"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

Web scienceontap.blogspot.com

Friday, October 30, 2009

Amazing Migrating Monarchs

The Friday video:

Most readers are probably familiar with the massive North American migration of monarch butterflies to Mexico, but a good time to focus on it, as it's presently occurring:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pollan's 'Botany of Desire'

PBS's full-length rendering of Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire" is now available online here (and excellent):


Musical Minds

PBS's "Nova" and neurologist/writer Oliver Sacks explore music and the human brain here:


Long Ago and Far Away...

The oldest explosion yet detected in the Universe (~13 billion years ago) reported on here:


Astrophysicist Bing Zhang (...gotta love that name :-)) writes in Nature about the finding.
Next year the Hubble telescope will be used to look for the galaxy from which the star explosion emanated.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Elucidating Glial Cells

Jonah Lehrer interviews neuroscientist Andrew Koob, author of "The Root of Thought," HERE on the subject of the brain's glial cells, which make up 90% of the brain's cells, yet were long ignored, or relegated to a mere supportive role, by scientists more fixated on neurons.

Gene For Human Speech

Brought to attention by studying an Australian family with a speaking disorder, a gene that influences flexibility of the larynx (thus increasing the structural capability for human speech) is being reported on chromosome 8 (appropriately named the "tospeak" gene). First seen in other primates, it is partially duplicated in humans where its influence is apparently greater, generating speech functionality.  If further verified, will probably be a source for much future study and speculation.

Billions and Billions... of Bats

If you happen to be into both David Attenborough and fruit bats, well then this video is for you:


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Check Your Local Listings

Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire" being presented WED. night (Oct. 28) as a special on most PBS stations:


New PBS Evolution Site

PBS's "Nova" and science journalist Carl Zimmer combine HERE in an excellent collaboration to address the topic of evolution.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cancer as a 'Dynamic Process'

NY Times article HERE acknowledging what many have known for a long time: cancer is not necessarily a 'linear' phenomena, but can reverse itself. No doubt it has to do with individual immune function, as well as dozens of other synergistic variables, unique to each individual and each form of cancer. Not sure why this view takes so long to get out; there have been plenty of examples over decades, both anecdotally and in the literature, to bear it out... but, still treated as 'news.'

Better Visions Through Chemistry?

Clifford Pickover on brain chemistry and transcendence here:


Physicists Pondering

From the recent "Quantum To Cosmos" conference this nice summary of things buggin' current day physicists (from fundamental laws, to the singularity, to the nature of reality...):


Video here: http://www.q2cfestival.com/play.php?lecture_id=7976

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"The World With Us"

More thoughts on (over)population:


Quantum Effects In Diamond

Finally, a reason for men to love diamonds HERE (quantum action over a distance, possibly presaging quantum computing).

The Food-Industrial-Complex

Enough is enough! (...not that things will ever change):


Friday, October 23, 2009

Blast From the Past

Non-science on tap:

Friday video... Evidence that medical "science" claims may not always be what they're cracked up to be:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Steven Weinberg Via Peter Woit

A little physics/cosmology... and string theory commentary from Peter Woit (and Steven Weinberg) HERE.

Ervin Laszlo

Prolific scientist/philosopher/systems-theorist/ (and musician) Ervin Laszlo has been writing/speculating about consciousness/materialism/reality for a long time.
Here a brief essay by him that introduces some of his thinking:


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Neural Basis of Music

Short ScienceDaily report on the brain's underlying perception of music, and how it affects us physically and psychologically.

Extracting Your Own DNA

Fun in the kitchen....

Article describes how to extract your own DNA with common household ingredients (...and if the microscope sitting by the frig isn't being used, after extracting the DNA, you can study it):


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Holy Shiiiii.....

Food, farming, and feces...
Read all about it HERE.

Of Cell Phones and Unicycling Clowns

'nuther study of cell phone inattention reported here:


32 Out of Billions and B-B-Billions

Astronomers announce they have found
32 new planets (although none deemed likely habitable) outside of our own solar system.

Monday, October 19, 2009


For your amusement, here is a paradox quoted directly from Martin Gardner's "The Jinn From Hyperspace":

"Now for a final paradox. There is a certain event that I guarantee will or will not take place during the next ten minutes. You are absolutely incapable of predicting correctly whether it will or won't occur. I don't mean that it's unlikely you can predict it. I mean it is logically impossible to predict it!
"You don't believe it? Then do the following. If you think the event will occur write "Yes" inside the blank rectangle below. If you think it won't happen, write "No" inside the rectangle.

"If you predicted correctly, I'll send you a million dollars.
The event is: You will write "No" inside the rectangle."

This is just one of many paradoxes entangled with self-reference and classic problems of causation/prediction when dealing with human language.

