The Top 10 Science Stories of 2010

Top-10-science-stories-of-2010_1_thumb From the editors of Scientific American:

Year-end lists inevitably leave room for debate and criticism, and ours is no exception. It was an eventful year, and we relied on voting among Scientific American editors to cull our candidates. Any of these notable achievements were certainly worthy but didn't make the final cut. The runners-up were:

• The discovery in South Africa of a new hominid, called Australopithecus sediba, that could be a lost member of our family tree

• The emergence of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial way to recover natural gas trapped in deep rocks

• The detection of an atmosphere of a “super-Earth” and other signs of potentially habitable worlds around other stars

Art, Ethics and Christmas

Nick Smyth in Yeah, Okay, But Still:

Alastair-Sim On Christmas Eve, millions upon millions of Americans sat down to watch A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, just as they did in 2009, 2008 and so on back into the decades. They found themselves captivated; weeping and laughing, alternating between righteous anger and warm-hearted approval. Many walked away from their television screens with a deep sense of moral strength, knowing in their hearts that that an insatiable lust for money will destroy a person and his community, certain beyond a doubt that greedy, irresponsible lending practices are the scourge of individuals and societies alike.

Hang on…“Insatiable lust for money?” “Greedy, irresponsible lending practices?” Haven’t those phrases been in the headlines recently?


In recent years, many have argued that the narrative arts—theatre, film and literature—are a great boon to the development of an ethical personality. Martha Nussbaum is perhaps the most respected advocate of this basic kind of position, arguing (in “Love’s Knowledge”) that to read a novel just is to exercise our capacity for ethical judgment. Michael DePaul summarizes this idea when he suggests that literature can “supply the kind of experience needed to develop a person’s faculty of moral judgment”. It has been said that a heartfelt engagement with those arts expands our imaginative horizons, engages our emotions of sympathy, and allows us to see the world through other eyes. We project ourselves into the lives of others, and this broadening of perspective makes us more sensitive and empathic.

More here.

Faith and Modernity

From The New York Times:

Roy_HI_2010 Every winter Fox News, seeking to stir up anger through the land, uncovers evidence of a war on Christmas. Secular humanists ignorant of religion and hostile to its traditions, someone in the studio will declare, want us to say “Happy Holiday” or give Kwanzaa equal standing. But Christmas, as its name suggests, is about Christ. These enemies of Christianity will stop at nothing to get their way. Not even Santa Claus is sacred to them. Actually, as the brilliant French social scientist Olivier Roy points out in “Holy Ignorance,” it is those defending Christmas who are not being true to their traditions and teachings. There are no Christmas dinners in the Bible, which is why America’s Puritans, strict adherents of what that venerated text offers, never sat down by the raging fire awaiting St. Nick; indeed, they briefly banned Christmas in Massachusetts. Yule as we celebrate it today owes more to Charles Dickens than to Thomas Aquinas. Our major solstice holiday is what Roy calls a “cultural construct” rather than a sectarian ceremony, which explains why Muslims buy halal turkeys and Jews transformed Hanukkah into a gift-giving occasion. Mistakenly believing that Christmas is sacred, those who defend it find themselves propping up the profane. The Christ they want in Christmas is a product not of Nazareth but of Madison Avenue.

Over the past few years, a number of theories have been offered about the rise of fundamentalism. Roy proposes the most original — and the most persuasive. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society. Whether it takes the form of the Christian right in the United States or Salafist purity in the Muslim world, fundamentalism is not about restoring a more authentic and deeply spiritual religious experience. It is instead a manifestation of holy ignorance, Roy’s biting term meant to characterize the worldview of those who, having lost both their theology and their roots, subscribe to ideas as incoherent as they are ultimately futile. The most important thing to know about those urging the restoration of a lost religious authenticity is that they are sustained by the very forces they denounce.

More here.

What Did Jesus Do?

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

Jesus When we meet Jesus of Nazareth at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, almost surely the oldest of the four, he’s a full-grown man. He comes down from Galilee, meets John, an ascetic desert hermit who lives on locusts and wild honey, and is baptized by him in the River Jordan. If one thing seems nearly certain to the people who read and study the Gospels for a living, it’s that this really happened: John the Baptizer—as some like to call him, to give a better sense of the original Greek’s flat-footed active form—baptized Jesus. They believe it because it seems so unlikely, so at odds with the idea that Jesus always played the star in his own show: why would anyone have said it if it weren’t true? This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded. If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.

