5 Charts That Explain 2014’s Record-Smashing Heat | Mother Jones

2014 was the hottest year since record-keeping began way back in the nineteenth century, according to reports released Friday by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to NASA, the Earth has now warmed roughly 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, and most of that increase is the result of greenhouse gases released by humans. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000.

Here’s the last (and arguably most interesting) of the five:

Attri bution of Long Term Trends

via 5 Charts That Explain 2014’s Record-Smashing Heat | Mother Jones

(h/t The Big picture)

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‘A New Antibiotic That Resists Resistance’

Some time ago I noted the dangers of bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, to the point where some are now “pan-resistant”. In other words, untreatable with existing antibiotics. Those dangers assuredly still exist but a few days ago a bit of good news arrived for a change.

More [classes of antibiotics], hopefully, are coming. A team of scientists led by Kim Lewis from Northeastern University have identified a new antibiotic called teixobactin, which kills some kinds of bacteria by preventing them from building their outer coats. They used it to successfully treat antibiotic-resistant infections in mice. And more importantly, when they tried to deliberately evolve strains of bacteria that resist the drug, they failed. Teixobactin appears resistant to resistance.

Bacteria will eventually develop ways of beating teixobactin—remember Orgel—but the team are optimistic that it will take decades rather than years for this to happen. That buys us time.

via A New Antibiotic That Resists Resistance – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

The Two Cultures, Then and Now | Books and Culture

In “The Two Cultures” in 1959, C.P.Snow lamented the growing, almost wilful, mutual incomprehension that divided science and the humanities. Despite an initially muted response the lecture and subsequent article became famous and even today remain the touchstone for this perennial (and occasionally tiresome) debate.

Snow also had another, more pragmatic concern; because the political elite was drawn almost entirely from the humanities, they were in his view ill suited to make best use of the stunning advances in science and technology.

As Alan Jacobs argues in “The Two Cultures, Then and Now”, this concern didn’t necessarily accord all that well with the facts.

I don’t suppose anyone today would say that the problem with our politicians is that they are too deeply immersed in humanistic learning. Even in Snow’s time and in Britain, the picture was far more complicated than he let on. When Snow delivered his Rede Lecture, the prime minister of the United Kingdom was Harold Macmillan, an Old Etonian who read classics at Oxford (and received a first-class degree); Macmillan fit to a T Snow’s picture of the “traditional culture,” But by the time Snow died in 1980, the holder of that office was Margaret Thatcher, who often said that she was less proud of being the first female prime minister than of being the first with a science degree. I suspect that Snow, a lifelong member of the Labour Party, was not especially consoled by Thatcher’s status as a chemist. Moreover, the P.M. who made Snow minister of technology and elevated him to the peerage was Harold Wilson, the most academically gifted of 20th-century British politicians, who read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford and then became a lecturer in economic history there at the ripe old age of twenty-one.

At any rate, for much of the essay Jacobs concerns himself with what seems to me far more interesting territory. The problem, as he sees it, is not so much this intermittent antagonism between the two cultures but the degree to which our current education systems cripple both. Continue reading

Determinism and choice | Paul Bloom

Some determinists would balk at this. The idea of “choosing” to stop (or choosing anything at all), they suggest, implies a mystical capacity to transcend the physical world. Many people think about choice in terms of this mystical capacity, and I agree with the determinists that they’re wrong. But instead of giving up on the notion of choice, we can clarify it. The deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions, including moral consequences. These processes are at the core of what it means to say that people make choices, and in this regard, the notion that we are responsible for our fates remains intact.

Yes, the hard determinist position, with its dire connotations for the notion of free will, has always struck me as somewhat improbable. Doesn’t our capacity to imagine, to reflect, to conceptualise, to (attempt) to empathise of itself create continuous swirls and gaps in the causal stream?

