Inspiring One Another

i-e6a35c505bbdd20a1ae1857ced98dd94-zinnbuzz.jpgWe inspire each other with our everyday actions and attitudes–monkey see, monkey do. On The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment in which individuals who observed their peers choosing carrots over cookies were more likely to make the same thoughtful choice themselves. Jonah explains that self-control “contains a large social component” and plays a very important role in our development. But what can you do when everyone beats their heads against the same wall? On Aardvarchaeology, Martin Rundkvist recounts the “tragicomical” history of bog reclamation, which has continued over the past three centuries despite peat proving uncompetitive and reclaimed bog infertile. Dried-out parcels would simply “sink back down into the lowered water table,” leaving nothing but destroying “the environment and the archaeological record.” Finally, on The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson honors the legacy of Howard Zinn, who died this week at 87. Zinn challenged the historical status quo with his view that history is driven by “a network of dedicated individuals,” and not merely the “Big Men” whose names are printed and remembered.

Links below the fold.
Continue reading “Inspiring One Another”


Safety: Life or Death

i-d48b16e35d3b81f06c8e8834c1fbcdb8-safebuzz.jpgRecognizing the drawbacks of uranium reactors, Mike the Mad Biologist explains that using thorium for nuclear fuel would produce safer energy. Uranium was originally established as the element of choice “since it would yield plutonium which could be used to build nukes,” but thorium reactions produce less waste, less radioactivity, and no leftovers for warheads. Because of its other properties, thorium also works in new reactor designs that are safe from the threat of meltdown. On Effect Measure, Revere shows us the result of an unsafe workplace at a Dupont chemical plant which suffered four dangerous lapses in a span of two days. One of these was the death of a man who walked into a small leak of phosgene gas, a modern pesticide precursor which was once “used as a gas warfare agent in WWI.” And on Respectful Insolence, Orac discusses medical safeguards, such as simple checklists to ensure that surgeons remove the right organ from the right person without leaving anything behind. Disturbed by two recent cases where mismeasured radiation killed ailing patients, Orac warns, “the more complex the system, the easier it is for error to creep in.”

Links below the fold.
Continue reading “Safety: Life or Death”

A Few Head Scratchers

i-656d7084f310cdd541f67f152bc3eba8-physicbuzz.jpgLove it or hate it, physics is a demanding subject. It defines much of our knowledge and experience in a daunting variety of ways. But really, you do love physics, don’t you? On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel describes a modern implementation of “Maxwell’s Demon,” a dreamed-of 19th century device that could “cool a gas without obviously increasing entropy.” While this may smack of perpetual motion, researchers have taken first steps toward realizing Maxwell’s mechanism, using angled traps and lasers to winnow lower-energy atoms from a gas sample. On Starts With A Bang, Ethan Siegel explains the relative homogeneity of the solar system by imagining Jupiter much closer to the sun. At that distance its thick atmosphere would boil off, leaving behind “a hard, rocky core not all that different from our planet, except in terms of size and density.” And on Built on Facts, Matt Springer expounds on the dynamics of a Foucault pendulum, which can “swing freely in any direction” and give the illusion that it rotates the plane of its swing. Matt also includes pictures of a new pendulum at the beautiful George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

Links below the fold.
Continue reading “A Few Head Scratchers”

Authorial Issues

i-59d03f349b436f96b162b8cf03b41e27-authorbuzz.jpgSelf-expression is a human ideal, but just as you can be a virtuoso with a hammer, you can be a hack with a paintbrush. On Bioephemera, Jessica Palmer questions the value of painted canvas when the painters “neither recognize nor are particularly interested in” the scenes they produce. In the case of Chinese technicians who imitate western styles for the American market, Jessica asks, “isn’t an artist’s active creative input, his or her emotion and imagination, or at least some degree of innovation, essential to create ‘art’?” Razib Khan considers literary issues on Gene Expression, saying it’s okay that novelist James Patterson employs a team of co-writers to ink in his many projects. “The idea of the author as the lonely genius is very powerful,” writes Razib, but “there’s no reason that a workmanlike collaborative writing process necessarily entails lowest-common denominator fiction.” On Confessions of a Science Librarian, John Dupuis compares what things an author can and cannot control in the publishing process. And On The Book of Trogool, Dorothea Salo shares the obstacles of authority control, when many authors may have the same name, and one author may have many.

