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“In order to behave efficiently, you want to process relevant sensory information as fast as possible, but relevance is determined by your current situation,” said Joy Geng, assistant professor of psychology at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

For example, a flashing road sign alerts us to traffic merging ahead; or a startled animal might cue you to look out for a hidden predator.

When concentrating on a specific task, it’s helpful to reconfigure brain networks so that task-relevant information is processed most efficiently and external distractions are reduced, Geng found.

Geng and co-author Nicholas DiQuattro, a graduate student in psychology, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study brain activity in volunteers carrying out a simple test. They compared their results to mathematical models to infer connectivity between different areas of the brain. The study appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

The subjects had to look for a letter “T” in a box and indicate which way it faced by pressing a button. They were also presented with a “distractor”: another letter T in a box, but rotated 90 degrees.

The distractor was either similar in appearance to the target, or brightened to be more attention-getting.

Subjects did better in trials with an “attention-getting” distractor than a less obvious one, and lit up specific areas of the brain accordingly.

The new work shows that the brain doesn’t always “ramp up” to deal with the situation at hand, Geng said. Instead, it changes how traffic moves through the existing hard-wired network -- rather like changing water flow through a network of pipes or information flow over a computer network -- in order to maximize efficiency.

Source: UC Davis - via ZeitNews.org

 

"What we see in other animals is that when females are scarce, males become more competitive. They compete more for access to mates," says Vladas Griskevicius, an assistant professor of marketing at the Carlson School and lead author of the study. "How do humans compete for access to mates? What you find across cultures is that men often do it through money, through status and through products."

To test their theory that the sex ratio affects economic decisions, the researchers had participants read news articles that described their local population as having more men or more women. They were then asked to indicate how much money they would save each month from a paycheck, as well as how much they would borrow with credit cards for immediate expenditures. When led to believe women were scarce, the savings rates for men decreased by 42 percent. Men were also willing to borrow 84 percent more money each month.

In another study, participants saw photo arrays of men and women that had more men, more women, or were neutral. After looking at the photographs, participants were asked to choose between receiving some money tomorrow or a larger amount in a month. When women were scarce in the photos, men were much more likely to take an immediate $20 rather than wait for $30 in a month.

According to Griskevicius, participants were unaware that sex ratios were having any effect on their behavior. Merely seeing more men than women automatically led men to simply be more impulsive and want to save less while borrowing more to spend on immediate purchases.

"Economics tells us that humans make decisions by carefully thinking through our choices; that we're not like animals," he says. "It turns out we have a lot in common with other animals. Some of our behaviors are much more reflexive and subconscious. We see that there are more men than women in our environment and it automatically changes our desires, our behaviors, and our entire psychology."

"The Financial Consequences of Too Many Men: Sex Ratio Effects on Savings, Borrowing, and Spending" will be published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Co-authors of the study include Joshua Tybur (VU University Amsterdam), Joshua M. Ackerman (M.I.T.), Andrew Delton and Theresa Robertson (University of California, Santa Barbara), and Andrew E. White (Arizona State University).

Sex Ratios Affect Expectations of Women

While sex ratios do not influence the financial choices women make, they do shape women's expectations of how men should spend their money when courting. After reading a news article informing women that there are more men than women, women expected men to spend more on dinner dates, Valentine's gifts, and engagement rings.

"When there's a scarcity of women, women felt men should go out of their way to court them," adds Griskevicius.

In a male-biased environment, men also expected they would need to spend more in their mating efforts.

Population Data Supports Research Findings

In addition to conducting laboratory experiments, the researchers reviewed archival data and calculated the sex ratios of more than 120 U.S. cities. Consistent with their hypothesis, communities with an abundance of single men showed greater ownership of credit cards and had higher debt levels.

One striking example was found in two communities located less than 100 miles apart. In Columbus, Ga., where there are 1.18 single men for every single woman, the average consumer debt was $3,479 higher than it was in Macon, Ga., where there were 0.78 single men for every woman.

Research Implications for Marketers and Society

Whereas previous research has found that merely seeing an attractive woman in advertising would make a man more aggressive or make a man more interested in conspicuously consuming, "The Financial Consequences of Too Many Men" study suggests it may not be that simple. According to the findings, whether a woman is alone or surrounded by many or few men can have a great impact on the reaction it elicits.

