Friday, October 9, 2015

Fish for Friday

Edited by Morris Dean

[Anonymous selections from recent correspondence]

“A New View of a Nebula Full of Newborn Stars.” [Sindya N. Bhanoo, NY Times] Excerpt:
A dazzling image of Messier 17, a reddish nebula 5,500 light-years from Earth, provides a detailed view of its newborn stars, gas clouds and dust. The gas in the nebula has a mass about 30,000 times that of the sun, astronomers estimate. The center of the nebula is home to more than 800 stars, and more are forming in the outer regions. The nebula is near the plane of the Milky Way, in the constellation Sagittarius, and is named after Charles Messier, who discovered it in 1764. The image was captured by a telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile. [read more]
“The Folly of Big Science Awards.” [Sam Island, NY Times] Excerpt:
Every recent recipient has undoubtedly deserved the honor. But that doesn’t mean that prizes for medical research are a good idea.
    The Nobel, along with the Dickson, Lasker-DeBakey, Canada Gairdner and other major awards, honors the scientists who are usually in the least need of recognition and funding, which squeezes out opportunities for other scientists.
    More important, by emphasizing the importance of scientific breakthroughs — serendipitous occurrences that rely on decades of research — these prizes play down, and diminish, the way that great medical advances build on one another....
    Around 1990, a team of scientists found a protein on the surface of immune cells and proposed that it stimulated the immune system. Dr. Allison’s lab and a third group suggested that the protein put the brakes on immune responses. A fourth group confirmed that it halted the immune system, rather than stimulating it. Dr. Allison later showed that blocking this protein with an antibody could unleash an immune response in animals that could lead not only to rejection of but also immunity to many kinds of cancers. A decade later, similar antibodies to this protein and other related ones were found to prevail against several types of human cancers.
    Dr. Allison’s work is surely impressive. But it occurred alongside and in dialogue with a number of related findings. Researchers analyzed the citations that led to Dr. Allison’s drug and concluded that it relied on work conducted by 7,000 scientists at 5,700 institutions over a hundred-year period. Yet only he was recognized....
    One study that tracked funding for university professors and researchers over an eight-year period found that about 80 percent of research funds in basic medical sciences were concentrated among the top fifth of researchers. This is bad for the long-term health of the discipline: After top scientists retire, who will replace them? We should be giving more support to midcareer scientists whose work will contribute to major advances in the future.
    And there’s yet another problem. By honoring breakthroughs, award committees reinforce the misconception that science is all about discoveries, when the cornerstone of science is replication and corroboration of results, which ensure that a finding is real and not a false lead....
    All the winners of this year’s Nobel Prizes deserve praise. But the most important scientists are the ones who demand better experimental design and pursue the truth, regardless of how things turn out. [read more]
It appears that we have an incredibly precise, built-in copier of DNA in our cells, one that corrects faulty copies.
    If we had to rely on Xerox-quality copies they would have made life on earth impossible! “Nobel prize for chemistry: Lindahl, Modrich and Sancar win for DNA research.” [Ian Sample & James Randerson, Guardian] Excerpt:

