Archive for April, 2015

What Facebook, Blue Jeans, and Metal Signs Taught Us About Tornado Science – Facts So Romantic

April 29, 2015

Screen capture of Patty Bullion’s “Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes” Facebook page.

On April 27, 2011 a monstrous EF5 tornado traveled 132 miles across northern Alabama and into southern Tennessee, missing one of the nation’s largest nuclear power plants by less than two miles, and also skirting the grounds of an Alabama state prison and obliterating the Alabama towns of Hackleburg and Phil Campbell. In Hackleburg, the tornado destroyed 75 percent of the structures, killed 18 people and crumpled a Wrangler blue jeans plant.

The jeans were syphoned up into the air, and somewhere in the anvil of the thunderstorm that had spawned the twister they joined high school letter jackets, family photographs, homemade quilts, metal signs, and all manner of documents. In the lingo of meteorologists this horrific aerial parade of items, snatched crudely from the human world below, is known as tornado debris.

“What I find most amazing,” said University of Georgia atmospheric scientist John Knox, “is how The Wizard of Oz is truer than anyone might think with regard to tornado debris. Admittedly, the stuff in the storm is mangled pieces of houses and their contents, instead of Dorothy and Toto in…

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Is Our Universe a One-Off Fluke, or an Endless Cycle? – Facts So Romantic

April 28, 2015

Paul Steinhardt spoke animatedly to Nautilus about his views on inflation theory.

Paul Steinhardt is torn. On the one hand, he has been working on and contributing to the theory of inflation for decades. On the other hand, he thinks it may very well be wrong.

Inflation describes the early universe going through an unimaginably rapid expansion in its infancy, from the size of an atomic nucleus to something like the size of the current observable universe, in an infinitesimal fraction of a second. When it was proposed, in 1980, it promised to account for the remarkable uniformity of our observable universe. No matter which direction of the night sky you look in, you see about the same density of stars and galaxies—in sharp distinction to the expected turbulent, patchy nature of the early, pre-inflation universe.

But after 35 years of study, Steinhardt and others have begun to argue that the theory is wrong. He sat down with Nautilus to explain why.

What is inflationary theory?

Imagine I’m sitting at a table across from you. If the space between us started to stretch at the same rate that it theoretically did in the early universe, it would be going too…

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Intemperate Planet: How Natural Systems Magnify the Effects of Global Warming – Facts So Romantic

April 27, 2015

As Arctic ice warms and forms dark melt ponds, it absorbs more sunlight, accelerating global warming.Kathryn Hansen, ICESCAPE mission, NASA

Besides a few lucky astronauts, the entire human experience is contained within a narrow envelope of gas maintained in a relatively narrow temperature range on a single rock hurtling through the vacuum of space. That temperature range depends on a delicate balance between energy entering the atmosphere, from the Sun, and energy leaving the atmosphere, radiating back out. Lucky for us, Earth has natural processes that absorb and hold onto heat to counteract that cooling effect. It is these processes that keep our little rock nice and livably warm. Without the greenhouse effect keeping heat in, Earth’s average temperature would be stuck at an untenable 0 degrees Fahrenheit instead of its actual 59 degrees.

As the world becomes hotter, some of these warming processes become stronger, leading to more and more warming. (They can also be reversed, wherein cooling leads to more cooling.) I like to think of it as the planet being thrifty, trying to get two doses of heating out of a single source. However, pushing these systems into overdrive is the main danger associated…

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Forget the Ordinary Honeybee; Look at the Beautiful Bees They’re Crowding Out – Facts So Romantic

April 24, 2015

All of the images in this post are borrowed from the amazing Flickr feed of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

Eucera dubitata, a bee that evolved its very long tongue to get at flowers with deep corollasSam Droege, USGS; collected by Sabrie Breland

Any day now, the apple trees on my deck will bloom, bringing with them the first honeybees of spring. It’s a moment I’ll greet with mixed feelings. To which bee-lovers everywhere may respond: How can anyone feel anything but good about honeybees? They’re little gold-and-black life-bringers, booty-waggling symbols of industrious virtue, and now—after a decade of declines in commercial honeybee colonies—subjects of sympathy and concern. We all want to help the bees.

All of which is true, and honeybees are certainly not unwelcome guests. And yet: Most of them will be domesticated, belonging to colonies maintained by New York City’s urban beekeepers. They’re also competing for the same blossoms with wild bees. Indeed, urban honeybees have the potential to push out their wild brethren. “If you have lots of honeybees,” says Dave Goulson, an insect ecologist at the University of Sussex, “it is bad for wild…

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Why the Flash Crash Really Matters – Issue 23: Dominoes

April 23, 2015

At about 2:30pm on May 6, 2010, an asset management firm began executing a series of orders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Located in Overland Park, Kansas, Waddell & Reed was (and is) one of the oldest mutual fund companies in America. It followed a strategy based on fundamental analysis—Wall Street code for old-fashioned investing. That afternoon, it wanted to sell 75,000 futures contracts on the S&P 500, a major market index, before the market closed at 4 p.m. The order was large but basically unremarkable, and Waddell & Reed had been executing similar trades for decades.

