Elephant and Man at Harvard

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

The Harvard Crimson acknowledges a lack of diversity on campus — ideological diversity, not the kind that matters:

The most glaring ideological diversity deficit among undergraduates is the relatively small number of students who identify as conservative. In the election survey, fewer than 13 percent of respondents described themselves as “somewhat” or “very” conservative, compared to over 70 percent describing themselves as “somewhat” or “very” liberal.

In contrast, when a Gallup poll early this year asked Americans to describe themselves as “very liberal,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “very conservative,” or “moderate,” a plurality — 37 percent — picked one of the two conservative options, while 35 percent chose “moderate.” In The Crimson’s survey, only 16 percent of respondents picked “moderate.” Most striking, in the Gallup survey, only 24 percent picked one of the liberal choices.

Similarly, while nearly 48 percent of Americans voted for Donald J. Trump in his victory on Tuesday, just 6 percent of undergraduate respondents to The Crimson’s survey preferred him. This number stands in stark contrast to the 35 percent of millennials nationwide who cast their ballots for the President-elect — a testament to his divisiveness, but also a reflection of the insularity of the Harvard bubble.

A Twist on Wing Design

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

MIT researchers are testing a shaping-changing wing that could replace the hinged flaps and ailerons of conventional flight controls:

They constructed the wing from tiny lightweight structural pieces made with Kapton foil on an aluminum frame, arranged in a lattice of cells like a honeycomb. The skin of the wing is made with overlapping strips of the flexible foil, layered like fish scales, allowing the pieces to slide across each other as the wing flexes, they said.

Flexible Wing from MIT

Two small motors apply a twisting pressure to each wingtip to control maneuvers in flight. They say this elastic airfoil can morph continuously to reduce drag, increase stall angle, and reduce vibration control flutter.

The Soft Robotics abstract:

We describe an approach for the discrete and reversible assembly of tunable and actively deformable structures using modular building block parts for robotic applications. The primary technical challenge addressed by this work is the use of this method to design and fabricate low density, highly compliant robotic structures with spatially tuned stiffness.

This approach offers a number of potential advantages over more conventional methods for constructing compliant robots. The discrete assembly reduces manufacturing complexity, as relatively simple parts can be batch-produced and joined to make complex structures. Global mechanical properties can be tuned based on sub-part ordering and geometry, because local stiffness and density can be independently set to a wide range of values and varied spatially. The structure’s intrinsic modularity can significantly simplify analysis and simulation. Simple analytical models for the behavior of each building block type can be calibrated with empirical testing and synthesized into a highly accurate and computationally efficient model of the full compliant system.

As a case study, we describe a modular and reversibly assembled wing that performs continuous span-wise twist deformation. It exhibits high performance aerodynamic characteristics, is lightweight and simple to fabricate and repair. The wing is constructed from discrete lattice elements, wherein the geometric and mechanical attributes of the building blocks determine the global mechanical properties of the wing. We describe the mechanical design and structural performance of the digital morphing wing, including their relationship to wind tunnel tests that suggest the ability to increase roll efficiency compared to a conventional rigid aileron system. We focus here on describing the approach to design, modeling, and construction as a generalizable approach for robotics that require very lightweight, tunable, and actively deformable structures.

Gender-Equal Snow-Clearing

Monday, November 14th, 2016

I could not make up the notion of gender-equal snow-clearing:

Stockholm’s municipal government, a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, brought in gender equal snow cleaning last year, pledging to make moving around the city on icy winter days just as safe for women as it is for men.

Men are statistically more likely to be drivers, while women are more likely to use pavements, cycle paths, and public transport.

But on Thursday and Friday, the policy came under renewed criticism after the city was thrown into chaos by the unusually heavy snow dump, with buses and trains cancelled, and major motorways blocked.

Metabolic Effects of a 4-Day Outdoor Trip

Monday, November 14th, 2016

Researchers looked at the netabolic effects of a 4-day outdoor trip under simulated Paleolithic conditions:

Background: The observation that the emergence of common Western diseases takes place with much greater prevalence as societies migrate from natural-living cultures to modernized societies, has been well documented. For approximately 84,000 generations humans lived under hunter-gatherer conditions but recently endured dramatic change from our native lifestyle with the occurrence of the agricultural, industrial, and digital revolutions. The massive technological advancement that occurred within a relatively recent timeframe enabled humans to live in manner that is remarkably different than our pre-agricultural past. Consequently, the shift from a natural to a modern lifestyle likely promotes a gene-environment mismatch which causes metabolic dysregulation which causes disease.

