The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'science'
Tim Minchin has written a short piece about the (culturally conditioned) tendency to equate being “creative” and free-spirited with a woolly, mystical anti-rationalism, in an introduction to a collection of Australian science writing:
I've only been to Portland once, but it's a great city - its population a paragon of liberalism and artiness, sporting more tattoos than you could point a regretful laser at, and boasting perhaps a higher collective dye-to-hair ratio than anywhere on earth. Great music, great art, wonderful coffee … it's my kind of town. Except, the residents recently voted - for the fourth time since the 1950s - against adding fluoride to the water supply. It's as if a mermaid on one's lower back is an impediment to sensible interpretation of data, or perhaps unkempt pink hair acts as a sort of dream catcher for conspiracy theories.
As an artist who gets aroused by statistics - among other things - I find this deeply troubling. But I reckon (and yes, I only reckon: one of many advantages of being a not-Nobel-laureate is that I may hypothesise with relative impunity) that the apparent relationship between artiness and anti-science is a result of people acting out cultural expectations and subscribing to popular myths, rather than a genuine division of personality type or intellect. I wonder if artists identify themselves as spiritual (whatever that means) and reject materialism for the same reason they might wear a beret or take up smoking: it's an adherence to a perceived stereotype, rather than a fundamental feature of the creative brain.
Science is not the opposite of art, nor the opposite of spirituality - whatever that is - and you don't have to deny scientific knowledge in order to make beautiful things. On the contrary, great science writing is the art of communicating that ''awe of understanding'', so that we readers can revel in the beauty of a deeper knowledge of our world.
A private group of genetic engineers in the US have a plan to create light-emitting plants for “sustainable natural lighting”. The plants will include the luciferase gene, as present in fireflies and genetically modified rabbits commissioned by artists; the ultimate aim is to provide a better than carbon-neutral replacement for street lights and household lamps.
To create the glowing plants, the team will first generate modified genes with the Genome Compiler software, then insert them into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to mustard and cabbage (they make sure to point out that the plant is not edible). The main gene, luciferase, is the same one that makes fireflies light up the night.As luciferase is not sufficiently bright to light a street, or even a living room, the project will require optimisation; the engineers already have enhanced the gene's light output to an extent.
A Kickstarter campaign was started to fund the research, with those (in the US) contributing $40 or more to receive a packet of glowing plant seeds in return. To day, the campaign, which aimed for $65,000, has raised $216,536, with 33 days to go.
It'll be interesting to see if this is successful; will we see streets lit by fluorescing trees, or find ourselves putting a plantshade over the bedside plant when going to sleep? And will plants that emit a useful amount of light need to be fed large quantities of a sufficiently high-energy plant food to keep glowing?
The Beatles may have helped bring down the USSR, but in the West, they helped usher in an age of endarkenment by making mysticism fashionable and opening the door to an assortment of crackpots and frauds, according to debunker of “alternative medicine” and miscellaneous quackery, Professor David Colquhoun:
At the same time, he hopes that the "fashion for irrationality", which he dates back to the Beatles going to India "when flower power stopped being fun and started being mystical bollocks", may be fading. His abiding hero is Bertrand Russell, and he laces his conversation with favourite quotes, including Russell's maxim that "it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true".Professor Colquhoun has a blog, DC's Improbable Science, in which he debunks things from tabloid cancer scares to alternative therapies; see, for example, his Guide to Magic Medicine, which is handed out to medical students when discussing alternative medicine.
The Quietus has an interview with Dr. Greg Graffin, evolutionary biology professor and frontman of long-running hardcore punk band Bad Religion, conducted on the supposed date of the Mayan Apocalypse that never was, and talking about the aforementioned non-apocalypse and other potential cataclysms, such as a climate “death spiral” (a term which US Government-funded scientists are reportedly prohibited from using) and asteroid strikes:
Because of my training in science, I always think the simplest interpretation of data is the best. If we wanted to make it complicated we could easily tell a story where the Mayans foretold all of what we see today. All this complex culture leading us to over-consumption, leading us to global warming, but the truth of the matter is that there's not a shred of evidence - no matter how much you read the Mayan calendar - that they had that kind of insight. So for us even to be talking about it makes me angry. The truth is that we have more serious problems on the agenda - partly what you alluded to. We need action - particularly political action - to avert catastrophe. Continuing these conversations about the Mayans, what we're doing is alleviating our responsibility and we're saying, 'Well, there's a part of me that thinks this was all foretold anyway and this was the way it was supposed to happen, and therefore I don't need to make drastic changes in my lifestyle.'
Here's a good example: we just had that terrible school shooting. The FBI record every murder and they detail what firearm was used in every murder – it's a very extensive database. However, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has lobbied to make laws so that it's illegal for any citizen to have access to that information. So even though the results of the study are very clear, the data is sitting in a vault somewhere and nobody can report on it. So all these statistics you hear about handguns or assault rifles – all that data is locked away and it's just a big public relations spin.
Dinosaurs ain’t what they used to be when you were a kid. They’ve changed, or rather, our understanding of them has changed. Kids science books always have a dinosaur scene with a Triceratops, a Tyrannosaurus, a Brontosaurus and a Stegosaurus in a sylvan field, always one of each with the gentle eruptions of a volcano in the background. However, now we know of up to 500 species of dinosaurs that lived on most continents and in all kinds of climates and conditions. We’ve come to realise they weren’t solitary cold-blooded herbivores hunted by coldblooded carnivores. We now know they took care of their young and lived in groups. But while Michael Crichton, of Jurassic Park fame, may have changed your view of dinosaur behavior and lent credence to the old idea that the descendants of dinosaurs are birds, the most startling discovery in recent times is that many dinosaurs had feathers; not just the branch of them we thought were clearly related to birds.
Many scientists are working on trying to create scaffolds for cells to grown on with the view to create an artificial organ. This means sourcing materials which cells can grow on that is not toxic to cells or to the ultimate recipient. Late this year, scientists reported they were able to physically print cells in two dimensions and the cells survived. This means they determined where to print the cells and how many they could print. If we can print cells in 2D, then it follows that we can print cells in 3D. We have 3D printers. So we might, some day soon, with an emphasis on soon, actually be able to print cells using a 3D printer into some devices or as actual replacement organs or devices, using the patient’s own cells. We could generate these on demand, without having to wait for donors, or worry about organ rejection. The dream of organ generation is closer than ever.Not to mention the Higgs-like boson, and the replication of the evolution of artificial RNA in a chemical “primordial soup”.
A recent study, ranking different breeds of cats in friendliness (to humans), has found that pedigree cats are friendlier than moggies. The study, from the National Veterinary School of Alfort in Paris, found that the friendliest breed being the sphynx, a rare hairless variety.
The researchers believed the sphynx’s affectionate nature could be due to its reliance on humans to keep warm. The study also suggested that the greater affability of pedigrees came about because breeders tended to leave the kittens with their mothers for longer, during a crucial period in their development, when they are becoming used to humans. It could also be the result of selecting more friendly cats for breeding.The selection hypothesis sounds plausible; by comparison, Russian researchers managed to domesticate foxes in a mere 35 generations, and also managed to breed a vicious, highly aggressive variety by selecting for the exactly opposite traits. Presumably pedigree cats have been bred for long enough to significantly alter their psychological make-up compared to free-range varieties.
The sphynx scored an average of 22.83, compared with 18.93 for the domestic short-haired. Because the numbers of other breeds in the survey were generally small, they were grouped together to score an average for pedigrees of 20.40.I wonder whether a study of friendliness in sphynx cats in warm and cold climates would yield any significant differences.
A report to an inquiry in Victoria has estimated that at least one in every 20 Catholic priests in the state is a child sex abuser, with the real figure being likely to be more like one in 15.
He suggested that, though the Church tried to "fudge the figures" by including other church workers, Catholic priests offended at a much higher rate than other men. If the general male population now over 65 offended at the same rate, there would be 65,614 men living in Australia who had been convicted of child sex abuse — very far from the case.The report, by Professor Des Cahill, also condemned the Catholic Church's institutional culture as “verging on the pathological”, and called for reforms to be externally imposed, including allowing married clergy.
"Bishops are caught between canon law and civil law, and Rome has put a lot of pressure on bishops to make sure canon law and the rights of priests are being observed, but canon law has nothing to say about the rights of child victims," he said. The Melbourne Response — the internal protocol used by the Melbourne archdiocese — was designed to protect the image and reputation of the church and to contain financial liability, and had to be changed. "The church is incapable of reform, so the state will have to do it," he said.Meanwhile, the Vatican is slightly closer to canonising the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Karl von Habsburg.
And an Italian court has jailed seven scientists for manslaughter for failing to predict the L'Aquila earthquake of 2009, after they stated that minor tremors recorded before the earthquake were “normal”. The sentence has attracted widespread condemnation.
When testing drugs for treating depression on lab mice, it is important to have ways of determining whether or not a mouse is depressed, or suffering from the mouse equivalent of depression. Not surprisingly, mice deemed to be depressed are the ones which give up and stop struggling when faced with difficulty, and which get little joy from life:
Forced swimming test. The rat or mouse is placed into a cylinder partially filled with water from which escape is difficult. The longer it swims, the more actively it is trying to escape; if it stops swimming, this cessation is interpreted as depressionlike behavior, a kind of animal fatalism.
Sugar water preference. The preference an animal shows for sugar water is taken as an indication of its ability to derive pleasure, a quality that is missing in depression. Most rodents, when given two identical-looking sources of water, will drink much more of the sweetened water than the plain water. Rodents exposed to chronic stress or whose brains have been manipulated show no such preference.(Previously: Scientists create a mouse that's permanently happy.)
(via Boing Boing)
The president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agricultural scientist Nina Fedoroff, has spoken out about a rising anti-scientific mood, largely triggered by corporate-funded populist attacks against science:
As Fedoroff pointed out, university and government researchers are hounded for arguing that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are changing the climate. Their emails are hacked while Facebook campaigns call for their dismissal from their posts, calls that are often backed by rightwing politicians. At the last Republican party debate in Florida, Rick Santorum insisted he should be the presidential nominee simply because he had cottoned on earlier than his rivals Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to the "hoax" of global warming.
"Those of us who grew up in the sixties, when we put men on the Moon, now have to watch as every Republican candidate for this year's presidential election denies the science behind climate change and evolution. That is a staggering state of affairs and it is very worrying," said Professor Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego.This phenomenon is not confined to the United States; Canada's stridently right-wing government has prohibited its scientists from speaking to the public without explicit government vetting. Similar things happened in Australia under the Howard government, and chances are that political censorship of research will return with a vengeance when newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott moves to repay his debts to the mining industry.
Meanwhile, back in the US, the Tea Party and similar right-wing populists are organising against environmental programmes, which they see as parts of a United Nations and/or Communist plot against the American way of life. You see, building bike lanes and high-speed railways is just a plot to coerce the free American people into giving up their SUVs, McMansions and God-given freedom and submitting to collectivisation like the wretched inhabitants of hellholes like Sweden and Switzerland. And as for smart electric meters, they're part of a plot to bring in a Communist dictatorship, just like water fluoridation, the invisible bar codes on road signs which will guide the Chinese UN troops massing south of the Mexican borders as they herd Christian patriots to the reeducation camps, and the Computer God Frankenstein Controls:
In Maine, the Tea Party-backed Republican governor canceled a project to ease congestion along the Route 1 corridor after protesters complained it was part of the United Nations plot. Similar opposition helped doom a high-speed train line in Florida. And more than a dozen cities, towns and counties, under new pressure, have cut off financing for a program that offers expertise on how to measure and cut carbon emissions. “It sounds a little on the weird side, but we’ve found we ignore it at our own peril,” said George Homewood, a vice president of the American Planning Association’s chapter in Virginia.
In June, after President Obama signed an executive order creating a White House Rural Council to “enhance federal engagement with rural communities,” Fox programs linked the order to Agenda 21. A Fox commentator, Eric Bolling, said the council sounded “eerily similar to a U.N. plan called Agenda 21, where a centralized planning agency would be responsible for oversight into all areas of our lives. A one world order.”
A few random odds and ends which, for one reason or another, didn't make it into blog posts in 2011:
- Artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy died this year; though before he did, he wrote up a piece on the sustainability of progress. The gist of it is that he contended that progress is both sustainable and desirable, for at least the next billion years, with resource limitations being largely illusory.
- As China's economy grows, dishonest entrepreneurs are coming up with increasingly novel and bizarre ways of adulterating food:
In May, a Shanghai woman who had left uncooked pork on her kitchen table woke up in the middle of the night and noticed that the meat was emitting a blue light, like something out of a science fiction movie. Experts pointed to phosphorescent bacteria, blamed for another case of glow-in-the-dark pork last year. Farmers in eastern Jiangsu province complained to state media last month that their watermelons had exploded "like landmines" after they mistakenly applied too much growth hormone in hopes of increasing their size.
Until recently, directions were circulating on the Internet about how to make fake eggs out of a gelatinous compound comprised mostly of sodium alginate, which is then poured into a shell made out of calcium carbonate. Companies marketing the kits promised that you could make a fake egg for one-quarter the price of a real one.
- The street finds its own uses for things, and places develop local specialisations and industries: the Romanian town of Râmnicu Vâlcea has become a global centre of expertise in online scams, with industries arising to bilk the world's endless supply of marks, and to keep the successful scammers in luxury goods:
The streets are lined with gleaming storefronts—leather accessories, Italian fashions—serving a demand fueled by illegal income. Near the mall is a nightclub, now closed by police because its backers were shady. New construction grinds ahead on nearly every block. But what really stands out in Râmnicu Vâlcea are the money transfer offices. At least two dozen Western Union locations lie within a four-block area downtown, the company’s black-and-yellow signs proliferating like the Starbucks mermaid circa 2003.
It’s not so different from the forces that turn a neighborhood into, say, New York’s fashion district or the aerospace hub in southern California. “To the extent that some expertise is required, friends and family members of the original entrepreneurs are more likely to have access to those resources than would-be criminals in an isolated location,” says Michael Macy, a Cornell University sociologist who studies social networks. “There may also be local political resources that provide a degree of protection.”
