May 7, 2011

Albert Einstein was right, say scientists, 100 years on

After working for half a century and spending £500m, scientists last week revealed that they have detected strange fluctuations in Earth's orbit. Space-time is bent and then twisted round our planet as it rotates, announced researchers with Nasa's Gravity Probe B project.

The effect is tiny but crucial, they added – and was predicted almost 100 years ago by Albert Einstein in his great theory of gravity, general relativity. According to Einstein, an apple falls to the ground not because it feels the force of Earth's gravity but because the apple is responding to the curvature of space-time near the Earth's surface caused by the planet's huge mass. In the same way, the Sun bends space in a manner that allows Earth to revolve around it.

Crucially, the theory raised a host of other predictions that scientists have been confirming for the past century. The findings of Gravity Probe B are the latest in a long list of these many vindications of Einstein's genius and reveal how his great theory touches our lives in unexpected ways.

"We have completed this landmark experiment of testing Einstein's universe," said project leader Francis Everitt, of Stanford University. "And Einstein survives."

Everitt began work on Gravity Probe B in 1962 and has worked on nothing else since, although he had many close shaves, with the satellite being cancelled and then revived on seven occasions before it was eventually launched in 2004. Then, after the probe reached orbit, spurious electrical signals were found to be distorting data that it had sent back. It took five years' study before scientists found how to extract clean data from it.

Results of the analyses of this data were revealed last week. They showed that Earth does indeed bend space-time. It was also found that, as our planet rotates, it drags space-time with it – a phenomenon known as frame-dragging. The effect is like spinning a spoon in a cup of tea, causing the liquid to start swirling round inside the cup.

These phenomena are tiny, it should be noted. In the case of frame-dragging, space around Earth turns at a rate of 37 one-thousandths of a second every year because our planet pulls it round as it revolves – a rate predicted by Einstein.

"The probe's results are a great achievement, but we should not think of them as a new proof that general relativity is right," said Graham Farmelo, physicist and author. "Einstein was shown to be correct long ago, only a few years after he came up with the theory. However, we are still testing out all its predictions. The results from Gravity Probe B are just the most recent, successful outcomes."

In fact, the premise of Einstein's theory of general relativity was proved within three years of its publication in 1916. British astronomer Arthur Eddington was involved in an expedition to Príncipe island in west Africa, where he photographed the total solar eclipse of 1919. The photographs showed that the positions of stars whose light rays passed near the Sun appeared to have been slightly shifted because their light had been curved by the Sun's huge gravitational field. This was noticeable only during an eclipse because the Sun's brightness would otherwise obscure the affected stars.

"Eddington presented these as a triumph for general relativity, and Einstein, who was known to physicists but not the public, became a star overnight," said Farmelo.

For his part, Einstein never had any doubts that he was right. When asked how he would have reacted if Eddington's observations had disproved his theory, he replied: "I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct."

Read more at The Guardian

Chinese teenager has carried friend to school on back for eight years

In Hebei, China, 16-year-old Lui Shi Ching has carried his friend to school daily for the last 8 years. His friend Lu Shao has a congenital disorder which makes it difficult for him to walk.

Eight years ago on a rainy day, Lu Shao was stuck at school when his mother didn’t come to pick him up. Lui Shi Ching, who was smaller than Lu Shao, decided to help and carried him home.

Full story at NTDWA

May 6, 2011

Anatomical clues to human evolution from fish

It may seem strange that humans have evolved from fish, but the evidence can be found not just in fossils but also within our own bodies.

Your face is your most expressive feature; it tells the world what you are feeling, who you are and where you come from. Although no two faces are exactly the same, they share a number of common characteristics; a couple of eyes, a nose, a mouth and a philtrum.

The philtrum is the groove on your top lip that lies just beneath your nose. You see it every day in the mirror so you probably never think about it

It has no obvious function. Instead it is an accident of our origins, a clue to our fishy past and how our faces first formed.

Your face is formed in the womb in the first couple of months of life, from when you were the size of a grain of rice to when you were the size of a kidney bean.

The video of a growing human face shows how this process happens. It has been created from high quality scans of human embryos at early stages of development, provided by universities and hospitals.

This unique time-lapse video shows the face developing from a one-month-old embryo to an age of 10 weeks.

