Archive for August, 2011

Aug 31 2011

The Coming Hydrogen Economy

Just a decade ago hydrogen fuel cells were going to change our world. We were going to have an infrastructure to distribute hydrogen and fuel cells in our cars that are so efficient and environmentally clean that you could use them to power your home.  So confident were the predictions of the “coming hydrogen economy” that car companies (like GM) banked on the technology, deciding to leap frog over hybrids. George Bush called for investment in the technology, and California’s govenator decided to get a head start on building the hydrogen infrastructure.

Now, a decade later, the hydrogen economy seems like just another false promise of future technology – like flying cars and jet packs. It turns out there were some non-trivial technical hurdles that needed to be overcome, and the assumption that they would easily or inevitably be solved was unjustified.

First, it needs to be recognized that hydrogen is not an energy or fuel source. There is negligible free hydrogen on the earth. That means that hydrogen has to be stripped from hydrocarbons or some other existing fuel, or hydrogen gas has to be made by putting the energy into it. So hydrogen is largely an energy storage system, not a source of energy.

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Aug 29 2011

The Bilingual Brain

Published by under Neuroscience

A new study sheds further light on how we learn language, showing the power of early exposure to language. Language is something that humans are very good at, which is a way of saying that we have cortex dedicated to and specialized for language.

The dominant hemisphere (dominant by definition, the left hemisphere in most people) contains several structures specialized for language. Wernicke’s area is the brain’s dictionary – it translates words into concepts and concepts into words. When you are trying to think of a specific word for something – that process is taking place in Wernicke’s area. There is also specialized cortex that processes auditory information, translating sounds into words, and feeding that information to Wernicke’s area. In the frontal lobe there is Broca’s area that converts words into speech – essentially this is specialized motor cortex that allows for the exquisite control of the muscles of speech necessary to produce the subtle sounds of speech. Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area are connected by a cable called the arcuate fasciculus.

It has also been known for a long time that the language cortex develops when we are very young, beginning in infancy and then pretty much locking in place by the time we are four years old. This is the “window” of development for language. For children who are raised without exposure to language by age four, they will never acquire normal fluency. If you normally developed a primary language, and then learn a second language after age four, the second language will use more brain resources – it won’t have the same language cortex encoding that the primary language does.

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Aug 26 2011

Acupuncture and Acoustic Waves

Here is yet another study claiming to show “how acupuncture works” when in fact it does nothing of the kind. The bias of the researchers is so obvious in this study it’s astounding that it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Of course, the mainstream media is dutifully reporting the biased claims of the researchers without any independent verification or analysis.

There are numerous fatal problems with this study. The first, like in many physiological studies that purport to be about acupuncture, is that the connection to acupuncture is tenuous. The researchers claim that they are testing the effects of an acupuncture needle – but what makes a needle an acupuncture needle? Other such studies were ultimately just seeing the effects of local tissue trauma. The fact that this trauma was induced by an “acupuncture needle” is not necessarily relevant.

This study is far worse, because it is simply using the acupuncture needle as a mechanism for inducing an unrelated physiological stimulus. This is similar to “electroacupuncture” where electrical current is applied through an acupuncture needle – what you are actually studying is the effects of electricity, not “acupuncture.”

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Aug 25 2011

What’s Your Blood Type?

The Canadian Blood Services (CBS) has started a new campaign – What’s Your Type. It looks like a cute campaign to promote blood donation. Unfortunately, CBS has chosen to promote various pseudosciences in the process. You can click a button to “know your type” and will be given what is essentially an astrological reading based upon blood type instead of star sign. In addition there is information about how to eat right for your blood type.

Blood type astrology is common in Japan and other Asian countries, more common, in fact, than astrology is in the west. Blood type is often disclosed in personal ads, on Facebook profiles, in Celebrity gossip columns, and fictional characters are often given a blood type. This even enters into politics – as politicians are often pressured to disclose their blood type.

It all seems silly – the superstitions of other cultures typically do (although to some they may also sound exotic and therefore alluring). Blood type astrology, however, is no more silly than the many superstitious beliefs that are common in the US or elsewhere.

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Aug 22 2011


Published by under Evolution

You have probably heard of the crocoduck – the impossible chimera that exists only in the pseudoscientific imagination of Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort. There is also the duckcroc, which is a real creature – an extinct crocodilian with a duck-like snout.

Well now, meet crocochicken. This creature does not yet exist, but only because the scientists who are tinkering with its genetic program are not allowed to let it hatch. Arkhat Abzhanov is an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. He is engaged in a research program, the goal of which is to reverse some of the evolutionary changes that resulted in birds evolving form theropod dinosaurs. In essence, he want to reverse the evolutionary clock and produce a chicken with more reptilian features.

The particular feature he is working on is the duck’s bill. He is coaxing it down a different developmental path so that it ends up looking more like a crocodiles snout – hence the name “crocochicken.”

