Tag Archives: science

The Boy Who Couldn’t Put Down the Book about the Family that Couldn’t Sleep

13 Mar

During my trip to Vegas, I finally got around to reading the book The Family that Couldn't Sleep by D.T. Max.  From a lay perspective, Max traces the science behind the prion, the infectious agent behind, among other things, Mad Cow disease and Kuru.  Since prions are made up of only proteins, they challenge some of our basic assumptions about biology and infectious diseases. 

Max begins his tale with a story about of a middle-age Venetian man who, in 1795, suddenly began suffering from an strange and fatal malady marked by incurable insomnia.  Over the next two-hundred years, many of this man's descendants also found themselves suffering from the "family's curse" — death from incurable insomnia at middle age.  The cause of their death was
frequently misdiagnosed as encephalitis to alcohol withdrawal until the early 1990s when their disease was recognized as a rare genetic form of prion disease named fatal familial insomnia. From here, Max then interweaves the history of prion dieases including the mad-cow epidemic, odd deaths among New Guinea aboriginals, and scrappie in European sheep herds. Max ultimately uses this fascinating history to suggest a radical theory: early humans may have been nearly wiped out by a plague spread by cannibalism, which also made us resistant to prion diseases today.

Bottom Line:  I highly recommend this book.

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Greek Super Mosquitos

6 Jul

More evidence that evolution happens:

Cramped housing conditions and air pollution in Athens have given rise to a "super breed" of mosquito that is larger, faster and more adept at locating human prey, a Greek daily has reported.

Link: Air pollution, cramped living in Athens breeding 'super mosquitoes'

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Curing a Persistant Vegetative State with a Pill?

24 May

Some new research suggests that a certain type of sleeping pill can temporarily "reverse" a persistent vegetative state.  While this sounds like a miracle advance in medicine, there are some serious problems with this study.  First, the treatment has only been used on three patients, which always makes me wonder about the validity of the research itself.  Second, the definition of a PVS is that they cannot be revived, so a patient whose vegetative state is reversed could not have PVS. This research raises interesting questions about the correct diagnosis of PVS, and this "miracle" treatment could find use in diagnosing PVS. 

On a related note, I wonder what affect this research will have on situations like that of Terri Schiavo?  Will this be taken as "proof" that PVS can be reversed (even though it cannot be, medically speaking) or if the research proves to be valid will it be used correctly as a diagnostic tool to rule out PVS in borderline cases?

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Lack of Farmers = Global Cooling

28 Feb

That's the basic argument behind a new theory about the cause of Europe's "Little Ice Age:"

Europe's "Little Ice Age" may have been triggered by the 14th Century Black Death plague, according to a new study.

Pollen and leaf data support the idea that millions of trees sprang up on abandoned farmland, soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Link: BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Europe's chill linked to disease.

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New Scientist Breaking News – ‘Sleeping on it’ best for complex decisions

21 Feb

Link: New Scientist Breaking News – 'Sleeping on it' best for complex decisions.

Complex decisions are best left to your unconscious mind to work out, according to a new study, and over-thinking a problem could lead to expensive mistakes.

The research suggests the conscious mind should be trusted only with simple decisions, such as selecting a brand of oven glove. Sleeping on a big decision, such as buying a car or house, is more likely to produce a result people remain happy with than consciously weighing up the pros and cons of the problem, the researchers say.

Thinking hard about a complex decision that rests on multiple factors appears to bamboozle the conscious mind so that people only consider a subset of information, which they weight inappropriately, resulting in an unsatisfactory choice. In contrast, the unconscious mind appears able to ponder over all the information and produce a decision that most people remain satisfied with

Ap Dijksterhuis at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and colleagues recruited 80 people for a series of lab-based and “real-world” tests. The participants were provided with information and asked to make decisions about simple and complex purchases, ranging from shampoos to furniture to cars.
Snap decisions

In one of the tests, half of the participants were asked to ponder on the information they were given and then decide which among similar products to buy. The other half were shown the information but then made to perform a series of puzzles including anagrams and simple arithmetic. At the end of the puzzle session, the participants were asked to make a snap decision about the products.

“We found that when the choice was for something simple, such as purchasing oven gloves or shampoo, people made better decisions – ones that they remained happy with – if they consciously deliberated over the information,” says Dijksterhuis.

“But once the decision was more complex such as for a house, too much thinking about it led people to make the wrong choice. Whereas, if their conscious mind was fully occupied on solving puzzles, their unconscious could freely consider all the information and they reached better decisions.”
Expectation counts

However, the unconscious mind appears to need some instruction. “It was only when people were told before the puzzles that they would need to reach a decision that they were able to come up with the right one,” Dijksterhuis told New Scientist.

If they were told that none of what they had been shown was important before being given the puzzles, they failed to make satisfactory choices.

“At some point in our evolution, we started to make decisions consciously, and we’re not very good at it. We should learn to let our unconscious handle the complicated things,” Dijksterhuis says.

Journal reference: Science (vol 311, p 1005)

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Is plagiarism evolutionary?

14 Dec

The New York Times had a fascinating essay yesterday on research comparing the learning process of chimpanzees and young children (3-4 year olds). The research, chronicled in the essay by a father whose daughter was one of the test subjects, finds that children are unapologetic imitators while the monkeys were not. In short, a child will imitate the actions taken by others to achieve a task including unnecessary ones, while the monkeys will skip the unnecessary steps. While some implications of the research are discussed in the essay, I though of an additional one that is close to my own experience — plagiarism.

There are many types of plagiarism. Most people think of it as the whole scale copying of another's work. This type of plagiarism is wrong and I really cannot think of an evolutionary purpose besides immorality. However, there are other potential forms of plagiarism that are more "grey" and it strikes me that these could simply be a result of our evolutionary need to imitate. For example, if I read something that is really well done, I will often use the organization of the author to organize my response or my paraphrasing. Yet I often find myself repeating unnecessary elements of the original authors argument or organization and find it difficult to cut them out. This behavior is similar to that of the young children imitating an adult to achieve a task. In essence, I am imitating other authors and find it difficult at times to cut out extra steps. This behavior can get you into trouble (e.g. cause you to commit plagiarism) if you rely too heavily upon the original author even if there was no intent. The "grey" question is how much is too much.

Eventually, children and students and professors should develop sufficient reasoning skills that imitation is no longer a necessary strategy for adaptation. However, if it is hardwired into us at birth then it remains a very powerful cognitive device. I truly wonder if the declining ability of students to reason or problem solve has forced them to rely upon a more basic strategy for "survival," imitation, which in turn has caused an increase in plagiarism.

Link: Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. – New York Times.

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Norwegian to Test Fish As Crime reducer

22 Oct

A Norwegian scientist has an interesting idea for reducing crime — fish:

Norwegian researcher is starting a study to find out whether feeding prisoners a diet heavy on fish is a good way to fight crime, the ANB news agency reported Friday.

Researcher Anita Lill Hansen wants to see whether there is a connection between the amount of oily fish that people consume, and problems such as controlling impulsive actions, violent outbursts and lack of concentration.

Those are traits commonplace among prisoners in Norwegian jails, the University of Bergen researcher said.

The project is being planned in cooperation with the national center for seafood research, and the Norwegian prison authorities in western Norway.

"A lot of crimes are committed on impulse," Leif Waage, a prison service spokesman told ANB. If fatty oil found in fish "has a positive effect on people's impulse control, we hope it could result in a reduction in crime."

Waage said depending on the outcome of the study, Norwegian prisoners could face a lot more fatty fish on their dinner plates.

Link: Norwegian to Test Fish As Crime Fighter

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