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12/11/2008

Intelligence and Other Stuff in 2008

As the year winds down, we can be sure that 2008 will be known as a truly memorable year in American, if not world history. Either the election of a president who doesn’t look like our other presidents or the humongous global financial meltdown would suffice to place this year in the pantheon of historical years. It seems to me that one picture alone qualifies 2008 as a banner year in the history of science, certainly in the history of astronomy. The picture, which graces the cover of the November 28 issue of Science, is a combination of two photos of planets orbiting two distant stars in our galaxy. We talked of these monumental pictures a couple of weeks ago.

At this time of year I look forward to the January issue of Discover magazine. The January 2009 issue features the 100 top science stories of 2008. Unfortunately, it apparently went to press before the publication of actual photographs of solar systems other than our own. In my opinion, that should rank as number one story of the year. But then longtime readers will know of my obsession with the wonders of space and our universe.

Discover’s ranking of the top stories may seem somewhat dubious in light of recent developments. For example, the number 1 story by Ben Hewitt is headlined "The Post-Oil Era Begins". I just noticed yesterday that the price of regular gasoline at our local station had dropped overnight 4 cents to $1.76 per gallon. And "60 Minutes" had a segment on Saudi Arabia and the enormity of its oil operations. The Saudi oil minister did not seem overly concerned that oil would become obsolete anytime soon! The Discover article does discuss the corn-based ethanol debacle and pins much of the hope for the future on hybrid gas-electric and/or pure electrically powered vehicles.

Discover’s number 2 story, by Robert Kunzig, is "Physicists Launch Search for the God Particle", the story of the Large Hadron Collider. With the machine shut down because of the distressing accident involving a faulty solder connection, the search for the "God particle", otherwise known as the Higgs boson, is in limbo until spring of 2009. I think the story might rate number 2, or even number 1, when they find it!

I was happy to see that the magpies who recognized themselves in a mirror made the Discover list, coming in at number 30 in an article by Nicholas Bakalar. In addition, another subject I’ve devoted space to is Phoenix, which Discover rated number 6 in an article by Karen Wright. I’ve kept up with Phoenix through e-mails from NASA and the Mars lander deserves the highest praise for a mission well done. Phoenix actually "tasted" water on the planet and dug up some soil for analysis while snapping thousands of pictures from its vantage point. It sensed snow falling from Martian clouds and took pictures of hoarfrost. Now, with frigid temperatures and dim sunlight, Phoenix is asleep, possibly for good. There’s still some hope that it might be awakened but, if not, it did a masterful job. Phoenix was not a roving machine but the true rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are still active elsewhere on Mars long after their nominal expiration dates.

I may be wrong but, if I recall correctly, when I first started writing these columns almost ten years ago, the consensus was that the settlers of most of North and South America arrived somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 years ago. Discover’s story number 10 by Sarah Richardson is about recent DNA and other studies that firm up the timeline as to when and where the first Native Americans came and traveled down to the South American continent. The scenario now seems as follows. About 30,000 years ago, there was a thousand-mile land bridge known as Beringia linking Siberia and North American up in Governor Palin’s territory. At that time, the ancestors of our Native Americans wandered out onto Beringia, which eventually disapppeared as sea levels rose. This left these early settlers in what is now Alaska. So, about 16 thousand years ago, they began heading south.

North America was pretty well covered with ice, forcing these adventurous travelers to follow a coastal path down the western coast of North America. They must have moved pretty fast down the coast because evidence of 14 thousand-year-old settlements have been found in Oregon and in southern Chile! DNA and dietary studies confirm that the inhabitants of these settlements were related to Native Americans and the diets containing seaweed are consistent with people who knew the sea and its food sources. Now a find of a 4,000-year-old clump of hair in Greenland and subsequent analysis of its mitochondrial DNA indicates that people tracing ancestry back to Siberia had somehow managed to traverse the 3,000-mile expanse between Siberia and Greenland!

