Sunday, January 27, 2008

Louis J Sheehan Esquire 301131 photo 59

Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, can be regarded as the "pope," or at least the symbol of unity, of Orthodox Christianity. The denomination's 300 million or so adherents make it the second-largest body of Christians in the world, after Roman Catholicism. The 67-year-old Bartholomew also represents one of Christianity's most ancient branches as the latest in a line of 270 archbishops of his city -- modern Istanbul -- that traces itself back to the apostle St. Andrew, brother of St. Peter, in a part of the world where the Christian faith has existed since New Testament times.

In December 2006, Bartholomew, patriarch since 1991, was thrust under the world-wide media spotlight when he celebrated the Orthodox Divine Liturgy with Pope Benedict XVI. The two met in the tiny Church of St. George in the equally tiny patriarchal compound in Istanbul, all that remains of an Eastern Christian civilization on the Bosporus so glistening and powerful that for more than 1,500 years Constantinople called itself the "new Rome."

Now Bartholomew has a forthcoming book, in English, "Encountering the Mystery: Perennial Values of the Orthodox Church" (Random House). It purports to be a primer to Orthodoxy, with short chapters on ritual, theology, icons and so forth. What it really is, perhaps inadvertently, is a telling glimpse into the mindset of a church that, venerable and spiritually appealing though it may be, is in a state of crisis. And the book reveals the jarringly secular-sounding ideological positions its leader seemingly feels compelled to take in order to cultivate the sympathy of a Western European political order that is at best indifferent to Christianity.

The Orthodox community, rooted mostly in Russia and Eastern Europe, is in "apparently irreversible demographic decline," as religious historian Philip Jenkins wrote in 2006, thanks to falling birthrates, cultural secularization, turf battles between the various ethnically focused Orthodox churches, and past communist ravages. The historic Christian communities in the Islamic-dominated world -- some Orthodox -- have fared even worse, their numbers reduced as members frantically immigrate to the West under pressure from terrorism, persecution and religious discrimination. The historic fate of Christianity in Islamic-majority lands has been cultural annihilation, whether gradual over the centuries or, as in recent decades, swift.

Nowhere does the plight of Christians look so pitiful as in Turkey, nominally secular but 99% Muslim. At the turn of the 20th century, some 500,000 Orthodox Christians, mostly ethnic Greeks, lived in Constantinople, where they constituted half the city's residents, and millions more resided elsewhere in what is now Turkey. Today, Bartholomew has only about 4,000 mostly elderly fellow believers (2,000 in Istanbul) left in Turkey's 71 million-plus population. The quasi-militaristic regime of Kemal Ataturk that supplanted the Ottoman Empire during the 1920s forcibly Westernized the country's institutions but also made Islam an essential component of the Turkish national identity that it relentlessly promoted.

"Kemalist ideology regarded Christianity as Greek and thus foreign," says Greek Orthodox writer Joshua TreviƱo. The result was a series of official and unofficial ethnic cleansings, population transfers, massacres and pogroms in Turkey, such as the wholesale destruction of Orthodox churches in 1955. The murders of a Catholic priest in 2006 and of an Armenian Christian journalist and three evangelicals, two of whom were Turkish converts, in 2007, together with threats and assaults against other Christian clergy by ultra-nationalists and Islamic militants, indicate that such anti-Christian animus is far from dead. Furthermore, the current government refuses to allow the reopening of Turkey's sole Greek Orthodox seminary, closed in 1971, which means that there have been no replacements for Turkey's aging Orthodox priests and -- since Turkish law requires the patriarch to be a Turkish citizen -- no likely replacement for Bartholomew himself, whose death may well mean the extinction of his 2,000-year-old see.

Nonetheless, Bartholomew devotes the bulk of his book to anything but the mortal threat to his own religion in his own country. High on his list of favorite topics, most with only a tangential relationship to Orthodoxy, is the environment. He has won the nickname "the Green Patriarch" for the decade or so he has preached the ecological gospel, largely to liberal secular audiences in the West. "Encountering the Mystery" is in large part a collection of eco-friendly platitudes about global warming ("At stake is not just our ability to live in a sustainable way but our very survival") and globalization, adorned with a bit of theological window-dressing, that today's secular progressives love to read.

Regarding globalization, Bartholomew cannot decide whether global capitalism is bad ("there are losers as well as winners") or good ("We must learn, therefore, both to think and to act in a global manner"). Plus, we must "transcend all racial competition and national rivalry," "promote a peaceful resolution of disagreements about how to live in this world," and yadda, yadda, yadda. Islam comes into play in the book only in terms of another bromide: a call for "interfaith dialogue."

On first reading, this exercise in fiddling while the new Rome burns seems pathetic, presenting a picture of a church leader so intimidated by his country's Islamic majority that he cannot speak up for his dwindling flock even as its members are murdered at his doorstep. Bartholomew's book presents an eerie mirror image of the concerns of aging, culturally exhausted, post-Christian Western Europe, happy to blather on at conferences about carbon emissions and diversity but unwilling to confront its own demographic crisis in the face of youthful, rapidly growing and culturally antagonistic Muslim populations. The suicide of the West meets the homicide of the East.

On the other hand, Bartholomew's "green" crusade across Western Europe may actually represent a shrewd last-ditch effort to secure a visible profile and powerful protectors for his beleaguered church. The patriarch has been an incessant lobbyist for Turkey's admission to the European Union, and his hope has been that the EU will condition Turkey's entry on greater religious freedoms for all faiths.

"The EU are secularists," says the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, an administrator for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, based in New York. "They won't do anything out of religious reasons, but they will do it out of secular reasons if they can be persuaded that what's best for Europe is to have a Muslim state that's pro-Western in values, such as freedom of religion." The bureaucrats of Brussels may care little about Christianity, but they care deeply about global warming and multiculturalism, and on those issues Bartholomew has carved out common ground.

Orthodox Christianity is not dead yet. Its famous monastery on Mount Athos in Greece has enjoyed new growth recently, and in America some Orthodox churches are drawing converts attracted by the glorious liturgy and ancient traditions. It is unfortunate that Orthodoxy's spiritual leader feels compelled to position the Orthodox with a Western Europe that is, in fact, spiritually dead.

Florida's big push to slash homeowner insurance premiums, a major issue in a state hurt by a sinking real estate market, has turned to bust in the face of stiff opposition from the powerful property-insurance industry.

"It certainly didn't pan out," said Bob Milligan, the state's consumer insurance advocate.

"At best we've seen kind of a reduction in the increases, not really decreases from what they were prior to 2006," Milligan said in an interview.

He was referring to the huge increases many homeowners have seen since eight hurricanes crisscrossed Florida in 2004 and 2005, when insurers paid out about $35 billion in insured losses in the state.

