Science Sunday #19
Posted by Don McLenaghen on October 23, 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. This week’s top stories:
Words of the Week:
Perception – the process of attaining awareness or understanding of the environment by organizing and interpreting sensory information.
Neural coding – concerned with how sensory and other information is represented in the brain by networks of neurons. The main goal of studying neural coding is to characterize the relationship between the stimulus and the individual or ensemble neuronal responses and the relationship among electrical activity of the neurons in the ensemble. It is thought that neurons can encode both digital and analog information.
Sensory neuroscience – explores the anatomy and physiology of neurons that are part of sensory systems such as vision, hearing, and olfaction. Neurons in sensory regions of the brain respond to stimuli by firing one or more nerve impulses (action potentials) following stimulus presentation.
Neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. However, it is currently an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine and allied disciplines, philosophy, physics, and psychology. The term neurobiology is usually used interchangeably with the term neuroscience, although the former refers specifically to the biology of the nervous system, whereas the latter refers to the entire science of the nervous system.
The scope of neuroscience has broadened to include different approaches used to study the molecular, cellular, developmental, structural, functional, evolutionary, computational, and medical aspects of the nervous system. The techniques used by neuroscientists have also expanded enormously, from molecular and cellular studies of individual nerve cells to imaging of sensory and motor tasks in the brain. Recent theoretical advances in neuroscience have also been aided by the study of neural networks.
This week’s top stories:
Climate Change Denial tries to doom the planet yet again! –
The 2010 State of the Bay report has been delayed for a year by disputes between the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and scientists at the Houston Advanced Research Center, who are contracted to provide the state with regular reports on the bay.
John Anderson, an oceanographer at Rice University in Houston, Texas, who wrote the chapter of the report that was apparently edited by TCEQ management, told British newspaper The Guardian that the cuts reflected what he called “denial” throughout the state of Texas about the effects of global warming.
The TCEQ is headed by Bryan Shaw, known for saying that scientific arguments that human activities are changing the climate are a hoax. He was appointed by Texas governor Rick Perry, who has publicly said that such science is inconclusive.
“They just simply went through and summarily struck out any reference to climate change, any reference to sea level rise, any reference to human influence – it was edited or eliminated,” Anderson told The Guardian. “That’s not scientific review, that’s just straightforward censorship.”
TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow told the Houston Chronicle in an email that the agency disagreed with information in the article, saying: “It would be irresponsible to take whatever is sent to us and publish it.”
But the changes made by TCEQ go against known scientific evidence. In addition to editing references to the role humans play in climate change, they deleted a sentence noting that water levels in the bay have been rising five times faster than the long-term average.
“I don’t think there is any question but that their motive is to tone this thing down as it relates to global (climate) change,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s not about the science. It’s all politics.”
Climate Change denial…mental dexterity to maintain mental dogma! –
A group of scientists known for their scepticism about climate change has reanalysed two centuries’ worth of global temperature records. Their study largely confirms previous ones: it finds strong evidence that Earth is getting hotter.
“The valid issues raised by [climate] sceptics, when addressed fully and in detail, do not significantly change the answer,” says lead author Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkeley. In a testimony to the US Congress earlier this year, Muller questioned whether global temperature records showed a significant warming during the 20th century.
His project, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST), concludes that land temperatures have risen by 1 °C since the 1950s. This is largely in line with the three existing global temperature records
Contrary to earlier studies that are often quoted by climate sceptics, the BEST researchers find that including data from weather stations in cities – which are warmer than rural areas – makes little difference to the overall trend. “Urban warming does not unduly bias estimates of recent global temperature change,” they say.
David Whitehouse, science adviser to The Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based think tank that has former British finance minister Nigel Lawson for chairman and lobbyist against efforts to reduce or regulate Greenhouse gasses (GHG). “Everybody agrees that the temperature has warmed. The people who disagree about temperatures are the barking mad end of the spectrum.”
Good, story over…the climate deniers have seen the light; now let’s start cutting GHGs!!! What? No???? They still are deniers? How?
He claims the uncertainty lies in the size of the human effect on the climate, as compared to natural effects (see “Climate myths: Human CO2 emissions are too tiny to matter”).
Science writer Nigel Calder, who was editor of New Scientist from 1962 to 1966, says: “The graph of global land temperature changes associated with BEST’s announcement neatly confirms that the warming stopped about 15 years ago. The sun’s recent laziness has apparently cancelled any effect of ever-increasing manmade greenhouse gases.”
In contrast, an analysis published this summer found a significant warming trend between 1995 and 2010. Studies of solar activity have found no correlation with global temperature trends.
When one starts with a position and then attempts to find data to confirm your preconceived ideas, one’s ability to delude is boundless.
Your mind to my mind – Shared neural coding –
Haxby developed a new method called hyper-alignment. It creates a common set of parameters compared to patterns in other people’s brains that transforms an individual’s brain activity patterns (specifying the visual images) into a code.