Last week I took my wife to get new eyeglasses. The woman fitting her was a very attractive blond with striking blue eyes. I couldn’t help noticing them when, at my wife’s insistence, I had my own glasses adjusted to fit better. We lost a set of famous blue eyes recently with the death of Paul Newman, a couple of whose salad dressings are in my refrigerator. Newman’s picture is in the article by Jocelyn Rice on Discover’s number 42, the finding by researchers that they have found that a single base-pair change in DNA is responsible for blue eyes. That is, a change of just one "letter" in the DNA code does the trick. The conclusion is that this mutation occurred in a single individual in Europe some 10,000 years ago or less.

The mutation must have been associated with some genetic advantage because it swept like wildfire throughout Europe. The speculation is that, inasmuch as the single base-pair mutation is also associated with a gene that limits production of melanin, the resulting fairer skin would be advantageous in the colder northern Europe climes. Hence the blue-eyed blonds of Scandinavia?

Over the years I’ve enjoyed writing about intelligence in animals, notably in birds, which are far from being birdbrains. But slime? Discover’s number 71 story by Jennifer Barone is really weird; can a single cell animal with no brain show signs of intelligence? Is an amoeba really an animal? Workers at Hokkaido University in Japan were working with single cell slime-mold amoebas (amoebae). These slime-mold critters crawl across an agar plate as a group. (Agar is a culture medium derived from seaweed.) As the amoebas slowly made their way across the agar plate, the researchers introduced a cold, dry period of 10 minutes every hour on the hour. Subjected to the cold "weather" in the plate, the amoebas slowed down. After three of these cold waves, the researchers stopped the cold intervals and watched the amoebas.

Surprisingly, on the hour, many of the amoebas slowed down. Apparently, they had anticipated the introduction of cold conditions and reacted accordingly. After several times of following this schedule, the amoebas wised up and stopped slowing down. However, when the researchers resumed introduction of the cold spell, the amoebas quickly resumed their hourly slowdown. Is this intelligence? Without a brain, how does a single-cell animal know what time it is and how does it remember what happened an hour ago? Fascinating.

Finally, I saw an AP item in today’s December 11 Star-Ledger that deals with intelligence of a higher level in man’s best friend. The article by Randolph Schmid is headlined "Canines respond to tests of fairness". Schmid discusses work at the University of Vienna’s Clever Dog Lab, where Friederike Range and his colleagues were testing dogs for reactions to inequity. The experiment was quite simple (I love simple experiments - they’re often the most elegant.) Take two dogs, a "test" dog and a "partner" dog. Ask the test dog to shake hands (OK, paw) and reward it with either a piece of sausage or a piece of bread. Do the same with the partner dog.

Now go back to the test dog and shake; only this time do not give the test dog a reward. Turn to the partner dog and shake and give the partner a reward. Go back to the test dog and ask to shake. This time the test dog looks away and refuses to shake - the dog recognizes it hasn’t been treated fairly and behaves accordingly. Hence, dogs know what’s fair and what’s not.

In other experiments, the test dog and partner dog were rewarded, one with bread and the other with sausage, which I presume would be more enjoyable for a dog. It seems that the dogs were only concerned with whether or not they got something, regardless of its tastiness. When similar experiments have been performed on primates, monkeys for example, the monkeys would respond negatively if the other monkey got the preferred reward.

Well, so much for various levels of intelligence. I question my own intelligence in view of something that happened about an hour ago. I was going through this column for tweaking when I must have done something awful. Suddenly, all of the following paragraphs became totally and utterly misaligned and indented with none of the lines consistent in alignment/indentation. Any attempt to try to fix the problem by backspacing or deleting spaces only made things worse!

I finally had to delete the whole column and go back and retrieve the version I had saved prior to the disaster. When I started working on this version again, I made a change in the first paragraph and found that the new words I had typed were coming out on a different level, i.e., as superscripts! Again, no luck trying to correct this problem! Finally, I deleted that column and again retrieved the early version. Everything worked. Now to post this column and hope for the best!

