At the risk of treading on DarkSyde's turf, I ran across a bunch of science and science-related items in the news this past week I thought worth passing along. As is usual, hot topics seem to generate multiple stories, so I've strung a few together where it seems useful, pulling from the usual suspects. Let me start off with one and pair it with an opinion piece in the NY Times today; the juxtaposition is... interesting.
• Wall Street and Mood Swings
A book review over at New Scientist offers up the hypothesis that the problem with Wall Street is that the smartest guys in the room are suffering from serious hormone-driven mood swings!
If Coates is right - and the evidence he presents is compelling - then the financial crises that so frequently plague capitalism find their roots in human biology, which amplifies both the euphoria of bubbles and the depression of their aftermath. What follows is a simple conclusion - less testosterone would make for stabler markets.Coates is neuroscientist John Coates, and the book is: The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk-Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust. Listen to an interview here. (About 27 minutes, CBC Canada) Then go read Joe Nocera today talking about boring banking.
• You Are Not Alone, Whether You Like It Or Not
The Human Microbiome Project is starting to release results, and they're fascinating. The idea was to look at healthy people to see what kind of bacterial communities are found on us, and what they are doing. (When Walt Whitman stated I contain multitudes, he had no idea!) The Scientist has a summary of some of the results to date.
The human body is largely not human. It contains trillions of microbes that outnumber out own cells 10 to 1, affecting our health and behavior. Now, an international consortium of around 200 scientists has mapped this diverse microbial community at an unprecedented level of detail, and shown just how much it varies from person to person.The NY Times has more. This kind of experiment was not possible to do until recently because these bacteria are so well adapted to living on/in us and in each other's company, it's not possible to grow them in the traditional method by isolating them in pure cultures. Instead, the task was accomplished by analyzing DNA sequences - the molecular equivalent of fingerprints.
And to make this even more fun, recent work suggests they're all 'talking' to each other, coordinating their activities, and responding to events by exchanging chemical signals. A fascinating TED talk from 2009 by Bonnie Basseler (BBC Link, about 18 minutes) has some details. We are all walking ecosystems, biological communities locked in mutual interdependence - Nature is a Socialist!
• Back From The Brink
Given the increasing toll on species around the world from human activities in the Anthropocene era, there are a couple of stories with some good news for a change. One turns on deliberate human intervention; the other seems to be happening through benign neglect.
Consider the Phasmid. You've probably never seen one - in fact for nearly a century no one had. Looking like something from a science fiction horror movie, the Lord Howe phasmid is a large walking stick type insect originally found on Lord Howe Island off Australia. They were thought to have been wiped out when mankind's activities introduced rats onto the island in 1918. The Scientist reports on how persistent claims that a few survivors had been seen on a nearby isolated crag rising from the ocean led to an investigation. And success!
After several cups of a tea and a rejuvenating swim, Carlile decided he would return to the bush where he’d spotted the feces that night, when the nocturnal phasmids might be moving about. Just as it got dark, Carlile set out with Lord Howe ranger Dean Hiscox. When they reached the shrubs, they saw an adult female phasmid—the first sighting of the insect in nearly 80 years. “It was such an amazing experience,” Carlile recalls. “I’d not seen such a large invertebrate. [It was] like going back to the Jurassic, when insects ruled the world.”The breeding program has worked well enough that there are plans to reintroduce the insects to Lord Howe Island - once all the rats have been exterminated. The insects were a major herbivore among their other roles in the island ecosystem; their return should help help restore the community to something more like its earlier balance.
When he returned home, Carlile contacted entomologist Patrick Honan at the Melbourne Zoo about starting a breeding program. After 2 years—“both to overcome the logistics of moving invertebrates as carry-on luggage that people weren’t allowed to open up, as well as dealing with the bureaucracy of wanting to collect what is potentially the rarest invertebrate in the world,” Carlile says—government approval was granted and Carlile returned to Ball’s Pyramid to collect four individuals; two males and two females. One pair went to Honan, while the other went to NSW entomologist Stephen Fellenberg, who had bred other species of phasmids.
Meanwhile, the BBC reports that in America, the cougar is making a comeback after being hunted into a fraction of its former range.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that mountain lions started to spread far and wide during the 1990s - this perspective was confirmed last June when a young male was hit by a car and killed in Connecticut.The big cats are notoriously reclusive. The problems will begin as they move into more densely populated human habitats and if they become accustomed to human presence. Their absence from the biological communities they used to inhabit has had some consequences that argue their presence is needed. In the absence of other predators and the decline of hunting by humans, whitetail deer populations have exploded. This is having a really bad effect on songbirds; the deer are eating up the ground cover many species need to nest and raise young. Wildflowers and shrubbery that used to fill the understory of forests are disappearing as deer graze everything they can reach. They damage agriculture and are a real traffic hazard. Coyote predation is supposed to be having some effect, but having some big cats discretely culling the herds couldn't hurt.
Genetic analysis indicated that the animal originated from the Black Hills and had travelled approximately 2,900km (1,800mi) via a number of States.
Now researchers have published the first scientific evidence that cougars have returned to the mid-west and are now to be found as far south as Texas and as far north as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba.
They say that limits on hunting and the return of elk and mule deer that cougars prey on have been key to increasing the overall population which is now said to number around 30,000.
And as the populations have grown, the territorial instincts of the big cats have forced them to conquer new ground. Michelle LaRue from the University of Minnesota, is one of the authors of the paper.
