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Monday, June 29, 2009

Perhaps you've thought that viruses are the simplest sort of "living" thing – if a virus can even be called "alive".

Well, maybe not. Viroids are even simpler. You're on your own as to whether you want to describe them as "alive".

Viroids are not a new discovery – they've been known since 1971. Viroids are found only in plant cells and don't seem to infect animals. They can cause plant pathology, apparently enough to be a serious economic problem.

A viroid consists entirely of a circular piece of RNA, that may be only a few hundred base units long. The smallest known viroid has only 220 units. None of this RNA codes for proteins – unlike virus RNA or DNA, which codes for proteins that (among other things) encapsulate the genetic material. The RNA or DNA of a virus is much larger than the RNA of a viroid. The smallest known virus capable of causing an infection by itself is about 2000 base units.

Viruses reproduce by co-opting machinery of the host cell. The DNA of a DNA virus, for example, is typically normal double-stranded DNA. In the virus life cycle, two separate processes are required (among others). The DNA itself has to be copied with a DNA polymerase enzyme, just as is used in making DNA copies during cell division. The proteins that the virus requires for its coat are also made in the normal way – using RNA polymerase enzyme to make messenger RNA, which can then be used to make proteins in a cell's ribosomes.

RNA viruses are trickier. Sometimes they work by using an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which makes DNA from RNA. The HIV-1 virus responsible for AIDS is an example. Other RNA viruses, such as human polio viruses, use another enzyme, RNA replicase, which makes copies of RNA directly. RNA viruses usually encode the enzymes that they need for reproduction, to ensure a sufficient quantity of the enzyme.

So how does a viroid reproduce, given that it consists of RNA, but doesn't code for any special enzymes, or any proteins at all? The process isn't well understood, as the following explains:

Viroids: Molecular Vestiges Of The RNA World (5/17/09)
As opposed to plant viruses, which encode proteins that mediate their own replication and movement, viroids depend exclusively on host factors for these purposes. Viroids replicate through an RNA-based rolling circle mechanism with three steps: i) synthesis of longer-than-unit strands catalyzed by a host nuclear or chloroplastic RNA polymerase that reiteratively transcribes the initial circular template, ii) processing to unit-length, which remarkably is mediated by hammerhead ribozymes in the family Avsunviroidae, and iii) and circularization resulting from the action of an RNA ligase or from self-ligation.

Among the many pending issues, how viroids redirect the template specificity of certain host DNA-dependent RNA polymerases to transcribe RNA, is one of the most challenging. In addition, viroids must recruit host factors for their intracelular, cell-to-cell and long-distance movement within the plant. There are also pending questions in this context, the most appealing of which is how members of the family Avsunviridae gain access into the chloroplast; because essentially no other RNA has been reported to traffic inside this organelle, the answer to this question may reveal novel transport pathways in plant cells.

In order to understand what this is saying, the first fact needed is that viroid RNA comes in the form of a circle – no loose ends. In this respect, it is somewhat like bacterial DNA, which consists partly of circular loops of double-stranded DNA, called plasmids.

The interesting part is that viroids are apparently replicated by RNA polymerase, which normally produces RNA from a DNA template, rather than an RNA template. The process is called rolling circle replication, because the enzyme may travel around the loop a number of times, since there are no clear start and stop points. Later, in a separate operation, an RNA enzyme (ribozyme) of the host, cuts the multiply copied segments of viroid RNA back into unit segments, which join at the ends to form a circle again.

What's especially interesting about viroids is that they may give some insight into mechanisms that would be important in the RNA world hypothesis. This is the idea that before proteins existed, or even DNA itself, there was RNA – see here for some recent findings about how RNA itself may have originated.

RNA is capable of carrying genetic information just as DNA does – after all, that's what happens in RNA viruses. The main problem is how it was possible for RNA to reproduce itself. Viroids hardly give us a complete answer to this problem, since proteins (such as RNA polymerase) are still required for replication. But at least, in viroids, we have an example of a replicating entity that consists entirely of genetic information, with no proteins of its own.

