Every year I do a round-up for the Nobel Prizes in the sciences since they hardly register on the news and whatever attention the prizes get mostly go towards the winner of the Peace Prize. This year the winners seem all to be in areas of study that are readily understandable to most people and don’t really require much explanation.
The prize for physiology or medicine goes jointly to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbah and Michael W. Young for their work in uncovering how living thing maintain a sense of time using the circadian rhythm. Working with fruit flies, they discovered a gene that encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell at night and slowly degrades over the course of the day. The protein inhibits the activity of the gene so more is produced only when enough of it has been degraded. Another gene was found that produces another protein that when bound to the first one, allows them to enter the nucleus. Many other discoveries followed that explains the stability and regularity of this mechanism as well as means by which light can help synchronize this natural biological block.
The prize for physics is for the success of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment to observe gravitational waves for the first time. It goes to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne all of whom worked on the project. The existence of gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein but due to how weak the signals are, actually detecting them is extremely difficult. The LIGO experiment used a pair of gigantic laser interferometers to measure the gravitational waves generated by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. Going forward, this will likely be a key new means of obtaining information about the universe.
I’m sure the achievement that won the chemistry prize is important but it sure seems more boring to me. It goes to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for the development of cryo-electron microscopy. Electron microscopes have long been used to obtain images non-living molecules but could not be used for biomolecules because the electron beam destroys biological matter. The researchers, working separately, developed this new technique to freeze the sample into a suitable state that preserves the protein for study and used mathematical techniques to deduce the three-dimensional structures of the proteins from the two-dimensional images.
Finally the prize for economics goes to Richard Thaler for his contributions to what is now known as behavioral economics. Economic usually assume that human actors are rational and act in their self interest but Thaler showed that people are prone to irrational behavior and have odd psychological quirks. A famous example of this that people value something that they actually own more instead of valuing an object on the market the same whether or not they currently own it. He also showed the human lack of self control can lead them to inefficient, short-term decisions. These insights led him to advocate for nudging, formulating choices for people in such a way as to encourage them to make the most efficient decision.
A more normal month this time with some nice diversity of articles. If there’s one overarching theme for this entry however, it must be food.
- Since I’m a subscriber to The Economist, I link their articles quite often. Usually this is from their Science & Technology section but here’s one from their Business section. It’s about how an experiment was carried out in Togo to find out how useful different types of entrepreneurship education are. A control group of small businesses was offered no education at all, another group was offered conventional business training in subjects like accounting, finance, human resources etc., and the last one was given a course designed by psychologists to teach personal initiative. The results were that the last course made a tangible difference to the lives of the budding entrepreneurs over the course of the two and a half years they were monitored while the conventional business course seemed to make no difference at all. I’m especially stoked that the scientific method was used to study the effectiveness of different syllabuses though of course it has to be noted that this study can’t be double blind.
- Next we have a lengthy and complicated article in the world of mathematics. It’s too complex to really summarize here but it has to do with the fact that there are different types of infinities and one important recent result in the field is proving that two different orders of infinity that have long been thought to be different were found to be equal after all.
- Then we move on to the articles about food. First there’s this announcement about a new variant of chocolate, apparently the fourth one in total and the first new one since the 1930. The new flavor is called Ruby and is described to be light and fruity with a reddish-pink color.
- Next here’s one about a process that turns landfill gas into food. Bacteria are used in a fermentation process that turns methane into protein. The product is already being used for animal feed. It will be particularly useful for the production of fishmeal which is currently still mostly made from ground-up fish caught in the wild that are unsuitable for human consumption.
- Finally my favorite article of this batch is this one about a herb that was famous and commonly used in Roman times but now seems to be extinct. Known as silphium, we know that it existed from Roman recipes and it was also used as a medicine and an aphrodisiac. It also turned up in Roman poetry and literature. Unfortunately its high value and the fact that it could grow only within a small stretch of land meant that it disappeared during the Roman Empire. Scientists today are still studying why it seemed to be impossible to cultivate and there is still some hope that one day that it could yet be rediscovered.
It’s been a crazy month for cool science stuff and none of it is even about the eclipse. I found myself being inundated with articles this month. There are in fact so many that I will eschew any kind of logical ordering and write minimal commentary.
- The first one is about the discovery of a species of methane-eating bacteria underneath the West Antarctic ice sheet. If it bears out, it could be a significant reason why the methane thought to be stored under the permafrost hasn’t had as much of an effect on global warming as it could have.
- This next one is an announcement for a device that could have come right out of Star Trek, which makes me an instant skeptic. It’s a one-touch healing device that works by injecting genetic code directly onto wounded tissue, reprogramming them to grow the necessary cells needed for a quick repair job.
- Then there’s this over the top bit about how it’s possible to insert malware into DNA. It is basically a roundabout way to hack the devices used to sequence DNA by inserting malware into the genetic material that they analyze.
