Posts filed under ‘Science’

The state of the climate

I’m going to be very busy over the next week, so posts will be more about pointing you in the direction of interesting stuff (rather than my usual ranting and raving).

I came across a very interesting debate between four scientists over climate change issues. Here are some snippets to whet your appetite before you trot off and read the full article:

  • the Earth is now 0.75 degrees Celsius warmer than it was a century and a half ago;
  • if we continue with our current trends in burning fossil fuels, the ocean will become more acidic than it has been at any time in the past 65 million years;
  • both poles are getting warmer and this is different from the past because both poles did not move together – one pole would lead and the other would follow. Now, ice is melting from both poles at an accelerated rate;
  • although the planet warmed in the past, it did so over millions of years and ecosystems could adapt. What we’re seeing now are rates of increase in greenhouse gases and warming that exceed natural rates by a factor of 100;
  • we are at a critical point in history – if we don’t stop stuffing up the planet, the scientists believe that geologists in 50 million years (if there are any!) will be able to pinpoint the exact time in history when civilization had developed advanced technology but didn’t develop the wisdom to use it wisely;
  • we will have to raise the food supply another two times to feed all of the people that we think will be alive by the latter third of the 21st century;
  • to address global warming, we’ll need US$500 billion to get going but ultimately trillions;
  • the stratosphere—the upper atmosphere—is cooling while the lower atmosphere and the land surface are warming. This is a sign that greenhouse gases are trapping energy and keeping that energy close to the surface of the earth.

All four scientists have serious academic chops and also address the contrarian view (that climate change is not happening). So if the above hasn’t scared you enough, go here to Discover magazine to read the full article.

And Happy Independence Day to all my US readers!

July 4, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

2050 and beyond

The astronomer royal, Martin Rees, has been looking into the future.  He is offering up predictions for 2050. You know I love a good prediction or two, so really interesting to read about what he thinks might be in store for us. Much of what he says, we already know – by 2050, the planet will be staggering under the weight of a global population of 9 billion and the world will be warmer.  Beyond this, Rees suggests:

  • CO2 concentration levels will reach twice the pre-industrial level by around 2050 if we keep with business as usual
  • the entire solar system might have been explored and mapped by tiny robotic craft
  • long range space flights to Mars and beyond
  • altered human beings – through mind-enhancing drugs (didn’t that happen already in the 1960s?!!); genetics; or cyborg techniques
  • the human lifespan could be greatly extended
  • widening gulf between what science enables us to do and what applications it’s prudent or ethical to pursue.

I think that last point is spot on. I’m not sure that ethical issues surrounding genetics or gene therapy are keeping pace with science. The modification of an individual’s genotype has great future prospects. Tinkering around with human genes could mean that a person will not have to suffer cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease for example. A fetus with a genetic defect could be treated and cured before it is born. Hereditary disease might become a thing of the past and lifespans extended. All good.

But then there’s the darker side of genetic engineering. We’ve all read about designer babies, genetically engineered so they are aesthetically pleasing to society as a whole, or we can imagine some psycho cloning a whole lot of athletic, blonde men for a private army. I’m no geneticist, but seems to me that the human body is a complex maze of biological pathways and interconnections. So if you tinker with a gene, what are the side effects or long term ramifications elsewhere within the body?

What makes humanity so splendid is diversity, uniqueness, individuality. Every human is different. There’s a wonderful variety of hair and eye colours, statures, physical appearances. Isn’t it this diversity that makes humanity strong and able to evolve and cope with diseases or other onslaughts? If we are all genetically engineered, then I wonder what vulnerability factor is introduced. If an unknown disease came along, would a genetically engineered population be able to withstand it, since it seems to me that biological diversity provides humanity with the means to battle a variety of diseases.

