Science News from April 2019

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This is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while now. The idea is that I’ll keep an eye out for recent studies or other science news and then post a monthly summary of the most interesting stories. Usually, the goal will be to post these at the beginning of the month because they’ll be about news from the previous month. But it took me a while to get around to doing this first one. I’m sticking to April 2019 news even though we’re already more than halfway through May.

I’ll be honest here; my real reason for starting this new blog post series is to look up random stuff online and call it “research” instead of “wasting time reading random articles”. However, it would also be great if someone else out there stumbles across my blog and learns something that they might not have otherwise seen. I should probably include a bit of a disclaimer acknowledging that I don’t have a background in science beyond a couple general education classes in undergrad. Also, I’m only including things that I personally find interesting, which means that the content will be skewed towards some topics more than others. For example, there’s going to be a lot more about neuropsychology than about ecology. This particular month, it’s a lot about food and brains. I encourage reader interaction; if you’ve come across some interesting science news that I haven’t included here, please leave a comment!

Black HoleThe biggest science news of April 2019 is a picture of a fuzzy orange circle against a black background. It’s been around for more than a month now, so the hype has faded a little, but you probably were seeing it all over the internet a few weeks ago, usually accompanied by the name and headshot of Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old computer scientist who played a key role in taking this picture. (In fact, this image is the result of many people’s efforts over the course of many years) But as much hype as that fuzzy orange circle is getting, it’s all well-deserved, because it’s a real photograph of a mysterious and fascinating phenomenon that we know and love from science fiction. We Earth people now have seen a black hole. 

A black hole, which is presumably caused by the collapse of a supermassive star, is an area of space with such a strong gravitational force that even light cannot escape from it. It’s actually the opposite of a hole; rather than being empty space, it’s an area of extremely condensed mass. The existence of such phenomena was suggested as early as 1783 by John Michell, a British academic whose writings and professions cover an impressive array of disciplines. (His various roles and titles at Cambridge alone include arithmetic, theology, geometry, Greek, Hebrew, philosophy, and geology; he was also a rector in the Anglican church and a relatively prolific writer of scientific essays) The idea of black holes didn’t get much attention until Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity came along in 1915, describing how matter can bend spacetime and suggesting that such a thing as a black hole could exist. However, even then, the term “black hole” wasn’t in common usage until around 1964, and black holes basically belonged in the realm of theoretical physics and science fiction at that point and for a while afterwards.

If you look up timelines showing the advances in our knowledge of black holes, there are plenty of landmarks over the course of the last four or five decades, and some of these developments have resulted in images that show the effects of a black hole in some way, shape, or form. But the picture produced by the Event Horizon Telescope on April 10 of this year is the first actual photograph to directly show a black hole. The Event Horizon Telescope is actually several (currently eight) telescopes around the world, synchronized by the most advanced technology that computer science has to offer.

In other astronomy news, planetary scientists say that we’ll have a once-in-a-millennium encounter with an asteroid in about ten years, and it’ll happen on Friday the 13th. (April 13, 2029, to be exact) We’re told there’s no cause for concern; it won’t hit the Earth. This asteroid is just a fun fact, so let’s move on to the extremely important topic of food.

Greek saladPeople have been noticing for a while that the “Mediterranean diet” seems to be healthier than the “Western diet”. Although there are some organizations out there that have put forth very specific definitions of what constitutes the “Mediterranean diet,” the basic gist is that American food includes more animal-based fats, whereas the cuisine in places like Greece and southern Italy has more plant-based fats, especially olive oil. Proponents of the Mediterranean diet often point out the significance of cultural factors beyond nutrition. Our eating habits in America tend to prioritize convenience over socialization, while the idyllic Mediterranean meal is home-cooked, shared with family and friends, eaten at a leisurely pace, and most likely enjoyed with a glass or two of wine. I mention this because it has been suggested that a person’s enjoyment of their food actually impacts the way in which their body processes the nutrients. In other words, food is healthier when you enjoy it.