If you watch it closely, you will see that the human face is actually formed of three main sections which rotate and come together in an unborn foetus.

The way this happens only really makes sense when you realise that, strange though it may sound, we are actually descended from fish.

The early human embryo looks very similar to the embryo of any other mammal, bird or amphibian - all of which have evolved from fish.

Your eyes start out on the sides of your head, but then move to the middle.

The top lip along with the jaw and palate started life as gill-like structures on your neck. Your nostrils and the middle part of your lip come down from the top of your head.

There is no trace of a scar; the plates of tissue and muscle fuse seamlessly. But there is, however, a little remnant of all this activity in the middle of your top lip - your philtrum.

This whole process, the bits coming together of the various elements to produce a recognisable human face, requires great precision.

To fuse correctly the three sections must grow and meet at precisely the right time in the womb.

If the timing is out, by as little as an hour, the baby may grow up with a cleft lip or cleft lip and palate, which can be extremely disfiguring. Around the world one in 700 babies are born with clefts.

Read more and watch the video at BBC News

Bin Laden Conspiracies Rely on Complex Scenarios

It's very rare that a person or organization must prove that they killed someone. It happens with hit men and assassins, who prove to their clients that the job has been done to collect their fee.

But usually people who are accused of killing deny it. The Obama administration is in the curious position of trying to prove to the public that they did in fact kill Osama bin Laden in a raid on Sunday.

People want proof, and the decision was made not to release photos of Osama bin Laden's body because they were too graphic and could inflame bin Laden's followers. Bin Laden had already been positively identified using multiple means including DNA analysis, so there was no need to hold onto the body, which was buried at sea.

Not seeing a photo of bin Laden has stoked conspiracy theories, and there are many, both in America and around the world, who doubt that bin Laden is really dead. To these people, the news is all part of larger conspiracy for political or financial profit.

Some think that it's a ploy by the Obama administration to divert attention from the recent killing of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi's son in a NATO airstrike; others believe it's a hoax to boost the president's approval ratings. Still others think that the White House itself was hoaxed, and that bin Laden knew about the raid and used a double to fool the West into thinking they finally got their man.

Many believe that bin Laden could not have been killed in the raid because he actually died in 2001 of advanced kidney disease. It doesn't seem to occur to the conspiracy theorists that the earlier information that they believe is true (such as bin Laden's health problems) might have been disinformation, or simply wrong.

Is It All a Hoax? 

The problem with lying is that you need to keep lying to keep up the original lie. If bin Laden is not dead, then the photos of the bloody bedroom are faked; the intelligence reports are faked; the 79 American SEAL commandos are all part of the cover-up. Maybe the whole raid was staged, including the downed secret Blackhawk helicopters seen in photographs and videos. Bin Laden's daughter and his wife (who was shot in the leg) are both for unknown reasons lying about seeing him dead.

The DNA results are faked, and so are the death photos that Obama elected not to make public. And the trove of computer information about Al Qaeda that the commandos took isn't real either.

The interviews and articles and books in the coming months and years with those involved in the raid, from the President to the helicopter pilots, will all be carefully orchestrated lies. If it's all an elaborate hoax, it seems almost more work than getting Osama bin Laden.

It's not clear why many have such a hard time believing that bin Laden was killed. He was not found by dumb luck, nor psychics, nor by a traitor but instead by meticulous research. As the New York Times noted, "The raid was a culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work...Intelligence agencies eavesdropped on telephone calls and emails of couriers Arab family in a Persian Gulf state and pored over satellite images of the compound."

Either Osama bin Laden is dead or he is not; it is not a matter of opinion or conjecture. Perhaps the best proof that bin Laden is dead is that he hasn't been seen since his death was announced. If bin Laden were alive, what better way to embarrass and discredit President Obama and the United States than to make a smiling public appearance?

Read more at Discovery News

Female only lizard species that clones itself created in the lab

Arstechnica: Researchers have bred a new species of all-female lizard, mimicking a process that has happened naturally in the past but has never been directly observed.

“It’s recreating the events that lead to new species,” said cell biologist Peter Baumann of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, whose new species is described May 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “It relates to the question of how these unisexual species arise in the first place.”

