Recent Interesting Science Articles (June 2008)Saturday, July 5, 2008 13:56
Wow, I haven’t done any updates for this in a while, so let’s make up for it by posting about four different articles, starting with the biggest science-related news this month. According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Center, the North Pole may be, for a brief period, completely free of ice this summer. This is as alarming a symptom of global warming as anyone can imagine. While the scientists assure us that the melting of the polar ice cap should have no immediate ill effects, jokes about Santa Claus losing his home aside, it’s hard to deny that this should be seen as an extremely loud wake up call.
I have to admit that I was once a global warming skeptic myself but the scientific consensus now is that global warming is a real and human-induced phenomenon. What we should do about it is a different and complex matter of course, and I still reserve the right to mock greens for their conflicting rhetoric over it.
Next, an article in The Economist draws attention to a study performed by scientists at the European University Institute in Florence concerning the innate differences between the brains of adult males and females. The old saw is, as the article states, that boys are good at the mathematics while girls are good at literature and arts. Indeed, I remember an episode of a fellow female student angrily denouncing this as sexism while studying in France and insisting that this is all down to how each culture chooses to educate girls and boys differently.
Anyway, Dr. Luigi Guiso and his colleagues in Florence decided to find out whether or not this is actually true. Analyzing data from the 2003 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment involving some 276,000 15-year-olds from 40 countries, they found that the maths scores of girls were indeed, on average, lower than those of boys. However, after controlling the data for the differences in sexual equality in each country, the gap in mathematical ability almost disappeared. The gap was widest in countries with the least equality between the sexes, such as Turkey, and non-existent in countries such as Norway and Sweden in which women have equal social status to men. The one field of mathematics that proved to be an exception was geometry, in which boys performed better than girls regardless of country.
Comparing reading scores however, the results were inversed. Girls performed better than boys on average, but when the researchers filtered the results by sexual equality, they found that girls performed even better as the social position of the sexes became more equal. So, teachers and parents around the world might want to think twice about traditional notions of what boys and girls are capable of.
Concerns about the safety of what has been called the world’s largest scientific experiment has been raised. The Large Hadron Collider is due to be switched on in August this year. It is basically a ring of supercooled magnets 17 miles in circumference buried 300 feet under the French and Swiss border that is designed to accelerate particles to huge speeds and smash them together under the scrutiny of powerful detectors. The largest of its kind, it cost US$5.8 billion to build and is expected to generate energies about 7 times that of the biggest collider currently in operation.
Critics worry that meddling with the fundamental forces of the universe at such high energy levels could unleash unforseen consequences that could put the entire Earth into danger. In particular, some physicists say that it might create micro black holes that might become trapped by the planet’s gravitational field and gradually eat the entire planet. Supporters of the LHC say that the collider is unlikely to produce micro black holes and even if it did, they would quickly dissipate according to the predictions of the British physicist Stephen Hawking.
Personally, I’m inclined to think that the scientists know what they’re doing and will be taking appropriate safety measures. However, I’d like to point that this very scenario was raised in a science-fiction short story by Larry Niven in 1974. Titled The Hole Man, it deals with an escaped micro black hole that eventually eats up Mars entirely.
Finally, an odd bit of news about some species of African frog that have defensive capabilities very much similar to the X-Men Marvel Comics character Wolverine. Biologists at Harvard University have discovered that some of these frogs, when threatened, are capable of puncturing their own skin with sharp bones in their toes and turning them into claws. This apparently causes quite a traumatic wound to the frog in question and so is unlikely to be used often but the claws are fearsome enough that local hunters avoid handling these live frogs and kill them with long spears or machetes. They are currently the only known example of claws being deployed through the skin of the organism itself since most other animals keep their claws retracted in a specialized structure in their feet and are able to extend them about causing an injury to itself. So, yes, as unlikely as it seems, these are real life Wolverine frogs.