Things tagged science:
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.
Finzi began musing on the facial feedback hypothesis, which holds that physical expression is an integral component of emotion. You can feel sad or angry without moving your face, but, the theory holds, those emotions will not be as strong or persist for as long if your face is not moving in the expected manner. Put another way, relative to emotion, the face and its muscles are a privileged area of the body. Whatever you do with your face transmits feelings back to your brain.
In 2003, Finzi treated several subjects suffering from moderate to severe depression with Botox, paralyzing the muscles in their brows that create expressions of sadness, anger, and fear. The results were astonishing.
Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight:
Even though national teams are patchwork and only play together for a handful of games each year, how Messi plays with Argentina relates to what is ultimately a fair criticism of his success: Most of it has come for FC Barcelona, a free-spending virtual all-star squad, packed with many of the world’s best players.
As the primary striker for such a juggernaut, it can be hard to detangle Messi’s goal-scoring prowess from Barcelona’s general offensive dominance. And the 2013-14 season hasn’t helped: Battling minor injuries and facing competition for touches from superstar arrival Neymar, Messi’s most recent season was slightly below par by his standards, yet Barca finished second in La Liga. (And in the seven games Messi missed, they went 6-1.) He still scored 41 goals, but that total was less than the 60 he scored the year before, and fewer than the 51 that rival Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid scored en route to capturing the Ballon d’Or.
I think this criticism is fair — and I found it intriguing enough to look into the matter myself. So I gathered and organized data, crunched it, re-crunched it, and gathered more data and crunched it some more.
Researchers at the University of Illinois and Arizona State looked at deaths caused by hurricanes between 1950 — when storms were first named — and 2012.
Even after tossing out Katrina and Audrey, particularly deadly storms that would have skewed their model, they found that hurricanes with female names caused an average of 45 deaths, compared with 23 deaths from storms with male names.
In order to back up their findings, the scientists surveyed hundreds of individuals and found that, even on paper, they were less fearful of storms they thought would hit like a girl.
“People imagining a ‘female’ hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,” said study co-author Sharon Shavitt in a statement. “The stereotypes that underlie these judgments are subtle and not necessarily hostile toward women — they may involve viewing women as warmer and less aggressive than men.”
In 2012, in the nature magazine Orion, Kingsnorth began to publish a series of essays articulating his new, dark ecological vision. He set his views in opposition to what he called neo-environmentalism — the idea that, as he put it, “civilization, nature and people can only be ‘saved’ by enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, geoengineering and anything else with the prefix ‘new’ that annoys Greenpeace.” Or as Stewart Brand, the 75-year-old “social entrepreneur” best known as the publisher of the “ Whole Earth Catalog,” has put it: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.”
Stefano Maggiolo at The poor man’s math blog:
At the time I’m writing, near the winter solstice, Madrid’s sunset is around 17:55, more than an hour later than the sunset in, for example, Naples, which is at a similar latitude. The same difference holds at the summer solstice and around the year. Just because it applies to most places I’ve been, a time like that in Naples feels more natural to me, and probably to most non-Spanish people. But is it?
Looking for other regions of the world having the same peculiarity of Spain, I edited a world map from Wikipedia to show the difference between solar and standard time. It turns out, there are many places where the sun rises and sets late in the day, like in Spain, but not a lot where it is very early.
Interesting, but also, I believe we should abolish all timezones, and use one time.
Alvin Powell in the Harvard Gazette:
After 26 years of workdays spent watching bacteria multiply, Richard Lenski has learned a thing or two.
He’s learned that naturalist Charles Darwin was wrong about some things. For one, evolution doesn’t always occur in steps so slow and steady that changes can’t be observed.
Lenski also learned that a laboratory freezer can function as a time machine.
A professor at Michigan State University, Lenski has watched E. coli bacteria multiply through 59,000 generations, a span that has allowed him to observe evolution in real time. Since his Long-Term Experimental Evolution Project began in 1988, the bacteria have doubled in size, begun to mutate more quickly, and become more efficient at using the glucose in the solution where they’re grown.
Kevin Poulsen in Wired:
OkCupid was founded by Harvard math majors in 2004, and it first caught daters’ attention because of its computational approach to matchmaking. Members answer droves of multiple-choice survey questions on everything from politics, religion, and family to love, sex, and smartphones.
On average, respondents select 350 questions from a pool of thousands—“Which of the following is most likely to draw you to a movie?” or “How important is religion/God in your life?” For each, the user records an answer, specifies which responses they’d find acceptable in a mate, and rates how important the question is to them on a five-point scale from “irrelevant” to “mandatory.” OkCupid’s matching engine uses that data to calculate a couple’s compatibility. The closer to 100 percent—mathematical soul mate—the better.
But mathematically, McKinlay’s compatibility with women in Los Angeles was abysmal. OkCupid’s algorithms use only the questions that both potential matches decide to answer, and the match questions McKinlay had chosen—more or less at random—had proven unpopular. When he scrolled through his matches, fewer than 100 women would appear above the 90 percent compatibility mark. And that was in a city containing some 2 million women (approximately 80,000 of them on OkCupid). On a site where compatibility equals visibility, he was practically a ghost.
He realized he’d have to boost that number. If, through statistical sampling, McKinlay could ascertain which questions mattered to the kind of women he liked, he could construct a new profile that honestly answered those questions and ignored the rest.
More than you’ve ever wanted to know about the Sierpinski triangle, or “The sierpinski triangle page to end most sierpinski triangle pages ™”
John Tierney in the NYT:
“If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said in an interview, arguing that the caricature of enslaved crack addicts comes from a misinterpretation of the famous rat experiments.
Lifting voices together in praise can be a transcendent experience, unifying a congregation in a way that is somehow both fervent and soothing. But is there actually a physical basis for those feelings?
To find this out, researchers of the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden studied the heart rates of high school choir members as they joined their voices. Their findings, published this week in Frontiers in Neuroscience, confirm that choir music has calming effects on the heart — especially when sung in unison.
The human palate is arguably the weakest of the five traditional senses. This raises an important question regarding wine tasting: is it bullshit, or is it complete and utter bullshit?