So then, the scholars argue, the author of Mark, whoever he was—the familiar names conventionally attached to each Gospel come later*—added the famous statement of divine favor, descending directly from the heavens as they opened. But what does the voice say? In Mark, the voice says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” seeming to inform a Jesus who doesn’t yet know that this is so. But some early versions of Luke have the voice quoting Psalm 2: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Only in Matthew does it announce Jesus’ divinity to the world as though it were an ancient, fixed agreement, not a new act.

More here.

When it comes to counting calories, a mind is a terrible thing to your waist

From Scientific American:

Fatuous-fantasies_1 Yiddish literature includes numerous stories about the mythical village of Chelm, filled with people who, well, let’s put it this way: they are not likely to graduate first in their Yeshiva class. One such tale involves befuddled carpenters who could not figure out why, no matter how many times they cut additional pieces off the ends of a board, it was still too short. Oy. Now new research shows that when it comes to food, most people are honorary citizens of Chelm. Investigator Alexander Chernev, for one, has discovered that many people believe they can cut a meal’s calorie count by an ingenious method—adding more food! Oy.

Chernev, who investigates consumer behavior at Northwestern University’s Kellogg (snap, crackle, pop) School of Management, spends an inordinate amount of time around hamburgers for a guy who’s not managing a McDonald’s. Publishing in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, he explains that people act as if healthful foods have “halos”—their healthfulness extends to the rest of the meal. Vegetables and fruit: big halos. Angel food cake: no halo. Go figure. Here is where the mind applies cockamamie calculus to meals. Eaters consider a food’s health­fulness to be related to how “fattening” it is. “Because healthier meals are perceived to be less likely to promote weight gain,” Chernev writes, “people erroneously assume that adding a healthy item to a meal decreases its potential to promote weight gain.” More is less, more or less.

More here.

Friday Poem

Advice to a Poet

Be a chauffeur, my father said
And never mind the poetry.
That’s all very well for the rich
They can afford it.
What you need is money in your belt
Free uniform and plenty of travel.
Besides that, there’s nothing in verse.
And all poets are raging homosexuals.

I’d still like to be a poet

Another thing: don’t ever marry
And if you do, then marry for cash.
Love, after all, is easily come by
And any old whore will dance for a pound.
Take my advice and be a chauffeur
The uniform will suit you a treat
Marriage and poems will blind you surely
And poets and lovers are doomed to hell.

I’d still like to be a poet

But where’s the sense in writing poetry?
Did any poet ever make good?
I never met one who wasn’t a pauper
A prey to bailiffs, lawyers and priests.
Take my advice and be a chauffeur
With your appearance you’re bound to do well
You might even meet some rich old widow
Who’ll leave you a fortune the moment she dies.

I’d still like to be a poet

Well, blast you then, your days are darkened
Poverty, misery, carnage and sin.
The poems you’ll write won’t be worth a penny.
And the women you marry will bleed you to death.
Take my advice and buy a revolver
Shoot yourself now in the back of the head.
The Government then might raise a subscription
To keep your poor father from breeding again.

by Patrick Galvin
from New and Selected Poems
Cork University Press, Cork, 1996
© 1979

Primary School Students Conduct and Publish a Study on Bees

From Scientific American:

Low-grade-science-primary-school_1 Twenty-five primary school students in the U.K. are the authors of a new study on how bees perceive color and patterns. In fact, the children devised the research, conducted the experiments, analyzed the data and wrote up the results. Led by neuroscientist Beau Lotto, of University College London, the students found that bees can use both color and location to remember where nectar-producing flowers are. “It‘s an original discovery, quite apart from who did it,” Lotto says. As part of the U.K.'s National Science and Engineering Week, Lotto traveled to the Blackawton Primary School in Devon—approximately 320 kilometers southwest of London—to show the children exactly how science works. Lotto had previously studied perception in bees and knew that the insects lent themselves to simple but profound experiments, perfect for young investigators.

Lotto began the study by asking his 25 eight- to 10-year-old collaborators what questions they would like to ask of a buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). The students discussed these questions with Lotto and collectively refined the questions they would like to ask the species. One of their questions—Do bumblebees use heat to help find nectar?—was the subject of a 2006 paper in Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) The students, however, were not aware of this; all they knew was that it seemed like an interesting question.

More here.