Female-only species that reproduce by cloning themselves—a process called parthenogenesis, in which embryos develop without fertilization—were once considered dead-end evolutionary flukes. But in the last decade, unisexuality has been found in more than 80 groups of fish, amphibian and reptiles. It might not be such a dead end after all.

Best-known among all unisexual species are Aspidoscelis, the whiptail lizards of southwestern North America, of which 7 of 12 species are unisexual. Genetic studies suggest their unisexuality emerged from historical unions of two sexually-reproducing lizards belonging to closely-related species, the hybrid offspring of which possessed mutations needed for parthenogenesis.

In two of the unisexual whiptails, that seems to have been enough; they immediately went all-female. In the other five, it took another round of traditional sexual mating. Those species are so-called triploids, bearing two sets of chromosomes from the original mother species and one from the father.

Full article at Arstechnica

May 5, 2011

Hummingbird-Sized Ants Once Roamed Wyoming

It’s not a bird or a plane, but it is an ant the size of a hummingbird.

A winged ant queen fossilized in 49.5-million-year-old Wyoming rock ranks as the first body of a giant ant from the Western Hemisphere, says paleoentomologist Bruce Archibald of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

The new species, Titanomyrma lubei, is related to giant ants previously found in German fossils. These long-distance relatives bolster the notion that the climate of the time had hot blips that allowed warmth-loving giant insects to spread from continent to continent, Archibald and a U.S.-Canada team propose online May 4 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

An ancient ant wing from Tennessee had hinted that big ants lived in North America during this time, says Torsten Wappler of the University of Bonn in Germany. “But complete preserved specimens were not known until Bruce came up with this beautiful preserved fossil.”

The new fossil caught Archibald’s eye as he and co-author Kirk Johnson poked around storage drawers at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where Johnson works. The spookiest thing about the Wyoming ant may be that even at 5.1 centimeters [2 inches] long, she is not the largest ant ever found. A German specimen is slightly longer, as are queens of a living African driver ant, Dorylus wilverthi.

Although ants overall trend toward greater size in cooler places, Archibald notes that the eight largest living species dwell mostly in the tropics. The team looked at climate reconstructions for the fossil species and found hot spots where the ancient giants lived as well.

For a tropical lineage to have sprawled between continents meant taking ancient land bridges through Greenland or Iceland. During much of the ants’ time those northern routes were merely temperate. But brief hot spells were possible, Archibald and his colleagues say.

Climate scientists have already suggested there were several around 50 million years ago. One, for example, lasted about 170,000 years.

That idea of tropical moments of opportunity fits the interpretation of other fossils from the far north, says paleoclimatologist Appy Sluijs of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Findings in northern regions of preserved hippo predecessors, tropical plankton and pollen from tropical palms support the idea. Now, he says, “The major challenge is to explain how a region that does not receive sunlight for six months keeps from freezing its giant ants and other creatures that don’t tolerate frost.”

Read more at Wired Science

Kiss Transmitter Lets You Make Out Over the Internet

Used to be, when inexperienced teenagers and lonely misanthropes wanted to practice kissing, they puckered-up and smooched the back of their hand.

Leave it to Japan to come to the rescue.

Considering the popularity of silicon Dutch Wives in the Land of the Rising Sun, this next device, really, should come as no surprise.

Developed by the Kajimoto Laboratory at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, the "Kiss Transmission Device" prototype is designed to effectively transmit the feeling of a French kiss, swirling tongue and all.

"If you take one device in your mouth and turn it with your tongue, the other device turns in the same way," says the device's inventor in a YouTube video. "If you turn it back the other way, then your partner's turns back the same way, so your partner's device turns whichever way your own device turns."

The "tongue" is actually a small plastic tube connected to a bilateral motor inside the device, which is linked to a computer. Rotation data can then be recorded, processed and programmed to remember specific tongue swirls. With that information capable of being transmitted to a partner device, virtual kissing over the internet may soon be coming to a long distance relationship near you.

The Kiss Transmission Device's inventor even hopes to replicate the sensations of breathing, saliva and taste for future models.

Read more at Discovery News

May 4, 2011

Chimps Are Self Aware

Chimpanzees are self-aware and can anticipate the impact of their actions on the environment around them, an ability once thought to be uniquely human, according to a study released Wednesday.

