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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Garrett Lisi's Approach to Modern Open Science

How a physicist published and vetted his revolutionary work signals the potential future of an open, transparent peer review process.

Illustration: Bernd Schifferdecker.

Garrett Lisi gets it. The couch-surfing, academia-shunning theoretical physicist grasps something that, for scientists, is possibly more elusive than illuminating the complicated behavior of subatomic particles: balance in life. Don't want to be stuck in a lab? Get out. Want to travel the world living where you please, doing research in between surfing and snowboarding? Pack your bags. Have a problem with the scholarly journal system? Publish your own papers. To say that Lisi conducts science on his own terms tells only part of the story.

When Lisi published his physics paper, "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything," to an online archive last year, it created a media buzz about his lifestyle and an onslaught of support and skepticism about his model. Although the verdict is still out on whether Lisi's theory will prove predicatively accurate, the means by which he released and vetted his research point to a larger trend in the scientific community.

Barriers to data are falling, a cross-disciplinary community of commenters is replacing journal-selected peer reviewers, and "information to the people!" is becoming the raison d'être of the science information superhighway. The movement, combined with an evolving image of the contemporary scientist, is redefining how society interacts with science.

We checked in with Lisi recently for an update on his theory, his thoughts on publishing, and his pursuit of life.

You left academia to study physics on your own. Why?

Freedom. When I got my PhD, I really loved general relativity, quantum field theory, and differential geometry, and I wanted to continue my research in these areas. But at that time the only funded research options available in these combined fields were in string theory, which was and still is the dominant research program in theoretical particle physics. I had learned a bit about string theory, and some things about it are pretty cool, but I thought string models were kind of far-fetched and probably not relevant to our universe. So I took off for Maui — the most beautiful part of the world I could find — and worked on the physics I wanted to, while squeaking by financially. Recently, research grants from small private foundations (FQXi and SubMeta) have allowed me to travel a bit and talk with other physicists, but I still spend most of my time on Maui.

Why isn't string theory relevant to the universe?

Which string theory? Back in the 80s, string theorists expected the standard model spectrum of particles to come out of the theory naturally, but it never did. Now we have been presented with the idea that there is a landscape of many possible string theories, and our universe is supposed to be in there somewhere. There are some nice things about strings, but no testable predictions come from this jumble of models, and there is no single realistic string model that can be held up for our inspection. String theory has been getting a lot of heat lately, and I don't need to add fuel to the fire. Peter Woit and Lee Smolin have written excellent books describing some of the problems with the string theory program, both technical and sociological. My own views on the technical problems with string theory won't add anything new to the argument. I think scientists should be able to weigh the pros and cons of different theoretical models for themselves and follow what interests them, without pressure in one direction or another.

Why did you choose not to submit your paper to a traditional peer-reviewed journal?

I think peer review is important, but the journal-operated system is severely broken. I suspected this paper would get some attention, and I chose not to support any academic journal by submitting it. Under the current system, authors (who aren't paid) give ownership of their papers to journals that have reviewers (who aren't paid) approve them before publishing the papers and charging exorbitant fees to view them. These reviewers don't always do a great job, and the journals aren't providing much value in exchange for their fees. This old system persists because academic career advancement often depends on which journals scientists can get their papers into, and it comes at a high cost — in money, time, and stress. I think a better peer-review system could evolve from reviewers with good reputations picking the papers they find interesting out of an open pool, such as the physics arXiv, and commenting on them. This is essentially what happened with my paper, which received a lot of attention from physics bloggers — it's been an example of open, collaborative peer review.

What is the alternative to the way problems in physics are typically approached?

I don't think there is a typical way physics is being done; there's a great deal of variation. But there does seem to be more pressure on young researchers than there should be, especially on post-docs and new professors. Science shouldn't be a grind to publish more papers and advance a career — we're supposed to be doing this because we love it and find it fascinating. High-quality work and interesting projects should be valued, not just a lengthy publication record. And since science helps society, I think society should be better to scientists and support them in doing the research they want, rather than requiring them to jump through so many hoops.

How do you respond to those who question the validity of your methodology and are skeptical about the assumptions necessary for your theory to work?

I welcome criticism and skepticism, and I encourage people to look through the mathematics for themselves. I've done my best to make everything as transparent as possible, and I try to be up front about the problems this theory still has. Some of the techniques I used confused people at first, because they hadn't seen them before, and this led to some ill-considered criticism. But these techniques were based on solid work done in the 70s. I'm actually extremely conservative in the mathematical structures I use, and in the assumptions I'm willing to make.

Lisi is working to create Science Hostels where scientists can live and work, while having a bit of fun, and keeping more of a balance in their lives. Photo: Crystal Jean Baranyk.

How will "open science" and other new ways of sharing information transform science?

I think we're in the midst of a gradual revolution, following the rise of the Internet. The success of the physics arXiv — where physicists post freely available versions of their papers — has made it possible for anyone to access the literature from anywhere. This let me move to Maui 10 years ago and stay in touch with the field. Now an NIH mandate, requiring that publicly funded papers be posted to PubMed, will produce the same liberating effect in other fields. The net is also affecting the way scientists work directly, with wikis and blogs used for discussions, collaborations, and individual note keeping. These new tools, along with online social networks, allow geographically independent researchers to keep in perpetual, productive contact. Since theoretical researchers are no longer anchored to one location, I've been working on creating Science Hostels — micro-institutes in beautiful places where scientists could live and work, while having a bit of fun, and keeping more of a balance in their lives.

What is exceptionally simple about your unified theory of particle behavior?

Well, the "exceptionally simple" title is a pun, but the theory is simpler than alternatives. The main idea came from playing with different formulations of general relativity and particle physics until I found a way to get them together in a single mathematical structure, called a superconnection. I was especially happy to find how easily the Higgs field fit in this structure. And I was even happier when the whole algebra of the standard model and gravity fit into the algebra of the largest simple exceptional Lie group. In graduate school we learn about spinor fields (describing electrons) as matrix columns of complex numbers, transforming algebraically in a certain way. But why should nature care about matrices or algebra? From the success of general relativity, we know nature cares about geometry. And these exceptional structures allow the algebra of spinor fields to be described in terms of the pure geometry of Lie groups. It makes for a very consistent and elegant description.

How does that group, referred to as E8, inform your theory, and is its structure really "in everything," as stated by media?

In this E8 theory, it's more accurate to say "everything" is in this particular Lie algebra. Three years ago I had gathered all known fields into one mess of algebra, describing particle interactions. This algebra included bosons interacting with fermions, and it looked unlike any Lie algebra I'd ever seen. It was a long time before I even considered that it might be part of some larger mathematical structure. Then one day I decided to look and see, and almost immediately found that it perfectly matched part of E8 — a truly beautiful mathematical object. It was a stunning realization. I had no reason to suspect that the collection of algebraic fields I had put together was actually part of a single mathematical object. And this object also seemed to have the two missing pieces I was looking for. So, to find it all fitting together like that, all at once — it was a bit overwhelming for me. One doesn't get many days like that.

by Greg Boustead

A Bahamian Blast reviewed by The Stogie Guys

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Each Saturday and Sunday we’ll post a Quick Smoke: not quite a full review, just our brief take on a single cigar.

When I reviewed this 5 and ¼ inch by 50 ring gauge cigar one year ago, I found it to be a “well-balanced, expertly crafted, complex smoke.” It still is. But the last twelve months in my humidor seem to have worn away much of the original taste of raisin, vanilla, and roasted nuts. What’s left is an empty, lifeless flavor profile that’s too mild for its own good—and not nearly worth the $12-19 price range. I plan to hold onto the rest of my Château Grand Cru PGs to see if they improve.

Verdict = Hold.

-Patrick A

New Cigar Inn Opens in Manhattan

Chismillionaire is dying to open one of these places himself. If only the draconian laws in Boston didn't make it such an impediment. The economy could use the jobs and the Commonwealth could certainly use the tax revenue!

