Archive for November, 2011

Think It To Do It: The Problem With Touchscreens—and Hands

By Kyle Munkittrick | November 29, 2011 5:17 pm

Tablets and touchscreen smartphones make it feel like we’re living in the future. But they’re the technology of the present. So what should be anticipating for the future of interfaces?

Bret Victor has a solid grip on interface design. And he has a beef with touchscreens as the archetype of the Interface of the Future. He argues that poking at and sliding around pictures under glass is not really the greatest way to do things. Why? Because that just uses a finger! Victor is a fan of hands. They can grab, twist, flick, feel, manipulate, and hold things. Hands get two thumbs up from Victor.

As a result, Victor argues that any interface that neglects hands neglects human beings. Tools of the future need to be hand-friendly and take advantage of the wonderful functions hands can perform. His entire article, “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interfaces” is a glorious read and deserves your attention. One of the best parts is his simple but profound explanation of what a tool does: “A tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities.”

There is, as I see it, one tiny problem with Victor’s vision: hands are tools themselves. They translate brain signals into physical action. Hands are, as Victor shows, super good at that translation. His argument is based on the idea that we should take as much advantage as possible of the amazing tools that hands already are. I disagree.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

How Effective Is the HPV Vaccine at Preventing Cancer? A Closer Look…

By Jeanne Lenzer | November 23, 2011 12:51 pm

Some people have taken issue with the conclusion and analysis in my previous post, “Should Boys Be Given the HPV Vaccine? The Science Is Weaker Than the Marketing,” including epidemiologist Tara Smith in her blog, Aetiology, at ScienceBlogs. Here’s a clarification of some of the points in my post, and a response to some of hers.

First I’ll reiterate the key point of my post: There are many, many instances in which researchers have promised cures and interventions that were expected to work based on eminently reasonable logic, but did not pan out. Take one recent recent example: bypass a clogged artery and you will prevent strokes (see Sharon Begley’s excellent blog post on “When Biology Refuses to Listen to Medical Logic”). And now comes one more eminently logical assumption: prevent cervical lesions from some strains of HPV in some people for some period of time, and you will save lives from cervical cancer overall. Unfortunately, while the two HPV vaccines on the market may decrease the serious illness and death from cervical cancer, no study has proved that at this point, since no study has been conducted long enough to observe the development of cervical cancer or cervical cancer deaths.

Conclusive studies with the most important, clinically relevant end points should precede wide uptake of any intervention. The data currently rely on surrogate end points (markers of possible cancer) and are simply not conclusive. So we can’t truly say how effective the vaccine is.

Wake Forest medical researcher Curt Furberg, a former FDA advisor and co-author of the textbook Fundamentals of Clinical Trials, told me, “Getting data from markers is a first step. But we have burned our fingers too many times with surrogate markers. You should try to determine the real health benefit. Everything will be up in the air until we have the answer to the question: Will it prevent cancer? And until we have that answer, we should limit its use to girls enrolled in studies of the vaccine.”

Here are some other reasons why the HPV vaccines may not be as effective as advertised:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos Confirmed? In One Way, Yes; In Another, No

By Amir Aczel | November 22, 2011 5:21 pm

In a previous post, I reported on the baffling new finding that neutrinos appear to travel faster than light. The stuff of science fiction…travel to the past…weird science…Einstein rolling in his grave. (Except that faster-than-light doesn’t necessarily imply the possibility of time travel, and superluminal neutrinos might not violate relativity if they were the hypothetical tachyons.) The result was met with widespread skepticism in the world of physics, and the skepticism still continues. But just as the furor was beginning to die down, the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion tRacking Apparatus) consortium that runs the neutrino experiment at the Gran Sasso laboratory deep in the Apennine Mountains of central Italy, using neutrinos created 732 kilometers away at CERN, near Geneva, reported an experimental confirmation of their own earth-shattering results.

Originally, the pulses of protons that CERN used to generate the neutrinos through collisions with a stationary target were relatively long, and some critics have claimed that the long pulses, lasting 10.5 microseconds, could have introduced some uncertainty into the process. The OPERA scientists therefore asked CERN to shorten the pulses, and the new pulses have been only three nanoseconds (billionths of a second) long. The original result had been that the neutrinos traveled from CERN to Gran Sasso 60 nanoseconds faster than light would have taken for the same 732 kilometers, with a statistical standard error that was one-sixth as large (hence the result was statistically significant at “six-sigma,” which is extremely significant and its probability of being a fluke was therefore less than one in 3.5 million). The much shorter pulses make the pulse length fall within the standard error, and not a contributor to a possible false finding. Significantly, the new results, based on 20 detected neutrinos from the new and ultrashort pulses, replicated the earlier OPERA finding: The neutrinos still appear to travel faster than light.

