Archive for January, 2007


Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

This morning, scientific and evangelical leaders announced a collaborative effort to protect our environment from anthropogenic threats.

“We dare to imagine a world in which science and religion cooperate, minimizing our differences about how Creation got started to work together to reverse its degradation,” Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, said at the announcement in Washington, D.C.

The coalition released a statement signed by 28 prominent evangelicals and scientists—including biologist Edward O. Wilson and climatologist James Hansen—that calls for a “fundamental change in values, lifestyles, and public policies required to address these worsening problems before it is too late.” The coalition sent the statement, titled an “Urgent Call to Action,” to George W. Bush, Nancy Pelosi, congressional leaders, and national evangelical and scientific organizations.


Protection for ‘weirdest’ species

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

A conservation programme for some of the world’s most bizarre and unusual creatures has been launched by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Species like the bumblebee bat and the pygmy hippopotamus will be protected under the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (Edge) project.

The scheme targets animals with unique evolutionary histories that are facing a real risk of extinction.

The ZSL says many of these species are ignored by existing conservation plans.

The Society defines Edge animals as having few close relatives, genetically distinct, and require immediate action to save them from extinction.


Rare Plant From Dinosaur Age

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Science Daily A relic plant that once co-existed with dinosaurs has taken up residence in the University of Wisconsin-Madison botany greenhouses.

Woolemi Pine at UW Madison

Known as the Wollemi Pine, the plant was presumed extinct until a “bushwalker” named David Noble discovered it in an Australian national park in 1994. As part of a worldwide effort to conserve and propagate the tree species – one of the oldest and rarest on earth – botany greenhouse director Mo Fayyaz recently purchased a foot-tall Wollemi pine seedling. A limited number of the plants just became available in the United States through National Geographic.


For Human Eyes Only

Monday, January 15th, 2007

– I find this idea a bit weak because it doesn’t address the fact that many people of oriental extraction have eyes which are quite narrow and thus it is hard to see the whites of their eyes at all. Am I missing something here? Your comments are welcome.


COL. WILLIAM PRESCOTT is said to have prepared his troops for a charge from the British Army at the Battle of Bunker Hill by telling his men, “Don’t one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”

If the opposing army had not been British men but rather a horde of charging chimpanzees, the American troops would have been summarily overrun. Why? Because neither chimpanzees nor any of the other 220 species of nonhuman primates have whites of the eyes, at least not that can be easily seen. This means that if their eyes are looking in a direction other than the one in which their heads are pointing, we can easily be fooled about what they are looking at.

Why should humans be so different? And yet we are. We can’t fool anyone. The whites of our eyes are several times larger than those of other primates, which makes it much easier to see where the eyes, as opposed to the head, are pointed. Trying to explain this trait leads us into one of the deepest and most controversial topics in the modern study of human evolution: the evolution of cooperation.


– research thanks to John P.

– This article is from the NY Times and they insist that folks have an ID and a PW in order to read their stuff. You can get these for free just by signing up. However, recently, a friend of mine suggested the website as an alternative to having to do these annoying sign ups. Check it out. Thx Bruce S. for the tip.

Doomsday Clock Will Move Closer to Midnight

Monday, January 15th, 2007

WASHINGTON, DC, January 12, 2007 (ENS) – The minute hand of the Doomsday Clock will be moved closer to midnight on January 17, the first such change to the clock since February 2002. The Doomsday Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to nuclear weapons and other threats.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists - Doomsday Clock

The move was announced today by the Board of Directors of the magazine “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.”

It reflects growing concerns about what the board calls a “Second Nuclear Age” marked by grave threats, including nuclear ambitions in Iran and North Korea, unsecured nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere, and the continuing “launch-ready” status of 2,000 of the 25,000 nuclear weapons held by the U.S. and Russia.

The board also cited “escalating terrorism, and new pressure from climate change for expanded civilian nuclear power that could increase proliferation risks.”


Book Review – Blindsight by Peter Watts

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

This is a book review – of sorts. I’m not going to tell you anything other than that I love this book. And I’m going to give you an excerpt. Read it and make up your own mind….

You invest so much in it don’t you? It’s what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it’s what makes you special. Homo sapiens, you call yourself. Wise man. Do you even know what it is, this consciousness you cite in your own exaltation? Do you even know what it’s for?

Maybe you think it gives you free will. Maybe you’ve forgotten that sleepwalkers converse, drive vehicles, commit crimes and clean up afterward, unconscious the whole time. Maybe nobody’s told you that even waking souls are only slaves in denial.

Make a conscious choice. Decide to move your index finger. Too late! The electricity’s already half way down your arm. Your body began to act a full half-second before your conscious self “chose” to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary – almost an afterthought – to the homunculus behinds your eyes. That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality: It reads the summary and it sees that hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.

But ‘s not in charge. You’re not in charge. If free will even exists, it doesn’t share living space with the likes of you.

