Open Question

What interesting art and science news have you seen recently?  Let us know.


Post by Minna Krejci


Sitting here awake at my computer at 4:00am, waiting for my experiment to finish so I can finally go home and pass out, I can’t think about much else other than sleep.

Sleep!  Who needs it?

We all needs it.  Even the Vancouver Canucks, who are in the midst of the NHL Stanley Cup finals, battling the Boston Bruins for the championship.  To keep the men fresh even with crazy travel schedules, time zone changes, and exhausting games, the Canucks coach hired a sleep consulting firm called Fatigue Science.

During the regular season, the Canucks wore wristbands that collected data on how they were sleeping (light sleep or deep sleep, for example).  From these measurements, Fatigue Science then comes up with recommendations for how and when the players should sleep, eat, travel, etc.  It seems to have worked well for the Canucks, who have been dominating on the road this season and postseason, with strong third period showings — clearly fatigue hasn’t been too much of an issue.

Want your own sleep consultant?  Try Lark, an “un-alarm” clock, sleep sensor, and sleep coach that works with the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad (and soon will have an Android version).  Wear the wristband at night, and it talks to the iPhone app to track your sleep patterns.  The wristband vibrates gently when it’s time for you to get up (and there’s a musical backup if that fails to wake you up), and you’re greeted in the morning with data on how well you slept.  Shell out a bit more dough to get a 7-day assessment and a “sleep coach” app.

Here’s a collection of sleep tips courtesy of Fatigue Science… how many of these are you following?

via Fatigue Science (www.fatiguescience.com)

Post by Henderson

In a move to more directly combat the growth of obesity and provide average households with a common sense approach to eating a well balanced diet, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled its newest version of the food pyramid last week called MyPlate.

On June 2, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, First Lady Michelle Obama, and US Surgeon General Rebecca Benjamin presented the new graphic resulting from the 2010 release of the federal government’s evidence-based nutritional guidance.

The new graphic splits a plate into four sections.  Fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat each receive a quarter of the plate, and on the side is small helping of dairy.  You’ll notice that desert is conspicuously missing.

USDA's new food "pyramid" provides common sense balance to meal portioning.

The new website, ChooseMyPlate.gov includes tips and resources, from what types of grains to eat, to physical activities, to ideas about a balanced vegetarian diet.

The guide was created to provide simple ways to promote health, reduce occurrences of chronic diseases, and reduce the growing numbers of obesity.  It also addresses a general confusion about what types of food constitute a healthy diet and in what daily proportions–a confusion that has existed since the first food pyramid was introduced in 1992.

1992 version of the USDA food pyramid.

Mrs. Obama’s speech addressed the oft-mundane practice of measuring proportions.

“Parents don’t have the time to measure out exactly 3 ounces of chicken or to look up how much rice or broccoli is in a serving,” Obama said. “But we do have time to take a look at our kids’ plates,” she said. “We do it all the time. We usually are the ones fixing the plates. And as long as they’re eating proper portions, as long as half of their meal is fruits and vegetables alongside their lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, then we’re good. It’s as simple as that. That’s how easy this can be for parents.”

A few of the suggestions the website gives are as follow:

Balancing calories:

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less
  • Avoid oversized proportions

Foods to increase:

  • Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Make at least half of your grains whole grains
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk

Foods to reduce:

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals ― and choose the foods with lower numbers
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Combating Obesity:

Only time will tell whether MyPlate will succeed in decreasing  obesity.  There are still a number of factors that stand in the way of a healthy diet.

Obesity is defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30.  In general, a high BMI puts one at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes.  Reasons for obesity can range from genetic and metabolic factors to an imbalance in the diet and exercise routine.

If you’re curious about your BMI, use this online calculator.

The government has been keeping its eye on obesity for some time.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tracked obesity trends over the last 20 years and found a dramatic increase in the period between 1985 and 2009.

In 2009 numbers, nine states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia) had obesity levels equal to or over 30%.  In the same period, Colorado and the District of Columbia had less than a 20% occurrence of obesity.

I am a cyborg. Don’t look so shocked—you’re probably one too.

I have the following technological enhancements:

  • a removable device for improving visual acuity
  • an assortment of removable artificial skins for temperature control and decoration
  • a prosthetic time sense, significantly better than any natural ability
  • a prosthetic memory that not only allows me to store large amounts of information far more accurately than my natural memory, but allows me to access—and add to—other people’s similarly stored memories

Psychologists and philosophers suggest that humans are natural cyborgs. We are hard-wired not only to create and use tools, but to make them a part of ourselves. Your brain, for example, represents the space around you in different ways depending on what is and isn’t in arm’s reach. That makes sense, because you can directly affect things in arm’s reach—the more distant world, you can merely observe. If you pick up a stick, or get in the driver’s seat of a car, your representation of “arm’s reach” expands along with your influence. I leave it to your imagination what that representation does when you log into Twitter.

