The White Stripes' greatest album, Elephant, came out ten years ago this week. You probably know about how the first song, "Seven Nation Army," has become a ubiquitous (and sort of fascistic!) chant in sports stadiums across the country. It is a great song. A "classic" for sure. A better rock song has not been written since. What has happened since is that 62 percent of the world's forest elephants, a distinct species native to central Africa, have been killed for the booming ivory trade in China and Japan. This is one of the more depressing things we can learn from the running Scientific American feature [...]
"From the promotion of eugenics to justify genocide in Nazi Germany, to the mass-produced and homogenous population of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian future in the novel ‘Brave New World’, to ‘Frankenfood’, genetic engineering has amassed a reputation as a treacherous pursuit. However, a recent development appears to have slipped under the public radar: human pre-natal diagnosis. Screening foetal genomes to eliminate genetic ‘defects’ may lead to incremental changes in the human genetic reservoir, a permanent shift in our characteristics and eventually, self-domestication." —Scientific American's Zaria Gorvett makes a strong argument against the increasingly easy and common practice of pre-natal screening. The counter-argument is difficult to avoid, though: prospective parents [...]
“We are doing things we wouldn’t otherwise do, because we feel an emotional connection to our team.” —Makes sense. Scott Wiltermuth of the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business explains a recent study's finding that acting in unison makes people more aggressive and destructive. This explains the Nazis, soccer hooliganism and the violence associated with doing the Hokey Pokey.
This is mind-blowing and deeply disturbing: Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, using functional magnetic imaging, have "reconstructed the internal 'movie' that plays in a person’s head." So, the images on the left there are of what volunteers were watching on a screen, the images on the right are simultaneous electronic pulses in their brains. Pretty close to a motion-picture scanning of thought. This presents trouble for people who, no matter what they might be seeing outside their head, are always only seeing the pentagram from the cover of Rush's 2112 album or a giant pile of pistachio nuts inside their head. Similarly troubling, scientists are also [...]
"In the first study they found that twice as many mall shoppers who had just ridden an up escalator contributed to the Salvation Army than shoppers who had just ridden the down escalator … In a final study, participants watched film clips of scenes taken from an airplane above the clouds, or through the window of a passenger car. Participants who had watched the clip of flying up above the clouds were 50 percent more cooperative in a computer game than those who had watched the car ride down on the ground. Overall these studies show remarkable consistency, linking height and different prosocial behaviors—i.e., donations, volunteering, compassion, and cooperation." [...]
A couple of Christmases ago, I was in upstate New York with family and friends and it snowed like two feet. We took my kid outside to play and we built a snow man and a snow fort. My in-laws' best friends are a couple named Roberta and Viki. Roberta is an art historian. Viki is a museum director. They both have strong opinions and they joined us outside, where Viki found a patch of deep powder and let herself fall backwards into it to make a snow angel. She did the jumping-jacks move like you're supposed to do and got up to admire her work. "There!" she said. [...]
I have read this Scientific American article about how scientists have figured out how to build a clock that will continue telling time even after the universe no longer exists four times now, and a) Of course I'm not smart enough to really understand it. It has to do with creating an electric field that will trap charged ions in a four-dimensional crystal shape, and the ions' natural "Coulomb repulsion" will start them rotating in a circle. ("Coulomb repulsion" is the thing where positively charged ions push away other positively charged ions and negatively charged ions push away other negatively charged ions, like with magnets.) The [...]
"They're actually very clever in a 'sheepy' kind of way. They're not going to put a sheep on the moon, but sheep do remember faces, they recognize people and have long memories for complicated things. They're quite curious creatures." —Snarky Cambridge neurobiologist Jenny Morton throws water on any dreams of space travel that might have been harbored by the subjects of her recent study. Morton and her co-author Andrew King, of the University of London Royal Veterinary College, believe that sheep exhibit behavior consistent with evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton's "selfish-herd theory"—that animals gather in groups out of self-interest, rather than concerns for the group as a whole. [...]
