Science! In the News

As always, just perusing the Google news science feed. First, the good stuff:

A. James Webb: Hubble successor maintains course OK, so sure, it’s a decade late and billions over budget – I don’t want to hear about it. This is about as cool as science gets. Remember how, when we* were kids, we’d look at pictures taken through earth-bound telescopes? While they were nice and everything, inspiring, even, once we started sending out space probes and those probes started sending back pictures, the pictures from earth-bound telescopes started looking not so hot. Then came the Hubble, the single coolest science project ever, and the source of a near-endless stream of dazzling, awe-inspiring glimpses of our universe.

Well, if we can get the Webb up and operational – tricky business, that – it will make the the Hubble seem like an abacus compared to a super-computer. The pictures should be a couple orders of magnitude more detailed, and pick up objects far too dim for the Hubble. Plus, it is to be put at a Lagrange Point a million or so miles from earth. And it has a giant heat shield umbrella to take the sun’s light and heat out. And the main mirror consists of 18 hexagonal segments, each of which has computer-controlled servos to bring all of them into common focus.

All this hardware has to fit inside a single rocket payload, then be carefully unfolded once on site. NASA has been carefully rehearsing the whole choreographed thing for years now – unlike the Hubble, if something ain’t right, you’re almost certainly not bopping out to fix it.

Just look at it!


 * for values of ‘we’ 45 or older

B. From the sublime to the ridiculous:

Bigger Brain’s Best, Study Finds Animals With Larger Brains Are Best Problem Solvers

First, they need a headline editor to cut that meandering mouthful down and properly click-bait the hook. Something like: Bigger Brained Predators Solve Problem of How to Kill and Eat You. Something like that.

This study offers a rare look at problem solving in carnivores, and the results provide important support for the claim that brain size reflects an animal’s problem-solving abilities-and enhance our understanding of why larger brains evolved in some species,” Sarah Benson-Amram, lead author of the study from the University of Wyoming, said in a news release.

In order to carry out their study, the researchers visited nine zoos, where they presented 140 animals from 39 different mammalian carnivore species with a novel problem-solving task. These animals included spotted hyenas, tigers, river otters, wolves, polar bears and arctic foxes. Each animal had 30 minutes to get food out of a closed metal box.  The animal needed to slide a bolt latch, which would open the door to the box, which contained the animal’s favorite food. Red pandas were given bamboo, while snow leopards received steak.

Not to be a pedant here – well, not any more than usual – but doesn’t evolutionary theory assert that animal brains evolved as a result of how well they happened to help the animal survive in a particular environment? So, presenting animals with a test that mimics nothing they’d ever have come across in their environment of evolutionary adaptation, and then seeing how well they ‘solve’ it proves – intelligence? There are a whole load of assumptions and a heaping helping of anthropomorphizing in there. And are zoo animals really representative? Would a wild bear take a different approach to a locked box than Bobo the Circus Bear who has spent a lifetime around people and boxes and locks? Inquiring minds want to know.

But, hey, now we don’t have to just *suppose* bigger brains (relative to body size) mean smarter animals (in terms of solving tests based on the kind of challenges human beings – thieves, for example – sometimes need to solve). Now, we have a study! Science! has shown!

Slightly more seriously, where are the parrots and crows and other smart birds in all this? They seem way smarter than their tiny bird brains might suggest.

C. Last week, posted about the idea that intelligent species have evolved all over the place, but just gone extinct due to climate change before they got the letter to us in the mail, figuratively speaking, and that’s why we have no evidence. I chose a particularly insouciant article, based entirely on the way-cool picture they chose to illustrate it.

Silly me. Here is a more serious article, which doesn’t even mention climate change per say, and goes out of its way to say that, given the native instability of planetary environments over time, it seemed to the researchers very unlikely that intelligent, or even multi-celled, life would evolve before climatological Snuffagedon. All that ‘we’re doomed by climate change’ hand-wringing seems to have been entirely in the heads of a few people writing under, let’s say, deadline pressures. This article has a few other interesting ideas as well.

Now, as speculative fiction, this is very cool. Asimov had a very similar idea in the Foundation series. But as science, it as much hogwash as the Drake Equation that formalizes the daydream that we have any basis at all to predict how common or uncommon life is out among the stars. So, for a college bull session or a SciFi writing group, cool. For real science, silly.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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