Here’s my annual round-up of the Nobel Prizes awarded for the sciences just because I feel that there isn’t enough coverage of them.
Let’s start with what is probably the coolest of technologies being acknowledged. Nanotechnology is one of those fields that is always talked about but no one can quite point to an actual existing nano-machine. Every application of it so far are merely nano-scale structures which have interesting properties but aren’t machines. This year’s prize in Chemistry goes to the researchers who are starting to make this possible. Jean-Pierre Sauvage created the first simple basis for a nano-structure made up of multiple molecules by realizing that a copper ion could be used to weld molecules together. Fraser Stoddard went one step further and made molecules that could move along an axle and control that movement. Finally Ben Feringa found a way to have the molecules rotate around the axle in a chosen direction, thus creating the first simple molecular motor. No actual nano-robots have yet been made but these three scientists have effectively created the tools and parts that should one day make them possible.
Next, the prize for medicine goes to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work on understanding the mechanism of autophagy. This is the process whereby parts of a cell is sequestered and digested by the cell itself, allowing for non-essential or damaged parts of a cell to be recycled. Beginning with yeast culture, he narrowed down the genes responsible for the mechanism and moved on to mammalian analogues of those genes. It turns out that the mechanism is far more important than previously thought and sheds light into all manner of diseases and possible avenues to treat them.
As usual the physics prize, awarded to David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz, is the most esoteric and difficult to explain of them all. All three scientists did work on the exotic phase transitions of matter. We’re familiar with phases like solids, liquids and gases but under extreme conditions, more exotic phases can exist. Thouless and Kosterlitz studied such transitions on flat topologies while Haldane studied them on topologies so thin and narrow that they are essentially one-dimensional strings. They showed that matter under such conditions possess unusual properties, such as the quantum Hall effect. The hope is that such research will eventually lead to new types of electronics and superconductors.
Finally the economics prize goes to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström for their work in contract theory. This is a broad field as it can be applied to many types of agreements between parties the most obvious being how to properly design an employment contract that provides the proper incentives to workers. Other types of contracts include insurance policies, incomplete contracts in which not all of the terms can be completely specified in advance, and financial contracts between a manager and investors.
Another good mix of articles for this month, and for the first time, one is a video instead of an article.
- Two of these articles about antibiotics and one of them is from a home-grown source. This article discusses how a Malaysian PhD student in Australia is a key contributor to the development of a nano-engineered protein molecule that is meant to rip apart bacteria. The molecule is made of peptide polymers is supposed to be able to destroy the cell walls of bacteria without harming healthy tissue, which would make it a valuable tool against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
- This video from Harvard Medical School nicely lets you visualize exactly how quickly bacteria can evolve resistance to antibiotics. Even after they up the dosage of the antibiotics to insane levels, the bacteria still manages to find a way to thrive.
- Next up is a study that tries to estimate the health effects of the annual haze in Southeast Asia caused by fires in Indonesia. The study covers only the health effects on adults and limits itself to damage caused fine particulate matter, widely known as PM2.5. Even so its averaged result is there will be approximately a hundred thousand premature deaths due to these fires, of which around ninety percent will be in Indonesia itself. Studies like this are based on statistical analysis of models so they’re always dicey. But they’re still useful as a starting point to quantify the effects and therefore the economic damage caused by the fires, giving governments better ammunition to counter the positive economic effects of allowing these land clearing fires in the first place.
- Finally, because I can never get enough of cool findings about dog cognition, here is an article that talks about how dogs can capable of understanding both vocabulary and intonation in human speech. The researchers used an fMRI to observe the brains of dogs as they listened to human speech and they found that similar areas of their brains light up as in humans, showing that they are capable of recognizing individual words. They are also similar to humans that a separate part of their brains process the intonation of the speech, allowing them to gain an understanding that encompasses both the meaning of the spoken words and the intonation with which they were spoken.
A good variety of stuff for this month:
- I would be remiss if I didn’t include the biggest scientific news of the month but honestly, there’s so little information here that it’s barely worth getting excited about. This refers to the announcement that astronomers have found a planet within the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, which being 4.2 light years away, is the closest star to our own system. Here’s a decent article about it. The most important thing to remember is that the planet being in the habitable zone doesn’t actually mean that it’s habitable. It just means that it’s right distance away from its star such that water can exist there in its liquid state. In particular, because Proxima Centauri is such a cool star, the newly discovered star orbits really close to it, which means that it must be bathing in radiation and any potential life on the planet must be subject to a host of other similarly hostile conditions.
