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Saturday, January 5, 2008

As NASA gets to work on the Constellation Program

Using Satellites to Pinpoint and Predict Pollution

The European Space Agency is expanding its satellite data network to better track air pollution on a global

As NASA gets to work on the Constellation Program—the space agency's next not-so-small-step for mankind that hopes to put U.S. astronauts back on the moon by 2020—the European Space Agency (ESA) has set its sights on learning more about our own planet. Toward that end the agency this month, at its Tropospheric Emission Monitoring Internet Service (TEMIS) conference in Italy, touted its ability to provide free atmospheric and environmental data to help nations assess air pollution problems.

ESA's TEMIS delivers data in what the agency calls "near-real time" and also provides long-term forecasts based on tropospheric trace gas concentrations, aerosols and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. TEMIS gathers information from its own satellites and also has agreements with NASA and the Darmstadt, Germany–based European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) to make their data available on its Web site. This data includes info from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA's Aura satellite and the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment (GOME-2) instrument on the MetOp satellite, which was developed by EUMETSAT and ESA to provide a closer view of the atmosphere from low Earth orbit.

ESA plans to expand TEMIS to monitor the transboundary and hemispheric movement of air pollution. The OMI and GOME-2 instruments are spectrometers, which can pinpoint different trace gases in wavelength ranges, providing a measure of Earth's entire atmosphere in a single day.

"Key users of this data are environmental agencies [that] have to report on things like greenhouse gases," says Claus Zehner, an ESA Earth observation application engineer, noting that the European Union (E.U.) continues to keep tabs on air quality over its member nations. By law, they have to report each year on the status of the air quality in their countries, he adds. The E.U. is now considering changing its European Air Quality monitoring laws to mandate the use of satellite data.

Among the most important info ESA has provided is data on levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the atmosphere. NO2, a known pollutant, has been linked to respiratory ills and environmental destroyers such climate change and acid rain. Researchers have identified major NO2 hot spots and industrial culprits, thanks to ESA data gathered between 1996 and 2006.

ESA data has traditionally been used by environmental protection agencies in European Community countries, but its use is spreading. Researchers at Harvard University, for example, used Aura's OMI data to analyze changes in air quality achieved by limiting traffic in Beijing during a China–Africa summit held there last year. In an attempt to ease travel congestion, Beijing officials reduced traffic flow by 30 percent during the conference, barring some 800,000 of its 2.82-million strong fleet of private vehicles from traveling within city limits.

TEMIS enabled Harvard researchers to obtain accurate, independent measurements of NO2 in the city air at that time. By comparing the satellite observations with measurements from the ground, along with a global chemical transport model, they learned that the atmospheric models failed to accurately reflect a dramatic 40 percent drop in nitrogen dioxide levels in Beijing's air during the traffic restriction, says Yuxuan Wang, a Harvard lecturer and research assistant specializing in atmospheric chemistry.
"Without the TEMIS data, I would say that it would be impossible to do" the Beijing emissions study, Wang says. Chinese scientists were able to provide some data, she says, but it didn't come close to the details captured by the satellites. Wang and her colleagues continue to use ESA data to study regional NO2 emission distribution as well as gauge the amount of nitric oxide (NO) plus nitrogen dioxide (collectively known as NOX) present in the air.

ESA data has also been used to study patterns of gaseous pollutant emissions throughout India and to assess the prevalence of disease related to air pollution in New Zealand.

Zehner says that the agency plans to build and launch at least five "sentinel" satellites to monitor not only trace gases that indicate pollution in the atmosphere, but also the surface temperature of the oceans, the movement of ice and the shifting of land masses. The first three are expected to launch by 2012; the remaining two are tentatively scheduled to be sent into orbit by 2015, he says.

ESA's goal is to provide reliable information that can be used to advocate and establish policies designed to improve the environment, Zehner says, adding, "We are offering the first steps needed for monitoring greenhouse gases and other environmental areas."

MetOp-A takes up service

EUMETSAT has just reported that Europe entered a new era of meteorology and climatology when MetOp-A, Europe’s first polar-orbiting meteorological satellite, was on 15 May 2007 officially declared operational after only six months of commissioning.