Griskevicius says the effects of sex ratios go beyond marketing and influence all sorts of behavior. He cites other studies showing the strong correlation between male-biased sex ratios and aggressive behavior.

"We're just scratching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to financial behavior," says Griskevicius. "One of the troubling implications of sex ratios for the world in general is that it's about more than just money. It's about violence and survival."

Source: University of Minnesota - via ZeitNews.org

 

In independent tests, a new world record efficiency of 10.7 percent was achieved for the company's latest tandem organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells ... and 15 percent may be just a few years away.

Organic solar cells are cheaper to produce, lighter and more flexible than traditional silicon-based solar cells, and therefore have a wider range of applications.

Heliatek has set a world record efficiency with its latest organic solar technology

The downside is that the efficiency rate of OPV cells is still much lower than inorganic solar cells, which are around 15 - 20 percent efficient (though that number is growing).

The organic solar tandem cells developed by Heliatek incorporate small organic molecules called oligomers, which are deposited into the thin layers of solar film using a low temperature, roll-to-roll vacuum process.

“This enables us to literally engineer the cell architecture to systematically improve efficiency and lifetime.” Says Dr. Martin Pfeiffer, co-founder and CTO of Heliatek.

In tests conducted by accredited testing facility SGS, the efficiency of the OPV cell was measured in standard testing conditions which resulted in the record 10.7 percent efficiency on 1.1 cm˛.

The technology also performed well in low light and high temperatures of up to 80 degrees Celsius. The results at low light showed that the OPV cell’s efficiency not only remained constant, but actually increased. The efficiency was 15% higher at an irradiation of 100 W/m˛, compared with the efficiency measured at 1000 W/m˛. The tests also found that when efficiency was measured at high temperatures it remained constant.

These measurements are surprising when compared to inorganic solar cells, which lose 15 to 20 percent efficiency when exposed to elevated temperatures.

Heliatek says these findings add up to a higher harvesting factor under real life conditions than crystalline and thin film solar technologies.

“Thanks to the close cooperation between our research teams in chemistry and physics, we are now on our path to achieving 15 percent efficiency within the next few years,” says CEO of Heliatek, Thibaud Le Séguillon.

The company’s first roll-to-roll manufacturing line in Dresden which is due to go into production in late 2012.

Source: Gizmag - via zeitnews.org

 

Millions of americans smoke MARIJUANA, despite the specter of fanatical drug laws that have sent many gentle pot smokers up the river. But - what's a responsible stoner to do?

For 33 years, Seattle lawyer Jeff Steinborn has been defending people accused of drug crimes.

First: MAINTAIN CAUTIOUS HABITS. (Be paranoid!)

 

The protest was organised by unions, political parties and human rights groups critical of “repressive tendencies” in asylum matters.

The protest came just over a week after the House of Representatives backed a series of measures including cutting social benefits to asylum seekers, restricting family asylum rights and creating special centres for “uncooperative” asylum seekers.
 
Saturday’s protestors marched from Bern’s train station to parliament, with a representative of the forum for the integration of migrants addressing the crowd and calling for action against their discrimination, marginalisation and exploitation.

Protestors called for more humane migration policies


 
In another address, Green parliamentarian Balthasar Glättli criticised the recent House of Representatives decisions, saying the reforms represented “pure inhumanity”.
 
Instead of a culture of anger or fear inside Switzerland, “there should be courage, trust and solidarity”, Glaättli said, adding that with refugees and asylum seekers accounting for 0.6 and 0.2 per cent of the population respectively, the country had room to accommodate more people.
 
Among the protestors was a group of 130 people without any official status in Europe and who are currently walking from Brussels to Strasbourg to raise awareness of their situation. They had crossed over the Swiss border into Basel on Thursday.

Hot topic
Immigration and asylum are among the most controversial political topics in Switzerland. There were 22,551 asylum applications submitted in 2011 – up by about 45 per cent on that in 2010 and the highest figure since 2002.
 
On June 14, the House of Representatives voted to reduce welfare payments to a basic minimum for all asylum seekers even before their applications are considered by the authorities. An alliance of rightwing and centre-right parties also voted to restrict the right of people with official refugee status to invite family members to join them in Switzerland.
 
The decision came despite opposition from the centre-left and warnings by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga that the measures went against the country’s humanitarian traditions.
 
