Saturday, February 27, 2010

Be Prepared

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Another massive earthquake has shaken the Americas, this time in the South. Chile was struck overnight with an intense 8.8 magnitude quake in the Pacific Ocean near the port of Concepcion.

To put it into scale, this quake is a thousand times more powerful than the one to hit Haiti in January. A thousand times stronger than one that killed an estimated 230 000 people. And yet the death toll in Chile has reached only 147 people so far. What made the difference?

In a word: preparedness. Being situated along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Chile calls itself a "seismic country" and has developed an effective network of seismic experts, emergency responders, and citizens who are well educated on earthquakes.

Apparently this area was due for a big one, as the Nazca tectonic plate has been sliding under the South American plate at a rate of 80mm per year. This makes for a very seismically active region, but the last major quake to hit this area was in 1835, famously witnessed by Charles Darwin during his travels on the Beagle. French and Chilean seismologists knew this one was coming, and say it fills in a major "seismic gap" they had observed in the record.

In both quakes, buildings collapsed, infrastructure was damaged, and lives were disrupted. But in Port-au-Prince, a city of about a million people, one in every five people died. In Concepcion, one in every 1700. That is the difference preparedness can make - preparedness that cannot happen under the continual exploitation experienced by the people of Haiti.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Death of the Sexy App?

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They said it best in Avenue Q: the internet is for porn.

The stats are all there if you'd care to look for them... Internet pornography is a $2.5 billion industry in the U.S. alone. 25% of search engine requests are sex-related. And according to Neilson Online, one quarter of employees visit internet porn sites during working hours. (I guess "hard at work" just took on a whole new meaning)

But the dark underbelly of internet activity has recently been pushed into, then back out of, then back into the limelight. First by the growing popularity of sex-related apps to surface on the iPhone, then by their apparent expulsion from the App store, and now by the rumours of an "Explicit" section, created solely for their dirty, dirty selves.

It's a lot of back and forth from Jobs and Co. But for a company that essentially turns the internet into a handheld device, it was inevitable. And the conflict is simple: just like that one naive lady-puppet from the broadway show who was oblivious to all the World Wide Wanking going on, Apple's female clientele were apparently both alarmed and disturbed by the growing trend of busty babes making appearances on their phones (and the phones of their young children.)

It's always amusing to watch technology clash with our basic human needs, and in a way, you can blame evolution. Our minds evolved in stages—the more primitive regions responsible for sexual impulses often overpowering the more recently evolved logic centers. But luckily, this classic Battle of the Sexes appears to have been peacefully resolved, at least for now.

Now if you'll excuse me, that Chippendales App won't launch itself.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, February 22, 2010

GMAs - Genetically Modified Athletes

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The celebration of sport and achievement is a common link for all mankind. Watching athletes at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics push the limits of the human body is astonishing and inspiring. Maybe this week I'll get off the couch.

But, as in any major sports arena - the question is often asked - how much of this is real?

To find out more, visit:

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Skeleton Science

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In a sport measured to a hundredth of a second, every aspect of equipment design is important. Careening down a frozen track at 130km/h with nothing but a helmet and your own body strength to protect you, as Olympic skeleton athletes do, causes you to pay attention to detail.

This is why Canadian skeleton rider Jeff Pain spoke out against what he perceives as illegal modifications to the sled runners by the German team. He claimed there are magnetic fields in the runner posts, and implied that these fields confer a competitive advantage to the rider.

The idea is that two fields interact to absorb vibrations. Think of bringing two repelling magnets together: it almost feels the same as a hydraulic mechanism, like a shock absorber. So if the rider feels fewer shocks, the ride is smoother. More strength and attention can be devoted to better lines, and ultimately, faster runs.

And, according to FIBT rules, "all types of treatment are forbidden, including those which cause only a local variation of physical characteristics" with an explanation further down that "physical" includes terms like "electromagnetic."

A magnetic field IS an electromagnetic field, so its clear that using magnets in the runners would constitute an illegal modification. But the German team vehemently denied these allegations, and previous inspections during World Cup rounds have never found anything illegal in their sleds. Plus, they finished 7th, 10th, and 13th in the Men's final last night, with Canadian Jon Montgomery stealing gold in a dramatic finish.

I'm guessing in this case, Jeff Pain doesn't mind letting it go.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Ultimate Sacrifice

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Imagine what it would be like to live a totally selfless life... You'd never ignore a homeless person on the street. You'd never refuse to help a friend move so you could secretly watch Big Bang. And you'd definitely never go out in public knowing full well that you were showing all the symptoms of swine flu.

But would you walk out into a deserted field to die at the first sign of a sniffle?

A species of ant called Temnothorax unifasciatus may be the most altruistic species on the planet, putting all of your meager attempts at charity to shame. Because when any member of this ant species becomes infected with a deadly fungus, they immediately abandon their nest and walk away, facing death alone in order to protect their relatives.

