Wednesday, January 5, 2011

ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE ATTRACT MORE ATTENTION TO THEIR UNIQUE PERSONALITY TRAITS

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Beautiful people get all of the breaks. For one thing, they’re beautiful. Also, other people think their personalities are better, too. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that people not only see beautiful people more positively, but they also see the beautiful people’s unique selves. That is, people see personality more accurately in pretty people than in people with average or not-so-good looks.

Psychological scientists spent a lot of time about a half-century ago trying to figure out who is the best judge of personality. You can see how this would be a useful skill for, say, a therapist or someone who conducts job interviews. But that research ground to a halt when they realized this was actually a much more complicated question than anyone thought, says Jeremy Biesanz, who cowrote the new study with Genevieve L. Lorenzo and Lauren J. Human, all from the University of British Columbia.

Biesanz and his colleagues decided to look at this old question from the other side. Rather than trying to work out who’s better at perceiving personality, they wondered whether there are some people whose personality is better perceived. In this study, they considered whether attractiveness changes other people’s ability to get a sense of your personality.

For the study, volunteers met in groups of five to 11 people. The group carried out something a little like a cocktail party, without the alcohol; every person chatted with every other person, in three-minute conversations. After each chat, each participant filled out a questionnaire on the person they’d just been talking with, rating their physical attractiveness and what psychologists call the “big five” personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each person also rated their own personality.

As expected, people saw attractive conversation partners more positively. But they also saw their personalities more accurately. This seems a little counterintuitive—how could they have a positive bias and also be more accurate? But it’s true. For example, if Jane is beautiful, organized, and somewhat generous, she’ll be viewed as more organized and generous than she actually is, but she’ll also be seen correctly as more organized than generous.

Biesanz suspects this is because we’re more motivated to pay attention to physically attractive individuals. “You do judge a book by its cover, but a beautiful book leads you to read it more closely,” he says. Interestingly, this wasn’t only true for people who everybody agreed were attractive. If someone talked to a person who they found particularly attractive, they’d perceive their personality more accurately. Biesanz notes that this is about first impressions of personality, in a setting like a cocktail party; the same might not be true for people who have known each other for longer.

Association for Psychological Science

YOUR GENOME IN MINUTES: NEW TECHNOLOGY COULD SLASH SEQUENCING TIME

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Scientists from Imperial College London are developing technology that could ultimately sequence a person’s genome in mere minutes, at a fraction of the cost of current commercial techniques.

The researchers have patented an early prototype technology that they believe could lead to an ultrafast commercial DNA sequencing tool within ten years. Their work is described in a study published this month in the journal Nano Letters and it is supported by the Wellcome Trust Translational Award and the Corrigan Foundation.

The research suggests that scientists could eventually sequence an entire genome in a single lab procedure, whereas at present it can only be sequenced after being broken into pieces in a highly complex and time-consuming process. Fast and inexpensive genome sequencing could allow ordinary people to unlock the secrets of their own DNA, revealing their personal susceptibility to diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and cancer. Medical professionals are already using genome sequencing to understand population-wide health issues and research ways to tailor individualised treatments or preventions.

Dr Joshua Edel, one of the authors on the study from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London, said: "Compared with current technology, this device could lead to much cheaper sequencing: just a few dollars, compared with $1m to sequence an entire genome in 2007. We haven't tried it on a whole genome yet but our initial experiments suggest that you could theoretically do a complete scan of the 3,165 million bases in the human genome within minutes, providing huge benefits for medical tests, or DNA profiles for police and security work. It should be significantly faster and more reliable, and would be easy to scale up to create a device with the capacity to read up to 10 million bases per second, versus the typical 10 bases per second you get with the present day single molecule real-time techniques."

In the new study, the researchers demonstrated that it is possible to propel a DNA strand at high speed through a tiny 50 nanometre (nm) hole - or nanopore - cut in a silicon chip, using an electrical charge. As the strand emerges from the back of the chip, its coding sequence (bases A, C, T or G) is read by a 'tunnelling electrode junction'. This 2 nm gap between two wires supports an electrical current that interacts with the distinct electrical signal from each base code. A powerful computer can then interpret the base code’s signal to construct the genome sequence, making it possible to combine all these well-documented techniques for the first time.

