free debate

May 31, 2011

Reindeer See in Ultraviolet

Light is so much more than we can see. Human eyes have evolved over millions of years to be very sensitive to a very small sliver of all the different colors of light. Our eyes use those wavelengths of light that transmit well through our atmosphere and are most useful for finding food and predators. It is not surprising, though, that different animals that evolved in different environments than our own might have their eyes attuned to a slightly different set of colors than our own eyes. New research shows that reindeer may have just that ability.
"We discovered that reindeer can not only see ultraviolet light but they can also make sense of the image to find food and stay safe," said lead researcher Professor Glen Jeffery of the University College London (UCL). "Humans and almost all other mammals could never do this as our lenses just don't let UV through into the eye. In conditions where there is a lot of UV - when surrounded by snow, for example - it can be damaging to our eyes. In the process of blocking UV light from reaching the retina, our cornea and lens absorb its damaging energy and can be temporarily burned. The front of the eye becomes cloudy and so we call this snow blindness. Although this is normally reversible and plays a vital role to protect our sensitive retinas from potential damage, it is very painful."
Image Credit:Erik Christensen
Image shared via Creative Commons and Wikimedia Commons
So reindeer are not only seeing a part of the spectrum we are blind to, but one which is actually harmful to our eyes. It is also some wavelengths of ultraviolet light that will give you a sunburn. Still, these animals have adapted some mechanism for using this high energy light. Future research may lead to a better understanding of how their eyes are protected from this high energy light.

I have always wondered what it might be like to be able to see in some of those other parts of the spectrum. Reindeer are literally seeing the world in a way only accessible to us through the use of special ultraviolet cameras. This gives them an advantage in spotting predators and finding food in an environment that makes us nearly blind. Studying this could possibly give us in ways of protecting our own eyes form ultraviolet radiation or a myriad of other potential applications we can speculate on. It is impossible to know exactly what future technology this will bring about, if any. Still it is research like this, the research that surprises us and makes us think, that pushes science forward.

May 25, 2011

Happy Towel Day!

Today, May 25th, is celebrated on our “mostly harmless” planet as Towel Day, in memory of Douglas Adams. He’s most famously known as the author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (of 5 books), as well as the Dirk Gently series. He was also well known as an environmental activities, a radical atheist, and a technology enthusiast, as is exemplified by his essay “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” and by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game. And, he happens to be one of the funniest authors myself or my co-writer have ever read, so we recommend you give it a try. If you've ever heard someone joke about 42 as the answer to life, the universe, and everything, then you have to read these books to get the joke.

But, you may ask, why towel day? Remember, “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels. A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value… More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value… What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with."

So grab your towel and remember, Don’t Panic!

More on Towel Day

May 23, 2011

Planets Wandering Alone in Deep Space

Many science fiction plots use the idea of a deserted world wandering through space completely separated from its parent star. This dramatic set is a good place for intense action, but is it realistic? Even those worlds were out there, could we find them? A NASA press release claims not only are they there, but these worlds may even outnumber stars.

A forming solar system is a violent place. As the planets form around the young star, they start gravitationally pulling on each other. These tugs can send planets careening through the solar solar system, colliding into each other, or ejected from the system entirely. It's the planets that escaped that a team of astronomers from New Zealand and Japan were looking for.

Planets are not easy to find. The biggest problem is how small they are. The Earth may not seem like a small place, but compared with the vastness of space it is nothing more than a speck of dust. Normally we look for exoplanets by seeing the planet affect the light coming from their parent star in some way. So how could astronomer find these roaming worlds separated from their parent stars?

 The team of scientists used a 5.9 foot (1.8 meter) telescope to get their data. However, I would be surprised if any telescope could see even a large planet separated from its host star, so the astronomers got some help from gravity. When light passes through a lens, the speed the light is traveling changes. That then causes the light to chage direction. When light passes by a massive object, like a star or planet, that light is bent around the object changing its direction. The bigger the object the greater the effect. This effect allows astronomers to used massive objects in space, or even clusters of them, as natural lenses. This is called microlensing. This allowed the team to watch discover these planets as they magnified the light of background stars.

