Hole Drilled to Bottom of Earth’s Crust

Robert Roy Britt in LiveScience:

Scientist said this week they had drilled into the lower section of Earth’s crust for the first time and were poised to break through to the mantle in coming years.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) seeks the elusive “Moho,” a boundary formally known as the Mohorovicic discontinuity. It marks the division between Earth’s brittle outer crust and the hotter, softer mantle.

The depth of the Moho varies. This latest effort, which drilled 4,644 feet (1,416 meters) below the ocean seafloor, appears to have been 1,000 feet off to the side of where it needed to be to pierce the Moho, according to one reading of seismic data used to map the crust’s varying thickness.

More here.

When is a woman too old to become a mother?

Carey Goldberg in the Boston Globe:

A decade after the first postmenopausal mothers began making headlines, the rights and wrongs of having a late-in-life baby are still under live discussion — particularly in the wake of a new wave of age records and headlines. In January, a 66-year-old Romanian, Adriana Iliescu, gave birth to a 3.2-pound baby girl, Maria Eliza, conceived using donor eggs and sperm. In November, a New York motivational speaker named Aleta St. James gave birth to twins just before turning 57.

”It is never too late,” she declared then. ”You are never too old.”

These days, the debate is informed by considerably more medical data. Over the last decade, more than 1,000 American women in their 50s — and a handful in their 60s — have given birth to donor-egg babies, implanted in women with in vitro fertilization. In 2002, American women in their early 50s reported 286 births, and new mothers in their late 40s numbered more than 5,000.

More here.

The geopolitics of literature

Terry Eagleton looks at The World Republic of Letters by Pascale Casanova, in The New Statesman:

We think of literature as a set of uniquely individual works, as randomly distributed as the stars. From time to time, however, a critical study comes along that steps back from Dante and Goethe, Balzac and Woolf, and views them, in a powerfully distancing move, as part of a meaningful con- stellation. Such is the virtuoso achievement of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Georg Lukacs’s The Historical Novel and Northop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Although Pascale Casanova’s new study is not exactly in this league, it is certainly in this dis- tinguished lineage.

The World Republic of Letters is concerned with what one might call the geopolitics of literature. Literary works, so it claims, are never fully intelligible in themselves; instead, you have to see them as belonging to a global literary space, which has a basis in the world’s political landscape, but which also cuts across its regions and borders to form a distinctive republic of its own. Like geopolitical space, this literary republic has its frontiers, provinces, exiles, legislators, migrations, subordinate territories and an unequal distribution of resources. It is a form of intellectual commerce in which literary value is banked and circulated, or transferred from one national currency to another in the act of translation.

More here.

The MIPSY (the Most Inane Pope Story) rankings

From Columbia Journalism Review Daily’s Hidden Angle:

“We got a lot of entrants in the competition for the coveted MIPSY — the Most Inane Pope Story our news media could come up with. After all, as reader Larry Green points out, the Associated Press reported that, world-wide, 35,000 new stories appeared about the pope on the day after his death. And that was in just 24 hours.

. . .

Two more quick ones before we award the big prize: Karen Zachary emails a teaser from WashingtonPost.com for Robin Wright’s rumination on the pope, “For Vatican Press Corps, Pontiff Remembered as the Human Pope.” (A similar line appears in the story.) Zachary just wanted to thank the Vatican Press Corps for confirming her longstanding suspicion that the pontiff was indeed human. And our own New York office submits this story from the business section of Tuesday’s USA Today, ‘Business Leaders Can Learn From Pope.’ What, you might wonder, can they learn? To ‘be knowledgeable,’ for one thing, which admittedly does help when trying to run a business. The piece reads as if USA Today was concerned there might be too many pope-free pages in the paper, so they got their in-house Steven Covey to gin up The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Pontiffs.”

Number one is not to be missed.

The tsunami and the Sri Lankan Civil War

The tsunami devastated much of Sri Lanka, killing an estimated 38,000 people on an island with a population of 20 million, but it may have also provided an opportunity for progress on ending the decades long civil war.  The Hindu interviews Ram Manikkalingam, Senior Adviser to the Sri Lankan President.

