Archive for May, 2008

World Science Festival: Radically Green Future Cities

By Tyghe Trimble | May 31, 2008 12:39 pm

Dubai — not exactly the city of the futureForget your Jetsons-like vision of an automated high-rise city with flying cars and robot maids: The future city will need to be sustainable and, consequently, a little dull. Last night at the World Science Fair, panelists took turns talking about their visions for future cities—where, it is projected, fifty percent of the population will live in just a few decades—as pastoral areas of towering efficiency and greenness. If you thought green was not sexy, and sustainable living meant little more than energy conservation (installing lots of insulation) and sacrifice (using fans instead of air conditioning), you wouldn’t be wrong. But sustainable solutions through radical design (taken from the title of this lecture) are not all short showers and insulated attics.

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Say No to Brackets: Office Pools Leave Workers Depressed

By Andrew Moseman | May 30, 2008 4:54 pm

The agony of defeat—it’s bad even if you’re just watchingLast week we let you know that placing some potted plants around the office could pave the way to happier and more productive workers. While most people would welcome a little more life in their cubicle, Arizona State University researchers Naomi Mandel and Stephen M. Nowlis have a prescription for workplace wellbeing that might prove less popular: No more office pools.

Pools are a mainstay of offices everywhere, whether they’re based around choosing the winner of the NCAA basketball tournament or the TV show Survivor. But the researchers say it’s not just good clean fun—more often than not, the competition leads to hurt feelings. Even though many people fill out March Madness brackets without ever having seen most of the teams play, Mandel and Nowlis say pool participants make an emotional investment in their picks. Nobody wants to look stupid, and more than that, nobody wants their coworkers to mock their poor predictions.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?

Sexless Sea Creatures Steal Foreign Genes

By Andrew Moseman | May 30, 2008 2:04 pm

aquatic DNA thievesBdelloid rotifers have maintained a celibate aquatic existence for 80 million years. They are an all-female type of small invertebrates that occasionally produce a child via asexual reproduction—a clone breaks off directly from the mother. But bdelloids have not only survived through the ages, they’ve managed to evolve and diversify without the genetic intermingling that comes along with sex. Now Harvard University biologists think they have figured out the bdelloid’s trick.

In a study published today in Science, the research team, led by Eugene Gladyshev, wrote that bdelloids can take DNA not only from other members of their own species, but also from bacteria, fungi, and even plants. When its freshwater habitat temporarily dries up, a bdelloid’s cellular membranes break and its genome tears apart. But disintegrating DNA isn’t enough to kill this hardy creature—when water returns, a bdelloid can pick up its own pieces and put itself back together.

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Tribe Wants No Part of Modern World, While Modern World Wants Their Land

By Melissa Lafsky | May 30, 2008 12:40 pm

It’s tough to imagine that, in the modern era, any group of people could continue to exist in complete isolation from the rest of the world. Nonetheless, an indigenous tribe that has remained out of contact with, well, anyone but each other has been photographed from an aircraft flying over the Brazil-Peru border. (For a complete gallery of the pictures, go here.) The images show red-painted tribe members armed with bows and arrows, prepared to defend themselves should the mysterious flying object—anthropologists note that they wouldn’t have any concept of airplanes—present a danger.

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World Science Festival: Anchoring Your Brain at Water Taxi Beach

By Melissa Lafsky | May 30, 2008 11:18 am

World Science Festival Radio Lab EventThe World Science Festival opened last night with “You and Your Irrational Brain: An Evening of Experimentation Under the Stars.” Co-sponsored by WNYC Radio and hosted by Radio Lab staples Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the panel featured Dan Ariely, author of the best-selling Predictably Irrational, and Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist offering juicy tidbits on our species’ decision-making capabilities (and limitations).

As the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline, the panel kept the filled-to-capacity crowd engaged with a lively discussion of the rational versus emotional brain, and the constant battle at play in our heads over any choice from reaching for a chocolate bar to buying a car.

So how does our brain sift through the myriad choices in life, making sense of what to eat, buy, wear, do, think, etc.? The process, said Ariely and Lehrer, comes down to three elements: Anchoring to a fixed concept or object, the pull of “now” versus the logic of “later,” and the more-than-slightly tragic fact that human beings hate losing twice as much as we love winning.

