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Mon, 15 Jul 2019
The World for People who Think

Science & Technology


Windows Vista: I'm Breaking up with You

No, seriously. When I have the time, I'm "upgrading" from Windows Vista to Windows XP. My keyboard is completely ambiguous.


Physics legends II

In my column in November 2006 (see Physics Legends), I discussed stories from the history of science that we repeat even when we suspect that they are wrong. I then asked for your favourites and for ideas why such legends persist. Dozens of readers replied, mentioning legends involving oversimplifications or falsifications of science, of history or of the world. Some of you even protested that stories that I had claimed were true are in fact false, and vice versa.

The apple, the sink and the pendulum

Robert Matthews - a science writer and visiting reader in science at Aston University in the UK - found me too credulous regarding Newton's apple. Yes, he granted, historians have traced the tale back to Newton himself, but that does not make it true. Why, he asked sensibly, was Newton - a notoriously secretive and paranoid person - suddenly so chatty about how he got an idea, unless to cement priority over his rival Hooke?


Physics Legends

Richard Feynman starts his book QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter with a remarkable confession. He tells a brief story about the origins of his subject - quantum electrodynamics - and then says that the "physicist's history of physics" that he has just related is probably wrong. "What I am telling you", Feynman says, "is a sort of conventionalized myth-story that the physicists tell to their students and those students tell to their students, and is not necessarily related to the actual historical development, which I do not really know!"

Like Feynman, many teachers and textbooks are unashamed to retell "damn good stories": colourful versions of people and events that are oversimplified and often inaccurate. All of the scholarly fields are afflicted. Ivan Morris, a British-born scholar who taught Japanese studies at Harvard University, once expressed an intention to write a book about myths embraced by his academic colleagues, tentatively entitled The Bull Must Die. Unfortunately, Morris died before he could finish the work and the bull continues to flow unchecked.


Budget crunch delays NASA's moon ship

NASA will delay the first manned flight of the new spacecraft designed to take humans back to the moon because of budget constraints, the agency's boss said Wednesday.

The craft, called the Orion, won't fly until early 2015, four to six months later than planned, NASA administrator Michael Griffin told lawmakers.

"We simply do not have the money available" to fly in 2014 as originally planned, he said.

The delay is the result of a $545 million difference between President Bush's request for the agency this year and the money Congress included in a spending bill Bush signed this month. Lawmakers gave the space agency the same amount of money it received in 2006.


Misleader: Early sex correlates with delinquency

New research suggests that when teenagers and younger children engage in their first sexual intercourse far earlier than their peers that they will exhibit higher levels of delinquency in the subsequent years. Conversely, the same work found that those who first engage in sex much later than their peers have a significantly lower delinquency rate. However, Stacy Armour, the co-author of the study, is careful to point out the fact that they are "not finding that sex itself leads to delinquency, but instead, that beginning sexual relationships long before your friends is cause for concern."

Comment: It's obvious that early sex is more likely the effect rather than a cause of delinquency. Those who anti-social regarding theft, vandalism and drugs are not likely to be restrained by social or familial values in any respect.


Astronomical odds

SAN FRANCISCO - About twice a year, an asteroid smashes into Earth's atmosphere with the force of a Hiroshima-size atomic blast. And those are small ones, scientists say; the space rocks vaporize before they can do any harm.

When the big one hits, we won't be as fortunate.

Comment: If you are interested in the consequences of a meteor impact, have a read of The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes: Flood, Fire, and Famine in the History of Civilization by Richard Firestone, Allen West, and Simon Warwick-Smith. The book, part detective story, part horror novel, presents, as the editorial review on amazon says, "new scientific evidence about a series of prehistoric cosmic events that explains why the last Ice Age ended so abruptly. Their findings validate the ubiquitous legends and myths of floods, fires, and weather extremes passed down by our ancestors and show how these legendary events relate to each other. Their findings also support the idea that we are entering a thousand-year cycle of increasing danger and possibly a new cycle of extinctions."

Believe it.


Bacteria to protect against quakes

If you live near the sea, chances are high that your home is built over sandy soil. And if an earthquake strikes, deep and sandy soils can turn to liquid, with some disastrous consequences for the buildings sitting on them. But now, U.S. researchers have found a way to use bacteria to steady buildings against earthquakes by turning these sandy soils into rocks. Today, it is possible to inject chemicals in the ground to reinforce it, but this can have toxic effects on soil and water. On the contrary, this use of common bacteria to 'cement' sands has no harmful effects on the environment. But so far, this method is limited to labs and the researchers are working on scaling their technique.

This process has been partially developed at by Jason DeJong, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis. DeJong worked with Michael Fritzges, a senior engineer at Langan Engineering, Philadelphia, Klaus Nüsslein, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the members of his lab.

Magic Wand

Research could lead to artificial retinas

The world's first direct electrical link between nerve cells and photovoltaic nanoparticle films has been achieved by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the University of Michigan.

The development opens the door to applying the unique properties of nanoparticles to a wide variety of light-stimulated nerve-signaling devices - including the possible development of a nanoparticle-based artificial retina.

Nanoparticles are artificially created bits of matter not much bigger than individual atoms. Their behavior is controlled by the same forces that shape molecules; they also exhibit the bizarre effects associated with quantum mechanics.


Ancient DNA solves milk mystery

When did ancient populations learn that drinking milk 'does a body good'? A team of scientists in Germany has tried to answer this question by studying ancient DNA extracted from skeletons thousands of years old.

Many adult humans can drink cow's milk - a rare feat among mammals, which usually lose the ability to digest the sugar in milk after they are weaned. Scientists have found the genetic mutations that allow many Europeans and some Africans to digest milk. Geneticists have estimated that these mutations first spread 3,000 to 7,000 years ago in eastern Africa, and slightly earlier than that in Europe.


Trees on Mars?

Trees on Mars?