There is another researcher also doing similar research. Hans Laarson of McGill University and colleagues are also trying to reverse chicken DNA to develop along more primitive path – he is working at the other end, trying to get chickens to grow a dinosaur-like tail. His creation has been dubbed “dinochicken,” which is a much better term as chickens actually evolved from dinosaurs and not crocodilians.

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Aug 16 2011

Brand Loyalty

Published by under Neuroscience

Are you a Mac or PC? Do you have any strong feelings about this brand rivalry? Would you take it personally if your preferred brand was the target of criticism?

New research indicates that you would.

It is already established “textbook” psychology that people have egos – we have a self-image that we protect. We like to look at ourselves in a positive light and will engage in motivated reasoning, denial, and even rewriting history in order to protect that self-image. There is also what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error – we tend to explain the actions of others based upon internal or inherent factors, but we explain our own behavior based upon situational factors. For example, if you see a mother harshly discipline a child in public you might infer that she is an angry person or an impatient parent. But if you harshly discipline your own child in public you are likely to explain your behavior as an understandable reaction to the situation; your child was relentlessly disobedient and perhaps you were stressed and in a hurry.

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Aug 15 2011

MS and the Promise of The Genome Project

The Human Genome Project  (HGP)- the project to map the entire human genome – was one of the big public science endeavors that captured the imagination. It started in 1990 and took 13 years to complete, completing the map in 2003 (but certainly not ending the project). Unusually for most such big projects, it was completed ahead of schedule and below budget. The project benefited tremendously from improved techniques and advancing computer power. Sequencing the first genome took about 300 million dollars. Today we can do it for about 10,000 dollars, and the price continues to fall geometrically (about half every 9 months).

By all accounts the HGP was a huge success. But 8 years after the completion of the first human genome map there is the vague sense in the public that the promise has not been fulfilled. The public was promised that the HGP would allow us to identify genes associated with diseases, and then craft cures based upon that knowledge. So where are all the genetic cures we were promised?

What is really going on is that even a big-picture successful science project like the HGP can be overhyped by the press. By mapping the human genome scientists were given a powerful tool with which to investigate disease. It still takes, however, a tremendous amount of research to translate that tool into specific knowledge about an individual disease, and then further translate that specific knowledge into a proven treatment. The pipeline for translating the basic knowledge of the HGP into an actual treatment is about 15-20 years optimistically (and that is after a specific disease is pursued genetically.

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Aug 12 2011

Electronic Skin

Published by under Technology

A cool study has been published in Science detailing the development of an electronic second skin. Zhenqiang Ma details the technological problems and potential solutions to developing electronics that are thin and flexible, like human skin, and in fact can be placed on the skin for medical purposes.

We have seen this type of technology coming for some years – the promise of flexible electronics. Silicon chips are fine, but when you can bend a transistor that opens up a lot of potential uses.

Ma details the properties that are needed for second-skin electronics. Flexible electronics having many possible uses, such as artificial skin for robots. But if you want to attach flexible electronics to human skin for medical monitoring you need additional features:
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Aug 11 2011

How To Sell Magic Beans

One of the eternal questions for skeptics is – how can some people be so gullible? We have a standard answer which captures many of the factors: poor understanding of science, lack of an innate sense of probability, all the various mechanisms of self-deception, and the strong desire to believe in certain things. Further, some cons are just slick, and anyone can be fooled by a clever-enough deception.

But still, there are some claims that are so astoundingly gullible it’s difficult not to face-palm when confronted by them. One category of such claims is what I think of as the equivalent of magic amulets, or the magic beans from Jack and the Beanstalk. To believe in these magic amulets you either have to flat-out believe in magic, or you have to be so befuddled by science that it all seems like magic to you. The latter, I think, is what many marketers of magic amulets are counting on. They are deliberately marketing to the scientifically illiterate, in a very cynical way.

One strategy of such marketing is to use sciencey-sounding terminology to describe everyday objects, giving them a futuristic mystique that makes them sound more impressive than they are.

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Aug 09 2011

Still More Misdirection and Illogic from Egnor

Michael Egnor has responded to my prior post in which I outlined his numerous failings in logic and misrepresentations of neuroscience. His response continues to be incoherent, but does offer some further teaching points.

One of the main points of contention is this – what can we infer from the relationship between damage to the brain and resulting neurological signs and symptoms. My position is that, if the mind is entirely caused by the functioning of the brain, then damage to the brain will damage the mind. I maintain that this is true, as far as we can tell from our current technology and understanding of neuroscience.

Egnor maintains that this is not true – that the relationship is “not the least bit predictable.” Further, that this lack of total correlation is evidence for dualism, that the mind is produced, at least in part, by something immaterial. There are both factual and logical problems with his position. To my criticism of his claims, he writes:

Mental deficits — specific defects in reasoning, judgement, planning, memory– are highly variable. One cannot look at a CT scan done after a head injury and predict with any certainty that ‘this person will have an inability to remember numbers’. High level mental function localizes very poorly to specific brain regions. This is odd, if, as Novella claims, the material brain is entirely the cause of all mental function.

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