The findings, reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, challenge assumptions about the boundary between human and non-human, and shed light on the evolutionary origins of consciousness, the researchers said.

Earlier research had demonstrated the capacity of several species of primates, as well as dolphins, to recognize themselves in a mirror, suggesting a fairly sophisticated sense of self.

The most common experiment consisted of marking an animal with paint in a place -- such as the face -- that it could only perceive while looking at its reflection.

If the ape sought to touch or wipe off the mark while facing a mirror, it showed that the animal recognized itself.

But even if this test revealed a certain degree self-awareness, many questions remained as to how animals were taking in the information. What, in other words, was the underlying cognitive process?

To probe further, Takaaki Kaneko and Masaki Tomonaga of the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto designed a series of three experiments to see if chimps, our closest cousins genetically, to some extent "think" like humans when they perform certain tasks.

In the first, three females initiated a video game by placing a finger on a touch-sensitive screen and then used a trackball, similar to a computer mouse, to move one of two cursors.

The movement of the second cursor, designed to distract or confuse the chimps, was a recording of gestures made earlier by the same animal and set in motion by the computer.

The "game" ended when the animal hit a target, or after a certain lapse of time.

At this point, the chimp had to identify with his finger which of the two cursors he had been manipulating, and received a reward if she chose correctly. All three animals scored above 90 percent.

"This indicates that the chimpanzees were able to distinguish the cursor actions controlled by themselves from those caused by other factors, even when the physical properties of those actions were almost identical," the researchers said.

But it was still not clear whether the good performance was truly due to the ability to discern "self-agency," or to observing visual cues and clues, so the researchers devised another set of conditions.

This time they compared two tests. The first was the same as in the previous experiment.

In the second, however, both cursors moved independently of efforts to control them, one a repeat of movements the chimp had generated in an earlier exercise, and the other a repeat of an "decoy" cursor. The trackball, in essence, was unplugged, and had no connection to the screen.

Read more at Discovery News

Heidelberg Man Links Humans, Neanderthals

The last common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals was a tall, well-traveled species called Heidelberg Man, according to a new PLoS One study.

The determination is based on the remains of a single Heidelberg Man (Homo heidelbergensis) known as "Ceprano," named after the town near Rome, Italy, where his fossil -- a partial cranium -- was found.

Previously, this 400,000-year-old fossil was thought to represent a new species of human, Homo cepranensis. The latest study, however, identifies Ceprano as being an archaic member of Homo heidelbergensis.

The finding may shed light on what the species that gave rise to both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens looked like.

"Considering other fossils that can be lumped together with Ceprano in H. heidelbergensis, we can hypothesize that the 'Ceprano-morphotype' was tall, with a strong mandible (jaw) and small teeth," coauthor Silvana Condemi told Discovery News.

Condemi is the Director of Research at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) in the laboratory of anthropology at the University of Marseille, where she directs the unit of paleoanthropology.

For the study, she and colleagues Aurelien Mounier and Giorgio Manzi compared Ceprano with 42 fossils from Africa and Eurasia ranging from 1.8 million to 12,000 years ago. The scientists also compared Ceprano to 68 modern humans. The sample set is the most extensive ever assembled in relation to the ancient Italian fossil.

In addition to identifying Ceprano as a Heidelberg Man, the analysis found notable similarities with other human-associated fossils from Europe dating to the Middle Pleistocene 781,000 to 126,000 years ago. Connections were also made to early human fossils from Africa. The researchers therefore believe that Homo heidelbergensis was widespread, dispersing throughout Eurasia and Africa beginning around 780,000 years ago.

Good weather may have permitted Heidelberg Man's worldly lifestyle.

"We can hypothesize that particular environmental conditions during the Middle Pleistocene may have favored the expansion of H. heidelbergensis and contacts between populations," explained Condemi, who is also the co-editor of the new book Continuity and Discontinuity in the Peopling of Europe (Springer, 2011). "The gene flow was never completely stopped between Old World populations."

Paleontologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, told Discovery News that he agrees with most of the new study's conclusions.

"I have long argued that Homo heidelbergensis represented our common ancestor with the Neanderthals about 400,000 years ago, and the Ceprano fossil, with its newly-determined late date, is well-situated chronologically to be part of this common ancestral group," Stringer said.

