Paleoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie, one of the discoverers of Ardipithecus ramidus, will be giving a talk in Bloomington next week. He will be speaking on Tuesday, December 1, at 4:00 PM in Whittenberger Auditorium at IU Bloomington on “Ardi: Discovering and Interpreting Ardipithecus.” Ardi has been getting a lot of attention lately after 11 articles on this very early hominin fossil were published in the October 2 issue of Science. This looks like a great opportunity to learn more about Ardi from an expert.
So how about giving your brain something fun to think about the next time it rains? Check out this extremely slow-motion video of what happens when a water drop falls into a pool of water:
As someone in the video points out, that complicated and amazing process occurs every time a raindrop hits a puddle. I am moved to quote Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues, who spoke of “beauty to find in so many ways” and said that “it’s all around, if we could but perceive.” How cool that we can perceive so much more of it than we could before, and with any luck will continue to perceive more and more.
The group that brought us Earth Hour this past spring is now trying to collect as many “votes for Earth” as possible, to impress upon world leaders that people everywhere would appreciate it if they made serious progress toward addressing global climate change when they meet in Copenhagen next month. As with many of these “speak up” efforts, I don’t know how much difference it really makes, but it couldn’t hurt. Cast your vote at http://www.earthhour.org.
A new article in The Atlantic has rocked my world in a way that articles anywhere seldom do. David Dobbs explains a new hypothesis regarding genes, environment, and behavior, which he dubs the orchid hypothesis. I’ve written before about genes that appear to make a person vulnerable to things like depression or anxiety, but the vulnerability may be only half of the story. A growing amount of evidence indicates that those carrying such genes may not only be at risk of a particular disorder if they are raised in an unfavorable environment, but may also function at an above-average level if raised in a favorable environment. This could explain a lot about how supposedly detrimental genetic variants could have survived in the population.
As Dobbs points out, it also provides an amazingly different view of human strengths and weaknesses. While most of us, he says, are like dandelions that can thrive pretty much anywhere, the orchids among us respond especially poorly to a bad environment (with depression, anxiety, ADHD, or violence, for example, depending on their genes) but also respond better than the dandelions do to a good environment. Both dandelions and orchids are necessary to make our species what it is; the orchids are an asset rather than a liability.
What is particularly interesting is that Dobbs had himself tested to see which variant of the SERT gene (5-HTTLPR), which is involved in serotonin regulation, he had. There are three variants, or alleles, of this gene, two of which are believed to be linked to a greater vulnerability to depression. He suspected that he had one of these two, and indeed he did, but that news was less distressing to him than it would have been before he learned as much as he did about the orchid hypothesis. I’ve also wondered if I have one of the two higher-risk alleles of that gene, and one thing that has particularly bothered me about that is worries that I may have passed it along to my kids. I don’t usually like to put too much emotional stock into scientific results like this, but I have to say that after reading this article, I feel better about whatever genetic heritage I may have brought into and passed along in the world.
Der Spiegel has interviewed Umberto Eco about an exhibit he is curating at the Louvre. The exhibit focuses on the importance of lists to culture and art. It may sound a bit off the wall, but Eco gets at some fundamental aspects of human nature. He says in the interview that people make lists in an attempt to feel like they are managing the uncontrollable diversity and immensity of life. We know we’ll never encompass all of it, but we keep on trying to establish some kind of control. He goes so far as to say that we like lists because we fear death.
This idea of trying to impose some kind of logical order and control on the world seems to me particularly important today, when we have so many choices available to us and so much information to try to assimilate. One example I thought of is that it’s impossible to keep up with all the books being published on any topic or in any genre, so the ubiquitous “Top 10″ or “Top 100″ list is a godsend. Another is that so many travel destinations beckon; where should we go? I get over 19 million hits on Google when I search on “places to see before you die”; multiple hits all refer to the same “1000 places to see” book, but plenty of other hits refer to a variety of other lists.
I’ve always been fond of “great books” lists and reading lists of all sorts; when I was younger they gave me a feeling of optimism and of worlds opening up in front of me to study and appreciate. However, as Iain Pears writes, in An Instance of the Fingerpost, “It is cruel that we are granted the desire to know, but denied the time to do so properly. We all die frustrated; it is the greatest lesson we have to learn.” In my middle years, I am realizing that I’m not even going to get through all the book lists I would like to, never mind all the individual books in their sometimes perplexing multiplicity. However, I can agree with Eco that having the lists helps me feel like I’ve got at least a tiny handle on infinity. At any rate, I’m not going to stop making them any time soon.
I love being in the heart of a neighborhood near the IU campus and being able to walk everywhere. However, I live half a block from a major street, and the air I breathe is probably laced with various pollutants from the traffic on that street. (Back when I had a day job, I stood every day on the corner of a big intersection waiting to cross the street. While I waited, I sometimes contemplated what was happening to my lungs as I spent probably 10 or 15 minutes a day in close proximity to all those cars and buses; they are probably not as healthy and pink as they were when I started out.) Maybe I should have been worrying more about my brain.
Some recent research, reported by Scientific American, shows that airborne pollutants have a negative effect on the developing brains of unborn babies (lower IQ scores at age 5) and on the cognitive abilities of adults (reduced memory and attentional capacity and slower reaction times). Pending the development of greener alternative energy sources and greater energy efficiency, if you live in an urban environment you can reduce your exposure by choosing less-traveled streets for running and walking, and avoiding or ramping down activity on days when the smog is particularly bad.
You may have suspected it all along, but researchers have found more evidence that chocolate can be good for you. Eating a small amount of dark chocolate every day for two weeks appears to change the metabolism of highly stressed people for the better. In a small sample of volunteers, eating 1.4 ounces a day of dark chocolate (it didn’t say how dark) reduced levels of cortisol and also lessened stress-related differences in metabolism. This article from Science Daily has a little more information.
The article itself is:
Metabolic Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on Energy, Gut Microbiota, and Stress-Related Metabolism in Free-Living Subjects, Francois-Pierre J. Martin, Serge Rezzi, Emma Per-Trepat, Beate Kamlage, Sebastiano Collino, Edgar Leibold, Jürgen Kastler, Dietrich Rein, Laurent B. Fay, and Sunil Kochhar. Journal of Proteome Research, Article ASAP; Published online October 7, 2009. DOI: 10.1021/pr900607v
When our long-ago ancestors left east Africa and spread to Europe, how did they get across the currently forbidding landscape of the Sahara? A recent analysis of Saharan plants shows that two peaks in the water-dependent plant population, indicating more favorable climate conditions, might have made human passage through the area easier. The first occurred about 120,000 and 110,000 year ago and another about 50,000 to 45,000 years ago. These dates fit fairly well with the fossil record. in particular, the biggest push out of Africa didn’t begin until around 50,000 years ago, and might have been facilitated by that second relatively wet spell. The research itself is interesting: By analyzing dust that settled on the sea floor off the west African coast, scientists could examine the carbon isotopes in hydrocarbons from land plants and figure out which types of plants lived there when. (I’m always fascinated by these chains of evidence that start with painstaking examination of tiny relics of the past and reach up to encompass much bigger phenomena like major human migrations; this kind of thing is part of what made Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel so much fun to read.)
This article from the New Scientist has more details. The paper, by Isla Castañeda et al., will appear in the Publications of the National Academy of Science; I can’t find it listed on the PNAS web site yet.