Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
In the Guide I discuss two mindsets: explorers and settlers. Explorers are risk-tolerant and novelty seeking, looking for any excuse to try something new; settlers are risk-averse and prefer the familiar, looking for any excuse to stick with the status quo. I mention that the same differences are seen in the animal kingdom, where they are generally called “bold” and “shy” respectively.
Now it’s found that these different mindsets (if one can call it that) can even be observed in ant colonies at the colony level. (This is not so surprising if you think the difference is genetic, since the ants in a colony are offspring of the same mother.) In Science Claire Asher reports:
. . . Some [ant] colonies are full of adventurous risk-takers, whereas others are less aggressive about foraging for food and exploring the great outdoors. Researchers say that these group “personality types” are linked to food-collecting strategies, and they could alter our understanding of how social insects behave.
Personality—consistent patterns of individual behavior—was once considered a uniquely human trait. But studies since the 1990s have shown that animals from great tits to octopuses exhibit “personality.” Even insects have personalities. Groups of cockroaches have consistently shy and bold members, whereas damselflies have shown differences in risk tolerance that stay the same from grubhood to adulthood.
To determine how group behavior might vary between ant colonies, a team of researchers led by Raphaël Boulay, an entomologist at the University of Tours in France, tested the insects in a controlled laboratory environment. They collected 27 colonies of the funnel ant (Aphaenogaster senilis) and had queens rear new workers in the lab. This meant that all ants in the experiment were young and inexperienced—a clean slate to test for personality.
The researchers then observed how each colony foraged for food and explored new environments. They counted the number of ants foraging, exploring, or hiding during set periods of time, and then compared the numbers to measure the boldness, adventurousness, and foraging efforts of each group. They also measured risk tolerance by gradually increasing the temperature of the ants’ foraging area from 26°C to 60°C. Ants that stayed out at temperatures higher than 46°C, widely considered to be the upper limit of their tolerance, were considered risk-takers.
When they reviewed their data, . . .
There’s quite a bit more, and it’s interesting.
Canada provides a good example of government authoritarianism in how it treats government scientists
In Motherboard Stephen Buranyi describes the struggle to enable Canada’s government scientists to communicate with the public:
As a scientist employed by the Canadian government, every question Janet receives from a journalist or member of the public must be screened by a media officer. These officers decide what questions reach her, and have the final say on what answers come back.
“They have a list of ‘hot-button’ issues that can’t be mentioned, like climate change, or the oil sands. They say ‘Don’t use that phrase’ or ‘Don’t connect it to industry X,’” said Janet, an Environment Canada researcher who agreed to speak about her experience on the condition we use a pseudonym. She fears she may lose her job for speaking openly about policies that she feels have led to her scientific work being repeatedly censored and misrepresented.
“They’ve told me: ‘Say you don’t know the answer to that question,’ even if I do,” she said. “They make me look like an idiot.”
While it is certainly not unusual for government departments to have a media office, the way the Canadian government has systematically used them to restrict the public’s access to researchers and their data has sparked outrage from scientists around the world.
The media officers usually request that questions be sent to scientists by email. Phone and in-person interviews are rarely granted, and it’s not always clear to journalists which questions will be answered, or even who is doing the answering. Instead, the media office may remove the original scientist’s name and return answers attributed to an unnamed group.
From the inside, the system is equally faceless. Janet said that correspondence is carried out through a single departmental email address. She said there are clearly multiple people using the account, but they never identify themselves. They just filter and edit and tinker with the information, in total anonymity.
Canadian journalists were the first to raise the alarm about the practice, what is now known as “muzzling,” around 2008. It was then they realized that the rules had changed, and media officers were preventing them from talking to scientists they previously had no trouble contacting. Since 2012 there have also been significant cuts to scientific programs, with thousands of jobs lost at government research departments. The cuts are projected to continue, and research centered on the hot buttons—climate, energy, and environment—will be taking the biggest hits.
Despite regular media coverage, none of it kind, little about the situation has changed. Like many Canadian scientists, Janet feels that her work is being disrespected and devalued by a government that cares more about message control than the research she was hired to do.
“From here, it really does seem like they hate science,” Janet said.
This has put Canadian scientists in a very uncomfortable place. . .
The Wisconsin water-fight reminds me of all those treaties we made with Indians “as long as grass shall grow and water run” and then broke
When the going gets tough, the tough ignore what they had agreed to. Monica Davey has a very interesting report in the NY Times of an opening salvo in the war for fresh water.
Or, to put it positively, why mundane routines are pleasurable. From a book review by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker:
. . . Consider the following scenario. One afternoon, you’re sitting in your office with wads of cotton stuck up your nose. (For the present purposes, it’s not important to know why.) Someone in your office has just baked a batch of chocolate-chip cookies. The aroma fills the air, but, since your nose is plugged, you don’t notice and continue working. Suddenly you sneeze, and the cotton gets dislodged. Now the smell hits, and you rush over to gobble up one cookie, then another.
