What would it take for an animal to be considered a person? In a landmark court case that reached its conclusion in a New York State appellate court yesterday, a five-judge panel refused to grant legal personhood to a chimpanzee named Tommy. Their unanimous decision: He’s not a person, in spite of the best arguments put forward by a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP).
Tommy’s owner keeps the chimp in a wire-mesh cage, inside a nondescript warehouse, in upstate New York. That’s not illegal, because it’s not illegal to own a chimpanzee in New York State. In the eyes of the law, Tommy isn’t a person – he’s property.
Tommy, the court ruled, “is not a ‘person’ entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus” – the legal term for a petition urging a court to halt the unlawful detention of a prisoner.
The court decision ends this particular battle, but the legal wrangling, and the larger philosophical questions that swirl around human-animal relations, are sure to continue.
Nearly a century ago, Edwin Hubble’s discovery of red-shifting of light from galaxies in all directions from our own suggested that space itself was getting bigger. Combined with insights from a handful of proposed non-Euclidean geometries, Hubble’s discovery implied that the cosmos exists in more than the three dimensions we’re familiar with in everyday life.
That’s because parts of the cosmos were moving further apart, yet with no physical center, no origin point in three-dimensional space. Just think of an inflating balloon seen only from the perspective of its growing two-dimensional surface, and extrapolate to four-dimensional inflation perceived in the three-dimensional space that we can see. That perspective suggests that three-dimensional space could be curved, folded, or warped into a 4th dimension the way that the two dimensional surface of a balloon is warped into a 3rd dimension.
We don’t see or feel more dimensions; nevertheless, theoretical physics predicts that they should exist. Interesting, but are there any practical implications? Can they become part of applied physics?
When considering extreme environments it is easy to make assumptions about personality, which on closer examination do not stand up to scrutiny. Take, for example, one of the best-researched personality dimensions: introversion-extraversion. Extraversion as a trait appears in all established psychological models of personality, and there is considerable evidence that it has a biological basis. The concepts of introversion and extraversion long ago escaped the conﬁnes of academic psychology and are widely used in everyday conversation, albeit in ways that do not always reﬂect the psychological deﬁnitions.
Broadly speaking, individuals who score highly on measures of extraversion tend to seek stimulation, whereas those who score low tend to avoid it. When asked to describe a typical extravert, most people tend to think of the lively ‘party animal,’ equating extraversion with a preference for social interactions. However, individuals who score highly for extraversion seek more than just social stimulation: they also tend to gravitate toward other stimulating situations, including active leisure and work pursuits, travel, sex, and even celebrity. Introverts, on the other hand, have a generally lower affinity for stimulation.
They ﬁnd too much stimulation, of whatever type, draining rather than energizing. Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not necessarily shy or fearful about social situations, unless they also score highly on measures of social anxiety and neuroticism.
On this basis, one might assume that extraverts would be drawn to extreme environments, where they could satisfy their desire for stimulating situations, whereas introverts would ﬁnd them unattractive. And yet, extreme environments may also expose people to monotony and solitude — experiences that extraverts would ﬁnd aversive, but which are tolerated or even enjoyed by well-balanced introverts. The point here is that simple assumptions about broad personality traits are unlikely to provide good explanations of why people engage in extreme activities.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Why does it take so long for human children to grow up? A male chimp and male human, for example, both end up with the same body weight but they grow very differently: at year one the human weighs twice that of the chimp but at eight the chimp is twice that of the human. The chimp then gains its adult weight by 12 – six years before the human. A male gorilla is also a faster growing primate – a 330-pound male gorilla weighs 110 pounds by its fifth birthday and 265 pounds by its tenth.
Clues to the answer can be found in the young human brain’s need for energy. Radioactive tracers allow scientists to measure the glucose used in different areas of the brain but this procedure is only used rarely when it is justified by investigating neurological problems. However, the few cases we do have reveal how radically different the childhood brain is from that in adults or infants.
From about the age of four to puberty, the young brain guzzles glucose – the cerebral cortex, its largest part, uses nearly (or more than) double that used earlier or later in life. This creates a problem. A child’s body is a third of the size of an adult but its brain is nearly adult-sized. Calculated as a share, a child’s takes up half of all the energy used by a child.
The Ebola virus has consistently stayed several steps ahead of doctors, public officials and others trying to fight the epidemic. Throughout the first half of 2014, it spread quickly as international and even local leaders failed to recognize the severity of the situation. In recent weeks, with international response in high gear, the virus has thrown more curve balls.
The spread has significantly slowed in Liberia and beds for Ebola patients are empty even as the U.S. is building multiple treatment centers there. Meanwhile the epidemic has escalated greatly in Sierra Leone, which has a serious dearth of treatment centers. And in Mali, where an incursion was successfully contained in October, a rash of new cases has spread from an infected imam.
Predicting the trajectory of Ebola rather than playing catching-up could do much to help prevent and contain the disease. Some experts have called for prioritizing mobile treatment units that can be quickly relocated to the spots most needed. Figuring out where Ebola is likely to strike next or finding emerging hot spots early on would be key to the placement of these treatment centers.
But such modeling requires data, and lots of it. And for stressed healthcare workers on the ground and government and non-profit agencies scrambling to combat a raging epidemic, collecting and disseminating data is often not a high priority.
