2/27/2009 10:18:16 AM
Mapping the universe is a vast and overwhelming job that scientists can’t do on their own. The website Galaxy Zoo has asked everyone on the internet for help identifying galaxies across the universe.
Visitors to the site are asked a series of simple questions about images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, mostly having to do with shapes. “This is a job that humans are much better at than computers,” according to the Galaxy Zoo website, “so most of the questions should be fairly easy.
The task seems like a simple game, but the effort has resulted in serious science. Four papers have already been published based on the project’s findings and at least four more are on the way.
Source: Galaxy Zoo
2/27/2009 10:17:44 AM
It must have been quite a party:
“What did you do on New Year's Eve?"
"Um, I watched my friends eat dog food.”
Yikes. It sounds like these friends were on the losing end of a bet. Apparently, though, they did it in the name of science—helping Science Magazine’s John Bohannon test some theories on the psychology behind luxury food purchases. He wondered what feeds the demand for pricey foods. Do people really enjoy them, or do they just feel like they should? Some research has suggested that price influences our perception of quality. A study on wine preferences, for instance, found that most people can’t pick out expensive wine by taste, and, on the whole, tend to favor cheaper versions if they're not aware of the cost.
In his taste test, Bohannon placed the dog food alongside pâté, liverwurst, and Spam. His subjects weren't fooled: They consistently rated dog food as the least appetizing option.
Image courtesy of star5112, licensed under Creative Commons.
(Thanks, In the Pipeline.)
Sources: In the Pipeline, Science Magazine
2/26/2009 4:27:01 PM
Promoting more women in the workplace isn’t just equitable, it’s profitable. Researchers have found that Fortune 500 companies that aggressively promote women to high levels consistently outperform their industry peers, Roy Douglas Adler writes for Miller-McCune. Adler and his colleagues at Pepperdine University used data from a study on the glass ceiling and found that the companies best at promoting women outperformed the industry median on various measures of profitability.
Adler stresses that the correlation between hiring women and profitability doesn’t show a causation, but he does come up with a possible explanation:
Firms exhibit higher profitability when their top executives make smart decisions. One of the smart decisions those executives have consistently made at successful Fortune 500 firms is to include women in the executive suite—so that regardless of gender, the best brains are available to continue making smart, and profitable, decisions.
2/26/2009 3:48:59 PM
Law enforcement officials often rely on forensic evidence to build cases against suspected criminals. This evidence isn’t foolproof, though. In fact, a new report by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council characterized U.S. forensic science as “badly fragmented” and in dire need of an overhaul.
The National Academy of Sciences identifies four major areas of weakness in forensic science practices, including a lack of accreditation and certification standards in forensic labs and a reliance on unproven analytical techniques. The council calls for the formation of an independent governing body to address these problems.
The report doesn’t talk about what this means for people who’ve been convicted with forensic evidence. For now, then, it’s unclear whether its findings will affect past or pending cases.
Image courtesy of VeryBadLady, licensed under Creative Commons.
(Thanks, Chemical and Engineering News.)
2/25/2009 2:25:56 PM
The use of the word effect to describe far-reaching phenomena has gone mainstream. What started as a way to describe scientific principles—think Doppler effect, butterfly effect, greenhouse effect—the word has branched out like a debutante whose time has come. In this month’s IEEE Spectrum, Paul McFedries breaks down the ripple effect of effect, including:
1) the much-discussed Bradley effect (and its alter ego, the reverse Bradley effect), in which white voters choose white candidates in spite of claiming otherwise in polls
2) the lipstick effect, in which consumers make small, comforting purchases during a recession rather than big ticket items
3) the iPod halo effect, in which all Apple products benefit from the popularity of iPods
4) the CSI effect, in which jurors expect smoking gun-type forensic evidence from prosecutors, based on their viewing of the popular TV shows
5) the NASCAR effect, in which copious amounts of advertising appear on anything from Websites to clothing
Source: IEEE Spectrum
2/24/2009 4:15:32 PM
Natural history museums have traditionally measured their worth by the breadth of their physical collections. With all the digital projects that archive scientific information, these holdings may seem outdated or superfluous. Carl Zimmer thinks museums still have an important role to play in the future of science research and education, though, and writes for Seed about the importance of maintaining their real-world collections.
