Daily Archives: December 11, 2007

Science News Tidbits: Climate and Ecology

Rising CO2 signals wetter storms for Northern Hemisphere from PhysOrg.com
While two new studies by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences predict wetter storms for the Arctic and for the Northern Hemisphere because of global warming, whether or not this means more net precipitation depends on the latitude.[]

New Tibetan Ice Cores Missing A-Bomb Blast Markers; Suggest Himalayan Ice Fields Haven’t Grown In Last 50 Years from PhysOrg.com
Ice cores drilled last year from the summit of a Himalayan ice field lack the distinctive radioactive signals that mark virtually every other ice core retrieved worldwide.[]

Reprogramming Adult Cells to Cure Sickle-Cell

MIT researchers have successfully treated mice with sickle-cell anemia in a process that begins by directly reprogramming the mice’s own cells to an embryonic-stem-cell-like state, without the use of eggs.This is the first proof-of-principle of therapeutic application in mice of directly reprogrammed induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells, which recently have been derived in mice as well as humans.”This demonstrates that IPS cells have the same potential for therapy as embryonic stem cells, without the ethical and practical issues raised in creating embryonic stem cells,” said MIT biology professor Rudolf Jaenisch, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.[Source]

Science News Tidbits

Infants Fine-Tune Their Visual and Auditory Skills in First Year of Life, Psychologist Says from PhysOrg.com
Infants refine and narrow their ability to discriminate between things they see and hear in their first year, revealing what appears to be a decline in ability at a time when most other skills and functions are dramatically increasing, says Lisa S. Scott, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.[]

Researchers solve fuel-cell membrane structure conundrum from PhysOrg.com
Fuel-cell cars are reaching commercial viability in today’s increasingly eco-conscious society, but despite their promise, even scientists have struggled to explain just how the fuel-cell’s central component – the proton exchange membrane – really works.[]

Pathogens use previously undescribed mechanism to sabotage host immune system from PhysOrg.com
New research identifies a previously unknown enzymatic mechanism that subverts the early host immune response and promotes pathogenicity by manipulating a common signaling pathway in host cells.[]

Pathogens use previously undescribed mechanism to sabotage host immune system from PhysOrg.com
New research identifies a previously unknown enzymatic mechanism that subverts the early host immune response and promotes pathogenicity by manipulating a common signaling pathway in host cells.[]

Science News Tidbits

Mars Orbiter Examines ‘Lace’ and ‘Lizard Skin’ Terrain from PhysOrg.com
Scrutiny by NASA’s newest Mars orbiter is helping scientists learn the stories of some of the weirdest landscapes on Mars, as well as more familiar-looking parts of the Red Planet.[]

Mars Rover Investigates Signs of Steamy Martian Past from PhysOrg.com
Researchers using NASA’s twin Mars rovers are sorting out two possible origins for one of Spirit’s most important discoveries, while also getting Spirit to a favorable spot for surviving the next Martian winter.[]

Solving solar system quandaries is simple: Just flip-flop the position of Uranus and Neptune from PhysOrg.com
Quick: What’s the order of the planets in the solar system? Need a little help? Maybe the following mnemonic rings a bell: “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Up Nine Pizzas.” It’s useful for remembering the order of the planets today, but it wouldn’t have been as useful in the past, and not just because the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to “dwarf planet” last year.[]

Microsoft Infuriated

Proposed legislation that would mandate the use of the Open Document Format (ODF) across the entire Dutch government has infuriated Microsoft. A group promoting open standards sees no threat, however, and has invited Microsoft to join its ranks.On Wednesday the Dutch parliament will discuss a plan to mandate use of the Open Document Format (ODF) at government agencies. The proposal is part of a wider plan to increase the sustainability of information and innovation, while lowering costs through the reuse of data.

Read the rest here.

There are still mysteries

Try this: Starting at home, drive, run, ski, or walk about fifty thousand feet. That would be about ten miles, or 15 kilometers. It won’t take you long (especially if you drive) and chances are, when you get there, it will be a place at least vaguely familiar to you. At the very least, it will be a place that is qualitatively familiar to you. Even if you end up in a strip mall, or a government office building, or a recreational park, that you’ve never been to before, you’ll be able to find your way around.i-b18da874985fd09fb2c7fe82a9ffd142-181082main1_NoctilucentWide.jpgNow do the same thing, but instead of going across the landscape, go straight up. What a difference! You wont be able to breath, you’ll freeze to death, and there will be fewer strip malls (probably). Continue reading There are still mysteries

Big Surprise: Bushies Are Bushies

How people respond to the U.S. government’s attempts to censor some war-related images comes down to whether or not they are supporters of President Bush, a new study suggests.Researchers at Ohio State University surveyed 600 people and asked them if they were interested in viewing photos or videos of the caskets containing dead U.S. soldiers arriving in the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan .The catch was that, prior to being asked whether they wanted to view the images, half of the survey respondents were told about a U.S. government policy which prevents the widespread dissemination of such images through the media.One prominent psychological theory suggests that when people are told they can’t see something, they want to see it even more.”This is not at all what we found,” said Andrew Hayes, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University and one of the authors of the study.In general, Bush supporters expressed less interest in viewing these images than respondents who didn’t support Bush in the 2004 election. However, how Bush supporters responded was affected by whether they were first told about the policy.Among Bush supporters first told about the policy, only 28 percent expressed some interest in viewing the images, after adjusting for the influence of such factors as the respondent’s age, sex, and education. However, among Bush supporters who were not first told about the policy, 49 percent expressed some interest. So being told about the policy reduced rather than increased Bush supporters’ interest in seeing the images, Hayes said.In contrast, 70 percent of people who didn’t support Bush in the 2004 election expressed interest in seeing the images, regardless of whether or not they were told about the policy.[Source: OSU Press Release]

Harvard Mind Survey: Meet the Politicians!