- I believe I’ve posted about similar research before about how faces actually do reveal a lot about a person. This study concluded that judgments of a person’s intelligence based on an image of his or her face is reasonably well correlated with measured IQ.
- Traditionally minded Chinese value highly children born during the year of the Dragon under the zodiac calendar, believing that they tend to be more successful and are destined for greatness. This study examines that belief, at least inasmuch as it applies to academic achievement and finds it to be true. However it argues that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Simply because they have higher expectations of Dragon children, families tend to invest greater resources in their education and upbringing.
- We’re getting used to hearing news about AIs beating humans in all kinds of endeavors. This article is about an AI developed an Elon Musk start-up beating one of the world’s best DOTA 2 players. As any gamer can tell you, this is a game with an incredibly complex ruleset.
- Finally here is a fascinating reminder of the realities of genetic engineering in humans. This is a survey of mothers asking what they would prefer to change in their children if they could do so. Most of them chose extraversion as their most desired trait followed by agreeableness. Less than 10% picked intelligence as most important.
A bit late this month but the delay was useful as I didn’t see many interesting stuff until the last several days. It’s a fairly mixed bag this time.
- I remember posting something similar a while back so consider this further confirmation. This article talks about parabiosis in which a younger animals shares its blood with an older specimen, providing health benefits to the latter. The research so far suggests that it does work but the precise mechanisms remain unknown and it certainly isn’t a treatment approved by the authorities. Naturally this hasn’t stopped some enterprising businesses from offering such treatments. We should expect better quality data on this as more people opt for these procedures despite the cost.
- Despite the clickbait headline, this looks like an article based on e legitimate study. It claims that statistical analysis of a survey of more than 500,000 Britons found that driving daily for more than two hours a day is associated with lower IQ. If you look closer however, it’s clear that this is similar to other forms of so-called sedentary behavior such as watching TV. Strangely the opposite is true for those who use computers as that was found to be an activity that stimulates the brain, leading to increased brain function instead.
- This next one also has a clickbait title and it’s best thought of as yet another milestone in our improving ability to directly read brain signals and interpret it into meaningful information. In this case, it’s a device called the encephalophone which can read electrical signals in the brain, convert the information into musical notes and play them on a synthesizer. Effectively this allows you to think about music and have the computer produce it for you though the range of possible sounds seems limited for now.
- The prevalence of fake news today makes this article especially relevant. It’s about the difficulty, or lack thereof, of generating artificial sound and video. As it notes, fake audio is now well within the realm of possibility and the technology now exists to feed samples of a particular person’s voice into an algorithm and then using it to generate what you want that person to say. Generated video is far from that point but there are certainly plenty of people working on it.
- The last article is the most speculative and may not be anything more than a rumor. It reports that a research group at Facebook has shut down an internal project when they discovered that the AIs had developed what amounts to a new language to communicate among themselves. The project apparently began as chatbots meant to explore negotiation strategies which communicate in English. As time passed however, the bots began using the English words in new ways that are unintelligible to humans but which are meaningful for other bots. They also note that similar bots developed at other labs also employed shorthand languages in a similar fashion that became more involved over time.
Once again, biology dominates and we have another article about CRISPR so let’s start with that.
- I can’t see how this can be much of a surprise, but as this article states, it has been found that usage of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique can cause hundreds of unintended mutations. This is based on an experiment in which the whole genome of mice that had undergone editing with the mice were sequenced to look for all mutations as opposed to looking merely at sites which the researchers were attempting to change. So far they haven’t noticed anything obviously wrong with the animals in question but it’s clear that scientists must be aware of unintentional side effects when they employ technique.
- Next up is a very impressive experiment in which scientists showed some monkeys photographs of human faces and then recreated those photographs from recordings to the monkeys’ brain ways. In effect, they were able to read the brains of the monkeys, or at least that specific part of their brains responsible for recognizing faces, the so-called face patch regions. Apparently sampling electrical readings of around 100 neurons from the face patch regions was sufficient to recreate images that are eerily close to the photographs of the faces that the monkeys saw.
- One of two articles this month from The Economist, the only publication I subscribe to, is about a potential new treatment for autism. It’s been tested on both mice and people and it’s a treatment, not a cure, as when its effects leave the body, previous behaviors return but the improvement seems astounding. Strangely enough the medicine was actually discovered in 1916 as a treatment for the sleeping sickness spread by tsetse flies.
- Usually when I link content from The Economist for this regular feature, it’s from their science and technology section but this one is from their weekly column on language. It talks about the common perception that women talk more than men and cites an experiment which monitored participants in their daily to record how many words they spoke. The results were that on average men and women spoke about the same number of words per day but that audiences tend to report that women speak more even when both are reading the exact same script.
