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Appreciate Your Gifts 05/29/2011
May 29, 2011 — We like to showcase stories of amazing animals, but humans are special, too. What animal can boast some of the qualities that science has recently reported?
- Math brain: Studies of Amazon tribespeople show that they have an innate understanding of Euclidean geometry, even without ever learning it at school. For the BBC News, Jason Palmer reported, “Tests given to an Amazonian tribe called the Mundurucu suggest that our intuitions about geometry are innate.”
People in the Mundurucu tribe only have approximations for numbers, and no language for geometry, but they showed comparable skill to French and US schoolchildren, even exceeding them in some ways.
The researchers believe this shows that geometry is intuitive for humans: “they seemed to have an intuition about lines and geometric shapes without formal education or even the relevant words.” They even grasped some non-Euclidean geometry better than some westerners, such as understanding that parallel lines on a sphere can intersect.
- Baby skill set: Live Science posted a gallery of “Nine Brainy Baby Abilities,” including innate knowledge of social power, mind meld with dogs, following others’ moods, dancing, mimicking, learning during sleep, rudimentary math abilities, ability to learn language, and innate ability to judge character.
- Infant rationality: A study in Science was titled, “Pure Reasoning in 12-Month-Old Infants as Probabilistic Inference.”1 Whether they can or Kant make a Critique of Pure Reason is a question for philosophers. The abstract said,
Many organisms can predict future events from the statistics of past experience, but humans also excel at making predictions by pure reasoning: integrating multiple sources of information, guided by abstract knowledge, to form rational expectations about novel situations, never directly experienced. Here, we show that this reasoning is surprisingly rich, powerful, and coherent even in preverbal infants. When 12-month-old infants view complex displays of multiple moving objects, they form time-varying expectations about future events that are a systematic and rational function of several stimulus variables.See also the Live Science review of this paper. It commented that robot designers have biomimetics on their brain: “The goal, [Joshua] Tenenbaum [MIT] said, is a sort of ‘reverse engineering’ of infant cognition that might help robotics developers build machines that interact with the world more like the human brain does.”
- Beautiful brain: Behind the outward shows of rationality are amazing cells. Science Daily posted a color picture of the brain’s most common cell, the astrocyte. “Long considered to be little more than putty in the brain and spinal cord, the star-shaped astrocyte has found new respect among neuroscientists who have begun to recognize its many functions in the brain, not to mention its role in a range of disorders of the central nervous system.” A group of researchers at the University of Madison-Wisconsin has now succeeded in culturing some of these cells in a lab dish.
Other animals have astrocytes, don’t they? “Astrocytes, some studies suggest, may even play a role in human intelligence given that their volume is much greater in the human brain than any other species of animal,” the article answered. They are involved in every brain function.
- Blind as a bat: The BBC News, Medical Xpress and Live Science discussed how the blind can develop a sixth sense, a kind of echolocation, that helps them navigate in the absence of vision. “Some blind people are able to use the sound of echoes to ‘see’ where things are and to navigate their environment,” Live Science said. “Now, a new study finds that these people may even be using visual parts of their brains to process the sounds.”
In fact, even sighted people can learn how to echolocate. This raises the interesting idea that humans are “over-engineered” for perception, but through lack of practice fail to use all the latent abilities available to them.
- Power stroke: When you switch from walking to running, your body switches gears. The power in walking comes from the hips, but when running, the body switches to get its power from the ankles, an article on PhysOrg discussed. Researchers at North Carolina State measured this “tradeoff” that occurs automatically; humans just take it in stride.
The human body is a natural antenna, the article said. “It reliably picks up the electromagnetic signals that emanate from all electrical systems and appliances in the home. These ambient signals can be used to create an affordable home automation system that controls household electronics with a pat on the wall or even a simple hand gesture.”
Many are already familiar with the Wii and Kinect game consoles that respond to body movements, and light switches that respond to hand clapping. Tapping into human electromagnetic signals opens up new vistas. The possibilities for “controller free living” are virtually limitless, reporter Leslie Meredith said.
A visitor from the past would probably worry he was seeing witchcraft if a wave of the hand could turn on the lights – but it would just be a clever application of manipulating plain old natural forces, like the old theremin musical instrument that fascinated 1920s viewers with music made by a wave of the hand (see Theremin World). When humans can get cats to respond to gestures, then they’ll really have something.
1. Teglas, Vul et al, “Pure Reasoning in 12-Month-Old Infants as Probabilistic Inference,” Science, 27 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6033 pp. 1054-1059, DOI: 10.1126/science.1196404.
Have you ever seen an animal make shadow puppets of human beings? Why not? Parrots can talk and sing, but they don’t reason about parallel lines on spheres. Gorillas make gestures, but they don’t write software to turn up the music with them. Peregrine falcons are fast, but humans make jets that fly faster than sound. Whales are great divers, but humans build submarines that study life at deep-sea vents. Birds navigate by the stars, but humans build spacecraft with star trackers that orbit distant planets. It seems we have some bragging rights. Let the one who designed these innate capabilities in himself cast the first boast.
Next headline on: Human Body • Mind and Brain • Biomimetics • Amazing Facts
Five molecular motors that move you: 05/30/2007.
A Little Knowledge Without Ethics 05/28/2011
May 28, 2011 — A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. When is knowledge enough? And can a lot of knowledge be a dangerous thing, too? Whether little or much, knowledge without ethics empowers evil.
