April 1, 2002
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Editor: Josh Chamot
Contents of this News Tip:
Attempt to Identify When, Where Volcanoes will Erupt
Researchers funded by the National Science Foundation
(NSF) and affiliated with the State University of
New York (SUNY) at Buffalo are developing technology
that may identify not only where and when a volcano
will come to life, but the path its destructive lava
flows will follow. Combining mathematical modeling,
geologic simulations, geographic information science,
scientific computing and virtual reality, the researchers
will provide accurate information on geologic dangers
to scientists, civil-defense authorities, and citizens
who live in the shadow of a volcano.
The scientists will use detailed satellite data of
volcanoes to develop realistic, three-dimensional
models and simulations of geophysical mass flows.
They will integrate simulation results, remote sensing
data, and geographic information system data (such
as population centers, transportation networks, and
utility lines) to organize and present information
in a range of formats for scientists, policy-makers,
and ultimately citizens.
"At a time when more people than ever before are living
close to active volcanoes, advanced technologies for
estimating and mitigating risks from volcanic activity
hold enormous promise for safeguarding human lives,"
said Michael Sheridan, a geologist at SUNY-Buffalo.
"The purpose of this grant is to take advantage of
technology so that this kind of tragedy does not happen
again," he said. While the initial focus is on Mexican
volcanoes, research results will be transferable to
volcanoes around the globe, Sheridan said. [Cheryl
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Potential for Compact Information Storage
Chemists are developing tiny magnets based on single
molecules that could potentially increase digital-information
storage densities 10,000 times to 30 terabits per
square centimeter. Single-molecule magnets containing
manganese show particular promise.
In research supported by NSF, George Christou of the
University of Florida and his collaborators developed
a technique for controlling the quantum properties
that previously presented an obstacle to using these
In a typical digital magnetic recording device, the
direction of alignment of the magnetic field represents
one bit of information (for a computer, 0 or 1).
When the recording domain is shrunk to the nanoscale,
magnets display a quantum property in which their
magnetization "tunnels" through an alignment barrier,
causing a change in alignment and loss of the stored
Christou's group has found a way to pair two of the
single- molecule magnets in a fashion that suppresses
this quantum property. The quantum tunneling can
be switched back on by applying a magnetic field of
an appropriate strength. Their technique offers a
way to fine-tune the properties of these nanoscale
magnets and removes a major hurdle to their use in
high tech devices. The researchers report their findings
in the March 28 issue of Nature. [Amber
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and Leaves are Created in Equal Proportion to Roots
Biologists can now estimate how much of a plant's biomass
is underground just by looking at its stems and leaves.
Researchers have discovered that the mass of a plant's
above ground parts is proportional to the mass of
its roots in a mathematically predictable way, regardless
of species or habitat.
Researchers supported by NSF and affiliated with Cornell
University and the University of Arizona have analyzed
data for a vast array of plants from weeds to bushes
to trees in order to derive mass-proportional relationships
among major plant parts. The evidence now provides
environmental researchers with clues to how much carbon
is stored in plants below as well as above ground.
"Global climate modelers now can reasonably estimate
how much carbon is sequestered in plants on a worldwide
basis," says Karl Niklas, a plant biologist at Cornell.
He and colleague Brian Enquist of the University of
Arizona call their conclusions "global allocation
rules" for patterns of biomass partitioning in seed
The scientists wanted to know if there were observable,
universal patterns of biomass storage across all plant
species in different habitats, and they wanted to
know if such patterns could be predicted.
"Yes and yes," says Niklas. "These patterns can be
found in any terrestrial plant, whether bamboo, palm
trees, pine trees, or bushes. The same pattern can
be found across the whole spectrum of plants on land."
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to Combine Civic Planning with Technology Development
The future of the historic mill town of Lowell, Mass.,
will be the subject of an innovative research project
in April, when a broad range of local residents join
researchers in a community wide experiment combining
civic planning and technology assessment. The town
will be testing a new method for assessing the potential
environmental, economic, and civic impacts of technological
choices on a community.
Supported by NSF and the Massachusetts Foundation for
the Humanities, the city of Lowell and the University
of Massachusetts at Lowell are collaborating with
the Loka Institute, a non-profit organization in Amherst,
Mass. concerned with the social repercussions of science
About 60 people, from bankers to neighborhood leaders,
will spend two days (April 9 and April 30) analyzing
what life in Lowell could be like 20 years from now,
based on various scenarios of technological choices
the city could make in the next few years to provide
adequate transportation, housing, energy, water, and
waste management. The group will then generate its
own vision and action-plan for how best to promote
a vibrant civic life and strong democratic values,
while also supporting a healthy economy and environmental
sustainability. The participants will present their
recommendations at a press conference May 1.
This new method of technology assessment called a
"scenario workshop" brings together representatives
of a whole community to be part of the deliberations.
Developed originally in Denmark and used extensively
in Europe, this method has never before been tried
in this country. One unique aspect of the Lowell workshop:
its focus on how technologies interact with issues
of democracy and civic life. [Bill Harms]
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Capture Image of Unusual Blue Jet Lightning
Deep in the tropical jungle of Puerto Rico lies the
NSF's Arecibo Observatory, where for the first time
a team of researchers has captured video evidence
from the ground of a lightning phenomenon known as
a blue jet. The discovery is the first ground-based
evidence linking the ionosphere with cloud tops in
blue jet events.
According to Victor Pasko of Penn State, an electrical
engineer working at Arecibo, "Pilots and others reported
observations of red sprites and blue jets long before
the first one was captured on video, and numerous
undocumented reports of similar phenomena have appeared
in scientific literature for over a century."
Blue jets develop at cloud tops at 12 to about 26 miles.
They appear blue to the naked eye, last for up to
several hundreds of milliseconds and are cone-shaped.
According to Sunanda Basu, program director in NSF's
atmospheric sciences division, which funded the research,
the video is the first ground-based evidence of a
direct electrical discharge from a thundercloud top
to the lower edge of Earth's ionosphere. The electrical
contact may represent an important component of the
global electrical circuit, says Basu.
The event was recorded using a monochrome low-light
video system, but the researchers all agree that the
phenomena was seen visually as blue in color. The
top of the jet appears to look much more like a red
sprite than a blue jet, with hot spots and a fuzzy
diffused appearance. Scientists do not yet know if
this is a new phenomenon. [Cheryl Dybas]
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