- Monty Python's Terry Jones says that The Life Of Brian could not be made now, as it would be too risky in today's climate of an increasingly strident religiosity exercising its right to take offense:
The 69-year-old said: "I took the view it wasn't blasphemous. It was heretical because it criticised the structure of the church and the way it interpreted the Gospels. At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey. It has come back with a vengeance and we'd think twice about making it now."
- The Torygraph's Charles Moore: I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right:
And when the banks that look after our money take it away, lose it and then, because of government guarantee, are not punished themselves, something much worse happens. It turns out – as the Left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few. The global banking system is an adventure playground for the participants, complete with spongy, health-and-safety approved flooring so that they bounce when they fall off. The role of the rest of us is simply to pay.
- The sketchbooks of Susan Kare, the artist who designed the icons, bitmaps and fonts for the original Macintosh, and went on to an illustrious career as a pixel artist (Microsoft hired her to do the Windows 3.x icons, and some years ago, Facebook hired her to design the virtual "gifts" you could buy for friends.) The sketchbooks show her original Macintosh icons, which were drawn by hand on graph paper (because, of course, they didn't have GUI tools for making icons back then).
- How To Steal Like An Artist: advice for those who wish to do creative work.
- The street finds its own uses for things (2): with the rise of the Arduino board (a low-cost, hackable microcontroller usable for basically anything electronic you might want to program), anyone can now make their own self-piloting drone aircraft out of a radio-controlled plane. And it isn't actually illegal in itself (at least in the US; YMMV).
- An answer to the question of why U2 are so popular.
In recent medical/biotechnological breakthroughs: players in an online game simulating protein folding have successfully determined the 3-dimensional structure of a protein in a simian virus related to HIV, a hard problem which is not feasible to do with brute-force computation:
Teams of players collaborate to tweak a molecule’s model by folding it up in different ways. The result looks somewhat tangled, but each one is scored on criteria such as how tightly folded it is and whether the fold avoids atoms clashing. The structure with the highest score wins. Anyone can play and most of the gamers have little or no background in biochemistry.
“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at. Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before.”Meanwhile, an experiment in using genetically modified HIV to destroy cancer cells has worked spectacularly well, with an experimental patient apparently having been cured of leukaemia, and remaining in full remission one year later:
At first, nothing happened. But after 10 days, hell broke loose in his hospital room. He began shaking with chills. His temperature shot up. His blood pressure shot down. He became so ill that doctors moved him into intensive care and warned that he might die. His family gathered at the hospital, fearing the worst. A few weeks later, the fevers were gone. And so was the leukemia.
But scientists say the treatment that helped Mr. Ludwig ... may signify a turning point in the long struggle to develop effective gene therapies against cancer. And not just for leukemia patients: other cancers may also be vulnerable to this novel approach — which employs a disabled form of H.I.V.-1, the virus that causes AIDS, to carry cancer-fighting genes into the patients’ T-cells. In essence, the team is using gene therapy to accomplish something that researchers have hoped to do for decades: train a person’s own immune system to kill cancer cells.Meanwhile, HIV research has yielded an unexpected boon, in the form of cats that glow in the dark.
A study by the Royal Society claims that China is on track to overtake the US in scientific output by 2013. The USA's lead in Creation Science, however, is expected to be safe.
Researchers in South Carolina are getting closer to developing practical vat-grown meat, with no animals involved in its production:
If wine is produced in winery, beer in a brewery and bread in a bakery, where are you going to grow cultured meat? In a "carnery," if Mironov has his way. That is the name he has given future production facilities.
Dr. Mironov has taken myoblasts -- embryonic cells that develop into muscle tissue -- from turkey and bathed them in a nutrient bath of bovine serum on a scaffold made of chitosan (a common polymer found in nature) to grow animal skeletal muscle tissue. But how do you get that juicy, meaty quality? Genovese said scientists want to add fat. And adding a vascular system so that interior cells can receive oxygen will enable the growth of steak, say, instead of just thin strips of muscle tissue.The researchers believe that cultured meat will eventually become cheaper than meat grown the traditional way, and also will allow for a greater variety of gastronomic possibilities.
Scientist posts his genome to code-sharing site Github, wiseguy forks it, posts "improvements":
b66e34c Eyelids now close in proper way. Fixes issue #42.
9a0f739 Body resistance to direct vacuum exposure improved by extending the negative pressure resistance of the skin.
17aeba2 Appearance fixes approved. Good scientist should also look nice.
I see you left in male nipples. Will this bug ever get fixed?
Scientists at the University of Osaka have accidentally created a singing mouse. The mutant mouse doesn't have a particularly melodious song, but makes up for it by tweeting incessantly like a songbird.
Researchers at CMU write a program that learns facts by reading the web; hilarity ensues:
NELL also judges the facts it finds, promoting some of them to the higher category of “beliefs” if they come from a single trusted source, or if they come from multiple sources that are less reliable. According to the researchers, “More than half of the beliefs were promoted based on evidence from multiple [i.e., less reliable] sources,” making NELL more of a rumor mill than a trusted source. And once NELL promotes a fact to a belief, it stays a belief: “In our current implementation, once a candidate fact is promoted as a belief, it is never demoted,” a process that sounds more like religion than science.
Sometimes NELL makes mistakes: the computer incorrectly labeled “right posterior” as a body part. NELL proved smart enough to call ketchup a condiment, not a vegetable, a mislabeling that we owe to the “great communicator,” Ronald Regan. But its human handlers had to tell NELL that Klingon is not an ethnic group, despite the fact that many earthlings think it is. Alex Trebek would be happy to know that, unlike Sean Connery, NELL has no trouble classifying therapists as a “profession,” but the computer trips up on the rapists, which it thinks could possibly be “awardtrophytournament” (confidence level, 50%).
Told by its programmers that Risk is a board game, NELL predicts with 91.4% confidence that security risk is also a board game. NELL knows that a number is a character, but then incorrectly classifies the plural, numbers, as a character trait (93.8% confidence). The computer is also 99.9% confident that business is an academic field, which may be reassuring to those in the b-school if not to those small business owners worrying about the continuation of the Bush tax cuts.
A study of remains and literature from ancient Greece and Egypt suggests that cancer is a modern, man-made disease, one which was extremely rare in the ancient world. Which suggests that the fact that people these days can expect to get cancer if they live long enough is not due to an inherent cancer-proneness in human biology but rather due to other factors such as pervasive environmental carcinogens.
Finding only one case of the disease in the investigation of hundreds of Egyptian mummies, with few references to cancer in literary evidence, proves that cancer was extremely rare in antiquity. The disease rate has risen massively since the Industrial Revolution, in particular childhood cancer – proving that the rise is not simply due to people living longer.
Professor Rosalie David, at the Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “In industrialised societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare. There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle.”
A new technique involving ultraviolet light is revealing how ancient Greek statues were painted, by detecting traces of the organic compounds paints were made of. It turns out that the statues were coloured quite gaudily (indeed, some would say tackily), looking more like something you might find on a seaside pier than in a stately home.
And the fashion of subsequent millennia for alabaster-white statues of beautiful youths, female nudes, fauns and the like? Well, that's all based on the incorrect assumption that the way Classical Greek statues look now was the way they looked when they were made. (Indeed, I have heard the argument that the tendency towards minimalism in Western culture—as evidenced in High Modernism, for example—ultimately stems from the æsthetic values inculcated into the Western mindset through millennia of misinterpretation of Classical Greek artefacts.)
The Rap Guide To Human Nature is a hip-hop album about evolutionary psychology by a Canadian "rap troubador" named Baba Brinkman. It's not a joke: the beats are sharp, and Brinkman rhymes with the speed and dexterity of an accomplished rapper, deftly laying out the theories and controversies of evolutionary psychology, from kin selection to the biological roots of religious and political belief, twin studies to alternative models of human nature, and of course to areas such as sexual competition and social status where hip-hop culture and evolutionary psychology intersect. Note that, as expected from rap, the lyrics are probably not suitable for children.
(via Mind Hacks)
The rise in the use of antidepressants in Britain could be threatening shrimp populations across the coast; scientists have found that shrimp exposed to fluoxetine (i.e., Prozac) concentrations similar to those in waste water are more likely to be fatally overconfident, swimming towards light where they'd be easier prey for predators.
At a PechaKucha (which seems to be Japanese for "Ignite"; i.e., a set of short presentations backed by slides on a timer) in Christchurch, Mike Dickinson, a zoologist specialising in mostly extinct flightless birds, speculates on the question of what exactly is Big Bird? (Spoiler: Grandicrocavis viasesamensis appears to be the flightless relative of a type of crane.)
Craig Venter (of Human Genome Project fame) has succeeded in creating synthetic life; i.e., of creating a living cell whose genome was entirely written from scratch in the laboratory. Venter's first commercialisation of the discovery will be a deal with ExxonMobil to create algae which absorb carbon dioxide and create hydrocarbon fuel. Beyond that, the possibilities are vast; from the mundane (cancer cures, new terrorist bioweapons, weird new designer drugs for mutant freak subcultures out of a Warren Ellis or John Shirley story) on to the horizon of the unimaginable.
And Quinn Norton says that we've just lost the War On Drugs, but not as badly as the drug lords, whose business model looks as doomed as the RIAA's:
You know what’s a lot easier than all the high minded business about environment, or life extension, or even the scary doomsday 12 Monkeys scenarios? Growing simpler molecule drugs. I don’t mean like aspirin, I mean like heroin and cocaine, THC and hallucinogens. They already grow in plants thoroughly studied, and people are motivated and not at all risk averse about getting those sequences somewhere they can use them. Cooking meth is hard and dangerous science compared to the ability to get a starter of a minimal cell that poops heroin and feeding it growth medium in your closet. We may have lost the drug war, but not as badly as the drug lords have.
It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it.
Frustrated by continued demands from viewers for more "awesome" and "extreme" programming, the president of the Science Channel (a US cable-TV channel) has taken a stand, refusing to dumb down his network's content any further:
"We already have a show called Really Big Things, which is just ridiculous if you think about it, and one called Heavy Metal Taskforce, which I guess deals with science on some distant level, though I don't know what it is. Plus, there's Punkin Chunkin. Punkin Chunkin, for Christ's sake," added Bunting, referring to the popular program in which contestants launch oversized pumpkins into the air using catapults. "What more do you people want?"
As evidence of their refusal to further water down programming, network sources pointed to a number of proposed shows they've abandoned in recent weeks, including an animal-based bungee-jumping program called Extreme Gravity, and Atom Smashers, a series that was was roundly rejected by focus groups as being "too technical" and "not awesome enough."
"People liked that the particle accelerators were really huge, but apparently the show didn't have enough smashing to hold their interest," said a former employee who wished to remain anonymous. "In the end, it was either add a huge monster truck for no reason whatsoever or pull the plug on the entire project. Honestly, I don't think I'd be able to face my wife and children had we gone through with it."
Scientists in the Netherlands have come one step closer to creating vat-grown meat. The team at Eindhoven University have grown muscle tissue from cells extracted from a pig. They still need to find a way of exercising the tissue to turn it into something resembling meat; at present, it is described as "a soggy form of pork", though they say that this development could lead to sausages in as little as five years.
It is hoped that, when it arrives, vat-grown meat will be vastly more environmentally efficient, requiring fewer resources to grow, not to mention being free of animal suffering. The current process is not vegetarian, though, using animal blood products in the growth medium.
On a tangent: earlier this year, scientists mapped the cow genome, and discovered that the genes involved in making cattle docile are in regions which, in humans, are involved in mental retardation.
A German man accidentally blew off both his hands whilst practicing "molecular gastronomy" and attempting to cook a dish using liquid nitrogen.
A New York Times article from 10 years ago reveals that, over 40 years, Soviet scientists managed to create a domesticated variety of silver fox through selective breeding:
In a long-term experiment at a Siberian fur farm, geneticists have created this new version of Vulpes vulpes, the silver fox, by allowing only the friendliest animals from each generation to breed. Having selected only the most ''tamable'' of some 45,000 foxes over 35 generations, the scientists have compressed into a mere 40 years an evolutionary process that took thousands of years to transform ancestral wolves into domestic dogs.
The original purpose of the breeding was to create a friendly breed less likely than wild animals to fight when put to death. But in time, geneticists saw that far-reaching changes they observed in the foxes' physical and neurological makeup merited scientific study. The scientists apparently underwent some changes, too. Close bonds developed between the tame foxes and their human wardens, and the staff at the fur farm is trying to find ways of saving the animals from slaughter.("Friendly" there seems like a euphemism; "gullible" or "stupid" might be more appropriate.)
The results of the experiment were domestic foxes ''as devoted as dogs but as independent as cats, capable of forming deep-rooted pair bonds with human beings'', which also developed a variety of physical differences from their wild ancestors:
The normal pattern of coat color that evolved in wild foxes as camouflage changed markedly in the genetically tamed fox population, with irregular piebald splotches of white fur appearing in some animals. The tame foxes sometimes developed floppy ears in place of the straight ones of wild foxes. The domesticated foxes generally had shorter legs and tails than ordinary foxes, and often had curly tails instead of straight, horizontal tails.
Moreover, the faces of adult tame foxes came to look more juvenile than the faces of wild adults, and many of the experimental animals developed dog-like features, Dr. Trut reported. Although no selective pressures relating to size or shape were used in breeding the animals, the skulls of tamable foxes tended to be narrower with shorter snouts than those of wild foxes.Even more interesting were neurochemical differences: the tame foxes' adrenal glands, which produce adrenaline to prepare animals for fight or flight, had declined in hormone-producing ability with each generation, while after only 12 generations, their brains contained significantly higher levels of serotonin.
Unfortunately, it appears that the project ran out of money some time in the late 1990s, and most of the foxes were destroyed or sold off to fur breeders in Scandinavia. The institute had plans to sell pups as house pets, though it is not clear whether anything came of those.
(Via a comment on this MeFi thread about the history of domestic cats.)
A study in Japan, correlating suicide rates with lithium levels in water supplies, has found that lithium in the water supply reduces the suicide rate:
High doses of lithium are already used to treat serious mood disorders. But the team from the universities of Oita and Hiroshima found that even relatively low levels appeared to have a positive impact of suicide rates.