Digital projects like the The Encyclopedia of Life, which catalogues the work of natural history museums digitally, are evolving into stiff competition for museums. These digital resources are often less costly to maintain than regular museums, and they can sometimes reach larger audiences.
Zimmer hopes that the existence of resources like EOL won't discourage museums from taking care of their physical collections. He cites a recent case of an set of Neanderthal bones in a German museum: After languishing in storage for 150 years, scientists found them, took DNA samples, and were able to draw new insights about our evolutionary relationship to Neanderthals. Preserving physical museum collections, then, is not just a nod to the past, but a way of claiming “a stake in our future.”
Image courtesy of Christian Guthier, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/18/2009 1:30:21 PM
Barack Obama’s election is hailed as a step forward in American race relations. Now, researchers are trying to quantify the “Obama Effect” to figure out how it’s changing American culture. One study, reported by the New York Times, found that a test-taking achievement gap between black people and white people disappeared after Obama’s election. In other words, before Obama’s election, white people tended to do better on this test than black people. Now, that gap has disappeared, at least for this test.
The reason why that gap existed in the first place, Jonah Lehrer writes for the Frontal Cortex blog, may be due to a “stereotype threat.” Stereotypes can creep into the minds of test takers, making them perform worse on tests because of the threat, rather than any difference in intelligence.
An inspiring politician isn’t needed to erase that achievement gap, according to the WNYC show Radio Lab. All that’s needed is a simple change in language: When a test is referred to as an “intelligence test,” the gap remains. But if researchers refer to the exact same test as a “puzzle,” or some other word that is less loaded than “test,” the difference goes away.
“The real subtle power of a stereotype isn’t that it prevents you from the thing you want to do,” Radio Lab’s Jad Abumrad says, “it distracts you for just a beat from the thing you want to do. And that may be all the difference.”
Obama’s election could be lowering racism coming from white people, too. Tom Jacobs reports for Miller McCune that biases against black people registered significantly lower after Obama’s election in certain research. Researchers from Florida State University used Implicit Association Tests and found that the participants, 80 percent of which were white, showed no biases against black people, while previous studies showed a preference for white people. The researchers described this as a “fundamental change” in American race relations.
The post-election test results aren’t all positive, however. Other studies have shown that white people who expressed a preference for Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008, also expressed a preference for hiring white people over black people. That same preference didn’t come up when the participants expressed a preference for John Kerry.
“The researchers conclude that endorsing Obama helps people establish their ‘moral credentials’ as non-prejudiced people,” Jacobs writes, “and thus makes them more comfortable expressing opinions that could be regarded by some as racist.”
Sources: Miller McCune, Radio Lab, Frontal Cotex, New York Times
Image by hyperscholar, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/16/2009 11:55:35 AM
Most childhood dreams of flying to the moon go unfulfilled. It turns out that becoming an astronaut is really hard. But nowadays, if you’re lucky enough to have a spare $20 million dollars or so lying around, you can go into orbit without landing a plumb gig at NASA. Technology Review spent six months interviewing five of the six space tourists that have, so far, made the trip to the International Space Station. The result is the “first oral history of space tourism,” published in the February 2009 issue as a collection of excerpts from the interviews that together tell the story “of what a space vacation is really like.” Here’s a taste of some mundane details from the interviews that bring the experience to life:
Anousheh Ansari on the conditions of Star City, the military base turned astronaut campus in Russia where the “private cosmonauts”—one of the terms Richard Garriott prefers to “space tourist”—train for at least three months:
Everything is on the verge of falling down. … The first day I came, there was no hot water. The next day, there was no hot water. I was going to the gym and taking showers over there. Finally I went down, and it’s like, “Do you know when the hot water will come back?” They said, “Yeah, in about a month.”
