Science, Technology

Sciencey goodness Pt I

Sometimes I am able to write posts on Friday.  Sometimes not.


At least part of the reason for this is that I spend my Thursday afternoons and Fridays (or at least parts thereof) research for and writing the SMC weekly newsletter.  Which is awesome.

And you should sign up!  Why?  Because it’s well interesting, of course.  Peter Griffin, also of the SMC, writes the feature articlets for it, and I get the fun of doing the rest.  Which means I get to wallow in all manner of science stories and research, choose stuff that I think’s cool, and send it out to a bunch of people.  Hopefully, some of you will shortly be one of that number.

You can also read back issues in our archive (reachable off the SMC homepage, on the left), which gets updated shortly after the newsletter goes out.

On the other hand, I also tend to find a lot of other interestingness as well in my forays through the world of science, and since, clearly I don’t have time to blog about each one at length (I tried, but my to-write-about list has developed its own gravity well), I may also start writing short sniplets about some of these discoveries.

Many of you will be aware of at least some of them.  Some of you may not. It’s not a competition (promise), and nonetheless, I hope it’s of interest.  Of course, comments always welcome!

Language preservation: it’s not a zero sum game

There’s quite a bit of consternation over the fact that the vast majority of the world’s languages are not spoken by all that many people.  That is to say, they lead a slightly precarious existence and one that, as the dominant languages continue their spread, looks to become even more so.

Why on earth would we care if some obscure language went extinct?  Because our languages encode a great deal of our cultural information, identity and history.  Previous models have predicted a somewhat apocalyptic end for many of our lesser-spotted lesser-spoken languages, but someone’s developed a new model which gives a little more hope.

One of the characteristics of previous models was that they didn’t take account of people who’re bi- or more lingual.  Which seems a little odd, frankly.  Modelling language use as zero sum seems incredibly oversimplistic.

Yes, certainly, it has happened - for example, English has crushed some other languages. But it’s not always going to happen that way.  People don’t always just choose one language.  For example: in South Africa, where I come from, many people speak five plus languages.  Fluently.  (The vernacular is, um, rich back home)

Anyhoo, the new model has done away with that.  It allows bilingual people to exist within it, and in the process allows languages to co-exist and co-evolve.  Hooray.  Although, say the authors, it’s still  something of a delicate balance.  Still, at least there’s hope.

[Talking of which - has anyone else heard of jejemon?  I only came across it a couple of days ago, and am completely boggled linguistically]

Fertile people: you can live longer!

Ok, yes, that’s something of an overexcited headline.  It’s not quite that simple.

Scientists looking at longevity have found that, in the roundworm C. elegans* at least, longevity and  the reproductive system go hand in hand.  Or something. They knocked out a number of different genes - including one called Ash 2, which is a regulatory gene - involved in the germline, and noticed an interesting effect.

The knockout extended the lives of the roundworms by up to 30% (we’re not sure whether the lengthening happened in the period of life when one is partying heavily, sprogging, buying motorcycles, or needing Zimmer frames, sadly).  The researchers aren’t exactly sure why, though.

The catch? It only works if the worms are still fertile…

Change blindness modelled

Change blindness is the term used to describe our inability to see changes in a scene.  For example, a bench moving place.  Or a wall changing colour.  Or something that’s been added/removed.  Etc. It’s tested by showing people before and after pictures, and asking them what’s different.

Up until now, scientists have been researching change blindness by manually changing pictures of scenes, which meant that they had to choose the features to be changed and how.  This, of course, adds the element of bias.

So some mathematically-inclined people got together and wrote an algorithm which allows a computer (man’s bestest friend) to make these decisions instead.  Bias free.  The better for to study the phenomenon with.

And they did experiments to test it.  As one does.  The experiments confirmed it can be used to test change blindness, but they also showed something else: that we detect removals or additions from a scene more easily than we detect whether something has changed colour.  While the scientists said they were expecting the opposite to be the case, I find I’m not terribly surprised - colour is important to how we navigate and interact with our surroundings, but the presence or absence of said objects is probably of more importance.  I, for example, am more likely to notice having just walked into a chair that wasn’t there previously, than to notice it’s changed from a delightful sandalwood to an even more delightful, um, something else.

Anyhoo, it’s hoped the algorithm can be used to help develop things, like roadsigns, that we’re likely to notice.

Enough for now - have a wonderful weekend! * raises a toast *


* C. elegans is the roundworm version of Drosophila Sophophora melanogaster.  A sort of geneticist’s playground.  The worms have a great deal in common with us, which means we’re able to learn much about our own genetics without having to directly play with people.  For ethical reasons etc.


Greer, E., Maures, T., Hauswirth, A., Green, E., Leeman, D., Maro, G., Han, S., Banko, M., Gozani, O., & Brunet, A. (2010). Members of the H3K4 trimethylation complex regulate lifespan in a germline-dependent manner in C. elegans Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature09195

Verma, M., & McOwan, P. (2010). A semi-automated approach to balancing of bottom-up salience for predicting change detection performance Journal of Vision, 10 (6), 3-3 DOI: 10.1167/10.6.3