In this particular study, that factor wasn’t taken into consideration and probably didn’t play a role. (The socialization aspect and the wine consumption weren’t mentioned) But researchers did establish that monkeys who were fed a Mediterranean diet consumed fewer calories and maintained a lower body weight than monkeys who were fed an American diet, despite the fact that both groups were allowed to eat whatever amount they wanted. The implication is that the Mediterranean diet, and perhaps plant-based fat specifically, is the key to avoiding overeating. 

On another nutrition-related topic, it turns out that protein shakes aren’t as great as many people think. While it’s true and well-established that a high-protein, low-carb diet is effective for building muscle mass, there are drawbacks. Of course, general common knowledge has long dictated that a varied and balanced diet is good, but it turns out that too much reliance on supplements can actually be dangerous in the long run. Essentially, protein supplements can negatively impact mood, lead to a tendency to overeat, and eventually cause weight gain and decrease lifespan. Even if you’re a bodybuilder, you’re better off getting your protein from regular food than from protein drinks and protein bars. 

CoffeeLet’s move on from foods to beverages. Scientists have suggested that taste preferences could be genetic, and some kind-of-recent studies have backed up that theory. But this recent study from Northwestern University, which focused on a few specific beverages classified by taste category, didn’t reveal many genetic correlations. Instead, it appears that drink preferences are based more on psychological factors. In other words, I don’t love coffee because I love the taste of bitterness; I love coffee because I love the caffeine boost. Another study suggests that I don’t even need to taste my coffee to benefit from it. The psychological association between coffee and alertness means that our minds can be “primed” (that is, influenced) by coffee-related cues, like seeing a picture of coffee. In this study from the University of Toronto, participants’ time perception and clarity of thought was affected just by being reminded of coffee. (You’re welcome for the coffee picture I’ve included here)

I’ve come across a couple other interesting brain-related articles. For one thing, there have been recent developments in the understanding of dementia. We’ve known for a while that Alzheimer’s disease is correlated with (and probably caused by) the accumulation of certain proteins in the brain, but researchers have now identified a different type of dementia caused by the buildup of different proteins. In the short term, this isn’t a life-changing scientific development; this newly acknowledged disorder (called LATE, which stands for Limbic-Predominant Age-related TDP-43 Encephalopathy) has the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s and doctors can only tell the difference after the patient’s death. But in the long run, this new information may help doctors forestall and/or treat dementia.

Meanwhile, researchers are working on developing the technology to translate brain activity into audible speech. The idea is that this will give non-verbal people a way to speak that is a lot more user-friendly and authentic than what exists now.

In other neurological news, the long-standing debate about neurogenesis seems to have found its answer. The question is whether our brains continue to make new brain cells throughout our lives. Some neurologists argue that, once we’re adults, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. In the past, researchers have looked at post-mortem brains and seen little or no evidence to indicate that any of the brain cells were new. But in this study, the researchers made sure that their brain specimens were all from people who had only recently died. This time, there were lots of brain cells that appeared to be brand new. The brains without these new cells were situations in which the deceased person had Alzheimer’s; evidently, dementia and neurogenesis don’t go together. (The question is whether dementia stops neurogenesis or whether dementia is caused by a lack of neurogenesis. Or perhaps neither directly causes the other and there are factors yet to be discovered.)

In somewhat less groundbreaking neurology news, one study from the University of Colorado has shown yet again that extra sleep on the weekend doesn’t make up for sleep deprivation during the week. (This article makes it sound like a new discovery, but medical science has been saying this for a while.) 

Name one thing in this imageAll of this neuroscience stuff makes me think of a picture I saw that was originally posted on Twitter a few weeks ago. Apparently, it attracted a good deal of attention because a lot of people found it creepy. The picture looks like a pile of random stuff, but none of the individual objects are recognizable. Psychologically, that’s just weird. It brings to mind the intriguing psychological phenomenon known as the uncanny valley.