“[The Hindu] Post-tsunami, is there a change in the decades-long positions held by the Government and the rebels?

[RM] Usually in the peace processes in Sri Lanka, the leadership of both parties — the LTTE and the Government — come to a decision that there needs to be a ceasefire and talks should begin. They have been top-down processes.

The change with the tsunami has been that there has been a pull from the bottom for cooperation. There was, in a sense, the pull factor, which is very, very strong unlike the previous peace processes, and the leadership is catching up with the demand on the ground for cooperation.

Could you elaborate on the [joint] mechanism?

The mechanism consists of three tiers. There is a three-member high-level committee with a nominee each by the Government, the LTTE and the Muslim parties. This will be essentially involved with the policy of allocating resources.”

Punishment and reconciliation in Rwanda after the genocide

In addition to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a traditional Rwandan system of dispute resolution is being used to try those who committed atrocities during the genocide a decade ago. It differs from the ICTR and operates by a different logic, stressing reconciliation, since many perpetrators will have to be reintegrated into society to live along side survivors.

From African Studies Quarterly:

“In response to the ineffectiveness of the [ICTR] tribunal and the incapacity of its national court system, the Rwandan government has revived a traditional form of dispute resolution called Gacaca (ga-CHA-cha).  10,000 Gacaca courts will try genocide suspects in the communities where their crimes were committed.  They will be tried and judged by their neighbours.

Gacaca represents a model of restorative justice because it focuses on the healing of victims and perpetrators, confessions, plea-bargains, and reintegration. It is these characteristics that render it a radically different approach from the retributive and punitive nature of justice at the ICTR and national courts. Great hope has been placed in the ability of restorative justice to contribute to reconciliation at the individual and community level.  Gacaca justice is meant to be as intimate as the genocide itself: If it is unable to provide for reconciliation it will come at a high cost for Rwandan society.”

Brian Greene reflects on Einstein and quantum mechanics

From today’s New York Times:

“With his discovery of special relativity, Einstein upended the familiar, thousands-year-old conception of space and time. To be sure, even a century later, not everyone has fully embraced Einstein’s discovery. Nevertheless, say ‘Einstein’ and most everyone thinks ‘relativity.’

What is less widely appreciated, however, is that physicists call 1905 Einstein’s ‘miracle year’ not because of the discovery of relativity alone, but because in that year Einstein achieved the unimaginable, writing four papers that each resulted in deep and formative changes to our understanding of the universe. One of these papers – not on relativity – garnered him the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics. It also began a transformation in physics that Einstein found so disquieting that he spent the last 30 years of his life in a determined effort to repudiate it.”

Here is the accompanying slide show.

Wild French Wisdom

Myrna Blyth reviews “French women don’t get fat” and “Perfect Madness”:

Maybe this book should have been called “French Girls Don’t Dare Get Fat,” which is probably a bit closer to the truth. Madame Guilano, who is the CEO of Veuve Clicquot and peddles this very pricey champagne in America, tells us only what anybody, French or American, who doesn’t have much problem with his weight, already knows: That it is better to eat what you want but not eat too much, to eat only when you are hungry, and to walk more. Not exactly le revelation!

But hey, I can stomach 200 pages of self-congratulatory chauvinism and yogurt recipes a lot more than Judith Warner’s snappish assault on American moms in Perfect Madness, a book that rated a cover story in Newsweek and a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review. Warner, by the way, just happens to be the co-author of Howard Dean’s screed Take Back Our Country and Return Democracy to America. This author, when she first had children, lived in France. She insists French mothers have it good and get it right because France is simply a “paradise.” It’s a contrast to “most of America,” which she found upon returning home to Washington, D.C. is “competitive,” “rapacious,” “amoral,” “moralizing and just plain mad. ” Merci, Judith.

Read more here.

A Paleopuzzle: Chomping With No Chompers

John Noble Wilford in the New York Times:

06cndskullThe toothless skull of an early human ancestor discovered in the Caucasus may attest to evolution’s oldest known example of compassion for the elderly and handicapped, scientists report today.