According to Steinberg, adults spend their lives with wads of cotton in their metaphorical noses. Adolescents, by contrast, are designed to sniff out treats at a hundred paces. During childhood, the nucleus accumbens, which is sometimes called the “pleasure center,” grows. It reaches its maximum extent in the teen-age brain; then it starts to shrink. This enlargement of the pleasure center occurs in concert with other sensation-enhancing changes. As kids enter puberty, their brains sprout more dopamine receptors. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays many roles in the human nervous system, the sexiest of which is signalling enjoyment.
“Nothing—whether it’s being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice-cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music—will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager,” Steinberg observes. And this, in turn, explains why adolescents do so many stupid things. It’s not that they are any worse than their elders at assessing danger. It’s just that the potential rewards seem—and, from a neurological standpoint, genuinely are—way, way greater. “The notion that adolescents take risks because they don’t know any better is ludicrous,” Steinberg writes.
Teen-agers are, as a rule, extremely healthy—healthier than younger children. But their death rate is much higher. The mortality rate for Americans between fifteen and nineteen years old is nearly twice what it is for those between the ages of one and four, and it’s more than three times as high as for those ages five to fourteen. The leading cause of death among adolescents today is accidents; this is known as the “accident hump.”
Steinberg explains the situation as the product of an evolutionary mismatch. . .
Evolution again: adolescents are exploratory and experimental-minded, with benefits to the group as a whole: finding new sources of food (plant, animal, or region), thinking up new ways to hunt, and undoubtedly a fair number dying from consuming toxic food—but the group thus learns and advances. Doesn’t this remind you of the viral swarm entity a few blog posts ago?
Steinberg explains why the risky behavior is done to get attention, and why attention is so important—i.e., such a reward.
Really worth reading in its entirety, and just the right level (at least for me) of technical detail: enough so you can understand how/why it works, but not so much that you get lost in the trees. Carrie Arnold writes in Quanta about how the virus isn’t the living, evolving entity; it’s the swarm, instead. Very science-fictiony, eh?
Sometime in late 2013, a mosquito-borne virus called chikungunya appeared for the first time in the Western Hemisphere. Chikungunya, or “chik,” as it’s called, rarely kills its human hosts. But it can cause fever, rash and debilitating joint pain. In the two years since it first arrived in the Caribbean, chik has spread wildly across the Americas. It is now suspected of having infected over 1 million people in 44 countries and territories, creating a hemisphere-wide horde of mosquito-borne suffering.
The same biological quirks that have contributed to chik’s success are showing researchers how to fight it — and other viruses like it. Chik is an RNA virus, just like influenza, West Nile virus, hepatitis and Ebola, among others. Unlike DNA viruses, which contain two copies of their genetic information, RNA viruses are single-stranded. When they replicate, any errors in the single strand get passed on. As a result, copying is sloppy, and so each new generation of RNA viruses tends to have lots of errors. In only a few generations, a single virus can become a mutant swarm of closely related viruses.
This viral genetic jumble has given Marco Vignuzzi, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, a way to predict the future evolution of RNA viruses like chik. Vignuzzi has re-created a single mutation in chik that occurred early in the virus’s around-the-world adventure, work that illuminated how the virus was able to spread so widely in such a short amount of time. Now Vignuzzi is trying to predict chik’s future. This past June, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans, Vignuzzi showcased the two mutations in chik that are most likely to develop next.
Viruses are tricky and complex beasts; no one can predict exactly what they will do. But if researchers are ever to get a step ahead of the rapidly shifting world of viruses around us, they will need to deconstruct the viral swarm.
A Viral Potluck
For almost 40 years, scientists have worked to understand how RNA viruses can have so many mutations and still be so successful.
In the late 1970s, the virologist Esteban Domingo of the Autonomous University of Madrid was trying to measure the sloppiness of replication using an RNA virus that infects bacteria. He found that one mutation occurred every time the virus copied its genome, on average. As a result, a single virus produces an array of daughter viruses that are almost, but not quite, identical. Every generation spawns another array of viruses, leading to what Domingo called a “mutant cloud” of viruses.
However, most of the mutations in viral clouds create problems for the virus. Researchers assumed that any single mutated version of a healthy virus was likely destined for extinction. But then in 2006, scientists published an account of a thriving dengue virus in Myanmar with what should have been a catastrophic error in the middle of a vital gene. . .
Continue reading. He explains how it works and discovers the true entity, as alien as anything in a science-fiction story—and I think I’ve read a number of stories in which the alien was along these lines: the individual animals/plants/people were not the entity with which you had to deal, it was the total group: the swarm.
Read the whole thing. It’s fascinating.
Wow! Michael Byrne of Motherboard reports:
Physicists from the University of Toronto have succeeded in constructing logic gates from single particles of pure light, according to research published in this week’sNature Physics. It’s an accomplishment that not only offers insight into the still rather mysterious world of light particles, but it may have implications for future quantum computers, which depend far more on interactions between individual particles (of light, usually) than our primitive electric current-based conventional computers.