Uncanny ValleyThe uncanny valley refers to the creepy feeling that people get from something non-human that seems very humanlike. For example, robots with realistic faces and voices are very unsettling. If you don’t know what I mean, look up Erica from the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University. Or just Google “uncanny valley” and you’ll easily find plenty of examples. Although the concept of the uncanny valley generally refers to humanoid robots, the same thing is true of other things, like realistic dolls or shadows that seem human-shaped. It’s why most people actually find clowns more creepy than funny, and it’s one of several reasons that it’s disturbing to see a dead body. The term “uncanny valley” refers to the shape of a graph that estimates the relationship between something’s human likeness and the degree to which it feels unsettling. Up to a certain point, things like robots or dolls are more appealing if they’re more human-like, but then there’s a steep “valley” in the graph where the thing in question is very human-like and very unappealing. This tweeted picture of non-things isn’t quite the same thing because it doesn’t involve human likeness. But there’s still something intrinsically unsettling about an image that looks more realistic at a glance than it does when you look more closely.

So what’s the deal with this picture? It was probably created by an AI (artificial intelligence) computer program designed to compile a composite image based on images from all over the internet. Essentially, the computer program understands what a “pile of random stuff” should look like, but doesn’t know quite enough to recreate accurate images of specific items. This is an interesting demonstration of the current capabilities and limitations of AI technology. Essentially, AI programs mimic a real brain’s ability to learn. These programs can glean information from outside sources (like Google images) or from interactions with people. They then use this information to do things like create composite images, design simulations, and to mimic human conversation, whether text-based or audio.

Only relatively recently have AI programs been in common usage, but this technology now plays a large role in our everyday lives. Obviously, there are devices like Siri and Alexa that are capable of actual human conversation, and self-driving cars are now becoming a reality. Technically, things as mundane as recommendations on Netflix or Amazon are examples of AI, and AI programs are used for simulations and analysis in areas such as marketing, finances, and even health care. Recently, medical researchers have found that AI is creepily accurate at predicting death. And science is continually coming up with ways to advance AI technology. (I admittedly don’t understand this article explaining that magnets can make AI more human-brain-like, but it’s interesting anyway) 

In the interest of time, I’m going to end this blog post here. It’s gotten very long even though I’ve cut out probably about half of the stories I’d intended to include. If all goes as planned, I’ll have another one of these to post in a couple weeks.

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Are Christians Hypocrites?

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cross in handsOn a regular basis, somebody who’s famous and Christian does something scandalous that leads people to question their values. The obvious current example is the story of Josh Duggar, which came to light this past week and is probably the biggest story to hit the news since the events in Baltimore several weeks ago. On the one hand, it’s sad that the media plays up these stories, often doing so in a cynical way and casting a bad light on Christians in general. On the other hand, though, you can’t really blame them; it really is a big story when someone who’s famous for their flawless morality does something shockingly immoral. Besides, there are plenty of people out there in the general public who are glad to hear things that allow them to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. Sex scandals are just the big news stories; Christians do other unchristian things, too. Look at the comments on pretty much any online article dealing with religion, and you’ll see a number of complaints that basically boil down to the accusation that Christians are unkind, unloving, or unforgiving, when kindness, love, and forgiveness are supposed to be the whole point of Christianity. I sometimes think that the reason people are quick to point out high-profile hypocrisy is because non-Christians are so annoyed by the self-righteous attitude that they perceive Christians as having in less high-profile scenarios. This, sad to say, is evidently what most non-Christians in our culture see when they look at Christians.

But are they right? Are Christians, across the board, hypocritical? In the wake of the latest big-news sex scandal, this has been the topic of a lot of internet discussion. Some Christians have tried very hard to insist that the answer is no, or even to defend the actions of Josh Duggar. That’s just silly; even he himself has come forward and said that what he did was “inexcusable”. A lot of the discussion on social media points out that, for all the attention being given to the sinner in this case, not much is being said about the girls who were affected. I’m going to give the media the benefit of the doubt and assume that this hole in the coverage is protecting the privacy of these girls, but these people on the internet are right to point out that an apology doesn’t undo wrongdoing. Now I have nothing against the Duggar family, I would even go as far to say that their show is the closest thing there is to wholesome reality TV, but there’s no denying the fact that Josh Duggar committed a sin that harmed people. Nor is he the only Christian to do so.