The first scientific data were received as early as two days after the end of the Launch and Early-Orbit Phase. Now the full data flow from its instruments is available to users on an operational basis, offering unprecedented accuracy and resolution of different variables such as temperature and humidity, wind speed, ozone and measurements of trace gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.
Through its instruments, which sound the atmosphere throughout its depth, MetOp-A gathers essential global information, day and night about the atmosphere, land and ocean surfaces. MetOp-A data will significantly improve weather forecasting e.g. by direct assimilation into Numerical Weather Prediction Models that compute forecasts ranging from a few hours to up to 10 days ahead.

Researchers discover a way to briefly store data acoustically to alleviate traffic bottlenecks

New Way to Help Networks Handle Ever-Heavier Data Loads

As demand for streaming video over the Web, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) calling services and other forms of Internet-based multimedia communication skyrockets, content creators and consumers are counting on fiber-optic networks to handle these increasing loads quickly and efficiently. One way to ensure this happens is to enhance the ability of such networks, which transmit data over glass or plastic threads, to capture and retain data even for very brief intervals.

Toward that end, a team of researchers from Duke University and University of Rochester's Institute of Optics recently reported in Science that it successfully transferred encoded information from a laser beam to sound waves and back to light waves, a breakthrough that could speed development of faster optical communication networks. Swapping data between optics and acoustics allows it to be stored in pockets of acoustic vibration created when laser beams interact along a short strand of optical fiber.

The research is significant, because it addresses how memory can be created for optical pulses. "The primary thrust is investigating slow light via stimulated Brillouin scattering, where we slow down a pulse as it propagates through an optical fiber," says study co-author Daniel Gauthier, chairman of Duke's department of physics. Brillouin scattering occurs when light traveling through a medium, such as glass, changes its path as it encounters varying densities.

The main goal of the research is to pave the way for better fiber-optic communication systems, which today consist of fiber placed underground and linked by routers. The typical way to send data over an optical network is to break it up into chunks called packets. When a packet comes into a router, its address information is read. The problem with routers is that they each contain a single switch that can only process one packet at a time. As a result, some packets are dropped unless others coming in are buffered (saved) or can wait until it is their turn to be routed. "If you drop the packet, you reduce the throughput of the entire network," Gauthier says. "If you buffer, then the packets are processed one after the other."

As greater demands are placed on telecommunication infrastructures, "it's important to start to investigate parallel technologies," he adds.

Gauthier and his colleagues discovered that when two laser beams of slightly different frequencies are pointed at one another along a piece of glass fiber, they create acoustic vibrations called phonons. When co-author Zhaoming Zhu, Gauthier's postdoctoral research associate, encoded information onto one of these beams, the data could be imprinted on these newly created phonons and retained for 12 billionths of a second, long enough to be transferred back to light again by shining a third laser through the fiber.

"When thinking about how to store light in optical fibers," Zhu says, "we realized that we can convert optical information to acoustic vibration, something that hasn't been done before."

The researchers are seeking ways to create longer storage times and reduce the peak power of the laser beam needed for retaining and reading out the information, a process that will take years before a commercial version of the technology is available.

"There is still a great need for developing new strategies for optimizing the flow of information over the Internet," says Robert Boyd, a professor of optics and physics at the Institute of Optics and a research co-author. "If two data packets arrive at a switch at the same time, you need to store one until the other packet clears the switch, maybe 100 nanoseconds later. Our technique is aimed at … building buffers for high-speed telecommunications."

During the first phase of the project—which is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Defense Sciences Office slow-light program—Zhu says he learned that pulses could be stored and read out at a later time. The second phase was the actual experiment in which data pulses were stored (as acoustic waves in an optical fiber) and retrieved after a certain period of time.

"We really want to demonstrate that methods for storing optical information are much broader than people thought," Gauthier says. "In the current telecommunication systems, you turn the optical signal into an electronic signal and store it in RAM. The optical data pulses are then regenerated by using the electrical signals to turn on and off an auxiliary laser source. But this process generates heat. The faster this is done, the more heat is generated."

For this to work in the real world, the scientists say the communication fibers must be made of a material that provides an acoustic time frame long enough to allow the information to move from optical to sound, then return to optical. One option, Gauthier says, is to work with a new type of glass made from a chalcogenide, which has good semiconductor properties and contains one or more elements from the periodic table's chalcogenide group, also known as the "oxygen family," which includes oxygen, sulfur, selenium and tellurium.