Levels ranged from 0.7 to 59 micrograms per litre. The researchers speculated that while these levels were low, there may be a cumulative protective effect on the brain from years of drinking this tap water.The researchers hace stopped short of recommending that lithium be added to the water supply, in the way that fluoride is.
Recently, the media (and not only the tabloids, but the Guardian, the BBC and Reuters, to name a few) was full of headlines suggesting that consuming even small amounts of alcohol would significantly increase one's risk of cancer. Now, Charlie Stross tears that report apart, revealing that the paper in question actually said the opposite, even if its abstract, for some unfathomable reason, didn't:
... there was no dose response between the number of drinks the women consumed and their risk for all cancers. Women drinking no alcohol at all had higher incidences for all cancers than 95% of the drinking women.
The actual incidents of all cancers was 5.7% among the nondrinkers. The cancer incidents were lower among the women drinking up to 15 drinks a week: 5.2% among those consuming ≤2 drinks/week; 5.2% of those drinking 3-6 drinks/week; and 5.3% among those drinking 7-14 drinks a week. [Table 1.]Of course, this leads to the question arises of why the abstract of the report contradicted its actual content, instead presenting a message at odds with it. Charlie suggests that it's not a mistake, but rather the result of Bush-era ideology, in which science receiving federal funding had to echo the official ideological line:
"Alcohol is evil. We know this because it is True. And it's especially bad for women because, well, women shouldn't drink. If you run a study to confirm this belief and the facts don't back you up, the facts are wrong. So tell the public the Truth (alcohol is always evil) and bury the facts; the press won't be able to tell the difference because they're (a) lazy (or overworked, take your pick) and (b) statistically innumerate."
This is pernicious fallout from the way the 2000-2008 Bush administration did business. Their contempt for science was so manifest that distortion and suppression of results that undermined a desired political objective became a routine reflex. If the science doesn't back you up, lie about it or suppress it. That administration may have been shown the door (and replaced by one that so far seems to have a pragmatic respect for facts), but the disease has spread internationally, becoming endemic wherever ideologically motivated politicians who hold their electorate in contempt find themselves seeking a stick to beat the public with.
The Amiga was the future in the 1980s, and let it not be said that the Amiga community is not still at the forefront of innovation. This time, though, the innovation is one with a tinge of pathos about it, namely a gel which reverses the yellowing of the plastic used in old computers. With the unabashedly 133t name of "Retr0brite" (or perhaps "Retr0bright"), the gel is used along with an ultraviolet light source, and the formula is in the public domain.
A group calling itself Sense About Science, and dedicated to combatting scientific illiteracy, has published its review of scientifically illiterate statements made by celebrities in 2008. There were the usual one might expect (Tom Cruise's views on psychiatry, various others' advocacy of dubious "detox diets" and similar quackery), along with some real humdingers:
Sarah Palin, Mr McCain's running mate, waded into the mire with her dismissal of some government research projects. "Sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not," Ms Palin said. But the geneticist Ellen Solomon takes Ms Palin to task for not understanding the importance of studies into fruit flies, which share roughly half their genes with humans. "They have been used for more than a century to understand how genes work, which has implications in, for example, understanding the ageing process," she said.Mind you, even the stupendously awesome Barack Obama (who, it must be said, has been recruiting sound scientific thinkers to his cabinet) is taken to task for suggesting that there may be a link between MMR vaccines and autism, which, according to Ben Goldacre, has been thoroughly discredited.
Today's new concept: lipodiesel:
A Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who claims to have turned fat, extricated in liposuction, into biofuel for his car has skipped town after US officials raided his surgery in an investigation into his procedures.
He reportedly wrote about the practice on his website, lipodiesel.com, which has since been shut down. "The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel - and I have more fat than I can use,” he wrote.The whole "lipodiesel" thing, though, could be a hoax, as some of the details don't match up. In addition, the surgeon in question is facing lawsuits for allegedly allowing unqualified assistants to operate on patients, and is apparently volunteering in a rural clinic in Colombia.
A study at Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University has claimed that watching romantic comedies can damage relationships, by inculcating unrealistic expectations:
They found fans of films such as Runaway Bride and Notting Hill often fail to communicate with their partner. Many held the view if someone is meant to be with you, then they should know what you want without you telling them.
Kimberly Johnson, who also worked on the study, said: "Films do capture the excitement of new relationships but they also wrongly suggest that trust and committed love exist from the moment people meet, whereas these are qualities that normally take years to develop."
New advances in neural imaging are shedding light on what makes a psychopath a psychopath:
In a landmark 1991 E.R.P. study conducted at a prison in Vancouver, Robert Hare and two graduate students showed that psychopaths process words like “hate” and “love” differently from the way normal people do. In another study, at the Bronx V.A. Medical Center, Hare, Joanne Intrator, and others found that psychopaths processed emotional words in a different part of the brain. Instead of showing activity in the limbic region, in the midbrain, which is the emotional-processing center, psychopaths showed activity only in the front of the brain, in the language center. Hare explained to me, “It was as if they could only understand emotions linguistically. They knew the words but not the music, as it were.”
Today, Kiehl and Hare have a complementary but complicated relationship. Kiehl claims Hare as a mentor, and sees his own work as validating Hare’s checklist, by advancing a neurological mechanism for psychopathy. Hare is less gung ho about using fMRI as a diagnostic tool. “Some claim, in a sense, this is the new phrenology,” Hare said, referring to the discredited nineteenth-century practice of reading the bumps on people’s heads, “only this time the bumps are on the inside.”
But the problem is that “psychopathic behavior”—egocentricity, for example, or lack of realistic long-term goals—is present in far more than one per cent of the adult male population. This blurriness in the psychopathic profile can make it possible to see psychopaths everywhere or nowhere. In the mid-fifties, Robert Lindner, the author of “Rebel Without a Cause: A Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath,” explained juvenile delinquency as an outbreak of mass psychopathy. Norman Mailer inverted this notion in “The White Negro,” admiring the hipster as a “philosophical psychopath” for having the courage of nonconformity. In the sixties, sociopathy replaced psychopathy as the dominant construct. Now, in our age of genetic determinism, society is once again seeing psychopaths everywhere, and this will no doubt provoke others to say they are nowhere, and the cycle of overexposure and underfunding will continue.One researcher is doing research on prison inmates (a population in which psychopathy is greatly over-represented, as one might expect) using a brain scanner and tests reminiscent of the Voigt-Kampf test in Blade Runner, measuring their responses to moral questions non-psychopathic individuals would respond to viscerally.
The fMRI machine started up with a high-pitched whirring sound. I began to see photographs. One was of a baby covered with blood. I thought first about the blood, then realized the circumstances—birth—and rated the moral offense zero. A man was lying on the ground with his face beaten to a bloody pulp: I scored this high. There was a picture of Osama bin Laden. I scored it four, although I felt that I was making more of an intellectual than a moral judgment. Two guys inadvertently butting heads in a soccer game got a zero, but then I changed it to a one, because perhaps a foul was called. I had considered deliberately giving wrong answers, as a psychopath might. But instead I worked at my task earnestly, like a good fifth grader.
(via Wired News)
A biologist and a sociologist have put forward a new theory of brain development and mental disorders. Crespi and Badcock's theory posits a spectrum running between autism and related social dysfunctions on one side and schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder on the other, with the struggle between maternal and paternal genes in the womb determining where the child's neurology will fall on this axis:
Dr. Crespi and Dr. Badcock propose that an evolutionary tug of war between genes from the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways. A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and others’. This, according to the theory, increases a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia later on, as well as mood problems like bipolar disorder and depression.
It was Dr. Badcock who noticed that some problems associated with autism, like a failure to meet another’s gaze, are direct contrasts to those found in people with schizophrenia, who often believe they are being watched. Where children with autism appear blind to others’ thinking and intentions, people with schizophrenia see intention and meaning everywhere, in their delusions. The idea expands on the “extreme male brain” theory of autism proposed by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge.
“Think of the grandiosity in schizophrenia, how some people think that they are Jesus, or Napoleon, or omnipotent,” Dr. Crespi said, “and then contrast this with the underdeveloped sense of self in autism. Autistic kids often talk about themselves in the third person.”
The US election season is proving a bonanza to scientists studying deception, from incongruous body language to the vague phraseology of "spin":
BLINK and you would have missed it. The expression of disgust on former US president Bill Clinton's face during his speech to the Democratic National Convention as he says "Obama" lasts for just a fraction of a second. But to Paul Ekman it was glaringly obvious.
"Given that he probably feels jilted that his wife Hillary didn't get the nomination, I would have to say that the entire speech was actually given very gracefully," says Ekman, who has studied people's facial expressions and how they relate to what they are thinking for over 40 years.Another algorithm scores politicians on the amount of spin, or manipulative content-free language, in their speeches, using word frequencies:
The algorithm counts usage of first person nouns - "I" tends to indicate less spin than "we", for example. It also searches out phrases that offer qualifications or clarifications of more general statements, since speeches that contain few such amendments tend to be high on spin. Finally, increased rates of action verbs such as "go" and "going", and negatively charged words, such as "hate" and "enemy", also indicate greater levels of spin. Skillicorn had his software tackle a database of 150 speeches from politicians involved in the 2008 US election race (see diagram).
In general though, Obama's speeches contain considerably higher spin than either McCain or Clinton. For example, for their speeches accepting their party's nomination for president, Obama's speech scored a spin value of 6.7 - where 0 is the average level of spin within all the political speeches analysed, and positive values represent higher spin. In contrast, McCain's speech scored -7.58, while Hillary Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention scored 0.15. Skillicorn also found that Sarah Palin's speeches contain slightly more spin than average.So whilst Obama is one slick player, the straight-talkin', plain-dealin' McCain has little to rejoice about, according to a different metric:
"The voice analysis profile for McCain looks very much like someone who is clinically depressed," says Pollermann, a psychologist who uses voice analysis software in her work with patients. Previous research on mirror neurons has shown that listening to depressed voices can make others feel depressed themselves, she says.
Additionally, McCain's voice and facial movements often do not match up, says Pollermann, and he often smiles in a manner that commonly conveys sarcasm when addressing controversial statements. "That might lead to what I would call a lack of credibility."
A group of scientists did an experiment in exactly how useful a chocolate teapot would be. The answer is: not very, but more than you'd think.
After only about half a minute the lid started to melt, but otherwise the teapot survived its experience in one piece if not entirely unscathed. The tea was slightly unusual and sweet, but not unpleasant.
The secretive totalitarian state of North Korea, the last place on Earth ruled by a God-Emperor, has made a technological breakthrough, developing a noodle which delays feelings of hunger:
"When you consume ordinary noodles (made from wheat or corn), you may soon feel your stomach empty. But this soybean noodle delays such a feeling of hunger," it said on its website.This is not North Korea's first invention in the field of nutritional technology (some five years earlier, they invented the computer drink), though does suggest a heightened desperation to feed a starving people (or at least a hungry soldiery required to keep those people from rising up). Though presumably once that's taken care of, the North Koreans can look forward to export income from Westerners concerned about their weight.
In the latest advance in cosmotheology, the Vatican's chief astronomer has stated that extraterrestrial intelligence may exist—and may even be free from original sin.
Muslim scientists have called for Mecca time to replace Greenwich Mean Time as the international standard. Other than the religious argument (not likely to sway many non-Muslims) and the postcolonial argument, they contend that unlike other longitudes, Mecca's was "in perfect alignment to magnetic north":
He said the English had imposed GMT on the rest of the world by force when Britain was a big colonial power, and it was about time that changed.
A prominent cleric, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy, said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof, he said, of the greatness of the Muslim "qibla" - the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray.(Youssef al-Qadarawy? Where have I heard that name before?)
The meeting in Qatar is part of a popular trend in some Muslim societies of seeking to find Koranic precedents for modern science.
One of the most striking differences between European and Asian societies is the question of individualism versus collectivism. This arguably goes beyond the question of individual rights and social obligations, and into the way people think about entities versus systems:
There is no better way to shatter someone's "we are all the same" illusion than to show pictures of a monkey, a panda and a banana to someone from Japan and someone from Britain. Ask them which two images go together. Chances are, the Japanese will pick the monkey and the banana, because they have a functional relationship: the former eats the latter. The Brit will select the panda and the monkey, because they are both mammals. As Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan described in his 2003 book, "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why," Westerners typically see classifications where Asians see relationships. He means "see" literally. When students in one study looked at tanks holding a large fish, a bunch of small fry and the usual aquarium plants and rocks, the Japanese later said they'd seen lots of background elements; the Americans saw the big fish.Now a new hypothesis from evolutionary psychology suggests that these cognitive traits could have been the result of natural selection driven by disease-causing microbes, i.e., in pathogen-rich environments, tendencies towards collectivism were adaptive (i.e., you were more likely to survive), whereas where there were fewer pathogens, populations had the luxury of evolving more ruggedly individualistic tendencies:
A reluctance to interact with strangers can protect against pathogens because strangers are more likely to carry strange microbes that the group lacks immunity to, says Mark Schaller of the University of British Columbia; xenophobia keeps away strangers and their strange bugs. Respect for traditions also works: ways of preparing food (using hot pepper, say, which kills microbes), rules about hygiene and laws about marriage (wed only in-group members, whose microbes you're probably immune to) likely arose to keep pathogens at bay. "Conformity helps maintain these buffers against disease," says Corey Fincher of the University of New Mexico; mavericks are dangerous. In places with a high prevalence of pathogens, such cultural traits—which happen to be the hallmarks of societies that value the group over the individual—would be adaptive. Put another way, societies that arose in pathogen-rife regions and did not have such traits would be wiped out by disease. Societies that did have them would survive.
When the scientists examined how closely collectivism tracked the prevalence of pathogens, they found a strong correlation, they will report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In general, tropical regions have more pathogens, and societies there tend to be more group-oriented than those at higher latitudes. Ecuador, Panama, Pakistan, India, China and Japan are the world's most group-first societies—and historically have had the highest prevalence of natural pathogens due to their climate and topography. The most individualistic are in Northern Europe and the United States, where there have historically been fewer native pathogens. For years scientists have scratched their heads over why collectivism declines with distance from the equator, and why living in colder regions should promote individualism (you'd think polar people would want to huddle together more). The answer seems to be that equatorial regions breed more pathogens.The research acknowledges that nurture and culture play a significant role (i.e., Asian immigrants in America soon become as individualistic as other members of their adoptive society), so any genetic bias may be a subtle one. Though when a number of individuals form a civilisation, it may only take a slight cognitive bias to change the basic cultural assumptions that evolve.
