Tuesday's earthquake, Autoimmune disease; climate engineering, and computers to replace humanity?

Bulletins, Media bulletins

Tuesday’s Korumburra earthquake reached Melbourne, but Christchurch has experienced approximately 105 earthquakes of equivalent or greater magnitude to 4.4. in the last 10 months.  Experts from IUGG, the big Earth science conference in Melbourne are explaining the quake and putting it into perspective.

Another story from IUGG: a warning that giant eruptions are a greater threat to civilisation than meteorites.

And an even fiercer warning about the ‘Singularity’ – will humanity will be overtaken by artificial brains?

From Fresh Science in Canberra, an ANU researcher has been looking at how our bodies have layers of protection against autoimmune disease.

Multi-layered armour protects body against immune failure

The human body incorporates multiple fail-safe mechanisms to protect it against the “friendly fire” from its immune system known as autoimmune disease, Charis Teh and colleagues at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at the Australian National University have found.

The work should lead to a better understanding of autoimmune conditions, such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, she says, and may even provide new ways to target treatments.

“Why the immune system sometimes attacks different parts of our body is still poorly understood,” Charis says. “Consequently, no specific prevention or treatment is yet available. More at http://freshscience.org.au/?p=2911.

Autoimmmune diseases collectively affect more than one in 20 Australians. As well as diabetes, they include multiple sclerosis, thyroid disease, and lupus.

The JCSMR researchers, led by Charis’ supervisors, Professor Chris Goodnow and Dr Anselm Enders, have focused their work on understanding the progress of a condition caused by a single genetic defect, Autoimmune Polyendocrine Syndrome 1. People with this disease often seem perfectly healthy before the first vital organ is attacked, usually in childhood. Then come attacks on additional organs. Different organs are affected in different people, and the age when problems begin varies.

By studying a mouse strain incorporating an equivalent gene defect, the researchers discovered that the immune system is engineered with a series of back-up systems against such friendly fire, like multiple layers of armour.

Normally, any immune cells that could attack organs in the body are eliminated within the thymus gland where they develop, before they are released into the bloodstream. In the mice with the Autoimmune Polyendocrine Syndrome 1 gene defect, this does not happen. Despite this, the mice remain healthy, because a backup mechanism steps in to disable the ability of the rogue cells to launch an attack on the body’s tissue.

But when this backup mechanism is crippled by introducing a second genetic change, the mice succumb to a disastrous immune attack. Even then, many organs are still not attacked, suggesting they are protected by additional backup systems.

The work was published recently in the US journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Photos at www.freshscience.org.au

Dr Elaine Saunders wins 2011 Victorian Pearcey Entrepreneur Award – embargoed until 2pm Wednesday 6 July 2011

The 2011 Victorian Pearcey Entrepreneur Award will be presented to Dr Elaine Saunders tonight by the Victorian Minister for Technology, the Hon Gordon Rich-Phillips MLC, as part of the annual Victorian iAwards ceremony held today in the River Room at Crown.  This annual award is presented to a person in mid-career who has “taken risks and is making a difference” in the ICT industry.

Dr Saunders is a widely recognised pioneer, expert and entrepreneur in technology for the hearing impaired. Over her 20 year career she has worked in public health systems, University research and as an executive in leading edge technology companies. In 2001, she became CEO of Dynamic Hearing which today supplies award winning digital signal processors to the hearing aid and Bluetooth headset industries. Previously, Dr Saunders led the Cooperative Research Centre team that developed a new electrode for Cochlear Ltd which won an Australian Design award in 2000.

Today she is Managing Director and co-founder of Australia Hears, a company researching and supplying hearing aids to consumers over the internet. Dr Saunders is widely involved in academia, industry and the wider community.

As she said earlier this year, “We wanted this technology to make a difference for Australian’s with hearing loss, so we created a new business, and a new business model for hearing aids, to make the technology available to the millions of Australians who suffer hearing loss.”

“This is the hearing aid for the iTunes generation. It’s small, smart and it works.”

Call me for interviews – 03 9398-1416, 0417 131-977

The Korumburra quake

Korumburra is located about 100 km southeast of Melbourne, in the Strzelecki Ranges of South Gippsland. These ranges extend from Westernport Bay in the west, south of the Latrobe Valley, and towards Sale.

