Thursday, March 29, 2007

There's a reason I get mired in Wikipedia so often

Human brain hardwired for distraction.

They say the average American filters 3000 advertisements a day. I have trouble remembering how I was going to construct this sentence a few seconds back. I'm pretty sure I would have failed in an illiterate society.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tentacles on Ice

Fishermen net ultra-rare Colossal Squid. I recall as a youth that while occasional parts of these beasts washed up on shore or were found in the bellies of Sperm Whales, no person had ever seen one live. Over the years we've gotten the occasional peak, but this really takes the cake as a thousand pound squid was caught by chance.

At the time it was caught, O'Shea said it would make calamari rings the size of tractor tyres if cut up — but they would taste like ammonia.

Once again science shows not all dreams can come true.

Image credit: Ministry of Fisheries, New Zealand

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Science has a big appetite

A great article over at the NY Times about the biological basis for morality. It would seem much like our use of tools, sophisticated language and sociable nature, our primate cousins show the building blocks of what humans carried forth into a set of moral ideas.

Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies, though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal’s view. There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion. So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion. “I look at religions as recent additions,” he said. “Their function may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do.”

It's a central tenet of conventional wisdom that religion is the source of our moral code. It is the same wisdom people draw upon when they want to put a Ten Commandments shrine on State property or keep two men from kissing. What happens when science suggests that morality came before religion?

The idea that biology would continue to demand more and more territory from philosophy as it has been doing to religion for so many centuries is bound to be controversial. Clearly, the philosophers have a stake in this, but I do agree with one of their assessments:

and that is that biological analyses cannot cross the gap between “is” and “ought,” between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong. “You can identify some value we hold, and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it,” said Sharon Street, a moral philosopher at New York University. “That’s not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant, too.”

You win this round, philosphers.

Slashing the NIH budget

In late January this report ran announcing the Bush administration's intentions to cut the NIH budget by one percent, making 2008 the fifth year the NIH budget has languished in mediocrity and failed to keep up with the rate of biomedical inflation. While fears and smoke boasted the slash could go as high as ten percent, indeed, the jury is out: Once again the NIH budget will receive a meager 0.8% increase in funding, falling ever further behind the cutting edge of research, at a time when critical discoveries are likely to be had.

Scientists must now spend more and more time writing grants, competing for less and less money. What used to be a mad rush two times a year now seems like a perpetual Sisyphean task, grinding research to a halt without some sort of guarantee of success. That's not what academic research is supposed to be about. By no means am I advocating that academia does not bear a responsibility to give back to the community that is funding their work, but if we are to be scientists, that is, to practice Science, we can't be asked to tell the people our pre-experiment intelligence is a slam dunk.

The science community has responded with a comprehensive presentation of why this funding is so critical.

But there's also a broader question with respect to America's identity. Are we ready to abandon our status as champions of innovation and research? This kind of retrograde action speaks more to the landscape of the current political culture, but it does bear mentioning here, if only in passing.

Or let's think like an economist. What's a more sound strategy for the long term? Do we cut funding to research by the brightest minds of our generation to save on the budget now, or do we accept the inherent risk associated with science and gamble that our discoveries and breakthroughs will translate into not only a better life, but a fatter treasury? What if we could cut the cost of medicine in the States in half with new technology and research? Would that be of interest to anyone? What if we could cure Alzheimer's? Obliterate cancer? Don't these goals deserve at least the dignity of keeping up with nominal rising costs?

Ah well, at least the power of prayer is free.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Do you fear what I fear?

The brain gets scared by seeing other brains get scared. A pretty useful evolutionary adaptation, this one is pretty easy to see, a 'no-brainer', if I might use the term in an absurd manner.

“You learn by observing other people’s emotional expressions, and what we are showing is that that can be as effective as having those direct experiences yourself,” Olsson said. “That’s probably one of the reasons why a lot people are having phobias of certain kinds of stimuli, such as snakes and spiders.”

This study, like many before it, points towards a part of the brain called the amygdala, two little lumps of flesh that are the major players that manage your tears, angers and fears. Squirt, squirt.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Viva la Inner Ear Evolution

Fossil gives insight to evolution of ear.

I love the name of the creature, by the way. Yanoconodon - that just rolls off the tongue. I have a love of words that cram tons of syllables into a word by alternating vowels and consonants or manufacturer. I'll have to figure out how to work 'Yanoconodon' into as many conversations as possible.