"The Jinn From Hyperspace"

....Essayist Extraordinaire

"The Jinn From Hyperspace" -- Martin Gardner

Regular readers here know I'm a big Martin Gardner fan, especially of his essays. Shortly ago I noted that he has a new book out, but when a local bookstore didn't have it in stock yet, I proceeded to buy his last volume instead which I'd never read: "The Jinn From Hyperspace" (title taken from one of the included essays; unfortunately a number of Gardner books have crummy titles!). It is another delicious, diverse compendium of his pieces previously published elsewhere; and another "A" rating from me (although if you don't like the 'essay' genre, and want books with a beginning, middle, and end, this disjointed volume may not suit you).

The first half of the book centers around a range of science and math topics, while the second half covers a number of diverse writers who are favorites of Gardner. A few chapter highlights:

Chapters 1 and 2 are about False Memory Syndrome, and some of the people whose lives have been devastated by this one-time pop science fad of retrieving memories of abuse from one's childhood or from children themselves using various 'therapeutic' techniques. Gardner's disdain for the matter, which he feels is totally discredited, and for those who practice it, nearly jumps off the page.

The next two chapters are brief positive reviews of 2 books by brilliant, cutting-edge British mathematician/physicist Roger Penrose, with whom Gardner shares a great many viewpoints.

Chapter 7 reviews the mind-boggling Banach-Tarski geometry paradox which delves into the baffling world of infinity, understandable (if at all) only in abstract terms, and not in terms of routine human logic.
Chapter 9 is a defense
(in the course of a book review) of "Platonic realism," which presupposes that mathematical concepts are in some sense a real part of the physical universe, versus just being an abstract concoction of the human mind; the latter view is held by a surprising (even if minority) number of distinguished mathematicians, who oddly would argue that essentially mathematics is not 'real.'
Chapter 12 all-too-briefly addresses Newcomb's Paradox, one of the most famous and hotly-debated conundrums in all of logic/philosophy (dealing with prediction/causation).
Chapter 15 reviews a fascinating-sounding novel, "Popco" by Scarlett Thomas, that interweaves a significant amount of recreational mathematics into the plot.
Chapter 18 is a review of Lee Smolin's "The Trouble With Physics," which argues in part that 'string theory' ain't all it's cracked up to be; and indeed more and more physicists are leaning that way recently, though the verdict is still out.

Chapter 19 is another favorite of mine as Gardner reviews Douglas Hofstadter's "I Am a Strange Loop." Both Gardner and I admire Hofstadter's creativity greatly, but both he and I think this volume falls short (I think it's one of the weakest of all Hofstadter's output, even though the focus on 'self-reference' and recursion feels right, but seems mishandled). And I agree with Gardner that Hofstadter's "strong AI (artificial intelligence)" position, that there is no such thing as "consciousness" or "free will" (the brain viewed instead as essentially a machine that will eventually be duplicated by computers), is wrong-headed. I've long been baffled by Hofstadter's viewpoint in this regard and his close association with the similar-thinking Daniel Dennett (personally, I think Dennett over-rated as a philosopher... or maybe I just think all philosophers over-rated, whereas Hofstadter, a cognitive and computer scientist, regularly produces thought-provoking, mind-expanding reflections on his own, just less-so in this volume).
Unlike Hofstadter, Gardner, by the way, is a "Mysterian," who believes that computers (as we currently know them) can never acquire the trait of "consciousness."

Moving on, Gardner next confesses his love for the writing of G. K. Chesterton of all folks, in a chapter touching upon several of the British writer's works.
The book ends with several chapters devoted to L. Frank Baum ("Wizard of Oz" fame), followed by chapters on various Lewis Carroll works.
If there is another person on the planet who happens to be ensconced by the same disparate set of writers that so enthrall Gardner (he's also a huge fan of Miguel de Unamuno) I'd be curious who it is! These chapters on various writers are made interesting by Gardner's sheer passion for his subject matter, although the science/math/logic essays will always be my preferred pieces.

Like all of Gardner's essay collections one can hardly guess what topics are up ahead when one dives into one these volumes. Gardner's mind is so fertile he moves easily from science to math and logic to philosophy to psychology or pop culture or literature, and anywhere in-between. Whether you agree or disagree with the positions he takes, it will be hard to argue with the deftness and consistency of his thought, and the breadth of his erudition is simply astounding.

When Albert Einstein died there was much interest in studying his dissected brain to try and understand what produced his genius. To be honest (and not meaning to be too morbid about it here) I think studying Gardner's remarkable polymath brain might one day be of even greater interest, were that feasible. In the meantime, this coming Wednesday, he celebrates his 95th birthday!!

ADDENDUM: In a stroke of good timing the NY Times just published a nice piece on Mr. Gardner today HERE.
(And I love this quote from the article: “Many have tried to emulate him; no one has succeeded,” says Ronald Graham, a mathematician at the University of California, San Diego. “Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children.”)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

More Science Twitterers

List (and links) of science writers who Twitter here:


Now, the hard part: finding the time to check 'em all out....

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Evolution of Molecules

Joe Thornton versus Michael Behe on the directionality of molecular evolution HERE (via Carl Zimmer).