- This CBC article talks about how the common wisdom that turtles are the longest lived animals may be wrong. A recent study found that the Greenland shark may have a lifespan of 400 years. This determination was difficult to make as obviously this far exceeds the duration of any scientific study and the scientists must use estimates based on dating how old the animals are. In this case, they used radiocarbon dating techniques on the lenses of the sharks’ eyes and found that their average ages are well over 200 years. It is also thought that they only reach sexual maturity between the ages of 130 and 170.
- Next, there’s this report about Japan about how a woman was successfully diagnosed that she is suffering from a rare form of leukemia using IBM’s famous Watson system. The patient was initially diagnosed by doctors of having a different form of the disease but the doctors were stumped when she failed to respond as expected to the treatment. The AI however was able to sift through much more data than human doctors can handle to point the doctors in the correct direction. This comes on the heels of many other recent announcements of AI being used in unconventional ways, including recommending sentences for criminal uses to judges and helping teachers to create customized learning plans for individual students.
- Finally The Economist covers an intriguing discovery that men may be better than women at making up after a conflict. The study focuses on athletes. Competitors in many sports are expected to make peaceful physical contact after an event, shaking hands for example or embracing. The scientists found that such making up activities seemed more genuine in men than in women. The men would grasp hands for longer, even pat shoulders or touch arms after the initial contact. Women on the other hand seemed to do the minimum that was required by convention and no more. The speculation is that men may be better conditioned than women to regard conflicts as being nothing personal and not to hold grudges after a winner has been determined.
Not many articles this month and most of them are about medicine. I didn’t realize that until I sat down to write this post.
- Starting with the non-medical science article first, this is piece about how each distinct community of sperm whales may have their own unique culture. The researchers studied groups of the whales in the Carribean, using microphones to record the sounds they make and track their interactions. They found that each clan has their own dialect that family members explicitly teach to new calves but there are also codas, or words, that they share in common with sperm whales of other clans.
- This next article talks about the medical mystery of how incidences of major diseases in many wealthy countries seem to be dramatically dropping for no discernible reason. These include colon cancer, heart disease, dementia, hip fractures and so forth, each seemingly unconnected with another. One obvious cause is that better technology and practices should result in better diagnosis and treatment but the researchers found that the rates are still down after controlling for these factors. No one knows what other explanation there could be but I guess people are just in general living more healthily now in rich countries, contrary to the popular impression that humans are becoming ever more unhealthy.
- Readers of this blog should probably already know that mitochondrial DNA, which comes only from the mother, is different from nuclear DNA, which comes from both parents. Nevertheless it is thought that they have co-evolved together through generations and therefore DNA from the same lineage should work better together. Current cloning technology however mixes mitochondrial DNA with nuclear DNA of two different and presumably distantly related donors. The surprise is, as this article explains, that the resulting organisms seem to live longer rather than shorter as you might expect. The current guess is that some small amount of adversity, in this case caused by the two types of DNA being not completely compatible, is sometimes beneficial to the organism, and how true this is remains yet unknown.
- Usually when we see advertisements or click-bait headlines like oil companies don’t want you to know this energy-saving secret it’s either a scam or crazy conspiracy bullshit. So this bit of news about how mainstream dentists are hindering the widespread adoption of a treatment for cavities that doesn’t require any drilling looks suspect. Except that this comes from a reputable source and the treatment, an antimicrobial fluid called silver diamine fluoride, has already been cleared as being safe by the FDA in the US and has been used for decades in Japan. The fluid can’t save teeth that has already been too damaged but it can prevent cavities from becoming worse and prevent new ones from occurring. The only downside is that it may blacken portions of teeth that have already been damaged by cavities. The upside however is that its cheap, quick to apply and requires no surgery.
A solid mix of lighter articles for this month with an emphasis on history:
- The news of the discovery of the remains of a Hobbit-like hominid species on the island of Flores made waves around the world some years back. Newer discoveries not only confirm this but even reveal that the species may go back much further than previously suspected. It is now thought that they must have arrived on the island more than a million years ago, enough time for them to have evolved along a separate branch and to have shrunk down in size from the prevalent Homo erectus. This also ties in to recent research which suggests that all animals tend to develop dwarfism if they are forced to live on an island with limited space.
- Next is this announcement that rice farming goes back much further than previously known. This article talks about how the discovery of rice plant material that have been domesticated dating from over 9,000 years ago have been found in the Lower Yangtze Valley in China.
- Then there’s this article about new excavations at the port of Piraeus in Greece. It provides fresh information about the size of the Athenian navy some 2,500 years ago which seems to be larger than previously thought. Apparently the sheds housing the fleets have an area of more than 110,000 square meters.