Other experts agreed that the discovery was significant, but cautioned that it might be a stretch to interpret the fossil as evidence of compassion.

The well-preserved skull, found in Georgia, belonged to a male Homo erectus about 40 years old. All his teeth, except the left canine, were missing. Regrowth of bone indicated that the man had been toothless for at least two years before he died at what was then an old age.

More here.

The bizarre sexual antics of orchids

James Owen in National Geographic:

040308_cheatingorchidsUnlike most flowers, roughly a third of the approximately 30,000 orchid species in the world don’t rely on the lure of food to achieve pollination. Instead, the orchids trick insects into performing the task without reward.

Most of these orchids are “food deceptive.” Using bright colors and sweet perfumes, they falsely advertise a free meal of pollen and nectar to attract bees, beetles, butterflies, and other pollinators. (Other of these orchids are even more elaborate in their cunning, mimicking the appearance and sex pheromones of female insects to lure males looking for a mate.)

More here.  (Thanks  Margit.)

Fly brains manipulated by remote control: Laser-activated chemicals target specific neurons

Michael Schirber reports in MSNBC:

The remote control setup — developed by Miesenbock and Susana Lima, both from Yale University School of Medicine — can be broken down into three components: a lock, a key and a trigger.   Image: Fruit fly

The lock is an ion channel — a kind of protein that allows charged particles to pass through a cell membrane. The researchers genetically altered particular neurons to have an ion channel not normally found in fruit flies.

The key is a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. By binding to the ion channel, ATP makes the neuron fire. Typically, ATP is a form of fuel, or “energy currency,” inside cells, “but there is very little of it flowing in between cells,” Miesenbock said. So the scientists had to inject ATP into the fly brains.

To regulate the firing of the altered neurons, the researchers isolated the injected ATP in a molecular cage that breaks open when struck with an ultraviolet laser beam. Lima and Miesenbock placed their ion channel lock in the giant fiber system, a small set of nerve cells that controls the fruit fly’s escape movements — like jumping and wing flapping.

When flashed with a 200-millisecond laser trigger, flies outfitted with locks and keys responded between 60 and 80 percent of the time with the expected escape behavior. And this was not because the laser scared the flies. In fact, blind flies reacted in the same way. The laser light penetrates the flies’ cuticle, or “skin,” to free the caged ATP.

The findings are published in Friday’s issue of the journal Cell.

Read more here.

Philosopher Pope?

You sometimes hear it mentioned that John Paul Pope II had a philosophical bent and was involved, in his earlier life, with Phenomenology. Well, it’s true. His book, written when he was still Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, is subtitled A Contribution to Phenomenological Anthropology. It is influenced by Max Scheler of all people. Anyway, this isn’t to apologize for the Pope. I’m rather more inclined toward the mood of one of my heroes, Czeslaw Milosz (my choice for coolest Polish Catholic), as it’s reflected in the title of his brilliant little essay; Essay in Which the Author Confesses That He Is on the Side of Man, for Lack of Anything Better.

But, whatever your view of the departed Pope, he was a complicated and interesting man. His writings are not the production of a person without thought. Some of them are surprisingly interesting and engaging. Maybe everybody already knows this. If not, his efforts can be read through this link. Here’s a smidgen from Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

1. In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded—as it must—within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing. This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life. The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings”, that is as those who “know themselves”.

Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.

Are South Asians more susceptible to AIDS?

From the BBC:

“Indians infected with the Aids virus are more likely to contract the disease than people in the west, a new study has found.

Scientists say that Indians have lower immunity to the virus because they have genes that hasten the disease.

India says more than five million of its citizens are infected with the HIV virus, second only to South Africa.

Activists say the number of Indians affected by HIV/Aids is much higher than the government says.

Scientists at India’s premier medical school, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), studied 200 people with HIV infection and 2000 healthy people over two years for the study.

They found that the HLA-B*35-Px gene linked to rapid progression from HIV infection to Aids is ‘two-and-a-half times’ more common in Indians than a protective gene called HLA-B*35-Py.