Another option that researchers are exploring is to run the laser beams through a hollow optical fiber filled with gas (such as xenon), which would allow them to use a less powerful laser to induce longer lasting sound waves in the gas. This could potentially create a sound wave 50 times longer and allow the lasers used to be 100 times less powerful—and less energy intensive—thereby delivering more data more quickly at a lower cost.

New Video VoIP Software, Webcams End That Pixelated Feeling

Skype and Logitech team up to deliver video voice over Internet protocol calls that look more like TV than home videos

Thanks to the rapid-fire growth of broadband network connectivity, video voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services now give callers around the world the ability to gab away for no more than the cost of their monthly Internet service provider fee. Until now, though, the video capabilities have been little more than a novelty that tempts callers with grainy images of their friends and family that lack the ability to capture their movement with any fluidity.

But that could change as early as next month when Luxembourg–based Skype, a division of online auctioneer eBay, is set to unveil the latest version of its software, which is tuned to work with a new lineup of "high-quality video" Web cameras from Fremont, Calif.–based Logitech. The companies gave a preview Tuesday of what's to come at a New York City press conference, where they demonstrated their software and hardware working together to produce video VoIP that looks more like watching TV than grainy home movies.

This is no small feat, as the laundry list of requirements indicates. What do you need to take advantage of this latest offering? Skype 3.6 (coming in early to mid November), any of three new Logitech Web cameras introduced Tuesday, the latest version of Logitech's Web camera drivers, a bandwidth connection of at least 380 Kbps (kilobits per second) and a PC with at least one gigabyte of RAM and a dual-core, 2.0 GHz (gigahertz) or faster processor running Windows XP or Vista. The result will be a sharp video image resolution of 640 by 480 pixels at up to 30 fps (frames per second), up from Skype's previous capacity of 320 by 240–pixel resolution at no more than 15 fps.

The goal, the companies say, is to alleviate some of the frustrations that video VoIP users must contend with, in particular the choppy, pixilated images of loved ones that freeze and jump during VoIP conversations. The upgrades in software and camera equipment are designed to "make people feel like they're together during a conversation," even if they are separated by hundreds of miles, Don Albert, vice president and general manager of Skype North America said at the press conference.

Added Gina Clark, vice president and general manager of Logitech's Internet Communications business unit: "Our goal is to make lifelike video calls.''

Have an Apple? Sorry. You'll have to stay on the sidelines—at least for awhile. Albert said there was currently no plan to release a Mac version of Skype 3.6, but Logitech's Clark said she would be interested in exploring the new cameras' performance on Macs, even though most Macs now come with embedded Web cameras.

All three of Logitech's new Web cameras offer a glass lens made by Oberkochen, Germany–based optical lens maker Carl Zeiss. (Most Web cameras come with plastic lenses, but more expensive glass lenses produce higher quality images.) The cameras also include an autofocus feature that resolves images in less than three seconds and can handle close-ups up to about four inches (10 centimeters) from the lens. The price tag for the new Web cameras: $100 and up.

Skype, which earlier this week introduced a 3G Internet phone with built-in software, says that 25 percent of its 246 million users worldwide use their VoIP technology to make video calls to other Skype users. Although Skype has offered VoIP since 2003, it has offered video calls for only about two years. Interest in video VoIP is expected to grow, but it will only go as far as broadband connectivity can permeate. Logitech estimates that half of U.S. households currently have access to broadband.

For the first time, researchers have developed a way to view stem cells in the brains of living animals, including humans—

The Birth of a Brain Cell: Scientists Witness Neurogenesis
For the first time, researchers have developed a way to view stem cells in the brains of living animals, including humans—a finding that allows scientists to follow the process neurogenesis (the birth of neurons). The discovery comes just months after scientists confirmed that such cells are generated in adult as well as developing brains.

"I was looking for a method that would enable us to study these cells through[out a] life span," says Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, an assistant professor of neurology at Stony Brook University in New York State, who specializes in neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy that premature and low-weight babies are at greater risk of developing. She says the new technique will enable her to track children at risk by monitoring the quantity and behavior of these so-called progenitor cells in their brains.

