diet would score well by that measure, too (Medical Hypotheses, vol 72, p 125).

If calorie restriction would be hard for most people, calorie and protein restriction would be doubly so. Those determined to live to 130 may want to give it a shot, but for the rest of us, simply sticking to recommended dietary protein levels could have benefits for both lifespan and healthspan. “Protein restriction is much less difficult to maintain than [calorie] restriction and may be more powerful in reducing IGF-1 in humans,” Fontana said in a recent review (Science, vol 328, p 321).

For those who don’t fancy changing their diet, a more tempting prospect is a pill that replicates the effects without the hard work. Drug firms have taken a keen interest in trying to find such calorie-restriction mimetics, as they are sometimes called.

A decade ago the main focus was on signalling molecules called sirtuins that reduce the expression of several ageing-related genes. Reports that resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, extended lifespan in some species by activating sirtuins boosted sales of red wine and resveratrol supplements. Resveratrol still has supporters, but inconsistent animal data have since dampened much of the enthusiasm.

The focus has lately switched to finding compounds that block TOR. One such agent is a drug called rapamycin, an immunosuppressant given to recipients of organ transplants. Last year rapamycin was found to extend the lifespan of mice, even in those started on the drug in later life, equivalent to 60-year-old humans (Nature, vol 460, p 392). However, because people don’t live in a sanitised lab environment, rapamycin’s strong immunosuppressive effects make it an unlikely candidate for a practical anti-ageing drug. Similar compounds that are less toxic would be more promising.

Another candidate is a drug called metformin, already used to treat type 2 diabetes. Metformin also blocks TOR, and lengthens lifespan in worms and mice (Cell Metabolism, vol 11, p 390). Does metformin slow ageing in people too? Studies published earlier this year suggest that diabetics taking metformin do get less cancer (Diabetes Care, vol 33, p 322). “The major risk factor for cancer, above all others, is ageing,” says David Gems at University College London. He calls the studies a “smoking gun of a more generalised effect of metformin on ageing, rather than just strictly diabetes”.

While metformin is less toxic than rapamycin, it, too, can have side effects, such as nausea and diarrhoea. So researchers may have a way to go before they find the perfect longevity pill.

And it would be premature to consider the case proven for the protein theory of lifespan extension. Even Fontana acknowledges there may be other nutrients that play a role, such as fatty acids or cholesterol. Others have speculated that it may be the ratio of calories to protein that is key.

In the meantime, the best bet for warding off ageing and disease could still be the time-honoured advice to eat your greens. Perhaps if vegetables had been the food of the gods, Tithonus could have enjoyed a few more quality years with Eos.

Source | New Scientist


Advanced Robotic Arm Controlled by Monkey’s Thoughts (w/ Video)

Friday, June 4th, 2010

This is not the first time that Dr. Schwartz implanted sensors in a monkey’s brain to control a robotic arm. Back in May of 2008 experiments were conducted by Dr. Schwartz, using a simpler , to teach a monkey to feed itself. This was a four-degrees-of-freedom arm with shoulder joints, elbow, and a simple gripper.

In the video above in the Dr. Schwartz’s lab are able to move a robotic arm to feed themselves marshmallows and chunks of fruit while their own arms are restrained.

In the experiments conducted this year two sensors were implanted into the monkey’s brain. One was implanted in the hand area and the second in the arm area of its . The sensors monitor the firing of and send data to the computer that translates the patterns into commands that control the robotic arm.

In the video above the monkey (right side of video) uses its right arm to tap a button which triggers the robotic manipulator to position a black knob to an arbitrary position. The monkey is then seen controlling its articulated robotic arm to grasp the knob.

After touching the knob the monkey places its mouth on a straw to be rewarded with a drink. By constant repetition the monkey eventually starts placing its mouth on the straw before touching the knob knowing that a drink is coming.

This advanced has seven-degrees-of-freedom as compared to the four-degrees-of-freedom arm back in 2008. The added three more degrees of freedom adds an articulated wrist which can perform pitch, roll and yaw movements. These movements enable the monkey to precisely turn the knob by rotating the mechanical wrist.

advancedrobo.jpgBy putting the brain in direct communications with machines, researchers will one day be able to engineer and operate advanced prosthetics in a natural way to help paralyzed people live a close to normal life.

As of this writing Dr. Schwartz and his colleagues have not published the detailed results of their latest experiments.

Source | Physorg

Russia Mars Mission: Scientists Begin 520-Day Simulation

Friday, June 4th, 2010

s-russia-mars-large.jpgMOSCOW — An international team of researchers climbed into a set of windowless steel capsules Thursday to launch a 520-day simulation of a flight to Mars intended to help real space crews of the future cope with confinement, stress and fatigue of interplanetary travel.

