Friday, February 20, 2009

hamster generators and more

From New Scientist: Innovation: Technology to harness your power moves

More sweet ideas that use energy from the normal activities of both humans and hamsters.

fuelulose? or cellufuel?

From ScienceDaily: Two-step Chemical Process Turns Raw Biomass Into Biofuel

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a way to convert "raw" biomass, that is, cellulose, into usable biofuel. Cellulose is the most common organic compound on Earth, and through this, we could make biofuel without using the food parts of plants.

The punny portmanteau brand names will be endless.

about eliminiating AIDS

From New Scientist: Are we about to eliminate AIDS?

This article discusses steps that could be taken to eliminate AIDS. Even though there is no cure or vaccine, the antiretroviral course available allows HIV+ people to "live a long life and almost never pass on the virus, even through unprotected sex." Through worldwide, regular, mandatory testing and free distribution of those drugs, it's theorized that AIDS could be eliminated. The author hits on the privacy concerns that could come up a massive health initiative like this. Good read, and very hopeful.

42 unknown

From Scientific American: Within Any Possible Universe, No Intellect Can Ever Know It All

David Wolpert, a computer scientist at NASA, proves that as part of the universe, we can never understand and learn every single thing about it.

helping out at the zoo

From Scientific American: Crowdsourcing the cosmos: Amateurs sift through astronomical data

This is pretty cool. The Galaxy Zoo 2 is a project where amateur astronomers can help classify data. Looks fun.

old gas learning new tricks

From New Scientist: 'Primordial' gas ring gives birth to baby galaxies

The Leo ring is "a giant stream of hydrogen and helium gas" around two "older" galaxies about 35 million light years away. Discovered in the early '80s, the ring is thought to have formed early in the history of the universe. Recently, though, clumps of young stars have been found in the ring. These "infant dwarf galaxies" are considered very unique because they formed without the assistance of dark matter, which is strange because it's theorized that dark matter is the seed of galaxies, pulling regular matter in, and also because other dwarf galaxies have been observed to contain up to 10,000 times as much dark matter as regular matter. Scientists are planning to measure the metallicity of the cloud to see if it really is as old as they think it is.

the barns of the earth

From New Scientist: Do gravity holes harbour planetary assassins?

Ignore the title of this article; it relates to a silly extra article. The bulk of this is about Lagrangian points, which are places in space where the gravitational field of the Earth (or any planet) cancels out the gravity of the Sun. These areas actually have zero gravity, as opposed to the microgravity we usually see. A pair of probes called STEREO that launched in 2006 to observe the sun will also be used to observe L4 and L5, the two most stable of Earth's Lagrangian points.

The author also discusses Lagrangian point in regards to the most popular theory of the Moon's origin. If a Mar-sized object collided with the Earth in the distant past to form the Moon, where did that object come from? Perhaps L4 or L5, where the object would have been able to grow to that size and then be nudged out of orbit by the gravity of another body in the solar system, like Venus.

tell me a story about quantum theory

From Scientific American: Was Einstein Wrong?: A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity

I've heard how there is something about quantum theory that violates Einstein's theory of relativity, but I didn't know that at least part of that is non-locality. I should have, considering my fascination with quantum entanglement. Anyway, this article details the history of the contradictions between these two theories. Being very lay-person and also very ill, it took me a long time to read it, but it's definitely very interesting.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

homi vs. homi

From ScienceDaily: Humans And Chimpanzees Genetically More Similar Than One Yeast Variety Is To Another

Scientists at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden say that humans and chimps are more similar on that level than two yeast species in the same genus. (FYI, we're in the same family as chimps, Hominidae or the great apes.)

I do think it's pretty cool... I like chimps, at least theoretically, as I don't know if I've ever met them. But they're cute, and they seem smart and feisty, and except for the whole endangered-species thing, I sometimes think I'd rather be an ape than a human.

I think this is a crappy comparison, though. This article says that there is a 4% difference in genes between the two yeast species, Saccharomyces cerevisiae and S. paradoxus, and a 1% difference between chimps and humans.

So, S. cerevisiae has 12,156,677 base pairs. I couldn't find a figure for the other. But say it's the same amount. With a 4% difference, that means around 486,267 base pairs are out of order or replaced in some way.

Not such an exact number for humans; everything says "approximately 3 billion." We can go with that, though. No numbers for the chimps, either, but you should look at the wiki article because they are adorable. Anyway. A 1% difference in 3 billion genes is... 3 million.

I just think there is a slight difference between almost 500,000 and 3 million, no matter the percentages.

