Monday, December 31, 2007

2008...the year of the what?

As 2007 comes to a close and 2008 looms on the (very near) horizon, it may be appropriate to reflect on what the year 2008 is supposed to stand for.

It is not very easy to convince the United Nations to declare a year for something, so it is interesting that this year the UN has announced 4 years-of:

1. The Year of the Potato. This was recommended by Peru's government - not because the potato is in any danger, but to highlight the importance of the potato and its possibility for alleviating world poverty. They claim that the potato "produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop."

2. The International Year of Sanitation. This was designated to raise awareness of the plight of roughly 41% of the world's population — at least 2.6 billion people — who don't have access to basic sanitation. This is in line with one of the UN's Millennium Development Goals to reduce this number by half by 2015.

3. The International Year of Languages. Since my research involved reading and language (particularly, reading multiple languages with different alphabets), I am overjoyed to hear this news. An excerpt from the Sixty-First General Assembly Plenary:

...recognizing that genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding, proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages.

Acting without a vote, the Assembly, also recognizing that the United Nations pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally, emphasized the paramount importance of the equality of the Organization’s six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish)...

4. The International Year of the Planet Earth. Which lasts for three years. Funding for this program started in 2007 and will end in 2009. The aim of this program is to bring more attention to Earth scientists and their research, referencing the 2004 Asian Tsunami as an example of an event which could have involved fewer deaths if more attention was paid to the Earth Sciences.

Outside of the UN, it appears fairly easy to designate various years-of...

1. The Year of the Frog. The Amphibian Ark has highlighted 500 frog species threatened with extinction. Kermit the Frog is the official spokesperson for the program.

2. The (Second) International Year of the Reef, according to the International Coral Reef Initiative. The IYOR aims to educate people about the importance of coral reefs to world ecosystems.

3. The Year of Feta Cheese - in Greece.

4. The Year of Boy Scouts and Engineering - in Australia.

5. The Year of Gardens - in Cheshire, England.

6. The Year of Intercultural Dialogue for the European Union (shouldn't that be EVERY year, in the EU?)

Oh, and 2008 is also the Chinese Year of the Rat.

...with thanks to Nature News for some of the references above.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

More whales

Another random thought, only peripherally related to the whales...which I read about in Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, last night.

Whales are known to have a variety of songs that they use to communicate with eachother. They tend to use the 20 Hz frequency to do so (if I remember correctly, but the details aren't important), and that is a frequency which passes so easily through sea water that a whale in the waters off of Antarctica could relatively easily have a conversation with a whale in the Aleutian Islands, off of Alaska. In a sense, this was the first global communications network. Now, we humans in our industrial way of doing things, have introduced so much noise into the oceans that whales probably can't communicate with other whales more than a few hundred kilometers away. If we have any desire to have any sort of communication with intelligent life on other planets, shouldn't we try to communicate first with the intelligent life on OUR OWN PLANET? Whales are smart enough to have utilized a sort of global communications network, and we've effectively destroyed it. Whales are smart enough to use incredible teamwork to capture their dinner. If that's not a sign of intelligence (on the part of the whales), then I'm not sure what we're expecting to find in the sky. If there is indeed extraterrestrial intelligence, and they indeed tried to communicate with us, would we even recognize it?

I'm sure its no accident that on the golden record included on the Voyager spacecraft, included are several songs of the humpback whales.

Babies Have Values?

According to an article published in the journal Nature (summarized here), babies as young as six months old have a preference for choosing "helpful" toys over "neutral" or "naughty" ones, and even preferred to play with the neutral ones over the naughty ones.

The authors (of the review article) argue that this means that some kind of internal values system is innate:
The choice of nice over naughty follows a school of thought that humans have some innate social abilities, not just those learned from their parents.

I'm inclined to disagree with this statement, on the basis that in six months, the child can learn a lot by watching his or her parents and other prominent caregivers (grandparents, etc) and their social interactions.

Now, if there is something innate about this preference (presumably the babies can only decide if the second toy is helpful or hurtful by empathizing with the first toy), then it is probably localized to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This is, incidentally, part of the region destroyed by Phineas Gage's tamping rod accident. The region identified in the image above (borrowed from a different article) shows the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (and part of the medial orbitofrontal as well).

Antonio Damasio and colleagues found, last March, (see summary article here) that individuals with localized damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which generally processes feelings of empathy and compassion, causes a diminished capacity for social emotions but leaves logical reasoning intact. When asked to resolve hypothetical situations - such as tossing one person from a bridge into the path of an oncoming train, when it would save five other lines - those with the lesions tended to sacrifice one to save fact, they were three times more likely to make such a decision than the intact control group.

This may provide some insight into the ability of the babies to make empathic decisions about which toy to play with. However, at six months, the prefrontal cortex is barely developed. Hell, the somatosensory cortex is only just at its peak of synaptogenesis!

I particularly like this diagram, which I was first introduced to in my first child development class, from Casey et al. (2005):

In the end, I'm not sure what to conclude about this research. I think probably the babies are probably just using information gained by watching their parents, and not really making values-rich decisions.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Science Education

Why is it that otherwise well-educated people are embarrassed to mention that they've never read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or that they don't know who Chaucer is, but when it comes to science, instead of being embarrassed that they don't understand evolution, or genetics, or basic anatomy, or basic cell biology, or how carbon emissions affect the environment, or (i could go on for a while here)...the response is "well, i never was very good in my science classes" ?