Further reading:

Viroids and Virusoids

Hubble Photographs a Planetary Nebula

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hubble Photographs a Planetary Nebula to Commemorate Decommissioning of Super Camera
This planetary nebula is known as Kohoutek 4-55 (or K 4-55). It is one of a series of planetary nebulae that were named after their discoverer, Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek. A planetary nebula contains the outer layers of a red giant star that were expelled into interstellar space when the star was in the late stages of its life. Ultraviolet radiation emitted from the remaining hot core of the star ionizes the ejected gas shells, causing them to glow.

In the specific case of K 4-55, a bright inner ring is surrounded by a bipolar structure. The entire system is then surrounded by a faint red halo, seen in the emission by nitrogen gas. This multi-shell structure is fairly uncommon in planetary nebulae.

Kohoutek 4-55 – click for 946×710 image

More: here

Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The "new" Newsweek is running an article on the evolutionary psychology debate that seems heavily slanted to one side. There seem to be some confusions in the article. They leave a bad impression of its objectivity.

Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?
Over the years these arguments have attracted legions of critics who thought the science was weak and the message (what philosopher David Buller of Northern Illinois University called "a get-out-of-jail-free card" for heinous behavior) pernicious. But the reaction to the rape book was of a whole different order. Biologist Joan Roughgarden of Stanford University called it "the latest 'evolution made me do it' excuse for criminal behavior from evolutionary psychologists." Feminists, sex-crime prosecutors and social scientists denounced it at rallies, on television and in the press.

Such commentary is entirely political and nonscientific. It hardly merits a moment's response. Of course heinous behavior is not justified even by facts that are beyond dispute. The fact that humans have hands and arms that can wield weapons, or can even kill with bare hands, does not excuse murder. Likewise, behavioral traits that can be explained by evolution do not excuse rape and killing. (As for "sleeping around", that is in a different moral category entirely, if in any moral category at all.) Nothing more needs to be said about this kind of inanity that the article offers up.

So on to more substantive issues.

Scientific objectivity tends to be the victim of its own special kind of rape when "philosophers" enter the scene. Too bad "philosophers" don't stick to their own business and limit the damage to their own ranks. Philosophers (and their even more badly behaved kin, the "theologians") have certainly left enough carnage in other scientific topics, such as embryonic stem cells.

But read the article yourself, and then consider its shortcomings.

Exactly how was it decided that "evolutionary psychology" and "mental modules" are coextensive hypotheses? It seems to me that EP could easily be valid without the stronger hypothesis of modules. Who is it that's insisting the two ideas are inseparable?

Same question regarding "universal human nature". EP can easily explain traits that have context-dependent behavioral expression. Likewise, why does "universal human nature" have to be taken to rule out context-dependency of behavior?

Clearly, brain organization is very complex. From a programming perspective, it would be expected to involve a lot of conditional logic. Evolution nevertheless produced the organization the brain has now. Why would that be limited to only the most simplistic forms of organization - straight-line coding that has no alternative paths and data dependencies?

How hard is it to imagine that certain traits evolved in older stages of the human brain (or pre-human brain, for that matter), but that these traits have been partly been modified in later stages, with override switches when appropriate?

A nebulous "flexibility" is itself a debatable hypothesis, and it smells of the vacuousness that EP is accused of. It needs its own scientific evidence before being accepted. New social and physical conditions (for example, very high population densities, unlike any that humans have experienced over multiple generations) may require further evolutionary reprogramming when the supposed flexibility can't handle the changes.

Are straw man arguments being proposed to make EP look bad, or do most EP proponents really believe hypotheses that are obviously stronger than necessary?

Although the article makes valid points, it seem rather slanted to use these points as arguments against EP. The article has lots of spin and preoccupation with political agendas, not so much scientific objectivity.

Update (7/29/09) - For the record, I got into an extended discussion on that Newsweek article with Massimo Pigliucci (who was quoted in the article) on Facebook. It can be found here - dated June 21, 2009.


The impending demise of the university

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Don Tapscott, who is a business executive, author of more than a dozen books on technology, president of a think tank, and a part-time professor in a university school of management, implies a fairly provocative claim in this article: The impending demise of the university.