On the other hand, given that the research is of American and Canadian (i.e., Western) origin, perhaps it rests on a western, individualist cultural bias. Which doesn't necessarily invalidate it, though it makes one wonder how a Japanese or Chinese evolutionary psychologist would theorise the origins of the differences between individualist and collectivist societies.
Ever wonder what the science is that justifies Japan's "scientific whaling" programme? Well, wonder no more:
Scientists have analysed 43 research papers produced by Japan over 18 years, finding most were useless or esoteric.
The scientific research included injecting minke whale sperm into cows eggs, and attempts to produce test-tube whale babies, News Limited newspapers report.
A poll has shown that fewer than a third of Americans consider nanotechnology to be morally acceptable; considerably fewer people than in Europe:
In a sample of 1,015 adult Americans, only 29.5 percent of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable.
In European surveys that posed identical questions about nanotechnology to people in the United Kingdom and continental Europe, significantly higher percentages of people accepted the moral validity of the technology. In the United Kingdom, 54.1 percent found nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. In Germany, 62.7 percent had no moral qualms about nanotechnology, and in France 72.1 percent of survey respondents saw no problems with the technology.The authors of the poll believe that this is not so much due to any specific moral issue concerning the making of molecule-sized materials or devices per se, but due to many Americans subscribing to a religious worldview that takes a dim view of "tampering with God's creation":
The catch for Americans with strong religious convictions, Scheufele believes, is that nanotechnology, biotechnology and stem cell research are lumped together as means to enhance human qualities. In short, researchers are viewed as "playing God" when they create materials that do not occur in nature, especially where nanotechnology and biotechnology intertwine, says Scheufele.
The moral qualms people of faith express about nanotechnology is not a question of ignorance of the technology, says Scheufele, explaining that survey respondents are well-informed about nanotechnology and its potential benefits. "They still oppose it," he says. "They are rejecting it based on religious beliefs. The issue isn't about informing these people. They are informed."Which is somewhat ironic, if the first post-Enlightenment nation is now dominated by a steadfastly pre-Enlightenment worldview; a people at peace with technology but hostile to the scientific mindset that makes it possible. Or, in the words of one member of a Christian Fundamentalist web forum (of course):
Technology makes peoples lives easier. Technology is the product of inventive geniuses who were inspired by God. Inventions and innovations improve life.
Science causes confustion and makes things complicated. Everytime there is a new discovery the old discoveries and old wisdom are discarded! And theories get more and more complex. Science makes people confused and complicates things. Who is the author of confusion? Satan of course. The bible it the opposite of science. Biblical wisdom NEVER CHANGES, and anyone can get it. Scientific wisdom is always changing and contradicting itself, and really nobody gets it.On a similar tangent: "Dumb and Dumber: are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?", a review of a new book claiming that anti-intellectualism is on the rise in the US.
Scientists studying the genetics of eye colour have found that all people with blue eyes inherited them from a common ancestor, who lived about 6,000 to 10,000 years ago in the northwestern Black Sea region, and developed a very specific mutation which disrupted melanin production in the iris.
It is still not clear why the mutation was selected for and spread as widely, though possible explanations are that it conferred some advantage in northern latitudes, or else that it spread purely because, by some quirk of psychology, it was considered sexually attractive.
The New York Times has an excellent piece by Steven Pinker on the human instinct for moral reasoning:
At the same time, many behaviors have been amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality. Many afflictions have been reassigned from payback for bad choices to unlucky misfortunes. There used to be people called “bums” and “tramps”; today they are “homeless.” Drug addiction is a “disease”; syphilis was rebranded from the price of wanton behavior to a “sexually transmitted disease” and more recently a “sexually transmitted infection.”
This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault, as we see in the group that anointed itself the Moral Majority. In fact there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviors are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it. Dozens of things that past generations treated as practical matters are now ethical battlegrounds, including disposable diapers, I.Q. tests, poultry farms, Barbie dolls and research on breast cancer. Food alone has become a minefield, with critics sermonizing about the size of sodas, the chemistry of fat, the freedom of chickens, the price of coffee beans, the species of fish and now the distance the food has traveled from farm to plate.While what is considered a moral issue differs between cultures and societies (and, to an extent, periods of time), there appear to be five categories for moral judgment hardwired into the human psychology: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity.
The five spheres are good candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense not only because they are ubiquitous but also because they appear to have deep evolutionary roots. The impulse to avoid harm, which gives trolley ponderers the willies when they consider throwing a man off a bridge, can also be found in rhesus monkeys, who go hungry rather than pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock to another monkey. Respect for authority is clearly related to the pecking orders of dominance and appeasement that are widespread in the animal kingdom. The purity-defilement contrast taps the emotion of disgust that is triggered by potential disease vectors like bodily effluvia, decaying flesh and unconventional forms of meat, and by risky sexual practices like incest.
The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.And, further down:
Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately. In the worst cases, the thoughtlessness of our brute intuitions can be celebrated as a virtue. In his influential essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, argued that we should disregard reason when it comes to cloning and other biomedical technologies and go with our gut: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings . . . because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. . . . In this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done . . . repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”
There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them. People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.
A pair of 35 year-old identical twins met for the first time, after having been raised apart without knowing of each others' existence, as part of a psychological experiment:
"It was a relief I think for both of us that we were not carbon copies. As similar as we looked when we compared pictures of ourselves as kids, as adults we have our own distinct style."
"We had the same favourite book and the same favourite film, Wings of Desire," says Elyse. "It was amazing," says Paula. "We felt we were conducting our own informal study on nature versus nurture in a way".Which raises the question: how do you know that the way you live, and what you accept as normal today, is not actually part of some psychological experiment?
New research shows that the human race is evolving faster than ever, and that, far from the accepted truth of the human race being biologically homogeneous, different populations have, over the past 10,000 years, been evolving apart, pushed by different selection pressures:
“Genes are evolving fast in Europe, Asia and Africa, but almost all of these are unique to their continent of origin. We are getting less alike, not merging into a single, mixed humanity.
“Our study denies the widely held assumption that modern humans appeared 40,000 years ago, have not changed since and that we are all pretty much the same. We aren’t the same as people even 1,000 or 2,000 years ago.”
The scientists said this reflected the great increase in human populations over that period, which has allowed more beneficial mutations to emerge. Changes in the human environment, particularly the rise of agriculture, also created new selective pressure to which humans adapted.Examples of evolutionary divergences include lactose tolerance among descendents of northern European populations (where the lack of sunlight would have made this mutation beneficial), differences in resistance to diseases such as malaria, smallpox and HIV between European and African populations, and more controversially, the hypothesis that above-average intelligence in Ashkenazi Jews is a result of selection pressures in mediaeval Europe (where they were confined to a small number of primarily cognitively demanding vocations). (And wasn't there a study a while ago that showed that the average IQ of a population was proportional to how many generations their ancestors had lived in urban environments?)
Irony of the day: James Watson, the disgraced Nobel laureate who recently claimed that people of African descent are less intelligent than those of European descent, is found to have genes indicating recent African ancestry. More specifically, 16% of Watson's genome is likely to have come from a black ancestor of African descent, whereas with the average European, that figure is 1%:
"This level is what you would expect in someone who had a great-grandparent who was African," said Kari Stefansson of deCODE Genetics, whose company carried out the analysis. "It was very surprising to get this result for Jim."
Genetic engineering has built a better mouse, with extraordinary physical abilities:
The mouse can run up to six kilometres (3.7 miles) at a speed of 20 metres per minute for five hours or more without stopping. Scientists said that this was equivalent of a man cycling at speed up an Alpine mountain without a break. Although it eats up to 60 per cent more food than an ordinary mouse, the modified mouse does not put on weight. It also lives longer and enjoys an active sex life well into old age – being capable of breeding at three times the normal maximum age.
American scientists who created the mice – they now have a breeding colony of 500 – said that they were stunned by their abilities, especially given that the animals came about as a result of a standard genetic modification to a single metabolism gene shared with humans.I do hope the colony's well guarded; can you imagine the mayhem that would ensue if they ever broke out?
The article goes on to mention some other achievements of genetic engineering, including the "spinach pig" (a pig containing a spinach gene, which is healthier to eat; not to be confused with the "green pig").
The cat genome has been sequenced. Well, most of it. The feline Craig Venter whose actual DNA was sequenced is a pedigree Abyssinian cat named Cinnamon, descended from lab cats bred to develop a degenerative eye disease, whose genetic cause has since been discovered.
Analysis of the cat genome sequence could also shed light on everything from evolution to the origins of feline domestication, they say.
"One thing I'd like to discover is the genes for good behaviour in the cats - the genes for domestication, the things that make them not want to kill our children but play with them," he added.If they do find the makes-a-good-pet gene, they could possibly use it to create transgenic pets which don't do the amount of ecological damage to non-native environments that cats do. (There would be a solid case for eliminating cats from, say, Australia, though because of their popularity, such a move would be impossible to implement in anything resembling a democracy.) An alternative would be to find the genes responsible for predatory instincts and knock them out, creating a cat that's, well, a pussycat. Oh, and if they find out how to encode bitmaps into the cat's coat patterns, designer kittens could be as much a possibility as laser-engraved iPods.
A new report from the World Cancer Research Fund claims that eating bacon increases the risk of cancer. The Sun wastes no time in responding:
Clever, Rupert. Very clever.
In recent health-related news: a cure may have been discovered for the debilitating condition of unrequited love. Researchers in Alabama and Iran have found that a combination of the hormones of melatonin and vasotocin may alleviate the condition:
Intense romantic love is associated with specific physiological, psychological and behavioural changes, including euphoria, obsessiveness, and a craving for closeness with the target.
The key is the pea-sized pineal gland, which produces melatonin. This hormone plays a key role in the circadian cycle. It has also shown anti-dopamine activities in part of the brain, while a second hormone, arginine-vasotocin, also has a key role in romantic love. The researchers suggest that giving the two hormones may be a cure for non-returned romantic love.(Alabama and Iran? I wonder whether there's any deeper significance to two places known for religiously-based social conservatism being at the forefront of research to control a powerful and sometimes disruptive phenomenon. Is it heartening or disturbing that, even as talk of a US/Iranian war grows louder, US and Iranian scientists can join forces in the War On Unrequited Love?)
Also in the same article: taking showers may cause a neurodegenerative condition associated with inhalation of manganese, keeping dogs may cause breast cancer and sunlight may increase violent impulses.
A new book takes to task the accepted belief that men and women think and/or communicate differently, as expounded by popular psychology books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus:
The bones of Cameron’s argument, set out in The Myth of Mars and Venus, are that Gray et al have no scientific basis for their claims. Great sheaves of academic papers, says Cameron, show that the language skills of men and women are almost identical. Indeed, the central tenets of the Mars and Venus culture – that women talk more than men, that men are more direct, that women are more verbally skilled – can all be debunked by scientific research. A recent study in the American journal Science, for instance, found men and women speak almost exactly the same number of words a day: 16,000.
Where the book becomes interesting is when she asks why we have become interested in these myths. “The first point to make is that in the past 20 years we have become obsessed by communication,” she says. “And that’s not just in relationships; it’s in customer care, it’s in politics. All problems are seen to be communication problems.
Cameron is not simply irritated that the Mars and Venus books have filled too many Christmas stockings. Her fervour on this issue runs deeper. There is, she thinks, something regressive, deeply conservative, in this outlook because what it seems to be saying is that we can’t change.The author, Deborah Cameron, is a feminist philologist and Rupert Murdoch professor of Language at Oxford (really); other than the Mars-and-Venus brigade, she has in her sights Darwinists (which, I'm guessing, means the likes of Steven Pinker and/or Richard Dawkins), Tories, man-hating "pseudo-feminists" and punctuation/grammar pedants:
“You had people like Prince Charles and Norman Tebbit inferring that if people were making spelling mistakes it was only a short step to them coming in dirty to school and then there’d be no motivation for them to stay out of crime,” says Cameron. “There were these illogical slippery slope arguments: how, if children didn’t know how to use the colon properly, it was only a few steps from drug-taking and criminality. There was a deep moral and social dimension to it all.
A physics professor and university chair from Pakistan writes about the position of science in today's Islamic world:
Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or "butterfly-collecting" activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.
In the 1980s an imagined "Islamic science" was posed as an alternative to "Western science." The notion was widely propagated and received support from governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Muslim ideologues in the US, such as Ismail Faruqi and Syed Hossein Nasr, announced that a new science was about to be built on lofty moral principles such as tawheed (unity of God), ibadah (worship), khilafah (trusteeship), and rejection of zulm (tyranny), and that revelation rather than reason would be the ultimate guide to valid knowledge. Others took as literal statements of scientific fact verses from the Qur'an that related to descriptions of the physical world. Those attempts led to many elaborate and expensive Islamic science conferences around the world. Some scholars calculated the temperature of Hell, others the chemical composition of heavenly djinnis. None produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment, or even formulated a single testable hypothesis.
The question of how to reconcile religious practices with modern technological realities where their founders' assumptions do not hold has arisen again, as the world's first devoutly Muslim astronaut prepares to go into space, taking with him a document written by 150 Islamic scientists and scholars assembled by the Malaysian space agency on Islamic practice in space:
Dr. Kamal Abdali, a cartographer who is also Muslim and who has written (.pdf) extensively on determining the qibla, favors the great circle route, but adds, "Prayer is not supposed to be a gymnastic exercise. One is supposed to concentrate on the prayer rather the exact orientation." He points out that in a train or plane, it's customary to start in the qibla direction but then continue the prayer without worrying about possible changes in position.
Yet the option to pray while facing a point in space brings up another problem. Muslims face the ground to pray, in part to avoid any hint of pagan sun or moon worship ("Prostrate yourselves not to the sun nor to the moon, but prostrate yourselves to Allah Who created them, if you (really) worship Him" (The Quran, Fussilat 41:37). If the Ka'aba projection happens to line up with the sun or moon, purists might believe the prayer invalid.