- Imbalance in India: Ultrasound is a wonderful invention that allows images inside the human body. In India, however, where culture and economics puts a premium on the male sex, its use has had devastating consequences. PhysOrg reported, “In Indian families in which the first child has been a girl, more and more parents with access to prenatal ultrasound testing are aborting a second female in the hope that a subsequent pregnancy will yield a boy, said the study, published in The Lancet.... Between 1980 and 2010, they estimate, four to 12 million girls were aborted because of their sex.”
The government has tried to stop the practice, but in a country where corruption is rampant, laws are easily set aside. “A 1996 government regulation designed to prevent the use of ultrasound for prenatal sex determination is widely flouted, the researchers say, pointing out that few health providers have been charged or convicted.” A little bribe goes a long way. This could not have happened before science brought the technology to know the sex of an unborn baby, but where does the fault lie?
- Imbalance in China: The Three Gorges Dam was a monumental engineering effort in China that worried environmentalists and ethicists because of potential damage to the land and its people. Now that the reservoir is full, New Scientist reported, those worries have been realized.
Landslides, pollution, and economic upheaval with dire consequences for many displaced people are the result. The BBC News added that 1.3 billion people were displaced by a project that was the “contentious scheme even before it was approved.” Ignoring warnings that it would cause an “environmental catastrophe,” the government went ahead with the project.
Last week, in an unusual move, the government admitted “that the Three Gorges dam has caused significant environmental problems.” But they remain unfazed by the consequences. In fact, they are going to build more dams.
- Endangered species: The Endangered Species Act has impacted many businesses and homeowners, depriving property owners of rights to use their land in freedom because of the claims of scientists that certain species would be adversely affected. “For more than 40 years,” Science Daily reported, “the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has published the Red List of Threatened Species describing the conservation status of various species of animals.”
Now, however, an international team is calling for a reassessment of the definition of endangered species. Are the one-size-fits-all criteria currently in use too simplistic? “Our results challenge the application of the same sets of threat criteria across living organisms and across regions,” the team said, admitting that “identifying which species are most at risk can be difficult....” While each case must be judged on the evidence, one wonders how many human beings have been deprived of their freedom, and what has been the impact on society and the economy, from the application of simplistic standards of assumed knowledge.
- Climate change: For most of the past decade, global warming has been a doomsday scenario guaranteed by the scientific consensus unless drastic changes in the world’s economies were made. States have passed carbon taxes; the federal government pushed for cap-and-trade legislation; bodies of world governments agreed to make draconian cuts in emissions that would cripple their economies.
Many scientists still believe the threat is real. Maybe it is, but the IPCC, the world body that had been trusted with the scientific data to back it up, got caught in an embarrassing credibility crisis over the Climategate affair in 2009. Subsequent investigations found conflicts of interest and sloppy data gathering by the panel. Nature News discussed the latest moves to repair the damage and reform the IPCC, while a growing number of climate skeptics have claimed the threat is either overblown or unreal, leading to questions about how many nations and people might be suffering unnecessarily over a “little knowledge” about climate processes that may be too uncertain for human beings to grasp.
- Government funding: Recent TV news reports mocked government spending to the National Science Foundation for apparently frivolous projects like a shrimp on a treadmill, a robot that folds towels, and a study to discover if boys like trucks and girls like dolls. Senator Tom Coburn in particular had brought some of these projects, buried in NSF reports, to light.
The NSF didn’t take this lying down. Live Science responded that some scientists “cry foul” over Coburn’s report, calling it “misleading” and “out of context”.
Whether or not researchers can back up the worth of their pet projects is one thing. Reporter Stephanie Pappas did quote Coburn’s focus, “It is not the intent of this report to suggest that there is no utility associated with these research efforts. The overarching question to ask, however, is simple. Are these projects the best possible use of our tax dollars, particularly in our current fiscal crisis?”
- Fatherhood: An article on PhysOrg pointed to the grim realities of fatherless families, but attributed the causes to poverty and lack of education. Yet numerous men achieved success in spite of those causes. George Washington Carver was an orphan, was dirt poor, was discriminated against, and yet became a highly successful and benevolent scientist. Is it possible that the researchers behind the report are confusing causes and effects and ignoring other factors? How many times has the government tried to eradicate poverty and ignorance, only to make problems worse?
Such questions need to be asked before accepting the opinions of “economists, sociologists, and public policy experts” in academia. The “experts” undoubtedly omitted to include input from the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and other conservative organizations that might beg to differ on the causes and cures of fatherless families. In fact, a survey of the ideology of the researchers behind this study might be illuminating. How many of them view government as the solution to all social ills?
Some of the exhibits include a man transplanting an ear onto his arm, a robot that makes threats to critics, a robot that makes viewers ill at ease by imitating their facial expressions, a film showing robots boring holes into human bodies, and a place where viewers can get genetically tested for a gene that is claimed to cause high risk behavior. This particular piece caught King’s eye:
Taking a still darker turn is the sculpture Euthanasia Coaster. Should medical wonders allow us extended lifetimes, boredom may bedevil us. Julijonas Urbonas imagines a humane and thrilling exit: death by roller coaster in the form of an exhilarating 500-metre drop followed by a series of loops, the G-forces of which would kill passengers in a state of intense euphoria.
1. Anthony King, “Art: Body work,” Nature 473 (26 May 2011), p. 451, doi:10.1038/473451a.
Do you sense the lostness of this generation? There is no bottom in the abyss of human depravity when empowered by knowledge without ethics. Things could get very much worse without a return to the Manufacturer’s Manual. Fallible humans following the Manual would still make mistakes, but at least there would be a pole star to guide on.
Next headline on: Politics and Ethics • Mind and Brain • Bible and Theology