Sequencing using nanopores has long been considered the next big development for DNA technology, thanks to its potential for high speed and high-capacity sequencing. However, designs for an accurate and fast reader have not been demonstrated until now.

Co-author Dr Emanuele Instuli, from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London, explained the challenges they faced in this research: "Getting the DNA strand through the nanopore is a bit like sucking up spaghetti. Until now it has been difficult to precisely align the junction and the nanopore. Furthermore, engineering the electrode wires with such dimensions approaches the atomic scale and is effectively at the limit of existing instrumentation. However in this experiment we were able to make two tiny platinum wires into an electrode junction with a gap sufficiently small to allow the electron current to flow between them."

This technology would have several distinct advantages over current techniques, according to co-author, Aleksandar Ivanov from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London: "Nanopore sequencing would be a fast, simple procedure, unlike available commercial methods, which require time-consuming and destructive chemical processes to break down and replicate small sections of the DNA molecules to determine their sequence. Additionally, these silicon chips are incredibly durable compared with some of the more delicate materials currently used. They can be handled, washed and reused many times over without degrading their performance."

Dr Tim Albrecht, another author on the study, from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London, says: "The next step will be to differentiate between different DNA samples and, ultimately, between individual bases within the DNA strand (ie true sequencing). I think we know the way forward, but it is a challenging project and we have to make many more incremental steps before our vision can be realised."

(Photo: ICL)

Imperial College London

OUTSMARTING THE WIND

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Meteorological equipment typically used to monitor storms could help power grid operators know when to expect winds that will send turbine blades spinning, as well as help them avoid the sudden stress that spinning turbines could put on the electrical grid.

"We know that the wind will blow, but the real challenge is to know when and how much," said atmospheric scientist Larry Berg. "This project takes an interesting approach — adapting an established technology for a new use — to find a reliable way to measure winds and improve wind power forecasts."

Berg and Rob Newsom, both researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, are using a variety of meteorological equipment to measure winds high up into the air - about 350 feet, the average height of turbine hubs - and get a better reading on how winds behave up there.

Wind measurements are typically made much lower — at about 30 feet high — for weather monitoring purposes. Wind power companies do measure winds higher up, but that information is usually kept proprietary. PNNL's findings will be available to all online.

The study's findings could also provide more accurate wind predictions because of its field location — a working wind farm. The equipment is being erected on and near a radio tower near the 300-megawatt Stateline Wind Energy Center, a wind power project that runs along the eastern Washington-Oregon border. Any wind power company could use the study's findings to improve how sites are chosen for wind farms and how those farms are operated.

The equipment started collecting measurements in November. Berg and Newsom will continue gathering measurements for about nine months, or through this summer. The period will allow the researchers to draw a more complete and accurate picture of how wind behaves at turbine height. The period represents the windiest months for the area.

"The goal here is to help everyone — not just one group — better understand wind's behavior and ultimately improve our use of it as a renewable power source," Newsom said.

But first researchers need to document wind behavior. To do that, they're employing a handful of sophisticated meteorological tools.

One key instrument is the National Weather Service's NEXRAD Doppler radar weather station in Pendleton, Ore., about 19 miles south of Stateline. The station emits short pulses of radio waves that bounce back when they strike water droplets and other particles in the air. A national network of these stations is routinely used by television meteorologists to show clouds and precipitation in familiar, colorful digital maps. For this study, computers will analyze the returned signals to determine how the wind varies in the area around the radar, including the wind farm.

The team is also installing equipment specifically designed to measure wind speed and direction: a radar wind profiler. Like NEXRAD, the profiler sends out radio waves that are bounced back when it hits variations in moisture or temperature. But while NEXRAD scans the entire sky with its one rotating radar beam, the profiler sends three radar beams up into the sky. The profiler being used is part of the DOE's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility.

Another tool they're using is Doppler sodar, which uses sound instead of radio waves. A regular sequence of high-pitched beeps is sent into the sky and, like radar, will be reflected from variations in moisture and temperature. That information will help researchers measure winds that are at lower heights in the sky than the profiler can measure.

