12/31/2008 12:59:28 PM
In the not so distant past, it seemed that hobby science had gone the way of the dodo bird. Surveying back issues of Popular Science, Mark Frauenfelder, the editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine and co-founder of Boing Boing, noticed that stories about basement adventures with test tubes and hot plates disappeared sometime in the 1960s, replaced by tales of big money experimentation—"the kind that costs billions of dollars and requires an army of PhDs to oversee."
Then along came the internet, that fertile ground the next generation of amateur scientists are springing from, according to Frauenfelder. In a post for Good magazine's blog, he writes:
The Internet inspires and speeds along amateur scientific research by making it possible to share reports, videos, blueprints, data, and discussions. Interestingly, amateur scientists are using the Internet exactly as the architects of the Internet years ago envisioned it 40 years ago—as a scientific research facilitator, replacing snail mail, print versions of peer review papers, and conferences. It's brought far flung researchers together in a shared space where communication is instant and ideas flow fast.
The proof for Frauenfelder lies in the surging popularity of MAKE's annual DIY fair, which he attributes to "the resurgence of experimentation spurred on by Internet communication."
12/31/2008 12:51:47 PM
The media’s rocky relationship with science didn’t improve in 2008. The British newspaper Telegraph reported that red wine causes breast cancer, and then reported that red wine prevents breast cancer just two months later. A few news sources reported that a “pixie dust” could help people regrow their fingers, which isn't very likely. Ben Goldacre takes the hacks to task in his Bad Science blog, and he’s compiled some of the worst science offenders in a special, year-end post.
Goldacre also takes on the obfuscating drug and PR companies, and the incompetence of governments and regulators. “It’s only when you line these jokers up side by side,” Goldacre writes, “that you realise what a vast and unwinnable fight we face.”
12/28/2008 11:43:16 AM
Further solidifying Google move towards total world dominance, Australia's newspaper the Age reports that scientists recently discovered hundreds of new species, including new birds, insects, and monkeys, using Google Earth.
The location of the find on Mount Mabu, Mozambique, was originally singled out for a possible conservation project, but researchers decided to take a closer look when they saw previously unexplored patches of vegetation. You can see the gorgeous photos on the Guardian website.
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12/26/2008 11:55:25 AM
Groups are thought to be strong: United we stand, divided we fall. E pluribus unum. In reality, though, just one negative person can ruin an entire group, according to research by Will Felps highlighted on This American Life. Felps identified three personality types that can ruin a group: jerks, slackers, and depressive pessimists. One person who fits any of those personality types can make an otherwise productive group 30 to 40 percent worse. “What was sort of eerily surprising,” Felps said of his research, “was how these team members would start to sort of take on” the characteristic of the bad apple. Groups with a jerk in them started being mean to each other. Groups with a depressive pessimist often acted more depressed.
Group dynamics can also give way to group think. Too often, Jake Mohan writes for the Jan-Feb issue of Utne Reader, “Fruitful dissent evaporates, self-defeating tendencies surge, and corrosive emotions destroy the potential of group work.”
There are strategies to overcome the problems in group dynamics. Mohan writes that “Team leaders can encourage constructive dissent by playing devil’s advocate and disagreeing with a unanimous decision, prompting a timid voice to pipe up.” In Felps’ research, there was one group that didn’t do worse, even with a bad apple. In that group, according to Felps, “There was just one guy who was a particularly good leader. And what he would do was he would ask questions and he would engage all the team members and diffuse conflicts.” The question that Felps is currently researching is whether a good leader can overcome the obstacles provided by all the jerks, slackers, and depressive pessimists just by asking questions. His previous research would suggest that it’s possible.
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12/26/2008 10:49:43 AM
Some half a million people in the United States experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Symptoms of the condition, also known as winter-onset depression, include anxiety, fatigue, and irritability, and the problems may keep coming back every winter.
The disorder is thought to be caused by the lack of sunlight that some people experience during the winter. It also may be an evolutionary remnant of human hibernation, according to columnist Carol Venolia in Utne Reader’s sister publication, Natural Home magazine. As recently as the early 20th century, Venolia writes that peasants in both Russia and France would shut themselves in for the cold months, huddling around the stove and barely moving until the spring thaw.
Venolia advocates giving into our hibernation tendencies, at least a little bit. If we did, “We’d sleep more and demand less from ourselves. We’d be more inward and reflective.”
Image courtesy of OakleyOriginals, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/23/2008 10:39:22 AM
Millions of people came together online during the 2008 election, working to get Barack Obama elected president. They donated money, made phone calls from the internet database, organized meetings, and blogged on the candidate’s website. And now, Barack Obama knows about all of them.
