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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Strange Science Stories

Wind turbines & AIDS….Goats can talk...Is it an appliance? Is it a urinal?...We don’t really have to be nasty…Pot smokers on the job
By Will Collette

Wind Turbines & AIDS. As I reported earlier, the Massachusetts Health department released a report debunking health effects claims cited by critics of wind turbines. The report was done by a panel of independent medical experts. The Department is required by law to put the report before the public for comments before finalizing it. This provided an opportunity for wind power critics to don their tin foil hats and come out to denounce the medical experts.

One critic, Eleanor Tillinghast, compared the report to the failure of the public health community to respond to the AIDS epidemic. "When I read the report, I saw many of the same patterns that we saw early on with those issues where the information is cherry-picked, despite tremendous amounts of information.  The people who are suffering are dismissed as having annoyance. … The patterns are the same and the outcomes are the same."

The report acknowledged that some people might be annoyed by wind turbines, especially if they are close to a large installation, and others might not like their appearance, but that there was no scientific evidence to support the claims that wind turbines cause public health problems. That was not what wind power critics (hear that, Ill Wind RI) wanted to hear. The panel's report is available here

Goats can develop their own accents. This is why I love reading science stories. Researchers from Queen Mary University of London discovered that goats will change the sound of their bleats and acquire a unique accent based on their surroundings.
"We found that genetically related kids produced similar calls, which is not that surprising," said Dr Elodie Briefer, who led the study. "But the calls of kids raised in the same social groups were also similar to each other, and became more similar as the kids grew older. This suggests that goat kids modify their calls according their social surroundings, developing similar 'accents'."

Just a quick note to Ruth Platner and Tom Gentz – the “kids” referred to in the study are juvenile goats, not children. You do not have to worry about the cost of sending them to Chariho schools.

I would love to see this research expanded to Rhode Island (or “Vo Dilun”) to see if goats can pick up a Rhode Island accent. The research could start in Charlestown, where the Rodilan accent is less sharp. When the study gets more advanced, it could be tried out in more challenging lingual environs such as Cranston.

More alternative energy options for Charlestown. Apropos Charlestown’s aversion to wind energy, there is a new report out in Scientific American that discusses the use of human waste to power electrical devices. Rather than rely on Charlestown’s current form of alternative energy – the gasoline fired generator – we could use EcoBots instead. 

A British company has been building them to operate on energy drawn from dead bugs, decaying vegetation and even human urine and feces. Since its first development in 2002, the sophistication and abilities of EcoBots has grown steadily. This could also be a solution for Charlestown’s chronic on-site waste water management problem.

Humans are not naturally nasty. Emory University biologist Frans de Waal offers new research in "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society" that humans are born with a sense of empathy and generally pro-social tendencies.

Those “nasty” traits of hostility and aggression develop later in human development in response to circumstances, particularly the tendency to react defensively toward others who are not part of our “in-group.”

De Waal argues that "Human morality is unthinkable without empathy" and added "It's a challenge... it's experimental for the human species to apply a system intended for (in-groups) to the whole world."

Stoned humans are not generally productive. Dude, all I can say is “duh?” Reuters reports on a new study by the Norwegian NOVA Institute that showed that smoking marijuana is tied to less motivation by workers in the workplace. Researcher Christer Hyggen noted that workers known to smoke marijuana are more likely to get laid off.

He also noted that pot smoking workers may be unhappy with their work or unmotivated and turn to smoking weed as a result. The Reuters report did not identify who paid for this research. I suspect they weren’t that motivated to find out.