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7 Billion People, 30 Gigatons of CO2, 1 Warming Planet: Population & Climate in the 21st Century

By Robert Socolow | November 18, 2011 11:03 am

The “stabilization wedge” idea is a modular way of reducing carbon emissions.

The world is now home to 7 billion people, each of whom contributes to the carbon emissions that are slowly cooking the globe. To find out how growing population affects our plans to deal with climate change, we talked with Princeton’s Robert Socolow, co-creator of one of the best models for thinking about how to prevent climate change. 

Many of my students are “green” consumers. They are proud of riding bicycles, they turn off lights when they leave the room, and they eat little or no meat. But they are usually surprised when I tell them that the most important decision they will make, as far as its impact on natural resources is concerned, is how many children to have.

Most sources of carbon emissions—heating and lighting homes and stores, making steel, providing food—grow in proportion to population. We’ve just hit 7 billion people, and there’s no way any single approach, or just two or three approaches, can effectively deal with the environmental pressures that this many people exert.

To foster a way of thinking about the problem of climate change that involves using many different approaches in tandem, Steve Pacala and I introduced the “stabilization wedge” in 2004. A wedge is a campaign or strategy that reduces carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere over the next 50 years by a specific amount, relative to some baseline future where nothing is done to slow down climate change. Examples of wedge strategies are driving more efficient cars, driving cars less far because cities are laid out differently, building lots of wind power, and growing many more trees.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, Top Posts

Later Terminator: We’re Nowhere Near Artificial Brains

By Mark Changizi | November 16, 2011 1:43 pm

I can feel it in the air, so thick I can taste it. Can you? It’s the we’re-going-to-build-an-artificial-brain-at-any-moment feeling. It’s exuded into the atmosphere from news media plumes (“IBM Aims to Build Artificial Human Brain Within 10 Years”) and science-fiction movie fountains…and also from science research itself, including projects like Blue Brain and IBM’s SyNAPSE. For example, here’s a recent press release about the latter:

Today, IBM (NYSE: IBM) researchers unveiled a new generation of experimental computer chips designed to emulate the brain’s abilities for perception, action and cognition.

Now, I’m as romantic as the next scientist (as evidence, see my earlier post on science monk Carl Sagan), but even I carry around a jug of cold water for cases like this. Here are four flavors of chilled water to help clear the palate.

The Worm in the Pass

In the story about the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, 300 soldiers prevent a million-man army from making their way through a narrow mountain pass. In neuroscience it is the 300 neurons of the roundworm C. elegans that stand in the way of our understanding the huge collections of neurons found in our or any mammal’s brain.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology, Top Posts

Exoskeletons Will Be the Eyeglasses of the 21st Century

By Kyle Munkittrick | November 15, 2011 1:34 pm

We don’t often realize it, but all fashion is predicated upon human beings’ predilection for prostheses and augmentations. All clothing, bags, and shoes are augmentation to our body, skin, and feet allowing us to deal with non-tropical climates, to carry large amounts of stuff, and to deal with harsh or unforgiving terrain. If humans hadn’t already modified ourselves, the only fashion we’d have is hairstyle.

Eyeglasses and contact lenses are one of the most prolific forms of medical augmentation on the planet. In many industrialized modern cultures, eyeglasses and contacts are also a major element of fashion. Thin, small glasses are out of fashion; big, chunky frames with large lenses are in. Tomorrow it might be different. But in every case, you have glasses because you have a medical problem that needs fixing.

But what about other medical devices? Canes and even artificial legs are occasionally not merely built to work but are designed and crafted to be fashionable. Could exoskeletons, robotic limbs, and cybernetic augmentations reach a point where they are beautiful? Furthermore, could they ever become so prolific as to be fashionable? More and more, the answer looks to be yes. Read More

Welcome to Discover’s New Blog, The Crux!

