Our Weird and Wonderful World

Magnetic Putty Time Lapse would be an excellent name for a rock band:

Posted by Scott Lawson, who has this to say:

Magnetic putty time lapse as it absorbs a rare-earth magnet. Taken over 1.5 hours at 3fps, played back at 24fps. The magnetic putty will eventually arrange itself so that the outer surface is as evenly distributed around the magnet as possible.

Ferromagnetic particles in the putty are strongly attracted to the magnet and very slowly engulf the surface of the magnet. The magnet shown in the picture is a strong neodymium iron boron magnet. It’s a very powerful magnet for its size and could erase magnetic stripes found in credit cards and damage electronics!

The putty looks and feels like regular silly putty, but the difference lies in the fact that it has been infused with millions of micron-sized ferrous particles (most often iron oxide powder). The magnetic putty is not actually magnetic by itself, since the infused particles are made of iron powder.

The presence of the strong neodymium iron boron magnet (the silver cube in the video) magnetizes the ferromagnetic particles in the putty. When this happens, the ferrous particles align with each other and this alignment generates north and south magnetic poles, making the putty into a temporary magnet. Once magnetized, the putty will remain magnetized even after the rare-earth magnet has been removed from the putty. This effect persists for a few hours until thermal agitation shakes the particles and they lose their alignment.

H/T: iO9

The Sexual Excesses of Modern Civilization

Okay, so that title is total click-bait, but there’s a real story behind it. If you want some good inadvertent comedy (and tragedy as well), check out this article in Atlantic Magazine, and marvel at the Stan Laurel-style head-scratching of a liberal academic elite trying to make sense of facts that demolish their carefully manufactured view of human sexuality.

A couple of anthropologists–Barry and Bonnie Hewlett–studied the Aka and Ngandu people of central Africa for years before getting a sense that they approached sex differently than … well, differently than married anthropologists, I guess. They had campfire discussions in which men spoke of having sexual intercourse several times in a single evening. Being western anthropologists, they immediately assumed this was an African version of Jersey Shore in which men naturally exaggerated their monogamous sexual practices for no apparent reason.

But when they talked to the women, it turned out that, yes, couples did copulate several times in a single evening, and that this was done in order to have children.

I know! Crazy-talk, right? As enlightened Westerners, we know sex has nothing to do with children at all. Babies are just a punishment meted out by a capricious biological processes.

Of course the Aka and Ngandu also had sex for pleasure, but in a place with such extremely high infant mortality, children were not seen as an unfortunate byproduct. They were seen as essential.

And then the Hewletts learned the ugly truth at the heart of these primitive peoples:

[they] found that homosexuality and masturbation appeared to be foreign to both groups

Is the strong cultural focus on sex as a reproductive tool the reason masturbation and homosexual practices seem to be virtually unknown among the Aka and Ngandu? That isn’t clear. But the Hewletts did find that their informants — whom they knew well from years of field work — “were not aware of these practices, did not have terms for them,” and, in the case of the Aka, had a hard time even understanding about what the researchers were asking when they asked about homosexual behaviors.

The Ngandu “were familiar with the concept” of homosexual behavior, “but no word existed for it and they said they did not know of any such relationships in or around the village. Men who had traveled to the capital, Bangui, said it existed in the city and was called ‘PD’ (French for par derriere or from behind).”

Given all this, the Hewletts conclude, “Homosexuality and masturbation are rare or nonexistent [in these two cultures], not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either ethnic group.”

Quelle horreur! You mean homosexuality and masturbation are culturally conditioned? That’s unpossible!

Except, it’s not all that unheard of. Other anthropologists have come across cultures without any real understanding of disordered sexual practices, which are largely rooted in psychological and sociological, not physiological, causes. The article attempts to wave the magic wand of genetics at the problem, reassuring their panicking readership that, indeed, genetics can explain this, because SCIENCE! Their genetic mutterings are fairly vague, but from what I can tell, they’re suggesting that if there is a genetic component to homosexuality (“and there is increasing evidence that [there is], in many cases,” they say soothingly), it makes perfect sense that isolated tribes would not have this genetic component.