Ah, well, I'm not a geneticist or anything. Maybe it is deep and meaningful. It is pretty cool to read about the Chimpanzee genome project and look at the only really obvious difference: at some point, for us, the 2nd and 3rd chromosomes that the chimp and human lines shared fused into one larger chromosome, with the addition about 150,000 or so base pairs. And since according to that article I posted this morning, the human and chimp line underwent the burst of genetic duplication that is thought to be the basis of our "human-ness," chimps are like our extended family, and I'm not trying to make a taxonomy pun here. They're like our cousin. Maybe second cousin, once removed. Hey, I don't mind grooming, but I won't eat mites.

now you see the true advantage of being third!

From ScienceDaily: Survival Of The Weakest? Cyclical Competition Of 3 Species Favors Weakest As Victor

An curious study from a German university about evolution, the idea of the survival of the fittest, and game theory. As we know, "these processes increase the 'fitness' of the species overall, since, of two competing species, only the fittest would survive." In simulations, researchers pitted three cyclically competitive species against one another, so that one species is weaker than the second, but stronger than the third. Sort of like rock-paper-scissors, only scissors can't be beaten by rock; rock's a weakling. Strangely, interestingly enough, the two strongest species kill each other off, and the third weaker species survives. Rock isn't weak; he's the Heir of Slytherin. Whether the differences in strength are large or small, the third species is the winner "with very high probability."

"The Survival of the fittest" as a metaphor for natural selection has allowed for a lot of interpretation, namely as the continuing triumph of the strong over the weak. A study like shows natural selection is not that pat. "Fittest" doesn't always mean strongest/smartest/fastest/sharpest. Leading the study was Prof. Erwin Frey, who says that this study "shows once more that chance plays a big part in the dynamics of an ecosystem."

Don't discount this just because it's a simulation, because Prof. Frey recalls, "Incidentally, in experiments that were conducted a couple of years ago on bacterial colonies, in order to study cyclical competition, there was one clear result: The weakest of the three species emerged victorious from the competition."

sweet personal dynamo, and, ahem, a rant

From New Scientist: Innovation: Personal dynamo

This is a sweet little gadget. Hook it on something that's going to move, and as it rolls on the ground, it generates electricity. Not a huge amount, but the dynamo is intended to shore spotty communication in developing or undeveloped countries, specifically Sub-Saharan Africa; inventor Cedrick Ngalande says, "At normal walking speeds we have gotten more than 2 watts, which is more than enough for running cellphones or radios."

I think it would be pretty awesome for everyone, though. Backpackers, campers, anyone who's on the go in a way that involves a lot of moving yourself, like people who fly a lot (not sure if security'd let it on the plane, but anyway). The author also suggests it as part of of a kid's toy so the batteries couldn't run out as long as the kid's batteries didn't run out.

For some reason I've gotten into the habit of reading comments... the people who commented on this article art pissed. They think it's the worst idea ever. Solar's better; wind's better; wind-up's better. All those poor starving people shouldn't have to walk for their energy; roads suck in undeveloped villages; it'll get covered with shit. IT SUCKS AND IT WILL NEVER EVER BE USEFUL.

To them I say: hey, guys. Stop bitching. Clean, inexpensive energy solutions are needed and useful, and we don't have to be monogamous about how we get it. Different things are useful in different situations. Neither the author nor the inventor suggested we strap one of these on the back of every African south of -15°, just like it would be silly to suggest that solar, wind, and water power can meet every need everywhere.

I get the impression that these posters think that impoverished starving people either shouldn't be or shouldn't have to think about more than food, or perhaps that richer nations shouldn't be thinking about more than feeding them. That make assuage their hunger for a while, but starvation isn't the problem. Starvation is a symptom; poverty is the problem.

Corrupt, inept governments mismanage land, money, and natural resources. The people are generally uneducated and illiterate. Populations tend to be disorganized or even isolated, and completely unprotected by their governments from both invading and native armies as well as the exploitative rich. Conflict and genocide caused by changing climate, overpopulation, greed, racism, and overgrown tribalism are widespread. And, compounded with and aggravated by all of that, an HIV epidemic where physical and prophylactic safety are scarce, rape is rampant, and too many people know little about the disease and are unable to learn more.

But let's just about feeding them, right?

old-timey stars super friendly

From ScienceDaily: Ultra-Compact Dwarf Galaxies: Stars Packed Together In Early Universe A Million Times More Closely

ScienceDaily always has very literal titles, doesn't it? Kind of ruins the little bit of surprise for my post. Perhaps they should use more metaphors and figurative, oblique language. Or perhaps I should just stop quoting the titles beforehand.

