The human genome contains an incredible amount of information that we are only starting to parse. Sequencing large amounts of DNA is getting cheaper and faster, so it's only a matter of time before we'll be able to collect a vast amount of genetic information and connect it with practical medical diagnoses and treatments. Here are just a few projects working on decoding our genetic blueprints.
Food science has come a long way and makes a lot of incredibly delicious foods that last longer and stay fresher and provide more vitamins/nutrients than previously thought possible. But just as any technology is a tool that can be used for either the benefit or to the detriment of humankind, there's also the dark side of modern food production that has produced some of the most unhealthy foods in history. Here are just a few examples of sketchy food stories that you might want to avoid.
Victoria University's Brent Alloway has organised a free public lecture on Homo floresiensis, a species closely related to humans which lived on Flores Island, but has been told he is not allowed to call the free public lecture 'The Other Hobbit'.
The volcanologist wrote to the estate of Hobbit author JRR Tolkein about the event on December 1 as a courtesy, but was told by Wellington lawyers AJ Park representing the estate that he was not allowed to use the word.
The word also turns up in a very long list of folkloric supernatural creatures in the writings of Michael Aislabie Denham (d.1859), printed in volume 2 of "The Denham Tracts" [ed. James Hardy, London: Folklore Society, 1895], a compilation of Denham's scattered publications. Denham was an early folklorist who concentrated on Northumberland, Durham, Westmoreland, Cumberland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland.
Since the book appeared in 1895, and Denham died in 1859, that would seem to place all of its text – and hence the creature known as a "hobbit" - in the public domain. I wonder what the Tolkien Estate will say to that?
There's an absolutely awesome comic by Jorge Cham of PhDComics (which you should read whether or not you're a PhD student) about the science news cycle, in which a nuanced scientific result showing a slight correlation is turned into a causal relationship by the press, leading to a flat out frenzy of others in the press who don't even bother to understand what the original research was about.
Click image to see full version
I'm reminded of this particular comic as the folks at On the Media point us to a story, told by Moran Cerf at The Moth (my favorite storytelling operation), about how, as a grad student, he got some research accepted for publication in Nature, the top of the top in terms of scientific journal prestige. His rather interesting research was about sticking electrodes in patients brains during brain surgery, having them think of certain things, and being able to have a projector project an image of what they were thinking. Cool, right? You can watch the video to see what happened once the press got hold of the story.
In case you can't watch the video, the short version is that Cerf had put together a short video about the research, and at the very, very, very end, when talking to a colleague about how this kind of research might advance in the future, the research mentions something about studying and recording dreams. Now, nothing in the actual research is about studying or recording dreams, but... the BBC picked up on this part of the story, and then everyone picked up on this part of the story, and things only got worse from there. And no matter what Cerf did, everyone was just focused on these claims about dream recording -- even to the point that director Chris Nolan asked him to come on tour in a discussion about the movie Inception.
It's a pretty good reminder that, especially when it comes to scientific research, you really shouldn't believe everything you read.
Oh, and as a random aside, while this story from Moran is entertaining, it does not come close in entertainment value to this other story that Cerf told at a different Moth event about his life as a bank robber. Seriously. No matter what you're doing today, find ten minutes to watch this next video:
The Olympic games publicize the physical achievements of athletes, but what about the notable achievements of scientists? It's somewhat hard to cheer for individuals working on fundamental research, but sometimes scientists get some well-deserved recognition. There are other prizes besides the Nobel, and here are just a few international awards for smart folks working on scientific endeavors.
Scientific discoveries often build upon past scientific discoveries, and it looks like investments in huge particle colliders are really paying off now. But even without gigantic particle accelerators, physicists have been taking some cool measurements recently. Here are just a few examples of some significant discoveries in physics that are verifying some of our models of how the universe works.
from the sauce-for-the-goose,-sauce-for-the-gander dept
Although the traditional image of a science laboratory typically consists of a room full of test tubes or microscopes, the reality is that computers now play a central role there, just as they do for business and life in general.
Computers need software, and some of that software will be specially written or adapted from existing code to meet the particular needs of the scientists' work. This makes computer software a vital component of the scientific process. It also means that being able to check that code for errors is as important as being able to check the rest of the experiment's methodology. And yet very rarely can other scientists do that, because the code employed is not made available.
The publication and open exchange of knowledge and material form the backbone of scientific progress and reproducibility and are obligatory for publicly funded research. Despite increasing reliance on computing in every domain of scientific endeavor, the computer source code critical to understanding and evaluating computer programs is commonly withheld, effectively rendering these programs "black boxes" in the research work flow. Exempting from basic publication and disclosure standards such a ubiquitous category of research tool carries substantial negative consequences. Eliminating this disparity will require concerted policy action by funding agencies and journal publishers, as well as changes in the way research institutions receiving public funds manage their intellectual property (IP).
As that notes, the open exchange of knowledge and materials are obligatory for publicly-funded research, and there's no reason why it should be any different for software that is written in order to conduct the experiment. After all, this, too, has been funded by the tax-payers, who therefore have a right to enjoy the results. There may not be much they can do with it directly, but they can still benefit when other scientists are able to build on the code of others, instead of needing to re-invent the digital wheel for their own experiments.
The paper makes an important point that deserves a wide audience, because it's about a public policy issue. So it's a huge pity that, ironically, it is not published under an open access licence, and can only be read by Science's subscribers.
Kickstarter isn't the only crowdfunding platform on the internet. There are plenty of folks jumping on the crowdfunding bandwagon, and with the decline of basic science funding, scientists are hoping to convince some backers that their pet projects are worth a multitude of small contributions. Here are just a few examples.
Depending on how you look at it, the current state of space exploration can be seen as dismally underfunded -- or as the most amazingly productive in history. Unmanned probes are checking out all sorts of interesting destinations in our solar system, but manned missions have lately been limited to orbiting the Earth. The unmanned space race is generating plenty of fascinating science, nonetheless. Here are just a few interesting developments in the field of space exploration.
If you're a billionaire, what better way to spend your pocket change than to explore the deepest parts of the ocean? Deep sea diving is almost like being an astronaut, but you're more likely to find strange new lifeforms that no one has ever seen before. And so far, more people have been to the moon than to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. But that bit of trivia will likely change in the next few years.