Questions like these will continue as more and more religious astronauts travel into space. When is sunset in low Earth orbit if you're experiencing a dozen sunrises and sunsets in every 24-hour period? When does Sabbath begin on the moon, where the sun sets once a month? When is the first sighting of the crescent moon if you're on Mars? Religious councils of all faiths will have plenty to keep them busy for years.
Among recent proposals for keeping one step ahead of the terrorists is the use of formerly secret Russian mind-control and mind-reading technology, such as testing airline passengers' subconscious responses to scrambled images with terrorist-related themes:
SSRM Tek is presented to a subject as an innocent computer game that flashes subliminal images across the screen -- like pictures of Osama bin Laden or the World Trade Center. The "player" -- a traveler at an airport screening line, for example -- presses a button in response to the images, without consciously registering what he or she is looking at. The terrorist's response to the scrambled image involuntarily differs from the innocent person's, according to the theory.
Despite Smirnov's death, Rusalkina predicts an "arms race" in psychotronic weapons. Such weapons, she asserts, are far more dangerous than nuclear weapons. She pointed, for example, to a spate of Russian news reports about "zombies" -- innocent people whose memories had been allegedly wiped out by mind control weapons.Meanwhile, some are sceptical about whether or not one can actually deduce terrorist intent from such cues.
The problem, he said, is that there is no science he is aware of that can produce the specificity or sensitivity to pick out a terrorist, let alone influence behavior. "We're still working at the level of how rats learn that light predicts food," he explained. "That's the level of modern neuroscience."
(via Boing Boing)
Blog discovery of the day: Paleo-Future, a blog devoted to yesteryear's predictions for the future, from Buckminster Fuller's visionary contraptions to tree-crushing, highway-building robot juggernauts, to flying cars, robot housemaids, free love (a feature of several 1970s-vintage predictions of life in a few decades' time), and vast oceans of leisure time, all tagged by category and decade.
Don't expect to find any dystopias, mass die-offs or post-apocalyptic wastelands here, though; the fragments featured in Paleo-Futurism all have an upbeat tone, often to the point of naïveté, informed by a faith in the march of technological progress which seems charmingly quaint today. What was in the water supply in the mid-20th century anyway?
(via Boing Boing)
Today in rocket science: scientists have developed a rocket-powered mechanical arm. I guess they were right, and in the future, everything will be rocket-powered.
I wonder whether installing one of these as a prosthetic limb would be classified as rocket surgery.
A leading environmentalist has claimed that walking to the shops does more to cause global warming than driving; according to Chris Goodall, the author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life and a Green Party candidate in the UK, producing the food to provide a person with enough calories to walk to the shops is more energy-intensive than driving. Also, catching a diesel train is twice as polluting as driving a sports-utility vehicle over the same distance, paper bags are more environmentally damaging than plastic (because of the energy required to manufacture and transport them), organic milk causes more greenhouse emissions than intensively-produced non-organic milk, and while trees do absorb carbon, they produce methane, which is much more harmful.
So if you want to save the planet, forget about walking and drive everywhere like a mid-20th-century Los Angeleno, taking care to live a sedentary lifestyle in the interim. And don't even think about going to the gym; you'll go to green hell for such egregious wastes of carbon. Or perhaps not.
Some miscellaneous web links from today:
- Scientists in Britain have developed a robot for teaching social skills to autistic children. The robot, named KASPAR (presumably a reference to Kaspar Hauser) can smile, gesticulate and simulate emotions such as surprise and sadness and acts as a "social mediator".
- A taxonomy of terrorist group logos, taken from Wikipedia. There are a lot of swords and AK-47s there, along with a few stars (mostly from the Marxist-influenced, rather than nationalist or Islamist, groups).
- In a year's time, Israel will have a national internet censorship firewall, blocking all adult content, with those wishing to access it being able to do so by signing a "perverts' register". If the Israelis make this work, there'll probably be pressure in Australia to implement something like this (after all, there is theoretical bipartisan support for a national firewall).
- A WIRED article looking at the subculture of people who deliberately try to fly as many miles as possible for the lowest price, and the strategies they employ.
Scientists in the Netherlands are working on growing artificial meat in the laboratory without the need of growing an entire animal to go with it.
Under the process, researchers first isolate muscle stem cells, which have the ability to grow and multiply into muscle cells. Then they stimulate the cells to develop, give them nutrients and exercise them with electric current to build bulk.
After perfecting that process, scientists will then need to figure out how to layer tissues to add more bulk, since meat grown in petri dishes lacks the blood vessels needed to deliver nutrients through thick muscle fibers.
And then there is the question of fat, to add flavor.Growing something vaguely like processed meat, consisting of a mass of undifferentiated muscle cells, is one thing; giving something with the structure of real muscle tissue is another. And while the process is both more efficient than keeping animals (in terms of energy input, farming livestock for meat is orders of magnitude more expensive per calorie than growing crops) and doesn't involve killing animals, the idea of eating meat not from a slaughtered animal still fills people with visceral disgust (in a way that killing animals for meat, for the most part, doesn't; presumably because our ancestors have been doing it, one way or another, for millions of years), and so cultured meat may be slow to find acceptance.
A study in Japan has shown that Japanese and Americans interpret facial expressions differently. In Japan, people pay attention to the eyes for emotional cues, whereas in America (and, presumably, elsewhere in the West), they look to the mouth.
The exact reasons for this are not known, though one theory is that it is because the Japanese attempt to suppress their emotions in the presence of others more than the loud, demonstrative gaijin do, and in such cases, the eyes provide more of a clue to someone's emotional state. One consequence of this, of course, is the difference between the way Westerners and Japanese draw happy-face symbols in ASCII characters, with the Japanese smiley looking like ^_^ (note the emphasis on the eyes), and the Western one being the familiar :-):
So when Yuki entered graduate school and began communicating with American scholars over e-mail, he was often confused by their use of emoticons such as smiley faces :) and sad faces, or :(.
"It took some time before I finally understood that they were faces," he wrote in an e-mail. In Japan, emoticons tend to emphasize the eyes, such as the happy face (^_^) and the sad face (;_;). "After seeing the difference between American and Japanese emoticons, it dawned on me that the faces looked exactly like typical American and Japanese smiles," he said.
(via Boing Boing)
A funny thing happened during a recent test of a military mine-disposal robot:
This is not the only incident of a curious camaraderie developing between soldiers and robots; the article describes other stories of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq (where robots are being widely deployed) befriending their mechanical compatriots, ascribing quirks of individual robots to personalities, giving them names and (virtual) battlefield honours, and even going fishing with their robot buddies.
At the Yuma Test Grounds in Arizona, the autonomous robot, 5 feet long and modeled on a stick-insect, strutted out for a live-fire test and worked beautifully, he says. Every time it found a mine, blew it up and lost a limb, it picked itself up and readjusted to move forward on its remaining legs, continuing to clear a path through the minefield.
Finally it was down to one leg. Still, it pulled itself forward. Tilden was ecstatic. The machine was working splendidly.
The human in command of the exercise, however -- an Army colonel -- blew a fuse.
The colonel ordered the test stopped.
Why? asked Tilden. What's wrong?
The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.
This test, he charged, was inhumane.
Which could be more evidence that the human mind automatically perceives anything whose actions show signs of intention to have psychological states. An example (in the book Mind Hacks) describes children being shown a display with two shapes moving on a screen, one after the other, and when asked what was happening, describing one as chasing the other. Could it be that when a machine tries to defuse a bomb, its operators, even though they know it is a machine, can't help but mentally classify it as being "alive"?
Scientists at Mitsubishi have developed a camera which allows photos to be refocussed after being taken. Unlike previous experiments in this field, this system retains the full resolution of the camera's image sensor in the resulting image. It uses a special lens with a semi-transparent patterned mask (resembling a crossword puzzle) in the middle:
Using the combination of the mask and the post-processing software, MERL researchers were able to reconstruct a 4D light field from the standard 2D camera, explained MERL Visiting Scientist Amit Agrawal. Instead of bending light rays, the patterned mask attenuates the rays inside the camera. The post-processing software reconstructs the light field using an inverse computation of the Fourier transform equation, allowing the user to refocus the image.The article has a slideshow, including some sample images. For some reason, they seem a bit dull, a bit like the images taken with digital cameras from 10 years ago; I wonder whether this is a result of the image reconstruction algorithm.
WIRED has an interesting article on research into extending the human sensory range by formatting the output of other sensors into formats the human nervous system can understand, and letting the flexibility of the human brain (or "neuroplasticity", as it's called) do the rest of the work:
It turns out that the tricky bit isn't the sensing. The world is full of gadgets that detect things humans cannot. The hard part is processing the input. Neuroscientists don't know enough about how the brain interprets data. The science of plugging things directly into the brain -- artificial retinas or cochlear implants -- remains primitive.
So here's the solution: Figure out how to change the sensory data you want -- the electromagnetic fields, the ultrasound, the infrared -- into something that the human brain is already wired to accept, like touch or sight. The brain, it turns out, is dramatically more flexible than anyone previously thought, as if we had unused sensory ports just waiting for the right plug-ins. Now it's time to build them.And a few examples:
For six weird weeks in the fall of 2004, Udo Wächter had an unerring sense of direction. Every morning after he got out of the shower, Wächter, a sysadmin at the University of Osnabrück in Germany, put on a wide beige belt lined with 13 vibrating pads - the same weight-and-gear modules that make a cell phone judder. On the outside of the belt were a power supply and a sensor that detected Earth's magnetic field. Whichever buzzer was pointing north would go off. Constantly.
"It was slightly strange at first," Wächter says, "though on the bike, it was great." He started to become more aware of the peregrinations he had to make while trying to reach a destination. "I finally understood just how much roads actually wind," he says. He learned to deal with the stares he got in the library, his belt humming like a distant chain saw. Deep into the experiment, Wächter says, "I suddenly realized that my perception had shifted. I had some kind of internal map of the city in my head. I could always find my way home. Eventually, I felt I couldn't get lost, even in a completely new place."
The downside to this is that withdrawal's a bitch; having gotten used to the sensory augmentation, one literally becomes disabled when it's taken away:
When the original feelSpace experiment ended, Wächter, the sysadmin who started dreaming in north, says he felt lost; like the people wearing the weird goggles in those Austrian experiments, his brain had remapped in expectation of the new input. "Sometimes I would even get a phantom buzzing." He bought himself a GPS unit, which today he glances at obsessively. One woman was so dizzy and disoriented for her first two post-feelSpace days that her colleagues wanted to send her home from work. "My living space shrank quickly," says König. "The world appeared smaller and more chaotic."Another sensory augmentation technology described there involves using the tongue (a high-resolution array of sensors) to sense pixels in the form of voltages. This is sufficiently effective to allow blind (or blindfolded) people to "see" through an external input device wired to a mouthpiece:
With Arnoldussen behind me carrying the laptop, I walked around the Wicab offices. I managed to avoid most walls and desks, scanning my head from side to side slowly to give myself a wider field of view, like radar. Thinking back on it, I don't remember the feeling of the electrodes on my tongue at all during my walkabout. What I remember are pictures: high-contrast images of cubicle walls and office doors, as though I'd seen them with my eyes.
(via Mind Hacks)
Scientists have developed a drug capable of erasing individual, specific memories. The memory erasure procedure is carried out by administering the drug and then restimulating the memory.
To find out, they trained rats to fear two different musical tones, by playing them at the same time as giving the rats an electric shock. Then, they gave half the rats a drug known to cause limited amnesia (U0126, which is not approved for use in people), and reminded all the animals, half of which were still under the influence of the drug, of one of their fearful memories by replaying just one of the tones. When they tested the rats with both tones a day later, untreated animals were still fearful of both sounds, as if they expected a shock. But those treated with the drug were no longer afraid of the tone they had been reminded of under treatment.Before you book yourself in to do something about your unrequited crushes and/or traumatic childhood experiences, note that the procedure only works on memories that have yet to have been transferred from short-term to long-term memory. And it's not approved for use on humans.
Nanotechnology researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed the blackest material ever, which reflects virtually no light. The material is comprised of silica nanorods at precisely 45 degrees, and appears like a black void, no matter how much light one shines on it.
Metalheads, goths and emo kids are eagerly awaiting news of clothing applications of the discovery.
Artificial intelligence/cognitive science pioneer Marvin Minsky, who has recently written a book on the mechanisms behind emotions, gives an interview, weighing in on intelligence, cognition, the nature of self and the ineffable mysteries of life:
Q What, in your view, is love?
A There's short-term infatuation, where someone gets strongly attracted to someone else, and that's probably very often a turning-off of certain things rather than something extra: It's a mental state where you remove your criticism. So to say someone is beautiful is not necessarily positive, it may be something happening so you can't see anything wrong with this person. And then there are long-term attachments, where you adopt the goals of the other person and somehow make serious changes in what you're going to do.
Q And what is the self?
A We often imagine that there's a little person inside ourselves who makes our important decisions for us. However, a more useful idea is that you build many different models of yourself for dealing with different situations -- and each of those self-images can add to your resourcefulness.
Apparently iPods work in zero gravity. That is, unless Apple and their hard drive supplier specifically made special space iPods for cosmonauts and space tourists.
Other hardware that apparently has been used on the International Space Station includes IBM laptops (not sure if they're consumer models or ruggedised mil-spec ones of some sort) and Nikon digital cameras.
A computer scientist in Reading has solved the problem of how to divide by zero. Dr. James Anderson did this by defining a new type of value, named "nullity", which sits outside the conventional number line. The Nobel committee will, I imagine, be in touch shortly.
A survey of recent research in neurotheology and the biology of mystical experience, from the magnetic "God helmet" to the possibility of a gene that regulates propensity towards mystical/spiritual experience:
Newberg's scans showed that neural activity decreases in a region at the top and rear of the brain called the posterior superior parietal lobe. Newberg refers to this region as the orientation-association area, because it helps us orient our bodies in relation to the external world. Patients whose posterior superior parietal lobes have been damaged often lose the ability to navigate through the world, because they have difficulty determining where their physical selves end and where the external world begins. Newberg hypothesizes that suppressed activity in this brain region (prompted by an individual's willed activity) could heighten a sense of unity with the external world, thus diminishing a person's sense of subject-object duality.