The key ingredient in this process is a substance unique to immature cells that is neither found in mature neurons nor in glia, the brain's nonneuronal support cells. Maletic-Savatic and her colleagues collected samples of each of the three cell types from rat brains (stem cells from embryonic animals, the others from adults) and cultured the varieties separately in the lab. They were able to determine the chemical makeup of each variety—and isolate the compound unique to stem cells—with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. (NMR helps to determine a molecule's structure by measuring the magnetic properties of its subatomic particles.) Although the NMR could identify the biomarker, but not its makeup, Maletic-Savatic speculates it is a blend of fatty acids in a lipid (fat) or lipid protein.

After pinpointing their marker, the team ran two tests to determine the method's sensitivity and accuracy: First, they injected a bevy of stem cells into a rat's cerebral cortex, an outer brain layer where neurogenesis does not normally occur. They then passed an electric current through the animals' brains; electric currents induce neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a forebrain structure that is one of two sites (the other being the subventricular zone) where new neurons are believed to arise.

After performing each procedure, the team used NMR spectroscopy to capture images of the living rats' brains. There was, however, too much visual interference on the scans to find their biomarker. The researchers called upon Stony Brook electrical engineering professor Petar Djurić to help them come up with an algorithm to cut through the clutter and glean a clear picture of their target compound.

With the analytical method helping to decode their scans, they could clearly see increased biomarker levels in the cortex after a neural stem cell injection. Similarly, after the animals were given electric shocks, levels of the compound clearly went up in the hippocampus.

The team next turned its attention to humans, enlisting 11 healthy volunteers, ranging in age from eight to 35, who each spent 45 minutes in an NMR scanner. Hippocampal scans turned up more of the marker than the cortical images. In addition, the older subjects showed lower levels of the biomarker than younger ones (a finding consistent with earlier studies). "This is the first technique that allows detection of these cells in the living human brain," says Maletic-Savatic.

Fred Gage, a genetics professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and co-author a 1998 report in Nature Medicine that announced the discovery of neurogenesis in the adult human brain, praises the new approach. "It seems that they are measuring proliferation rather then maturation based on their results," he says. "It will be important for them to knock down neurogenesis in a mouse and show that [this] signal disappears to confirm the causal link with neurogenesis.

If the new work is replicated and confirmed, it may allow for faster diagnosis and tracking of myriad psychiatric and neurological conditions. Among them: chronic depression. Study co-author Grigori Enikolopov, an associate professor of molecular biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y., showed last year that antidepressants lead to new nervous system cells, raising questions about the role these cells play in the causation of the ailment.

"Although we are only just beginning to test applications, it is clear that this biomarker may have promise in identifying cell proliferation in the brain, which can be a sign of cancer," Enikolopov says. "In other patients, it could show us how neurogenesis is related to the course of diseases such as depression, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, MS, and post-traumatic stress disorder."


Young Cells in Old Brains
The paradigm-shifting conclusion that adult brains can grow new neurons owes a lot to Elizabeth Gould's rats and monkeys.
Reunion weekend at Princeton University, and the shady Gothic campus has been inundated by spring showers and men in boaters and natty orange seersucker jackets. Tents and small groups of murmuring alumni dot the courtyards. Everything proper, seemingly in its place. In Green Hall, however, the same order does not prevail. Elizabeth Gould's laboratory is undergoing construction, and the neuroscientist herself would not be mistaken for an alum: her plaid blue workman's shirt hangs loosely and unbuttoned over a T-shirt and jeans, and she confesses she often feels out of place on the conservative campus.

Against a backdrop of tidy ideas about the brain, Gould and her colleagues have been messing things up and, in the process, contributing to some of the most exciting findings of the past decade. Her work--and that of several other neuroscientists--has made clear that new neurons are produced in certain areas of the adult brains of mammals, including primates. Moreover, these cells can be killed off by stress and unchallenging environments but thrive in enriched settings where animals are learning, and they may play a role in memory.