"What's happening is that, as the young males are moving out of the areas they were born in, they are coming into contact with other young males and they don't have anywhere else to go so they're kind of being forced out of these western populations and into these areas of vacant habitats in the mid west," she said.
• Rio +20 Summit and the fate of the World!!!
An international summit shaping up for the big meetings next week is already underway with preliminary sessions trying to hammer out agreements for the politicians to sign at the concluding photo op. This is when the real work is being done - and where battles could be won or lost. Ban ki-Moon is warning this is a critical moment for humanity according to The Guardian.
In a desperate last-minute plea to world leaders before the meeting, Ban said the international community was in danger of squandering a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use the Rio+20 meeting to map out a new course for economic and social development.The Guardian has some diaries from the conference highlighting the stakes. It would be nice if U.S. media had that kind of attention span.
It was the starkest warning from Ban to date that the meeting – being held 20 years after the first Earth summit in Rio which was attended by then US president George HW Bush and British Prime Minister John Major – risked failing in its mission of setting out a plan for expanding prosperity and opportunity without destroying the planet's environment.
"It is too important to fail, too important to fail," Ban told the Guardian in an interview at UN headquarters in New York. "We must not waste [this]. We must have a good practical outcome."
Nobody expected Rio+20 to produce all the answers, Ban said, but it was crucial the leaders at least agree on the bare bones of a plan. "If we really do not take firm actions, we may be heading towards the end – the end of our future," he warned.
For some reasons to pay attention - something neither Obama nor Romney have yet done much on the campaign trail - check out this New Scientist article on climate change and wildfires. (Kevin Drum picks up on a survey that belief in Climate Change is rising again - unless you're a Republican - though mainly because weird weather is getting people to rethink the issue. Politics on climate change is personal.)
Also at New Scientist is a very relevant article showing what the world looks like by two very different measures. Consider the Happy Planet Index.
IT'S easy not to trash the planet - if you're dirt poor and die young. But is it possible for all of us to live long and satisfying lives without costing the Earth? That's the question behind a measure of national well-being called the Happy Planet Index (HPI). Its latest update, released this week ahead of the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development, names Costa Rica as the world's most "developed" nation and puts the US on the sick list.While Austerians are having an increasingly hard time fighting off the growing realization that it makes more sense to grow the economy than trying to cut one's way to prosperity, we also need to think about transforming the economy for greater stability, more equality, and more sustainability. Alas, there's little evidence that's happening any time soon here in the U.S. - but other parts of the world get it.
To show how different the world looks when viewed according to the HPI, rather than conventional wealth, New Scientist applied distorting lenses. In the top map, countries are sized according to their GDP, and shaded by GDP per capita. As sub-Saharan Africa almost shrinks from view, western Europe, the US and Japan swell and flush a deep red.
But this wealth has fuelled massively unsustainable use of natural resources (see "Peak planet: are we starting to consume less?"). Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation in London developed HPI as an alternative measure, "to capture the tension between good lives now and good lives in the future".
Certainly the goal of sustainability isn't always as straightforward as might be assumed. The BBC reports Shell Oil has been forced to retreat on an alcohol biofuel project in Brazil over the concerns of indigenous peoples and illegal land use. Closer to home, the NY Times Magazine has a photo essay on a solar power project in the Mojave. The pictures are mind boggling, the scale of the project immense, and the impact on the landscape inescapable. There are always trade offs. Who pays, who benefits, who decides?
The haves and want to be haves of the world have a lot to hash out here. Rio +20 will succeed or fail on whether we chose continued denial, or to go forward. We really can't put this off.
• The Final Frontier
There's been some notable news in Space recently. The Dragon Capsule flight to and return from the I.S.S. could be a new chapter in U.S. space efforts even as the Other space station is soon to get its first tenants. And while a historic era in spaceflight continues to wind down, we now have a new set of eyes in orbit to show us things we've never seen before. And the view could get even better if the idiot fringe running Congress doesn't kill a gift from the military-industrial complex to NASA. The things are already paid for - throwing them away would be a crime. (But when you remember that quote about Congress being America's only native criminal class....)
• From the Country That Gave Us Big Brother, Fear on the Internet tubes
Not paranoid enough yet? The BBC reports why you should be.
Details of internet use in the UK will have to be stored for a year to allow police and intelligence services to access it, under government plans.If Alexander Graham Bell were inventing the telephone today, every switchboard would be mandated by law to run through a police station. Oh wait.....
Records will include people's activity on social network sites, webmail, internet phone calls and online gaming.
Home Secretary Theresa May said the change was needed to keep up with how criminals were using new technology.
On the other hand, Air Force Magazine has some pretty alarming numbers.
The Defense Department’s networks are probed by unauthorized users close to 10 million times a day, and the threats are increasingly sophisticated, said Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, at the Air Force Association’s second annual CyberFutures Conference in late March.emphasis added
In most of those attacks, the assailants are attempting to steal proprietary information, degrade or shut down military operations, or insert malware to be activated at a later date.
"Many of these activities are detected, and I would submit that we’re darn good at protecting our networks," said Shelton at the conference in National Harbor, Md. "Many, we surmise, however, remain undetected. The bad guys, frankly, are very good, too."
In fact, cyberspace has become particularly attractive to US adversaries, especially less developed countries, because the "price of admission to the fight is so low," said Shelton. Just about anyone can wreak havoc on US networks as long as they have the right brainpower, a cheap laptop, and an Internet connection. The US military is an inviting target, because it relies on cyberspace-based capabilities for almost every mission.
Well, that's a few of the sci-tech items that have caught my eye recently. Feel free to point out any that have caught yours in comments. Have a good weekend!