On Russian launch day customs, of which there are apparently many:
Greg Olsen: A lot of traditions come from Yuri Gagarin [the first human in space]. When he was going out to the launch, he had to take a leak. They just didn’t make any provisions for it. He said, “Stop the bus.” He got off the bus and peed on the rear tire, and ever since then, that’s mandatory.
More on peeing:
Richard Garriott: I did wear and need a diaper during launch. You’re psychologically motivated not to need it, but you quickly learn to get over your difficulty and use the device as designed.
Greg Olsen: It didn’t smell. Those diapers are well made.
Details of a 3-D lifestyle:
Richard Garriott: The galley table is covered with spoons that are standing up like trees, because they put double-sided tape on the table. You can just tap the bottom end of your spoon handle on the table and it sticks there. That’s one of the first lessons, the three-dimensional use of space.
There are many more interesting tidbits in the 12-page spread, and you can also listen to excerpts of the interviews online.
Sources: Technology Review, Anousheh Ansari Space Blog, Space Tourism, RichardinSpace.com
2/12/2009 4:54:59 PM
In a bid to make Wikipedia more transparent, a new website lets users see who’s been editing its articles, and how often, reports Technology Review. WikiDashboard generates a display at the top of Wikipedia entries that tracks the number of edits each user has contributed and keeps a timeline of when the edits took place. Ed Chi, who helped the Palo Alto Research Center develop the site, hopes WikiDashboard will help people understand the social interactions around an article—by making it obvious when a few users are dominating a conversation, for instance, or by showing when a topic's been fiercely debated.
Sources: Technology Review
2/11/2009 11:28:22 AM
As soldiers continue to face violent threats in the form of car or truck bombs, engineers are designing weapons to stop oncoming vehicles in ways that more closely resemble the Justice League than the U.S. military. David Hambling reports for Wired that the latest offerings include a “pre-emplaced net” powerful enough to stop trucks and cars; a portable trap which sits on the road and releases squid-like tentacles onto overhead axles; high-speed foam; and, a microwave ray gun which would literally fry potential threats.
2/9/2009 2:54:50 PM
The big dogs of the internet, including Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo, are stocking up in an arms race to power the future of information, according to the new issue of IEEE Spectrum. The companies are building gargantuan data centers, or “warehouse-sized computers,” that will theoretically create the backbone for the future of the information economy.
The data centers are designed to facilitate “cloud computing” where people will be able to store much of their private information remotely, rather than on a physical hard drive. Gmail or online banking are manifestations of this idea. In the future, people may be able to store much more.
Housing the servers that will store these massive troves of information is proving to be a challenge for electrical engineers. Microsoft’s datacenter in Quincy, Washington, for example is nearly 43,600 square meters in size, and consumes enough energy to power 40,000 homes. The article profiles some of the (rather complicated) steps that these companies are taking to control their energy usage, and cut down a bit on their carbon footprints.
Image by Paul Hammond, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/5/2009 4:00:00 PM
Most people would just write a press release, but Ted Ciamillo devised a flashier way to draw attention to the pedal-powered submarine he invented: Later this year, he’s taking it on a solo mission across the Atlantic and giving himself just 50 days to complete the journey. According to the New Scientist, the undertaking may prove more than a publicity stunt. Some scientists are convinced the trip will be a milestone in research on marine life.
Ciamillo will spend his days pedaling at a relatively shallow depth, about 2 meters below the sea surface. Surprisingly, scientists know very little about this region of the ocean, in part because current research methods are noisy, disruptive, and piecemeal. Because the sub is small and has no motor—and because it will be spending such a sustained amount of time in the water—some think it could provide valuable insight about ocean life at this depth. As a result, Ciamillo is working with researchers to prep the sub for data-gathering, fitting it out with high-resolution video cameras and making plans to meet up with support boats along his journey, which will provide him with fresh batteries and video tapes.
