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Posts Tagged ‘Science’

The Internet Doesn’t Rot Your Brain, It Makes You Smarter

Posted by jase on June 21, 2009

Proving what I (and no doubt countless others) have known for quite some time, new evidence suggests that whiling away the hours on the internet actually makes us smarter.  Granted, one can certainly have too much of a good thing, and we probably should get out in the sun and fresh(?) air sometime rather than spending all day online.  But to the point…

“The simple headline here is that Google is making us smarter,” says Gary Small of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California at Los Angeles. Thank you, Dr. Small. And thank you, Internet, for not only helping me dig up this information but also juicing up my brain while I looked for it. Small recently published results showing that searching the Internet does for the brains of older folks what doing bench presses does for chest muscles.

Small demonstrated this with functional-MRI scans, which reveal real-time brain activity. Half of the 24 study participants used the Internet on a daily basis, and the other half had little to no experience. (Yes, those people exist, and they’re easier to find if you look for people older than 60.) First, Small compared the participants’ brain activity as they read a book off a computer screen, and both groups produced similar results. But when he examined the groups as they hunted for clues about the benefits of eating chocolate and the best way to visit the Galápagos, the Web-experienced group registered twice as much activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain — all of which contribute to complex reasoning.

Future studies will examine how much the increased neural activity improves — or possibly hinders — intelligence, but Small thinks that the “Web naive” group could build up their brain muscle by logging more time on the Internet. “You keep searching more and more — you lift more and more,” he says, “you get more of a workout.”

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Mammoth Fossils Discovered with Meteorite Scars

Posted by jase on June 21, 2009

“Mammoth hit by meteorite!” might sound like fantastical black-and-white puppet-fest filmed in glorious Moving-Picture-O-Vision, just before a gripping two-hour feature on why mixing ants and radioactive waste is, in fact, a bad idea – but it’s real.  Arizona geophysicist Allen West discovered burn marks consistent with micrometeorite impacts in a number of mammoth and bison bones. The resulting study, performed in association with Dr Firestone of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found numerous impact scars over thirty thousand years old.

One of the leading theories to explain repeated large animal extinctions in Earth’s history is meteor impact – because megatons of rock slamming into the planet after a few billion meter run-up is a pretty convincing way to kill anything.  West hopes that these fossilized records will prove that a meteorite shower is responsible for the decline in some large mammal populations around 34,000 years ago, as well as providing a method to apply to other historical extinctions.

West urges museums and universities to re-examine their own fossil collections for signs of damage from beyond the sky, but that seems rather optimistic.  There are only a finite number of ways you can look at a fossil and the odds of people having missed a minor thing like “damage where rocks from space hit it” is pretty low. True, these meteor fragments aren’t anything to deploy Bruce Willis over (those discovered so far are 5 millimeters at most) but they punch a hole, they burn the material, and if that isn’t noticeable enough for you they turn the site magnetic – all things that skeletons generally aren’t and won’t be until the fabled time of the Robo-Swiss-Cheese-Burning Dinosaurs comes to end us all. 

Besides, the full-time job of anything in a museum is “be looked at”.  It’s unlikely that a curator will get off the phone, look over at the fossils again and suddenly realize “My god!  There’s a crater punched by the universe itself in that thing!

– Luke McKinney @ The Daily Galaxy

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Spaceport America: World’s First Interstellar Airport

Posted by jase on June 21, 2009

Spaceport America Conceptual Images URS/Foster + Partners

Spaceport America Conceptual Images URS/Foster + Partners

After years of planning, ground is officially being broken in New Mexico for the world’s first interstellar airport.  

For everyone looking to hop the next commercial flight to space, your departure gate has finally been announced. Almost two years after the first plans were announced, construction has finally begun on Spaceport America. The spaceport, which will serve as the launch and landing pad for Virgin Galactic flights, is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, and represents the first serious commitment of infrastructure to manned commercial spaceflight.

According to the the project website the festivities kicked off June 18th with a panel of speakers, food and drink, and even a mariachi band.