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 14, 2011 3:54 pm

Today Discover is launching a new group blog—congratulations on already finding it—on big ideas in science and how these ideas are playing out in the world. The blog is written by an outstanding group of writer/bloggers and scientist/writers who will bring you the most compelling thoughts throughout the world of science, the stuff most worth knowing.

Come read some of the posts the bloggers have already published to see where we’re going, and let us know in the comments what you think of the blog so far and what we should be doing in the future. (You can also email me at azeeberg [at] discovermagazine [dot] com—I’m the editor of the blog and the site as a whole.)

Thanks for checking out The Crux, and I hope you’re as intrigued and amazed by these nuggets of science as we are.

Amos Zeeberg
Managing Editor, Online


Should Boys Be Given the HPV Vaccine? The Science Is Weaker than the Marketing

By Jeanne Lenzer | November 14, 2011 3:20 pm

Merck’s promotion of Gardasil, its vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV), has a complicated history. First there was the exuberant claim about its reputedly great effectiveness in preventing cervical cancer. Now comes the recommendation last month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that all 11- and 12-year-old boys should be given the vaccine.

Of Science and Truthiness

The vaccine for boys is important, say advocates, because reducing HPV in boys will reduce transmission to girls and women—only 32 percent of whom have been getting the shots to date. Giving the shots to boys, they say, promotes gender equity. As a bonus, the vaccine may protect against oral and anal cancers in men who have sex with men.

Since a key part of the rationale for vaccinating boys is to protect girls, it’s worth a moment to examine the claims about reducing cervical cancer deaths. Merck won approval for Gardasil from the Food and Drug Administration in June 2006. On May 10, 2007, Merck published the results of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that claimed an astounding 98 percent efficacy in preventing changes in the cervix used as a marker for cervical cancer.

But that statistic begs closer examination.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Let’s Do Launch: How NASA & Private Space Cos. Can Tame the Final Frontier Together

By Phil Plait | November 13, 2011 4:13 pm

In the late 1500s, merchants in England sought to ply the waters around Africa in an attempt to set up trade relation s with India. In a few years several trips were made, and, on literally the last day of the 16th century, they were granted a charter by the Queen to incorporate, given free rein to trade with the East.

This was not done in a vacuum, however. For well over a century European explorers had been laying the groundwork (OK, seawork) for this effort. Sponsored by their various governments, they explored the oceans and improved the technology and techniques needed for this to get done. At the time, this would’ve been impossible for private companies—too risky, and too expensive—so governments did the job. National pride was at stake, as well as military and trade advantages.

Like sea travel, space travel is not done in a vacuum—except in the literal sense. Like terrestrial exploration centuries ago, it’s expensive, difficult, technologically cutting-edge, and dangerous. For a young company, or even an established one, a single mistake could cost them a vast portion of their revenue, bankrupting them. In the video below [starting at 14:50], astronomer and space advocate Neil deGrasse Tyson makes this case. It’s something I’ve argued many times as well.

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Life During Wartime: Can Mental Illness Be a Rational Response?

By Vaughan Bell | November 10, 2011 10:42 pm


Charles Figley was a US Marine who signed up for service in the Vietnam War to “accelerate my progression toward being considered a man.” But after his tour of duty he ended up as veteran protesting against the war, stunned by the psychological impact on himself and his fellow soldiers.

He began to investigate the symptoms of his fellow veterans and, along with other anti-war psychologists and psychiatrists, proposed a disorder called “post-Vietnam syndrome” where veterans carried emotions of the war with them despite being safely back on US soil. In fact, various forms of combat stress had been recorded during previous wars, from “disordered action of the heart” diagnosed in the Boer Wars to the dramatic symptoms of shell shock and war neurosis from the First World War.

The concept caught on and appeared, in a demilitarised form, as “post-traumatic stress disorder,” a mental illness where an earlier trauma causes the person to have a sense of current threat characterised by flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, avoidance of reminders, and anxiety.

And here lies the paradox. Researchers have noted that “PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder. Within cognitive models, anxiety is a result of appraisals relating to impending threat. However, PTSD is a disorder in which the problem is a memory for an event that has already happened.” After all, if you feel threatened with good reason, almost by definition, this isn’t a mental illness.

So if someone remains in danger after a life-threatening incident, does the concept of “post-traumatic stress disorder” even make sense?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

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A collection of bright and big ideas about timely and important science from a community of experts.

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