"However, it is quite a primitive specimen in several respects and therefore it may be that, like some other samples of heidelbergensis in Africa and Europe, it does not represent the actual last ancestral population," Stringer added.

"In my view, we still do not know where that particular population existed," he explained, "and it may even have lived in a place from which we have very little evidence at present, such as western Asia."

Ian Tattersall, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, told Discovery News that he agrees Ceprano has been "appropriately assigned to the cosmopolitan species Homo heidelbergensis. But in Europe this species is contemporaneous with the lineage leading to Homo neanderthalensis."

If Homo heidelbergensis did arrive before modern humans, "it must thus have been via an earlier, presumably African, representative of the species," Tattersall explained.

Read more at Discovery News

Harvey Fineberg: Are we ready for neo-evolution?

Truly stunning video of how hummingbirds drink

New high-speed videos of hummingbirds overturn nearly two centuries of conventional wisdom on how they drink.

Researchers previously thought tube-like channels in their tongues sucked up fluid by capillary action. But the new analysis shows that their tongues actually trap nectar by curling around it.


May 3, 2011

'Nutcracker Man' Didn't Crack Nuts

He had the powerful jaws and big chompers to crack the toughest of shells, but a new study has shown that the ancient human relative known as "Nutcracker Man" actually preferred to munch on grass.

"It most likely was eating grass, and most definitely was not cracking nuts," said University of Utah geochemist Thure Cerling, lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

With molars about triple the size of a modern man's, the human ancestor, Paranthropus boisei, is believed to have roamed the Earth between 1.2 million and 2.3 million years ago.

A skull found in Tanzania in 1959 quickly drew the nickname "Nutcracker Man" because of its giant teeth, but U.S. and Kenyan researchers now say the species grazed on the same wild fields as the ancestors of zebras, pigs and hippos.

"They were competing with them," said Cerling. "They were eating at the same table."

Researchers used a drill to pulverize tooth enamel, taken from already broken tooth samples from 22 individuals who lived in that period, and examined carbon isotope ratios that revealed what kind of food they were eating.

They could see that the specimens ate tropical grasses and herbs that use C4 photosynthesis, and not leaves, nuts and fruits that use C3 photosynthesis, the study said.

Only one similar diet has been seen in an extinct species of grass-eating baboon, the researchers said.

Read more at Discovery News

Mr Wang’s 100 Terabit internet connection

THINK your broadband internet connection is fast? Two separate research groups have just lapped the field, setting a world record by sending more than 100 terabits of information per second through a single optical fibre. That’s enough to deliver three solid months of HD video- or the contents of 250 double-sided Blu-ray discs.

This marks “a critical milestone in fibre capacity”, says Ting Wang at NEC Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey.

Such lab results are far beyond today’s commercial needs. Total capacity between New York and Washington DC, one of the world’s busiest routes, is only a few terabits per second, says Tim Strong, of Telegeography Research in Washington. But “traffic has been growing about 50 per cent a year for the last few years”, he adds. With bandwidth-hungry video-streaming and social media growing relentlessly, network planners are always searching for ways to expand capacity.

Today’s fibre optics use several tricks to enhance bandwidth. Like the radio band, the optical spectrum can be sliced into many distinct channels that can simultaneously carry information at different frequencies. The laser light is pulsed on and off rapidly, with each pulse further sliced up into different polarities, amplitudes and phases of light, each of which contains a bit of information. The trick is to pack all these signals together in one fibre so that they hit the receiver as one pulse without interference.

New Scientist

May 2, 2011

Left handed people are more affected by fear

Psychologists found that people who watched an eight minute clip from a scary movie suffered more symptoms associated with post traumatic stress if they were left handed than if they were right handed.

When asked to recall events from the film clip, taken from near the tense climax of thriller Silence of the Lambs, left handed volunteers gave more fragmented accounts filled with more repetition than their right handed counterparts.

This effect is common in people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The scientists now believe their results could provide new insights into how people develop post traumatic stress and the way the brain deals with fear.

Dr Carolyn Choudhary, who led the research at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, said: “The prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder is almost double in left handers compared to right handers.