Actually, he stops short of predicting outright the demise of universities, but he does begin with this:
For fifteen years, I've been arguing that the digital revolution will challenge many fundamental aspects of the University. I've not been alone. In 1998, none other than, Peter Drucker predicted that big universities would be "relics" within 30 years.

He cites various social, economic, and technological trends that could support such a prediction. I tend to agree with the idea that significant changes lie ahead for universities as we know them today – changes larger in magnitude than have occurred in the past 50 years, at least, even if not ultimately catastrophic ones.

There will probably, in 50 years, still be universities around not too unlike the ones we know now. However, I would guess they will probably provide education to a significantly smaller part of the population than they do today.

I won't outline all the details of the argument; they're in the article. I just want to focus on a few key points.

Tapscott is fairly critical of the model of professors lecturing to large halls full of students:
The broadcast model might have been perfectly adequate for the baby-boomers, who grew up in broadcast mode, watching 24 hours a week of television (not to mention being broadcast to as children by parents, as students by teachers, as citizens by politicians, and when then entered the workforce as employees by bosses). But young people who have grown up digital are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. In fact television viewing is dropping and TV has become nothing more than ambient media for youth — akin to Muzak. Sitting mutely in front of a TV set — or a professor — doesn't appeal to or work for this generation. They learn differently best through non-sequential, interactive, asynchronous, multi-tasked and collaborative. [emphasis added]

(Aside: Tapscott clearly is not a master of English prose.)

In fact, Tapscott is not saying anything new or surprising here. It's true that young people today have grown up amid much more ambient media than existed, say, 50 years ago. However, large lectures were not especially appealing to most students even 50 years ago – or probably ever.

We should recall what has traditionally been considered a better model for higher education, as expressed a few years ago by the Provost of Drexel University:
When asked to describe his ideal of higher education, President James A. Garfield described it as then Williams College President Mark Hopkins sitting on one end of a log with his student sitting on the other end. This image of the learned professor imparting the wealth of knowledge of culture and history, arts and science, to his student and protégé evokes images of Aristotle and Plato and the Akademia in Athens. Akademia – to Plato a place, a city park, in ancient Athens. To us a word that describes what we are about, what we do for others and ourselves, and what we can be.

It's no accident that Plato depicted Socrates as teaching through dialogs with his students. Obviously, that has not been economically feasible in most lower division courses (or many graduate level courses) in universities for a long, long time. Tapscott does eventually point out that technology may be able to make something like this interactive model viable more broadly in the future.

Tapscott decries what he calls the "industrial model" of education:
The basic model of pedagogy is broken. "Broadcast learning" as I've called it is no longer appropriate for the digital age and for a new generation of students who represent the future of learning.

In the industrial model of student mass production, the teacher is the broadcaster. A broadcast is by definition the transmission of information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. The teacher is the transmitter and student is a receptor in the learning process.

Here's a paper (PDF) that gives some background on what Tapscott means by "industrial model":
The academic profession and academic institutions, as they exist in America today, were born of the 19th-Century importation of the model of the "research university" from Germany. The founding of Johns Hopkins on the German model (1867) and the appointment of Charles William Eliot (a strong proponent of the model) as president of Harvard (1869) are usually cited as definitive events of this movement. This German model introduced the idea of the university as a site where knowledge is "produced," as a research "factory" or "powerhouse," and it embraced the advancement of knowledge – that is, scholarly productivity – in specialized fields of investigation as its central goal. The metaphors of production, manufacture, and power reflect the origin and location of this academic model in the industrialized society and economy of Western Europe.

