Category: Science

2014 IgNobel Prizes awarded


Some of my favorites:

NEUROSCIENCE PRIZE [CHINA, CANADA]: Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

REFERENCE: “Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia,” Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee, Cortex, vol. 53, April 2014, Pages 60–77. The authors are at School of Computer and Information Technology, Beijing Jiaotong University, Xidian University, the Institute of Automation Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, and the University of Toronto, Canada…

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE [CZECH REPUBLIC, JAPAN, USA, INDIA]: Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat…

REFERENCE: “Changes in personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis,” Jaroslav Flegr and Jan Havlicek, Folia Parasitologica, vol. 46, 1999, pp. 22-28…

REFERENCE: “Describing the Relationship between Cat Bites and Human Depression Using Data from an Electronic Health Record,” David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 8, 2013, e70585. WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Jaroslav Flegr, David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan…

ECONOMICS PRIZE [ITALY]: ISTAT — the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

REFERENCE: “Cambia il Sistema europeo dei conti nazionali e regionali – Sec2010″, ISTAT, 2014…

A good time was had by all…

Thanks, Mike

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Sugary soft drinks linked to accelerated aging

Consumption of sugary soda drinks such as cola and lemonade may be linked to accelerated DNA ageing, say researchers who have studied the impact of the drinks in more than 5,000 people.

High-sugar fizzy drinks have been under fire from campaigners for contributing to obesity and type-2 diabetes, but this is the first study to suggest a link with ageing. The researchers found that people who reported drinking a 350ml bottle of fizzy drink per day had DNA changes typical of cells 4.6 years older.

Yes, this sort of sugar consumption shortens your life much as smoking.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, asked 5,309 healthy adults aged between 20 and 65 about their consumption of fizzy drinks and examined the DNA from each participant’s white blood cells.

The team found that telomeres – protective DNA caps on the end of chromosomes – were shorter in people who reported habitually drinking more fizzy drinks.

Telomeres are repetitive sections at the end of chromosomes that get shorter each time cells divide. They act as a kind of genetic ticking clock and in the past have been associated with human lifespan as well as the development of some forms of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Other studies have suggested a link between telomere length and lifestyle factors such as smoking and psychological stress.

Prof Elissa Epel, of UCSF, stressed that the study only showed an association and did not prove that sugary drink consumption caused cell ageing. If high soda consumption was to blame, it may be due to the huge rush of sugars into the blood after a drink, leading to oxidative stress and inflammation – “the perfect storm for degrading telomeres,” said Epel.

Next in line for study – a tighter focus on sugar. Overdue as far as I’m concerned.

Thanks, Mike

Oppenheimer’s reputation repaired by unredacted security records


Oppenheimer with a socialist who wouldn’t be allowed into the country, today

The release of unredacted transcripts of secret government hearings held in 1954 by the Atomic Energy Commission produced headlines last week as the disclosures reaffirmed the once-questioned loyalty of Los Alamos Manhattan Project mastermind J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Many are asking why it took six decades to release the previously secret sections, other than that the now-restored portions tended to exonerate Oppenheimer. One expert says there was no classified information in the redactions.

All questions of security in the United States are regulated by paranoid idiots.

In a monumental fall from grace, Oppenheimer went from the man who harnessed the power of the atom for the bombs that ended World War II to losing his security clearance after the AEC hearings amid accusations that this chain-smoking American eccentric was a Soviet spy.

The hearings were held against the backdrop of 1950s red-scare America, fueled by factors including the fact that Oppenheimer’s brother and wife had been communists, and his lack of enthusiasm for building the more powerful hydrogen or “Super” bomb.

RTFA. The JOURNAL isn’t quite as much of a PITA as some. They don’t require registration; but, you must answer one or more survey questions which earns them relevant baksheesh I guess.

Cold War hysteria fit perfectly into the reactionary politics of the American establishment post-WW2. Oppenheimer, with a scientist’s objectivity and reliance on observable and verifiable fact did not. Our politicians would rather reject talent than admit their foolishness. Which is why government transparency is a contradiction in terms.

His earnestness about trying to build peace – alienated him from hawkish thugs like Edward Teller who wanted more and bigger bombs every week [and got them] – sealed the deal. No pleas for peace in imperial ideology.

