Sunday, February 10, 2008

Welcoming New Authors and Science

Alright, so, I'm going to try something out here and invite other people to be authors on the blog. Probably most all of them will be grad students, and I'm aiming for about four or five people right now to have a good variety. I, obviously, am mainly going to be posting on science topics, as well as whatever tickles my fancy. Occasionally I'll give updates on music and food (I play guitar and cook quite well, so maybe I'll post some recipes if I get bored).

So, in the interest of getting authors, I'd like to welcome Zie to the blog. I have no idea what she'll be posting about, aside from it will probably be the disaffected ramblings of a grad student like mine. So, welcome!

I also hope you guys will check out the Minnesota Atheists, they're a nice bunch and have gotten pretty good at putting on a good radio show. Give 'em a listen, and if you've got the capability, maybe a little contribution as well. Help the cause of rationality!

Science below the fold...

Alright, so, as I said, I'll be posting a lot on science that catches my eye. There will also be some posting on my life as a grad student in a Div school, but for right now, I'd rather just talk it out with science. So...

Neural Basis of 'Number Sense' in Young Infants
Hooking young kids up to fMRI's?! The horror!

No, seriously, this is a pretty interesting study for a number of reasons (hah, I kill myself with puns). First off, these kids are about 4 1/2 months old. That's young. Kids tend to produce their first vocalizations that are recognizable as "words" around 11 to 12 months, so, here, we're about 7-8 months early. Why is this interesting, you might ask? Well, it's a fairly solid nail in the coffin of linguistic determinism. The true Whorfian (or neo-Whorfian) hypothesis would say that we are not able to cut up the world into recognizable pieces until we have words for them. Hence, the Inuit can detect many varieties of snow because they have words for them, and not, as is more sensible, the other way around.

Now, is this to say that kids at 4 months of age don't have some rudimentary language skills that is allowing them to carve up the world at its joints? Well, no, not entirely. However, I think it's much less likely that they have had enough exposure and enough brain development to do this accurately and consistently at this point. I also tend to think that number sense (in an approximation type) and identification of objects as separate from one another and the environment is probably mostly hard-wired. Maybe some evo-devo people can help me out here.

I'm going to say some more holes punched in Linguistic Determinism (and can we please, please, get over this pomo hangover?), score another one for science.

In a related vein, Languages Evolve in Rapid Bursts:

Point to take away from this article and others like it, languages evolve quickly to differentiate among social groups and form an identity...also, when a part of a population breaks away, they tend to under rapid linguistic development, especially in accents because of the smaller pool of adults (who may have idiosyncratic ways of speaking). A good analogy can be found in the idea of founding populations in evolutionary biology. Small populations tend to undergo more rapid evolutionary processes because of the over-expression of genetic differences among the individuals. Basically, they don't have a larger population to average out differences and so whatever mutations are present tend to spread rapidly through the small founder population. Fun stuff.

Speaking of genetics, Three-Parent Embryo Formed in Lab:

Whoa! Major cool science here. Now, this does not mean that the embryo will express the genetic traits of all three parents. One woman donates an egg and her mitochondrial DNA. Another woman and male donate their nuclear DNA, and thus are the basis for the child's later genetic traits.

So, "why," you may find yourself asking? Because a lot of hereditary diseases are passed along through mitochondrial DNA (which is separate from nuclear DNA), which is transmitted only by the mother - thus, you can effectively trace your female ancestry through good ole' mitochondrial DNA - something on the order of about 50 diseases which can lead to disability or death. The mitochondria is an important organelle people. Incredibly important. Don't forget that.

With this treatment, a woman with "healthy" mitochondrial DNA donates that (and her egg) to a woman who has defects in her mitochondrial DNA so that she might have a healthy child with a husband or through donated sperm. I don't think we've quite gotten to the parthenogensis point with humans yet, though I do wonder if we carried that over from our reptile ancestors. Ah, family drama would be so much more interesting.

On the other hand, there is a huge controversy over "designer babies." Now, I'll side with anyone who says that choosing hair/eye color and such as that for a child through genetic modification is excessive. But I think it's also fair to note that Mother Nature really doesn't care about us at all, and if we have the technology to prevent future suffering from diseases and disorders, then I say go for it. We are the first species that has the capability of improving our own genome artificially, and that's pretty exciting to me. Cue argument over what "improvement" and "standards of success" means.

And speaking of diseases, Insulin Grown in Plants Relieves Diabetes in Mice:

This guy proved the concept that an acre of tobacco could produce enough anthrax vaccine to inoculate the U.S. Now he's growing insulin capsules in lettuce that can be ground into a powder, put in a capsule, and given as a slow-release medication that seems to have the potential (in mice at least) to provide long-term relief of diabetes. I'm actually really impressed and glad for this. Of course, I'm also big into genetic engineering, as stated above.

Can we get some chemotherapy tobacco for cigarettes now? Please?

Lastly, The Columbus Laboratory Leaves Earth:

Yes! This is very exciting:

As a state-of-the-art research facility, the Columbus laboratory is the cornerstone of Europe’s contribution to the ISS. Once attached to the orbital outpost, this 7-m long, 12.8-tonne module will provide a shirtsleeve environment for astronauts to operate science equipment and conduct experiments in weightlessness across a wide range of topics in life sciences, human physiology, biology, fluid physics, material sciences, technology and education. It will also feature external accommodation for experiments focusing on space science, Earth observation, materials and advanced space technologies.

This is a great example of the world coming together over science and progress. I think the ISS (maligned as it is, and as much improvement as it could take) is a great symbol for the sort of world community that we want to develop. This is Europe's major contribution to it, and Japan's "Hope," or Kibo, module is set to launch in March and April. Keep your eyes peeled for it. Meanwhile, check out NASA's website for some good info on all the missions and updates on Atlantis.

And yes, I still want to be an astronaut.

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