Hey – we’re on the approach to Pluto!

Another milestone passed!

Today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is 15.96 astronomical units – about 2.39 billion kilometersfrom the Sun – putting it halfway between Earth’s location on launch day in January 2006, and Pluto’s place during New Horizons’ encounter with the planet in July 2015.

“From here on out, we’re on approach to an encounter with the Pluto system,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute. “The second half of the journey begins.”

This is rare territory; New Horizons is just the fifth probe, after Pioneers 10 – 11 and Voyagers 1 – 2, to traverse interplanetary space so far from the Sun. And it’s the first to travel so far to reach a new planet for exploration.

Halfway there, folks.

Near-frictionless material created with carbon nanotechnology

Just showing you how much fun scientific research can be. Look at those smiles!

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and IBM Research-Zürich have fabricated an ultra sharp, diamond-like carbon tip possessing such high strength that it is 3,000 times more wear-resistant at the nanoscale than silicon.

The end result is a diamond-like carbon material mass-produced at the nanoscale that doesn’t wear. The new nano-sized tip, researchers say, wears away at the rate of one atom per micrometer of sliding on a substrate of silicon dioxide, much lower than that for a silicon oxide tip which represents the current state-of-the-art…

The importance of the discovery lies not just in its size and resistance to wear but also in the hard substrate against which it was shown to perform well when in sliding contact: silicon dioxide. Because silicon –- used in almost all integrated circuit devices –- oxidizes in atmosphere forming a thin layer of its oxide, this system is the most relevant for nanolithography, nanometrology and nanomanufacturing applications.

Probe-based technologies are expected to play a dominant role in many such technologies; however, poor wear performance of many materials when slid against silicon oxide, including silicon oxide itself, has severely limited usefulness to the laboratory.

Researchers built the material from the ground up, rather than coating a nanoscale tip with wear-resistant materials. The collaboration used a molding technique to fabricate monolithic tips on standard silicon microcantilevers. A bulk processing technique that has the potential to scale up for commercial manufacturing is available.

Fascinating stuff for me. It’s been beaucoup decades; but, some of the most entertaining work I had the good fortune to enjoy was in photo-micrography.

I’d love to see some of these studies up close and personal.

Derby ring road to be named Lara Croft Way

A new £36.2m Derby road is to be named after computer game and movie character Lara Croft following a public vote.

The star of the Tomb Raider franchise was originally devised by a computer game developer based in the city.

More than 27,000 people took part in the vote to name the Osmaston Road to Burton Road stretch of the new route, with 89% opting for Lara Croft Way.

A separate stretch of road will be called Mercian Way as a tribute to local soldiers…

Councillor Lucy Care, cabinet member for planning and transportation, said: “The vote really captured the imagination of people from across the world and, despite my lack of gaming knowledge, I accept that a majority of 89% for Lara Croft is too overwhelming to ignore.

She was created in Derby and deserves to stand alongside some of the more traditional icons of the city…”

The Tomb Raider games were created by Core Design, which was based in Derby, and featured the treasure-hunting British archaeologist Lara Croft.

Rock on, Derby County!

Giant iceberg could affect ocean circulation, weather

An iceberg the size of Luxembourg has broken off from a glacier in Antarctica after being rammed by another giant iceberg, scientists said on Friday, in an event that could affect ocean circulation patterns.

The 2,500 sq km iceberg broke off earlier this month from the Mertz Glacier’s 160 km floating tongue of ice that sticks out into the Southern Ocean…

“The calving itself hasn’t been directly linked to climate change but it is related to the natural processes occurring on the ice sheet,” said Rob Massom, a senior scientist…at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Center…

Massom said the shearing off of the ice tongue and the presence of the Mertz and B-9B icebergs could affect global ocean circulation.

The area is an important zone for the creation of dense, salty water that is a key driver of global ocean circulation. This is produced in part through the rapid production of sea ice that is continually blown to the west.

“Removal of this tongue of floating ice would reduce the size of that area of open water, which would slow down the rate of salinity input into the ocean and it could slow down this rate of Antarctic bottom water formation,” he said.

He said there was a risk both icebergs would become grounded on banks or shoals in the area, disrupting the creation of the dense, salty water and the amount that sinks to the bottom of the ocean, he said.

Oceans act like a giant flywheel for the planet’s climate by shifting heat around the globe via myriad currents above and below the surface.

There’s not much hope for either climate deniers or the average Western Whoopee Weather Whiner to make sense of this. I’ve given up even on explaining something as relevant – and simple – as El Niño to bloggers/commenters/dolts who think that a large snowstorm on the eastern coast of a nation accounting for 1.5% of the Earth’s surface somehow means there is no global warming.

The rest of you – fortunately – have enough interest in science and natural processes to find this interesting on its own. I thank all six of you.

Toxic town: People of Mossville are a chemistry experiment

Gather current and former Mossville, Louisiana, residents in a room and you’re likely to hear a litany of health problems and a list of friends and relatives who died young.

“I got cancer. My dad had cancer. In fact, he died of cancer. It’s a lot of people in this area who died of cancer,” says Herman Singleton Jr., 51, who also lost two uncles and an aunt to cancer.

Singleton and many others in this predominantly African-American community in southwest Louisiana suspect the 14 chemical plants nearby have played a role in the cancer and other diseases they say have ravaged the area.