Currently, Virgin Galactic only has two space ships, so it will probably be sometime before the facility experiences O’Hare and LaGuardia level traffic. So now might be the best time to sign up for a flight, before Spaceport America starts experiencing the soul-crushing delays that keep John Grisham, Hudson News, and Brookstone in business.

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The Universe Within

Posted by jase on June 17, 2009

Biomedical researcher Robert Lanza has been on the frontier of cloning and stem cell studies for more than a decade, so he’s well-acclimated to controversy. But his book “Biocentrism” is generating controversy on a different plane by arguing that our consciousness plays a central role in creating the cosmos.

“By treating space and time as physical things, science picks a completely wrong starting point for understanding the world,” Lanza declares.

Any claim that space and time aren’t cold, hard, physical things has to raise an eyebrow. Some of the reactions to Lanza’s ideas, first set forth two years ago in an essay for The American Scholar, brand them as “pseudo-scientific philosophical claptrap” or “no better than any religion.”

Lanza admits that the reviews haven’t all been glowing, particularly among some physicists. “Their response has been much how you’d expect priests to respond to stem cell research,” he told me Monday.

Other physicists, however, point out that Lanza’s view is fully in line with the perspective from quantum mechanics that the observer plays a huge role in how reality is observed.

“So what Lanza says in this book is not new,” Richard Conn Henry, a physics and astronomy professor at Johns Hopkins University, said in a book review. “Then why does Robert have to say it at all? It is because we, the physicists, do not say it – or if we do say it, we only whisper it, and in private – furiously blushing as we mouth the words. True, yes; politically correct, hell no!”

The weird twists in our view of the cosmos are hinted at in the scientific speculation over quantum teleportation, experiments in reverse-time causation, the idea that time has no independent existence, and physicist Stephen Hawkings’ suggestion that the universe as we know it is generated through quantum interference involving all possible universes.

Lanza and his co-author, astronomer/columnist Bob Berman, try to assemble all those weird little twists into a larger theory. Rather than laying out the big picture here, I’ll let them do it in an exclusive online abridgment:

CLICK HERE TO SAMPLE ‘BIOCENTRISM’

The authors contend that their view of the cosmos can help resolve all the head-scratching over unifying the fundamental forces, or coming up with a “theory of everything” that covers the submicroscopic world of quantum effects as well as the grand workings of gravity.

There are potential pitfalls, of course. If you merely accept that reality works the way it does because that’s how our senses and neurons are structured to perceive it, you could run the risk of shrugging off the search for deeper, truer descriptions of that reality.

One route would be to write off the still-mysterious aspects of our universe (e.g., what dark energy is, or how consciousness arises) as an expression of the anthropic principle. In effect, you’re saying, “It’s that way just because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to observe it.” Another route would be embracing intelligent design (“God did it”).

Neither of those routes can be navigated very well using the scientific method, and Lanza and Berman point that out in their book. However, they don’t lay out a detailed road map showing how a “biocentric” view of the universe might affect the course of science – other than to say that neuroscience needs more attention and string theory needs less.

Theoretically, one avenue might be to study how our brain organizes the incoming electrical impulses to create the matrix beyond – and tweak that circuitry in different ways. “With a little genetic engineering, you could probably make anything that’s red move, or make a noise instead, or even make you feel hungry or want to have sex,” Lanza said.

Lanza acknowledges that the step-by-step, objective approach to solving scientific puzzlers is still the way to go when you’re focusing on a specific research project, such as turning the medical promise of embryonic stem cells into reality. He knows he’s not making all this up.

“Day to day, yes, I can put x number of ml [milliliters] in a Petri dish, and I can predict exactly what the behavior is going to be,” he told me.

But Lanza said quantum effects as basic as the two-slit experiment tell us that there’s more to life, the universe and everything than milliliters of solution in a dish. “We have this way that we think of space and time on the street. It’s day to day, paying your bills,” Lanza said. “But when you look at these experiments, that’s not what they’re telling us. In fact, they’re telling us quite the reverse.”

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