Monday, December 14, 2009

Selected readings 12/13/09

Interesting reading and news items.

These items are also bookmarked at my Diigo account.

Massively collaborative mathematics
The 'Polymath Project' proved that many minds can work together to solve difficult mathematical problems. Timothy Gowers and Michael Nielsen reflect on the lessons learned for open-source science. [Nature, 10/15/09]

What Comes After Hard Drives?
The ability to store and retrieve data is an important component of today's computers, as well as other modern electronic devices such as cell phones, video game consoles, and camcorders. Since their invention in the 1950s, magnetic-based hard disk drives (HDDs) have been the primary method of nonvolatile storage. However, researchers are currently developing several new and promising nonvolatile memory (NVM) technologies, but for one of them to replace HDDs within the next decade, it will be a challenge. [, 10/23/09]

Why antidepressants don't work for so many
More than half the people who take antidepressants for depression never get relief. Why? Because the cause of depression has been oversimplified and drugs designed to treat it aim at the wrong target, according to new research from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The medications are like arrows shot at the outer rings of a bull's eye instead of the center. [, 10/23/09]

Out of LSD? Just 15 Minutes of Sensory Deprivation Triggers Hallucinations
You don’t need psychedelic drugs to start seeing colors and objects that aren’t really there. Just 15 minutes of near-total sensory deprivation can bring on hallucinations in many otherwise sane individuals. Psychologists stuck 19 healthy volunteers into a sensory-deprivation room, completely devoid of light and sound, for 15 minutes. Without the normal barrage of sensory information flooding their brains, many people reported experiencing visual hallucinations, paranoia and a depressed mood. [Wired, 10/21/09]

It's natural to behave irrationally
Psychologists studying the issue say that the now-familiar warnings about climate change kick at emotional dead spots in all human brains -- but especially in American brains. Researchers have only theories to explain why people in the United States have done less than those in such places as Europe and Japan. ... No matter where the public's complacency springs from, psychologists have seen this kind of thing before, Ariely said: "That's why we don't exercise, and we overeat, and we bite our fingernails. . . . It's not something where we're going to overcome human nature." [Washington Post, 12/8/09]

Was our oldest ancestor a proton-powered rock?
Peter Mitchell was an eccentric figure. For much of his career he worked in his own lab in a restored manor house in Cornwall in the UK, his research funded in part by a herd of dairy cows. His ideas about the most basic process of life - how it gets energy - seemed ridiculous to his fellow biologists. [New Scientist, 10/19/09]

Six diseases you never knew you could catch
Twentieth century medicine was phenomenally successful at developing vaccines and antibiotics to fight infectious diseases, taming ancient scourges such as smallpox, tuberculosis and typhoid. In the 1960s and 70s, the prevailing view was that all diseases caused by microorganisms would soon be conquered, leaving only those caused by genetics, unhealthy lifestyles or ageing. That idea now seems naive, not least because of the rise in antibiotic resistance. And there's another reason that no one even considered back then. A growing number of diseases that were thought to be down to genetics or lifestyle turn out to have an infectious origin. [New Scientist, 10/20/09]

Rethinking relativity: Is time out of joint?
It is still not clear how well general relativity holds up over cosmic scales, at distances much larger than the span of single galaxies. Now the first, tentative hint of a deviation from general relativity has been found. While the evidence is far from watertight, if confirmed by bigger surveys, it may indicate either that Einstein's theory is incomplete, or else that dark energy, the stuff thought to be accelerating the expansion of the universe, is much weirder than we thought. [New Scientist, 10/21/09]

Timewarp: How your brain creates the fourth dimension
Perhaps the most fundamental question neuroscientists are investigating is whether our perception of the world is continuous or a series of discrete snapshots like frames on a film strip. Understand this, and maybe we can explain how the healthy brain works out the chronological order of the myriad events bombarding our senses, and how this can become warped to alter our perception of time. [New Scientist, 10/21/09]

Seven questions that keep physicists up at night
It's not your average confession show: a panel of leading physicists spilling the beans about what keeps them tossing and turning in the wee hours. That was the scene a few days ago in front of a packed auditorium at the Perimeter Institute, in Waterloo, Canada, when a panel of physicists was asked to respond to a single question: "What keeps you awake at night?" [New Scientist, 10/23/09]

The complex psychology of climate denial
If the evidence is overwhelming that man-made climate change is already upon us and set to wreak planetary havoc, why do so many people refuse to believe it? ... Experts see several explanations for the eagerness with which so many dismiss climate change as overblown or a hoax. [Cosmos Magazine, 12/1//09]

New Model of the Universe Says Past Crystallizes out of the Future
What do you get when the past crystallizes out of the future? According to a new model of the universe that combines relativity and quantum mechanics, the answer is: the present. [Technology Review arXiv blog, 12/8/09]

Rethinking artificial intelligence
The field of artificial-intelligence research (AI), founded more than 50 years ago, seems to many researchers to have spent much of that time wandering in the wilderness, swapping hugely ambitious goals for a relatively modest set of actual accomplishments. Now, some of the pioneers of the field, joined by later generations of thinkers, are gearing up for a massive “do-over” of the whole idea. [MIT, 12/7/09]

Gremlin Fireworks
Why spend billions of euros to smash subatomic particles together? The physicist Frank Wilczek (a colleague of mine at MIT, though we haven’t worked together directly) shared the 2004 Nobel Prize for his contribution to the reigning theory of high-energy physics; his new book gives non-specialist readers a tour of the conceptual landscape. [London Review of Books, 12/17/09]

Secrets of a cancer-free rodent
Researchers have shed light on an unusual resistance to cancer displayed by the naked mole rat, a burrowing, long-lived desert-dwelling rodent. In these animals, a cell growth switch absent in more cancer-prone organisms turns off cell division before cells get too dense, as they would in a tumor. [The Scientist, 10/26/09]

Choosing Sex
The gonad is an amazingly labile organ where male and female signals vie for dominance in the developing embryo. [The Scientist, 10/1/09]

A Little Fellatio Goes a Long Way
Oral sex is surprisingly rare in the animal kingdom. Humans do it, of course. As do bonobos, our close relatives. But now researchers have observed the practice for the first time in a non-primate. During intercourse, female short-nosed fruit bats lick the genitals of their partner, a possible ploy to increase copulation time. The discovery suggests there may be a biological advantage to fellatio. [ScienceNOW, 10/30/09]

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