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The observable examined

Archive for May 2012

Common hands and singing wings

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The club-winged Manakin. What a wonderful bird! I read about this bird in the May issue of the National Geographic.  This is one of the very few birds, in existence, that uses it body parts to “sing” during courtship rituals. As if this extraordinary feat was not adequate to woo his mate, the male Manakin also does a moonwalk, a la Michael Jackson, high up in the canopy of the tropical forests of Ecuador. You can watch this behavior in the video below.

The story gets even more fascinating. Dr. Kimberly Bostwick, has put together a beautiful set of videos on her research of manakins and her systematic unravelling of the mystery of how the club-winged manakin makes its wings sing. Kudos to Dr.Bostwick for her single minded dedication and painstaking research in understanding this remarkable product of evolution. I will not spoil it for you but point your browser to

Singing Wings Org   and enjoy the videos (click on the big white area). I promise, you will not be disappointed.

Talking of evolution, there was a second remarkable article on the commonality of hand structures across species. Carl Zimmer writes “The hand is where the mind meets the world. We humans use our hands to build fires and sew quilts, to steer airplanes, to write, dig, remove tumors, pull a rabbit out of a hat. The human brain, with its open-ended creativity, may be the thing that makes our species unique. But without hands, all the grand ideas we concoct would come to nothing but a very long to-do list…”

This article is beautifully illustrated (humans, cats, frogs, elephants!,dolphins), but unfortunately it is not available in its entirety for public consumption (NG has to make money right!). These illustrations and animations really come live on the iPad. They are exquisite.

If there are any evolution doubters out there, witness the beauty of the scientific enterprise piecing together the evolutionary jigsaw puzzle , in the articles noted above. Richard Leakey, believes that skepticism regarding evolution will soon be history (the link will take you to a Huffington Post article).

PS: I have no affiliation with NG but am a huge fan of the magazine. National Geographic Magazine, in print, is already a wonderful magazine replete with visual treats. Growing up, I have borrowed it   from well-to-do neighbors and derived immense pleasure from viewing the exquisite photographs as well as reading the informative articles on different dimensions of the world we live in.  Many decades later, they have been producing the same high quality magazines, in print. I read a recent version on the iPad and the videos and image quality are breathtaking, titillating your visual senses maximally.

Written by asterix98

May 29, 2012 at 2:34 am

Posted in science

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an inspiring and entertaining talk

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A couple of nights ago I had the opportunity to listen to Dr.Michael Phelps from UCLA. He is the inventor of an imaging technique popularly known as PET (Positron Emission Tomography). Since its invention, it has been used 37 million times worldwide to help  detect tumors in vivo!

His early years were steeped in tragedy. He lost his two young siblings in a fire. His mother had 50% burns on her body. Due to the circumstances, he was given up for adoption to a neighbor. He was a boxer and a welterweight champion, till a coma suffered in a car accident put paid to his dreams of a boxing career. A friend coaxed him into attending college (“with the promise of women, sex, and booze….”).  Eventually, he obtained a PhD in Chemistry and started out a as faculty somewhere in Washington State. From here, he went on to describe the journey that lead to the invention (a key ingredient was passion …. with a little help from friends along the way). All this culminated in tremendous monetary success (he sold his company to Siemens for, I think, a couple of billion dollars).

He is a great speaker, peppering his talk with lots of well placed humor . He was speaking to an audience of wannabe entrepreneurs as well as seasoned entrepreneurs. His messaging was near perfect. In the space of 45 minutes, he told a beautiful story of tragedy, resilience, serendipity, entrepreneurship, innovation, success, humor, goodwill, passion, and friendships. This is a talk that will stay with me for a long time.

He ended the talk with this joke (not original) – I have reproduced it from this site

This Middle aged man was going through his mid-life crisis so he went out and bought him a new bright red Porsche. So he decided to take his new Porsche on a test drive down the interstate one day.He got up to about 85 mph and all of a sudden he saw this highway patrolman with his blue lights and siren blaring coming toward him. He decided he and his new Porsche would outrun the officer. So the man sped up to 95 mph,and then to 105 mph, but the patrolman was still coming.The man finally came to his senses and said to himself, “This is crazy, I could go to jail for this,” so he pulled over. The patrolman came to the car and told the man, “It has been a long week , it’s Friday and I am ready to go home.. If you can give me one excuse that I have never heard before , I will let you go.”