Prodded by Gov. Charlie Crist, who has had several insurers subpoenaed over rate issues after campaigning aggressively last year on a promise to fix the insurance problem, state lawmakers have enacted a sweeping package of property insurance reforms.

Among other measures, they doubled the size of Florida's state hurricane catastrophe fund to $32 billion and authorized state-controlled Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to compete directly with private insurers.

Through the catastrophe fund, lawmakers also agreed to provide state-subsidized reinsurance -- backup coverage for property -- to insurers on the understanding that savings would be passed on to their customers.

Though expected to result in a statewide cut in homeowners' insurance premiums averaging 24 percent, Bob Hunter, insurance director at the Consumer Federation of America, said the new laws were now seen cutting rates only about 12 percent.

"It's the big national companies that are balking," Hunter told Reuters, saying they had failed to pass on reinsurance savings to consumers despite record profits in recent years.

One such company is Allstate Floridian Insurance, a unit of Allstate Corp, the nation's largest publicly traded insurer, which recently filed to raise homeowner rates in Florida by nearly 42 percent.

Allstate Floridian spokesman Adam Shores said the increase, partly prompted by a decision to buy additional reinsurance on the private market, was in line with harsh economic realities and the costs associated with catastrophic risk.

"We fully recognize that this is a difficult time for a lot of Floridians; people are hurting; and they're experiencing a lot of high costs with property insurance, property tax, things of that nature. But we need to be in a position of financial strength to protect customers when a major catastrophe strikes, like we know it will," Shores said.

"There have been a lot of promises that have been made by the political leaders in Tallahassee about where rates would be and what those rates would look like," he added. "The promise that we have made, and the promise that we will continue to stand by, is to be there for our customers when it comes time to pay their claims."

Crist, a Republican, is still pressing for relief in a state saddled with what industry insiders rate as the second- or third-highest priced homeowner's insurance of any state in the country. He appeared to win at least a partial victory last week when State Farm agreed to cut its property insurance rates in Florida by an additional 2 percent, on top of the 7 percent cut it implemented earlier this year.

State Farm, one of three companies hit with subpoenas by officials probing high insurance costs, has also agreed to cooperate with authorities on further investigations into potential collusion between insurers, trade associations and rating organizations aimed at preventing homeowner premiums from going down.

Since more dramatic rate cuts have failed to materialize so far, however, many Floridians say they back a measure proposed by two of the state's Democrats, who recently submitted a bill in Congress calling for the creation of a federal catastrophe fund where states could pool their risks against future storm damage.

"The citizens of Florida are really fed up," said Teri Johnston, who heads a grass-roots organization known as Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe that has pushed for insurance cuts in the Florida Keys.

"They're very frustrated and angry right now," said Johnston, who noted that skyrocketing premiums have been driving residents out of a place once considered a sun-drenched, tropical paradise at a rate of about 17 people a day.

Like other homeowners in southernmost Key West, Johnston said she currently pays more than $1,000 a month to insure her 1,200-square-foot house there.

"It's something that's supported by a number of important insurers," Bob Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade association, said when asked about a federal catastrophe fund.

"I think the issue is getting somewhat more traction and interest in Congress," he added. "As we move along I think we'll hear more about this."

Patients with multiple clogged arteries are better off getting bypass surgery than stents, a study found.

The analysis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, isn't likely to settle the dispute between cardiac surgeons, who perform bypasses, and the interventional cardiologists who implant stents. But it gives further ammunition to those who argue that stents -- metal scaffolds that keep arteries propped open -- are overused.

Both procedures fall under the umbrella of revascularization -- attempts to relieve chest pain by opening up arteries clogged by heart disease. In the most severe cases, revascularization has also been shown to reduce heart attacks and deaths.

The study looked at the newest kind of stents, those coated with drugs to keep arteries open, made by Johnson & Johnson and Boston Scientific Corp. in the U.S. Previous studies saw similar results with older, bare stents.

In stenting, introduced in the 1990s, doctors thread a stent up through a small incision in the leg, widening clogged arteries instead of replacing them. A patient can be back at work the next day. A bypass requires open-heart surgery and has patients laid up for weeks.

As a result, bypass surgeons have been left to treat only the most severe cases of heart disease. The number of bypass surgeries has declined and bottomed out recently at about 300,000 procedures in the U.S. last year, according to Millennium Research Group. That compares to about a million stentings. The average cost of a multivessel bypass surgery and office follow-up visits over two years was put at about $28,000 in one study, versus about $20,000 for multivessel stenting.

But patients who opt for stenting may be paying a price down the road. In this week's study, doctors at the University at Albany looked at patients who received a stent or bypass in New York state in 2003 and 2004, comparing subsequent rates of death and heart attacks. The actual death rates between the competing procedures didn't differ. But after adjusting for risk factors -- bypass patients were sicker to start out -- the study found substantial differences.

After adjustments, New Yorkers with two clogged arteries who received a bypass had a 29% lower death rate over the next 18 months than those who received stents. Three-quarters of such patients had opted for stenting. For the sickest patients -- those with three clogged arteries -- surgery yielded a 20% lower death rate. Two-thirds of those patients received surgery.

Donald Baim, Boston Scientific's chief scientist, said the fact that the differences in death rates arose only after statistical adjustment is cause for skepticism. The company has funded a study that will assign patients randomly to stenting or surgery, eliminating the need for such adjustments. "People are voting with their feet that they would rather have the less-invasive procedure," Dr. Baim said.

You wouldn't expect to learn much about the properties of water by watching a square dance. But think again. Following the caller's lead, the dancers meet, separate, weave, and swing in a perfectly fluid manner.

It turns out that similar coordinated maneuvers—with water molecules taking the places of the dancers—may be responsible for some of water's most puzzling features, an array of recent research findings suggest.

As liquids go, water is a radical nonconformist—differing from other liquids in dozens of ways (see the latest count at Most famous among water's peculiarities is its density at low temperatures. While other liquids contract and get denser as they cool toward their freezing points, water stops contracting and starts to expand. That's why ice floats and frozen pipes burst.

Confining water molecules in nanometer-size pores has provided new evidence that, in addition to its many other oddities, H2O may exist in two distinct liquid phases at ultralow temperatures.
Nicolle Rager Fuller

Water gets even weirder at colder temperatures, where it can exist as a liquid in a supercooled state well below its ordinary freezing point. Recent evidence suggests that supercooled water splits its personality into two distinct phases—another oddity unseen in other liquids. And last year, water surprised scientists yet again, when they found that at –63 degrees Celsius, supercooled water's weird behavior returns to "normal."

That discovery, scientists say, may help explain some aspects of water's peculiar personality, such as its ability to transition from gas to liquid to solid and back to liquid again. Findings from related experiments have important implications for understanding how water interacts with biological molecules, such as proteins, and may lead to better ways of freezing and storing biological tissues such as sperm and human oocytes.

