Tag Archives: science


Twist it here and there

It was just recently reported that gamers have helped to solve the problem of the structure of certain retrovirus proteins; it was done through ‘Foldit‘, a game designed to aid scientists to tap on the human brain’s abilities in spatial reasoning. Typically, the sequence of proteins are known but the design (ie their structure) is known only to a certain level because microscopes only provides a 2 dimensional view of it. Knowing the properties of the different molecular groups on the sequence can allow scientists to work out the interactions between the different parts of the proteins and so the ‘game’ simulates that and participants of the game tries different configurations of folding the protein that helps optimize space and the shape.

It’s a brilliant example of crowd-sourcing, where the intelligence of the crowd is gathered, aggregated to be used to advance our frontiers of knowledge. Both Wisdom of the Crowds by James Surowiecki and Wikinomics by Don Tapscot and Anthony Williams discussed such use of crowd wisdom as well as the creation of ‘knowledge marketplaces’. It is important how they help to refine the division of labour even further, by allowing people to use their abilities without necessarily knowing how their work would contribute to the greater picture of things. In the case of Foldit, people are just making use of simple rules of thumb and pursuing simple goals in the game that would ultimately help them discover little pieces of the big puzzle. The scientists, then, would take these pieces and try to put them in place…

Plant intelligence?

Plants are not as 'stupid' as we think

Plant intelligence? This video on TED.com by Stefano Mancuso, an Italian botanist, promises to explore the roots of plant intelligence and how their intelligence, while of a different kind compared to humans, is still worthy of notice and of emulation.

His accent is very difficult to comprehend but turning on the English subtitles are helpful. He highlights to you aspects of plant movement and sensation that we normally dont consider, producing a rather interesting video that will make you think twice about treating plants as non-living creatures or creatures without a brain. I was surprised he didnt explain how plants can react to music and positive feelings, as research has indicated that plants apparently thrive when exposed to music and positive words. But nevertheless this video is still thought-provoking.

Monkey Business

Monkey Notes
A Monkey Publication

If you get a monkey to sit in front of the computer/typewriter and type forever, it is definite that it will produce the works of Shakespeare somewhere in that whole writing.

How true is that? That is the Infinite Monkey Theorem. In any case, it illustrates how we cannot think of infinity as a very large finite number. It is not a number, we need to think of it as a ‘flow’, or like a horizon – it is a concept but not something that physically exists. If you think about the monkey analogy, it is not just the lifespan of the monkey that is in concern

Years ago, a team of lecturers and students from the University of Plymouth took the idea pretty seriously and tried to see how it works out in reality. They placed a computer in the zoo with six Celebes Crested Macaques and see what they’d produce. In a month, they produced quite a huge mess and a five page document, which was actually published and sold for 25 UK Pounds.

I find the experiment pretty interesting and the result is kind of hilarious. Of course, animal behaviour was the more important segment for this ‘study’ but when you look at the document from the monkeys, you must seriously reconsider the idea that monkeys are potential random number generators. They obviously approach the activity of typing with some sort of intent, albeit it transcends typing – it included ‘interacting’ (mostly involving urinating and defecating on it) with the computer and provoking it (like attacking it with a stone).

Changing Physical Laws

Gravity don't suck there?

There exists a fascinating and mysterious number in science known as the Fine Structure Constant whose identity as a ‘constant’ is put into question by a recent finding in the cosmos.

The fact that this unit-independent constant links up several important constants of physical laws and therefore represents most of the physical laws in the universe as we know implies that if it varies, the physical laws across the universe is not consistent (putting their identity as ‘laws’ into question as well). Ever in search of mathematical elegance, the idea of such a constant is really beautiful but the implications of this new finding isn’t exactly known. As far as we know, a slight deviation of the Constant from what it is as measured could mean that life as we know would not exists. Nevertheless, the deviation discovered is way less significant.

Don’t expect to be able to float in an atmosphere bubble or bend light with your bare hands yet.

Correlation between infectious diseases and IQ?

Eliminate poverty and stop the blight of human potential!

In the Science and Technology column of The Economist, I saw an article that proposed an intriguing correlation between the occurence of infectious diseases in countries and the IQ of the people in those countries. Sounds like a pretty audacious correlation to make, but it seems like the research done by these scientists from the University of New Mexico (which is, by the way, in America and not Mexico) seems to bear this out.

One’s IQ might be genetically influenced, but why does IQ vary across places, being on average higher in certain places and lower in others? And apparently IC seems to be “rising in recent decades”. The hypothesis of the researchers assert that the occurence of infectious diseases affect IQ variation. In other words, “places that harbour a lot of parasites and pathogens… have their human caiptal eroded, child by child, from birth”.

This sounds scary and damning, but the link is not exactly impossible. From newly born children to adult, the brain uses a huge proportion of the body’s metabolic energy far exceeding its weight within the body, from 87% in a newborn to “about a quarter of the body’s energy” even as an adult, when your brain weighs “a mere 2%” of your body weight. When parasites and pathogens (that cause infectious diseases) reside in the body, they can damage the body tissue, provoke immune system reactions and / or compete for resources such as nutrients from food consumed.

Statistically plotting infectious disease burden on life years lost against average IQ, the more developed countries with “relatively low levels of disease” have a higher average IQ and vice-versa. Singapore features prominently as the country with the highest average intelligence with relatively low infectious disease burden. “Correlation is not causation”, certainly, and the researchers have considered some alternative causes for lower IQ but these seem to diminish in importance when measured vis-a-vis the consequences of disease.

