Friday, February 26, 2010

Selected readings 2/26/10

Interesting reading and news items.

These items are also bookmarked at my Diigo account.

Oceans losing ability to absorb greenhouse gas
Like a dirty filter, the Earth's oceans are growing less efficient at absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas produced by fossil-fuel burning, reports a study co-authored by Francois Primeau, UC Irvine Earth system science associate professor. [, 1/11/10]

Sedentary TV time may cut life short
Couch potatoes beware: every hour of television watched per day may increase the risk of dying earlier from cardiovascular disease, according to research reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. [, 1/11/10]

How come intelligence, religion, and fertility are linked?
Here's a new study looking at the connection between religion, fertility, and IQ at a national level. We know from previous studies that countries where people are, on average, more religious also tend to have higher average fertility and lower average IQ. The problem is that we also know that countries that have lower average IQ also have higher fertility. So teasing out the two factors is not obvious. [Epiphenom, 2/20/10]

Alien Planet Safari
The premiere observatory of the next decade, the James Webb Space Telescope, will launch in 2014 in search of "big game"--namely, the first stars and galaxies ever formed in our Universe. But the "little game" could turn out to be just as interesting. There's a dawning awareness among astronomers that the world's largest infrared telescope is going to be a canny hunter of planets circling faraway stars. [, 1/14/10

Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally
The body embodies abstractions the best way it knows how: physically. What is moral turpitude, an ethical lapse, but a soiling of one’s character? Time for the Lady Macbeth Handi Wipes. One study showed that participants who were asked to dwell on a personal moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth afterward than were those who had been instructed to recall a good deed they had done. [New York Times, 2/1/10]

What Is Life? A New Theory
Biology is often called the study of life, yet in the history of the field, experts have never agreed on just what, exactly, life is. Many attempts to classify life focus on a list of requirements, such as the ability to reproduce, to carry out metabolic reactions, to grow, to defend against injury, and others. ... Biologist Gerard Jagers op Akkerhuis of Wageningen University in the Netherlands has come up with a novel solution that does not ask life to meet a long list of abilities. [, 2/11/10]

Martian Hunting: The Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes
The iguanas of the Galapagos Islands have evolved many unique characteristics due to their isolation from mainland iguanas. Because they can't swim long distances, biologists believe that the first Galapagos iguanas arrived on natural rafts made from vegetation. The same thing may have happened across the ocean of space. Some researchers speculate that life on Mars – if there is any – may be composed of "island species" that were carried away from Earth on interplanetary meteorites. [, 2/16/10]

Space Is Getting Bigger, and It's Getting Bigger Faster
Few scientists can say their work forever changed how we see the universe. Saul Perlmutter is one of them, for his central role in the 1998 discovery of dark energy. That invisible energy, which accounts for a whopping 73 percent of everything in the cosmos, is stretching the fabric of space and could cause a runaway expansion of the universe. [Discover, 2/22/10]

The Man Who Builds Brains
In its trial runs Markram’s Blue Gene has emulated just a single neocortical column in a two-week-old rat. But in principle, the simulated brain will continue to get more and more powerful as it attempts to rival the one in its creator’s head. “We’ve reached the end of phase one, which for us is the proof of concept,” Markram says. “We can, I think, categorically say that it is possible to build a model of the brain.” In fact, he insists that a fully functioning model of a human brain can be built within a decade. [Discover, 2/5/10]

Problem-solving crows may not be as smart as we thought
Among all these overachievers, crows seem to be the shining exemplar of intelligence. You see, a crow, when first faced with a bit of meat dangling from a bit of string, figures out a solution pretty much instantly. This has led researchers to posit that crows build mental models that generate solutions, instead of relying on trial and error. Now, a bunch of Kiwis have published research in PLoS One that suggests crows don't actually build models. [Nobel Intent, 2/22/10]

As more planets emerge, astronomers are confident they'll find one like Earth
It seems increasingly likely that, as they stare at the heavens, astronomers are going to find an Earth out there, or at least something that they can plausibly claim is a rocky planet where water could splash at the surface and -- who knows? -- harbor some kind of life. ... [However,] the roughly 400 planets that astronomers have found outside our solar system have not been Earthlike by any stretch of the imagination. Most are hot Jupiters, which is to say they're gas giants in scorching orbits. [Washington Post, 1/12/10]