The House also voted for the creation of special centres for asylum seekers who refuse to cooperate with the Swiss authorities or who are known troublemakers. A majority backed shortening deadlines for rejected asylum seekers to lodge legal appeals but to extend the waiting period for people with temporary refugee status hoping to apply for residence permits.
 
The bill now returns to the Senate to consider the latest amendments.

Source: swissinfo.ch and agencies

 

While Mexico offers huge untapped potential, firms operating there face numerous challenges such as heavy bureaucracy and insecurity.

Mexico is preparing for a presidential election on July 1

swissinfo.ch talked to Rudolf Knoblauch, the Swiss ambassador to Mexico, about trade opportunities between the two countries, especially for small-and-medium-sized businesses.

swissinfo.ch: How would you describe Switzerland’s business relationship with Latin America?
Rudolf Knoblauch: Our relationship with Latin America began long before the Second World War. It’s good, but it could be better.
 
Trade relations with Asia are more dynamic. In Latin America Swiss exports have continued in a traditional vein: large firms export successfully, but small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are missing. We do not see enough of them in this market.

swissinfo.ch: Foreign trade between Switzerland and Latin America has increased significantly over recent years. But overall volumes remain modest despite the huge potential of 600 million consumers. Why is that?
R.K.: Firstly, Asia boasts two extraordinary economies: China and India. Demand in these two countries is impressive, as they want to catch up with everyone else.
 
This phenomenon doesn’t exist in Latin America, and there are some economies which are worse off than 20 years ago. Nowadays, the countries with the greatest potential are Brazil, Peru and Colombia.
 
The second thing is that Latin America has always experienced political ups and downs and countries like Mexico have their eyes firmly set on the United States.

swissinfo.ch: A free trade accord between Switzerland and Mexico entered into force in 2001. What’s your view on trade relations over the past decade?
R.K.: I don’t think people have taken sufficient advantage of this free trade agreement. I often meet Swiss and Mexican entrepreneurs who are not even aware of its existence. Much more can be done in this respect.

swissinfo.ch: Switzerland exports mainly pharmaceuticals, chemicals, watches and machinery to Mexico and imports pearls, refined lead and machines. What sectors offer most potential for both countries in the short and medium term?
R.K.: The Swiss pharmaceutical industry is very present, but it’s a sector where there are still many interesting opportunities for SMEs. There are also opportunities in green technologies, where Switzerland has a lot of experience.
 
There is also the mining sector, where Mexico has a long tradition, as well as transport and engineering – the application of scientific principles to the design, construction and maintenance of machinery, buildings and communication systems.

swissinfo.ch: Latin America is a melting pot of different economic policies. Some countries are rather neoliberal, like Mexico, while others are more protectionist, like Venezuela and Bolivia. How do Swiss investors cope with such a varied playing field?
R.K.: I have lived in Argentina, Mexico and several other Latin American countries, and there have always been potential ups and downs and nationalist tendencies.
 
Argentina has experienced everything but it’s impossible to say which approach is best. Countries like Brazil and Argentina, which have closed certain sectors, have experienced impressive growth. Mexico has chosen a different model, and has done well in general. Its growth is superior to that of Europe, but mediocre when compared to other countries in the region.
 
An entrepreneur tends to have more confidence in a country like Mexico, where there is continuity in the economic policy. It is no surprise that Peru and Colombia, which have also pushed for trade liberalisation, are more successful today.

swissinfo.ch: Mexico is holding a presidential election on July 1. How do you think Swiss investors will react if there is a swing to the left?
R.K.: If Josefina Vazquez Mota, of the governing National Action Party (PAN), or the front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party win, I don’t think Mexico’s economic model will change much.
 
But if Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) wins, I don’t think radical changes will be made to Mexico’s economy either.

Rudolf Knoblauch

Rudolf Knoblauch (swissinfo)

swissinfo.ch: How do Swiss firms cope with on-going social problems in Mexico such as drug trafficking and insecurity?
R.K.: These are problems that have increase significantly over recent years, partly as a result of the current government’s strategy since 2006. But they don’t create more worries for employers.
 
For Swiss companies active in Mexico, insecurity is just one of the costs they have to bear. A businessman once told me: "Two years ago I lost two out of 100 trucks with goods. Now I lose five". These things are taken into account in a budget and no one gives up an investment for this reason.
 
