Archive for November, 2010

Killing The Dr. Evils of Iran: Is it Open Season On Scientists?

By Malcolm MacIver | November 30, 2010 10:56 pm

dr-evilA few days ago two assassination attempts on Iranian nuclear scientists were made. One succeeded while the other was a near miss. This is just a short while after programmable logic controllers running Iran’s centrifuges came under cyber attack. Attempts to stop Iran from having the bomb have transitioned from breaking the hardware to killing the brains behind the hardware.

The idea of attacking scientists to stem technological development is an old one. Perhaps the most dramatic example from recent times is Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In his case the targeted killings were embedded in an anti-technology philosophy fully developed in his Manifesto. In the recent assassination attempts in Iran, we see the workings of geopolitical pragmatism in its most raw form.

Regardless of what we may think of Iran having the bomb, the strategy of killing scientists and engineers of a country’s technological infrastructure is one that should give us pause. Few steps separate this ploy to making them the domestic enemy as well, a tradition with an even deadlier history that includes the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s purge of academics.

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DNA Art, from Farscape to Reality

By Eric Wolff | November 29, 2010 4:02 pm

genemap

A way back, in 1999, the SyFy channel (then called SciFi) show Farscape featured an episode in which the mad genius Nam Tar offered to take DNA samples form our fugitive crew and use it to provide a roadmap back to each of their home planets.  Ostensibly, NamTar could trace the mutations in their DNA back to their planetary origins, and, using that data, provide a road map back to their home planets.

This was one of those times when a science fiction show’s writers had less imagination than reality: Not only can we use DNA to trace back to our origins (though only locally, on this planet); we make art out of it.

I heard about artist Lynn Fellman at a talk by Ira Flatow, of Science Friday fame: Working with the University of Minnesota’s Urban Outreach/Engagement Center, Fellman sent DNA samples from seven north Minneapolis residents to The Genographic Project, which specializes in population genetics. The lab analyzed mutations in the DNA to provide an ancestral path for each resident from present day Minneapolis down through pre-history to humanity’s origins in Africa. Fellman turned these maps into art for UROC’s Deep Ancestry exhibit.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Media

Xenotransplants Might Wipe Out the Human Race

By Kyle Munkittrick | November 26, 2010 11:36 am

Piggy is sooooo concernedBut probably not!

You see, I was merely quoting Margaret Somerville, the Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Canada. In addition to thinking gay marriage is bad for the kids, Somerville really does not like transhumanists. She thinks that  personhood is the “world’s most dangerous idea,” (sounds vaguely familiar) because if aliens, animals and robots have rights too, we won’t value humans anymore. In her recent piece, calmly titled “Scary Science Could Cause Human Extinction” Somerville makes a strange argument about xenotransplants (i.e. organ transplants). First, she beats up on transhumanists and our support of life-extension. She attempts to link life-extention with genetically modified animal organ transplants. She then argues that the transplants will, get this, cause a mutant virus leading to a global pandemic obliterating humanity. I am not joking:

[Using genetically modified pig-hybrid organs] poses a risk, not only to transplant recipients, their sexual partners, and their families, but also, possibly, to the public as a whole. An animal virus or other infective agent could be transferred to humans, with potentially tragic results – not just for the person who received the organ but for other people, who could subsequently be infected. And there might be a very remote possibility that it could wipe out the human race.

Somerville’s argument abuses the word “potentially” and its synonyms in a desperate attempt to draw a link in the reader’s mind between xenotransplants and a cataclysmic plague. Human-to-human disease transmission during transplants is extremely low, and the genetic differences between humans and animals, even hybrids, would lower the risk all the more. Martine Rothblatt, (a Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) wrote a whole book, Your Life or Mine, addressing the fears around xenotransplantaion. In short, Somerville’s concerns about xenotransplantation are not based in science, but in bioLuddite hysteria. Somerville’s case against xenotransplantation is in terminal condition already, and things only get worse from here.

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How to Conduct the World's First Electric Fish Orchestra

By Malcolm MacIver | November 23, 2010 12:19 pm

It’s been a super exciting week for me and several fellow travelers (Marlena Novak and Jay Alan Yim, ably assisted by Kyle Liske) at the STRP Festival of Art and Technology, here in Eindhoven Holland (about a two-hour train from Amsterdam). It’s the world premiere of a bio-art piece, called scale,  I’ve been involved in making and that I wrote a bit about previously for SNF.

