Recent Interesting Science Articles (February 2021)

It’s a short month and slow in terms of interesting science news, so I don’t have much.

  • First we have a long feature about the earliest known domesticated dogs. Based on studies of both human and dog DNA as well as the observation that the genetic lines of dogs and humans tend to merge or spit together in the same places because humans bring their dogs along with them as they move, the current hypothesis is that dogs were first domesticated somewhere in northern Siberia roughly 23,000 years ago. Unfortunately just as more successful human settlers killed off natives as they invade, so do the dogs they bring displace the dog lineages of the natives, all of which can be noted in the mitochondrial DNA evidence.
  • Here is an amusing story about how pigs can seemingly be trained to play simple video games. They used a ruggedized version of a familiar joystick and had a dispenser for food rewards when the pigs won. Yet some of the pigs still played even after the dispenser mechanism broke down. This isn’t too surprising a result as we already know that pigs are quite intelligent and yes, I would agree that there is a moral imperative to move towards synthetic meat.
  • Finally this is potentially a huge thing once it can be proven to work on humans. Despite decades of effort, there is currently no contraceptive pill that can be taken by men. This paper talks about triptonide, a natural compound extracted and purified from a herb used in traditional Chinese medicine. Studies involving mice and monkeys show that it induces deformed sperm, greatly reducing its movement ability and hence causes infertility. Moreover it is fully reversible several weeks after cessation of the drug and seems to have no toxic side effects. Needless to say once it becomes available for humans, it will help shift the burden of preventing unwanted pregnancies from being borne entirely by women.

A Hidden Life (2019)

I still consider The Tree of Life to be one of my favorite ever films but I haven’t anything Terrence Malick has made since then due to how awful the reviews are. This most recent one has been better received but still isn’t considered as good as his earlier work. Its subject is surely a worthy one, being one that fits well with Malick’s personal spirituality and it shows flashes of brilliance. But it also goes on for too long and feels too repetitive and you get the feeling that the people around him are just too reluctant to call out the grandmaster of cinema for merely passable work.

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The Parallax View (1974)

This was directed by Alan J. Pakula and is considered part of his so-called Paranoia trilogy, the other two being Klute and All the President’s Men, both of which we have already watched. Actually the seriousness of those two films tricked me into thinking that this was a serious political thriller as well. While it does start off being very grounded in reality, it soon veers off into the fantastic and is basically an indulgence of all of the most pernicious conspiracy theories of the time.

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

This dates from several years ago and is a story that at the time made news headlines around the world about a man who managed to write a book while being paralyzed and able to communicate with the outside world only by blinking one eye. Though obviously romanticized to some extent, it is indeed an excellent film that shows how a person may still have a rich and active mind while the body is paralyzed and succeeds in being emotionally resonant while avoiding trite sentimentality.

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Star Trek: Lower Decks

This animated series would mark the first Star Trek television show that we’ve watched since Deep Space Nine as I have chosen to skip all of the intervening ones due to their reputation for not being very good. I probably will get around to watching Picard at some point however. I wanted to watch this as I liked the idea of a lighter-hearted Star Trek show and I loved its premise of featuring characters lower down the totem pole. In the event, it doesn’t exactly succeed at being a show about non-command officers as the stories have them taking on major roles anyway and it does get off to a rocky start, but it does find its footing towards the end.

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Shirley (2020)

Elizabeth Moss once again impresses in an independent film that even if it isn’t quite great, is at least highly interesting. Shirley Jackson is of course a real American novelist and while the characters and circumstances of this film are based on her life, I don’t believe that this is intended to be a biography and should be thought of as fictional. Instead this is as much about a young couple who have come with Shirley and her husband as Shirley herself and, in line with the other works that Moss has recently appeared in, is about the woman’s place in a man’s world.

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Ronin (1998)

This film probably popularized the use of the Japanese word it is named after back in the day but it draws only shallowly from this exotic cultural reference. Similarly it has zero real emotional depth and a weak overarching plot. Still it is considered one of the most notable action movies ever made, being particularly well known for its car chase scenes. I also love its beautiful on-location shots. It is so great when American directors realize that there is so much more to France than just Paris.

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The unexamined life is a life not worth living