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Problems in the neurozone (from Peter Etchells' blog)

Tue, 05/08/2012 - 12:16pm

481px-PhrenologyPix.jpgHaving a scan of your brain is a uniquely odd experience. I had one done once. I was loaded, torpedo-like, into a claustrophobia-inducing, cocoon-like chamber for nearly an hour, the first few terrifying minutes of which I spent desperately trying to recall whether I had actually passed that metal ball-bearing I swallowed when I was a kid. The machines themselves are pretty damn loud, but something about repetitive clunking noises seems to lull me into a state of relaxation, so I spent the majority of my time in the launch chamber trying not to snooze. Honestly, it was all quite enjoyable. The reason I was in the scanner was to help out with some calibration routines, so I didn’t get to do any experiments in there. I must be one of the few, as studies using fMRI have enjoyed huge popularity in both the scientific community and mass media in recent years. So much so, that it has started to become the basis of explaining everything from consumer opinions to what happens when you embarrass yourself to, more recently, what your dog’s thinking. As with any field, some of this is really good research, and some of it is complete and utter tosh; increasingly, however, attempts are being made to relate neuroscientific findings to our normal everyday behaviour, under the assumption that pictures of our brain can explain the human condition.After the likes of neuroaesthetics and neuromarketing, the newest of these fads seems to be neuropolitics. This is the idea that political viewpoints and standings are somehow tied to the fundamentals of human biology, and brain imaging techniques can provide a means through which we can figure out what parts of the brain are politically relevant. There’s a problem with this idea. Well, actually there are quite a few problems, but I’ll concentrate on one for now. Imaging studies that look at political viewpoints tend to look for neural correlates in the brain. In other words, they’ll do something like this study, and get a bunch of left-wingers, a bunch of right-wingers, and see if there are any differences in the size of, or activation in, various parts of the brain. If it’s a good study, the researchers will try and make the two groups as similar as possible on other variables (the basics would be things like gender and age, socioeconomic status and education level, but the list could go on), so that you can be more sure that any differences can be attributed to political viewpoints and not something else. For example, in the above study, the authors found that people who considered themselves to be more liberal showed more grey matter in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, and those who considered themselves to be more conservative had larger right amygdalae.As I’ve pointed out in other posts, pointing out that two things are correlated does not give you any insight into causality. Note that this is not a criticism of the above study; the authors quite rightly point this out too. But the trouble comes when others latch on to findings like that, and start inferring more from than the research than was originally intended. Take the result for conservatives, for example. The amygdala is an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain, involved in, among other things, emotional reactions. Specifically, it is thought to be heavily involved in the processing of fear and initial threat detection, in particular due to an important chemosensory role in detecting CO2 in the bloodstream. In other words, a reduction in blood acidity is caused by increases in CO2, which might occur when you’re suffocating. The amygdala is sensitive to that pH reduction, and kicks in a fear response to make you do something to get out of that situation. What does that mean for conservatives? Well, not much, really. Political beliefs are hugely complex, and can change rapidly and quickly over time. In order to simplify the issue, it can be all too easy to allude to causal inferences such as “well, the amygala is all about threat sensitivity, and conservatives tend to be more sensitive to threat in that they have stricter views on crime and punishment”, which in turn leads to “people are conservative because they have a bigger amygdala”. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it makes for good reading in the papers, so it inevitably happens.I mention this, because I read a blog post today from (neuro)political commentator Chris Mooney in which, despite outlining this sort of criticism (and others), he still effectively comes to the conclusion that because there’s so much stuff out there about how imaging studies can tell us which parts of the brain are the political parts, there’s got to be some truth in it, so we should take heed. First off, that’s not a particularly good argument – I can look for pears all I want, but if I keep picking apples, I’m just going to end up with a shedload of apples. Moreover, it leads to the prospect of all sorts of difficult ethical questions about how this sort of information might be ostensibly used to ‘change’ people. Not to mention it pushes imaging dangerously close to being a modern phrenology.To be clear, I don’t take issue with the basic scientific research that uses imaging techniques. I just think that we need to be extremely careful in any attempts to use such research to develop grand theories about complex human characteristics; there’s still a hell of a lot about the brain that we don’t know, and prematurely wielding what little research we currently have in cumbersome and unintended ways is at best pointless, and at worse dangerously divisive.You can follow me on Twitter at @DrPeteEtchells

Giraffe birth at the Memphis Zoo |video| (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Mon, 05/07/2012 - 3:00am

SUMMARY: This fascinating caturday morning video smile shows the birth of a giraffe Here’s an interesting and well-made video for the Caturday morning video smile: a birth. In this video, we see a female Somali giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata, which is commonly known in zoos as the reticulated giraffe, giving birth at the Memphis Zoo.This video captures the giraffe, Marilyn, giving birth to a baby on 29 August 2008. The father’s name is Kenya. Even though it is interesting, the entire birth scene is recorded on this video and thus, may be disturbing to some people.

