Category: Science

Black holes may be more common than previously thought

 

Astronomers from the University of Utah have discovered a dwarf galaxy that is the smallest ever recorded with a supermassive black hole at its center. The galaxy, M60-UCD1, which is located around 54 million light years from our solar system near the M60 galaxy, has been found to contain a black hole with a mass equivalent to 21 million times that of our own sun and whose presence may suggest that such enormous black holes could be more common than previously thought.

“It is the smallest and lightest object that we know of that has a supermassive black hole,” said Anil Seth, lead author of the dwarf galaxy study. “It’s also one of the most black hole-dominated galaxies known.”

The researchers claim that their discovery, which was made using the Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, indicates that a large number of other ultra-compact galaxies may also harbor supermassive black holes. Furthermore, they also believe these diminutive galaxies could be all that remains of larger galaxies that have been ripped asunder during collisions with other galaxies…

Dwarf galaxies are generally classified as being less than a few hundred light years across – around 1,700 trillion miles wide – compared with our Milky Way’s 100,000-light-year diameter. M60-UCD1 fits into that category, and whilst most dwarf galaxies exist at relatively large distances from other galaxies, this one is located only 22,000 light years from the center of galaxy M60; much closer to that galactic center than our sun is to the center of our own Milky Way…

Though the theory expounded by the researchers may also possibly indicate that M60-UCD1 is simply made up of a large amount of massive, dim stars, and not as a result of a supermassive black hole, the team believe that its observations confirmed that the mass was concentrated in the galaxy’s center, and this indicated a supermassive black hole. The astronomers also relied on previous research that showed M60-UCD1 was an X-ray source and that gas was being drawn into the center at a rate that indicated similarities to other supermassive black holes in much bigger galaxies.

Yes, I would love to have a close-up look.

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Natural born killers – starting with chimpanzees – leading to us

“Chimp leader assassinated by gang of underlings,” read the headline last year in New Scientist. It told the story of Pimu, who led his cohort of chimpanzees until a violent day in March last year when Pimu picked the wrong fight. Four chimpanzees appeared out of nowhere, according to New Scientist, and beat Pimu to death with their hands and feet. It was a grisly end for a species that, along with humans, are among the only animals to coordinate attacks on their own kind.

But such a murder was a natural action, according to a study published Wednesday in Nature. The paper, which analyzed data from 426 combined years of observation and 18 separate chimp sites, argues chimps are not driven to violence by their contacts with humans, which some scientists have previously contended. Chimps, rather, are natural born killers.

“Variation in killing rates was unrelated to measures of human impacts,” said the paper, which was researched by an international team of 30 scientists. “… The adaptive strategies hypothesis views killing as an evolved tactic by which killers tend to increase their fitness through increased access to territory, food, mates and other benefits…”

The rate of killing…seems more dependent on how many males were in each band of chimps as well as population density. It’s inter-community tension — not outer-community tension.

Just as chimps appear to reflect some humanity’s better traits, they also reflect the bad…anthropologist Joan Silk wrote in an accompanying article.

“The behavior of non-human primates, particularly chimpanzees, are often distorted by ideology and anthropomorphism, which produce a predisposition to believe that morally desirable features, such as empathy and altruism, have deep evolutionary roots, whereas undesirable features, such as group-level violence and sexual coercion, do not,” she wrote. “This reflects a naive form of biological determinism.”

Steps in the evolutionary ladder are not as far apart as some would presume. That is, those members of human society whose understanding of life on this planet extends beyond the 14th Century.

The rest, sad to say, still rely on wee winged creatures sitting on either shoulder whispering in their ears.

Thanks, Mike

Do you know about the decline in crime?

violent crime

Here’s a narrative you rarely hear: Our lives are safer. This message is so rarely heard that half of all respondents to a recent YouGov poll suggested that the violent crime rate had risen over the past two decades. The reality, of course, is that it has fallen enormously.