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms


The Coen brothers make two kinds of movies: ones that obsess over the existence of evil and ones that muse on it, accept it merrily, and plow on. True Grit (Paramount Pictures) is the second type, which I tend to prefer. I fear this nimble seriocomic Western won’t be recognized as the fine movie it is, both because the Coens were so recently bathed in Oscar glory for No Country for Old Men and because critical opinion seems to prefer it when these smart Jewish boys from Minneapolis go deep and dark. A Serious Man, their last film, was a beautifully crafted puzzle that retold the Book of Job—or possibly Ecclesiastes—as a suburban domestic comedy. It was chilly, smart, bleakly hilarious, and cinematically virtuosic to a near-pathological degree. But like much of their work, it wasn’t exactly a movie that offered itself up for the audience’s love. True Grit does, and some Coen brothers fans may think that makes it pandering or lightweight. I think it makes it wonderful. The story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl in 19th-century Arkansas who hires a bounty hunter to avenge her father’s murder, this version of True Grit hews more closely to the cult novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne. Its most marked characteristic is its dialogue, written in a peculiar archaic diction that, for reasons I still haven’t fully understood, never interferes with the movie’s emotional directness. Informed that another character has died, Mattie observes gravely, “His depredations are over.”

more from Dana Stevens at Slate here.

Did the Germans invent Christmas?


Roast goose and red cabbage, bratwurst, gingerbread, candles, hand-crafted wooden figures from the Erzgebirge, blown-glass baubles for the Christmas tree, The Nutcracker and “Silent Night”: these are some of the ingredients that create Gemütlichkeit (a kind of jovial cosiness), Geborgenheit (snug security) and Innigkeit (an inner warmth, awareness of soul) – three words treacherous to translate yet integral to a mood that sees millions flock to the Christmas markets of Berlin, Nuremberg, Dresden and Cologne. German Christmas receives uncharacteristically good press, capturing a lost world of innocence, some argue, a holiday celebrated thus since time immemorial. Not so, reveals Joe Perry in Christmas in Germany, his excellent cultural history: this Christmas celebration is a relatively recent invention, one moulded and manipulated by those in power from the early nineteenth century through the fractured society of the 1848 revolutions, the Franco–Prussian war, the unified Germany of the 1870s, two World Wars, the sandwiched Weimar Republic, the Cold War with US care packages – “the oranges, fine chocolates, coffee, soap, and perfume . . . smelled like the West” – and the Red Christmases of the GDR.

more from Rebecca K. Morrison at the TLS here.

Jacqueline de Romilly (1913-2010)


Jacqueline de Romilly, one of France’s leading scholars of Greek civilization and language and only the second woman to be elected to the Académie Française, died on Saturday in the Paris suburb Boulogne-Billancourt. She was 97. Her death was confirmed by Dr. Philippe Rodet, a friend. Ms. de Romilly, who in 1973 became the first woman named a professor at the Collège de France, embraced the culture of ancient Athens with an almost romantic fervor and spent much of her life championing the humanities, in particular Greek and Latin, whose waning role in the French education system distressed her greatly. Although known as a specialist on the historian Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, she wrote dozens of books on philosophy and political thought in ancient Greece, on the tragedians Aeschylus and Sophocles, and on Homer.

more from William Grimes at the NYT here.

Why Edward Hopper puzzles

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

A woman sits on the bed with her back to us. She is heavily involved in the process of what looks to be the sewing of a dress. Her hair is parted in the middle and falling down forward as she concentrates. She has become one with the simple task she is performing. That kind of thing happens to all of us every day. And there it is on the canvas.


In “Soir Bleu,” Hopper goes too far, he shows too much. He is hitting us over the head with the idea that the clown, with his outwardly clowny appearance, is actually hiding a lonesome and troubled man. It is just plain dumb. But “New York Interior” gives us a woman wrapped up in the process of acting and doing and thinking and dreaming all at once. We don't even have the faintest glimpse of what could be going on in her head, where her thoughts have wandered as she sews her dress. But we know that she is going somewhere, mentally, that her thoughts are wandering. It is in her gesture, in the absent-minded way she pulls the thread. We know that there is an entire universe of interiority unfolding within that person as she does what she does. We can see it because Hopper has so perfectly captured her in that moment of hiddenness without bursting the shell, without rupturing that thin but impenetrable membrane between the inner and outer. “New York Interior” is dangerously close to being a sappy and sentimental study of a lonely young woman. It is a great painting because it hovers so very close to being a cliché without ever crossing that line.

More here.

Thursday Poem


This is the beginning.

Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her, your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

Read more »

Nikesh Shukla’s top 10 Anglo-Asian books

From The Guardian:

The-Black-Album-007 1. Hanif Kureishi – The Black Album

While The Buddha of Suburbia is a masterfully comic tale of rise and fall that loves its characters, there's something a lot more sinister about The Black Album, making it the oddball in his output. It seems to foreshadow works like Four Lions, City of Tiny Lights and even the forthcoming Ours Are the Streets by decades, and is written with the energy and exuberance of Kureishi's early work, embodied by the raw funk of Prince's eponymous album, and the dizzying chemical overload of the ectasy that fills the rave scenes. It charts clean-cut Shahid's trip into hedonism and flirtations with fundamentalism with eerie prescience, and its take on the classic Anglo-Asian identity crisis tale throws a cleancut, sheltered lad in at the deep end of a naked rave party.