Twitter Treasures May 2012 (from Paige Brown's blog)

Mon, 05/07/2012 - 1:41am

So…. as I prepare for finals week in my Mass Comm graduate program here at LSU, my ‘serious’ blogging has lagged a bit, but ‘procrastination’ Tweets are abounding! Here are a few ‘Twitter Treasures’ I leave you with tonight, as I continue my tradition of late-night studying![View the story “Twitter Treasures May 2012” on Storify]

President and Global Climate Change (from Paige Brown's blog)

Sat, 05/05/2012 - 12:32am

Global_Warming_by_Captain_Planet.jpg Inspired by the Yale Climate Communications national polling results this week, I’ve decided to ask my readers how they think of global climate change in the light of the upcoming elections. Will global warming be an important issue during the campaign season? Will the public hold candidates to task on environmental issues, pollution, and climate change policies?We shall see!Please take the time to answer this quick poll, your answers are always appreciated!<!--BEGIN QUALTRICS POLL--><!--DO NOT REMOVE-CONTENTS PLACED HERE-->View Qualtrics Poll
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Were dinosaurs undergoing long-term decline before mass extinction? |video| (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Fri, 05/04/2012 - 3:00am

SUMMARY: A new scientific paper uses a unique methodology to addresses this timeless questionParasaurolophus walkeri, a hadrosauroid.
Image: Steveoc 86 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.) I ran across an interesting little video by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) describing a newly-published piece of research into the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. This paper reports on their findings whether the non-avian dinosaurs were experiencing a long-term population decline before the asteroid strike at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago. The answer? Yes — and no.

Tobacco Control, Plain Packaging, and Media Misinformation (from Suzi Gage's blog)

Thu, 05/03/2012 - 12:26pm

olive_cigarette_packaging.jpgYesterday an article in the Daily Mail was brought to my attention by Ben Goldacre, and Transform Drug Policy Foundation. There have been a few articles along a similar line to this one, questioning tobacco control research and policy. This one seemed particularly one-sided, so it’s made me decide to go through the arguments, and discuss.The very first sentence of this article riled me, I have to say:There are few industries to have come under such sustained attack as big tobacco.It’s almost too ridiculous to know where to start. I may be arguing semantics here, but I would say it’s not the tobacco industry under attack so much as the disease and death caused by smoking cigarettes. Other industries that sell harmful products (alcohol, pharma) are regulated. This is such a strange way to frame this article, the ‘poor’ tobacco companies are getting picked on by the ‘mean old’ government. Tobacco is the only product, legal at present, which, if used as intended, kills half of its users. Poor tobacco industry indeed.So on to the meat. One thing that immediately leaps out to me about this article is that nowhere does it state that tobacco KILLS PEOPLE. OK, we all know this, but it’s fundamental as to why there is this legislation in the first place. It’s not there as some ‘Nanny state’ agenda, it’s put in place primarily because there is evidence that most (8 out of 10 according to a cancer research document on the subject) people start smoking before the age of 19. In a dataset of thousands of teenagers in Bristol, just under half the 16 year olds class themselves as smokers. Nicotine (when smoked in a tobacco cigarette) is one of the most addictive substances known to man, so if you expose yourself to it before you fully understand the risks, you can be addicted before you realise, and quitting smoking is HARD. Tobacco control has a two-armed approach: preventing children from starting smoking before they’re in a position to appreciate the risks, and helping those who want to quit but struggle. To me, this is not a Nanny state, but a state with a social conscience. One might want to add a third arm to tobacco control, namely preventing damage to the health of those people who come in to contact with smokers. Passive smoking is dangerous. If you went out and someone else inflicted harm upon you, you would be outraged. This is passive smoking.Let’s consider some of the arguments against tobacco control.…since the UK Government annually reaps £12billion in levies from the likes of industry giants British American Tobacco, Imperial and Gallaher-owner Japan Tobacco, is it shooting itself in the foot? Aha! Of course, never mind the health of our citizens, we’re in a financial crisis, let’s not lose money here. A fallacy for a couple of reasons. Firstly, figures from 2010 suggest that smoking is a net cost to the economy – with every cigarette costing the country 6.5 pence. And secondly if money isn’t getting spent on tobacco, it will get spent elsewhere, it won’t simply disappear, so it will still be being taxed; alcohol, petrol, all sorts of things are highly taxed. The money will remain in the economy.Next:‘You hardly need research from anti-tobacco campaigners to tell you that people may prefer elegant and attractive packaging to grim, uniform, dour packs designed by politicians and health lobbyists,’ says Mark Littlewood, director general (of the Institute of Economic Affairs). ‘But this proves absolutely nothing at all. The idea that youngsters take up smoking because they find it impossible to resist the colour scheme on a cigarette pack is risible.’Erm…the scientific evidence does seem to suggest otherwise. The shocking video by Cancer Research (see below) shows children spontaneously commenting on cigarette packets. Suddenly it all looks a little less risible. And this is before we get to the evidence. Experiments conducted on teenagers have found they falsely believe packs of certain colours to be more healthy (gold and silver for example), and more importantly that they would pick these packs to try. Studies investigating how people look at cigarette packets have found that daily smokers look at the new plain packages in a different way to people who smoke less regularly, or not at all. Less regular smokers and non smokers look mostly at the health warning, which with its bright and striking design is now by far the most salient thing on a plain package (to dispel the myth, plain packaging doesn’t just mean a brown box – see the image at the top). But daily smokers look more equally at the warning and the brand information, now presented in uniform text. This suggests that plain packaging won’t necessarily put off those people who already smoke, but might be one cue to stop curious kids from considering lighting up. Why, if it won’t work, is the tobacco industry both here and in Australia where plain packaging has already been approved by the Government, fighting so hard to stop it? Something doesn’t quite add up.Plain packaging brings us to our next argument (again a quote from Mark Littlewood):‘If the health campaigners are listened to in this policy area, they can expect the lasting gratitude of organised crime networks, whose task of counterfeiting will be made much easier and who have no qualms at all about peddling their products to kids.’Another straw man. Counterfeiters are hardly having problems making near perfect copies of current cigarette package designs, it is trivially easy to counterfeit current cigarette packages, so plain packaging makes NO difference. In fact counterfeiting is already such a problem that all authentic packs have hidden markings put on them by the manufacturers, so that enforcement officers such as Customs trading standards officers can determine whether packs are genuine or counterfeit. Such markings would work just as well on plain standardised packs. The final argument in this article is that the Government is being ‘inconsistent’, by bringing in shutters to hide cigarettes from view, AND consultation on plain packaging. To me, this seems entirely consistent with trying to protect young people from marketing that is potentially targeted at them (according to this Cancer Research document). Both these screens and the plain packaging hide branding from impressionable children. But the big tobacco displays have the additional impact of making it seem like everyone smokes, and it doesn’t matter whether the displays are of the current colourful packs or of plain standardised packs, so both measures are needed. Last but not least the argument is that this is the thin end of the wedge. Hardly, as advertising on TV was first banned in the 1960s nearly 50 years ago. What’s truly shocking is how long it took from when the link between smoking and lung cancer was scientifically accepted in the UK in 1954 for any government to take meaningful action. Regulation of tobacco is done to try and save lives, and improve the lives of people who may get chronic illness from smoking. What’s not to like?Thanks to the members of TARG who fact checked this for me.