Tapscott believes that the exposure young people have had to the Internet and pervasive media has motivated them to demand a different approach to education. It's possible that this is true, but most reasonably intelligent students for many decades have felt the same way. Quite possibly students are better prepared to handle a different approach now. Speaking of today's students, Tapscott says
They're used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation. What's more, growing up digital has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding enquirers. Rather than waiting for a trusted professor to tell them what's going on, they find out on their own on everything from Google to Wikipedia. [emphasis added]

Tapscott seems to think that it's professors themselves who prefer the broadcast lecture model. The truth is that some people do enjoy presenting lectures, and some of them are very good at it. However, most lecturers (in my experience) are not very good at it, even when experts in their field. They may talk too fast, or too slow, lack organization, and can be just plain boring. This is quite likely an indication that the professors themselves don't enjoy preparing and presenting lectures. They'd rather be doing research, or even interacting personally with students. However that may be, Tapscott offers this advice:
The professors who remain relevant will have to abandon the traditional lecture, and start listening and conversing with the students — shifting from a broadcast style and adopting an interactive one.

I suspect most professors wouldn't have much objection to this approach – if only their employers could afford to pay current salaries at a much lower student-teacher ratio.

Economics is really the crux of the matter. Universities could not afford to make the change, nor could students (or their parents) afford to bear the cost. So here's where technology comes in: The solution is for those teachers who most enjoy lecturing, and do the best job of it, to have their lectures digitally recorded and made available on the Internet. This is not rocket science, now that high-speed Internet is spreading rapidly (though not rapidly enough), and practically every student has (at least in Western countries) Internet access. The only barriers now are economic, and the willingness of universities to adapt.

It's true that students give up some interactivity with the lecturer when not physically present in the same room. But when professors are freed from the chore of preparing and presenting live lectures, they may instead use Internet tools to interact with their students in models that are much more like a Socratic dialogs or Mark Hopkins on a log.

Tapscott has some additional recommendations as to how professors should change their style:
Second, they should encourage students to discover for themselves, and learn a process of discovery and critical thinking instead of just memorizing the professor's store of information. Third, they need to encourage students to collaborate among themselves and with others outside the university. Finally, they need to tailor the style of education to their students' individual learning styles. [emphasis added]

Has the point about the benefits of collaboration among students, and between students and knowledgeable teachers and experts, been made enough yet? No? Then Tapscott makes it again:
Some leading educators are calling for this kind of massive change; one of these is Richard Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He says the education model has to change to suit this generation of students. Smart but impatient, they like to collaborate and they reject one-way lectures, he notes.

And once more for good measure:
Another fixture of old-style learning is the assumption that students should learn on their own. Sharing notes in an exam hall, or collaborating on some of the essays and homework assignments, was strictly forbidden. Yet the individual learning model is foreign territory for most Net Geners, who have grown up collaborating, sharing, and creating together online. Progressive educators are recognizing this. Students start internalizing what they've learned in class only once they start talking to each other, says Seely Brown: "The whole notion of passively sitting and receiving information has almost nothing to do with how you internalize information into something that makes sense to you. Learning starts as you leave the classroom, when you start discussing with people around you what was just said. It is in conversation that you start to internalize what some piece of information meant to you."

In point of fact, collaboration among students on homework assignments was not always strictly forbidden in the past. Wise educators (which doesn't necessarily mean all educators) have (as far as I can tell) always been quite aware that good learning goes on when students confer with their peers – especially peers who may have achieved a better grasp of the subject – or when students get together in groups to work on assignments. Good educators have always encouraged such things. (Tests should eventually sort out who has really learned something and who hasn't.)

I think there are two ideas that pretty much sum up this whole discussion. One is multi-way interaction (as opposed to reliance solely on 1-to-many lecturing). The second, not unrelated, is collaboration among educators and students, and especially among students themselves.

I also think it's pretty clear some ways the modern Internet is able to facilitate the implementation of both these ideas. Namely, things like: video lecture series, social networking tools, constantly improving search tools, online and open-access books, journals, and reference materials, collaboratively made encyclopedias, and on, and on....

Let me conclude by referring to something I wrote about two months ago, that is Clay Shirky's diagnosis of the impending demise of traditional media journalism. (See here.) Near the end was this:
[T]here is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time.

In other words: collaboration among consumers of information.

Interesting parallel, wouldn't you say?