And then there’s transgenics – where scientists tinker around and develop organisms that have a novel trait not normally found within a species. Golden rice is but one example of a transgenic organism. There are three categories of transgenics: animal-human combination; animal-animal combination; plant-animal-human combination. We’ve all read about pig organs, for example, being explored as an alternative for human organ transplants (known as xenotransplantation). But consider the ethical issues – and these are just some that come immediately to mind:

  • what might be the health risks? Take golden rice – it is engineered to overproduce beta carotene and retinoids derived from beta carotene may be toxic and cause birth defects.
  • would human-animal organisms be viewed as a lower order of being that would not be worthy of full respect or dignified treatment? I can imagine a whole class of “slave chimeras” being created for the purposes of doing low-grade or demeaning work.
  • at what point would organisms, which possess a particularly human phenotype or exhibit certain human behaviours, be considered “human”? Indeed, if we start tinkering around, would the whole notion of what it means “to be human” change or will it need to expanded?
  • if animal genes are inserted into a human embryo, what possible effects might there be on the individual identity of the future person? At the early stage of life, cells are growing and changing – how might the introduction of animal genes significantly alter a human’s make-up and identity? Genetic instructions are contained within an embryo, so if you introduce foreign material from an animal, are you potentially affecting the development of the human?
  • would the animal-human combination need to be given rights and special protections?
  • could new diseases emerge due to the close proximity of animal and human tissue?
  • might unexpected new deformities and disorders be created in animal-human entities?

I read this article recently and in the paper is an interesting argument:

“The animal and plant kingdoms—the kingdom of genes—contain vast amounts of genetic information of potential value to humanity. Humans have many unique and valuable qualities, like the capacity for high-level moral reasoning. But they also have many limitations, which other animals and plants do not. We age faster than some animals,we do not have sonar, acute sight, hearing, smell, or the capacity to photosynthesize or produce our own essential nutrients. And we are susceptible to diseases other animals are not. These limitations are genetic. By understanding how genes contribute to function we could use these genes, or artificial copies of their sequences, to overcome the limitations of being human.”

I get this. It’s a logical argument. And it comes from a position of acknowledging that the human being does not have moral superiority. But are we opening the proverbial Pandora’s box or will we simply be mining the kingdom of genes to produce a more robust, disease free human?

July 2, 2009 at 2:00 am 4 comments

We’re living in a giant hologram

I knew it! Our world is nothing more than a giant hologram. Some dudes in Germany have stumbled onto what could be the most important of scientific discoveries. There’s this thing called the GEO600 experiment going on in the countryside of Hanover. The experiment has been focusing on discovering Einstein’s theorised gravitational waves, which are ripples in space-time caused by dense objects such as supernovae, spinning neutron stars and black holes (the black holes in space-time are not to be confused with any black hole of an organisation you might be working in!).

But instead of detecting gravitational waves, scientists have been plagued by inexplicable noise and interference patterns. An American physicist, Craig Hogan, believes he has the answer. The noise is coming from the point at which space-time stops behaving like the smooth continuum Einstein described and becomes grainy. Granularity produces minute convulsions that are said to be characteristic of a holographic universe. So this would mean that scientists have literally stumbled onto quantum scale (ie very very small) points (imagine pixels).

The notion of a holographic universe is well-articulated in Michael Talbot’s book, based on the theories of David Bohm and neurophysiologist Karl Pribram (who both believe that the universe may be a giant hologram). I have a particular interest in Bohm’s work and wrote about holographic notions in my paper Is God Online?, which you can download here.

Because of convulsions being detected at the boundary of the universe, Hogan’s theory is suggesting that information about everything in the cosmos – including you and me – is encoded on the surface at the boundary of the universe (or event horizon) and projected so that we see the world and us as we do. This means that the world we seem to perceive and enjoy as 3-dimensional is in reality a 2-dimensional construct (so much for String Theory!) and projected from the far flung edge of the universe.