Many gave up their information willingly, volunteering their emails to sign up for MyBarackObama.com’s cutting-edge web 2.0 functionality or yielding their cell phone numbers to receive text messages with the latest campaign updates. The campaign’s army of volunteers also took to the phones and to the streets, asking people for information on their political leanings and issues important to them. According to Technology Review, the Democratic National Committee acquired some 223 million pieces of data on potential voters in the final two months before the election.
That information isn’t going away when Obama moves into the White House. People used to joke that the Republican Party was so successful at “microtargeting,” and knowing about potential voters, that they knew what kind pizza that each voters liked. Now, “GOP's data-gathering efforts look like the work of amateurs,”
Wall Street Journal. “It's illegal. There are statutory prohibitions on the White House from using tax dollars to directly lobby Congress by unleashing emails, calls and visits.”
Just one problem,” Karl Rove wrote last month in an opinion piece for the
It turns out that the Obama campaign's use of the data is almost completely unregulated,” Grimmelmann writes. MyBarackObama.com’s
The likelihood of the Obama administration selling its databases for money, or even sharing it with the NSA, seems slim. “The Obama campaign has the means and the opportunity to violate your privacy,” Grimmelmann writes, “but it doesn't have much of a motive.” The FBI and the NSA already have the necessary means to get that kind of information, and the Obama team wouldn’t want their databases compromised by outside influences.
Join the Discussion” feature to their Change.gov website, allowing people to weigh in on issues important to them. According to Reagan, there’s been talk of creating automatically generated voter profiles, with information on people’s personal voting districts and allowing them to easily connect to their elected representatives.
added a “
Tech experts are hoping that “Mr. Obama can convince the public to channel the energy wasted on inconsequential Internet tendencies into getting involved in government,” Regan writes. They could leverage their existing information to facilitate a greater connection between the government and other citizens, as long as other issues, including health care, the economy, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t get in the way first.
Image by Quinn Dombrowski, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/22/2008 9:58:22 AM
Synesthesia is the source of near-endless fascination for neuroscientists. It’s “probably the sexiest neurological phenomenon around,” Michael Mays observed on Studio 360 last February. Synesthetic people tend to reflexively blend their senses together, seeing colors in response to music, for example, or link shapes with specific tastes.
A new study, highlighted by the New Scientist, documents the first known cases of an unusual form of synesthesia where textures blend with emotions. For these synesthetes, corduroy may produce confusion, while dry leaves might trigger disgust.
For the study, neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran and David Brang tested their subjects twice over the span of eight months to confirm that they felt textures in emotionally specific ways. Their associations stayed the same throughout the tests: One woman described the sensation of sandpaper as “telling a white lie” in the first round of tests, and said she felt “guilty” after touching it the second time, “but not a bad guilt.”
The study follows only two subjects, so this particular form of synesthesia is likely rare, but it’s more than a curiosity. Neurologist Richard Cytowic estimates that 1 in 23 people experience some kind of synesthesia.
Ramachandran theorizes that synesthesia may be an evolutionary adaptation that helps people think creatively and metaphorically. He describes synesthetic experience as a spectrum, where nearly everyone has the ability to make some form of synesthetic connections. For example, he sees traces of tactile-emotional synesthetic thought in the widespread use of phrases like “sharp criticism” or a “rough night.” In fact, Ramachandran thinks that studying synesthesia could help explain some key milestones in human evolution, like the development of language.
Image courtesy of Djenan Kozic, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/19/2008 1:06:57 PM
When the Beatles sang the song “Revolution,” they probably weren’t thinking about changing lightbulbs. But LEDs (light-emitting diodes) could “revolutionize how we use light,” according to two professors from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in a recent article published in Optics Express.
Researchers working on alternative lighting solutions say LED lights will replace the common lightbulb in the coming years. e!ScienceNews reports, “If all of the world's lightbulbs were replaced with energy-efficient LEDs for a period of 10 years, researchers say it would reduce global oil consumption by 962 million barrels, reduce the need for 280 global power plants, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10.68 gigatons, and ultimately result in financial savings of $1.83 trillion.”
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12/18/2008 10:32:34 AM
Just about every episode of the hit medical drama House MD follows a pattern, as the humor magazine Cracked points out: A patient presents weird symptoms that escalate into a life-or-death situation, House and his team take ridiculous risks to save the patient, and then the patient is saved.