Why Are Galaxies So Smooth?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why Are Galaxies So Smooth? (5/1/09)
Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, an international team of astronomers has discovered streams of young stars flowing from their natal cocoons in distant galaxies. These distant rivers of stars provide an answer to one of astronomy's most fundamental puzzles: how do young stars that form clustered together in dense clouds of dust and gas disperse to form the large, smooth distribution seen in the disks of spiral galaxies like the Milky Way? ...

"When you look at the disks of galaxies in the infrared they are remarkably smooth. All of the older stars are evenly distributed. But stars aren't born that way; they're born in clusters and associations like the Pleiades cluster, or the association of young stars in the Orion constellation of our own Milky Way galaxy. So the question is - why are the disks of galaxies so smooth?" said team leader David Block of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

"Our analysis now answers the grand puzzle. By finding a myriad of streams of young stars all over the disks of galaxies we studied, we see that the mechanism for pulling the clusters of young stars apart is shearing motions of the parent galaxy. These streams are the 'missing link' we needed to understand how the disks of galaxies evolve to look the way they do," said Block.

NGC 2841 – click for 1750×940 image

More: here, here

NASA's Galaxy Mission Celebrates Sixth Anniversary

NASA's Galaxy Mission Celebrates Sixth Anniversary (4/28/09)
This image is a blend of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer's M33 image and another taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. M33, one of our closest galactic neighbors, is about 2.9 million light-years away in the constellation Triangulum, part of what's known as our Local Group of galaxies.

... This combined image shows in amazing detail the beautiful and complicated interlacing of the heated dust and young stars. In some regions of M33, dust gathers where there is very little far-ultraviolet light, suggesting that the young stars are obscured or that stars further away are heating the dust. In some of the outer regions of the galaxy, just the opposite is true: There are plenty of young stars and very little dust.

Far-ultraviolet light from young stars glimmers blue, near-ultraviolet light from intermediate age stars glows green, near-infrared light from old stars burns yellow and orange, and dust rich in organic molecules burns red. ... This image is a four-band composite that, in addition to the two ultraviolet bands, includes near infrared as yellow/orange and far infrared as red.

M33 – click for 450×699 image

More: here

Other M33 images: here, here, here

Easily Grossed Out? You Might Be A Conservative!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Easily Grossed Out? You Might Be A Conservative! (6/5/09)
Are you someone who squirms when confronted with slime, shudders at stickiness or gets grossed out by gore? Do crawly insects make you cringe or dead bodies make you blanch?

If so, chances are you're more conservative -- politically, and especially in your attitudes toward gays and lesbians -- than your less-squeamish counterparts, according to two Cornell studies.

The results, said study leader David Pizarro, Cornell assistant professor of psychology, raise questions about the role of disgust -- an emotion that likely evolved in humans to keep them safe from potentially hazardous or disease-carrying environments -- in contemporary judgments of morality and purity.

This press release doesn't explain how the link between conservatism and feelings of disgust is based, at least in part, on theories of an academic in Virginia named Jonathan Haidt.

I've written about this guy before: Moral neuropolitics and ideology. His pet theory is that morality in general arises out of several human characteristics that can be explained by evolutionary psychology (EP). While it is true that EP can be taken too far in "explaining" human nature, I think it also has a lot of validity and if used carefully it can give real scientific explanations for some things.

The problem I have with Haidt's theories is not because of EP. Rather it's because he singles out three evolved traits that he believes influence conservative theories of morality yet are generally disregarded in liberal theories. One of these traits is a serious concern about "purity" – which sort of means an aversion to "disgusting" things, without an attempt to provide reasonable justification for the feeling in specific situations (such as homosexuality).

Haidt thinks this suggests liberal theories of morality are inadequate. I think that he's wrong. It does not seem to me that just because a trait evolved in humans (when social and physical conditions were vastly different from those of the present) it follows that such traits should be important influences on morality under current conditions.

Further, not only are these inherited traits unreliable guides for moral theories, but they are insufficient to provide good foundations for moral principles that are important in modern conditions – such as concern for the welfare of the environment, aversion to warfare, and the need for limitations on exploitative behavior of elites. However, all this is a discussion for another time.

