Cluster Map

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pollyanna greets the Holiday Season

Pollyanna, Titan and YandA want to wish all of our readers a happy Succot holiday season. We are supposed to build little huts with tree branches for roofs to remind us of the sojourn in the wilderness. Some say it is to challenge God to rain on us in our flimsy tabernacles.  We also wave palm, myrtle and willow  branches around with citrons and everyone has fun.  This is the time of year when Israel mostly folds up and everyone awaits that messianic time, "after the holidays." In fact, people start to become a bit fed up with holidays.  The Lord certainly takes note of this in that He commands us to rejoice in these holidays, whether we like it or not:

: "ושמחת בחגיך אתה ובנך ובתך ועבדך ואמתך והלוי והגר והיתום והאלמנה אשר בשעריך" דברים טז

14 And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates.

15 Seven days shalt thou keep a feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose; because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the work of thy hands, and thou shalt be altogether joyful.
 Then from Leviticus XXIII

40 And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

41 And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute for ever in your generations; ye shall keep it in the seventh month.

42 Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths;

43 that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

God help you if you do not enjoy all this...

OK, on with the Pollyanna fun:
As usual we start by calling your attention to our Human Rights Action Update blog.  Please check it out and act for people whose human rights are being abused and whose lives are anything but enjoyment.

Pollyanna does not wish to get into the fray involving insults to this prophet or that.  She would like to point out that there exist traditions that run counter to firmly held beliefs of countless people and nonetheless no one is being attacked or killed.  We call your attention to an interesting scholarly analysis of an ancient Coptic scroll that refers to the wife of Jesus.   Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.

The discussion is particularly animated in the Roman Catholic Church, where despite calls for change, the Vatican has reiterated the teaching that the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus.
Photograph Karen L. King
 Translated  legible text:
not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe]
The disciples said to Jesus
deny. Mary is worthy
of it
Jesus said to them,
“My wife
she will be able to
be my disciple
Let wicked people
swell up
As for me, I dwell with her in order to
an image
The document was presented at an international meeting on Coptic studies that took place in Rome.  Pollyanna is pleased that the Pope did not send the Swiss Guards to behead the presenter, Dr. Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School.

 While dealing with ancient history, we note the  discovery of a huge Roman mosaic in southern Turkey in a part of the Roman Empire that has traditionally been considered marginal.  The mosaic, which once decorated the floor of a bath complex, abuts a 25-foot (7-meter)-long pool, which would have been open to the air, said Michael Hoff, a University of Nebraska, Lincoln art historian and director of the mosaic excavation.
Each section of the mosaic features its own geometric design.
CREDIT: University of Nebraska, Lincoln

The find likely dates to the third or fourth century, Hoff said. The mosaic itself is an astonishing 1,600 square feet (149 square meters) — the size of a modest family home. The city of Antiochia ad Cragum, founded in the first century, has a number of Roman features, including bathhouses and markets.

We sometimes joke about the post office using bottles cast into the sea as a means of transporting our mail.  The idea brings to mind castaways on islands hoping for rescue etc.  In the real world, it turns out that bottles at sea have some use.  A fisherman pulled up a bottle from the sea near Scotland that had been floating well below the surface for nearly a century. It will find its place in The Guiness Book of Recordsds.  The bottle was released in 1914 to track deep sea currents.

We travel around in unfamiliar places with the aid of a GPS system called WAZE (it is free so we can give them the plug) in our Blackberry.  We are guided by a charming female voice whom we have named Mabel, after the love interest in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penzance.  In the first act, Mabel sings a coloratura aria that reminds us of our Mabel, as you may note:

While we require satellites in orbit and computers to find our way, the humble bumblebee navigates beautifully with its own little brain and solves the famous or infamous  Traveling Salesman's Problem with great skill. 
PIT STOP: Bumblebees don’t need a map to know where they’re going. A large-scale experiment that outfitted the insects with radar antennas (shown) revealed that bumblebees are adept at figuring out the optimal route among several flowers, a tough computational problem. Andrew Martin
 We salute the little guys.

