Category Archives: Science

Water on Mars

It has been confirmed that water exists on the Red Planet. The elements required for life as we know it were found a few weeks ago, but this is the first definite evidence of water. Well, I’M excited.

Also, the presence of water automatically makes any manned mission easier, as the astronauts can make their own potable liquids on site rather than transporting them in bulk.

Stem cell breakthrough


Scientists have made ordinary human skin cells take on the chameleon-like powers of embryonic stem cells, a startling breakthrough that might someday deliver the medical payoffs of embryo cloning without the controversy.

The “direct reprogramming” technique avoids the swarm of ethical, political and practical obstacles that have stymied attempts to produce human stem cells by cloning embryos.

Scientists familiar with the work said scientific questions remain and that it’s still important to pursue the cloning strategy, but that the new work is a major coup.

There is a catch with the new technique. At this point, it requires disrupting the DNA of the skin cells, which creates the potential for developing cancer. So it would be unacceptable for the most touted use of embryonic cells: creating transplant tissue that in theory could be used to treat diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injury.But the DNA disruption is just a byproduct of the technique, and experts said they believe it can be avoided.

Nature versus nurture

Paula and Elyse are both 38, both edited their school newspapers and both studied film at university.

They are twins who were deliberately separated at birth in an experiment on nature versus nurture — a study into if what makes us who we are is predetermined by our genetic heritage or had more to do with the environment in which we grew up.

The two have published a book on their childhoods and coming to terms with what happened in 1968.

The study was run by child psychiatrist Peter Neubauer, and the forced separation done with the agreement of the Louise Wise adoption agency.

Viola Bernard, a child psychologist and consultant to the agency, had firmly believed that twins should be raised separately to improve their psychological development, and that dressing and treating them the same retarded their minds.

Neubauer’s study, which ended in 1981, has apparently been locked in a vault until 2066.

Ordinarily I would include some comment of my own at this point, but I really don’t see how I can add to the story, which plainly stands strong on its own merits. I would encourage you to read it here.

Al Gore, man of peace


I’m glad Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have won the Nobel peace prize.

In a statement, Gore said he was “deeply honored,” adding that “the climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.”

During its announcement, the Nobel committee cited the winners “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.

Although arguments exist against human activity being the catalyst for the planet’s warming, there is a 90% chance that we’re the cause. It is not too late to make a difference, even if we have to live with some significant climate changes.

That Gore won reflects how seriously the environmental movement is being taken. As Lewis Smith notes:

Ten years ago the idea that the world was warming up, with potentially disastrous consequences, was still hugely contested.

People who installed energy-saving lightbulbs or put on another jumper instead of turning up the thermostat were dismissed as part of the tree-hugging fringe movement.

But the science of climate change has advanced enormously in the past decade and gradually the sceptics have been silenced as their objections were answered.

Sceptics still exist, and many of them have good points to make, but it is they who have been pushed to the fringe of political and scientific debate.

The IPCC has made progress because of its scientific roots. It has amassed and analysed evidence that makes it nigh impossible to ignore the affect our activity is having on the planet. It and Gore have highlighted ways of adapting to and nullifying this impact.

Earlier this week, a judge ruled that Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, was broadly accurate despite nine significant errors. The ruling, which determined if the film could be shown in schools, said “the ‘apocalyptic vision’ presented in the film was politically partisan and not an impartial analysis of the science of climate change”.

Yes, it’s a political film. Yes, it is biased toward one point of view. But it is not wrong just because of this — it’s purpose is to raise awareness and inspire action. Because the judge backed the film’s central message, it can be show provided there are accompanying materials to balance Gore’s view.

Let us all hope it continues to have a positive impact on our attitude toward our planet.

Postscript: Daniel Drezner has noted a curious passage in the press release, which states that Gore “is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted”. Drezner wonders if the sentence would make more sense were the word “worldwide” replaced by “American”.

Artificial life's looking good

The announcement of artificial life could be just weeks away, a synthetic chromosone inserted into a living cell.

Not only is this an extraordinary scientific breakthrough, it could be of enormous help weaning ourselves off oil — at least, that’s according to Dr Ari Patrinos.

He told Earth2Tech:

a designer organism could be developed to only perform certain tasks, like converting sugar to ethanol, which would result in a very efficient process. Natural microbes have other life priorities, like replication, he says, but a synthetic organism can be created to just perform one function.

This could happen within 10 years and produced “significant” amounts of friendly fuels.

I’m quite giddy at the prospect of artificial life, let alone the benefits it could bring in the fight against climate change. I’ve mused in the past about how science could help us to help ourselves, and this looks like more good news in that regard.

That said, any biological work comes with a risk of unforeseen consequences. Will mutations scupper this promising enterprise? Only time will tell.

Save your math for the war*

An absolute gem unearthed by Frank Little of The Cedar Lounge Revolution:

Patricia Sullivan, a professor at the University of Georgia in the US, has devised a mathematical equation to predict the outcome of conflicts based on a detailed analysis of 122 military interventions involving the US, Britain, China, Russia and France since 1945.

She claims the equation is accurate in 78% of cases.

The equation is posted on Cedar Lounge, which notes Sullivan’s argument that “key determinant in many conflicts has been the attitude of the civilian population”. Winning hearts and minds is as vital in the aftermath of upheaval — a patten that can be found throughout history — as it is in domestic politics.

*If you get this reference I will be so utterly impressed you’ll get a blog post dedicated to you. Can’t say I’m not generous!