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Archive for February, 2011

Star Wars Books Are Going in An Odd Direction…

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

 

I took this myself. And no, you are not allowed to ask me why I was in the Erotica section!

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Special Oscar Edition!

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

What on earth does a science/skeptical blog have to write about around Oscar time? With all the hype that surrounds the Academy Awards, which air tonight at 8:30 EST, it’s not surprising that coverage spills into areas of science, pseudoscience, technology and awesome. For example:

  • Filling the gap left by the death of Paul the psychic octopus, Heidi the cross-eyed opossum, who lives at a zoo in Leipzig, Germany, made her prediction for Best Actress on the Jimmy Kimmel show. She chose Natalie Portman for her role in ‘Black Swan’. This gave me great pleasure since I’ve had a crush on Natalie Portman ever since she was the only good thing about the Star Wars prequels.

  • The Economist wrote a short article on the science behind some speech impediments in honour of the success of ‘The King’s Speech’

  • 2 of the 5 nominated movies for Best Documentary deal with the environment. One of those films, called ‘Gasland‘, deals with hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” and prompted Scientific American to write a feature article about it.

  • By monitoring social media chatter from sites like Twitter and Facebook, the Meltwater Group has made their prediction of Oscar winners based on the number of mentions of a certain movie or actor/actress. Based on this data, the favourites are ‘The King’s Speech’ for Best Picture, James Franco for Best Actor, and Natalie Portman for Best Actress. 

  • And finally, the Best Picture nominees in LEGO form. You can see them all on Gawker, but here are my favourites:

127 Hours

Inception

The Fighter

A PLAYABLE ‘Angry Birds’ Birthday Cake!

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

For those who don’t know, ‘Angry Birds‘ is a very popular (and addictive!) game for smartphones.

The premise is simple: fling birds (who are angry) out of a slingshot to knock over structures and kill the green pigs.

This lucky young man got an Angry Birds cake for his birthday. Awesome!

 

I, For One, Welcome Our Marathon-running Robot Overlords

February 24, 2011 1 comment

It has been a bad couple of weeks for humans.

With Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter getting defeated quite easily by IBM’s supercomputer ‘Watson‘ at a game of ‘Jeopardy!’, mankind is on the ropes to robots.

Undated handout photo of Jeopardy! contestants Ken Jennings (second from left) and Brad Rutter (right) — shown with host Alex Trebek — as they prepare to play the supercomputer Watson.

Photograph by: Jeopardy Productions, Inc., Handout

Now, robots are not only starting to make ground against humans in games of intellect, but also in physical activity.

The first ever robot marathon, called the Robomarafull event, has kicked off today in Osaka, Japan. The race contestants are 5 knee-high “athletes” which will traverse the full 26 miles (42 km) of a marathon on an indoor track.

Finishing the race will involve circling the track 423 times and is expected to take about 4 days. Since the current world record for running a marathon is 2 hours, 3 minutes and 39 seconds for a (human) male and 2 hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds for a (human) female, the robots still have a ways to go.

The rules of the race allow robot operators to change the motors and batteries of their contestants, but they cannot help the robot get back on its feet if it falls.

Since the race is going to take 4 days, it’s not so much about speed but endurance. As such, it is always important to train and stretch…

Cell Phones, Your Brain, and the Media

February 23, 2011 72 comments

Usually, when a scientific study gets this much media attention, it has something quite impactful to report.

But when the study has nice, media-friendly buzz-words like “radiation” and “brain activity”, you get a firestorm of media coverage. Even if your study doesn’t say all that much.

The study I am referring to is called “Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism” which was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study looked at 47 healthy volunteers; a relatively small study. The researchers took these volunteers and gave them all PET scans on their brains. They had also strapped two cellphones on either side of their head. One cell phone was on, and the other was turned off.

During a 50 minute phone call, they compared the two sides of their brain to see if there was any change in glucose uptake.

What did they find?