The new Cigar Inn in Manhattan officially opened for business this morning as owners (and brothers) Billy, Gus and Bass Fakih cut the ribbon to the shop, welcoming in a crowd of about 50 patrons and friends. The upscale cigar store, located on Second Avenue between East 53rd and 54th streets, contains the world’s first Cigar Aficionado smoking lounge and Cigar Aficionado humidor.

The comfortable smoking lounge, outfitted with leather couches and chairs and a working gas fireplace, occupies nearly a third of the 3,000-square-foot shop. There are 80 humidified lockers available for rental at the back wall of the lounge.

The shop is meant as the complete man’s retreat. In addition to a walk-in humidor brimming with cigars from the top names in the business, the Cigar Inn sells a line of men’s haberdashery items, with an emphasis on fine ties. There is also a Brioni counter, accessories from Elie Bleu, Dupont, Davidoff, Dunhill and Xikar, a row of Manning humidors and many other items for sale.

The store boasts several flat-screen televisions and a sophisticated sound system; classical music is the preferred sound for Cigar Inn, but when the New York Giants are playing, the game will be on in the Cigar Aficionado lounge.

Two custom-made barber’s chairs, imported from Japan, are stationed before two gilded frame mirrors, and a barber will be available by appointment. An old-fashioned shoeshine stand, with two seats, is also part of the shop.

“You don’t see this layout in any tobacco shop,” said Gus Fakih. The store is three times the size of the original Cigar Inn, which is located on First Avenue between East 70th and 71st streets. That shop (which is one third the size of the new one) will remain open.

From left to right, brothers Gus, Billy and Bass Fakih.
The Cigar Inn on Second Avenue is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. until 1 a.m. On Sundays, the store closes at 9 p.m., unless special events are being televised. “If there is any game—any Super Bowl, any boxing event—we stay late,” says Billy Fakih.

The clientele is close. After the ribbon cutting, regulars from the original shop took seats in the spacious lounge, firing up cigars and chatting like old friends. Rabbi Jack Brach, a customer, brought a large spread of food to help welcome the guests to the shop. “It’s like family,” said longtime Cigar Inn customer Paul Chapman, the vice chairman and president of ABC Carpet & Home, which supplied the furniture for the store’s lounge. “It’s like sitting in your own living room.

By David Savona

U.N. Investigates Electromagnetic Terrorism

5b58 The health effects of electromagnetic fields are hugely controversial, whether it's power lines being linked to leukemia or the impact of mobile phone radiation on your brain. Which makes it particularly surprising that electromagnetic (EM) radiation is being considered as a possible terrorist weapon. A UNESCO Seminar last month considered the "Potential Threat as a Terrorism Agent" of EM fields:

The most obvious danger is use of electromagnetic pulses to disrupt communication. However EMF also pose direct threats to human health through mechanisms that are poorly understood. These involve different physical and chemical factors, as well as multiple effects on biological systems including humans. [my emphasis]

This seems a little unlikely. There's little agreement on the health risk of EM fields. So they would appear to be improbable terrorist weapons. Blowing up airliners is one thing; causing a fractional incidence in the rate of cancer over a period of months lacks the immediacy and obvious impact associated with terrorist actions.

I contacted professor Sinerik N. Ayrapetyan, who organized the conference, to find out more. Ayraptyan was polite and helpful, but stressed that his expertise lies in the molecular and cellular effects of microwaves on organisms. He would not comment on clinical studies, much less on large-scale applications like terrorist use.

It seems that the title of the conference was changed at the last minute to "Electromagnetic Fields: Mechanisms of Action And Health Effect," with no mention of terrorism. Ayraptyan explained that this was because the World Health Organization was one the main sponsor and requested a shift to focus on health effects, because "WHO is not a military organization."

However, scanning the agenda, there are still some signs of a military presence. The logo of the U.S. Office of Naval Research Global figures prominently. And it was interesting to note the presence of Andrei Pakhomov, a familiar name in nonlethal weapon circles who carried out some of the basic research behind the Active Denial System — the U.S. military's "pain ray."

Pentagon interest in the effects of radio waves and microwaves goes way back. A recent article by John McMurtrey — who has amassed an impressive collection of papers on this topic -– looks at declassified papers on the aptly named Project Bizarre. This was part of Project Pandora, which was started after the discovery in 1953 that the Russians were irradiating the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with low-power microwaves. Nobody knew what the potential health effects of this sort of low-level exposure were, but there was a suspicion that the Russians did not mean well.

The microwaves may have been to jam U.S. monitoring equipment; they may have been a way of remotely powering Russian bugs within the embassy; or they may have had a more sinister purpose. Project Bizarre involved the controlled irradiation of Rhesus monkeys with microwaves to determine whether it had any effect on their behavior. The work was carried out by Dr. J. C. Sharp and H. M. Grove.

The monkeys were trained to get food by pushing a lever in response to lights and audible tones.

One tone frequency signaled a time out period where any response to gain food within ten minutes reset another 10 minute delay requiring non-response. When a red light came on food was available by lever pressing where each subsequent food pellet required a geometric increased number of lever responses. Subsequently another time out period was tone signaled, where on successful non-response, a different tone frequency signaled food availability only by the 50 second delayed response previously discussed.

Project Bizarre found that microwave exposure seemed to disrupt the monkey's perception of time, causing them to misjudge intervals and perform badly compared to monkeys that had not been radiated. Although these results have not been confirmed — and this topic remains controversial — McMurtrey has tracked down other studies at assorted military laboratories (mainly on rats) with similar results.

"Microwave exposure inter-response time and sequential task performance reports herein totaled 10 studies, fully half of which originated from military laboratories who solely conducted the pulsed investigations showing the greatest performance deterioration," he writes.

McMurtrey suggests that the Russians were essentially trying to drive embassy staff mad and that the effects of the radiation might produce symptoms similar to schizophrenia. The Moscow embassy was given electromagnetic protection in 1976, including wire-mesh "mosquito screens" on the windows.

It remains to be seen whether terrorists will try the electromagnetic approach. I suspect the White House already has quite good EM shielding (to block electronic eavesdropping rather than external zapping). And with all the other threats to worry about, this one surely does seem fairly remote for the time being.

But still ... "whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."

By David Hambling

New Capitol Hill Visitor Center Welcomes Democracy Nuts

Damon Tabor

Think of it as a basement rumpus room for democracy nuts. The new Capitol Visitor Center—a 580,000-square-foot complex buried beneath the east side of Capitol Hill—opens its doors on December 2 to as many as 15,000 nation-lovin' pilgrims a day. The first major upgrade to the Capitol since the Civil War, the CVC is equipped with state-of-the-art theaters, interactive exhibits, and a cafeteria that seats 550 people. Of course, it's three years overdue, $356 million over budget, and—in the words of Florida congressmember Debbie Wasserman-Schultz—the biggest boondoggle ever. But, please, let's not stay mired in the past. This is the change that patriotic tourists deserve.

Rogue Geologist Discovers Diamond Trove in the Canadian Arctic

Diamond hunter Chuck Fipke spreads out maps of potential new discoveries.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington

Behind an unmarked door in a faded business park outside Kelowna, British Columbia, in a maze of rooms crowded with desks, computers, and floor-to-ceiling shelves, Chuck Fipke sifts through 20-pound bags of dirt.

"We take samples, hey, from gravel and streambeds all over the world," Fipke says. He sieves the earth, runs it through magnetic drums and centrifuges and electromagnetic separators. Then his technicians, working with scanning electron microscopes, separate out grains and mount them on postage-stamp-sized squares of epoxy. It's painstaking work but worth the trouble. Fipke has learned to understand those grains of dirt, and that understanding has led him to diamonds.

Eighteen years ago, there was no such thing as a Canadian diamond — as far as anyone knew. Diamonds came mostly from Australia, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Russia. De Beers mined 75 percent of the world's output, much of it tainted by controversial "blood diamonds," sold to fund African wars.

