Tag Archives: Science

A Nuclear Bomb at Ground Zero, and What Happens Next

At The AtlanticKaveh Waddell has a conversation with researcher William Kennedy, who along with Andrew Crooks, is mining data from past tragedies such as the 1917 Halifax Explosion, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina to run computer simulations studying how humans would respond after a nuclear attack on Manhattan.

Kennedy: We’ve found that people seem to be reasonably well behaved and do what they’ve been trained to, or are asked or told to do by local authorities. Reports from 9/11 show that people walked down many tens of flights of stairs, relatively quietly, sometimes carrying each other, to escape buildings.

We’re finding those kinds of reports from other disasters as well—except after Hurricane Katrina. There, we have reports that people already didn’t trust the government, and then with the isolation resulting from the flooding, they were actually shooting at people trying to help.

So we’re going to model individuals responding to the immediate situation around them. They’re trying to leave the area, find food, water, and shelter: basic Maslow-like necessities.

Waddell: What are the goals that each individual agent will be balancing? Safety, hunger, family and friends, getting out of the area—how will the model treat those needs?

Kennedy: One of the aspects we’ll be modeling is the individual agents’ social networks. Communications with those people, and confirmation of their status, seems to be one of the first urgencies that people feel, after their immediate survival of the event.

Part of our modeling challenge is going to be figuring out if a parent would go through a contaminated area to retrieve a child at a daycare or school, putting themselves at risk in the process, because it’s important to them to physically be there with their children. Or do they realize that they’re isolated, that communications aren’t going to be available in the near term, and they only deal with their local folks who are now their family? That’s the sense we get.

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Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Woolly Mammoths Roam

Ross Andersen’s Atlantic profile of Nikita Zimov and his quest to re-create a Pleistocene ecosystem that will slow the thaw of Arctic permafrost, ultimately slowing global warming — it’s like Jurassic Park, but with a basis in science and no man-eating dinosaurs. Impressive and captivating, it’s a piece worth reading, not least for a fascinating explanation of how grasses went from being slimy ocean plants to covering huge swaths of the planet.

For the vast majority of the Earth’s 4.5 billion spins around the sun, its exposed, rocky surfaces lay barren. Plants changed that. Born in the seas like us, they knocked against the planet’s shores for eons. They army-crawled onto the continents, anchored themselves down, and began testing new body plans, performing, in the process, a series of vast experiments on the Earth’s surface. They pushed whole forests of woody stems into the sky to stretch their light-drinking leaves closer to the sun. They learned how to lure pollinators by unfurling perfumed blooms in every color of the rainbow. And nearly 70 million years ago, they began testing a new form that crept out from the shadowy edges of the forest and began spreading a green carpet of solar panel across the Earth.

For tens of millions of years, grasses waged a global land war against forests. According to some scientists, they succeeded by making themselves easy to eat. Unlike other plants, many grasses don’t expend energy on poisons, or thorns, or other herbivore-deterring technologies. By allowing themselves to be eaten, they partner with their own grazers to enhance their ecosystem’s nutrient flows.

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‘When Neanderthals Disappeared From Here, We Became the Sole Inheritors of Our Continent’

For Mosaic Science, Gaia Vince travels to the small British territory of Gibraltar—currently home to an incredibly diverse human population and a place that has been called home to people of all types over the millennia—and analyzes the genetics of ancient humans:

I pause, perched on a rock inside the entrance, in order to consider this—people not so different from myself once sat here, facing the Mediterranean and Africa beyond. Before I arrived in Gibraltar, I used a commercial genome-testing service to analyse my ancestry. From the vial of saliva I sent them, they determined that 1 per cent of my DNA is Neanderthal. I don’t know what health advantages or risks these genes have given me—testing companies are no longer allowed to provide this level of detail—but it is an extraordinary experience to be so close to the intelligent, resourceful people who bequeathed me some of their genes. Sitting in this ancient home, knowing none of them survived to today, is a poignant reminder of how vulnerable we are—it could so easily have been a Neanderthal woman sitting here wondering about her extinct human cousins.

