Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Haunting Experiment

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Just when you think you can scientifically explain paranormal activity, the ghost in the machine messes it all up.

A team of psychological researchers led by Christopher French constructed a scientifically haunted house - but there were no cheesy sound effects and no fake chainsaw-wielding murderers jumping out at you. This haunted house was a canvas tent set up in the front room of a London row house.

In one area, a speaker emitted sound waves below the level of human hearing, called infrasound waves. Such waves have been detected at classically haunted sites, such as Coventry Cathedral. Two other speakers set in different areas of the tent emitted electromagnetic waves of a very particular frequency, also associated with ghostly encounters.

The researchers were hoping that paranormal experiences would be induced in those spaces with speakers and not in the area without speakers, supporting a scientific explanation for the supernatural.

The results were positive on one hand - more than 75% of subjects reported having strange feelings in the room. There were descriptions of tingling sensations, disembodiment, dizziness, and even a few reports of sexual arousal. Freaks.

However, the results also showed that the location in the room had nothing to do with whether they felt weird. The only statistically significant correlation linked those with a history of such experiences to the paranormal phenomena.

These results can support either side of the argument - you could say that ghosts are real entities "summoned" by electromagnetic and infrasound waves, and these people are receptive individuals.

Or, you could say ghosts are not real, the waves cause the brain to do funny things, and while these people honestly believe they are being haunted, they are only victims of the power of suggestion.

Which sounds to me exactly what a ghost would WANT you to think.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Secret to Cancer Immunity

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... Is the naked mole rat.

Not the most impressive-looking rodent in the animal kingdom, but it's certainly one of the most interesting.

Living underground in subterranean tunnels that can stretch up to three miles, the mole rat is one of the only mammals to live in a eusocial society with a fertile queen and sterile workers, very similar to in an ant colony.

It's long been known that these creatures have a variety of interesting adaptations, including the ability to live with hardly any oxygen or food, and to eat their own excrement. But they're also the longest living rodents on earth, with lifespans of up to 28 years, and – here's the big one – are essentially immune to cancer.

And researchers at the University of Rochester have discovered why. It turns out that while humans have only one contact-inhibition system for cancer based on a gene called p27, mole rats have two. The second system uses a gene called p16-ink4a to prevent cells from overgrowing at an earlier stage than p27, heading off potential cancers before they have a chance to start.

This finding is a big breakthrough for cancer research, particularly because humans also have the p16-ink4a gene, though it doesn't seem to play the same role in our cells as it does for the mole rats.

But more importantly from the naked mole rat's point of view, it ensures that these magnificent creatures will go down in history for more than just the whole "eating-their-own-faeces" thing.

So, you're welcome, mole rats.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, October 26, 2009

An experiment to remember...

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I remember the first time I rode my two-wheeler all by myself. I remember the feeling at the top of a dune in the Sahara. I remember the taste of a summer peach. I remember.

Memories shape who we are, the define us and create our identity. Who would we be without our recollections and reflections?

But a memory is only a biological phenomenon of the brain. That's it.

New memories are routed, interpreted and cross-referenced in a tiny region of the brain called the hippocampus. This structure is responsible for the associations of different thoughts, creating a memory - like between snakes and fear or chocolate and happiness.

But that is a massive oversimplification of the biology of a memory. It's almost impossible to conceptualize the complexity of the brain that remembers the vivid tastes, smells and sights of our life.

....unless you are a fly.

The memory and brain of the fruit fly has been studied for over 30 years and now, scientists were able to 'write' a memory directly into the brain of the fly. By simply shining a light into the brain of flies, at the centre known to be responsible for learning, the researchers were able to program a new association - or memory. This experiment reveals that our memories, no matter how integral to our self awareness, are only neurons making connections they hadn't done before.

An understanding of the biology of something so key to our humanity humbles me completely. We are still just a clump of cells. And our brain is just a massive network of neurons firing signals across the largest interchange in history.

--Torah Kachur

Monday, October 19, 2009

Humans ARE animals

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You animal! He's such a pig. Ugh, she's a dog. These are all are an animal.

Webster's dictionary defines an animal as: one of the lower animals as distinguished from human beings.

That is such bull.

It is not humans AND animals, humans ARE animals. Just because we have consciousness or intelligence doesn't make us better than all the other animals on the planet, just different. We, humans, are classified in the Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata and so on and so forth... our closest living relatives are the great apes and we are primates.

Free will, consciousness, morals, ethics - whatever we think separates us from them is only what we decided as important to make us special. But these traits don't make us any less of a vertebrate.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Higgs Boson: Time Traveler?

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As if theoretical physics wasn't weird enough. They've given us black holes, the Big Bang, the possibility of multiple dimensions, and invisible dark matter that is, as I write this, pushing the stars and planets apart. Now, a particle that is so dangerous that it might be traveling back in time to prevent itself from being discovered?

That is the outlandish but strangely fun premise of a paper by distinguished physicists Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya featured in a New York Times article this week.