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Oppenheimer a couple of times. He was just part of the audience at discussions about working to promote peace at forums sponsored by the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

US spy plane lands after 22 months in space


Click to enlargeCC/U.S. Air Force

The US military has landed its robotic space plane, ending a classified 22-month mission that marked the third in Earth orbit for the experimental programme widely believed to be related to spying.

The X-37B touched down at Vandenberg air force base in California on Friday, bringing to a close the third and longest mission the vehicle has undertaken since its maiden voyage in 2010.

The spacecraft conducted unspecified experiments for 674 days while in orbit. The US air force said the orbiter, built by Boeing, performed “risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies”, although details of the missions are secret.

In a written release announcing the craft’s return, the air force only said it had been conducting “on-orbit experiments”…

US officials have previously denied the project had anything to do with creating a “space weapon” that could knock down other satellites.

But, our government, our military ain’t about to tell ordinary citizens a damned thing. We just get to pick up the tab.

Thanks, Mike

Importance of tiny creatures in grassland ecology

A newly published study reveals the importance of earthworms, beetles, and other tiny creatures to the structure of grasslands and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

When asked to describe a forest or a meadow, most people would probably begin with the plants, the species diversity, or the color of the foliage. They probably wouldn’t pay much attention to the animals living in the soil.

But a new Yale-led study shows the critical importance of earthworms, beetles, and other tiny creatures to the structure of grasslands and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

During a 3-year study, researchers found that removing these small animals from the soil of a replicated Scottish sheep meadow altered the plant species that grew in the ecosystem, reduced overall productivity, and produced plants that were less responsive to common agricultural management, such as fertilization.

The results reflect the long-term ecological impacts of land use changes, such as the conversion of forests to agricultural land…

“We know these soil animals are important controls on processes which cause nutrients and carbon to cycle in ecosystems, but there was little evidence that human-induced loss of these animals has effects at the level of the whole ecosystem, on services such as agricultural yield,” said Mark Bradford…lead author of the study…

“Yet that’s exactly what we found.”

RTFA for the details of approach, method, discovery. The Yale School of Forestry has been around a couple thousand years – it feels like, sometimes. They never stop pressing for more and better understanding of the environment.

Thanks, Mike

A breakthrough in fusion energy


Click to enlargeEric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Corp says…it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years…

Lockheed sees the project as part of a comprehensive approach to solving global energy and climate change problems.

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.

Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.

It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.

McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.

Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Everything material about this is a positive. The only potential negatives are [1] Luddite fears over any power source that carries the word nuclear somewhere in the patent. It’s why for example no commercial food packaging in the United States uses gamma ray sterilization – even though it would dramatically increase safety from pathogens, reduce costs. And [2] the combination of American military vendors and the construction dollars needed to produce plants with appropriate safeguards will increase potential cost several-fold. The greedy bastards hate to leave well enough alone.

Still, the potential for cheap energy is so great it can overcome American greed. It will put creeps like the Koch Bros out of business yet do comparatively little harm to home-based energy sources like solar panels. Reactors like the smallest one proposed would produce sufficient electricity to power 100,000 homes. It needs a grid.

For the technically-interested, here’s a link to process details.

NOAA’s newest highest-resolution weather forecast


Click to enlarge

This image, made with NOAA’s newest weather model, shows ground temperature readings at a 2 mile resolution. Each pixel is shaded according to the temperature, ranging from 113 degrees F (the brightest yellow) to freezing (white).

This colorful map of ground temperature shows the tapestry of American weather on September 30. Undeniably beautiful, it owes its rich color gradient to a powerful new scientific tool for modeling the weather for incredibly small chunks of both time and space.

After five years of work, NOAA unveiled the new model, called High Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR), on September 30. Like its predecessor, HRRR will update every hour. But, HRRR fine tunes the forecast every 15 minutes by constantly digesting radar reports, so that the hourly update is as accurate as possible. Each forecast starts with a 3-D radar snapshot of the atmosphere that it modifies with data from NOAA’s vast network of weather stations, balloons, and satellites…

The graphic below shows the same weather system in HRRR (right) and its predecessor (left). In the old model, the front appears to be one, big, splotchy storm. HRRR shows that the front is actually a patchy group of storm cells, a picture that is much closer to reality.

resolution comparison

I am a weather geek in an extended family of weather geeks. Pretty much everyone including my wife has been a pilot one time or another – but me. We compare weather apps on our assorted cpus. And I can’t wait till one is available with this resolution.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Antibiotics stewardship reduces rate of hospital readmission for children

Among 176 children treated for nonchronic complex care issues and without underlying medical conditions, none were readmitted within 30 days if the physician accepted the recommendation of the pharmacist-physician antibiotics stewardship team, reported Jason Newland, MD, of Children’s Mercy Hospital-Kansas City in Missouri, and colleagues.