So the man told the officer, “Last night my wife ran off with a cop and when I seen you chasing me I thought you were trying to bring her back.”

The officer looked at the man and said, “Have a great weekend pal !”

Written by asterix98

May 19, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Moms are the best

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This is a shout out to all the Mothers out there. Happy Mother’s day! You are the best type of human there is….period. Normally, I would have been a little down on this day, because my daughter has had the “miraculous love” of a mother for a very short period in her life. This year, I feel better.   My daughter, like all other kids in her class, had to make a gift for Mom. She wrote this. (I served as the proxy – substitute Mom instead of Dad) .

Dad who…..

Dad who gives me energy like the tornado, it keeps going around.

Dad who has the gift of art like Van Gogh painting the night sky

Dad who gives his best effort in everything he does

Dad who has a bright colorful personality like a box of crayons

Dad who has eyes like ebony pearls in a mine

Dad who loves me more than shimmering emeralds

Dad who is sneaky like a lion tip toeing in the high grass

Dad who dreams big like a baby going to the moon in an hour

Dad who has the best kid in the whole universe

(She told me it was directed to me because she had nobody else. This was a poignant moment. I know she misses Mom…a lot) .  This, coming from a 10-yr old is a humungous shot in the arm to lift the spirits and keep going.

I also wanted to share yet another of her creative outputs (Thanks are due to her teacher Terri, who inspires them in so many ways). The context here is a field trip to the Legion of Honor museum. After the tour, the kids had to pick an object and write a short poem…

Wine Glass

The elegant glass shimmers in the light,

the rim glistening in the shadow,

blue as dark as the ocean,

and white as clear as day,

all sealed up in a hollow empty glass.

This would have made Mom very, very proud indeed!

Written by asterix98

May 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Sagan’s lectures on natural theology

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Ann Druyan’s introduction to  Carl Sagan’s – Varieties of Scientific Experience, is wonderful. Just like he does in the lectures proper, she challenges us to open our minds to critical thinking….”what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out….we are spiritually and culturally paralyzed, unable to face the vastness [of space], to embrace our lack of centrality and find our actual place in the fabric of nature…” Contemplate this image. The earth is but a pale blue dot afloat in the immensity of the universe…a small speck situated in a solar system within one of a hundred billion galaxies.

The book is a compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures on natural theology. As Sagan notes, natural theology is “…everything about the world not supplied by revelation”.

The lectures are organized as chapters. It begins with a chapter titled Nature and Wonder: a reconnaissance of heaven. It is a beautiful tour of what is known about the cosmos. Sagan introduces us to the vastness of the universe and gives us a sense of scale and our relative position in the scheme of the universe. He also tackles superstition [a belief without evidence], and operationalizes the definition of religion [ “binding together from Latin] so essentially science and religion are after understanding the interconnectedness of things.

In the next chapter – The retreat from copernicus – loss of nerve – Sagan takes on creationism, the anthropic principle [interpreting the world in human metaphors], and also gives us a sense of what the lack of centrality for Earth in the cosmic order really means.

Organic universe is another brilliant discussion on the chemical makeup, universal laws and such.  We can see a sample of his wit here .”…so as science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. Of course its a big universe, so He, She or It can be gainfully employed in other parts….”  I really like the notion of the  “God of Gaps”, ie., whatever we cannot explain is attributed to God.

The next lecture makes a case for why extraterrestrial intelligence may exist. Sagan also notes that whether it exists or not, it is still hugely informative because it says something about our loneliness. This is followed by a thorough debunking of “extraterrestrial folklore”, the claims of UFO sightings and visitations from aliens, that have been reported in the media over the years.

In the God hypothesis discussion, Sagan provides an operational definition of God, take us on a quick tour of the world religions and their claims and postulates. He then , with scintillating wit (there are many examples throughout), systematically deconstructs these ideas. He also put forth arguments on why God as an OmniX being is not internally consistent.