Water's ability to exist in a liquid state well below its freezing point has been studied for centuries. What's new, scientists say, is growing evidence about what happens to water at superlow temperatures. Under these extraordinary conditions, there is not just one kind of water, but two.

This two-phase phenomenon was first predicted in 1992 by physicist H. Eugene Stanley of Boston University and his graduate student Peter Poole, now at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Using computer simulations to study the behavior of liquid water at very low temperatures, the scientists suggested that water could exist as either a high-density liquid or as a low-density liquid.

Stanley and Poole also proposed that the dividing line between these two liquid forms might end in a "critical point," where the two liquids would become indistinguishable, changing from one form to the other.

In a series of experiments in recent years, scientists have begun to close in on this critical point. These advances offer a glimpse of possible explanations for water's unusual behaviors, and suggest that Stanley and Poole may have been on to something.

Some of water's odd properties have traditionally been explained as consequences of the hydrogen bonds that form between water molecules (and sometimes other molecules). Each V-shaped molecule of water contains one oxygen atom centered between two hydrogen atoms. The chemical bonds holding the molecule together create a slightly negative charge on the oxygen atom and a small positive charge on each of the hydrogen atoms.

FORCES OF ATTRACTION. Water molecules are held together in a flexible, but stable network of hydrogen bonds. The bonds, though weak, help keep water liquid over a wider temperature range than one would expect for molecules of its size.
Nicolle Rager Fuller

These unequal charges make water molecules extremely "sociable"—eager to bond with each other. Because hydrogen bonds are much weaker than normal chemical bonds, the water molecules move about freely, binding briefly with adjacent molecules before moving on to others. Stanley likens this fast-paced network to a square dance taking place in a large dance hall.

"In square dancing, you're always releasing one partner and grabbing another, and that is a hydrogen bond network, exactly," he says.

In the case of water, the square dance occurs among molecules that have four arms, instead of two. That's because each water molecule has the potential to form four hydrogen bonds. The result is a network of tetrahedrons, or pyramids with a triangular base.

This tetrahedral arrangement creates a peculiar tension, permitting structural changes in response to different temperatures and pressures. In liquid form, the tetrahedral structures allow unrestrained hydrogen bonding to occur as numerous molecules pack into and around the tetrahedron. (Imagine a swift square dance with dancers moving in and out of the center of the square and circling around it as well.) The result is a dense, fluid structure, such as that of everyday tap water.

As water approaches its freezing point (0°C), however, the tetrahedral structure becomes more open and begins to expand. Ordinary water reaches its maximum density at 4°C. As water continues to cool, falling to its freezing point and below, it continues to expand.

Here, the tetrahedral arrangement is more rigidly enforced, with molecules spaced an "arm's length" apart. The arrangement creates a more spacious, open structure, and water becomes lighter. If ice weren't lighter than cold water, ponds and lakes would freeze from the bottom, rather than form a floating layer of surface ice, and water would cease flowing in the dead of winter. Water's weirdness therefore allows fish to swim in the water beneath the ice and plants to survive the winter cold.

At temperatures below the freezing point, ice crystals form around defects, such as cracks or dust particles. By using extremely clean water samples—free from any such defects—scientists have found ways to defy freezing and obtain supercooled liquid-water that remains liquid below 0°C.

This procedure works only to a certain point. At extremely cold temperatures, (–38°C and lower), it is nearly impossible to keep water from freezing. But under certain conditions, such as the ultrahigh pressures found deep undersea, water can remain liquid even at such low temperatures. Scientists have been unable to make water that cold in the laboratory, though, and so what Stanley calls a "no man's land" of conditions had been explored only in computer simulations.

But now, using a clever technique to confine water samples in nanoscopic pores, scientists are beginning to explore the structure and properties of deeply supercooled water.

As even a square-dancing novice knows, you can't hold a hoedown in a cramped, narrow hallway. Water's hydrogen-bonding network is a fast-moving, gregarious one. Cramming water molecules into a tiny space, with a diameter less than five water molecules wide, brings the molecular square dance to a standstill.

"If a room were very, very narrow, it would be hard to have a normal square dance because a lot of people would be up against the wall and there would be no partner to grab on to," Stanley says. "In a similar fashion, water molecules that are confined against a wall have only two or three arms, and the whole hydrogen-bond network is disrupted."
Because the hydrogen-bond network brings stability to water, the breakdown of this network changes water's properties, allowing it to remain liquid at a much lower temperature, he says.

Scientists began exploring ways to nanoconfine water molecules more than a decade ago, using a spongelike material that had holes of different sizes.
While the experiments showed that nanoconfinement could be used to cool water well below its usual freezing temperature, the results were often hard to interpret because water in the larger holes would freeze, causing crystallization throughout the material.

In 2005, Sow-Hsin Chen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues found a way to get around this problem, using a new material called MCM-41. Chung-Yuan Mou of National Taiwan University of Taipei had created MCM-41 by refining the fabrication of silica-nanotube assemblies. The material resembles a microscopic beehive with a hexagonal array of holes, all uniformly sized, just a few nanometers wide.

Curious to see how confined water might respond in MCM-41, Chen filled the hexagonal arrays with water. He then cooled the water to –73°C and bombarded the arrangement with neutrons. The microscopic cells of MCM-41 not only prevented ice crystals from forming but also allowed the scientists to probe water's molecular structure.

Building on this work, Chen and colleagues conducted a series of experiments to see how water's properties change as temperature drops at ordinary pressures.

In 2006, Chen showed that, when cooled below 225 kelvins (or –48°C), water's hydrogen-bonding structure undergoes a phase transition, changing from a disordered, fluid state to a more ordered, rigid state. Furthermore, this line of transition between a high-density liquid and low-density liquid, called the Widom line, occurred in a continuous fashion, as predicted by Stanley and Poole in 1992. This transition, called a fragile-to-strong dynamic crossover, helped explain why, at superlow temperatures, proteins and other biological molecules exist in a glassy state, losing all flexibility and biological function.

"This dynamical transition of protein at 225 K is triggered by its association with the hydration water, which shows a similar dynamic transition at that temperature," Chen says.

In addition, the study showed that water's phase change at 225 K—moving from a disordered state to a more ordered state—violates a well-known formula called the Stokes-Einstein relation. This formula, based on a picture of a disordered, fluid state, ties together liquid properties such as diffusion, viscosity, and temperature, and generally works for normal- and high-temperature liquids.

Because this formula breaks down in subzero conditions, the experiment suggests that supercooled water may be a mix of two liquid phases, rather than a single liquid. Chen's study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), provided the first experimental evidence of such "liquid polymorphism" and received the journal's 2006 prize for best paper.