Methods: Using a within-participant design, we examined whether, compared to baseline, changes in lifestyle towards a more Paleolithic-style pattern, for a four-day and four-night period related to changes in a variety of metabolic parameters. Two groups of 14 volunteers were isolated for a period of four days and four nights in the natural park Südeifel on the borders between Germany and Luxembourg. Participants lived outdoors without tents. The daily hiking performance was 16.4 km (approx. 24963 steps/day) and the daily activity time 5.49 h/day by a mean caloric intake of 1747 kcal/day.

Results: After four days of simulated Paleolithic conditions, body weight (-2.9%), body mass index (-2.7%), body fat (-10.4%), visceral fat (-13.6%) and waist-hip-ratio (-2.2%) significantly decreased, while muscle mass significantly increased (+2,3%). Additionally, fasting glucose (-6.5%), basal insulin (-44.4%), homeostasis model assessment-index (-49.3%) and fatty liver index (-41%) significantly dropped. In contrast, C-reactive protein, significantly increased (+67.1%).

Conclusion: Our study indicates that a short nature trip, where modern humans adjust their behavioral patterns to simulate a more Paleolithic-like condition, could serve as an effective strategy to help prevent or improve modern metabolic disease. Particularly, the major findings of an expeditious reduction of homeostasis model assessment-index and fatty liver index scores in only four days reveal the potential for meaningful benefits with such an intervention, even when compared to the effects of longer-term, single-intervention studies such as dietary or fitness programs on similar metabolic parameters.

(Hat tip to Mangan.)


Sunday, November 13th, 2016

Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation “wades through the culmination of forces that have driven this culture into mass uncertainty, confusion, spectacle and simulation”:

Where events keep happening that seem crazy, inexplicable and out of control — from Donald Trump to Brexit, to the War in Syria, mass immigration, extreme disparity in wealth, and increasing bomb attacks in the West — this film shows a basis to not only why these chaotic events are happening, but also why we, as well as those in power, may not understand them. We have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. And because it is reflected all around us, ubiquitous, we accept it as normal. This epic narrative of how we got here spans over 40 years, with an extraordinary cast of characters — the Assad dynasty, Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger, Patti Smith, early performance artists in New York, President Putin, Japanese gangsters, suicide bombers, Colonel Gaddafi and the Internet. HyperNormalisation weaves these historical narratives back together to show how today’s fake and hollow world was created and is sustained. This shows that a new kind of resistance must be imagined and actioned, as well as an unprecedented reawakening in a time where it matters like never before.

Starship Troupers

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

Starship research is enjoying something of a boom:

Serious work in the field dates back to 1968, when Freeman Dyson, an independent-minded physicist, investigated the possibilities offered by rockets powered by a series of nuclear explosions. Then, in the 1970s, the BIS designed Daedalus, an unmanned vessel that would use a fusion rocket to attain 12% of the speed of light, allowing it to reach Barnard’s Star, six light-years away, in 50 years. That target, though not the nearest star to the sun, was the nearest then suspected of having at least one planet.


During the cold war America spent several years and much treasure (peaking in 1966 at 4.4% of government spending) to send two dozen astronauts to the Moon and back. But on astronomical scales, a trip to the Moon is nothing. If Earth — which is 12,742km, or 7,918 miles, across — were shrunk to the size of a sand grain and placed on the desk of The Economist’s science correspondent, the Moon would be a smaller sand grain about 3cm away. The sun would be a larger ball nearly 12 metres down the hall. And Alpha Centauri B would be around 3,200km distant, somewhere near Volgograd, in Russia.

Chemical rockets simply cannot generate enough energy to cross such distances in any sort of useful time. Voyager 1, a space probe launched in 1977 to study the outer solar system, has travelled farther from Earth than any other object ever built. A combination of chemical rocketry and gravitational kicks from the solar system’s planets have boosted its velocity to 17km a second. At that speed, it would (were it pointing in the right direction) take more than 75,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri.