Until recently, dogma held that mature brains were static: no cells were born, except in the olfactory bulb. One of the cornerstones of this understanding came from studies by Pasko Rakic of Yale University, who examined macaque monkeys and found no evidence of the creation of nerve cells, a process called neurogenesis. The prevailing view has since held that primates--and, indeed, mammals in general--are born with all the neurons they are going to have. Such neural stability was considered necessary for long-term memory. So in the late 1980s when Gould, who was then researching the effect of hormones on the brain as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Bruce S. McEwen at the Rockefeller University, saw evidence of new neurons in the rat hippocampus, she was perplexed. Gould knew from the pioneering work of Fernando Nottebohm, also at Rockefeller, that neurogenesis occurred in adult birds--canaries and zebra finches, for instance, grow nerve cells to learn new songs--but she and her lab mates knew of no mammalian parallel. "We were really puzzled," she recalls. "It wasn't until we delved far enough back into the literature that we found evidence that new neurons are produced in the hippocampus."

Those earlier studies had never been widely noticed. Beginning in the 1960s Joseph Altman, now professor emeritus at Purdue University, and neurologist Michael S. Kaplan independently recorded neurogenesis in rats and other mammals. They saw growth in the olfactory bulb, in the hippocampus--a region important to memory--and, most strikingly, in the neocortex, which is the part of the brain involved in higher thinking. "But nobody picked up on the results," Gould says. "It is a classic example of something appearing before its time."

In her work with rats, Gould verified that when she altered the normal hormonal bath the hippocampus received, cells died and, apparently to compensate, more cells were born. "That was really the beginning of my interest in neurogenesis and my realization that it happened," she says. "But at that time, to be perfectly honest, I was more interested in solving the puzzle of my own data and not so much into saying, 'Hey, this is a really cool phenomenon that has been overlooked and that has a lot of meaning.'" Her first papers on the phenomenon, published in 1992 and 1993, did not attract much attention.

Gould went on to do experiments clarifying aspects of neurogenesis. She found that stress suppressed the creation of neurons and that lesions in the hippocampus triggered the development of new cells--something she considers significant because it implies that the brain can heal, or be induced to heal, after injury.

In 1997 Gould, who grew up in Huntington, N.Y., moved to Princeton as an assistant professor. Over the next few years she and her co-workers reported that new neurons survived if animals lived in complex environments and learned tasks, findings also documented in mice by Fred H. Gage of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. Gould then observed that new neurons are found not just in the rat hippocampus but also in those of marmoset monkeys and macaques. News of neurogenesis in primates, including confirmatory work by Rakic in macaques and by Gage in the human hippocampus, catalyzed widespread interest because it introduced the possibility of repairing the brain and elucidating memory formation.

For Gould, the sudden splash of attention has been disorienting--and she does not relish it, particularly when it takes her away from her experiments. She says she is happiest in the lab, working under the microscope with brain slices, which she finds beautiful and which recall a childhood interest in being an artist. And she has liked being in a quiet field of research, one she chose when studying psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. "I have no interest in doing experiments that someone else is going to do a month later if I don't get around to it," she says. "You have to pick things to do that are really intriguing to you, things that you are really curious about--not just because you want to publish on them before anyone else does."

Her curiosity is taking her in several directions these days. An outstanding question centers on what role new hippocampal neurons play. Do they establish new circuits or memories? Or do they replace old neurons in established circuits? This year Gould and her colleagues reported that the neurons are involved in the creation of trace memories--memories important to temporal information. "We had evidence that the new cells were affected by learning, and this is evidence that the new cells are necessary for learning," Gould explains. She now intends to do similar studies in marmosets, to see whether her discoveries about rats will prove true for primates.

Gould is also repeating and extending work of a few years ago in which she found neurogenesis in the neocortex of macaques, a finding that remains controversial and that would be highly significant because of the importance of the cortex. Although no one has published a replication so far, William T. Greenough of the University of Illinois says Gould's findings "do not surprise me. We have unpublished data in rats that support the same thing."

In addition, Gould has begun investigating the role of sleep deprivation in neurogenesis, an interest triggered by the birth of her third child last year. "I never really thought about the sleep aspect until I wasn't getting any," she says, laughing. And she is intrigued by the possibility that much of what we have come to understand from laboratory settings may be skewed.

