The beautiful woman on the book jacket cavorting with a baby bonobo might make Bonobo Handshake look like family-friendly fare. But primatologist Vanessa Woods' powerful new memoir is no Curious George (unless you can imagine The Man in the Yellow Hat swept up in a passionate romance and living with endangered apes in war-torn Congo).

Bonobo Handshake cover.jpgI came across Woods' book in the course of doing research for an upcoming NOVA scienceNOW website on animal cognition, and it is indeed a window into the emotions and psychology of our nearest primate relatives, bonobos and chimps. But more than that it's a revealing look into the mind and heart of a young woman finding her way as a scientist and a conservationist.
 
The book is an appealing read even for people not usually drawn to science (hardcore science fans might, in fact, be turned off by the personal drama) and an eye-opening reality check for anyone interested in doing research with primates. I would love for my own young daughters to read it someday, but not much about this book is G-rated.

Let's start with the title. What, exactly, is a "bonobo handshake"? Here's a hint: "Kikongo ... sticks his penis through the bars, waving it wildly at the bonobos outside munching on papaya and manioc leaves, begging for a bonobo handshake." It turns out that when bonobos greet one another--even strangers from another troop--they are as likely to rub each other's genitals as we humans are to shake hands. (In contrast, when chimps encounter unfamiliar chimps, they often react with murderous rage.) As the primatologist Frans de Waal famously puts it, bonobos are the "make-love-not-war" primate.

Sex among bonobos is less about procreation than recreation--it's the means for resolving conflicts when tensions flare; it's the glue that holds social groups together. And while bonobo sex resembles a hippie lovefest, the sex life of chimps is more like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. What makes chimps and bonobos so different? And which of our primate cousins are we humans more like?
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Inside the "Synthetic Cell"

Scientists are a step closer to creating life from scratch, as J. Craig Venter and his colleagues announced yesterday that they have synthesized a complete bacterial genome and installed it in a "synthetic cell" capable of replicating itself.

So, what defines a cell as "synthetic?" Haven't scientists been tinkering with genes for a while now? What makes this new work so special? I checked in with the producer of NOVA scienceNOW's "Artificial Life" segment, Julia Cort, and biologist David Deamer, who is featured in that segment, to find out. Now, if you haven't watched the segment yet, I'll give you a sneak preview: You'll see a scientist programming a string of genetic code into a computer, while a machine stocked with little bottles of the chemicals adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, pops out artificial DNA to order. This segment ran back in 2005, so cooking up DNA from scratch is not a new thing.

But the scientists you'll see in the segment weren't synthesizing full genomes. They were whipping up a gene for this and a gene for that, and slipping them in to the "natural" DNA that lives in cells. Venter and his colleagues, on the other hand, have synthesized the whole shebang, creating a machine-made near-carbon-copy of a bacterial genome and stationing it inside a cell that's been wiped clean if its own DNA. That's no small feat, Deamer explained. Typically, synthesized DNA can only hold about 300 chemical "letters" before mistakes start to pile up. Venter and his team scaled that up to a million letters.

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The River of Time

Publicist Note: "Fabric of the Cosmos" hosted by Brian Greene will premiere on NOVA fall 2011

Time.  We waste it, save it, kill it, make it.  The world as we know it runs on it; and yet, ask any physicist what time actually is, and the answer might shock you: They have no idea.  And that deep sense we all have of time "flowing" from past to present?  It might be nothing more than an illusion.  Instead, all moments past, present, and future exist now, meaning that Elvis really does live, along with your great-great-grandchildren, the end of life on Earth, and the Big Bang, all "at once"!  

If your head is about to explode, you're not alone.  We at NOVA have just begun production of our 4-hour miniseries, The Fabric of the Cosmos, hosted by author and physicist Brian Greene, and our heads are spinning!  

Just this week our "Time" production team shot its opening scene with Brian in Canyonlands National Park overlooking the Colorado River. An incredible vista, but what does it have to do with physics?

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Host Brian Greene in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah.  This location is known as Thelma & Louise Point--that's right, the very same cliff where that final scene took place!  Photo by Jonathan Sahula.

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Fabric of the Cosmos "Time" crew filming Brian Greene. Photo by Jonathan Sahula.

Well, it's here where Brian introduces us to a central theme of our series:  our perceptions have led us astray. For centuries we've constructed a picture of the universe that is misleading at best, and often downright wrong.  The river, for example, represents our common-sense picture of time: something that "flows" in only one direction--toward the future.  But modern physics now demands a new picture of time, one in which all moments past, present and future are frozen together in a block of spacetime.  In this strange and still place, there's no such thing as the present as we know it. There's no "flow," no universal clock ticking across the universe.  Instead, what you and I describe as happening "right now" depends on where we are and how fast we're moving relative to each other. A tiny step a few billion light years away could mean my "now" includes events that to you already happened hundreds of years ago.  Flip it around and your "now" could include events that are hundreds of years in my future!  That means my future, which seems completely undecided to me is something that, for you, already exists!  It's an idea that flies in the face of common sense, and yet this our new picture of reality. 

