Friday, November 21, 2008

Running with the Red Queen

Phil Plait, aka The Bad Astronomer, regularly blows my mind with his science posts. He's got a market on really fascinating astronomy items, but let me try to steal two:

First, something weird is going on with our cosmic ray data. There appears to be a mysterious source that's pumping out a surplus of cosmic ray electrons in the 300-800 billion eV range. That's high-powered, which means that the source has to be fairly close - within about 3000 light years. Phil goes into the speculations on what's causing it, and I have to agree with him. What if we determine its direction as coming from "everywhere"? Wouldn't that be interesting? Here's a link to a ScienceDaily abstract from the article itself.

More below the fold...

Some new and exciting news from Mars! Subterranean glaciers! Woo! Total Recall was right! Now if only we can get Arnold in a mechanical woman's suit and...oh...wait...nevermind.

Guys, let's go back to the Moon. Let's get it right, get the technology down, and then head to Mars. We need this as a species. For the inspiration, initially, for the science, second, and for habitation last (but perhaps most importantly). I hope our President-elect is as far-seeing as he has made himself out to be.

Along the lines of making Mars habitable and new findings, to bring it a little closer to Earth, here's an article that details some new extremophiles. Now, this has implications for Mars exploration, if for nothing else then just showing how extreme of conditions life can withstand, if it ever developed on Mars in the first place. W00t! Go life!

Also still in the spacey mood, I'm a little late in posting about this, but a Universal Declaration of Human Rights has launched into space. Symbolic? Yes. Inspirational? I hope so. Likely to do much good? ...Eh. We'll see if this even hits the media.

I'm going to toss a can of worms out there - the newest article I've found on the eusociality/superorganism debate. E.O. Wilson's latest work hasn't been well received by a lot of biologists, and I can imagine that this is only going to stoke those flames higher. It's not a debate I'm competent enough to engage in intelligently, so...have at it bio-guys!

Lastly, some articles more in my field:

First, we've learned that neurons do not regenerate in part because of a down-regulation in the mTOR pathway. Active during cell development, but as the neuron matures, this pathway gets basically cut off. Scientists recently used genetic techniques to silence some of the key parts of this down-regulation mechanism in mice. Lo! And Behold! Neuronal regeneration!

Now, let's be clear. Of the neurons that sustained injury, about 50% survived in the mutant mice, but this is compared to 20% in the normal mice. That alone is a significant finding. More interesting, however, is that about 10% of the surviving cells in the mutant mice regenerated axons, and regrowth increased with time. That's fascinating! Of course, it does not yet provide proof that such regrowth is functional - more time and study is needed before we have a clear idea about that, but this is a great first step. It also tells us that maybe we've found one key in the puzzle - maybe we can get more than 10% of surviving cells experiencing regrowth. Again, the answer is more and better studies.

Lastly, a neurology article that suggests that pure sensory processing accounts for a great deal of our decision-making behavior. As I've said before, I do agree with determinism, but I don't find it depressing, and I can understand how it's a useful heuristic to talk about free will. This article is interesting to me because of its mechanical perspective - these are the kinds of things that we can and should model in neural networks. "But is it conscious?" should become a relatively unimportant question - this is complex behavior that appears conscious, even though it's just signal weights in the brain. Good stuff.

I also just want to say that I'm really busy right now with school, work, and Ph.D. applications. I'll be back next week, but don't expect much from me this weekend unless I just can't handle staring at my regular reading and such anymore.

Other blog writers, do you guys have anything to contribute? I'd appreciate it greatly.

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