A logic gate is the fundamental building block of any computing machine. In conventional computing schemes, information is served to these gates as high and low currents, representing 1s and 0s. A gate’s job is to take that information and spit out a 1 or 0 in response, again in the form of high and low currents. This is the foundation of everything a computer does: memory, arithmetic, I/O, etc.
The situation in a quantum computer is different. Rather than bits, which represent information as either a 1 or a 0, we have qubits. Qubits offer the possibility of having values that are simultaneous combinations of 1s and 0s, where the two possibilities exist together in quantum superpositions. This offers an enormous leap in computing power, but managing this sort of information isn’t easy.
For one thing, we’re no longer dealing with information represented by bulk collections of particles, e.g. electric current. Information in a quantum computer is instead represented at the level of individual particles. This means that we need to consider some pretty fundamental changes to computing hardware.
“Thanks to modern technologies, it is now quite straightforward to put a single quantum particle like a photon in a superposition of two different states,” Aephraim M. Steinberg, a physicist at the University of Toronto and a study co-author, told me. “But putting a beam of many photons into such a superposition&mash;in which, say, either every single photon is horizontally polarized or every single photon is vertically polarized, but no one in the universe knows which is the case—is precisely analogous to Schrödinger’s famous cat.”
With some many particles at once representing a single qubit, it’s exceedingly likely that one particle will be interfered with in some way, which, in a quantum system, has the effect of “opening the box” and wiping out the superposition and, thus, the qubit.
“If you have a single photon, it can travel nearly 100 kilometers in optical fibre, for instance, before anything happens to it—no one has any information about what state it’s in,” Steinberg explained. “But if there were a million photons, within about 100 millimeters, at least one of them would probably get absorbed—that single event would be enough to destroy the delicate superposition state quantum logic relies upon.” No more superposition, no more information.
And so it’s much more desirable to work with single photons. This has its own difficulties, however, . . .
The Onion has a good headline: “Jeff Bezos Assures Amazon Employees That HR Working 100 Hours A Week To Address Their Complaints.”
But the problem of excessive demands—i.e., exploitation of the workforce—is serious. And, as Tim Wu points out in an interesting piece in the New Yorker, it is not necessarily due to individuals in charge. The entire article is worth reading, but let me quote just his conclusions:
. . . What all of these explanations [for the excessive demands of the modern workplace] have in common is the idea that the answer comes from examining workers’ decisions and incentives. There’s something missing: the question of whether the American system, by its nature, resists the possibility of too much leisure, even if that’s what people actually want, and even if they have the means to achieve it. In other words, the long hours may be neither the product of what we really want nor the oppression of workers by the ruling class, the old Marxist theory. They may be the byproduct of systems and institutions that have taken on lives of their own and serve no one’s interests. That can happen if some industries have simply become giant make-work projects that trap everyone within them.
What counts as work, in the skilled trades, has some intrinsic limits; once a house or bridge is built, that’s the end of it. But in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs. Consider the litigation system, in which the hours worked by lawyers at large law firms are a common complaint. If dispute resolution is the social function of the law, what we have is far from the most efficient way to reach fair or reasonable resolutions. Instead, modern litigation can be understood as a massive, socially unnecessary arms race, wherein lawyers subject each other to torturous amounts of labor just because they can. In older times, the limits of technology and a kind of professionalism created a natural limit to such arms races, but today neither side can stand down, lest it put itself at a competitive disadvantage.
A typical analysis blames greedy partners for crazy hours, but the irony is that the people at the top are often as unhappy and overworked as those at the bottom: it is a system that serves almost no one. Moreover, our many improvements in the technologies of productivity make the arms-race problem worse. The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.
Litigation may be an extreme example, but I do not doubt that many other industries have their own arms races that create work that is of dubious necessity. The antidote is simple to prescribe but hard to achieve: it is a return to the goal of efficiency in work—fulfilling whatever needs we have, as a society, with the minimal effort required, while leaving the option of more work as a hobby for those who happen to love it. In this respect, it seems like no little irony that Amazon should be a brutal workplace when its ostensible guiding principle is making people’s lives better. There must be a better way.
In a situation such as this, a government that is by, for, and of the people and is focused on the general welfare can play a role. While no single company can afford to slack up because of competitive pressure, the government can set (and enforce—important aspect) ground rules that protect workers and level the playing field for all companies. For example, enforcing a 40-hour work week for all employees would enable companies to give their workforce time for family, rest, and activities other than work.
As an example of how this works, automobile manufacturers are required to meet certain safety standards by law. Without such laws, there would be a race to the bottom as companies cut costs by jettisoning the safety measures built into their cars. (You can see that they would by noting how strenuously and vigorously the automobile industry has fought the introduction of each safety requirement: if it were left up to them, they would never incorporate such measures for fear that their competitors would undercut them on price by having lower costs. But a law requiring the observance of such safety standards takes off the table the option of ignoring the standards, so no one can get a competitive advantage by ignoring safety.
Because of the nature of the system, however, the change probably must be imposed from without, since the companies have entered a trap from which they cannot otherwise escape.