Archive for June, 2009

Jun 30 2009

Looking Farther (38) – Terrestrial Exploration

lrolaunch nasa

The count-down has begun. Tomorrow afternoon I am going to strap myself to a chair bolted to the aluminum housing of a jet-powered space craft. The thing will climb to over 5 miles into the atmosphere. Above the clouds. And I will come down in a different spot on planet Earth. Cool!

I never get tired of flying. And exploring this planet. Okay, I don’t nearly get the bragging rights I would if I were to fly to the moon. But who cares about bragging rights? And, frankly, where I’m going the food is much better.

[photo thanks to NASA]

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Jun 30 2009

Gray From Stress

I have a few gray hairs. A couple years ago, when they first became obvious to others, a 20 year-old nephew said to me, “Wow, you’re going gray — what has been stressing you out?” If I did answer, it was something along the lines of “nothing out of the ordinary.” I didn’t challenge the assertion that emotional stress–as implied–causes hair to go gray.

Does stress make your hair go gray? How’s this answer, provided by the ScienceDaily article and right in the title: Stress Makes Your Hair Go Gray. But here’s the thing–researchers discovered that “genotoxic” stress is the trigger. And what is that? Things like “mutagenic chemicals, ultraviolet light and ionizing radiation.” These things damage the DNA of hair cells. And the damage accumulates. Of course, there are very likely other genetic and perhaps even environmental factors involved. But psychological factors? While I wouldn’t rule them out (as potential co-factors) I also wouldn’t pencil them in without good evidence.

To some, I can be such a skeptical fuddy-duddy. And while I doubt my skepticism adds gray to my hair, it does successfully keep bologna out of my mind.

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Jun 29 2009

Are Vines Evil?


Pretty. Wild. But those passion vines climbing our backyard pine tree — are they EVIL? Were I a tree (that could think), I might believe that the vine was cheating: using all the hard growth I had attained to pull its relatively flimsy self up on. Those damn free-loaders!

If you abstain from taking sides, could you say the vine’s strategy in the struggle for existence is instead brilliant?

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Jun 29 2009

Fun Science Fact: Move Over, Birds and Bees

Where do babies come from? The stork brings ‘em. As for where baby storks come from — I have no idea.

More seriously, the “birds and bees” of human reproduction just got more complicated. Why? Because we know more; we have more precise instruments of exploration and measurement. In an article over at Eurekalert, with this subtitle — New study explores dad’s role in shaping a healthy baby — I read:

The new research shows that in sperm, these genes are wrapped in special packaging materials called ‘modified histones.’ These modified histones appear to be key factors in ensuring genes are activated or repressed at the right level, place and time, which helps the fertilized egg develop properly.

Funny, my parents didn’t mention that part when they taught me the “facts of life.” Theirs was an introductory lecture, I guess.

On a nit-picking note, can you guess what about the following sentence makes me groan?

During fetal development, certain [sperm] genes make decisions about organ and tissue development.

Man, those are some brilliant bees!

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Jun 28 2009

Looking Closer (56) – A Building Block of Life

Published by under Looking Closer


Is the above a building block of life? The raw materials may be made of that, but its human use would be considered more of helping to make the octane of life.

Hint: You’ve already had a couple hints. x200. Answer and another pic below the fold.

Continue Reading »

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Jun 28 2009

Fun Science Fact: The Cost of Warm Blood

Published by under birds,science

In the article referenced yesterday about new thoughts on bird evolution, I found this interesting tidbit:

Warm-blooded birds need about 20 times more oxygen than cold-blooded reptiles, and have evolved a unique lung structure that allows for a high rate of gas exchange and high activity level.

Wow. Personally, whenever I watch cooking and travel shows, and see all the human eating going on, I marvel at the incredible about of calories we must stuff into our pie-holes just to ride around in automobiles, walk from there to there, chat with others, and navigate a computer mouse.

Also . . . lungs! What wild and fantastic organs. They are a bit like a cross between a radiator and a catalytic converter. Except we needn’t be in continual locomotion to send air across their surfaces. Instead, we constantly employ muscles tissue to “bellow” the air in and out. Which burns a lot of energy.

Another piece of a pie, anyone?

