EssentialstheDiagonal is a personal blog by Mike Gerra, skeptic, technologist, psychologist, artist, humanist, collector of grand, eclectic ideas.theDiagonal blog connects the dots across multiple disciplines for inquisitive, objective and critical thinkers, exploring the vertices of big science, disruptive innovation, global sustainability, illuminating literature and leftfield art. It is on this diagonal that creativity thrives, big ideas take flight and reason triumphs.
Category Archives: BigBang
Friday, May 24, 2013
Each day we inch towards a better scientific understanding of how life is thought to have begun on our planet. Over the last decade researchers have shown how molecules like the nucleotides that make up complex chains of RNA (ribonucleic acid) and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) may have formed in the primaeval chemical soup of the early Earth. But it’s altogether a much greater leap to get from RNA (or DNA) to even a simple biological cell. Some recent work sheds more light and suggests that the chemical to biological chasm between long-strands of RNA and a complex cell may not be as wide to cross as once thought.
From ars technica:...read more
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Researchers are continuing to make great progress in unraveling the complexities of aging. While some fingers point to the shortening of telomeres — end caps — in our chromosomal DNA as a contributing factor, other research points to the hypothalamus. This small sub-region of the brain has been found to play a major role in aging and death (though, at the moment only in mice).
From the New Scientist:
The brain’s mechanism for controlling ageing has been discovered – and manipulated to shorten and extend the lives of mice. Drugs to slow ageing could follow
Tick tock, tick tock… A mechanism that controls ageing, counting down to inevitable death, has been identified in the hypothalamus?– a part of the brain that controls most of the basic functions of life....read more
Monday, April 29, 2013
Since Einstein first published his elegant theory of General Relativity almost 100 years ago it has proved to be one of most powerful and enduring cornerstones of modern science. Yet theorists and researchers the world over know that it cannot possibly remain the sole answer to our cosmological questions. It answers questions about the very, very large — galaxies, stars and planets and the gravitational relationship between them. But it fails to tackle the science of the very, very small — atoms, their constituents and the forces that unite and repel them, which is addressed by the elegant and complex, but mutually incompatible Quantum Theory.
So, scientists continue to push their measurements to ever greater levels of precision across both greater and smaller distances with one aim in mind — to test the limits of each theory and to see which one breaks down first....read more
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
The genetic code buried deep within your cells, described in a unique sequence encoded in your DNA, defines who you are at the most fundamental level. The 20,000 or so genes in your genome establish how you are constructed and how you function (and malfunction). These genes are common to many, but their expression belongs to only you....read more
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
You would be rightfully mistaken for thinking this might be a lonesome bus trip to Mars, Pennsylvania or to the North American headquarters of Mars, purveyors of many things chocolaty including M&Ms, Mars Bars and Snickers, in New Jersey. This one way ticket is further afield, to the Red Planet, and comes from a company known as Mars One — estimated time of departure, 2023.
From the Guardian:
A few months before he died, Carl Sagan recorded a message of hope to would-be Mars explorers, telling them: “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”...read more
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Humans may soon make their only home irreversibly uninhabitable. Fortunately, astronomers have recently discovered a couple of exo-planets capable of sustaining life. Unfortunately, they are a little too distant — using current technology it would take humans around 26 million years. But, we can still dream.
From the New York Times:
Astronomers said Thursday that they had found the most Earth-like worlds yet known in the outer cosmos, a pair of planets that appear capable of supporting life and that orbit a star 1,200 light-years from here, in the northern constellation Lyra....read more
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Will humanity ever transcend gravity to become a space-faring race? A simple napkin-based calculation will give you the answer.
From Scientific American:
Optimistic visions of a human future in space seem to have given way to a confusing mix of possibilities, maybes, ifs, and buts. It’s not just the fault of governments and space agencies, basic physics is in part the culprit. Hoisting mass away from Earth is tremendously difficult, and thus far in fifty years we’ve barely managed a total the equivalent of a large oil-tanker. But there’s hope.
Back in the 1970?s the physicist Gerard O’Neill and his students investigated concepts of vast orbital structures capable of sustaining entire human populations. It was the tail end of the Apollo era, and despite the looming specter of budget restrictions and terrestrial pessimism there was still a sense of what might be, what could be, and what was truly within reach....read more
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
By all accounts serial entrepreneur, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil is Google’s most famous employee, eclipsing even co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin. As an inventor he can lay claim to some impressive firsts, such as the flatbed scanner, optical character recognition and the music synthesizer. As a futurist, for which he is now more recognized in the public consciousness, he ponders longevity, immortality and the human brain.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Ray Kurzweil must encounter his share of interviewers whose first question is: What do you hope your obituary will say?
