– and on the seventh day we learn.
Each week I hope to give a synopsis of the interesting science stories I have heard on my plethora of science podcasts I listen to each week plus anything I pick up scanning the inter-web. This week’s top stories:
Words of the Week:
Pyroelectricity – the ability of certain materials to generate a temporary voltage when they are heated or cooled. Pyroelectricity is the property presented by certain materials that exhibit an electric polarization Pi when a temperature variation δΘ is applied uniformly: Pi = piT δΘ.
Narcissistic – Narcissistic personality disorder described as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity. Narcissistic personality disorder is closely linked to self-centeredness. (DSM-IV – Diagnostic Criteria)
Fundamental Constants ‘Change’ –
The electromagnetic force has gotten a little stronger, gravity a little weaker, and the size of the smallest “quantum” of energy is now known a little better. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has posted the latest internationally recommended values of the fundamental constants of nature.
The values are determined by the Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) Task Group on Fundamental Constants, an international group that includes NIST members. The adjusted values reflect some significant scientific developments over the last four years.
Often the biggest news in a fundamental constant value is a reduced uncertainty — scientists know the value better. The uncertainty in the value of the fine-structure constant alpha (? = 7.297 352 5698 x 10-3), which dictates the strength of the electromagnetic force, has been slashed in half to 0.3 parts per billion (ppb). Since alpha can be measured in a uniquely broad range of phenomena from the recoil of atoms to the magnetic properties of electrons, the consistency of the measurements acts as a barometer of scientists’ general understanding of physics. Alpha will also be a critical constant after a redefinition of the SI: it will remain an experimentally determined constant, while quite a few others’ values will be fixed to define the basic measurement units.
Narcissists need no reality check -
These sultans of self-regard accurately appraise their own personalities and reputations, say psychologist Erika Carlson of Washington University in St. Louis and her colleagues. Carlson’s team unexpectedly finds that narcissists acknowledge their own narcissism and assume that their arrogant strut gets frowned on by others.
In a further reality check, narcissists tend to realize that they make good first impressions that rapidly turn sour, the researchers report in the July Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (in a paper titled “You Probably Think This Paper’s About You”)..
Reducing animal experiments -
On Monday last week the UK government announced plans to reduce the use of animals in scientific research and to end animal testing of household products. The UK National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) will lead the process. Quentin speaks to Dr Vicky Robinson, Chief Executive of the NC3Rs and Professor Roger Morris of Kings College London, whose Biomedical Sciences department uses animals for research.
An interesting debate on the tension between the need to use animal analogues for effective medical research and the rights of animals (or perhaps you tolerance for suffering of individuals of other species)
The pending extinction of the common banana -
America’s most widely eaten banana type, the Cavendish, is threatened by a fungus that could wipe out U.S. banana supplies if it spreads to Latin America. Banana expert Dan Koeppel discusses the problem of banana monoculture, and why he says we should demand banana variety.
The banana as we know it may soon be extinction from our grocery stores. For scientists, the battle to resuscitate the world’s favorite fruit has begun—a race against time that just may be too late to win.
Many people do not realize that the common banana now, the Cavendish, is itself a replacement of the ‘common banana’ of a 100-50 yrs ago. The “Big Mike” was the big banana until it was driven to commercial extinction by a Panama disease in the 1960’s.
Russian space telescope -
The operation to deploy the 10-metre-diameter antenna of the Spketr-R telescope, which was launched into orbit on Monday, has been successfully carried out, space agency Roskosmos said in a statement.
Memories May Skew Visual Perception -
Taking a trip down memory lane while you are driving could land you in a roadside ditch, new research indicates. Vanderbilt University psychologists have found that our visual perception can be contaminated by memories of what we have recently seen, impairing our ability to properly understand and act on what we are currently seeing.
“This study shows that holding the memory of a visual event in our mind for a short period of time can ‘contaminate’ visual perception during the time that we’re remembering,” Randolph Blake, study co-author and Centennial Professor of Psychology, said.
