Monday, March 08, 2010

Selected readings 3/8/10

Interesting reading and news items.

These items are also bookmarked at my Diigo account.

What Is Time? One Physicist Hunts for the Ultimate Theory
I’m trying to understand cosmology, why the Big Bang had the properties it did. And it’s interesting to think that connects directly to our kitchens and how we can make eggs, how we can remember one direction of time, why causes precede effects, why we are born young and grow older. It’s all because of entropy increasing. It’s all because of conditions of the Big Bang. [Wired, 2/26/10]

Black holes and white slopes
It is an incredible feat of observational astronomy to make these movies. It requires adaptive optics on the largest telescopes in the world (the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea). We used to think of the heavens as eternal and unchanging. Now we watch movies of stars orbiting black holes. [Cosmic Variance, 2/25/10]

The climate machine
For climatologists, models are not just tools that can give a glimpse of what the future holds; they are also an experimental playground – a replica world on which they can test their knowledge of the climate system. Without the ability to conduct global-scale experiments in the lab or in the field, models are the only tools they have. [Climate Feedback, 2/26/10]

Most European males 'descended from farmers'
Most men in Europe can trace a line of descent to early farmers who migrated from the Near East, a study says. However, other scientists subscribe to a different interpretation - that this common lineage arrived in Europe during or before the last Ice Age. [BBC News, 1/20/10]

Esa mission concepts vie for position
The competition to find the next great European space mission has seen three ideas move to the front of the field. ... The concepts include a satellite that would map the "dark Universe" (called Euclid), a probe to study the Sun up-close (Solar Orbiter), and a telescope to find distant planets (Plato). [BBC News, 1/20/10]

Mississippi Delta earthquake: America's Haiti waiting to happen?
One of the strongest series of earthquakes ever to hit the United States happened not in Alaska or along California's San Andreas fault, but in southeast Missouri along the Mississippi River. In 1811 and 1812, the New Madrid fault zone that zig zags through five states shook so violently that it shifted furniture in Washington, D.C., and rang church bells in Boston. The series of temblors changed the course of the Mississippi River near Memphis, and historical accounts claim the river even flowed backward briefly. Geologists consider the New Madrid fault line a major seismic zone and predict that an earthquake roughly the magnitude of the Haiti earthquake (7.0 on the Richter scale) could occur in the area during the next 50 years. [, 1/17/10]

Researchers find clues to evolution by studying genes of living people
Scientists seeking to unravel the evolutionary history of human beings are looking not to the past but into the genes of people living today. Researchers at Harvard University have developed a powerful method for identifying genes that have been favored by evolution and have spread rapidly among the population because of natural selection, the process by which organisms with beneficial traits survive in greater numbers and pass on their genes to more offspring than others. The hope is the new tool will cast a light on recent changes in human biology and provide insight into modern-day disease, since one of the most powerful evolutionary pressures human beings have faced are pathogens. [Boston Globe, 1/18/10]

Light and the Age of the Universe - the Cosmic Microwave Background
Our main window to understanding the universe is light and the electromagnetic spectrum. Trapped here on earth, there is very little of the universe that we can actually touch and test with our own hands, but light provides an amazing tool. The Cosmic Microwave Background is perhaps on of the best methods we have of finding the age of the universe. [The Light Side of Science, 3/3/10]

How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web
Want to know how Google is about to change your life? Stop by the Ouagadougou conference room on a Thursday morning. It is here, at the Mountain View, California, headquarters of the world’s most powerful Internet company, that a room filled with three dozen engineers, product managers, and executives figure out how to make their search engine even smarter. This year, Google will introduce 550 or so improvements to its fabled algorithm, and each will be determined at a gathering just like this one. [Wired, 2/22/10]

Brain cells' new role defunct?
In the past couple of years, the idea that these non-neural brain cells, known as glial cells, participate in neurotransmission "had been widely accepted," Frank Kirchhoff, a cellular and molecular neurobiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine, who did not participate in the research, wrote in an email to The Scientist. "Therefore, the scientific community was rather surprised to see" that calcium levels in glial cells have no affect on neurotransmission in the hippocampus, added Kirchhoff. [The Scientist, 3/4/10]