Screen shot 2010-11-22 at [Nov 22] 11.51.58 PMIn brief, scale is based on the discharges of South American weakly electric fish. By lucky coincidence, the highly regular electric discharges of these fish happen to occur at a frequency that allows them to be heard when they are amplified and played through a speaker. The fish use the discharges as a radar system to perceive their dark world, which are Amazon Basin rivers at night.

The idea behind the piece is to take a dozen different species, and have one individual per species on a tall frame with its own amplifier, speaker, and control circuitry. You stand on a podium in the middle of an arc of 12 of these frames (as shown above), with the fish ordered by increasing electric organ discharge frequency from left to right, and use a wireless game controller (the Nintendo Wiimote) to select which fish(es) you listen to. A touchpad interface on the podium gives you sliders to adjust volume and buttons for real-time effects for each fish. In this way you conduct your own choir of electric fish.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's…Yeah, It's a Plane.

By Eric Wolff | November 22, 2010 4:00 am

shouldairplaRarely in our visions of the future do people have to make long landings, or fly on commercial jet liners. Seems like they’ve always advanced past that.

Here in the present, we don’t seem to be making much headway in really crazy transportation breakthroughs — not much sign of beaming or stargates — but some scientists are considering some novel ways to improve air travel by copying our friends the birds.

OK, maybe “friends” is a little strong for describing our relationship to the last living dinosaurs, but nonetheless, with the ability to hover, stop on a dime, and fly with impressive energy efficiency, birds offer researchers a great deal of inspiration for improving aircraft.

At the 63rd Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics in Long Beach, Calif. Last weekend, Geoffrey Spedding of the University of Southern California and Joachim Huyssen of Northwestern University in South Africa presented research offering a more birdlike wing and tail design that could reduce drag and therefore improve efficiency.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Transportation

Four Loko and Our Irrational Fear of Cognitive Enhancement

By Kyle Munkittrick | November 19, 2010 9:45 am

What, no Sparks? Bah! I'll just grind up some caffeine pills into this bottle of 151.

Four Loko is in the news! For a caffeinated malt liquor drink that comes in an assortment of barely palatable flavors, it sure is generating a lot of controversy. The FDA is banning it! People are taking sides and making bathtub home-brew! Politicians are binge drinking it for SCIENCE! Some folks think the ban might be classist or infringe our freedom of speech! Why is everyone so upset over this disgusting fusion of energy drink and booze? The official answer:

The FDA says it examined the published peer-reviewed literature on the co-consumption of caffeine and alcohol, consulted with experts in the fields of toxicology, neuropharmacology, emergency medicine and epidemiology as well as reviewed information provided by product manufacturers. FDA says it also performed its own independent laboratory analysis of these products and listened to experts who have raised concerns that caffeine can mask some of the sensory cues individuals might normally rely on to determine their level of intoxication.

Allow me to translate: the caffeine, guarana and taurine make it so that you’re less aware you’re drunk, so you get more drunk. Caffeine and alcohol, what a novel combination! Apparently the FDA has never heard of Red Bull and vodka, Irish coffee, or even a whisky and Coke. More importantly (or more hilariously) the FDA seems to think that people who purchase drinks like Four Loko and Joose make a point to pay attention to “sensory cues” to “determine their level of intoxication.” My absolutely unscientific and unverifiable opinion is that it is very hard to rely on “sensory cues” when one is “blackout, fall-down drunk.”

But that’s not the real point, is it? If it was, we’d ban every possible combo of caffeine and alcohol. What’s at stake here is our society’s fear of cognitive enhancement.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Chemistry, Top Posts

Improving Scientific Literacy… or Charlie Chaplin Movies as Science Fiction? Really?

By Kevin Grazier | November 17, 2010 3:33 pm

I’m a science educator. I often think, nay obsess, on how I can do my part to help bring more scientific literacy into everybody’s daily life. In a recent blog post entitled The Myth of Scientific Literacy, worthy of a read, Dr. Alice Bell opines that if we (scientists, educators, politicians) are going to plead the case for increased science literacy, then we should do a better job of defining just what we mean by “science literacy.”  She says:

Back in the early 1990s, Jon Durant very usefully outlined out the three main types of scientific literacy. This is probably as good a place to start as any:

  • Knowing some science – For example, having A-level biology, or simply knowing the laws of thermodynamics, the boiling point of water, what surface tension is, that the Earth goes around the Sun, etc.
  • Knowing how science works – This is more a matter of knowing a little of the philosophy of science (e.g. ‘The Scientific Method’, a matter of studying the work of Popper, Lakatos or Bacon).
  • Knowing how science really works – In many respects this agrees with the previous point – that the public need tools to be able to judge science, but does not agree that science works to a singular method. This approach is often inspired by the social studies of science and stresses that scientists are human. It covers the political and institutional arrangement of science, including topics like peer review (including all the problems with this), a recent history of policy and ethical debates and the way funding is structured