Because of variability in brain anatomy, brain decoding had required separate analysis of each individual. Although detailed analysis of an individual could break that person’s brain code, it didn’t say anything about the brain code for a different person. In the paper, Haxby shows that all individuals use a common code for visual recognition, making it possible to identify specific patterns of brain activity for a wide range of visual images that are the same in all brains.
As a result of their research, the team showed that a pattern of brain activity in one individual can be decoded by finding the picture or movie that evoked the same pattern in other individuals.
Participants in the study watched the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark while their patterns of brain activity were measured using fMRI. In two separate experiments, they viewed still images of seven categories of faces and objects (male and female human faces, monkey faces, dog faces, shoes, chairs and houses) or six animal species (squirrel monkeys, ring-tailed lemurs, mallards, yellow-throated warblers, ladybugs and luna moths).
Analysis of the brain activity patterns evoked by the movie produced the common code. Once the brain patterns were in the common code, including responses that were not evoked by the movie, distinct patterns were detected that were common across individuals and specific for fine distinctions, such as monkey versus dog faces, and squirrel monkeys versus lemurs.
Now, to express a personal view, i think it important to note that they claim only to compare what the ‘wetware’ records not ACTUALLY what we perceive. There is a difference between the optical biology and the cognitive perception. So way may in a more objective way say they are experience the same stimulus but not that they perceive the same thing. This research may go a significant way to help delineate instinctual brain from cognitive mind.
Cell phones DON’T cause cancer, get over it! –
In what is described as the largest study on the subject to date, Danish researchers found no evidence that the risk of brain tumours was raised among 358,403 mobile phone subscribers over an 18-year period.
Previous studies on a possible link between phone use and tumours have been inconclusive particularly on long-term use of mobile phones. Some of this earlier work took the form of case control studies involving small numbers of long-term users and were shown to be prone to error and bias. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently classified radio frequency electromagnetic fields, as emitted by mobile phones, as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
The researchers say they observed no overall increased risk for tumours of the central nervous system or for all cancers combined in mobile phone users.
Case close! No, you wonder where the fear-crazies get their fuel, well at the end of the study (possibly to ensure continued research grants? no, just the conspirator in me talking) they added the line:
“However, as a small to moderate increase in risk for subgroups of heavy users or after even longer induction periods than 10-15 years cannot be ruled out, further studies with large study populations, where the potential for misclassification of exposure and selection bias is minimised, are warranted.”
Which means fear-crazies (and perhaps the overly cautious) will point to that line and say ‘See, there is a potential risk!!!!!!’ Of course what the researchers meant was ‘our study was of a limited time period, so we can’t speak about things we don’t know yet’ and ‘it’s possible for some people to be allergic or hypersensitive to cellphones…not likely but we did not study that so we cannot speak about things we did not study’.
There really is a massive corporate cabal –
A published paper in PloS One shows an analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.
Complex systems analysts provided a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further, they say, could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.
The idea that a few bankers control a large chunk of the global economy might not seem like news to Occupy Wall Street movement or our listeners. But the study, by James Glattfelder et all at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is the first to go beyond ideology to empirically identify such a network of power. It combines the mathematics long used to model natural systems with comprehensive corporate data to map ownership among the world’s transnational corporations (TNCs).
Previous studies have found that a few TNCs own large chunks of the world’s economy, but they included only a limited number of companies and omitted indirect ownerships, so could not say how this affected the global economy – whether it made it more or less stable, for instance.
Using Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, they pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company’s operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.
At the center is a core of 1318 companies with interlocking ownerships. Each of the 1318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What’s more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms – the “real” economy – representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.
When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies – all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity – that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network,” says Glattfelder. Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group.
The super-entity may not result from conspiracy but the natural evolution of capitalism (as Marx predicted). The real question, says the Zurich team, is whether it can exert concerted political power. John Driffill of the University of London, a macroeconomics expert, commented that he feels 147 is too many to sustain collusion. Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute, suspects they will compete in the market but act together on common interests. Resisting changes to the network structure may be one such common interest.
Robot, heal thyself! –
A new type of robot makes its own body parts using spray-on foam. Such a design could one day be useful in situations in which the exact type of robot needed is not known beforehand, such as space exploration or reconnaissance.
Created by Shai Revzen and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Foambot consists of a wheeled “mothership” platform along with several simple joint modules capable of powered bending and flexing. The platform has an on-board supply of chemical reagents and a spray nozzle; when mixed, the reagents expand into hard urethane foam.
Revzen says the system would be useful for situations in which robots need to navigate unforeseen obstacles. A snake-like body might be better for crawling around rocks, for example, while a quadruped might be better at traversing open ground. Since Foambots can return to the mothership to be modified, they could be used to deal with an array of tasks.
Okay, after watching the video…not so impressive but then again, primordial slime weren’t much to look at either.