The six-member, all-male crew of three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese will follow a tight regimen of experiments and exercise under video surveillance.

The Mars-500 experiment – conducted by the Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems in cooperation with the European Space Agency and China’s space training center – aims to reproduce the conditions of space travel, with exception of weightlessness.

“For me, it will be mainly my family, and the sun and fresh air,” French participant Romain Charles said when asked by reporters what he will miss most during the nearly a year and a half of confinement.

The researchers will communicate with the outside world via the Internet – delayed and occasionally disrupted to imitate the effects of space travel. They will eat canned food similar to that currently offered on the International Space Station and shower only once a week or so. Crew members will have two days off a week, except when emergencies are simulated, though they will still be in the capsules.

“Certainly, the crew is largely on its own here, with very limited communications with the outside world,” Martin Zell of the ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight told The Associated Press. “They have to cope internally with a lot of conditions and to organize themselves.”

A real mission to Mars is decades away because of huge costs and massive technological challenges, particularly the task of creating a compact shield that will protect the crew from deadly space radiation. President Barack Obama said last month that he foresaw sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.

The crew members said they were confident of success. Diego Urbina, the Italian-Colombian member, told a news conference that for him it would mean “accomplishing dreams about the future, doing something that no human has done before.”

Psychologists said long confinement would put the team under stress as they grow increasingly tired of each other’s company. Psychological conditions can be even more challenging on a mock mission than a real flight because the crew won’t experience any of the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel.

French participant Romain Charles said he was bringing along a guitar to warm the atmosphere. Others said they would bring books, movies and pictures of their relatives.

The crew will split their days into eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours of leisure.

“The routine is much more than on a real mission, there is a little bit less thrill,” Zell said. “But I think their team spirit, and their motivation to go there and to accomplish the whole mission is enormous.”

As part of efforts to keep the crew in good spirits, they will play an “interplanetary” match with former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov at some point during the experiment.

14923_621101584699_10.jpgThe facility for the experiment is in western Moscow and includes living compartments the size of a bus connected with several other modules for experiments and exercise. A separate built-in imitator of the Red Planet’s surface is also attached for a mock landing.

The mission director, cosmonaut Boris Morukov, said the experiment could be disrupted for medical or technical reasons or if some of the participants categorically demand it be stopped.

“Each crew member has the right to end the experiment and walk out,” he said at a news conference. “We have had such negative experience in the past, and I hope it won’t happen during this experiment.”

A similar experiment in 1999-2000 at the same Moscow institute went awry when a Canadian woman complained of being forcibly kissed by a Russian team captain. She also said two Russian crew members had a fist fight that left blood splattered on the walls. Russian officials downplayed the incidents, attributing them to cultural gaps and stress.

Morukov said the organizers had considered some female candidates for the current experiment, but they hadn’t been chosen for various reasons. “Selecting an all-man crew wasn’t our goal,” he said.

Other crew members include Russians Alexey Sitev, 38, Sukhrob Kamolov, 37, Alexander Smoleyevsky, 33 and Wang Yue, 26, from China. The organizers said each crew member will be paid about $97,000 for taking part in the experiment.

For Sitev, the mission captain, the experiment means separation from his wife just a few weeks after the two tied the knot. “It’s difficult for me to part with my family, just as it is for any other person,” he told journalists just before stepping in.

Source | Huffington Post

Amon Twyman: Augmented Perception and Transhumanist Art [UKH+] (1/3)

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Max More: Singularity Skepticism: Exposing Exponential Errors [UKH+]

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

H+ UK conference | David Wood introduces Humanity+ UK2010

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Researcher’s Robots Learn From Environment, Not Programming

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

robotlg_horiz.jpgHumans have trained robots to build vehicles, fly airplanes, automatically test blood pressure in hospital patients and even play table tennis.

But robots have no concept of self, nor do they truly understand what it is they are programmed to do, said Ian Fasel, an assistant research professor of computer science at the University of Arizona.

As a consequence, robots often are unable to problem solve – a design and implementation glitch that is driving Fasel’s research.

He recently earned grant funding to advance his robotics work, which is focused on improving what robots are able to understand and learn, but without the aid of human programming.

“The prevailing technique for recognizing objects is for someone to collect a large database of examples – cars, pedestrians, faces,” Fasel said. “It’s a lot of work to find a lot of good examples and to prepare them in a learning algorithm.”