Stones from the Ekati Mine.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington

Today, Canada is the world's third-largest producer, by value, of rough stones. In the Northwest Territories, BHP Billiton's Ekati mine has been producing since 1998 and Rio Tinto's Diavik mine since 2003. De Beers opened its first Canadian mine, at Snap Lake, in July — a confirmation that Canada is the new center of the world.

The story behind the addition of Canada to the ranks of diamond-producing nations leads back to one man: a short, absentminded Canadian geologist named Chuck Fipke. When he discovered diamonds in Lac de Gras, Northwest Territories, in 1991, he started the largest staking rush in North America since George Carmack found gold in the Klondike a century earlier. And he's not finished: He's prospecting around the world, toting gravel samples back to his lab in British Columbia to figure out where to look for his next big strike.

In 1970, fresh out of the University of British Columbia with a degree in geology, Chuck Fipke signed on with mining company Kennecott Copper to look for gold and copper in Papua New Guinea. A helicopter would drop him off alone in the middle of a jungle, and pick him up at the end of the day. The terrain was so rough that the chopper often couldn't land — Fipke would just leap out as it hovered close to the ground. One day he turned around to face 20 locals, arrows strung. He raised his arms, slowly removed his vest, and offered it to "the one who looked like the chief." By the time the helo returned for him, Fipke was in his underpants clutching a fine array of tribal shields, bows and arrows, and fetishes. "I've got an amazing collection of stuff!" he says.

Fipke is a small man with a shaved head, a burnished tan, piercing blue eyes, and forearms like Popeye's. As a kid, his frantic start-stop mind made people think he was stupid. After getting his high school girlfriend pregnant, he agreed to marry her ... and then failed to show up for the wedding. (The couple eventually married after the baby was born.) He stutters and says "hey" in almost every sentence. He frequently loses his glasses and his keys, shows up late to appointments, and has a history of spending prodigious amounts of money in strip joints. His nicknames have included Captain Chaos and Stumpy.

After stints in the Amazon, Australia, and South Africa, Fipke opened a mineral separation laboratory in British Columbia in 1977. A year later, Superior Oil hired him to go back into the field — to look not for metals but gems.

The wilderness around Snap Lake, in Canada's Northwest Territories, conceals a trove of diamonds.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington

The company already had a search method. A couple of years prior, a geologist named John Gurney, working with Superior's money at the University of Cape Town, hypothesized that certain common minerals might reliably form alongside diamonds. He used an electron microprobe to analyze geological structures called kimberlite pipes — the places you occasionally (but not often) find diamonds — and discovered that the presence of chromite, ilmenite, and high-chrome, low-calcium garnet did indeed predict a rich strike. He examined a host of pipes in South Africa that had these so-called indicator minerals and published a paper explaining his results.

The Snap Lake site is one of four diamond mines established in Canada in recent years.
Illustration: Bryan Christie

Fipke heard about Gurney's work on a tour of De Beers' Finsch Mine in South Africa and quickly turned himself into an expert on indicator minerals — combining what he understood of Gurney's work with results coming out of Russian labs and his own skills with field sampling. Superior had worked with Fipke before, back in his gold mining days, so by the time the company wanted someone to go look for kimberlite pipes northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado, Fipke was the best choice. He found half a dozen, but like 98 percent of the kimberlite formations in the world, they didn't contain diamonds in commercially viable quantities.

But Fipke knew that, 100 miles under those pipes, was a craton, a thick, old chunk of continental plate where diamonds form. Kimberlite pipes are created when magma bubbles up through a craton, expanding and cooling on its way up. If the craton has diamonds in it, the result is either a carrot-shaped, diamond-studded pipe reaching up to the surface or a wide, flat underground structure called a dike.

Fipke also knew that the craton underneath the pipes he had found ran all the way up the Rockies. With Superior's backing, he teamed up with a geologist and pilot named Stewart Blusson, formed Dia Met Minerals, and headed north.

By 1981, the two men were sampling the ground in Canada; they would eventually secure mining concessions on 80,000 square miles. "It was just me and Sewart and a floatplane," Fipke says. "We took all the supplies and all the samples in ourselves."

De Beers geologists, it turned out, were already there, relying on their own indicator mineral formulas. But Fipke and Blusson surmised that the indicators De Beers found had in fact been dragged far from the kimberlite pipe eons ago by a passing glacier. What they needed to do was look "upstream" for the point of origin. Fipke got a helicopter and flew back and forth over the Arctic Circle, using a magnetometer to track variations in magnetic field that would suggest kimberlite. After thousands of miles and hundreds of hours in the air, he found a promising site near Lac de Gras, a barren world of lakes and rock and muskeg a few hundred miles outside the Arctic Circle.

He'd been surveying for eight years. He hadn't found a single diamond. Superior had abandoned the diamond business. Dia Met's stock was trading at pennies a share. But based upon a few samples, Fipke estimated a diamond concentration at Lac de Gras of more than 60 carats per 100 tons — with about a quarter of the stones of good quality or better. (In kimberlite pipes that have gem-quality stones in commercial quantities, a concentration of 1 carat — 0.2 grams — per 100 tons can be profitable.) After six months of sampling, Fipke went public. It was 1991, and he had found a kimberlite pipe (buried under 30 feet of glaciated sediment) with a concentration of 68 carats per 100 tons — the first Canadian diamonds ever found. Shares of Dia Met rocketed to $70. Fipke had partnered with mining giant Broken Hill Proprietary Company (now BHP Billiton) to get the diamonds out; BHP opened the Ekati mine at Lac de Gras in 1998. Soon Dia Met's 29 percent share of the mine was worth billions. Fipke would go on to sell his chunk to BHP for $687 million, retaining 10 percent ownership in the mine, worth another $1 billion.

Today Canada's diamond business is soaring. The country's four working mines produced 17 million carats in 2007, up 23 percent from 2006. Diamonds from Canada now account for 10 percent of all diamonds by carat sold in the world. And the addition of more diamonds to the global market hasn't driven prices down. Average carat value has actually risen 15 percent, and the gems from the far north are untainted by the bad publicity that comes from an association with African wars.

Shortly before Fipke sold most of his Ekati claim to BHP Billiton, his marriage, faltering for years after so much time in the field, fell apart. At the time it was the largest divorce settlement in Canadian history. "Cost me $200 million, hey," Fipke says. "Best money I ever spent!"

Fipke now has mining projects in Morocco, Greenland, Canada, Angola, and Brazil. His laboratory bookshelves are heavy with mineral guides — and the family histories of thoroughbreds. Besides diamonds, he's now obsessed with horse racing. "It's a huge challenge, hey, and I like challenges even if they're risky," he says. "And I think I'm really going to do spectacularly well with horses." So far, so good: He has more than 50 brood mares in Ireland and Kentucky and 20 racehorses all over the world. His horse Tale of Ekati placed fifth in this year's Kentucky Derby. "I always go to the Derby with Bo Derek," he says, unlocking the door to a windowless room piled with maps and electron microscopes and computers. "She's a good rider, and she knows horses. And she's a lot of fun, hey! I'm gonna do for horse racing what I did for diamonds!"

The De Beers mine at Snap Lake is a labyrinth of crushers and separators.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington

Whether or not Fipke actually turns out to have an eye for horseflesh, his eye for the characteristics of crystals is unparalleled. He shows me rooms of glass flasks and tubes, the equipment for analyzing all those gravel samples. I peek through a microscope and see a rainbow treasure of sparkling gems: green chrome diopsides and red garnets — the low-calcium, high-chrome G-10s that mean diamonds are nearby.

Over many years in the field and the lab, Fipke has refined his understanding of this unique stew of minerals. "Everyone now knows that G-10 garnets with low calcium might lead you to diamonds, hey," Fipke says. "But how do you distinguish between a Group 1 eclogitic garnet that grew with a diamond and a Group 2 eclogitic garnet that didn't? They look the same." Custom software compares the grains' shapes and chemical compositions, analyzes them against 1,000 minerals that are intergrown with diamonds, and compares them against 10 fields of mineral groupings. If seven to 10 of the fields from one pipe overlap, Fipke says, "there's no doubt; it's full of diamonds. No one else out there can distinguish between these similar tiny particles of minerals that grow with a diamond and ones that don't."