Allen F. Bortrum



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Dr. Bortrum

12/11/2008

Intelligence and Other Stuff in 2008

As the year winds down, we can be sure that 2008 will be known as a truly memorable year in American, if not world history. Either the election of a president who doesn’t look like our other presidents or the humongous global financial meltdown would suffice to place this year in the pantheon of historical years. It seems to me that one picture alone qualifies 2008 as a banner year in the history of science, certainly in the history of astronomy. The picture, which graces the cover of the November 28 issue of Science, is a combination of two photos of planets orbiting two distant stars in our galaxy. We talked of these monumental pictures a couple of weeks ago.

At this time of year I look forward to the January issue of Discover magazine. The January 2009 issue features the 100 top science stories of 2008. Unfortunately, it apparently went to press before the publication of actual photographs of solar systems other than our own. In my opinion, that should rank as number one story of the year. But then longtime readers will know of my obsession with the wonders of space and our universe.

Discover’s ranking of the top stories may seem somewhat dubious in light of recent developments. For example, the number 1 story by Ben Hewitt is headlined "The Post-Oil Era Begins". I just noticed yesterday that the price of regular gasoline at our local station had dropped overnight 4 cents to $1.76 per gallon. And "60 Minutes" had a segment on Saudi Arabia and the enormity of its oil operations. The Saudi oil minister did not seem overly concerned that oil would become obsolete anytime soon! The Discover article does discuss the corn-based ethanol debacle and pins much of the hope for the future on hybrid gas-electric and/or pure electrically powered vehicles.

Discover’s number 2 story, by Robert Kunzig, is "Physicists Launch Search for the God Particle", the story of the Large Hadron Collider. With the machine shut down because of the distressing accident involving a faulty solder connection, the search for the "God particle", otherwise known as the Higgs boson, is in limbo until spring of 2009. I think the story might rate number 2, or even number 1, when they find it!

I was happy to see that the magpies who recognized themselves in a mirror made the Discover list, coming in at number 30 in an article by Nicholas Bakalar. In addition, another subject I’ve devoted space to is Phoenix, which Discover rated number 6 in an article by Karen Wright. I’ve kept up with Phoenix through e-mails from NASA and the Mars lander deserves the highest praise for a mission well done. Phoenix actually "tasted" water on the planet and dug up some soil for analysis while snapping thousands of pictures from its vantage point. It sensed snow falling from Martian clouds and took pictures of hoarfrost. Now, with frigid temperatures and dim sunlight, Phoenix is asleep, possibly for good. There’s still some hope that it might be awakened but, if not, it did a masterful job. Phoenix was not a roving machine but the true rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are still active elsewhere on Mars long after their nominal expiration dates.

I may be wrong but, if I recall correctly, when I first started writing these columns almost ten years ago, the consensus was that the settlers of most of North and South America arrived somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 years ago. Discover’s story number 10 by Sarah Richardson is about recent DNA and other studies that firm up the timeline as to when and where the first Native Americans came and traveled down to the South American continent. The scenario now seems as follows. About 30,000 years ago, there was a thousand-mile land bridge known as Beringia linking Siberia and North American up in Governor Palin’s territory. At that time, the ancestors of our Native Americans wandered out onto Beringia, which eventually disapppeared as sea levels rose. This left these early settlers in what is now Alaska. So, about 16 thousand years ago, they began heading south.

North America was pretty well covered with ice, forcing these adventurous travelers to follow a coastal path down the western coast of North America. They must have moved pretty fast down the coast because evidence of 14 thousand-year-old settlements have been found in Oregon and in southern Chile! DNA and dietary studies confirm that the inhabitants of these settlements were related to Native Americans and the diets containing seaweed are consistent with people who knew the sea and its food sources. Now a find of a 4,000-year-old clump of hair in Greenland and subsequent analysis of its mitochondrial DNA indicates that people tracing ancestry back to Siberia had somehow managed to traverse the 3,000-mile expanse between Siberia and Greenland!