Support plant scientists facing destruction of their research (from Lee Turnpenny's blog)

Thu, 05/03/2012 - 11:43am

After seeing this on the TV news yesterday, I was this morning forwarded the following e-mail, which I reproduce here (appropriately edited) as self-explanatory. Alternatively, you can go direct to the Sense About Science site for more information. -——- Original Message -——-Subject: Please support plant scientists facing destruction of their researchDate: Wed, 02 May 2012 07:04:59 +0100From: Tabitha Innocent <senseaboutscie…>Reply-To:***To get in touch with me use Reply-To Address:tinnoc…<>***Dear Friends**Please support plant scientists facing destruction of theirresearch.You may have seen in today’s press that protesters areplanning to destroy John Pickett’s team’s chemical ecologyresearch at Rothamsted on 27^th May because it usesgenetically modified wheat. The researchers are appealingfor them to call off the destruction and discuss the work:“Growing wheat has an environmental toll of extensiveinsecticide use to control aphid pests. The research, whichis non-commercial, is investigating how to reduce that bygetting the plants to repel aphids with a naturalpheromone… As scientists we know only too well that wedon’t have all the answers. But if the work is destroyed,we’ll lose years of work and we will never know whether itcould reduce the environmental impact of wheat growing.”Sense About Science stands up for people whose researchfaces intimidation or suppression. We know that you will doall you can to make it clear that destroying scientificresearch is not acceptable.Please read their "_letter**_":,watch their video add your support to their appeal. (click underline to follow links or<>).Other things you can do to help: * Send the message far and wide: forward the link to friends and colleagues * Share the support form using Twitter hashtag #defendscience and share the link on FacebookYours in hasteTabithaDr Tabitha InnocentScientific LiaisonSense About Science14A Clerkenwell GreenLondon EC1R 0DPRegistered Charity No. 1101114Company No. 6771027Tel: +44 (0) 20 7490 9590<> Sense About Science is a small charity that equips people tomake sense of science and evidence. We depend on donations,large and small, from people who support our work.You can donate, or find out more,<>

Why videos go viral |video| (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Thu, 05/03/2012 - 3:00am

SUMMARY: Shortly after the internet popped up and created a new niche, popular culture has been undergoing a vast and increasingly rapid transformation Evolution is happening every day. Evolution is occurring in plain sight. Every time a new niche appears or an existing niche opens up, evolution has the opportunity to go wild. Take human culture for example. Shortly after the internet popped up and created a new niche, popular culture has been undergoing a vast and increasingly rapid transformation. Instead of merely being consumers of other people’s idea of what “pop culture” should look like — a very few people — individuals now are beginning to define and set the trends. Thanks to the internet, regular people like you and I are now creating popular culture. In this insightful and entertaining video, we meet Kevin Allocca, the trends manager at YouTube, who shares his observations about what makes a video into a phenomenon.