What many viewers don’t know is that the National Institutes of Health has its very own House-like team called the Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP). The main idea of the TV show echoes the UDP’s work, but the two don’t have much else in common. The New Scientist interviewed program head William Gahl, who, unlike the TV show's protagonist, seems to be a humble, caring man with a sincere interest in his patients. Plus, real patients usually show up with slow-developing conditions, not the dramatic collapses seen on the show.
The UDP began in May of 2008 and in those seven short months has received over 1000 doctors’ inquiries. The program, according to Gahl, serves two purposes: Not only do the physicians work to diagnose and help patients, they also try to identify new medical conditions in the hopes of making future diagnoses easier for everyone.
12/17/2008 11:31:13 AM
The majesty of the cosmos seems somewhat diminished when scientists refer to planets by alphanumeric designations. David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” would be less impressive were it named “Life on HD 11964 d.” And I doubt that a book called, “Men Are From Kappa CrB b, Women Are From TrES-1 b” would sell very well. We give proper, sometimes impressive names to planets in our solar system, and Christopher Cokinos asks in the American Scholar (article not available online), “Shouldn’t we extend the courtesy to planets that orbit other stars?”
Giving creative names to distant planets could restore a sense of wonder and a greater attachment to the celestial bodies, Cokinos writes. When planets are named after mythological characters, it gives them a back story that amateurs and laypeople can understand better. It also places our planet as “part of a cosmic family and place worth protecting.”
To emphasize the point, here’s David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?”:
12/16/2008 2:47:21 PM
In 2007, Japan installed an average of 4.1 robots every hour, according to IEEE Spectrum. And while Japan leads the way in robots per person, the magazine deemed Europe the “epicenter of global automation,” with an average of 50 robots in use for every 10,000 workers. Some $18 billion were spent on robots worldwide in 2007, and futurists don’t see humans stopping their push for automated helpers any time soon.
In fact, the next 15 years may bring about a “mass hybridisation between humans and robots,” professor Antonio Lopez Pelaez of Spain's National Distance Learning University told the Guardian newspaper. Pelaez predicts a rise in artificial robotic body implants, and believes that humans will develop greater emotional attachments to the machines. “Just as you can see dog owners talking to their pets today,” according to Pelaez, “soon we will be talking to robots.”
12/16/2008 9:37:29 AM
Japan seems to have decidedly more fun with their space program than their fellow astronauts. Just two months after heralding their space-launched paper airplanes, Japanese brewer Sapporo has announced the development of beer brewed from “Sapporo Space Barley.” The barley seedlings spent five months aboard the Russian Research Modules of the International Space Station before coming back to Earth for planting, harvesting, and fermentation.
The batch produced 100 liters of beer, most of which will be used for studies on the “Impact of Extreme Environmental Stresses on Barley” (an experiment I wouldn’t mind being a part of) and the possibility of brewing in space. The brewery is doing a small public tasting in January, but alas, the brew apparently tastes just like regular beer.
(Thanks, Boing Boing)
Image courtesy of ronin691, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/10/2008 1:53:58 PM
Scientists may have figured out why some females eat their male suitors. According to Science News, researchers studying Mediterranean tarantulas have found that cannibalistic female spiders have more offspring and lay eggs earlier than ones who didn’t eat their suitors. The extra time allowed the children of cannibals to grow bigger and stronger than their non-cannibalistic relatives. Some researchers speculate that the eaten males provide “prenatal nutrition” to the offspring.
12/10/2008 9:39:29 AM
Spammers go through a lot of trouble to sell “male enhancement” pills, “genuine” college degrees, and other schlock to a bunch of people who don’t want anything to do with them. And yet the emails keep coming.
So how many unsuspecting rubes does it take to keep these spammers in business? According to Techradar.com, spammers can make a ton of money if just one person in 12,500,000 responds.
(Thanks, Newmark’s Door.)
12/9/2008 4:22:20 PM
Years of anti-science politics haven’t just repressed controversial scientific findings; the approach has stopped controversial topics from being researched in the first place, according to research by Rutgers professor Joanna Kempner. Facing protests from lawmakers, institutions, and taxpayers, Kempner found that researchers have opted to change or eliminate divisive words (for example, “AIDS research,” “abortion,” or “homosexuality”) from their proposals, replacing them with benign euphemisms or leaving them out altogether. Kempner calls attention to the “chilling effect” that these controversies have, meaning that scientists will be less inclined to study a certain area in the future if it means uphill battles for funding.
It’s difficult to tell how much these issues have already affected research, since government databases do not show original versions of altered documents. According to Kempner, “Congressional oversight has, in this case, had the unintended consequence of making science less transparent.” This “chilling effect” hasn’t stopped all scientists, though. Kempner writes that “some scientists shy away from controversial research areas, while others relish the opportunity to defend their ideological positions.”