One does not usually think of the sex life of plants as being full of triangles, competition and intrigue.  New findings indicate that female plants exercise choice and that male flowers compete for the ladies' favors.  It is in someway analogous to the peacocks tail and other phenomena in male animals that decrease survival probability and  consume energy, but provide a higher probability of mating success and propagation of genes, which is what fights in bars are all about.  This is definitely worth a read.
MALE FIGHTS Pollen grains from the Scots pine (bottom image) may compete to fertilize a female sex cell. When pitted against another strain, pollen dubbed P595 faced a 46 percentage point drop in germination rate (left graph). That wimpy showing may explain why a third strain, E88, held its own against P595 (right graph).Steve McWilliam/Shutterstock

The Nikon camera company conducts an annual competition in which photographers vie to show the most beautiful pictures taken through a light microscope.  We show an example, but suggest that you click on the link and take a walk through a fascinating slide show.

Generations of physicists have grown up on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which says that one cannot achieve arbitrary accuracy in a given quantum measurement and that it is  possible at a given moment to know either the position or momentum of a particle, but not both. While the Principle itself is still solid, new research indicates that there are subtleties  that Heisenberg did not envisage.  The new results may well have importance in the domain of  quantum information and also present a profound philosophical problem.  Food for thought.
In many fields of human endeavor, we see generations of parent-child continuation of excellence.  The Braggs, father and son, shared the 1915 Nobel Prize for their work on x-rays and crystallography. The Curie family took five such prizes, Marie getting two.  In general, there has been a clustering of Nobel prizes in extended families:
Here is the clustering by families: 
Married couples
Marie Curie Pierre Curie    
Irène Joliot-Curie Frédéric Joliot    
Gerty Cori Carl Cori
Alva Myrdal Gunnar Myrdal          
Mother & daughter
Marie Curie
Irène Joliot-Curie          
Father & daughter
Pierre Curie
Irène Joliot-Curie          
Father & son
William Bragg Lawrence Bragg    
Niels Bohr Aage N. Bohr    
Hans von Euler-Chelpin Ulf von Euler
Arthur Kornberg Roger D. Kornberg    
Manne Siegbahn Kai M. Siegbahn    
J. J. Thomson George Paget Thomson
Jan Tinbergen Nikolaas Tinbergen

We are aware that there are dynasties in music and art as well.  Johann Sebastian Bach was a descendant of a long line of talented musicians. In an article in the Guardian a few years ago, Ian Sansom wrote about the Bach family.  This article leads us to this week's book review.  The late Edward Said discussed in 2001, in the London  Review of Books, the scholarly magnum opus:
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff
Oxford, 599 pp, £25.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 19 816534 X

The review is a bit of a heavy read, but we found it well worth the effort and when we retire will find time to get the great book itself.
WHAT IF?    XKCD's readers provide good questions and Randall spares no effort in answering them.  He also has a nice try at modernizing the traditional mnemonics that people use to remember series of words.

 On color coding, he obviously does not like to use the chauvinistic mnemonic that we were  taught in undergraduate physics lab for resistors and  capacitors.  At the risk of being non PC, here it is: Bad Boys Rape Our Young Girls But Violet Gives Willingly. OK, Pollyanna is piqued at the moment, but there is hope she will forgive.
He also has a horrible example to warn us all from getting too deep into Google.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Shana Tova from Pollyanna, Titan and YandA

