Stories of modern science... from UPI

By JIM KLING, UPI Science Writer

, Dec. 28 (UPI) --



Computer scientists are trying to engage the senses while presenting information. For example, the Meeting Pot, designed by Itiro Siio of Tamagawa University in Tokyo, sends a waft of coffee smell to someone's office when others have begun to brew coffee in the break room. The odor, produced by a fan and a package of coffee grounds in the person's office, is a subtle signal that people are gathering for a break. The idea behind such projects is to put a more pleasing face on the ever-increasing presence of technology in our lives. "We are rapidly headed to a world where every person uses dozens of things with computation and communications capability in them," Scott Hudson, an associate professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, told the New York Times. "Information overload threatens to gobble up all of our attention." So-called 'calm' technologies shift information from the user's center of attention to its fringes, allowing him or her to absorb it at a comfortable pace. "Imagine an ambient display that can generate hundreds of aromas," said Ishii, extending the concept of the Meeting Pot. "You could map a variety of activities in cyberspace to one aroma or a combination of many. The user could be made to feel as if he were actually surrounded by the ether of information."



There is about a one in 20 chance that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) will collapse in the next 200 years, according to researchers led by British Antarctic Survey scientists. The integrity of the WAIS will be key to future ocean levels: if it melts, it would raise the ocean's waters by several meters. The WAI S represents about 13% of the ice in Antarctica. "Although this study shows the probability of ice sheet collapse is reasonably low, there's a huge health warning attached. The potential impacts of a major change in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are severe - fantastically expensive for developed nations with coastal cities, and just dire for poor populations in low-lying coastal areas," lead scientist David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey told the BBC. "This is the first time a risk assessment of ice sheet collapse has been attempted and it is the best estimate we can make based on the current information. More data on the ice sheet is urgently required to be more certain about the future of the ice sheet and possible future sea-level rises," said Vaughan.



The endangered aquatic warbler is confined to Eastern Europe, but no one knows where the birds spend the winter. Atomic analysis of its feathers may provide the answers, researchers now say. The birds breed primarily in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, and it is believed that they winter in the wetlands of west Africa, south of the Sahara desert, though only one bird has been captured there. Researchers at the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) are heading a study of stable isotopes - atoms of the same type but with different masses - and trace elements in the birds' feathers. As they grow, birds' feathers accumulate isotope ratios and trace elements that reflect the ratios and elements in the environment where they grew. "All inert tissue, like feathers, hair and nails, will show what isotopes were present when it was formed," Debbie Pain of the RSPB told BBC News Online. The research, which requires only a snippet of one of the bird's smallest feathers, has revealed that birds from Poland winter somewhere different than birds hatched in Belarus and Ukraine. It should be relatively easy to identify previously unknown breeding grounds, "because it's fairly easy to catch juvenile birds flying out of Europe," said Pain. The information should help scientists conserve these rare birds. Similar work is being conducted on rockhopper penguins.



The September 11 attacks may be claiming an unintended victim: the environment. Environmentalists worry that with the nation's attention focused on war and terrorism, the Bush administration has ruled in favor of business on a range of long-disputed environmental issues, including questions surrounding oil exploration and mining, and the destruction of wetlands by developers. "There is a quite distinct desire on the part of a number of agencies to hide under the air cover of the war in Afghanistan to roll back or weaken various environmental regulations while attention is on military developments in Afghanistan," Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, told the Los Angeles Times. But Bush officials disagree. "In our decision-making process, we've created balance," said Eric Ruff, Interior Department spokesman. "There are some in the environmental community who think the business community shouldn't have a seat at the table." Among the biggest concerns of environmentalists: the Clean Air Act, which could be hurt by expected decisions from Bush that would give major polluters a variety of exemptions from the Clean Air Act requirement that plant renovations must include an upgrade to pollution controls.

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