Returning to the research described at the top, it's reassuring that the investigators shared my concerns about the role of "purity" in moral judgment:
Liberals and conservatives disagree about whether disgust has a valid place in making moral judgments, Pizarro noted. Conservatives have argued that there is inherent wisdom in repugnance; that feeling disgusted about something -- gay sex between consenting adults, for example -- is cause enough to judge it wrong or immoral, even lacking a concrete reason. Liberals tend to disagree, and are more likely to base judgments on whether an action or a thing causes actual harm. ...

The research speaks to a need for caution when forming moral judgments, Pizarro added. "Disgust really is about protecting yourself from disease; it didn't really evolve for the purpose of human morality," he said. "It clearly has become central to morality, but because of its origins in contamination and avoidance, we should be wary about its influences."

Further reading:

Conservatives Are More Easily Disgusted (6/4/09) – LiveScience.com

What I'm (going to be) reading

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Just ordered a few books from Amazon. Light summer reading. Occurred to me that others might be interested, so here's the list. Since I haven't even received them yet, I can't promise they'll be good, but they all seem intriguing...

• Marcus Du Sautoy – Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature

• Mary Roach – Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

• Clay Shirky – Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

• Susan Jacoby – The Age of American Unreason

• John Brockman, ed. – Science at the Edge: Conversations with the Leading Scientific Thinkers of Today

• Marvin Minsky – The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind

• Frank Wilczek – Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces

• Laurent Schwartz – Cancer: Between Glycolysis and Physical Constraint

• Lauren Pecorino – Molecular Biology of Cancer: Mechanisms, Targets, and Therapeutics

Any comments or suggestions?

Chromosomal instability and centrosome defects in cancer cells

Monday, June 8, 2009

Link unraveled between chromosomal instability and centrosome defects in cancer cells (6/7/09)
In a new study, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute scientists disprove a century-old theory about why cancer cells often have too many or too few chromosomes, and show that the actual reason may hold the key to a novel approach to cancer therapy.

Since the late 19th century, scientists have attributed the surplus or shortage of intact chromosomes in cancer cells to a kind of fragmentation in cell division: instead of dividing neatly into two identical daughter cells, as normal cells do, cancer cells were thought to frequently split into three or four cells, each with a motley assortment of chromosomes. This explosive division was thought to occur because many cancer cells have extra centrosomes, tiny circular structures that help pairs of chromosomes line up in preparation for cell division. ...

The way that extra centrosomes do cause chromosome instability, Ganem and his colleagues have discovered, is by setting up a tug-of-war for chromosomes that are eventually caught between newly forming daughter cells of a dividing cancer cell. In normal cells, which have two centrosomes, division occurs as the pairs of chromosomes split neatly apart, like halves of a zipper, each set moving into one of the daughter cells. The extra centrosomes in cancer cells exert an unequal pull on some chromosomes, causing the daughter cells to inherit an irregular number of them – explaining, in part, why tumors are often filled with cells of varying quantities of chromosomes.

Research abstract:

A mechanism linking extra centrosomes to chromosomal instability
Chromosomal instability (CIN) is a hallmark of many tumours and correlates with the presence of extra centrosomes. However, a direct mechanistic link between extra centrosomes and CIN has not been established. It has been proposed that extra centrosomes generate CIN by promoting multipolar anaphase, a highly abnormal division that produces three or more aneuploid daughter cells. Here we use long-term live-cell imaging to demonstrate that cells with multiple centrosomes rarely undergo multipolar cell divisions, and the progeny of these divisions are typically inviable. Thus, multipolar divisions cannot explain observed rates of CIN. In contrast, we observe that CIN cells with extra centrosomes routinely undergo bipolar cell divisions, but display a significantly increased frequency of lagging chromosomes during anaphase. To define the mechanism underlying this mitotic defect, we generated cells that differ only in their centrosome number. We demonstrate that extra centrosomes alone are sufficient to promote chromosome missegregation during bipolar cell division.