Inflaming dangers of a fat-laden meal
In the heavyweight division, immune cells embedded in fat pack some extra disease-causing punches, a new study shows. Those punches involve potentially dangerous proteins linked to inflammation, heart disease and diabetes. [Science News, 2/24/10]

Ancient dawn's early light refines age of universe
Six papers posted online present new satellite snapshots of the earliest light in the universe. By analyzing these images, cosmologists have made the most accurate determination of the age of the cosmos, have directly detected primordial helium gas for the first time and have discovered a key signature of inflation, the leading model of how the cosmos came to be. The analysis, based on the first seven years of data taken by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, also provides new evidence that the mysterious entity revving up the expansion of the universe resembles Einstein’s cosmological constant .... In addition, the data reveal that theorists don’t have the right model to explain the hot gas that surrounds massive clusters of galaxies. [Science News, 2/2/10]

Quantum on Quantum
Almost three decades ago, Richard Feynman — known popularly as much for his bongo drumming and pranks as for his brilliant insights into physics — told an electrified audience at MIT how to build a computer so powerful that its simulations “will do exactly the same as nature.” Not approximately, as digital computers tend to do when faced with complex physical problems that must be addressed via mathematical shortcuts... Feynman meant exactly, as in down to the last jot. [Science News, 2/12/10]

Starting anew
Bely’s finding and other recent results have encouraged researchers who are trying to figure out why some animals can reconstruct their body parts while others can’t. Most species have the ability to regenerate some body parts, yet this talent is highly variable. Humans, for instance, can renew skin and bone, but salamanders can re-create entire limbs or tails, or just about any other structure that can be lopped off without killing them. And the real superstars are animals such as sea stars, flatworms and sponges: They can regenerate every part of their body, even from a tiny fragment. [Science News, 1/29/10]

Has the speed of light changed?
So would scientists notice a changing speed of light, given that the units for distance and time are defined in terms of that speed? The answer, as you might guess, is yes. There's two classes of constantly ongoing observations that come to mind. We'll call them the practical and the theoretical. [Built on Facts, 2/24/10]

The Maverick Bacterium
Whether it’s powering through the cytoplasm leaving a trail of polymerized actin, activating an arsenal of virulence factors through changes in RNA structure, or storing the code for RNA transcripts on the wrong side of DNA, Listeria makes up its own rules for survival. [The Scientist, 1/1/10]

Game theory shows evolution follows most successful member
Game theory has become a useful way to evaluate strategies for survival in evolution scenarios. In a new study, scientists set up a model where human players engage with each other and compete for resources, and can change their strategies for doing so in various ways. They found that as more rounds of the game were played, the human players developed a tendency to imitate the best player, causing the players as a group to tend to play the game the same way. [Nobel Intent, 1/19/10]

Is your brain making you fat?
Our brains developed ways to maintain our fat stores by detecting the levels of a hormone called leptin, which is secreted into the blood by fat cells. The brain mostly tries to keep this hormone level constant, by making us hungry and burn less energy when our leptin levels drop. It's an effective system for people whose lives depend on having reserves of energy to survive famine, but for those of us battling obesity in a time of plenty it's got some serious downfalls. [ABC Science, 1/21/10]

Better live in Sweden than in the US: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
It is common knowledge that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. In a quite fascinating book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone - the well-off as well as the poor. [International Cognition and Culture Institute, 2/25/10]

Science education standards: A broken system?
What horrifies Cooper most is that aspiring teachers go almost directly from learning science in dysfunctional courses to teaching it in grade school classrooms, creating a cycle of poor teaching and learning. To break this cycle, she said, we need to scrap trivial, information-based assessments and find ways to judge deep conceptual understanding and scientific thinking. [National Association of Science Writers, 2/24/10]

Most modern European males descend from farmers who migrated from the Near East
More than 80% of European Y chromosomes descend from incoming farmers. In contrast, most maternal genetic lineages seem to descend from hunter-gatherers. To us, this suggests a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the switch from hunting and gathering, to farming - maybe, back then, it was just sexier to be a farmer. [, 1/19/10]

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