In comparison, among the 88 children whose doctors rejected the recommendations, 3.4% required readmission, they said at the annual IDWeek conference.

Newland noted that the difference was statistically significant

The pattern was similar among children who had chronic complex care issues. Of the 149 children whose doctors accepted the recommendations regarding use of antibiotics, there was no 30-day readmission. However, among the children whose doctors said No to the recommendations, the readmission rate was 2.6%, Newland said.

“We are only talking about two or three new admissions,” he acknowledged, “but there was none” in the groups where the recommendations were explained and were accepted by the doctors.

Pranita Tamma, MD, who moderated the IDWeek press briefing where the study results were presented, told MedPage Today that “antimicrobial stewardship programs generally consist of a physician and a pharmacist who oversee, guide, and educate clinicians in their institutions about the appropriate use of antibiotics. The goal of every stewardship program in the U.S. is to ensure that every patient who requires an antibiotic receives the right drug, the right dose, by the right route, and for the right duration of time.”

Dr. Pranita Tamma noted for the press briefing – “Ultimately, we believe that this improves the care of children while decreasing the unintended consequences of antibiotic overuse, including allergic reactions, severe diarrheal illnesses, hearing loss, kidney and liver damage, and, of course, antibiotic resistance.”

Hear, hear.

Wait for unintended consequences — Scientists to test lab-grown penises

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Penises grown in laboratories could soon be tested on men by scientists developing technology to help people with congenital abnormalities, or who have undergone surgery for aggressive cancer or suffered traumatic injury.

Yes, there will more categories.

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine…are assessing engineered penises for safety, function and durability. They hope to receive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration and to move to human testing within five years.

Professor Anthony Atala…oversaw the team’s successful engineering of penises for rabbits in 2008. “The rabbit studies were very encouraging,” he said, “but to get approval for humans we need all the safety and quality assurance data, we need to show that the materials aren’t toxic, and we have to spell out the manufacturing process, step by step.”

The penises would be grown using a patient’s own cells to avoid the high risk of immunological rejection after organ transplantation from another individual…

“Our target is to get the organs into patients with injuries or congenital abnormalities,” said Atala…

Aside from a guaranteed underground Black Market – you know religious nutballs in and out of government will go ballistic over this. Plus, you can look forward to the first reality TV show on the human trials.

Fighting wildfires with science

Fire modeling tools rely on information from the National Weather Service, detailed maps of fuel layers in forests and other factors. They estimate how fast the fire will burn and how it will spread in relation to vegetation, trees, homes and other properties.

For Joe Hudson and Byron Bonney, the WFDSS program calculated the Johnson Bar fire’s potential spread within a 26,000-acre planning area where firefighter actions could slow or stop the fire. The modeled fire behavior informed them on the potential effects on threatened values: homes along the Selway and in nearby Lowell, a rustic lookout, the historic Tahoe Trail, habitat for fish, and timber and replanted forests.

“Once the fire has escaped initial direct attack, the goal is to protect the values at risk and contain the fire,” said Hudson.

Hudson called in the Incident Management Team, an interagency group that manages large fires. The IMT set up camp Aug. 8 at the Kooskia airport, 20 miles west of the fire.

Winds were pushing the fire north. Winds were gusting 35 mph on the ridges, triggering an Aug. 12 flare that doubled the size of the fire in one day. People living in the 30 homes along the Selway already had been evacuated.

The IMT kept the fire from spreading and establishing itself on the other side of the river. The WFDSS analysis was helping guide their decisions.

With the fire spreading down the slopes of the Selway and Middle Fork Clearwater River, the managers decided to perform burnouts using the rivers as barriers.

It worked. Welcome rains helped tame the fire. Firefighters were able to establish containment lines.

There are a few sections to this article – each valuable. It all leads up to fire science, divining the factors affecting heat, fuel and oxygen – the determinants of a fire.

Read the article. Especially if you live in the Moiuntain West.

TechKnow on Aljazeera America had a good segment on these studies a week or so ago. Here are the producer’s notes. Haven’t a video of the segment, yet – only a promo for the show.

Thanks, Mike