Because homosexuality has never been found in genetically separated cultures? Try again.

Are they suggesting that there’s a Mitochondrial Gay Eve to match Mitochondrial Eve, and all gay people trace their lineage back to her? How, where, when, and why did this genetic gay component enter the human family tree? Aren’t evolutionists always telling us that we’re nothing but chains of reproduction stretching back to single cells, with all behavior oriented towards passing on the best possible genes? If that’s the case, how does the “gay gene” fit in? It serves no purpose. In fact, it’s functionally sterile, and thus if it existed, wouldn’t it have vanished long ago as an evolutionary dead end? Am I missing something here?

The Hewletts correctly observe the three components of human sexuality: desire, behavior, and identity. They appear to believe that the desire element is universal and hard-wired, but that culture affects behavior and identity. There’s something to be said for this in developed civilizations. Certainly, the whole idea of someone being homosexual (behavior) is barely more than a hundred years old and the idea of claiming membership in a gay sub-culture (identity) is even more recent, while the idea of homosexual activity (desire) is quite ancient.

Where they–and much of modern social science–goes awry is in seating desire purely in biology. It may in fact originate there in some cases. Certainly, we find young children with gender identity disorders that cannot have come from cultural conditioning. At some point we’ll identify exactly what goes wrong in fetal development to produce GID, and maybe then we’ll find a more humane solution than the chemical and surgical butchery we’re practicing now to turn men and and women into non-men and non-women.

But insisting on a biological element in all (or even most) instances of same sex attraction is just junk science. Desire is a mysterious thing, and we can’t rule out some real biological component to sexual disorders, but moving from that to the “born gay” routine is just politically motivated nonsense looking to reaffirm people in their okayness.

The Hewletts believe it’s possible that same-sex desire exists in Aka and Ngandu men, but the lack of any social acceptance or understanding keeps it repressed. To their credit, they are cautious about this claim, and admit there is no proof for it.

The lack of masturbation actually shocked them more than the lack of homosexuality. Homosexual activity requires not only having the desire, but identifying and communicating that desire to someone who shares it, a proposition that is somewhat fraught in certain cultures, to say the least.

Masturbation, however, is a party of one. They find it unfathomable that any people who enjoy the pleasures of sex can fail to treat their genitals as a self-contained recreational unit.

Mired in their Western, modernist, post-moral biases, they fail to see a people who have a frank and practical understanding of sex as rooted, quite simply, in babies and bonding between people of the opposite gender. That’s what sex is. Everything else is simply a misuse of sex. It may be a vastly entertaining misuse of sex, but people trying to eek out a simple existence can be forgiven for not reducing all of life’s experiences to self-amusement and self-gratification.

My favorite part of the whole story, however, comes at the end:

Studies of small-scale, rural, non-Western cultures like the Aka and Ngandu paint a more complicated picture of human variation. The Hewletts remark that, “the Western cultural emphasis on recreational sex has … led some researchers to suggest that human sexuality is similar to bonobo apes because they have frequent non-reproductive sex, engage in sex throughout the female cycle, and use sex to reduce social tensions.” But, the Hewletts suggest, “The bonobo view may apply to Euro-Americans (plural), but from an Aka or Ngandu viewpoint, sex is linked to reproduction and building a family.” Where sex is work, sex may just work differently.

I can’t think of a more perfect summary of the Enlightenment and all the modernist movements that evolved in its wake. The efforts of the intellectual elite for the past 200+ years has been to reduce us all to bonobo apes. In fact, the Western view of recreational sex has been imposed on people who were once very traditionally moral.