This is a trick question. Mr. Kurzweil famously hopes an obituary won’t be necessary. And in the event of his unexpected demise, he is widely reported to have signed a deal to have himself frozen so his intelligence can be revived when technology is equipped for the job....read more
Friday, April 12, 2013
It’s fascinating how a seemingly well-understood phenomenon, such as lightning, can still yield enormous surprises. Researchers have found that visible flashes of lightning can also be accompanied by non-visible, and more harmful, radiation such as x- and gamma-rays.
From the Washington Post:
A lightning bolt is one of nature’s most over-the-top phenomena, rarely failing to elicit at least a ping of awe no matter how many times a person has witnessed one. With his iconic kite-and-key experiments in the mid-18th century, Benjamin Franklin showed that lightning is an electrical phenomenon, and since then the general view has been that lightning bolts are big honking sparks no different in kind from the little ones generated by walking in socks across a carpeted room....read more
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Pseudoscience can be fun — for comedic purposes only of course. But when it is taken seriously and dogmatically, as it often is by a significant number of people, it imperils rational dialogue and threatens real scientific and cultural progress. There is no end to the lengthy list of fake scientific claims and theories — some of our favorites include: the moon “landing” conspiracy, hollow Earth, Bermuda triangle, crop circles, psychic surgery, body earthing, room temperature fusion, perpetual and motion machines.
Fun aside, pseudoscience can also be harmful and dangerous particularly when those duped by the dubious practice are harmed physically, medically or financially. Which brings us to a recent, related development aimed at duping academics. Welcome to the world of pseudo-academia.
From the New York Times:...read more
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
We haven’t yet found any aliens inhabiting exoplanets orbiting distant stars. We haven’t received any intelligently manufactured radio signals from deep space. And, unless you subscribe to the conspiracy theories surrounding Roswell Area 51, it’s unlikely that we’ve been visited by an extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Most reasonable calculations suggest that the universe should be teeming with life beyond our small, blue planet. So, where are all the aliens and why haven’t we been contacted yet? Not content to wait, some astronomers believe we should be looking for evidence of distant alien engineering projects.
From the New Scientist:...read more
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Scientists are cautiously optimistic that results from a particle experiment circling the Earth onboard the International Space Station (ISS) hint at the existence of dark matter.
The space-based Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment could be building toward evidence of dark matter, judging by its first result.
The AMS detector does its work more than 200 miles above Earth, latched to the side of the International Space Station. It detects charged cosmic rays, high-energy particles that for the most part originate outside our solar system.
The experiment’s first result, released today, showed an excess of antimatter particles—over the number expected to come from cosmic-ray collisions—in a certain energy range....read more
Monday, April 1, 2013
Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, would like to send a private space mission to Mars in 2018. He has pots of money and has founded a non-profit to gather partners and donors to get the mission off the ground. NASA has other plans. The U.S. space agency is tasked by the current administration to plan a human mission to Mars for the mid-2030s. However, due to budgetary issues, fiscal cliffs, and possible debt and deficit reduction, nobody believes it will actually happen. Though, many in NASA and lay-explorers at heart continue to hope.
From Technology Review:...read more
Sunday, March 31, 2013
From the Wall Street Journal:
Why are children so, well, so helpless? Why did I spend a recent Sunday morning putting blueberry pancake bits on my 1-year-old grandson’s fork and then picking them up again off the floor? And why are toddlers most helpless when they’re trying to be helpful? Augie’s vigorous efforts to sweep up the pancake detritus with a much-too-large broom (“I clean!”) were adorable but not exactly effective.
This isn’t just a caregiver’s cri de coeur—it’s also an important scientific question. Human babies and young children are an evolutionary paradox. Why must big animals invest so much time and energy just keeping the little ones alive? This is especially true of our human young, helpless and needy for far longer than the young of other primates....read more
Monday, March 25, 2013
It was surely a quiet news day on March 21 2013 — most major online news outlets showed a fresh map of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) on the front page. It was taken by the Planck Telescope, operated by the European Space Agency, over a period of 15 months. The image shows a landscape of primordial cosmic microwaves from when the universe was only around 380,000 years old, and is often referred to as “first light”.
Acquired by ESA’s Planck space telescope, the most detailed map ever created of the cosmic microwave background – the relic radiation from the Big Bang – was released today revealing the existence of features that challenge the foundations of our current understanding of the Universe.