Headache yet?  That's just the start.  In this hour, produced by Randy MacLowry of The Film Posse, we'll ask how our understanding of something so familiar and basic could be so wrong.  Where does the apparent flow and direction of time we experience come from?  Can we ever travel through time at will?  Did time ever have a beginning?  Will time ever end? 

As we push through production, keep an eye out for more entries about our "Time" hour and other three Fabric hours--"Quantum," "Space," and "Multiverse"--for a sneak peek at our exciting series! 

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Left: Fabric of the Cosmos series Director of Photography Mike Coles.  Right: Producer/Director of the "Time" hour, Randy MacLowry.  Photo by Jonathan Sahula.

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New Orleans, Then and Now

As a new disaster bears down on the Gulf Coast, NOVA revisits a catastrophe from which the region is still recovering, Hurricane Katrina, with a May 18 rebroadcast of Storm That Drowned A City.

A lot has changed since Storm That Drowned A City premiered, just five months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. A lot has changed--and then again, a lot hasn't. I wanted to find out what new structural safeguards are protecting the region and whether New Orleans will be ready for the next hurricane season.

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The answer, it seems, is that "we're getting there." The Army Corps of Engineers is giving out almost $15 billion in contracts for new and improved levees, floodwalls, pump stations, surge barriers, and navigation gates under the Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. The goal is to provide New Orleans with "100-year level protection" by the time 2011 blows in. That means that the city would be fortified against the kind of storm you'd expect to see only once every hundred years--or, to put it another way, the kind of storm which has a 1% chance of striking in any given year.

Some highlights of the new system:

Will it be enough? A report released last year by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council argues that 100-year protection just isn't sufficient. In fact, the authors argue, it is impossible to "make the city safe" from storms: Structural improvements can only make the city safer and, at their worst, can instill a false sense of security in those living below sea level.

But truly rebuilding the city is about more than just infrastructure--it's about restoring vibrant communities. City planners working in the region point out that safety improvements are necessary, but not sufficient, to bringing populations back to some of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods, like the Lower 9th Ward, Gentilly, Florida and Desire. (The total population is hovering around 2/3 of its pre-Katrina count.) Here, city and neighborhood leaders must decide how and where to rebuild; what to do with abandoned and hazardous homes; and how to give residents that have dispersed to the diaspora confidence that they have a neighborhood to come home to.

Special thanks to Wade Habshey, public affairs officer at the Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Hope, and David Dixon, leader of Planning and Urban Design at Goody Clancy in Boston, for their insight on this post.

Image: The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal surge barrier, under construction. Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers.

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The Stuff of Dreams

The old Freudian notion that dreams are a window into the unconscious--revealing desires and fears that we'd rather not consciously face but that a therapist can help us excavate and confront--makes many neuroscientists today raise their eyebrows. That skepticism was clear in NOVA's program "What Are Dreams?" as well as in what sleep-and-dream researcher Bob Stickgold had to say to the flood of viewers who e-mailed questions after the show aired. (The gist: "Freud was probably 50 percent right and 100 percent wrong!")

Stickgold and his colleagues continue to rack up evidence that dreams are nonetheless a reflection of critical processes at work in the brain as we sleep, neurological housekeeping that helps consolidate and organize our memories and thereby enhances learning. A study in the April 22 issue of Current Biology led by Erin Wamsley, a postdoc in Stickgold's lab at Harvard Medical School, offers an intriguing case.

Wamsley and her team taught 99 Harvard undergrad volunteers how to make their way through a computer maze, represented by the schematic below.

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(Courtesy Erin Wamsley)

The students had to remember the location of a particular object (the checkered cone) and then find the cone as quickly as possible when they were plunked down at different spots within the maze. After a first round of testing their navigation skills, half the group was led into a sleep lab for a 90-minute afternoon nap. The other half stayed awake, quietly watching videos.
Because it's Friday, and because some things are funny even when you're a grownup and you know you they shouldn't be funny anymore, here is a treat from NASA: A training video for the "space potty" that astronauts use aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. You'll never think about "alignment" and "docking" the same way. (Atlantis, incidentally, just blasted off on what will likely be its last mission. But that's another story.)