Insight, then. Wisdom. The quest for knowledge, the derivation of theorems, science and technology and all those exclusively Human pursuits that must surely rest on a conscious foundation. Maybe that’s what sentience would be for – if scientific breakthroughs didn’t spring fully formed from the subconscious mind, manifest themselves in dreams, as full-blown insights after a deep night’s sleep. It’s the most basic rule of the stymied researcher: stop thinking about the problem. Do something else. It will come to you if you just stop being conscious of it.

Every concert pianist knows that the surest way to ruin a performance is to be aware of what the fingers are doing. Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself. Every driver of any manual vehicle arrives at destinations with no recollection of the stops and turns and roads traveled in getting there. You are all sleepwalkers, whether climbing creative peaks or slogging through some mundane routine for the thousandth time. You are all sleepwalkers.

Don’t even try to talk about the learning curve. Don’t bother citing the months of deliberate practice that precede the unconscious performance, or the years of study and experiment leading up to the gift-wrapped eureka moment. So what if your lessons are all learned consciously? Do you think that proves there’s no other way? Heuristic software’s been learning from experience for over a hundred years. Machines master chess, cars learn to drive themselves, statistical programs face problems and design the experiments to solve them and you think that the only path to learning leads through sentience? You’re stone Age nomads, eking out some marginal existence on the veldt – denying even the possibility of agriculture, because hunting and gathering was good enough for your parents.

Do you want to know what consciousness is for? Do you want to know the only real purpose it serves? Training wheels. You can’t see both aspects of the Necker cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other. That’s a pretty half-assed way to parse reality. You’re always better off looking at more than one side of anything. Go on, try. Defocus. It’s the next logical step.

Oh, but you can’t. There’s something in the way.

And it’s fighting back.

* * *

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains – cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.


– from Blindsight by Peter Watts

A Curry A Day Keeps The Doctor Away?

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

Science Daily The chemical that gives spicy food its kick could hold the key to the next generation of anti-cancer drugs that will kill tumours with few or no side effects for the patient, say academics at The University of Nottingham.

A study by the scientists, published online in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, has proven for the first time that the chemical compound capsaicin — which is responsible for the burning sensation when we eat chillies — can kill cells by directly targeting their energy source.

It could mean that patients could control or prevent the onset of cancer by eating a diet rich in capsaicin and that existing products to treat conditions such as psoriasis and muscle strain, which contain the compound and are already approved for medical use, could be adapted to tackle this more serious disease.


European Space Agency Launches New Project To Protect Biodiversity

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

– The UN Convention on Biological Diversity is just one of the many initiatives that I wish the US would get behind and support. Read about the full list here:


Science DailyThe world’s biodiversity is vanishing at an unprecedented rate” around 100 species every day – due to factors such as land use change and pollution. Addressing this threat, world governments agreed through the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to reduce significantly the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. To support this initiative, ESA has kicked off its new DIVERSITY project.

Biodiversity, the variety of life including ecosystems, species, populations and genes, is of grave importance for sustaining the planet’s six billion people. The loss of biodiversity threatens our food supplies, energy and medicines. For instance, up to 80% of the world’s population currently relies on plant and animal-based medicines for their primary health care needs. The sustainable use of biodiversity’s components will not only save ecosystems and species, but it may also save the foods and medicines of tomorrow.


Caffeine Cuts Post-workout Pain By Nearly 50 Percent, Study Finds

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Science Daily Although it’s too soon to recommend dropping by Starbucks before hitting the gym, a new study suggests that caffeine can help reduce the post-workout soreness that discourages some people from exercising.

In a study to be published in the February issue of The Journal of Pain, a team of University of Georgia researchers finds that moderate doses of caffeine, roughly equivalent to two cups of coffee, cut post-workout muscle pain by up to 48 percent in a small sample of volunteers.

Lead author Victor Maridakis, a researcher in the department of kinesiology at the UGA College of Education, said the findings may be particularly relevant to people new to exercise, since they tend to experience the most soreness.


Plants Point The Way To Coping With Climate Change

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Science Daily Roses flowering at Christmas and snow-free ski resorts this winter suggest that climate change is already with us and our farmers and growers will need ways of adapting. Scientists studying how plants have naturally evolved to cope with the changing seasons of temperate climates have made a discovery that could help us to breed new varieties of crops, able to thrive in a changing climate.

The importance of the discovery is that it reveals how a species has developed different responses to different climates in a short period of time.

Researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC), Norwich, UK have been examining how plants use the cold of winter to time their flowering for the relative warmth of spring. This process, called vernalization, varies even within the same plant species, depending on local climate. In Scandinavia, where winter temperatures can vary widely, the model plant, Arabidopsis has a slow vernalization response to prevent plants from being ‘fooled’ into flowering by a short mid-winter thaw. One particular gene, named FLC, delays flowering over the winter and the research team discovered how cold turns off FLC and what keeps it off during growth in spring. In the UK plants only need four weeks of cold to stably inactivate FLC, allowing plants to start their spring flowering early.