The good folks at Cornell lab of Ornithology in conjunction with National Geographic have been making some fabulous videos. From their website: "It took 8 years and 18 expeditions to New Guinea, Australia, and nearby islands, but Cornell Lab scientist Ed Scholes and National Geographic photographer Tim Laman succeeded in capturing images of all 39 species in the bird-of-paradise family for the first time ever. This video gives a sense of their monumental undertaking and the spectacular footage that resulted." There is much of interest, including some nifty videos, about these fabulous birds. Below is a favorite.
The time-tested palliative of sheep-counting for sleeplessness has a significant technical problem: it is difficult to see the sheep at night. Fortunately, a research team in Uruguay has made a major breakthrough to solve this stubborn problem. They have engineered fluorescent sheep. Sheep have now joined a list of several animals, that include mice, cats, flies, rabbits, pigs and zebrafish that have had a green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene, originally derived from a jellyfish, introduced into their genome. Insomniacs may now count sheep without turning on the light and potentially disturbing their partners.
On a more serious note, GFP has been used for several years as an important tracer in molecular biology experiments. It discoverers were awarded a Nobel prize in 2008. The original gene has been genetically modified to create a stronger signal, "enhanced" GFP, and it has even been modified to produce at least eight different fluorescent colors. I recommend the Wiki entry for GFP if you want more information on this interesting tool, that is not only very useful to molecular biologists, but ranks way-high on the kewl factor.
NASA is a stunning example of what makes America great. A compilation of three years of images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Two Great Science Educators Share their Wisdom. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins--The Poetry of Science.
Last month I argued that the incredible adaptability of such critters as water bears in conjunction with the discovery of numerous exoplanets in the galaxy made the possibility of extraterrestrial life not only imaginable, but likely. Well, there is exciting news from NASA that the star Kepler-62 has, not one, but two planets that occupy the habitable zone, which is defined as having conditions that might support liquid water on the surface. A mere 1200 light years from Earth, Kepler-62, has a total of five planets. Two of them, designated 62f and 62e which are 1.4 and 1.6 times larger than Earth. The two planets have an orbital time of 267 days, for 62f, and 122 days for planet 62e. It's worth noting how impressive it is that NASA has instruments that can detect the size and behavior of the planets so precisely. But, unfortunately, although though they have determined that the conditions permit the presence of water, we can't yet prove it is there.
One of the fall-outs from the Kepler project is its implications for another gonzo space project called SETI (the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence). SETI is a privately-funded project that has received support from local Seattle philanthropists Nathan Myrvold and Paul Allen (thank guys), and has had past leadership from no less than the first Do Ya Think Blog Rational Hero Carl Sagan. A major project of SETI is to use both radio and optical telescopes to scan the sky for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. One of the challenges is that the sky is, well, really big, and only a small portion can be scanned at a time. To help solve this problem, they are constructing the Allen Telescope Array, which is as the SETI site describes it, is a "large number of small dishes," which will make radiotelemetric scanning much more efficient than using traditional large antennas.
So, how does this relate to the Kepler project? Simple. Now they know where to aim their data collection. Instead of just pointing at random stars, knocking on the metaphorical door and asking "Is there any intelligence home?" they can point their instruments at stars where there is a higher probability of someone actually being there. Let's hope that, someday, someone answers the door.
There have been a lot of astonishing things happening in the world of neurobiology. This qualifies as one of the more intriguing. Scientists at Harvard have, for the first time, engineered a brain-to-brain electronic communication between two different species. Another first, they were able to do it "noninvasively," which is a good thing, since one of the species was a human being. (It might be difficult to find grad students who would volunteer to have their brains directly drilled into.). The rat in the experiment had electrodes implanted into his brain. (My guess is that the rats were not volunteers.) Humans were attached via electrodes attached to their scalp and stared at a synchronized flickering strobe light. The electrodes were connected to an electronic translator controlling ultrasound pulses linked to the anesthetized rat. The human guinea pig could then direct a controlled flicking of the rats tail.