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jill Bolte Taylor Redux

For a Friday video, a Charlie Rose interview with neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, author of "My Stroke of Insight" :


The interview covers very much the same ground that was part of the inspirational 2008 TED talk Taylor gave that went viral on the Net. For anyone left on the planet who hasn't seen it, it's here:


Taylor's homepage is HERE.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Placebo Effects Little Understood

Ed Yong reports HERE on the connection between the placebo effect (fake treatment alleviating pain) and actual spinal signaling (specifically at the 'dorsal horn'). As he says though, "it's still unclear how this happens."

Pterosaur Find

Assuming the fossil finds (supposedly 20 specimens) are genuine and authentic, a seeming 160 million-year-old pterodactyl missing link has been discovered in China (newly-christened Darwinopterus modularis), possibly exemplifying "modular" evolution:




Rattling the Mind

Interesting NY Times piece on how "nonsense," anomalies, and general affronts to mental expectations serve to sharpen the mind and creativity, possibly by nudging the pattern-seeking brain into overdrive:


'Ringtones' For Cars...

Hmmm (or should I say vrrroooom)... Addressing a problem no one anticipated --- in the future you may be able to pick among programmed sound-effects for your overly-quiet hybrid car. NY Times piece HERE.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Quantum To Cosmos Festival

Great lineup for the upcoming 10-day "Quantum To Cosmos Festival" at Canada's Perimeter Institute:


Should result in some good Web videos.

More On Cell Phones and Cancer

More health uncertainties....

LA Times reports additional research linking cell phones and cancer (the controversy that won't fade away):


CT Scan Errors

Not exactly instilling confidence in our medical system:


(206 California patients receive radiation overdoses)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Homo Ludens?

This seems to be whizzing around the Web lately so I'll join in (the 'fun' theory of human behavior; and if you're not familiar with the 'Homo Ludens' concept of Johan Huizinga you may want to check it out as well):

What Do You See...

Speaking of illusions(?), British psychologist Richard Wiseman amuses once again:


Visual Illusions

Three of the visual illusions that were among finalists for "2009 illusion of the year":




And the winning entry:


Monday, October 12, 2009

Wildlife Extinction Accelerated

Not too surprisingly, study finds wildlife rates of extinction are greatly underestimated, in a "bleak re-assessment":


Will Paleontologists Get Their Act Together?

New controversial theory says that one third of supposed dinosaur species may never have existed, but merely been the young offspring (in early development stages) of identified adult dinosaurs:


Friday, October 9, 2009

Michael Pollan Talk

Friday video: Michael Pollan TED talk on human/nature co-evolution:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Archaeopteryx Revisited

Study challenges long-held notion that Archaeopteryx was a prototypical bird:


Despite widespread consensus the technical debates over bird evolution go on and on.

New Gardner Book

Martin Gardner, one of the finest science and philosophy essayists in the country (even in his 90's) has a new volume out:

"When You Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish: And Other Speculations About This and That"

Gotta be good!!

Jane Goodall Delivers

A review of Jane Goodall's latest book, "Hope For Animals and Their World" here:


And here a webcast with her:


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

LCROSS Moon Mission

The LCROSS impact moon mission coming up Oct. 9, to study moon dust. Astronomy buffs get your telescopes out.


Potentially interesting responses from a couple dozen leading psychologists who were asked to describe "one nagging thing they still don't understand about themselves":


(...personally, I still don't understand how my cell phone works. Beyond that, I don't understand how any of us are able to either efficiently process or fluently produce our native spoken language, not to mention learning all that at an infant stage.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


The elephant in the room: human over-population. Scientific American talks about the issue that few seem to want to tackle, but that more fundamentally than most issues bears upon the future of the planet HERE.

But even this article skips over the greatest underlying problem of all: a medical system bent on lengthening human lifespans, simply because it can; many predicting an average human lifespan of 100 years in the near future... and that could likely be catastrophic, both from an ecological viewpoint, and a social/cultural/economic standpoint. Overpopulation is not a result of human reproductive success or overly-high birth rates; it is rather the result of humans now far outliving their previously historical and evolutionary lifespans of 55-65 years, not only creating overpopulation but also throwing off-kilter the normal demographic ratio of older-to-younger generations... yet few dare talk about it. Medical science continues to be perceived as part of the solution even while it remains an intrinsic part of the problem.

Personalized Genomes

IBM enters the world of personalized genomic medicine... expect reduction in having your personal genome sequence done down to $1000 in near future:


What most people can't completely anticipate though, are the full Brave-New-World ramifications when most members of society are routinely having their genomes sequenced at birth. The science is almost here; the ethics, laws, and cultural changes however will take longer to work out.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Twins and Fingerprints

If you're tracked down for commission of a crime based upon your fingerprints, it's no use trying to blame it all on your evil twin sibling:


Pssst... One Word For the Future: Algae

Algae "to the rescue" in this scenario.

Friday, October 2, 2009

How Observant Are You?

Friday video: a simple little test of awareness:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dawkins' Latest

A few reviews below of Richard Dawkins new book, "
The Greatest Show On Earth":