Last year, Chen and his colleagues surprised the scientific community, and themselves, when they discovered that under supercold conditions, liquid water again begins to expand, returning to normal behavior. Using a neutron-scattering method and analysis to measure the density of subzero liquid water, they showed that water reaches a minimum density at 210 K, or –63°C.

In doing the experiments, the scientists used heavy water, or D2O, because of its neutron-scattering properties. They then repeated the experiments using regular water and two light-scattering techniques and came up with the same results. The findings were reported last June in PNAS.

Though this kind of behavior had been predicted in computer simulations, it had never been observed. The findings add to the long list of experimental anomalies associated with supercooled water, and provide the strongest experimental evidence yet for a second "critical point" in liquid water, Chen says.

A critical point defines the set of pressures and temperatures at which a liquid changes from one form to the other. "It would be hard to explain a density minimum unless there was a second critical point," he says.

Water already has one well-known critical point at 647 K, or 374°C, where, under ordinary pressures, the liquid and gas phases become identical.

MULTIPLE PERSONALITIES. Water's many forms, or phases, change with shifts in temperature and pressure. Below –38°C, at high enough pressures (a region researchers call "no man's land"), water may remain liquid. The precise locations of the phase boundaries are uncertain, but those shown here are supported by computer simulations.

"As water approaches this critical point, the difference between water and steam grows increasingly smaller," Stanley explains. "At the critical point, there is nothing distinguishing water from steam, there is just one, homogeneous fluid."

More important, he says, a critical point serves as a "tipping point," where water can exist in either of two states, and minor fluctuations can tip the balance in one direction or the other.

The hypersensitivity created by a critical point can have far-reaching effects upon a system, says Stanley. In predicting a critical point in supercooled water, he and Poole theorized that water's crazy low-temperature behavior might account for some of its unusual properties even at ordinary temperatures.

That's because changes at a critical point don't occur abruptly, Stanley says. The huge changes seen near the water-gas peak, for example, are often, if not always, foreshadowed by fluctuations over a large range of temperatures and pressures.

"It's like looking at the highest peak on a mountain range," Stanley says, gesturing toward a picture of Mount Everest in his office. "The critical point, or summit, doesn't rise out of nowhere, but rises in a gradual manner and distorts the terrain all around it."

That means that a critical point at –63°C might account for water's bizarre behavior at much higher temperatures, such as its ability to expand as it cools.

Though findings from recent studies point to the predicted second critical point, it is still too soon to know whether such a point exists for sure. Further evidence is needed.

This year, Chen and his group will seek some of that evidence by performing another, more far-reaching set of experiments on supercooled water in MCM-41. Using a specially designed pressure cell for low temperatures, the scientists will analyze changes in liquid water as it moves from its maximum density point at 4°C to its minimum density at –63°C and beyond under various pressures. By studying how density changes with temperature and pressure, the researchers hope to locate the liquid-liquid critical point precisely.

"The critical point is at a high pressure, and no one knows exactly what it is, but we believe it's probably above 1,000 atmospheres," Stanley says.

Other scientists are raising questions about the extent to which supercooled water in confined volumes, no matter what the pressure, actually behaves like cold, bulk water.

"When you put water into confinement, it changes the way in which water molecules are arranged with respect to each other," says C. Austen Angell, a chemist at Arizona State University in Tempe, who studies liquid phases in supercooled water. "The question is, how much does it change it?"

Angell notes that despite recent progress, much remains uncertain and many of the explanations are built on simulations that can give different results, depending on the model and tools used in the study.

"There are other possibilities, related to the second critical point scenario, in which the low-pressure supercooling of uncrystallized bulk water is terminated by a first-order [sharp] transition to a second 'low-density' liquid phase," he says. Angell's take on supercooled water will appear in an upcoming issue of Science.

Confirming the predicted second critical point could have an impact beyond the study of water's molecular mysteries for their own sake.

Biologists, for example, are looking at how this transition in liquid states, and the accompanying rigidity it brings, affects living structures such as proteins and DNA.

Other practical benefits could flow from the new water knowledge. For example, scientists at Cornell University have found that high-pressure cooling of protein crystals causes them to diffract better than they would if flash frozen, and has allowed scientists to improve methods for crystallizing and studying proteins and other biological tissues.

The scientists are now pursuing ways to use high-pressure techniques to improve methods for freezing sperm and human oocytes. The studies may lead to better ways of freezing and storing sperm for livestock production and allow women to freeze their eggs and use them at a later time to conceive a child.

The studies may also help explain some more ordinary, everyday occurrences related to water's mysterious behavior. Chen recalls hiking in New Hampshire's White Mountains, a site known for its frigid temperatures and long months of ice, and noticing that the trees stopped abruptly at 4,400 feet, nearly 2,000 feet below the summit of Mount Washington. Soon after he published his findings on a minimum density, he received a phone call from a Canadian biologist who was interested in the work.

"It turns out that this tree line stops where the windchill temperatures reach 220 degrees K," Chen says, noting that this is the temperature at which water's hydrogen-bonding structure undergoes a phase transition, changing from a fluid state to a more rigid state.

At this point water becomes very, very slow, and no longer supports biological functions. Or, to put it another way, the square dance of water comes to an end.

Lightning does strike twice and more than twice in the same place, it is demonstrated by the photograph appearing on the front cover of this week's Science News Letter. Eleven separate strokes make up what appears to the eye as a single lightning flash.

The strokes, which come so fast that the human eye cannot distinguish them, were photographed by General Electric Co. scientists. The Empire State Building in New York City is the target.

The flash as the human eye sees it (main flash in center) was caught by one camera lens, while another one, rapidly rotating, caught the 11 separate strokes. The first one is the streak at the right, the last one is at left. The flash took 0.36 second altogether.

The Earth's salty oceans are some 500 million to 700 million years old, almost double the accepted previous estimates, Drs. A.C. Spencer and K.J. Murata, of the U.S. Geological Survey, have concluded after an intensive study of oceanic chemistry.

Before the turn of the century, geologists determined the age of the oceans by dividing the amount of salt in them by the amount added each year. This was based on the idea that all the salt brought to the oceans by rivers stayed there. Such an early determination of age, after hundreds of surveys and analyses, was about 100 million years. Later research brought the age to 350 million years, but such figures were found to be too small. Dinosaurs are now known to have existed about 100 million years ago, and oceans obviously existed long before that.

Studying the action of clay on salt water, Drs. Spencer and Murata in the recent work have found that some of the salt carried to the oceans is removed by clays, and deposited on the sea floors as a compound that does not easily dissolve. Correcting the old figures for this salt removal gives them the new age figure of 500 million to 700 million years.

