Science News Chum: Appendices, Dolphins, Food, Politics, and One Dog

userpic=cyborgToday’s skimming of the news sites over lunch has unearthed a fair number of articles all relating to science and scientific stuff:

  • Useless No More. For the longest time, the term “appendix” has referred to something that could be removed without harm; something felt to be useless (although often, especially in government documents, the appendices often contain more information than the main part of the document). However, science is learning more about the appendix, and finding it may not be useless after all. In particular, ScienceNow/HuffPost is reporting that the appendix evolved independently over 30 times. This is yet another acknowledgment of the apparent usefulness of the appendix. The current belief, by the way, is that the appendix harbors the good gut bacteria when something bad is overtaking the gut. I’ve yet to come up with a good analogy between this use and Appendix F in NIST SP 800-53.
  • I Call Your Name. Humans tend to look for things that make us unique, and thus superior. But more and more we are finding that we are just another animal. Today’s example: Discovery is reporting that dolphins call each other by name. Now what I found interesting was the comment in the article that “it can be challenging to study dolphin signature whistles, since it’s difficult to identify which particular dolphin is emitting the sounds, and whether or not the sounds are just mimicked copies.”. I’m sure if dolphins were studying human speech, they might be, umm, saying the same thing.
  • Engineering Food. The New York Times has a very interesting article about the science behind food — in particular, the lengths to which commercial companies will go in order to get you to buy (and buy, and keep buying) their food. The article goes into a number of detailed examples where particular engineering adjustments were made in the composition of the food to make it more addictive appealing to consumers. In many ways, reading this will make you even more wary of commercially processed foods. Of course, everytime I read something like this I feel the urge to shout the words of Alton Brown, which once appeared on his old blog:

    Here’s what it comes down to kids. Ronald McDonald doesn’t give a damn about you. Neither does that little minx Wendy or any of the other icons of drivethroughdom. And you know what, they’re not supposed to. They’re businesses doing what businesses do. They don’t love you. They are not going to laugh with you on your birthdays, or hold you when you’re sick and sad. They won’t be with you when you graduate, when your children are born or when you die. You will be with you and your family and friends will be with you. And, if you’re any kind of human being, you will be there for them. And you know what, you and your family and friends are supposed to provide you with nourishment too. That’s right folks, feeding someone is an act of caring. We will always be fed best by those that care, be it ourselves or the aforementioned friends and family.We are fat and sick and dying because we have handed a basic, fundamental and intimate function of life over to corporations. We choose to value our nourishment so little that we entrust it to strangers. We hand our lives over to big companies and then drag them to court when the deal goes bad. This is insanity.

    One additional thing related to this article. The article goes into details about how Dr. Pepper designed a new flavor, and how Coca-Cola tinkers with its flavors. Both note that the actual formulation is secret. This, of course, raises the question of how they do kosher certification of Coca-Cola. Wonder no more.

  • You Say Tomato. As we’re talking about food here, another big issue in food is how we have been genetically adapting and engineering our foods to be “better”. There’s lots of fighting over whether genetically engineered food is safe (go head… go to Google News and search on “genetically engineered food”), and even over the profits. One thing generally agreed, however, is that genetic engineering has broken… the tomato. It is hard and flavorless. Well, science is coming to the rescue by trying to engineer a better tasting tomato.
  • We Knew They Were Off In The Head. Evidently, brain scans can determine political party preferences. A lot of this has to do with how the brain assesses risk (something humans are notoriously bad at). Recent investigations into the psychology of liberals and conservatives have found a number of subtle differences, from conservatives exhibiting more squeamishness to liberals paying less attention to negative stimuli or threats. In particular, a 2011 study published in the journal Current Biology found differences in some brain structures between politically liberal and political conservative young adults. Many of these areas were linked to risk-assessment and decision-making. Here’s a good example of how we are bad at assessing risk, from a wonderful Freakanomics episode dealing with effective approaches regarding guns: which is riskier: letting your child visit a friend’s house where there is a swimming pool, or letting your child visit a friend’s house where there are guns?
  • Monotheists Believe in One Dog. Some interesting research has found a biological marker that is indicative of dyslexia. According to the study authors, there is a relationship between a person’s ability to read and how their brain encodes sounds. This is because, according to the researchers, people learn language skills by making meaningful associations between sounds and information. The most difficult sounds for the brain to encode are consonants, which are shorter and contain more complex sounds compared to vowels, which tend to have longer and simple intonations. More stable brain responses to these sounds can lead to easier interpretation of both aural and written words.



5 Replies to “Science News Chum: Appendices, Dolphins, Food, Politics, and One Dog”

    1. Growing is no guarantee. After all, we often grow crops from genetically-engineered seeds (tomatoes are a great example of this, as are many grains). We “grow” genetically-engineered animals for meat. Alas, it is almost everywhere in the food chain these days.

      1. On the same note, friends and I were discussing a few years back how the produce section at the grocery store doesn’t smell like produce any more. As many GMOs as there are, this isn’t really surprising. You can really tell the difference if you visit a grocery store after shopping at the farmers market.

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