The decline in violent crime is one of the most striking trends over recent decades; the rate has declined roughly by half since 1993…

These trends aren’t caused by changes in our willingness to report crime to the police. We see an even more significant decline in violent crime in data derived from surveys asking people whether they’ve been the victims of certain crimes over the past year. The National Crime Victimization Survey reports that the rate of violent victimizations has declined by 67 percent since 1993. This reflects a 70 percent decline in rape and sexual assault; a 66 percent decline in robbery; a 77 percent decline in aggravated assault; and a 64 percent decline in simple assault. This survey has nothing to say about the decline in homicide, for obvious reasons…

It’s an unfortunate fact that media reporting on individual crimes yields a relentlessly dismal drumbeat of downbeat news. But even as each reported crime yields a story that is terrifying enough to shape our perceptions, the truth is that none of them tells us much about the broader trends. Far better to ignore the anecdotes and focus instead on the big picture, and the hard data tells us: There’s been a remarkable decline in crime.

There are beaucoup theories aimed at trying to determine scientifically the whys and wherefores of this decline. It is, after all, a good thing. Worth continuing – whatever it is we’re doing right.

Or you could just follow the lead of neo-Conservatives, neo-Confederates, neo-Nutballs and lay it off on a conspiracy by the mainstream media and New World Order politicians in Washington, DC, to hide the deadly truth.

TV CSI’s – and a few thugs – lose their plot because of new DNA test

A Boston-area man long suspected of two 2004 rapes was formally charged after a new DNA test linked him to the crimes and excluded his twin brother.

Dwayne McNair, 33, of Dedham pleaded not guilty Monday. His bail was set at $500,000.

McNair had been charged earlier and spent almost two years in jail. A judge ordered him released, and prosecutors dropped the charges while the new test, which can distinguish between identical twins, was conducted.

Prosecutors in Suffolk County said the test, used for the first time in Massachusetts, found there was only a 1 in 2 billion chance the DNA in the samples being tested could have come from McNair’s brother, Dwight. McNair was indicted on eight counts of rape and two of armed robbery.

Another man, Anwar Thomas, 32, pleaded guilty in the case in 2011. But the prosecution of McNair was stymied by the possibility the DNA could have been his brother’s.

Silly me. I wrote the headline up top because CSI Cop Shows will lose part of a favorite plot-line. Now, they have acquired a new twist to the same old plot.

And, yes, “same old plot” isn’t especially appropriate since police-level DNA analysis has only been around 1986.

Applying for a job? – You may have to take a meaningless test

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is probably the most widely used personality test in the world…An estimated 2 million people take it annually, at the behest of corporate HR departments, colleges, and even government agencies. The company that makes and markets the test makes somewhere around $20 million each year.

The only problem? The test is completely meaningless.

“There’s just no evidence behind it,” says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who’s written about the shortcomings of the Myers-Briggs previously. “The characteristics measured by the test have almost no predictive power on how happy you’ll be in a situation, how you’ll perform at your job, or how happy you’ll be in your marriage.”

The test claims that, based on 93 questions, it can group all the people of the world into 16 different discrete “types” — and in doing so, serve as “a powerful framework for building better relationships, driving positive change, harnessing innovation, and achieving excellence.” Most of the faithful think of it primarily as a tool for telling you your proper career choice.

But the test was developed in the 1940s based off the untested theories of an outdated analytical psychologist named Carl Jung, and is now thoroughly disregarded by the psychology community. Even Jung warned that his personality “types” were just rough tendencies he’d observed, rather than strict classifications. Several analyses have shown the test is totally ineffective at predicting people’s success in various jobs, and that about half of the people who take it twice get different results each time.

Yet you’ve probably heard people telling you that they’re an ENFJ (extraverted intuitive feeling judging), an INTP (introverted intuitive thinking perceiving), or another one of the 16 types drawn from his work, and you may have even been given this test in a professional setting.

RTFA. It goes through the stereotypes, explains why these labels are meaningless — and why no one in the 21st century should rely on the test for anything.