The $250,000 grant – his first as a new faculty member – came from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to fund “CLIME: Concept Learning from Intrinsically Motivated sensory-motor Experience.”

The CLIME project involves training robots to learn concepts from trial and error in the world, whereas a second project teaches robots that already have some human-programmed concepts to seek out new information as efficiently as possible.

In effect, Fasel and his team are engineering a robot system that can teach concepts to itself, instead of requiring a human to program them in, as it learns how to interpret and control its sensors and motors.

“A lot of our language (as human beings) is metaphorical,” Fasel said. “The argument we’re making is if the robots can understand sensory and motor concepts, they won’t make dumb mistakes when we try to talk to them.”

Fasel also is collaborating with a team from Texas on another project, “Active Learning for Sequential Sensing and Efficient Human Interaction in Collaborative Human-Robot Teams,” which the U.S. Office of Naval Research is funding for three years at nearly $600,000.

ianfasellg_vert.jpgFasel is a subcontractor and co-principal investigator on the grant, which is part of a larger effort led by collaborators at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Tech University.

“Further in the future, the real goal is for them to teach themselves commands,” he said. “We really do want robots in which they learn commands to help humans interact with them.”

Fasel and his colleagues also are training robots able to detect emotion in their human counterparts – all with little or no programming.

Such work in enhancing artificial intelligence in robots is an increasingly visible area in computer science.

In 2003, Sony created “QRIO,” a bipedal robot that recognizes voices and faces, which was subsequently featured in a music video by the popular music artist, Beck.

Other humanoid robotic models have been designed using recognition technology to comprehend certain movements, gestures and sounds and also to act as companions.

If at this point you cannot stop thinking about science fiction films such as Star Wars, Artificial Intelligence and I-Robot – just try. While filmmakers have long displayed robotic characters and technologies seemingly out of this world, most are tremendously difficult and time consuming to try and replicate, Fasel said.

Also, much of the actual advancement in robotics has been driven by researchers feeding robots with algorithms that provide step-by-step explanations for processes and tasks and robots learning via computation.

Fasel’s approach is to determine less exhausting and time-consuming ways to teach robots.

“In real-world applications, it would literally be some kind of unmanned aerial vehicle that needs to understand its flyover area,” Fasel said. “Or, imagine if you had a household robot. It needs to know what it is, where it is and where objects belong.”

Fasel also said understanding the learning patterns in robots may also help further knowledge about human nature.

“What we want to do is learn about their behaviors as well,” Fasel said. “Another part is understanding apparent curiosity in infants in constantly exploring the world.”

Source | University of Arizona News

Futuristic mega-projects by Shimizu

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Japanese construction firm Shimizu Corporation has developed a series of bold architectural plans for the world of tomorrow. Here is a preview of seven mega-projects that have the potential to reshape life on (and off) Earth in the coming decades.

* * * * *

- Luna Ring

In response to the ever-growing demand for energy, Shimizu has developed plans for the Luna Ring, a project that seeks to transform the Moon into a massive solar power plant.

Luna Ring’s 11,000-kilometer (6,800-mile) “solar belt” spans the Moon’s equator

Electricity collected by the Luna Ring’s enormous “solar belt” is relayed to power conversion facilities located on the near side of the Moon. There, the electricity is converted into powerful microwaves and lasers, which are beamed at Earth. Terrestrial power stations receive the energy beams and convert them back to electricity.

Luna Ring feeds power to energy-hungry Earth

The solar power plant is built mainly using lunar resources. Moon rocks and dust are used to manufacture building materials such as cement, bricks and glass fibers. Water is produced through a chemical process involving lunar soil and hydrogen.

Large machinery and equipment from Earth is assembled in space and landed on the lunar surface for installation. Much of the construction is performed by robots controlled by people on Earth, and a team of human astronauts is stationed on the Moon to supervise the robot operations. [More]

* * * * *

- Green Float

Shimizu’s Green Float project seeks to build “botanical” cities that float like giant lily pads in the equatorial Pacific, where sunlight is plentiful and the impact of typhoons is minimal.

Lily pad-like cities at sea

Each floating island features a 1,000-meter (3,300-ft) central tower. The lower section of the tower serves as an industrial area with offices and factories employing 10,000 workers, while the upper section functions as a residential area for 30,000 people. Another 10,000 residents live at ground level, in low-rise townhouses near the beach.

Green Float islands are 3 kilometers (1.9 mi) in diameter and support a population of 40,000

The typical Green Float island landscape consists of forests, grasslands, waterways and reservoirs. A portion of the land is set aside for agriculture and some of the shallow beaches are used for cultivating seafood, making the islands 100% food self-sufficient.

