Archive for October, 2008

Oct 21 2008

Caught on Camera!

Published by under science

The ability of modern technology to extend our vision deep into space, and into the depths of the atomic realm as well, is truly astounding.  Today we are able to make observations in places and at the extremes of distances like never before.  And thus our understanding of the universe is growing.

Check out this sexy pic, courtesy of your government:

Read all about it!  . . . NASA Slingshot Nails Mercury!

No, not an angel, but the space probe Messenger clicked that photo of a planet 48+ million miles from Earth.  That’s 48,000,000 miles.  I assume that NASA used gravitation fields to slingshot their probe at Mercury, and it seems they have pretty good aim.  On the probe’s second pass, it swung by Mercury, just 125 miles above the surface, providing our eyes with visions never before seen.  (Notice the lack of zeros trailing that last number.  Also notice that there is no teapot orbiting Mercury.)

Closer to home, but maybe not all that close, depending on how you define “home,” we’ve got video footage of a species never seen alive before.

(Snapshot: for actual video footage go here.)

Where were these hadal snailfish?  Five miles below the ocean surface somewhere off of Japan.  Five miles down, where the water pressure is 8 tons per square meter.  An unmanned craft did the work for us relatively fragile air-breathers.

This morning I took some photos with a new digital camera I recently purchased.  Upon contemplating how far photography technology has come in a meager few decades, I am astounded.  What will the next few bring?  I hope to be here to find out.

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Oct 20 2008

Can Blind Partisanship Be a Good Thing?

Warning: I am about to delve into politics. Sort of. So take a deep breath. Nice flower, isn’t it? That one plant doesn’t depend on its inclusion in a group to be beautiful.

Do human beings have an innate need to be part of groups, groups to identify with and defend?

Continue Reading »

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Oct 18 2008

Pluto by Any Other Name

Published by under language,science

I just love this title to a recent science article: Is It A Planet? Exotic Object Orbiting Star Stirs Exoplanet Classification Rethink.

An exotic object (no not an erotic object) has befuddled those darn white-coated scientists. 

It is so exotic, that scientists are unsure as to whether this oddity is actually a planet or a failed star.

So the answers are either A) a planet or B) a failed star.

But what a minute, late on the scene we’ve got C) classification rethink. 

It seems that scientists (not all of them) are truly confused.

“It has puzzled us; we’re not sure where to draw the boundary between planets and brown dwarfs.”

 And with this quote we are reminded that definitions are a human construct.  In a sense, “roses” don’t exist.  Sure, resplendent flowers with thorny stems do.  By whatever name we happen to classify them by.

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Oct 17 2008

Cute Don’t Scare Me

What a cute, little spider.  I imagine that an aphid in my backyard would perceive this creature to be anything but cute.  A hideous, deadly predator, maybe.  I spotted the little guy (or little gal, if such gender distinctions are relevant when talking generally about insects) and perceived it to be neat/cool/cute/beautiful.  Because I don’t fear it, I am free to approach the green lynx spider, snap a photo, and think, cute.

I find it interesting that Hollywood typically portrays “the enemy” as someone monstrous both in behavior and appearance.  In the least, there’s that telling 5-day beard, scar on one cheek, crooked teeth, something. 

Someday I’d like to watch a War of the Worlds type movie where the invading army consists of small, furry creatures with puppy-dog adorableness.  “Oh, look at all the wittle puppies!  They’re soooo cute.”  The puppy goes rumping up to a soccer mom and without ceasing to wag its tail, grabs the woman by her ankle, flips her onto her face, then inflicts a kill bite on the back of her neck.  Across the street, soccer mom #2 yells, “Bad dog!”  The creature turns and begins jaunting in her direction, all canine smiles and tail-wag.  “No.  That was bad. . . . But you’re so, so cute!”  (Repeat of scene.)

The Ken Doll from the evening television news might start the broadcoast with, Alien Puppies, They’re so Cute — But are They Naughty!

Cute is relative.  Relative to the nature and nurture that makes us who we are as species and individuals.

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Oct 17 2008

Why Tests Are Essential

Published by under science

Albert Einstein was a genius who, thanks to his original ideas, shook up the world.  Right?  Not quite.

While Albert Einstein was a genius with original ideas, he didn’t shake up the world simply because his ideas were original.  Einstein made his splash because his ideas beautifully retrofitted previously anomalous data and because they made startling predictions that were later confirmed.  His ideas passed very difficult tests.  And so our society has granted his work an A+.