They also found that that a ‘protective variant’ of chemokines – intracellular messenger molecules whose major function is to attract immune cells to sites of infection – was not present among Indians.”

Making sure you wake up in the morning

From Boston.com

“Like most other 25-year-old graduate students, Gauri Nanda sometimes Clocky_pic burns the midnight oil — and pays for it in the morning.

”I like my sleep,’ said Nanda, a research associate at the MIT Media Laboratory in Cambridge. ”I’ve been known to hit the snooze button for two hours, or even accidentally turn off the alarm.’

So when she was asked to create a useful product for an industrial design course last fall, Nanda came up with ”Clocky,’ a runaway alarm clock that goads its bleary-eyed owners into leaving their beds. To turn Clocky off, you have to find it.

After technology weblogs were linked to photos and a description of Clocky from the Media Lab website two weeks ago, the shag-faced, homely clock became an object of curiosity on the Internet.”

Read on here.  There’s additional information at the Clocky page of MIT’s Media Lab.

Oral Histories from Chernobyl

It’s been nearly 19 years to the day since the meltdown at Chernobyl.  The Paris Review has this, oral histories of the disaster and its aftermath.

“I went. I didn’t have to go. I volunteered. I was after a medal?

I wanted benefits? Bullshit! I didn’t need anything for myself. An apartment, a car—what else? Right, a dacha. I had all those things. But it exerted a sort of masculine charm. Manly men were going off to do this important thing. And everyone else? They can hide under women’s skirts, if they want. There were guys with pregnant wives, others had little babies, a third had burns. They all cursed to themselves and came anyway.

We came home. I took off all the clothes that I’d worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain . . . You can write the rest of this yourself. I don’t want to talk anymore.”

Life’s top 10 greatest inventions

Rachel Nowak in the New Scientist:
The eye

THEY appeared in an evolutionary blink and changed the rules of life forever. Before eyes, life was gentler and tamer, dominated by sluggish soft-bodied worms lolling around in the sea. The invention of the eye ushered in a more brutal and competitive world. Vision made it possible for animals to become active hunters, and sparked an evolutionary arms race that transformed the planet. And what a difference it made. In the sightless world of the early Cambrian, vision was tantamount to a super-power. Trilobites’ eyes allowed them to become the first active predators, able to seek out and chase down food like no animal before them. And, unsurprisingly, their prey counter-evolved. Just a few million years later, eyes were commonplace and animals were more active, bristling with defensive armour. This burst of evolutionary innovation is what we now know as the Cambrian explosion.


BIRDS do it, bees do it – for the vast majority of species, sexual reproduction is the only option. And it is responsible for some of the most impressive biological spectacles on the planet, from mass spawnings of coral so vast that they are visible from space, to elaborate sexual displays such as the dance of the bower bird, the antlers of a stag and – according to some biologists – poetry, music and art. Sex may even be responsible for keeping life itself going: species that give it up almost always go extinct within a few hundred generations.

The enduring success of sex is usually put down to the fact that it shuffles the genetic pack, introducing variation and allowing harmful mutations to be purged (mutations are what eventually snuffs out most asexual species). Variation is important because it allows life to respond to changing environments, including interactions with predators, prey and – particularly – parasites. Reproducing asexually is sometimes compared to buying 100 tickets in a raffle, all with the same number. Far better to have only 50 tickets, each with a different number.

The brain

BRAINS are often seen as a crowning achievement of evolution – bestowing the ultimate human traits such as language, intelligence and consciousness. But before all that, the evolution of brains did something just as striking: it lifted life beyond vegetation. Brains provided, for the first time, a way for organisms to deal with environmental change on a timescale shorter than generations. A nervous system allows two extremely useful things to happen: movement and memory. If you’re a plant and your food source disappears, that’s just tough. But if you have a nervous system that can control muscles, then you can actually move around and seek out food, sex and shelter.


LARGE numbers of individuals living together in harmony, achieving a better life by dividing their workload and sharing the fruits of their labours. We call this blissful state utopia, and have been striving to achieve it for at least as long as recorded history. Alas, our efforts so far have been in vain. Evolution, however, has made a rather better job of it.

Read more here.