The Nobel prize in chemistry has been awarded to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar for their research into the mechanisms that cells use to repair DNA.
    The three scientists, from Sweden, the US and Turkey respectively, received an equal share of the prestigious 8m Swedish kronor (£631,000) award for “mechanistic studies of DNA repair”. Their research mapped and explained how the cell repairs its DNA in order to prevent errors occurring in genetic information....
    From the moment an egg is fertilised it begins to divide. Two cells become four, four cells become eight. After one week a human embryo consists of 128 cells, each with its own set of genetic material. Unravel all that DNA and it would stretch for 300 metres.
    But many billions more divisions take place on the path to adulthood, until we carry enough DNA in our trillions of cells to reach 250 times to the sun and back. The most remarkable feat is how the genetic information is copied so faithfully. “From a chemical perspective, this ought to be impossible,” the Nobel committee said.
    “All chemical processes are prone to random errors. Additionally, your DNA is subjected on a daily basis to damaging radiation and reactive molecules. In fact, you ought to have been a chemical chaos long before you even developed into a foetus,” they added.
    Lindahl, Modrich and Sancar worked out how cells repair faults that inevitably creep in when DNA is copied time and time again, and mutations that arise under a barrage of environmental factors such as UV rays in sunlight. [read more]
A set of ultratiny nanotube
transistors made by IBM
“IBM Scientists Find New Way to Shrink Transistors.” [NY Times] Excerpt:
On Thursday [Oct. 1], however, IBM scientists reported that they now believe they see a path around the wall. Writing in the journal Science, a team at the company’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center said it has found a new way to make transistors from parallel rows of carbon nanotubes....
    [D]uring the last decade, the pace and power of semiconductor technology has begun to slow. The switching speed of computer chips stopped increasing because heat created by ultrafast processors was rising to the point where the chips would break.
    More recently, for most of the industry, the cost of transistors has ceased to decline with each new generation. This has undercut the tremendous power of the technology to create new markets. And this year, Intel announced that the challenges and costs of bringing a new generation of technology to market had forced it to slow the every-two-year pace it had been on for more than a decade.
    Now the industry has a new reason for optimism. [read more]
“Enemies of the Sun.” [Paul Krugman, NY Times] Excerpt:
[R]ecent speeches by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — still the most likely Republican presidential nominees — barely address [either conservation or renewable energy]. When it comes to energy policy, the G.O.P. has become fossilized. That is, it’s fossil fuels, and only fossil fuels, all the way.
    And that’s a remarkable development, because while it’s true that fracking has led to a boom in U.S. gas and oil production, we’re also living in an era of spectacular progress in wind and solar energy. Why has the right become so hostile to technologies that look more and more like the wave of the future?....
    ...The cost of wind power has dropped sharply – 30 percent in just the past five years, according to the International Energy Agency.
   And solar panels are becoming cheaper and more efficient at a startling rate, reminiscent of the progress in microchips that underlies the information technology revolution. As a result, renewables account for essentially all recent growth in electricity generation capacity in advanced countries.
   Furthermore, renewables have become major industries in their own right, employing several hundred thousand people in the United States. Employment in the solar industry alone now exceeds the number of coal miners, and solar is adding jobs even as coal declines.
   So you might expect people like Mr. Rubio, who says he wants to “unleash our energy potential,” and Mr. Bush, who says he wants to “unleash the Energy Revolution,” to embrace wind and solar as engines of jobs and growth. But they don’t...Why?
    Part of the answer is surely that promotion of renewable energy is linked in many people’s minds with attempts to limit climate change — and climate denial has become a key part of conservative identity. [read more]
“Stuff Happens to the Environment, Like Climate Change.” [Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times] Excerpt:
When, at CNN’s G.O.P. presidential debate, the moderator Jake Tapper read statements from Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz (who drives an electric car powered by solar panels on his home’s roof) about how Reagan urged industry to proactively address ozone depletion, and why Shultz believes we should be just as proactive today in dealing with climate change, he got the usual know-nothing responses.
    Senator Marco Rubio said, “We’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do,” while Gov. Chris Christie opined of Shultz, “Listen, everybody makes a mistake every once in a while.”
    They sure do, and it’s not Shultz, who has been wisely and courageously telling Republicans that the conservative thing to do now is to take out some insurance against climate change, because if it really gets rocking the results could be “catastrophic.” Hurricane Sandy — likely amplified by warmer ocean waters — caused over $36 billion in damage to Christie’s own state, New Jersey, in 2012.
    But hey, stuff just happens.
    There was a time when we could tolerate this kind of dumb-as-we-wanna-be thinking. But it’s over. The next eight years will be critical for the world’s climate and ecosystems, and if you vote for a climate skeptic for president, you’d better talk to your kids first, because you will have to answer to them later.
    If you have time to read one book on this subject, I highly recommend the new Big World, Small Planet, by Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, and Mattias Klum, whose stunning photographs of ecosystem disruptions reinforce the urgency of the moment. [read more]
Only in Australia:

Three statisticians go hunting. They encounter a rabbit. The first shoots 6" high. The second shoots 6" low. The third shouts, “We got him!”

The umbrellas of Agueda – Portugal

Limerick of the week:
Recipe for a last-hour limerick:
to whatever you use, add tumeric,
    season everything to taste,
    do it slowly, in no haste,
then add ground tickle-weed to humor it.
Copyright © 2015 by Morris Dean


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! New view of a nebula, big science, DNA correction, shrunken transistors, ​climate-change denial key, pet-walking in Australia, hunting statisticians, ​umbrellas of Agueda, recipe for a limerick....

  2. The "last hour" attribute of today's limerick is, as I hope readers understood, autobiographical. Not that many others haven't also been written at the last hour, if not at the last minute.