Nonetheless, it’s alarming that 12,000 to 13,000 people die every year due to drug trafficking. But it is also important to remember that the centre and the south of the country do not experience these kinds of problems. The north witnesses more conflict and some big cities like Monterrey are particularly badly affected.
 
Bureaucratic problems can sometimes be more important for companies. The European press often talk about Mexico’s difficulties and bad news, but this remains an extraordinary market. And the Swiss businessmen who are able to follow the basic rules can make money here and do so with a clear conscience.

Autore: Andrea Ornelas - Fonte: swissinfo.ch - Translated from Spanish by Simon Bradley

 

The conference, being held in New York from July 2-27, will include all major producers, exporters and importers of conventional arms.


 
It is hoped the resulting treaty would make the international arms trade more responsible, help alleviate human suffering and curb the illicit trade in arms and weapons.
 
Crucial for the outcome of the negotiations will be the positions of countries such as the United States, Russia and China, all of whom have reservations about certain aspects.
 
Diplomats and non-governmental organisations are hoping for a robust treaty, even if not all states end up signing it.
 
In this regard they are referring to the impact of the treaty on banning anti-personnel mines. Even though big producer countries have not adhered to the Ottawa treaty, production and use of these mines are becoming less frequent since the adoption of the convention.

Model of a Chinese multiple launch rocket system at a defence fair. China is also among the top four weapons imorters

No globally binding rules
While the world trade in many goods such as exotic woods, dinosaur bones or bananas is covered by binding regulations, no such rules exist with regards to the international trade in conventional arms.
 
“Many people are just shocked when they hear this,” Jeff Abramson, director of the Control Arms campaign told swissinfo.ch.
 
Control Arms is a global civil society alliance that has been campaigning for an arms trade treaty for years.
 
Amnesty International, one of the alliance’s founding members, summarises the ramifications of this lack of regulation: every minute somewhere in the world someone dies in a war, from excessive use of weapons violence or because of a crime – more than half a million people a year.

Possible stumbling blocks
A few days before the start of the conference, Abramson was taking a cautiously optimistic stand.
 
“Looking at it under a longer time-frame we’re at a good point now. There’s a lot of energy around,” he said. Sure, a lot of work remains to be done, “but major arms producer countries are on board”.
 
He pointed out that there were open questions and sceptics among the countries. Among them the United States, which has reservations about the inclusion of ammunition in the accord. Or Russia and China with their reservations regarding human rights protection and how this should have an impact on the approval of arms transfer requests.
 
The current example of Syria, Abramson said, showed the importance of curbing the irresponsible trade in arms on a global level.
 
“Now, Russia just points out that there is no United Nations arms embargo against Syria, therefore, their reasoning goes, no rules are broken.”

“Golden Rule”
“For us it is essential that the protection of human rights and international humanitarian law stands at the centre of the treaty. We call it the ‘Golden Rule’ with which those rights must be protected,” he said.
 
This rule must bind all states to analyse whether arms transferred to another state are likely to be used for serious human rights abuses. If that is the case, there can be no approval for a requested transfer.
 
Some states have expressed reservations about those human rights safeguards.
 
“It's all about the formulation,” Abramson said. For Control Arms there’s no question: in case of a risk of human rights violations any export approval must be denied and the formulation must therefore include the words “shall not”. China and Russia and most Middle Eastern Countries opt for less stringent wording.
 
The alliance wants to see a comprehensive treaty that incorporates all kinds of conventional arms and weaponry as well as a system for registering all arms deals and a control mechanism.
 
If the conference comes to a decision by consensus, with a common denominator that is not too weak, the alliance would consider the accord a “first big step, with further steps to come”, Abramson said.

Small arms and light weapons
“Switzerland is among those states with ambitious goals for a strong and efficient treaty. We want an accord that is transparent, non-discriminatory and universal,” Serge Bavaud, expert for security and military questions at Switzerland’s Mission to the United Nations in New York, told swissinfo.ch.
 
A central aspect of the treaty is the standards to be set for any transnational transfers. The treaty should make reference to the UN Charter and Switzerland wants approval for exporting or transferring arms to be given only if there is no danger that these arms will lead to violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.
 
The Swiss also want clear and transparent obligations for national implementation of the treaty’s rules in the individual states.
 
“From our point of view it is very important that the small arms and light weapons are included,” Bavaud said, because those were the weapons harming civilians most often.
 
“If those weapons are not part of the accord, its values will be strongly limited.”