Miners prepare to blow up a rock face.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington

"Look," he says, opening a folder on a table. He has thousands of photos of mineral grains magnified to the size of golf balls. Some are all sharp corners and jagged edges, some rounded. Since erosion and age wear the minerals down, "we can tell when we're getting closer to the source. If the edges are sharp, hey, we know they haven't traveled far from the pipe."

That level of geographic precision has allowed Fipke to stake more claims. He's even working in areas of Brazil where De Beers hasn't been able to turn a profit. "And Angola. Angola has the richest alluvial diamond river in the world," he says, "and there are thousands of diamond works there. But we're looking for the source pipes." Five years ago Fipke started making magnetometer survey flights over the Kwango River. Having identified 100 possible targets, he now has 40 men taking core samples 900 to 1,200 feet under the riverbed. "I'm there at the camp at least three times a year, hey, and it's much harder than in the Arctic. Your drilling equipment just gets buried in enormous piles at customs in Luanda and you can't get it. In the Northwest Territories it was cold, hey, and full of snow, but you get a good parka and you're a bug in a rug. Angola is the most inefficient place on earth!"

I start to ask another question, but Fipke has something else in mind. "I'm hungry, hey," he barks, as the door to the map room slams shut behind us. "Do you like oysters?" But we're not going anywhere: He has locked his keys in the room and has to call someone to drive in and open up his office.

We finally head into town. "Hi, Chuck!" says the hostess, leading us to the back room of a hip Asian fusion place. Around a long table sit 23 young women, all sporting stilettos and big hair. "Chuck!" they shout. We have, it seems, shown up at the bachelorette party for Fipke's granddaughter. The hostess seats us at the next table. Fipke orders four dozen oysters and a bottle of wine that has to be driven to the restaurant from some special cellar, and a young women shimmies into the booth next to Fipke. "Chuck," she says, kissing him on the cheek, "do you think you can pay for us all tonight?"

"Sure," Fipke says, beaming.

"Do you remember this?" says another woman — his daughter, it turns out, who slides in next to him, holding up a purse. "You bought it for me!"

With Fipke suddenly bankrolling the night, the girls break loose, and the restaurant staff starts hauling out the bottles of champagne. Pretty soon a couple of lasses are dancing on the tables, the oysters are slipping down, a second bottle of rare wine is being decanted, and Fipke is remixing the menu like Danny DeVito in Get Shorty.

And the tales spill forth: three week forays into the Peruvian Amazon, travels with the Kalahari Bushmen of Southern Africa, visits to the pygmies of the Ituri forest in the Congo. "I'd just leave my family and go, hey," he says. "I was really into native culture."

Somebody asks him about Brazil, and it reminds him of something important. "Caipirinhas!" he shouts out of the blue. "I want 25 caipirinhas!"

When the bill arrives, it's 3 feet long and $4,000. Fipke pays up, and we spill into the night — his daughter and granddaughter and their friends and now boyfriends, who joined us in the restaurant. On the street, Fipke suddenly leaps into the air and delivers a solid, suede loafer-clad foot to the head of a parking meter. "I fucking hate parking meters, hey!" he shouts. He jumps and kicks another one, and then erupts into a fit of giggles.

We are ushered past the velvet rope at the Cheetah Lounge, Kelowna's classiest strip joint, and Captain Chaos orders another round of caipirinhas for everyone. Three generations of Fipkes pound drinks as naked women dangle upside down from poles onstage.

The room is spinning by the time Fipke takes me aside and lays a big warm hand on my arm. "Hey," he says, "here's the thing. I learned that I did my best. I mean, I really tried my best. How many people can say that? I worked hard, and I mean really hard. I worked seven days a week from 8 am until 3 am. Every day. We drilled and drilled all winter when it was dark and the windchill was 80 below. Everyone thought I was crazy. But most people just never do their best, hey. And I did."

Contributing editor Carl Hoffman (

Realizing Lithium Battery Potential

Electrodes in 3-D: These silicon particles can absorb over six times more lithium ions by weight than graphite can, making them a candidate for creating electrodes for supercharged lithium batteries. The nanoporous structure shown in the electron micrograph close-up (lower image) enables the silicon to absorb a lot of lithium without shattering.
Credit: Jaephil Cho, Hanyang University

Lithium batteries are driving a renaissance in electric-vehicle development, and what's attractive is not just the charge capacity of current prototypes, which is twice that of the nickel metal hydride batteries in hybrid vehicles. According to an assessment of electric-vehicle batteries published by the University of California, Davis, in May, "more important" is the potential for further performance improvement. A high-energy lithium-battery electrode developed at Hanyang University, in Ansan, South Korea, could make good on some of that potential.

The Hanyang team, led by chemist Jaephil Cho, developed a nanoporous silicon electrode that could at least double the charge capacity of a lithium battery--essentially doubling the range of an electric vehicle. And unlike previously reported silicon anodes, the one created by Cho's team can charge and discharge rapidly.

"It's very good, very impressive work," says Stanford University materials scientist Yi Cui, who is developing his own nanostructured silicon electrodes for lithium batteries.

Charging a lithium battery involves moving lithium ions from the battery's positive electrode (or cathode) into its negative electrode (or anode). Silicon's electrochemical affinity for lithium ions makes it an excellent material for an anode. But silicon tends to overindulge: anodes made of the material absorb so much lithium upon charging that they swell to four times their previous volume. Upon discharging, they deflate to their original size, and just a few charging cycles are usually enough to pulverize the brittle material.

Nanostructuring gives silicon strain-relieving flexibility, allowing it to recharge without deteriorating so quickly. Cui demonstrated this in January, unveiling silicon nanowire anodes that can elongate during charging to release some of the strain. These results showed a work in progress, however: batteries incorporating the nanowire electrodes still lost more than half their storage capacity after just a few cycles of rapid charging.

Cho's new nanoporous silicon, in contrast, seems to last much longer even under rapid charging, according to his group's paper published in November in the German journal Angewandte Chemie. The nanoporous electrodes still retained a charge greater than 2,400 milliamp-hours per gram--over six times more than the graphite anodes used in existing lithium batteries--after 100 rapid charging cycles. "That's definitely good enough for commercialization," says Cho.

The nanoporous silicon anodes consist of solid silicon crystals riddled with Swiss-cheese-style pores. Cho explains that this structure accommodates the strain because the walls between its pores are extremely thin--approximately 40 nanometers. This is less than half the thickness of Cui's silicon nanowires.

Cho thinks that further optimization of the silicon nanostructure will also improve its lithium capacity per unit of volume, which is already about three times better than that of graphite. He believes that it is possible to tighten the pores by about half--essentially squeezing out more of the air within--without sacrificing the material's charging performance. The result would increase the silicon per unit of volume available, thereby also boosting the charge per volume to six times that of graphite.

The process for making the nanoporous silicon material also marks an improvement over methods for making previous silicon anodes, says Cho. To create the nanoporous anodes, the Korean researchers mix silica nanoparticles with a viscous gel of carbon-coated silicon (to keep the silicon and silica from reacting chemically), heat the mixture to 900 °C to fuse it into a solid mass, and then selectively etch away the silica with hydrofluoric acid to create the pores. In contrast to most silicon assembly methods, the process takes place at atmospheric pressure and thus should be easier to scale up to large volumes. "It's a much more economical process for mass production," says Cho.

Cho says that he hopes to sell the technology to Korean battery maker LG Chem, where he has worked for the past four years and which may have won the lithium-battery contract for GM's forthcoming Chevy Volt. But he could face competition. Cui says that his lab has also dramatically improved its nanowire synthesis and battery design, and in September, GM scientists presented impressive results on lithium anodes created using silicon-coated carbon fibers.