Last week I took my wife to get new eyeglasses. The woman fitting her was a very attractive blond with striking blue eyes. I couldn’t help noticing them when, at my wife’s insistence, I had my own glasses adjusted to fit better. We lost a set of famous blue eyes recently with the death of Paul Newman, a couple of whose salad dressings are in my refrigerator. Newman’s picture is in the article by Jocelyn Rice on Discover’s number 42, the finding by researchers that they have found that a single base-pair change in DNA is responsible for blue eyes. That is, a change of just one "letter" in the DNA code does the trick. The conclusion is that this mutation occurred in a single individual in Europe some 10,000 years ago or less.

The mutation must have been associated with some genetic advantage because it swept like wildfire throughout Europe. The speculation is that, inasmuch as the single base-pair mutation is also associated with a gene that limits production of melanin, the resulting fairer skin would be advantageous in the colder northern Europe climes. Hence the blue-eyed blonds of Scandinavia?

Over the years I’ve enjoyed writing about intelligence in animals, notably in birds, which are far from being birdbrains. But slime? Discover’s number 71 story by Jennifer Barone is really weird; can a single cell animal with no brain show signs of intelligence? Is an amoeba really an animal? Workers at Hokkaido University in Japan were working with single cell slime-mold amoebas (amoebae). These slime-mold critters crawl across an agar plate as a group. (Agar is a culture medium derived from seaweed.) As the amoebas slowly made their way across the agar plate, the researchers introduced a cold, dry period of 10 minutes every hour on the hour. Subjected to the cold "weather" in the plate, the amoebas slowed down. After three of these cold waves, the researchers stopped the cold intervals and watched the amoebas.

Surprisingly, on the hour, many of the amoebas slowed down. Apparently, they had anticipated the introduction of cold conditions and reacted accordingly. After several times of following this schedule, the amoebas wised up and stopped slowing down. However, when the researchers resumed introduction of the cold spell, the amoebas quickly resumed their hourly slowdown. Is this intelligence? Without a brain, how does a single-cell animal know what time it is and how does it remember what happened an hour ago? Fascinating.

Finally, I saw an AP item in today’s December 11 Star-Ledger that deals with intelligence of a higher level in man’s best friend. The article by Randolph Schmid is headlined "Canines respond to tests of fairness". Schmid discusses work at the University of Vienna’s Clever Dog Lab, where Friederike Range and his colleagues were testing dogs for reactions to inequity. The experiment was quite simple (I love simple experiments - they’re often the most elegant.) Take two dogs, a "test" dog and a "partner" dog. Ask the test dog to shake hands (OK, paw) and reward it with either a piece of sausage or a piece of bread. Do the same with the partner dog.

Now go back to the test dog and shake; only this time do not give the test dog a reward. Turn to the partner dog and shake and give the partner a reward. Go back to the test dog and ask to shake. This time the test dog looks away and refuses to shake - the dog recognizes it hasn’t been treated fairly and behaves accordingly. Hence, dogs know what’s fair and what’s not.

In other experiments, the test dog and partner dog were rewarded, one with bread and the other with sausage, which I presume would be more enjoyable for a dog. It seems that the dogs were only concerned with whether or not they got something, regardless of its tastiness. When similar experiments have been performed on primates, monkeys for example, the monkeys would respond negatively if the other monkey got the preferred reward.

Well, so much for various levels of intelligence. I question my own intelligence in view of something that happened about an hour ago. I was going through this column for tweaking when I must have done something awful. Suddenly, all of the following paragraphs became totally and utterly misaligned and indented with none of the lines consistent in alignment/indentation. Any attempt to try to fix the problem by backspacing or deleting spaces only made things worse!

I finally had to delete the whole column and go back and retrieve the version I had saved prior to the disaster. When I started working on this version again, I made a change in the first paragraph and found that the new words I had typed were coming out on a different level, i.e., as superscripts! Again, no luck trying to correct this problem! Finally, I deleted that column and again retrieved the early version. Everything worked. Now to post this column and hope for the best!

Allen F. Bortrum