Jan 08

Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park film may have been pure science fiction – but extinct creatures such as Neanderthals to Sabre-toothed tigers could soon be brought back to life thanks to advances in DNA technology.


A scene from Jurassic Park III – maybe not too far from the truth

The idea of resurrecting extinct animals moved a step closer to reality last year when scientists announced that they had decoded almost all of the genome of the woolly mammoth, from 60,000-year-old remains found frozen in Siberia.

Now New Scientist magazine has named the 10 other beasts most likely to rise again, including the Irish elk deer whose antlers measured 12 feet across, the dodo and Neanderthal man.

Animals that died out thousands of years ago could be recreated using genetic information retrieved from well-preserved specimens recovered from permafrost, dark caves or dry desserts.

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Aug 28

In the Queen’s speech this autumn Gordon Brown’s government will announce a scheme to institute a database of every telephone call, email, and act of online usage by every resident of the UK. It will propose that this information will be gathered, stored, and “made accessible” to the security and law enforcement agencies, local councils, and “other public bodies”.

This fact should be in equal parts incredible and nauseating. It is certainly enraging and despicable. Not even George Orwell in his most febrile moments could have envisaged a world in which every citizen could be so thoroughly monitored every moment of the day, spied upon, eavesdropped, watched, tracked, followed by CCTV cameras, recorded and scrutinised. Our words and web searches, our messages and intimacies, are to be stored and made available to the police, the spooks, the local council – the local council! – and “other public bodies”.

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Jul 30

Most new large U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships would be required to be nuclear powered under the National Defense Authorization Act for 2009 which the House of Representatives has passed by a vote of 384 to 23. It now goes to the Senate where many senators are uneasy about the scheme as is the Navy and the shipbuilding industry in the U.S.

As to safe-energy and environmental advocates, “This reckless plan gives ‘we’ll fight them on the beaches’ a whole new sinister meaning,” says Linda Gunter of Beyond Nuclear of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute. “If one of these amphibious ships is hit, or has an accident, we would be fighting a tide of radioactivity on beaches that could leave them contaminated indefinitely.”

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Jul 19

War really is getting more like a video game, as hardware and software from the gaming industry is increasingly being adopted for military use. The latest sign of this appeared at the Farnborough air show this week, where arms-maker Raytheon showed off its new Universal Control System for robotic aicraft. It’s based on the same technology that drives Halo and Splinter Cell:

“Gaming companies have spent millions to develop user-friendly graphic interfaces, so why not put them to work on UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]?” says Mark Bigham, business development director for Raytheon’s tactical intelligence systems. “The video-game industry always will outspend the military on improving human-computer interaction.”

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Jul 07

The U.S. military bankrolled early development of a non-lethal microwave weapon that creates sound inside your head. But in the end, the gadget may be just as likely to wind up in shopping malls as on battlefields, as I report in New Scientist.

The project is known as MEDUSA – a contrived acronym for Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio. And it should not be confused with the Long Range Acoustic Device and similar gadgets which simply project sound. This one uses the so-called “microwave auditory effect”: a beam of microwaves is turned into sound by the interaction with your head. Nobody else can hear it unless they are in the beam as well.

The effect has long been a laboratory curiosity, with no application. But, over the years, the military has been intrigued. The idea (dubbed “the telepathic ray gun”) was mentioned in a 1998 US Army study, which turned up in a recent Freedom of Information Act document dump. Five years later, the Navy decided to put some R&D dollars into the project. Now, as I note on the New Scientist website, Dr. Lev Sadovnik of the Sierra Nevada Corporation has provided more details.

There are health risks, he notes. But the biggest issue from the microwave weapon is not the radiation. It’s the risk of brain damage from the high-intensity shockwave created by the microwave pulse. Clearly, much more research is needed on this effect at the sort of power levels that Dr. Sadovnik is proposing. But if it does prove hazardous, that does not mean an end to weapons research in this area: a device that delivered a lethal shockwave inside the target’s skull might make an effective death ray.

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May 06

Doctors know some patients needing lifesaving care won’t get it in a flu pandemic or other disaster. The gut-wrenching dilemma will be deciding who to let die.

Now, an influential group of physicians has drafted a grimly specific list of recommendations for which patients wouldn’t be treated. They include the very elderly, seriously hurt trauma victims, severely burned patients and those with severe dementia.

The suggested list was compiled by a task force whose members come from prestigious universities, medical groups, the military and government agencies. They include the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The proposed guidelines are designed to be a blueprint for hospitals “so that everybody will be thinking in the same way” when pandemic flu or another widespread health care disaster hits, said Dr. Asha Devereaux. She is a critical care specialist in San Diego and lead writer of the task force report.

The idea is to try to make sure that scarce resources – including ventilators, medicine and doctors and nurses – are used in a uniform, objective way, task force members said.

Their recommendations appear in a report appearing Monday in the May edition of Chest, the medical journal of the American College of Chest Physicians.

“If a mass casualty critical care event were to occur tomorrow, many people with clinical conditions that are survivable under usual health care system conditions may have to forgo life-sustaining interventions owing to deficiencies in supply or staffing,” the report states.

To prepare, hospitals should designate a triage team with the Godlike task of deciding who will and who won’t get lifesaving care, the task force wrote. Those out of luck are the people at high risk of death and a slim chance of long-term survival. But the recommendations get much more specific, and include:

– People older than 85.

– Those with severe trauma, which could include critical injuries from car crashes and shootings.

– Severely burned patients older than 60.

– Those with severe mental impairment, which could include advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

– Those with a severe chronic disease, such as advanced heart failure, lung disease or poorly controlled diabetes.

Dr. Kevin Yeskey, director of the preparedness and emergency operations office at the Department of Health and Human Services, was on the task force. He said the report would be among many the agency reviews as part of preparedness efforts. Continue reading »

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Mar 31

 pollution.jpg

Forget genetically modified crops, the great environmental concerns of the future should be nanomaterials, manmade viruses and biomimetic robots.

So say researchers, policymakers and environmental campaigners, who have identified 25 potential future threats to the environment in the UK, which they say researchers should focus on.

In addition to well-publicised risks such as toxic nanomaterials, the acidification of the ocean and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the list includes some more outlandish possibilities. These include:

” Biomimetic robots that could become new invasive species.

” Experiments involving climate engineering, for instance ocean ‘fertilisation’ and deploying solar shields

” Increased demand for the biomass needed to make biofuel.

” Disruption to marine ecosystems caused by offshore power generation.

” Experiments to control invasive species using genetically engineered viruses. Continue reading »

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