Nuclear power can bring those numbers down. Dr Dyson’s bomb-propelled vessel would take about 130 years to make the trip, although with no ability to slow down at the other end (which more than doubles the energy needed) it would zip through the alien solar system in a matter of days. Daedalus, though quicker, would also zoom right past its target, collecting what data it could along the way. Icarus, its spiritual successor, would be able at least to slow down. Only Project Longshot, run by NASA and the American navy, envisages actually stopping on arrival and going into orbit around the star to be studied.

But nuclear rockets have problems of their own. For one thing, they tend to be big. Daedalus would weigh 54,000 tonnes, partly because it would have to carry all its fuel with it. That fuel itself has mass, and therefore requires yet more fuel to accelerate it, a problem which quickly spirals out of control. And the fuel in question, an isotope of helium called 3He, is not easy to get hold of. The Daedalus team assumed it could be mined from the atmosphere of Jupiter, by humans who had already spread through the solar system.

A different approach, pioneered by the late Robert Forward, was championed by Dr Benford and his brother Gregory, who, like Forward was, is both a physicist and a science-fiction author. The idea is to leave the troublesome fuel behind. Their ships would be equipped with sails. Instead of filling them with wind, an orbiting transmitter would fill them with energy in the form of lasers or microwave beams, giving them a ferocious push to a significant fraction of the speed of light which would be followed (with luck) by an uneventful cruise to wherever they were going.

“Cheaper”, though, is a relative term. Jim Benford reckons that even a small, slow probe designed to explore space just outside the solar system, rather than flying all the way to another star, would require as much electrical power as a small country — beamed, presumably, from satellites orbiting Earth. A true interstellar machine moving at a tenth of the speed of light would consume more juice than the entirety of present-day civilisation. The huge distances involved mean that everything about starships is big. Cost estimates, to the extent they mean anything at all, come in multiple trillions of dollars.

That illustrates another question about starships, beyond whether they are possible. Fifty years of engineering studies have yet to turn up an obvious technical reason why an unmanned starship could not be built (crewed ships might be doable too, although they throw up a host of extra problems). But they have not answered the question of why anyone would want to go to all the trouble of building one.

Understanding Is Dangerous

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

Scholar of religion Kathryn Lofton explains how understanding is dangerous, starting with a story about a dinner party:

It is a double-barreled dinner party — not only a party organized by a dinner, but also a dinner organized as a tribute to one of those at the table. We are supposed to be fawning and on message. We are supposed to admire the food and agree to more wine. We are not supposed to slip out early. And, given the epoch in which we find ourselves, we are supposed to be aghast about Donald Trump.

You have been in so many of these conversations that I don’t need to tell you the content for you to hum along. The conversation never starts straight. It never begins with someone saying, “Well, what about this election and this remarkably unusual Republican nominee Donald Trump?” It begins sidelong. Nobody intends to go there but they are so glad the opening is made so the phrases they’ve been practicing in their cars and in front of debates can get public hearing. But they don’t want to show eagerness, so everyone speaks in knowing punchline.

I don’t want to speak about Trump. I am concerned that our focus on him adds to the thing he needs to stay alive, namely our attention. I do not want to feed his reality — a reality defined by punchline, by non sequitur, by compulsive distraction from the subject at hand. If I get past that and assume attention is necessary, I worry that the way we talk reiterates, in every phrase and posture, why those who follow him do. He has got our goat. And when our goat is got, we talk in ways that show how he came to be by showing why he is someone who others — those not sitting at this dinner table — want.

This time Trump came up because someone mentioned Brexit. Brexit! Can you believe it? someone says. Eyes are rolled. Why are people voting against their interests? How has ignorance taken over the Anglophone world? What is happening? In reply, I do a thing that nobody likes at a party: I give an account of the punchline that isn’t a joke. I begin well enough, nodding at the outrage, and then referring to a story I heard on NPR about a British baker who claimed that after Brexit he could export more cheaply to Europe. If I’d just leave it at that, fine, but I keep going, as if I’d become a scholar of this NPR story and this Brexit-voting baker: he also said that the potential relaxation of employment laws would bring greater flexibility to adjust his labor force; he also said that the increase in customs procedures didn’t bother him; he also said that the diminishment of skilled immigrant labor could be a problem in some sectors but not his; he also said that he knew the tech companies and other newer industries would be hurt the most but that in general expected that any of these losses were nothing before the gains to be had by the decline in the exchange rate between the pound and the Euro.