A recent ScienceDaily post, Discovery Of ‘Broken Symmetry’ At Subatomic Level Earns 2008 Nobel Prize In Physics, reports that Yoichiro Nambu won 1/2 the Nobel Prize in Physics this year.  The other half went to the team of Kobavashi and Maskawa.  The work they received an A+ for was completed decades ago. 

Boy, those guys on the Noble committee sure are procrastinators.  Or maybe not.  It seems that original ideas are a dime a dozen.  For an original idea to be prize-worthy it has to stand up to analysis, evaluation, and testing. 

As late as 2001, the two particle detectors BaBar at Stanford, USA and Belle at Tsukuba, Japan, both detected broken symmetries independently of each other. The results were exactly as Kobayashi and Maskawa had predicted almost three decades earlier.

Some people have already slapped an A+ on String Theory.  Talk about an original idea!  But I give that theory an “I” for now.  Incomplete.  I’m still waiting for it to pass a test.

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Oct 17 2008

RP) Perceiving Intention Behind Events

Published by under An Almighty Alpha

In all religions, and thus in all societies, people believe that agents unseen have intentionally generated the world we see.
– Scott Atran (1)

A developing, central component to a naturalistic understanding of religion includes the idea that humans are “hyperactively”(2) inclined to detect agents working in the world, even where there are none. Through this project I hope to couple that idea with the notion that humans are likewise predisposed to generate dominance hierarchies. My thesis is that the combination of these proclivities generates the widespread idea of an invisible, mighty alpha.

Chimpanzees, like us, develop a “theory of mind,” as it is described in psychological terms. A theory of mind (ToM) consists of the understanding that other individuals have perspectives and motives of their own. Certainly, in chimpanzees this ability is of a form quite rudimentary next to ours. Nonetheless, the phenomenon of not only inferring agency, but a human-centered intention behind that agency, is dependant upon this feature of the primate mind.

How important is the acquisition and employment of a theory of mind? Robin Dunbar flatly states, “Theory of mind is, beyond question, our most important asset.” (3)

“Most important”? Yes, if we comprehend just how crucial a theory of mind is to advanced social relationships. Continue Reading »

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Oct 16 2008

Family Resemblance

Published by under birds,evolution

The last time I was in the Everglades I enjoyed training my binoculars on the purple gallinules and watching them stride atop lily pads.  They used their almost comically long toes to distribute their weight. My own nickname for this species is “the Jesus bird.”

Continue Reading »

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Oct 16 2008

Kicking the Pregnancy Habit

Published by under culture,science

Maybe it’s just the way my mind works, but when I encountered this headline, Exercise Effective In Helping Pregnant Women Kick The Habit, my first thought was, Exercise helps women stop getting pregnant?

You can imagine how disappointed I was when I learned that the habit in question was smoking.

Yawn.  While the world population increases to mind-boggling proportions, natural resources are declining, if anything.  Call me a godless liberal, but I’d love to see research conducted on how to help women and men worldwide from procreating for unplanned and/or ill-advised reasons.

You’re horny?  Not good enough.  Not today.

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Oct 16 2008

When Stress is Good

Published by under psychology,science

Well what do you know.  According to a post over at ScienceDaily (Antisocial Behavior May Be Caused By Low Stress Hormone Levels) . . . well, I’ll let them tell it.

A link between reduced levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol and antisocial behaviour in male adolescents has been discovered by a research team at the University of Cambridge.

What does cortisol do?

It enhances memory formation and is thought to make people behave more cautiously and to help them regulate their emotions, particularly their temper and violent impulses.

You may wonder how the research was conducted, and if you did wonder you deserve a star on your forehead (but don’t let it lower you cortisol levels too much). Continue Reading »

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Oct 15 2008

The Beauty of Symmetry

Published by under nature photos

Psychologists have found that human beings rate symmetrical faces as more beautiful than their lopsided counterparts. One eye larger than the other, less beautiful. One cheekbone more prominent than the other, less beautiful. Other species, too, prefer symmetrical looks in potential partners. Birds, post-tail-feather trimming (one side), have less success attracting mates than those with full, balanced tails.

Why is this? Some speculate that physical symmetry is a clue to genetic fitness. Healthier individuals develop fully on both sides.


The above jasmine plant (related to the star jasmine, I think) has flowers that are not as symmetrical as other flowers. In fact, when viewed close up, the blossoms appear to have formed almost amoeba-like, with some petals larger, others smaller. I wonder whether most people would rate this flower as less beautiful. Likewise, are roses (with radial symmetry) more popular than orchids (with bilateral symmetry) for the same reason?

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