Things tagged science:
Emily Anthes in The New Yorker:
Each bit of dust is a microhistory of your life,” Rob Dunn, a biologist at North Carolina State University, told me recently. For the past four years, Dunn and two of his colleagues—Noah Fierer, a microbial ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Holly Menninger, the director of public science at N.C. State—have been deciphering these histories, investigating the microorganisms in our dust and how their lives are intertwined with our own.
Most of our microscopic roommates are unlikely to present a real threat; many species of bacteria, scientists now know, are crucial partners in maintaining our health. “We’re surrounded by microbes all the time, and that’s not a bad thing,” Fierer said. In the next phase of their research, he and Dunn hope to identify connections between a home’s microscopic inhabitants and the health of its human ones. And there are likely to be more findings lurking in the dust that the volunteers already collected. How does the use of antimicrobial cleaning products alter a home’s profile? Is there a link between our genomes and the species that occupy our homes? There’s far more data than the scientists can analyze themselves, so they have posted it all online; members of the public can download the complete data set and hunt for new correlations and patterns.
Sarah Zhang in Wired:
Humans, quite simply, suck at walking in straight lines: Give a man a blindfold, and he will walk around in circles. In virtual reality, though, this failing becomes very convenient. People are so bad at knowing where they are in space that subtle visual cues can trick them into believing they’re exploring a huge area when they’ve never left the room—a process called redirected walking.
With VR technology getting ever better, people could one day explore immersive virtual spaces—like buildings or even whole cities—on foot in head-mounted displays. But it’s not very immersive if you end up smacking into a real-life wall. “This problem of how you move around when in VR is one of the big unsolved problems of the VR community,” says Evan Suma, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California.
That’s where redirected walking comes in. People don’t really notice, it turns out, if you increase or decrease the virtual distance they had to walk by 26 percent or 14 percent, respectively. Or shift the virtual room so they see their path as straight when their real path is curved. Or turn the room up to 49 percent more or 20 percent less than the rotation of their heads.
Gina Kolata in the NYT:
As many as 60,000 American women each year are told they have a very early stage of breast cancer — Stage 0, as it is commonly known — a possible precursor to what could be a deadly tumor. And almost every one of the women has either a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, and often a double mastectomy, removing a healthy breast as well.
Yet it now appears that treatment may make no difference in their outcomes. Patients with this condition had close to the same likelihood of dying of breast cancer as women in the general population.
Cathleen O’Grady in Ars:
Whistled Turkish is a non-conformist. Most obviously, it bucks the normal language trend of using consonants and vowels, opting instead for a bird-like whistle. But more importantly, it departs from other language forms in a more fundamental respect: it’s processed differently by the brain.
Language is usually processed asymmetrically by the brain. The left hemisphere does the heavy lifting, regardless of whether the language in question is spoken, written, or signed. Whistled Turkish is the first exception to this rule, according to a paper in this week’s issue of Current Biology. There’s evidence that both hemispheres pitch in about the same amount of effort when processing the whistled words.
This evidence could contribute to our general understanding of how the brain works by answering some of the many mysteries about how and why we have asymmetrical processing. And perhaps very far down the road, this research could help stroke sufferers regain some of their lost communicative skills.
For a long time, sleep’s apparent uselessness amused even the scientists who studied it. The Harvard sleep researcher Robert Stickgold has recalled his former collaborator J. Allan Hobson joking that the only known function of sleep was to cure sleepiness. In a 2006 review of the explanations researchers had proposed for sleep, Marcos Frank, a neuroscientist then working at the University of Pennsylvania (he is now at WSU Spokane) concluded that the evidence for sleep’s putative effects on cognition was “weak or equivocal.”
But in the past decade, and even the past year, the mystery has seemed to be abating. In a series of conversations with sleep scientists this May, I was offered a glimpse of converging lines of inquiry that are shedding light on why such a significant part of our lives is spent lying inert, with our eyes closed, not doing anything that seems particularly meaningful or relevant to, well, anything.
Ian Sample at The Guardian:
A series of experiments has produced incredible results by giving young blood to old mice. Now the findings are being tested on humans.
Anyone paying attention knows this already, but here is an absolutely brutal article calling them out in detail.
William Saletan at Slate:
The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.
Fantastic science writing, don’t miss this.
Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker:
In the end, the magnitude-9.0 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than eighteen thousand people, devastated northeast Japan, triggered the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, and cost an estimated two hundred and twenty billion dollars. The shaking earlier in the week turned out to be the foreshocks of the largest earthquake in the nation’s recorded history. But for Chris Goldfinger, a paleoseismologist at Oregon State University and one of the world’s leading experts on a little-known fault line, the main quake was itself a kind of foreshock: a preview of another earthquake still to come.
