Category Archives: Science

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Time for some space yoga for astronauts?


The assumption has been astronauts experience back pain during, after space flight because of swollen disks. Turns out relief may come from space yoga:

In a new study, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to observe the spines of six NASA astronauts before they landed, at the time of landing and about two months after they had spent upward of seven months on the International Space Station. The researchers found that the prolonged exposure to weightlessness weakened the muscles supporting the astronauts’ spines.

The discovery runs counter to the theory that the astronauts’ back pain is caused by the swelling of their spinal disks, the shock-absorbing cushions between the vertebrae, the researchers said. The findings, which were published today (Oct. 25) in the journal Spine, suggest that special back-strengthening exercises, including yoga, could help astronauts minimize or avoid back pain, the researchers said.

Now your friend who always tries to get you to take that yoga class with him has more proof of its benefits — even in space.



In Illinois, it’s as if Sarah Palin ran against Bill Nye the Science Guy

Democratic Illinois Congressman Bill Foster.
Democratic Illinois Congressman Bill Foster of the 11th Congressional District.

The headline in the Chicago Tribune says it all: “DuPage County Board member trying to unseat lone scientist in Congress.”

Yes, the only Ph.D. scientist in all of Congress, a body which could sorely use people who know something about science and scientific research,  is being challenged by a pro-Trump Republican. (Click here for audio of Foster defending scientific research and science on NPR.)

And not just any run-of-the-mill Ph.D., as this passage from Democrat Bill Foster’s campaign web site shows us:

Bill’s scientific career was as a high-energy physicist and particle accelerator designer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). Bill was a member of the team that discovered the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter. He also led the teams that designed and built several scientific facilities and detectors still in use today, including the Recycler Ring, the latest of Fermilab’s giant particle accelerators. When Bill first ran for Congress, his campaign was endorsed by 31 Nobel Prize Winners.

The GOP on Capitol Hill has managed to pack once respected committees dealing with medicine and other branches of science with Tea Party fanatics who deny global climate change and evolution.

Given that, do you think we need at least one research scientist in Congress?

Foster’s challenger is Republican Tonia Khouri, a Donald Trump supporter who, as recently as the aforementioned Oct. 20 article in the Trib, was trying as best she could to finesse her support for the Orange Dunce (whose latest horror is pissing off a ballroom full of right-wing Catholics, including his arch-conservative Eminence NYC Cardinal Timothy Dolan).

It was in that Oct 20 article that the Trib noted Khouri’s lame yet somehow still inappropriate defense/criticism of Trump’s remark about grabbing a woman he did not know “by the pussy.”

While Khouri said she plans to vote for the Republican nominee, she did speak out against what she called “locker room banter” after the revelation of Trump’s lewd comments about women in a recording for a 2005 segment on “Access Hollywood.”

“I am personally offended by the comments made by Donald Trump even though they were made 11 years ago,” she said in a statement this month. “Locker room banter is something I, and many other hardworking women, have been subjected to throughout our lives. It is unacceptable and demeaning to those of us who have worked tirelessly to better our families, our community and the businesses we lead.”

Unacceptable and demeaning perhaps, but not so much so that she will withdraw her endorsement of Trump.

Khouri is a Trumper through and through, saying all manner of terrible Tea Party-ish things about Foster, yet whining when Foster has had the audacity to fire back at her with facts instead of right-wing talking points.

Despite running in a district with a huge Latino population, Khouri steadfastly maintains her support for building Trump’s fantastical, magical Wall along the Southern border that is so stupid and expensive it would never be built anyway by America or Mexico (HA!) even if Trump sailed to victory in the presidential contest. 

Yet, Khouri still sticks with him and some form of every Tea Party fantasy available. She’s just an all-around terrible choice in a district which could put her away decisively.

Do read the entire article and do get out and vote (use this link) to make sure that Foster, who would be far and away better than Khouri even without the scientific background, will retain his seat in a District 11 that could bury Khouri if progressive, African-American and Latino voters chose to do so. (As an alternate to find out your voting info, use this link from Google.)

The district includes all or parts of Aurora, Bolingbrook, Darien, Joliet, Montgomery, Naperville, Lisle, Downers Grove, New Lenox, Shorewood and Woodridge. I will be contacting anyone I know in those communities to give them a heads-up about this race.

The map below gets larger if you click on it.


Aversion to gambling could be hard-wired in your brain

Gambling addition problems risk taking

You’re the careful type when it comes to financial and life planning. You reject risky get-rich-quick schemes in favor of long-term, safe plans for savings and investments. A trip to the local riverside casino or playing the state lottery are the last ways you’d spend your leisure time.

Yet you know someone — a sibling or best friend perhaps — who can’t seem to stay away from the lottery or slot machines or any number of other high risk activities designed to part fools from their money.

You’ve tried everything to stop this other person’s risky ways. You’ve cajoled, you’ve argued, you’ve stopped giving them money in an attempt to keep them from from gambling away what little financial security they attain.

It might be small comfort for you (or your friend who tries to stop but hasn’t yet) but researchers at Stanford are investigating one brain pathway that they think might be involved in a person’s propensity for many risky activities, from gambling to drug addiction.

One person’s risky bet is another’s exciting opportunity.

The difference between those outlooks comes down to more than just disposition: It turns out that people with a stronger connection between two brain regions have a more cautious financial outlook.

“Activity in one brain region appears to indicate ‘uh oh, I might lose money,’ but in another seems to indicate ‘oh yay, I could win something,'” said Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology. “The balance between this ‘uh oh’ and ‘oh yay’ activity differs between people and can determine the gambling decisions we make.”

