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Science Sunday #17

Posted by Don McLenaghen on October 9, 2011

…and on the seventh day we learn.
Each week I hope to give a synopsis of the interesting science stories I have heard on my plethora of science podcasts I listen to each week plus anything I pick up scanning the inter-web. Please forgive me if this weeks edition is a little rough, it was constructed exclusively on the iPad in memory of Steve Jobs, the greatest technological showman since…?

Words of the Week:

Schizotypal – a personality disorder that is characterized by a need for social isolation, anxiety in social situations, odd behavior and thinking, and often unconventional beliefs. The think i found interesting about this ‘disorder’ is that those affected of have what is called ‘mega mystical thinking’ with obsessive belief systems usually religious in nature. So next time you see a fundamentalist, bible literalist or new age zealot…remember they may not be wrong they may latterly be mentally ill.

An example of hyper-enterprising natural stimulus features

Superstimulus – (or supernormal stimulus) An exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.
For example, a moth will spiral into a flame because it is adapted to navigate by the sun (a much more distant lightsource). When it comes to eggs, a bird can be made to prefer the artificial versions to their own, and humans can be similarly exploited by junk food. The idea is that the elicited behaviours evolved for the “normal” stimuli of the ancestor’s natural environment, but the behaviors are now hijacked by the supernormal stimulus.
Another example: an Australian beetle species whose males were sexually attracted to large and orange females—the larger and more orange the better. This became a problem when the males started to attempt to mate with certain beer bottles that were just the right color. The males were more attracted to the bottles than to actual females.

This week’s top stories:

The Nobel Prize summary –
As number of you may know, this past week saw the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Peace and Literature. Just in case you were not aware the prizes were set up by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite in an effort to make penance for the hard his invention had done (or so legend has it). Each award is about 1.5$ million. The prizes are for Economics is not technically a Nobel prize but a prize offered in “memory of Alfred Nobel” and awarded by the Bank of Sweden.

Award for Chemistry – Daniel Shechtman of the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, for the discovery of quasicrystals: non-repeating regular patterns of atoms that were once thought to be impossible. When we think of crystals…in fact the definition of crystals is a regular repeating pattern of atoms/molecules, What Shechtman discover was that if you rapidly cooled a metal in a particular way you could get a crystal like structure but lacking the repeating pattern. This was ‘impossible’ that it took Shechtman many years for people to even take him seriously.

Award for Physics – actually a trio were awarded this one for the discovery that the universe is expanding at an exaggerated rate. This flew in the face of accepted theory at the time but now has lead to the discovery of what is called Dark Energy (the force responsible for this accelerated expansion) which accounts for 75% of the universe (15% Dark Matter and only 10% regular matter like you and me).

Award for Medicine – another trio were awarded this for the identification of the mechanisms of our static immune response. This had an interesting twist in that one member, Canada’s own Ralph M. Steinman (who discovered how the static immune system triggers the adaptive immune system) died the day prior to the awarding of the prize however the awards committee where not aware of this when they announced the winners. The Nobel Prize committee has a strict rule that awards can not be given posthumously. However, ultimately the committee decided to uphold the award because at the time of the awarding, the recipient was believe to be alive.

Award for Peace was also awarded to a trio of women “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”. It should be noted that there has only been 15 female winners of the Peace Prize out of 121 recipients.

Award for Literature was awarded to the “swedish Rudyard Kipling” Tomas Gösta Tranströmer “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”

The Ig Nobel Prize summary –
an American parody of the Nobel Prizes and are given each year in early October for ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. The stated aim of the prizes is to “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. Organized by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), they are presented by a group that includes Nobel Laureates at a ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, and they are followed by a set of public lectures by the winners at MIT. Unlike the Nobel Prizes, the number of awards are currently set at 10 but the categories varies from year to year.

Biology: Daryll Gwynne and David Rentz for discovering that certain kinds of beetle mate with certain kinds of Australian beer bottle. On the one had this is funny (bugs getting it on with bottles) but it makes you think because this is an example of what is known in science as super-stimulation.

Chemistry: Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.

Literature: John Perry of Stanford University for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which states: “To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.”

Mathematics: Dorothy Martin of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim of Korea (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde of Uganda (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on May 21, 2011), for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.

Medicine: Mirjam Tuk, Debra Trampe and Luk Warlop, and jointly to Matthew Lewis, Peter Snyder, Robert Feldman, Robert Pietrzak, David Darby and Paul Maruff for demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things – but worse decisions about other kinds of things – when they have a strong urge to urinate. The takeaway from this is the idea of impulse suppression. It is theorized that because we are already suppressing the urge to pee, it somehow seeps over to other areas making suppression easier there. For example, saying the colour of some text who’s font is in a different colour (Ie. saying ‘blue” when the blue text is colored red)

Peace: Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running over them with a tank. Check out the vid:

Psychology: Karl Halvor Teigen of the University of Oslo, Norway, for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh.

Physics: Philippe Perrin, Cyril Perrot, Dominique Deviterne, Bruno Ragaru and Herman Kingma for trying to determine why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don’t, in their paper “Dizziness in discus throwers is related to motion sickness generated while spinning”.

Physiology: Anna Wilkinson, Natalie Sebanz, Isabella Mandl and Ludwig Huber for their study “No evidence of contagious yawning in the red-footed tortoise Geochelone carbonaria”.

Public safety: John Senders of the University of Toronto, Canada, for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him. Even better vid:

Where did all the water come from? –
Although the icon image of the planet Earth is the blue oceans, there has always been a problem with this image. After the formation of the earth, the planet was a dry rock, so where did all the water come from? The first assumption was comets but analysis of the ‘type’ of water did not match (the ratio of deuterium or heavy water to ‘regular’ water). The asteroids matched but this had its own problem as it is believed there is not enough water on such asteroid collisions to account for our aquatic abundance.
Recently, however, a group of scientist from University of Michigan found that comets formed in the Kipper belt did have the right ratio. The older readings were of comets formed in the Oort Cloud (the outer limits of the solar system) which accounts for the initial dismissal of comets as the source of planetary water.

Who knocked over Uranus –
One of the enduring mysteries of our solar system is why Uranus is unlike any other planet in our solar system with regards to is axis. Uranus is unusual in that its spin axis is inclined by 98 degrees compared to its orbital plane around the Sun. This is far more pronounced than other planets, such as Jupiter (3 degrees), Earth (23 degrees), or Saturn and Neptune (29 degrees). Uranus is, in effect, spinning on its side.
The accepted wisdom is that Uranus was knocked on its side by a single large impact, but new research being presented at the EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting in Nantes rewrites our theories of how Uranus became so tilted and also solves fresh mysteries about the position and orbits of its moons. By using simulations of planetary formation and collisions, it appears that early in its life Uranus experienced a succession of small punches instead of a single knock-out blow. This research has important ramifications on our theories of giant planet formation.
Alessandro Morbidelli (a member of the research team) elaborates: “The standard planet formation theory assumes that Uranus, Neptune and the cores of Jupiter and Saturn formed by accreting only small objects in the protoplanetary disk. They should have suffered no giant collisions. The fact that Uranus was hit at least twice suggests that significant impacts were typical in the formation of giant planets. So, the standard theory has to be revised.”


One Response to “Science Sunday #17”

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