Intriguingly, Newberg has found some overlap between the neural activity of self-transcendence and of sexual pleasure. This result makes sense, Newberg says. Just as orgasms are triggered by a rhythmic activity, so religious experiences can be induced by dancing, chanting, or repeating a mantra. And both orgasms and religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence, and unity; that may be why mystics such as Saint Teresa so often employed romantic and even sexual language to describe their raptures.
Our sense of self, Persinger notes, is ordinarily mediated by the brain's left hemisphere--specifically, by the left temporal lobe, which wraps around the side of the head. When the brain is mildly disrupted--by a head injury, psychological trauma, stroke, drugs, or epileptic seizure--our left-brain self may interpret activity within the right hemisphere as another self, or what Persinger calls a "sensed presence." Depending on our circumstances and background, we may perceive a sensed presence as a ghost, angel, demon, extraterrestrial, or God.
In the 1980s, a team at the University of Minnesota carried out a study of 84 pairs of twins--53 identical and 31 fraternal--who had been raised separately. The study was the first to suggest a genetic component to what the researchers called "intrinsic religiousness," which includes the tendency to pray often and to feel the presence of God.
Eventually Hamer found a variant, or allele, of a gene called VMAT, that corresponded to higher scores for what he had defined as spirituality. VMAT stands for vesicular monoamine transporter. The gene manufactures a protein that binds monoamines into packages, called vesicles, for transportation between neurons. Hamer calls the VMAT variant "the spiritual allele," or more dramatically, "the God gene".
Rick Strassman has proposed a theory even more reductionist and far-fetched than Hamer's, yet one that has empirical support. Strassman, a psychiatrist in New Mexico, traces spirituality to a single compound, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman proposes that DMT secreted by our own brains plays a profound role in human consciousness. Specifically, he hypothesizes that endogenous DMT triggers mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.The article concludes speculating on the possibilities discovering the biological root of spirituality could open:
Researchers may persist at these efforts because such studies offer the potential to alter our lives. In principle, these findings could lead to methods--call them "mystical technologies"--that reliably induce the state of spiritual insight that Christians call grace and Buddhists, enlightenment. Already Todd Murphy, a neuroscientist who has worked with Persinger, is marketing the "Shakti headset," a stripped-down version of Persinger's God machine, for "consciousness exploration." Electrodes implanted in the brain that electrically stimulate specific regions are now being tested as treatments for depression and other mental illnesses; conceivably this technology also could be used to induce mystical states.
Suppose scientists found a way to give us permanent, blissful, mystical self-transcendence. Would we want that power? Before Timothy Leary touted LSD as a route to profound psychological and spiritual insight, the CIA was studying its potential as a brainwashing agent. Persinger warns that in the wrong hands, a truly precise, powerful God machine, capable of implanting beliefs or signals that seem to come straight from the Almighty, could be the ultimate mind-control device. "Just think of the practical impact," he says. "People will die for this."
(via Mind Hacks)
New Scientist has an article on a new generation of sleep-control drugs, which promise to radically change the need for sleep, eroding this primal biological obstacle to an always-on society:
Modafinil is just the first of a wave of new lifestyle drugs that promise to do for sleep what the contraceptive pill did for sex - unshackle it from nature. Since time immemorial, humans have structured their lives around sleep. In the near future, we will, for the first time, be able to significantly structure the way we sleep to suit our lifestyles.
All the indications are that modafinil is extremely safe. The drug can have side effects, most commonly headaches, but up to now there have been no severe reactions, says Vaught. In fact, it is hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about modafinil, except that there may be unseen problems down the line as the drug becomes more widely used. "I think it's unlikely that there can be an arousal drug with no consequences," says Foster. In the long run, it is possible that casual users might have to keep upping their dose to get the same effect. Stanley has similar worries. "Is it a potential drug of abuse?" he asks. "Will it get street value? We'll see."And modafinil isn't the latest; new drugs under development for the US military promise days of alertness with no degradation or side-effects, while other efforts are aimed at finding drugs to change the architecture of sleep; allowing one to get a dose of refreshing slow-wave sleep (normally only reached through hours of the less profitable fast-wave variety) in a short session:
Deadwyler kept 11 rhesus monkeys awake for 36 hours, throughout which they performed short-term memory and general alertness tests (Public Library of Sciences Biology, vol 3, p 299). At that level of sleep deprivation, a monkey's performance would normally drop to the point where it could barely function at all, but Deadwyler found that CX717 had remarkable restorative powers. Monkeys on the drug were doing better after 36 hours of continual wakefulness than undrugged monkeys after normal sleep.
"It is possible that pharmaceuticals will allow you a condensed dose of sleep," he says, "and we are not that far away from having drugs that put you to sleep for a certain length of time." He predicts you could soon have tablet combining a hypnotic with an antidote or wakefulness promoter designed to give you a precise number of hours' sleep. "A 4, 5 or 6-hour pill."The article finishes with the warning that, as soon as these drugs become available, many people may eliminate most of their sleep. Which makes sense, though the question arises of long-term side-effects; might the lack of downtime during which the brain performs various housekeeping tasks not increase the likelihood of neurological problems? And if you're competing (as we all are, at least in the Anglosphere) against people who sleep 30 minutes a day, can you afford to worry about coming down with Alzheimer's or schizophrenia 20 years down the track? Then again, perhaps sleep will become an artefact of conspicuous consumption, with the crassly wealthy bragging about how much they can afford to sleep, in the way that today's celebrity aristocracy show off their Hummers and diamond-studded BlackBerries?
An article claims that sexual abstinence is bad for you:
Fans of abstinence had better be sitting down. "Saving yourself" before the big game, the big business deal, the big hoedown or the big bakeoff may indeed confer some moral benefit. But corporeally it does absolutely zip. There's no evidence it sharpens your competitive edge. The best that modern science can say for sexual abstinence is that it's harmless when practiced in moderation. Having regular and enthusiastic sex, by contrast, confers a host of measurable physiological advantages, be you male or female.
Its findings, published in 1997 in the British Medical Journal, were that men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm enjoyed a death rate half that of the laggards.Other claimed benefits of regularly gettin' it on include: improved sense of smell, weight loss and overall fitness, pain relief, and reduced risks of heart disease, cancer, depression and incontinence.
This just in: Pluto is officially not a planet. The International Astronomical Union rejected a face-saving proposal to create a category of runners-up to planethood known as "plutons", assigning Pluto and various other objects to it, instead unsentimentally striking the distant rock from the list of planets, where it has been since its discovery in 1930.
Scientists have created a mouse that's permanently happy. The mouse lacks the TREK-1 gene, which affects the transmission serotonin in the brain, and as such doesn't suffer from depression (which, presumably, normal mice do):
Mice without the TREK-1 gene ('knock-out' mice) were created and bred in collaboration with Dr. Michel Lazdunski, co-author of the research, in his laboratory at the University of Nice, France. "These 'knock-out' mice were then tested using separate behavioral, electrophysiological and biochemical measures known to gauge 'depression' in animals," says Dr. Debonnel. "The results really surprised us; our 'knock-out' mice acted as if they had been treated with antidepressants for at least three weeks."
A biologist posits the intriguing hypothesis that a country's national character may be influenced by its rate of parasite infection, particularly by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii (i.e., the "crazy cat person" parasite):
The author of the study is Kevin Lafferty, a biologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Lafferty made three straightforward observations.Lafferty's hypothesis predicted that the national cultures/characters of countries with high rates of Toxoplasma infection would have higher rates of characteristics such as neuroticism, uncertainty avoidance and "masculine" sex roles:
- Toxoplasma infection rates vary from country to country. South Korea has prevalance rate of only 4.3%, for example, while Brazil's rate is 66.9%. These rates are determined by many factors, from the eating habits in a country (steak tartar, anyone?) to its climate (Toxoplasma oocysts survive longer in warm tropical soil).
- Psychologists have measured some of the personality traits influenced by Toxoplasma in these countries. People with Toxoplasma tend to be more self-doubting and insecure, among other things. Among the differences in men, Toxoplasma is associated with less interest in seeking novelty. Toxoplasma-infected women are more open-hearted.
- A nation's culture can be described, at least in part, as the aggregation of its members' personalities.
He found a signficiant correlation between high levels of the parasite and high levels of neuroticism. There was a positive but weak correlation between Toxoplasma and levels of uncertainty avoidances and masculine sex roles. However, if he excluded the non-Western countries of China, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, and Indonesia, the correlations of both personality measurements with Toxoplasma got much stronger.
So--has Lafferty discovered why the French are neurotic (Toxo: 45%) and Australians are not (28%)? As he admits, this is just a first pass.
Lafferty also notes that many other factors shape a nation's culture--which actually raises another interesting question: what about other parasites? Do viruses, intestinal worms, and other pathogens that can linger in the body for decades have their own influence on human personality? How much is the national spirit the spirit of a nation's parasites?
(via Mind Hacks)
Vat-grown meat, cultured in vats of nutrients from a single stem cell, could be on the market by 2009:
A single cell could theoretically produce enough meat to feed the world's population for a year. But the challenge lies in figuring out how to grow it on a large scale. Jason Matheny, a University of Maryland doctoral student and a director of New Harvest, a nonprofit organization that funds research on in vitro meat, believes the easiest way to create edible tissue is to grow "meat sheets," which are layers of animal muscle and fat cells stretched out over large flat sheets made of either edible or removable material. The meat can then be ground up or stacked or rolled to get a thicker cut.
"To produce the meat we eat now, 75 (percent) to 95 percent of what we feed an animal is lost because of metabolism and inedible structures like skeleton or neurological tissue," says Matheny. "With cultured meat, there's no body to support; you're only building the meat that eventually gets eaten."Other than increased efficiency and the warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing that no beautiful creature must die for that flesh you so fancifully fry, there are other advantages, such as the possibility of tailoring the makeup of the meat to be healthier, or indeed to taste unlike any natural meat. Of course, making synthetic mincemeat is one thing, and making a steak is another:
Taste is another unknown variable. Real meat is more than just cells; it has blood vessels, connective tissue, fat, etc. To get a similar arrangement of cells, lab-grown meat will have to be exercised and stretched the way a real live animal's flesh would.And then there is the question of whether the public would accept cultured meat; and indeed whether it would be acceptable for a vegetarian to eat something grown from a cell. And if it is, I wonder how long until fetishists start growing meat from their own cells for purposes of autocannibalism.
A German architect has a plan to solve housing shortages, generate wealth and absorb carbon dioxide by building new land from the sea using "mineral accretion":
A cargo ship drops anchor in choppy water 300 miles off the coast of North Africa. With practiced efficiency, its crew deploys the ship's crane and begins hauling house-size wire frames and reels of thick electrical cable from the hold. As quickly as this cargo appears topside, it is flung overboard, disappearing into the gray, swirling sea. When the decks are finally clear, the crew begins assembling floating solar panels that look like adult-size tinkertoys. The ship's engines rumble as the first of these ungainly structures is hoisted skyward and carefully deposited alongside. The activity continues until they form a vast spiral that dips below the horizon as the ship steams away. Five years later, a luxury cruise liner drops anchor at precisely the same place. Instead of finding bobbing rafts, the passengers lining its decks see the thriving island of Autopia Ampere.
Autopia Ampere will begin as a series of wire-mesh armatures anchored atop a sea mountain. Once in place, they will be connected to a supply of low-voltage direct current produced by solar panels. Over time, electrochemical reactions will draw minerals from the sea to the armatures, creating walls of calcium carbonate, which is what us landlubbers commonly call limestone.
One of the cornerstones of the new city's economy would be "limestone farming." ... Hilbertz envisions these products being lifted directly out of the sea into barges and ships, which could deliver them to seaports around the world. A limestone farm in the Caribbean could efficiently ship the building materials to coastal areas of North and South America, Europe and Africa, to inland North American ports on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Mississippi River systems, to most of Central Europe via the Rhine, Rhone and Danube rivers and to most of the Amazon basin in Brazil. A farm in the South Pacific could service the west coast of North and South America, and booming Pacific Rim countries.
The fact that ocean-grown cities could stand on their own economically and become independent and self-governing entities poses what Hilbertz believes to be one of the biggest barriers to their creation. He says there is no legal precedent regarding national ownership of a newly formed island that is beyond a nation's territorial waters.
(via Boing Boing)
Scientists have discovered that climate change is causing species to evolve more rapidly to adapt to new conditions. Meanwhile, a White House spokesperson has issued a statement saying that both global warming and evolution are unfounded theories with no concrete evidence to support them.
Michael Chorost, born partially deaf, completely lost his hearing in his mid-30s, depriving him of the pleasure of listening to his favourite piece of music (Ravel's Boléro; one of the few pieces which his condition allowed him to appreciate). He was fitted with a "bionic ear", an implant that processes sound and converts it into neural impulses, at a resolution just good enough to understand speech, though nowhere near enough to appreciate music. So he studied up on neurology, music and psychoacoustics, liaised with experts around the world and hacked the implant's firmware to let him enjoy music again:
When the device was turned on a month after surgery, the first sentence I heard sounded like "Zzzzzz szz szvizzz ur brfzzzzzz?" My brain gradually learned how to interpret the alien signal. Before long, "Zzzzzz szz szvizzz ur brfzzzzzz?" became "What did you have for breakfast?" After months of practice, I could use the telephone again, even converse in loud bars and cafeterias. In many ways, my hearing was better than it had ever been. Except when I listened to music.
About a year after I received the implant, I asked one implant engineer how much of the device's hardware capacity was being used. "Five percent, maybe." He shrugged. "Ten, tops." I was determined to use that other 90 percent. I set out on a crusade to explore the edges of auditory science. For two years tugging on the sleeves of scientists and engineers around the country, offering myself as a guinea pig for their experiments. I wanted to hear Boléro again.
I suggested rebooting and sampling Boléro through a microphone. But the postdoc told me he couldn't do that in time for my plane. A later flight wasn't an option; I had to be back in the Bay Area. I was crushed. I walked out of the building with my shoulders slumped. Scientifically, the visit was a great success. But for me, it was a failure. On the flight home, I plugged myself into my laptop and listened sadly to Boléro with Hi-Res. It was like eating cardboard.