And when our civilization falls, and we’re all reduced to subsistence living, the Aka and Ngandu–along with any traditionally religious people who haven’t been hunted to their deaths–can teach the survivors the true purpose of life and sexuality.

h/t: Kathy Schiffer

Doctors Grow An Ear On Woman’s Arm

Once again, the human body and human genius collaborate on something that’s … incredibly disgusting. But also very cool. The story:

The discovery of a rapidly-spreading basal cell cancer in her ear in 2008 required the removal of part of her ear, part of her skull and her left ear canal. But now, in a groundbreaking and complicated set of surgeries, Johns Hopkins doctors have attached a new ear made from Walters’ own tissue.

“I thought of this exact strategy many years before and really was looking for the right patient to try it on,” said renowned plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr. Patrick Byrne.

Byrne used cartilage from Walters’ ribs to stitch together a new ear matching her right ear. He then implanted it under the skin of her forearm, where it grew for months.


3D Printing an Extinct Mollusk

I don’t want GATM to become ALL 3D PRINTING ALL THE TIME!, but I just love this stuff. A mollusk known as “Protobalanus spinicoronatus” went extinct about 390 million years ago. The little critter had an impressive ring of spikes for protection, and a single suction foot. The fossils are all fragmentary, and thus paleontologists were unsure exactly how they related to other armored mollusks. (And by the way: Armored Mollusks would be a great name for a rock band.) So they printed one:

To find out, a team of researchers used a micro computed-tomography (CT) scan on fossilized fragments of the prehistoric mollusk found in Ohio 10 years ago. The scan gave the scientists an animated view of the creature’s shells and spines in their original position; the researchers also used the scan to create a three-dimensional cast of the animal in its reconstructed shape. With this information, along with details on living relatives of this mollusk group, the researchers created a multicolored, textured model made of clay, resin and silicone. The result: a view of what the mollusk looked like millions of years ago.

Too cool. Read the rest.


Are Warp Drives Possible? Definitely Maybe, in Theory

The sci-fi idea of a “warp drive” is based on simple physics: nothing can move faster than the speed of light. (There may be exceptions, such as in certain kinds of quantum tunneling, but this seems unlikely.) So, if we want a vessel to travel faster than light, we need to create a bubble that warps the space around a vessel without actually affecting that vessel.

A theory of warp travel put forward by in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre would involve a football-shaped ship with a giant ring around it, perhaps made from some kind of exotic metal. Space-time would be warped around the ship: less in front, more behind, creating an envelope of warped space while leaving the ship in “normal” space. Space-time itself would then “push” the vessel forward.

As this article points out, Alcubierre’s model had issues, but some new ideas are being kicked around that may provide some answers:

With this concept, [Alcubierre’s] spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

The only problem is, previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.

“The findings I presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation,” White told SPACE.com. “The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab.”

As Marc Millis points out here, space-time itself may be able to move faster than light, as it is may have done in the Big Bang, and that’s what would power a warp drive. Honestly, I think we’re more likely to power faster-than-light travel on the sheer improbability of a warp drive, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. It’s fascinating stuff that goes right to the origins of the universe.

Custom Organs and Co-Creation

I write about these stories from time to time, and with each new headline the ball seems to be a little further down the field. I was particularly taken with a line in this article about Andemariam Beyene, who received a new windpipe to replace one ravaged by cancer. The windpipe was “grown” on a plastic scaffolding using Beyene’s own cells.

[A]n exact copy of his windpipe was made from a porous, fibrous plastic, which was then seeded with stem cells harvested from his bone marrow. After just a day and a half in a bioreactor — a kind of incubator in which the windpipe was spun, rotisserie-style, in a nutrient solution — the implant was stitched into Mr. Beyene, replacing his cancerous windpipe.

Beyene is now breathing normally and tumor-free. We’ve seen things like this before with bladders, and Beyene’s windpipe surgery, which was done last summer, was a success. More complex structures, such as kidneys, livers, and blood vessels, are the next stage.

This quote from his doctor, Paolo Macchiarini, is what really struck me: “The human body is so beautiful, I’m convinced we must use it in the most proper way.