Whole-brain metabolism did not differ between on and off conditions. In contrast, metabolism in the region closest to the antenna (orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole) was significantly higher for on than off conditions (35.7 vs 33.3 μmol/100 g per minute; mean difference, 2.4 [95% confidence interval, 0.67-4.2]; P = .004). The increases were significantly correlated with the estimated electromagnetic field amplitudes both for absolute metabolism (R = 0.95,P < .001) and normalized metabolism (R = 0.89; P < .001). [JAMA]

So basically, whole-brain metabolism was the same whether the phone was on or off. However, in regions close to the phone’s antenna, the metabolism was “significantly higher”. It is important to point out that in this context, “significantly” means statistical significance, not a large increase. In fact, the increase was only about 7%.

Brain imaging physicist Dardo Tomasi of Brookhaven National Laboratory, who co-authored the study, said that’s several times less activity than visual brain regions show during an engaging movie. [Wired]

Ok, so now the important question: what does this mean for our health? Nora Volkow, the study’s lead author commented:

Volkow says it is too early to tell whether this is good or bad for the brain. “Much larger fluctuations in brain activity occur naturally,” says Patrick Haggard at University College London. In fact, being able to increase activity might boost the brain’s connectivity, and could even be useful therapeutically, Volkow suggests. [New Scientist]

So although the study was published as a “Preliminary Communication”, and that the study itself concludes:

This finding is of unknown clinical significance. [JAMA] (emphasis mine)

there is still a large number of news outlets which reported on the study. Why?

Well we know why already. That “unknown” word in the above quote carries a lot of baggage.

Cell phones are the new danger to health, of course. Despite there being no conclusive evidence that cell phones even have the ability to cause cancer, and the fact that even with the explosion of cell phone use in recent years, cancer rates have not increased, people are still scared of their cell phone.

This is thanks to poor media coverage, and a few crackpots out there who are determined to prove that technology is going to destroy us all.

And as a result this small, preliminary study with a result that, while interesting, is completely benign, gets extensive media coverage. Not only that, but some news sites give thinly veiled comments suggesting that the results somehow show that cell phones are dangerous, like this one:

The unusual finding, published on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is likely to lead to new calls for stricter regulation of radiation emissions from the ubiquitous phones. The government currently assumes the signals have no effects other than a harmless warming of tissues near where they’re held. [The Globe and Mail]

or this one:

Some studies have linked cell phone exposure to an increased risk of brain cancers, but a large study by the World Health Organization was inconclusive. [MSNBC]

Of course they used the word “inconclusive” in the above quote, when it should really read “it showed no correlation”. Scicurious points out that this is probably because “‘inconclusive’ sounds scarier”.

So nobody panic. This study does not show that cell phones are dangerous. It may show that the electric field from the antenna somehow increases metabolism of glucose, but those findings need to be corroborated by other labs. Let’s wait until their findings are duplicated on a larger scale and a mechanism by which this effect happens can be discovered before we decide what, if any, impact this study should have.

Best. Article Title. Ever.

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Only things as awesome as this deserve: Single. Word. Sentences.

“I bet this study was a real pain in the ass.”

Got a better caption? Let’s hear it!

Promoted! Well, in Starcraft…

February 22, 2011 1 comment

Not a job promotion, that would be sweeter (a little). But I did just get promoted to Gold league in Starcraft 2.

That’s pretty much all that’s new with me in the last few days. Although I did start taking skiing lessons, built some furniture, saw ‘The King’s Speech’, got over a fever, caught up on reading, cooked some new recipes, taught a 3 hour training session at work while also catching up on a ton of work that piled up over the long weekend.

So yeah, I missed posting this weekend. But I have been uncharacteristically busy. Though not too busy that I couldn’t practice my Zerg battles in SC2… (I’m a Terran player, in case you were wondering).

So back to regular schedule tomorrow. Hope you all had a great Family Day/President’s Day. We’ll talk science soon!