In this minute, I am being the worst. The worst because I can’t stop talking, and the worst because everyone at the table is clearly getting nervous that I am a little too committed to the Brexit baker. Whose side am I on, anyway? The guest of honor speaks up: Well, he’ll be shown wrong. And the woman on my left, the one who’d spent three years in England, the one with the gumdrop pearls and moss-green cashmere layers, observes that racism drives it all. All of it. See how the baker doesn’t care about immigrant labor? Racism. And everyone at the table nods, knowingly. We know what is wrong in the world, and it is Donald Trump and his offensive forms of speech, his offending acts of racism, his offensive certitude relative to our own.

Understanding is dangerous, here. You are worried maybe now that I don’t agree. That I don’t know that Donald Trump is a world-class bigot who has insulted Mexicans and Muslims, who doesn’t do his homework or honor his debts, who thinks immigrants are leeches and women are walking pussies. You are nervous, I assume, for the same reason that room was nervous: because they comprise that portion of the electorate decidedly disgusted by Donald Trump, and to be a member of that collective you have to understand things that I seem unwilling to see. I don’t get how Brexit is about race and I don’t get, therefore, why we so easily segued at that terrible dinner party from my babbling monologue about the baker into a zippy exchange of pre-auditioned quips about Trump’s racism.

So I fell silent. I didn’t have it in me to keep going with the shallow talk of elite people avoiding comprehension in favor of the pulse of commiseration. At that table, the cohering principle of togetherness was a commitment to the senselessness, the irrationality, the uncomprehending ignorance of it all. Staying shocked at the Donald keeps us all in it, eroticized by our own disgust. What a drag it would be to cease being shocked by his ascendancy, and pursue instead an explanation of how we contributed to it, contributed to it by our very knowing: mine, theirs, ours.

To be a scholar of religion is to participate in a hermeneutics of the incomprehensible. That isn’t exactly right: what scholars of religion do is account for why groups of people consistently agree to things that other people think are incomprehensible, irrational, even senseless. Images illegible relative to contemporary notions of geometry or perspective; abstractions so abstract they twist the brain; doctrines so specific they seem impracticable; myths so fantastic they seem extraterrestrial. Through documentary engagement, linguistic specificity, historical and sociological and economic analysis — scholars of religion make those things legible as human products of human need.

It is therefore unsurprising that I, a scholar of religion, am invested in an account of Trump that renders his absurdity less so. It is, perhaps, my sole specific obligation: to figure out the reason in his seeming madness. To ask, too: Why does he seem mad to some, and not at all to others? The history of religions has long suggested the one does not exist without the other, that to be inside something requires someone else being outside. And, too, that making the strange familiar inevitably ought to make the familiar strange. But here I get ahead of myself.

Read the whole thing.

A Referendum on Globalization

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Newly minted poli sci Ph.D. Darren Beattie predicted Trump’s win last year:

I thought Trump would win as early as July of last year. There are various signals that someone really attuned to politics knows to look for. One of the signals for me is when Trump made his provocative remarks on immigration and then refused to apologize in the wake of overwhelming corporate and media opposition. Let me be very clear: This does not mean that I like the way he phrased his remarks. My point is that his willingness to take a position on immigration so antithetical to corporate Republican donors and then not be cowed by the usual shaming tactics reflected early on a certain independence and flexibility that led me to think we’re dealing with a very different type of candidate than we’re used to.

He’s not impressed by pundits:

One thing about pundits and “experts” that readers have to understand is that they are not paid to make accurate predictions or give accurate analysis; they are paid to give predictions and analysis that advance a particular agenda, usually the agenda of some billionaire benefactor or corporate media platform. This is a powerful explanation because it accounts for how most of these people can be utter failures and somehow keep their jobs. Just watch, now a lot of these people who were wrong about everything will be asked their “expert opinion” on how and why they went wrong! Some of the “experts” who criticized Trump’s foreign policy are “experts” solely by virtue of being involved in one of the biggest foreign policy disasters of our nation’s history—the Iraq War. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic. For the academic pollster types, the situation is still more pitiful because they’re not even getting rich off of their wrong predictions.