- Moving on from ancient Greece to ancient Egypt, this article describes the application of modern metallurgical analysis techniques to the iron dagger found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. They confirm earlier suspicions that the dagger is made of iron of meteoritic origin and that the ancient Egyptians placed great value on iron recovered from fallen meteors.
- Finally here’s an article that explains the concept of the gene drive. It’s a new genetic editing tool that all but ensures that the changes that are made to an organism will be passed on to all subsequent offspring. This effectively ensures that virtually all members of the altered species will eventually have the edited genes. This is understandably very powerful and one use that has been mooted is to use to eradicate all mosquitoes.
Another month, another one of these entries. They’re pretty good ones too, though almost all are about human psychology.
- Let’s start with the bit of news that isn’t about people. This article covers a research team who wants to establish that trees definitively do sleep at night. They did this by using laser scanning techniques to track the movement of the trees and noted that the trees slowly drooped their branches after sunset and returned to their original position a few hours after sunrise. I’m not sure how useful this study is since they don’t offer a mechanism beyond stating that all tree movement is connected with the water balance in the trees but I guess for one definition of the word sleep, it does prove that trees sleep after all.
- Next we have an interesting finding that humans tend to be pretty bad at knowing who our friends are. The study works very simply: gather up a group of test subjects and ask them who their friends are. Then ask the ones they name if they also consider the first group to be their friends. It turned out that only about 50 percent of the friendships were bidirectional. They went on to build an algorithm that would collect data on the relationship, number of friends in common and total number of friends for example, that predicts whether or not a friendship is bidirectional and if not the uni-direction of the friendship.
- This next one is fairly predictable but it’s good to establish it for sure nonetheless. It’s a series of studies, involving a total of over 2,000 participants, that found that people have unethical amnesia. That is people tend to remember the times that they have acted ethically but forget the times that they acted unethically. Note that this isn’t about lying or something like that. People really do just forget the occasions that they acted in a dishonorable manner, perhaps as a defensive measure.
- We already know that physically beautiful people have it better in life in all sorts of ways, perhaps the most easily measurable metric being that they earn more money. This is generally identical for both men and women, that is both men and women earn more in a similar manner according to how attractive they are. This study however adds a measure of how much time and effort people put into grooming themselves into the mix and tried to work out how this changes the dynamics. Surprisingly, they found that grooming explained almost all of the attractiveness gradient in women, that is the link between physical attractiveness and earning power, but only half of it in men.
- Finally, I’m not sure how serious this study is, but it’s perfect for the silly season that is the American presidential elections. The researchers created something they call the Bullshit Receptivity Scale, a measure of how people perceive bullshit statements are being profound. They tend searched for correlations between this BRS and favorability ratings for U.S. presidential candidates. Positive correlations were found for all three Republican candidates (Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz) though surprisingly the correlation with Trump was the weakest of the three. Positive correlations were also found for the two Democratic candidates (Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton) but they were deemed to be too low to be statistically significant.
It’s been a pretty slow news for science so there are a couple of articles that might not have made the cut in a more fruitful month show up here:
- This morbid but fascinating article from the Smithsonian Magazine talks about a rather obvious conclusion, that human sacrificial rituals in many cultures, far from being motivated by religious belief, was a tool to terrorize the masses and ensure continued stratification between the different social classes that comprise their societies. The claim is that statistical methods is used to find out the patterns, a technique that I’m always dubious about, but the effects seem reasonable enough: societies which practice human sacrifice are unlikely to progress to a stage in which everyone was socially equal.
- The next one is the link to the Harvard paper itself rather than any article covering it. It has been fashionable in recent years to blame the upsurge in crime in the 1980s to exposure of children to lead. This paper takes this further and examines the relationship between homicide rates in American cities between 1921 and 1936 and the construction of water systems using lead pipes. This paper confirms that finding, concluding that cities that had used lead in their pipes had homicide rates that were 24 percent higher than those cities that did not.
- Then we have an economics paper about how publicly-traded companies have indeed been in decline in the US. Even more worryingly, it found that the decline of publicly-traded companies was not matched by an increase in private firms, suggesting that companies are being successful in stiffing competition and that they are enjoying correspondingly higher profit margins as a result.
- Finally the most incredibly science news all month is how a homeowner in England accidentally uncovered an elaborate Roman villa in his backyard. Experts examining the find have concluded that it was built between 175 and 220 AD and has not been touched since it collapsed 1,400 years ago. Its excellent state, large size and the high quality of the artifacts found in the villa, makes it probably the most important archaeological discovery of the year.