Okay, this communication didn't exactly qualify as intellectual, and it only went one way, but imagine the applications once this technology is perfected, extended, and made wireless. The possibilities are endless! Just think, you might actually be able to control your cat (instead of vice versa) through an electronic mind-link. Herding cats might become a real possibility! Links between rats has already been accomplished and when we develop human-human links we may actually be able control our spouses. Men may be forced to do chores! Women may be directed to this part censored by internet police! We could maybe get our own pet zombies! I see this as more than just a seminal experiment, I see it as "One small step for science, one giant leap toward the Borg collective." Come on, you know you want this! Resistance is futile! Who needs telepathy--we have science!
Whew. Okay, I've caught my breath now. Below is the video of the experiment.
There are few warriors for rational thought that I admire more than Stephen Barrett. Dr. Barrett, a psychiatrist by training, is the founder of Quackwatch, which is, as indicated on their website, "Your guide to quackery, health fraud and intelligent decisions." Quackwatch was founded in 1969 as the Lehigh Valley Committee Against Health Fraud and the website launched in 1996 followed by renaming the organization Quackwatch, Inc in 1997. In the vast ocean of health misinformation and downright fraud, Quackwatch is a shining example of the power of collaboration and dissemination of rational information on the internet. I strongly recommend that "Do Ya Thinkers," to utilize this resource for their health decisions. It is HARD, even for experts to separate truth from fiction when it comes to medical decisions. Let Quackwatch be your filter. The Quackwatch site is chock-full of valuable information about such dubious "alternative" health practices such as acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, faith healing, (such as Reiki), vitamin supplementation, homeopathy, chelation therapy, magnet therapy...the list goes on. In fact, Quackwatch has spawned 23 related websites, e.g. "Dental Watch," (your guide to intelligent dental care) and "Diet Scam Watch" (your guide to weight control schemes and rip-offs.) The Quackwatch website is now available now available in German, French and Portuguese.
Let me digress here for a moment and say that I don't believe in the concept of "alternative" medicine, sometimes disguised as "complementary" medicine, or the even more-insidious "integrative" medicine, which is some kind of chimeric monster employing so-called alternative therapies in conjunction with real, evidence-based, medicine. Let's clarify this. There is unproven medicine, there are untested medical treatments, and there is quack medicine. "Alternative" medical treatment that is proven to work should be called "medicine." If it fails scientific scrutiny, it should figuratively be stuck in a place where only the proctologist's light shines--and I really mean that figuratively--medically proven suppositories should be used as directed.
Ahem. Back To Dr. Barrett. Quackwatch is certainly not about only the efforts of one person. According to the Quackwatch Wikipedia entry Quackwatch has "150 scientific and technical advisors: 67 medical advisors, 12 dental advisors, 13 mental health advisors, 16 nutrition and food science advisors, 3 podiatry advisors, 8 veterinary advisors, and 33 other scientific and technical advisors." And this was in 2003 when they stopped listing specific names because, I would guess, of privacy concerns. It has since grown even larger.
Remarkably, since Quackwatch is composed entirely of volunteers, their operating costs are an astonishingly-low $7000 per year, funded mostly by small donations, proving that you can make quite an impact on the world with a very modest budget. You can donate here.
Here is a sampling of a couple of articles that I like; "Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science" by Robert L. Parks Ph.D. and "Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience" by Rory Coker Ph.D. But I encourage you to poke around the Quackwatch site and make use of the useful search utility to research topics of your own interest.
Alas, not everyone is pleased with being criticized and Dr. Barret is being sued. This is an extract from his list-serve, the Consumer's Health Digest, which is freely available to anyone, "Continuing request for help from Dr. Barrett. In June 2010, Doctor's Data, Inc. sued Dr. Barrett because it didn't like what what he wrote about them on Quackwatch and in this newsletter. In November, 2011, about half of the allegations were dismissed, but discovery has been permitted for more than a year. The rest of the suit will probably be dismissed soon after discovery ends, but the proceedings have been time-consuming and very expensive." Contributions to the defense fund can be made by mail or through the web.
So, in summary, let's all give a toast to Dr Barrett and his collaborators at Quackwatch. Thank you and congratulations to you as our Rational Hero of the Week.
Scot Bastian Ph.D. is a scientist and artist who lives in Seattle WA.