I had fun with the test before I moved to the Southwest. Interested in a job with a dynamic high tech startup, I applied to see what they might offer – and ran into this test. The HR dude was in love with its self-fulfilling prophecies. After all, if you tell people how to define their lives and lifestyle long enough and thoroughly enough – and they follow your so-called wisdom – then, results become appropriate. Even if they’re nothing more than imitation.

I drove him nuts answering segments of the test with two completely contradictory personality styles. He was dying to hire me; but, was equally afraid I might turn out to be an axe murderer.

Children prescribed antibiotics twice as often as needed

Pediatricians prescribe antibiotics about twice as often as they’re actually needed for children with ear and throat infections, a new study indicates.

More than 11 million antibiotic prescriptions written each year for children and teens may be unnecessary, according to researchers from University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital. This excess antibiotic use not only fails to eradicate children’s viral illnesses, researchers said, but supports the dangerous evolution of bacteria toward antibiotic resistance…

Antibiotics, drugs that kill bacteria or stop them from reproducing, are effective only for bacterial infections, not viruses. But because doctors have few ways of distinguishing between viral or bacterial infections, antibiotics are often a default treatment.

Based on the prevalence of bacteria in ear and throat infections and the introduction of a pneumococcal vaccine that prevents many bacterial infections, the researchers estimated that about 27 percent of U.S. children with infections of the ear, sinus area, throat or upper respiratory tract had illnesses caused by bacteria.

But antibiotics were prescribed for nearly 57 percent of doctors’ visits for these infections, the study found.

Thousands die unnecessarily every year from illness caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are no legitimate reasons for over-prescription. Only marketing and social pressures which should have nothing to do with the practice of medicine.

Thanks, Mike

He gave his parents a present of genetic testing — and then a divorce

I’m a stem cell and reproductive biologist. I fell in love with biology when I was in high school. It was the realization that every cell in my body has the same genome and DNA, but each cell is different. A stomach cell is not a brain cell is not a skin cell. But they’re reading from the same book of instructions. With 23andMe, you get your personal genome book, your story. Unless you have an identical twin somewhere, that genetic makeup is unique to you…

I had spent many years looking at the genes of other animals — particularly mice — but I never looked at my own. Because I was so excited about it, I got two 23andMe kits for my mom and dad as gifts. It’s a lot more fun when you can incorporate your family because you can trace not just the chromosomes but individual alleles on the chromosome so you don’t just see them, but where they came from. Also, I felt I had a good handle on my family’s medical history so I was very interested in confirming any susceptibility to cancers that I heard had run in my family, like colon cancer. I wanted to know if I had a genetic risk.

I found out I don’t have any genetic predisposition to any kind of cancer, which was a great relief to me. But I also discovered through the 23andMe close relative finder program that I have a half brother, Thomas.

…We figured out that at the very bottom of your profile, there’s a little box that says “check this box if you want to see close family members in this search program.”…Dad checked it, and Thomas’ name appeared in his list. 23andMe said dad was 50 percent related with Thomas and that he was a predicted son

At first, I was thinking this is the coolest genetics story, my own personal genetics story. I wasn’t particularly upset about it initially, until the rest of the family found out. Their reaction was different. Years of repressed memories and emotions uncorked and resulted in tumultuous times that have torn my nuclear family apart. My parents divorced. No one is talking to my dad. We’re not anywhere close to being healed yet and I don’t know how long it will take to put the pieces back together.

Sometimes, the truth really can hurt.

RTFA, wander through the twists and turns of this very modern tale. It’s not all unhappy. The anonymous author’s half-brother, Thomas, was adopted and had searched years for either of his birth parents. He has a daughter of his own who wondered about her family’s medical history.

Still…

Transforming cancer cells into healthy cells

For almost thirty years, William Kuhens worked on Staten Island as a basketball referee for the Catholic Youth Organization and other amateur leagues. At seventy, he was physically fit, taking part in twenty games a month. But in July of 2013 he began to lose weight and feel exhausted; his wife told him he looked pale. He saw his doctor, and tests revealed that his blood contained below-normal numbers of platelets and red and white blood cells; these are critical for, respectively, preventing bleeding, supplying oxygen, and combatting infection.

