On the horizon

Earthquake antidote: foam

Polystyrene - used to make disposable foam cups - turns out to be a great way to build earthquake-resistant homes.

A two-story structure made with polystyrene and cement boards, shaken harder than any earthquake has ever shaken anything, remained standing in tests performed at a Cincinnati earthquake lab last week. Now, a group of scientists hope to convince poor residents of seismologically active areas to replace their mud huts with foam homes.

"These inexpensive composite panels can be used to build homes that are safer, less expensive to build and operate, and more comfortable than conventional home construction," says Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit scientific group promoting responsible use of technology.

The tests were conducted on a "shake table," which simulates an earthquake. The structure survived forces greater than 10 on the Richter scale. The earthquake that caused last month's Asian tsunamis registered a 9.

Distant relatives: whales and hippos

A second look at some 40 million-year-old fossils provides a "missing link" to suggest that the closest living relative of whales is the hippo, a group of scientists said Monday.

Although the hippopotamus does not seem a likely relative of whales, genetic study has suggested they are close. Now, a team at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Poitiers in France, and the University of N'Djamena in Chad say they have found more evidence in the fossil record.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team proposed a new theory that whales and hippos had a common water-loving ancestor that lived 50 million to 60 million years ago.

From it evolved two groups - one which gradually moved into the water full time, and a large and diverse group of pig-like animals. The theory would class whales, dolphins and porpoises with cloven-hoofed mammals such as cattle, pigs, and camels.

Great lakes troubled by dredging

Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are losing vast amounts of water because of erosion from a decades-old dredging project, according to a new study.

The lakes, connected geologically, saw levels drop when a commercial navigation channel was dug at the bottom of the St. Clair River in 1962, boosting the flow south toward Lake Erie.

But, according to a report issued Monday, previously undetected erosion has made the channel more than 60 feet deep in some places - twice as deep as needed for shipping.

Several environmental organizations said the report illustrates the unintended consequences of dredging, sand mining, shoreline alteration, and other activities.

Scientists make petrified wood

Researchers have found a way to achieve in days what takes nature millions of years - convert wood to mineral.

The ability to make petrified wood could hold promise for separating industrial chemicals, filtering pollutants, and soaking up contamination, says Yongsoon Shin, research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.

To create petrified wood, researchers gave a half-inch cube of pine an acid bath, then soaked it in a silica solution for days. The wood was air-dried, cooked in an argon-filled furnace at temperatures as high as 1,400 degrees C, and cooled in argon to room temperature. The result was a new silicon carbide that exactly replicates petrified wood, Dr. Shin says. The results were published in the latest edition of the journal Advanced Materials.

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