The term “Christian values” is often used to refer to a set of values that varies slightly depending upon who’s speaking, but probably includes rules such modest clothes, no sex outside of marriage, no getting drunk, little or no swearing, and (maybe) conservative political ideals. But Christian morals, as set forth in the Bible, are more specific than that. Jesus says that even something as minor as an insult is a sin punishable by damnation. (Matthew 5:22 ESV: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”) Verses such as Matthew 5:48 and Deuteronomy 18:13 demand perfection. And, as other verses like Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) and Isaiah 53:6 (“All we like sheep have gone astray”) remind us, no one is perfect.

Therefore, yes, Christianity is a religion full of hypocrites. The only way to avoid that fact is to inaccurately redefine sin in order to incorrectly deny that we are sinners. (Something that some people and even some entire denominations do seem to do, but that’s beside the point) Otherwise, it is inevitably true that Christians do not live up to the high moral standards that Christianity says is necessary. It’s true of Josh Duggar, it’s true of politicians who get involved in scandals, it’s true of people who shoplift or commit any kind of violent act, it’s true of anyone who’s ever told a lie or said something mean, and it’s true of everyone who’s ever driven above the speed limit. And no Christian who has any kind of understanding of sin and the Law can deny it.

CrucifixBut Christianity isn’t just a list of impossible moral rules, or a harsh statement against people who break those rules. The sinfulness and hypocrisy of Christian people isn’t the end of the story. Yes, sometimes Christians are guilty of making it sound as if that’s the whole point, but it isn’t. Jesus did more than preach sermons about what it means to be a good person. Jesus paid for all of our sins through his death on the cross. That’s the actual point of Christianity. It’s what ought to come to people’s minds when they hear the word “Christian”, rather than a vague concept of “Christian values” or a cynical criticism of the lack thereof. I think that both Christians and non-Christians have a tendency to forget that Christianity is fundamentally about Christ.

In short, it’s true that Christians are hypocrites in the strictest sense of the word. It’s true that we’re all sinners by the definition of our own religion. Most of us have not committed the kinds of sins that make headlines, but none of us live the kind of flawless, wholesome, godly lives that Christians are supposed to live. We’re sinners, but we’re forgiven sinners.

Just another blog post about Kate and William’s baby

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Royal FamilyPrince George Alexander Louis is now two days old, and the internet and media have spent those two days being completely fascinated by him. Look at any news website, and chances are, you’ll find several articles, each repeating the others to a large extent, reporting and commenting on every word that the royal family has said about the baby, declaring how proud Princess Diana would be if she was alive, describing what the baby looks like, and letting us know exactly what Kate was wearing the last time she was seen. (Last I heard, it was a blue polka dot dress reminiscent of what Princess Diana wore shortly after the birth of Prince William.) This baby is currently one of the most popular topics on facebook and twitter and tumblr; every fan of the British royal family wants to say something, even if it’s only a generic congratulatory remark (which the royal family will never personally see) or a comment about how exciting this historical event is.

But not everyone is excited. I’ve been surprised at how many facebook statuses (and even a few internet articles) I’ve seen complaining about the hullabaloo and accusing other people of being obsessive and trivial. They’re annoyed to see coverage of the same story everywhere they look, especially when it’s something that will have no impact on their own lives or the lives of their family and friends. Some of them even take the time to post their own opinions online, complaining about the degree of everyone else’s interest.

Royal WeddingIt was the same way when the new prince’s parents got married a little over years ago. The media was obsessed, the general public was fascinated, and an enormous number of people tuned in to watch the royal wedding live on TV, even though, for those of us in North America, it was in the middle of the night. A few of the pictures from the wedding became iconic images in pop culture and the news for the following several months,  and even now, most people can remember  off the top of their heads exactly what the new Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress looked like. But yet there were other people who were tired of hearing about the royal wedding even before it happened, who were either annoyed or amused at anyone who was particularly enthralled with the story, and who wished that the media would let the event pass out of the magazines and newspapers as soon as it was over.

