A fairly mixed bag of stuff to kick off the first month.
- First, here’s an article about how flying in airplanes exposes humans to more ionizing radiation than working in a nuclear reactor. This means that aircrews are at significant risk as their annual exposure is estimated at 3 millisieverts while nuclear industry bodies recommend that the general public should be exposed to less than 1 millisievert a year.
- Then there’s this very cool paper about how there could be more water on Mars than expected, trapped in the form of ice beneath the surface. Data from spacecraft were used to analyzed areas where erosion had occurred, finding eight locations where there is ice layer of more than 100 meters thick as shallow as only one or two meters beneath the surface.
- Also very cool is this article how research into how even plants are affected by anaesthetic drugs. They specifically targeted plants that are known for being capable of movement such as Venus flytraps and the creeping herb that folds inwards when touched. Using a variety of anaesthetics, applied either to the roots or added to the air as appropriate, they found that in all cases the plants temporarily became still and unresponsive just as animals would. The hope is that this will help scientists understand exactly how it is that this class of drugs causes unconsciousness, about which we still know surprisingly little. On a philosophical level, it also raises the question of just how conscious plants can be.
- A couple of articles from The Economist next. The first of these examines how humans usually have abstract descriptions for colors but not for odors. The research takes place in Malaysia where a local tribe known as the Jahai are the exception to the norm, having a vocabulary that is capable of describing odors in the abstract. The article also presents evidence that the inability of most humans to describe odors is not due to innate language ability or biology but due to lifestyle, with hunter gatherers having more need for a rich language to describe odors than farmers.
- The next is about economics. It’s about a massive accounting of the long term returns of many different classes of assets. They found, in line with man on the street expectations but contrary to conventional academic thinking, that the best long performing investment is still housing, beating equities which is also more volatile to boot. The finding further reinforces suspicions that capitalism inherently reinforces inequality as the average real rate of return on wealth appears to outstrip GDP growth.
- Finally here’s one that is just for fun. All of which will have heard of the mistaken missile alert in Hawaii. Of course this makes for a fantastic natural experiment when you think about how the announcement changes human behaviors. A large pornography website Pornhub released data showing that immediately following the sending of the message, traffic on their sites crashed massively by 77%. As residents were informed that it was a mistake however, traffic recovered, spiking to well above normal levels before returning to usual patterns. You can probably imagine for yourself the mindset of the average person when confronted with the news based on this data.
It’s time to do the last of these entries for the year.
- The first of these highlight how evolution can work faster than you might expect. This article talks about a couple of cases but I’ll only summarize one of them here. It talks about snail kites a bird living in Florida that eats snails. Since a new type of snail arrived from South America, the birds seem to be evolving larger beaks to make it easier for them to feed on these larger snails. The rate of change is astonishing given that the snails only appeared in 2004.
- The next article is a follow-up on an earlier announcement of how a team has created a bacterium using a six-letter genetic alphabet instead of the four usual bases. Now they’ve announced that the bacterium can make proteins containing amino acids that are not found in nature, which means that synthetic, tailor-made proteins will soon be available for use for a variety of purposes.
- Continuing on with my series of pro-dog propaganda, a recent paper claims that while dogs don’t have the largest brains, they have an unusually high number of cortical neurons. Cats seem to have only about half the neurons of dogs and while bears have large brains, they only have around the same number of neurons as cats. The researchers were further surprised to note that domesticated species don’t have fewer neurons than their wild cousins, which was the prevailing assumption before this.
- Next is a paper that attempts to quantify search costs by calculating how much shoppers lose out on if they accept the first price they see when buying common household goods instead of spending effort to shop around. The paper makes the rather surprising claim that the shopper who shops around gains a price advantage of only around 1% on average. This sounds too low to me but if it’s wrong I’m sure plenty of economists will want to challenge this paper.
- Finally a paper that seems deliberately timed for the holiday season talks about the size of wine glasses in England over time. Between 1700 to 2017, the average capacity of wine glasses increased seven-fold. Perhaps of greater concern is that the increase was gradual up to the 1990s and then shot up markedly.
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.