It's the first time such a behavior has been recorded in a social insect like ants, though it's been seen before in species like elephants and cats. Humans certainly don't have it's equivalent. We seem to be more of the "if I'm going down, I'm taking you all down with me," mind set. And it took researchers quite a while to prove that it was in fact a conscious choice on the part of the ants, and not the result of a "zombie fungus" that was forcing them to do it.

Of course, there's a clear evolutionary advantage to altruism. Even though the individual performing it may not personally profit by increased offspring, the advantage will be conferred onto their close relatives, who share some of their genetic makeup. And in cases like this, it's very clear that if the diseased ants didn't take it upon themselves to leave, the entire nest would be in danger of infection.

But in an age where we humans can spend months arguing over who will or will not be paying for what medical procedure in the laughably named "health care" debate, it's nice to see real world proof that selflessness can work. At least for ants.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, February 15, 2010

Love Hangover

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Did everyone have a successful Valentine's Day? Replete with chocolate, swooning, snuggling and ummm.. other stuff?

How about today? Did you wake up next to the same farting, snoring, hairy creature of a few days ago?Welcome to the Love Hangover.

February 15th is the day that we start to think "what is all this love business?" Too bad it is just simple chemistry. That spark of the first date = endorphins and adrenaline. The swoon of the first kiss = probably just an overactive sense of smell. And that tender feeling after the whole bedroom thing is over = oxytocin.

Oxytocin is a chemical most famous for inducing labour. But I can't say I'm surprised to find that childbirth is induced by something also used for creating interpersonal attachments. Both often painful. The hormone stimulates a very tiny area of the brain associated with reward. But this area of the brain is also associated with stress and anxiety. Again, I'm not surprised.

I don't mean to knock love or the inkling of it. Love is incredible, its fascinating and demanding and rewarding and difficult all at the same time. But it is also a physiological response. There is something at the biological level that connects you to your partner, there is a scientific basis for the butterflies in your tummy and the sharp intake of breath at the sight of him or her.

We will probably never understand the love of poets and writers at the scientific level. But we may very well start to explain it.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Year of the Tiger

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On Sunday, the Chinese calendar moves from the year of the Ox into the year of the Tiger, meaning both a celebration of, and a threat to this majestic big cat species.

First for some good news: in Sumatra, strategically placed video cameras have captured the first film evidence of the wild Sumatran tiger. A mother and two, year-old cubs can be seen on the tape sniffing the camera as they curiously walk by.

Another recent finding reported in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution looked at the ancestral relationships between the five major big cats: jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, lions and tigers. It was known that these five groups have been evolving separately from little cats for a long time, but it was not known what the genetic relationships were within the big cats.

As it turns out, the tiger and snow leopard are sister species, meaning they split off as a separate group early on. The other three, lions, jaguars, and leopards, have been evolving separately as a group as well.

What this means is the tiger is more ancient and unique than we thought. Which is kind of a shame…considering the already devastating thirst in Asian countries for tiger body parts. Skins are sold as luxury items for homes or clothing. Teeth are revered as jewellery, and tiger penises are dried and ground up for men to take, so they can be more virile.

But personally, I can't think of anything more unluxurious, or an act more ugly, or more impotent than poaching or farming these awesome creatures. Let's hope celebrating the year of the tiger can shed some light on this problem rather than exacerbating it.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snow and "Global Warming"

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Massive snowfall always leads to three things. Nationwide cancellation of air travel, spontaneous snow ball fighting, and inevitably, the drudging up of the old question: "whatever happened to global warming?"

Climate change deniers love snow. It's like Christmas in February. Because it gives them a chance to take the "global warming" misnomer literally, and put the onus on scientists to explain the fluffy white flakes out of existence. Luckily for scientists, such an onus is unnecessary. Because despite what the wingnuts may believe, increased snowfall is exactly what is to be expected if climate change is really taking effect... At least for a while.

Because aside from the fact that no single weather event can be blamed solely on climate change, extreme weather on either end of the spectrum is only going to get more frequent as our planet warms. This is because warmer global temperatures overall result in higher ocean temperatures. Hotter oceans lead to increased evaporation. And more evaporation leads to higher levels of moisture in the air, which lead to—you guessed it—increased precipitation.

And until the planet has heated to the point that it never drops below zero degrees Celsius—at which point snow will become a distant memory—these events can all be expected to cause extremely heavy snowfall in the winter.

The scientists are explaining all of this, of course. And patiently too, I might add. But that won't stop them from having to do it again the next time it snows in New York. Which will probably be in about five minutes.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Abyss

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The ocean scares me...just a little. There is so much stuff about it we just don't know and so many deadly creatures from man-o-wars to Great White sharks.

But all of the creatures that you think of in the ocean - sharks, coral, whales, dolphins - they all exist in the upper reaches of the big blue seas. There exists an entire world, an entire universe at the depths of the ocean that we know nothing about.

