Friday 29 December 2006

The Beer Drinking Scientists - Promo 1

Join myself and Darren Osborne as we bring you a new series called The Beer Drinking Scientists. In these podcasts, Darren and myself talk all things beer and science topics of the day.

In this very first episode, we visit the James Squires Brew House in Darling Harbour, Sydney, sample the local ales, give them a good discussion and rating, before tackling the scientific topic of how humans perceive the temperature.

The theory behind these podcasts is, as Darren says, that the beer might kill off some of the slower brain cells and allow the smarter ones to get down to business on the weightier scientific topics. And, we have a great time talking science in a social context.

Enjoy - listen to the show directly here.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

Human Evolution

Humans are undoubtably still changing. Culturally, technologically, intellectually and emotionally, humans have always been evolving. But are we still biologically evolving? Or have our cultural, technological, intellectual and emotional advances stopped genetic selection and biological evolution? Early homo sapiens could not possibly have envisaged the world in which modern day humans live, or our amazing technological capabilities, but have our changes had anything to do with genetics, or simply our developing culture?

Check out the following story, and a panel discussion, on my podcast.

It is arguable that we are no longer at the mercy of natural selection. We are now born into an environment that is largely of our own making – thousands of generations before us have helped craft a habitat in which genetic selection is largely unneccesary for our survival. No longer are only the healthy or rich breeding, or the strong surviving – babies with genetic mutations now survive childbirth and those of us who can not chase down wild animals can buy food from the supermarket. Reproductive technology has allowed many more people to breed than in the past.
There is an argument that we are even causing "reverse evolution". Technology and medicine enables almost everyone to have children, preventing unfit genes from being purged from the gene pool.

"Relaxed selection combined with a high mutation rate is probably causing gradual deterioration of many functions, especially disease defences," Gregory Cochran, adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, told New Scientist.

With this in mind however, we need to take a look at the 2005 discovery of two genes by Bruce Lahn of the University of Chicago, one of which may have emerged as recently as 14,000 years ago and is now carried by 70% of the world’s population. The other may be as recent as 500 years old and is carried by 25% of the world’s population. Another example of recent genetic selection is in some parts of Africa where there has been an increase in the frequency of a gene which offers some protection against infection with HIV-1. And another very interesting example is the increase of the dopamine receptor gene DRD4. It is interesting because it is associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has somehow been selected for.

So it would seem that there are still genetic changes that are being selected for occurring within the species. These are very interesting findings, as racial and ethnic groups diverged somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, meaning that various groups across the planet may differ genetically to various degrees. It could be a massive political issue if different world races were not bioligically equal – one would hope we are culturally evolved enough to deal with it.
But none of this should be much of a surprise. Our era of rapid technological progress, and hence a fast changing environment, is exactly the conditions under which natural selection should thrive. For example, the invention of dairy herding selected for a gene that gives adults the ability to digest milk sugars.

These days however, we are seeing more and more that human technology and culture help humans “adapt”, where to adapt in the traditional genetic fashion would take hundreds or thousands of generations. And with the ability of technology to deal with our troubles rapidly increasingly, this will be an escalating effect.

Given all this, where are we going to end up? Christopher Wills of the University of California, San Diego argues that our culture is the driving force in human evolution and has been driving the rapid evolution of the human mind. It began when it was the brains of our ancestors, as opposed to their physical attributes, that allowed them to succeed, and now Wills argues that in the modern world nobody can do everything, so the advantage lies in being good at something that not many others can do well.

"My prediction is that we are not simply getting smarter, we are selecting for more variability in our behaviours," he told New Scientist.

This is an interesting theory, as it means our culture is selecting for more variability within our gene pool, with this all pushing towards higher intelligence. Whilst Cochran thinks that we may be breeding out immunity to disease, he also thinks we may be selecting for intelligence – he recently published a paper claiming that natural selection has genetically increased the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews in the past 1000 years, as they were forbidden to work in manual trades and had to make money in more ceregral activities (Journal of Biosocial Science, vol 37, p 1). Perhaps he thinks that our higher intelligence, combined with advances in technology, will more than make up for our increased vulnerability to disease.