But this time something was different. Within 20 minutes of Waddell & Reed’s initial order, S&P 500 futures had declined 5 percent, and individual equity prices began to oscillate wildly. The price of the consulting firm Accenture declined from roughly $30 to $0.01 in seven seconds. Consumer goods giant Procter and Gamble dropped from around $60 to $39. Shares of Apple tumbled 20 percent from their pre-crash price of approximately $250, and also traded at nearly $100,000 per share (trades which were later annulled by the exchange). The dramatic futures move and the massive and sudden dislocation in the equities markets on that…

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The Big Problem With “Big Science” Ventures—Like the Human Brain Project – Facts So Romantic

April 22, 2015

The National Institutes of Health’s “Human Connectome Project” aims to elucidate the architecture of nerve fibers in the brain, as illustrated here. Patric Hagmann, Department of Radiology, University Hospital Lausanne (CHUV), Switzerland

In 2005 neuroscientist Henry Markram embarked on a mission to create a supercomputer simulation of the human brain, known as the Blue Brain Project. In 2013 that project became the Human Brain Project (HBP), a billion-euro, 10-year initiative supported in part by the European Commission. The HBP polarized the neuroscience community, culminating in an open letter last July signed by nearly 800 neuroscientists, including Nobel Prize–winners, calling the HBP’s science into question. Last month the critics were vindicated, as a mediation committee called for a total overhaul of the HBP’s scientific goals.

“We weren’t generating discontent,” says Zachary Mainen, a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, who co-authored the open letter with Alexandre Pouget of the University of Geneva. “We tapped into it.”

So, what was wrong with the Human Brain Project? And what are the implications for how we study and understand the brain? The HBP, along with the U.S.’s multibillion-dollar…

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What Happens When You Can’t Talk to Yourself? – Facts So Romantic

April 21, 2015

Phillips participates in an aphasia communication workshop in Speechless, a documentary by Guillermo F. Flórez that profiles people with the condition.Guillermo F. Flórez

What would you do if you lost your inner monologue? You know, the one where you tell yourself “I don’t want to get up yet,” or “This is one delicious burger.” That’s what happened to Tinna Geula Phillips.

In 1997, Phillips suffered a massive stroke, which left her without the ability to communicate in any meaningful way. She went from being fluent in six different languages to virtually mute. “I cried inside, because I cannot communicate. My mom, others, Chinese! I don’t know. Is not communicate, nothing. I, six languages, gone!”

Phillips has aphasia, from the Ancient Greek “without speech.” Typically, aphasia occurs after a stroke, which causes the brain to go “into a form of shock” according to aphasia specialist Robert Volin, who runs an aphasia speech therapy clinic at New York Medical College. First, reduced blood flow or bleeding causes brain cells to start dying off. Then a cascade of neural transmitters signal the brain’s neurons to keep firing, even as they slowly starve from a lack of oxygen. Any brain cells killed during this…

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Blessed by Science: How Genetic Medicine Changed a Strictly Religious Community – Facts So Romantic

April 20, 2015

A group of Hasidic Jews walking the streets of Anna i Adria via Wikipedia

In 1983, Yosef Eckstein an ultra-orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn, New York, had reason to be happy: His wife had just given birth to their fifth child. But the couple’s happiness was short-lived: The child was soon diagnosed with Tay–Sachs disease, a genetic disorder that affects the nervous system. Over time, the child would experience developmental delays, become paralyzed, and die before the age of five. This was the Ecksteins’ fourth child born with the disease, which was typically only found in one of every 3,600 children born to Ashkenazi Jewish families.

The couple was heartbroken, but since Tay–Sachs is passed on through genes and ultra-orthodox, or Hasidic, Jews don’t allow abortion, they felt there was nothing they could have done. Eckstein learned about efforts in the larger Jewish community to reduce the prevalence of Tay–Sachs disease by doing genetic tests couples before they had a child, but it hadn’t caught on in Hasidic community, mostly due to mistrust of the outside world and the stigma a diagnosis could bring to a family. (See Alexandra Ossola’s previous post on testing for Tay–Sachs among Ashkenazi…

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Nobody Knows the Real Price of a Forest—and That’s a Problem – Facts So Romantic

April 18, 2015

Sir Partha DasguptaJohn Steele

Wealth itself is observable and objective, a measure a value. And something has value if it is desired. But isn’t desire inescapably subjective? If it is, how can economics determine wealth?

Almost 250 years after Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the answer to this question remains unclear. “These are still early days in the measurement of the wealth of nations,” says Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta. But he thinks that we now have the tools, both theoretical and empirical, to begin to understand how wealth grows and declines. For one thing, it will involve pricing and depreciating nature itself—something that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) doesn’t do.

Dasgupta sat down with Nautilus to talk us through the ideal economic metric.

Is GDP likely to last as a measure of a nation’s economic health?

It’s a non-starter as an indicator of what the future may hold. It was originally designed to give an idea of the level of economic activity. But then it began to be used for a very different purpose. In the 1930s something like 20 to 25 percent of the workforce was out of work in the United States and the United Kingdom;…

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The Disease That Turned Us Into Genetic-Information Junkies – Facts So Romantic

April 17, 2015

For many people, 1969 felt like a year when technology could solve all of our problems, a sentiment that reached a crescendo with the Apollo 11 moon landing. But back on Earth, Michael Kaback was a medical resident at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, and he was frustrated. Kaback had helped some of his colleagues to diagnose two young children with some alarming symptoms: They started having seizures, stopped developing mentally, and were growing weaker, letting their limbs flop from side to side. Since the parents of both children were Ashkenazi Jews, Kaback suspected that the cause of the disease might be genetic. So he checked the children’s blood samples for a recently discovered enzyme called hex A—without it, cells in the central nervous system can’t break down an essential fatty substance, causing the cells to deteriorate and die over time. Both children were missing the enzyme, which confirmed Kaback’s fear: They had Tay–Sachs disease. They would die before they turned 5 years old, and there was nothing anyone could do.

From these two families, Kaback got a sense of how devastating this disease can be for families. He also realized that he had the technology and knowledge…

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