To understand this better, we need to consider black holes. Let’s think of a humongous star that has a hissy fit, implodes and becomes a black hole. As the star gets sucked into the black hole it passes the event horizon (ie the outer boundary of the black hole from which nothing can escape). The black hole’s entropy (or information content) is proportional to the surface area of its event horizon. So this means that all the information about the star’s 3-dimensional structure would be encoded in the 2-dimensional event horizon.

Given this, Hogan’s theory suggests that all the information inside our universe is encoded in the universe’s event horizon (ie the limit of the observable universe). It gets more creepy when we consider that the fundamental “grain” allowed by quantum theory in space-time is a planck length (1.6 x 10-36 metres). So this means that the information encoded in the universe’s event horizon would be held in planck length bits (ie really really really small).

From this (if I understand it correctly), Hogan is suggesting that each tiny bit of information encoded in Planck-length squares (or if you like, pixels or grains) would link or map to our reality somewhere inside the universe. And that reality is far bigger than the planck length scale I’ve been talking about.

The implications of this are quite staggering when you think about it.

  • when we see a beautiful landscape, perhaps as we are on a road trip and the sun is setting and the landscape is bathed in a beautiful golden light – well, we’re not really seeing that reality at all. We are seeing signals or information transmitted to where we’re standing from the edge of the universe. A signal that is contained within a tiny bit of information encoded in Planck-length squares at the event horizon of the universe. And these signals we receive in our brain so the holographic image exists only within us as series of electrical impulses.  And so the brain is a hologram.
  • and when was the information encoded? billions of years ago?  And so this means everything we are doing, absolutely everything, is predetermined and so there is such a notion as destiny?
  • where does consciousness exist? In the event horizon of the universe? Are we therefore nothing more than fancy antennas receiving signals? And does it mean that all consciousness is shared since we are all sharing the same encoded information?  if so, then that makes ESP an understandable concept I think.
  • how do we translate the information encoded into a sense of reality and, furthermore, into a sense of shared reality?
  • so does this mean that space-time is not continuous and therefore particles can act unexpectedly or erratically (well, we saw this in the double-slit experiment).
  • will this help scientists realise The Theory of Everything?
  • could the information encoded be duplicated so that there are multiverses out there (and creepy but what an intriguing question – exact copies of you and me?). In other words, there could be other states of our existence that we simply do not perceive.
  • and invoking The Matrix – who or what has created all the encoded information? A super computer? Some pimply kid from the year 5010 playing games with us?

So many more questions I could ask: What of God? What of the soul? Is Creation continuous?

You can get a more scientific run-down from this New Scientist article. But be quick, as NS only offers articles free for a short period of time before they disappear behind a subscriber-only wall. But at least I’ve summarised it for you.

If the NS article is scientific mumbo-jumbo, then you can watch these two interesting videos I found on YouTube – The Holographic Universe – Beyond Matter Part 1 and Part 2. Part 2 is probably more pertinent to this post although you may or may not agree with the conclusion.

Well off for a lie-down!

Image credit: HubbleSite

February 3, 2009 at 2:00 am 5 comments

The city hurts my brain

image_331If you’re a regular ThinkingShift blog reader, you would know I live in “the sticks”. Well, not entirely in some remote desert, but I do live “in the bush” near Newcastle and I travel to Sydney by train every day (about 4.5 hours per day travel, yeah, I’m insane I know).  I live here because I HATE cities. They do my head in.

I particularly dislike getting off my train at Central every morning and making my way to the platform that takes me to Town Hall or Wynyard stations – people rushing this way and that, people elbowing you as you get on or off the train, mayhem basically. And then there’s Pitt Street mall during the lunch hour rush. The overstimulation to the senses from people talking loudly, the dazzle of seductive shopfront windows, the smells wafting from The Brands’ perfume counters – all too much for me sometimes. I can actually end up with a headache and feel overwhelmed. Seems to be a good reason for this – cities can actually make your brain ache.