We should also not forget the role of sexual selection in evolution – that is, how we choose our mates - but we have already discussed this in a number of articles on Mr Science already. And we have not yet even dealt with the role of computing and artificial intelligence in evolution. With our concepts of what we mean by free-will and consciousness racing to keep up with developments in artifical intelligence, this is one area that could completely change our concept of evolution and what drives it. There will be a time when we start genetically changing ourselves and incorporating technology into our bodies. There may be a time when we create artifically intelligent robots, and indeed we may well change other animals to have some form of intellect. Our environment will be entirely of our own making. Evolution will always exist, indeed probably progressing at such a pace in the future that we can not imagine it at the moment, but undoubtably, natural selection as driven by “traditional” means will not exist.

So where now for the human race? The October edition of Focus magazine published seven alternatives for the human race, some far sighted, some near sighted, some serious, some not. I suspect the future is a mix of all of them.
  1. Homo astronauticus – We colonise the universe, but travel between the planets we inhabit takes too long, so the selective pressures (environmental, sexual, cultural ect) of each planet takes hold and eventually various different species of humans inhabit the universe.
  2. Homo cyberneticus – Over time we enhance ourselves with computing parts. Eventually, nothing biological remains and our brains and consciousness are merely parts of a computing network.
  3. Homo hippocraticus – Casearean births have selected for babies with bigger brains and we have naturally become smarter. Eventually we correct genetic diformaties and become ultraintelligent and beautiful.
  4. Homo climatalogicus – We live in a world of rapid climate change, and that means we live totally enclosed in climate controlled glasshouses. Natural selection could not keep up with this change, but our technology could.
  5. Homo postapocalyptics – An asteroid hits the Earth, we blow up most of the Earth in a nuclear explosion, or there is some other catastrophy wiping out most of the population – only the strong survive on the post-apocalyptic Earth.
  6. Homo immortalus – Nanotechnology and genetic engineering combine to end all death. Will we live in an overcrowded world where we have to work forever, or has technology taken us to the stage where we no longer need to work at all, and we take massive risks, all in the knowledge that technology will save us?
  7. Homo tribalensis – Genetic engineering has made us a very vain race in which we select for beauty. We look good.
Listen to this story here

Sunday 10 December 2006

Movember Farewell - Time lapse and Memories

Here is my video remembrance of Movember - the month in which a few of us grew moustaches to raise money for men's health.

Yes, I realise that this is not particularly "sciencey", but its good fun. A big thanks to the other members of the team, who also feature in this video.

The time lapse is not perfect, but some of the reflections, and some of the work of the other guys, particularly Adrian, are pretty funny. I quite liked my moustache, I miss the little guy.

You can watch this below or download it here

Wednesday 6 December 2006

A couple of promotions

This is a message of thanks for a couple of companies.

First off, a big thanks to The Podlounge for featuring the Mr Science Podcast on their homepage. You can see this feature here. Lots of love back to you, podlounge.

And also a thanks to itunes, who recently rated the Mr Science Podcast top of their Natural Sciences section in the Australian store, after recently featuring it on their podcast homepage. Lots of love back to you also, itunes.

Thanks again to those who subscribe to the show.

Monday 4 December 2006

Diffusion Science Radio - UP LATE

I was very lucky to host the Diffusion Science Show "Up late" edition last Saturday night. Myself, Matt Clarke, Jacqui Hayes and Vanessa Gardos wandered into 2SER at 11pm, and broadcast across Sydney live until 1am.

This gave us a chance to talk about the topics about which we always wanted to chat, without worrying too much about offending anyone.

This recording actually has quite a lot of static on it, and whilst I have tried to clean it up, it was impossible to clean up with the tools I have, so you may find this a little hard to listen to in some places. It sounds like listening to a badly tuned radio, so it might be OK to listen to in the car, on the train or on a plane. We still thought it important to get this episode out there, at least so we can all hear it again!

Grab the file from the podcast here.

