Supernova Flashes and Silver Linings

New research from the Weizmann Institute of Science reveals that “cells in our brain form little hexagonal grids that keep us oriented, map-like, in our surroundings.” Weizmann’s resident blogger describes this finding as “a pyrotechnic flash of insight that changes how we understand the brain to work.” Game developers delight; this discovery shows “that you can really apply mathematical models to understand how our mammalian brains get their bearings.” It may also have immediate implications for understanding human brain disorders such as vertigo. Meanwhile, on ERV, Abbie Smith explores a silver lining emerging from ongoing research into the viral scourge known as HIV. Abbie explains that HIV viruses genetically reprogrammed by scientists to “modify relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients T-cells” are prolonging and possibly saving the lives of kids. Continued genetic modification could transform HIV into a powerful tool for fighting cancer and other diseases. Finally, on The Pump Handle, Elizabeth Grossman writes that rapid job growth in oil and gas industry is shining a light on some of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. Elizabeth writes, “Last year, 112 oil and gas industry workers were killed on the job and about 9,000 suffered non-fatal, work-related injuries and illnesses.” Hazards include toxic chemicals, respirable silica, and radiation exposure, not to mention “motor vehicle crashes, fires, electrocution and explosions.” But a new alliance between OSHA, NIOSH, and the National STEPS Network promises to fight for better workplace safety for these very important employees. Oh and for those not satisfied with a metaphor: some real supernova goodness from Ethan Siegel.


Corny Science (It’s Good for You)

Modern science stands on the shoulders of giants, as well as average humans, dwarves and elves, ancient civilizations, and all the bones of the dead—forgotten and otherwise. But sometimes you have to start a new branch of science from scratch. On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel continues his count-up to Dec. 25, the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton. Orzel explores the origins of agriculture in the Americas, where nativized people made the best of their local flora, turning a humble, nearly inedible grass into one of the biggest food staples on Earth. Chad writes, “Our other staple crops are also improved over their wild ancestors, but the teosinte to corn transition is probably the most dramatic example.” So don’t forget to thank pre-Colombian scientists the next time you hydrate masa flour for tortillas. And while you’re at it, consider the potential of GM agriculture, which could help us and our planet stay healthy and pesticide-free. On Denialism Blog, Mark Hoofnagle cites one of the winning arguments of the Executive VP of Monsanto (yes, THAT Monsanto): “This is a promising technology, still early in its potential, which has the benefit of solving problems with food-security such as plant disease, pests, and need for fertilizers, and may have future productivity and environmental benefit.” Meanwhile, on Pharyngula, PZ Myers considers the elemental dreams of Homo Erectus, who “used shells for tool production and engraving.” In addition to learning how to collect clams and open them with advanced techniques, our proto-sapient forerunners etched “straight lines and a rough geometric pattern” into the shells. PZ writes, “I’m going to go out on a limb here, though, and suggest that our mighty clam hunter was doodling.” Finally, back on Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel tells the story of the Chinese empress Léi Zǔ, who discovered the secret of silk nearly three millennia before the birth of Jesus. As Chad tells the legend, “she was drinking tea in her garden, and a silkworm cocoon fell into her tea. When she poked at it to get it out of the hot water, the thread unraveled, and she became fascinated with it.” The rest, of course, is fashion history.

Genetic Drifters

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers criticizes the stubborn obfuscations of Michael Behe, who refuses to yield his illogical calculations. Behe says (rightly) that a certain mutation necessary for drug resistance in the malaria parasite has about a 1 in 1020 chance of occurring. But the mutation is also detected in 96% of malaria patients who respond well to the drug; it proliferated widely because, by itself, it had no impact on the parasite’s fitness. The parasite needed another mutation, occurring at a later date, to develop resistance to the drug. Behe rests his case for divine intervention on the basis of bad math; as PZ writes, “It was crude, stupid, and ridiculous when J. Random Creationist was doing it, and it’s even worse when a guy with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, who ought to know better, panders to the mob of creationists who don’t even grasp middle school mathematics by using fallacious operations in probability.” Meanwhile, Orac reports that one of the flu strains targeted by this year’s vaccine “has undergone what is referred to as ‘genetic drift,'” making the vaccine less effective than desired. Yet the vaccine still offers protection against about 57% of circulating strains. On Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle shares research that says consuming caffeine while pregnant can effect genes in the baby’s heart. In total, researchers “identified 124 genes and 849 transcripts that were altered by exposure to caffeine in utero.” And on ERV, Abbie Smith reviews the evolutionary trajectory of HIV, which may be tending toward a ‘truce’ with human hosts.