"Our laboratory animals are very abnormal," Gould notes. "They have unlimited access to food and water, and they have no interesting cognitive experiences at all. We know that if you house an animal in that setting, most of its new neurons will die within a few weeks after they are produced." Gould is designing environments that are closer to the ones rats and marmosets experience in the wild, hoping to get closer to the truth about the brain. "It really raises the issue of whether a lot of the things we are looking at are really deprivation effects."

Potentially shifting another paradigm doesn't faze Gould. "There has to be some fresh perspective, something new that you can bring to the work that other people wouldn't see," she says. "Otherwise you are not making a real contribution, and you might as well just step aside and find something else to do."

evolutionary science from religious conservatives who insist that public schools teach alternative explanations

Science academy stresses evolution's importance Giant tortoises are seen on the Galapagos islands, April 29, 2007, where British naturalist Charles Darwin conceived his theory of evolution. The National Academy of Sciences on Thursday issued a spirited defense of evolution as the bedrock principle of modern biology, arguing that it, not creationism, must be taught in public school science classes. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

Scientists say evolution fits
Facing continued challenges to evolutionary science from religious conservatives who insist that public schools teach alternative explanations, the National Academy of Sciences has issued a new book that outlines the scientific evidence for evolution.

"Evolution is one of the bedrock theories in all of modern science, and we are coming to understand better and better as to why that is," said NAS President Ralph Cicerone at a panel discussion of the 86-page booklet, called Science, Evolution and Creationism.

"We are trying to give the public a coherent explanation of that and concrete examples of the impact of evolution," Cicerone said of the booklet, which insists that theories such as creationism and "intelligent design" have no place in science classrooms.
Two years in the writing, the NAS book is aimed at school board members, science teachers, policy makers and legal scholars on the front lines of the debate.

Only hours before, the political power of religious conservatives was made clear when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee decisively won the Iowa Republican caucuses. A Southern Baptist minister, Huckabee has declared that he doesn't believe in evolution and thinks creationism should be taught in the schools.

"Our public schools should present both evolution and creationism," Huckabee told the Christian Broadcasting Network. "I would not support public schools teaching only creationism. Evolution is a theory based on a lot of science, so it must be part of the curriculum."

Members of the NAS panel also made their point: Although faith and acceptance of evolution need not be incompatible, creationism does not belong in a science classroom.

"I would worry that a president who does not believe in evolution would not believe in other [scientific] arguments as well," said Francisco Ayala, professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California, Irvine, who chaired the panel that wrote the book. "That is a way to lead the country to ruin. If all the other countries that are chasing us are behaving rationally, we are doomed."

Barbara Schaal, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed. "A lot of what we do in the United States is based on science and technology, and anything that weakens science and technology for students would necessarily be harmful," she said.

Vice president of the National Academy, Schaal was on the panel that wrote the evolution booklet, an update of editions published by the NAS in 1984 and 1999. The academy is a private, independent society of scientists chartered by Congress to advise the federal government on scientific and technological issues.

The science of evolution is founded on the observation that during reproduction, errors in the duplication of DNA - an organism's genetic blueprint - create individuals with different traits. Those traits that enhance survival are preferentially passed on to subsequent generations. That "natural selection" leads to differing populations and, with enough time, new species.

Earlier editions of the NAS booklet focused on the scientific evidence for evolution and the legal arguments for excluding faith-based theories from science classes.

This one also argues that acceptance of evolutionary science and religious faith are not mutually exclusive - that many evolutionary scientists are deeply religious, and many faiths and theologians accept evolutionary biology.

The Rev. Joseph Pagano, rector of Emmanual Episcopal church in Mount Vernon, said he read the booklet and found it compelling.

"It comes down to how certain people understand the nature and authority of the Scriptures," he said. "If one reads them in an extremely literalistic fashion, then one is going to have a problem with evolution. But of course that is not the only way to read them."

Pagano compared such a literal reading to someone who reads a sports headline that says, "Vikings Destroy Bears" and concludes "that a Nordic race has killed off a North American mammal."

The Rev. Jason Poling of the evangelical New Hope Community Church in Pikesville said he also has a non-literal reading of Genesis as a theological statement, a declaration that God created the parts of nature that others were worshiping - the sun and moon and stars.