The geologists who measure the Earth's age by the products of the decay of radioactive elements are expected to say the new ocean age estimates are too small. They pronounce the Earth at least 2 billion years old. While the Earth in its earlier stages may have been oceanless, there is in the radioactive age figures plenty of room for even more ancient oceans.

The flaming younger generation stands condemned as the greatest group of mass murderers in America. The weapon is the automobile.

Although including more highly skilled automobile drivers than any other age group, 100,000 drivers between 16 and 20 years of age kill nearly twice as many on the road as the average 100,000 drivers.

Accident rates for those below 25 years of age are so high that bringing down that age group's accident rate to the general level would save nearly 8,000 of the nearly 40,000 killed each year on the American highway and street.

These challenging figures were presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Dr. Harry M. Johnson, research associate for the Highway Research Board, Washington. Young men between 19 and 21 years of age are apparently the worst menaces on the highway, Dr. Johnson declared, pointing to a chart which indicated plainly that young men just approaching their majority are responsible for many more accidents per 100,000 drivers than any other group.

FOR TODAY'S CIVILIZED WORLD, WITH ITS DOT-coms, sitcoms, ATMs, and ATVs, the first 3.5 billion years of life on Earth are a bit of an embarrassment. It was only a few hundred million years ago that trilobites prowled the seas. More primitive life subscribed to two or three basic lifestyles: algal mat, spineless worm, or bacterial blob. Before that, in the Archean Eon more than 2.5 billion years ago--well, that kind of life is what Lysol is for.
Scientists, of course, see it differently. "Almost everything of any biological importance happened back in the Archean," says Andrew Knoll of Harvard University, author of the upcoming book Life on a Young Planet. Soon after the infant Earth cooled down, he says, primeval microbes began processing essential elements--carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen, among others--that allowed for the eventual emergence of higher life-forms, including us. To this day, says Knoll, bacteria still do the biosphere's heavy lifting. "We just sit back and live off the fruits of their labors."
Folks like Knoll would like to know whom to thank for those first trophic cycles. But in the quest to identify Earth's earliest life, geology can look a lot like biology. It's not always easy to tell the dead organisms from the dead ends. One of the few things experts all agree on is where to conduct the search: in the three far-flung provinces that host the world's most ancient sedimentary rocks. Deposits in Australia, Greenland, and South Africa offer a cryptic view of the earth's surface as it was between 3.2 billion and 3.8 billion years ago. The deposits are made up of layers of accumulated particles that were later buried, heated, and compressed. Rounded pebbles and smoothed sand grains in the sediments indicate that they were seabeds, so any life they record would be marine.

The oldest fossil of that life comes from a remote desert site in Western Australia called North Pole. The rocks there bear the marks of stromatolites--sizable mounds of mud and minerals trapped or precipitated by microbial colonies living in shallow ocean water. Modern stromatolites grow knee-high in Australia and the Bahamas, and the organisms that build them leave distinctive patterns in the mud pedestal that can't be duplicated by mere geologic manipulation. At North Pole, those patterns appear in rocks that are almost 3.5 billion years old.
The sediment layers in the North Pole fossils are much finer than those in modern stromatolites, suggesting that much smaller life-forms inhabited them. Even so, there's evidence of a food chain of sorts. The principal architects of stromatolites are photosynthetic. They get their energy directly from sunlight instead of feeding off other creatures. But geochemists found the chemical signature of a microbe that was feasting on dead organic matter, a scavenger of sorts. "We had quite sophisticated ecological communities back then, even if they were just tiny little microbes," says astrobiologist Roger Buick of the University of Washington, who discovered the North Pole stromatolites.
Unfortunately, the vestiges of microbial communities are far more conspicuous than the remains of their individual members. Lacking bones, shells, teeth, and other hard parts, the first Earthlings didn't fossilize well. In the oldest rocks, chemical leftovers may be the only evidence of animation. So it happens that the earliest evidence of life is not a lithic imprint but a skewed ratio of carbon isotopes in a chunk of rock from southwest Greenland. Microscopic globules of graphite in the rock, documented in 1999 by geologist Minik Rosing at the University of Copenhagen, are unusually low in a heavy carbon isotope that gets excluded when inorganic carbon is converted into living material. Rosing thinks the C-13-poor graphite globules might have come from free-living planktonlike organisms that fell to the seafloor when they died. Their remains, he says, are at least 3.7 billion years old.
In 1996 geochemist Stephen Mojzsis, now at the University of Colorado at Boulder, trumped Rosing's find in a report of heavy-isotope depletion in graphite grains from the Isua formation in Greenland and another site on the Greenland island of Akilia. Mojzsis says the grains are 3.85 billion years old--the oldest yet. But his interpretations of both the biological markers and the rock itself have been put through the wringer. One of Mojzsis's former coauthors, geochemist Gustaf Arrhenius of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, showed how the Isua carbon-isotopic ratio could arise by geologic activity alone, if certain iron minerals in the rock were melted and pressed together over time. He and other investigators also think that the putative sedimentary rocks are actually igneous formations that have been severely transformed by heat.

Thus, rocks of advanced vintage seem to confound even the most basic geologic distinction: igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary? "These rocks have been buried and cooked at least three times," says Buick. "They've been severely squashed and strained and tied in knots at least three times too. Then they sat around for at least a billion years and got polished by glaciers. These are not ordinary rocks."
The ambiguity of chemical evidence leaves geologists hungry for a well-defined, and ideally photogenic, fossil or two. In the early 1990s they thought their hopes had been answered when paleobiologist William Schopf of the University of California at Los Angeles described microscopic structures embedded in a Western Australia formation almost 3.5 billion years old. In his report, dark, slender silhouettes appear in translucent sections of thinly sliced quartz. Schopf says the silhouettes are a complex carbon polymer made by chains of bacteria that may have been anchored to the seafloor. After examining hundreds of present-day microbes, he named 11 possible species in his collection and gave the back story in a 1999 book called Cradle of Life. His menagerie made the Guinness Book of World Records, as the Earth's oldest fossils.
"I found a whole bunch of different things," says Schopf. "The question was, what were they?"
Schopf decided that at least half could be cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, the first organisms in the evolutionary record to produce oxygen. That challenges orthodox thinking about conditions on the young Earth, which would not have had a significant oxygen atmosphere for at least another billion years. When geologist Martin Brasier of the University of Oxford had a look at the structures, he decided Schopf was wrong, wrong, and wrong again. The tubes are too branched to come from bacteria, he says. The rock is an extrusion from a hydrothermal vent, not seafloor sediment. And the silhouettes are inorganic carbon injected by the vent and molded into suggestive shapes by the growth of mineral crystals. "Ancient filamentous structures should not be accepted as being of biological origin until all possibilities of their nonbiological origin have been exhausted," Brasier and his coauthors wrote in a report last year.