The image is based on the initial 15.5 months of data from Planck and is the mission’s first all-sky picture of the oldest light in our Universe, imprinted on the sky when it was just 380 000 years old....read more
Saturday, March 16, 2013
It wasn’t too long ago that astronomers found the first indirect evidence of a planet beyond our solar system. They inferred the presence of an exoplanet (extrasolar planet) from the periodic dimming or wiggle of its parental star, rather than much more difficult direct observation. Since the first confirmed exoplanet was discovered in 1995 (51 Pegasi b), researchers have definitively catalogued around 800, and identified another 18,000 candidates. And, the list seems to now grow daily.
If that wasn’t amazing enough researchers now have directly observed several exoplanets and even measured their atmospheric composition.
From ars technica:
Sunday, March 10, 2013
To honor the brilliant new album by the Thin White Duke, we came across the article excerpted below, which at first glance seems to come directly from the songbook of Ziggy Stardust him- or herself. But closer inspection reveals that NASA may have designs on deploying giant manufacturing robots to construct a base on the moon. Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Once you’ve had your fill of Bowie, read on about NASA’s spiders.
From ars technica:
The first lunar base on the Moon may not be built by human hands, but rather by a giant spider-like robot built by NASA that can bind the dusty soil into giant bubble structures where astronauts can live, conduct experiments, relax or perhaps even cultivate crops....read more
Friday, March 8, 2013
Hot on the heels of the recent research finding that the Mediterranean diet improves heart health, come news that choc-a-holics the world over have been anxiously awaiting — chocolate improves brain function....read more
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Naysayers would say that government, and hence taxpayer dollars, should not be used to fund science initiatives. After all academia and business seem to do a fairly good job of discovery and innovation without a helping hand pilfering from the public purse. And, without a doubt, and money aside, government funded projects do raise a number of thorny questions: On what should our hard-earned income tax be spent? Who decides on the priorities? How is progress to be measured? Do taxpayers get any benefit in return? After many of us cringe at the thought of an unelected bureaucrat or a committee of such spending millions if not billions of our dollars. Why not just spend the money on fixing our national potholes?...read more
Monday, March 4, 2013
A growing body of evidence suggests that our brains live in the future, construct explanations for the past and that our notion of the present is an entirely fictitious concoction. On the surface this makes our lives seem like nothing more than a construction taken right out of The Matrix movies. However, while we may not be pawns in an illusion constructed by malevolent aliens, our perception of “self” does appear to be illusory. As researchers delve deeper into the inner workings of the brain it becomes clearer that our conscious selves are a beautifully derived narrative, built by the brain to make sense of the past and prepare for our future actions.
From the New Scientist:
It seems obvious that we exist in the present. The past is gone and the future has not yet happened, so where else could we be? But perhaps we should not be so certain....read more
Thursday, February 28, 2013
Intelligenetics isn’t recognized as a real word by Websters or the Oxford English dictionary. We just coined a term that might best represent the growing field of research examining the genetic basis for human intelligence. Of course, it’s not a new subject and comes with many cautionary tales. Past research into the genetic foundations of intelligence has often been misused by one group seeking racial, ethnic or political power over another. However, with strong and appropriate safeguards in place science does have a legitimate place in uncovering what makes some brains excel while others do not.
From the Wall Street Journal:
At a former paper-printing factory in Hong Kong, a 20-year-old wunderkind named Zhao Bowen has embarked on a challenging and potentially controversial quest: uncovering the genetics of intelligence....read more
Monday, February 25, 2013
Europa is Jupiter’s gravitationally tortured moon. It has liquid oceans underneath an icy surface. This makes Europa a very interesting target for future missions to the solar system — missions looking for life beyond our planet. Unfortunately, NASA’s planned mission has yet to be funded. But should the agency (and taxpayers) come up with the estimated $2 billion to fund a spacecraft, we could well have a probe circling Europa by 2027.
From the Guardian:
Nasa scientists have drawn up plans for a mission that could look for life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that is covered in vast oceans of water under a thick layer of ice.
The Europa Clipper would be the first dedicated mission to the waterworld moon, if it gets approval for funding from Nasa. The project is set to cost $2bn....read more
Sunday, February 17, 2013
New research out of the University of Exeter in Britain and the University of California, San Diego, shows that liberals and conservatives really do have different brains. In fact, activity in specific areas of the brain can be used to predict whether a person leans to the left or to the right with an accuracy of just under 83 percent. This means that a brain scan could more accurately predict your politics than the political persuasions of your parents (accurate around 70 percent of the time).