The importance of this study? If further research validates this groundbreaking postulation, the onus upon developing countries to develop economically and improve healthcare becomes even greater as the consequent health problems from low levels of development damage the country’s potential. These countries may be stuck in a vicious cycle, but then the onus is also upon the developed countries to provide aid and assistance to the developing countries to break out of this disease-potential trap. Indeed, as the writer valiantly suggests, it is time for policymakers to recognise that “one of the main aims of development” would be to eliminate disease, instead of doing so as “a desirable afterthought”.

Disturbed Mind

A Little Push...

While we often think that behaviours of humans are more often shaped by oneself than anything else, and that perhaps all psychological issues stems from innate factors, there appears much cases of the otherwise. Apparently, it now appears that a common parasite of humans could be responsible for behavioural changes in human beings and even some psychological issues. Even then, Toxoplasma gondii should not be an excuse for any sort of such problems one faces.

The concept that humans are mere expression of genes and subjected to the whims and fancies of little parasitic organisms, cells and organelles or even the greater, more subtle system of evolution is naturally disturbing. It is important that we do not see things this way. Even though we can be prodded to do things we think we have decided to do purely out of free will, we are very much in control. Richard Thaler’s Nudge gives us a good sense of what tricks us and what sort of weaknesses we have and how we can discipline ourselves to make the choices we truly want to make and live a better life. In that sense, we remain in control.

Richard Thaler is one of the behavioural economist whose research and experiments have been widely quoted by popular economics and sociology books. Journalist like Malcolm Gladwell probably loves him and so do other economist book writers like Tim Harford and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt.

Printing Stuff

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Cheaper way of lighting up...

Imagine you need a square meter of light, perhaps for a single ’tile’ on the ceiling that emits lights at your building. You’d probably get contractors to make a box with circuits inside that connects to a couple of fluorescent tubes (or if you’re quite rich, a couple of LEDs) and then cover the thing with a translucent white piece of acrylic. The entire structure is bulky and probably quite energy consuming. Now, scientists have found a way to make a ‘sheet’ of LED that would allow you to make that ‘lighted tile’ much more easily and is also much more compact. Essentially, the technology allows you to print a circuit that is wired in a way that acts as a diode, and one that emits light.

And since we’re at the issue of printing stuff; we mentioned previously about industrial prototyping machines that churns out 3D structures/models. I was quite intrigued by the idea of being able to print out a peg for your clothes or even design a shoe that fits you perfectly. But perhaps even more amazing would be the ability to print out cells, tissues and even organs as reported by The Economist.

The article mentioned about growing organs from scratch and raised the example of bladders being grown from original cells of patients. Essentially the patients are donating organs to themselves; the same applies for the printing of organs. The idea is appealing because there’s nothing artificial about them beside the involvement of doctors in the process of growing the cells and putting them together – ultimately the organ is still organic and from the patients. Perhaps then, Iran’s model for kidney donation won’t be so appealing anymore.

Open Musings

Extracting Neural Info in Progress...

Popular Science featured an article about mind-reading technology; it describes the development of technologies and computing that helps to reconstruct images from purely information extracted from brain scans. That is pretty amazing since it is basically deciphering the code used to contain information in our minds and then trying to build up the information that is stored in the codes.

What I was wondering is if these images reconstructed actually reflects any sort of thoughts by the person. In other words, has the brain processed these images at all? In the Awareness Tests that was part of a campaign by Transport for London to raise awareness of presence of cyclist to other road users, you realise that you do not see some things that you don’t focus on in an image sequence. The question then, is whether the brain really didn’t see the images or it merely didn’t process it. Would these mind-reading technology at this moment be showing those details or parts that we didn’t notice?

Or perhaps they need to improve the technology before they can answer such questions; then the complex ethical problems will set in. Philosophy can’t work on an ethical problem until infringing it becomes a real possibility. Even then, they almost never help us get an answer. So meanwhile we’ll just think and wait around.

The return of tuberculosis?

Dirty Lungs!

Jeneen Interlandi writes in Newsweek’s Special Edition – Issues 2010 about the return of tuberculosis (TB), an infectious diseases that is thought to be well under control but is in fact returning with a vengeance to many countries around the world. While focus on infectious diseases has been placed heavily on HIV / AIDS and malaria, tuberculosis has been left “to fester” as it continues to kill on average 5000 people daily, much more than “swine flu has killed in the past year”.

Medication against tuberculosis has been present since 1944, but the tuberculosis bacterium continues to develop drug resistance to newer drugs over time. The development of MDR-TB (multi drug-resistant TB) and XDR-TB (extensively drug-resistant TB) has been a worrying trend, not just in poor continents like Africa where many infectious diseases continue to rage, but even in more developed regions like Eastern Europe. TB specialists argue that money for research into curing TB is insufficient, and most of the research focus on infectious diseases is on other “headline” diseases like HIV / AIDS. This old but still strong bacterium is “exposing all the cracks in our multi billion-dollar global health system”.

Solutions? One that is already being undertaken by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is to tackle TB together with HIV / AIDS, since the reduced immunity of these patients will make them especially susceptible to TB. This approach does seem to have its own problems, as manifested in Swaziland.

Hence a more comprehensive solution needs to be developed that prevents diseases from occurring in the first place: “clean water, nutritious food and functioning clinics”. Vaccine development and drug discovery needs to continue, but we should not forget the real basis that will bring about good health in the first place, especially in disease-ravaged continents such as Africa. We cannot afford to ignore XDR-TB, in particular, because while it has high mortality rates of 90%, patients “usually live for several months”, enough to spread this extremely virulent form of TB to more people and create more havoc on the health system.