- Finally, here’s a fascinating article about the domestication of cats. It claims that cats, unlike pretty much every other animal reared by humans, have never been properly domesticated. Based on analysis of cat mitochondrial DNA, humans began breeding cats only around the Middle Ages. This explains why cats don’t share the typical signs of animal domestication that we see in other species such as the infantilization of facial features. However it does note that we are currently in the initial stages of domesticating cats, suggesting that a few thousand years from now, cats may exhibit dog-like traits and behaviors.
All of the interesting stuff this month are in biology and medicine. This has been the trend for a few months now I guess.
- The first link goes to a series of photos that I won’t reproduce here so you’ll just have to click that. It’s about the discovery of a petrified dinosaur fossil of a type of ankylosaur. The reason this is so amazing is that instead of pieces of bones or teeth, this particular specimen includes a substantial portion of its armor so that for the first time scientists don’t have to infer what the exterior of the dinosaur looked like from its bone structure but can just see it for themselves. The photos are truly breathtaking.
- Next we have a discovery that has the potential to rewrite all the textbooks about the origin of humans but is probably misguided. For a long time now, the consensus that our species originated in Africa but a group of scientists now claim that the discovery of two fossils of an ape-like creature in Bulgaria and Greece is evidence that our ancestors appeared in Europe instead. They date the fossils as some 7.2 million years old, older than oldest evidence of African hominids. Still, others are skeptical as consensus is fairly solid and claim instead that these fossils are those of some other ape-species who are not the ancestors of humanity. You can read some of those arguments here.
- Then we have this article about how insect populations all over the world seem to be dropping propitiously. This is based on automatic sensors of various kinds at various sites. In Germany for example, one group reported that counts at insect trapping sites have fallen by 80% between 1989 and 2013. The reasons for the phenomenon are unknown and guesses include pesticides and changes in land use but these are huge changes that have important knock on effects throughout the entire food chain.
- AIDS patients have been able to get the disease under control for a while now but a permanent cure still seems impossible. This article however talks about effecting just such a cure by using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool to excise HIV DNA from infected issues. Intriguingly the team did so not only with mice infected with mouse equivalent of human HIV-1 but also with mice engrafted with human immune cells that have been infected with human HIV-1. I know that when I first posted about CRISPR/Cas9 I said it would be immensely useful but I’m still surprised by how quickly new uses for it are cropping up all over the place.
- I normally focus on basic research and ignore cool new devices but this bit about the Apple Watch caught my attention. I’m skeptical of claims about such devices for medical uses but this article claims that it does indeed work. This device comes with a heart rate sensor and a long study has now concluded that it is able to detect atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rate that can lead to stroke or heart disease, 97 percent of the time. This uses special software that isn’t yet available to ordinary users but it does prove that such devices have lots of real potential.
A whole bunch of stuff this month, most of it once again in biology.
- Let’s start with the many articles about animals this month. I’ve previously posted about how octopuses are highly unusual in that much of their nervous system is distributed along their tentacles, unlike other animals in which their neurons are mostly located in their brains. This article talks about how they are also highly weird in that they make extensive use of RNA editing. This seems to allow them to tailor make proteins for a variety of different situations but the researchers speculate that this comes at a cost of slower long-term evolution.
- Next up is a short article with a cool video that demonstrates how an African ant species that eats only termites has an unusual survival strategy: they are able to sense when their compatriots become injured and come to their aid by carrying them back to the nest to recuperate. Or as the article puts it, they employ combat medics. As far as I know, ants don’t have mechanisms to allow them to heal major injuries or regenerate lost limbs but the articles that they may in time learn to adapt to the loss.
- Having been laid low by the flu for much of this month, I was pleased to see this article. Viruses are of course unaffected by antibiotics which is why the usual medical advice for dealing with the flu is just to wait for your own immune system to develop antibodies to overwhelm it. This article talks about how a species of frogs in India oozes mucus that is able to latch onto flu virus particles and cause them to burst apart. Perhaps even more unusual is that it specifically targets only flu virus particles, in fact only the H1 subtype of flu viruses, and nothing else so it appears to be non-toxic.
- The last of the articles about animals is this one about the invention of an artificial womb. Hitherto all reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination or cloning still rely on a live mother to carry the fetus to term. This invention, called the Biobag, resembles a clear plastic bag that allows the fetus to develop inside it immersed in an electrolyte solution and equipped with pumps to circulate its blood. So far it has only been tested with baby sheep but if it works as promised, it will obviously be extended to all kinds of animals.
- Finally let’s end with a history article which proposes a different view of the practice of footbinding in China. The usual view is that it is imposed on women who are trophy wives as a visible symbol of their inability to work and therefore are dependent on servants for their wellbeing. This article argues that they do indeed valuable work with their hands, mainly weaving cloth, and that footbinding was a way to ensure that they stuck to it. They offer as proof the fact that the practice was common even among poor people and that its demise can be tracked by the arrival of machine-made cloth. I have no idea how true this alternative view is, but it certainly makes for fascinating reading.