Anyway! Ultra-compact dwarf galaxies! Sweet! These were very early galaxies, and very small and dense: mostly around 60 light years across, but a million times more crowded than what we're used to, so there was around a million stars in a cubic light year instead of just one.

genetic "volcano"

From ScienceDaily: Did Burst Of Gene Duplication Set Stage For Human Evolution?

This is pretty crazy stuff. Around 10 million years ago, the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans started undergoing gene duplication at a much faster rate than normal, while other mutations like a single nucleotide change became less prevalent.

Evan Eichler, a geneticist with the University of Washington says, "There's a big burst of activity that happens where genomes are suddenly rearranged and changed." Duplication slowed down after the chimp and human lines diverged. '"You might like to think that humans are special because we have more duplications than did earlier species," he says, "but that's not the case."'

Apparently, though, this crazy burst of duplication is what makes humans human. It "creat[ed] an instability that persists in the genome of modern humans and contributes to diseases like autism and schizophrenia. But that gene duplication also may be responsible for a genetic flexibility that has resulted in some uniquely human characteristics."

black holes in possible action

From io9: What Would a Black Hole Really Look Like?

io9 is a fun science fiction blog that's especially awesome because it also talks about science and how reality and fiction collide. In this post, Annalee talks about science art and illustration of black holes. There are a couple really sweet videos. Can't go wrong with the collision of two black holes!

electric sahara acid dust

From ScienceDaily: Unexpected Discovery Could Impact On Future Climate Models

Astronomers at the University of Hertfordshire looking for new extrasolar planets accidentally discovered that dust is affected by electric fields. Their polarimeter got dusty, and the dust affected light in such a way that showed the dust particles were aligning vertically. Not only could this explain how Saharan dust can make it to Northern Europe and the Caribbean, but "if it’s proven the dust is affected by electric fields, elements of current climate models may have to be re-worked with this new information, to remain accurate," says Joseph Ulanowski with the university's Centre for Atmospheric and Instrumentation Research.

son of a cabbage

From COSMOS Magazine: Darwin at 200: The origin of a theory

COSMOS did a series this week on Charles Darwin, evolution, and the Galapagos in celebration of his 200th birthday. (I wonder if they did the stripper-in-the-cake thing, too?)

This particular article details the history of the idea and the theory beginning in 1699. It's an entertaining read. The best line:

"Jocular types greeted each other on the street with phrases like, 'Well, son of a cabbage, whither art thou progressing?'"

Ah, Victorians and their pop culture references.

a slight lack of scoundrel

From NewScientist: Meet the scoundrels of astronomy

The title and premise of this article/gallery is hilarious, but unfortunately there are only four scoundrels, and they mainly just made shit up.

But I think the word "scoundrel" should be used more often. Have to think of a way to work it into a conversation.

Friday, February 13, 2009

the wacky world of lyme

From ScienceDaily: Scientists Identify Potential Key To Lyme Disease

Researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center have noted that the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorfei, is especially dependent on getting manganese from its host to establish infection, as opposed to iron like most pathogens. They then identified the specific enzyme that captures manganese for the bacteria. When they engineered a strain of B. burgdorfei lacking that protein and introduced it to mice, the bacteria wasn't able to infect.

I don't know if I would find this interesting except that I had Lyme a few years ago. It's fairly common where I live. My father and one of my sisters had it, too. I missed the telltale "bull's-eye" rash and must have thought I had the flu if I ever had the fever and malaise; when I was diagnosed and treated it was all extreme fatigue, joint pain, headaches, "Lyme fog," depression, mild hallucinations, and alternating insomnia and hypersomnia. It's a crazy, crazy disease. I would kind of suggest, you know, not getting it.

looking forward

From New Scientist: Asteroid bound for Earth! Warn your grandchildren

So, this 560m-diameter meteor has a 1-in-1400 chance of hitting earth in the last three decades next century. I won't know, because I doubt I'll be alive between 2169 and 2199. But it's said that if "they" (whoever they is) decide to send something to it to knock it off course, the best time would between 2060 and 2080, when the meteor'll be making close passes to Earth. And I really really hope I'm alive 50 years from now, because that would be something to see!

all waves, all the time

From ScienceDaily: NASA's SkyView Delivers The Multiwavelength Cosmos

This article talks about SkyView, a nifty little tool from NASA that shows pictures of space, from many sources, at many wavelengths. Pretty and fun!

trust your gut

From ScienceDaily:

This study shows a "lucky guess" might be a lot less about luck and a lot less of a guess than we think.

Researchers at Northwestern University, led by psych professor Ken Paller, showed participants a variety of pictures: half they could pay their full attention to, the other half they were supposed to be listening and memorizing a number. And... "Remarkably, people were more accurate in selecting the old image when they had been distracted than when they had paid full attention. They also were more accurate when they claimed to be guessing than when they registered some familiarity for the image," Paller says. Even though splitting attention is supposed to worsen memory, the "visual system" was working as normal.