Hold on. Don't jump to conclusions. I backtrack to 5:59 and switch to Hi-Res. That heart-stopping leap has become an asthmatic whine. I backtrack again and switch to the new software. And there it is again, that exultant ascent. I can hear Boléro's force, its intensity and passion. My chin starts to tremble. I open my eyes, blinking back tears. "Congratulations," I say to Emadi. "You have done it." And I reach across the desk with absurd formality and shake his hand.But being able to hear Boléro again wasn't the end of it; with his new hearing, Chorost started getting into the music that he hadn't been able to hear before, and he's confident that it will improve further:
In his studio, Rettig plays me Ravel's String Quartet in F Major and Philip Glass' String Quartet no. 5. I listen carefully, switching between the old software and the new. Both compositions sound enormously better on 121 channels. But when Rettig plays music with vocals, I discover that having 121 channels hasn't solved all my problems. While the crescendos in Dulce Pontes' Cançào do Mar sound louder and clearer, I hear only white noise when her voice comes in. Rettig figures that relatively simple instrumentals are my best bet - pieces where the instruments don't overlap too much - and that flutes and clarinets work well for me. Cavalcades of brass tend to overwhelm me and confuse my ear.
And some music just leaves me cold: I can't even get through Kraftwerk's Tour de France. I wave impatiently to Rettig to move on. (Later, a friend tells me it's not the software - Kraftwerk is just dull. It makes me think that for the first time in my life I might be developing a taste in music.)Amazing stuff.
(via bOING bOING)
Quote of the day, from Robert M. Sapolsky's contribution to "What We Believe But Cannot Prove", a collection of short essays on the subject by various eminent scientific thinkers:
Many physicists, especially astrophysicists, seem weirdly willing to go on about their communing with God in contemplating the Big Bang, but in my world of biologists, the God concept gets mighty infuriating when you spend your time thinking about, say, untreatably aggressive childhood leukemia.
Just as proponents of "Intelligent Design" are rallying against the theory of evolution, their counterparts in linguistics are pushing the (strictly scientific, mind you, and not in the least religious) theory of "Wrathful Dispersion":
The opponents of Wrathful Dispersion maintain that it is really just Babelism, rechristened so that it might fly under the radar of those who insist that religion has no place in the state-funded classroom. Babelism was clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 19); it held that the whole array of modern languages was created by God at a single stroke, for the immediate purpose of disrupting humanity's hubristic attempt to build a tower that would reach to heaven... Wrathful Dispersion is couched in more cautiously neutral language; rather than tying linguistic diversity to a specific biblical event, it merely argues that the differences among modern languages are too perverse to have arisen spontaneously, and must therefore be the work of some wrathful (and powerful) disperser who deliberately set out to accomplish a confusion of tongues.
One cynical observer has likened WD to Scientology, which "is a religion for purposes of tax assessment, a science for purposes of propaganda, and a work of fiction for purposes of copyright."This article, of course, is a parody. However, this site appears to be all too sincere, and offers up pearls of wisdom such as:
The Tower of Babel scenario of the Biblical account in Genesis 11 posits that all people spoke the same language before the Lord confused human tongues. Up until the nineteenth century it was common knowledge that the pre-Babel tongue was the language of the Bible, Ancient Hebrew and the language of Adam and Eve. ven in colonial America, Hebrew was so revered that the first dissertation in the New World, at Harvard College, was on Hebrew as The Mother Tongue. The Continental Congress nearly made Hebrew the language of the new republic, as much to break away from England as to reaffirm America's status as the new Promised Land.Actually, the claim that Hebrew almost became the US national language is a myth.
And it goes on from there, going into things from the white-supremacist tenets of Darwinism to Noam Chomsky being the connection between Godless non-Edenist linguistics and rabid anti-Israelism, not to mention the "proto-world" fallacy of assuming that languages remain largely static.
Scientists have developed mice which can regrow lost limbs or organs (or, in fact, everything other than brains).
Professor Heber-Katz made her discovery when she noticed the identification holes that scientists punch in the ears of experimental mice healed without any signs of scarring in the animals at her laboratory.
In one case the mice had their toes amputated -- but the digits grew back, complete with joints. In another test some of the tail was cut off, and this also regenerated. Then the researchers used a cryoprobe to freeze parts of the animals' hearts, and watched them grow back again. A similar phenomenon was observed when the optic nerve was severed and the liver partially destroyed.Not only that, but cells from the mutant mice, injected into ordinary mice, confer the regenerative ability, and it is believed that it may confer greater longevity. The genes in question are believed to exist in humans as well.
A set of parodic postage stamps commemorating American anti-scientists; a more timely response to this:
While standing in line at the post office, I saw this new series of stamps devoted to American scientists...which is kind of ironic considering how our sciences are now under attack from all corners: from evangelicals to pharmaceutical marketing, educational declines, and funding cuts. It's like singing "Happy Birthday" to a man as he's being taken away on a gurney.
(via bOING bOING)
A Qantas aerospace engineer has found that pumping sound into aircraft wings makes them perform better. Furthermore, he found that some sound performs better than others; for example, JJJ grunge-rock band Spiderbait works better than Pommy art-rock miserablists Radiohead. (Of course, the question remains of which Radiohead material he tested it with. Would Creep, for example, work differently from Kid A, or do Thom Yorke's nasal vocal timbres have a uniform effect on aerodynamics?)
"Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down," said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.
Proponents of Intelligent Falling assert that the different theories used by secular physicists to explain gravity are not internally consistent. Even critics of Intelligent Falling admit that Einstein's ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics. This fact, Intelligent Falling proponents say, proves that gravity is a theory in crisis.
Some evangelical physicists propose that Intelligent Falling provides an elegant solution to the central problem of modern physics. "Anti-falling physicists have been theorizing for decades about the 'electromagnetic force,' the 'weak nuclear force,' the 'strong nuclear force,' and so-called 'force of gravity,'" Burdett said. "And they tilt their findings toward trying to unite them into one force. But readers of the Bible have already known for millennia what this one, unified force is: His name is Jesus."Also in The Onion: this infographic of new ecologically-friendly biofuels, including the likes of "EcoCoal - bituminous, geologically occurring combustible that comes in a nice green container" and "Hydro-Quasi-Solarization", in which two naturally-occurring hydrogen atoms are "fused" together, releasing roughly as much energy as the sun.
Richard Ecob adapted a system for modelling atoms in radioactive decay to investigate how we look for partners. He found that "super daters", people who have many short relationships, have a good effect on others' lives. This is because they break up weak couples, forcing their victims to find better relationships.It turns out that the mathematics of couples breaking up is very similar to that of atoms decaying, and apparently subatomic particles that bounce from atom to atom end up living unfulfilled lives as well:
The research suggested that multiple daters, those who form many relationships, were less effective at finding the right partner than those who remained in one place and let others come to them.Of course, the definitions there look rather vague, so just how much sodium one should take this with is unknown.
Researchers in the US have made advances in the production of cultured meat, i.e., meat grown in nutrients from cell colonies, but barriers, both technical and cultural, remain:
They envisage muscle cells growing on huge sheets that would be regularly stretched to exercise the cells as they grow. Once enough cells had grown, they would be scraped off and shaped into processed meat products such as chicken nuggets.
The idea of doing away with traditional livestock and growing steaks from scratch dates back at least 70 years. In a horizon-scanning essay from 1932, Winston Churchill said: "Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."
"Right now, it would be possible to produce something like spam at an incredibly high cost, but the know-how to grow something that has structure, such as a steak, is a long way off," said Mr Matheny.
"It won't appeal to someone who gave up meat because they think it's morally wrong to eat flesh or someone who doesn't want to eat anything unnatural," Ms Bennett [of the Vegetarian Society] added.Of course, once it is possible to grow meat from donor cells without killing a living thing, a lot of things become possible. How long, I wonder, until some transgressive technogoth type decides to grow steaks from their own muscle cells and holds a cannibal dinner party? Despite the fact that no-one gets hurt, a lot of people would find this beyond the pale, and given how disgust often translates into legislation, chances are the practice will become outlawed in a great many countries. Which, of course, would only drive it underground and give it prestige and cachet.
Maciej Ceglowski with a brilliantly incisive piece on why the Space Shuttle is a bad idea, terminally compromised from its design onward by political considerations, is now little more than a pointless welfare scheme for the aerospace industry at the expense of actual research which could be conducted, and should be knocked on the head, with the funding diverted to more cost-effective and scientifically interesting, if less showmanly, automated experiments. A few choice quotes:
This brings up a delicate point about justifying manned missions with science. In order to make any straight-faced claims about being cost effective, you have to cart an awful lot of science with you into orbit, which in turns means you need to make the experiments as easy to operate as possible. But if the experiments are all automated, you remove the rationale for sending a manned mission in the first place. Apart from question-begging experiments on the physiology of space flight, there is little you can do to resolve this dilemma. In essence, each 'pure science' Shuttle science mission consists of several dozen automated experiments alongside an enormous, irrelevant, repeated experiment in keeping a group of primates alive and healthy outside the atmosphere.
The ISS was another child of the Cold War: originally intended to show the Russians up and provide a permanent American presence in space, then hastily amended as a way to keep the Russian space scientists busy while their economy was falling to pieces. Like the Shuttle, it has been redesigned and reduced in scope so many times that it bears no resemblance to its original conception. Launched in an oblique, low orbit that guarantees its permanent uselessness, it serves as yin to the shuttle's yang, justifying an endless stream of future Shuttle missions through the simple stratagem of being too expensive to abandon.
But NASA dismisses such helpful suggetions as unworthy of its mission of 'exploration', likening critics of manned space flight to those Europeans in the 1500's who would have cancelled the great voyages of discovery rather than face the loss of one more ship. Of course, the great explorers of the 1500's did not sail endlessly back and forth a hundred miles off the coast of Portugal, nor did they construct a massive artificial island they could repair to if their boat sprang a leak.
The Soviet Shuttle, the Buran (snowstorm) was an aerodynamic clone of the American orbiter, but incorporated many original features that had been considered and rejected for the American program, such as all-liquid rocket boosters, jet engines, ejection seats and an unmanned flight capability. You know you're in trouble when the Russians are adding safety features to your design.
The NASA obsession with elementary and middle school participation in space flight is curious, and demonstrates how low a status actual in-flight science has compared with orbital public relations. You are not likely to hear of CERN physicists colliding tin atoms sent to them by a primary school in Toulouse, or the Hubble space being turned around to point at waving middle schoolers on a playground in Texas, yet even the minimal two-man ISS crew - one short of the stated minimum needed to run the station - regularly takes time to talk to schoolchildren.Of course, in the Bush Era, even more billions will be spent on
Scientists in Switzerland have developed a robot cockroach convincing enough to infiltrate cockroach societies and subvert them from within, with the other roaches never twigging to the fact that their new companion was a robot:
That's part of what the scientists have been successful at showing with InsBot. In their latest experiment, the miniature robot drew the group of insects from a darkly lighted den to a more lit location, despite the roaches' affinity for low lighting. The roaches followed InsBot for the companionship.
Scientists believe that if they can use robots to mimic and respond to animals then they could eventually control the animals' behaviour. For example, they could use robots to stop sheep from jumping off cliffs or to migrate cockroaches out of infested homes. Progress in the field could ultimately influence and aid in scientific fields like medicine, agriculture and ethology (which is the study of animal behaviour).
Meanwhile, a Google search for "fomalhaut lovecraft" returns, among its top 10 results, the Suicide Girls homepage of someone who's into H.P. Lovecraft and Ayn Rand.
I'm not a huge fan of the This Modern World comic. Perhaps it comes from not living in the U.S., and thus being able to tune out the domestic issues it often covers, or perhaps it's that, more often than not, it tends to smugly preach to the choir and its message can be boiled down to something like "Republicans/neocons/right-wingers are insane, evil doodyheads and they smell, so there". However, the most recent one is a rather keen satire of recent Creationist tactics.
An interesting MSNBC article speculating on the future of human evolution, and interviewing scientists including Richard Dawkins:
Some environmentalists say toxins that work like estrogens are already having an effect: Such agents, found in pesticides and industrial PCBs, have been linked to earlier puberty for women, increased incidence of breast cancer and lower sperm counts for men.
"One of the great frontiers is going to be trying to keep humans alive in a much more toxic world," he observed from his Seattle office. "The whales of Puget Sound are the most toxic whales on Earth. Puget Sound is just a huge cesspool. Well, imagine if that goes global."
If we count humanity's technology as part of the evolving package &emdash; the extended phenotype, as Dawkins called it &emdash; then that will become part of the future of humanity, even if only due to the inevitable increase in pollution of an increasingly crowded Earth. Our descendants will have microscopic flotillas of nanobots in their bloodstreams, hunting down toxins and zapping proto-cancerous mutations. Perhaps corporations will remain the dominant species on earth, and the nanobots will be rented from the corporation that owns the patents for them; any human unlucky or imprudent enough to miss a payment can look forward to dying of massive organ failure, turning into a mass of tumours or having their suddenly naked immune system eaten alive by superbugs within 24 hours. Unless you live in the future's equivalent of Brazil or somesuch, in which case you'd get free open-source nanobots, considered by the America of the future to be pirated. But I digress.
Further on, the article speculates about whether humanity will diverge into different species, looking at Eloi/Morlocks scenarios, whether any sort of apocalyptic scenario could divide humanity into enough separate subgroups for them to evolve separately, and the question of body enhancement:
"You're talking about three different kinds of humans: the enhanced, the naturals and the rest," Garreau said. "The enhanced are defined as those who have the money and enthusiasm to make themselves live longer, be smarter, look sexier. That's what you're competing against."
In Garreau's view of the world, the naturals will be those who eschew enhancements for higher reasons, just as vegetarians forgo meat and fundamentalists forgo what they see as illicit pleasures. Then there's all the rest of us, who don't get enhanced only because they can't. "They loathe and despise the people who do, and they also envy them."
Then there is the question of germline genetic engineering, which could create instant races of superhumans or monsters, the AI singularity and even the vaguely retro-sounding prospect of spacefaring.