Incense, Fresh Air, and Plutonic Vacuum

On Aardvarchaeology, Martin Rundkvist compiles his best November tweets into one riotous and insightful document. First up: “This chocolate praline contains something that looks and smells like shampoo. Apparently it’s flavoured with elderflower extract.” Elderberry has been used for medicinal purposes worldwide for thousands of years, but maybe the praline makers should use the delicious berry extract instead of flower. Kim Krisberg considers less odorous possibilities on The Pump Handle, citing research that says advantages such as “proximity to parks and open spaces” help children start early on the path toward well-being. Yet, Krisberg writes, “40 percent of black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children live in ‘very low-opportunity’ neighborhoods within their metropolitan areas, compared to only 9 percent of white children.” And on Starts With a Bang!, Ethan Siegel represents for the little giant Pluto, which will soon be surveyed by the New Horizons spacecraft. Beyond Pluto, we’ll have to settle for the rest of our beautiful galaxy.

Freedom Fighters vs. Weak Positions

On Aardvarchaeology, Martin Rundkvist tells the story of a 14-year old Swedish Muslim girl who also happens to be very good at karate. Recently this young woman was disqualified from a tournament because she wears a veil and the rules state “that the umpire needs to be able to watch for damage to each contestant’s throat.” She was also disqualified from solo performance, despite that lack of potential for neck damage. Martin writes, “Things are changing in the karate world. You couldn’t compete wearing any kind of veil until last year. When it became allowed, Iran’s women’s team immediately won a world cup medal at kata – wearing regulation veils.” Meanwhile, on Pharyngula, PZ Myers takes a few stabs at ‘ludicrous’ assumptions, saying they lead to “absurdities like the paleo diet, in which it’s assumed that we should eat like cavemen, because evolution.” And on Respectful Insolence, Orac calmly parries the ignorant fear-mongering of online activists fantasizing about cancer cells in vaccines.

Isaac Newton’s Holiday Countup

On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel counts up toward the birthday of that most holy of men: Sir Isaac Newton. Each day Orzel will (hopefully) unveil a new gem that didn’t make it into his exciting new book. On Day 1, Chad wrote about the apocryphal moment of inspiration—in a bathtub—that led the Greek polymath Archimedes to first exclaim “Eureka!” And for Day 2, Orzel considers the scientific origin of art among prehistoric peoples in southern Africa. He writes, “The pigment-grinding process wasn’t a simple thing that might happen by accident, but a multi-step process, involving grinding then mixing with animal fat to make a kind of paste. The ochre and goethite used for this come from deposits some distance away, so they had to be deliberately selected and brought there.” Which begs the question: if ancient peoples could think so scientifically, why can’t many modern politicians and moneygrubbers? Even small children can think scientifically. Everyone can think scientifically! That is our future and our true human heritage.

Not True Enough to Be Good?

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers criticizes a stirring new short film imagining humanity’s presence on the far-flung worlds of our solar system. PZ writes, “There’s nothing in those exotic landscapes as lovely and rich as mossy and majestic cedars of the Olympic Peninsula, or the rocky sea stacks of the nearby coast.” So let’s not get ahead of ourselves in turning Earth into a dust bowl. On Respectful Insolence, Orac considers the demerits of a new monograph on ‘integrative oncology,’ saying it’s a false dichotomy polarizing aspects of actual science and pure wishful thinking. And on Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel complains that his new book “shares a name with a vacuum cleaner manufacturer, a SyFy show that was pretty good before it was canceled, and a famous exclamation by some dude from Syracuse.” So he had to settle for Now to start that holiday wish list…