No light, incredible pressure, frigid temperatures in some places, boiling in others - all of the elements we consider essential for life are not wanted or needed at the depths of the ocean. Species that live 4000 meters down survive by something called chemosynthesis - where they get energy from chemicals, not sunlight, to make organic molecules. Bacteria we know nothing about live down there and fuel the entire ecosystem starting at hydrothermal vents that spew boiling water and sulfur into the ocean.

The fish that live down there are so ugly you wish you didn't know they existed. They have useless eyes but mouths that will eat anything. Giant squid and oysters inhabit the deepest reaches of the oceans. And some crazy creatures like the recently filmed oarfish. Most organisms are shrimp-like creatures that feast on all the dead fish that slowly float to the bottom.

Our planet is over 65% water and life evolved in the oceans - which means that the most biodiversity on the planet exists in the watery realm. But, so little of our time has focused on the deep blue that we can't even pretend to understand the effects of fishing, whaling and climate change without first looking more than just a few meters beyond our snorkel gear.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Man Off The Moon

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George W. Bush's boy-like vision of putting more astronauts on the moon by 2020 was crushed this week with an announcement from the Obama administration that the Constellation program is being canceled.

The program was to use existing technology to put humans back in moon boots and, presumably, make moon-landing conspiracy theorists shut the hell up, once and for all. But, apparently, spending billions of dollars and thousands of hours to do something you've already done is "faux pas" for well-functioning government agencies like NASA.

So, when looking at funding requests last week, the Obama administration examined the over-budget, behind schedule, lacking in innovation project, and cut it. Not without criticism, of course: the cut will mean lost jobs at Alabama's Marshall Space Flight Center, and Republican representatives are not shy to use this as political fodder, calling it the "death march for the future of US space flight."

This hyperbolic statement completely ignores the $6 billion funding boost promised to NASA over the next five years. It also ignores the progress made in sending robots off to do our exploration for us, without the risks of radiation, dehydration, muscle atrophy, and cabin fever.

I mean, look how long the Mars rovers lasted - they are both over 2000 Martian days over warranty. And have you seen the new R2 robots from GM? Let's face pitiful humans are on the way out of this space race we started a mere 53 years ago.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rise of the 100-Year Olds

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By 2050, the world population of 100-year olds is projected to reach 6 million people, forever changing our conception of what it means to be "middle aged," and making the senior's discount at Denny's a serious liability.

It's actually kind of thrilling if you think about it. There are over 340,000 centenarians living today, and if demographers are correct, they will be one of the fastest growing age groups in coming years, increasing 20 times faster than the general population.

The reasons are simple: medical advances leading to better treatments of heart disease and stroke (the leading causes of death in humans), and improved diet and lifestyle are the primary reasons our life-spans are seeing such a stretch. But there's also been a dramatic shift in attitude among doctors, encouraging them to aggressively treat illnesses in the elderly that they may not have in the past.

But in all of these encouraging facts, one thing stands out. If you're going to live to be 100, Japan is the place to do it. Aside from the fact that the Japanese treat their elderly with special dignity and respect, they have created an incredibly advanced robotics industry to cater to their elderly population — everything from robo-maids to robo-dogs and cats. And they'll be needing it too; by mid-century Japan is expected to have 627,000 centenarians, which is about 1% of their total population.

One hundred years. It really takes the pressure off, doesn't it?

- Brit Trogen

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Silk Road to Biosynthesis

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Mother Nature has thought of everything. Bacteria that can eat oil. Bees that make honey incredibly resistant to any type of infection. And the strongest fiber on the planet - spider's silk.

Spider's silk is five times stronger than steel, lighter than nylon and stretchier than elastic. It's also recyclable, durable and free. All of these properties make it one of the most sought-after biomaterials in the world. So far, all attempts to make it in a chemistry lab have failed miserably while spiders across the globe happily weave their webs.

The quest for spider's silk for human use sounds pretty straightforward - get a whole bunch of spiders and collect their webs everyday. Sounds great, until you try to actually keep spiders at any reasonable density....they have a frequent tendency to eat eachothers heads off. Making spider-keeping kind of unsustainable.

Spiders - 1 : Humans - 0

Another option - get 70 people to climb a bunch of telephone poles in Malaysia for four years, collect golden orb spiders and 'milk' them of their silk. Obviously sound economic practice. All to get 2.6 pounds of silk that was used to make a textile now on display at the American Natural History Museum. There has to be a better way.

How about clone the gene for silk and make transgenic goats secrete spider silk into their milk?

Clearly the next step.

That has also been done, with limited success. The main problem is the unbelievable complexity of the glands that spiders use to make silk. They secrete silk from combinations of 6 different glands as a liquid form, then use another set of organs to apply pressure to rearrange the proteins into a long, continuous fiber.

The uses of man-made spider silk are staggering, if we can ever find a way to harvest it - surgical thread, synthetic bones, millimeter-thick parachutes - anything with nylon, kevlar or steel can be made smaller and stronger.

Nature has evolved something humans have never even dreamed of. At some point, we will start to look at the world around us for natural solutions to our dilemmas.

--Torah Kachur