This part of Victoria is being compressed from southeast to northwest, largely as a result of movement between the Pacific Plate and the Australian Plate in the New Zealand region. It results in a number of faults that run from southwest to northeast.

The Strzelecki Ranges have been uplifted by hundreds of metres over the past 10 million years, or tens of metres per million years. This is a relatively high rate of fault movement for a stable continental area, but much less than the relative movement at active tectonic plate boundaries, which can reach tens of kilometres per million years.

Over the past hundred years the western part of the Strzelecki Ranges, about Korumburra, has experienced fewer earthquakes than the region south of the Latrobe Valley. On 12 January 2009 a magnitude 3.7 earthquake occurred just northeast of Korumburra, and was followed by a magnitude 4.7 on 6 March 2009 and another magnitude 4.7 on 18 March 2009, both felt in Melbourne.

A total of over 300 small earthquakes have occurred at the same place over the following couple of years. All of these were located about 4 kilometres northeast of Korumburra, at a depth of about 8 kilometres beneath the surface. Because of the depth and moderate to small magnitudes, none have caused any damage, but many of the smaller earthquakes have been felt locally. Additional seismographs have been installed in the area by the Seismology Research Centre at ES&S to monitor the smaller earthquakes.

At 11:32 am on Tuesday 5 July 2011, another earthquake of magnitude 4.4 occurred at the same place, and was felt in Melbourne. It was followed by four aftershocks in the next hour, up to magnitude 3.1.

Single clusters of earthquakes of this size are not unusual in Victoria. An earthquake of magnitude 4.1 occurred in the Grampians, northeast of Dunkeld and about 210 km west of Melbourne on 1 June 2011. However a series of earthquakes lasting over two years is unusual. It is very likely that more aftershocks will occur in the current cluster over the next few days, and that more clusters may occur in the next few months. It is possible that one of these clusters may include an earthquake larger than today’s event. As with any earthquake, it is not possible to predict what will happen with any certainty.

Gary Gibson, University of Melbourne, and ES&S.

We’ve not seen a big eruption

The volcanoes that have disrupted air travel are babies.

Our planet’s last big eruption occurred 74,000 years ago in Sumatra and produced more than 450 cubic kilometres of lava and ash. It probably darkened much of the world for days even weeks.

These super-eruptions occur every 10,000 to 100,000 years and could happen next week or next year. The likelihood is small, but the risk of a super-eruption is actually greater than the risk of a large meteorite impact. Both would be challenging for human civilization.

So says, Stephen Self, a vulcanologist from the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington and the Open University.

“Every now and again, Earth suffers from tremendous explosive volcanic eruptions, much bigger than those witnessed in modern times. Although the return period for such events is long, perhaps every 10-100,000 years depending on the size, it is statistically more likely that Earth will next experience a large super-eruption (defined here as one producing more than ~ 450 km3 of rhyolitic magma) than a large meteorite impact. Depending on where the volcano is located, the effects of such an event will be felt worldwide, or at least by a whole hemisphere, and the associated phenomena will spread quickly within a couple of weeks. These effects include temporary darkness with severe reduction in amounts of solar radiation reaching the surface, unseasonal cooling and warming coupled with strange weather patterns, and, of course, widespread ash fallout. Major disruptions of services that our society depends upon can be expected for periods of months, to even a few years.”

“Past explosive super-eruptions, include the latest very large one, the Toba event in Sumatra 74,000 years ago. Another type of super-eruption has also affected our world, but at times in the distant past. These are flood basalt events, vast lava flow-producing eruptions that have occurred in 1-2 million-year-long episodes throughout Earth history. Such events have occurred every few tens of million-years or so and seem somehow to be related to mass extinctions of life on Earth”.

“The environmental effects of the largest historic eruptions, such as Tambora and Laki, can be usefully used as small-scale analogs for the impact of much greater volcanic events. The Laki (Iceland) eruption, which can be viewed as a small-scale flood basalt analog, took place at a high latitude and impacted the whole northern part of the North Hemisphere for several years. We must ask: Is our global society ready for the next super-eruption?”

Climate engineering

Dr. Michael MacCracken asks if we should use climate engineering (often referred to as ‘geoengineering’) to counterbalance for a period of several decades at least some aspects of the changes in climate being caused mainly by the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas.

