With crime in the spotlight in Malaysia (again), I thought I should highlight this article from The Economist. It’s about a series of experiments performed by Kees Keizer and his colleagues at the University of Groningen to determine the truth of an old idea: that physical disorder in the environment can lead people to commit crimes more readily. This is the same line of thinking that inspired New York’s efforts to fight more serious crimes by cracking down on minor offenses like graffiti, breaking windows and other forms of vandalism.
One such experiment took place in an alley in which people frequently parked their bicycles. To create a disorderly state, they covered the walls of the alley with graffiti while the walls were freshly painted in the orderly state. Under both conditions, a prominent “No Littering” sign was displayed in the alley. Once bicycles had been parked, the experimenters quickly moved in to put a fake advertisement flyer on the bike in such a way that it would have to be removed in order to ride the bike. When the owners came back, they had to choose either to remove the flyer and keep it on their person somehow, throw it onto the ground, or put it on another bike. The experimenters secretly observed and recorded these reactions and considered putting the flyer on another bike as an act of littering.
The final result was that when the walls were clean, only 33% of bicyclists littered, but if the walls were covered with graffiti, the figure increased to 69%. Other experiments in the same vein showed similar results. If the environment was clean and orderly, people were less likely to commit crimes or break the rules, but in a disorderly environment, people seemed to think that breaking the rules was no big deal.
I point this out because I think that it’s particularly relevant for Malaysia. This is after all the country where putting a prominent “Dilarang Buang Sampah” sign up anywhere guarantees that a pile of rubbish will show up at the spot. One of my pet peeves about Malaysians is that everyone thinks rules and laws are meant to be bent. Just look at the money-lender advertisements everywhere in places where they plainly don’t belong or traffic violations like double-parking. But as these experiments indicate, if you want to live in a safe and orderly environment, you need people to perceive the environment to be safe and orderly, and the only way to achieve that is by cracking down on all crimes, especially the small but highly visible ones, and enforcing the law to its strictest extent.
Three science articles for this month, one on an exciting new development in the ongoing quest for a real cure for AIDS, one on nuclear energy, and the last one on a theoretical attempt to create a scenario right out of Jurassic Park.
In the AIDS-related news, The Wall Street Journal reports the case of a doctor, Gero Hütter, who managed to functionally cure a patient of the disease at the Charité Medical University in Berlin, Germany despite not being an AIDS specialist. Instead, Dr. Hütter is a hematologist, a specialist in diseases of the blood and bone marrow, and his patient suffered from leukemia as well as AIDS.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (November ’08)
Wow, I haven’t done one of these in a while since my Economist subscription lapsed. I only renewed it fairly recently. Anyway, here are the three most interesting science related news items that I’ve seen in October, with one of them from The Economist. Let’s start with that one first.
The biological causes and effects of homosexuality is one of the perennial questions when you try to explain human nature in scientific terms. The most obvious of these questions is why homosexuality, since it can in large part be attributed to genetic causes, persists when common sense dictates that homosexuals shouldn’t be in a good position to pass along their genes to the next generation? A recent article highlights one possible answer: genes that make men more feminine and genes that make women more masculine confer a reproductive advantage to the person who possesses them, so long as they do not actually push them into homosexuality.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Oct ’08)
Four articles this month, though I have to admit that they’re more about technology than general science. The first and potentially most exciting of these is the news of Intel’s demonstration of technology to transmit power wirelessly. Personally I’ve always wondered when we would get around to accomplishing this. After all, in science-fiction shows like Star Trek, you never see long trails of wiring all over the place. Now that wireless transmission of data is easy, power cords are number one source of ugliness and mess with tech gadgets.
Anyone who’s watched Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige would also know that Nikola Tesla achieved this late in the 19th century. However, as the article explains, the trick isn’t in simply transmitting it, it’s in doing it safely and efficiently. The article talks about installing the system in airports and offices, but if it becomes cheap enough I can’t imagine why ordinary home users won’t want to be able to do away with pesky electrical wires as well. Still, our current troubles with neighbors stealing bandwidth from wireless networks are bad enough, just think about how troublesome it would be if your neighbors could steal your electricity supply as well!
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (August 2008)
I was amused to read Prince Charles’ rather hot-blooded diatribe against genetically modified crops earlier. Given how stupid his entire argument is, it isn’t very surprising how much criticism he has been getting over it. I don’t really feel like going into detail over it, so I’ll content myself with these two points:
- The entire history of agriculture consists of genetically modifying crops and even livestock so that they are more suited for human purposes. Wild plants needed to be domesticated so that they could become the familiar crops that we know of today. The gigantic aurochs had to be domesticated into the docile cows we now have. Farmers regularly performed cross breeding experiments in order to try to get more desirable crops. Without these developments, there would be no civilization as we know it. Of course, I realize that what Prince Charles really means is that by manipulating the genetic structures of organisms directly rather than through selective breeding and cross breeding, there may be additional, unforeseen dangers. Even so, the correct thing to do is to monitor and control for those dangers, because in principle there is no difference. Both methods end up altering the genome.
- As the article notes, this attack on GM crops comes during a global food crisis, when human populations all across the world need the higher and more reliable yields of the most advanced, genetically modified crops more than ever. Remember that the United States has been consuming these so-called GM crops for decades with no measurable ill effects, which helps to explain their lower food prices compared to Luddite Europe. So do you think poor Asians and Africans should follow the American or the European example?
Finally, I giggled at Prince Charles’ attack on intensive agriculture by large corporations. Maybe he thinks that everyone should grow their own food in their own backyard or something? It’s one thing for a rich royal to boast about his own organic farm, try selling that idea to densely populated and still relatively poor Asia.
I haven’t been as up to date as I should this month, but nonetheless I have three articles. The first and the most exciting one is the announcement by NASA confirming the presence of water on Mars. Now, we’ve had indirect evidence of water for a while now, but this is the first time that a robot, in this case the Phoenix, has actually tasted it by melting a piece of ice. The next step will be to bring it to even higher temperatures to try to find any traces of carbon-based compounds.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (July 2008)
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.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (June 2008)