Read more at The Telegraph

Grand Canyon Born by Continental Lift

For all its glorious views, the Colorado plateau remains an ugly mystery to geologists. They can’t figure out why and how it rose thousands of feet over the millions of years it took to carve spectacular natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley.

The answer may lie deep beneath the plateau’s chiseled landscape, a study in the April 28 Nature suggests. Hot rock welling up from below invades the plateau, causing blobs to drip off the bottom.

“It looks kind of like a lava lamp,” says team leader Alan Levander of Rice University in Houston.

Geologists have wondered about the high plateau ever since early explorers stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon and peered down at the Colorado River through 1,500 meters of glorious layer-cake rock.

The plateau roughly covers the Four Corners area where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together. About 2 kilometers above sea level, the plateau behaves as a single, mostly undisturbed chunk of crust even as tectonic forces crumple the landscapes on either side.

To the east, the Rocky Mountains thrust toward the sky; to the west, the Basin and Range region wrinkles in long ridges of mountain and valleys. But something, mysteriously, has kept the Colorado plateau high and intact.

Most theories focus on the uppermost layers of the Earth’s innards: the crust; the “lithospheric mantle” below that, which moves with the crust as a relatively hard outer shell about 150 kilometers thick; and even deeper, the “asthenosphere,” which flows like a fluid.

Levander’s team probed these hidden realms by studying how seismic waves traveled through the Earth. The data come from a major project called the USArray, in which geologists blanket the continent, in strips moving from west to east, with a dense network of seismometers.

By studying the waves’ progress, the scientists spotted a weird feature sloughing about 200 kilometers down, just north of the Grand Canyon. This blob, they say, is part of the crust and lithospheric mantle that peeled off to founder in the planet’s depths.

Blame the asthenosphere. When it can, this less-dense fluid layer rises from below. Where it infiltrates the stiffer crust above, the fluid freezes, weakening the lithosphere and eventually chiseling chunks of rock away. Over time, more and more blobs fall off, allowing the rest of the plateau to rise upward like a floating cork.

Geologists have previously spotted other places where blobs might once have dripped, Levander says, such as along the Idaho-Oregon border. But in the Colorado plateau, he says, “it looks as if we’ve caught one of these as it happened.”

Though the plateau drips have probably been happening for the past 25 million years or so, he says, they really took off about 6 million years ago -- allowing the plateau to rise in earnest and ancient rivers to begin to carve the Grand Canyon.

Read more at Discovery News

U.S. Forces Kill Osama bin Laden

Almost 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, the leader of al-Qaida is dead.

President Barack Obama announced Sunday night that Osama bin Laden is dead. Not just dead — but killed by U.S. operatives.

In a “compound” near an area deep inside Pakistan called Abottabad — not far from the capital of Islamabad — U.S. operatives engaged in a “firefight” with bin Laden’s handlers, Obama said, and killed the terrorist leader. This was no drone strike. It was a “small team” of U.S. operatives, pulling the trigger and delivering what the president called “justice” on a man responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans.

According to a senior administration official, the raid itself took less than 40 minutes. Bin Laden “did resist the assault force,” the official says, but was shot “as our operators came into the compound.” A woman was used as a human shield and died in the firefight, along with one of bin Laden’s adult sons and two “couriers.”

The operation was the result of eight months of intelligence work, with Obama giving the order to carry out the operation last week. Obama didn’t exactly specify, but it appears bin Laden’s death is the result of a joint operation by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command.

But Obama said that bin Laden’s body has been recovered. It’s unclear where the body is, or if and when it will be be shown to the public. The senior administration official says that it’s being handled “in accordance with Islamic practices and traditions.”

The Afghanistan war will surely continue. Drone strikes in Pakistan will surely continue. Al-Qaida will surely proclaim imminently that it’s merely transitioning into its next phase.  But Obama called it the “most significant achievement to date in our effort to defeat al-Qaida.” Killing bin Laden has been the dream of countless U.S. soldiers and intelligence operatives I’ve encountered since 9/11.

Bin Laden’s escape from U.S. forces at Tora Bora in 2001 became a potent symbol of American impotence. Since bin Laden reconstituted al-Qaida’s senior leadership in Pakistan, a terrorist cell defined by hijacked religious symbolism and conspiracy theories franchised operations to affiliates from Iraq to Yemen, willing itself into a geopolitical force and killing thousands worldwide. Bin Laden’s appearances in years’ worth of audio- and videotapes mocked the United States and pledged to “bleed it to bankruptcy.”