Finally, the researchers will install ultrasonic anemometers on the radio tower. The anemometer holds six tiny microphones, and measures the time it takes for sound pulses to travel from one microphone to another. Beyond measuring speed, the anemometer also helps determine wind direction. Combined, all this equipment will help researchers gain a more comprehensive understanding of how wind behaves at the turbine level of a working wind farm.

Data collected during this study will be used to evaluate the performance of computer models of the atmosphere near the operating wind farm. These computer models are routinely used to provide weather forecasts of wind conditions hours and even days into the future. This information can help wind farms operate more efficiently and lets them better integrate the power they produce into the electric grid. These models are known to have relatively large errors in forecasting the severity and times of strong winds, including gusts during thunderstorms as fronts pass through an area. Even relatively small errors in wind speed predictions can lead to large errors in the predicted power outputs of wind farms.

When that happens, grid operators have to accommodate the influx of power, often by diverting or turning off other power sources. In the Pacific Northwest, that can mean spilling river water over hydroelectric dams instead of sending the water through the dams' power-producing turbines. Sometimes those diversions are needed on a moment's notice, when the grid becomes overwhelmed by unexpected windy weather. If such gusts could be reliably predicted ahead of time, power operators could make adequate plans beforehand. And when the wind stops blowing unexpectedly, the grid can experience a quick need for power.

Wind power companies could also use improved predictions to more wisely choose their wind farm sites. These companies invest heavily in understanding the wind characteristics of their sites before breaking ground, but forecasting turbine-level winds is still an evolving field.

As a result, two industrial partners are collaborating with Newsom and Berg on their research. 3TIER of Seattle, Wash., and WindLogics of St. Paul, Minn., both help wind power developers identify and evaluate potential locations for wind farms. They're serving as consultants and have provided input on what kind of data would be most helpful when examining wind sites.

If the NEXRAD wind data is verified by the data collected through the other meteorological equipment, the next step in this research would be to plug the NEXRAD data into a working weather model. The model could then be used to better predict future wind behavior. Using the data in a weather model is outside the scope of Berg and Newsom's current research, but they hope to be able to do so in the future.

(Photo: PNNL)

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

WHAT MAKES A FACE LOOK ALIVE? STUDY SAYS IT’S IN THE EYES

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The face of a doll is clearly not human; the face of a human clearly is. Telling the difference allows us to pay attention to faces that belong to living things, which are capable of interacting with us. But where is the line at which a face appears to be alive? A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that a face has to be quite similar to a human face in order to appear alive, and that the cues are mainly in the eyes.

Several movies have tried and failed to generate lifelike animations of humans. For example, the lifeless faces in Polar Express made people uncomfortable because they tried to emulate life but didn’t get it quite right.

“There’s something fundamentally important about seeing a face and knowing that the lights are on and someone is home,” says Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth College, who cowrote the study with graduate student Christine Looser. Humans can see faces in anything—the moon, a piece of toast, two dots and a line for a nose—but we are much more discriminating when it comes to deciding what is alive and what is not.

Wheatley and Looser set out to pin down the point at which a face starts to look alive. Looser drove around New Hampshire visiting toy stores and taking pictures of dolls’ faces. “It was fun trying to explain what we were doing to shopkeepers. I got some strange looks” says Looser, who then paired each doll face with a similar-looking human face and used morphing software to blend the two. This made a whole continuum of intermediate pictures that were part human, part doll.

Volunteers looked at each picture and decided which were human and which were dolls. Looser and Wheatley found that the tipping point, where people determined the faces to be alive, was about two-thirds of the way along the continuum, closer to the human side than to the doll side. Another experiment found that the eyes were the most important feature for determining life.

The results suggest that people scrutinize faces, particularly the eyes, for evidence that a face is alive. Objects with faces may look human, but telling the difference lets us reserve our social energies for faces that are capable of thinking, feeling, and interacting with us.

“I think we all seek connections with others,” Wheatley says. When we recognize life in a face, she says, we think, “This is a mind I can connect with.”

