Lots of stuff this month. Some bits are of more science value than others but all are worth including I believe.
- First off, I should help debunk the widely circulated announcement about a human head transplant. Pretty much all the respectable science sites have condemned it. Here’s one example. The procedure involved transplanting a head from one corpse to another which proves nothing. Most people in the field consider the surgeon in question Sergio Canavero to be a fraud as he prefers to make big announcements to the popular press instead of publishing papers in the usual scientific publications.
- An announcement that is just as exciting but is actually real is the discovery that bottom quarks can theoretically fuse together in a powerful flash. The explosive energy this releases has been calculated to be something on the order of eight times that of the usual nuclear fusion. This was so alarming to the researchers that they considered keeping the discovery a secret until they realized that there is no way to create a chain reaction of such bottom quarks and so there probably aren’t any military applications.
- The next article isn’t about a discovery but about the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope which when complete will be the world’s largest optical observatory. Lots of impressive details about how they manufacture the seven mirrors that are used in the design, each of which weighs 17 tons, and how they are machined and polished to an absurd degree of precision, removing all irregularities larger than 20 nanometers.
- Another bit of cool technology is how feeding spiders with graphene and carbon nanotubes resulting in them producing super strong spider silk. This was done by adding the materials to their drinking water and the resulting silk is five times stronger than normal. Of course, the silk went back to normal once they stopped adding the special ingredients to their water but they are now thinking of trying it with other animals to see if it strengthens skin, bones and exoskeletons.
- A cool paper I read recently is this one about Armillaria, a type of forest fungi. They are a parasite that preys on many types of plant hosts and incredibly individuals of the species can grow to encompass up to 965 hectares and weigh 600 tons. Apparently a whole network of rhizomorphs can be just one individual. Most of the paper is an analysis of its genome which is beyond my comprehension but simply learning about the existence of this species is fascinating.
- Finally a pleasant article is this one about how getting a dog seems to increase your lifespan, especially if you are single. The result isn’t terribly surprising and perhaps part of it is because owning a dog is correlated with a more physically active lifestyle which is good for general health anyway. But part of it appears to be another affirmation of the importance of having some companionship.
With the Nobel Prizes being awarded earlier this month, there seems to be a bit of a lull in other science-related news.
- The most fortuitously timed announcement, in light of the Nobel Prize for physics this year, is that for the first time a collision between two neutron stars has been observed through detection of both the gravitational waves and the electromagnetic radiation generated by the event. Not only did this demonstrate that light and gravitational waves travel at the same speed but it also provided astronomers with a treasure trove of information as the two sets of data can be used to compare against one another. An astonishingly large proportion of the astronomers and astrophysics in the world now seems to be involved one way or another in this endeavor.
- For a century, average human intelligence has been going up, a phenomenon that is now known as the Flynn effect. Now however scientists have noticed that this trend seems to be reversing. This was first noticed in 2004 but seems to have begun sometime in the mid-1970s. Since the decline in performance seems concentrated in deteriorating working memory the best guess so far is that it has something to do with the average age of the human population as a whole going up.
- Now that dating websites have been around for a while, scientists have enough data to examine how they have changed society. This study based on US data found that the rise of online dating has resulted in an increase in interracial marriages as well as more stable marriages. The first result isn’t surprising as it is a natural result of people dating outside of their usual social circles and it is a bit of surprise that married couples who know each other online appear to have lower breakup rates.
- Finally a bit of news that is closer to home. A Singaporean team has sequenced the genome of the durian and identified the genes that are responsible for its characteristic smell. They also announced that the genome of the specific variety they studied, the popular Musang King, consists of about 46,000 genes, nearly double the number in the human genome, and traced the fruit tree’s evolution back 65 million years. Apparently a distant relation of the durian tree is the cacao tree which produces chocolate.
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.