We are called to cooperate with creation: not attempt to rule it or warp it. Even when theology is removed from the equation, people benefit from a Catholic understanding of the material world. Our bodies are miracles of creation, as is our reason. Functioning together, with  reason finding ways to use creation in cooperation with God’s plan, we can work wonders. Dr. Macchiarini sees human bodies ravaged by cancer, so he knows better than most that the body isn’t always “beautiful.” But he sees past that to its potential to provide remarkable solutions to serious problems.

Finding God in the material stuff of life is the very heart of a sacramental understanding of the world. As St. Josemaria Escriva wrote:

God is calling you to serve him in and from the ordinary, material and secular activities of human life. He waits for us everyday, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.

…[E]ither we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or we shall never find him. That is why I tell you that our age needs to give back to matter and to the apparently trivial events of life their noble, original meaning. It needs to place them at the service of the Kingdom of God; it needs to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus.

When brilliant minds use their God-given gifts to understand and cooperate with creation, they become co-creators. Grace builds on nature. God works through human talents, properly ordered, making something greater in the world. Dr. Macchiarini was the hands of Christ in the world, in a profound and striking way.

We’re not all called to summon new organs from the very building blocks of human life, but we take part in this act of co-creation every time we allow grace to work through our natural gifts to manifest Christ in the world. We are His hands. If we just trust Him and cooperate with Him, we can work miracles.

Beyond the Cloud: DNA is the Next Storage Frontier

I try to resist computer-to-human analogies like “the brain is just an organic computer!” They’re facile and, ultimately, inaccurate. One role of DNA, however, is to act as a kind of data storage. It’s a wild oversimplification to compare genetic code to computer code, but there’s a kernel (geek pun: sorry) of truth in there. DNA can indeed compress a mind-blowing amount of information into an extremely small space. As we reach the limits of silicon and other materials, DNA could be at the heart of the next great computer revolution.

An article in Science is outlining how that next revolution may unfold. As the story observes, it’s possible to fit the entire text of every book in the Library of Congress on a milligram of DNA, and a team led by George Church, a synthetic biologist at Harvard Medical School, is showing the way. Church’s group appears to be the first to move beyond the merely theoretical by storing the contents of a genetics textbooks on less than 1,000,000,000,000th of a gram (a picogram) of DNA.

The problem has been with the nature of living cells. They die, the replicate, they can mutate. In short: they’re too unstable to be used for data storage using any known methods. Church got it to work because he didn’t use living cells:

Instead, an inkjet printer embeds short fragments of chemically synthesized DNA onto the surface of a tiny glass chip. To encode a digital file, researchers divide it into tiny blocks of data and convert these data not into the 1s and 0s of typical digital storage media, but rather into DNA’s four-letter alphabet of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. Each DNA fragment also contains a digital “barcode” that records its location in the original file. Reading the data requires a DNA sequencer and a computer to reassemble all of the fragments in order and convert them back into digital format. The computer also corrects for errors; each block of data is replicated thousands of times so that any chance glitch can be identified and fixed by comparing it to the other copies.

If your first thought is, “That sounds awesome…ly expensive!” you’re right. No one is about to fire up the DNA sequencer to store their vacation snaps. One constant with most technology, however, is that it gets cheaper, smaller, and better with time. Down the road, a DNA drive could be as ubiquitous and a flash drive.

There is something big on the horizon at the juncture between computing and DNA. Programmers are eyeing those four-letter DNA sequences and wondering what they may be able to do that binary cannot. No one really knows. None of this is particularly problematic ethically, since the “DNA” isn’t the real, living thing. But what if it was? What if it was possible to store your data in your own body? How would that be any different than just getting a tattoo?

Also check out … Get Offa My Cloud.

St. Augustine Asks the Hard Questions Atheists Don’t Ask UPDATED

It’s fun to read or listen to super-duper-smart professional atheists (well, they think they’re smart) banging on about the book of Genesis. It’s a useful issue for them, because the primeval history in scripture is mysterious, complex, and rich in symbolism. So, naturally, Reason Warriors approach it with the childish literalism of a young-earth creationist. Perhaps this works for them because fundamentalism is ill-equipped to properly understand Genesis, which is why friends don’t let friends be fundamentalists.