But the real question, say observers, is whether any of these materials can be produced at the right price. Marc Obrovac, a research specialist at 3M working on lithium-battery materials, points to a sophisticated silicon anode design already made by Sanyo Electric that achieves energy densities exceeding Cho's. "Despite this superior performance, Sanyo apparently never commercialized its silicon electrode," says Obrovac. "Fabrication cost may have been a factor."

Cui points to another factor that could limit the impact of silicon anodes: cathode performance. If new cathode materials could match the energy density of the silicon anodes, this would multiply the energy storage capacity of finished batteries four- or fivefold, he says. Using conventional cathodes, however, would require a sixfold increase in the cathode's mass and volume to deliver a doubling of the total energy storage. "We are actually limited more by the cathode," says Cui. "Improving the anode will have a very big impact. But improving the cathode can have an even larger impact."

A New Twist on Hydropower

Vortices and vibrations: A prototype of the VIVACE system in a lab at the University of Michigan demonstrates how water flowing past a passive cylinder will create alternating vortices that push the cylinder up and down. These vortex-induced vibrations create mechanical energy that can be captured.
Credit: Scott Galvin, University of Michigan
video See how the VIVACE generation system works.

The world's river and ocean currents carry an enormous amount of kinetic energy, but most of this water flows slower than four miles per hour. Existing turbine and water-mill technologies can't generate enough electricity at such speeds to make their deployment economically viable.

Researchers at the University of Michigan say that they have overcome this limitation by taking advantage of energy-packed vortices that are formed when water flows past a cylindrical object, even at low speeds. Salmon and trout are known to leverage the force created by these naturally occurring water swirls so that they can swim upstream. A new mechanical device designed to economically harvest that energy and convert it into electricity could turn waterpower into a much larger part of the world's renewable-energy mix.

"Anywhere we have currents, we can use it," says Michael Bernitsas, a professor in the department of marine engineering at the University of Michigan. He says that the first test of the device will be in the Detroit River, likely in 2010. "If we make it work, and I believe it will, it's going to be a major development," he says.

The device works on the well-known principle of vortex-induced vibrations, which in an ocean setting are known to play havoc with the cylindrical steel risers and mooring lines that anchor offshore oil platforms. As current flows past a cylinder, a thin layer of water gets entrained along each side of the rounded surface until, at some point at the back of the object, the layer of water separates from the surface and swirls into a vortex.

Part of the phenomenon, however, is that the separations on the left and right sides don't take place at the same time: one side lags. The result is an alternating pattern of vortices that can impose tremendous force on underwater structures. When a cylinder-shaped object can move more freely in its environment, like a fishing lure being pulled by a river's current, the alternating vortices will vibrate the object from left to right.

Bernitsas says that the alternating vortices "lock on" to the oscillating frequency of the object. "The bottom line is we get synchronization between the shedding of the vortices and the motion of the cylinder," he explains.

As part of his research for the oil industry, Bernitsas has spent much of his career trying to figure out ways to suppress these destructive natural vibrations. Four years ago, it occurred to him that if he enhanced and tapped into these vortex forces, he could design a device that generates emission-free electricity. This led to the development of the VIVACE (vortex-induced vibration for aquatic clean energy) converter, a modular system that in the lab generates 51 watts per cubic meter of water flowing at three knots, or about 3.5 miles per hour.

In its most primitive form, VIVACE is a horizontal cylinder on springs that moves up and down between two upright tracks as water flows past it, creating mechanical energy that is converted into electricity. Bernitsas envisions the system as stackable and deployable in different configurations and generation capacities, from kilowatts to multimegawatts. And it wouldn't occupy much space: one megawatt, he estimates, would take up about 90 cubic feet.

Harnessing the current: An artist's rendition of how a commercial VIVACE system might look. Passive bars, positioned horizontally, are boxed together in a single unit that could be placed at the bottom of a river or in the path of an ocean current. Dozens of 500-kilowatt units could be grouped together in different configurations to create multimegawatt systems.
Credit: Vortex Hydro Energy

"It fits into the environment: if it's a canal, we can adjust to the canal, and if it's open water, we can make it bigger," he explains, adding that the slow movement of the cylinders makes the system safer for fish.

Peter Fiske, vice president of research and development at PAX Scientific, an engineering firm that specializes in fluid dynamics, says that conventional water turbine technologies suffer from the "Cuisinart effect": they chop up fish. "The good thing about the VIVACE design is that it's just rocking back and forth, and doesn't involve chopping through the water," says Fiske.

He commends Bernitsas for tackling the study of nonsteady state fluids, an area of engineering that's often avoided, but he questions whether VIVACE can be meaningfully scaled up outside the lab. "Getting many, many megawatts of electricity out of it is another thing altogether," Fiske says.

Some aren't so sure that the system can tap enough energy to make it worthwhile. "Will it work? Probably. Is it the most effective means? I don't think so," says professor Frank Fish, an expert in hydrodynamics at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. "Most of the energy of the flow is moving from the front of the cylinder to the back, rather than in this fluid-induced vibration."

But Bernitsas, who founded a company called Vortex Hydro Energy to commercialize his invention, is convinced that VIVACE can be refined to a point at which it can generate electricity at 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for projects 10 megawatts or larger in size. This would make VIVACE competitive with fossil fuel and nuclear generation. Modules would be manufactured in 500-kilowatt units.

Bernitsas says that there's plenty of room to improve the efficiency of the system, and he plans to do this by learning from fish and from the way their tails and scales can affect hydrodynamics. Scales, depending on how rough they are and where they're located, can amplify oscillation. "And based on the properties of the tail," he says, "we can change both the amplitude and frequency of the cylinder oscillation to make it more benign to the surrounding environment."

The first two prototypes are being built with help from the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, in Washington, DC, and with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Office of Naval Research.

Autism Drug Trials

Improving autism: Scientists will soon test IGF (insulin-like growth factor), shown here, to find out if it can reverse symptoms of Rett syndrome, a rare inherited disorder linked to autism.
Credit: Nevit Dilmen

Three drugs will be tested in humans to treat rare, inherited conditions that are often linked to autism: Rett syndrome, fragile X, and tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). Scientists hope that the new drugs, if successful in the current trials, will eventually help treat more common forms of autism, which affects about 1 in 166 children in the United States. Existing drugs are used to treat symptoms of autism, such as digestive problems and psychosis, rather than the root of the disease.

"We may have our finger on a biochemical pathway that is applicable more generally in autism," said Mark Bear, a neuroscientist at MIT, at the Autism Consortium annual symposium in Boston last month.

One of the most puzzling problems with autism is that the brains of affected children look normal, making it difficult to know where to target new treatments. The discovery in the 1990s of the mutations underlying the three disorders has allowed scientists to create animal models with the same genetic mistakes. These animal models have enabled the search for more subtle molecular processes gone awry in each disease, such as abnormal gene or protein expression that changes the electrical properties of neurons, or the architecture of the synapse--that is, the connections between neurons.

In the past year, several groups have published novel treatments that appear to reverse the damage done in these diseases. "We had thought that in disorders like autism and fragile X, damage was done early, and the best we could do was stop it," said Story Landis, director of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, at the Society for Neuroscience conference, in Washington, DC, last month. But these studies show that you can intervene early and perhaps restore cognitive function, she said. Findings from these studies are now being tested in humans.

People with fragile X, the most common form of heritable mental retardation and a leading cause of autism, have a mutation in the FMRP gene, which normally inhibits protein synthesis stimulated by a receptor called metabotropic glutamate receptor 5, or mGluR5.

Last year, Bear and Gul Dolen, also at MIT, announced that they could correct abnormal brain development and faulty memory and reduce seizures in affected mice by decreasing mGluR5 activity by 50 percent. "The idea that you could reintroduce function is a sea-change event," said Emanuel DiCicco-Bloom, a neuroscientist and physician at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, at the neuroscience conference.