The hubbub over Schopf's fossils has humbled disciples of early life. "People have become more critical about what they'll accept as evidence of biology," says Knoll. And, as demonstrated by the recent retraction of evidence for life in a Mars meteorite, the stakes are astronomical. Once biologists know where and how life emerged, astrobiologists will be better prepared to look for it elsewhere in the solar system. If life on Earth was a freak accident born of unique and peculiar conditions, it's probably rare elsewhere. But, says Buick, "if life can arise quickly and easily, given the right environment, there might be quite a bit of it out there."
Some of the earliest signs of life are found in ancient rock layers called banded iron formations. The iron was released by underwater volcanoes and precipitated from ocean water more than 2 billion years ago. Today the rock formations supply about 95 percent of the iron used to make steel.

Justine Henin's 32-match winning streak may have been ended by Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open quarterfinals this week, but another female tennis champion hopes to continue an even more impressive run in the tournament. Esther Vergeer of the Netherlands, the defending women's wheelchair singles champion, is pursuing her sixth Australian Open title and looking to solidify her claim as perhaps the most dominant competitor in all of sports.

Entering this year's Australian Open, Ms. Vergeer had won 303 consecutive matches. Her last loss came to Daniela Di Toro of Australia in the quarterfinals of the Sydney Invitational in January 2003. Before that, Ms. Vergeer had won 80 straight matches, so since May 2001, her record is 383 wins to one loss.

Wheelchair tennis is played by the same rules as regular tennis except that wheelchair players can hit the ball on the second bounce. It has become a world-wide presence, with the Australian Open, French Open, and U.S. Open including draws for wheelchair players. There are also such premier wheelchair-only events as the Japan Open, British Open and NEC Wheelchair Masters, plus the quadrennial Paralympic Games. Ms. Vergeer played 99 singles and doubles matches last year (losing once in doubles), a schedule more demanding than the ones many Association of Tennis Professionals and World Tennis Association players pursue.

Dutch wheelchair tennis champ Esther Vergeer's current 303-match winning streak is among the longest in all of sports, dwarfing classic streaks like Edwin Moses' hurdles record and UCLA's NCAA basketball streak. Only Pakistani squash champion Jahangir Khan has put together a longer skein of wins.
Jahangir Khan squash 555 matches
Esther Vergeer wheelchair tennis 303 matches
Edwin Moses track and field 122 races
UCLA Bruins basketball 88 games
Martina Navratilova tennis 74 matches
Rocky Marciano heavyweight boxing 49 fights
Oklahoma Sooners college football 47 games

To put Ms. Vergeer's winning streak in perspective, add the four longest women's winning streaks of the Open Era (74- and 58-match streaks by Martina Navratilova; 66 by Steffi Graf; and 57 by Margaret Court) and the total still falls short of Ms. Vergeer's streak by the length of the longest men's Open era streak (46 matches by Guillermo Vilas in 1977).

The rest of her resume is as impressive. She's won 21 Super Series singles titles (the wheelchair equivalent of the Grand Slams) dating back to 2000, a total that dwarfs Roger Federer's career total of 12. The International Tennis Federation has crowned her world champion in her event eight consecutive years, topping Pete Sampras's six-year mid-1990s run and Mr. Federer's still-active four-year streak.

And while Ms. Vergeer has used a wheelchair since a childhood operation to relieve a hemorrhage left her legs unable to move, the source of her dominance would be familiar to any tennis fan. Her movement around the court is unparalleled, and once she gets to the ball, she hits with pace and spin on both her one-handed backhand and her especially effective forehand.

But one way in which Ms. Vergeer can't compete with her counterparts on the ATP and WTA tours is in earnings. The prize money for the entire Australian Open wheelchair event, including men's and women's singles and doubles events, is $47,500, about the same as one player's paycheck for losing in the third round of the men's or women's singles draw.

While Ms. Vergeer's streak is one of sports history's most impressive (see chart), at least one milestone looms in the distance. Pakistani squash champion Jahangir Kahn won 555 straight matches from 1981 to 1986. At age 26, Ms. Vergeer should keep collecting major titles -- but there are signs that her competitors may be closing the gap. From August 2004 to October 2006, she didn't lose a set, a streak of 129 singles matches, but last year she was forced to three sets on three occasions. So as players like Maria Sharapova struggle for another major title in Melbourne, remember that on an outside court, another great champion is aiming not just at victory, but continued perfection as well.

Biologist Craig Venter and his team replicated a bacterium's genetic structure entirely from laboratory chemicals, moving one step closer to creating the world's first living artificial organism.

The scientists assembled the synthetic genome by stringing together chemicals that are the building blocks of DNA. The synthetic genome was constructed so it included all the genes that would be found in a naturally occurring bacterium.

The research was published in the online version of the journal Science by a team of scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. The authors include Hamilton Smith, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1978.

"It's the second significant step of a three-step process to create a synthetic organism," said Dr. Venter, in a conference call with reporters. The final step could prove far trickier, though Dr. Venter defied his critics and deciphered the human genome with startling speed about eight years ago.

The larger quest is to make artificial life forms with a minimum set of genes necessary for life. It is hoped that such organisms could one day be engineered to perform commercial tasks, such as absorbing carbon dioxide from the air or churning out biofuels.

The scientific challenge of creating synthetic life isn't trivial, nor are the ethical and legal concerns. There is little government oversight, and researchers involved in such experiments regulate themselves. Detractors worry that the lack of safeguards increases the risks that a potentially dangerous man-made organism might run amok. (In creating the artificial genome of Mycoplasma, Dr. Venter's team disrupted the genes that would enable it to infect other organisms.)

Nonetheless, the science is pushing forward at a rapid pace. In June, a Venter-led team published details of an experiment in which it inserted the DNA of one species of bacteria into the cells of another bacteria species. That process almost magically "booted up" the genome of the donor bacteria, sparking it to life.

The team hopes to use a similar trick to boot up the artificially created genome, to create a man-made living organism. But, Dr. Venter said, "there are multiple barriers" to achieving that goal.

Dr. Venter now believes that the challenge of creating a synthetic organism is within his grasp. "I'll be...disappointed if we can't do it in 2008," he said. In Rare Middle-Class Tomb Found From Ancient Egypt National Geographic reports on the discovery of an Egyptian tomb that was never ransacked by robbers. Neferinpu, the priest and administrator who was buried in the 2 X 4 meter tomb was rich, but as is often true today, his wealth was not enough to make him upper class. His mummified body has badly decomposed because it's from before Egyptian preservation methods had been perfected. By his side were 4 canopic jars, 10 sealed beer jars, among other ceremonial items, and a 2-meter walking stick with a gold end.

