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I found some space in my wallet. Therefore i must have been a millionaire.

From the Jan/Feb issue of Discover, under a headline of "New Signs of Long-Gone Life on Mars":

In 2013, the rover Curiosity found the most convincing evidence yet that [Mars] was once habitable... The findings: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous - key ingredients for life - plus chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide that could provide energy for microorganisms. All were found in a locale that was once wet, and neither too salty nor acidic.

The article is part of a review of the top significant events of last year, and my first thought on seeing the headline was that i missed the fact that we found evidence of life on Mars, which seemed like a pretty important and exciting thing that i missed! But on closer inspection that wasn't the case at all.

I am as lay a lay person as you can get, but i have at least two problems with this. The first is that just because you find the building blocks for life doesn't mean that life used to exist there. I think this is largely a problem set by the expectation in the headline. The article itself says "habitable", but the headline's "signs of long gone life" seems incredibly misleading. The article also speculates about "why life there might have died out" which further increases the impression that we actually found evidence of life as opposed to an environment that we think used to be habitable.

The second problem is my standard bugaboo that we seem to define "habitable" very narrowly based just on what we have on Earth. Now i grant that this is at least partially due to my having read too many science-lite science fiction and fantasy stories. I mean, i have no problem believing that we could find fire-based life forms in the sun! But even more realistically, the idea that the environment couldn't be a little more salty or acidic in order to support life seems too restrictive. It seems like we're only looking for conditions exactly like how life might have started on Earth.

Again, this is all coming from a lay person (reading a magazine designed for lay people, though!). And i'm sure the fact that we found carbon, hydrogen, etc.. on Mars is indeed one of the significant findings of 2013. It's just, there's no need to hype it up further than that and get me all excited about Martians! (Or even Martian bacteria...)

By fnord12 | March 17, 2014, 10:54 AM | Science | Comments (0)| Link

Alcohol and Sexual Aggression

You've had a few to drink. You're not exactly in any condition to make good decisions. So, it's totally not your fault you grabbed that chick's boob. Your thinking was impaired. You are totally a great guy when sober. Rilly.


In a study of sexual aggression in bars researchers have found that the invasiveness and persistence of unwanted come-ons is not correlated with how much the perpetrator has had to drink, but is instead related to how drunk the person on the receiving end seems to be. The paper, aptly titled "Blurred Lines? Sexual Aggression and Barroom Culture," after the summer hit by Robin Thicke, was published earlier this week in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. "Its not a blurred line, its a pretty easy line," says Kathryn Graham, senior scientist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and co-author of the paper. "The whole culture that thinks blurred lines is some kind of truth or inevitability, from our data, is a little bit astray."
William H. George, a psychologist at the University of Washington who studies how alcohol influences sexual health and behavior, says that consuming alcohol often turns sexual aggression into a self-fulfilling prophecy if the perpetrator enters the situation with the widely held cultural belief that drinking makes people more sexually uninhibited.

Tina Zawacki, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, agrees with that assessment. "It could be that drinkers use intoxication as an excuse to engage in a number of socially unacceptable behaviors, including sexual harassment and sexual assault."


Graham and her colleagues note that the men in the study appeared to harass women for the amusement of their friends, who in many cases would egg them on. For this reason, the authors endorse the adoption of preventative strategies that encourage bystanders to intervene, rather than trying to unfairly limit women's behavior. They cite their own "Safer Bars" program adopted by more than 300 bars and clubs in the Toronto area, which trains bar managers and bouncers to step in when they see troubling behavior in their establishment, as an example of an intervention that has shown promise in reducing sexual aggression.

Yes, let's please stop putting the onus on the victim. Ofc people should always take some precautions to ensure their safety in every aspect of life. Look before stepping into a street. Don't talk to strangers. Drink responsibly. I got it. But we don't go around saying "Well, you shouldn't have gone and gotten yourself stabbed.". So why is it ok to say "Well, you shouldn't have gone and gotten raped."?

While i'm being cautious and whatnot, shouldn't there be more focus on everybody doing what they can to prevent sexual aggression? The message shouldn't be "Hey, ladies, don't get drunk and end up raped.". It should be "Hey, everybody, acting like this is wrong. Don't do it. Don't let your friends do it.". As the article states, there's a cultural shift that needs to be made. We're not there yet.

By min | March 7, 2014, 10:51 AM | Liberal Outrage & Science | Comments (1)| Link

Rush Holt Interview - Congress and Science

I really wish he wasn't retiring, but i have hopes he's not going away entirely.


There is, you know, the "Proxmire Effect" -- referring back to Sen. Proxmire, who used to ridicule serious research that had funny-sounding titles. And you know, he was wrong much more often than he was right. It's true that some research is unproductive. Some of it is even ultimately misleading. But the very idea of peer-reviewed research, you know, research that is guided by the conventions and the practices of the discipline -- and I emphasize the word "discipline" -- and that is chosen and supported by peer review, is very important to our success as a nation ...

Certainly when you have elected representatives ... inventing ideas about a woman's biology ... it's not just that they didn't take sex education classes in school. It's that they're just not grounded in evidence ...

I am not saying that scientists are smarter or wiser than other folks. But there are habits of mind: you know, a deep appreciation of evidence; an ability to deal with probability and statistics, to be alert to cognitive biases and tricks that our minds play on ourselves; ... a willingness to accept tentative conclusions and accept ... the uncertainty of these scientific conclusions -- not as reason for inaction, but a way of finding the best path forward ...

After the electoral errors of 2000 ... Congress passed an election reform bill and pushed ... the voting districts in America toward unverifiable electronic machines ... They were sold a bill of goods, essentially, by the voting machine manufacturers ... No one involved in writing the legislation had bothered to ask ..."What are the results? How do we know that your machine records the results that the people think they're casting?" And it turns out there is no way to audit the machines ...

Just some critical thinking; you wouldn't have to know anything about the software, or about the electronics of the machine, to be able to ask the kinds of questions that any scientist would ask ...

By min | March 6, 2014, 11:48 AM | Liberal Outrage & Science | Comments (0)| Link

Math is Beautiful

In the study, researchers led by Semir Zeki of University College London asked 16 mathematicians to rate 60 equations on a scale ranging from "ugly" to "beautiful." Two weeks later, the mathematicians viewed the same equations and rated them again while lying inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The scientists found that the more beautiful an equation was to the mathematician, the more activity his or her brain showed in an area called the A1 field of the medial orbitofrontal cortex.


The article tells me that Euler's Identity was rated the most beautiful equation out of 60. I don't know if i think Euler's identity is beautiful, but i do remember how much i loved my Differential Equations class in college because we'd go through this page long solution to an equation that contained no numbers and the answer was always zero. That was beautiful. I just got giddy thinking about it.

And i also remember how amazing it felt when i could actually visualize what the calculus equations translated into (e.g. bowls, funnels, cones with a part cut off, etc.). Oh, math, how i miss you.

By min | March 4, 2014, 11:50 AM | Science | Comments (0)| Link

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