If you want to know people’s politics, tradition said to study their parents. In fact, the party affiliation of someone’s parents can predict the child’s political leanings about around 70 percent of the time....read more
Friday, February 15, 2013
Hot on the heels of recent successes by the Texas School Board of Education (SBOE) to revise history and science curricula, legislators in Missouri are planning to redefine commonly accepted scientific principles. Much like the situation in Texas the Missouri House is mandating that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution, in equal measure, in all the state’s schools. But, in a bid to take the lead in reversing thousands of years of scientific progress Missouri plans to redefine the actual scientific framework. So, if you can’t make “intelligent design” fit the principles of accepted science, then just change the principles themselves — first up, change the meanings of the terms “scientific hypothesis” and “scientific theory”.
We suspect that a couple of years from now, in Missouri, 2+2 will be redefined to equal 5, and that logic, deductive reasoning and experimentation will be replaced with mushy green peas....read more
Thursday, February 14, 2013
A timely article for Valentine’s Day. Researchers continue to make astonishing progress in areas of cell biology and human genomics. So, it should come as no surprise that growing a customized, replacement heart in a lab from reprogrammed cells will one day be on the horizon.
From the Guardian:
Every two minutes someone in the UK has a heart attack. Every six minutes, someone dies from heart failure. During an attack, the heart remodels itself and dilates around the site of the injury to try to compensate, but these repairs are rarely effective. If the attack does not kill you, heart failure later frequently will.
“No matter what other clinical interventions are available, heart transplantation is the only genuine cure for this,” says Paul Riley, professor of regenerative medicine at Oxford University. “The problem is there is a dearth of heart donors.”...read more
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
The illustrious Vaccinia virus may well have an Act Two in its future.
For Act One, over the last 150 years or so, it has been successfully used to vaccinate most of the world’s population against smallpox. This helped eradicate smallpox in the United States in the early 1970s.
Now, researchers are using it to target cancer.
First, take the Vaccinia virus — a relative of the smallpox virus. Second, re-engineer the virus to inhibit its growth in normal cells. Third, add a gene to the virus that stimulates the immune system. Fourth, set it to work on tumor cells and watch. While, such research has been going on for a couple of decades, this enhanced approach to attacking cancer cells with a viral immune system stimulant shows early promise.
From ars technica:
Friday, February 8, 2013
There is a certain school of thought that asserts that scientific genius is a thing of the past. After all, we haven’t seen the recent emergence of pivotal talents such as Galileo, Newton, Darwin or Einstein. Is it possible that fundamentally new ways to look at our world — that a new mathematics or a new physics is no longer possible?
In a recent essay in Nature, Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at UC Davis, argues that such fundamental and singular originality is a thing of the past.
From ars technica:
Einstein, Darwin, Galileo, Mendeleev: the names of the great scientific minds throughout history inspire awe in those of us who love science. However, according to Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at UC Davis, the era of the scientific genius may be over. In a comment paper published in Nature last week, he explains why....read more
Thursday, February 7, 2013
The most fundamental innovation tends to happen at the intersection of disciplines. So, what do you get if you cross 3-D printing technology with embryonic stem cell research? Well, you get a device that can print lines of cells with similar functions, such as heart muscle or kidney cells. Welcome to the new world of biofabrication. The science fiction future seems to be ever increasingly close.
From Scientific American:
Imagine if you could take living cells, load them into a printer, and squirt out a 3D tissue that could develop into a kidney or a heart. Scientists are one step closer to that reality, now that they have developed the first printer for embryonic human stem cells....read more
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
DNA is a remarkable substance. It is the fundamental blueprint for biological systems. It is the basis for all complex life on our planet, it enables parents to share characteristics, both good and bad, with their children. Yet the more geneticists learn about the functions of DNA, the more mysteries it presents. One such conundrum is posed by so-called junk DNA and orphan genes — seemingly useless sequences of DNA that perform no function. Or so researchers previously believed.
From New Scientist:
NOT having any family is tough. Often unappreciated and uncomfortably different, orphans have to fight to fit in and battle against the odds to realise their potential. Those who succeed, from Aristotle to Steve Jobs, sometimes change the world....read more
Friday, January 18, 2013
Imagine a nation, or even a world, where political decisions and policy are driven by science rather than emotion. Well, small experiments are underway, so this may not be as far off as many would believe, or even dare to hope.
From the New Scientist:
In your wildest dreams, could you imagine a government that builds its policies on carefully gathered scientific evidence? One that publishes the rationale behind its decisions, complete with data, analysis and supporting arguments? Well, dream no longer: that’s where the UK is heading....read more