Neferinpu was from the Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty. Another recently discovered tomb, from the 6th dynasty contained the remains of a dentist (see Tomb Robbers Find Egyptian Dentists' Tombs). That tomb had been robbed in antiquity. The National Geographic article says robbers knew it was worth robbing because while in the 5th Dynasty the king was still in control of the burials, by the following dynasty, the central control had weakened and individual officials had more say in their own burials and so could make them more lavish.

The most famous Roman road is the Appian Way (Via Appia) leading from the forum Romanum in Rome to the southeastern coast of Italy, at Brundisium. Originally it only reached as far as Capua, in Campania, when it was built by the censor Appius Claudius (later, known as Ap. Claudius Caecus 'blind'), in 312 B.C., to help with the battles Rome was fighting in the Italic peninsula.

The road was made by laying small stones on a level dirt road and covering them with a flat layer of interlocking stones.

The Appian Way was the site of Clodius Pulcher's murder. Clodius Pulcher was an originally patrician (Claudian) descendant of Appius Claudius who had joined the plebeian (Clodian) section of the family. It was also along the Appian Way that the bodies of the rebellious slaves from the revolt of Spartacus were crucified. Christian legend holds that Peter had a vision of Christ along the Appian Way.

Last year, on the eve of the biggest season of his career, Mr. Gonzalez embarked on a diet resolution that smacked head-on with gridiron gospel as old as the leather helmet. He decided to try going vegan.

Living solely on plant food, a combination of nuts, fruits, vegetables, grains and the like, has long been the fringe diet of young rebels and aging nonconformists. Even the government recommends regular helpings of meat, fish and dairy. Vegans of late have gotten more hip with such best sellers as the brash "Skinny Bitch," and its more scholarly cousin, "The China Study." Both books argue vegans can live longer.

But could an all-star National Football League player, all 6-foot, 5-inches and 247 pounds of him, live on a vegan diet and still excel in one of the most punishing jobs in sports?

For Mr. Gonzalez, the stakes were high. He'd just signed a five-year contract, making him the game's highest-paid tight-end. Entering the 2007 season, his 11th in the NFL, he had a shot at breaking all-time NFL records for career receptions and touchdowns at his position. To do that, he needed top performances in every game. Mr. Gonzalez knew he was out on a limb. "I was like, 'I'm going to look like a fool if this doesn't work out,'" he says.

Mr. Gonzalez joined a handful of elite athletes who have put the vegan diet to the test, either for their health or because they oppose using animals as food. But he was the first pro-football superstar to try. And the first to fail.
Kansas City Chief Tight End Tony Gonzalez shows us how to make high protein vegan shakes that actually taste good. (Jan. 24)

There's no evidence a vegan diet can improve an athlete's performance, says David Nieman, a professor of health and exercise at Appalachian State University. His 1988 study of vegetarian runners found they ran as well as their meat-eating rivals but no better. Although the vegetarian athletes in his study also ate eggs and dairy foods, he says, "there is scientific evidence that veganism, when done right, won't hurt performance." But, he adds, there is only anecdotal evidence that it can help.

Professional athletes, especially NFL players, need thousands of calories a day. Many enjoy a high-protein, high-fat smorgasbord of steaks, chops, burgers, pizza, ice cream and beer. Mr. Gonzalez's tight-end job requires him to push around monstrously sized opponents. Occasionally, he gets to catch a pass. Mr. Gonzalez is famous for combining the brute power of an offensive lineman with the acrobatic skills of a nimble receiver. "My biggest thing is strength," he says. "If you lose that strength you get your butt kicked."

Experts say athletes in training need as much as twice the protein of an average person to rebuild muscle. Their bodies also require a big dose of minerals and vitamins, as well as the amino acids, iron and creatine packed into fish, meat and dairy foods. It's fine to be a vegan, says sports nutritionist and dietician Nancy Clark, if you're willing to work at it. "It's harder to get calcium, harder to get protein, harder to get Vitamin D, harder to get iron," she says. "You have to be committed."

"Skinny Bitch" co-author Kim Barnouin is working on another book called "Skinny Bastard." "We want men to know that you're not going to be some scrawny little wimp if you follow this diet," she says. The book trashes meat, milk, eggs, cheese and sodas, saying men and women feel better and look better without them. "The more athletes who come forward and say, 'I'm doing this for my health,' the better," she says.

Mr. Gonzalez had never heard of the vegan diet when he boarded a flight from New York to Los Angeles last spring, about a month before preseason training. His seatmate turned down most of the food offered in first class, and Mr. Gonzalez finally asked why. The man told Mr. Gonzalez about "The China Study," a 2006 book by Cornell professor and nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell that claims people who eat mostly plants have fewer deadly diseases than those who eat mostly animals. The evidence was drawn from diet surveys and blood samples of 6,500 men and women from across China.

Mac Danzig took a diet risk four years ago. The 28-year-old mixed martial-arts fighter had long wanted to spare animals by going vegan. But he was afraid his trainers were right: that he'd lose to stronger opponents. Last month, on a diet of brown-rice protein, beans, soy, nuts and vegetables, Mr. Danzig defeated the last of his challengers in Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter." Kim Barnouin, co-author of the vegan best-seller "Skinny Bitch," says she loves the "Ultimate Fighter" show and cheered Mr. Danzig's win. When fight fans learned Mr. Danzig was a vegan, some said they didn't think he'd have the strength, or the stomach, to conquer the ultra-violent sport, which combines kick-boxing and wrestling. "It's about animal rights," Mr. Danzig says, "not human rights."

Mr. Gonzalez was intrigued. Earlier in the year, a bout with Bell's Palsy, a temporary facial paralysis, had focused his attention on health. He bought the book, and after reading the first 40 pages, he says, was convinced animal foods led to chronic illness. He was an unlikely convert. Mr. Gonzalez, who grew up in Southern California, says cheeseburgers were his favorite food. But he quit them, substituting fruits, nuts and vegetables. At restaurants, he ordered pasta with tomato sauce.

Three weeks later, he walked into the weight room at the Chiefs' training facility and got a shock. The 100-pound dumbbells he used to easily throw around felt like lead weights. "I was scared out of my mind," he says. Standing on the scale, he learned he'd lost 10 pounds.

Mr. Gonzalez considered scrapping the diet altogether and returning to the Chiefs' standard gut-busting menu. First, though, he called Mr. Campbell, who put him in touch with Jon Hinds, himself a vegan and the former strength coach for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. Mr. Hinds suggested plant foods with more protein.

Trainers for the Atlanta Hawks worried when shooting guard Salim Stoudamire decided to eat vegan at the end of the National Basketball Association season in 2006. Although the diet left him craving chicken, Mr. Stoudamire says, his biggest challenge was convincing coaches and teammates he could still perform on the court. Team managers forced Mr. Stoudamire onto a scale each morning of preseason training and wrote down his weight. After holding steady at 181 pounds, the bosses got off his back. Mr. Stoudamire says he felt better, and that his performance this season improved. So far, none of his teammates have joined him. "They all look at me like I'm crazy," he says.