"The findings seem to close the case against modern human hunters, although they remain to be confirmed at other sites throughout the continent. And, on every continent except Africa, human arrival and large animal extinctions seem to coincide, so the case may also extend globally. (The reason large animals did not vanish in Africa is perhaps because they co-evolved with us and learned to be wary of this stalking, hairless, upright ape.)" —There had been some question as to whether hunting or climate change killed off the megafauna that used to roam the earth before human beings showed up around 40,000 years ago. But a study of the fossilized [...]
"Next month, researchers in the U.K. will start to pump water nearly a kilometer up into the atmosphere, by way of a suspended hose. The experiment is the first major test of a piping system that could one day spew sulfate particles into the stratosphere at an altitude of 20 kilometers, supported by a stadium-size hydrogen balloon. The goal is geoengineering, or the 'deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment' in the words of the Royal Society of London, which provides scientific advice to policymakers. In this case, researchers are attempting to re-create the effects of volcanic eruptions to artificially cool Earth." —Cloudbusting takes a step forward.
"Sometimes apologies are offered not to make amends with victims but to signal to an external audience that one is a good person." —You can read this interesting Scientific American article about how "apologies are not inherently as valuable as we believe" if you want, but trust me: It is totally wrong and not true.
"Next Holtzman and Strube assessed the students’ personalities and their tendencies towards narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. They asked the students to rate themselves and to provide email addresses for a few of their friends so that the researchers could ask them to provide ratings as well. This combination of self and peer ratings was used to calculate a final set personality scores for each student. Furthermore, the students’ ratings on narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism were combined into create a composite 'dark triad' score. The dark triad score was positively correlated with their 'dressed-up' attractiveness – a finding that mirrors previous findings. However, the dark triad score was not related [...]
"ChemCam’s analysis begins when the rover’s mast-mounted laser fires a pulse at an area the size of a pinhead, vaporizing part of its target from several meters away. The laser can fire three pulses per second. The first few will remove dust that would otherwise obscure the target surface, enabling scientists to better observe the underlying sample. Curiosity then uses a telescope to view the glowing flash of plasma left behind and record the colors of light within that flash. A spectrometer analyzes the colors, allowing scientists to determine the elemental composition of the vaporized material." —Those guys at NASA might be real brains and all, but they [...]
Here is the new Sigur Rós video, the third in the "Mystery Film Experiment" series they're making to accompany the music on their new album, Valtari, which I spent some of yesterday listening to and enjoying. No, this video is not that. It is a video Scientific American made of Mnemiopsis leidyi comb jellies at the New England Aquarium. The pulsing strings of things that look like Christmas lights are tiny cilia that propel the creatures through the water without making ripples that would scare away the plankton that they eat. As Mark Fischetti tells it, "The comb jelly is the ultimate 'hydrodynamically silent' predator." Awesome! [...]
"This study revealed that Bengalese finches can learn grammar and, furthermore, that their grammatical abilities involve a specific part of the brain region distinct from other brain regions involved in singing. This is similar to what neuroscientists understand about human language processing. If the tweets of birds can be roughly likened to strings of human words, and if birdbrains process songs in a way similar to how human brains process language, future research may tackle whether these animals possess other cognitive abilities once thought to be singularly characteristic of human intelligence." —Of course, as soon I come all out my face talking about how birds are stupid and [...]
"You are at a party, and Alex is telling a boring story. You are much more interested in the gossip that Sam is recounting to Pat, so you tune out Alex and focus on Sam’s words. Congratulations: you have just demonstrated the human ability to solve the 'cocktail party problem'—to pick out one thread of speech from the babble of two or more people. Computers so far lack that power." —So being a computer is kind of listening to Lou Reed's "Kicks" all the time. (Which wouldn't actually be so bad. I love the way the "cocktail party problem" enhances the great paranoid creepiness of that song.) Seems [...]