White House Honors Two Techies for Making Programming Cool

Bay Area residents Carlos Bueno and Kimberly Bryant are helping to prepare kids to use programming concepts in daily life and work.

Tech Titans Join Forces on Internet Surveillance

More than 60 technology firms and other groups are urging the federal government to let companies disclose Patriot Act data requests.

China's Alibaba Plans Record-Breaking IPO in America

China's e-commerce giant Alibaba, which started in an apartment with a pooled collection of $60,000, is expected to make its Wall Street debut raising $24 billion -- even more than when Google and Facebook went public. The company already surpasses eBay in China, with founder Jack Ma looking to take Alibaba's reach global. What would the IPO mean for the Chinese company and its U.S. competitors?

Bioneers Conference Celebrates 25 Years

Biomimicry, ecosystem restoration, grassroots movement building and climate change are the types of issues the Bioneers Conference addresses each year, bringing together scientists, innovators, business leaders and activists. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the conference. We talk with co-founder and CEO Kenny Ausubel about what the organization has achieved and what projects are on the horizon.

PBS NewsHour

Scientists look to increase crop production by speeding up photosynthesis

Photo by Flickr user bobistraveling

Scientists have genetically engineered a tobacco plant with enzymes from blue-green algae that would increase the speed of the plant’s photosynthesis, allowing for better yields. Photo by Flickr user bobistraveling

How does one improve the amount of food a crop yields? Speed up the way that plant eats.

A new study published last week in the journal Nature details a group of scientists that were able to genetically engineer a tobacco plant with a faster enzymes from blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, to allow it conduct photosynthesis more quickly. With sped-up photosynthesis — the process that allows plants to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and the sugar sucrose — scientists hope that food yields from crops such as wheat and rice can be multiplied up to 60 percent.

The secret is keeping the enzyme Rubisco away from oxygen and exposing it to more concentrated pockets of carbon dioxide:

In many crop plants, including tobacco, Rubisco is less reactive with oxygen, but a trade-off leads to slower carbon fixing and photosynthesis, and thus, smaller yields. The Rubisco in cyanobacteria fixes carbon faster, but it is more reactive with oxygen. As a result, in cyanobacteria, Rubisco is protected in special micro-compartments (called carboxysomes) that keep oxygen out and concentrate carbon dioxide for efficient photosynthesis.

“This is the first time that a plant has been created through genetic engineering to fix all of its carbon by a cyanobacterial enzyme,” said Maureen Hanson, plant geneticist and a co-author of the study from Cornell University.

The hope is more efficient yields from the same crops would be a possible solution to the finite amount of farmable land.

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China, U.S. and India push world carbon output to record levels

Smoke stacks from the NRG power plant outside of Jewett, Tx.  AP Photo/Nick Simonite

Smoke stacks from the NRG power plant outside of Jewett, Tx. AP Photo/Nick Simonite

WASHINGTON — Spurred chiefly by China, the United States and India, the world spewed far more carbon pollution into the air last year than ever before, scientists announced Sunday as world leaders gather to discuss how to reduce heat-trapping gases.

The world pumped an estimated 39.8 billion tons (36.1 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide into the air last year by burning coal, oil and gas. That is 778 million tons (706 metric tons) or 2.3 percent more than the previous year.

“It’s in the wrong direction,” said Glen Peters, a Norwegian scientist who was part of the Global Carbon Project international team that tracks and calculates global emissions every year.

Their results were published Sunday in three articles in the peer-reviewed journals Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change.

The team projects that emissions of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas from human activity, are increasing by 2.5 percent this year.

The scientists forecast that emissions will continue to increase, adding that the world in about 30 years will warm by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) from now. In 2009, world leaders called that level dangerous and pledged not to reach it.

“Time is running short,” said Pierre Friedlingstein of the University of Exeter in England, one of the studies’ lead authors. “The more we do nothing, the more likely we are to be hitting this wall in 2040-something.”“Time is running short,” said Pierre Friedlingstein of the University of Exeter in England, one of the studies’ lead authors. “The more we do nothing, the more likely we are to be hitting this wall in 2040-something.”

Chris Field, a Carnegie Institution ecologist who heads a U.N. panel on global warming, called the studies “a stark and sobering picture of the steps we need to take to address the challenge of climate change.”

More than 100 world leaders will meet Tuesday at the U.N. Climate Summit to discuss how to reverse the emissions trend.

The world’s three biggest carbon polluting nations — China, the U.S. and India — all saw their emissions jump. No other country came close in additional emissions.

Indian emissions grew by 5.1 percent, Chinese emissions by 4.2 percent and the U.S. emissions by 2.9 percent, when the extra leap day in 2012 is accounted for.

China, the No. 1 carbon polluter, also had more than half the world’s increases over 2012. China’s increases are slowing because the Chinese economy isn’t growing as fast as it had been, Peters said.

The U.S. had reduced its carbon emissions in four of the five previous years. Peters said it rose last year because of a recovering economy and more coal power.

Only two dozen of the about 200 countries cut their carbon emissions last year, led by mostly European countries. Spain had the biggest decrease.