If you like Mike Massimino in this video--he's the one who isn't fidgeting uncomfortably--check him out in NOVA's Hubble's Amazing Rescue and NOVA scienceNOW's Saving Hubble
Think you had it bad when your 8-track collection went the way of the dinosaurs? If your media has become obsolete, it might be an inconvenience in your life--but at worst, you've probably only lost the ability to watch your copy of Footloose (hey, I won't judge). In the world of science, though, obsolete media can sometimes mean the loss of irreplaceable data.

That's a problem NASA has run into in the past. In the mid-1960s, it stored information from five lunar orbiter missions onto miles of analog tape, which was state-of-the-art for the time, but pretty quaint by today's standards. Still, even with woefully underpowered computers, they were able to create detailed maps of the lunar surface, and pinpoint exact landing sites for the upcoming Apollo 11 mission. When that mission was over, though, the tapes were largely forgotten. They collected dust in an archive for more than 40 years, and the refrigerator-sized machines that could read them were slowly sold off or destroyed.

Today, an engineer named Dennis Wingo is working to resurrect that data. He co-leads the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project--which, as the name implies, is working to pry all that old data off of the tapes. So far, he's been successful, thanks to a combination of skill and pure luck. Wingo's team located one of the only NASA computer tape drives left in existence, and carefully restored it to its former glory in order to digitize the old tapes onto modern hard drives.

But Wingo's work isn't just for the sake of nostalgia. His team's high-res scans of the Lunar Orbiter images are providing a sort of cosmic time capsule of the Moon's surface in 1965. By comparing the number of craters in those images to the number of craters there today, Wingo says researchers can calculate how many objects--even tiny ones--have hit the Moon in the last four decades. With that information, he says, it's possible to figure out the risk of micrometeor impacts that future manned missions could face. (If we end up building a lunar base, he reasons, we'll want to know exactly what might be falling on it.)

Wingo is also using his data recovery skills on tapes from NASA's NIMBUS satellites, which recorded the temperature of the Earth's surface in the mid-60s using infra-red sensors. In the process, they yielded an extensive data set spanning the entire globe, capturing a snapshot of hurricane season, ocean currents, even the extent of arctic and antarctic ice. it's information that could be invaluable for climate change research.

Wingo thinks there's an important lesson in all this. Although the march of technology will (almost) always move forward, we shouldn't forget the machines of the past. Because as NASA's forgotten tapes have shown, they've still got some important things to say.

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(Above: the iconic "Earthrise" image--the first ever taken of the Earth from the Moon's perspective. The original image as seen in 1966 appears on the bottom; Dennis Wingo's re-scanned copy is at the top).

You can hear a recent podcast we did with Dennis Wingo here.
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Did Neanderthals mate with humans?

Modern humans and Neanderthals: Did they or didn't they? The sordid truth is out, and its not what scientists expected. The closest-ever look at the Neanderthal genome reveals that yes, we did interbreed. But scientists are still fuzzy on the where, the when, and the why.

If you watched Becoming Human when it premiered this fall, you might be feeling some scientific whiplash. At the time, genetic analysis suggested that modern humans and Neanderthals kept to themselves and didn't share their, ahem, genetic material. So why the sudden turnaround? The first time around, scientists based their conclusions on mitochondrial DNA. This time, researchers looked at nuclear DNA, which provides a more sensitive comparison to the DNA of modern humans.

So, our ancestors made babies with Neanderthals. But that's not the whole story: Only some modern populations have Neanderthal parentage. Africans don't seem to have any distinctively Neanderthal DNA. So what does that tell us about where and when modern humans and Neanderthals decided to commingle?

We've started the filming for Making Stuff: Smarter, and there's no better way to burst onto the scene than as we did, testing our host David Pogue's nerve with a 10-day block of filming and a couple of extreme sports.

But first, what does it mean for a material to "smart"? Scientists, often inspired by nature, have come up with an increasingly surprising array of smart materials--materials that sense and respond to stimuli. On our filming adventures, David will be discovering just what makes these materials more like the versatile and impressive ones found in nature.

David and the Making Stuff crew recently jetted into Grand Bahama Island, where David took a dive with an animal that is often misunderstood...the shark. He didn't have too much to worry about--he was diving with Caribbean Reef Sharks and not Great Whites. On top of that, he was in the safe hands of expert shark handler Cristina Zenato, who can hypnotize sharks by rubbing their noses. The phenomenon, known as tonic immobilization, causes the shark to fall asleep. 

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Photo Courtesy of Powderhouse Productions - David touching a reef shark

(David also happened to be reviewing underwater cameras for his day gig at the NYTimes during our shoot.)

What do sharks have to do with smart materials? The secret is in their skin, which has a number of properties that scientists are trying to imitate. Professor Anthony Brennan at the University of Florida has already developed a chemical-free anti-bacterial material based on shark's skin.

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