I’m not among those people who pulled an all-nighter to watch the royal wedding live, and I’m not one of those people who has been fanatically keeping track of every detail of Kate’s pregnancy. In fact, I hadn’t remembered offhand even approximately when the royal baby was expected to be born. But I enjoyed seeing after-the-fact online news about the royal wedding, and I’ve enjoyed keeping an eye on the news regarding the new prince over the last couple days, and I personally think it’s wonderful that the media is so excited about the life events of Kate and William and their new son.

Most of what we see in the news is about war, crime, death, political controversies, economic problems, devastating natural disasters, and other tragedies and problems. In general, those kinds of things are bigger news than births and marriages and personal accomplishments of individual people. It’s refreshing and reassuring to see that sometimes, it is possible for good news to be major news. It’s important that, in between being sad about the problems of this world and being upset about the controversies in this world, we can also be happy about the highlights of the lives of famous people. Sharing enthusiasm for these kinds of things draws people together in the same way that political campaigns pull people apart. The fact that Kate and William are likable public figures (and that they make a really cute couple) only adds to the appeal of the news stories that involve them.

Also, he's really, really cute.

Also, he’s really, really cute. I mean, seriously, why wouldn’t you want to see this all over the internet?

It’s pretty clear that Prince George is going to permanently remain in the public eye and on our facebook news feeds. Once the excitement of his birth passes, he won’t be as important to the media as he is now, but we’re still going to be hearing about his first steps and his first words and every childhood landmark that he passes. And although I’m probably not going to be actively seeking out that information, I’ll be interested to see it when other people choose to talk about it on the internet.

Eleven Years Later

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Eleven years ago today, it was a beautiful sunny day very much like today. My sister and I had been spending the afternoon playing with dolls in the basement until my father came home unexpectedly early and informed us that there had been a terrorist attack that morning, and that people had died in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. We hadn’t had the television or radio on that day and hadn’t heard about the attacks until then. But for the rest of the afternoon, until the prayer service at church that evening, we watched the news coverage on television, even though they were just showing the same couple video clips over and over and over again. Somewhere in our house, I think we still even have the September 12, 2001 issue of the Omaha World-Herald, although it quickly became tattered from being read so frequently.

I learned a lot that day and on subsequent days. I hadn’t even known the definition of certain words like ‘hijack’ and although I had heard the word ‘terrorist’ before, I hadn’t remembered what it meant. I had never heard of al-Qaeda and knew nothing about Afghanistan besides its location. I hadn’t known anything about the World Trade Center and the word ‘pentagon’ meant nothing to me besides the name of a shape that had either five or six sides; at that time, I couldn’t remember which it was. Even though I had been fascinated by politics since the time of the 2008 presidential election, I had never paid much attention to anything involving foreign policy, and to me, the most significant thing about the government had been the way elections worked. It was something new to read and see news stories about political people doing political things that involved issues more serious than whose name and face we needed to add to our poster of all the American presidents.

The events of September 11 didn’t directly affect me personally. Although I was very frightened and disturbed at the time, and even had a phobia of airplanes for a little while, although I paid a lot more attention to current events from then on, and although it did change the way I thought about politics and patriotism, that was really the extent of September 11’s impact on my life. I didn’t know anyone who died that day. My memories of that day are an insignificant anecdote, which I remember only because I (and people in general) tend to remember major events in terms of minor personal details. I’m sure that my family will always tell the story of how my little sister responded to the news by asking if any windows had been broken. But for many, many people, September 11, 2001 is not an anecdotal memory; it was not an ordinary day where something big happened far away. It was the day when loved ones died, when they directly witnessed a catastrophe, when their world changed in ways that went beyond the political and social ramifications of the attacks.

Those are the reasons that we commemorate September 11. Today is not a political observance, nor is it just a day to remember what that day eleven years ago was like for us personally. The people who died on September 11, 2001 are still dead now, and their families and friends who we prayed for then are still grieving the loss of their loved ones now. They are the reason that we observe the anniversary of those attacks eleven years ago.