Starting in 2008, the United States massively accelerated attacks from armed Predator drones over the Afghanistan border in Pakistan, killing hundreds. It built an intelligence network in Pakistani tribal areas, largely from scratch and with — to be charitable — inconsistent assistance from the Pakistani intelligence service.

Obama said that the operation couldn’t have happened without Pakistani cooperation. But the senior administration official says that the Pakistanis didn’t know about the raid until after it occurred, citing the need for the “utmost operational security.”

There’s a longstanding debate in counterterrorism circles about the importance of bin Laden to al-Qaida. For years, al-Qaida theoreticians, chief among them a man known as Abu Musab al-Suri, have attempted to refashion al-Qaida into a global movement that can outlast bin Laden. Al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, in its English language magazine, has discouraged American Muslims from joining the jihad overseas, urging them instead to launch attacks inside the United States on their own.

Al-Qaida has now sustained two massive blows to its relevance in the past few months. First, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia refuted al-Qaida’s argument that only violent actions focused on the “far enemy” — the United States — could overthrow sclerotic dictatorships. Now bin Laden is dead, without a charismatic figure to take his place. For al-Qaida, it’s show-and-prove time.

U.S. counterterrorism officials expect attempted retaliatory attacks, though there’s no specific intel on them right now. Officials are cautioning U.S. nationals not to travel to Pakistan.

But the senior administration official calls it a “major, essential step in al-Qaida’s eventual disruption.” Intelligence from the raid indicates that bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will become the new leader, but his authority isn’t “universally accepted,” and the Egyptian Zawahiri will have difficulty maintaining the loyalty of “al-Qaida’s Gulf Arab followers.”

In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — which would have been inconceivable without bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks — the United States learned painfully that the death of an organization’s leader doesn’t equate to the death of the organization. Al-Qaida in Iraq remains lethal — but at far diminished levels than during the horror years of 2004 to 2006.

But not every decapitation should be understood as “just” a decapitation. It took months of painstaking intelligence work to kill al-Qaida in Iraq’s most potent leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The maintenance of that intelligence acumen, along with al-Qaida’s miscalculations that alienated Iraqis, and along with a sustained U.S. military effort all led to what’s been a demonstrable attrition of the Iraq chapter of al-Qaida’s global efforts.

While pledging that “we will be relentless in defense of our citizens,” and not indicating that this 10-year-long war against al-Qaida is over, Obama is clearly hoping that the reversals suffered this year by al-Qaida are as durable. His senior aide predicts that the terrorist group that compelled a bloody upheaval of U.S. foreign and defense policies for the past 10 years is now on a “path of decline [that's] difficult to reverse.”

Read more at Wired

May 1, 2011

Monkeys show signs of advanced memory powers

Ben Basile of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, placed five rhesus monkeys in front of a touchscreen that briefly showed a blue square and two red ones. After an interval of up to 2 minutes, the blue square reappeared in a different place, and the monkeys had to replicate the pattern in its new position by tapping the screen to place red squares.

Their success rate was significantly better than chance, showing for the first time that they are able to recall things from memory. This is more advanced than recognising a familiar object, and could be a precursor to long-term memory.

New Scientist

New safety laws for herbal medicines

Under a European directive, herbal medicines on sale in shops will have to be registered.

Products must meet safety, quality and manufacturing standards, and come with information outlining possible side-effects.

The Medicines and Health care Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said there had been 211 applications for approval, with 105 granted so far and the rest still under consideration.

Some herbal practitioners fear the move could threaten their businesses.

Commonly used ingredients already registered include echinacea, used against colds, St John's wort, used by some for depression and anxiety, and valerian, claimed as a natural remedy for insomnia.

Research conducted for the MHRA in 2009 showed that 26% of UK adults had taken a herbal medicine in the past two years.

The agency said it is hoping to promote a more cautious approach to using herbal medicines after the study findings found that more than half of people – 58% – believe the products are safe because they are natural.

The agency said there had been a number of health alerts over unlicensed herbal medicines over the years.

Read more at The Telegraph