On the Cusp of Innovation and Creativity (from Lowell Goldsmith's blog)

Wed, 05/02/2012 - 5:41pm

pixarj.jpgThe conjunction of three events must be noted. The confluence — or syzygy — for me this week is my noting the fiftieth anniversary of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (1962), Bruce Alberts’ recent editorial on ‘Creativity at the Interface" in Science, and my reading of Jonah Lehrer’s recent book Imagine (2012). Most would be ecstatic to be a Kuhnian paradigm shifter, to be considered a creative thinker and researcher by their peers, or to be an innovator, the Steve Jobs of a given field. After the daydreams drift away, what can we carry back to our laboratories or desks from these three publications?In his editorial, Alberts, the Editor of Science, sees, in addition to the integration of different expertise into biological endeavors, the ability to choose the most important questions (quoting from Poincaré: “invention is discernment, choice”) and getting beyond data to (quoting Alberts) “deep understanding . . . that benefit[s] humanity”. This is reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s claim that knowledge, used properly, is “for the benefit and use of life”. Alberts stresses the importance of increasing the breadth of knowledge in the life sciences by recruiting engineers and those with strong quantitative backgrounds as essential for continued progress.To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Kuhn’s seminal publication, his analysis of progress in science will be reviewed, as commented upon by David Kaiser in Nature . Kuhn suggested that anomalies arise during the maturation of a science that challenge the order of a discipline; these anomalies are not resolved by assimilation into the science but by a revolutionary change, and the “paradigm shift” that occurs when new theories develop. Once there is a new way of perceiving the world, there is less emphasis on the old. I will reread Kuhn this year, but I’m afraid I don’t know how he will influence my work today, other than that I’m adding more items to my list of unanswered questions and underlining the “anomalies”. From our commenters I anticipate learning how Kuhnian analysis influences their research. Much longer than these very brief essays is the book by Lehrer, number three on the 29 April New York Times non-fiction best seller list. Lehrer’s examples are drawn from popular culture, new products in business (e.g., “post-its”), and science. It makes for a good read and is most provocative when the reader can extrapolate from Bob Dylan or WH Auden to their own creative conundrums. Auden was an extensive user of intranasal amphetamines (Benzadrine). I can’t recommend that; while insights from dreams and psychedelic drugs might be useful, the latter may be dangerous and illegal, while dreams are not predictable in providing creative answers. Although it is difficult to have your laboratory group-sniffing the mind-expanding drug of the moment while remaining fit for work, two examples emphasize group efforts in creativity and can be applied to the scientific endeavor.1. BROADWAY MUSICALSBroadway musicals require a large number of highly talented, high-maintenance, creative artists and their financial backers. Many financially and artistically successful shows have arisen from collaborations that have been successful previously, with the addition of some key new people: not too many and not too few (the Goldilocks effect, or looking for the “sweet spot”). Consider laboratories, where post-docs and junior faculty leave, and new personnel simultaneously arrive: a successful and useful model in the sciences, which may be a model for bringing people with new scientific expertise into the biological sciences. One might say this is a no-brainer, and many in Science know how to do this.2. PIXARPIXAR requires a large number of people with highly specialized skills to work together to create new, technically-driven films (e.g., “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo”). Its leaders established a PIXAR university, where potential employees learn the highly technical skills and diverse expertise required to make their product. (Some at NIH will remember institution-wide courses, not for credit but for knowledge.) PIXAR organized the physical environment of their university to drive individuals together: all the bathrooms, food, and libation are located at a central core. Random (and planned) meetings are encouraged. I remember, in Walter Bodmer’s lab at Oxford from 1978-9, tea time in the morning and the afternoon were close-to-command performances. Everyone was there, and instant messaging (face-to-face) was perfected before email.PIXAR holds frequent meetings, with frank, public discussion of work in progress. These are not typical “brainstorming sessions”, with everything ending up on the whiteboard. There are techniques to decrease brutality and hurt egos, and we should be thinking about how our working groups are handled and whether we are getting the maximum input from and education for those involved. Different group leaders employ different styles, and one size may not fit every group of individuals. Think about your group and all the possible models.Lehrer presents some models that can help groups to be more creative — but what about the individual? For the creative individual, Lehrer suggests keeping a problem churning around all the time in the intuitive and analytical portions of one’s mind while seeking lots of random input, walking the streets, talking with everyone about everything, allowing cerebral interconnections to percolate, and waiting for the “moment”. Our scientific societies and their leadership should consider how to integrate those with primary mathematical and engineering expertise as full-fledged members of our meetings and journals, scientifically, socially, and administratively. We have a model in the interactions of epidemiologists and their European Dermato-Epidemiology Network (EDEN) — no doubt there are others. I’m sure our creative readers have numerous suggestions for increasing innovation and creativity; all your comments are appreciated.References:Alberts, B. Creativity at the Interface. Science 336: 131, 2012Kaiser, D. In retrospect: “The structure of scientific revolutions”. Nature 484:164-6, 2012Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 1st. ed., Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1962, Chicago.Lehrer, J. Imagine: How creativity works.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, New York.Image:Image by sjorsvb (via Flickr) used under the Creative Commons License, can be found at

Science' vs. 'Value' Messaging Effects on Attitudes Toward Global Warming (from Paige Brown's blog)