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Mars Needs Women… Scientists

Astronaut Yvonne Cagle (left); Jennifer Harris (center); the Mars 2001 Operations System Development Manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Astronaut Ellen Ochoa (right)

The March 2017 issue of Vogue Magazine has a number of glorious spreads celebrating powerful women, but my favorite is this one on women working at NASA:

By the ’80s, though, NASA got better at recruiting women. “I remember that when I first came here, I was the only one in my group,” recalls Luz Marina Calle, the lead scientist and principal investigator of the Corrosion Technology Laboratory at an outdoor exposure facility. “When I used to answer the phone, people thought I was the secretary, and I would say, ‘No, in fact, he is my colleague.’ ”

We still have a ways to go, but thanks to women of science, we could make it as far as Mars — and beyond.

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Learning About Memory from a Woman Who Lost Hers

Lonni Sue Johnson was a successful illustrator — think New Yorker covers — amateur violist, pilot, and small businesswoman. When the herpes simplex virus attacked her brain, it caused substantial tissue loss in her medial temporal lobes; she lost almost her entire lifetime of knowledge and experiences, along with the ability to form new memories. In Aeon, Michael Lemonick describes how she’s invaluable to neuroscientists working to understand how we make, organize, and store memories.

There’s no established protocol, however, for probing an amnesia victim on the sorts of knowledge Johnson gathered in her lifetime. The neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins started at the most basic level they could think of – the ‘Who painted this?’ test, which she pretty much failed. Her semantic memory about art and artists, her primary area of expertise, was significantly impaired. Remarkably, though, when the scientists included some of her own artworks in the testing, she correctly flagged every one as hers. Even more surprising, when the researchers added drawings done in a style somewhat similar to Johnson’s, she picked them out as artworks she might have produced. To do so, she had to be drawing on some sort of memory. It clearly wasn’t episodic memory, since artworks aren’t events – but it’s unclear that it qualifies as semantic memory either, since it addresses an ineffable quality, not a set of facts. ‘I don’t think we know how to characterise that sort of memory,’ Barbara Landau, one of the Johns Hopkins scientists, told me in an interview.

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I’ll See Your Troll and Raise You One Notable Woman Scientist

At Backchannel, Andrew McMillen writes on how one young Wikipedia admin fights back at trolls by raising the profile of notable women in science, one new Wikipedia page at a time.

She’d been receiving vicious emails for a decade. Sometimes she sought solace by commiserating with friends, or by stomping off to do something else, or occasionally — after the cruelest messages—by lying on her bed and crying. Temple-Wood became a frequent target of abuse merely because she is the rare female Wikipedia editor who has been active on the site for years. She manages to let much of the harassment slide off her. But many women eventually find the bullying to be too much, and leave the site.

…Temple-Wood had an idea. For every harassing email, death threat, or request for nude photos that she received, she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia. She thought of it as a giant “fuck you” to the anonymous idiots seeking to silence her.

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Science vs. the Jellyfish! (Hint: the Jellyfish Are Winning)

black and white photo of a jellyfish

Jellyfish: we can’t predict where and when they’ll appear, we can’t anticipate where they’ll go, they can shut down an aircraft carrier, and we can’t figure how how to reduce their population. Tamar Stelling, in the Correspondent, looks at these amazingly resilient sacks of goo.

“Fight jellyfish?” Boero says when I speak with him on Skype. “Forget it.” Any tactic you’d use to combat any other plague is useless against jellyfish. Pesticides don’t affect them. Many species don’t actively swim in any particular direction, so you can’t chase them away. Electrocution doesn’t work. Acoustic shocks? Nope: with no brain or ears, a jellyfish has no notion of sound. “Jellyfish shredders, hormones – you’re just treating the symptoms,” Boero says.

