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.
This month’s issue of Popular Mechanics has an article on the latest advances in mind reading technology: using magnetic resonance imaging machines to determine without ambiguity what a subject is thinking about. As a practical matter, the main experiment cited in the article is actually not that impressive since there was a base success rate of 50 percent simply by guessing what the test subject was thinking about. As a foretaste of what is to come however, it is intriguing. As the imaging resolution goes up and the database from which the raw images are interpreted grows, the accuracy of such devices will only increase. It is well within the realm of the possible that eventually such devices may be available in a portable form.
Continue reading The Death of Free Will
Since a friend of mine, Tan Kien Boon, recently made a post on his blog about an emotionally trying experience that could be related to ghosts, I thought I might write about my closest encounter with the supernatural. This happened several years ago when I was working for a logging company in Gabon in west central Africa. I was sleeping, alone, face up, late in the afternoon, the kind of sleep where you’re not awake but not completely unconscious either.
Continue reading Seeing Ghosts