Oh right, the science. This adds another great piece to vertebrate evolution, showing how a very intricate and complex structure could arise from precursor forms to give mammals their exceptional terrestrial hearing. Expect creationist retaliation within the week.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Unsurprisingly, brain plaque leads to brain decay.

I have excessively robust salivary glands in my lower jaw, which leads to a buildup of tartar behind my lower incisors. Despite all my dental machinations, I end up having two valleys of fossilized plaque scraped out every six months. Unlike tooth plaque, however, brain plaque is neither as innocuous nor so easily removed.

A recent study showed that common inhaled anesthetics can speed up the formation of brain plaques, which are webs of fibrous proteins associated with conditions like Alzheimer's Disease and dementia. The protein, amyloid beta, is also a notorious troublemaker elsewhere in the body, originally described in the study of diabetes. The study showed that inhaling gas such as halothane or isoflurane can indeed increase the presence of brain plaques, which are known to be directly correlated with an increase in Alzheimer's symptoms. Interesting stuff.

These data come on the heels of another interesting story about Alzheimer's, rather that the amyloid beta proteins might have prion-like behavior.

Scientists have been able to induce brain disease in mice by injecting extracts of the brains of people who died of Alzheimer's disease, a finding that suggests that Alzheimer's has some characteristics of prion brain disorders such as mad cow disease and chronic wasting disease.

The scientist's reaction seems almost perverse taken out of context:

"It's fabulous work," said Sam Gandy, an Alzheimer's researcher and director of the Farber Institute for Neurosciences at Thomas Jefferson University. "This is the first time a brain of a human with Alzheimer's has been used to provoke pathology in another being."

You can almost see him steepling his fingers and laughing maniacally, no? Did you ever imagine your brain as a disease vector?

It's not all gloom and doom, however, there are strides being made towards actual therapeutics.

Alzheimer's is a condition that strikes fear into most people the way a heart attack or even cancer can't. Alzheimer's breaks down the frontal cortex of the brain, starting with destroying short term memory, then later it breaks down the longer term memory and can spiral towards a complete collapse of being able to perform the most simple of tasks, right down to feeding one's self. It feels like an unraveling of one's humanity thread by thread. I think that drawn-out reduction to non-existence is a pretty paralyzing thought.

Still, one must keep an open mind on the subject of losing one's mind. I know that while the self-destruction of the body is agonizing for family members, it likely is fairly painless for the person. By the time the disease claims the life, the person is in essence, oblivious of one's own passing. There are worse deaths out there.

In any event, I wouldn't put off any necessary surgery based on these findings. Just make sure you do your crossword puzzle while you're on the treadmill, and I'm pretty sure it all comes out even, right?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

All things Patricky

Even on St. Patrick's Day, we here at the Ripsaw find you the best green boards to cut up for science digest.

The NY Times ran an article last week suggesting the various sects on the British Isles have a lot more in common than anyone wants to believe:

In all, about three-quarters of the ancestors of today’s British and Irish populations arrived between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago, when rising sea levels split Britain and Ireland from the Continent and from each other, Dr. Oppenheimer calculates in a new book, “The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story” (Carroll & Graf, 2006).

As I've said before, Science tells us the truth, not what we want to be true! This particular scientist claims both Irish and English roots, so apparently it's not much of a distinction!

Everyone's familiar with the holiday's iconic plant, the Shamrock or Oxalis acetosella as we say in the scientific world. It's commonly mistaken for a clover, but did you know that the Shamrock is so different it's in a completely different taxonomic family? Talk about mistaken identity! A shamrock's three (or mutant four!) petals actually fold up at night or in harsh weather so as to conserve water from a reaction called transpiration. Also, they make a great prop for talking about your shape-shifting god.

Enjoy your beer! For those of you who thought serving beer in opaque kegs or colored glass was a pure aesthetic choice, think again! This is actually a protective measure, because indeed, beer can skunk when struck by light. This particular source cites UV light as the culprit, but I have read conflicting reports where longer wavelength blue light is the sulfur compound-forming culprit. In either event, treat your beer like it was a cool person. Make sure it has some shades on.

At the Ripsaw we don't put a lot of stock in luck, aside from it being a clever sorting of past events into artificial constructs, but hey, that's a human behavior. Want to avoid such luck-poor conditions? Avoid seeing red, says one study. Green? Now there's a color you can hitch your wagon to.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Ripsaw Robots #4

Ripsaw Robots will be a new feature that focuses on robotics in a very broad scope. From the useless to the revolutionary to the just plain giant and fantasy, Lish will bring you all the robot fix he can find.