The topics we chat about include (all in a science context):
  1. Cricket
  2. The future of humanity
  3. Neanderthals
  4. Elephants
  5. What if human disappeared over night
  6. Nudist beaches
  7. Consciousness
By the end, we're all a little over caffeinated and tired! If you can get through the static, its actually quite a fun show. I promise to get next week's episode out quickly in case this static is all too much for you! I have also left in all the music to give it that radio feel. Listen to this on your next drive in the country when you can't get the radio anyway!

Listen to this show here

Sunday 3 December 2006

The Cloning Debate - Part 2

A few weeks back, I republished an article I wrote in 2001, in which I asked a number of prominent Australians their views on cloning.

I have attempted to re-contact these same people to see whether or not their opinions have changed during these 5 years. I am pleased to have received 3 replies so far, although a few of my initial contacts have proved very hard to find, or have move out of the field (Prof. Alan Trouson). Their opinions have been very interesting. I intend to take a closer look at some of these ideas in the near future - especially the views from Clonaid, who I will interview, probably in early 2007.

Dr Paul Willis
One of Australia's leading science communicators, ABC Catalyst and radio Presenter, PhD in Palaeontology

I would say that my position has modified somewhat over the last 5 years. Therapeutic Cloning (TC) does offer the potential for cures to some pretty horrible diseases and, as such, ought to be pursued to see what it can really do. This should proceed at a research level. Once we know the true abilities of TC for various diseases, then we will be better placed to consider their implementation across society. But I am still concerned that we are looking at expensive medical treatments that will only really benefit a few, relatively rich people in the world. This particularly comes into focus when some of the more frivolous potential applications for TC are put on the table. Do we really need to spend billions learning how to make ego-copies of ourselves or developing complicated ways to avoid aging when that money could be more wisely spent saving many lives with much simpler, already proven medical technologies, treatments and basic public hygiene? This is an ethical problem with TC that is often ignored but should, in my view, be ahead of the more popular ethical issues such as embryonic destruction (which I think is a non-issue anyway because the embryos are destined for destruction anyway) or cross-species technologies (again, a non issue if there is no genetic material transfer between species).

Thomas Kaenzig
Vice President, Operations

More and more people u
nderstand the benefits of the human cloning technology. Being in favor of therapeutic human cloning has already become "mainstream" today and the same thing will happen soon with reproductive human cloning. The ridiculous "ethics" argument brought up by opponents to human cloning is simply a last-gasp attempt by deist conservatives and orthodox dogmatics to keep humanity in ignorance and obscurantism, through the well tried fermentation of fear, the fear of science and new technologies.
Luckily, nothing can stop science ....

Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja
Science and Research Portfolio, Australian Democrats

From her speech on the Prohibition of Human Cloning For Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendement Bill 2006 - Reproduced in part here after discussions with the Senator's office

I am a strong supporter of this technology (therapeutic cloning), in particular somatic cell nuclear transfer... Scientific endeavour has been an enduring area of interest to me. I have been particularly concerned with finding an appropriate balance between allowing the cutting-edge research and technology that we have to prosper and needing to protect our community through effective regulation of scientific activity...You need to understand how science progresses. It doesn't progress with a single step that means that you suddenly have cures. It moves incrementally towards a goal, and you gradually put in place bits of the jigsaw and solve various technical problems that are required... Those people who think that there is no moral problem with embryo research should be allowed to carry out that research and should not be prevented from doing so by the power of the law. Those people who think the research is wrong should be allowed to say so and to protest against what they believe to be wrong. And those who do not wish to participate in the treatments that arise from stem cell research should be allowed to avoid such treatments... Whether or not this technology will be progressed is beyond dispute. And if it does not happen here, it will happen elsewhere. Unless opponents are suggesting that we ban all imports of therapies derived using somatic cell nuclear transfer then Australians may well ultimately benefit from this technology, regardless of what happens here. But do we not want to be part of this? Do we not want invest in the potential and the hope that it presents us with? At stake is whether or not we want our research community to play the role that they are able to in this. If we allow this bill to pass, we can ensure that Australians benefit not only from the outcome but from the knowledge that is gained in the process and the increased speed with which progress may come about if Australias innovative prowess is allowed to be brought to bear on this challenge.

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