For decades, Mossville residents have complained about their health problems to industry, and to state and federal agencies. Now with a new Environmental Protection Agency administrator outspoken about her commitment to environmental justice, expectations are growing…

Lisa Jackson, a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the first African-American administrator of the EPA, this year listed environmental justice as one of her seven priorities…

Thousands of pounds of carcinogens such as benzene and vinyl chloride are released from the facilities near Mossville each year, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

Robert Bullard, author of “Dumping in Dixie,” says it’s no surprise industry chose Mossvillle, an unincorporated community founded by African Americans in the 1790s.

Without the power, Bullard says, African-Americans have borne the brunt of living near industry, landfills and hazardous facilities…

Bullard says Jackson has breathed new life into environmental justice since she took office last year. During the previous eight years, he says, “environmental justice was non-existent or invisible.”

Some residents of Mossville have blood dioxin levels three times above acceptable levels. When the EPA reviewed such tests during the Bush years their decision was that people shouldn’t worry about that.

Dioxin has a wonderful history at home and abroad. The United States used it as central to Agent Orange and never did squat about the damage done to Vietnamese – or American servicemen. A supposedly pristine trout river in Connecticut had bans put in place and corporations picked up the tab for care for families that had been eating dioxin-flavored fish.

Color is always an acceptable reason for differentiating everything from health care to pollution – in America.

Good thing Mississauga never had term limits!

Not entirely unique; but, a great example of why term limits are undemocratic. Term limits in Mississauga would have deprived the voters of an opportunity to continue the service of that rarest of politicians – one dedicated to improving community life.

True, the typical political hack stays in business catering to bigotry or society’s obsession with the ethics of beancounters. Whether it’s a Strom Thurmond kept in office as a spokesman for Southern Racism or a John McCain who yammers every year about how he’s saving taxpayers money by keeping some town – outside of Arizona – from educating too many kids.

But, there is a great history in North American politics of people like Hazel McCallion – Claude Pepper from Florida or the Udall family in the American Southwest – dedicated to public service and keeping the needs of us ordinary citizens at the top of the list.

More power to you, Hazel. Rock on!

Thanks, Cinaedh

Brits relegate religious classrooms to Dark Ages of sex

The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. After intense lobbying by religious groups, amendments have been made by the government to the children, schools and families bill which is due to come into force in September 2011. This now means that faith schools in Britain have a right to “reflect a school’s religious character” in their interpretation of the new law. Or in other words: faith schools can continue preaching that contraception, abortion and homosexuality are wrong or sinful, even though sex and relationships education (SRE) – which will be a compulsory part of the curriculum – is supposed to promote equality, diversity and tolerance.

With credit to the government, this bill does show they have realised the affect on young people of a lack of sex and relationship education in schools. But it is imperative that young people are educated about sex as something other than a biological function. And too often, it seems, adults – and parents in particular – dislike talking with young people about sex. This might be due to prudishness, or embarrassment, or even a worry about potentially “corrupting” the younger generation; but sadly this results in misinformation and a lack of knowledge, rather than equipping young people with the skills they need to make healthy decisions about sex…

So, why, with this progressive new legislation, is there an amendment that means faith schools can adapt it to suit their beliefs? Ed Balls, the schools secretary, says in a letter to the Guardian that “faith schools will not be able to opt out of statutory lessons on sex and relationship education”; but if his argument that the “bottom line is that all young people should receive accurate and balanced information, and discrimination is prevented in all schools”, how can teaching that sex outside marriage is wrong, or that contraception is bad, or that homosexuality is a sin, be seen as “balanced” information? Surely that will contradict the guidance provided as part of the sex education curriculum? And how does faith school teaching about sex fit in with the idea of tolerance or equality?

During early days of the Bush and Blair Holy War many of us realized the UK was becoming a 51st state. We just didn’t notice that it was being relocated into the heart of Texas.

Widow of Austin plane crash victim sues pilot’s widow

The widow of an Internal Revenue Service employee killed when a disgruntled taxpayer flew his plane into a seven-story building in Austin, Texas, last week is suing the pilot’s wife, according to court documents.

Valerie Hunter, the wife of Vernon Hunter, is accusing Sheryl Stack, wife of Andrew Joseph “Joe” Stack III, of negligence, alleging she knew or should have known that her husband was a threat to others and, thus, could have prevented the attack, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Travis County District Court.

“Stack was threatened enough by Joseph Stack that she took her daughter and stayed at a hotel the night before the plane crash. [She] owed a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid a foreseeable risk of injury to others including [Vernon Hunter],” the suit says…

Hunter was killed February 18 when, authorities say, Stack flew his Piper Cherokee PA-28 into a northwest Austin building that housed nearly 200 IRS employees.

Authorities say Stack set fire to his $230,000 home in Austin before embarking on his fatal flight.

Sheryl Stack issued a statement after the attack expressing “sincere sympathy to the victims and their families.”

So, Sheryl Stack lost her husband and her home. Valerie Hunter lost her husband. Neither is getting her husband back.

I’m not going to rail about Mrs. Hunter suing. She’s going through the worst time of her life. As is Sheryl Stack.

I just don’t understand what the reasoning might be – other than some ambulance-chaser convinced her they can make a bundle in compensation from some insurance company.

Anyone out there know of an insurance company making good on a policy when the insured kills himself in the act of committing a crime?