Atheists think Christians believe this is how things really happened.

One of their techniques is to throw out an endless litany of questions about the creation of the world and then demand instant answers, usually from some poor sap unequipped to respond knowledgeably. “Oh yeah, so God made light before he made the sun? He made plants before he made the sun needed for them to grow? Why are there two creation stories? Huh? HUH?!” And then they stand back in triumph, fold their arms across their chest, marvel at their own genius, and wait for the poor sap to fumble his way through a few pathetic replies.

This kind of low-hanging fruit is the bread-and-butter of the atheist combox troll and meme-maker, but the really hilarious thing is that their questions are all so pathetic. Because atheists believe they have the corner on reason and logic, they develop an inflated sense of their own intelligence. They gather for “Reason Rallies” as though reason was a wholly owned subsidiary of Atheism Inc., rather than something inherited from the centrality of Aristotelianism to Catholic theology, and thus to Western civilization. Their questions barely even skim the surface of the incredibly deep, profound, vexing, and glorious texts of Genesis 1 & 2. Continue reading

The Singing Mouse

No, it’s not the title of a new animated musical feature, although it should be. It’s the nickname of this little fella (turn down your speakers: it gets loud):

This is Scotinomys teguina, another of God’s weird and wonderful little masterpieces. He chirps a single note about 20 times a second in order to woo a mate and establish territorial dominance. It’s a pretty amazing performance, for a mouse, and it may eventually help researchers pinpoint genes affecting speech disorders in humans, including those related to autism.

The gene in question is called FOXP2, and University of Texas at Austin researcher Steven Phelps says “it’s the only gene that’s been implicated in human speech disorders specifically.”

Having at least one mutated copy of the gene has been associated with a host of language problems in humans, from difficulty understanding grammar to an inability to make the precise mouth movements needed to speak a clear sentence.

The FOXP2 gene is remarkably similar overall between singing mice, lab mice and humans, said Phelps. To find parts of the gene that may contribute to the singing mouse’s songs, Phelps is searching for sequences unique to the singing mouse and testing them for evidence of natural selection, which weeds out mutations with no likely observable effect from those that are likely to contribute to singing behavior.

“Those two things go a long way,” said Phelps, ” And when you look at the intersection of those two things they give us a really good set of candidate regions for what might be causing species differences.”

Phelps’ uses next-generation sequencing to decipher how FOXP2 interacts with DNA to regulate the function of other genes. The process involves reading tiny fragments of overlapping DNA so that the entire sequence can be deduced. It is a procedure that generates massive amount of data that only the processing power of a supercomputer can handle, said O’Connell.

“You need TACC to do it,” said O’Connell, referring to the , which houses the supercomputers the lab uses. “The more data you have, the more memory it requires, so a lot of the data we can only process on Lonestar’s high memory nodes.”

Lonestar and Ranger are the names of the two supercomputers that the Phelps lab uses to crunch their data, with Ranger running programs in two hours that used to take the lab three days to run on their desktop. Both computers are among the top 100 supercomputers in the world.

The goal is to uncover how FOXP2 gives the mouse his song in order to better understand language defects in humans. Read the whole thing at Phys.org.

Higgs Boson: Sort of Confirmed

Waffles: they’re not just for breakfast any more. The announcement about the Higgs boson was today, and the folks giving the press conference were twisting themselves in knots to avoid saying they have proof! of the elusive particle, when it’s quite clear that they’re fresh off high-fiving and fist-bumping every physicist they encounter saying, “Yeah, baby! We done it!”

What does this even mean?: “As a layman, I think we have it. But as a scientist, I have to say, ‘What do we have?'” Feathers + waddling + quacking = duck. You proved it exists! Good, Lord, people: do a victory lap and have a beer already!

Here’s the original post I wrote about the pending announcement when it was still a rumor. Go ahead and stamp this one “confirmed.” More at Ars Technica.

What-the-what?! (HT Alan Yoshioka)