An article in the Boston Globe points out that whilst metropolises are often thriving hubs that stimulate intellectual and artistic life, at the same time they can be harbingers of epidemics and are unnatural, constructed spaces. Proverbial crowded, concrete jungles. To quote:

“.. scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.”

So that’s why I seem to forget large slabs of my day! And here’s something I think we all intuitively know: glimpses of nature soothe and comfort and scientists are now finding that a stark lack of nature in a city negatively affects brain performance.

70% of the global population will live in urban cities by 2050 according to a UN report. So it will be increasingly important to design cities that are soft to the eye, with parks, trees and aesthetic landscaping.

The cognitive effort needed to navigate city streets, avoid being run over by cars and sidestepping strangers as they hurtle towards you on their way to the latest 50% off sale, saps the brain’s processing power. And whilst the brain is keeping track of all this, it can be distracted by flashing neon signs or strangers yapping away on mobile phones (and in my case, the tantalising smell of a vanilla latte).

A recent test equipped undergraduates with GPS receivers. One batch of students took a casual stroll in a leafy, nature-filled arboretum; the other batch walked down a busy city street. No surprise here: the results showed that those who had walked through the cavernous city streets were in a worse mood and scored significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory than the dudes who took a relaxing stroll in the arboretum.

And here’s something else we know: after the assault on our brains and cognitive overload, we often lose self-control and give in to the temptations of fast-food or max out the credit card during a shopping binge.

I blogged recently about Maps of the Future, one of which deals with sustainability and the link to today’s post is that the sustainability map talks about the rise of “eco-cities” and how, through greener strategies, eco-cities will attract the creative class.

Personally, I envisage a future that is part village, part city. Small locally-focused neighbourhoods linked together and to the city by rapid transport. Derelict shopping malls (remember my post on what to do with a dead shopping mall?) or office buildings could be turned into structures that house pigs, cattle or grow vegetables for the benefit of the local community in the vicinity. City centres should be stripped of those ugly parking stations and cars clogging up streets and tree-lined walkways should take their place. If during the lunch hour office workers could take a stroll in an aboretum (without having to dodge cars) or bring their bikes into the city and spend the lunch hour cycling around special bike pathways – well, I think that would make people a lot less stressed and healthier.

January 17, 2009 at 2:00 am 6 comments

Mirror, mirror

Well, I really could have told scientists about this. They didn’t need to conduct tests on magpies to find out they are a pretty smart bird and that they recognise themselves in a mirror. About a month ago, I was attacked by an Australian magpie. Spring is magpie season when breeding magpies can be aggressive and swoop on poor unsuspecting children and adults who might be passing by nests. They are simply defending their territory but I can tell you that when a large black and white magpie hits the top of your head, it’s pretty darn painful. I’ve been attacked about four times that I can remember. Obviously, I’m irresistible to magpies!

Most Australians know that if you perch a pair of sunglasses on the top of your head, this stops the sudden swoop of the magpie. Painting eyes on the backs of hats does the trick too. But on said occasions I have been without Magpie defence items! Because we live in the Bush, we are well-used to birds during breeding season. Kookaburras have been known to fly into our windows repeatedly because they think the reflection is a potential, attractive mate. Sometimes we’ve had to cover large windows with cardboard or place a mirror nearby (for some reason, the mirror stops them). And I’ve seen magpies approach a mirror look into it; look behind it; and return many times for another look-see. So I’ve always been convinced that Australian magpies recognise themselves in a mirror and therefore have self-consciousness.

Researchers exposed five magpies (not Australian ones) to the mirror test. Yellow spots were painted on the black feathers on their necks and the magpies peered into the mirrors, examined their reflections, looked behind the mirrors or tried to touch the yellow mark.  The really interesting thing is that the magpies then preened their feathers and removed the yellow mark, then stopped preening that spot. The researchers (really, I could have saved them the time) concluded that magpies are capable of self-recognition, knew that their appearance had been marred by an ugly yellow spot and restored themselves to an acceptable condition. Personally, I think we should compare Australian magpies to the magpies in the test – not sure if they were European magpies – because I reckon Aussie magpies would really show the scientists how smart they are.