Mixed breed. Mongrel. Roadside setter. A something-something. Dogs of uncertain provenance get called a lot of things. When the animal arrives at a shelter, staff usually can make only an educated guess about the dog’s parentage.
Most of the dogs at my local animal control are assessed as “pit mixes” upon arrival — including the three I’ve adopted over the past 2 years. But a pit bull isn’t a breed: it’s just a type of dog characterized by a short coat, muscular frame and broad, oversized head.
All three of my dogs clearly — at least to my eyes — showed signs of specific breeds somewhere in their heritage: Tall and snow white Pullo looks like the breed standard for an American Bulldog. Tyche’s body is svelte like a boxer’s and inky black like some Labs. And lanky, long-limbed Waldo sometimes bays like a hound, especially when treeing squirrels.
Guessing my dogs’ breeds was a fun parlor game, but I wanted more definitive answers. So I turned to science. And, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t place any bets on what was in my dogs’ family trees.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
International airports are a busy place to be. Nearly 140,000 passengers pass through New York’s JFK Airport every day. The internal security of the country depends on effective airport checks.
All departing passengers pass through a series of security procedures before embarking their plane. One such procedure is a short, scripted interview when security personnel must make decisions about passenger risk by looking for behavioral indicators of deception.
These are referred to as “suspicious signs”: signs of nervousness, aggression and an unusual interest in security procedures, for example. However, this approach has never been empirically validated and its continued use is criticized for being based on outdated, unreliable perceptions of how people behave when being deceptive.
Despite these concerns, the suspicious signs approach continues to dominate security screening: the US government spends $200 million yearly on behavior-detection officers, who are tasked with spotting suspicious signs. This is a waste of money.
But that hasn’t stopped the Curiosity rover from running around saying “This spot would have been habitable” and “That spot definitely has water.” And it hasn’t stopped astronomer Nathalie Cabrol from searching for the ever-elusive “biosignatures”: evidence, like geological graffiti, that proclaims “LIFE WUZ HERE.”
But it isn’t as easy as finding a spray-painted tag. First of all, the life almost certainly isn’t alive anymore. And second of all, it probably hasn’t been alive for a long time. Around 3.5 billion years ago, Mars changed from being a relatively nice place into the frozen radiation-zapped desert it is today. It was never San Juan, but it does seem to have had a milder climate, water oceans, and a thick, protective atmosphere. If this young sub-Caribbean Mars was home to life, that life may have left its mark. The problem is that we aren’t totally sure what that mark might look like.
In 2003, two young biology students called Justin Yeager and Mark Pepper were in Costa Rica studying poison dart frogs when their guide presented them with a pair of beautiful orange-yellow and black frogs. They were left speechless, because in front of them was a species that was no longer meant to exist.
The Variable Harlequin Frog, Atelopus varius, had disappeared from cool streams across Costa Rica and Panama in the early 1990s, leaving not even a corpse to mark its existence. Its vanishing, alongside myriad other frogs including the famed golden toad, was later attributed to the wave-like spread of a pandemic pathogen – a fungus responsible for the greatest disease-driven loss of biodiversity in our times – against a backdrop of a changing climate and dwindling and damaged habitats.
In the wake of such carnage, was the variable harlequin frog a lone survivor? Could it increase our understanding of the current mass extinction and help us stem the hemorrhaging of life from our planet?
The harlequin frog, it would turn out, was not alone. Five years after its rediscovery herpetologist Robert Puschendorf was crashing through the dry forests of north Australia when he found a small population of Armored Mist Frog, Litoria lorica, living with the very same chytrid fungus that was believed to have wiped it out 17 years previously. The following year in New South Wales the Yellow-spotted Bell Frog, Litoria castanea, hopped back to life after 30 years without trace. Back in the Americas, Lazarus frogs were reappearing in Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and Costa Rica, years and even decades after they were thought to have been wiped out.
It’s a beautiful October morning in Houston, but I am grumpy and bleary-eyed as I make my way into Mission Control. I’ve just come off a string of Orbit 1 shifts (midnight to 0800) working as CAPCOM in the International Space Station Mission Control Center. (CAPCOM is the call sign for the astronaut on the ground who speaks to the crews that are in space.) Now I’ve slam-shifted back to daylight hours to work as CAPCOM during a simulation of the rendezvous planned for an upcoming shuttle mission.
I see my friend Ray J in the parking lot, and he waves me over. Ray J is a pilot in the astronaut class ahead of mine. We’ve flown dozens of training flights together in the T-38, and he is a good friend and mentor. And he is always smiling, even at 0645. We chat for a minute, which mainly involves me complaining about my schedule, and then he asks, “So, have you talked to Scooter lately?” I raise my eyebrows at him. Scooter is way senior to me, a flown guy, a space shuttle commander. Of course I haven’t talked to Scooter. Scooter sometimes stops by the office I share with Mike Massimino because they flew on the last Hubble mission together, but it’s not like he’s coming there to shoot the breeze with me. So I say, “No. Why do you ask?” “Oh,” says Ray J nonchalantly, “I was just wondering how he’s doing.”
That was weird, I think as I head into Mission Control. But then I forget all about it and spend the next ten hours working the simulation. That evening, as I’m propped up on the couch at home trying to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime, my phone rings. It’s Steve Lindsey, the chief of the Astronaut Office. This is definitely weird. Why is he calling me at home? This can’t be good.