Wed, 05/02/2012 - 12:29pm

I will be presenting my Science Communications/Public Opinion research project next Thursday, 10am in the Curet Room of Hodges Hall, LSU Campus! If you are in Louisiana, come by! By Paige Brown_**Research Abstract**:Despite scientific consensus that recent rises in global temperature are attributable to human activity, previous research points to doubt, confusion and complacency among the public on the reality, causes and severity of impacts of global climate change. Whether environmental scientists and activists could better frame their messages to improve public appreciation of climate change risks is a subject of active research. This study sought to investigate a new question in science communications: Do messages on local climate change impacts and action framed in personal and societal ‘values’ vs. framed in rigid scientific ‘facts’ impact attitudes differentially among audiences of varying scientific knowledge and initial concern about climate change? Results from an experimental, randomized Internet survey of LSU undergraduate students reveal an overall superior performance of ‘value’ over ‘fact’ framing and the role of baseline concern and general scientific knowledge in moderating and even reversing the direction of these framing effects.c/2012/04/CO2 Albert Bridge-thumb-640×420-4621.jpg" width=“540” height=“320” class=“mt-image-center” style=“text-align: center; display: block; margin: 0 auto 20px;” />

Why do old books smell? [video] (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Wed, 05/02/2012 - 3:00am

SUMMARY: That old book smell brings back so many memories, but what creates that smell?Old books.
Image: William Hoiles from Basking Ridge, NJ, USA (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.) Every time I catch a whiff of that special old books smell, I am transported through time and space to the cool welcoming basement of The Strand Bookstore in New York City, where I spent many hot humid summer afternoons, searching for some used book I’ve never seen nor even heard of, or sitting on the cold concrete floor, reading. The smell of old books isn’t pleasant, exactly, but it is unmistakable — and powerfully evocative.“A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness,” writes an international team of chemists from University College London (UCL) and the University of Ljubljana (UL) in Slovenia in their scientific paper (doi:10.1021/ac9016049). “[T]his unmistakable smell is as much part of the book as its contents.”But what is the source of that smell?

Tools of ancient Alaskans emerge from ice (from Liz O'Connell's blog)

Tue, 05/01/2012 - 4:54pm

by Ned RozellOn a late summer evening a few years ago, a scrap of birch bark caught William Manley’s eye as he walked along the edge of an ice field in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. The geologist yelled to nearby archaeologist Jim Dixon and Ruth Ann Warden of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation.ToolsAK_basket.jpgThe remains of a 650-year old birch bark basket complete with stitching holes, found at the base of an ice patch in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. Photo by William Manley.“When I pointed it out to Jim and Ruth Ann, they immediately saw that it was something special,” said Manley, who works for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.Dixon and Warden noticed stitching holes in the bark fragment that lay among recently exposed rocks and moss. After later dating the birch-bark basket, they found an Alaskan had left it at the site about 650 years ago.The basket is one of many artifacts scientists are finding on ice patches—dying fields of snow and ice that are too small to flow like glaciers. These ice patches, located in the mountains of Alaska and Canada, are shrinking to reveal at their edges arrow shafts, barbed antler points, and other items that usually decompose before archaeologists can find them.In a five-year project in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, researchers are following the lead of colleagues in the Yukon by traveling to high-country ice patches to search for old tools, clothing, and other organic materials exposed by retreating ice and snow. Dixon, an anthropology professor at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has made several trips to the Wrangells during the project.“We can take a very small amount of organic material—like the amount you’d get from drilling a tooth—and do radio-carbon dating and isotope analysis,” Dixon said. “We can find out the age of the material and environmental conditions at the time. We’re getting new insights into the technology people used in Alaska thousands of years ago.”Members of the team found several arrow shafts, dated at 370 to 850 years old, made of spruce wood split from the trunk of the tree rather than the branches.“The shafts are made from split staves of white spruce—long, straight slivers that are rounded and tapered,” Dixon said.ToolsAK_arrow.jpgA recently exposed arrow shaft at the base of a melting ice patch in the Wrangells. Photo by William Manley.The Wrangells research team is concentrating on six ice patches in the largest national park in the United States. Dixon described the ice patches as “oasis-like features that attract caribou, sheep, and other animals that seek relief from heat and insects.”After a two-year GIS modeling project, the researchers chose the six ice patches they are studying after two years of flying around in late summer and looking for large bodies of ice and snow ringed with dark colors—often the pellets caribou dropped centuries ago. The ice patches are melting to reveal ground that hasn’t seen the sun in hundreds, or thousands of years.“As climate change continues, (the exposure of artifacts from melting ice patches) will go on for some time,” Dixon said.In addition to arrow shafts, a copper arrowhead, the birch basket, and an old caribou hide, the scientists and Park Service personnel also saw more modern things during their travels in the Wrangells, including the remains of a roadhouse built on a glacier on one of the gold rush routes from McCarthy to Chisana.“It’s a whole roadhouse that’s flowing down the glacier,” Dixon said.Manley, the geologist who found the birch-bark basket, said looking for artifacts on the edge of ice patches is not only interesting science, it’s great fun. The scientists usually have only a short window of time to search the base of an ice patch while a helicopter waits for them.“Finding such a well-preserved artifact melting out of a glacier is something like winning when you’re gambling,” Manley said. “After going hours, or days without finding another one, you develop an urge to find more.”.Originally published in the Alaska Science Forum July 25, 2007 Article #1865 Tools of ancient Alaskans emerge from ice by Ned Rozell“This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.”More on Arctic Archaeology at FrontierScientists.comTime Travel in the Alaskan Arctic<iframe width=“560″ height=”315″ src=“” frameborder="0″ allowfullscreen>