More here.

Dead or Alive? The Eyes Hold the Answer

From Science:

Faces With its technologically advanced animated characters, the 2004 film The Polar Express was supposed to change moviemaking. Instead, it gave audiences the creeps. Reviewers dissed it as “the night of the living dead.” Why didn't the audience perceive the characters as alive? Something, they said, was wrong with the eyes.

Now, a new study shows just how important the eyes really are when we judge whether a face is that of a living person or an inanimate object. And that ability, the researchers say, is key to our survival, enabling us to quickly determine whether the eyes we're looking at have a mind behind them. “People want to see faces, and we're very adept at seeing faces everywhere: in clouds, a burnt piece of toast, even two dots and a line,” says Christine Looser, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Dartmouth College and the study's lead author. “And it makes sense to be aware of faces,” because they might be those of living, dangerous creatures, such as a grizzly bear. “But we also don't want to waste time on faces that aren't alive, that aren't attached to minds.”

More here.

Edible Advice

468S10a-f2.2 Farooq Ahmed in Nature:

Too much tea can treble cancer risk in women'. 'Tea could cut risk of ovarian cancer'. Just two examples of the frequent contradictory newspaper headlines that confuse the public about the health benefits — or risks — of food and confound genuine nutrition-related research.

For some diseases such as diabetes the link with food is subtle. “Although we know that dietary factors are related to the risk of diabetes, there are a lot of inconsistencies between studies in terms of what precise micronutrients or macronutrients associate with the disease. We're quite limited in terms of the data,” explains Nick Wareham, head of the epidemiology unit at the UK's Medical Research Council.

Using new tools and methodologies, ambitious projects are underway to make up this shortfall. One such effort, which Wareham coordinates, is InterAct — a multinational study to define how diet and lifestyle influence risk of type 2 diabetes. This disorder of blood glucose regulation is a growing problem in Europe, afflicting nearly 40% of the population at some point in their lifetime. InterAct estimates that the diabetes accounts for as much as 10% of health care costs in Europe.

Through endeavours such as InterAct, researchers are starting to expose the complex interplay of genetics, diet and disease, and bring order to the confusing array of nutritional information.

InterAct began in 2006 as part of the European Community's sixth Framework Programme. It has a budget of euro10 million and involves more than 12,000 patients recently diagnosed with diabetes across 10 countries — nine in Europe plus India. Such a broad cohort is important. “Sometimes variation within a country is not so great,” says Wareham. “International efforts give you heterogeneity in the lifestyles of patients, especially in the diet, and that's a major advantage.” This diversity provides scientists with more variables to study as they attempt to untangle what factors are responsible for causing disease.

Newsprint and Transcendence: Alberto Giacometti vs. the Horrors of the Media Circus.

KeelerVanGogh_0 Jed Perl in The New Republic:

There were wonders to be discovered in New York on a recent cold, clear, brilliant December day. Eykyn Maclean, an elegant new gallery with space on two floors of a narrow building on East 67th Street, had mounted an exhibition of work by Alberto Giacometti. While there was a great deal of sculpture and much else to see, what I found myself thinking about was Giacometti’s curious habit of drawing on the pages of books or on newspapers and magazines, effacing an author’s words or journalism’s daily dose of reality with his masterful renderings of figures and faces. Something in the tidal wave of unmediated information in which we live today—the sense of words and images as detached from reasoned meanings in our crazily wired and Wikileaked moment—has set me to wondering about Giacometti’s willful obscuring or at least partial obscuring of words and images in some of his drawings. There can be something strangely illiberal—something almost demagogic—in the surfeit of information and pseudo-information we are grappling with now. Liberalism must be grounded in distinctions and discriminations, and the other day I found myself wondering if Giacometti’s habit of drawing over and around texts and images was in fact animated by a desire to make certain kinds of judgments, to explore the relative value of various kinds of experience.