“Our study represents the first conclusive evidence for such contamination, and the results strongly suggest that remembering and perceiving engage at least some of the same brain areas.”
Face Value -
The looks of political candidates are a key factor influencing voters, a phenomenon identified by a number of scholars in recent years. Now, a new study by MIT political scientists adds to this body of research by detailing which types of citizens are most influenced by candidate appearances, and why: The tendency is most prevalent among low-information voters who watch a lot of television.
Using data from the 2006 U.S. Senate and governors’ races, the study shows that for every 10-point increase in the advantage a candidate has when rated by voters on his or her looks, there will be a nearly 5 percent increase in the vote for that candidate by the uninformed voters who are most firmly planted on their couches. Yet that same advantage in looks is worth only about a 1 percent increase among low-information voters who watch little television.
“It’s not that this effect influences all voters exactly the same way,” says Chappell Lawson, an associate professor of political science at MIT and a co-author of the study. “Voters who watch a lot of television but don’t really know much about the candidates, besides how they look, are particularly susceptible.”
Lingering Lies -
After people realize the facts have been fudged, they do their best to set the record straight: judges tell juries to forget misleading testimony; newspapers publish errata. But even explicit warnings to ignore misinformation cannot erase the damage done, according to a new study from the University of Western Australia.
Psychologists asked college students to read an account of an accident involving a busload of elderly passengers. The students were then told that, actually, those on the bus were not elderly. For some students, the information ended there. Others were told the bus had in fact been transporting a college hockey team. And still others were warned about what psychologists call the continued influence of misinformation—that people tend to have a hard time ignoring what they first heard, even if they know it is wrong—and that they should be extra vigilant about getting the story straight.
Students who had been warned about misinformation or given the alternative story were less likely than control subjects to make inferences using the old information later—but they still erred sometimes, agreeing with statements such as “the passengers found it difficult to exit the bus because they were frail.”
This result shows that “even if you understand, remember and believe the retractions, this misinformation will still affect your inferences,” says Western Australia psychologist Ullrich Ecker, an author of the study. Our memory is constantly connecting new facts to old and tying different aspects of a situation together, so that we may still unconsciously draw on facts we know to be wrong to make decisions later. “Memory has evolved to be both stable and flexible,” Ecker says, “but that also has a downside.” [For more on how memory relies on connections and makes inferences, see “Making Connections,” by Anthony J. Greene; Scientific American Mind, July/August 2010.].
Where should the next Mars rover land? -
NASA’s next rover to land on Mars will touch down in a place called Gale crater, a site that scientists say will offer the best chance for studying whether the red planet could have supported life.
Disputes Over Content of Wikipedia -
Disputes over the content of articles in the internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia can serve as an indicator for the political stability of a country. This was proposed based on a “Wikipedia Dispute Index” developed by researchers working at Heidelberg University. This index measures the frequency of pages linked to a country that are disputed by users of the online encyclopaedia. The ranking of countries based on this index is similar to other, much more complex indices relating, for example, to governance or the economy. To calculate the index, the scientists used methods similar to those applied to biological networks and applied them to the cross-linked information in Wikipedia.
“The evaluation of our ranking for the most cross-linked countries suggests that debates in Wikipedia correlate with regional instabilities all over the world,” Prof. Robert Russell of Heidelberg University’s Cluster of Excellence CellNetworks explains. “Here our Dispute Index is in very good agreement with indicators that are much more difficult to elaborate and are usually based on a combination of different political and economic metrics. The Index is not entirely free of subjectivity, but it is easy to calculate and is independent of complex data capture or expert questioning.”
Killing of Bin Laden Worsened Americans’ Views of U.S. Muslims –
In the weeks following the U.S. military campaign that killed bin Laden, the head of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda, American attitudes toward Muslim Americans took a significant negative shift, results showed.
Americans found Muslims living in the United States more threatening after bin Laden’s death, positive perceptions of Muslims plummeted, and those surveyed were less likely to oppose restrictions on Muslim Americans’ civil liberties.