Ancora Imparo

28 September 2007

How News-Savvy Are You?

Filed under: politics,research — Darmok @ 05:35 UTC
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This Time — This Space (or is it “Changetimeandspace”?) mentions a “News IQ” quiz at the Pew Research Center. After taking this twelve-question quiz, you’ll see the correct answers, as well as how you compare to various demographic groups. For a democracy to work, citizens need to be informed—and then push for change. How informed are you?

27 September 2007

Birds’ Magnetic Sense May Be Visual

Filed under: biology,science — Darmok @ 07:28 UTC
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Many animals have senses that humans lack. One that is poorly understood is that magnetic sense (magnetoception or magnetoreception) that birds and other animals have. A LiveScience article today details some new research suggesting that birds may actually “see” magnetic fields. They found that visual regions of the brain were active during magnetic navigation and that some possibly magnetically sensitive molecules were located in the retinas, the light-sensing membrane at the back of the eye. While this isn’t proof, it is certainly suggestive. It could be that these birds see some sort of magnetic imagery overlaid on their normal vision. Or perhaps they perceive the magnetic fields in a totally different way.

Birds can travel the world without any of the gizmos that humans depend on, and a new study suggests how: Our feathered friends might “see” Earth’s magnetic field.

While other mechanisms are thought to help birds navigate, including magnetically sensitive cells within their beaks, their brain regions responsible for vision are in full gear during magnetic navigation, researchers said.

See the LiveScience article for the rest.

25 September 2007

Energy and Health: Spotlight on the Lancet‘s Series Covering Climate Change and More

As a human and a resident of planet Earth, I care about my home and the environment, and for the other life that shares it with me. But as a physician, I have a special interest in examining the relationship between the health of our planet and that of human health; I have a strong desire to promote public health. And therefore I am indebted to Inel for bringing my attention (via a comment and a subsequent blog entry) to a wonderfully important series of articles in the Lancet covering the many-faceted relationship between energy and health. At the least, I feel that all physicians are obligated to read this series.

The Lancet is one of the world’s premiere medical journals (along with the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the British Medical Journal). In publishing this series, they are taking on a large, complex issue with significant public health implications that previously have not drawn much attention. Strategies to help ameliorate the problem are well–thought out. The series covers so much detail I’d like to devote a series of my own posts to discuss and analyze them.

Editor-in-chief Richard Horton writes the introductory comment, entitled “Righting the Balance: Energy for Health”:

The current debate about the impact of human beings on our planet—especially with respect to climate change—is one of the most important issues of our time. But that debate is presently unbalanced and too narrow. It neglects a far larger set of issues focused on energy—and health.

Energy is a critical, yet hugely neglected, determinant of human health. Health is an important enough aspect of energy policy to deserve a much greater influence on decisions about our future personal, national, and global energy strategies. Society suffers from a disordered global energy metabolism. Energy is as important as any vaccine or medicine. 2 billion people currently lack access to clean energy: they live in energy poverty and insecurity. International institutions, such as the World Bank and WHO, have repeatedly failed to make the connection between energy and health in their country work.

(continued — free registration required)

Dr. Horton gives examples of changes that we need to make at these three levels, such as changing travel habits at the personal level, designing new urban infrastructure at the national level, and controlling greenhouse gases at the global level. This introduction sets the stage for the in-depth analysis to follow.

While physicians should certainly read these, I also encourage others in the allied health professions as well as anyone with an interest in public health to read them as well. They are written in clear language and do not rely on advanced medical terminology or concepts. I will update this post with links to additional posts on the individual articles as I write them.

Source: Horton, R. “Righting the balance: energy for health”. The Lancet 2007;370:921. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61258-6. Full text available; free registration required.

24 September 2007

I Need to Wake Up

“I Need to Wake Up” is the beautiful song Melissa Etheridge wrote for An Inconvenient Truth. It is the only time a song from a documentary has won the Academy Award for Best Song.

It is a wonderful song, catchy and meaningful. The lyrics are beautifully apropos, expressing horror and shock transforming into determination.

I remember the first time I watched An Inconvenient Truth. I knew about global warming before that. We’d learned about it in high school, and in recent years there were increasing reports in the scientific literature of its effects on weather systems and ecosystems. But yet, very few people appreciated the magnitude or urgency of this problem. There can be little doubt that An Inconvenient Truth brought global warming to the public’s attention and has played a significant role in the current environmental movement.

Al Gore asked Melissa Etheridge to write a song for the film, and she agreed. After watching the film, she immediately felt moved to write the song, but wasn’t sure where to start. Her partner suggested she write about how the film made her feel. Etheridge asked herself, “What do I want to hear? I want to hear somebody else who feels the way I feel, which is ‘My God, have I been sleeping?’ ”

I think a lot of us had been sleeping.

21 September 2007

The (Revised) History of the Universe in 200 Words or Less

Filed under: astronomy,humor,science — Darmok @ 06:44 UTC

From astronomer and science humorist Eric Schulman comes this amusing, 200-word history of the universe. You may have come across it before; it has enjoyed wide popularity and has been updated from its original version. Its concision appeals to me.