Gregory Hickok in The New York Times:
In 1890, the American psychologist William James famously likened our conscious experience to the flow of a stream. “A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described,” he wrote. “In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.”
While there is no disputing the aptness of this metaphor in capturing our subjective experience of the world, recent research has shown that the “stream” of consciousness is, in fact, an illusion. We actually perceive the world in rhythmic pulses rather than as a continuous flow.
Stephen Cass in Spectrum:
“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Thirty-five years ago today, these words marked the start of a crisis that nearly killed three astronauts in outer space. In the four days that followed, the world was transfixed as the crew of Apollo 13–Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert–fought cold, fatigue, and uncertainty to bring their crippled spacecraft home.
But the crew had an angel on their shoulders–in fact thousands of them–in the form of the flight controllers of NASA’s mission control and supporting engineers scattered across the United States.
Physicist Richard Feynman talks more about jiggling atoms and heat, and about what fire is
Tim Urban with a decent, if pop-sci, look at the singularity:
What does it feel like to stand here?
Gareth Cook in the NYT:
The race to map the connectome has hardly left the starting line, with only modest funding from the federal government and initial experiments confined to the brains of laboratory animals like fruit flies and mice. But it’s an endeavor heavy with moral and philosophical implications, because to map a human connectome would be, Seung has argued, to capture a person’s very essence: every memory, every skill, every passion. When the brain isn’t wired properly, it can lead to disorders like autism and schizophrenia — “connectopathies” that could be revealed in the map, perhaps suggesting treatments. And if science were to gain the power to record and store connectomes, then it would be natural to speculate, as Seung and others have, that technology might some day enable a recording to play again, thereby reanimating a human consciousness. The mapping of connectomes, its most zealous proponents believe, would confer nothing less than immortality.
Brian Greene in Smithsonian Magazine:
In October 1984 I arrived at Oxford University, trailing a large steamer trunk containing a couple of changes of clothing and about five dozen textbooks. I had a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard, and I was raring to launch into graduate study. But within a couple of weeks, the more advanced students had sucked the wind from my sails. Change fields now while you still can, many said. There’s nothing happening in fundamental physics.
Then, just a couple of months later, the prestigious (if tamely titled) journal Physics Letters B published an article that ignited the first superstring revolution, a sweeping movement that inspired thousands of physicists worldwide to drop their research in progress and chase Einstein’s long-sought dream of a unified theory. The field was young, the terrain fertile and the atmosphere electric. The only thing I needed to drop was a neophyte’s inhibition to run with the world’s leading physicists. I did. What followed proved to be the most exciting intellectual odyssey of my life.
That was 30 years ago this month, making the moment ripe for taking stock: Is string theory revealing reality’s deep laws? Or, as some detractors have claimed, is it a mathematical mirage that has sidetracked a generation of physicists?
Robert Walker at Science 2.0:
This idea dates back to the Russians in the early 1970s. The surface of Venus is far too hot, and the atmosphere too dense, for Earth life. However, our air is a lifting gas on Venus with about half the lifting power of helium on Earth. A habitat filled with normal air will float high in the dense Venus atmosphere, The atmospheric pressure there is the same as Earth sea level (1 bar). Temperatures are perfect for Earth life too, just over 0°C.
Also, just as weather balloons naturally rise to their operating level high in our atmosphere - so it works in the same way for our habitats on Venus. They float at a level where the pressure is equal inside and out, and can be of light construction. It is arguably the most hospitable region for humanity in our solar system, outside of Earth itself.
Bruce Grierson in the NYT Magazine:
One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment, cooked up by a young psychologist named Ellen Langer.
The subjects were in good health, but aging had left its mark. “This was before 75 was the new 55,” says Langer, who is 67 and the longest-serving professor of psychology at Harvard. Before arriving, the men were assessed on such measures as dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition — probably the closest things the gerontologists of the time could come to the testable biomarkers of age. Langer predicted the numbers would be quite different after five days, when the subjects emerged from what was to be a fairly intense psychological intervention.
Where are we going, and where do we want to go, genetically speaking?
Of all the politically correct stances, the genetic unimprovability of humanity is perhaps the most inviolable. Even while we work daily, even feverishly, to improve other aspects of our material and cultural existence, our biology remains an ethical red zone, where nothing can be done and no infringement placed on individual replication. As a response to the abuse of eugenics in the 20th century, and to the deep philosophical problems involved, this is understandable. But it does not do justice to the underlying science.
Eugenics are a real issue, have been a real issue, and will continue to be a real issue. Genetic modification techniques will come to be applied on humans, and the rich will get it first. Looking away from these realities because they are uncomfortable is weakness.