Author: Rita Emch in New York - Source: swissinfo.ch

 

Once in a great while an opportunity comes along to deliver justice to a people, giving them what they truly deserve. Greece’s time has come.

It must be dawning on all but the most obtuse member of the banking elite that they can’t possibly steal enough money from German taxpayers to save the Greek government from default. Put it off, maybe, but collapse is inevitable.

Once this happens, what is the purpose of casting Greece into some selective temporary financial purgatory where the irrelevant Greek economy can continue embarrassing anyone foolish enough to lend their dysfunctional government a dime? Why not go all the way and give the country what many of its people have been violently demanding for almost a century?

Let them have Communism.


Hard as it is for young people to believe, Communism was once a major historical force holding billions of people in thrall. Outside the halls of elite universities, who still takes it seriously? Sure we have Cuba, where the Castro deathwatch is the last thing standing between that benighted penal colony and an inevitable makeover by Club Med. Then there is Venezuela, though hope is fading that Hugo Chavez will carry the Bolivarian banner much longer now that he’s busy sucking down FOLFOX cocktails while checking for signs that his hair is falling out. And frankly, a psychopathic family dynasty ruling a nation of stunted zombies hardly makes North Korea a proper Communist exemplar.

What the world needs, lest we forget, is a contemporary example of Communism in action. What better candidate than Greece? They’ve been pining for it for years, exhibiting a level of anti-capitalist vitriol unmatched in any developed country. They are temperamentally attuned to it, having driven all hard working Greeks abroad in search of opportunity. They pose no military threat to their neighbors, unless you quake at the sight of soldiers marching around in white skirts. And they have all the trappings of a modern Western nation, making them an uncompromised test bed for Marxist theories. Just toss them out of the European Union, cut off the flow of free Euros, and hand them back the printing plates for their old drachmas. Then stand back for a generation and watch.

The land that invented democracy used it to perfect the art of living at the expense of others, an example all Western democracies appear intent on emulating. Being the first to run out of other people’s money makes Greece truly ripe to take the next logical step beyond socialism.

As wrenching as it will be we can take comfort in the fact that Greece doesn’t have much of an economy to disrupt. The only Greek industry that’s worth a damn is tourism, rapidly collapsing as travelers get tired of being stranded by strikes while dodging Molotov cocktails. The rest of us can find plenty of other sources of lamb chops, yogurt, and olive oil. They crushed the concept of private property long ago under the burden of environmental, cultural, and social regulations that govern land use. Wouldn’t it be instructive to let them have a go at building a workers’ paradise to remind us what state enforced equality looks like?

Unlike neighboring Balkan nations that got to experience the joys of Communism after the Second World War, Greece was brought back from the brink by massive western intervention as well as a Churchillian side deal that obliged Stalin to butt out. The nasty civil war between the Greek Communist Party (the KKE) and government forces backed by Britain and the U.S. set the stage for decades of struggle between communist sympathizers who never gave up the dream, and right wing juntas determined to rule by force. The uneasy peace that has existed since the colonels were booted merely masks underlying tensions as every Greek worries, is someone else working fewer hours than I am?

How Greece conned its way into the European Union while hard working Turkey was left begging is a testament to the astute diplomats in Brussels, no doubt consulting their playbook on what dodge they can conjure up next to stick someone else with the bill. Why the E.U. extended credit to a nation whose governments have been in a chronic state of default since the country gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832 is a fitting subject for a News of the World expose. Perhaps they were being advised by Fannie Mae.

So despite the frantic meetings, the tragicomedy nears its final act. It’s time for the global financial industry to pull up stakes and go home before more innocent bank employees get immolated. If you don’t want the real contagion to spread, that is the disease of believing you can perpetually consume more than you produce, leave Greece to the Greeks and let the bankers take their lumps.

As difficult as it is for a Greek-American like myself to admit, resting on 2,000 year old laurels is a stale act. While few cultures can proudly look back on as many achievements in the arts, drama, athletics, philosophy, rhetoric, and architecture that were the glory of Greece, it’s time for modern Greeks to take a good hard look at themselves. What have they done for the world lately? More importantly, what are they prepared to do to help themselves? If they can’t face that question then it’s time to sing the Internationale.

