Saturday, January 17, 2004

Brain Evolution Don't miss this short article from the ever-useful New York Times, describing the discovery of a gene, called ASPM, which has a major impact on the size of our brains. People possessing a non-functional copy of this gene suffer from microcephaly, a dramatically shrunken brain. Comparing the version of this gene with that found in chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, cows and other animals reveals that natural selection caused major changes to accrue in this gene over the last eighteen million years. The changes became increasingly dramatic after the human/chimpanzee split roughly five million years ago.

The changes in this gene appear to be correlated with steadily increasing brain size in hominid evolution. Furthermore, unlike most human genes, which appear in groups of similar members that arise as the result of gene duplication events, ASPM exists only as a single copy. This, coupled with the enormous selective advantage of larger brains, could go a long way towards explaining one of the great mysteries of evolutionary biology: What caused the rapid growth of brain size in humans after our split form the chimpanzees?

Also note that, creationist protestations notwithstanding, Darwin's theory of evolution continues to pay dividends in everyday scientific work.

The Takeover Begins... An amusing news brief from Scientific American. It seems that researchers at the University of Wales have constructed a robot that can not only carry out experiments, but can also formulate hypotheses, design experiments for testing them, and interpret the resulting data. In fact, the robot seems to carry out these tasks more efficianetly than the average graduate student. The article is quick to point out, reassuringly, that graduate students will not be rendered obsolete, they will simply have more time freed up for more worthwhile tasks. Like grading papers, no doubt.

Robots rendering graduate students unnecessary? Can consciousness be far behind?

Friday, January 16, 2004

Global Warming Two recent articles from The New York Times about global warming.

In this article we learn that warming trends in Alaska are sharply curtailing the amount of time annually available to oil companies for exploration. State rules allow oil companies to drive large vehicles across the tundra of Alaska's North Slope (part of which is currently set aside for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) only when the ground is sufficiently frozen to prevent damage to the underlying vegetation. That used to mean an exploration season of 200 days. Recent warming trends have shrunk that period to 100 days. Consequently, there is currently pressure from the oil lobby to change the exploration rules accordingly. They are opposed by environmental groups who fear that loosening the rules will result in damage to the tundra. They cite similar damage done in Siberia when exploration rules there were loosened.

However you feel about oil exploration in Alaska, surely this is one more piece of evidence to shove down the throats of the persistent, and ever more vocal, crowd of global-warming deniers.

Also interesting is this article about the potentially devastating effects of global warming on species diversity.

The Blog is Back! After a lengthy hiatus, I have returned to blogging. Oh happy day!