Four articles this month, one on how behavior in robots can “evolve”, one on a new way of using stem cells, one on a controversial device to disperse teenaged loiterers in the U.K. and a last one on the creation of a material blacker than any previously known.
In the first article, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have created learning robots outfitted with light sensors, light rings and a neural circuitry of 30 “genes” that together determine their behavior. These robots were then placed in a specially designed habitat with designated areas containing either “food” or “poison” that charged or drained their batteries respectively. The “genes” from the survivors of each round, together with some randomness to simulate mutation, were recombined to form a new generation of robots that were again set loose in the habitat. By the 50th generation, some of the robots had evolved the ability to communicate with each other, lighting up to alert other robots to the presence of food or poison and even learned to cheat by signaling food where there is really poison and quietly “eating” the food by itself.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Feb’08)
I’ve previously read that China intends to make sure that nothing, not even rain, will get in the way of its coming out party that is the 2008 Olympics at Beijing, but even I’m surprised to learn to learn of the colossal scale of their plans. The purpose built stadium for the Olympics, the Beijing National Stadium, is open to the elements, so the Chinese government has decided to implement weather modification technology that reduces the size of the raindrops over the stadium so they won’t condense and fall to the earth until after the clouds carrying them have passed by the stadium. In order to accomplish this, China is marshaling the full resources of its 37,000 strong bureau of weather modification together with 30 aircraft, 4,000 rocket launchers and 7,000 antiaircraft guns to get the necessary chemicals into the air around the stadium.
The science geek in me is amazed by the audacity of the Chinese government to impose their own weather according to their will but I’m also concerned about the possible environmental consequences of such drastic actions. Needless to say, this sort of thing will never be possible in Western countries for it’ll quickly whip up a firestorm of environmental protests and liability lawsuits over even imagined ailments from the fallout.
Three articles all on the subject of biology for this month. Science news website LiveScience had an article this month with a controversial angle: it cites a new study published in Psychopharmacology which found that male mice liked to fight for no reason other than to fight. The experiment involved first placing a male and a female pair of mice in a cage, then removing the female one and introducing another male “intruder” mouse. After the initial fight, the scientists arranged for the cage to be rigged such that when the mouse nose-poked a specific trigger, the intruder mouse would be able to return to the cage. They found that the resident mouse would actually do this often, suggesting that it regarded fighting as a sort of reward. The scientists then treated the mice with a drug known to block the effects of dopamine in parts of brain involved in rewards and found that this had the effect of reducing the mice’s tendency to nose-poke the trigger.
The controversy in this case comes from the researchers’ argument that the results would be equally applicable to humans as the reward pathway in humans and mice are similar and that aggression is highly conserved in vertebrates in general and mammals in particular. I believe that this remains to be proven but would not find it surprising if true. In any case, if indeed this were proven true, it would reinforce the usefulness of activities like sports and games to vent the natural aggression of human males.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Jan’08)
The biggest death is the news today might be that of Heath Ledger, whose performance I must say that I enjoyed in Brokeback Mountain, but the most intriguing ones for me are in this new article in Wired magazine that goes into the details behind the suicides of two pioneers in the field of Artificial Intelligence within a month of each other in 2006. Both persons, Chris McKinstry and Push Singh, were each brilliant in their own way and incredibly obsessed with AI. McKinstry clearly had suicidal tendencies all along but Singh had seemed to have a stable disposition. It’s sad to think that Singh might have been influenced by McKinstry.
I also found the fact that MIT has a reputation for high suicide rates among its students interesting. In a way, I guess that this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Driven, intelligent people can be prone to sudden mood swings, add a highly competitive and demanding environment into the mix, and suicide can seem like an easy way out for stressed individuals. Given that Ledger’s death today will probably turn out to be a suicide as well, we should all take this as a lesson to take a little time out once in a while. Life is short enough as it is, and we should all enjoy it while we can.
Probably the most talked about scientific issue that’s been making the rounds recently is the news is that not only has human evolution not stopped since the advent of modern technology, a previously popular view, but has in fact actually accelerated. As this article in ABC News notes, in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, researchers discovered that by comparing the DNA of humans and chimpanzees since the two species diverged six million years ago there were not enough differences between the two sets of DNA to account for the currently observed rate of change. Therefore, they take this to mean that human evolution has substantially accelerated since the appearance of modern humans 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.
Moreover, they find that different populations of humans have been evolving in different ways. The lighter skin colour of Asians and Europeans compared to Africans is one example, as an adaptation to allow more absorption of vitamin D in areas with less sun. Another example is the disappearance of the lactase enzyme that allows digestion of fresh milk in China and most of Africa where dairy farming is less common than in Europe.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Dec’07)
From time to time, I’d like to highlight some of the most thought provoking articles on science that I’ve read recently. To me the most interesting ones tend to be ones that have some sort of philosophical implication, either on human nature or the nature of the universe in general. In this entry, I cover two recent articles on human nature, one on the latest attempt at a comprehensive theory of everything and finally one on an extremely speculative theory of what happens to the universe when humans simply observe it.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Oct – Nov ’07)
John Scalzi recently posted a highly entertaining account on his visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky in the US, complete with 100 photos of the whole thing. Among some of the most ridiculous claims the museum makes is that dinosaurs lived contemporaneously with humans until as late as the Fifth Dynasty of ancient kingdom of Egypt. Even more amusingly, they claim that before Adam committed the original sin of eating the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden, all animals were herbivores, even some fearsome dinosaurs as the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex. They suggest that before Adam ate the apple, the T. Rexes used their gigantic fangs and claws to eat coconuts.
Personally, I recall going to Sunday school once at an early age and hearing the story of the Garden of Eden. Even then, my bullshit detectors went off because, well, having read stuff like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, I wondered where were the dinosaurs in the story? As Scalzi writes, you really have to admire the chutzpah of creationists who can insert dinosaurs into Paradise and still claim with a straight face that all the facts fit together just fine.
As ridiculous as this sounds, this is a pretty big deal in the United States. The Creation Museum cost US$27 million and is reportedly attracting crowds of a decent size, while approximately two thirds of Americans believe that creation science should be taught alongside evolution in schools. More worrying still, as The Economist noted earlier this year, the movement is becoming global, with Turkey in particular being a centre for Muslim creationism.
I’m particularly curious about attitudes in Malaysia. From anecdotal evidence, I believe that most Malaysians still harbour significant doubts about human evolution without actually committing themselves to so ludicrous a belief as the 6 day Young Earth Creationism taught by the museum. This is still a shame though because the consensus among scientists is that evolution is probably the most well established and well documented theory in all of science and answers to the most common questions are easily found on websites like the TalkOrigins Archive.