Tools change us, but we can’t function without them. Tool use, of course, is not limited to humans. Octopuses use coconut shells for camouflage, crows bend wires into hooks, and chimpanzees make spears. But we make more complex tools, and use them more easily, than any other species. And they’re absolutely necessary for our survival—we have little in the way of truly natural protection or food-gathering ability.

We’ve been worrying about the dangers of new technological enhancements for as long as we’ve been making them. Plato believed that writing would lead to forgetfulness (he was right), and cause people to “entertain the delusion that they have wide knowledge, while they are, in fact, for the most part incapable of real judgment.” Meanwhile, in the 21st century, Malcolm Gladwell believes that social media will undermine revolutionary activism—or at least, he believed it last October. Those who look ahead worry about the dehumanizing effects of nanotechnology and bioengineering. There are certainly many dangerous potential uses for these new technologies. But they can’t “dehumanize” us. Tools are one of the things that make us human.

If you could get one technological enhancement–real or imagined–what would it be?  And are there any that would worry you if other people got them?

Post by Minna Krejci

A few weeks ago, Discover’s Science Not Fiction blog explored the hidden message in Pixar’s films:

“The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.” –Kyle Munkittrick on Science Not Fiction

One of the Pixar examples given as evidence was The Incredibles, which shows how human enhancement to beyond the human norm can lead to revulsion and alienation reactions.  The lesson, according to Munkittrick: “…human enhancement does not make you inhuman – the choices you make and the way you treat others determines how human you really are.”

We’ve always been interested in ways to improve our minds, bodies, or abilities.  But what happens as new technologies increasingly allow us to push the limits of our abilities to beyond what is “normal” for our species?  Do we limit human enhancement for fear of “enhanced” individuals acquiring an unfair advantage (in work, school, politics, athetics, etc.)?  Do we avoid regulation to retain our personal freedoms and rights to improve our own minds, bodies, and lives?

In a report funded by the National Science Foundation, the Human Enhancement Ethics Group discussed these kinds of issues in the form of 25 questions and answers regarding the ethics of human enhancement.  I recommend taking a look — it’s an interesting and relevant read, considering that we are already seeing these kinds of debates with respect to cognitive-enhancing and performance-enhancing drugs.  Is it ok for students diagnosed with ADHD to take stimulants to correct the “attention deficit,” but not ok for otherwise-normal students to take stimulants to help them focus better when studying for exams?  Where do you draw the line between what supplements/drugs athletes can and can’t take to improve their performance?

It sounds like we’ve got a lot of “why does he get one and I don’t” and “why can’t I use it just because she doesn’t have one” to look forward to…

Post by Henderson

Engineering mixes many disciplines, from mathematics to art to economics, to respond to the needs of growing societies.  As populations grow, needs of infrastructures change, and new ideas bring forth new challenges, engineers work in large or small teams to find solutions to these problems.

The idea of human engineering starts with the idea that the body is a machine.  A machine that can be understood, repaired, and if need-be, parts replaced.  This is not a new idea and has existed in greater or smaller ways since Rene Descartes wrote about the mind-body duality.  Separating the body into an automatic as a machine in his description of the human body.  But what Descartes contemporaries did not have were the tools needed to understand how the body works.

The human body is an efficient collection of complex systems.  As an example, something as simple as taking a walk requires the coordination of, at least, the skeletal, muscular, nervous, and cardiovascular systems.

When something goes awry in those systems, when the body is not responding the way it should given normal conditions, changes can be made to improve the way it works.  Sometimes this improvement can be made by physical training or changes to the diet of the individual.  But failing these, more invasive methods are employed to correct the problem.

Today’s engineers are faced with more than the idea that the body is a machine.  They are faced with a growing body of knowledge that gives them the tools to transplant hearts, implant electrodes into the brain, and even manipulate the genome to create favorable outcomes.

One of the biggest stories to hit the news in the last few years are surprisingly small.

The J. Craig Venter Institute announced last year the creation of a synthetic and self-replicating bacterial cell.  The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

In this example, Venter’s lab has proven that we can mechanize the process of problem-solving on a cellular level.  Their work is adding to the public sphere a body of knowledge that will enhance the understanding of basic chemical and biological concepts and be integral to the production of new vaccines and medicines, amongst other things.

If there is a promise that could come from advances such as this, it is that we can treat the body and its most basic properties in a machine-like way.  In the end making it possible to provide basic research that enhances the human experience.

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