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Whither the Valdez? ExxonMobil Cuts Cash for Global Warming Deniers

By Andrew Moseman | May 29, 2008 4:16 pm

Cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989In 2000, British Petroleum shortened its name to BP and adopted the slogan “Beyond Petroleum,” complete with a new yellow and green earthy logo. Then Chevron rolled out their new slogan, “Human Energy,” and broadcast commercials promising to become part of the solution to the world’s energy and pollution problems. Now, the greening of oil companies’ public image has reached one of the environmentalist movement’s favorite punching bags: ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil representatives announced they will stop funding nine think tanks and interest groups that have repeatedly denied that global warming is a serious threat. One group axed was the George C. Marshall Institute, which churns out books and lengthy reports challenging the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, particularly targeting the conclusion that a scientific consensus considers global warming a real—and human-caused—problem.

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MORE ABOUT: global warming

Fields of Research Dissed by Nobel Finally Get Their Limelight

By Melissa Lafsky | May 29, 2008 3:31 pm

Alan aldaThis is a guest post by Discoblog correspondent Darlene Cavalier.

The inaugural (and now wealthier) winners of the $1 million Kavli Prizes were announced yesterday at Columbia University as part of the World Science Summit. The Kavli Prizes are given to researchers for outstanding scientific research in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.

Actor and science advocate Alan Alda took the stage and, with the aid of broadcast satellites, introduced representatives of the Kavli Foundation “live” from their hometown of Oslo, Norway.

The astrophysics prize went to Caltech’s Maarten Schmidt and Donald Lynden-Bell of Cambridge University for their breakthroughs in quasar research. Schmidt measured the light spectra of quasars and was able to determine our distance from galaxies, while Lynden-Bell demonstrated how quasars were powered by the collapse of material into massive black holes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?

Bucket Bungle May Have Accidentally Cooled the Earth

By Andrew Moseman | May 29, 2008 1:34 pm

Drawing a bucket of water from the seaThe earth’s average temperature rose steadily throughout the 20th century, with only a few short blasts of cooling recorded in the climate data. But if a team of scientists led by David Thompson at Colorado State University is correct, one of the largest recorded cool-downs ever documented might have never happened. How did the mistake occur? According to Thompson, through a bucket blunder.

Scientists had always struggled to find a physical cause of the 0.3 °C drop in global temperature around 1945, right at the end of World War II. But according to Thompson, the measured cooling happened because of cross-cultural confusion. During the war, Americans sailors measured the sea surface temperatures by testing water their ship took in to cool its engines. But when the British retook most of the recording responsibility in 1945, they simply drew buckets of ocean water and tested them outside. The difference between the warm engine room where the Americans tested and the non-insulated British buckets accounts for temperature drop in the record, Thompson says.

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MORE ABOUT: global warming, Ocean

Monkeys Master Mind Control of Mechanical Arm

By Andrew Moseman | May 28, 2008 4:14 pm

A macaque using mind controlScientists have taught monkeys to control a robotic arm with their thoughts. No, the primates aren’t telekinetic—they have computerized brain implants—but their newfound ability is one of the most impressive examples yet of linking brains to machines.

The research team, led by Andrew Schwartz from the University of Pittsburgh, used two macaques in their study. They planted a tiny computer grid over each primate’s motor cortex, an area of the brain that normally controls the monkey’s arm movement. Then they mounted the robotic appendage, complete with elbow and shoulder joints and a claw for grabbing, on each animal’s shoulder where its normal arm is attached. The computerized implant would read the monkeys’ minds—or rather, it would pick up on their motor neurons firing—and translate those electrical impulses into the appropriate maneuver in the machine.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?

Hide the Women and Children! Researchers Dig Up Viking DNA

By Andrew Moseman | May 28, 2008 1:20 pm

Vikings lived in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark a thousand years agoThe standard Viking funeral involved being burned in a pyre at sea. But luckily for scientists, a few marauding Norsemen were left behind, buried in the ground. Now their skeletons can be examined in detail, and might even show us what human DNA looked like a millennium ago.

A team of scientists led by Jørgen Dissing at the University of Copenhagen have extracted authentic Viking DNA from teeth that were still sitting in the jaws of the thousand-year-old corpses. The DNA samples came from a burial site on the Danish island of Funen which dates from A.D. 700 to 1000.

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