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Jun 27 2009

Stasis is Not Science


While religious beliefs tend to typify stasis and maintain a cognitive status quo, science is truly revolutionary. It survives challenge and thrives because of it. This progress comes at a cost: energy and a willingness to put ideas on the chopping block of test and debate.

Thanks to science, our understanding of the universe has changed, is changing and will change. But not as one would change clothes. Science is not as arbitrary and whimsical as post-modernists claim. Today’s science grows out of yesterday’s. Even where there is a dramatic paradigm-shift, this shift comes thanks to the methods of science and to the recently outdated model which most likely served as a stepping stone to the new model.

Reflecting this theme, researchers from Oregon State University have made a discovery that is causing “New Doubts About Dinosaur-bird Links.” Birds may not be as closely related to ancient carnivorous dinosaurs as previously thought.

According to zoology professor John Ruben,

This discovery probably means that birds evolved on a parallel path alongside dinosaurs, starting that process before most dinosaur species even existed.

Cool. This could be a semi-major breakthrough in our understanding of evolution. Bird evolution. Providing the idea proves to have merit, it will be welcome. But first must come the tests and debate.

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Jun 27 2009

Social Visibility and Individual Effort

Published by under psychology

Research on charitable giving out of the school of economics at Tel Aviv University has measured another aspect of human social nature. They found -

giving was affected by how visible the participation was. The more public, the greater the image boost, and the greater the contribution.

This effect of social visibility increasing “giving,” however, stood only for effort at some task. In terms of monetary contribution, these were larger when given in private.

Fascinating. Why should it matter if others see us contributing, or not? Because we are social creatures. Is the opinion of others a resource we unconsciously cultivate?

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Jun 26 2009

Looking Farther (37) – Cosmic Art

Published by under nature photos

sandmars mro

Is the above stunningly beautiful or what? Who made it? Mother nature. Or maybe father nature. Or perhaps uncle nature, seeing natural forces on Mars sculpted the sand in the visually appealing manner.

Photo thanks to NASA.

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Jun 26 2009

Belief, Cognition and Brain Chemicals

Continuing with the theme of the bogus dichotomy of logical thinking vs. illogical, another important question is raised by these phenomena: alter brain chemicals and you frequently change the behavior of that brain. If person A has high levels of serotonin, for example, and tends to interpret a scenario in a rosy fashion, while low-serotonin-levels person B interprets the same scenario differently, can we say one being more or less logical than the other?

Here’s a problem: we can’t just magically remove all the chemicals that influence the functioning of brains without crippling those brains. This very moment your brain is “under the influence.” And it’s a good thing. Is there an optimal level for serotonin, for testosterone and oxytocin and the countless other neurotransmitters and hormones, etc.?

In a fairly recent article found over at the Huffington Post (forwarded my way, I don’t read the site), I encountered material about religious belief that pertains to the topic of this discussion. In I Know Because I Know – Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 3 of 6, Valerie Tarico makes some very important points. But also seems to fall into the black/white thinking about human cognition.

First the good. Tarico shares the opinion of neurologist Robert Burton -

“feeling of knowing” (rightness, correctness, certainty, conviction) should be thought of as one of our primary emotions.

Other research has likewise highlighted an emotional aspect to conclusions of right/good wrong/bad.

Tarico hits a supremely important nail on the head with this statement:

Nonetheless, it is a healthy mistrust for our sense of knowing that has allowed scientists to detect, predict, and produce desired outcomes with ever greater precision.

Yes, none of us is a cold computer capable of perceiving the world with perfect accuracy. We aren’t logical creatures; nor are we illogical. Logic is the wrong word. However, where we know our thinking can go astray and want to prevent and correct it . . . we have the insights and methods of science.

Lastly, here is where I think Tarico gets it at least a bit wrong. She writes,

Religious belief is not bound to regular standards of evidence and logic. It is not about logic but about something more intuitive and primal.

What regular standards of evidence? And primal? As mentioned before, I love Einstein’s description of science as the refinement of every day thinking. So we don’t have logic here and primal irrationality there. We have a spectrum of thought from more refined to less. If we must simplify a very complicated issue.

I don’t think it is helpful to approach the why of differing conclusions — no god and no belief vs. god and belief — by claiming the two positions rely on distinctly different categories of cognitive processes.  Convenient as it may be, I just don’t think that is the case.

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