"There are and always have been those who read the first chapter of Genesis and see it as a literal blueprint and those who see it as figurative," he said. "I really want to affirm that it is possible to be faithful and intelligent and take either of those views."

The NAS booklet suggests there is no real conflict. "The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith," the booklet states. "Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future."

Despite what the NAS says is incontrovertible scientific evidence, nearly 150 years after Charles Darwin first proposed his ideas in his paper, On the Origin of Species, a controversy still swirls.

In Texas, the current science curriculum requires the teaching of evolution. But that's up for review and a vote by the state school board. Conservatives hope to introduce changes that will discuss "weaknesses" in evolutionary science.

In Florida, proposed revisions to the science curriculum are up for public comment on the Internet. The revisions include, for the first time, references to evolution as a "big idea," critical to students' understanding of natural science.

Creationists there are making themselves heard, challenging evolutionary science and urging inclusion of alternative theories.

In Dover, Pa., a school board ended up in federal court - and voted out of office - after requiring in 2004 that science teachers tell students about intelligent design. The court ruled that intelligent design is "grounded in theology, not science" and should not be taught in science classes.

The NAS booklet argues that evolutionary biology "has been and continues to be a cornerstone of modern science." It has made "major contributions" to public health and medicine, agriculture, and industrial development.

"However, polls show that many people continue to have questions," the booklet says. Many believe the science is incomplete or in doubt, or can't explain the complexity and diversity of life.

"There is no controversy in the scientific community over whether evolution has occurred," the booklet states. Although there is continuing scientific debate about the details and mechanisms of evolution, there is now an "immense body of evidence" to support it, making it "one of the most securely established of scientific facts."

At the panel discussion, Ayala defended keeping creationism out of the classroom, saying, "We do not teach astrology as an alternative to astronomy; we do not teach witchcraft as an alternative to medicine. It is not a question of dogma, it is a question of what is science and what is not."
To view an electronic copy of the NAS booklet, visit

Science academy stresses evolution's importance

The National Academy of Sciences on Thursday issued a spirited defense of evolution as the bedrock principle of modern biology, arguing that it, not creationism, must be taught in public school science classes.

The academy, which operates under a mandate from Congress to advise the government on science and technology matters, issued the report at a time when the theory of evolution, first offered in the 19th century, faces renewed attack by some religious conservatives.

Creationism, based on the explanation offered in the Bible, and the related idea of "intelligent design" are not science and, as such, should not be taught in public school science classrooms, according to the report.

"We seem to have continuing challenges to the teaching of evolution in schools. That's something that doesn't seem to go away," Barbara Schaal, an evolutionary biologist at Washington University in St. Louis and vice president of National Academy of Sciences, said in a telephone interview.

"We need a citizenry that's trained in real science."

Evolution is a theory explaining change in living organisms over the eons due to genetic mutations. For example, it holds that humans evolved from earlier forms of apes.

The report stated that the idea of evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. "Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future," said the report.

But teaching creationist ideas in science classes confuses students about what constitutes science and what does not, according to the report's authors.

The report was released by the academy and the Institute of Medicine, which advises policymakers on medical issues. It updates academy publications issued in 1984 and 1999. It was written by a committee headed by University of California-Irvine biology professor Francisco Ayala.

"Biological evolution is one of the most important ideas of modern science. Evolution is supported by abundant evidence from many different fields of scientific investigation. It underlies the modern biological sciences, including the biomedical sciences, and has applications in many other scientific and engineering disciplines," the report stated.

The authors highlighted developments in evolutionary biology, citing its importance in understanding emerging infectious diseases. They noted the discovery, published in 2006, of the remains of a Tiktaalik, a creature described as an evolutionary link between fish and the first vertebrate animals that walked out of water onto land 375 million years ago.

President George W. Bush said in 2005 American students should be instructed about "intelligent design" alongside evolution as competing theories. "Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," Bush said.

Advocates of "intelligent design" contend that some biological structures are so complex they could not have appeared merely through natural processes.

A judge in Dover, Pennsylvania ruled in 2005 that the teaching of intelligent design violated the U.S. Constitution, which requires a separation of church and state, because it is based on religious conviction, not science.

A 2006 Gallup poll showed that almost half of Americans believe that humans did not evolve but were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

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