Experimental drugs that target the receptor are already under development, although none have yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Human trials of one such drug is now under way, sponsored by Seaside Therapeutics, a company founded by Bear.
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TSC, another genetic disorder linked to autism, is caused by mutations in one of two genes, which trigger development of benign tumors in the brain, eyes, heart, kidney, skin, and lungs. About 90 percent of TSC patients have epilepsy, and 50 percent have autism or other cognitive impairments.

The normal function of the TSC genes is to turn off a protein called mTOR, a potent cell-growth stimulator. Animal research shows that rapamycin--an immunosuppressant drug that turns off mTOR--can reduce seizures and abnormal brain enlargement in affected animals, as well as improve learning and memory.

Previous small-scale studies of rapamycin in patients with TSC have shown that it can reduce the size of tumors, but those studies did not look at the drug's affect on seizures and cognitive symptoms. Mustafa Sahin, a neurologist and scientist at Children's Hospital Boston, is now planning a randomized trial of rapamycin in 55 patients ages 6 to 21. Scientists will specifically assess seizures, cognitive function, and other symptoms of autism.

Migranka Sur, a neuroscientist at MIT, hypothesizes that synapses in people with Rett syndrome, a disorder characterized by seizures, mental retardation, and motor problems, remain immature but can be chemically induced to mature. "IGF [insulin-like growth factor] and EGF [epidermal growth factor] are two pathways we think can be activated to make synapses mature," Sur said at the autism symposium. His group recently showed that treating mice with the Rett mutation with a fragment of the IGF protein stimulated synapses, improved motor function, and extended life span.

Scientists in Sur's lab are now planning a placebo-controlled clinical trial of IGF in girls ages 2 to 10. The drug is already approved to treat children with short stature, so its safety profile is well known.

Scientists are particularly excited about the new drug trials because they target specific molecular processes believed to be at the root of these diseases. "These are not palliative approaches," said Bear at the autism conference.

While initial trials will focus on these three specific diseases, Bear and others hope that the treatments will prove more broadly applicable. "The hope is that we'll uncover pathways that are involved in cases of autism with unknown etiology," said Bear. Even though there may be hundreds of genes affected in different cases of autism, he said, "I strongly suspect that there will be a few key pathways, so drugs that regulate that pathway may have a broad impact."

SLR Battle Royal- Canon or Nikon, Who yah Got?

Two semi-pros: The Canon 50D, at right, and the Nikon D90: Sean Captain

Prosumer, enthusiast, advanced amateur. Whatever you call it, there is a class of photographers who are not pros but are serious about picture taking -- committed enough to spend a grand or more on an SLR body and at least several hundred dollars more on lenses. Those shutterbugs recently got two new choices from the big guns of digital photography. In September, Nikon released its veeeeerrrry long-anticipated D90 (a winner in our latest Best of What's New honors). In August, Canon released the entirely expected but very welcome 50D. Technically, these cameras are not direct competitors. The Canon has a magnesium-alloy body, esoteric adjustments such as vignette correction, and a higher price tag (about $1,200 online); the Nikon is around $900. But after lugging each of them around for the past several weeks, I think they're quite comparable. So the question is, which one should you get?

Image Quality

If you're this serious about photography, quality is mainly what you care about.

Ultimately, I like the Nikon D90 better. Colors--especially reds--are more saturated. And the exposure is more reliable and consistent. Perhaps I lean towards the D90 because I'm not a pro: I'm less likely to take a horrible picture with this camera.

That's especially true if you are shooting photos as compressed JPEGs, like most amateurs do, because you don't have as much control over how the images are refined and little wiggle room to fix mistakes. The other option, called RAW, is to record the unprocessed data from the sensor as massive files that you refine by hand on a PC. The big advantage here is that you can "re-shoot" a photo, changing settings like the white balance after the fact. To evaluate both types of photos, I set each camera to record both a JPEG and RAW version of the test photos I took.

Shooting both outdoors and inside, in a variety of lighting conditions, the D90's JPEG files consistently beat the Canon's. Specifically, the Nikon prevailed in 10 of 14 tests.

Exposure was the biggest differentiator. Set to matrix metering, the Nikon never let a portion of the photo get "blown-out" bright, even in tricky conditions like photographing a bright sky over a shady street, or a building that was half in direct sunlight and half in shadow. Set to evaluative metering (the equivalent setting) the Canon 50D often overexposed, turning a pale-blue sky nearly white.

The Canon, at left, overexposed this image, while the Nikon captured even lighting that was closer to real life: Sean Captain


Nikon images also benefit from the company's amazing D-Lighting feature (which I first described in a review of the D700 professional camera). D-Lighting compensates for the inherent weakness of all digital (and for that matter, film-based) cameras: They can't capture a wide dynamic range. The difference between light and dark is far narrower in a photo than in our eyes. D-lighting helps fix this by automatically brightening the dark parts of photos. Black remains black. But those murky dark-gray areas lighten up enough so that you can see the details lurking in the shadows. Of course, you can play with this in any photo editor. But if you brighten JPEGs more than a tad, you'll start getting a grainy effect because there just isn't enough data to create a sharp image. Nikons apply D-Lighting to the far more abundant RAW data before spitting out JPEGs.

Taken with the D-Lighting effect, the Nikon photo, at left, shows slightly more detail of this store's dark interior: Sean Captain

Now, if you "shoot RAW" with the Canon, you have a lot more information to work with. And in tweaking the RAW files, I was able to recover a lot of detail in both the dark and light parts of the photo. But it's still easier to have the camera do the work for you. And D-Lighting is merely an option. You can turn it off completely or select from four levels of correction. And if you shoot RAW photos on the D90, you can change these setting after the fact.


The differences in color were subtler. But my preference is for the Nikon's fully saturated greens and reds. With the 50D, even objects that are deep red in real life have an orangey tint in the photos. And deep greens, like those in plants, take on a hint of yellow. Adjusting the colors in RAW didn't help. Boosting the red or the green might have improved those colors, but it added an odd tint to anything that was white.

In the Nikon's photo at left, the darker reds more accurately depict those on the motorcycle: Sean Captain

Changing the white balance didn't help, either. As with the Nikon, I shot most photos in auto white balance. But I tried all other settings on the RAW files (which is the same as if I had shot the photos at all settings) and was unable to get a truer color balance.

This wasn't much of a surprise. Canon SLR's have had that orangey "warm" glow for years. It's often a nice effect. In portraits, for example, people with very pale skin look like they've gotten a little sun. And even pictures shot by the bluish tint of noonday sun get a bit of that "golden hour" glow that you typically see around sunrise or sunset. But you can easily tweak colors on your computer. I prefer starting with the more accurate images from the D90.

In this indoor photo, the Canon's RAW photo has a slight orangey tint compared to the Nikon's RAW: Sean Captain

Low Light

Canon retains its signature strength in one area: low-light shooting. Pixel noise is virtually nonexistent up to an astonishing ISO 3200 sensitivity setting. Nikon has come a long way since its grainy days of just a few years ago. By switching from the CCD image sensor in the D80 to the CMOS chip in the D90 (the same technology that Canon's been using for years) Nikon produces far crisper photos. But images viewed at full-size still have a slight speckly look even as low as ISO 800 sensitivity.

In these zoomed-in RAW images, graininess is evident in the Nikon photo at right; the Canon's shot is smooth: Sean Captain

Canon hasn't just stayed the course, though. While its photos were always smoother than Nikon's, it cameras often had a problem with color noise -- errant specks of blue, green, yellow, or (especially) magenta creeping into items that, in real life, do not contain those colors at all. Color noise essentially disappears up to ISO 3200 on the D50.

Overall, I'd say that people who photograph mainly at night would probably get better results from the Canon D50. Check these photos from election day (shot in RAW and lightly edited) for examples. But I've also gotten great nighttime results with the D90, as you can see in these unedited JPEGs of East River bridges and of circus performers at the Spiegeltent on the Manhattan waterfront.