Surely Giacometti—friend of Beckett, Genet, Sartre, Leiris, Crevel, and many other writers—was sensitive to the weight of words. So what do we make of the counterpoint he creates as he works his virtuosic lines against blocks of prose? Is he defacing the text or somehow celebrating it? Or are both impulses involved? When Giacometti copies a self-portrait by van Gogh in blue ink on the text page facing the reproduction in John Rewald’s history of Postimpressionism, my first impulse is to see this as nothing more than Giacometti’s spontaneous response to van Gogh. He’s drawing on the paper that is most immediately available, which means that he’s drawing over Rewald’s text. Now I am beginning to wonder if there is not something more going on. I would not be surprised if Giacometti admired Rewald’s writing, so perhaps when he draws over Rewald’s text he’s suggesting a competition between the interpretive arts, writing and drawing as parallel means of responding to the Dutch artist’s achievement. Through the lacework of Giacometti’s drawing, Rewald’s text can still be read. Word and image become two competing forms of knowledge, a modern-day version of the contests between the arts so beloved of the masters of the Renaissance and the Baroque.

Another case of early human interbreeding confirmed in Siberia

John Timmer in ars technica:

ScreenHunter_02 Dec. 22 21.03 It's been a busy year in research on recent human ancestry. Back in the spring, scientists completed a draft of the Neanderthal genome, which provided clear evidence that these now-extinct humans left some of their genes behind by interbreeding with some human ancestors. A bit earlier in the year, DNA sequencing revealed an even larger surprise: there seems to have been another population of premodern humans present in Asia that were genetically distinct from modern humans and Neanderthals. Now, the team behind both of these discoveries is back with a draft genome of this population that suggests it was genetically distinct from both humans and Neanderthals, and a single tooth that suggests it was physically distinct. And that it also interbred with the ancestors of a modern human population.

The new population was identified based on sequence from a single bone found in a cave called Denisova. Sequencing the genome of its mitochondria indicated it had branched off from the ancestor of both humans and Neanderthals roughly a million years ago, making it a relatively archaic lineage. But mitochondrial DNA is prone to rapid sequence changes as well as founder and bottleneck effects, which could exaggerate the divergence. The bone it came from didn't differ significantly from either of these human populations, meaning there was no physical indication that the Denisova remains represented a new population.

In the new paper, which will be published in Nature, the researchers have gone back and corrected both of these issues.

More here. [Thanks to Omar Ali.]

Why Religious People Are Scared of Atheists

Greta Christina in AlterNet:

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 22 20.52 If you follow the atheism debates in op-ed pieces and whatnot, you'll see that critiques of the so-called New Atheist movement are often aimed at our tone. Among the pundits and opinion-makers, atheist writers and activists are typically called out for being offensive, intolerant, disrespectful, extremist, hostile, confrontational, and just generally asshats. The question of whether atheists are, you know, right, typically gets sidestepped in favor of what is apparently the much more compelling question of whether atheists are jerks. And if these op-ed pieces and whatnot were all you knew about the atheist movement and the critiques of it, you might think that atheists were simply being asked to be reasonable, civil, and polite.

But if you follow atheism in the news, you begin to see a very different story.

You begin to see that atheists are regularly criticized — vilified, even — simply for existing.

Or, to be more accurate, for existing in the open. For declining to hide our atheism. For coming out.

Case in point: In Bryan/ College Station, Texas, the Brazos Valley Vuvuzela Atheist Marching Band recently marched in the annual Christmas parade. Now, let's be very clear about this: The 18-person marching band didn't march with signs saying “Fuck Your Religion,” or “You Know It's A Myth,” or even “There's Probably No God — Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.” They wished people a merry Christmas, and a happy Hanukkah, and a merry Kwanzaa. They played “Jingle Bells” on vuvuzelas. And they carried a banner saying they were atheists.

Which was enough, apparently, to send many Christians into fits.

More here.

The bedbug: To accept him is to be free


Insects are so often featured characters in children’s stories because they, like children, appear to adults as simultaneously fragile and invincible. Though most of us prefer the children to the insects, we recognize in both a tendency toward chaos. We want to control that chaos, but are often overcome by it in the process. We sometimes say about the insects that if they would only let us be, their existence would not vex us. That is, if they didn’t insist on reminding us of their existence, we wouldn’t insist on destroying them. This is the logic of xenophobia. In the classic essay “Men versus Insects,” Bertrand Russell wrote that if humans beings, in their rage against each other, invoke the aid of the insects and microorganisms, it is likely the insects will be the “sole ultimate victors”. He was writing in 1933 about the somewhat new idea of using bugs as weapons of mass destruction. Yet we don’t really need a war zone to see how humans use bugs against each other to satisfy their daily fears. Just go to any public place in New York City today and yell, “Bedbug.” Indeed, the ones who will be damaged the least, the sole ultimate victors, are the bedbugs themselves. “Perhaps,” writes Russell, “from a cosmic point of view, this is not to be regretted, but as a human being, I cannot help heaving a sigh for my own species.”

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.