He sees the current era as a referendum on globalization.

Beattie draws a strong distinction between “centrist” and “mainstream”:

Centrist in my view is pretty much in the center of what most people in the country actually believe; “mainstream” refers to positions promoted by the corporate media and academic opinion. Trump’s success, I think, points to the difference between centrist and mainstream. I do think we will see a change in Trump’s tone. I think all of his most significant proposals will become law. Keep in mind that for a lot, all he has to do is repeal executive orders.

Set Phasers to “Vaporize”

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Star Trek‘s phasers have a top setting that will vaporize a human:

That’s not just overkill, that’s an insane level of overkill. It’s like using a TOW anti-tank missile to target an individual.

And this is one of the things that Star Trek got wrong. Not that it’s necessarily impossible for a weapon the size of a keychain to vaporize a human, but that the process of vaporizing the human wouldn’t utterly trash the surroundings. Face it: you’re converting, oh, 180 pounds of water to steam, and converting the calcium in the bones, the metal and plastic in his clothes, tools, weapons, etc. into plasma. And if the target is also holding a phaser, you’re converting that into vapor, which means that its battery (or whatever the power source is) is going to explode.

Phaser-vaporizing someone on board a spaceship is going to be a disaster, because by converting 180 pounds of water into steam, you’re increasing the volume by a factor of around 1,000. Imagine if the room the target was in suddenly found itself loaded with 1,000 more people. The pressure will blow the hull apart. While a blaster will simply poke a hole in the target, maybe burning their clothes.

Star Trek always made the result of someone getting vaporized pretty… well, sterile. Zap, bright light, gone. But it wouldn’t be like that. If you want to know what someone getting phasered at full power would look like, YouTube provides. Behold the phenomenon of the “Arc Flash,” where enough electrical energy can be dumped into a human to convert said human into a steam explosion. Obviously, this might be considered slightly grisly, so gather the kids around (occurs at 1:14; you can adjust settings to .25 speed to watch the guy go from “normal” to “Hey, he’s a glowing blob, just like in Star Trek” to “Where’d he go?” in three frames):

It’s kinda unclear just what the hell happened here, but it sure looks like the guy was converted into mostly a cloud and a bit of a spray. In any event, there’s no missing the fact that something really quite energetic happened to the guy. The captain of the Klingon scout vessel vaporizes one of his crew on the bridge, they’re going to be scrubbing it down for *days,* assuming that the steam and overpressure doesn’t kill everyone else on the bridge.

It turns out that the arc flash did not vaporize the worker:

(Hat tip to Nyrath.)

The Bestseller Code

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

The Bestseller Code reveals what sells:

After four years of work, Jodie Archer, a former acquisitions editor, and Matthew Jockers, an academic specializing in computational analysis of style, have been able to “predict” which books were bestsellers and which were not with “an average accuracy of 80 percent.” This means that, out of a randomly selected group of 50 bestsellers and 50 non-bestsellers, the algorithm would predict 40 of each correctly.


They built a collection of “just under 5,000 books,” including “a diverse mixture of non-bestselling ebooks and traditional published novels, and just over 500 New York Times bestsellers.”


There’s a prejudice among many readers of esoteric fare that bestsellers are badly written, escapist, and driven by cringe-making sex and implausible plot turns. But the results of the authors’ program suggest that sex doesn’t sell but realism — of a sort — does, and that bestsellers are carefully, even masterfully, crafted, down to the level of the individual sentence.

As to escapism, Americans’ idea of that means inhabiting somebody else’s job. Work is a riveting topic. The authors don’t explore this in detail, but those jobs tend to be emergency-room doctor or fiery litigator, not insurance analyst or dental hygienist. Other favored topics are “intimate conversation” and “human closeness.” Television caught on to this interest in work and talk long ago: Think of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Friends, Seinfeld. But many so-called serious novelists avoid the world of work, unless it’s university teaching, presumably due to lack of experience.

The list of turnoffs is revealing as well: Fantasy, science fiction, revolutions, dinner parties, very dressed-up women, and dancing, as well as “the body described in any terms other than in pain or at a crime scene.” Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll account for less than 1 percent of bestsellers’ content; sex sells only in a niche market.