Female teachers transmit math anxiety to female students
Girls often believe themselves to be bad at math, in accordance with gender stereotyping, and often experience high levels of anxiety about the subject. That anxiety appears to be driven by social influences, and may be vanishing in early education. Still, identifying its causes could help eliminate it at later stages of education, and prevent it from making a reappearance in young girls. A new study suggests that elementary school may be a breeding ground for this anxiety. The study found that when elementary school teachers, who are primarily female, displayed a high level of anxiety about math, that skittishness was transmitted to their female students. [Nobel Intent, 1/25/10]

Speculating about the Universe as a quantum fluid
What really seems to turns Murayama on is the problem of explaining why some forces are long-range and some are short-range. Basically, gravity reaches out over huge distances. Electromagnetism would reach just as far, but because there are both negative and positive charges, forces due to one set of charges tend get screened out by opposite signed charges. This effectively limits the reach of electromagnetic forces. Nevertheless, the fundamental distance scaling for the two forces is the same. The strong and weak nuclear forces are very short range, extending no further than the width of a nucleus. [Nobel Intent, 1/25/10]

Understanding deep ocean circulation and climate modeling
For Europe, which may experience dramatic changes to its regional climates if the thermohaline circulation changes, this represents a very scary scenario, because we don't know where the point of instability is. We also don't know how we would get back to a circulating solution should the worst occur. And the measurements we presently have of the current are so noisy that we aren't likely to see it coming until it has already happened. [Nobel Intent, 1/27/10]

The amazing race for the cheapest and fastest DNA machine
In the past decade, the cost of sequencing an entire human genome has dropped from $1 billion to $10,000. As companies race to crack the $1,000 genome, the contending DNA machines in the marketplace suggest an end is near. [, 3/4/10]

Mammoth Achievement: Researchers at the forefront of molecular biology
By successfully sequencing the DNA of a long-extinct species, Stephan Schuster and Webb Miller have helped push back the boundaries of molecular biology. Stephan Schuster was never all that interested in ancient DNA. As a young genomicist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in his native Germany, his forte had always been bacteria. By deciphering and comparing the genomes -- the genetic blueprints -- of various microbial species, he sought to unlock the secrets of these ubiquitous creatures: how they evolve and interact with the organisms that play them host. [, 1/26/10]

Why humans outlive apes
The same evolutionary genetic advantages that have helped increase human lifespans also make us uniquely susceptible to diseases of aging such as cancer, heart disease and dementia. [, 1/26/10]

Neuroscientists making computers smart enough to see connections between brain's neurons
Now a handful of researchers scattered across the globe are tackling a much more ambitious project: to find connectomes of brains more like our own. ... With these technologies, they intend to map the connectomes of our animal cousins, and eventually perhaps even those of humans. Their results could fundamentally alter our understanding of the brain. [, 1/28/10]

Why hasn't ET made contact yet?
He's absolutely convinced. Frank Drake has been scouring the sky for 50 years, looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. He's heard nothing... but he's in no doubt they're out there. Drake was a founder-member of Seti, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. [BBC News, 1/25/10]

Channeling your inner alien? Maybe, scientists say
The idea that alien micro-organisms could be hiding on Earth has been discussed for a while, according to Jill Tarter, the director of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a U.S. project that listens for signals from civilizations based around distant stars. She said several of the scientists involved in the project were interested in pursuing the notion, which Davies laid out in a 2007 Scientific American article, "Are Aliens Among Us?" [, 1/26/10]

Physicists’ Dreams and Worries in Era of the Big Collider
“I want to set out the questions for the next nine decades,” Maria Spiropulu said on the eve of the conference, called the Physics of the Universe Summit. She was hoping that the meeting, organized with the help of Joseph D. Lykken of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Gordon Kane of the University of Michigan, would replicate the success of a speech by the mathematician David Hilbert, who in 1900 laid out an agenda of 23 math questions to be solved in the 20th century. [New York Times, 1/25/10]

Genetic tests give consumers hints about disease risk; critics have misgivings
Gall's experience illuminates the controversy around direct-to-consumer genotyping. Advocates say these services can guide people toward appropriate preventive medical care, help them choose medications and motivate them to make lifestyle changes. But others criticize the companies for overselling their supposed insights and producing reports that untrained consumers might easily misunderstand. The American Medical Association recommends that a physician always be involved in genetic testing. [Washington Post, 1/26/10]

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