With climate change becoming more and more obvious and disruptive and only very slow progress being made at the international level in reducing CO2 emissions, there has been increasing interest in whether some additional human intervention with the climate might be able to offset critical impacts of climate change without creating other more serious impacts.

While most attention has been given to the potential for reducing the increase in global warming by, for example, imitating the cooling effects of major volcanic eruptions, MacCracken’s talks focused on the potential for offsetting some of the more severe, but spatially limited impacts, such as the amplified warming of the Arctic and the more frequent development of very intense tropical cyclones. He suggests some theoretical possibilities that merit research attention to determine if such approaches might be able to moderate the most severe impacts while the essential efforts to limit global emissions are undertaken.

Dr. Michael MacCracken is chief scientist for climate change programs with the Climate Institute, which is a small non-governmental, non-partisan organization based in Washington DC. Most of scientific career has been devoted to climate modelling, looking at the impacts of both natural and human influences. Since the mid-1990s, he has been closely involved in assessment of both climate change and climate change impacts, with the IPCC, and the US and Arctic assessments. He is currently past president of the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences. His current research focuses on the importance of limiting emissions of short-lived greenhouse gases and the potential for climate engineering to moderate the worst impacts of climate change.

The robots are coming

Humanity’s days as top-dog species are numbered if we are no longer the smartest people on the planet according to Australian-born physicist Hugo de Garis. He’s in Melbourne this week promoting the ‘Singularity’ conference to be held in Melbourne in August.

Hugo de Garis is a researcher in artificial intelligence (AI). He became known in the 1990s for his research on the use of genetic algorithms to evolve neural networks using three dimensional cellular automata inside field programmable gate arrays. He claimed that this approach would enable the creation of what he terms “artificial brains” which would quickly surpass human levels of intelligence.

He has more recently been noted for his belief that a major war between the supporters and opponents of intelligent machines, resulting in billions of deaths, is almost inevitable before the end of the 21st century.

He suggests AIs may simply eliminate the human race, and humans would be powerless to stop them because of technological singularity.

There are now 1000s of scientists in the Artificial Intelligence field who are worried about “species dominance”. Should godlike, massively intelligent machines, with mental capacities trillions of trillions of times above the human level be built? They believe the issue will dominate our global politics this century.

Prof de Garis is in Melbourne this week promoting the Australian Singularity Summit – to be held in Melbourne in August.

He is former Director of the Artificial Brain Lab, in Xiamen University, China, where they are building China’s first artificial brain.

fsHe can be contacted for interview via: profhugodegaris@yahoo.com, http://profhugodegaris.wordpress.com, 0458 375 988, P: 03 9598 0900, Skype: profhugodegaris

Note: we are not working on the topic – it’s just a curious topic we came across and I’ve no idea what he’s like as talent.

Coming soon in Melbourne

At the XVIII International Botanical Congress, 23-30 July, scientists will report on research from the molecular level to global food security and environmental change. The program also includes public lectures on: the future of wines under climate change;, strategies for conserving the 20 per cent of plant species faced with extinction yet of vital importance for our lives; botanical illustration as botanical education; and how an Atlas of Living Australia contributes to research and policy making.

A lunchtime debate on Wednesday 27 July asks: can we solve tomorrow’s environmental and energy problems by using life itself?
Jeff Powell, University of Sydney, and Kirsten Heimann, James Cook University, will argue that we should prioritise research into microbes to find solutions to problems such as  climate change while David Mabberly from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London and Kevin Thiele, Curator of the WA Herbarium will be speaking for the plants.

More info at http://www.ibc2011.com

Asian psychiatrists will meet in the 3rd World Congress of Asian Psychiatry 2011 from 31 July – 4 August. The opening address will be given by The Hon Ted Baillieu, Premier of Victoria, and 2010 Australian of the Year Pat McGorry will talk on the mental health of teenagers and young adults. Psychiatrists from many specialities will discuss the latest findings in psychiatry research relevant to practitioners in the Asia Pacific region – representing over 40 countries that host over 60% of global population.
This congress will blend philosophy, the practical and the spiritual, venerable Eastern wisdom and cutting edge Western science with demonstrated dynamic results.

More info at http://www2.kenes.com/wcap/Pages/Home.aspx