94 elements (from Peter Etchells' blog)

Tue, 05/01/2012 - 11:14am

Hydrogen. In its most abundant form, one proton, one electron. The lightest and most plentiful element that there is. When we think of the elements, we think of them objectively – something that is studied in science lessons, whose structures we reduce to simple lines and curves. There’s a deeper story to the elements, though, one that permeates our very being. It’s not just that we ourselves are created from them; everything that it means to be human, from our bodies, to our modern technological way of life, is because of 94 simple elements.94 elements is the brain child of filmmaker Mike Paterson, and is a multi-year, multinational project aimed at telling the story of what it means to be human, through the eyes of the 94 naturally-occuring elements, from Hydrogen to Plutonium. The first four videos have already been made, and over the coming weeks I’d like to showcase them with facts and figures about the elements themselves.Here’s the trailer:And if you would like to know more about the project, check out the project home page and the fundraising page.

Climate Change Communicators Should Listen to the Public (from Paige Brown's blog)

Tue, 05/01/2012 - 3:50am

Climate Change and science communicators might want to lend an ear to the public voice.Gallup Poll.jpgAccording to a 2005 article by Thomas Brewer, a “substantial majority of the US public wants the government to do more about the problem of global warming…”, by for example enforcing mandatory emission reductions by industry and economic assistance of mitigation projects. This state of public opinion is a far cry from what many climate scientists and communicators subscribe to. By focusing on failures of traditional media sources to portray the scientific consensus and gravity of climate change and on the renegade efforts of big oil and gas corporations to combat ‘green’ activism (Nisbet, 2011), scientists and science communicators may be failing to investigate and communicate an element of key importance… the actual opinion of the public, not only of the media, on climate change “There is … evidence that many US leaders remain unaware of the extent of public support for more action, and of public opposition to recent US [e.g. Bush] administration policies…. The national administration during 2001-2004 and many members of Congress have not only been outside that public consensus but are perhaps not aware of it. The consensus-building process for support for climate change mitigation thus appears to have progressed more than is commonly recognized.” Brewer, 2005, p. 359, emphasis added.What if Congress and business leaders DID know of the widespread public support for climate change policies? Would they act upon it? If they do know, why AREN’T they acting upon it?What does public opinion look like on global climate change?According to a March 2012 Gallup Poll, nearly 60% of a national population sample thought that most scientists believe that global warming is occurring, with only 7% thinking that scientists believe it is not occurring. According to this poll, 55% of respondents personally worry about global warming more than a fair amount, 84% feel that they understand the issue fairly or very well, and even 63% responded (in a January AARP Election Survey) that global warming would be somewhat or very important in choosing who to vote for in the upcoming 2012 Presidential election. (I was personally pleasantly surprised by this last statistic). Although there is ‘room to grow’ metaphorically speaking of public opinion on climate change, the state of affairs might be better than some scientists think… and much better than many politicians are acting upon.The state of public opinion may look even better when considering other environmental issues: 71% of March 2012 Gallup Poll respondents indicated that they worried about air pollution more than a fair amount, and 78% indicated that they worried about pollution of drinking water a fair amount or a great deal. Air pollution and pollution of drinking water are certainly strongly related to the threats of climate change, although how much the public recognizes this link is largely unknown.bench/assetsc/2012/05/Smog over Santiago-thumb-500×370-4669.jpg" width=“500” height=“370” class=“mt-image-center” style=“text-align: center; display: block; margin: 0 auto 20px;” /> Smog over SantiagoIn a striking indication of public support not reflected in Congress, a late 2002-2003 poll by the University of Oregon Survey Research Lab found that of the 92% of respondents who had heard of global warming before, 88% favored US participation in/approval of the Kyoto Protocol for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Somewhat surprisingly, the support was fairly consistent across political parties: 94% of Democrats supported it, 88% of Independents supported it, and 83% of Republicans supported it (Brewer, 2005, p. 366). On top of these opinions, Brewer (2005) points out that according to 2002 polls, 76% of respondents “preferred that the ‘government set standards that require industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions’” and 79% favored ‘spending more government money on developing solar and wind power, with only 19% favoring government support of increased drilling for oil and natural gas (Gallup, 2002; Reuters, 2002).But what did Congress do? Marked lack of support for such policies… Brewer (2005) pointed to a marked gap and trailing behind of elite opinions on these issues as compared to public opinions. **Wake up Congress and both political and scientific elites: It’s time to harness public opinion on global warming that has already been moving in the right direction for years now…**Climate science communicators, by building effective and publically-informed communications on climate change, could perhaps further and substantially improve public opinion toward climate change action if their communications captured the large population of citizens who are moderately concerned about global warming_:bq. “The future of US government policies will depend partly on … how much the opinions of this moderately concerned group in the middle change and how influential they become, as the consensus-formation process continues to unfold.” Brewer, 2005, p. 373.References:AARP Election Issues Survey, Jan, 2012. Retrieved May-1-2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. Poll, Mar, 2012. Retrieved May-1-2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. Brewer, T. L. (2005). US public opinion on climate change issues: implications for consensus-building and policymaking. Climate Policy, 4(4), 359-376.