I really like this study for several reasons. They found something very exciting in these wandering worlds. They gave us a starting point in trying to figure out just how many of these lonely planets there are. They also were creative in discovering them using a subtle and elegant effect. Finally, they had their results confirmed by another independent team of astronomers before publication. This is kind of science that gets me excited do research and teach each day.

May 16, 2011

Transcendent Science: Technobabble at its Finest

Surfing the Internet you will occasionally stumble upon a true gem, a website that makes you stop what you are doing and simply look on with awe. When I doing some research on ancient writing, I found a website that said nothing in more words than I ever could have. This was the website of the Institute of Transcendent Science.

If you travel to the "About ITS" page, you will find some of the finest technobabble I have seen. If you are unfamiliar with the term, technobabble is when someone using scientific language in a incomprehensible way. Here is a good example.
The contemporary Transcendent Analysis has evolved from and is revealed by the study and latest achievements of the sciences of Quantum-physics, Medicine, Psychiatry, Psychology, Philosophy, Theology, Linguistics, Anthropology, System Analysis, Methodology and others. It represents a central core in the emerging science, The Theory About Man - a basic tenet of Transcendent Science, which comprises the next level of development of all the modern branches of science in their multidisciplinary state of cohesion.
Any time you see that many unrelated fields of science brought together at once, alarm bells should go off. Scientists constantly bring in new ideas from related fields. At the same time though there is only so much one person can hope to learn in a lifetime. This is why scientists focus on one area of expertise and try to act as informed citizens in other areas. The other major red flag is the mentioning of "quantum-physics." They even expand on this later on the page.
As it is well known from Quantum Physics, the result of any scientific research platform and observation experiment, depends exclusively on the Observer in that experiment and its relative position and research definition. This means that the world which is being observed by a specific Observer, is quite different from the world, which is not being observed by the same Observer, and may become even “nonexistent” (in terms of the definition for “existence”) when no Observer exists, who could conduct an observation of that world!
Quantum mechanics (or as they are calling it quantum physics) is counterintuitive and confusing. I think even most scientists who work with quantum mechanics on a regular basis would agree with this. Still, that does not mean that you can use it to say anything is true. Without going into a deep explanation of the observer effect, I will just say they are wrong. Things exist all of the time without observers. Your refrigerator may break while no one is home to observe it. It is hard to see how it could break while it is non-existent. In astronomy we can also see events that happened before any observers could have possibly existed in the universe. You will see this misuse of quantum mechanics all over the Internet.

So where does that leave us? Apparently, you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet. I do think this website is good training for anyone learning to spot logical fallacies or if you just want a laugh. There is a sad side to this as well. They are taking people's money by selling their books and promoting irrational thinking. Still. I think the most appropriate response to this is that of Thomas Jefferson. "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them."

May 11, 2011

Light Relief: Flashy Lights and Deceptive Advertising

We have all seen infomercials for products that seem silly, if not useless. I went through a phase where I would actually watch infomercials for the sheer ridiculousness of the advertising. The advertising of some products however I think can cause harm such as in the case of a product called Light Relief.

I think the best way to review Light Relief is to go through the claims they make on their website. First, however, I want to describe their product. Light Relief is is a hand held unit that contains 59 Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). The majority of these LEDs give off visible light the same way any handheld flashlight would. 24 of them are emitting infrared light. Infrared light is just another color of light which we can't see, but which we sometimes experience as heat. I would be quite surprised if the heat coming off those 19 LEDs would even equal that of a heating pad. So with that foundation let's move on to the real question: does it work? Light Relief makes two main claims on their website. I want to look at each of these individually.