"The study suggests that we shouldn't rely only on conscious memory, Paller concludes. 'It suggests that we also need to develop our intuitive nature and creativity. Intuition may have an important role in finding answers to all sorts of problems in everyday life -- including big ones such as our ailing economy.'" Paller also talks about the need to further recognize and develop many types of intelligence.

This makes a lot of sense to me... I tend to remember things better when I'm not totally focused on one thing. That's why I like to doodle during lectures. (Also because otherwise I end up either daydreaming or trying not to fall asleep. Oh well.)

Friday, February 6, 2009

jellyfish galaxy

From ScienceDaily: Exceptionally Deep View Of Strange Galaxy

Really pretty pictures of an uncommon type of spiral galaxy in the Coma Cluster, which is about 321 million light years away and contains mostly elliptical galaxies. Around and even through it, "thousands of much more remote galaxies of all shapes, sizes and colours are visible. Many have the spotty and ragged appearance of galaxies at a time before the familiar division into spirals and ellipticals had become established."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

you scratch my back...

From ScienceDaily: Small Male Chimps Use Politics, Rather Than Aggression, To Lead The Pack

Pretty interesting. Scientists observed a smaller chimp leader "obsessively groom[ing] both male and female chimpanzees to maintain his top position." They also observed a very large and aggressive leader as being a "stingy groomer."

u.s. moving, brightening

From Scientific American: U.S. becomes top wind producer, solar next

Sweet! That means we're kind of awesome, right? Surpassing Germany on both counts!

I guess it helps that we have a ton of land that's windy and a couple deserts, too.

the wester wing

From Vanity Fair: Portfolio: Enter Obama

This is just a fun photo series by Annie Leibovitz with a lot of Obama's high-level staff. Very natural but very Annie. I can't tell if the people who look distracted or busy actually are or if it's posed.

too many babies

From BBC News: Population: The elephant in the room

From Dr. John Feeney comes an editorial about how our unchecked population growth will lead to a Malthusian catastrophe, and how environmentalists don't really like to talk about overpopulation and its control. I totally agree. It is an issue, and it is affecting our environment. Somewhere around 100 species go extinct every day, because we're converting biomass to human-mass (I stole that from Daniel Quinn, I'll admit). People are starving all over the plant, and they keeps getting food and more land gets converted, but they're still starving.

I think the taboo on the subject comes from a lot of things. First, of course, is that birth control is still a touchy subject, mostly because certain religious groups try to block access to it, especially to those who most need it, the poor. In the US, when the pill came out back in the '50s and then got really popular in the '60s, minority groups accused the government and Margaret Sanger (a birth control advocate who helped bring everything together in its creation) of eugenics and racism. On the part of Sanger, this is, unfortunately, true. But those who don't really have the means to support children probably shouldn't be having them. I don't know if we can erase poverty, but I can't imagine growing up in it will help break the cycle.

However, I also don't think rich people should be having a ton of kids just because they can, though I admit "a ton" is relative (some say one should be the limit, some say two, some say more). I've heard people give Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt a hard time because they have something of a brood now, but I mean, they only had three; the other three are adopted. Nothing wrong with adopting. On the other hand, there is that woman in California who just had octuplets when she already had six kids because of some crazy fertility treatment; or that couple in Arkansas with 18 kids. I don't see how they can raise that many. My mother just had three, and even when she was a stay-at-home when we were young it seemed pretty stressful.

However, moving on. I think there's also an issue because the cultural meme is that women should be having children, preferably more than one. Women who don't want to have children get a lot of shit, as do women with only one. I feel like women who aren't sure if they want them or now feel like it's better to in case they regret it.

Last is that for a lot of women, especially in developing and third world countries (though definitely in developed, too!), it's not an issue of consensual sex. Where women are raped, or are given away in marriage forcefully or too young to really understand. I don't feel like in those cases it's a birth control access issue, or just that, it's a women's rights issue. It seems like women's rights is still somewhat controversial: in the US while Bush was in office, in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and I'm sure many other places around the world. I don't know how much birth control can help women who never really have any choice in the sex.

I don't know what the solution is. I mean, in a lot of ways, having children around is nice. I mean, we're wired to like babies. I have a niece, and she's adorable, and my sister makes an excellent mother; at this point, though, I'm not sure if I'll be having children. I'm 25, so I've got time to really decide. Part of me wants to; the other part of me realizes I have trouble taking care of plants. That part of me also thinks I shouldn't be contributing to the problem, and leave it to people like my sister who will actually do it well.