The particle in question is the elusive Higgs boson, sometimes called the "God Particle" for its importance in all we know about matter in the universe. The Higgs boson is predicted in the Standard Model that describes the four major forces of particle interactions - electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear force, and gravitation. The Higgs boson is the only particle predicted by the Standard Model that has not been observed.

There have been so many failures, in fact, that Nielson and Ninomiya think the deck just might be stacked against us. They postulate that the discovery of the particle is so dangerous that its effects ripple back through time and prevent the discovery from happening.

As the NY Times article points out, it would be like you going back in time to save your grandfather from being hit by a bus. There is no time-traveling paradox, like there would be if you went back in time to kill your grandfather, so the theory seems to hold some water. Except for the fact that it sounds completely nuts.

Then again, has theoretical physics ever really made sense?

~Rheanna Sand

Monday, October 12, 2009

Gobble, gobble

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Many of us canucks will celebrate this long weekend by stuffing ourselves silly with copious amounts of food. Then, fall asleep at the table while grandma regales the crowd with a rendition of "Girls just wanna have fun" (oh, is that only in my family?)

The centerpiece of any good Thanksgiving is the turkey, the bird that is now bred so fat it can't fly, breed or barely stand. But, man, it tastes good. Then after you can't possibly fit in one more bite, the sleepiness sets in....

But does turkey really make us sleepy? Or are our families just boring?

The amino acid tryptophan has long thought to be the culprit behind that post-indulgence tiredness. Tryptophan is an essential part of any diet and can eventually be metabolized in the brain into melatonin - a sleep hormone. But, turkey has about the same levels of tryptophan as many other meats. And, more importantly, turkey is consumed with potatoes, yams, wine and squash - full of carbohydrates.

Turkey does make you sleepy and it is because of tryptophan.... but it has more to do with the combination of carbohydrates and tryptophan that contributes to our food-fatigue. Carbohydrates release insulin, insulin causes uptake of sugar in the blood as well as long neutral branched chain amino acids (LNAA for short). It is the ratio of tryptophan/LNAA in the blood that causes the brain to uptake more tryptophan, which is then converted to melatonin.

Whew, that was way more complicated than just knowing that little bit of trivia that makes you sound smart over the dinner table.

Now, let's eat!

Happy Thanksgiving!

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The sky isn't falling...

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NASA made history again this week…but not everyone sees it for the well-designed, perfectly executed, and totally awesome experiment that it was.

The spacecraft LCROSS completed its mission in the wee hours of Friday morning. It launched a rocket into the Cabeus crater near the south pole of the moon, analyzed the debris, and then crashed itself into the same crater. The instruments on board were designed to pick up infrared signatures of water and carbon-containing compounds. The impacts were minuscule, the scientific components were off the shelf, the budget was a fraction of most NASA missions, and yet…someone started a "save the moon" campaign?

Yes, that's right. One Huffington Post blogger questioned who gave NASA "permission" to so violently assault our moon. Please. Do not feel sorry for the moon. It has no feelings.

Besides…have you SEEN the moon? Those aren't acne scars. The lunar surface is peppered by cosmic debris on a daily basis. This pair of impacts do not compare to the beating its taken in its lifetime.

The explosions were so harmless, people on Earth really didn't get the spectacle they were hoping for. The NASA TV video is actually quite anticlimactic (may I suggest the animation below that is much more entertaining to watch).

The data, though, will help scientists figure out how much water and other useful substances are up there. We might have a colony up there someday, and this brings us one step closer.

Some may question the purpose behind such an endeavor. Others, including myself, see it as a worthwhile use for technology that is, sadly, most often used by the military. I say, if there are going to be rockets and bombs, and let's face it, there will always be rockets and bombs, why not use them for cool space experiments?

~Rheanna Sand

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hot New Hominid

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Move over, Lucy…there's a new girl in town. Her name is Ardi, and she's taller, has opposable toes, and weighs 110 pounds. Bitch.

In case you aren’t up to speed on hominid evolution - "Lucy" is the nickname of a skeleton belonging to the species Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia and thought to be a direct ancestor of humans and a possible descendant of chimpanzees.

Lucy lived over 3 million years ago and has many human-like characteristics, like feet designed for upright walking and more specialized teeth and joints. Not to mention a seductive grin…rowr!

"Ardi", the hot new hominid, is a skeleton belonging to the species Ardipithecus ramidus. Also found in Ethiopia, she was first described in 1994, but the comprehensive results were just published in the October 2009 issue of Science.

This stunning report, consisting of 11 separate research papers, shatters the old belief that humans evolved from some chimp-like, knuckle-dragging primate. It seems that apes and chimps have been evolving separately for a lot longer than we thought. That being said, the jury is still out on Glenn Beck.

Ardi has given us a glimpse 4 million years into our past, and has caused quite a stir among scientists and non-scientists alike. It's no surprise - how could you NOT love her larger postcranial dimensions and mediolaterally short pubic ramus? Fierce!

~Rheanna Sand