We'll learn more about what Ciamillo finds when the trip gets under way next November. Until then, you can read more about his plans on his project website.
Image courtesy of Christopher Thomas, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/4/2009 4:56:55 PM
People can do their own taxes, control their spending, contribute to retirement funds, and psychologists will still think they’re irrational about money. And more than likely, they're are right.
In many situations, people think more about the size of numbers than what they represent, according to an article in Science Daily. Using studies on risk aversion, psychologists at Ohio State University showed that people think of 300 cents as greater than $3, even though they hold the same value.
People also think of money “in terms of percentages, not in terms of absolute numbers,” behavioral economist Dan Ariely told Marketplace. He gave an example: If a person found out that they could save $7 on a $15 pen by walking five blocks, many people would do it. If they were told they could save $7 on a suit that cost $1,015, most people wouldn’t bother.
Both examples show how people can be entirely irrational, even when working with small numbers. When it comes to $700 billion bail out plans, I shudder to think.
2/4/2009 12:27:29 PM
Meth dealers and addicts have found a destructive way to get money for drugs: by looting artifacts and selling them on the black market. The March-April issue of Archaeology Magazine explores this nexus of antiquities and drugs and finds that “twiggers,” a combination of “diggers” and meth addicted “tweakers,” are fueling "a new epidemic of looting” especially in the American southwest.
The compulsive effects of methamphetamine make it an ideal drug for the repetitive and tedious work of artifact hunting, according to the article (not available online). Since the meth addicts generally have little knowledge of the artifacts, the process of digging them up can be particularly destructive. And since the artifacts are seldom traceable, convictions are extremely hard to come by.
Phil Young, a former agent with the National Parks Service, described one operation saying, “it was a very destructive process to the cultural resource, and of course to the individuals as well.”
2/4/2009 10:36:09 AM
In November the Oprah show introduced millions of viewers to Time magazine's "Invention of the Year", the 23andMe DNA test kit. This direct-to-consumer test promises buyers that, with one easy spit into a tube, they can unlock the mysteries of their genetic history by mailing saliva to be matched against 23andMe's DNA databases.
DNA tests aren't the gold standard of accuracy and truth, though, as Sue Friedman, founder of the nonprofit Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowerment (FORCE), illuminates in a special issue of GeneWatch. Potential problems include the invisible hand of biotech companies involved in unregulated marketing of these tests to consumers, as well as the possibility of incorrect interpretation without the benefit of expert analysis.
Consumers need to understand that a DNA test is not a silver bullet for health forecasting, and the companies that sell these tests need to comprehend the responsibilities inherent in their business. As Friedman states, "people are making real-life, real-moment decisions based on test results."
2/3/2009 3:16:40 PM
The world of science isn’t immune to sensational reporting. Jason Rosenhouse, a writer for Panda’s Thumb, takes science publications, especially New Scientist magazine, to task for making mountains out of scientific molehills. In a recent New Scientist article concerning disproval of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Rosenhouse writes, “[n]ever have you seen a science writer try so hard to make so big a deal from such meager materials.”
The editors made it the lead story (“Darwin Was Wrong,” the cover trumpets), yet the breakthrough is really just a small adjustment to previous theories, Rosenhouse writes, something already familiar to many who are up-to-date on Darwinism. Rosenhouse contends that this is the problem plaguing much of scientific journalism, where the predilection is to “sensationalize every small advance into a worldview shattering revolution.”
Image by simiezzz, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/3/2009 9:56:34 AM
The Iranian government recently announced that it launched its first domestically produced satellite from an undisclosed location, the New York Times reports. Political implications aside, the launch adds one more to the more than 900 satellites currently orbiting the earth. The Union of Concerned Scientists has compiled a searchable and free database of who owns those satellites, what they’re used for, and where they are in orbit. Iran was already on the list of countries that either owned a satellite outright or in a partnership, as was the Philippines, the Czech Republic, and tiny Luxembourg. The database gives a little more context to the space junk that’s filling up the sky.
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