Giving the Canon 50D a fair review was challenging because of the absolutely crappy lens it came with. The EFS 17-85mm lens Canon sent has an image stabilizer, which is nice. But it also produced rather soft (aka, slightly blurry) images and absurd amounts of color fringing--a refraction artifact, common in cheap lenses--that puts a purple, blue or green outline around any border where light and dark items meet, such as tree branches against a bright sky.

No purple paint was used on these fire escapes. But you would think it was, based on the Canon's image, at left: Sean Captain

Unlike many entry-level SLRs, the 50D does not come from Canon with an official "kit" lens, although some online vendors toss in the 28-135mm lens (which I haven't tested) for around $1,400. Nikon, however does offer a kit option for the D90. You can buy the camera either by itself for around $900 or with the Nikor 18-55mm image-stabilizing lens for about $1,200. Not only does the Nikor have substantially more zoom range, it also delivers far-crisper photos, without a hint of color fringing. And $300 is a bargain for this lens. By comparison, Canon's crummy 17-85mm lens sells for between $350 and $600 online.

Color fringing around this tree gives the sky a purple hue in this RAW image
from the 50D:
Sean Captain


The Canon D50 feels very serious. Its magnesium-alloy body seems sturdy enough to hammer nails with. The right-hand grip is meaty, and it practically sticks to your hand, thanks to the supple rubberized grip that wraps from the front to the back of the camera. While I was toting this around on election night, several people stopped to ask me "Who are you with?" They were all surprised when I said that I wasn't a photojournalist, just a guy with a camera.

The 50D's interface took some getting used to but eventually won my heart. Knobs and buttons are basically unchanged since earlier versions. Chief controls are a small jog-wheel at top right, just behind the shutter-release button, a giant scroll wheel on the back for your thumb, and a tiny joystick to the right of the gorgeous three-inch LCD screen.

What's different is the screen. Tap the select button in the center of the scroll wheel, and you get a slickly animated settings screen that you navigate with the joystick to select and adjust virtually every setting, such as ISO, exposure compensation, flash intensity, and light metering mode. At first, this had a point-and-shoot look that made the camera look less serious. But I quickly found it to be very handy. As in the past, you can also make adjustments using a monochrome LCD screen on the top of the camera, but some settings proved to be an ergonomic nightmare. To set ISO, for example, you have to hold down a button about a quarter-inch behind the top jog-wheel and then turn that wheel -- which requires either a carpal-tunnel-inducing contortion of the right hand, or bringing over your left hand and dangerously loosening your grip on the whole camera.

The D90's controls are more old-school. You can hit the "menu" button and scroll though the prettily illustrated options on its own handsome three-inch screen. But you can also make nearly every key adjustment by turning either the scroll wheel on the top front with your right index finger or one on the top-rear with your thumb. Some tweaks require also pushing a button, but never in a way that will cramp your hand. With my analog sensibilities, I prefer the Nikon interface, but this is purely a matter of personal taste.

Two semi-pros: The Canon 50D, at right, and the Nikon D90: Sean Captain

The D90's body isn't going to impress as many onlookers, however. The sturdy black plastic case screams "consumer model," and the handgrips, though textured, are almost slippery. No one mistook me for an AP photographer. On the upside, though, the D90 is a bit lighter (with a body weighing 22 ounces to the Canon's 26 ounces) and it's about a half-inch narrower than the 50D.

Since both of these SLRs ultimately are consumer cameras, it's not so bad that the D90 looks the part. But it is fun to play grown-up with the 50D.

That Other Feature: Video

There is that one special detail about the D90: the ability to shoot video (which just earned it a Best of What's New designation). Both cameras have a live view mode, in which they raise the mirror, open the shutter, and provide a live video preview on the LCD. But only the D90 can record that video (for up to about four minutes). The 720p high-def footage is reasonably sharp, and Nikon's excellent light metering helps the camera quickly adjust as you move it around, so you don't end up with too many dark or overbright frames as the lighting changes.

Having to focus manually is annoying, especially because it's awkward to do when you are using an SLR as a video camera (which is already less than ergonomic). But even the autofocus on real video cameras is a bit sluggish. If you practice enough with the D90, you may get no more -- and perhaps even fewer -- blurred frames than you would with a "real" camcorder. My take: The D90 is a still camera, but it lets you add a few videos to complement your photos, as I did during my shoot at the Spiegeltent.

Overall Opinion

In case it wasn't already clear, my overall preference is for the Nikon D90. The Canon D50 is no slouch, and it performs better in some conditions, such as low light. And I've gotten some great photos with it. But the Nikon ultimately makes it easier to take good pictures, and does so at a lower price. For an underpaid photo hack like me, that's a winning combination.

Middleweight Camera Shoot Out

Contenders: The Canon G10, Panasonic G1 and Olympus E-420 go head to head. Sean Captain

Size is an issue with cameras. I miss a lot of good shots when I don’t feel like lugging around a hefty SLR (such as my current fav, the Nikon D90). And while my pocket camera (presently a Canon SD800) is easy to tote, the image quality is more for “snapshots” than “photographs.”

I, and a few other shutterbugs around the Popular Science office, have been looking into the middle category of cameras: big enough to take good pictures, but not so big that it’s a burden. Now is a good time to look, since several camera makers have fresh midsize camera offerings.

Recently introduced, the Canon G10 ($450) is the latest in its long-running series of “serious” point-and-shoots. At the heart of the camera is a tiny (about 40 square millimeters) image sensor similar to what you get in a pocket model. But it’s paired with a large, relatively bright (f/2.8-f/4.5 aperture) lens and sophisticated manual controls, all wrapped in a tough magnesium-alloy body.

Panasonic approaches from the other extreme. Instead of beefing up a point-and-shoot, it slims down an SLR. The Panasonic G1 ($800) is the first camera using a new format, perplexingly named “Micro Four-Thirds” (don’t ask), that provides the same large image sensor (225 square millimeters) and interchangeable lenses of an SLR but saves space by taking out the mirrors that allow you to see “through the lens” when you look into the viewfinder. The format has the potential to produce really tiny SLR-like cameras, but the G1 is just about the size of my third pick, an actual SLR (albeit the smallest ever), the Olympus E-420 ($500) which debuted last spring.

I took all three cameras out for both casual shoots around town and formal side-by-side tests. I had expected one to emerge as a clear winner. But it wasn’t that simple. Each has weaknesses that are either inconsequential or deal breakers, depending on how you intend to shoot.

Canon G10

Of the three, this is the only camera you can put in a pocket—not the pocket of a polo shirt or a pair of hip-huggers, but at least of a coat or baggy jeans. It would also squeeze into a tiny handbag, though at 12 ounces, it adds a lot of weight.

The layout is superb. The right-hand grip slips into your fingers as if they had evolved for that purpose. Metal knobs on top let you quickly dial in the camera mode (automatic, manual, aperture priority, etc), the ISO light sensitivity and exposure compensation (to make photos a little brighter or darker than the camera’s brain normally would). A three-inch rear LCD displays the unbeatable L-shaped menu from Canon’s point and shoots. You scroll up down for categories such as white balance and image quality, then side-to-side to chose the setting, such as “daylight” or “cloudy” white balance and different levels of JPEG quality (or the option to shoot “RAW” and process the photos by hand on your computer).

If you want to trick out the camera, it has a hot shoe for mounting any of Canon’s SLR-grade flash units plus a mount around the built-in 5X zoom lens for adding attachments such as a telephoto lens. It’s also the only one of these three cameras that comes with an image-stabilizing lens and also the only that captures (standard-definition) video.

Images under bright light were brilliant. The G10 was the best at capturing difficult exposures—such as a building that was partly in bright sunlight and partly in shadow. The iContrast mode in its Digic 4 image processor ensured that no part of the photo was too dark or too light. It was close to the Olympus E-420 for overall color quality (the main weaknesses were in its slightly orangey reds and cyan-tinted blues).