Quantum fluctuation. Inflation. Expansion. Particle-antiparticle annihilation. Deuterium and helium production. Matter domination. Recombination. Blackbody radiation. Local contraction. Large-scale structure formation. Violent relaxation. Virialization. Galaxy formation. Turbulent fragmentation. Contraction. Ionization. Massive star formation. Deuterium ignition. Hydrogen fusion. Hydrogen depletion. Core contraction. Envelope expansion. Helium fusion. Carbon, oxygen, and silicon fusion. Iron production. Implosion. Supernova explosion. Metals injection. Star formation. Universal acceleration. Supernova explosions. Star formation. Planetesimal accretion. Planetary differentiation. Crust solidification. Volatile gas expulsion. Water condensation. Carbon dioxide solution. Water photodissociation. Escaping hydrogen. Ozone production. Ultraviolet absorption. Polymerization. Coacervate formation. Molecular reproduction. Protein construction. Fermentation. Photosynthetic unicellular organisms! Oxidation. Mutation. Evolution. Cell differentiation. Respiration. Sexual reproduction. Multicellular organisms. Evolutionary diversification. Fossilization. Trilobite domination. Land exploration. Comet collision. Dinosaur extinction. Mammal expansion. Homo sapiens manifestation. Language acquisition. Glaciation. Innovation. Religion. Animal domestication. Fermentation. Food surplus production. Inscription. Civilization! Exploration. Warring nations. Empire creation and destruction. Expansion. Scientific explanation. Colonization. Revolution. Constitution. Vaccination. Industrialization. Emancipation. Invention. Mass production. Urbanization. Migration. World conflagration. Suffrage extension. Penicillin. Depression. World conflagration. Fission explosions. Computerization. United Nations. Space exploration. Population explosion. Environmental degradation. Superpower confrontation. Liberation. Terrorism. Lunar excursions. Resignation. Inflation. Internet expansion. Globalization. Reunification. Dissolution. Union. World Wide Web creation. Composition. Terrorism. Invasion. Extrapolation?

20 September 2007

Squirrel Obstacle Course

Filed under: biology — Darmok @ 05:26 UTC

From Greg Laden’s blog Evolution comes this cute video of a squirrel navigating an obstacle course. I’m always amazed at how intelligent other animals can be.

19 September 2007

Blog Action Day: Write About the Environment on 15 October

Filed under: environment — Darmok @ 06:58 UTC

Blog Action Day

Zac at SquareCircleZ (a math- and computing-related blog) brought up what looks like a great initiative—the “Blog Action Day”:

On October 15th, bloggers around the web will unite to put a single important issue on everyone’s mind – the environment. Every blogger will post about the environment in their own way and relating to their own topic. Our aim is to get everyone talking towards a better future.

This initiative is intended for all blogs. The promoters indicate the post can be about any environmental topic bloggers wish; it can be off-topic for one’s blog or one may write about an environmental aspect of the blog’s traditional topics. Quite a few major blogs have already registered. I encourage all my fellow bloggers to join this initiative and help bring environmental issues to the forefront of discussion. Make sure you let me know about your posts; I’ll plan to link to what other blogs are writing. Are you in?

13 September 2007

Alex, the Reasoning Parrot

Filed under: biology,research,science — Darmok @ 04:14 UTC

I just read on CNN about a remarkable African grey parrot named Alex, who unfortunately has suddenly died. Parrots are well-known for their ability to reproduce human speech, but are widely considered to have no comprehension of the sounds they are copying. This is in contrast to animals such as chimpanzees and dolphins who have considerable intelligence but lack the physical apparatus (such as a voice box) to produce sounds resembling human speech. However, as the CNN article describes,

Alex’s advanced language and recognition skills revolutionized the understanding of the avian brain. After [animal psychologist Irene] Pepperberg bought Alex from an animal shop in 1973, the parrot learned enough English to identify 50 objects, seven colors and five shapes. He could count up to six, including zero, was able to express desires, including his frustration with the repetitive research.

Although one should always remain skeptical—could this be a complicated set of conditioned responses?—my cursory perusal suggest that Alex did possess some understanding of these concepts. His achievements are quite impressive and well beyond what most people would expect birds capable of doing. It’s a shame this remarkable bird has been lost.

For more information, see Wikipedia, Nature News, the Scientific American blog, or a 2004 Scientific American article (PDF) describing Alex. You can also watch video of Alex as part of the Scientific American Frontiers program on PBS (“Entertaining Parrots”, 2001).

7 September 2007

Motorized Wheelchair Guided by Thoughts

Filed under: engineering,medicine,science,technology — Darmok @ 06:42 UTC

A company called Ambient is developing a new wheelchair that is controlled by words the user thinks of. The system, called Audeo, uses a neckband to pick up signals in the nerves that control the larynx, or voice box. Obviously, this requires that the operator still has control of those nerves, though he doesn’t have to have control of the other muscles or the coordination that is required for speech. This has the potential to restore some mobility to those who have very little strength or coordination to make purposeful movements. And as this technology is refined, the potential uses are many: users could control other devices, such as a computer or television. If the “vocabulary” of the system is increased, the system could also function as an artificial speech synthesizer that could sense the words the user was trying to say and construct them directly. See New Scientist for more.

Below is a video demonstrating the system.

4 September 2007

Global Warming Forces Cartographers to Redraw Maps

Filed under: environment,global warming,science,visualization — Darmok @ 03:59 UTC

Inel’s blog drew my attention to the publication of the newest edition of the prestigious Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. We tend to think of updated atlases showing new political boundaries, or new supplementary statistics. But thanks to global climate change, coastlines are changing and ice caps melting. The Times Atlas‘s cartographers had to make far more changes than usual for this last edition, and future editions will clearly have even more changes with which to contend.

The importance of this extends beyond work for cartographers and lines on a map. People live in those areas. They obtain fresh water from those areas. Those areas power their weather. And as Americans are belatedly catching on, that which occurs in one country doesn’t stay confined to that country. The effects ripple out across the globe.

For more information about this, please see Inel’s blog or a New Scientist article.

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