 Pollyanna, Titan and YandA want to wish all of our readers a Shana Tova, a year of peace and blessing and only things to be glad about. We apologize in advance for typos, bad style and other shortcomings.  Our editor Y is enjoying a family shindig in the form of the wedding of her nephew for which she flew off to Sicily for a few days. Our attempts to get Pollyanna and Titan to edit each others blogs have been unsuccessful.
As usual we start by calling your attention to our Human Rights Action Update blog.  Please check it out and act for people whose human rights are being abused.
Pollyanna wishes to express her shock and regret over the loss of life at US legations caused by a film offensive to Islam made in California. The reaction in the Muslim world is totally disproportionate and certainly the US government cannot be blamed for the acts of individuals who enjoy freedom of expression. The film is revolting, but the violence is nonetheless unjustified, certainly the killings in Libya.
We have long believed, along with everyone else, that by taking fish oil pills, known as Omega 3, we were reducing our risk of heart disease. Now we are told that this is not the case. A review of 20 studies covering nearly 70,000 participants finds no statistically significant evidence that supplementation with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), commonly referred to as fish oil supplements, is linked to a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, or premature death. The results have been published in JAMA. This follows the debunking of the organic food mythology. Our colleague Bob Park at the University of Maryland has been hammering at the snake oil salesmen with connections in Congress for years. We suggest you look through his blog What's New and search for what he has to say about food supplements. You might also find his article on bogus science worth reading. We are sure that in the case of Omega 3 there was no attempt to deceive on the part of the scientific community.
While we are on the subject of food and food additives, we might take a look at what happens to us when we binge on junk food. We know about obesity in children and adults and the growing spread of bad eating habits.  Now there is another aspect that is coming up, the dreaded disease of old age, Alzheimer's.  A large body of evidence now suggests that Alzheimer's is primarily a metabolic disease. Some scientists have gone so far as to rename it: they call it type 3 diabetes.  The fact that the food industry is so lightly regulated means that huge economic interests have an interest in making us overeat.  As George Monbiot writes in the Guardian:
A scarcely regulated food industry can engineer its products – loading them with fat, salt, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup – to bypass the neurological signals that would otherwise prompt people to stop eating. It can bombard both adults and children with advertising. It can (as we discovered yesterday) use the freedom granted to academy schools to sell the chocolate, sweets and fizzy drinks now banned from sale in maintained schools. It can kill off the only effective system (the traffic-light label) for informing people how much fat, sugar and salt their food contains. Then it can turn to the government and blame consumers for eating the products it sells. This is class war, a war against the poor fought by the executive class in government and industry. 
Because regulation is light, the industry can kill off the only effective system for telling us how much fat, sugar and salt food contains. Photograph: Brownstock Inc/Alamy

It is criminal and we sit still for it.  Pollyanna is not glad about this at all.

It is fascinating that an Antarctic mollusc, Lissarca miliaris is hermaphroditic and can change sex as required by the reproductive cycle in the extremely cold waters of Antarctica.  It had long been known that the females brood their young from egg to fully shelled mollusc, but the new results show that males also contain eggs.
Lissarca miliaris young develop inside the shell
The research team suggested that the bivalves reproduce as males while they are still in the "small" stages of development, switching to female organs once they are large enough to brood a significant number of eggs. Let us hope we do not drive them extinct. There is serious fear that up to 20% of non-vertebrate species are tottering on the verge of extinction.
Nautiluses move through the water by pumping air into and out of gas filled chambers within their shells
 It is a matter of major concern.

For a long time it was believed that a large part of the DNA molecule, the parts that are not actual genes containing instructions for proteins, was unessential junk.  Now we know better, thanks to a major effort by a large number of dedicated scientists in the ENCODE project.  These bits of DNA  once were dismissed as “junk” but turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. The discovery, considered a major medical and scientific breakthrough, has enormous implications for human health because many complex diseases appear to be caused by tiny changes in hundreds of gene switches. The implications for medicine are colossal.  The greater part of DNA consists of molecular switches that control which genes are used in a cell and when they are used, and determine, for instance, whether a cell becomes a liver cell or a neuron.
The discoveries were published on last week in six papers in the journal Nature and in 24 papers in Genome Research and Genome Biology. In addition, The Journal of Biological Chemistry is publishing six review articles, and Science is publishing yet another article.
Pollyanna is more than glad, she is thrilled and delighted and cheers the efforts of the  ENCODE project. 

Image Credit:

 Pollyanna of course knows the Biblical story of the Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon.  The Ethiopian tradition says that she had a child by him from whom the Ethiopian nation is descended.  Recent research involving genome comparisons of of Ethiopian people has discovered similarities to those of populations in Israel and Syria, thus providing genetic evidence that may support the tale of the legendary Queen of Sheba.
“We found that some Ethiopians have 40 percent to 50 percent of their genome closer to the genomes of populations outside of Africa, while the remaining half of their genome is closer to populations within the African continent,” study co-author Toomas Kivisild of the University of Cambridge said, according to HealthDay News reports. “We calculated genetic distances and found that these non-African regions of the genome are closest to populations in Egypt, Israel and Syria, rather than to the neighboring Yemeni and Arabs.”
Of course, the dating cannot be extremely accurate, usually +- a few hundred years, but the gene flow story is consistent with the legends. 