6000000 and the Abel Prize [video] (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Tue, 05/01/2012 - 3:00am

SUMMARY: Is there structure in randomness? According to a mathematical proof published by 2012 Abel Prize winner, Endre Szemerédi, yes, there is I can’t believe I didn’t tell you about this before, so I am going to remedy this situation right now. There are several major international prizes for mathematics: the Fields Medal is awarded once every four years to two, three, or four mathematicians who are under 40 years of age. The other is the Abel Prize, which is awarded every year by the King of Norway to one or more mathematicians for a career of outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics, and it comes with a monetary award of 6 million Kroner (more than $1 million US). Since the Abel Prize has no age restrictions, it resembles the Nobel Prize and thus, is often referred to as the “Nobel Prize in mathematics”. Indeed, the original inspiration for the Abel Prize was the Nobels: when it was first learned that Alfred Nobel had no plans to initiate a prize for mathematics, the Abel Prize was established to fill in that gap.

Wordle for Science (from Paige Brown's blog)

Mon, 04/30/2012 - 3:53pm

Engaging the public with science blogging?According to Inna Kouper (2010), a blog is a “frequently updated webpage that facilitates informal communication between the author of the blog and its audience” with science blogs serving as a relatively new form of media and powerful tool for disseminating scientific information and facilitating conversations about science (p. 2; Batts, Anthis, and Smith, 2008). I hope that From The Lab Bench can achieve a degree of public engagement of non-scientists in science. According to Kouper (2010), science bloggers seeking to facilitate public involvement in science should “inform their readers about scientific news … explain complicated matters in a manner understandable by a lay person … evaluate research findings and claims made by others … [and] articulate their position toward controversial issues” (p. 2). Do I achieve public involvement with From The Lab Bench? Can science blogs even truly achieve this goal? What do you think? Tweet @FromTheLabBench with hashtag #ScienceCares.And for a bit of visual pleasure… From The Lab Bench’s ‘Wordle’ for this month!April Wordle.jpg

data science hackathon & data science in NYC (from chris wiggins' blog)

Sun, 04/29/2012 - 7:35am

Last night I was a judge for the Data Viz Competition at the NYC Data Hackathon,part of the world’s first global data hackathon. Along with my fellow judgesCathy O’Neil and Jake Porway, we gave an award to the team that best found a nontrivial insight from the data provided for the competition and managed torender that insight visually. Unlike a hackNY hackathon, where the energy is pretty high and the crowdmuch younger (hackNY hackathons are for full time students only; this crowdall were out of school — in fact at least one person was a professor), hereeveryone was really heads down. There was plenty of conversation and smilesbut people were working quite hard, even 12 hours into the hackathon.I noticed two things that were unusual about the participants, both of which Ithink speak well of the state of `data science’ in NYC:* I’ve never been in a room with such a health mix of Wall Street quants andstartup data scientists. Many of the teams included a mix of people from differentsectors working together. The winning team was typical in this way: 1 person fromWall Street; 1 freelancer; and 1 data scientist from an established NYC startup.* I met multiple people visiting from the Bay Area contemplating moving to NYC.In 2004-2007 many of my students from Columbia moved out to SF under the historicalnotion that that was `the place’ where they could work at a small company that would demand their technical masteryand give them sufficient autonomy to see their work come to light under their own direction.I was glad to meet people from the Bay Area who were sufficiently impressed with NYC’s data sceneto consider moving here. Of course I told them it was exactly the right thing to doand I looked forward to seeing them again soon once they’d become naturalized citizens of NYC.Huge thanks to Shivon Zils and Matt Truck for hosting us in such a nice location, to Jeremy Howard for his suggestion a few weeks ago to throw the event, and to Max Shronfor encouraging everyone to include a visualization prize as part of this event.

Can you increase your motivation simply by paying attention? (from Eric-Wubbo Lameijer's blog)

Fri, 04/27/2012 - 5:09pm


If you read recent scientific papers and popular scientific books, developing talent seems easy: just find great teachers and spend 10,000 hours honing the craft of your choice (see for example Still, there remains one harrowing question: why would anyone spend 10,000 hours working single-mindedly on a single subject? Few things would seem more laborious or more boring. The true riddle of excellence may therefore not be how excellence is achieved, but how people can find the motivation to sacrifice so much of their life to the pursuit of perfection.

To understand talent, one must therefore first understand motivation. Unfortunately, motivation seems much harder to understand than the ‘mere’ learning aspects of talent. Some motivations seem to be biologically evolved for good reasons: we approach nice food and attractive others of the opposite sex, and try to avoid pain. Social motivation may have a similar evolutionary explanation: being left alone by your group was suicidal in the recent evolutionary past, so being a valued group member was important. This would explain why motivation also thrives on receiving attention and encouragement from important others in one’s life, even vicariously by seeing for example sport stars or singers being celebrated by the media and surrounded by adoring fans. We know that if one’s environment encourages a certain activity for a very long time, things that people first just do for attention or praise become goals all by themselves (in psychology-speak this is called ‘internalized’).