Source: Forbes.com - Author: Bill Frezza, Contributor

 

Growth in employment has been slow in recent months, and the unemployment rate remains elevated. Business fixed investment has continued to advance. Household spending has been rising at a somewhat slower pace than earlier in the year. Despite some further signs of improvement, the housing sector remains depressed. Inflation has declined since earlier this year, mainly reflecting lower prices of crude oil and gasoline, and longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.

Executive Order 11110

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The Committee expects economic growth to remain moderate over coming quarters and then to pick up very gradually. Consequently, the Committee anticipates that the unemployment rate will decline only slowly toward levels that it judges to be consistent with its dual mandate. Furthermore, strains in global financial markets continue to pose significant downside risks to the economic outlook. The Committee anticipates that inflation over the medium term will run at or below the rate that it judges most consistent with its dual mandate.

To support a stronger economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at the rate most consistent with its dual mandate, the Committee expects to maintain a highly accommodative stance for monetary policy. In particular, the Committee decided today to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that economic conditions--including low rates of resource utilization and a subdued outlook for inflation over the medium run--are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through late 2014.

The Committee also decided to continue through the end of the year its program to extend the average maturity of its holdings of securities as announced in June, and it is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities. The Committee will closely monitor incoming information on economic and financial developments and will provide additional accommodation as needed to promote a stronger economic recovery and sustained improvement in labor market conditions in a context of price stability.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Elizabeth A. Duke; Dennis P. Lockhart; Sandra Pianalto; Jerome H. Powell; Sarah Bloom Raskin; Jeremy C. Stein; Daniel K. Tarullo; John C. Williams; and Janet L. Yellen. Voting against the action was Jeffrey M. Lacker, who preferred to omit the description of the time period over which economic conditions are likely to warrant an exceptionally low level of the federal funds rate.

Source: money.cnn.com

 

Early next week, an extraordinary machine will plunge down in a sheet of flame, pirouette through the Martian skies and come to rest, Newton willing, on the floor of a rocky crater next to a mountain almost five kilometres high. The Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, is a $US2.5 billion ($2.38 billion) robotic planetary rover. This nuclear-powered craft, a tonne in weight and the size of a small car, is by far the largest, most complex and most expensive unmanned probe ever sent to the surface of an alien planet. Curiosity's brief is to spend several years poking around Gale crater, perhaps climbing Aeolis Mons, and looking for signs of past and even present life on the Red Planet.

Just about everyone agrees that Curiosity is an example of what NASA does best: robotic planetary exploration, on a tight budget, with maximum bang (in science terms) per buck. And this, I would argue, is also the only way forward for an agency that has otherwise lost its way - a pointer to a new focus that could yet herald the true dawn of the space age.

Since the days of the Pioneers, Voyagers and Mariners of the 1960s and 1970s, NASA's star performers have been the robot brainchildren of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, its outpost in Pasadena, California. These machines have glimpsed lakes on Titan, flown through the rings of Saturn, photographed fire-fountains on Io and sniffed briny oceans on Europa - all for a total cost, over 50 years, that amounts to what the Pentagon spends in eight weeks.
To see the opposite of this pure brilliance, simply fly across the US to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, home to the Astronaut Corps. High on expectations after the Apollo moon landings, NASA's Human Space Flight division has spent four decades pouring cash down the drain and going nowhere.

Since the Space Shuttle program was cancelled last year, America's manned program has been in chaos. Officially, a new spacecraft called Orion, revealed earlier this month, will take American astronauts out of low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972, first to the moon, then to the asteroids and on to Mars. The first flights are scheduled for 2014, with the moon missions slated for the 2020s.

Guidance, Navigation, and Control Systems Manager and Deputy Surface Phase Lead Steve Lee points to the remote sensing mast which includes navigation cameras and a ChemCam laser on an engineering model of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover

Rumbling into the future … NASA's guidance, navigation and control systems manager, Steve Lee, points out the features on Curiosity. Photo: Reuters

But it won't happen. There is no national leadership, no inspiration, no goal. Budgets will be cut, timetables will slip. The great thing about the moon as a destination is that you can stand on the White House lawn and point to it. But NASA will not get funding to send astronauts to asteroids - for the simple reason that most American taxpayers don't care about asteroids, even if they know what they are.

So what should NASA do? After all, the agency still has considerable funds at its disposal; more, theoretically, since the pointless space shuttles were finally grounded. I believe that it should, along with its international partners such as the European and Russian space agencies, refocus on one overriding goal: to search for life outside the Earth - scrapping more or less everything else.