Communicating science to the public

Some people would say this is great, wonderful communication of science. Others would say it's... something else. I think that, at least, the report speaks for itself.

Sex talk wins 'science idol' competition
A Serbian molecular biologist has beaten off competition from around the world to win International FameLab, a kind of Pop Idol of science.

Mirko Djordjevic, final year student in molecular-biology in the Department for Applied Genetics and Evolution at the University of Belgrade did the most with his three-minute spot to wow the judges at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival on Saturday night.

Mirko's talk on the ins and outs of sexual selection made a fun comparison of the mating habits of humans and dogs, and saw him belt out an excerpt of the Bloodhound Gang song: "You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals. So let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel."

Prof Kathy Sykes, one of the judges, said: "Mirko really stood out, as he gave a stunning presentation and was able to communicate a complex concept to the general public with ease."

I thought it would be kind of interesting to actually see and hear the winning performance, as well as others. So I went looking for something on YouTube. The good news is I found it! The less good news is that it's (apparently) in Serbian. Oh well, you can still almost figure out some of what they're saying:

People who don't like science, and who don't know Serbian, may claim this isn't less clear than other talks on science they've heard.

Perhaps in a few days some of this will be available in English. If anyone finds it, please leave a note in the comments.

Babies understand numbers as abstract concepts

Babies understand numbers as abstract concepts (6/8/09)
Our ability to think of numbers as abstract concepts is probably innate and even babies barely a few hours old seem to have the ability, researchers say. ...

Each baby was first played a 2-minute tape that contained spoken syllables, such as "ra ra ra ra me me me me"). Then, with the tape playing in the background, the baby was shown a sequence of images with abstract geometrical objects ..., in which each alternate image had the number of objects that tallied with the number of syllables.

The researchers found that 15 of 16 newborns looked significantly longer at the correct image.

While the number sense may be innate, there are still rather serious limits on what that means. It's known, for instance, that there are cultures that use a language apparently lacking names for any numbers. (See here, for example.)

And just ask a middle school mathematics teacher (for example) how many kids haven't learned much basic arithmetic, even by the sixth grade...

Galactic black holes may be more massive than thought

Who would have imagined that a black hole could be more massive than a thought? (Of course, the headline merely exemplifies the clichéd thinking habits of the unfortunate people who have to write headlines.)

But anyhow, it's an interesting story:

Galactic black holes may be more massive than thought (6/8/09)
Astronomers report that some of the biggest supermassive black holes in nearby galaxies are at least twice and possibly four times as heavy as previously estimated. The findings come from new simulations by two independent teams of researchers, as well as new observations of stars whipping around a handful of supermassive black holes at the centers of massive galaxies no more than a few hundred million light-years from Earth.

Another meta-comment on the story is that people always seem to be fascinated by size. But whatever.

However, the story actually is important for reasons that might not be immediately obvious. The calculations involved took into account the effects of dark matter. And if the work is valid, it could help solve other problems:
“It’s high time that someone included the effect of dark matter,” said John Kormendy of the University of Texas, not a member of Gebhardt’s team. The revised mass estimates, he said, “will have a welcome audience.” That’s because for more than 25 years it has been a puzzle why the most luminous distant quasars are powered by black holes weighing the equivalent of 10 billion solar masses, yet no nearby black holes appear to be this hefty.


A Real Whopper: Black Hole Is Most Massive Known (6/8/09) – Space.com

Black Holes Have Been Underestimated (6/9/09) – ScienceNOW

Most Massive Black Holes Heavier Than Thought (6/9/09) – National Geographic

Computer Finds Massive Black Hole in Nearby Galaxy (6/9/09) – press release

Giant black holes just got bigger (6/9/09) – BBC

Black holes are bigger than we thought (6/11/09) – Cosmos

Update 12/26/10:

More references:

The Black Hole Mass, Stellar M/L, and Dark Halo in M87 (6/17/09) – arXiv.org version

The Black Hole Mass, Stellar M/L, and Dark Halo in M87 (7/16/09) – published article at The Astrophysical Journal

How To See a Black Hole (10/25/09) – Sky and Telescope

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