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Biological Clocks and Biological Gender: Trans Women and the Dream of Pregnancy

Advances in assisted reproductive technology (ART) mean that uterus transplants may one day be an option for cis women. Belle Boggs writes in Guernicaexploring what this possibility — no matter how remote or unaccessible — means for trans women who want to be mothers.

For some trans women, like Blessing, this technology—however nascent—is tantalizing, a medical innovation they believe could one day help them achieve their own dreams of pregnancy. Kimball Sargent, a North Carolina-based therapist who specializes in gender identity, says this is a common interest among her trans patients. Many of her trans women patients feel as Blessing does—they long not only for children but also the bodily experience of pregnancy. “If you have a female brain, and estrogen, a female hormone, that probably influences your desire for pregnancy,” Sargent says. “Some of my clients have been surprised by how powerful the feeling of loss was, when they realized they can’t carry a baby. That’s exactly the feeling infertile women go through.”

She notes that many of her patients experience jealousy when their partners become pregnant, as well as deep frustration with the limits of their transition. “Some think, ‘I’m not a real woman because I can’t carry a pregnancy,’” Sargent says. She remembers seeing a gender-variant four-year-old, genetically male, pretend to give birth to a doll. “She put the doll under her shirt and said, ‘Look, I’m pregnant. I have a baby in my belly.’ She took the baby out, wiped it, and rocked it back and forth. It’s very instinctive.”

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Practical Cartography: I Am Mapped, Therefore I Am

Lois Parshley’s wide-ranging, fascinating story on mapping the unmapped — from black holes, to the bottom of the sea, to the populations of the Congo and Haiti — looks at not just the science of map-making, but the morality.

“I like maps,” Gayton says. “But really what I care about is equitable distribution of health care. As long as 1 billion people don’t have it, sooner or later it’ll come bite people in rich countries.” He scoffs at the idea that there are no blank spaces left on Earth. “Anyone who says the world is mapped, ask them to show you where the population of Congo are living. Ask them where the villages are. If they can do it, please let me know.”

To Gayton, it’s not an idle distinction. “When you have a place like South Sudan, where millions of people live and die without ever figuring in a database anywhere, their names will never be written down. There’s not a lot of dignity in that—to not be on the map is quite a powerful statement of uncaring.” That’s what Missing Maps is about. “We still don’t know who they are, but at least we know where their house is. At least the map actually contains them, rather than a blank wash of green,” Gayton says. “I tell people at mapathons sometimes, ‘That house you’re tracing right now, that hut—that’s the first time in the history of humanity someone cared enough about them to take note.’” Things don’t exist because we name them, but giving them a name engenders new meaning. At its most basic, to exist on a map is to have value.

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‘It Was Too Good To Be True’: A Case of Scientific Fraud

In 2011, Diederik Stapel, a bright social psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, was suspended for fabricating data on a study that brought him much praise. At the Guardian, Stephen Buranyi profiles the team of researchers from the university’s psychology department, Chris Hartgerink and Marcel van Assen, who have since focused their research on scientific fraud.

Stapel had a knack for devising and executing such clever studies, cutting through messy problems to extract clean data. Since becoming a professor a decade earlier, he had published more than 100 papers, showing, among other things, that beauty product advertisements, regardless of context, prompted women to think about themselves more negatively, and that judges who had been primed to think about concepts of impartial justice were less likely to make racially motivated decisions.

His findings regularly reached the public through the media. The idea that huge, intractable social issues such as sexism and racism could be affected in such simple ways had a powerful intuitive appeal, and hinted at the possibility of equally simple, elegant solutions. If anything united Stapel’s diverse interests, it was this Gladwellian bent. His studies were often featured in the popular press, including the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and he was a regular guest on Dutch television programmes.

But as Stapel’s reputation skyrocketed, a small group of colleagues and students began to view him with suspicion. “It was too good to be true,” a professor who was working at Tilburg at the time told me. (The professor, who I will call Joseph Robin, asked to remain anonymous so that he could frankly discuss his role in exposing Stapel.) “All of his experiments worked. That just doesn’t happen.”

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