Kuhens was sent to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in Manhattan, to meet with Eytan Stein, an expert in blood disorders. Stein found that as much as fifteen per cent of Kuhens’s bone marrow was made up of primitive, cancerous blood cells. “Mr. Kuhens was on the cusp of leukemia,” Stein told me recently. “It seemed that his disease was rapidly advancing…”

The only options were experimental. Stein had sent a sample of Kuhens’s bone marrow to be analyzed for the presence of thirty or so gene mutations that are known to be associated with blood cancers. The tests revealed one notable mutation, in a gene that produces an enzyme called IDH-2. Normally, the enzyme helps to break down nutrients and generate energy for cells. When mutated, it creates a molecule that alters the cells’ genetic programming. Instead of maturing, the cells remain primitive, proliferate wildly, and wreak havoc…

This past spring, Kuhens entered the AG-221 drug trial and received his first dose. Within weeks, the leukemic-cell count in his bone marrow had fallen from fifteen per cent to four per cent, and his counts of healthy blood cells improved markedly; he has been in complete remission for four months. The most noticeable side effect has been a metallic taste in his mouth. “For some reason, I can’t stand mayonnaise,” Kuhens told me recently. He just celebrated his fiftieth wedding anniversary. “I want to be around for a while,” he said, “and I don’t know how long this drug will last…”

The Agios drug, instead of killing the leukemic cells—immature blood cells gone haywire—coaxes them into maturing into functioning blood cells. Cancerous cells traditionally have been viewed as a lost cause, fit only for destruction. The emerging research on A.M.L. suggests that at least some cancer cells might be redeemable: they still carry their original programming and can be pressed back onto a pathway to health.

Most cancers, once they spread, are incurable. Cancer researchers are desperate to raise the number of patients who go into remission, to prolong those remissions, and to ultimately prevent relapse. So when a new way of attacking cancer comes along, it is often greeted with incautious euphoria and an assumption that the new paradigm can be quickly converted into a cure for all cancers…

Cancer does not have one fatal flaw. It advances along many paths, sometimes incrementally, often unpredictably, like the science arrayed against it. Nonetheless, these latest findings offer an unanticipated opportunity for scientists to reëxamine what many of us took for granted: that cancer cells must be destroyed if the patient is to improve. These discoveries could enable researchers to target cancers that were previously beyond treatment. For patients, they offer evidence that it is possible to live longer, and better, with cancer—and they provide hope that scientists are advancing on a cure.

The big CA scares all of us. Shuffling off this mortal coil is nothing any sentient rational human being looks forward to. Adding all the negatives of death by cancer increases anxiety and fear by an order of magnitude.

RTFA for an analysis of the treatment and research involved in this particular approach. Someday, it may help you through a difficult time.

Thanks, Mike

The coffee genome has been mapped — woo-hoo!

Scientists have now mapped the genome of the Coffea canephora plant species, better known as the Robusta, which constitutes around a third of coffee sold worldwide. The results were published in the journal Science.

Robusta only grows in the Eastern Hemisphere, and it is the parent plant of the Arabica bean. Robusta coffee is known for its use in instant coffees and supermarket coffees, while the more complex Arabica species is known for its use in more specialty coffees.

The mapping of the Robusta species helped the scientists learn how caffeine forms in the plant and how different genetics produce different flavors and caffeine strengths of beans. The study found that plants used for tea and coffee plants produce caffeine through a different biological process.

With the new information, coffee cultivators can identify different ways to breed coffee plants to produce desired results, like disease resistance or plants that can grow in environments they’re not accustomed to growing in.

More coffee, more coffee, more coffee.

This should be one of those accomplishments uniting the Vegetarian Left and Science-Technoids. Unless you’re limiting yourself to Postum. :)