12/9/2008 1:24:35 PM
The fact that friends influence their friends’ moods should be no surprise, but new research shows that friends-of-friends and friends-of-friends-of-friends—even those who’ve never met—have the power to influence each other’s moods, too.
The influence people hold over other people's moods wanes the further apart they are socially, according to the research reported in the New Scientist. A person is 15 percent more likely to be happy if a friend is happy, but it drops to ten percent for friends of friends, and six percent for friends three-degrees-removed. Six percent may sound like a small number, but a $5000 raise has been shown to bump contentment by just two percent.
The influence ends at three degrees of separation, according to the researchers. After that point, sway through social networks becomes insignificant. Interestingly, the study suggests that social influence doesn’t operate in a simple ripple effect—three is apparently the magic number. After three degrees of separation, “a kind of social dissonance saps the transmission of behavior, almost like a wave.”
12/5/2008 5:44:36 PM
Inventions aren’t just for inventors, according to Saul Griffith, one of Utne Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” His myriad innovations, including low-cost eyeglass lenses and a smart rope that’s able to sense its own load, are undoubtedly impressive. What makes Griffith different is that he wants to help everyone share in the inventive process.
In this episode of the UtneCast, senior editor Keith Goetzman talks with Griffith about the future of invention and innovation, which he believes will be more open and collaborative. Griffith is also helping bring that future to fruition with HowToons, a series of science-based cartoons for children.
You can listen to the interview below, or to subscribe to the UtneCast for free through iTunes, click here.
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12/2/2008 10:43:15 AM
Simply by looking at a photo, most people are able to figure out if a person would be good in a monogamous relationship or if that person is more interested in casual sex, Mairi Macleod writes for the New Scientist. Men who look more “masculine” and women who are judged more “attractive” were not only thought to be more promiscuous, they actually were more inclined toward flings.
Scientists are trying to explain this phenomenon through biology and evolution. The ability to make accurate snap judgments of people’s sexual proclivities would provide an evolutionary advantage. What scientists continue to grapple with, however, is why people would have such wildly divergent sexual strategies to begin with.
Back in 1991, researchers developed a questionnaire to measure people's level of sexual unrestrictedness, a trait they called “sociosexuality.” Survey respondents were asked seven questions, including questions about their sexual history and if they agreed with statements like, “Sex without love is OK.” From their answers, researchers tried to determine how cavalier respondents were toward sex. You can view the questionnaire here.
From that questionnaire, evolutionary biologists identified differing motivations for infidelity between men and women. Since women run the risk of getting pregnant, men are thought to be evolutionarily wired for more sexual partners. This may be changing, however, according to new research profiled in the New York Times. Tara Parker-Pope writes that “women appear to be closing the adultery gap: younger women appear to be cheating on their spouses nearly as often as men.”
That may be true in the United States, but many factors are at play that could influence the numbers. For example, in cultures with a high ratio of men to women, like China, Japan, and South Korea, “there is a relatively low level of interest in uncommitted casual sex,” according to Macleod. And Parker-Pope reports that social taboos may influence self-reporting of infidelity, where people are less apt to admit infidelity during in-person surveys.
In their quest for more accurate answers on enduring sexual questions, scientists continue to dream up stranger and stranger experiments. In her new book on sexual science, Bonk, author Mary Roach describes the act of having sex with her husband in a 4D ultrasound system, and some experiments even stranger than that. Although the science still leads to unreliable results, Roach told the website Neuronarrative, “we’ve come a long way, certainly. That’s not to say that the work is done, though.”
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12/1/2008 3:16:13 PM
In a bid to help reverse Europe’s serious population decline, Swedish medical student Anders Svensson recently wrote an academic thesis on the financial benefits of state-subsidized in vitro fertilization, Science Daily reports. The idea may seem odd, but Svensson isn’t the first to make the connection between IVF and the economy. Last year the Rand Corporation published a study calculating the costs and benefits of such an initiative and found that the government would theoretically turn a significant profit on its investment in the form of taxes paid by the individual throughout his or her lifetime.
Europe’s dwindling population is currently threatening many state-maintained support programs like Social Security and health care. If the birth rate doesn’t increase soon, children may be increasingly forced to support the aging European population, which by 2050 will have an estimated one in three people over the age of 65. With that responsibility looming, Svensson and others believe that investing government money in IVF programs and technology could help spur future economic growth, as well as improve the morale of thousands of couples who are involuntarily childless.
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