After all, there can be no more pressing or fascinating question in the whole field of space exploration and astronomy. To discover that Earth's biosphere is unique, to find that even the most Earth-like planets out there are no more than sterile rocks, to discover that wherever we look, we see not even bacterial slime, would be extraordinary. If the evidence stacked up that we are indeed alone, our view of ourselves - of our place in the universe and our custodianship of our planet - would take on a whole new meaning.

And, of course, the alternative would be just as awe-inspiring. Finding microbial life on Mars with a different genetic make-up to earthly life (showing that the Martian bugs are not the result of meteoritic cross-contamination between the two planets) would suggest that life is everywhere. The biochemist Nick Lane, of University College London, one of the surprisingly few scientists in the world studying the origin of life, suggested recently that microbial life probably is everywhere, but that evolution to more complex forms such as recognisable animals and plants demands a series of biochemical flukes that may yet mean that life as we know it is vanishingly rare. This fascinating idea needs exploring.
Under its strategy, what should NASA do in practical terms? First, expand robotic exploration of the solar system. With the money saved by cancelling the Space Shuttle, the US - with input from Europe and perhaps India and China - could send a series of flagship missions to Mars, Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and Titan (a moon of Saturn) to look for life. The European Space Agency is building an ambitious new probe to explore the Jovian system. This was originally meant to be a joint mission with NASA, but the Americans pulled out, a move that should be reversed.

Second, NASA should wriggle out of its commitment to the International Space Station, a $100 billion, orbiting white elephant. Congressional law now demands NASA continues to support this exercise until 2017. In May, a private spacecraft called Dragon successfully docked with the space station, showing commercial space flight can be a reality. Since SpaceX's Dragon capsule can carry people, NASA should effectively privatise the whole ISS enterprise - and the whole business of getting men and material into orbit. Turn the station into a hotel, get it sponsored by McDonald's; anything, really. Private enterprise may even manage to make it interesting.

With yet more funds saved, NASA should build a fleet of space telescopes. In terms of value for money, few machines can compete with the Kepler observatory. At a cost of $600 million (about the price of one Space Shuttle launch) this machine has revolutionised our view of the cosmos. In three years it has found more than 2000 ''exoplanets'' orbiting nearby stars, including dozens that are roughly Earth-like in size and temperature. Twenty years ago, we did not know of a single exoplanet; now, it is estimated that there are at least 30,000 potentially habitable planets within 1000 light years of Earth - places such as Kepler-22b, a world bigger than our own yet with similar surface temperatures and possibly a huge ocean covering its surface.

We need more Keplers, and bigger ones. Large space telescopes, or fleets of space telescopes, placed either in Earth's orbit or at the solar system's gravitational oases (known as the Lagrange points) would allow us to survey nearby Earth-like planets, sniffing their atmospheres spectroscopically for oxygen, methane, water vapour and the like - the tell-tale signs of a biosphere. With a really big telescope, we could theoretically see the dark-light colour changes that may signify continents and oceans passing as the planet rotates.

This does not mean, however, that human space exploration should cease altogether. A return to the moon makes sense, not least because the lunar far side is an ideal place to build extremely large telescopes that could explore the surfaces of ''Earth twins'' even more effectively. And if Mars looks promising, it remains the case that a human astrobiologist could achieve in a week what the best robot could do in three years.

Yet concentrating on a search for life would have the advantages of being scientifically valid, being relatively cheap and connecting with the public imagination. Since 1972, Americans have spent far more money making and watching movies about fictional aliens than they ever spent actually going into real space. Looking for ET will garner rather more enthusiasm than growing cress seeds in orbit. And there is a case for devoting modest public funds in the search for alien radio signals.

There remain scientifically and culturally valid reasons to maintain a human presence in space, not to mention more nebulous justifications such as vicarious excitement and national pride. But NASA should leave the flag-planting, for now, to the privateers and to other nations (the next humans on the moon will be Chinese, arriving in the late 2020s).

Go looking for life, and it may well find it. Once it does, all bets will be off - and NASA might just get the money to do whatever it wants.
Michael Hanlon is the author of The Worlds of Galileo and The Real Mars.

Telegraph, London

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

 
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Nice read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he just bought me lunch since I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that Thank you for lunch! Whenever you ha...
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