That said, over the years I have moved further away from a strong “free will” position. Indeed the term itself should probably be set aside in discussions of this sort. It suggests a degree of freedom that ignores how heavily handicapped our choices are by genetic make-up, life experience and current circumstances.

The real question, I think, is whether we have any choice at all. Some, like Sam Harris, don’t think so. Continue reading

Gut bacteria and obesity | Nature

The team took gut bacteria from four sets of human twins in which one of each pair was lean and one was obese, and introduced the microbes into mice bred to be germ-free. Mice given bacteria from a lean twin stayed slim, whereas those given bacteria from an obese twin quickly gained weight, even though all the mice ate about the same amount of food.

The team wondered whether the gut microbiota of either group of mice would be influenced by mice with one type living in close quarters with animals harbouring the other type.

So the scientists took mice with the ‘lean’ microbiota and placed them in a cage Continue reading

‘The mind . . . in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’

Remarkable article about how our social experience and the way we come to frame our lives influences gene-expression.

I would’ve bet my eyeteeth that we’d get a lot of noisy results that are inconsistent from one realm to another. And at the level of individual genes that’s kind of true—there is some noise there.” But the kinds of genes that get dialed up or down in response to social experience, he said, and the gene networks and gene-expression cascades that they set off, “are surprisingly consistent—from monkeys to people, from five-year-old kids to adults, from Vancouver teenagers to 60-year-olds living in Chicago.”

The principal pathway through which this works appears to be the immune system.

Normally, a healthy immune system works by deploying what amounts to a leashed attack dog. It detects a pathogen, then sends inflammatory and other responses to destroy the invader while also activating an anti-inflammatory response—the leash—to keep the inflammation in check. The lonely Chicagoans’ immune systems, however, suggested an attack dog off leash—even though they weren’t sick. Some 78 genes that normally work together to drive inflammation were busier than usual, as if these healthy people were fighting infection. Meanwhile, 131 genes that usually cooperate to control inflammation were underactive. Continue reading

Fukushima

A recent Reuters article (“After disaster, the deadliest part of Japan’s nuclear clean-up”) proved something of a rabbit hole. Having ventured down into this unfamiliar terrain, new tunnels kept opening up.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami left 400 tons of “highly irradiated spent fuel” more or less hanging in the sky 30 metres up in Reactor Building No 4. Its roof, and much else, was pulverised by a hydrogen explosion so there’s no containment structure left. Only desperate efforts in the immediate aftermath when all power sources were knocked out kept the pool in which the fuel rods are stored covered with water.

It wasn’t alone in suffering severe damage. Reactor Nos 1, 2 and 3 (which were all online when disaster struck) are now in permanent shutdown with their reactor cores largely or entirely melted down and sitting in intensely hot lumps at the bottom of their containment chambers. Vast quantities of water keep their temperature within tolerable bounds but much of it is leaking into the groundwater and, eventually, the Pacific.

What sets No 4 apart is three things. First, it has far more spent fuel in its cooling pond then any of the others because for maintenance purposes the entire fuel contents of its reactor had been transferred to the pond only four months previously. Second, because of that transfer, some 550 of the 1231 used fuel rod assemblies were much more radioactive than normal. And, finally, the building itself is structurally unsound. Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) have done some shoring up, but it wouldn’t take too much of a shake to crack it, or maybe even tip it over.

D-Day for TEPCO’s plan to move this spent fuel to a safer location is nigh. Since the infrastructure to handle spent fuel was destroyed, they’ve had to recreate that capacity from scratch. Handling fuel rod assemblies is a delicate business and no one can know if they’ll succeed. The plan is to start in November and finish within a year. It’s just one (particularly important) piece of the winddown of Fukushima, estimated by a spokesman “to take about 40 years and cost $11 billion.” The total cost for Japan may range up to $100 billion.

There were some alarming scenarios raised in the article.

No one knows how bad it can get, but independent consultants Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt said recently in their World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013: “Full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date.”

And Arnie Gunderson talked about a few ways that sort of release could happen. Continue reading