No more friends for you!

There is a limit – apparently hardwired into us – on the number of friendships we can reliably maintain. The original article from 2003 and a more recent commentary provide the details.

Does this have implications for how seriously we take social networking using web tools like myspace? Is this proof that having hundreds of ‘friends’ or contacts obtained through social networking pages is as ridiculous a concept as might be suspected?

As a teacher, I can say that maintaining more than 150 ongoing relationships – which is easily the case with the number of kids we teach regularly (on top of the family-friend-acquaintance tally) – is a strain; you forget names, confuse background info from one student to another… It can be pretty embarrassing!

Now I’ve got an excuse. And I feel better.

Australia is now more biggerer

The Age and ABC Science sites are reporting on the news that Australia’s claim to the UN for land off the coast, on the continental shelf, has been recognised.

This has, in one fell swoop, increased the official size of the world’s largest island by almost 35%! The extra 2.5million square kms is being variously described as 5 times the size of France, 10 times the size of New Zealand or equivalent to the area of Western Australia.

Economic considerations and benefits are high on the list of topics to discuss: these areas are thought to be rich in mineral and fossil fuel deposits, although CSIRO has been quick to emphasise the importance of protecting these undersea environments.

Millions of AUD were spent to collect the data to support this claim; a fact that underlines a certain unfairness… It would be difficult to imagine how smaller Pacific island nations could pursue the same course.

Popular image of Biotechnology = BAD

I came across this report on attitudes to biotech arising from its portrayal in films, by the Australian Institute for Biotechnology, and it made for some pretty interesting reading.

We all like a good yarn, and in the last 10 years or so we’ve seen some films that were absolute crackers where science – and particularly biotechnology – has been central to the plot. I’m thinking of Jurassic Park and Gattaca and The Island and you can probably think of more.

A problem arises, though, when creating an exciting story leads writers to take liberties with the scientific principles: for the audience, probably unfamiliar with the technologies, a degree of accuracy is then assumed which is simply inaccurate.

Cloning is a perfect example: the processes involved are never accurately shown and the outcomes are almost universally bad/evil… Which leads most people to have at least a subconscious belief that the same technology in the real world is bad.

I wonder if schools, at least here in Australia, are doing enough to counter this trend? Or are we too afraid to be seen to adopt a position that we, as educators, are complicit in this widespread ignorance?

Astronauts get older, faster

The ozone layer gets plenty of press for the way it blocks large amounts of ultraviolet radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface, but there are other ‘cosmic rays’ that are stopped as well. High Linear Energy Transfer (High LET) radiation becomes a serious issue once you get out and away from the atmosphere.

According to the work at the Georgetown University Medical Center this High LET radiation seems responsible for increased evidence of aging – defined as advanced cellular damage – amongst astronauts and may also contribute to a higher risk of some kinds of cancer.

This is important research when you consider the dangers that astronauts will face over long space journeys, perhaps like a trip to Mars.

History of memory

Computer memory, that is.

Some formats are missing – like bubble memory (big in the 1970s until cheap magnetic storage took over) and some forms of magneto-optical storage – but the overview gives you a great idea of just how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time.

One can only imagine where we’ll find ourselves next…

From Royal Pingdom, via Gizmodo.

Oldest living tree

A tree almost 10,000 years old has been identified in Sweden.

The spruce tree found near Dalarna is 9,950 years old! This is staggering… It means that this tree has been around since humans first began serious attempts to develop agriculture!

According to the researchers who are studying the tree and its nearby descendents, it is the tree’s remarkable adaptations – including the ability to grow out another trunk if the main one is damaged – that have allowed it to survive significant climatic changes and other environmental pressures.

Coral resilience

A recent visit to the abandoned nuclear weapons test site at Bikini Atoll has revealed a remarkable regrowth of local corals in the middle of a water-filled crater created by a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb!

While some localised species extinction is apparent – unsurprising given the incredible damage inflicted in the tests during the 1950s – the species that remain are flourishing.

A heartening reminder of the tenacity of life even under the most trying environmental pressures.

Deimos rising? Phobos falling!

One of my favourite web sites is the Astronomy Picture of the Day by NASA. It is a great place to find impressive pictures for computer desktops. Today’s is a marvellous example: a close up photo (the highest res image available is a 13MB file!) of the larger of Mars’ two moons (and thought to be captured asteroids), Phobos.

Phobos is remarkable in that it orbits Mars at such close range that it will eventually spiral in toward the planet and be torn apart by gravity to form a ring of rock around the planet. This could happen within the next 100 million years or so.

BTW the title of this post makes reference to one of my all-time favourite computer games of the early ‘noughties': Deimos Rising was a simple side-scrolling shooter and heaps of fun.

Blueberries – your ticket to a great memory today reports researchers in the UK have demonstrated that naturally occuring molcules called flavonoids, found in large quantities in blueberries, can have a measurable effect on improving your memory.

The research was based on previous work that identified this particular group of chemicals as important in sustaining the neurons responsible for memory. And the emphasis, in this study, was on heading off the ill effects of memory loss in the elderly.

So blueberries are now known to improve memory, reduce obesity, lower cholesterol¬†and protect against heart disease! Is there anything they can’t do?

Another stellar record

Following the earlier post about a mini-black hole, this report describes the report (at the Royal Astronomical Society’s annual meeting) of a proto-planet just 2000 years old! The previous youngest known planet is around the 10 million year old mark, so this is a pretty amazing find.

formation of a gas giant

Unlike the Earth’s rocky nature this planet, called HL Tau, is a gas giant condensing to a body with a size similar to Jupiter and may have been induced to do so by the recent close passage of a neighbouring star (called XZ Tau – love the names!).

The read link has an excellent video clip visualising the condensation of a planet. Well worth a look.


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