Recent Interesting Science Articles (Feb’ 11)Wednesday, March 2, 2011 18:17
Four articles this month and only two of them are the human nature stuff that I usually like to link to. One is an invention that I’d honestly wondered myself if it would work. The last one is not really a scientific article. Instead, it’s one person’s attempt to create art using technology and to illustrate a fundamental biological process at the same time. We’ll go with the human nature stuff first.
The first one comes from PsyDir and covers a question that many people are no doubt curious about: is there any link between genetics and religious fundamentalism? The paper in question took data from a national survey in the US to look for data about variations in religiosity between identical twins and non-identical twins. The paper also tried to sort out influences caused by the family environment that would be shared by siblings and the environment outside of the family.
The general conclusion is that, not surprisingly, childhood religiosity is determined also completely by the family environment. Other behaviors such as attendance of religious services seems to be equally influenced all three factors of genetics, family influence and the external environment. The most dramatic finding however was that born-again religiosity, associated most commonly with evangelicals in the United States and may be crudely characterized by religious fundamentalism, is strongly associated with genetics only.
Similarly, behaviors such as the likelihood of experimenting with more than one religion and whether or not someone tends to take religious texts literally appear to more strongly influenced by genetics. As usual, these sorts of findings shouldn’t be taken without a grain of salt and I wouldn’t be comfortable with agreeing with these conclusions, but they at least point the way towards more conclusive research.
Next up is actually a link to the actual paper at ScienceDirect as I couldn’t find a good summary article on it. It’s by Niels van de Ven and Marcel Zeelenberg of Tilburg University, The Netherlands and covers what they scientifically call regret aversion. I’m sure that readers will sympathize and find it intuitive once they know what it means.
For their experiment, the researchers first gave the participants a lottery ticket, which could potentially win a lot of money if it turned out to be the winning one. Later, the scientists offered the participant a chance to exchange that ticket for another one in return for a small fee. Rationally, as the participants have no idea if either one of the two are winning tickets, both offer equal chances to win and therefore the participants should always accept the deal for the free bonus.
In practice, most participants chose not to take the deal because they anticipated the regret that they would feel if the first ticket had turned out to be the winner after all. It is telling that the researchers were able to get the participants to accept the deal by changing one part of the experiment: by making it impossible for the participants to know if the first ticket later turned out to be the winning one. I think I would find it nearly impossible to resist this even though I know it would be irrational. This is just one of the many recent demonstrations that humans have irrational biases and that policymakers must take this into account when designing legislation and institutions.
The next one is about an invention that someone supposedly thought of while he was in the shower. I’m sure that all guys have wondered at some point whether urinating on an exposed electric wire will send electricity up the stream. The correct answer is yes in theory but unlikely in practice because the urine droplets would tend to break up while falling through the air. After I learned that, I wondered if a moving stream of water can conduct electricity, could it be used for anything?
Well, Daniel Tam of the American navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command went one further and had the idea of using a spout of water as a communications antenna. This article from The Economist describes how he used some common parts of build a first prototype which could create a spout of water four meters tall and successfully send and receive radio signals using it. It was even called the “pee antenna” by his colleagues.
The ideal application for this would be modern warships which have serious bandwidth needs and need lots of antennas. At the same time however, metal antennas make them easier to detect and are easily damaged or destroyed in combat. This liquid antenna that is made out of seawater as and when required. Even better, the height of the spout can be continually adjusted to allow for different frequencies while its width can widened to increase bandwidth.
Finally the last article is from NPR and it concerns the artwork of James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau. They make modern art and their latest project is meat-eating furniture. At the moment, their creations seem like more concept than reality, but the idea is sound and novel enough: furniture that traps and slowly digests insects and small animals to extract their energy. One example is a digital wall clock that attracts and traps flies, digesting them to provide electricity for the clock.
Their creations aren’t efficient enough yet, so they can’t generate enough power on their own to run both the trapping and digesting mechanism in addition to the device itself, but one supposes that in art like this it’s the thought that counts. Another example is a lamp powered by flies. The last one is a bit of a stumper however. It’s a coffee table that traps and digests small mice, but doesn’t do anything with the energy. I think that one breaks the rules.