Monday, May 31, 2010

Selected readings 5/31/10

Interesting reading and news items.

Please leave some comments that indicate which articles you find most interesting or that identify topics you would like to read about, and I will try to include more articles of a similar nature in the future

These items are also bookmarked at my Diigo account.

Seeing Aliens Will Likely Take Centuries
Although our telescopes will likely become good enough to detect signs of life on exoplanets within the next 100 years, it would probably take many centuries before we could ever get a good look at the aliens. "Unfortunately, we are perhaps as far away from seeing aliens with our own eyes as Epicurus was from seeing the first other worlds when, 23 centuries ago, he predicted the existence of these planets," said astrobiologist Jean Schneider at the Paris Observatory at Meudon. [, 4/29/10]

Only a matter of time, says Frank Drake
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence began in earnest 50 years ago, led by a young American astronomer named Frank Drake - a man, who is still confident we'll eventually find extraterrestrial civilisations. [COSMOS Magazine, 4/7/10]

A review of the Drake Equation
Which is the more shocking proposition: that our galactic neighbourhood is riddled with advanced alien civilisations? Or that we humans are a solitary beacon of intelligent life in a silent universe of almost incomprehensible vastness? Either prospect is enough to keep you awake at night. Yet one of these two statements is likely true. We just don't know which one. [COSMOS Magazine, 4/7/10]

What's up with nanotech?
While nanotechnology — working at a scale that is one-thousandth the width of a human hair — may have faded from the public’s imagination, the field has made substantial progress in recent years, opening new frontiers in electronics, medicine, and materials. [, 3/29/10]

Scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep sees revolution in disease treatment in 20 years
The scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep believes that a new approach to the production of stem cells could revolutionise the treatment of inherited diseases such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease “within ten to twenty years”. [Times Online, 3/26/10]

Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know
This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists. [New York Times, 3/31/10]

Telescope arrays give fine view of stars
Radio astronomers have relied on interferometry for more than half a century, but optical astronomers have lagged behind. Now, optical interferometry has come of age. [Nature News, 4/7/10]

Protein folding: The dark side of proteins
Almost every human protein has segments that can form amyloids, the sticky aggregates known for their role in disease. Yet cells have evolved some elaborate defences. [Nature News, 4/7/10]

A New Clue to Explain Existence
Physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory are reporting that they have discovered a new clue that could help unravel one of the biggest mysteries of cosmology: why the universe is composed of matter and not its evil-twin opposite, antimatter. [New York Times, 5/17/10]

Fermilab scientists find evidence for significant matter-antimatter asymmetry
The dominance of matter that we observe in the universe is possible only if there are differences in the behavior of particles and antiparticles. Although physicists have observed such differences (called “CP violation”) in particle behavior for decades, these known differences are much too small to explain the observed dominance of matter over antimatter in the universe and are fully consistent with the Standard Model. If confirmed by further observations and analysis, the effect seen by DZero physicists could represent another step towards understanding the observed matter dominance by pointing to new physics phenomena beyond what we know today. [SymmetryBreaking, 5/18/10]

How Many Sparks in the Genome?
The first two categories include stretches of DNA that are useful. The second two include stretches that are useless. Now comes the hard part: figuring out just how much of the genome is made up of each. [The Loom, 5/19/10]

Supermassive Black Holes Can Kill Whole Galaxies
Astrophysicists have found that when a supermassive black hole quickly devours gas and dust, it can generate enough radiation to abort all the embryonic stars in the surrounding galaxy. [ScienceNOW, 4/15/10]

The Search for Genes Leads to Unexpected Places
Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues have discovered hundreds of other genes involved in human disorders by looking at distantly related species. They have found genes associated with deafness in plants, for example, and genes associated with breast cancer in nematode worms. [New York Times, 4/26/10]

Life on Titan: stand well back and hold your nose!
Research by astrobiologist William Bains suggests that if life has evolved on the frozen surface of Saturn's moon, Titan, it would be strange, smelly and explosive compared to life on Earth. [, 4/14/10]

Perhaps a longer lifespan, certainly a longer 'health span'
Organisms from yeast to rodents to humans all benefit from cutting calories. In less complex organisms, restricting calories can double or even triple lifespan. It's not yet clear just how much longer calorie restriction might help humans live, but those who practice the strict diet hope to survive past 100 years old. [, 4/15/10]

Hubble Space Telescope clocks up 20 years
It was an instrument that much of the astronomical community didn't want, but times change: to get time now on the Hubble Space Telescope, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, an astronomer usually faces competition from at least 11 other eager scientists. [Nature News, 4/22/10]

Origin of Life Chicken-and-Egg Problem Solved
Scientists have wondered how the first simple, self-replicating chemicals could have formed complex, information-rich genetic structures, when replication was originally such an error-prone process. Every advance would soon be lost to copying errors. According to a new study, the answer may lie in the fundamental nature of those chemicals. The errors may have triggered an automatic shutdown of replication. Such stalling would allow only error-free sequences to be completed, giving them a chance at evolving. [Wired, 4/22/10]

A Skeptic Questions Cancer Genome Projects
Fueled by hundreds of millions of grant dollars, biomedical researchers have begun sequencing the genomes of thousands of tumor samples in the past few years, linking up scores of labs and sequencing centers in a massive effort to identify the genes behind major cancers. But a leading cancer geneticist this week questioned whether this strategy still makes sense. [ScienceInsider, 4/23/10]

Black holes and qubits
While string theory and M-theory have yet to make readily testable predictions in high-energy physics, they could find practical applications in quantum-information theory. [CERN Courier, 5/5/10]

Neutrinos: Clues to the Most Energetic Cosmic Rays
ARIANNA, a proposed array of detectors for capturing the most energetic cosmic rays, is being tested in Antarctica with a prototype station built last December on the Ross Ice Shelf by a Berkeley Lab team. By detecting neutrino-generated signals bounced off the interface of water and ice beneath the shelf, scientists hope to pinpoint the still unidentified sources of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays. [, 4/20/10]

In praise of the Y chromosome
David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute and professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says research indicates the much-maligned Y chromosome plays a more critical role in genetics than previously believed. [, 4/20/10]

The Evolution of the End
Immortality comes with some fairly significant disadvantages. A large complex organism requires a good bit of resources and the environment offers only so many available niches in which organisms of a set design can live. If the landscape is already saturated by unaging oldsters doing their timeless thing, there's little room for new and at least possibly improved models to take the stage. For most organisms, the areas where life is most tenuous is at the ends; both predators and disease take the hardest toll on the very young and the very old. If there are no old, then additional stress could be placed on the newcomers, further cutting turnover in a population. That means little chance for newbies, with their occasional mutations and interesting new combinations of genes. For immortals, evolution runs in slow motion. [Daily Kos, 5/30/10]

The Rise of the Mind
When and where did the cognitive abilities of modern humans arise? It's a big question -- one debated by anthropologists for decades. It's an even bigger question for an undergraduate thesis, but senior Logan Bartram has a leg up on this ambitious project: he helped unearth artifacts that are playing a critical role in shaping our knowledge about human origins. [, 4/22/10]

Airport security: Intent to deceive?
To Honts, the decade since the 11 September attacks has been one of lost opportunity. Calling SPOT an "abject failure", he says that the government would have done better to invest first in basic science, experimentally establishing how people with malintent think and respond during screenings. That work, in turn, could have laid a more solid foundation for effective detection methods. [Nature News, 5/26/10]

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