On the first point, I do think that there are some basic science facts which should be required fodder in K-12 education. From my field alone, people should not only know that Earth orbits the sun, they should know that our year is based upon the time takes Earth to complete the journey.  Don’t laugh. On my last birthday, when I told folks that I’d completed another orbit of the Sun, a distressing number of them did not understand the implication and, upon further questioning, didn’t know that Earth’s orbital period was the basis of one year. K-12 students should know that the Moon orbits Earth, why it goes through phases, and given it’s significance (in particular for several religious holidays), that our month is based upon that orbital period. Finally, everybody should know why we have seasons.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Movies, Physics, Time Travel, Utter Nerd

Physicists Prove Knowledge is Power — Almost Literally

By Eric Wolff | November 15, 2010 4:00 am

maxwell-stairsMy teachers in grade school always said knowledge was power, but who knew they were being literal, if perhaps imprecise. Knowledge, it turns out, is energy, and it converts at a rate of 28 percent, according to Shoichi Toyabe, of Chuo University, and Masaki Sano, of the University of Tokyo.

Their experiment has its origins back in 1871, when James Maxwell proposed a thought experiment: A demon controls the only door in a wall separating two sealed chambers filled with gas molecules. The demon allows only fast moving particles to enter one room, and only slow moving particles to enter the other room. After a while, one room has only fast moving particles, and the other has only slow moving particles. The system has lost entropy, but without expending any energy, creating a seeming violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, offered a key insight into Maxwell’s paradox in 1929: The demon had to expend energy measuring the speed of the molecules, thus the overall system of demon plus gas actually required work and the expenditure of energy. The demon used energy to take a measurement, creating information, preserving the second law, and establishing the idea that information could be converted to energy, and vice versa.

Proving that idea in the lab took another eight decades.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Information Theory

Jurassic Park Watch: Little, Super-Cute, Real Baby Dinosaurs

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 12, 2010 4:49 pm

dinobabySister Discover Blog 80beats reports:

Fossilized dinosaur embryos, found still in their eggshells, have claimed the title of the oldest vertebrate embryos ever seen–they were fossilized in the early Jurassic Period, around 190 million years ago, researchers say. The embryos are from the species Massospondylus, a prosauropod, the family of dinosaurs which gave rise to iconic sauropods like the Brachiosaurus.

Of course, just because we found the well-preserved bones of a dinosaur embryo doesn’t mean we can bring the thing back to life with a snap of the fingers (or even with a crack scientific team “sparing no expense”). But remember that most scientists were very skeptical that any viable tissue could be found in dinosaur bones until Mary Schweitzer did just that—and faced a lot of misguided attacks before her results were confirmed.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Genetics

We Need Gattaca to Prevent Skynet and Global Warming

By Kyle Munkittrick | November 10, 2010 6:54 pm

If only they'd kept Jimmy Carter's solar panels on there, this whole thing could have been avoided.

Independence Day has one of my most favorite hero duos of all time: Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Brawn and brains, flyboy and nerd, working together to take out the baddies. It all comes down to one flash of insight on behalf of a drunk Goldblum after being chastised by his father. Cliché eureka! moments like Goldblum’s realization that he can give the mothership a “cold” are great until you realize one thing: if Goldblum hadn’t been as smart as he was, the movie would have ended much differently. No one in the film was even close to figuring out how to defeat the aliens. Will Smith was in a distant second place and he had only discovered that they are vulnerable to face punches. The hillbilly who flew his jet fighter into the alien destruct-o-beam doesn’t count, because he needed a force-field-free spaceship for his trick to work. If Jeff Goldblum hadn’t been a super-genius, humanity would have been annihilated.

Every apocalyptic film seems to trade on the idea that there will be some lone super-genius to figure out the problem. In The Day The Earth Stood Still (both versions) Professor Barnhardt manages to convince Klaatu to give humanity a second look. Cleese’s version of the character had a particularly moving “this is our moment” speech. Though it’s eventually the love between a mother and child that triggers Klaatu’s mercy, Barnhardt is the one who opens Klaatu to the possibility. Over and over we see the lone super-genius helping to save the world.

Shouldn’t we want, oh, I don’t know, at least more than one super-genius per global catastrophe? I’d like to think so. And where might we get some more geniuses? you may ask. We make them.

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