Researchers have tracked activity in those two brain regions – known as the anterior insula and nucleus accumbens – for the past decade, but Knutson was curious how the two work together. Are they directly connected, or do they both influence a different brain region that makes the ultimate decision?

Knowing this could help scientists and policymakers who want to better understand risky decision-making in the context of gambling and addiction and develop more effective interventions.

Knutson’s team employed a technique developed at Stanford that identifies tracts of neurons that connect brain regions and measures the strength of those connections in terms of how well insulated they are.

Using that technique, called diffusion-weighted MRI, Knutson and graduate student Josiah Leong found a tract that directly connects the anterior insula and nucleus accumbens – something that had been seen before in animals but never in humans.

What’s more, they found that the thicker the sheath of fatty tissue insulating the bundle – an indicator of the strength of the connection – the more cautious the study participants’ decisions were in a gambling test. The neuronal connection appears to be a conduit for the more cautious brain region to dampen activity in the more enthusiastic region.

“Most people love the small chance of a huge win,” Knutson said. “But people vary. Some people really, really like it. But people who have a stronger connection don’t like it as much.”

I know people who’ve gone to Las Vegas for a conference and played the slot machines once and walked away bored and never gambled again. Many people might dabble in Powerball lottery drawings as a lark only when the payouts approach record sums, but never play any lottery at other times.

Yet for others, the draw is too strong. The feeling that, if they only keep playing the lottery or hitting the blackjack tables, their lucky break is going to come.

Research into why some people might be inclined toward risk-taking behaviors such as gambling could one day point toward therapies of some kind.

All Mars rovers together, with scientists for scale

Mars rovers scientists for scale
“‘Sup?” “Nuttin’ much. Just chillin’ with the Mars rovers.”

Pretty cool.

(EDIT: Sorry, I missed the tiny one in the foreground in the first post. Corrected to reflect that there are three.)

Google Doodle on Lucy steams the wingnuts

Christian conservatives are unhappy with the Google Doodle (see above) celebrating the anniversary of the discovery of Lucy.

Witness the stupidity. Someone call the waaahmbulance:

Lucy Google Doodle wingnuts

Astronaut snaps night pic of Chicago, Great Lakes

 Scott Kelly ISS International Space Station Great Lakes Chicago

How animals see the world

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From Nautilus:

Some animals, including your pets, may be partially colorblind, and yet certain aspects of their vision are superior to your own. Living creatures’ visual perception of the surrounding world depends on how their eyes process light. Humans are trichromats—meaning that our eyes have three types of the photoreceptors known as cone cells, which are sensitive to the colors red, green, and blue. A different type of photoreceptors, called rods, detect small amounts of light; this allows us to see in the dark. Animals process light differently—some creatures have only two types of photoreceptors, which renders them partially colorblind, some have four, which enables them to see ultraviolet light, and others can detect polarized light, meaning light waves that are oscillating in the same plane.

“None of us can resist thinking that we can imagine what another animal is thinking,” says Thomas Cronin, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies visual physiology. But while guessing animals’ thoughts is a fantasy, looking at the world through their eyes is possible.

I’ve always known dogs were color blind, but some of the rest was news to me.

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Stephen Hawking on income inequality

Professor Stephen Hawking's answer to a question about "technological unemployment" that was asked on Reddit AMA in October 2015.
Professor Stephen Hawking’s answer to a question about “technological unemployment” which was asked on Reddit AMA in October 2015.

Jet shock wave using the sun as background

NASA Jet Shock Wave sun
This schlieren image of shock waves created by a T-38C in supersonic flight was captured using the sun’s edge as a light source and then processed using NASA-developed code.
Credits: NASA Photo

Using a new technique called Background-Oriented Schlieren using Celestial Objects, or BOSCO, scientists at NASA are finding news ways to photograph moving objects against, in the case above, the sun:

Using this naturally speckled background,” said Haering, “we could make hundreds of observations of each shockwave, greatly increasing the acuity of the camera system.”

Researchers at Armstrong and NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, have developed new schlieren techniques based on modern image processing methods. Shock waves, represented by distortions of the background pattern in a series of images, are accentuated using special mathematical equations. This method requires only simple optics and a featured background, that is one with a speckled appearance such as the cratered lunar surface or the mottled appearance of the sun when viewed through certain filters, such as the CaK filter.

One recent demonstration of this technique was called Calcium-K Eclipse Background Oriented Schlieren (CaKEBOS). According to Armstrong principal investigator Michael Hill, CaKEBOS was a proof of concept test to see how effectively the sun could be used for background oriented schlieren photography.

“Using a celestial object like the sun for a background has a lot of advantages when photographing a flying aircraft,” Hill said. “With the imaging system on the ground, the target aircraft can be at any altitude as long as it is far enough away to be in focus.”

Researchers found the ground-based method to be significantly more economical than air-to-air methods. Merely eliminating requirement for an airborne camera platform reduced operational costs and complexity, as did the use of off-the-shelf equipment.

“The CaKEBOS imaging system was very simple, consisting of consumer grade astronomy equipment we had from previous tests,” said Hill. He further noted, “Someone could probably build a system that would get similar results for around $3000.”

The Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards provided a supersonic T-38C to serve as a target aircraft. Air Force test pilots Maj. Jonathan Orso and Col. Glenn Graham worked with NASA in planning how to precisely align the jet’s flight path to capture the schlieren images. The aircraft needed to be in the right place at the right time in order to eclipse the sun relative to the imaging system on the ground. The pilots had to hand fly the airplane to hit a specific point in the sky to within approximately 300 feet, while travelling faster than the speed of sound. This had to be accomplished within a two-minute window as the sun’s relative position in the sky changed due to Earth’s rotation.

You can find out more here, if you are so nerdily inclined.