Popular Anti-Science

On Class M, James Hrynyshyn reports a counter-intuitive survey conclusion: people who are more educated about science are less likely to be worried about climate change. The study posits that views on climate change are “cultural” and not purely scientific, making people want to “fit in” to a skeptical mainstream. But James writes, “Surely embracing reality, regardless of the opinions of your peers, is more rational that rejecting it?” Meanwhile Orac impersonates the anti-scientific sentiments of the Republican party on Respectful Insolence, writing “Anthropogenic global warming? Nope! Accepting global warming science displeases our corporate masters and our anti-environmentalist base!” Orac says many veins of anti-science once associated with the far left, such as opposition to vaccines and genetically modified organisms, now run together with the fundamentalism of the far right. And just in case anyone needs a reminder, Coby has the latest data on arctic sea ice for 2011. Coby writes, “this year’s September minimum is the second lowest in the satellite record,” and “at least one analysis found that this year was in fact a new record, exceeding the 2007 low. What? Didn’t the ‘alarmist liberal media’ make sure you heard about that?”


Leaving Light in the Dust?

Last month, a team of researchers announced that their neutrinos appeared to be travelling faster than the speed of light. Ethan Siegel explains that the mass of a neutrino is “less than one-millionth the mass of the electron, but still not equal to zero” and “should move at a speed indistinguishable from the speed of light.” Meanwhile the OPERA team had to smash 1020 protons just to detect 16,000 neutrinos—and account for every source of delay an uncertainty in their experimental setup. On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel explains that the researchers used GPS satellites to measure the 730 kilometer distance between the proton source and the neutrino detector to within 20 centimeters, and synchronize the atomic clocks at each site. Chad writes “superluminal particles that interact with ordinary matter (as neutrinos do, albeit weakly) opens the door to violations of causality—effects happening before the things that caused them, and that sort of thing.” Steinn Sigurðsson writes on Dynamics of Cats, “Well, along with 99.87% of physicists, I am very skeptical,” but adds “a very, very faint possibility is that either relativity is wrong; or, muon neutrinos are weakly tachyonic; or, the neutrino tunneling between flavours is evidence of some funky stringy higher dimensional tunneling, and the geometry is weakly non-3D.” The OPERA team wants to know: can you spot the error?

Past and Future Forecasts

Meteorology still depends on a bit of clairvoyance, but in the 19th century many sailors, fishermen, and farmers “had to rely on storm glass, an inexpensive and profoundly inaccurate divining tool.” The mixture of “camphor crystals, potassium nitrate, ammonium chloride, water and alcohol” transitions from “solid to crystalline under circumstances that still aren’t full understood.” Frank Swain has details and pictures on SciencePunk, along with an account of the origin of forecasting in the British Isles. On Class M, James Hrynyshyn considers the complicated effects of clouds on world climate. James writes, “most of the greenhouse effect is related to water vapor,” but with a fixed amount of H2O in the water cycle, only the addition of CO2 to the atmosphere can provoke global warming. As for the clouds, “more clouds could cool the Earth by reflecting more sunlight. But it is also conceivable that more clouds could trap more heat.” And on Greg Laden’s Blog, a NASA project yields a detailed map of global ocean salinity. Greg writes, “Ocean salinity is important because it is linked to the overall climate system. For instance, where evaporation is high, owing to atmospheric conditions, salinity goes up.” Makes us wonder about the 700-year forecast.

Hungry, Hot & Crowded

On Casaubon’s Book, Sharon Astyk asks if we can stomach a new kind of cuisine— in case, you know, a massive volcanic eruption wipes out all our staple grains. Instead of wheat, corn and rice, “we probably would begin getting comfortable with acorn pancakes and turnip stew with taro dumplings.” But Sharon says that even barring catastrophe, “something *is* happening, something disastrous. The wheat is being grown often on dry prairie soils that should never be plowed at all. The corn and soybeans are being grown continuously in the midwest at a high cost to both topsoil and the ability of soils to hold carbon.” Sharon suggests we dig into that cassava now—not only will we get used to it, but we’ll help keep bread on the menu as well. James Hrynyshyn also looks to the future on Class M, saying that when it comes to predicting population growth and carbon emissions, “the uncertainty matters almost as much as the trends themselves.” The question is, what can we do now to make our way of life more sustainable?

Kepler Doubles its Prospects

The planet-hunting spacecraft known as Kepler has detected the first definitive exoplanet in a binary star system, and lead author Dr. Laurance Doyle has all the details on Life at the SETI Institute. He writes, “Perhaps half the stars in the galaxy are in double star systems. Understanding that planets can form in close binary systems means that these, too, can be targets in the search for habitable worlds.” The twin stars have a combined mass less than that of our sun—and the planet is the size of Saturn, in an orbit as close as Venus. Fellow SETI Astronomer Dr. Franck Marchis writes, “There is no equivalent in our solar system of such a large and dense exoplanet. Kepler-16b has the same size as Saturn but a higher density, suggesting that it could be made of a core of ice/rock (half its size) surrounded by an atmosphere in a configuration similar to Saturn.” In other words, having two suns doesn’t automatically make a planet hot, sandy, and full of Jawas. It’s all about orbiting in that “Goldilocks” zone, where the temperature is just right.

Cortical Hardware and Software

On Developing Intelligence, Chris Chatham shares a new study which demonstrates that performing new tasks actually reverses the accustomed workflow between different parts of the brain. Chris writes “Cole et al demonstrate that the causal influence is from [the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] to [the anterior prefrontal cortex] during the encoding and performance of a novel task. Practiced tasks, by contrast, were associated with a complete reversal of these effects, with APFC primarily influencing DLPFC activation during preparation and performance.” These results invite a re-evaluation of staid models of brain function. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers considers how our perception of the world is colored by the neuronal patterns forged by language. Members of the Himba tribe in Africa “use ‘zoozu,’ for instance, for dark colors, which includes reds, greens, blues, and purples, ‘vapa’ for white and some yellows, ‘borou’ for specific shades of green and blue.” PZ says, “The cool thing about it all is that when they give adults a color discrimination test, there are differences in how readily we process and recognize different colors that corresponds well to our language categories.”