Association for Psychological Science

OCEAN ACIDIFICATION CHANGES NITROGEN CYCLING IN WORLD SEAS

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Increasing acidity in the sea's waters may fundamentally change how nitrogen is cycled in them, say marine scientists who published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients in the oceans. All organisms, from tiny microbes to blue whales, use nitrogen to make proteins and other important compounds.

Some microbes can also use different chemical forms of nitrogen as a source of energy.

One of these groups, the ammonia oxidizers, plays a pivotal role in determining which forms of nitrogen are present in the ocean. In turn, they affect the lives of many other marine organisms.

"Ocean acidification will have widespread effects on marine ecosystems, but most of those effects are still unknown," says David Garrison, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Biological Oceanography Program, which funded the research along with NSF's Chemical Oceanography Program.

"This report that ocean acidification decreases nitrification (the amount of nitrogen) is extremely important," says Garrison, "because of the crucial role of the nitrogen cycle in biogeochemical processes-processes that take place throughout the oceans."
Very little is known about how ocean acidification may affect critical microbial groups like the ammonia oxidizers, "key players in the ocean's nitrogen cycle," says Michael Beman of the University of Hawaii and lead author of the PNAS paper.

In six experiments spread across two oceans, Beman and colleagues looked at the response of ammonia oxidation rates to ocean acidification.

In every case where the researchers experimentally increased the amount of acidity in ocean waters, ammonia oxidation rates decreased.

These declines were remarkably similar in different regions of the ocean indicating that nitrification rates may decrease globally as the oceans acidify in coming decades, says David Hutchins of the University of Southern California, a co-author of the paper.

Oceanic nitrification is a major natural component of production of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. From the seas, nitrous oxide then enters the atmosphere, says Beman. "All else being equal, decreases in nitrification rates therefore have the potential to reduce nitrous oxide emissions to the atmosphere."

Oceanic emissions of nitrous oxide are second only to soils as a global source of nitrous oxide.

With a pH decrease of 0.1 in ocean waters (making the waters more acidic), the scientists estimate a decrease in nitrous oxide emissions comparable to all current nitrous oxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial activity.

An important caveat, they say, is that nitrous oxide emissions from oceanic nitrification may be altered by other forms of global environmental change such as increased deposition of nitrogen to the ocean, or loss of oxygen in some key areas.

"That could offset any decrease due to ocean acidification, and needs to be studied in more detail," says Hutchins.

Another major implication of the findings is equally complex, the researchers say, but just as important.

As human-derived carbon dioxide permeates the sea, ammonia-oxidizing organisms will be at a significant disadvantage in competing for ammonia.

Over time, that would shift the available form of dissolved nitrogen in the surface oceans away from forms like nitrate that are produced by nitrification, and toward regenerated ammonium.

With a decrease in average ocean pH from 8.1 to 8.0 (greater acidity), the scientists estimate that up to 25 percent of the ocean's primary production could shift from nitrate- to ammonium-supported.

The consequences of such a shift are not easily predicted, says Hutchins, but would likely favor certain drifting, microscopic plant species over others, with cascading effects throughout marine food webs.

"What makes ocean acidification such a challenging scientific and societal issue is that we're engaged in a global, unreplicated experiment," says Beman, "one that's difficult to study--and has many unknown consequences."

(Photo: Cheryl Chow)

National Science Foundation

NSF, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON COMPLETE CONSTRUCTION OF THE WORLD'S LARGEST NEUTRINO OBSERVATORY

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Culminating a decade of planning, innovation and testing, construction of the world's largest neutrino observatory, installed in the ice of the Antarctic plateau at the geographic South Pole, was successfully completed December 18, 2010, New Zealand time.

The last of 86 holes had been drilled and a total of 5,160 optical sensors are now installed to form the main detector--a cubic kilometer of instrumented ice--of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, located at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

From its vantage point at the end of the world, IceCube provides an innovative means to investigate the properties of fundamental particles that originate in some of the most spectacular phenomena in the universe.