As to structure, focus and simplicity work: “To get to 40 percent of the average novel, a bestseller uses only four topics.” One of these should be something many people fear: an accident, illness, or involvement in a lawsuit. And oddly enough, despite such relentless practicality, 9 of 10 recent debut novels that became instant bestsellers were written by women.

The authors are given to the adjective “winning,” as in “winning style,” “winning over readers,” and “winning prose.” They don’t like “long-winded syntax” and “the endless sentences of some classic writers who will write for three paragraphs without a period point.”

Arctic Foxes Grow Their Own Gardens

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Arctic foxes grow their own gardens:

The underground homes, often a century old, are topped with gardens exploding with lush dune grass, diamondleaf willows, and yellow wildflowers — a flash of color in an otherwise gray landscape.

Arctic Fox at Entrance of its Den in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

“These animals are fertilizing and basically growing a garden.”

Gardens that create such a stark contrast on the tundra that scientists who recently published the first scientific study on the dens have dubbed the foxes “ecosystem engineers.”

Conducted in 2014 near Churchill, Manitoba, the experiments revealed that the foxes’ organic waste supports almost three times as much botanical biomass in summer months as the rest of the tundra.


Some dens are over a century old, and the best are elevated: ridges, mounds, riverbanks. But with so much permafrost — frozen ground — and such a flat environment, prime sites can take years to develop.

And since digging new homes wastes valuable energy, real estate is limited — so foxes reuse locations — and in a strange time-share, foxes sometimes steal sites belonging to ground squirrels.

With litters averaging about eight to 10 pups—some as high as 16—the foxes deposit high amounts of nutrients in and around their dens, a combination of urination, defecation, and leftover kills.

In winter, foxes don’t drink water or eat snow or ice, which lowers their core temperature. Instead they get water from their food, which concentrates nutrients in their urine, making it more potent.

Feral Pigs and Rabid Bats

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Brazil has an unusual feral pig problem:

There have been feral pigs in Brazil for up to 200 years, research suggests, when a few domestic pigs escaped and went wild in the Pantanal region. But a large-scale, country-wide invasion can be traced back to the 1990s, when wild boars were imported from Europe and Canada for use in high-quality meat products. In Brazil, many farmers bred these boars with the domestic pigs that already existed in the country. Eventually, the government stopped permitting the importation of wild boars, and many of the interbred pigs were released — accidentally or intentionally — into the wild.

The feral pigs cause enough ecological and agricultural damage as it is, but now the authors of the new study are concerned that their continued spread could boost bat populations in some areas and contribute to a spike in rabies infections in people. This could happen in a variety of ways, they’ve suggested. While vampire bats have been known to bite sleeping humans and infect them directly, bushmeat hunters — and their hunting dogs — could also be exposed through contact with infected pigs.

And rabies isn’t the only concern either, Pedrosa added. Vampire bats are known reservoirs for a handful of other infectious diseases as well, including several viruses that can cause serious respiratory illness in humans.

They haven’t addressed the problem the way Texans have:

The Brazilian government has established a program allowing the killing of feral pigs, he noted, but added that rigorous restrictions on the purchase of firearms has kept the number of participants fairly small so far.

Rabid bats are a problem in Brazil:

In 2005, a spate of attacks on humans in Brazil made international headlines by causing 23 rabies deaths in two months and leading to more than 1,300 people seeking medical treatment for rabies.


Today, the incidence of rabies infections in vampire bats varies by location — it tends to be anywhere from about 1 to up to 10 percent, according to the authors of the new paper.


For the new paper, the researchers analyzed thousands of photographs and videos used to monitor wildlife in Brazil’s Pantanal region, a tropical wetland area mostly occupying the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, and the Atlantic Forest, which runs down the Atlantic coast. They found that, in addition to preying on livestock like cattle, the bats also feed on wild animals including tapirs, deer and feral pigs. The videos and photos from the Pantanal region suggested there was about a 2 percent chance that a pig might be attacked by a vampire bat on any given night. In the Atlantic Forest, this chance rose to 11 percent.

Was Venus the First Habitable World of our Solar System?

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

Was Venus the first habitable world of our solar system?.

