How Have Plants Shaped Human Societies?


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Britain prospected Peruvian bark trees and grew them in India, having first transplanted them to Kew, one of many botanical gardens that served as a center for medical and colonial botany. In fact, the success of British rule in India depended partly on the control of malaria through the establishment of local Cinchona plantations. In Jules Verne’s 1874 fantasy novel The Mysterious Island, the sulfate of quinine that miraculously saves the life of one of the main characters turns out to be a gift from the reclusive Captain Nemo. Yet far from being a pure gift, Cinchona, like so many other botanical discoveries, was both a cure for suffering and an instrument of power.

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Yota Bataski & Alex HumphreysScientific American

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Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek that ever lived


From The Otameal.

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The Oatmeal

How Genealogy Websites Make It Easier to Catch Killers


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But just how likely is it that any given criminal will have relatives in a DNA-based ancestry database? How powerful is the long-range familial search technique? For their report today in Science, researchers at another genealogy service called MyHeritage in Or Yehuda, Israel, along with collaborators at Columbia University in New York, set out to answer these questions.

Their conclusion: If just 2 percent of a population gives DNA to an ancestry service, nearly 99 percent of that population will find a relative, third cousin or closer, in that service’s database. So in the near future, a person who commits a violent crime is likely to have a relative in one of these consumer databases, says Yaniv Erlich, chief technology officer at MyHeritage and an author of today’s report.

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Emily Waltz — IEEE Spectrum

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Tears


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Why do we weep? And why don’t most other mammals?

Problem the first: There’s no reason for Nature to have designed us (by way of evolution) to use leaky eyes or a heaving chest simply to “process” any of our emotions. In fact, as a general rule, emotions aren’t the kind of thing that need to be “processed” at all — as if they were industrial byproducts that needed to be discharged from the thinking factory. Emotions (and their expressions) aren’t mere side-effects of something else — they’re purposeful unto themselves. They evolved because they put our brains and bodies (technically, those of our ancestors) into a locally-optimal state for dealing with specific problems or circumstances. If evolution devised to make our bodies do something, then the action is unlikely to be a meaningless side effect. There has to be a point to it.

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Kevin Simler — Melting Asphalt

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Here’s Why This Mama Merganser Has More Than 50 Ducklings


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A photographer in Minnesota recently captured an adorable shot of a Common Merganser followed by dozens of fuzzy babies.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly why ducks do this, but it could effectively serve as a reproductive insurance policy. If a raccoon invades a merganser nest and destroys all the eggs, the female still has more offspring being safely incubated in other nests. “One possibility would be, in a sense, not putting all their eggs in one basket,” Kaufman says.

This behavior doesn’t completely explain Cizek’s photograph, though, because there is a limit to how many eggs one duck can successfully incubate. Female ducks lay about a dozen eggs and can incubate as many as 20, says Kaufman. More than that, and the birds can’t keep all the eggs warm.

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Jillian Mock — Audobon

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Can we (please) have science without the scientific journals?


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Peer reviews. Can we have another model?

We could – I think we should – apply this model to scientific publishing. Publish first, and then let consumers decide what is good or important and what is not.

This would not mean the end of quality control or peer-reviewing – you can have all of that, indeed you can get more of it and in a more efficient way, if that happens after publication.

And this would allow us to get rid of a rent-seeking intermediary no-one needs anymore: the scientific journals themselves.

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Pascal Boyer — International Cognition & Culture Institute

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An Ode to Ugly Physics


The intuitive physicists were triumphant on many more occasions. Like Richard Feynman, who, from his wild imagination of virtual particles, wrote down outrageously ill-defined integral overall paths of virtual particles and fields through space and time.20 At the level of perturbation theory, that is, pretending that the quantum was infinitesimal, Feynman’s path integral is nothing more than a mathematical trick that helps with organizing calculations. In fairness, it was a damn fine trick. It helped predict the magnetic dipole moment of the electron to eleven digits, while also helping to solve difficult mathematical problems from the topological invariants of knots to the deformation quantization of Poisson manifolds.21

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Xi Yin — Inference