Actually, I spend a lot of time watching birds. I feed rosellas, kookaburras, currawongs, brown cuckoo doves (native to Eastern Australia and also called cinnamon dove) and rainbow lorikeets (I mix up a special feast for them made from nectar mix, fruit and vegetables). These are all wild birds, I don’t do cages. But everyday, I see rosella battles, currawongs taking a peek through the window, and kookaburras who tap on the glass wanting food. And the lorikeets, wild as they are, love to sit in the huge gumtree that looms over our balcony and listen to music. For some bizarre reason, they seem to prefer 1980s music, particularly the song Down Under by Men at Work. Well, they are great Aussie birds! I swear they dance on the branches of that gum tree.

December 27, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

The original redhead

I have had reddish hair all my life. It is (shall we say) somewhat colour-enhanced now but back when I was a teenager, I had reddish blonde hair. More on the auburn hued side than blonde. I’ve always loved red hair, particularly titian coloured. I can’t imagine having black hair – although I like it. And blonde hair, well sorry girls (and guys) I find it vapid, dull, lacklustre. At least people can’t say to me that I’m having a “blonde moment”.

I’ve had comments hurled at me from time to time like “carrot top” or people assume that I have a fiery temper because of the reddish tinge (actually, I don’t have much of a temper at all). Fabulous red hair is caused by recessive genes and apparently, only 1-2% of the human population has this colour hair. Well, I’m awfully glad to be in that minority as I like to be different! So it’s the rarest natural hair colour. Red heads usually have pale skin (yep, tick I have that), freckles (nope, not really) and a sensitivity to ultra-violet light (yep, tick). In Wales, where my dad was from, up to 10% of the population are ginger heads.  When I visited the Samburu in Kenya years ago on a safari trip, they wanted to touch my hair. They braid their hair and colour it with red ochre so guess they thought I was doing the same. A popular myth is that redheads will become extinct, kaput – possibly by 2060 -  because of global intermingling, which broadens the base of potential partners.  No more gingers, no more carrot tops. Redheads on the endangered species list!

It only takes one parent with the recessive genes to produce a ginger-haired baby. If two parents have the recessive genes, then it’s double red trouble. So yes, global intermingling could reduce the gene pool as two redheads are less likely to meet each other. Red hair might become less common. The prediction is that redheads will fall from the current 1 in 8 in Scotland to 1 in 640,000.

Perhaps I have another thing to worry about. Blue eyes are on the way out. Apparently, around half of the US population born at the beginning of the 20th Century had blue eyes. By the middle of the 20th Century, only a third of the population had blue eyes. And now? Only 1 in 6 Americans have blue eyes. Again, it’s all to do with intermingling. Blue eyed immigrants to the US (mainly from Western Europe) married each other but by mid-20th Century, and with the influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, there was a wider genetic pool from which to select a potential partner.

But don’t despair! The ginger-headed blue-eyed person can be rescued from the brink of extinction!  The original redhead has been found through ancient DNA. I must digress at this point and tell you that I can literally spend hours contemplating ancient people. Okay, my undergrad degree is in History, so I have a natural inclination to contemplete old stuff. But I often ponder things like:

  • before the arrival of knock-out drugs, how on earth did people put up with the pain of the nerve/root  dying off in teeth?
  • what kind of games did kids play in say 900 AD?
  • what were the Sumerian fashions like?
  • what kind of make-up did women wear in say Carthage? did they know about lip gloss?!!

