What the F***? – Why we Curse.

14 10 2007

Steven Pinker in The New Republic

The strange emotional power of swearing–as well as the presence of linguistic taboos in all cultures– suggests that taboo words tap into deep and ancient parts of the brain. In general, words have not just a denotation but a connotation: an emotional coloring distinct from what the word literally refers to, as in principled versus stubborn and slender versus scrawny. The difference between a taboo word and its genteel synonyms, such as shit and feces, cunt and vagina, or fucking and making love, is an extreme example of the distinction. Curses provoke a different response than their synonyms in part because connotations and denotations are stored in different parts of the brain.

The mammalian brain contains, among other things, the limbic system, an ancient network that regulates motivation and emotion, and the neocortex, the crinkled surface of the brain that ballooned in human evolution and which is the seat of perception, knowledge, reason, and planning. The two systems are interconnected and work together, but it seems likely that words’ denotations are concentrated in the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere, whereas their connotations are spread across connections between the neocortex and the limbic system, especially in the right hemisphere.

More here.


The unbridgeable gap between law and science

13 10 2007

Steve Connor in The Independent

It is always amusing to see how the legal mind treats science given that both aspects of human activity are about the search for the truth. The trouble is, the law, like politics, is about certainties, whereas science is as much about what we don’t know as what we know for sure.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the case this week in which a High Court judge ruled that the Oscar-winning film about climate change by the former United States vice-president Al Gore is littered with scientific inaccuracies. Mr Justice Burton has ruled that the film – An Inconvenient Truth – is not simply a science film, but a political film, and as such it should only have been distributed to schools with a clear health warning about its politically-inspired nature.

More here.

What has Al Gore Done For World Peace?

13 10 2007

Damian Thompson in The Telegraph

So Al Gore is the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Admittedly, he has to share it with the United Nations’ climate change panel – but, even so, I think we need to declare an international smugness alert.

The former US Vice-President has already taken over from Michael Moore as the most sanctimonious lardbutt Yank on the planet. Can you imagine what he’ll be like now that the Norwegian Nobel committee has given him the prize?

More to the point, can you imagine how enormous his already massive carbon footprint will become once he starts jetting around the world bragging about his new title?

More here.

Looking Up From the Gutter: Philosophy and Popular Culture

11 10 2007

Stephen T. Asma in The Chronicle Review

Philosophy has never had a good relationship with popular culture. The two domains seem like different planets, each with an atmosphere toxic to the other. Thales (625?-?547 BC), the first philosopher, is famous for being so out of touch with the mundane world that he once fell down a well because he was distracted by deep thought. Philosophy broods, analyzes, and tends toward the antisocial; pop culture celebrates, wallows, and tends toward the communal. Philosophy is for cynics, and pop culture is for bimbos.

But the recent trend in publishing, dominated by Open Court and Blackwell, has tried to undo those old stereotypes. Perhaps its chief architect, or hardest worker, is William Irwin, an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Irwin was the series editor of Open Court’s “Popular Culture and Philosophy” from 2003 to 2007, generating more than 20 titles, including The Sopranos and Philosophy, Harry Potter and Philosophy, and The Beatles and Philosophy. Open Court’s series originated when the press’s editorial director, David Ramsay Steele, decided to follow up on the success of the one-off Seinfeld and Philosophy. The Open Court series is currently being edited by George Reisch, an instructor at Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies, and the ever-busy William Irwin has moved on to Blackwell, where he’s put seven new titles on the docket for 2007 alone in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series.

Philosophers, who devote much of their attention to remote texts, are seen by many as irretrievably elitist. But elitism isn’t always bad. Professional sprinters, for example, are an elite group, too, but nobody holds it against them.

More here.

I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer

9 10 2007

Ed Pilkington in The Guardian

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as Monday at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.

More here.

The Second Annual Seed Science Writing Contest

28 09 2007

From the Seed Magazine editors.

This spring, we invited readers to respond to the following question: What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st century? How do we measure the scientific literacy of a society? How do we boost it? What is the value of this literacy? Who is responsible for fostering it?

Our panel of judges comprised Adam Bly, editor-in-chief and founder of Seed, Chris Mooney, Seed’s Washington correspondent, PZ Myers, Seed columnist and author of the popular blog Pharyngula, and the editors of Seed.

Here, we are pleased to announce the First and Second Prize Winners.


Was Alex the parrot smart?

24 09 2007

Mary Rogan in Seed Magazine

Alex is an African Grey parrot, but in all likelihood, he wasn’t born in Africa. Like most birds in pet shops, he was probably bred as a “domestic” in North America, but that’s all we know about Alex’s early history. We don’t know how his parents are or his exact birth date. Some of this mystery was appealing to Pepperberg in her search for the perfect specimen to test her theories about avian intelligence. She didn’t want anyone thinking she’d picked a “super” bird that had been bred especially for smarts. In Pepperberg’s hands, Alex (whose name stands for Avian Learning Experiment) was going to show the world that parrots can do more than, well, parrot. Namely, they can mean what they say. If Polly wants a cracker, she really wants a cracker. Or, as Pepperberg explains it, birds can think. And not in the way you’ve seen your dog thinking when you catch him staring at the exact spot on the kitchen floor where you dropped a pot roast six months ago. According to Pepperberg, Alex his the cognitive abilities of a 6-year-old child. He can identify objects, colors, and shapes, and he’s not just repeating what he hears. This is a substantial claim, given that Alex’s brain is the size of a shelled walnut.

Twenty-five years ago this claim meant a radical paradigm shift in the study of animal intelligence—a shift that’s still happening today. In this venture, apparently, size really does matter, and until Alex came along, the study of cognition, and especially the acquisition of language, had focused exclusively on large primate brains with frontal lobes. The idea of jumping from that group to one entirely outside the mammalian class was hard for many to swallow. But to Pepperberg, that seemed a little like the guy who loses his keys in a park at night but then searches for them under the street lamp because that’s where the light is best. Sure, primate brains look a lot like ours, but why not throw the net a little wider? A parrot’s ability to speak—barring a real-life Planet of the Apes—represents a significant built-in starting point for communication. Given the opportunity, what else might these birds be capable of? To Pepperberg it was a reasonable question—but when she applied for her first NIH grant, they told her to go pound sand. When she came back the second time, she brought Alex’s first report card, which showed he was recognizing and naming objects. This time, they didn’t say no. If Pepperberg could put her money where he parrot was, Alex would be poised to crash the gates of the exclusive “frontal lobes only” intelligence club. A thinking bird would topple everything we’d previously assumed about animal intelligence.

More here.