Recent Interesting Science Articles (January 2018)

A fairly mixed bag of stuff to kick off the first month.

  • First, here’s an article about how flying in airplanes exposes humans to more ionizing radiation than working in a nuclear reactor. This means that aircrews are at significant risk as their annual exposure is estimated at 3 millisieverts while nuclear industry bodies recommend that the general public should be exposed to less than 1 millisievert a year.
  • Then there’s this very cool paper about how there could be more water on Mars than expected, trapped in the form of ice beneath the surface. Data from spacecraft were used to analyzed areas where erosion had occurred, finding eight locations where there is ice layer of more than 100 meters thick as shallow as only one or two meters beneath the surface.
  • Also very cool is this article how research into how even plants are affected by anaesthetic drugs. They specifically targeted plants that are known for being capable of movement such as Venus flytraps and the creeping herb that folds inwards when touched. Using a variety of anaesthetics, applied either to the roots or added to the air as appropriate, they found that in all cases the plants temporarily became still and unresponsive just as animals would. The hope is that this will help scientists understand exactly how it is that this class of drugs causes unconsciousness, about which we still know surprisingly little. On a philosophical level, it also raises the question of just how conscious plants can be.
  • A couple of articles from The Economist next. The first of these examines how humans usually have abstract descriptions for colors but not for odors. The research takes place in Malaysia where a local tribe known as the Jahai are the exception to the norm, having a vocabulary that is capable of describing odors in the abstract. The article also presents evidence that the inability of most humans to describe odors is not due to innate language ability or biology but due to lifestyle, with hunter gatherers having more need for a rich language to describe odors than farmers.
  • The next is about economics. It’s about a massive accounting of the long term returns of many different classes of assets. They found, in line with man on the street expectations but contrary to conventional academic thinking, that the best long performing investment is still housing, beating equities which is also more volatile to boot. The finding further reinforces suspicions that capitalism inherently reinforces inequality as the average real rate of return on wealth appears to outstrip GDP growth.
  • Finally here’s one that is just for fun. All of which will have heard of the mistaken missile alert in Hawaii. Of course this makes for a fantastic natural experiment when you think about how the announcement changes human behaviors. A large pornography website Pornhub released data showing that immediately following the sending of the message, traffic on their sites crashed massively by 77%. As residents were informed that it was a mistake however, traffic recovered, spiking to well above normal levels before returning to usual patterns. You can probably imagine for yourself the mindset of the average person when confronted with the news based on this data.

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