You’ll remember that some time ago (ten, eleven minutes?) I reposted (from gregladen.com) an interesting story about a study of how the mind works. I did that because I knew that the researchers involved in this study have a new survey up on their web site, and that you might want to know about it. From Heather Gray, one of the researchers:

…we recently revised the mind survey, just in time for the presidential primaries. Now our respondents are asked to judge pairs of American politicians– for instance, is Barack Obama or Rudy Giuliani more capable of being honest, exerting self-control, or feeling pain? Aside from collecting some fascinating data about perceptions of the politicians, we’re attempting to replicate the original findings regarding dimensions of mind.

You may enjoy taking the survey. It is here.

The Multi-dimensioned Mind, The Inexperienced God

[Repost from gregladen.com]
New findings reported by Harvard researchers in the journal Science suggest that the mind is typically viewed as having multiple dimensions that relate to specific important characteristics of individuals. This study has implications for how individuals develop ethical or moral stands on topics such as abortion, and how individuals view god, life, and death. The study was based an online survey (n= 2,000+). The results suggest that we perceive the minds of others along two distinct dimensions: One is “agency,” or the individual’s ability for self-control, morality and planning. The other is experience, or the capacity to feel sensations such as hunger, fear and pain.

This is said to be different from the traditional concept that the mind is best conceived along a single continuum.

“Important societal beliefs, such as those about capital punishment, abortion, and the legitimacy of torture, rest on perceptions of these dimensions, as do beliefs about a number of philosophical questions,” says co-author Kurt Gray, a doctoral student in Harvard’s Department of Psychology. “Can robots ever have moral worth? What is it like to be God? Is the human experience unique?”

The research was also conducted by Heather Gray and Daniel Wegner.

Survey respondents were given 13 characters: 7 living human forms (7-week-old fetus, 5-month-old infant, 5-year-old girl, adult woman, adult man, man in a persistent vegetative state, and the respondent himself or herself), 3 non-human animals (frog, family dog, and wild chimpanzee), a dead woman, God, and a sociable robot.

Participants rated the characters on the extent to which each possessed a number of capacities, ranging from hunger, fear, embarrassment, and pleasure to self-control, morality, memory and thought. Their analyses yielded two distinct dimensions by which people perceive the minds of others, agency and experience. The researchers assert that these dimensions are independent: An entity can be viewed to have experience without having any agency, and vice versa. For instance, respondents viewed the infant as high in experience but low in agency — having feelings, but unaccountable for its actions — while God was viewed as having agency but not experience.

“Respondents, the majority of whom were at least moderately religious, viewed God as an agent capable of moral action, but without much capacity for experience,” Gray says. “We find it hard to envision God sharing any of our feelings or desires.”

Not surprisingly, respondents ranked themselves and other “normal” human adults as highest in both dimensions. Even less surprisingly, they attributed neither dimension to the dead person. Some characters, such as the fetus and the man in a persistent vegetative state had little agency, and ranked somewhere in the middle on experience, which suggests that people disagree on whether these entities are truly capable of experience.

“The perception of experience to these characters is important, because along with experience comes a suite of inalienable rights, the most important of which is the right to life,” Gray says. “If you see a man in a persistent vegetative state as having feelings, it feels wrong to pull the plug on him, whereas if he is just a lump of firing neurons, we have less compunction at freeing up his hospital bed.”

“When we perceive agency in another, we believe they have the capacity to recognize right from wrong and can punish them accordingly,” Gray says. “The legal system, with its insanity and reduced capacity defenses, reflects the fact that people naturally assess the agency of individuals following a moral misdeed.”

You can visit the mind survey site here.

[source: Press Release, Harvard FAS]

Scientists Discover How to Make Robots Bounce on Water

This makes a lot of sense to me. Since it is probably pretty easy to adapt any robot to live on water (a little duct tape, some rubber bands, and a bunch of plastic bags should do it), then we can let them live there … on the sea … where they will stop bothering us.

The way water striders walk on water was discovered years ago. The insect uses its long legs to help evenly distribute its tiny body weight. The weight is distributed over a large area so that the fragile skin formed by surface tension supports the bug on the water. However, the ability of water striders to jump onto water without sinking has baffled scientists, until now.A team of researchers at Seoul National University, led by Ho-Young Kim and Duck-Gyu Lee, has finally answered that question. By using a highly water-repellent sphere, which mimicked the actions of the water strider’s highly water-repellent legs, they were able to determine a small range of speeds at which the sphere or insect could hit the water and not sink.[Source]

Have you seen Yahoo answers?

The two most annoying kinds of “hits” from an internet search are:1) When you find a site with your question rephrased exactly as it should be, and the first few sentences of the answer you need, but to continue … to be able to read the answer … you must register, and possibly even pay; and 2)When all you can find is the answer on Yahoo Answers.

The blockbuster success of Yahoo! Answers is all the more surprising once you spend a few days using the site. While Answers is a valuable window into how people look for information online, it looks like a complete disaster as a traditional reference tool. It encourages bad research habits, rewards people who post things that aren’t true, and frequently labels factual errors as correct information. It’s every middle-school teacher’s worst nightmare about the Web.

Indeed. Not only are the answers often wrong, but it is generally not possible to tell if something is wrong by looking at it.Read this thoughtful critique of Yahoo Answers on Slate.com