Anticlimactic Research

A new paper published in the journal Animal Behavior tackles the origin of the female orgasm—does it have gender-specific advantages, or is it merely a byproduct of male adaptations? Having polled 10,000 twins about their orgasmic tendencies, researchers found “no significant correlation between opposite-sex twins and siblings” and therefore concluded that “selection pressures on male orgasmic function do not act substantively on female orgasmic function.” PZ Myers writes “the logic of this experiment falls apart at every level.” He points to the inevitable biases that affect self-reporting, and the fact that researchers asked male and female twins qualitatively different questions. PZ concludes, “I’d consider it extremely unlikely that female orgasm doesn’t use exactly the same genetic apparatus as male orgasm.” Greg Laden criticizes the research as well, writing “the reason that the Zietsch and Stanttila paper is wrong, in my view, is because it asks the wrong question in the wrong way with an incorrect understanding of what they are studying and why.” Greg says most researchers are (figuratively) blinded by the ejaculation of seminal fluid by males. And he offers some very interesting insights into the development of erogeneity in primates, and its refinement in the human species.


Too Much; Not Enough

On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel investigates the hamstringing of the James Webb Space Telescope. Originally scheduled to launch in 2013 at a cost of $5.1 billion, the JWST was pushed to 2015 and $6.5 billion by a government review panel that faulted NASA mismanagement. But the revised numbers counted on timely infusions of cash, and because “a miserly US Congress” withheld them, the cost of the project ballooned to $8.7 billion, with a new launch date of 2018. Although its unprecedented mirrors are nearly finished—along with its electrical instruments and their housing—the JWST still waits on its massive sunshield, which means the project will stay grounded even as its price tag gets more astronomical. [UPDATE: funding for the JWST has been restored!] Meanwhile, on Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel imagines an ark defined by qubits instead of cubits. God decrees, “thou shalt take into thine ark all of the numbers,” to which Noah astutely replies, “if the ark is to be 300 by 50 by 30 qubits, then the maximum number to be stored within it must be no greater than 2450000.” The supreme being asks if this is not close enough to infinity—and threatens to start smiting things when Noah suggests including more than just positive integers.

Feats of Engineering

It seems like every time we turn around, there’s another new smartphone or robotic butler pouring coffee in our laps. On Uncertain Principles, the engineering breakthroughs du jour are “technical advances in ion trap quantum computing.” Chad Orzel explains, “previous experiments have used optical frequencies to manipulate the states of the ions, using light from very complicated laser systems.” Such lasers (though effective) are unwieldy, and researchers are now using simple microwaves to perform the same functions. This promises quantum computers on a chip—eventually. Meanwhile, on the USA Science and Engineering Festival blog, Kandy Collins profiles a researcher who used nanoparticles “to build synthetic platelets of biodegradable polymers which are designed to link with the body’s natural platelets to slow or stop bleeding faster after injury.” And on The Weizmann Wave, scientists are fabricating some of the straightest nanowires ever by depositing molecules of gallium nitride into the grooves of an artificial sapphire surface. Professor Ernesto Joselevich says since “control of structure and miniaturization go hand in hand in the semiconductor industry, this method could well become standard within the decade.”

Editor Does What’s Right (for Wrong)

On Deltoid, Tim Lambert reports that Wolfgang Wagner, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing, has taken personal responsibility for the publication of a “problematic” paper and resigned his role. Wagner writes, “With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions,” in stories such as “New NASA data blow gaping hole in global warming alarmism” (published by Forbes) and “Does NASA data show global warming lost in space?” (published by Fox News). On Class M, James Hrynyshyn asks “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was as good at admitting their mistakes?” Here’s hoping that Wagner’s move can reduce or reverse public misconceptions arising from promotion of the paper.

East Coast Disaster Aftermath

Natural disaster struck twice last month on the east coast of the United States: first, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake rattled windows from Atlanta to Boston, and then a waning hurricane whirled all the way to New York City and on to Canada as a tropical storm. The temblor caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, but the storm caused billions, and killed dozens of people. Sharon Astyk provides a firsthand view of the damage in upstate New York, where the storm turned her farm into a swamp, her creek into a raging torrent, and her locust trees into goat fodder and firewood. She implores, “please remember and help your local farmers anyway you can – most of them will struggle to rebuild after this disaster and to go forward.” On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski writes “hurricane Irene wasn’t nearly as bad as it could’ve been. […] Many of the New Yorkers who ignored Mayor Bloomberg’s orders to evacuate are probably feeling smug.” But she says Irene only proved that hurricanes can be unpredictable, and encourages us to always be prepared. And on Thoughts from Kansas, Josh Rosenau calculates just how unlikely it was to have the proverbial lightning strike twice. He states the odds as 1 in 1,500,000. If an asteroid hits Philly tomorrow, we’ll start worrying about Armageddon.

Extraterrestrial Seed

Earlier this month, NASA announced the discovery of DNA components in a meteorite. On We Beasties, Heather Olins writes that “while claims of meteorites containing DNA components have been made before, they may very well have been terrestrial contamination. This seems to be different, because the meteorite also contains similar molecules that are never found in biological matter.” Specifically, the meteorite contains the nucleobase analogues purine, 2,6-diaminopurine, and 6,8-diaminopurine, leading Claire L. Evans to revisit the ancient concept of panspermia on Universe. Panspermia holds that the seeds of life are scattered throughout the universe, and not endemic to the blooming planet Earth. Anaxagoras, the Greek philosopher, coined the idea, and along with more recent adherents was more or less maligned by mainstream thinkers. But Claire asks, “Why is panspermia—the notion that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroids, asteroids and planetoids—any stranger than a touch from the Heavens, or a spontaneous spark in the primordial stew?” The Earth may be an oasis—but no desert goes on forever.

Eye-Catching Classes (and Carats)

On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel explains that although we see the full range of spectral classes in the night sky—from cool red M stars to blazing blue O’s—75% of nearby stars “are the reddest, coolest, M-class stars, including the closest star to us.” Only 4.2 light-years away, Proxima Centauri “is invisible even with binoculars, and even with dark skies, a small, 3″ telescope would unable to find it.” Yet O and B class stars, despite being much rarer and much more distant, are so luminous that they can’t be missed. Brightness can be deceiving—even when looking at entire galaxies and galactic clusters. Ethan adds, “when you’re looking for extra-solar planets, don’t be surprised that we find the biggest ones and the ones closest to their parent star: that’s also bias.” Steinn Sigurðsson provides a dazzling example on Dynamics of Cats. It’s a giant rock in close orbit around a pulsar, “most likely a pure cold crystalline carbon core of a low mass star, with the rest of the star accreted, blown away and ablated by the millisecond pulsar formation process.” In other words, a diamond the size of Jupiter. Or as Steinn says, “10,000,000 trillion trillion carats of hot sparkly rock!”