The Chiefs' team nutritionist, Mitzi Dulan, a former vegetarian athlete, did not believe that was enough. With the team's prospects and Mr. Gonzalez's legacy at stake, she persuaded the tight-end to incorporate small amounts of meat into his plant diet. Just no beef, pork or shellfish, he said; only a few servings of fish and chicken a week.

Teammates nicknamed him China Study and razzed Mr. Gonzalez if he missed a block. But he wasn't ready to give up his new diet completely. After a preseason practice, he accompanied Mr. Hinds to learn a skill he believed as important as blocking techniques: how to shop for groceries. Mr. Hinds showed him nutritious fish oils and how to pick out breads dense with whole grains, nuts and seeds. "The best bread for you," says Mr. Hinds, "is if I hit you with it, it hurts." Mr. Gonzalez also learned how to make the fruit and vegetable shake he drinks each morning. He stocked his pantry with tubs of soy protein powder and boxes of organic oatmeal; soy milk and Brazilian acai juice crowded the fridge. His favorite dessert became banana bread topped with soy whipped cream from the vegan cafe near his home in Orange County's Huntington Beach.

Mr. Gonzalez soon recovered his lost pounds and strength, but prospects for a record-breaking season were still in doubt. The team lost its starting quarterback, Trent Green, in a trade, and the Chiefs' star running back was tied up in a contract dispute.

As the season progressed, the team lost more games than it won. But Mr. Gonzalez managed to stick to his diet and hold onto the football. He broke the touchdown record before midseason and was within reach of the career reception record. "I was like, 'OK, this is working,'" he says. "I have so much more energy when I'm out there." His wife, October Gonzalez, was astonished her husband could play the season without ordering a single cheeseburger. "I thought he'd cave," she says.

Mr. Gonzalez entered the final game against the New York Jets needing four catches to surpass the record held by former tight-end Shannon Sharpe. The contest turned into a sluggish defensive struggle with the Chiefs trailing the Jets 7 to 3. Still, Mr. Gonzalez made three receptions. With 2 minutes and 29 seconds left in the third quarter, Chiefs quarterback Brodie Croyle was fleeing defenders when he threw a 9-yard pass to Mr. Gonzalez, who scampered for a first down and a spot in the NFL record book.

Apple finally has entered the subnotebook market, introducing a lightweight laptop meant to please road warriors. But, typical of Apple, the company took a different approach from its competitors. The result is a beautiful, amazingly thin computer, but one whose unusual trade-offs may turn off some frequent travelers.

The new aluminum-clad MacBook Air, which I've been testing for several days, is billed as the world's thinnest notebook computer. Its thickest point measures just three-quarters of an inch, which is slimmer than the thinnest point on some other subnotebooks. And it employs some innovative software features, such as fingertip gestures for its touchpad that are similar to those on Apple's iPhone.
Walt Mossberg says Apple's first sub-notebook computer, the MacBook Air, doesn't compromise on screen and keyboard size, but it could mean some deal killers for frequent travelers.

Apple refused to make the most common compromise computer makers employ to create their littlest laptops. Other subnotebooks -- a category generally defined as weighing three pounds or less -- have screens of just 10 to 12 inches and compressed keyboards. The three-pound MacBook Air, by contrast, features a 13.3-inch display and a full-size keyboard.

It's impossible to convey in words just how pleasing and surprising this computer feels in the hand. It's so svelte when closed that it's a real shock to discover the big screen and keyboard inside.

But there's a price for this laptop's daring design: Apple had to give up some features road warriors consider standard in a subnotebook, and certain of these omissions are radical. Chief among them is the lack of a removable battery. So, while the MacBook Air will be a perfect choice for some travelers, I can't recommend it for all. It really depends on your style of working on the road and what features you value most.

The MacBook Air, which will be available next week, costs $1,800 with an 80-gigabyte hard drive and a generous two gigabytes of memory. A second model, with a faster, cutting-edge, 64-gigabyte, solid-state drive and a slightly speedier processor, costs a whopping $3,100. The $1,800 price for the main model isn't unusual in subnotebooks, which can easily top $2,000, although some competitors cost less.

In my tests, the MacBook Air's screen and keyboard were a pleasure to use. The machine felt speedy, even with multiple programs running. And the laptop has the same Leopard operating system, superior built-in software, and paucity of viruses and spyware that I believe generally give the Mac an edge. I was able to install and run Windows XP using the third-party Parallels software.

But then there are those trade-offs. The sealed-in battery means you can't carry a spare in case you run out of juice, and you have to bring it to a dealer when you need a new one. There's no built-in DVD drive. The thin case can't accommodate a larger internal hard disk. And the machine omits many common ports and connectors.

There's no Ethernet jack for wired broadband Internet connections and no dedicated slot for the most common types of external cellphone modems. That means that out of the box, the MacBook Air has only one way to get on the Internet -- through its fast, built-in Wi-Fi connection. If you're out of Wi-Fi range, you're out of luck, unless you buy an optional, $30 add-on Ethernet connector or a cellphone modem that connects via USB.

In fact, the MacBook Air has only three connectors: a headphone jack, a single USB port and a port for connecting an external monitor.

That single USB port is a problem, because so many peripherals use USB. You can buy a tiny, cheap USB hub that adds three more ports, but that's yet another item to carry.

The lack of a DVD drive is partly solved by some clever software Apple included that lets you "borrow" the DVD drive on any other Mac or Windows PC on your network, so you can transfer files or install new software from a CD or DVD. This worked fine in my tests, in which I installed several new programs from CDs on remote computers, but it requires disabling third-party firewalls on Windows machines. It also doesn't work for installing Windows on your Mac, for watching DVDs, or for playing or importing music. For those tasks, you need an external DVD drive. Apple sells one for $99.

In my standard battery test, where I disable all power-saving features, set the screen brightness at maximum, turn on the Wi-Fi and play an endless loop of music, the MacBook Air's battery lasted 3 hours, 24 minutes. That means you could likely get 4.5 hours in a normal work pattern, almost the five hours Apple claims.

But the MacBook Air has another downside: its screen height. Because of the larger screen, the lid stands higher when opened than on most other subnotebooks. So it isn't as usable as some competitors when the seat in front of you in coach on a plane is reclined.

If you value thinness, and a large screen and keyboard in a subnotebook, and don't watch DVDs on planes or require spare batteries, the MacBook Air might be just the ticket. But if you rely on spare batteries, expect the usual array of ports, or like to play DVDs on planes, this isn't the computer to buy.

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