Claim 1: "[Light Relief] relieves muscle and joint pain, improves flexibility"
Anyone who has used a hot pad knows that heat can relieve minor muscle and joint pain. This is nothing new to medical science. Light Relief, however, is unlikely to even work as well as something like a heating pad. The reason is infrared radiation actually covers a wide range of wavelengths of light. In order to get the effect they are claiming you would need to focus the LEDs to specific wavelengths. I have not found any evidence that Light Relief has done this.

Claim 2. "[Light Relief is] safe, non-toxic and FDA-cleared"
This one is a little more tricky. The language used in this statement could confused just about anyone who isn't at least a little familiar with how the FDA works. The FDA approves products for two separate things, safety and effectiveness. Light Relief has been approved for safety but not effectiveness. How do I know? At the bottom of their webpage, in small dark font on a dark background, are the words "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, cure or prevent any disease." These words are a huge red flag on any product. Imagine if a new drug entered the market and admitted that they had not show the FDA the product worked. This is an equivalent admission by Light Relief. I have little doubt that their product is as safe as a flashlight, but if it doesn't work, why should we care?

So in the end I am left with one question. How is Light Relief (~$80) different from a standard LED flashlight (~$10) or a heating pad (~$20)? I know flashlights that do more and heating pads have actually been studied and shown to work. My advice, if you want to spend some money to make light, get one of these.

May 4, 2011

Scientists Prove We Are All Human

The wonderful thing about science is that, regardless of what you think going into your research, the results speak for themselves. This is what happened when Eliana Perrin, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and pediatrician at the hospital, used a survey to study her teen patients. She handed out surveys asking the teens what they would wish for with three wishes. In the surveys she expected the boys to wish for more athletic prowess and girls to wish for better looks. However in the spirit of science we must look at the evidence.
Live Science: What Teens Want: If Given 3 Wishes …
"The survey revealed no difference between boys' and girls' desire for a change of appearance (8 percent overall wished for it, with about half of these wishing to be thinner) and their desire for athletic success (16 percent overall), with no skew toward either sex. Other differences between the genders, however, were evident: Boys were more likely to make wishes for themselves than girls, and boys wished more for success, while girls wished more for happiness."
So when it comes to some of the cultural stereotypes that are most prominent in our culture, there is actually no real difference. I do find the variation they found interesting. I think you could make a case for this difference being caused by a true difference in gender or a reflection of the culture they were brought up in. Because this study was done at one hospital, you could easily imagine local stereotypes working their way into the data. We don't really have enough information to resolve what caused the effect in this study and the larger debate between these two sides really deserves a post unto itself. The article goes on to say...
"While economics did factor in -- privately insured teens were more likely than other children to have wishes for the world -- the researchers found no differences in wishes by age or race and ethnicity."
So across gender, age, race, and ethnicity, we really are not very different. We all basically look for the same things in our lives. The differences we discuss the most, like race and gender, are actually very small. Those differences are minute compared to the difference between any two individuals.  This has always been one of science's most powerful messages to me. We are one species on one planet who are all very, very similar. Next time you hear stereotyping based on superficial characteristics, I recommend you think twice (or maybe three times) before accepting it.

May 2, 2011

Rethinking Thought: A Day at TEDx

I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural TEDx UChicago conference a few weeks ago. I've been incredibly busy, but am finally catching up, and wanted to share my experience there. For those that don't know, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a nonprofit dedicated to the spread of ideas. They ask speakers to give a speech in 20 minutes about a topic they study or their philosophy about the world. TED also lends its name and prestige to independently run events, called TEDx events. These are not official TED events, but have the same spirit of spreading important and powerful ideas.

The theme at the TEDx event I attended was "Reinventing the Life of the Mind." There were 14 different speakers, from around the world and from every different background: a artist-turned-paleontologist, a former president of Bolivia, a double amputee, a cyborg, a blind architect, and more. Each of the talks discussed our current perception of aspects of the world, and ways of rethinking them. It was a very long event, lasting from 8 am when registration opened to 5 pm when the last speakers finished. Because of this, I'd like to give you just a quick recap of what I thought were the highlights and take away messages.
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