Colors were also brilliant for indoor test photos of household objects when we used the built-in flash. Without flash, though, the G10’s tiny image sensor just can’t capture enough light. It’s ironic that the camera’s biggest control is the ISO dial that goes up to 1600. Canon could have saved space with a knob that stops at 400, the point beyond which photos become intolerably grainy.

Panasonic G1

The G1 offers the best options for framing photos. Its three-inch LCD tilts and swivels so that you can eyeball shots while holding the camera way over your head or down by your knees. You can even spin it around to line up a self-portrait. There’s no mirror to provide a periscope-like view through the lens. But Panasonic provides an electric viewfinder (EVF); basically a little LCD that you put your eye up to. The low resolution and color quality are disappointing, but the EVF provides one great advantage: It’s extremely bright even when you are shooting in a dark room. I found it invaluable when shooting with flash in a dark New York City club. The flash would provide enough light once I pressed the shutter, but I wouldn’t have been able to see what I was intending to photograph without the ultra-bright EVF. (Check these photos from a “fashion show” hosted by Fujifilm in which design school students made dresses on live models by cutting up and gluing together photographs.)

And those indoor shots were brilliant. The G1’s SLR-size sensor captured accurate colors with very little pixel noise up to ISO 800. And its built-in flash was excellent. (Like the G10 and the Olympus E-420, the Panasonic camera has a hot shoe for adding high-power flash units.)

Given all this, then, it was disappointing how poor the G1’s outdoor shots were. Blue skies came out slightly purplish. Details such as bricks on buildings or tree branches appeared slightly blurred, and some photos were a bit overexposed.

Also, the camera stinks—not figuratively, but literally. The soft matte-black plastic emits a funky “chemical” smell as if it hasn’t been fully cooked. It’s a slight odor that you might not notice on, say, and MP3 player. But when you’re constantly holding a camera up to your face, it’s mildly annoying. I noticed this, by the way, on TWO different samples I got from Panasonic. They were both black, however. I don’t know if the red or blue color options would smell any different, though I suspect they are not cherry and blueberry scented.

Olympus E-420

Whenever I see this camera, I grin and am compelled to hold it. This is a real SLR, but it’s so tiny and cute. The body is about half the size of, say, the Nikon D90—itself a pretty compact SLR. The E-420 is the one camera here to provide that cherished ability to peer into the viewfinder and see exactly what the lens is spying. Unfortunately you get a rather constrained view that feels a bit like looking through a peephole. You have to give up something to get an SLR this small. You can also frame photos on the 2.7-inch LCD—as this camera (as well as the Panasonic G1) has a live view option.

A few knobs and buttons on top provide quick access to some basic settings, such as scene mode, flash adjustments and exposure compensation. But as with the Panasonic, most controls are via the LCD. Pressing the “OK” button on the back of the camera brings up a series of icons on the screen. You navigate among them using the directional arrows and then select one with the OK button to make adjustments. Olympus and Panasonic have long collaborated on SLRs, so it’s not surprising that they have roughly the same interface.

Being a true SLR, it’s not surprising that the E-420 was the most reliable picture-taker. It performed slightly better than the Canon outdoors, mainly due to its color quality, and it showed the lowest amount of pixel noise for indoor shots at high ISO, delivering serviceable shots up to ISO 1600. The Panasonic G1 beat it on color indoors, but not by much.

The E-420 would be a natural choice if you already own a larger Olympus camera, such as the E-3 or the new E-30. It’s essentially a mini-me of these cameras that has similar controls, shoots the same file format, and takes the same lenses. The Panasonic, in contrast, introduces a new lens format for which there are currently only two models, the 14mm to 45mm (equivalent to 28mm to 90mm on a film camera) that I tested it with and 45mm-200mm telephoto. (Lenses from larger Panasonic SLRs can be attached via an adapter, but that kills the point of making the camera assembly smaller.) The Olympus E-420 comes with a similar 14mm to 45mm lens but also works with any of the company’s other 21 digital-SLR lenses.


The best overall camera for image quality was (drumroll please), unsurprisingly, the Olympus E-420. The others varied wildly. Canon's G10 aced bright outdoor settings and also produced stunning nighttime photographs using its built-in flash. But with low light and no flash, it was virtually useless. The Panasonic G1’s color and exposure were skewed under daylight, but low-light images with high ISO (sensitivity) settings looked surprisingly good—both with and without flash. Please launch the gallery here to see a series of comparison shots from all three cameras.

Nevertheless, image quality is hardly the only factor you're going to be dealing with. For a lighter-weight SLR, the Olympus E-420 is a great choice. But while it’s a lot smaller than most SLRs, it still won’t squeeze into any pocket. For that level of portability, the Canon G10 is the way to go. Panasonic’s micro four-thirds format (for which, by the way, Olympus also plans to make cameras) would have promised the ideal camera: The soul of an SLR in the body of a point-and-shoot. But the G1 is too bulky, too SLR-like for that. In other words, there's no clear winner; the best I can advise is that you figure out what features you're willing to tradeoff for and work it out from there. That, or hold out for Olympus's take on the micro four-thirds format.

Launch the gallery of test shots here.

Looking Inside a Mummy's Stomach

Analysis of swallowed plant material sheds new light on Oetzi the Iceman

The Iceman Cometh: (to chomp on some moss). Via Jacklee

Whether it was a quarter as a kid, some mean-looking peppers or that worm at the bottom of your shot glass, you've probably swallowed some weird things over the years. But six kinds of moss? Well then Oetzi, the famous, 5,300 year old frozen mummy found in the Alps nearly two decades ago, has got you beat. What’s more, a new anthology of research on Oetzi highlights those mosses, along with some other associated plants, to challenge theories about how he lived and how he died.

Previously, scientists believed Oetzi was shepherd, killed by a blow to the head after being shot with an arrow. However, new evidence calls into question the hypothesis that his skull was crushed by the person who shot him, and dung found with Oetzi suggests he was a hunter, not a herder. Researchers also used plant matter found on his person to link Oetzi with a farming culture east of the Alps, fleshing out our understanding of Oetzi’s world.

“The big news is that we are putting the knowledge of the iceman into a wider context,” said Klaus Oeggl, professor of archeobotany at the University of Innsbruck in Germany, “Up to now, everything was focused on the mummy and the situation at the top of the mountain. Now we want to know what the setting of the finding was.”

The findings, published in a special issue of the journal Vegetation History and Archeobotany devoted entirely to Oetzi, highlight six mosses in Oetzi’s stomach. The discovery of any moss is strange, as moss has no nutritional value. Oeggl and his colleagues showed that the mosses were not food, but were instead remnants of Copper Age technology. It seems Oetzi used one type of moss as a wrapper for food, and another as a bandage for wounds on his hand and shoulder, which (somewhat) explains how he might have accidentally eaten the mosses.

The presence of the antibiotic bandage moss seems to contradict a hypothesis put forward in 2002 at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy. There, the researchers claimed a blow to the head killed Oetzi. The theory held that after Oetzi was shot, his attacker either bludgeoned Oetzi in the head or Oetzi hit his head on rock when falling. Instead, Oeggl says Oetzi bled to death from the arrow wound after the application of first aid.

In August of this year, a paper in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry announced researchers had found hair in Oetzi’s clothes came from domesticated animals. However, an analysis of plant matter by Oeggl and his team confirm that the dung found beside Oetzi came from wild game, not domesticated animals. Additional stomach contents corroborate that finding, as Oetzi ate deer, not mutton or beef, as his last meal.

Oetzi was discovered in 1991 when two German hikers stumbled upon his remains, frozen in an Alpine glacier. Preserved by the freezing process, Oetzi has provided scientists with a wealth of data about ancient Europe. However, his tattoos, arrows, and bronze axe have led researchers to speculate he was everything from a hunter to a metal worker, from an impotent outcast to an adored victim of ritual sacrifice. And while many of those mysteries about Oetzi have been solved, it seems like there is still a great deal to learn about the iceman and his people.