The eco-friendly Green Float cities rely on a variety of natural energy sources, including wave, wind and solar power, as well as ocean thermal energy conversion.

Green Float islands join to form a floating metropolis

Green Float islands are built upon a floating base of connected hexagonal tubes that each weigh 7,000 tons and measure 20 meters (65 ft) across and 50 meters (165 ft) deep. The primary structural material for the honeycomb-like base, as well as for the island’s buildings, is magnesium alloy. Seawater — which is composed of 0.13% magnesium by weight — is an abundant source of magnesium. One ton of the material can be extracted from 770 tons of seawater. [More]

* * * * *

- Mega-City Pyramid

Shimizu’s proposed Mega-City Pyramid is a self-contained city for one million people.

The Mega-City Pyramid stands 2,000 meters (1.25 miles) high

The pyramid-shaped hyperstructure is an assembly of skyscrapers suspended within a skeleton of 350-meter (1,150-ft) long shafts made from lightweight materials (such as carbon and glass fibers).

Residential buildings (left) and office complexes (right) inside Mega-City Pyramid

The skyscrapers within the Mega-City Pyramid are home to residences, offices, research institutions, shopping and entertainment centers, and other facilities. The connecting shafts, which measure from 10 to 16 meters (30 to 50 ft) in diameter, contain the city’s plumbing, electrical and communication systems, as well as a network of trains, escalators and moving walkways.

The proposed hyperstructure has a footprint of approximately 8 square kilometers (3 sq mi), and it features an open-air construction that allows sunlight to reach the interior. A network of optical fibers transports sunlight into poorly-lit areas.


Construction of the massive Mega-City Pyramid is facilitated by robots and automated assembly systems, as well as by the use of standardized parts and materials. [More]

* * * * *

- Space Hotel

To capitalize on the coming boom in space tourism, Shimizu has developed plans for a space hotel in low-Earth orbit.

Shimizu Space Hotel, located 450 kilometers (280 mi) above Earth

The hotel — which is powered entirely by solar energy — features a microgravity recreational area where guests can enjoy sports, dining, and gazing at the Earth and stars. The 64 guest rooms and 40 staff rooms are situated in a ring measuring 140 meters (460 ft) in diameter. The ring rotates at a speed of 3 rpm to produce an artificial gravity of 0.7 g in the rooms. A 240-meter (790-ft) elevator shaft connects the hotel facilities with the docking port. [More]

* * * * *

- Lunar Bases

For the more adventurous offworld traveler, Shimizu has developed plans for lunar bases.

Lunar bases are the key to establishing a long-term human presence on the Moon

Shimizu’s proposed bases feature a modular design of interlocking hexagonal units that can be arranged both horizontally and vertically. The modules are built using concrete made from lunar soil and rock. Tele-operated robots and automated assembly systems are used to construct the bases. [More]

* * * * *

- Urban Geo-Grid Plan

Back on Earth, Shimizu’s Urban Geo-Grid Plan seeks to reduce urban congestion and improve the overall efficiency of Tokyo by placing a variety of city functions underground.

Urban Geo-Grid Plan puts much of Tokyo underground

The plan — which covers an area extending from central Tokyo to the Boso Peninsula on the opposite side of Tokyo Bay — consists of a vast underground network of so-called “grid points” and “grid stations.” Grid points incorporate community facilities such as grocery stores, exhibition halls and public bathhouses, while the larger-scale grid stations incorporate office buildings, hotels, shopping centers, and train stations. An extensive underground transportation network connects the grid points and stations. Moving all these facilities underground frees up an enormous amount of street-level space that can be set aside for parks. [More]

* * * * *

- Desert Aqua-Net Plan

The Desert Aqua-Net Plan seeks to make the desert habitable by constructing a network of lakes and waterways.

Desert Aqua-Net Plan brings water to the desert

The plan involves creating artificial lakes in low-lying desert areas. Islands are constructed in the middle of the lakes, which are filled with seawater channeled inland through canals. The canals connect the lakes to form an extensive water network.

Located 150 kilometers (95 mi) apart, the artificial lakes measure 30 kilometers (20 mi) in diameter and 20 to 30 meters (65-100 ft) deep. The canals running between the lakes measure 50 meters (165 ft) wide and 10 meters (35 ft) deep


The lakes reduce temperatures and increase humidity in the surrounding areas, creating a comfortable and mild environment. Seafood and biomass resources (such as algae and seaweed) can be cultivated in the saltwater lakes, and the canals can be used to transport people and goods between the cities built on the artificial islands. [More]

Source | Pink Tentacle