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.


Last Week on

Solar cells made with bismuth vanadate achieve a surface area of 32 square meters per gram.  This compound can be paired with cheap oxides to split water molecules (and make hydrogen) with record efficiency.

Short-term geoengineering could postpone global warming, only to have it happen more quickly in the future.

Carotenoids tinge blackbird bills a deep orange, signalling fitness; birds with oranger bills are “are heavier and larger, have less blood parasites and pair with females in better condition than males with yellow bills.”

Fibroblasts can extrude a tidy biological scaffold for stem-cell growth at a nanometer scale, while provoking a lower immune response than synthetic or animal-derived materials.

Higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in the blood correlate with stronger white matter in the brain.

By first reverting skin cells to endodermal cells instead of stem cells, researchers were able to transform them into better liver cells with true regenerative potential.

Headband cam reveals that babies spend 25% of their waking lives looking at other people’s faces, 96% of which belonged to members of their own race.  By the age of 6 months, the faces of another race begin to all look the same.

Here: everything you ever wanted to know about star spiders.

Rodents are similar enough to humans to be used as laboratory models, so does a cat parasite that manipulates the behavior of rats also alter the behavior of humans (30-40% of whom are infected worldwide)?

Researchers have come within 99.8% of the theoretical limit of light absorption enhancement in solar cells, paving the way for “the next generation of high-efficiency, cost-effective and ultra-thin crystalline silicon solar cells.”

European utilities, under pressure from a law requiring 20% of all energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, are importing millions of metric tons of wood pellets from the southern United States.  Burning these pellets produces less than half the emissions of fossil fuel, not counting the energy needed to ship them across the Atlantic.

Newly discovered chimpanzee populations in the Congo are thriving, outnumbering their cousins in West Africa, but bushmeat hunters, like researchers, are beginning to encroach.

Another study shows a correlation between use of acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol) during pregnancy and the development of ADHD in children.

New process turns algae into biogas compatible with our natural gas infrastructure. “While it takes nature millions of years to transform biomass into biogas, it takes the SunCHem process less than an hour.”

Among single-celled organisms like algae, programmed suicide can benefit relatives while suppressing the growth of non-relatives.

Off-shore wind turbines could significantly slow hurricane winds and decrease storm surges, all while generating electricity.

Novel aerogel made from wood and polymer could be thrown on an oil spill, absorbing nearly 100 times its own weight before being wrung out and used again.

Five-year-olds spanked by their mothers showed increased behavioral problems at age 9.  Those spanked by their fathers showed reduced vocabulary.

During a musical “conversation,” a jazz musician scanned by fMRI showed activation of language and rhythmic centers in the brain, hemispheric mirrors that “perform syntactic processing for both music and speech.”  At the same time, there was a marked deactivation of the angular gyrus, which is involved in interpreting the meaning of words if not their syntactic structure.

And finally if you want to be considered a great artist, it might be worth cultivating an eccentric persona in the most sincere manner possible.

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The Carte Blanche of Intelligent Design

As an alternative to biblical creationism, Intelligent Design infers a less obtrusive God to explain life on Earth. This deity doesn’t hurl bolts of lightning, unless it’s with the express purpose of sparking abiogenesis in the primordial soup. On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse dismisses probabilistic arguments against the likelihood of complex organisms, explaining that even the most improbable-seeming outcome of natural selection is more or less inevitable. As a flawed analogy, he imagines flipping a coin 500 times. This will always manifest a sequence of heads and tails that only had a one in gazillion chance of occurring. But of course, nature has no mercy upon arbitrary outcomes. Rosenhouse writes, “The prolonged action of natural selection ensures that most gene sequences have a probability close to zero of ever occurring (or persisting for long if they do occur) while the small percentage of functional sequences have a relatively high probability.” On Pharyngula, PZ Myers aces a quiz that was meant for him to fail. PZ writes that ID “was intentionally formulated in response to court decisions that prohibited gods and faith-based arguments — they literally rewrote their texts to exclude god to circumvent church-state conflicts.” No surprise: it’s hard to sway skeptics with a true believer’s plan B.

Thus it was an uphill battle that Ken Ham lost in his debate against Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Nye was widely perceived as the winner, even in religious circles.  Greg Laden sums up Ken Ham’s argument as “We know everything, we understand the most important issues of origins, creation, and evolution, and all of this information comes mainly from the Bible.”  This in contrast to Nye, who presented “science, science, science and more science” clearly and convincingly.  Greg continues “During the few moments when we were allowed to see the evangelical audience during Bill Nye’s presentation they looked, frankly, charmed.”  PZ Myers sounds a note of dissonance amongst the praise for Nye, saying “Nye is good at communicating a passion for science, but fails to note the conflict when he pretends that science is about being a better, more employable widget maker for Big Widget, Inc.”  In other words, Nye focused on the economic advantages of scientific understanding to the exclusion of aesthetic and philosophic advantages.  PZ sees science as an art, and argues we should practice science for science’s sake.

As for Ken Ham, with even Pat Robertson disavowing biblical creationism, he may have been flogging a dead horse.  The invention of Intelligent Design as a shield for traditional religious beliefs may have backfired on creationism. The faithful are comfortable abandoning the idea of a Young Earth to embrace geology and evolution, as long as they have the carte blanche of Intelligent Design to provide a hypothetical role for the Almighty.