In the deep, dark, stillness of the Antarctic ice, IceCube records the rare collisions of neutrinos--elusive sub-atomic particles--with the atomic nuclei of the water molecules of the ice. Some neutrinos come from the sun, while others come from cosmic rays interacting with the Earth's atmosphere and dramatic astronomical sources such as exploding stars in the Milky Way and other distant galaxies. Trillions of neutrinos stream through the human body at any given moment, but they rarely interact with regular matter, and researchers want to know more about them and where they come from.

The size of the observatory is important because it increases the number of potential collisions that can be observed, making neutrino astrophysics a reality.

The completion of construction brings to a culmination one of the most ambitious and complex multinational scientific projects ever attempted. The National Science Foundation (NSF) contributed $242 million toward the total project cost of $279 million. NSF is the manager of the United States Antarctic Program, which coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, as the lead U.S. institution for the project, was funded by NSF to manage and coordinate the work needed to design and build the complex and often unique components and software for the project.

The university designed and built the Enhanced Hot Water Drill, which was assembled at the physical sciences lab in Stoughton, Wisconsin. The 4.8- megawatt hot-water drill is a unique machine that can penetrate more than two kilometers into the ice in less than two days.

After the hot water drill bores cleanly through the ice sheet, deployment specialists attach optical sensors to cable strings and lower them to depths between 1,450 and 2,450 meters. The ice itself at these depths is very dark and optically ultratransparent.

Each string has 60 sensors at depth and the 86 strings make up the main IceCube Detector. In addition, four more sensors sit on the top of the ice above each string, forming the IceTop array. The IceTop array combined with the IceCube detector form the IceCube Observatory, whose sensors record the neutrino interactions.

The successful completion of the observatory is also a milestone for international scientific cooperation on the southernmost continent. In addition to researchers at universities and research labs in the U.S., Belgium, Germany and Sweden--the countries that funded the observatory--IceCube data are analyzed by the larger IceCube Collaboration, which also includes researchers from Barbados, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

"IceCube is not only a magnificent observatory for fundamental astrophysical research, it is the kind of ambitious science that can only be attempted through the cooperation--the science diplomacy, if you will--of many nations working together in the finest traditions of Antarctic science toward a single goal," said Karl A. Erb, director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs.

"To complete such an ambitious project, both on schedule and within budget, is a tribute to the fine work of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and its partner institutions, but it's also a reflection of the excellence of the personnel and infrastructure of the U.S. Antarctic Program," he added. "Science like IceCube is done in Antarctica because it is a unique global laboratory. I am very gratified that the U.S. Antarctic Program is equal to the challenge of supporting such a project."

IceCube is among the most ambitious and complex scientific construction projects ever attempted.

To build the observatory, all project personnel, equipment, food, and detector components had to be transported to Antarctica from various places around the globe. Everything then had to be flown in ski-equipped C-130 cargo aircraft from McMurdo Station near the Antarctic coast to the South Pole, more than 800 air miles away.

Working only during the relatively warm and short Antarctic summer--from November through February, when the sun shines 24 hours a day--drill and deployment teams worked in shifts to maximize their short time on the ice each year.

An international team of scientists, engineers and computer specialists have been working on development and construction of the detector since November 1999, when the first proposal was submitted to NSF and partners in Belgium, Germany and Sweden.

In the 1950's, Nobelist in physics Frederick Reines and other particle physicists realized that neutrinos could be used as astronomical messengers. Unlike light, neutrinos pass through most matter, making them a unique probe into the most violent processes in the universe involving neutron stars and black holes. The neutrinos IceCube studies have energies far exceeding those produced by manmade accelerators.

Unlike many large-scale science projects, IceCube began recording data before construction was complete. Each year since 2005 following the first deployment season, the new configuration of sensor strings began taking data. Each year as the detector grew, more and better data made its way from the South Pole to the data warehouses in the University of Wisconsin and around the world.

"Even in this challenging phase of the project, we published results on the search for dark matter and found intriguing patterns in the arrival directions of cosmic rays. Already, IceCube has extended the measurements of the atmospheric neutrino beam to energies in excess of 100 TeV," said Francis Halzen, principal investigator for the project. "With the completion of IceCube, we are on our way to reaching a level of sensitivity that may allow us to see neutrinos from sources beyond the sun."

(Photo: NSF/B. Gudbjartsson)

National Science Foundation

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