Likewise, Dr. Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, co-lead author of the study, told Briggs, “Genetics can tell us about historical events… By analyzing the genetics of Ethiopia and several other regions we can see that there was gene flow into Ethiopia, probably from the Levant, around 3,000 years ago, and this fits perfectly with the story of the Queen of Sheba.”
It would appear, says Pollyanna, that Her Majesty had quite a pleasant visit to Jerusalem.
It is hard to think of a pulsar without thinking of weirdness, but at a meeting in Beijing last month, the astrophysics community came out with some super weirdos in the pulsar family. Presenters cautiously discussed several new — indeed, some very new — discoveries, including a millisecond pulsar parked in the heart of a triple system, another “planet”-pulsar pair similar to the (erroneously named) diamond planet, and a very distant, mysterious burst resembling the controversial Lorimer burst discovered in 2007 in archived data.
The burst after dedispersion and channel summing has been applied, shown as a function of time

Stay tuned.
We once attended a meeting in Snowmass CO on the similarities between Jupiter and pulsars.  It was interesting, but not much was in common except weirdness. Note the declension of the adjective:

We confess to having scanned this out of The New Yorker, nostra culpa.
 In Pakistan, as in much of the Muslim world, marriages are usually arranged by the parents with the couple, certainly the woman, having little or nothing to say.  Recently, however, since a change in law in 2003 made free choice marriages legal, more and more young women are marrying for love and not at the behest of parents.  For many of them this can be a very dangerous decision and Pollyanna is raising her voice in protest.  We consider this a fundamental breach of basic human rights.  We applaud the courage of these young couples and would like to see the sort of cultural and political change in Pakistan and elsewhere that would grant women the right to make their own decisions without fear.  The Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights organization active throughout Pakistan, is making a major effort along these lines.  We would like to quote Mahnaz Rahman, resident directorof the foundation:
  “Things are changing; the girls are becoming bolder, they are continuously taking steps, and they are not afraid to die.  They know that they will be killed, but even then they are taking these steps because they can’t conform to the values of their parents. They are the girls of this modern age.”

When a woman disagrees with her parents’ choice of husband, she has few options, Ms. Rahman said. If she wants to marry someone else, the two must elope and leave the family home behind. By leaving the home, though, the daughter is considered to have dishonored her family, and that is where culture, custom and the legal system intersect with retribution.
Pollyanna has hope for better days for these brave women.

We have not had a book review on the blog for a while. A history of Bell Labs, the famous research center in New Jersey, where we spent a few years as post-doc in the old days has come out.  Bell Labs was really a university lab masquerading as part of a large industrial complex, AT&T.  The book, ‘The Idea Factory,’ by Jon Gertner, is reviewed in the New York Times by Walter Isaacson.
The Idea Factory describes the history of the Laboratory from its inception in 1925 up to its decline late in the century.  During its days of greatness, when AT&T could pour money into it at will while enjoying its monopoly on telephone service in the US, Bell Labs produced the transistor, the laser and information theory that underlies our world of communication and computers along with countless other innovations.

Reprinted with permission of Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc. and courtesy of the AT&T Archives and History Center
Bell Labs technicians prepare the Telstar 1 communications satellite before its launching in 1962.
 The cosmic background radiation was also discovered at Bell Labs by Wilson and Penzias who took a Nobel Prize for it.

We recall it as as great place to do science, even in space physics which was a bit of a sideshow at the Labs.

 This week's question is quite ridiculous, but amusing in a puerile sort of way.

 As we all know, this is the time of year when children are sent back to be incarcerated in the institutions we have set up to give them something resembling an education and preparation for life.  All went back, some happy about it as our granddaughter Shira in Winnipeg and some less so, such as our little friend Cynthia from Gene Weingarten's strip. OK, back to school with you Cynthia and maybe you will have less time for nasty tweets.
You may ask why Cynthia, daughter of a millionaire, is in public school. We note that her family has a true commitment to democracy.