Recent Interesting Science Articles (Sep ’11)

Only three articles this month as I’ve had very little to browse. Note to friends: I’ve since resigned from my job in Seremban as it was a little too busy for my schedule and wasn’t really what I wanted anyway. This means that Ill probably have a bit more time for my blog from now on.

  • The biggest science news in September is of course the announcement that scientists at CERN seem to have observed neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light. The particle accelerator in Switzerland sent a stream of neutrinos that traveled through to planet to the San Grasso facility in central Italy. However, the neutrinos arrived some 60 nanoseconds earlier than it would take light to travel the same distance, prompting a lot of excitement among the scientific community. If it is validated, this finding would overthrow Einstein’s theory of special relativity and the entire foundation of theoretical physics. The best working theory at the moment is that some variant of superstring theory is true and the neutrinos are taking a shortcut through one of the extra curled-up dimensions postulated in the theory. Most scientists are still wary as the discrepancy might more plausibly be explained as a measurement error but it is telling that a less publicized experiment known as MINOS in the US noticed unusually fast neutrinos back in 2007.
  • Science-fiction writers have long played with the idea of inorganic life but Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow is making actual cell-like structures made of metallic molecules. Rather than using carbon-based building blocks, his team uses “polyoxometalates” made of metal atoms such as tungsten. They are able to get their molecules to self-assemble into cell-like spheres in a solution and get their surfaces to behave like cell membranes. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t have an analogue of DNA yet, which is arguably the true key to a life form that is able to self-replicate, but this is a decent theoretical framework to start imagining how inorganic life might evolve in a vastly different environment from ours.
  • The Economist has an article on moral philosophy, in particular on research on the psychology of the kind of people who would actually adhere to a fully utilitarian set of values. A famous utilitarian thought experiment is the runaway train which if it continues on its present course will kill several people. However, if someone were to divert the train to a side track these people would be saved but one person would die. If you were the person who had the switch in your hand, would you pull it and sacrifice one person to save many? It turns out most people, ninety percent of them in fact, would choose not to intervene at all and allow fate to take its course but this is not the utilitarian response. So two researchers had the idea of taking a bunch of undergraduates and quizzing them about a variety of situations to find those who would choose the utilitarian response. Then they correlated this with a standard personality test. It turns out that the people who leaned towards utilitarianism tended to have psychopathic tendencies, which when you think about it makes perfect sense.

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