Good pal Obsequiosity brings us news of this boss motorized chair. For some reason, it seems it should come with some Ninja Turtles.

And once you've got your sitting all robotocized, it's time for a frosty libation! z4nd4r shows us how to automate your beer acquisition in several thousand difficult steps! Trust me, as someone who programs robots on a fairly regular basis, lining up the various axes and executing the proper delivery was not a simple task, but it seems the precision is superb.

We here at the Ripsaw loved the Six Million Dollar Man, so when the Segway Guy, Dean Kamen, lets us get a little closer to such an awesome reality of functional bionic limbs, we can't but help feel it's a personal fantasy. Seriously, the two things I really want to be able to do is check the internet from inside my brain and be able to drill a ball to home plate from center field in about half a second. Can we get to work on those? They're speaking my language.

Got a pigeon problem? You need robotic falcons.

Got a runny nose? Robots got that covered, too.

Still, this week we can't beat this zinger coming out of Japan. The children of the future will be raised by robot dinosaurs, will only communicate with their parents via blogs, and their best friends will be people they've seen on YouTube. If we let that happen, have the terrorists truly won?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Arachnidus Interruptus

I'm all about ensuring your mate isn't cheating on you, but some species to ridiculous ends.

When a male wasp spider discovers a potential partner, he turns her on by shaking her web. The female thereupon supports herself on her long legs on the web so that the male, who is much smaller, can then creep under her body. The rest works hydraulically: the tip of a transformed leg filled with sperm is inserted into the female’s sexual orifice — like a ski boot in its binding.

How erotic. These kind of modified special appendages speak to the plasticity of multicellular organisms. There's a dirty joke in there somewhere, but I'm sure you're clever enough to supply your own setup and punchline.

I like the diametric conclusions drawn, most of which makes sense.

On the one hand detaching part of the genital organ could help the male to escape from the female’s murderous attack. On the other hand it might be a mechanism ensuring that paternity is maintained, preventing or impeding further copulation by the female.

Enjoy the hard source for those interested in further detail. Of course, any time you can work the term 'genital damage' into your title, you know you're gonna get some press! Here you are!


High resolution photographs of insects massacred by windshields. Marvelous how the exoskeleton body plan really magnifies the modular design, no? Of course, we humans are just as modular, if not more so given new research suggesting how pliable and adaptive every one of our cells are. Still, you'd think these glorious deaths would be a bit more....juicy.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Fish Mining

See here a new US effort to open Federal Waters for aquaculture. This is being received with a lot of apprehension. There's the depletion aspect as well as the fact a lot of our terrestrial pollutants end up right in that area. 'Mining' a resource usually refers to the idea of exploiting all there is to take and then moving on as quickly as possible, which certainly should be a concern with this news with respect to the environment rather than the product itself as is the case in wild caught stocks. Here we're talking about positional resources such as nutrients in the water (which likely come from land), space and impact to top tier predators. It's a lot to consider, but does merit at least a hard look when looking ahead to a more sound environmental approach. Dealing with a trade deficit also is a two-way street; we might import a lot of fish, but we export any potential environmental damage to other nations as well.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Is Folkpsychology like Countrypsychology?

A fantastic article in the NYT magazine from this weekend on the study of belief. There's all the bluster that Richard Dawkins and his ilk are pushing, sort of a dismissal of religion as 'misfiring', which is an awfully loaded word for a scientist to be throwing around. Beyond that is a layer of amazing cognitive biological studies that Scott Atran terms 'folkpsychology':

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

A profound suggestion! Is being predisposed to belief in the supernatural a default mode for our brains? Do biological spandrels (like blood being red, a feature with a evolution-neutral value) serve as grist for such a system?

For those of us that hold rationalism in higher esteem than spiritualism, it's somewhat unpleasant to think of ourselves as recovering alcoholics - we need to be on constant guard of our reasonable sobriety lest we relapse into the allure of magical thinking and emotional comfort. Still, to me this is no different than any other high moral code we abide by or emotion we keep under check as to what is necessary or proper. Why should belief be any different than the willpower one needs to keep to a diet or maintain a budget?

We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? “Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in “Tragic Sense of Life.” “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.”

I can't say I've ever heard death put so nicely before.

The article is a bit lengthy but well worth the read if this kind of stuff tingles your belief-default brain. Atran's most recent book, In Gods We Trust, is worth the additional effort.