Scientific American January 2010: On Newsstands Now
The Latest in Science News
Information Technology: Real Money from Virtual Worlds (p 68)
A new type of alchemy is forming, turning virtual currency from online games into real money. As Richard Heeks presents in this month’s Scientific American, the world of online gaming is budding with players – dubbed gold famers – who harvest virtual currency in the various worlds of online gaming, and then sell the currency to other players for real hard cash.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) – such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest II – attract an estimated 50 million players worldwide. To excel at these games and move to higher levels, gamers need to accrue a certain amount of wealth, which can be very time consuming. Filling this niche, an estimated 100,000 to one million gold farmers, mostly concentrated in China, spend their days in gaming factories amassing virtual gold in various MMORPGS which they then sell to other players. This is a sizable industry, which may bring in as much as $1 billion in annual trade.
But as Heeks points out, this is a controversial practice, and though it helps thousands of gold farmers earn wages equal to those of factory workers, it goes against the rules of the games. In fact, companies that market online games are retaliating by either banning players who they believe are gold farmers or by taking legal action again them. “Research questions for social scientists abound, but all are a reminder that broadband communications will give poorer countries a pivotal role in the burgeoning digital economy,” states Heeks.
Perspectives: Big Need for a Little Testing (p 28)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is dragging its feet in studying the health and environmental risks of nanomaterials, which promotes an atmosphere of uncertainty endangering people’s health and impeding innovation. As the editors of Scientific American contend in this month’s Perspective piece, the EPA must take this issue more seriously.
Today, over 1,000 U.S. consumer products contain different forms of nanomaterials. The miniscule size of nanoparticles means that they can easily escape into the environment and therefore enter the body. Equally concerning is that each nanomaterial is unique – in size, composition, and half-life – which makes studying their overall effect very difficult. As stated in the perspective, though various researchers have attempted to study the risks of nanoparticles, it is a “scattershot approach,” that is far from comprehensive. For the past decade, the EPA instead of spearheading these efforts, has been “building a labyrinth of committees and subcommittees to evaluate what materials might be worthy of study and the methodologies that should be used to study them.”
The editors insist that the public deserves to be better informed and protected – a job for the EPA – or else, “one safety scare might convince consumers that all nanotechnology is dangerous.” Moreover, fearing future ligations, many companies, including Procter & Gamble, are hesitant to pursue research or invest in nanotechnology R&D. There is a dire need for quick action.
Sustainable Developments: The Need for Open Process (p 39)
The Obama administration has missed key opportunities to both shape public policy and to convey the importance of these changes in a clear form. As Jeffery D. Sachs argues in this month’s issue of Scientific American, the failure to play a more active role is policy proposals – namely in health care and climate change control – has created weak policies and a suspicious American public.
Though the President has instigated reforms in health care and climate change, he has not lived up to his promise of changing how public policies are made. “Every major piece of public policy has been turned over to the backrooms of Congress,” states Sachs, “emerging through the lobby-infested bargaining process among vested and regional interests.”
One way to ameliorate the growing distrust in these working policies is for the administration to initiate a web-based, transparent, systematic public-private policy process. Scientists, engineers, and independent experts should be invited to contribute to these real solution policies, rather than the present limited input of lobbyists and special interests. This would create a policy process that’s more accountable and backed by technical expertise. It would also open the policy process to the public ensuring vigorous discussion and would force the administration and Congress into a systematic review of the technical knowledge in each field as a basis for policymaking.
Opinion: The doomsday clock still ticks (p 40)
As long as opportunities and excuses for nuclear aggression persist, the world will not be safe from annihilation, according to Lawrence Krauss in an opinion piece in this month’s Scientific American. He argues that the U.S. cannot expect other countries to show nuclear restraint when they still have not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), signed by 150 other countries.
Krauss writes ahead of next month’s first annual Doomsday Clock Symposium, where a decision will be made regarding the setting of the minute hand on its famous clock. For nearly 65 years, the clock has served as an international symbol of the level of risk – figurative midnight – that the world faces from nuclear weapons. Currently the U.S. and Russia have more than 10,000 nuclear weapons, with perhaps 1,000 on trigger alert, despite the absence of any credible, justifying threat. Krauss concludes: “until we honestly recognize the threat and minimize the opportunity and motivation for governments or terrorist organizations to carry out such an act, we continue to increase the odds that it will one day happen.”
Other stories in this issue include:
- Cosmology: Looking for Life in the Multiverse
- Biology: The rise and Fall of Nanobacteria