The world emissions averaged to 6.3 million pounds (2.9 million kilograms) of carbon dioxide put in the air every second.

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Man on Mars? NASA’s Maven spacecraft explores the possibility


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HARI SREENIVASAN: Later tonight the NASA MAVEN spacecraft is expected to complete a 10-month voyage to Mars.

Once it’s placed into orbit, NASA scientists plan to gather information about the red planet’s atmosphere — information they hope will offer clues about our own planet’s climate. For more on the mission significance, yesterday I spoke with the NewsHour’s Miles O’Brien.

Why are space nuts, Mars nerds, all so excited for Sunday night?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well this is all part of the big tapestry, if you will, of laying the ground work for one day putting human boots on Mars — we hope. You just don’t fly off in a rocket and land there. You need to learn about the soil, the ground.

And in this case, the atmosphere. One of the big questions, the overriding questions, which trouble scientists and which has a lot to do about future exploration of Mars, is, what happened to the planet over the past 3 billion years?

It used to be warm and wet and now it’s awfully dry and awfully cold. What happened along the way? Understanding what’s going on in the fringes of the atmosphere, which is what MAVEN will do, will help scientists understand what happened.

Did the solar wind kind of blow the atmosphere away? Was that a part of what happened to this planet as it went through kind of the ultimate climate change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, there are going to be multiple orbiters around this planet if the United States successfully maneuvers this satellite into the right orbit and then on Tuesday India has one, the Manglayaan project, that hopefully they’ll succeed as well.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yeah, if everybody succeeds, if the U.S. of MAVEN and the Indians succeed with their first interplanetary mission, which is an exciting thing in its own right, that would put five craft in orbit around Mars doing all kinds of work scientifically.

Looking at the planet itself, obtaining imagery, Mass Spectrometry, looking at the solar wind, ionization, a whole host of things, the magnetic field, and also assisting what’s on the ground.

We have two rovers on the ground, Opportunity and Curiosity — both NASA crafts — that are doing their scientific work.

On the one hand, some of these satellites serve as relays, communication relays for the rovers on the ground, and also the science that they conduct on the ground is compared to the science that is done in orbit and that helps scientists make comparisons which are useful.

Incidentally, Hari, on October 19th there’s a comet that’s going to nearly strike Mars and there was some concern that these craft might be in harm’s way.

Fortunately, that won’t be the case, but there is a good chance they might get some imagery and certainly some interesting science about what happens when a comet enters an atmosphere.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, all this information from all these missions means what? Humans will set foot on Mars in a couple of decades?

MILES O’BRIEN: That’s the long-range plan. The devil, of course, is in the details and of course the budget, but no one thinks it’s a wise idea to go to Mars without laying the ground work scientifically and robotically.

That’s what we’ve been seeing in a systematic way for a number of years now going back to the pathfinder mission on Mars.

It’s kind of a two-track thing, on the one hand scientists are getting goals that come strictly out of the robotic missions, which are useful to helping them understand, ‘are we alone in the universe’ — ‘was there a second genesis of life on Mars’ is a fundamentally good question separate from whether we put human beings on the planet.

But ultimately those same scientists will tell you that a geologist on the ground with a hammer and the ability to chip a rock away here and there can do in a matter of hours what a robot would take weeks to do.

So, the idea that scientists may one day be there on the ground may be the only way that we’ll answer all these scientific questions and plus it’s a big part of the overall picture of exploring the cosmos and wondering if in fact human beings are ever going to leave this planet in a meaningful way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Miles O’Brien, thanks so much for joining us.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Hari.

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Study: Large galaxies swallow up smaller ones to survive

         2.5 billion light years away, the galaxy Andromeda, our galaxy's largest beighbor is set to collide into the Milky Way in
         5 billion years. Credit:  GALEX, JPL-Caltech, NASA.

At 2.5 billion light-years away, the galaxy Andromeda, our galaxy’s largest neighbor, is set to collide and absorb The Milky Way in 5 billion years. Credit: GALEX, JPL-Caltech, NASA

Large galaxies absorb smaller ones in order to survive in the universe, according to a new study recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“All galaxies start off small and grow by collecting gas and quite efficiently turning it into stars,” Dr. Aaron Robotham, lead researcher, said according to the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.

“Then every now and then they get completely cannibalized by some much larger galaxy,” he said.

Astronomers looked at the behaviors of more than 22,000 galaxies from data collected by the Anglo-Australian Telescope in New South Wales as part of the Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey.

Larger galaxies have difficulty creating stars. One theory why, according to Robotham, is that the nucleus heats up the galaxy’s gas so much that it is unable to cool down to create stars. Although star production slows, gravity increases for larger galaxies, making it easier for them to pull in smaller, neighboring galaxies.

Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is set for collision with neighboring Andromeda in 5 billion years. Our largest neighbor at 2.5 million light-years away, Andromeda, is expected to swallow us up after collision.

Data on colliding galaxies, as well as information on the developmental stages of galaxies, have been captured by The Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990.

In October 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s tennis-court sized successor, will launch.

With longer wavelengths, Webb will not only be able to look further back in time at the early universe’s first galaxies, but it will be able to peek inside dust clouds and send information about planetary systems being formed today.

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