Still, that doesn’t explain all motivation. Motivation is enhanced by fast feedback (hence the popularity of computer gaming as a hobby relative to growing bonsai trees), by challenge, and by having clear goals. None of those would seem directly biologically or socially relevant.

In this post, I’d like to consider the hypothesis that at least part of the hard-to-explain other motivational factors may be explainable by assuming that motivation interacts with attention similar to other bodily signals: not one-directional but bidirectional. So, while it seems logical that being motivated increases the attention you pay to something, it may very well be that if you pay attention to things, you may thereby also increase your motivation for them.

Biologically and psychologically, such an “inverse causation” would not be that far-fetched; after all, we know that if your frown muscles are frozen by botox, you take longer to interpret sad or angry sentences. Similarly, it is hard to be angry when you lie down and relax all your muscles, moving marbles from a high to a low shelf makes us more likely to recollect sad memories, bending your arm at the elbow makes you more likely to purchase things impulsively, and sitting in a pose like Rodin’s ‘thinker’ makes people more creative. In the psychological literature, this effect is called “proprioceptive psychology”.

For motivation something similar may happen. For example, when you’re hungry, you’ll notice more food stalls; but conversely, if you put a jar of candy on your desk, you are more likely to feel ‘like a bite’. But more important than that, paying attention to something may convince the brain that it is important! If something is challenging, you need to pay attention since otherwise it will go wrong. If you have clear goals, you are also more likely to pay attention as you must monitor whether your actions bring you closer to the goal. Feedback is a change in the environment, which would also impinge automatically on our attentional systems; and hence motivate us.

A ‘motivation through attention’-rule may also help explain why promising an attractive reward for performing well can undermine intrinsic motivation: thinking of the reward diminishes attention to the task at hand. It also helps explain why people generally don’t feel very happy when they daydream, but feel a lot happier when talking with others: talking with others demands much more attention than daydreaming, and may therefore be more fun. Motivation through attention also neatly ties in with the ‘situational interest’ effect where teachers lay the groundwork of motivating students for their subject by presenting it in an engaging way. Using relevance, mystery, and loud explosions (or sex stories, like Paul McCartney’s English teacher did with the Canterbury tales) may initially just draw attention, but this ‘superficial’ attention, when maintained long enough, is slowly converted into implicit interest in the subject, ‘personal’ interest, also known as the holy grail of motivation: intrinsic motivation.

The most interesting implication of the ‘motivation through attention’ hypothesis would be that if you can direct your attention well, you can become motivated for/interested in almost anything. If that is true, however, most people apparently either do not know how to do direct their attention well enough to become motivated in their lives or their jobs, or for some reason choose not to do so.

But say that you seem to be stuck in a certain job or scientific field and you don’t know what to do outside that? Would it be possible to increase motivation by increasing how much attention you pay to it? At the moment my answer would be: probably yes. You may also want to increase motivation by more ‘traditional’ means (try to learn as much about the job as possible and surround yourself with enthusiastic people, for example, see also one of my earlier posts). But it also seems possible to direct your attention. The secret seems to be that attention doesn’t respond very well to commands (‘watch this!’ ‘pay attention’), but it does respond to clear questions (‘what do you think will happen?’, ‘how high does the ball bounce?’ ‘Which things here seem out of the ordinary?’).

So, if you want to increase your motivation, the answer may be the question.

Wordplay aside, if you learn to direct your attention well as a scientist, more things than ‘just’ your motivation may blossom. But that will be the subject of my next post.

The Reality of Pervasive, err, Something (from Bob O'Hara's blog)

Fri, 04/27/2012 - 7:28am

I’m a fan of good quality graphs, and some just stand out. Including this one, from PLoS Biology last year:

Intermission... I'm a Scientist: In the Zone! (from Peter Etchells' blog)

Fri, 04/27/2012 - 4:25am

imascientist-logo.pngJust a quick note to mention that I’ve been taking part in an Olympic-themed I’m a Scientist: Get me out of here! event this week, an X-factor style science communication competition being run by the folks over at the Wellcome Trust. It’s 10 weeks of questions and live chats from students around the country, who can ask any and all questions about how the mind and body work, as well as general sciencey sorts of stuff. If you’re a scientist involved in sports, psychology, or movement science, then they’re still looking for participants! I’ve just come to the end of my first week, and it’s been pretty intense, but absolutely great fun. Here are some of my favourite questions from the week:Is beetroot juice banned in the Olympics due to the extra muscle power it can add? what is the best thing you have found out as a scientist? how much burgers or hot dogs can you eat before you have a stroke or heart attack? who is your favourite scientist? << and I really meant my answer about Gru for that one.Normal service will resume next week. In the meantime, why don’t you check out the new Nature Network blog from one of last year’s I’m a Scientist winners, Suzi Gage?