Present-day Venus is an inhospitable place with surface temperatures approaching 750K and an atmosphere over 90 times as thick as present day Earth’s. Billions of years ago the picture may have been very different.

We have created a suite of 3D climate simulations using topographic data from the Magellan mission, solar spectral irradiance estimates for 2.9 and 0.715 billion years ago, present day Venus orbital parameters, an ocean volume consistent with current theory and measurements, and an atmospheric composition estimated for early Venus. Using these parameters we find that such a world could have had moderate temperatures if Venus had a rotation period slower than about 16 Earth days, despite an incident solar flux 46-70% higher than modern Earth receives.

At its current rotation period of 243 days, Venus’s climate could have remained habitable until at least 715 million years ago if it hosted a shallow primordial ocean. These results demonstrate the vital role that rotation and topography play in understanding the climatic history of exoplanetary Venus-like worlds being discovered in the present epoch.

How the University of Alabama Became a National Player

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

How did the University of Alabama became a national player?

The university is spending $100.6 million in merit aid, up from $8.3 million a decade ago and more than twice what it allocates to students with financial need. It also has hired an army of recruiters to put Bama on college lists of full-paying students who, a few years ago, might not have looked its way.

The University of Alabama is the fastest-growing flagship in the country. Enrollment hit 37,665 this fall, nearly a 58 percent increase over 2006. As critical as the student body jump: the kind of student the university is attracting. The average G.P.A. of entering freshmen is 3.66, up from 3.4 a decade ago, and the top quarter scored at least a 31 on the ACT, up from 27.

Each year, about 18 percent of freshmen leave their home state for college in another. They tend to be the best prepared academically and most able to pay, said Thomas G. Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, who tracks this data. Achieving students are likely to be bound for successful lives, enhancing their alma mater’s status and, the hope is, filling its coffers with donations. Schools want them.

Merit aid given to achievers has a magnetic effect. “If we recruit five students from a high school, we will get 10 students the next year and they may not all be scholarship students,” said Stuart R. Bell, president of the University of Alabama.

Instead of layoffs and cuts, some public universities facing budget challenges are following this blueprint for survival: higher charges to students, and more of them. Nowadays, the real money comes from tuition and fees. The average for four-year public colleges rose 81 percent in constant dollars between 2000 and 2014. At Alabama, tuition and fees have about doubled in the last decade, to $10,470 for residents and to $26,950 for nonresidents.

Even when it awards full-tuition scholarships, the university makes money — on dorm rooms and meal plans, books, football tickets, hoodies and school spirit items like the giant Bama banner Ms. Zavilowitz and her roommates bought for the blank wall in the suite’s common area. All told, these extras and essentials brought in $173 million last year — on top of $633 million in tuition and fees, up from $135 million in 2005.

“I hate very much to use this analogy, but it’s like running a business,” Dr. Whitaker said.

Coral Reefer Madness

Monday, November 7th, 2016

Decades ago, pharmacologist M. E. West of the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, noted that local fisherman who smoked cannabis — or drank cannabis-laced rum — had “an uncanny ability to see in the dark,” which enabled them to navigate their boats through coral reefs:

“It was impossible to believe that anyone could navigate a boat without compass and without light in such treacherous surroundings,” he wrote after accompanying the crew of a fishing boat one dark night, “[but] I was then convinced that the man who had taken the rum extract of cannabis had far better night vision than I had, and that a subjective effect was not responsible.”

Some of these crew members told West that Moroccan fishermen and mountain dwellers experience a similar improvement after smoking hashish, and in 2002, another research team travelled to the Rif mountains in Morocco to investigate further. They gave a synthetic cannabinoid to one volunteer, and hashish to three more, then used a newly developed piece of kit to measure the sensitivity of their night vision before and after. Confirming West’s earlier report, they found that cannabis improved night vision in all three of their test subjects.


West had suggested that cannabis might improve vision by acting on the eye muscles to dilate the pupils, so that more light falls on the retina, but other experiments ruled this out by showing that marijuana constricts the pupils. It’s also possible that the drug can influence activity in the visual cortex at the back of the brain, but the CB1 receptor protein, which binds the psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, is found at far higher levels in the eye than in the visual cortex, suggesting that any effects the drug has on vision are likely due to its actions on retinal cells.