These are important things for educated, informed people (voters!) to understand. How can they vote in elections without understanding the very basics of stem cell research, cloning, climate change, creation/evolution/intelligent design, and so on?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Two Research Papers, and things i've been thinking about lately

Here is a short excerpt from an article I read that covered a paper that was published in the journal Nature:

Japan Scientists Develop Fearless Mice

Associated Press Writer

TOKYO (AP) -- Cat and mouse may never be the same. Japanese scientists say they've used genetic engineering to create mice that show no fear of felines, a development that may shed new light on mammal behavior and the nature of fear itself.

Scientists at Tokyo University say they were able to successfully switch off a mouse's instinct to cower at the smell or presence of cats - showing that fear is genetically hardwired and not learned through experience, as commonly believed.
And here's an interesting video showing orca teamwork...the critical moment happens about 2:40 into the video, but the entire video is interesting. It appears as if the orcas are working in a team to push the ice floe (with helpless seal trapped aboard) into the water, and then they create a wave to wash their next meal into the water, where they will presumably chomp him (or her) to bits. More interesting is that (according to the researcher, who is filming) they seem to be teaching a younger orca about the hunting strategy...since its hard to tell from the video, I will take his word for it. (Thanks to Mo at Neurophilosophy for the reference to this).

The reference for the whale article:
Visser, I. N. et al. Mar. Mamm. Sci. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2007.00163.x (2007).

Some random, various thoughts that I have:

I'm a little troubled by the seemingly simple explanation that "fear is genetically hardwired and not learned through experience." Strictly speaking, I'd be willing to believe that the fear-of-cats response (in the mice) is brought about by the mouse genome, because of natural selection. Those mice with "the fear-of-cats gene" (remember that genes are not "for" something, but it makes it easier to speak as if they are) survived longer than those without the fear-of-cats gene, and they reproduced more successfully, and therefore the fear became "genetically hardwired." But then you have to think about gene expression, and you have to think about gene-environment interaction, and you have to think about the cats and their gene expression.

If mice were only found in the North American midwest, and cats were only native to Northeastern Africa, it is unlikely that mice would ever have developed a fear-of-cats gene, and it is equally unlikely that cats would have ever developed a mice-taste-good gene. In this way, it is only because of a sort of meta-experience that mice ever became afraid of cats, and similarly that cats favored the taste of mice. There was a very good reason that it was more adaptive for mice to fear cats, and similarly a good reason that cats came to enjoy mice. It was adaptive! I recommend the book The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins for anyone interested in thinking about these sorts of things. (also, how convenient that the cats that the genetically altered mice were exposed to were docile house-trained cats, who did not need to eat mice to survive...)

Now this brings me to the question of the seals and the whales. Is anybody going to tell me, given this news about the mice, that the seal has not learned from experience (in the immediate, or meta- sense) that he is about to become dinner for those whales? Has not the seal watched countless friends and relatives suffer the same fate as he is about to suffer? And what about the whales? Even if it has become genetically "hardwired" to have a seals-taste-good gene, the young need to be TRAINED in how to get the seal in the first place. Not like visual edge detection in humans, which does not need to be learned. It is a learned behavior, like reading. There is variability in reading because it is learned. Some people are good at reading, some are less skilled. Some orcas are good at hunting, some are less skilled. In time, the good hunters' genes will be passed on, and the lesser hunters genes' will die out. Will some scientist in the future say that orcas are genetically hard-wired to make waves to push the seals off of the ice floe, because of the way that the environment interacts with the genes, today?

Maybe I'm just confusing myself...and whoever happens to read my ramblings.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Happy Chanukah!

And a little entertainment for the holiday:

More Egg Salad!

Direct from Reuters, a Mafia boss is arrested while watching a TV show about a Mafia boss being arrested!

PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - Italian police burst into the room of a suspected Mafia mobster in Sicily and arrested him as he watched a television show about the arrest of a Mafia boss, investigators said Friday.

Police said Michele Catalano was watching the concluding chapter late Thursday of the TV mini-series "The Boss of Bosses," recounting the arrest in 1993 of real-life Cosa Nostra leader Salvatore "Toto" Riina, when he was detained.

They Catalano, 48, was suspected of being a senior commander serving under the latest "boss of bosses" Salvatore Lo Piccolo, who was arrested this month after nearly 25 years on the run.

See the full article here. If that's not some egg salad, I don't know what is.

Lexical-Gustatory Synaesthesia

I read an interesting post in one of the science blogs I've been reading lately, on lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, which I guess is common enough to have a line of research surrounding it.

The more traditional form of synaesthesia finds people tasting or smelling colors or something like this model, (ready for it?)
people taste PHONEMES. Like people associate the phoneme /k/ with cake, or /edg/ (e.g. college) with sausage (sauce-edge).

Maybe dyslexic individuals lack sufficient phonological awareness because certain phonemes make them taste asparagus or coconut or limberger cheese, or something. That'd be enough to make me hate phonemes.

So maybe we should drop the line of research surrounding reading remediation, and just feed these kids better tasting foods.