And the grand question: how odd-looking did Neanderthals look? Neanderthals co-existed with humans until they went kaput around 45,000 years ago. I’ve always felt sorry for our ancient cousin, Homo neanderthalensis. When we use the word “Neanderthal” to describe someone it usually carries with it connotations of stupidity, brutishness and sloping foreheads (mind you, I reckon I’ve worked with a few Neanderthals!)  But Neanderthal man was surprisingly innovative and whatever snuffed them out in the Middle Palaeolithic period is unknown. Wonder what it would have been like for a Neanderthal to come face to face with a homo sapien?  Did they intermingle or keep to themselves because they were largely outnumbered by humans?

We probably have an image of a Neanderthal as being squat and “ape-like” like this picture:

But scientists, using DNA from 43,000 year old bones, have discovered that some Neanderthals had red hair, pale skin and freckles! The first model of a Neanderthal has been created based on DNA evidence and shows the very human face of a woman, christened Wilma (after the Flintstones character). Here she is:

Wilma appears on the cover of the October 2008 issue of National Geographic (hey, the original red-headed covergirl!).

Assuming someday scientists can extract ancient DNA and recreate Neanderthals – maybe we could save homo sapiens from extinction (given the utter stupidity of modern humans, we’ll probably snuff it); or repopulate the Earth with Neanderthals (who toughed out an Ice Age so they might be hardy enough to tough out global warming); and twig the recessive red-hair genes so all Neanderthals have glorious titian coloured hair!

So redheads of the world unite! Neanderthals may yet save us.

Image credits: National Geographic; Wikipedia

September 25, 2008 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Disappearing into a black hole

Regular ThinkingShift readers would know that I love a doomsday story and any conspiracy theory. So I was very excited to read about the Large Hadron Collider. Yippee…looks like I don’t have to worry about the Mayan prophecy of December 21, 2012 when the world will erupt with volcanic explosions, a comet or two smacking into us and earthquakes shaking us around. Nor do I have to wait around for the Rapture when we’ll all be transported to meet our Maker.

Nope. We’re all going to be sucked into a black hole pretty soon (and for those of who work in KM in organisations, we might say we’re already well and truly in that hole!). The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a particle accelerator that gets scientists worked up into a lather. Its purpose is to try and recreate the conditions present less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. Atomic particles will be whizzed around a 17 mile long tunnel at around the speed of light. Then the scientists will do something really exciting (or dangerous, take your pick) – they will smash the particles together and replicate the conditions immediately after the Big Bang.

Now, some scientists believe that tiny black holes might be created in the high energy collisions the LHC will cause. Should the black holes appear, they will (hopefully) evaporate quickly. Nature is pretty busy creating all sorts of black holes when cosmic rays collide into each other, so it’s a natural occurence and we’re all still here. But, so the theory goes, the tiny black holes could expand into huge Earth gobblers. One scientist, Professor Otto Rossler, a German chemist at the Eberhard Karis University of Tubingen, filed a lawsuit on August 26 against CERN (which built the LHC) with the European Court of Human Rights saying that the right to life of European citizens is being threatened (dude: what about non-Europeans?). Apparently, the European Court told Rossler to buzz off.

Personally, I’m turning to that great genius Stephen Hawking for some advice: is it going to be doom and gloom when the LHC is switched on on September 10? According to the phenomenon of Hawking Radiation (yep, named after him), black holes swallow up light and energy but also leak this all back out at an accelerated rate. Ergo, the black holes would evaporate before they had a chance to become Earth gobblers. What worries me is that no-one has seen black hole evaporation, it’s just a theory. But I’m inclined to think that if Nature creates black holes, we would have been sucked up already if it’s theoretically possible for black holes to expand.

If you’re into rap, here are some scientists rapping about the LHC (well, not really scientists but dressed up like them!).

What isn’t on YouTube I ask!

Ooooh, I just realised today is September 10, so if you’re reading this then no black hole has sucked us up. Oh well, onward then to the next doomsday date: December 21 2012.

Source: Science Daily

UPDATE: sadly, a young girl in India committed suicide because she was traumatised about thoughts that the world could end due to the LHC and the scientists’ experiments.

September 10, 2008 at 2:00 am 4 comments

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