In the religious experience – he questions the efficacy of prayers, discusses the influence of hormones on human behavior, and coins a God molecule – “theotoxin” he says (tongue in cheek) “would be biasing the issue too strongly….”

In the next chapter, Crimes against creation, he is very concerned with the possibility of a nuclear winter, but in general, it can be interpreted as a general concern for the earth and its inhabitants. Elsewhere, he pleads, “… if you disagree with another human, let him live. There is nowhere in the hundred billion galaxies you will find another…”

The last chapter “Search” – anticipates the world is flat state of affairs. We started as hunter gatherers in small groups, have grown into nation states, now technology, communications, and transport have blurred those boundaries even further. In short, we have to think of ourselves as world citizens. Sagan urges us to think critically on all matters and have compassion for fellow world travelers.  He asks why there is no equivalent of a 11th commandment – thou shalt learn….

In short, if I have not already conveyed it, this compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures is pure cognitive pleasure. Well worthy of earning a prominent place on your bookshelves. There are others who, in recent times, have gone after organized religion, such as Dawkins or Harris, but their tone has been angry and sometimes, completely intolerant. Here, I see, Sagan, like an explosives expert, placing the bombs through beautiful, calm, cogent, and brilliant arguments, strategically on the edifice of organized religion. The image I am striving for here is the demolition of tall skyscrapers that crumble in a heap with little or no collateral damage.

Written by asterix98

May 6, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Of molecules and (wo)men

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In this past weekend’s edition of WSJ review, the following article appeared

The Trust Molecule

(click above to go to article)

Why are some of us caring and some of us cruel, some generous and some greedy? Paul J. Zak on the new science of morality— and how it could be used to create a more virtuous society

The basic message is oxytocin can foster trust and increase social bonding. Zak writes “…oxytocin orchestrates the kind of generous and caring behavior that every culture endorses as the right way to live—the cooperative, benign, pro-social way of living that every culture on the planet describes as “moral.” The Golden Rule is a lesson that the body already knows, and when we get it right, we feel the rewards immediately….”

This all sounded very good and seemed like the only thing left for us to do was inject ourselves with oxytocin and the whole world would be one large Berkeley hippie commune. Obviously, this would be too easy. I was not entirely satisfied and tried to find out what others had to say on this topic. I found this on the APA site “…

Oxytocin has been on a joy ride for 20 years, ever since animal studies first linked the hormone to bonding between mother and newborn, as well as between mating adults. Dubbed the “cuddle” or “love” hormone by the popular press, more recently it has earned attention for its role in promoting trust.

One company, Vero Labs in Boca Raton, Fla., has even put it in a cologne-like spray, marketed as “Liquid Trust”: Fifty dollars buys a two-month supply that promises consumers “confidence in a bottle,” according to its website….”

Oxytocin doses seem to help children with autism cope much better socially. But some researchers warn that it does have a darker side. From the same APA article …”More evidence of oxytocin’s downside comes from Mount Sinai School of Medicine psychologist Jennifer Bartz, PhD. In a study published online in November in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, she and her colleagues examined whether oxytocin might boost trust and cooperation, as measured with a well-studied economic game, among men and women with borderline personality disorder, who tend to have volatile relationships. She found that rather than increasing trust and teamwork, a dose of oxytocin decreased those feelings compared with a placebo.”

While the jury is still out on the how, why and what of oxytocin, Zak has happily dubbed it the “moral” molecule and in new age style advocates a bunch of behaviors that can enhance social bonding, hugs being his most favorite one. I have to note here that as I was reading these articles, I was reminded of this lady who is fondly referred to as Amma(Mother), by her followers. She apparently can heal, just by hugging and touching. In fact, the byline on her website (link above) says – Embracing the World. The oxytocin definitely must be free flowing in that commune.

Another chemical doing the rounds in the news is dopamine. Researchers have figured out the more adventurous (“scout”)bees in a colony have lower amounts of dopamine making them less averse to novel experiences. Incidentally, in humans it is just the opposite, higher dopamine levels lead to novelty seeking behaviors. As Spock would say, Fascinating!

Written by asterix98

May 3, 2012 at 1:08 am

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