Links below the fold.
Continue reading “Authorial Issues”

Efficiency: Mould vs. Man

i-0bc6ced0a4f57c48def4f8b1a11424e8-mouldbuzz.jpgRobert Burns wrote that the best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew, but Tokyo railway planners seem to have arranged things just right. Ed Yong on Not Exactly Rocket Science reports that Japanese researchers are exploring “better network design through biological principles,” by setting a “slime mould” cell loose on an in vitro model of the greater Tokyo area. Food sources in the wet dish simulated nearby cities, and slime-repellant light approximated mountains and other natural barriers. As the cell grew, latching onto food sources and refining its connections, it settled into a network nearly identical to the actual Tokyo rail system. So why risk laying schemes when a mindless organism will do it for you? But while efficiency comes naturally to Physarum polycephalum, we humans have to work a little harder for it. Sharon Astyk on Casaubon’s Book writes that it’s easy for people to “get confused about what matters and how much,” and offers ten ways to start doing more with less. And on The World’s Fair, Vince LiCata criticizes the plague of onboard computers that is making fridges and other appliances useless before their time; as Vince says, “some things need computer control, some things really just don’t.”

Links below the fold.
Continue reading “Efficiency: Mould vs. Man”

Synthetic Voices & Musical Notes

i-6195c85f63555b1b552519f6d90d6e79-musicbuzz.jpgOn Oscillator, Christina Agapakis lays out some of the history of synthetic biology. While in the last century this field has employed molecular and informational toolkits, in centuries past inventors relied on grosser modes of simulation. Such was the case with eighteenth century wetware, which aspired “to make machines look and feel more like living things—soft, flexible, moist.” One of the grails of early synthetic biology was the simulation of the human voice, and to this end we see such terrors as a fake face attached to a phonetic keyboard, which allowed “an operator to play a ‘human’ voice like a piano.” In the age of computation, such machines soon gave way to the IBM 7094 crooning “Daisy Bell.” Also of musical note, Dave Munger on Cognitive Daily explains bitonality and challenges us to hear the difference compared to monotonal samples. And on The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer investigates how music affects neural activity, as we enjoy and anticipate patterns but revel at the surprising pitch. Finally, don’t miss a perfect excuse to listen to Hall & Oates on Greg Laden’s Blog, in a video where students learned to lip-sync (and walk) backwards so they could later reverse the footage.

Links below the fold.
Continue reading “Synthetic Voices & Musical Notes”

Getting it All Wrong

i-d8d7d18492405c1cbf15d3b563ec8349-wrongbuzz.jpgEven with the best intentions, it’s possible to get things wrong. And with lesser intentions, being wrong becomes easy. First, James Hrynyshyn on The Island of Doubt reports that the IPCC will retract its 2007 prediction that global warming could melt the Himalayan glaciers by 2035. Although the IPCC promises “the best peer-reviewed science available,” this faulty prediction whispered its way from article to article in a game of journalistic telephone. Tim Lambert on Deltoid is grateful that the IPCC will correct their error, and observes that the current gaffe is getting more media attention than the actual 2007 report. But while the IPCC may have made an honest mistake, other sources seem to mix things up deliberately. Scicurious offers an example on Neurotopia, citing a perfectly good study which showed that stronger and/or more attractive individuals are more likely to prevail in conflicts of interest. In spinning this science, TimesOnline “had to go and say some rather false things,” translating attractiveness to blondeness and invoking the questionable phrase “warrior princess.” Dave Bacon on The Quantum Pontiff catches New Scientist in a similar bit of sensationalism, as they recently entangled “local field potential measurements in a monkey’s brain” with hardcore quantum mechanics. With interest coming at the price of inaccuracy, should we as readers let bygones be bygones?

Links below the fold.
Continue reading “Getting it All Wrong”