According to a report by the American Institute of Religions, the Church of Scientology is steadily losing members to Fictionology, a new religion created in 2003 by Bud Don Ellroy, author of Imaginetics: The New Pipe-Dream Of Modern Mental Make-Believe.:
"Unlike Scientology, which is based on empirically verifiable scientific tenets, Fictionology's central principles are essentially fairy tales with no connection to reality," the AIR report read. "In short, Fictionology offers its followers a mythical belief system free from the cumbersome scientific method to which Scientology is hidebound."
Fictionology's central belief, that any imaginary construct can be incorporated into the church's ever-growing set of official doctrines, continues to gain popularity. Believers in Santa Claus, his elves, or the Tooth Fairy are permittedeven encouragedto view them as deities. Even corporate mascots like the Kool-Aid Man are valid objects of Fictionological worship.
Ah, so Fictionology is like the entire set of Discordian/SubGenius-inspired "churches" formed on the net over the past decade then? (I'm not sure whether there was a Church of the Kool-Aid Man, but there could well have been.)
The good news (or possibly bad news, depending on your point of view): destroying the Earth is a lot harder than you'd think. Nuclear weapons, armageddon, gay marriage and proving that 1=0 will all fail to do anything about the planet still being there and all in one piece. Of course, if you'll settle for merely wiping out much of life on Earth, that's somewhat easier. (via Bruce Schneier)
Science has found that monkeys are willing to pay for monkey porn; i.e., male rhesus macaques in possession of stocks of juice will trade juice for views of female monkeys' bottoms. This emerged from a study on how much monkeys would pay to see (G-rated) pictures of monkeys of various ranks (the answer: less than for porn for high-rating monkeys, though you'd have to actually pay them to look at low-ranking loser monkeys).
Now, an interesting question would be, would it be possible to put monkeys to work (useful or experimental, as long as it's something they wouldn't normally do without reward) and pay them in a currency that's useless in and of itself but useful only for buying things (juice or monkey pr0n).
Spare a thought for David Atkinson, the University of Idaho scientist who spent 18 years of his life designing an experiment for the Huygens space probe, only to watch it all go pear-shaped in the depths of space because some rocket scientist forgot to turn his experiment on. Oops!
I don't know about you, but were I the genius who made the mistake, I'd be looking for somewhere very safe to hide right now.
A tutor at Cardiff University has determined mathematically that the 24th of January (i.e., this coming Monday) is the most depressing day of the year:
The formula for the day of misery reads 1/8W+(D-d) 3/8xTQ MxNA.
Where W is weather, D is debt - minus the money (d) due on January's pay day - and T is the time since Christmas.
Q is the period since the failure to quit a bad habit, M stands for general motivational levels and NA is the need to take action and do something about it.
Rats have been trained to tell the difference between spoken Japanese and Dutch. (via bOING bOING, who immediately saw the biowar potential of such developments)
Cambridge geneticist Aubrey de Grey believes that, with modern medicine, people alive today may live to be 1,000; and the people include some who are currently in their 60s.
If it happens, because of the resources that masses of people not dying would consume, I imagine that life extension will end up being rationed; perhaps not by a totalitarian regulatory framework, but merely by being so prohibitively expensive to allow only the ultra-rich to afford it. Of course, there could be life-extension grants by governments or private foundations, allowing society's living treasures to remain living, though the politics involved in those could well result in venal, corrupt or superficially popular people winning life extension whilst politically unpopular visionaries are left to go the way of all flesh. Perhaps, ultimately, it will be automated into a reality-TV-style format, with audiences across the world getting to choose, through the internet and mobile phone voting, who gets to live forever.
A company in the US is planning to start marketing genetically engineered hypo-allergenic cats for people who suffer from cat allergies. The cats will cost US$3,500 (indexed for inflation) and will be available in 2007; of course, to protect Allerca's intellectual property, the cats will come pre-neutered (think of it as genetic rights management). Interested parties can reserve one by ponying up US$250, which also gets them an "attractive personalized Reservation Certificate". Allerca are planning to expand into other species of "lifestyle pets" (perhaps an odorless, non-salivating dog could be in the works?) (via /.)
A scientist at The University of Florida has grown a brain in a vat, which can fly a simulated F22 fighter. The "brain", made of rat neurons, controls the simulated combat hardware through an interface to a PC. And so, real life imitates Banksy stencils. (via bOING bOING)
Two researchers at Berkeley have created a virus which fights AIDS. This virus is a modified version of HIV with the harmful parts replaced by a mechanism that inhibits HIV's ability to kill immune cells. The anti-AIDS virus is sexually transmissible, much as HIV is, which means that now it is hypothetically possible to screw a sick person healthy. (They may have to get rid of this if they ever market it, as not to lose revenue; otherwise they could sell multi-user site-licenses to sexually promiscuous patients, or put a celibacy clause in their licenses and prosecute violators under copyright laws.)
Contrarian idea of the day: genetically engineered organisms may be our best hope for averting environmental catastrophe: (via worldchanging)
In 2001 a group of scientists announced that they had engineered a transgenic tomato plant able to thrive on salty water--water, in fact, almost half as salty as seawater, and fifty times as salty as tomatoes can ordinarily abide.
Salt-tolerant crops might bring millions of acres of wounded or crippled land back into production. "And it gets better," Alex Avery told me. The transgenic tomato plants take up and sequester in their leaves as much as six or seven percent of their weight in sodium. "Theoretically," Alex said, "you could reclaim a salt-contaminated field by growing enough of these crops to remove the salts from the soil."
most agronomists agree that some substantial yield improvements are still to be had from advances in conventional breeding, fertilizers, herbicides, and other Green Revolution standbys. But it seems pretty clear that biotechnology holds more promise--probably much more. Recall that world food output will need to at least double and possibly triple over the next several decades. Even if production could be increased that much using conventional technology, which is doubtful, the required amounts of pesticide and fertilizer and other polluting chemicals would be immense. If properly developed, disseminated, and used, genetically modified crops might well be the best hope the planet has got.
Of course, to the Khmer Vert that is the dogmatic wing of the Green movement, any tampering with Mother Gaia's blessing is anathema and an absolute evil, so they won't have a bar of this. Though hopefully more neophilic heads will prevail, when people realise that we can't return to an idealised, "natural" hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle. Human civilisation, in its present form, is deeply unnatural and dependent on technology, and the only way to reduce its footprint on the planet will be by technological means.
Researchers in Manchester have shown that infrasound can induce anxiety, sorrow and chills, as well as other weird sensations. Extreme subsonic vibrations and their effects on the human nervous system may be behind the phenomena of "haunted" locations. Could this be a hint of what's on at the next What Is Music? festival.
Accusations have emerged that the Bush administration has persistently manipulated scientific data to suit its ideology. The administration has "manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific findings" on issues ranging from oil drilling in Antarctica and global warming to sex education in schools and the planned missile defense programme, and stacked boards with unqualified officials or industry representatives:
''The administration's political interference with science has led to misleading statements by the president, inaccurate responses to Congress, altered Web sites, suppressed agency reports, erroneous international communications and the gagging of scientists,'' the report added.
A Whitehouse spokesman has dismissed the report.
(Mitch, as a scientist and Debunker of Liberal Hysteria, what is your verdict?)
The latest from the frontiers of science: in the future, gravestones and other such memorials may be replaced by trees containing the DNA of the deceased. Though whether people would want to eat apples containing their grandmothers' DNA is a cultural question yet to be answered. Meanwhile, science has found the perfect eyebrow shape, bringing humanity one step closer to a race of superhumanly beautiful cyborgs.
An interesting online research project investigating what makes a face beautiful. It looks at various hypotheses (that the most mathematically average faces are the most beautiful, that beauty is symmetry, and that infantile features account for beauty in female faces) using computer-generated morphed faces, and comes to some interesting conclusions (i.e., that while extremely asymmetric faces are considered ugly, symmetry by itself does not correlate with beauty). Finally, it concludes that people subconsciously associate beauty with virtue, and that in this age of visual media, we are subject to a sort of "beauty pollution", being bombarded with images of artificially beautiful faces. (via bOING bOING)
And here are the Ig Nobel prize winners for 2002. Though given that the belly-button lint study was by pop-science pundit Karl Kruszelnicki, chances are it was intentionally flippant. Come to think of it, there probably are occasions when calculating the surface area of an elephant is a useful exercise...
The Skeptic's Dictionary, an encyclopædia of fringe beliefs, bizarre ideas and logical fallacies (and a few sensible ideas too). If you were wondering about therapeutic trepanation, the Hollow Earth theory, or identifying vinyl records by sight or that hundredth-monkey phenomenon the true believer in your life keeps citing to show how pitifully limited science is, and thus justify (Creationism/urine therapy/their telepathic poodle's past-life experiences), it's all here, along with the skinny on what's really going on.
Sleep researchers in Toronto turn brainwaves into "music", which, when listens to by the person whose brainwaves were used, induces sleep. They believe that they can use similar techniques to induce other states. It sounds like it works on a similar principle to "brainwave machines", only customised to the individual brainwaves of the user.
"Even the diseased brain has such enormous reserves that we can use the brain activity, even from a diseased brain, to heal it," he says. An anti-anxiety response, for example, can be produced even in someone who is seriously impaired by reproducing sounds that stimulate relaxation.
Aircraft manufacturer Boeing are working on anti-gravity propulsion technology; they are attempting to solicit the aid of a Russian scientist, Dr. Evgeny Podkletnov, who claims to have developed a device called an "impulse gravity generator". (It is not known whether Podkletnov was involved in the development of Russia's "jumbo cosmosphere" programme.)
But it is also apparent that Podkletnovs work could be engineered into a radical new weapon. The GRASP paper focuses on Podkletnovs claims that his high-power experiments, using a device called an impulse gravity generator, are capable of producing a beam of gravity-like energy that can exert an instantaneous force of 1,000g on any object enough, in principle, to vaporise it, especially if the object is moving at high speed.
The fact that "free energy" is mentioned in the story, however, seems a bit dubious. Though, if this succeeds, it may finally put the USAF on a par with the Nazi flying saucers based inside the hollow earth fnord. (via bOING bOING)
Humans were biologically meant to be hugged, it appears. Scientists have discovered that the human skin has a special network of nerves whose sole purpose seems to be to feel pleasurable touches. The C-tactile (CT) nerves are independent from the normal touch receptors and operate at a slower rate; they hook into the unconscious aspect of touch, giving pleasure when stimulated.
"It must be used for unconscious aspects of touch because it is so slow," says Håkan Olausson, who led the study at the Department of Clinical Neurophysiology at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Sweden. "It seems the CT network conveys emotions, or a sense of self."
Researchers in Wales have found that the types of books you read affect your dreams. Adults who read fiction have stranger dreams than those who don't, and are more likely to remember them; meanwhile, fantasy readers have more nightmares and lucid dreams, while those who prefer fantasy novels have more emotionally intense dreams.
"We have control of the mind." While research into human cloning and anything to do with embryos is watched with suspicion, and laws are debated to ban it, neuroscience is slipping under the radar, when in fact, such research without scrutiny might pose more of a threat to humanity than cloning, resulting in technologies such as electronic brain control. Computer God Frankenstein Controls may soon be a reality.
Is consciousness (or, precisely, the integration of dispersed neurological phenomena into a central awareness) the product of the brain's electromagnetic field? Two researchers put forward an interesting argument for why this may be the case.
Anyone learning to drive a car will have experienced how the first (very conscious) fumblings are transformed through constant practice into automatic actions. The neural networks driving those first uncertain fumblings are precisely where we would expect to find nerves in the undecided state when a small nudge from the brain's em field can topple them towards or away from firing. The field will "fine tune" the neural pathway towards the desired goal. But neurons are connected so that when they fire together, they wire together, to form stronger connections. After practice, the influence of the field will become dispensable. The activity will be learnt and may thereafter be performed unconsciously.
Interesting: DNA explained in computer science terms, with analogies to everything from program comments to makefiles. (via bOING bOING)
Research has shown that six-month-olds are better at recognising individual monkeys than adults. Proof that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and that children are more like monkeys than adults, or just that specialisation for human face recognition develops later?
Here comes the remote electronically controlled around corners trajection of frankenstein cyborg rats. What would Francis E. Dec have thought? Quite ingenious. Of course, the ethical question of running electrodes into an animal's brain and training it by stimulating its pleasure centres comes up. Though is that any more inhumane than training an animal to perform an artificial task by conventional means? (And it could be argued that the implanted rats have more fun than their regular cousins.)
You've heard of the research unanimously pointing to ecstasy causing long-term brain damage? Well, apparently much of that is propaganda, with experiments being compromised to give politically useful results, and contradictory research being frozen out of journals.
People get paid for that? Scientists in Edinburgh find proof that intelligent people live longer.
Scientists in the US have created a genetically modified piglet with a glowing snout and trotters. The piglet's DNA contains jellyfish genes, turning its snout and trotters fluorescent yellow. Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac does not appear to be involved. (via Found)
Scientists at Leeds University have developed a new weapon against crime: a noise impossible to ignore. The sound is comprised of many frequencies, and thus is easy to locate. Additionally, people hearing it reflexively turn to look at its source; as such, there are plans to use the sound with that most British of institutions, security cameras, to induce criminals to look at the camera and be photographed.
Nature/nurture: According to a Canadian study that looked at sets of identical twins, some personality traits (such as tendency to read and beliefs on the death penalty) are genetically influenced, whereas other traits (such as beliefs on gender roles and propensities for playing bingo) seem to have no genetic connection.
An American or Canadian company has developed transgenic goats that produce spider silk in their milk. (via Slashdot)
The wonders of modern science: A surgeon in the U.S., working on a pain relief operation, unwittingly developed a female orgasm implant. The device will implant in the skin under the patient's buttocks and be triggered by a remote control. Somewhat invasive, but no more than breast implants or cosmetic surgery. Expect it to be a big hit.
An interesting programming contest, which involves writing a program which automatically summarises news items in haiku form. Given the complexity of the task, any satisfactory solutions are going to have to be quite interesting... (via Slashdot)
Commercialising science: newly discovered dinosaur species named after Australian airline. (abc.net.au)